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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 September 2012

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Tax Avoidance

1. Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): What steps he is taking to tackle tax avoidance. [120134]

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr George Osborne): This coalition Government have dramatically increased the pressure against those who avoid and evade taxes. As a result of our efforts, tax revenues from our compliance and enforcement are £3 billion higher than when we came to office. We have tackled disguised remuneration, we are dealing with stamp duty enveloping and we are introducing a general anti-abuse rule. None of those things, of course, happened over the previous 13 years.

Caroline Dinenage: My constituents do not mind paying taxes, so long as everyone pays their fair share. Given that the tax gap widened under the previous Government, will the Chancellor confirm that this Government are committed to tackling all forms of aggressive tax avoidance as well as tax evasion?

Mr Osborne: We are committed to doing that. My hon. Friend is right that the tax gap—the amount of money that should be collected but is not collected—rose from £35 billion to £39 billion under the previous Government. As I have said, our compliance and enforcement efforts have already increased the amount raised by £3 billion, and later this week we will confirm that we have raised £500 million more in extra tax from high net worth individuals as a result of our efforts through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. We are taking action, but need it to be supported, yet the Labour party recently voted against the changes to disguised remuneration, which were an attempt to clamp down on a particularly egregious form of tax avoidance.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): One group of people who could not avoid paying tax are the disabled Remploy staff who were recently made redundant. They were put on an emergency code, with the result that their holiday and notice pay was taxed at almost 50%. HMRC has promised refunds, but will the

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Chancellor go back to his Department and ensure that the payments are made as a matter of urgency and within the current tax year?

Mr Osborne: I will pursue the right hon. Gentleman’s point with all haste.

Mr Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Many Members of this House have told me of their deep concern about the development of retrospective tax measures, and the Treasury Committee shares those concerns. Does the Chancellor agree that the best way to prevent loss of revenue from avoidance schemes is to work much harder to create a simpler tax system in the beginning?

Mr Osborne: Yes, I agree that that is of course the best approach, but in the tax code of a western democracy there will inevitably be opportunities for abuse and avoidance, which we need to deal with. When it comes to retrospection, I say to my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Treasury Committee, that I think the House of Commons should sanction retrospective taxation only when it is very clear that the explicit wishes of Parliament have been abused and avoided. For example, in the case of a particular UK bank that his Committee and I have corresponded about, we acted retrospectively because there was a clear breach of what Parliament had expressed, and I am very pleased to note that the bank’s new chief executive has today said that the bank will be scaling down its tax structuring activities.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): A year ago the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made a speech in which he said he would employ 2,000 more tax inspectors, but in March this year it transpired that there were almost 1,300 fewer people in compliance than there had been when the Government came to power. Can the Chancellor tell us when we will see any of those 2,000 new inspectors, or are we to take it that that was simply a conference flourish speech and that there is no real determination to clamp down on tax avoidance as the Chancellor has said?

Mr Osborne: The number of specialist tax people at HMRC dealing with compliance is going up over this Parliament. We are also committing an extra £900 million to the organisation specifically for that activity. As I have just explained to the House, we are collecting £3 billion more in tax as a result of compliance over this Parliament and, as we will confirm later this week, we are collecting £500 million more from high net worth individuals because of the high net worth unit and its better than expected performance over the past two years.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Following the Government’s very good initiatives so far on dealing with tax avoidance, will the Chancellor look at those private sector companies that are monopoly providers of public sector services, which have billion-pound turnovers, pay no corporation tax and often channel their money through offshore accounts in places such as the Caribbean and the Channel Islands?

Mr Osborne: I repeat the general observation that we are making every effort, through legislation and enforcement activity, to reduce tax avoidance and to stop tax evasion.

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If my right hon. Friend has specific examples that he wants to bring to my attention, he should please do so, and if necessary we will investigate.


2. Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): What recent steps he has taken to support nationally important infrastructure projects. [120135]

3. Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect that investment in infrastructure will have on the economy. [120136]

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr George Osborne): A competitive market economy such as Britain needs modern infrastructure if it is to succeed, yet in areas such as roads, energy and broadband, the last decade saw us fall behind the rest of Europe. This Government are righting those wrongs by overseeing a £250 billion investment in infrastructure—double the amount in the previous Parliament, even in these straitened times. Our new legislation will guarantee billions more in investment from the private sector. This will bring the new roads, the superfast broadband to our cities, and the new rail connections such as the northern hub. We are also cutting through the delays in Whitehall and in the planning system to make sure that we deliver faster than Labour did.

Jason McCartney: I welcome all that investment in infrastructure, particularly the investment in electrification of the trans-Pennine rail route and the full funding of the northern hub rail project. Will my right hon. Friend continue to invest in infrastructure so that we can recover from the shocking situation we inherited whereby for every 10 jobs created in London and the south-east under the previous Government, only one was created in the regions?

Mr Osborne: My hon. Friend points to the stark truth that, as he says, for every 10 jobs created in the private sector in the south of England only one was created in the north of England. In a region as important as the west midlands, for example, private sector employment fell during Labour’s period in office, and that was before the crash. We are investing in the infrastructure. The trans-Pennine electrification is incredibly important. The stretch between Liverpool and Manchester is already under way, and of course it then crosses the Pennines. We are also fully committing to the northern hub—something that was not done under the previous Government.

Mr Stewart Jackson: I support the Government’s national infrastructure plan. I particularly welcome specific projects such as the dualling of the A11 and the potential new A14 toll road in Cambridgeshire near my constituency. Is not the lesson of such discrete local transport infrastructure projects that they deliver a much more profound impact on jobs and growth than grandiose projects such as High Speed 2, the business case for which is fatally flawed?

Mr Osborne: I agreed with my hon. Friend until his last sentence. He is right to say that it is not just the big projects announced from this Dispatch Box that count;

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the local projects in Peterborough and elsewhere will also unlock jobs, development and investment. Of course, we cannot make all those announcements here in the House of Commons. However, we have provided local authorities with the funds to make those transport changes and improvements. We call it the Growing Places fund, and it is worth about £500 million. In the city deals that we are striking with different cities, we are improving road and rail connections to create jobs and get the private sector growing, which is what we all want to see.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): The huge contraction in our construction sector is one of the reasons we are in a double-dip recession. We have seen two reshuffles—one in the UK Government and one in the Scottish Government. In Scotland, the new Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities will be building not the case for schools, hospitals and railways but the case for independence, and we have a UK Chancellor who thinks that a credible economic policy is just about rolling up his sleeves. When we will see a change in direction from this Government to make sure that we are creating investment and jobs right across the UK?

Mr Osborne: In this case, I agreed with the first half of the question. I do not think that the Scottish Government are focused on the priorities of the Scottish people, and I made that case when I spoke to CBI Scotland in Glasgow last week. However, I disagree with his attempt to compare the record of the Labour Government with that of this coalition Government. We are spending more on capital investment than the previous Labour Government planned to spend in this period, as they set out just before the general election. We are spending more on capital investment in the essential infrastructure of this country than they did. We are also taking tough decisions on welfare and the like in order to get the deficit down and get money spent where it can create jobs.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Chancellor consider extra investment in the ports of Neath, Port Talbot and Swansea in order that they become recognised by the European Commission as core ports and therefore trigger TEN-T—trans-European transport network—investment in an area where it is much needed?

Mr Osborne: I am keen to see further investment in our ports. I am happy to engage in a specific conversation with the hon. Gentleman about his proposal and, if necessary, speak to the Welsh Government about it.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the Chancellor agree that the projects that have the most beneficial impact on the economy are those that are fully self-financing in the private sector because they are popular?

Mr Osborne: I agree that we want to see private sector investment, and tens of billions of pounds of private sector investment is coming into the United Kingdom. Indeed, today the Chinese company Huawei has announced a $2 billion investment in the UK. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. We want to create the low-tax,

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competitive conditions for the UK economy in which the private sector can grow, but I think he would recognise that there is a role for public money in providing large-scale transport infrastructure, for example, which these companies need to succeed.

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): In a speech yesterday, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury declared that

“infrastructure is at the centre of our strategy to kick-start our economy.”

With that in mind, will the Chancellor tell the House whether the value of orders for infrastructure investment made by the private sector rose or fell between 2010 and 2011?

Mr Osborne: For a start, we have just announced £40 billion of additional guarantees for private sector infrastructure. If the hon. Lady wants the figures, £113 billion was invested over the period from 2005 to 2010, and £250 billion of investment for both the private and public sectors has been announced in this Parliament.

Rachel Reeves: As the Chancellor will know, there is a difference between announcing something and actually delivering it. The answer to my question is that those orders fell by a fifth, from £7.3 billion in 2010 to £5.9 billion in 2011—a result of the collapse in business confidence that the Chancellor’s disastrous decision to cut too far and too fast has resulted in.

Is it not the truth that next week’s Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill is necessary only in order to create the impression of activity and to distract from this Government’s complete and utter failure to deliver the infrastructure investment that they have been promising and that the country is crying out for?

Mr Osborne: There is a difference between announcement and delivery: Labour announced no more boom and bust, and delivered the biggest boom and the biggest bust. We know all about the record of the last Labour Government. One of the quite extraordinary things is that, despite spending and borrowing all that money, they did not actually invest in the modern infrastructure that the private sector needs to create sustainable jobs. That is the lesson that the hon. Lady should learn from their last period in office.

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): We are told by the Government that we urgently need more airport capacity, so could the Chancellor explain why his only policy on the issue is to commit the Government to doing nothing at all for three years, until after the next election? Surely he appreciates that voters need to know where the Government stand before they vote.

Mr Osborne: As my hon. Friend knows better than pretty much anyone else in this House, we made a very firm commitment that we would not proceed with a third runway in this Parliament, but Howard Davies is now looking at all the options for airport capacity in the south-east. This issue has evaded Governments of all political colours for the past 30 years, and it is time that we tried to achieve some cross-party consensus, because I am absolutely clear—[Interruption.] If the Labour party was so good at building airports, where are they?

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Where are these additional airports that it built? The truth is that the south-east of England needs additional airport capacity. The question is where we place it and I think that Howard Davies is the right man to advise us all.

Pensioner Tax Allowances

4. Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): What recent estimate he has made of the effect on pensioners of plans to end age-related tax allowances. [120137]

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): The impacts of the reforms to age-related allowances were set out alongside Budget 2012. Half of those over the age of 65 pay no income tax, and nobody will pay more tax in 2013-14 than in 2012-13 as a result of these changes. The Government remain committed to supporting pensioners and have introduced the triple guarantee for the basic state pension, ensuring that it will increase each and every year by the highest of earnings, prices or 2.5%.

Mr Clarke: Will the Minister explain to my constituents why people with small occupational pensions are paying more while millionaires are paying less in tax?

Mr Gauke: The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the policy announcements in the last Budget resulted in millionaires paying more in tax, not less. As far as this Government’s record on pensioners is concerned, let us not forget that the state pension is going up by £120 more compared with the Opposition party’s plans.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): For a long time, some pensioners, by virtue of having their personal allowance clawed back, have found themselves paying an effective rate of income tax far higher than many working people on a similar income. Will the Government’s policy of raising the personal allowance mean that that unfairness is eventually brought to an end?

Mr Gauke: I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend is right. Our policy will reduce complexity in the tax system and reduce the need for high marginal rates for pensioners through the taper system.

Public Sector Borrowing

5. Mr George Mudie (Leeds East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the public sector net borrowing figures in the current fiscal year. [120138]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Danny Alexander): Public sector borrowing figures have been higher than expected, primarily because of short-term factors, including lower corporation tax receipts caused by the Elgin shutdown and the lower than expected oil price. With eight months of the year remaining, it is too early to draw conclusions about the year as a whole, but the Government remain committed to returning the public finances to a sustainable path, while allowing the automatic stabilisers to operate in response to the weakness in the global economy.

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Mr Mudie: The Chancellor boasted in his 2010 Budget speech that the borrowing requirement this year would be £89 billion. The Office for Budget Responsibility is suggesting that the figure will be £120 billion—a 33% overshoot. Can we have an explanation of why the Chancellor got it so wrong?

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman, as he knows, is referring to the OBR’s forecasts. Of course, a number of problems in the global economy, not least those in the eurozone, have become more serious since those forecasts were made. I would have thought that he would applaud the fact that our plan is sufficiently flexible to allow the automatic stabilisers to support our economy when there is weakness in the global economy.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): No one in the House underestimates the size of the economic challenge before us or the importance of supporting manufacturing and exports, which make up a fifth of the gross domestic product in my constituency, but at a time when the employment figures are encouraging, our manufacturing indices are outstanding and our global competitiveness has risen by two places, does my right hon. Friend agree that two impediments to business confidence are the threat of strikes by unions and the chorus of despair from the Opposition?

Danny Alexander: My hon. Friend is right to highlight some of the positives in the UK economy, especially the employment figures. My experience of dealing with trade unions is that one should not pay much attention to the rhetoric at their conferences. When one gets down to business with the trade unions, as I did on public service pensions, the majority of them are willing to behave responsibly. That said, and as the shadow Chancellor has said, the British public and trade union members do not want to see strike action in this country.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Borrowing is rising because of the scale and speed of the cuts, as we warned it would. Is it not the case that the economic policy brought in by the right hon. Gentleman and his friend the Chancellor has backfired?

Danny Alexander: Before asking that question the hon. Gentleman should have reflected on the fact that the policy of his party’s Front Benchers is to increase borrowing yet further. They recently announced a new approach, known as pre-distribution. We now know what that means: spend money before it has arrived, in the hope that it might arrive in future. That is the policy that failed this country for 13 years and we will not go back to it.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the 900,000 extra private sector jobs that have been created since the last election will go a considerable way towards easing the fiscal position, as well as cast some doubt over the output figures of the Office for National Statistics?

Danny Alexander: I certainly would not wish to question the integrity of the ONS’s figures. However, I join my hon. Friend in highlighting the excellent record of many private sector businesses in creating jobs in all parts of the country over the past two years.

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Household Expenditure

6. Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): What steps he has taken to help households with their cost of living. [120139]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Danny Alexander): The Government have taken wide-ranging action to support households. For example, we cut fuel duty last year and have deferred various increases planned by the Labour party. We are also helping those in work by raising the personal allowance by £1,100 in April next year, which is the largest cut in income tax for median earners in more than a decade. That is a substantial record of dealing with the big questions in the cost of living for families.

Rehman Chishti: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. There are concerns that fuel companies delay the reduction in petrol prices when the cost of crude oil falls. What action are the Government taking to ensure that companies pass on savings to motorists?

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I sympathise greatly with families up and down the country who face the problem that he describes. That is why we have made decisions on fuel duty that mean that the price of petrol is roughly 10p a litre less than it would have been had we followed through the Labour party’s plans. The Office of Fair Trading has recently announced a call for information on the problem, and I urge him and Members in all parts of the House to pass on any information that they have. Having spoken to Clive Maxwell of the OFT, I know that it is committed to ensuring—

Mr Speaker: Order. I am greatly obliged to the Chief Secretary, but from now on we need rather shorter exchanges if I am to maximise the number of Back-Bench contributors.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): The Chief Secretary will know that one thing that is really hitting people at the moment is the rising cost of food. A huge number of people, even those in work, are having to resort to going to food banks. What action are the Government taking to address that situation?

Danny Alexander: The hon. Lady will also know that the substantial increases in the personal allowance are putting more money in the pockets of people on low incomes who are working hard. We protected the lowest-paid public sector workers from the impact of the pay freeze, and she will also know that out-of-work benefits went up by 5.2% this year.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Returning to the high cost of petrol, diesel and heating oil, I am sure the Chief Secretary is aware that in the past few days FairFuelUK has published a statement from a whistleblower alleging that the oil commodity trading market is being rigged in a similar way to LIBOR. Will he confirm that he will back the call for a wider investigation and inquiry into the UK oil trading market by the Financial Services Authority or the Bank of England, whichever is more appropriate?

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Danny Alexander: I applaud the work of the FairFuelUK campaign in drawing attention to such issues. Having discussed the matter with Clive Maxwell of the Office of Fair Trading, I can reassure my hon. Friend that if the call for information in which it is currently engaged yields evidence of real problems in the fuel market, it will launch a full investigation.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): In four months’ time, more than a million families will see their cost of living rise, with the loss of child benefit and a complex tax change costing the Exchequer £100 million more just to administer. Can the Chief Secretary tell the House how many more families will have to fill out a self-assessment tax form for the privilege of losing their child benefit, and when will those complex forms begin to arrive?

Danny Alexander: Letters to people who are likely to be affected by that change will go out in October—[Hon. Members: “Which year?”] October of this year. I am surprised to hear that the hon. Gentleman objects to the change, given that it is a necessary part of our fiscal consolidation, and particularly part of our asking the wealthiest in this country to make a contribution to deficit reduction. His party should support that.

Beer Duty

7. Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect on pubs of the continuation of the beer duty escalator. [120140]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Sajid Javid): The Government recognise the important contribution that pubs throughout the country make to their local communities and the wider community. Given the large number of factors contributing to the decline in pub numbers, including shifting social trends, the relationship between beer duty and the pub industry cannot easily be determined.

Karl McCartney: I welcome the new Minister to his post and thank him for that answer. In my constituency, the beer and pubs sector supports around 1,300 jobs. At a time when household incomes are static and pubs have seen a reduction in trade as a result of the smoking ban and other nanny state impositions by the Labour Government, does he agree that the Treasury needs to provide further support to the industry by reversing the trend of rises in beer duty, which has grown by more than 40% since 2008?

Sajid Javid: As the incoming Economic Secretary, I note that I have been given responsibility for some of the more popular duties and taxes.

There will be no further changes to alcohol duties beyond those designed and pre-announced by the previous Government, but I hope that the minimum unit pricing system that the Government have announced will make a difference to pubs, along with other measures that we have announced to help small businesses such as reducing the corporation tax rate, the extension of the small business rate relief holiday and the reduction of the small profits tax rate.[Official Report, 12 September 2012, Vol. 550, c. 2MC.]

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Tax Simplification

8. Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): What steps he is taking to simplify the tax system. [120141]

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): The Government are committed to simplifying the tax system. Since 2010 we have set up the Office of Tax Simplification and acted on a range of its recommendations. We have abolished 43 tax reliefs, and from April 2013 we will introduce a new cash basis for calculating tax, benefiting up to 3 million small self-employed businesses. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is also improving tax administration for small businesses, as set out in its publication at the time of the 2012 Budget.

Mr Raab: I thank the Minister for that response. The 2020 Tax Commission found that UK tax administration costs were double those of Norway, triple those of Estonia, and almost five times higher than in Switzerland, so I welcome the Minister’s drive for simplification. What progress has been made on merging national insurance and income tax, and other areas affecting business, that could yield an estimated £5 billion each year for the British economy?

Mr Gauke: The Government are continuing to explore the potential of merging the operation of income tax and national insurance contributions. We also want to make the tax system as transparent as possible, and one of the steps we have taken is the introduction of personal tax statements that will make it clearer to taxpayers how much they are paying in both income tax and national insurance.

Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that his colleague the Chancellor presented the granny tax as a tax simplification in the Budget. Is the Minister confident that further measures of tax simplification will be more successful and less unpopular than the granny tax?

Mr Gauke: We believe that tax simplification is important. A simpler tax system makes it easier for taxpayers to see how much they are paying, easier for businesses to comply, and easier to tackle avoidance. It is something the Government believe in.

Market Interest Rates

9. Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): What plans he has to maintain low market interest rates. [120142]

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr George Osborne): My hon. Friend is right: low interest rates are secured by credible, economic and fiscal policy, and delivered by the independent Bank of England. Sir Mervyn King has been an outstanding Governor of the Bank, and has helped set monetary policy to support our economy through one of its most challenging periods in modern history. He is serving his second and final term as Governor, and will retire on 30 June 2013.

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I can tell the House today that I have decided that the appointment of his successor will be conducted through fair and open competition. For the first time in history, the post will be advertised and the advertisement will appear in the press later this week. As with Mervyn King, we are seeking a Governor of intelligence, independence and integrity, and we intend to announce the successful candidate by the end of the year.

Steve Brine: I thank the Chancellor for that response, and I welcome his announcement.

Those looking for a home in my Winchester constituency want to know that their Conservative council is building new council homes for the first time in 25 years. Those looking to buy in the private sector want to know that they can get on the housing ladder and get a mortgage, with some certainty that they can repay the money over the years to come. Will the Chancellor reassure my constituents that, unlike the Labour party, he understands that even a small rise in interest rates will have a punishing effect on family budgets?

Mr Osborne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Low interest rates are crucial to the recovery, and a loss of confidence in the UK’s ability to pay its way in the world will lead to an increase in market interest rates, an increase in mortgage costs for millions of families, and, of course, an increase in borrowing costs for businesses. It would be a disaster, and that is why the Government do not take the path advocated by the Labour party. We also want to ensure that low interest rates are felt by families, which is why the funding for lending scheme announced jointly with the Bank of England is already leading to banks offering cheaper mortgages. The combination of our Firstbuy and NewBuy schemes is also helping families to buy their first home.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Many people do not have access to those kinds of interest rates, and are depending on high street, rip-off schemes such as Wonga and so on. What is the Chancellor doing to protect ordinary families who cannot get loans and who need to depend on rip-off merchants?

Mr Osborne: We have toughened up the regulation of consumer credit, and next year there will be a tough new consumer agency, the financial conduct authority, which we are creating in order to deal with the bad advice that is sometimes provided to families. Indeed, Martin Wheatley, its chief executive, gave an interesting speech about that last week, and about the impact of sales commissions and the like on the provision of bad advice and bad products to families. We are taking action to do that, but as I said, the worst possible thing for all those families, and everyone else in the country, would be a sharp rise in interest rates, which a loss of confidence in the Government’s fiscal policies would bring about.

VAT (Retail Sector)

10. Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): What estimate he has made of the effect of the level of VAT on the retail sector in the last 12 months. [120143]

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The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): The Government aim to provide a climate of economic stability that will benefit all businesses. That would not be possible without a credible plan to deal with Government debt, and a VAT increase is an important component of that plan.

Chris Evans: Since January this year, 42 retail businesses in Wales have gone to the wall. What message does the Minister have for Welsh business leaders who have called for a reduction in VAT to breath new life into the high street?

Mr Gauke: Retail sales growth has generally been positive over the past year. Let me underline this point: if the biggest problem faced by the economy at the moment is that we are not borrowing enough, that is, I am afraid, a very strange diagnosis.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): If the Government were to adopt that unfunded mandate and the other £200 billion of unfunded borrowing suggested by the Opposition, what would be the effect on interest rates and our national credit rating?

Mr Gauke: There is no doubt that such a policy would be taking an enormous risk with interest rates and our credibility. This Government are not prepared to take that risk.

Air Passenger Duty

11. Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): If he will commission research to determine the effect of air passenger duty on UK holidaymakers, employment and economic growth. [120144]

12. Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): What assessment he has made of the effect of air passenger duty on tourism and the regional economy. [120145]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Sajid Javid): The Government undertook an extensive consultation on air passenger duty last year. The consultation gathered views and evidence from stakeholders—more than 500 responses were received from all sectors. The Government published our response to the consultation on 6 December 2011 and we have no plans to commission further research.

Naomi Long: As the Minister is aware, the issue of direct long-haul flights has been dealt with. However, that is a small but important part of the market—most people will travel to or through another UK airport, and passengers from Northern Ireland will pay APD twice, because there is a restricted number of through-carriers. Do the Government believe there would be merit in reviewing APD generally so that it is more supportive of tourism and business, and of growth?

Sajid Javid: The hon. Lady is passionate about this issue, and I thought she would welcome the measures that the Government have taken, which have made a significant contribution. I hope she joins me in realising that the Government have made substantial progress. He also knows that the Chancellor announced in the

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previous Budget that the Government are looking at other things that can be done to boost the Northern Ireland economy.

Ms Ritchie: I thank the Minister for his answer, but could he advise the House on what discussions he has held with the Northern Ireland Executive on the need to scrap APD for short-haul flights between Northern Ireland and Britain and Europe?

Sajid Javid: I have not had any such discussions since I was appointed, but I look forward to having them in future and will report to the hon. Lady when I do.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to the Front Bench. I am sorry to ask him a difficult question to begin with, but what consideration has been given to the impact of APD on our Commonwealth cousins? It is having an impact on many economies. We would not want our Commonwealth cousins to turn to the black economy or illegal activities, or even to require more overseas development aid. Will he look again at the impact of the policy on the Commonwealth?

Sajid Javid: I thank my hon. Friend for his warm welcome and for his characteristically strong question. As far as I am aware, the Government have not looked specifically at the impact on the Commonwealth, but I am willing to do so and will get back to him.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. Will he look at the position of the Caribbean in that regard? Will he also look at the conclusions of the all-party group on aviation report on APD and at the impact APD is having on regional economies such as Yorkshire that compete as tourism destinations for people coming from China and the US?

Sajid Javid: I thank my hon. Friend for her welcome. I will take a look at that, but given the amount of money from APD on which the Government rely to deal with the fiscal deficit we inherited, it is appropriate to point out that, if we changed the banding, APD might have to rise for others.

Families with Children (Tax and Benefits)

13. Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect on families with children of the tax and benefit changes made in 2012-13. [120146]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Sajid Javid): The Government have taken unprecedented steps to increase the transparency of decision making. All but the highest income decile have on average gained from direct tax changes. The Government continue to help and protect the most vulnerable with, for example, increases in the child element of the child tax credit by £180 per annum above inflation in April 2011.

Lilian Greenwood: Up to 1,000 households in my constituency face having their tax credits withdrawn this year, and 275 families with 625 children faced losing working tax credit if parents could not increase

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their hours. Why is the Chancellor trying to balance the books on the backs of hard-working families, and will he concede that children are bearing the brunt of this Government’s failed policies?

Sajid Javid: Under the previous Government, spending on tax credits was out of control, having risen from £18 billion in 2003 to £30 billion in 2010, meaning that nine out of 10 families with children were eligible for tax credits. This Government have reduced that to six out of 10 by taking a more targeted approach. It is important that we support those on the lowest incomes while ensuring that those who can contribute to deficit reduction do so. There is nothing fair about running huge deficits for our children.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): In Birmingham, 283,000 people have benefited from a tax cut of £220. Will the Minister assure me that we will continue to try to protect the low-paid by reducing how much tax they pay?

Sajid Javid: That is a central plank of the Government’s policy, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that some of the changes we have already announced, such as those contained in the personal allowance, which I know he supports, are doing exactly that.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I congratulate the Minister on his appointment, but the Government’s tax and spending cuts have hit women and children the hardest, leaving families struggling and child poverty on the rise. The last time there was no woman in the Treasury was 17 years ago under the last Tory Government. Although I welcome him to his place, does he think that the Government’s record with women will get worse or better with no female voice at the table?

Sajid Javid: The Government have an excellent record on women in government—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. Mr Bryant, you are trying to become a statesman. Calm yourself, man.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): No, I’m not.

Mr Speaker: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not think he has to try. Anyway, the Minister must be heard.

Sajid Javid: The Government’s policies, including those of the Treasury, are helping women. The change I mentioned previously—to the personal tax credits—will take 1.1 million people out of income taxation altogether, which will disproportionately benefit women.

Personal Allowances

14. John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect on the cost of living of the increase in the personal allowance. [120147]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Danny Alexander): In this year’s Budget, we announced a £1,100 increase in the personal allowance for 2013-14—the largest ever cash increase. The combined increases that the coalition

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has announced will reduce the tax paid by a typical basic rate taxpayer next year by £350 in real terms and £546 in cash terms.

John Stevenson: Given that the policy of significantly increasing the personal allowance has been hugely successful, would the Chief Secretary agree that the long-term goal should be to link the personal allowance with the minimum wage, thereby ensuring that anybody on the minimum wage does not pay income tax?

Danny Alexander: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s endorsement of the policy. The coalition Government have committed to increasing the personal allowance to £10,000—a policy that was on the front page of the Liberal Democrat election manifesto—but I agree that the long-term objective, which I and my party share, should be to link the personal allowance to the minimum wage. However, a considerable cost would be attached to that.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): May I bring the Chief Secretary back to the reality faced by my constituents, who see their cost of living rising all the time, with food prices increasing in the shops, and Government borrowing rising nationally? Which part of the Government’s record is he least proud of?

Danny Alexander: As the question that the hon. Lady is following up on concerns the personal allowance, let me limit my answer to that, Mr Speaker. Her constituents, in common with other Members’ constituents, are benefiting from the fact that the Government have introduced the most radical policy for many years by putting more money back into the pockets of hard-working families across the country. She would do well to accept that.

Cost of Credit

15. Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): What steps the Government have taken to reduce the cost of credit to the real economy. [120148]

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Greg Clark) rose

Hon. Members: Hear, hear!

Greg Clark: Goodness. Thank you. I feel like Boris Johnson.

The Government and the Bank of England have launched the funding for lending scheme to enable banks to make loans cheaper and more easily available to households and businesses. In addition, 19,000 cheaper loans have been offered to smaller businesses under the national loan guarantee system.

Gavin Williamson: I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post and wish him every success. Many businesses in South Staffordshire face a great challenge in raising finance to grow and recruit new workers. Will he explain how the measures that he has outlined will help small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency to grow and expand?

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Greg Clark: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. He knows what he speaks of because he is an ex-manufacturer himself—appropriately enough, as a Staffordshire MP, in the Potteries. One of the early successes of the funding for lending scheme is that banks are now targeting manufacturing firms. Just yesterday, RBS said that the scheme would be used for mid-sized manufacturers. RBS has cut interest rates from 3.45% to 2.75% and is looking to increase lending to mid-sized manufacturing businesses, which have so much potential.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): May I push the Minister on this issue and what is happening in the real world? As even Boris would explain to him, the fact of the matter is that we have low interest rates, but people cannot get mortgages to get into the housing market and my constituents, along with people in business across Yorkshire, cannot get decent loans to start businesses or, more importantly, expand their businesses. In the real world, it is not working. What is the Minister going to do about it?

Greg Clark: The hon. Gentleman will know, because he has studied the figures, that mortgage lending has actually been increasing. The point of the funding for lending scheme is precisely to make more funds available. When he studies the detail—I am happy to meet him and go through it with him—he will be able to promote the scheme in his constituency, because his constituents, whether they are businesses or households, can benefit from it.

Topical Questions

T1. [120159] Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr George Osborne): The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability of the economy, promote business and employment, reform banking and manage the public finances so that Britain starts to live within her means. I can also tell the House today that the autumn statement will be on Wednesday 5 December.

Karen Lumley: Does the Chancellor think a general strike would be helpful to the UK economy?

Mr Osborne: No, I do not. I think it would cost jobs in the British economy and hit prosperity. I hope that all Members of this House, whether they are sponsored by trade unions or not, would condemn all calls on the trade unions to take up a general strike.

Ed Balls (Morley and Outwood) (Lab/Co-op): May I take this opportunity to welcome the Financial Secretary and the Economic Secretary to their new posts? I wish them good luck in their new positions. May I also congratulate the Chancellor on somehow managing to keep his job in the reshuffle? Clearly, performance-related management has not yet made it to the Cabinet.

Since our last Treasury questions, the Office for National Statistics has published new figures for Government borrowing. We did not get clarity earlier, so let me ask the Chancellor this. What is the total figure for borrowing

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for the first four months of this financial year? How does that compare with the same period last year, and how does he explain what has happened?

Mr Osborne: It is good to welcome the Member for “Unite West” back from the TUC conference. As the Chief Secretary explained to the House, borrowing in the short term has been higher this year than in the first four months of last year, but he pointed to particular one-off factors, such as the shutdown of the Elgin oilfield. That is why the increase in borrowing comes from weaker corporation tax receipts. I am glad to report to the House that VAT, national insurance and income tax receipts have broadly held up, despite the weaker economic conditions here and around the world. However, the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait until 5 December to get the next economic forecast from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility—because we make these forecasts independently these days.

Ed Balls: I have to say, we are losing patience with the Chancellor’s schoolboy bluster. It is one thing to be heckled by a few trade union delegates at a conference this morning; it is another thing to be booed by 80,000 people—the whole of the Olympic stadium—when he only turned up to give out a medal.

Let me tell the Chancellor the answer. He is right that borrowing has gone up by a quarter compared with last year, but the reason is that our economy is in double-dip recession, tax revenues are down and spending on unemployment is going up. That is why borrowing is going up, on the watch of a Chancellor who said that he would secure the recovery and get borrowing down. So let me ask the Chancellor this. The International Monetary Fund, the British Chambers of Commerce, the TUC, the engineering employers and even Boris Johnson are now calling for action to kick-start the recovery. Is it not time the Chancellor did something the public might cheer: admit he has got it wrong, change course and finally get a plan for jobs and growth?

Mr Osborne: The right hon. Gentleman talks about unemployment; 900,000 private sector jobs have been created in this economy over the past two years, and we are rebalancing the economy away from the dependence on debt and the unaffordable public sector that he presided over when he was in the Treasury. [Interruption.] He says that borrowing has gone up, but we have cut the deficit by 25%. He has also said that Labour needs a credible deficit reduction plan. He has had all summer to think of one. Where is it?

T3. [120162] Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Building our energy infrastructure is a key element of the national infrastructure plan. Preparations by EDF are already under way at Hinkley, and I hope that they will soon start at Sizewell in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Treasury will strain every sinew to ensure that EDF can make a positive investment decision later this year and build the power stations that that lot on the Labour Benches did not build?

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Sajid Javid): My hon. Friend is passionate about this issue, and she will be pleased to hear that the Government are removing

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unnecessary obstacles to investment in nuclear power plants and that new power stations will come forward. For example, the Government are undertaking electricity market and planning reforms and introducing an energy Bill. As it happens, I am meeting representatives of EDF later this afternoon, and I would be happy to share her concerns with the company.

T5. [120164] Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): Why is Britain in a double-dip recession when France and Germany are not?

Mr George Osborne: In case the right hon. Gentleman had not noticed, the eurozone is in recession. He talks about France and Germany, but the International Monetary Fund—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] I am about to give him the answer. The IMF’s latest forecasts for growth next year show the UK growing at almost twice the speed of France, and the same with Germany. If the question is, “Why isn’t the British economy more like Germany’s?”, I will give him the answer. It is because we did not invest in skills over the past decade. We did not build our export links with China and India and the growing parts of the economy. We put all our bets on the City of London when the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) was the City Minister and it all went spectacularly wrong. We are now clearing up the mess.

T4. [120163] Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Small businesses in my constituency regularly raise with me the issue of the administration and service levels at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Those problems constantly add to the administrative burden of small businesses. What more can the Government do to make HMRC more efficient, in order to unburden our small businesses and let them get on with the day job?

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): My hon. Friend will be aware of the paper that HMRC produced at the time of the last Budget, in which it set out the ways in which we would reduce the administrative burden on small businesses, including cash accounting. He mentioned the difficulties in getting through to HMRC and the problems with the contact centres. HMRC is making further investments and employing an additional 1,000 people in order to improve the performance at its contact centres.

T7. [120166] Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): The Chief Secretary to the Treasury was asked earlier about the cost of living, but he said nothing in his reply about what the Government were doing about rising food, transport and energy prices. Have he and his colleagues had discussions with the Energy Secretary about getting a grip on the energy companies and sorting out the soaring energy prices and the profits that the companies are making as a result?

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Danny Alexander): I have certainly had conversations with the Energy Secretary about initiatives such as the green deal, under which people’s energy costs will be brought down by insulating their homes. The hon. Gentleman mentioned fuel costs, but he must be aware that the price of a litre of fuel is 10p less than it would have been if we had

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stuck with the plans that the previous Government put in place. That was their approach to the cost of living, and this is ours.

T8. [120167] Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): Big increases in the funding of vital rail infrastructure projects in the north-west of England, such as the Todmorden curve, the northern hub and High Speed 2, are hugely welcome and will provide jobs and opportunities that would not have been available under the previous Government. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, without his decisive action on the public finances, such high levels of spending on infrastructure would simply not have been possible?

Mr George Osborne: My hon. Friend is right. It is precisely because we have taken difficult decisions—for example, to cut £18 billion from the welfare budget—that we are able to invest in rail and road improvements that will help to create jobs in Lancashire and across the north-west. The northern hub is a project that has been talked about for many years, but it is under this coalition Government that it is being delivered.

Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): May I specifically ask the Chancellor whether, notwithstanding the recent reshuffle, the Government are still committed to achieving 0.7% GNI for overseas aid? If so, when can we expect the Bill?

Mr Osborne: The short answer is yes, we are. It is not about legislation; it is about delivering the money. [Interruption.] Labour Members say “Ah”, but we can legislate as much as we like; the question is whether we are prepared to take the difficult decisions to deliver the money. [Interruption.] They say they do not trust us, but this is the Government who will deliver the 0.7% aid commitment that all parties signed up to.

T9. [120168] Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): As the TUC meets in sunny Brighton, what message does my right hon. Friend think an irresponsible strike will send to the millions of hard-working people who are worried about our economic recovery?

Mr Osborne: I think it sends a terrible message to my hon. Friend’s constituents in Brighton and across the country. The last thing this country needs at the moment is a series of strikes. We have struck a good deal for the public sector on public sector pensions that will ensure that people continue to enjoy some of the best pensions in Britain, while at the same time reducing the cost to the taxpayer by 50% over the long term. We are also instituting public sector pay restraint so we do not have to make even more difficult decisions about job losses. That is because we are dealing with a very difficult economic situation with a very large deficit. I would hope that the trade unions would understand that rather than try to take their members out on strike.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Will the Chancellor tell us how money can be taken out of the banks and put into small and medium-sized businesses right across the United Kingdom? Without it, we are certainly not going to kick-start the economy.

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Mr Osborne: This is, of course, the key challenge in these difficult financial conditions, which have endured for five years or so. I know that there is a particular challenge in Northern Ireland, where the collapse of the banking system in southern Ireland has had a real impact. The funding for lending scheme, launched last month, is an £80 billion Treasury/Bank of England scheme to reduce bank funding costs so that banks are able to lend to businesses and households. A number of banks, such as Barclays and Lloyds, have already launched products that will bring those lower interest rates to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): The fact that the deficit has come down by a quarter enables the British Government to borrow at roughly the equivalent rate of the United States Government—a rate lower than every EU member state apart from Germany. Does the Chief Secretary agree that this enables the Government to contemplate infrastructure investment and to use the strength of our balance sheet to facilitate and guarantee private sector infrastructure investment?

Danny Alexander: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We can use the strength of the balance sheet that has been built up as a result of this Government’s fiscal credibility to provide, for example, £40 billion of guarantees to infrastructure investment and £10 billion of guarantees to registered social landlords. The Labour party may oppose these guarantees, but they have been widely welcomed by infrastructure providers, by the business community and, in the latter case, by housing associations. That shows precisely the benefit of the tough fiscal policy decisions this Government have taken.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): Will Ministers look urgently at the length of time it is taking to process tax credit applications? My constituents are being declined their tax credits simply because they are on fixed-term contracts that come to an end before the tax credit application is considered.

Mr Gauke: I certainly take the hon. Lady’s comments on board. It is our intention to deal with tax credit applications as swiftly as possible. We will look at individual cases, so if she wants to contact me or the permanent secretary at HMRC, either of us would be happy to take the case up.

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): The Government are to invest £17 billion in phase 1 of HS2, which will transport someone from London to Birmingham 20 minutes quicker, yet there are students in my constituency today who cannot accept their place in Bedford college because of the lack of a local transport network, and constituents who cannot accept offers of work because they cannot get to the train stations via a bus network. Would it not be a better use of that investment to put it into regional transport networks so that people can get to work and to college?

Mr George Osborne: I think we can do both; we can invest in local and regional transport networks. If my hon. Friend has specific schemes in Bedfordshire that she wants to bring to my attention or that of the Department for Transport, we will look at them very carefully, but that does not preclude us as country from

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taking the big infrastructure decisions—as we did with the M25 and as our predecessors did with the railways centuries ago—to invest in a railway system for the future. High-speed rail will connect the north to the south of England.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Today, the Public Accounts Committee exposed very poor management of the Government’s regional growth fund. Can the Chancellor tell us how many extra jobs will be created by the national infrastructure plan which was announced last autumn?

Mr Osborne: I can write to the hon. Gentleman providing a specific jobs total for this year, but I can tell him now that the national infrastructure plan is already seeing the development of the trans-Pennine electrification, which we discussed earlier, the creation of 700 jobs in the north-east as we spend £600 million on new inter-city trains, and the huge Crossrail development across London, which, as I have seen, is employing many hundreds if not thousands of people. The plan is not just a plan for this year; it is also a plan for the future, and it shows that making difficult decisions about things such as welfare enables us to spend on things that will help the private sector to create jobs.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): I congratulate the Financial Secretary on his new post. Would he be willing—when the dust settles, and in the wake of the LIBOR scandal—to look again with fresh eyes at the possibilities of full bank account portability, which could be a game-changer for British banking, and try to get our economy going again once and for all?

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Greg Clark): My hon. Friend is a distinguished member of the Treasury Committee. The Independent Commission on Banking has considered the matter, and has made some proposals for easier transfer between accounts. It has said that that should be under review, but I shall be happy to meet my hon. Friend, and I understand the case that she is making.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): The number of young people in my constituency who have been unemployed for more than 12 months has risen twelvefold since May 2010. Why does the Minister think that is, and was it a mistake to get rid of the future jobs fund within weeks of taking office?

Sajid Javid: I thought that the hon. Lady might start by congratulating the Government on the fifth consecutive fall in unemployment. She will know that one of the key

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planks of the Government’s policy for dealing with youth employment is the provision of apprenticeships. She might also welcome the 68% increase in the number of apprenticeships in her constituency.

Sir Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): What are the Government’s intentions regarding transition regions in the next round of EU funding? I am told that four Departments are slightly at odds over that. May I surprise my hon. Friends by saying that in the south-west those in the Treasury are seen as the good guys, in this context at least? Will they impress on their Government colleagues the fact that if these schemes are to help areas such as North Devon and Torbay, which have been shown to be at more risk of going into poverty than Cornwall, they will need to operate bottom-up and not top-down?

Danny Alexander: My hon. Friend is right to say that transition status has benefited regions such as his—and, indeed, mine in the highlands and islands—during the current multiannual financial framework period. Our principal objective in relation to the budget negotiations is to bring down the total EU budget in recognition of what is going on around Europe, but we will happily discuss further with him his concerns about the issues that he has raised to ensure that we secure a fair deal for impoverished regions of this country as well.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): Legislation for Government borrowing guarantees to help to fund infrastructure is due to be presented to the House next week. The Chancellor is right to try to use the power of government in this way, so why has it taken two and a half years, and nine months of double-dip recession, for him to decide to do it?

Mr George Osborne: Can I just say—

Ed Balls: Don’t sneer.

Mr Osborne: Let me say this as politely as I can to the shadow Chancellor and former Treasury Minister. Not once in the 13 years during which Labour was in office did it propose guaranteeing large-scale infrastructure projects, but that is precisely what we are doing. We are breaching decades of Treasury orthodoxy to support the private sector, investing for our country’s future, and I hope that that commands all-party support—in the politest possible way.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: I am sorry to disappoint colleagues. Demand was extremely high on this occasion, and they could not all be satisfied.

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Point of Order

3.34 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last night we secured today’s Opposition day motion on tuition fees with barely 20 minutes left before the House adjourned. Not only was that a discourtesy to you, Mr. Speaker, and to officials of the House, but it meant that right hon. and hon. Members had very little opportunity to prepare and submit an amendment to the motion. Is there anything that you can do to oblige Labour to give us the topic of their Opposition day in time for the previous week’s business statement, and to ensure that all Members have at least 24 hours in which to prepare and submit amendments to Opposition day motions?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Although the rules of the House require that notice of Opposition day motions need only be given by the rise of the House on the previous day, it is obviously helpful if longer notice is given.

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NHS Audit Requirements (Foreign Nationals)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to instruct the National Health Service to record and audit the cost of treatment of individuals not entitled to free health care and of foreign nationals under the European Health Insurance Card Scheme and other reciprocal healthcare agreements; and for connected purposes.

Last year’s figures show that under the European health insurance card scheme alone the UK paid out £1.7 billion for the treatment of British nationals abroad, but claimed back only £125 million from qualifying countries. Freedom of Information Act requests have shown that most NHS trusts at best only cursorily audit the treatment of foreign nationals not entitled to automatic free health care and GP practices do not record this information at all, despite the fact that in many other countries access to primary care has a nominal charge for all patients, including British visitors. That is the case in France and Germany, where an entry fee for primary care is required, and in Spain, where proof of insurance is needed. The purpose of the Bill is not to deny health care to foreign nationals; rather, it is to ensure that the reciprocal arrangements that we have with European economic area nations and other countries are properly used so the British health budget is not unfairly burdened.

Many hospitals do not even ask whether patients are foreign nationals, with one poll of NHS managers showing that a third of them did not routinely ask patients about their eligibility for free care. The issue of fairness is key—fairness to the taxpayers who fund the system, and fairness to those who use it. Emergency medical treatment should, of course, always be provided to those who require it at the point of need, without exception. Beyond that, entitlement to free health care is considerably more generous to visitors to the UK and short-term residents than is reciprocated for UK citizens abroad, and our system is more liberal, and lax, than anywhere else in the world.

GPs may choose to register any person as an NHS patient, and, indeed, are actively encouraged and incentivised to register all who approach them, even where an individual has no right to free NHS care. Thus, many foreign nationals receive free primary care, including free prescriptions, and, once registered with a GP, essentially have unlimited access via referral throughout the NHS without charge.

Secondary care providers have a duty to enforce the regulations and screen all patients for eligibility, applying charges where appropriate, but most do not—they either struggle to do so or do not bother at all. Earlier this year I sent Freedom of Information Act requests to 445 health organisations including primary care trusts, foundation trusts and acute trusts, inquiring whether they screen foreign patients for auditing purposes and, if so, requesting the breakdown figures over a number of previous years. However, there is an added layer of complexity, because a number of small health organisations referred the request to larger regional facilities as they did not hold the information themselves. In addition, several trusts are dealt with in terms of a cluster of PCTs, with one response covering numerous PCTs.

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A total of 212 responses were received. What was extremely concerning was that only 105 trusts were able to respond with data at all. Information, therefore, was supplied by fewer than a quarter of NHS organisations, and the data that did exist were patchy. It is worth noting that of the minority who responded with data, four trusts took over 100 days to reply. One trust, which was unable to provide any information, even asked, “What do you mean by a patient?” Some 340 said they were unable to supply any data because the information was not held or was too complex. Clearly, the semblance of a system that does exist is at best varied, confused and obscure, and at worst is chaotic, inadequate and non-existent.

Problems with the data that were supplied included recording members of the armed forces who are based abroad as being foreign patients; many British citizens were also considered foreign just because they had moved abroad. In addition, some trusts cited information relating to EU/non-EU patients instead of EEA/non-EEA patients, and, thus, their information is not in line with the European health insurance card scheme. The most common reasons for not supplying data included the fact that the information is not held, with information relating only to ethnic origin and not nationality being recorded. Some trusts claimed that they were not required to collect the information and, thus, do not hold it, whereas others that had some data said that they had held none before 2011. Where there was a refusal to supply information, we encountered statements that to do so would entail the investment of an unreasonable and significant amount of time and resource; suggestions were also made that no audit code existed for such costs.

Confusion was evident, with some NHS organisations refusing to disclose information and citing section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act. They claimed that disclosure could enable individuals to be identified, despite the fact that figures for those foreign nationals treated by the trusts that did respond often ran into the tens of thousands each year.

EU citizens coming to live in the UK do not need to register or take out health insurance, whereas many other EU countries require Britons to have insurance and/or charge an entrance fee for care. There are similar reciprocal agreements with other nations, including New Zealand, Australia and Russia, but the problems are similar to the European example. Any foreign national who has legitimately lived in the UK for more than a year is entitled to free NHS care—this is one of the most generous schemes anywhere in the world.

Refugees and asylum seekers are given free NHS treatment, but if their application to remain in the UK is turned down by the Home Office they lose that entitlement. However—my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) publicised this fact in May—a local Bristol-based human rights law firm had warned GPs that they face legal action if they refuse to

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admit illegal immigrants as patients. In addition, one surgery in Essex was ordered to reinstate two failed asylum seekers from Nigeria, despite current Government guidance making it clear that if an application to remain in the UK is turned down people lose the entitlement to free NHS treatment. I must pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the extensive and effective investigations he has made in this area. He is certainly an asset to the Select Committee on Health, and I am honoured that he is one of the co-sponsors of this Bill.

In my constituency, UK Border Agency officials see, on average, 150 cases a year at Gatwick airport of heavily pregnant passengers arriving with visitor visas. The other week there was an infamous case of a “health tourist” who travelled more than 3,000 miles from Nigeria to Wythenshawe hospital for an emergency caesarean. It is understood that the woman, who is apparently Harvard-educated, flew to Manchester airport and went directly to the hospital, where she told doctors that she required the procedure and that she had had a scan in Nigeria. Even when overseas patients try to pay, they are often unable to do so because the cost of their care is not recorded. A US citizen who asked for a receipt after receiving medical care in order to claim the cost back on their health insurance was told that an invoice was unavailable.

I very much welcome the implementation of the overseas visitors hospital charging regulations published in May, but clearly they need to be confirmed by the force of primary legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), when she was a Health Minister, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), when he was Immigration Minister, said in a March written statement that the Home Office plans to introduce immigration sanctions on overseas visitors who refuse to pay appropriate charges for treatment of more than £1,000 and to share such data between the Department of Health and Home Office. That is a very welcome start, but the law needs to be changed to provide certainty.

In conclusion, this Bill would qualify residency criteria for free NHS care; extend current charging principles to primary care; create more effective and efficient processes to screen for eligibility; and establish more robust methods of securing the recovery of treatment costs, including options for requiring health insurance. Those measures would save the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds a year, and I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That Henry Smith, supported by Chris Skidmore, John Pugh, Nicholas Soames, Mr Frank Field, Dr Julian Lewis, Gareth Johnson, Priti Patel, Andrea Leadsom, John Glen, Mr David Davis and Andrew Rosindell, present the Bill.

Henry Smith accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March 2013, and to be printed (Bill 67).

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Opposition Day

[6th Allotted Day]

Universal Credit and Welfare Reform

3.45 pm

Mr Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House notes that the Universal Credit is late and over budget; recognises that there is widespread unease surrounding the implementation of the £2 billion scheme’s IT system; further notes that the project is so badly designed that it is set to reduce work incentives for over two million people and hurt small businesses and the self-employed; believes that Ministers have failed to properly account for numerous basic details of how the scheme will work, such as its interaction with free school meals or what is to be done with 20,000 Housing Benefit staff; further believes that the project is poorly thought through and is now at risk of descending into chaos; and calls on the Government to publish the business case, so that the House can see a detailed plan of implementation, and urgently to set out a plan to address these deep flaws before it is too late.

At the heart of the debate is a very simple principle, which is that anyone in this country should be better off in work than they are on benefits. That is a principle in which we in the Opposition passionately believe. We are a party that was founded by and for working people and that is why we want universal credit to succeed. It is now, however, an open secret in Whitehall that universal credit is a flagship that is sinking fast. The Treasury, says Mr Nick Robinson of the BBC,

“have long had deep anxieties that”

the Secretary of State

“might not be able to control spending”

on universal credit. Last week, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, who is an old friend of the Secretary of State, was asked how universal credit was going. He said:

“Are we there yet? Am I absolutely confident we are there yet?”

His answer? “No.” This morning, an unnamed Minister weighed in to support the Secretary of State in his own way with a ringing endorsement, saying that universal credit

“is another car crash waiting to happen”.

The Secretary of State is no stranger to friendly fire. Indeed, back in 2002, he described himself as the “quiet man” who was about to “turn up the volume”. Today, we are not asking the Secretary of State to turn up the volume. We are asking him to dial down the chaos and dial up the competence in his Department.

The Secretary of State and I share a faith. He, like me, believes that confession is good for the soul, and today is confession time. We need answers to a host of questions about universal credit and we cannot help to get this vital project back on track unless he comes clean about exactly what is going on.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): While we are on a religious theme, I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman might think about motes and beams, as there is rather a large beam in the eye of those on the Opposition Benches.

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Mr Byrne: It is unclear how I might respond to that. I hope I will be able to set out for the hon. Gentleman this afternoon what I think will be a shared set of concerns about how to get this vital project back on track. I hope we have a degree of clarity, honesty and openness from those on the Treasury Bench.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is starting at a macro level, but last Friday I had meetings with the people who have to apply the universal credit scheme in Rotherham. I also met the voluntary groups that deal with the people who rely on it and there are genuine fears. People want reform and they are not necessarily anti the Government for political reasons, but they do not think that the scheme will work as it is devised. The computer crashes for which our Governments are so famous—both those of whom he was a member and this Government—are a legend in the computer industry.

Mr Byrne: Let me start with precisely that risk. We were told when universal credit was first proposed that the IT costs would be in the order of £2 billion. Some £200 million was taken off for subsidies for another problem with child care created by the Secretary of State’s friend, the Chancellor. The former Minister responsible for unemployment, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), before he departed for the Ministry of Justice, said that the cost had spiralled to £2.1 billion. Already, two years in, the project is £100 million over budget and we learned yesterday that universal credit, when it is introduced and fully rolled out in 2017, will demand an extra £3.1 billion in welfare payments each year. That was the figure that the Department for Work and Pensions gave to the Office for Budget Responsibility in July last year.

Yesterday, however, the Secretary of State told the House that he had agreed to a Treasury target of £2.5 billion, wiping £600 million off tax credits by so-called policy designs. Where on earth is that money going to come from? It is, I am afraid, a mystery. It is a mystery shrouded in further questions about whether people will be better off in work when universal credit is introduced. What on earth is going to happen to free school meals, which are worth £410 million a year to families in many of our constituencies and are a vital lifeline every week? The Children’s Society says that if universal credit integrates free school meals in the wrong way, that will wipe out incentives to work for 120,000 families. What is going to happen to that budget?

Then there is the question of council tax benefit, which is worth £5 billion for 6 million households in Britain. As it turns out, we are going to get not a national scheme but a local scheme, because the Secretary of State lost his battle with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He was sat on by the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr Pickles), which is a fate we would not wish on anyone. The result is that whether someone is better off in work or on benefits will depend on where they live. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that universal credit “severely undermines” the simplification.

Then there is the question of how universal credit will interact with increases in personal allowances, which were introduced with such a great fanfare over the past year or two. Last week, Gingerbread said that because

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universal credit is calculated on post-tax income, the lowest paid would see most of the increase in personal allowances wiped out. In fact, when universal credit is introduced, the low paid will lose two thirds of the increase in personal allowances. Somehow the Chancellor of the Exchequer forgot to tell us that when he unveiled the proposal in his last Budget.

Then there is the question of how universal credit will lock in the cuts to tax credits that hit so many of our constituents this April. Those cuts now mean, according to answers given to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), that a couple with kids working part time—and goodness me, there are more people working part time these days—will now be more than £700 better off on benefits than in work. How on earth can that send the right signal?

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con) rose

Mr Byrne: Perhaps the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) will be able to tell us.

Mr Redwood: Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House some of his ideas on how we could make it more worth while for people to work, given that all parties in the House think that that is the right aim and that it is not worth while enough at the moment?

Mr Byrne: That is very much the point of bringing the debate here today. We need from the Government transparency about the business case, which is being kept secret. Until we get to the heart of how the policy will be rolled out, until we get some answers to these basic questions, it is difficult for us to offer some constructive advice—advice we would offer for free.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend take a look at the Rotherham citizens advice bureau survey, which I have sent to the Secretary of State today? The bureau questioned more than 100 people who had been through employment and support allowance assessments last year; more than half said that the assessment was rushed, nearly two thirds said that the assessor did not listen to them and only a quarter felt that the assessor was fully qualified to assess their medical condition. Does he agree that a fair benefits system and a fair universal credit depend on a fair and accurate system of assessment?

Mr Byrne: It absolutely does. Our chief concern is that that open and fair system of assessment will not fall into place for universal credit, with enormous consequences for our constituents.

The final point about the basic principle of whether people will be better off in work or on benefit is the evidence published by the Secretary of State’s own Department in the impact assessment that he signed earlier in the Parliament. The evidence shows that the marginal deduction rates will not go down for many people but will go up—2.1 million people will see their marginal deduction rates go up when universal credit is introduced. The incentive for them to work does not increase with universal credit; it goes into reverse. We have problems with free school meals and with council tax benefit, a short-changed personal allowance, the lock-in of cuts to tax credits and a worse incentive to

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work. That raises fundamental questions about a system that is about to go live in 150 days. That is why in this debate we want some answers on how these problems will be solved.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): I will just give the right hon. Gentleman some answers on the marginal deduction rates. The fact is that 1.2 million people will receive a reduced marginal deduction rate as a result of what we are doing with universal credit. At the moment, 500,000 families see marginal deduction rates of well over 80%. Virtually nobody will see that once universal credit comes in. Some 2.8 million households will gain and 80% of those gains will go to the bottom 40%, improving their life chances dramatically.

Mr Byrne: But the Secretary of State refuses to admit that the marginal deduction rates will get worse for 2.1 million people. Until he answers the question about what will happen to free school meals and to council tax benefit, he cannot give us the assurance that that number of people will be better off in every single part of this country. He has to come clean about a system that is about to go live in 150 days. He is cutting it too fine, which is why No. 10 is worried, why the Treasury is worried and why his old friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office is worried.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): The fact is that 1.4 million people have been on out-of-work benefits for nine of the past 10 years. Rather than fear-mongering, shroud-waving and trying to frighten people, why is the right hon. Gentleman not working with the Government to get the best result and tell those people, “You’re needed in the workplace. We want you to play a part in building up the economy for future generations”?

Mr Byrne: If the hon. Gentleman was serious about wanting to get unemployed people in his constituency back to work—goodness knows there are enough of them—he would support Labour’s proposal for a tax on bankers’ bonuses that would get 110,000 young people back into work over the course of the next year.

Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): Those of us who were here when the Child Support Agency was introduced know the dangers of introducing legislation that everyone agrees with in principle but that is badly carried out. My right hon. Friend is doing the right thing by raising these questions, but does he not agree that it is a little odd that it was the Secretary of State who was in danger of being forced out of his job when so many of the problems with the system lie with the Treasury, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Education, all the bits of the Government that are refusing to play ball with this vision?

Mr Byrne: My right hon. Friend is precisely right. That is why we are here to help the Secretary of State this afternoon by setting out some of the questions on which, if he was only a little clearer with the House, we would be happy to engage and help. One of the issues in which we share an interest is the way we support the enterprise spirit in this country. The CBI and the Chartered Institute of Taxation have flagged up their worry that

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universal credit will be a car crash for Britain’s entrepreneurs. The number of self-employed people in this country increased by 280,000 over the past couple of years and many people must now look to their own resources for work, but what is being prepared for self-employed people is frankly chaotic.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Byrne: I will in a moment.

We have heard from the Chartered Institute of Taxation that the system proposed for entrepreneurs will require self-employed claimants to report their transactions each month and that they will have only seven days after the end of the month to file them. They will have to put all that information into a great big IT system and calculate their earnings using a system that is different from the one they use to calculate their tax bill. How on earth does the Secretary of State think Britain’s entrepreneurs, who are busy doing other things day to day, will deal with the new system? I thought that the Government were committed to cutting red tape, not swaddling entrepreneurs with it if they want any chance of help with tax credits. Perhaps the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) can explain a way through it.

Mrs Main: The right hon. Gentleman should take a little while to consider that not everybody who is self-employed is the entrepreneur he is talking about. The reason that degree of scrutiny is needed is that people who sell The Big Issue for a certain period of time can suddenly declare themselves to be self-employed, so the scrutiny is not something he should want to remove; it is a question of whether it is reasonable. If he wishes to help my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, he might like to propose a constructive way forward for how we can stop people abusing the system by declaring themselves to be self-employed when all they are doing is a minimal amount.

Mr Byrne: Members on both sides of the House want this to work, but if the hon. Lady looks at the evidence submitted by the CBI and the Chartered Institute for Taxation to the Work and Pensions Committee on Friday, she will see that there is now a real worry that this is going to be a catastrophe for the many entrepreneurs who rely on tax credits for help to balance the books at the end of the month. What I want from the Secretary of State is clarity about how this is going to work in practice.

This is the start of a whole series of risks that have been brought to the attention of hon. Members here and in the Select Committee. Flagged up in the evidence submitted on Friday was the decision to deny people a choice about who receives the money. I hope that the Secretary of State will reform this before implementation of universal credit, because many people who run women’s refuges say that the system is so badly thought through that refuges for women fleeing from domestic violence will have to close. In fact, Refuge tells us—[Interruption.] This is not scaremongering by me; it is evidence submitted to the Select Committee by Refuge, which says that the idea is so badly thought through that unless changes

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are made, 297 refuges will have to close. This is not scaremongering; it is bringing to the House’s attention information and arguments provided by one of the most important charities in the country.

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): Yesterday in oral questions, at which I think the right hon. Gentleman was present, the Secretary of State gave categorical assurances about refuges, so to repeat the smear after receiving those assurances is scaremongering.

Mr Byrne: If the Minister is accusing Refuge and Women’s Aid of a smear, I am afraid that he has got his facts seriously wrong. This element was not in the original design. Yesterday we finally extracted from the Secretary of State a commitment to change; now we want to know how it, along with a host of other things, will work in practice.

Some of these issues are now bedevilling local authorities. There is a serious risk that direct payments of universal credit, which includes housing benefit going to the individual, will result in local councils’ arrears bills and eviction rates beginning to rise. We are still no clearer about what will happen to the 20,000 housing benefit staff who work for local councils and will no longer have to process housing benefit claims once the DWP takes over the task. Are they going to be sacked or made redundant? Who will pick up the bill? Is it yet another bill that will fall on the shoulders of hard-pressed council tax payers?

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): In my constituency, housing benefit applications are up by between 10% and 15% and extra staff have been employed. The waiting list for applications to be processed takes anything from six to eight, or even 10, weeks. Yesterday the manager of the housing benefit office told me that only six months into the scheme he is already cutting back on the moneys that are allocated to try to make them last until next April. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that in the case of housing benefit, chaos is knocking on the door?

Mr Byrne: I am afraid that that is absolutely right. That is the message that is coming back from local authorities all over the country. In fact, the Local Government Association told the Select Committee on Friday that there is

“a real risk that the central Government universal credit IT systems will not be ready on time”.

That was part of an array of evidence submitted about the mounting risks. The CBI said that the

“tight delivery timetable…is a risk to business”.

Citizens Advice said that universal credit

“risks causing difficulties to the 8.5 million people who have never used the internet”.

The Chartered Institute of Taxation said that for many people

“The proposed procedures for self-employed claimants…will be impossible to comply with.”

Shelter has said:

“Social landlords and their lenders have voiced considerable concern at the implications of direct payments for social tenants”.

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The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services says that the abolition of severe disability premium is an

“apparent contradiction of the Government’s stated aim to protect the most vulnerable.”

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): On direct payments to landlords, last night I met representatives of south-west housing associations, and to a person they all expressed serious concerns about the implications for them, their lenders and their loan books.

Mr Byrne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Once arrears build up, it becomes far more difficult for social landlords to raise the money they need to build much-needed social housing. These are very serious risks.

Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for reciting the concerns of a whole range of people and organisations. One of the things that has surprised me most is that every employer in the country will have to report to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on the circumstances of every employee on a monthly basis and sometimes, perhaps, even on a weekly basis instead of annually. Is this not going to be an incredible burden on British business, which is already in difficulty?

Mr Byrne: Exactly—as if British businesses were not struggling enough. The point is that the 500 pages of evidence submitted to the Select Committee on Friday present to the Secretary of State a whole range of issues to which we have received no answers, despite the fact that the system will go live in 150 days. The system is already over budget and late, and I am afraid that we now need some urgent answers from the Secretary of State this afternoon.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great concerns of the many agencies that he has mentioned—they are worried about how universal credit will affect the client groups that they work with—is that the funding of those advice agencies that could support individuals is being squeezed and that there will simply be no access to support, either to make applications or to sort out problems when things go wrong?

Mr Byrne: That is a real concern. I know from the fact that a number of advice centres in Birmingham have been forced to close that advice is simply not available for many people in some of the most deprived parts of our country. They are being asked to contend with a new benefit system that is complicated and vital to their living standards, so that is a real worry. I hope that the Secretary of State will take that into account in his response.

I am going to draw my remarks to a close, because I know that many hon. and right hon. Members want to contribute to the debate. All I will say to the Secretary of State is that, following the recent attacks on him by the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and No. 10, he could be forgiven for wanting to retreat to the deepest, darkest bunker in Whitehall. The truth is that his Department is already one of the most secretive in Government. He is refusing to publish information about the Work programme and he has refused Labour’s freedom of information request to release the business case for universal credit.

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I know that he does not always see eye to eye with the Minister for the Cabinet Office, but I hope that he will pay heed to his words:

“Transparency is at the heart of our agenda for government…We are unflinching in our belief that data that can be published should be published.”

Unflinching indeed.

Universal credit is a massive project—it is too big to be allowed to fail. We need to make sure that it is on track and I hope that the House will join us in sending an unequivocal message to that effect this afternoon.

4.7 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): This debate cannot take place in a vacuum, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) would wish. Let me start by saying that he is wrong: we are not over budget on the programme and we are not out of time. Both are proceeding much according to the plans that we laid. He referred to a report or note that mentioned £3.1 billion. That was considered as a possible end position and the Office for Budget Responsibility, which is independent, looked at it well before Members of both Houses had completed their scrutiny of the legislation. It was done in July of last year. Since then we have had a series of discussions with the OBR. It has looked at the modelling in detail, and continues to do so.

Mr Byrne rose

Mr Duncan Smith: Wait a minute.

As far as the OBR is concerned, we are progressing in the right direction and the modelling seems to be about right. We are committed to the £2.5 billion a year and the £2 billion of investment in our IT programmes.

Mr Byrne: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for being characteristically generous in giving way so early in his remarks. Will he explain what policy designs resulted in the £3.1 billion estimate, made by his own Department, dropping down to £2.5 billion? Will he also confirm to the House that everybody affected will be on universal credit by 2017, as initially planned?

Mr Duncan Smith: First, I will answer the second question. That is exactly what we intend and we believe that we are on track to do just that. The right hon. Gentleman and the House should realise that this is not, as has been the case with previous IT programmes, a “waterfall” approach whereby everything explodes and is launched on one date, which I think the previous Government used to realise was probably not a good idea. This will be a progression over four years, so that, as we bring in different groups, such as jobseeker’s allowance recipients, and first address the flow, then the stock, and then look at tax credits and how they fit in, we can make sure that we get this absolutely right at every stage. We know that there are important things to consider so that people do not suffer as a result of universal credit. We want to get this right, even as we do it.

We agreed on the £2.5 billion figure. That is our position. As we look at all these things, including the disregards, we see that we can realise better ways of

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doing them. It is a work in progress. That is how we are able to achieve these things, just as when we looked at them originally.

The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has peppered us with freedom of information requests, which is exactly what an Opposition Member should do. However, it does him and the shadow Secretary of State ill to lecture us about releasing business cases. When they developed employment and support allowance, a system about as large and complicated as this one—I think that the right hon. Member for East Ham was a Minister in the Department at the time—at no stage, despite the request, did they ever release their business plan to us.

Kate Green: I wonder whether the Secretary of State will clarify something that he said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne). He said that the change would be implemented in stages, with first the flow, then the stock and then tax credits. Surely the tax credits for the first claimants to receive universal credit will have to be brought in on the first day of universal credit.

Mr Duncan Smith: No; it has always been part of the process that jobseeker’s allowance will be the first to move across. I am happy to discuss that further. Universal credit will run in parallel with the other systems until we shut them down and move them across. That is the way it will work. That has always been clear. I think that the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee knows that, because I have been open with her about it from the word go.

John Healey: Will the Secretary of State give way on that matter?

Mr Duncan Smith: I have explained the plan that we have and I want to make some progress, but I will give way.

John Healey: The Secretary of State maintains that the project is on track, when everybody else seems to think that it is in serious trouble and way off track. Rotherham Jobcentre Plus staff have told me that he has told the public that jobseeker’s allowance and new claims for out-of-work support will be treated as new claims for universal credit from October 2013. Is that still the case?

Mr Duncan Smith: I thought that I had been pretty clear about that. The plan is that, starting in October 2013, we will move through the different groups of benefits and tax credits progressively over the four years, bringing in different groups at different stages. That is how it will work. We will be giving a big presentation next week for members of the media.

John Healey: Has the timetable not slipped?

Mr Duncan Smith: The timetable is not slipping at all. We are on target. The right hon. Gentleman needs to be happy about that.

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It is all very well for the Opposition to carp, while saying that they support universal credit, but let me be absolutely clear why I believe that we have to do this. First, we inherited a complex mess of 30 different benefits. There are seven additions relating to disability alone, which are complicated for people who are disabled. They are often confused about what to do. Some payments are available when a person works for 16 hours, some at 24 hours and some at 30. Some are withdrawn at 40%, some at 65% and some even at 100%. Some are net and some are gross. One needs to be a mathematician to figure them out.

My previous permanent secretary admitted that one day, when he was listening to a lone parent who had come in for guidance on what benefit she would receive and how it would work if she took extra hours beyond the 16 hours at which she was already being supported. It took the adviser about 40 minutes to figure out whether she would be better off, marginally in the same position or marginally worse off because of the dramatic rise in the deduction rates. How can we expect every lone parent who is worried about authority and may not come in for help to understand what these things mean? The complexity and confusion are a problem. The decision whether to go to work is often a marginal one, and many people do not feel that it is worth while.

It is small wonder, therefore, that even before the recession there were over 4 million people on out-of-work benefits and 1.4 million people who had never worked at all. Things then got a lot worse because of the recession. The inheritance that we received included 5 million people on out-of-work benefits, youth unemployment already high and more children in workless households in this country than in the rest of the EU—that is a staggering thought. And that came after years of growth and plenty, which the previous Government wasted.

Ending that failure is a monumental task, and we have undertaken it because it has to be done, whether there is a Labour Government, a Conservative one, a coalition one or even a Liberal one. Universal credit is one of the most fundamental reforms to the welfare system, and it deserves to be supported and helped.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op) rose

Mr Duncan Smith: I have given way quite a bit. If the hon. Lady will give me a little leeway I will give way again later, but I want to make some progress.

A single payment, withdrawn at a clear and consistent rate when people move into work, will make work pay at each and every hour and remove the stumbling block in the current system whereby, as I said earlier, some people lose out dramatically. They lose 96p in every pound that they earn, which cannot be an incentive to go to work. Nobody here would take work at that rate, and trying to get the deduction rate down has to be a good reason for our reform.

The Opposition say that they are concerned about work incentives under universal credit. I reassure them that, as I said earlier, the flat 65% withdrawal rate will mean reduced marginal deduction rates for 1.2 million households. What is more, 80% of those gainers are in the bottom 40% of the income distribution. Why am I, as a Conservative, having to stand here and tell the

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Opposition that that is positive? Surely they should have ensured that it happened during all the years when they were in power.

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): The Opposition have mentioned the Work and Pensions Committee a few times. I am a member of that Committee, and although the Opposition are absolutely right to say that there were some concerns about universal credit, the Secretary of State might be interested to know that the Committee universally supported the concept of universal credit to make work pay.

Mr Duncan Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments.

Luciana Berger: I listened closely to what the Secretary of State said about 1.2 million people having better marginal deduction rates, but his Department’s own impact assessment shows that 2.1 million people will be worse off in work as a result of universal credit.

Mr Duncan Smith: The reality about marginal deduction rates, as I have just said, is that the massive majority of the money that we are investing will go to those in the lowest income groups, which has to benefit them. People who would otherwise not enter work because of the margins will now find that it is beneficial to do so. Despite what the hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, have said about marginal deduction rates, the median increase will be just about 4%. The truth is that there will be a massive improvement in the marginal deduction rate for vast numbers of households. As I said earlier, half a million people who struggled under the previous Government’s complicated taxes had marginal deduction rates of well over 80%. That will not happen under universal credit, which is a critical point.

Mr Byrne rose

Mr Duncan Smith: I am going to make some progress, and I will pick up on some of the points that have been made as I go through my speech. If the right hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will certainly give way to him later.

I turn to the delivery of universal credit. As I said earlier, its implementation is on time and on budget. Of course, the process is challenging, and I have never said anything else. The right hon. Member for East Ham knows that I have a huge amount of time for him and believe that he was an effective Minister. When we have discussed universal credit I have always told him that all our programmes have challenges and risks to them, but the job of Ministers and our officials is to manage that risk. Life has risks, and we deal with them and manage them. The universal credit programme is challenging, but we are investing £2 billion—I say again to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, that the figure is £2 billion—to get the infrastructure and IT systems right.

Mr Byrne: But the Secretary of State must have seen the parliamentary answers that his ministerial colleagues have provided stating that the implementation costs for parts of the programme are now running at £103 million, £391 million, £600 million and £1 billion. By my maths,

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that adds up to £2.1 billion, which is £100 million more than the budget that he has set out. Is the programme on budget or over budget?

Mr Duncan Smith: I am never keen to rely on the right hon. Gentleman’s maths—that is what ran us into trouble in the first place. Maybe this is a confessional now, and I will take that as a confession from him. All I can say to him is that we are investing £2 billion, but I will drop him a note about any detail that he is concerned about.

As I said earlier, we are making progress. We completed our first testing stages in August and have already held two open sessions with MPs, peers and the media and intend to hold many more. We will demonstrate the IT front-end systems next week and will do so again afterwards for many hon. Members.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Duncan Smith: Perhaps the hon. Lady will give me a little time. I think I have been reasonably generous—I am trying to be because I hope that we can discuss this issue in the right spirit. I will give way to the hon. Lady in due course, but first I would like to make a little progress.

We will be ready to roll out universal credit across the country in October 2013, and before that we will launch the pathfinder scheme in Greater Manchester in April 2013—perhaps some hon. Members do not know that yet, but that is the reality. As I have said, the phased transition from current benefits and tax credits is expected to be completed by 2017, and the safe delivery of universal credit will be my primary objective throughout. For what it is worth, I take absolute, direct and close interest in every single part of the IT development. I hold meetings every week and a full meeting every two weeks, and every weekend a full summary of the IT developments and everything to do with policy work is in my box and I am reading it. I take full responsibility and I believe that we are taking the right approach.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Duncan Smith: Perhaps I could make a little progress, and then I will give way because I know that hon. Members have questions.

I believe that we are taking the right approach; we have supported the scheme and our methods have received support elsewhere. Our use of the “agile” process has received good support from the independent Institute for Government, which in “Fixing the flaws in government IT” stated:

“The switch from traditional techniques—”

those used by the previous Government, and others—

“to a more Agile approach is not a case of abandoning structure for chaos. Agile projects”—

those used in the private sector—

“accept change and focus on the early delivery of a working solution.”

I do not underestimate the scale of the undertaking. Some 8 million households will be affected because they are in receipt, either wholly or in part, of some kind of

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support. I believe, however, that the Department is capable of implementing programmes of this kind. It has the best record, just as it did when the Labour party was in government, as Opposition Members will recall. The delivery of employment and support allowance was a good example of that, and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill who was involved in that knows too well the quality of the Department for Work and Pensions. Although the scheme is not without risks, the Department understands that and we have brought in a huge number of people and bodies from outside the Government to help implement it.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Duncan Smith: I will give way to two people, first to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) because she was first, and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh).

Chi Onwurah: The Secretary of State was speaking about his pride in the investment in IT systems that his Department has undertaken, but is he concerned that by making universal credit available primarily—and eventually solely—online, he will be dependent on investment by other Departments in the broadband infrastructure in this country? By abandoning Labour’s universal promise of broadband availability, many vulnerable people will not have access to broadband, and will not be able to benefit from universal credit.

Mr Duncan Smith: I was coming to that point, but I will deal with it now because the hon. Lady has a legitimate interest and all hon. Members will want to know about this issue. Two things are important. First, we must understand that the Government and the benefits system must move alongside what is happening in work. Those in receipt of benefits—often long-term benefits—are often outside and excluded from the workplace because of their lack of ability to work with and manage IT systems. We want to help them to enter the world of online work.

Secondly, the vast majority of people claiming benefits today already use computers and the internet—around 80% of those who claim jobseeker’s allowance use computers. Importantly, however, not all of them use their computer for claiming benefits, which they often do on the telephone. Over each month we intend to move more of those people to an online process of claiming—already more than 30% of people have started on that, and we intend to increase that figure first to 50% and eventually to 80%. We know, however, that to do that we may need to help people enormously, so jobcentres will be fitted out—we are doing trials—with computers and telephones that connect people directly to contact centres. My plan is for contact centres to get people on to their computers and work through the process with them. One reason people are worried and do not want to go online is that the present online system is not good. It is notchy and difficult—I have used it myself—and difficult to get through. We are developing and designing with claimants, jobcentre staff and local authority staff a front-end system that will be much simpler and easier. I will demonstrate it to colleagues on both sides of the House when we have time—I will

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do so next week, but on other occasions, too.

The whole idea is to move people to the new system, but we will of course retain the scope to deal with those who have difficulty.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Duncan Smith: I am dealing with those who have difficulty with the new system. I will give way twice more—first to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough—and then get on.

Dr Whiteford: Will the Secretary of State address the question of implementation in the devolved Administrations? A wide range of policy areas is affected. UK Ministers have held informal discussions with the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee, but will he make a commitment that his new ministerial team will engage with the Committee, which has expressed concern in the past that such engagement has lacked substance?

Mr Duncan Smith: Absolutely—nothing makes me happier than getting out of London to visit the devolved Administrations, whether in Cardiff or Edinburgh. I shall spend a day in Edinburgh next week speaking to that Administration about this very subject, as I have done on a number of occasions. I am engaging in the same way in Wales, as are my colleagues. I can absolutely give the hon. Lady that guarantee.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Duncan Smith: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I said I would give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough.

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): The problem with IT systems in the public sector, rather than the private sector, is the sheer scale of numbers—8 million households will use the new system—the complexity of the issues and the lifestyle of the recipients. I saw more failed Government IT systems in my time on the Public Accounts Committee than I have had hot breakfasts. I beg the Secretary of State to be cautious, to test and re-test, to pilot and re-pilot, and not to believe a word spoken to him by IT companies or his civil servants.

Mr Duncan Smith: My hon. Friend was an excellent Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee—he is highly respected among Members on both sides of the House—and I absolutely agree with him. That is how I see my role. One thing I have done is brought into the system a red team, whose job is to go through and doubt everything I am told, and to ask questions. Being a sceptic and not believing are part of the process of delivering. I absolutely understand that. We are involving others in the process—that is our purpose.

Mark Durkan rose—

Charlie Elphicke rose

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Mr Duncan Smith: I will give way once more, and then I am done.

Charlie Elphicke: Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that much of the Opposition case is based on the idea that people are basically thick—too thick to use the internet, too thick to budget monthly and too thick to pay the rent? A cornerstone of universal credit is that we trust people and believe in them. We want to encourage people to work and to manage their own affairs.

Mr Duncan Smith: I understand what my hon. Friend says. He refers to the fact that people need to be helped—that they are often more intelligent than we give them credit for, but that they lack local knowledge and instruction. A legitimate concern of Members on both sides of the House is to protect those who are the most vulnerable. I will always assume their best intents. It is our job to ensure that we meet those concerns—that is my purpose and I intend to meet it. He is right that we should assume that people are intelligent enough, but that we have to get them to the point at which they use the system.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Duncan Smith: Let me make a bit of progress, because others might want to speak.

We have discussed finances. The Government have always made it clear that the £2.5 billion is additional and that that was how it would work. We have always agreed on that. The nature and design of universal credit means that this is an iterative process. The reality is that we learn as we do the developing. One thing that “agile” allows us to do is to rectify previous assumptions that things have improved because of changes. I can confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that, as we proceed with the IT project, “agile” will allow us to ensure that we do not wait to the end moment to test it; we are testing stuff pretty much the whole time.

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr Duncan Smith: May I make a little progress? I think I have been reasonably generous in giving way. I promise that I will try to get the hon. Gentleman in later.

On our engagement, it is clear from what I have just said that the independent OBR has open access. We have been in regular discussions. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill described it yesterday as a think-tank, but it is not a think-tank. It accredits and decides whether the Government’s calculations and projections are correct. No one has a perfect view of the future, but at least it is independent of all political positions and positioning. It is working with us at the moment. I can assure hon. Members that the process is robust and will continue until the Government announce the final rates for universal credit and the OBR includes them in its forecasts. That is what we are working to.