David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for his hard work in taking the Bill through the House. It is important for Northern Ireland and its unique circumstances, but does he agree that there will

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probably be lessons for the rest of the UK to learn from Northern Ireland about further reducing corporation tax to make our country even more competitive?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are in an era when countries are generally reducing corporation tax rates. In this Parliament, we have reduced our rate from 28% to 21% and are about to reduce it further to 20%, although some advocate that we reverse some of that progress. I also note that the Indian Government set out a plan at the weekend to reduce their corporation tax rates. Certainly, I think that the whole UK will be watching the experience in Northern Ireland very closely to see what economic benefits arise as a consequence of a reduced rate.

Lady Hermon: In case we are building up false hope, I would be grateful if the Minister made it clear that reducing the rate of corporation tax—if that is what the Northern Ireland Executive decides to do in 2017 or thereafter—on its own will not rebalance the Northern Ireland economy or guarantee the creation of one extra job. We need a range of measures that combine to rebalance the economy.

Mr Gauke: The hon. Lady makes an important point, although it is for the Northern Ireland Executive to judge how to proceed. In the UK, our reductions in corporation tax have been an important part of our long-term economic plan, but they have not been the only part, and I know that the Northern Ireland Executive will want to do everything possible, in addition to this power, to put in place the conditions for economic growth. One should not pretend that this in isolation solves every problem. None the less it will be a very useful additional power for the Northern Ireland Executive, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) said, there will be considerable interest elsewhere in how the policy develops and the benefits that accrue as a consequence.

To reduce the administrative burdens on SMEs, a special regime will be put in place. A simple in/out test will mean that the majority of companies will be spared the burden and cost of proportioning profits. More than 97% of SMEs operating in Northern Ireland meet the 75% employment test threshold and will benefit from the Northern Ireland regime.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank KPMG Belfast, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and PricewaterhouseCoopers for their written submissions to the Public Bill Committee and the other businesses that sent representations directly to HMRC, and I welcome the continued support shown by the Northern Ireland business community and businesses elsewhere in the UK for this measure. In January, 80% of firms polled at an Ernst & Young Ulster Hall seminar on the Bill believed that a cut in corporation tax would have a positive impact on their businesses.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made clear on Second Reading, the Bill’s progress through Parliament is dependent on the Executive parties delivering on their commitments in the Stormont House agreement, so I am pleased that the Executive has so far met their obligations. They

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agreed their budget for 2015-16, passing their Budget Bill last week, while the Welfare Reform Bill passed its Further Consideration stage in the Assembly at the end of February. The Government will continue to assess progress as the Bill moves forward, and in future years as decisions on implementing the powers are to be taken.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): As we have recently seen, a cut in the higher rate of income tax leads to increased revenues—from the dynamic effects—so has the Treasury done any modelling on the optimum rate of corporation tax, if the aim is to maximise revenue?

Mr Gauke: My right hon. Friend will be aware of the Treasury’s study into the effects of our reductions in UK corporation tax, and it was clear that they would result in increased investment and growth in the UK. The Treasury’s assessment was that about half of the forgone revenue consequent on the reduction in corporation tax would be recovered over time. As the OECD has set out on numerous occasions, there is a strong case for saying that corporation tax is one of the more growth-damaging of taxes—it is economically very inefficient, being a tax on investment—and therefore making progress on that front is to be welcomed. Come April, the UK will have the lowest rate of corporation tax in the G20, and we on the Government Benches would want to maintain that position, despite the calls from others to abandon such an approach.

The Stormont House agreement also outlined the approach to adjusting the Executive’s block grant, alongside devolution of the power to set the rate of corporation tax. I recognise the interest of right hon. and hon. Members in the issue and have therefore set out further details in a letter to the Public Bill Committee. I would like to reassure Members that the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive continue to work closely to finalise the arrangements.

A minor and technical amendment was agreed in Committee to ensure that clause 5 was drafted in line with normal practice for commencement powers and to remove the scope for misinterpretation. It gives the Government the power to turn on the legislation by regulations made by statutory instrument.

The Bill is vital in allowing the Northern Ireland Executive greater power to rebalance the economy towards a stronger private sector, boosting employment, growth and the standard of living in Northern Ireland, with benefits for the wider UK. The unique challenges faced by Northern Ireland have been recognised by Members on both sides of the House, and I welcome the efficient and effective debate we have had so far. I am grateful for the Opposition’s commitment to co-operate with the Government to ensure that the Bill can be scrutinised appropriately and dealt with speedily in this Parliament, and I hope that hon. Members will see fit to read it the Third time.

1.58 pm

Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): I would like to associate myself with the Minister’s comments about the quality of our debate thus far on the Bill. We have had a thorough discussion. It has been shorter than originally anticipated, but that is because

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the Bill has wide-ranging support across the House, and it is a pleasure to rise, once again, to support the measures in it.

We are committed, as are Members across the House, to supporting measures to increase inward investment into Northern Ireland and support the much-needed rebalancing of its economy. We have all recognised that Northern Ireland has lagged behind the rest of the UK on productivity and prosperity. Over the years, measures have been implemented to boost the Northern Ireland economy, including through increased levels of investment and job creation programmes, but few have met with long-term success. It is important to consider a measure that would put a rocket-booster under the approaches taken so far to rebalancing and strengthening Northern Ireland’s economy. In that spirit, we have supported the Bill.

As I noted in Committee, the Bill is both straightforward and complicated. It is short in respect of the number of clauses, but those clauses include a huge amount of detail, some of which has still to be worked out. The Minister alluded to that in his comments. It is important to recognise that we are at the start-point rather than the end stage of the process.

Let me draw out a couple of issues that will be the subject of live discussions between the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. Before I do so, however, let me reinforce a point made in the intervention by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)—that it would be a mistake to think that corporation tax devolution will, in and of itself, do what is needed to rebalance Northern Ireland’s economy. It has to be part of a much wider picture that includes other policy drivers to help make this measure a success. That is certainly the experience of the Republic of Ireland, whose extremely low corporation tax does not sit alone; it is supported by other policy measures, particularly on skills and infrastructure. If this Bill is to be a success in Northern Ireland, it will be important for all parties to work together to ensure that the rest of the policy framework is in place to allow the rebalancing that we all want to happen.

Ian Paisley: I welcome the shadow Minister’s comments, but does she accept that much of this is about perception and the business-friendly nature of our economy, which will allow it to grow? It is about offering investors incentives to come in by providing good profit returns for their hard-earned labour. If we continue to build up and push that perception, does she agree that opportunities will flow from it and that this Bill now offers the best way forward in the current economic climate?

Shabana Mahmood: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the perception of business is really important, but he will recognise, I think, a point that businesses often make to Members of all parties—that headline rates of corporation tax are extremely important for decisions about where to locate businesses, but that they are not the only factor that businesses take into account. I recognise the importance of this Bill for Northern Ireland, given the unique situation in which Northern Ireland finds itself. As I say, it is putting a rocket-booster under the approach taken so far to try to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy, but it will not succeed on its own—it has to be part of a wider policy framework.

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Despite recognition of the importance of a wider policy framework, we have not yet heard a huge amount of detail about what it will look like on the ground in Northern Ireland. These are matters largely for the Northern Ireland Executive, but they need to know and to hear that the Opposition support them in having a wider framework of policy measures around skills and infrastructure that will help to make all this a success, which we all want to see.

Lady Hermon rose—

Mr Redwood: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Shabana Mahmood: I give way first to the hon. Lady.

Lady Hermon: I am grateful. I am curious to know what reassurances a future Labour Government would give, if they were in office after the general election of 7 May—none of us has a crystal ball, so we do not know—to credit unions and the Progressive building society, which we debated earlier?

Shabana Mahmood: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention, but I am afraid that I am going to disappoint her a little because my reading of the Bill, what it is intended to achieve and of the agreement that has been struck is very similar to that of the Minister. I agree with him that a deliberate part of the agreement relates to trading profits. Under the new Northern Ireland regime, corporation tax is to be devolved only in so far as it relates to trading profits rather than other aspects of business. That part of the policy is designed to make it successful and ensure that this devolution results in a genuine rebalancing of Northern Ireland’s economy. With respect, I feel that takes care of the point about the credit unions.

I have some sympathy with the argument when it comes to the Progressive building society. I have received communication from it about how it feels it will be caught unfairly by these provisions. I felt that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) did not take care of the scope for profit shifting within the financial services sector. We are all alive to that threat, but I am afraid that the amendment did not deal satisfactorily with the problem that the good work of the Progressive in Northern Ireland could slip through and be accounted for, whereas everything else that could result in profit shifting would be excluded. To that extent, my reading is similar to that of the Minister, and that will certainly be our approach. I am happy to give an undertaking—dependent on the outcome of the general election—to continue a debate with Members who feel strongly about this point, as did the Minister.

Lady Hermon rose—

Shabana Mahmood: I do not want to repeat a lengthy debate on credit unions, but I will give way to the hon. Lady one final time.

Lady Hermon: I am extremely grateful, but we need some clarity on this. There is potential for the Labour party to be in government after the general election of 7 May, so I have to ask on behalf of all the people we on the Northern Ireland Benches represent whether the

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Labour party is ruling out any flexibility, as the hon. Lady seems to have done this afternoon. She has said that there will be no flexibility for credit unions, whereas I think the Minister said there could be at least some flexibility to look at back-office activities and excluded trades. Is the hon. Lady ruling that out for the Labour party?

Shabana Mahmood: With respect to the hon. Lady, the whole scope of the Northern Ireland regime under the Bill relates to trading profits. Credit unions do not pay corporation tax on their trading profits, so this Bill does not impact on them. I am not sure how many ways there are of saying that; I feel that the different formulations of the point have probably been covered. If the credit unions did pay corporation tax on their trading profits, we would be having a different discussion. If Members wish to see a devolution regime for Northern Ireland that includes activities other than trading profits, so that corporation tax would be paid on investments, income and so forth, that is a big call to make. If provisions were to be applied but limited to credit unions alone, it would mean carving out an exception to the regime. Let me say that that goes beyond the context of the agreement struck between this Government and the Northern Ireland Executive—the agreement that we have supported and the agreement that is the subject matter of the Bill. I would have a huge amount of sympathy if credit unions found themselves caught because they did pay corporation tax on their trading profits, but that is not the case, so—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. The amendment has been discussed and withdrawn. We had a lengthy debate on it and we do not have a lot of time for this part of the debate, so we must stick to what exactly is in the Bill—and nothing more.

Shabana Mahmood: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will move on to the rest of my remarks.

Mr Redwood: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Shabana Mahmood: Forgive me, but because of time considerations, I will not.

Let me raise a couple of issues that received lengthy debate in Committee and will be important aspects of the work needed to take the Bill forward. I speak particularly of the block grant. I am grateful for the letter that the Minister sent to the Public Bill Committee, further setting out the Government’s approach to calculating the element of the block grant that the Northern Ireland Executive will have to pay back to the UK Government. We are still a long way from a nail-down formula, as it were, for how the block grant reduction will be calculated, particularly in respect of measuring and calculating behavioural effects that will need to be taken into account.

I note the indication in one of the appendices to the letter that the devolution of corporation tax to the Northern Ireland Executive in 2019-20 is expected to cost about £325 million if Northern Ireland opts for a 12.5% rate rather than the United Kingdom’s 20% rate,

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but much more work will need to be done on that, and an agreement will need to be struck with the Northern Ireland Executive.

Mr Redwood: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Shabana Mahmood: The right hon. Gentleman is persistent. I will give way to him very briefly.

Mr Redwood: When will the Labour party give justice to England? Surely, given the devolution of tax matters to Northern Ireland and Scotland—which we welcome—there needs to be a voice for England, and an ability for England to make her decisions on those matters as well.

Shabana Mahmood: With respect, responding to the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention would lead me into a much lengthier discussion on a matter that is not directly relevant to the Bill. However, he has put his point on the record once again, and I am sure that he is pleased about that.

As I was saying, it is clear that the methodology for calculating behavioural changes in particular will require detailed work between the United Kingdom Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.

The Minister said in Committee that there would be pressure on the Executive to take account of any profit shifting that might occur. Indeed, it is in their interest to limit profit shifting in order not to increase the amount that they must pay back to the Treasury. The Minister said that a memorandum of understanding would be drawn up between the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive in respect of the costs of policing the limitation of profit shifting, and the processes, governance and accountability that would be needed for assessment of the activity. That is an important part of the framework, but we have not been given many details so far.

We all hope that the devolution will go ahead in 2017, but a potential stumbling block is the condition that Northern Ireland’s finances must be put on a stable footing before that can happen. We have still not been told exactly what that will mean, and what threshold the Executive will have to cross in order to prove that they have met the condition. I hoped that the Minister might give some idea of the timetable agreed between the UK Government and the Executive in relation to when some of the key decisions will have to be made. I trust that they will be made well before 2017, although the Minister said in Committee that that was the deadline, because there is a great deal to be done between now and then. I think that we shall all have to return to the issue of conditionality after the general election.

We are in favour of all measures that will assist the people of Northern Ireland and their economy. It is in the interests of the whole United Kingdom for Northern Ireland’s economy to be rebalanced and strengthened. We therefore support the Bill, and will continue to support it.

2.13 pm

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I congratulate the Minister and the Secretary of State. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who saw the importance of a measure such as this even when we

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were in opposition and he was shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. That was not the conventional thinking at the time, as I well remember because I was working with him, but he persisted, and the Bill eventually found its way to the Chamber.

Nearly five years ago—the time has passed quickly—when the Select Committee was re-formed and I had the privilege of becoming its Chairman, it decided to look into this matter. We decided that, in what was our first inquiry during the present Parliament, we would examine the current financial and economic issues rather than what might have been seen as the usual “orange or green” issues. We examined those issues in great detail, and, although I would be the first to admit that the report that we eventually published was not unanimously agreed, we saw the importance of a measure such as this. We also saw that it was not the silver bullet—it was not the only measure that needed to be taken in Northern Ireland to rebalance its economy and make it more prosperous—but we did consider it to be very important.

As has already been mentioned, Northern Ireland’s geographical position makes it special in this context. It shares a land border with another country, and it is also part of an island which is, in turn, off another island. That geographical position alone means that in order to attract the investment that it needs—especially overseas investment—it must have a different quality, because otherwise people might prefer to invest on the mainland. Although that might be good for many of us, it would not necessarily help Northern Ireland directly. Similarly, if the UK were just like the rest of the European Union, there would be no reason for people to invest here rather than on the continent. I am pleased that many aspects of our economy and the way in which we run things are different from what happens in the rest of the European Union, because that makes ours an attractive economy and makes this country a very good place in which to invest, as is clear from figures that were published only recently.

A short time ago, when the Select Committee visited Belfast, we had the pleasure of meeting Senator Gary Hart. He was there principally to engage in political discussions, but we discussed the economy as well, and he made a great many encouraging noises about the prospect of American investment in Northern Ireland if this step were taken.

I hope that the Northern Ireland Assembly will take advantage of the Bill when it is passed, because it is one of the very few measures with which all the parties in Northern Ireland—and, I think, all the parties in the House—agree. That is a very unusual situation in itself, but it is extremely welcome, because it gives us an opportunity to improve the economy in Northern Ireland to a greater extent than we have done so far. That is important for two reasons: it will ensure that people in Northern Ireland enjoy more prosperity, and it will give them the opportunity to cement the relative peace that has been achieved there. A strong economy will obviously help the cementing of that peace. For those two reasons in particular, I am very happy to support the Bill.

2.17 pm

Dr McCrea: Let me begin by thanking the Secretary of State and the Minister of State for the Bill, and thanking Opposition Members for supporting it.

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I must also apologise for the absence of some of my colleagues. As a number of Members will know, the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has died, and was buried this afternoon. That is why my hon. Friends the Members for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson) are not present either, although they have a tremendous interest in this subject. On behalf of all Members, I wish to express our sincere sympathy to my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford. We pray that the Lord will strengthen and comfort his family, especially his mother, at this time of their grief and sorrow.

I know that some Members have felt rather envious as they have sat back and watched the progress of the Bill to its present stage. Nevertheless, both the Government and the official Opposition have acknowledged that the circumstances of Northern Ireland are unique because of its land border with the Irish Republic, which has one of the world’s lowest corporation tax regimes. Government policy has directed us to rebalance the economy—to move away from our high dependence on public sector employment and boost the local private sector—but we cannot do that with no more than an instruction from the House; we need the tools that will allow us to do the job. We have an earnest desire to move Northern Ireland forward, and to transfer our people from the unemployment list to meaningful and gainful employment.

Mr Redwood: I assure the hon. Gentleman that many of us have pressed for a measure of this kind for a long time, and welcome it greatly. I like to see all parties united behind the simple proposition that tax cuts make us a more prosperous society. I only hope that they learn the lesson in respect of the other parts of the Union and the other taxes.

Dr McCrea: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I certainly believe that we need to be very prudent in our expenditure, but we also need to allow people to have more of their own money in their pockets, and we want to see prosperity across the United Kingdom. I certainly want to see that achieved. After we have gone to the 20% corporation tax there has, rather worryingly, been some talk of moving back to 21%. That would be a retrograde step and I trust it will be put to bed this afternoon because it would have implications for the block grant for Northern Ireland. We need to get that clarified.

Businesses throughout my constituency tell me that corporation tax could be a game-changer, or at least assist in our genuine efforts for growth. Those who have in the past opposed the devolution of corporation tax stated that this would assist only large multinational companies, yet Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs estimates that a reduction in corporation tax in Northern Ireland would affect some 34,000 companies of all sizes, including 26,500 small and medium-sized enterprises.

As the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) said, corporation tax is not a silver bullet that will transform the economy of Northern Ireland, but it allows us to go out with confidence on to the world stage and sell Northern Ireland without being undercut by our neighbours in the Irish Republic. I accept that other economic reforms are necessary. We need to train and upskill our work force, and focus on skills and

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competiveness, and strengthen our infrastructure, thereby achieving a stronger economy and a higher standard of living for all our constituents.

I welcome today’s debate. I am disappointed in the Minister’s response to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and supported by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). However, we are getting an opportunity to assist the Northern Ireland Executive in gaining greater power to rebalance the economy and boost employment and growth by attracting more high-quality investment. Opportunity awaits us. To do nothing is unacceptable; to do our best is honourable.

2.22 pm

Naomi Long: I do not wish to detain the House for very long. I merely want to put on record my thanks to the Government for the work they have done in bringing this Bill forward, and also to the Opposition for their support for the Bill. I welcome the progress in this matter, which we have debated many times in this House, and we also talked about it for a long time when I was in the Assembly. Those of us on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs spent many hours discussing the issue of corporation tax and its potential positive impact on Northern Ireland and its economy, so I welcome the progress we have made in what is a relatively short period of time from the announcement. It is good to see this measure reach its Third Reading today.

Others have already said this is not a silver bullet for the economic challenges that face Northern Ireland, but it is a very important lever for the Northern Ireland Executive to have within their control to address the imbalances in the economy, to encourage further growth of our local companies and to encourage further inward investment. Even without corporation tax being reduced, Northern Ireland outperforms many other regions in attracting inward investment. This gives us another opportunity to raise our profile internationally and encourage more companies to look at Northern Ireland as a serious investment prospect, but also to see us as a competitive region where they can locate and do real business.

I look forward to seeing this Bill reach fruition. There will be challenges ahead for the Northern Ireland Executive as they go about the more complex work of setting a rate for corporation tax, particularly in terms of affordability at a time when resources are extremely tight. It will be difficult because there will be a gap between any benefits from the change and the amount they will lose to the Treasury in the interim. The Executive will have to look at that period very carefully in terms of affordability and how that is managed.

There is also a challenge in dealing with investment in skills, which are required if we are to see the full benefits of any reduction in corporation tax. There is no point in reducing corporation tax to get new businesses to come in and invest if we do not have the skilled workers to be able to take up employment in those companies. Part of the due diligence that any company will do before investment will involve looking at our skills base. That will be one of the key issues. We therefore have to

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see a renewed focus from the Executive on investing in skills, and particularly the right skills for the companies that we are encouraging to come to Northern Ireland.

We also face challenges in terms of infrastructure. As a civil engineer, it would be remiss of me not to mention that. It is not just our communications infrastructure, but also our physical infrastructure, which requires investment. Companies doing due diligence before investing in a region will look at such issues. It is hugely important that we are able to invest in infrastructure in a way that will both encourage and benefit companies locally who are already involved in growing their businesses and attract new inward investment to Northern Ireland.

Our connectivity will need to be defended. That is a role that both Westminster and the Assembly can have some regard to. It is hugely important that our air transport links, particularly those routes that allow us to cargo material from Northern Ireland for export markets, are protected. That should detain this House perhaps more than it has done to date.

If we are to benefit the economy and feel the true benefit of this change in corporation tax, we also need to create the kind of political stability in Northern Ireland that is conducive to creating economic growth.

Mr Dodds: On the economic issues and making the most of this devolved corporation tax power, does the hon. Lady agree that it is important that the Assembly and the Executive determine the sort of rate that is going to apply as quickly as possible so that Invest NI can get out into the marketplace and begin to sell Northern Ireland and the benefits of this as soon as possible? As she knows, there is a big lead-in time in terms of attracting investment?

Naomi Long: I am aware of the pressure to want to do that quickly, but it is also important that, as the Executive do that, the cost of it to the Northern Ireland economy is thoroughly assessed and we work out how we are going to pay for it in the interim. Otherwise, before we reap the benefits, we could leave a gap in our public finances that creates pressure, particularly from those that are already under financial pressure. It could lead to a push back against the corporation tax reduction. Getting that balance right is important. I agree that it would be wrong for people to be unnecessarily tardy, but I also think it is important that proper due diligence is done around what that level should be.

Reaping the maximum benefit from the changes under this Bill requires political stability. It requires people, when they look to Northern Ireland, to see the positive images that are so often broadcast, as opposed to some of the more negative images we have seen in recent years. If we want lasting prosperity, it has to be shared among everyone in our society. It is therefore hugely important that we see political maturing not just in terms of the Unionist-nationalist question and how that is handled politically in Northern Ireland, but in terms of the productivity of the Assembly.

Ms Ritchie: Does the hon. Lady agree that along with having corporation tax as a financial lever, and the need to create political and economic stability in Northern Ireland and the need to encourage people to come and visit, there is also a need for the Treasury to look at

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reducing VAT on tourism? That would enable us to be more competitive with the south of Ireland in terms of visitors and the economy.

Naomi Long: I am aware that the hon. Lady has long since advocated such a move, as have I. Unfortunately, the Treasury response has been that in some way reducing the VAT on leisure would encourage people to have a rather lackadaisical attitude to the workplace. In fact both inward and outward tourism generates a significant amount of money into our economy, so I think a future assessment would be valid.

Today marks a very welcome step forward in the potential for Northern Ireland to rebalance its economy and encourage further growth of the public sector. I hope that when the Executive meet, as they will do over the coming months, they will meet the challenge of setting the rate and stepping up around infrastructure and skills, as well as around stability and peace building. We will then be able to reap the maximum reward for the work that has been done.

2.29 pm

Ian Paisley: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this important debate on corporation tax. Today is a red-letter day for Northern Ireland. The Bill certainly gives the lie to those who suggest that nothing ever changes in politics or that devolution does not actually do anything. It sends out the powerful signal that, after much diligent hard work, the constant dripping has eventually worn away the stone and we have achieved something positive for Northern Ireland: we have ensured that we can at last set our own rate of corporation tax.

This is what devolution is supposed to be about. It is supposed to allow the economies that make up the United Kingdom to compete according to their strengths, to set their own pace of change and to be agile. Many of us have argued for this change for a long time, and we at last see the legislation in print. We now see it moving forward on a very positive footing. So those who oppose devolution and say that nothing really changes can eat their words today, and I hope they choke on the Bill—

Lady Hermon: So to speak.

Ian Paisley: Indeed.

Some Members have suggested that the devolution of corporation tax is not a silver bullet, but I do not think I ever heard anyone say that it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime, miracle-working, stand-alone solution. No one ever thought of it like that. It is one of the arrows in the quiver, to be fired at the right target at the right time.

The important thing about the corporation tax measure is that it will change people’s perceptions about our economy. We have a go-forward, low-tax, incentivised economy. Indeed, that seems to be part of the Government’s own economic plan. They have tried to reduce taxes time and again, and I welcome that. I agree with the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), who has often contributed to debates in the House by demanding that we have even lower taxes across the whole of the United Kingdom. Would it not be a far better day today if the Bill were introducing a reduction in corporation tax for the whole of the United Kingdom?

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That is what we should really be debating, and I hope that one day Government Members will follow our lead and reduce their corporation tax to the new levels that Northern Ireland has ambitions to achieve.

The Government’s plan to reduce tax is welcome. When we look at the history of the economy of the Republic of Ireland, we see that it was not corporation tax reductions alone that supported the country’s boom years. There were other unique selling points that it is important to consider. The Republic sold the fact that it had a great, well-educated and advantaged youth population who made the country cheaper, as an offshore part of Europe, to invest in. Northern Ireland competes on exactly the same footing as that, and I believe that we can do it even better. After all, we are British. We are an offshore part of Britain: we are Britain offshore. If we can use that to our advantage as a unique selling point, we should do so, and I welcome those who will join us. As other Members have said, this change will affect 34,000-plus local companies, 26,500 of which—the small and medium-sized enterprises—form the backbone of our economy. I know that many of them welcome this measure, and I look forward to the opportunities that the legislation will create.

I welcome the fact that those on the Front Benches have changed their minds on this matter. For a long time, certain Members were like John the Baptist, in that they were preaching in the wilderness. Eventually, however, they have managed to convert; I think that those on both Front Benches recognised that they needed to do so. That is a good thing. There has been a lot of thought on this issue on both sides of the House and I welcome the change of heart, particularly on the Labour Front Bench. I remember the former Prime Minister telling us in 2007 that he could not do this. He gave us the Varney review and told us that we could tamper with this, that and the other. Indeed, the then Treasury spokesman, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), said at the time that corporation tax reduction for Northern Ireland

“does not offer the best way forward”.—[Official Report, 17 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 74WS.]

I am glad that we have recognition today that it is the best way forward, and I hope that we will have unanimity on the matter in the House.

As I have said, this is not going to be a one-night wonder; it will not change things overnight. It will probably take at least a decade before we reap the benefit of the change, but anyone who knows that Northern Ireland’s economy also has a strong agricultural sector will appreciate what I am about to say. Before we can reap the benefit of the changes, we have to sow, and today we have very good seed that I believe we are going to be putting into very good ground. I look forward to seeing the game-changing strategy that is being put in place today reaping a wonderful economic harvest for Northern Ireland over the next 15 to 20 years. I believe that anything the Republic of Ireland has been able to offer as a result of its corporation tax reduction, Northern Ireland will be able to do on steroids. We will do it better. After all, we are part of a G20 nation, and the benefits of that stability should be recognisable to all.

In 2011, the Select Committee, under the watchful eye of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), indicated that this measure was going to be a game-changer. The Select Committee is to be congratulated on pursuing

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this matter and encouraging the Government to look afresh at it. At that point, it had been dropped from the agenda and people thought that it was all over, and the Chairman of the Committee should be singled out today and congratulated on pushing the matter forward.

Over the past five years, the Northern Ireland Executive have demonstrated their ability to look at other good competitive economic measures that we should be embracing.

Mr Dodds: Would my hon. Friend acknowledge that, in addition to some people here giving up on devolving the power to set corporation tax rates, there were parties and politicians in the Northern Ireland Assembly who had also given up on it? Our party did not give up on it, however, and we are glad to be seeing the fruits of our labour today.

Ian Paisley: I have to say that I am shocked. My right hon. Friend wants me to start electioneering in the House. He wants me to say that it was us that won it. Well, it was! We know that and the electorate know it; we will prove that on 7 May.

Mr Dodds: Look at the record.

Ian Paisley: I know that the record is a powerful one. We did not give up on this; we pushed for it. I think the hon. Member for Tewkesbury will confirm that it was our party that pushed the Select Committee to press the issue and to hold not just a desktop inquiry but a solid investigation. That investigation took us overseas, to the Republic of Ireland and to the United States. We looked at the issue, we pushed it solidly, and today we are reaping the benefits of that. Some of the foot-draggers did not want to see this day, but I am glad that those of us who were swift of foot have now reached the finish line.

Northern Ireland offers a unique brand for people to invest in. Obviously, we have a land border with the Republic of Ireland, so we have to demonstrate additional economic stimuli to get our economy going. The Bill will allow us to do that. A recent Ernst and Young survey on global cities of the future found that Belfast was one of the most business-friendly medium-sized cities in the world to invest in. That shows that what Northern Ireland is offering, to foreign indirect investment in particular, is an agile and capable economy with workers who want to see their economy change and grow.

We export the best buses; they come from my constituency to this city. Northern Ireland also exports the best pavements. I think that they come from the constituency of the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), and they are used to pave London. We also export some of the best drink to ply the workers with, from Bushmills, and all our existing exports represent a continuing opportunity to grow the Northern Ireland economy. Northern Ireland is a good place to invest in. Indeed, 75% of investors reinvest after having been in Northern Ireland. Not only do they go there to make their initial investment but the lion’s share of them go back and reinvest because they see it as the place where their pounds can grow.

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Lady Hermon: The hon. Gentleman will have noted that the Minister made the valid point earlier that the devolution of corporation tax to the Northern Ireland Executive was contingent on the implementation of the Stormont House talks. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is speaking loudly for the Democratic Unionist party, would like to confirm that his party is absolutely wedded to the full implementation of all the commitments and recommendations that resulted from those talks.

Ian Paisley: This is not the place to debate all of the Stormont House agreement, but given that we were instrumental in helping to achieve it, we will, of course, be pursuing every line, every jot and every tittle to ensure that we get the best deal for Northern Ireland in all of that arrangement.

Between 2013 and 2014 we had a record year of investment in Northern Ireland. Nearly 11,000 new jobs were promoted and 23 first-time investors were welcomed into Northern Ireland. If we can do that in one year in advance of the corporation tax Bill, what can we not do if we can now go out around the world and start to market Northern Ireland as the place with what I hope will be the lowest level of corporation tax on these islands? If we can do that, we really will have the opportunity to see Northern Ireland attracting even more companies. Our attracting 23 new, high-calibre investors in the past year, in the hard economic climate we have been coming out of, is a signal that things they are a-changing.

Ms Ritchie: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as part of lowering the level of corporation tax in Northern Ireland there is a need not only to rebalance the economy, but to ensure that a balanced regional development approach is taken to the location of foreign direct investment and other investment, to ensure that all citizens benefit from this lowering of corporation tax?

Ian Paisley: The hon. Lady makes a good point—it is key. This tax is not just about investment in Belfast, Londonderry or key cities; it is about investment in the whole of Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister recently stated that he wanted to make the United Kingdom the “factory of Europe” and attract more jobs into the UK, and I hope he was speaking for every part of the UK. I hope he wanted to see those investments coming across not just to London and the south, but to all of the UK, because that is what we really need—we need more investment. I know that the hon. Lady wants to see investment in her constituency. My constituency is carrying what is going to be the single largest job loss in Northern Ireland in several years, with the closure of the JTI Gallaher factory in 2017. I want to see those jobs filled. I want to see opportunity created whereby more investment will be happening in my constituency and more factories will be brought there. If the current Government are returned, I hope that they will add meat to the bones of that call to turn the UK into the factory of Europe by bringing jobs, not only to the hon. Lady’s constituency, but to mine and, indeed, to all our constituencies. I hope we see a balance in the investment that is going to be made.

In an earlier intervention, the hon. Lady also called for a reduction in VAT, especially on our tourism trade, and I fully support that. Tourism is one of the key areas

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where we are trying to grow our economy and attract new business investment, with new hoteliers and new companies. If we can reduce VAT in that sector, we will see it grow. Again, we compete with the Republic of Ireland in that sector, but it has a lower tax rate and that damages us. We really need to try to make progress on that.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman will be very careful in sticking to the narrow confines of the Third Reading of this Bill. I appreciate that the points he is making are tangentially attached to the Bill, but I am sure that, in concluding, he will be referring entirely to the Bill.

Ian Paisley: Thank you for that prompt, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was actually at the point of conclusion, and I thank you for reminding me that I do have to conclude. I know that hon. Members are captivated by my oratory today and want me to continue, but I must desist and so I shall leave those points with the House.

2.44 pm

Mark Durkan: I will probably differ in some emphasis and some recollection from the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), but I wish to begin on a point of absolute harmony, in offering thanks to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and all the members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, who tilled this hard ground over quite some time, some years ago. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury has rightly been generous in acknowledging the role played by his colleague, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), and I will do so, too.

The devolving of corporation tax to Northern Ireland has not always been the point of constant unanimity that it appears to be today. People did have different approaches and different concerns about it; back when we were negotiating the Belfast agreement or Good Friday agreement some of us wanted fiscal discretion as part of the devolved package, whereas most parties did not. My party was in the very small minority of those that did, and we were particularly clear about the corporation tax side of things. When we did get our institutions up and running, some of us argued the need for devolving corporation tax so that we could do more to maximise the north-south potential for inward investment on the island of Ireland, but many people resisted that idea of working with the south on inward investment. For that same reason, those people were very iffy about the idea of devolving corporation tax, as they felt that somehow it was going to separate Northern Ireland from the Union and be a chink in Unionism. I am very glad that, because of a variety of different experiences, positions have adjusted and moved on in that regard.

Reference has been made to the Varney review. When Sir David Varney was conducting the review of corporation tax issues under the previous Government, he made it clear that he was hearing different views from different parties in Northern Ireland and, in particular, from different Departments and from different Ministers. In fairness to the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), he acknowledged that at times he had different views and different emphases on this issue, as it is understandable that a Minister of Finance and Personnel would have. I served in that office—I see that the right

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hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) is in his place, too—so I am conscious of the fact that cautionary pieces of advice need to come from that office about what some of the consequences might be. When I was in that post, I used to tell people that as the Minister of Finance and Personnel I did not suffer from depression but I was a carrier. So I can accept that Ministers of Finance and Personnel perhaps did need to sound some cautionary note, but this seemed to go beyond those Ministers; I am glad that we now have a much stronger position on the devolution of corporation tax.

We also need to be clear that the devolution of corporation tax does not put the north—does not put the Assembly—on a par with the corporation tax powers of the Oireachtas. Although it allows the Assembly to set the rates for certain qualifying businesses, it does not allow it to decide who the qualifying businesses are, and the Assembly has no control over any of the other rules that attach to that. The Oireachtas has a very different arrangement. Even when moves are made in the Oireachtas on the “double Irish” situation, which are long overdue and right, we also see a targeted use of things. A bit like this Government’s use of the patent box, the Irish Government have introduced the knowledge box. So there are other ways in which they are going to target competitiveness, and incentivise particular industries and sectors.

That is one issue I wish to address at this point in examining the overall impact of the Bill, because too often the focus in Northern Ireland has been that devolving corporation tax would allow us better to compete with the south. We need to recognise that the competition landscape within these islands has changed. I acknowledge that a regional economic dynamic has been provided under this Government, through initiatives such as enterprise zones, city deals and growth deals, which are creating some drive, regional economic traction and city economic traction. If Northern Ireland relies just on corporation tax and does not look to some of those other tools that are helping to drive regional and local economic growth, we will lose out.

I represent a city where many people go to work across the border for companies that are benefiting from the 12.5% corporation tax rate. That proximity—this is in our travel-to-work area—does not mitigate the fact that my constituency has the highest registered unemployment of all the 650 constituencies represented in this House, which shows that a reduced corporation tax rate alone is not a magic bullet and does not solve everything. As has been said, including by the hon. Member for North Antrim, the south of Ireland’s approach is not just about corporation tax alone; it is about investment in infrastructure and in education, not least in third-level education. Even this week, as we see that the Irish Government’s revenues are up and things are shifting there, and they are looking at and talking about possibly adjusting the spending and tax profile, the Tanaiste, Joan Burton, is emphasising that if money can now be spent, it has to be focused on infrastructure and on education, particularly at the third level.

We see that emphasis in the south, but not in the north. We need to recognise that, with regard to the Stormont House agreement and the wider landscape, all that glisters is not gold. The fact is that the Assembly and the Executive will have a difficult Budget landscape over a number of years and there will be a price on the

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block grant. That was touched on by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) when she referred to the letter from the Treasury to the Bill Committee—unfortunately, it arrived after the Bill Committee had completed its considerations. The letter, while reflecting the fact that negotiations with the Executive are ongoing, sets out a number of changes that will need to be made to the funding arrangements of Northern Ireland. I am talking about how the block grant will be set and how the Barnett formula will operate. More time needs to be taken to consider those wider consequentials and the implications for the devolved Budget.

In the Stormont House negotiations, I did question why we were not discussing the implications of a corporation tax rate cut or what the implications would be for the block grant. I was told by the First Minister that the rate cut was not an issue, that it would be modest and graduated and that it did not really need to come into our wider discussions about the strong budgetary pressures we were under. But that does not seem to be the case. His understanding and his reassurances were not reflected in the terms outlined by the Treasury Minister in the Bill Committee or in this letter and its attachments. There was an assumption that there would be a gradual working adjustment. In other words, there would not be a full hit in relation to the devolved envelope. But the Minister, both in Committee and in the letter, made it clear that the hit would be up front.

I joined the hon. Member for East Antrim—I understand that his absence is to do with the unfortunate bereavement experienced by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—in questioning the arrangements. We asked about the working implications of the Executive’s Budget year on year and of the setting of the block grant. We wanted to know whether adjustments would have to be made to reflect higher or lower tax takes. In the letter from the Minister, which was sent on 16 February, we see that those adjustments may be made two or three years later, whenever the full tax yield is made. That creates uncertainty. Given that corporation tax is, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, sometimes volatile, there could be further implications that we should acknowledge. We should not say that we do not understand them or that they were someone else’s fault. We need to go into these things with our eyes open.

Let me turn now to the wider position of the Executive in relation to the operation of corporation tax. Under the Bill, the Treasury retains not just ownership of all the rule-making and interpretive powers, but the commencement power in relation to corporation tax. We know that the timetable is 2017, but, as we heard from the Minister in Committee, the Government will exercise that commencement power when they are satisfied that the Executive has a sustainable Budget.

Over the past couple of years, the Treasury has made it very clear that it judged the sustainability of the Executive’s Budget on whether the Assembly would pass welfare reform legislation. That legislation may not have been to the Assembly’s taste or of a devolved design, but they would have to pass it as a way of proving that they had a sustainable Budget. In 2017, the issue will be whether the Treasury will use that same power to impose policy choices on the Executive. In the

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Bill Committee, I specifically asked the Minister that question. Let us take the example of water charges. We know that the Executive have consistently tried to prevail on the Administration in Northern Ireland to move to direct water charges in one form or another. When I was a Minister, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Paul Boateng, wrote to us at the Executive twice, asking that we make that commitment. The Executive, on my proposal, refused to do that. Various other ruses have been attempted. During the period of direct rule, Northern Ireland Water was essentially set up on a conveyor belt to privatisation. The question is whether the Treasury would abuse that power and say, “Just like we used to say that you had a sustainable Budget only when you had absorbed what we wanted you to do on welfare reform, we are saying now that you only have a sustainable Budget when we see you levying water charges, raising revenue in other areas or changing your policy in relation to student finances.” It could be linked again to welfare reform. After all, we are now locked into a welfare cap. Luckily, we are being given a lot of leeway in how the welfare cap operates at the minute. If the truth be told, the deal that was reached on welfare reform as part of the Stormont House agreement—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I will say to the hon. Gentleman the same as I said to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who spoke immediately before him: I have not been very strict in keeping him to the exact words of the Bill, but, as he knows very well, he is beginning to stray a little. I trust that, in concluding, he will address precisely the points in the Bill that relate to Third Reading.

Mark Durkan: I am sticking very much to the thrust and the purpose of the Bill. The Bill is presented as part of a suite of measures coming from the Stormont House agreement. That suite of measures included issues in relation to welfare reform. After all, we were told that there would be no Corporation Tax Bill unless there was agreement on welfare reform, so what I am saying is entirely consistent. Ministers have referred to these other measures when they have addressed this Bill, as have other hon. Members. The point goes to something that is in the Bill, which is the control that the Treasury will have over the commencement of this power and whether it uses that to impose other policy choices on the Assembly. Given that the welfare cap will be in place in the next Parliament—if it is supported both by the Government and the Opposition—it could well be a part of the working reference of the Treasury when it comes to make a judgment on Budget sustainability. In fairness, the Minister made the point in Committee that the judgment would be made on the sum of the Executive’s Budget parts and on a range of issues, but not on specific measures. He would not rule out it being used in that way. Again, in terms of due legislative diligence, all of us must have regard to how this might operate in practice. I am talking about not just some of the detailed rules as they affect businesses but how the overall Budgetary situation of the Executive is affected. There is no point in our popping corks about the legislative power over corporation tax that the Executive and the Assembly will have if we are not also alert to the very real budget constraints and the hard choices that might be imposed with that.

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Naomi Long: The hon. Gentleman has said on a number of occasions that, as a result of the Stormont House agreement, one obligation was to sign up to welfare reform. Does he not agree that, more correctly, what was agreed was that we had to come up with a package on welfare reform that we could pay for? As it happens, that package was parity with a little bit of flexibility—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Interventions are meant to be short. The hon. Lady has already spoken. It is perfectly in order for her to make an intervention, but it must be short, especially as she has, quite rightly, taken up the House’s time this afternoon. I politely indicated to the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor that he might consider drawing his remarks to a close. He chose to argue with me on the points I had made. I will speak less politely to him if he does not adhere to what I have said. He has spoken for a considerable time this afternoon. He is in order. He has the opportunity to conclude his speech. I am not saying that he must finish immediately now, but I am sure that he will give thought to other people in the Chamber.

Mark Durkan: I have no wish to argue with you now, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I must say that I was not arguing with you previously. I was simply clarifying the position and the background, as you have not had the privilege of sitting through all the debates on what was deemed relevant to the Bill and the wider Stormont House agreement.

The Executive and the Assembly will have to absorb the Bill’s wider implications. There are implications for the economy and for businesses, too. We have heard from many hon. Members that businesses are well seized of the need to try to take advantage of that. We have no problem with the regime on the balance between the rates and the rules, but we want to ensure that there is no undue assumption that the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland alone will transform our economy. We need more investment in infrastructure and higher education and following the decisions in the Stormont House agreement it is not clear whether our borrowing power, which was originally designed for strategic capital, is now being used to pay for a voluntary exit scheme. There is an opportunity cost as regards the wider economic investments.

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I do not wish to use the term long-term economic plan, but without addressing some of the other issues, including providing tools that compare with city deals, growth deals, enterprise zones and so on, and without a new level of commitment on third-level education and infrastructure, the Executive might well be getting the novelty of devolved corporation tax without strategic economic perspectives that are other than short term in nature.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy and for not arguing with me.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I should be grateful if you confirmed how this House could express our condolences to the family of Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, a constituent of mine who has been reported killed in Syria. Erik was a former Royal Marine who travelled to the region because he was horrified by Islamic State’s brutal atrocities. His parents have asked me to pass on this brief message:

“We are devastated to confirm the death of our son in Syria where he went to support the forces opposing Islamic State. His flame might have burned briefly, but it burned brightly, with love, courage, conviction and honour, and we are very proud of him. We would like to request that we be allowed to grieve in peace as a family, without intrusion at this difficult time.”

Three weeks ago, I raised this matter with the Foreign Office but I have not received a response. Given the serious nature of this issue I ask for more guidance on how I can best secure a response from Ministers so that together we can underline the grave dangers that face anyone who travels to Iraq or Syria.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Let me first say on behalf of the whole House that we send to his constituent’s family our most sincere sympathy at the loss of this brave young man. The hon. Gentleman knows that his point of order is not a point for me to deal with from the Chair. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard what he said, and if he has not had a timely reply to a question he asked of a Minister, he ought to have. I trust that that message will have gone out loud and clear to the relevant Minister.

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Opposition Day

[Un-allotted Half Day]

Future Government Spending

3.4 pm

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move,

That this House rejects this Government’s failing austerity plan set out in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement which the Office for Budget Responsibility has said will take public spending back to a share of national income not seen since the late 1930s, before the National Health Service came into existence; notes that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that this would entail cuts on a colossal scale and has raised concerns that this could involve a fundamental reimagining of the role of the state; further notes that the Chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility has said that these spending figures were based on the policy assumption presented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and signed off by the quad, which consists of the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury; and calls on the Government to instead adopt a different, fairer and more balanced approach, which involves sensible reductions in public spending, a reversal of this Government’s £3 billion-a-year top rate of income tax cut for people earning over £150,000 and an economic plan that delivers the sustained rises in living standards needed to boost tax revenues, in order to get the current budget into surplus and national debt as a share of GDP falling as soon as possible in the next Parliament.

I associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) in his point of order. He made the point eloquently and I pass on our condolences from the Opposition Front Bench.

The choice between this Government’s failing austerity plan and a better plan for working families at this election is now clear. The majority of people are not feeling the benefit of the recovery and the squeeze on living standards has not been so prolonged since the 1920s. When we cut through the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s rosy view and spin and look at the report produced today by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, we can see that it confirms that the vast majority of people, typical working people, are worse off than they were in 2010.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Leslie: I shall give way in a moment. What has been less well known is the devastatingly corrosive effect of stagnant wages, falling tax receipts and rising welfare costs on the health of our public finances. The social security bill is £25 billion more than planned at the outset of the Parliament. Tax credit costs have risen to subsidise the low-wage economy. Incidentally, my hon. Friends know from looking at the statistics last week that, in just one year, the number of zero-hours contracts in our society has grown by 20%.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Leslie: I shall give way in a moment. The number of working people receiving housing benefit has gone up by two thirds since the last general election,

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tax receipts have been £68 billion lower than expected and national insurance contributions have been £27 billion lower than expected. That impact on the state and health of the public finances has been a direct result of the stagnant wages and suppressed living standards in our society.

Several hon. Members rose

Chris Leslie: I hope that the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) can explain why the deficit has continued at such a level and whether he agrees that the fall in living standards has had that effect on our public finances.

Sir Gerald Howarth: I am grateful to the shadow Chief Secretary for giving way. I will tell him why we are in this situation today: the destruction of the public finances by his right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and the former Prime Minister. When will the shadow Chief Secretary apologise to the British people on behalf of the Labour party for having put them through this misery, which we have now amended? We are restoring the strength of the British economy and we have the fastest-growing economy in the G7. That is no thanks to the shadow Chief Secretary but is thanks to this Government. Apologise.

Chris Leslie: I expected better than that from a knight of the realm. I thought that such partisanship would be beneath the hon. Gentleman, but no. I did not quite hear him mention those words “global banking crisis” and perhaps I might remind him of the cause of the difficulties our economy has faced. He did not answer my question about the state of our public finances today. He seems to feel content that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who promised that the deficit would all have been eradicated by now, has not done exactly the job he set out to do in 2010. The hon. Gentleman also did not explain why things have not turned out as the Chancellor promised.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con) rose—

Chris Leslie: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I know that he will try his hardest to explain why things have not turned out as the Chancellor promised.

Mr Newmark: I would be delighted to explain it to the hon. Gentleman. It is about something called the structural deficit and the Opposition must acknowledge that the problem we face was created not just by the banking crisis but by the massive overspending of the previous Government. That is called the structural deficit.

Chris Leslie: Now we are coming to some of the issues. The hon. Gentleman feels that the Chancellor did not make an error when he promised back in 2010 that by now we would have no deficit and that it would all have been eradicated. The esteemed Chancellor of the Exchequer promised in his autumn statement that

“we will meet our fiscal mandate to eliminate the structural current budget deficit one year early, in 2014-15.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 532.]

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That is the year we are in now. This is about the Government’s record for the past four and a half to five years.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Chris Leslie: I will give way to my hon. Friend, whose constituents have been very much affected by the squeeze in living standards. He knows that it is the health of the economy and of the finances of working people across the country that determine the health of our public finances.

Chris Bryant: Will my hon. Friend explain to the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) and everyone else who seems to have forgotten that, in 2008, the massed ranks of the Conservative party supported Labour’s public spending plans, so they cannot now pretend that they were not in this as well?

Chris Leslie: It is amazing how quiet Conservative Members are on that particular point.

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Leslie: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, because a particular part of my speech is dedicated to him.

On the “Today” programme this morning, the Chancellor of the Exchequer—for it was he—uttered the phrase:

“We’ve got on top of our debts and deficits.”

Those were the words—[Interruption.] If Government Members really believe that they have been reducing the national debt and that the deficit has been eradicated, they are either delusional or not feeling particularly well.

Mr Raab: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is being very kind. He has blamed the biggest peacetime budget deficit, which we inherited from the previous Government, on the global economic crisis. Will he confirm that the Office for Budget Responsibility’s public finances database clearly shows that public spending rose by £267 billion between 1997 and 2009-10, and that 71% of that rise took place by 2006-07—well before the financial crisis? Will he confirm that that is true?

Chris Leslie: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman was making those points before the last general election. If he can point to evidence that he was warning, “No, those spending plans are entirely wrong and we shouldn’t be spending on schools and hospitals in that way,” I will give way to him again. Did he warn us about those problems at the time?

Mr Raab: I thank the shadow Minister for giving way again, but I think the way interventions work is that we on this side ask the questions. My question is simple: was the OBR right or wrong about 71% of the deficit coming from spending before the recession?

Chris Leslie: The hon. Gentleman is misrepresenting the OBR’s views. It is clear, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said today, that the global banking crisis

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had a devastating effect not just on this country’s public finances, but across the world. Conspicuous by its absence from the hon. Gentleman’s comments was any evidence that he had said in the past that public expenditure plans were all wrong. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister signed up to support all the previous Government’s proposals.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that Government Members should be reminded of chart 1.1 of the OBR report, which shows that total managed expenditure rose from 36% to 40% of GDP between 1998 and 2008, and then from 40% to 46% by 2009? In other words, the biggest part came from the banking crisis.

Chris Leslie: If we had a Government who understood that a connection exists between living standards, the health of our economy and the health of our public finances, perhaps we could make some progress on deficit reduction and tackle some of those issues. Instead, recent figures show that the gap between what the Government spend and their income is perpetuating at a very high level. I think it came down from £80 billion in the first nine months of last year to £74 billion in the first nine months of this year. The deficit reduction strategy is a thing of the past for this Government, because they do not realise how stagnant wages have pulled the rug from underneath it.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Of course, the inconvenient truth for the Conservative party is that it cannot whitewash history. [Interruption.] A BBC news online article on Monday 3 September 2007, under the headline, “Tories ‘to match Labour spending’”, said:

“A Conservative government would match Labour’s projected public spending totals for the next three years, shadow chancellor George Osborne has said.”

Chris Leslie: The reason Conservative Members are getting so irritated is that they do not like being reminded that it was a global banking crisis. They like to airbrush that entirely from the record. That has been their strategy throughout, but we will not let them forget that there was a banking crisis across the globe. We needed to take greater action to regulate it, but I did not hear Conservative Members calling for stronger regulation of financial services; the truth was quite the opposite.

If we had a rational debate, we would see the connection between living standards, growth and the health of the public finances.

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab) rose—

Chris Leslie: I will give way in a moment.

I am afraid that Conservative Members are not driven by rationality when it comes to a strategy for dealing with the public finances. They are driven by dogma. [Interruption.] Oh, yes. They are on an ideological crusade to shrink public services as a percentage of national income. Their plan, when they stand up to talk about these things, is not about eliminating the deficit at all; it is beyond that. The guiding principle of the Conservative party is a desire for public services actively to decline year after year after year.

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That is why so many Conservative Members have joined that fabled Conservative group, the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) is not in the Chamber, but he has famously called for massive reductions in public spending. The Economic Secretary, who will wind up the debate, is also a member of the Free Enterprise Group, as is her colleague the Exchequer Secretary and the hon. Members for Macclesfield (David Rutley), for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). I am sure there are others, although perhaps of a lower ranking order within the Free Enterprise Group structure. [Interruption.] Well, I am not a member of the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs and, with members like that, I am quite glad I am not.

That organisation reveals the true face of the Conservative agenda. It believes very much in shrinking the state and it is driven by that fundamental belief. It is highly dogmatic and has used the financial crisis as a pretext for reducing the level of public investment.

Charlie Elphicke: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Leslie: The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Free Enterprise Group. Does he stand by its manifesto?

Charlie Elphicke: Let us talk about Labour’s spending commitments. The shadow Minister has been going up and down the country making £20 billion-worth of unfunded spending commitments. Would they be paid for by more borrowing or more taxes?

Chris Leslie: That was a good try, but the hon. Gentleman knows very well that we do not have unfunded spending commitments. Our manifesto will be fully costed and fully funded. He does not need to take my word for it: we would be more than happy to let the OBR audit all of the proposals in our manifesto and to undertake to validate that they are, indeed, fully costed. I wonder if any Government Members would like to support the idea that all the political parties should have their manifestos fully costed by the OBR. Can I see a show of hands?

Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con) rose—

Chris Leslie: There is one individual: the hon. Gentleman is an independent champion on Treasury matters. I wonder whether he would like to at least say that there is a strong case for letting the OBR cut through this political nonsense and make sure that we have proper independent validation of spending commitments. Does he agree with that?

Mark Garnier: I do—absolutely. In the early part of this Parliament the Treasury Committee looked at exactly that point and there was a big and heated debate about it. Conservative members were in favour of it, but Labour members were not, and they were led by the shadow Business Secretary, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), who was dead against it. What does the shadow Minister have to say about that?

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Chris Leslie: Well, we are all in favour of it now and I am delighted that there is consensus. In fact, I am tempted to invite the hon. Gentleman to this side of the Chamber, but we have a rigorous application process and he would need to go through a number of other stages first.

The Conservatives’ strategy is failing and there are good reasons for that. They do not realise the important role that active Government can play in supporting our economy and improving living standards. Government and public investment can make a real difference, whether by guaranteeing apprenticeships, tackling unfair energy bills, raising the minimum wage, banning exploitative zero-hours contracts or action on housing and infrastructure to boost productivity. All these would represent a better plan but the Conservatives’ 1930s strategy, coupled with that trickle-down philosophy, is totally discredited. Lavishing tax cuts on the very wealthiest 1% is not just the wrong priority; it is also the wrong strategy.

Several hon. Members rose

Chris Leslie: I am conscious that there are many hon. Members who want to get in so I will limit the number of interventions hereafter, but how could I resist giving way to the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler)?

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is very kind. He speaks about tax cuts being only for the top 1%. Will he congratulate Conservative-controlled South Derbyshire district council, which is not only holding the council tax for the fifth year running, but is going to give a rebate in July to every council tax payer in the whole of South Derbyshire? They will all get a council tax rebate.

Chris Leslie: Local government matters are for individual authorities. I know that there are a number of authorities that are struggling financially and finding things very difficult, not least because the funding formula has been so heavily rigged and skewed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I do not know the individual case of the hon. Lady’s district council. Individual local authorities will have to make their own decisions. Her constituents, like others, have to look at the situation in the round. The Government are very good at giving a little bit with one hand, and taking back so much more with the other. Her constituents know about the rise in VAT that she voted for and those cuts to tax credits, among other things.

Several hon. Members rose

Chris Leslie: I will give way one more time, then I must make progress.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is being far too generous to Government Members, who do not deserve it. In my council area, £328 is being stolen from every man, woman and child and 1,700 good quality public servants are being put on the dole, just to prove that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working. It is not a plan; it is a sham.

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Chris Leslie: We need to tackle the blatant unfairness of the rigged funding formula for local government finance, which the Labour party has committed to do in government.

Helen Jones: Will my hon. Friend remind Government Members that when the Government introduced their Local Government Finance Act 2012, they deliberately set up a system that penalised the poorest councils more than the richest councils, they took no notice of the amount of council tax that could be raised from different boroughs, and in doing so they destroyed the social services system, which is now leading to people remaining in hospital when they should be out—a prime example of a stupid cut which costs more in the end? [Interruption.]

Chris Leslie: Government Members are trying to shout down my hon. Friend because they do not like to hear the truth. The truth is that many of our public services are affected by the support and the funding formula given to local government. She is right to highlight the impact—

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Leslie: No.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) is right to highlight the impact on our national health service of some of the devastating changes that have hit social care. She made her point well.

It is bad enough that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister fight so hard against the idea that an inclusive approach leads to a stronger economy and a better plan. [Interruption.] What is worse is that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and Government Members fully intend to accelerate the failing plan for a further five years—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. Conservative Members have had their fun in shouting across the Chamber. The debate should settle down now, with interventions when they are taken, but a proper debate. Mr Smith, if you have a question, it is normal to stand up on an intervention, not just speak by Christian name across the Chamber. Thank you.

Chris Leslie: I appreciate that, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Leslie: I may give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, but not just yet.

I want to pause for a moment and reflect on the implications of taking UK public expenditure on vital public services down to the 35% level that was announced in the autumn statement. These plans would mean that we are only halfway through the cuts. These are plans for the biggest cuts to public services since the second world war. The Office for Budget Responsibility says on page 148 of its report that

“the closest equivalent in the National Accounts implies that by 2019-20 day-to-day spending on public services would be at its lowest level … since the late-1930s as a share of GDP.”

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The OBR goes on to say—Government Members may not have heard this—that

“total public spending is now projected to fall to 35.2 per cent of GDP in 2019-20, taking it below the previous post-war lows reached in 1957-58 and 1999-00 to what would probably be its lowest level in 80 years.”

That recalls a time before we had an NHS, when children left school at 14, and when life expectancy was just 60. That is why Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said on 4 December that we can expect

“Spending cuts on a colossal scale…taking total government spending to its lowest level as a proportion of national income since before the last war.”

Several hon. Members rose—

Chris Leslie: I seem to have hit a nerve with Government Members. I give way to the good-looking one.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): That is one of the few points on which I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He has been quoting selectively from various institutions. He has just quoted the IFS. The director general of the IFS has said that

“if the Conservatives win the election they will neither, despite what the opposition would have us believe, destroy the NHS nor return the welfare state . . . to 1930s level of provision.”

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, and will he now withdraw his previous comment?

Chris Leslie: With the greatest respect, I do not accept that. I will come to that shortly.

When we look at the effect on public finances of the plan that the hon. Gentleman has signed up to with the Free Enterprise Group and with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, the effect on our public services, not least the NHS, could be exceptionally difficult and potentially implausible.

Paul Johnson of the IFS asks:

“How will these cut be implemented? What will local government, the defence force, the transport system, look like in this world? Is this a fundamental reimagining of the role of the state? ... If we move in anything like this direction, whilst continuing to protect health and pensions, the role and shape of the state will have changed beyond recognition.”

Is it any wonder that UKIP has backed Conservative plans? No surprise there.

Be under no illusions—the Conservatives’ pathway for the next Parliament is a statement of intent to wage war on public services, and people need to understand the tremendous risks involved. It is a major threat to the viability of public services, which would wreak havoc especially in non-ring-fenced areas such as policing, border controls, child protection and social care. Such extreme plans would decimate skills, infrastructure, research and development and science, undermining the competitiveness of our economy. Devastation on that scale would not be tolerable, which is why we suspect that the Conservatives have secret plans to hit household finances in other ways.

Several hon. Members rose

Chris Leslie: I want to make sure that other Members have a chance to contribute to the debate, so I will give way one final time.

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Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): The difficulty that Government Members have is the question of motive. When people across the country see Sure Start centres, police stations and NHS walk-in centres closing, underinvestment in schools and queues outside our A and Es, they know what a Tory Government have done already, and they know what will happen if we go back to their 1930s plan.

Chris Leslie: The whole country will be affected, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, if the Conservatives are given a further five years for their ideological plan. The plan has not just failed to date; it will continue to fail and will continue to harm those on lower and middle incomes and those who depend on public services. The Conservatives will not set out where their billions of social security cuts will hit, for example, so we have to take past performance as a guide.

Several hon. Members rose

Chris Leslie: I will not give way again, because I want to make some progress.

Tax credits, for example, have already been hit hard in this Parliament. The typical household is £1,127 worse off this year as a result of the tax and benefit changes introduced since 2010. Those who depend on tax credits to make ends meet need to be aware of what five more years of Conservative Government would mean.

There is a better, sensible and balanced alternative, a sensible fiscal framework aimed at getting the current budget into surplus and national debt falling as soon as possible in the next Parliament. We must make progress and cut the deficit every year. Where we make promises in our manifesto, supported by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), they will be fully funded—we want them to be audited independently by the OBR—and they will not involve additional borrowing. We need workable efficiencies and spending reductions in non-protected areas. We have already published seven of our interim zero-based review reports listing examples of where those could be made. We need fairer choices on taxation, not a £3 billion give-away to the richest 1% earning over £150,000 a year. Fundamentally, we need rising living standards and sustained growth to repair tax receipts and control welfare spending, which has got totally out of control under this Government.

This Government’s failing plan has not eradicated the deficit, but it has left us with an NHS in crisis, the bedroom tax and 20 million meals served in food banks last year. Their sharp turn towards a right-wing ideological approach would cull public investment to levels not seen since the late 1930s. For our public services, for policing, for social care, for defence and for the NHS, at this election the stakes have never been higher. I urge the House to reject the Conservatives’ risky and extreme approach and instead back Labour’s fairer and better plan for the future.

3.31 pm

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): Well, here is another opportunity to tell the House about the successes of our long-term economic plan. I must say that I am impressed by the Labour party’s courage in selecting the economic recovery for the last Opposition day debate of this Parliament, but

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not by its judgment. Given the catastrophic situation in which Labour left the country after 13 years in charge, Members might have thought that it would have the good grace to accept that our economic plan is putting Britain back on track, delivering growth, jobs and prosperity for hard-working households up and down the country.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): It is right that we focus on spending totals, but there is an even better argument. A careful academic study of National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee reports over Labour’s time in government recently found that a staggering £230 billion was wasted on incompetence, inefficiency and undelivered programmes. That is a real legacy of 13 years of wasted Labour government.

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, as a distinguished Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, he was heavily involved in identifying that wasteful spending. One of this Government’s achievements is the measures we have introduced to reduce such wasteful spending. In particular, the efforts of the Minister for the Cabinet Office in pushing forward reform and identifying efficiency savings have reduced the cost of Whitehall strikingly.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Is not it disingenuous—some might even say slightly dishonest—to pray in aid references to 35.2% of public expenditure, as opposed to GDP, as ideological extremism when we need look back only 12 years to the Blair-Brown Government to find a time when the percentage was 35.9%, which is almost indistinguishable? Is not that trying to hoodwink and fool the voters, and is not that pretty dishonest?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The statistics he uses are absolutely right. With regard to public spending on services—I will turn to the detail in a moment—we are talking about returning to the levels of 2002-03, before the previous Government lost control of public spending.

Charlie Elphicke: The tenor of the Opposition’s argument is that public spending ought to be higher. Given that they are disagreeing with our plans, should they not specify how much higher they would want it to be?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was struck that when it came to the substance of the shadow Chief Secretary’s speech, he rather rushed through that process. He tells us that he does not like our spending plans—I will come to the details of that in a few moments—but he does not tell us how much extra he would spend, or, if he is going to spend extra, how he is going to pay for it. Will it be through higher taxes or through more borrowing? We did not get any indication.

Chris Leslie rose—

Mr Gauke: If we are going to get an answer to that question, I will be delighted to give way.

Chris Leslie: If the Minister wants to clear all these things up and make sure that we have an independent appraisal, does he back the hon. Member for Wyre

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Forest (Mark Garnier) in supporting the idea that the Office for Budget Responsibility should be allowed to report on the proposals of all the parties? What is so wrong with that?

Mr Gauke: I am afraid that that is a bit of a red herring. If the shadow Chief Secretary wants to set out what his plans are, and if he believes that spending needs to be higher than it would be under a Conservative Government, he can tell us how much higher—he does not need the OBR to look at his numbers. Does he believe that spending should be financed through more borrowing or more tax? What is it to be—a tax bombshell, a borrowing bombshell, or both? I will happily give way to him. He does not want to answer.

Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Mr Gauke: Perhaps there will be an answer from the hon. Gentleman.

Mark Hendrick: The Minister will recall that prior to the 2010 general election, the then Conservative Opposition promised to get rid of the deficit by the end of this Parliament. We have already seen that the Government are planning to borrow £200 billion more than was originally estimated, which is clearly way off track. If they could not get their promises right before the last election, why should we believe them, in government, about what they will do after the next election?

Mr Gauke: So there we have it—that is the complaint from the Opposition. Their big problem is that we have not cleared up their mess fast enough. That is the essence of their argument. They have opposed every difficult decision we took on the path towards recovery—every spending cut and every welfare change. As for the deficit, they usually forget to mention it. All the rhetoric we are hearing from them is about how they would reverse the decisions that we have taken and presumably turn the clock back to 2010—the time when we had the worst deficit in peacetime history, when we were borrowing £1 for every £4 spent, when we had an economy whose ability to pay its way was questioned internationally, and when the outlook of the Labour Government could be summed up by the note left by the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne):

“I’m afraid there is no money.”

This Government have made great steps forward to get us out of that mess. In 2014, our growth rate was 2.6%—the highest of any major advanced economy. Our deficit is down by half as a percentage of GDP. Thanks to the stability that we have put in place, businesses have created 2.16 million private sector jobs since the first quarter of 2010, each and every one representing someone in the UK who is now standing on their own two feet. Some 2.1 million more entrepreneurships have been set up, with over 750,000 more businesses than in 2010. That has all happened under this Government.

Helen Goodman: Can the Minister explain why the real Chief Secretary is not responding to this debate? Is it because when the OBR finally audited the Government’s future plans and found that they would take us back to the 1930s, the other coalition partner peeled off and left the Tories isolated?

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Mr Gauke: I have to say that looking around this Chamber I do not feel terribly isolated.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I am glad that my hon. Friend has brought this back to jobs and what that means for our constituents. In Crawley, we now see record employment levels. That is not an accident; it is a direct result of the long-term economic plan.

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have seen remarkable progress in creating jobs. As I say, that is providing greater security for millions of people up and down the country.

Chris Bryant: May I ask the Minister about cuts to the Arts Council budget? So far, this Govt have cut it by 30%, but on 5 January, the Tory party produced a report saying that £83 million more would be cut from Arts Council, and that this

“cost is based on the real terms decrease in the Grant in Aid for the Arts Council from 2014/15 to 2015/16”.

Does he stand by the figure that the Arts Council will be cut by £83 million this year?

Mr Gauke: I recall the debate on arts spending at the beginning of the year. If I remember correctly, the note that was published showing the Labour party’s areas of spending commitments included a commitment on the arts, but the shadow Chancellor very quickly ruled it out. He said it was not correct, and the deputy leader of the Labour party had to withdraw what she had previously said on that subject. That is my memory of it.

Chris Bryant rose—

Mr Gauke: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman one last time.

Chris Bryant: This is a serious matter, and if the Minister cannot give a precise answer now, I would be very grateful if he wrote to me. Does he think that the Arts Council budget will or will not be cut from this year to next year by £83 million?

Mr Gauke: If we have any future announcements about the Arts Council budget, we will make them in the usual way.

As we have seen only today from the report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, average household incomes are back to the levels they were at before the recession began and they are expected to grow by well above inflation this year, while income inequality is down and pensioner poverty is at record lows under this Government: our plan is working.

The Labour party claims that we are taking public spending back to the level of the 1930s, but let us look at the facts. Even on the assumption that 100% of our future consolidation comes from cuts to departmental expenditure, which is not the Conservative party’s approach, the Government’s plans will, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) has pointed out, put spending on public services at their lowest real-terms level since 2002-03, so instead of the late 1930s, we are talking about the early 2000s—only 65 years out.

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Andrew Bridgen: Throughout the debate, the Opposition have attacked our long-term economic plan, which is delivering the highest economic growth of any developed economy, and has created more jobs in this country than in the whole of Europe added together. Will the Minister remind the House whose economic policies the Labour party was exalting? I seem to remember something about “What Hollande is doing in France I want to do in Britain.”

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, to which I will return in a moment.

Although we have made considerable progress, the reality is that we face further difficult decisions. On that basis, the House signed up to the “Charter for Budget Responsibility” last month. It enshrines in law that the Government elected in May, whatever their colour, must have a plan to tackle the deficit and to bring our national debt under control. Pretty well all of us, with one or two exceptions, committed to achieving falling national debt as a share of GDP by 2016-17, and to balance the cyclically adjusted current budget by the end of the third year of the rolling forecast period, which is 2017-18.

On the latest forecasts, the charter requires about £30 billion of consolidation in the first two years of the next Parliament. Under the plans set out by the Chancellor, it will be achieved by bearing down on spending, the welfare budget, and tax avoidance and evasion. To break the figure down, that is at least £13 billion of savings from Departments’ spending, at least £12 billion from welfare and more than £5 billion from tax avoidance and evasion.

The Labour party agreed to the charter: the motion was passed by 515 votes to 18. Perhaps it believes that a fiscal consolidation of £30 billion is too much. After all, that is the position of the Greens and the nationalist parties, who have explicitly said that they would borrow more over the next three years. That position is irresponsible, but I accept that it is coherent with everything else that those parties are saying. Labour, however, has voted to accept that a fiscal consolidation of £30 billion is necessary, so where is it coming from?

Chris Leslie rose—

Mr Gauke: In a moment. If the Labour party does not believe in making savings from departmental budgets or welfare, where is the money coming from? To quote its leader,

“if we just try and cut our way to getting rid of this deficit, it won’t work.”

That is the Labour party’s position. Out come the old answers, but where is the money coming from?

Chris Leslie: The Minister must have the charter for budget responsibility with him. I will give him a moment if he wants to pick it out of his file. Where does it say in the charter for budget responsibility—perhaps he could give us a page or line reference—that the figure is £30 billion? Can he quote the OBR on that figure either? Is it not the case that the charter for budget responsibility was about agreeing to focus on current budget plans, and not about the absolute budget surplus that his party was apparently committed to? What on earth was going on?

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Mr Gauke: The position is that getting to a cyclical balance by 2017-18 requires £30 billion of fiscal consolidation.

Chris Leslie: Where is it?

Mr Gauke: That position is supported by the IFS. The figure is £30 billion. Where is it coming from? The Labour party simply does not have an answer. If it is not prepared to accept the £30 billion figure, it will be borrowing more. If it does accept the £30 billion figure, where is it coming from? If it is not coming from spending, it must be coming from tax.

Mr Raab: Does the Minister recognise the figure given by Paul Johnson of the IFS in The Times on 13 January, when he said that Labour’s plans amounted to £170 billion more on the national debt by 2020, which is about a third higher than the entire NHS budget? That is what we are talking about.

Mr Gauke: If the Labour party will not meet our spending plans and is going to borrow more—it is giving itself more wriggle room, even though it has signed up to the charter, which commits it to £30 billion of fiscal consolidation—where is the money coming from?

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Small businesses across north Yorkshire are really worried about the fact that Labour has not yet ruled out a jobs tax, should it be elected. Are they missing something?

Mr Gauke: That is the key to the matter. The truth is that there will be either a tax bombshell or a borrowing bombshell if the Labour party is in office. It fought the last general election campaigning for an increase in the jobs tax. I have a strong suspicion that a future Labour Government will look at precisely that to fill the gap.

Simon Kirby: Perhaps I can help Labour Members. Has not the shadow Chancellor outlined £3.3 billion of cuts to local councils up and down the country? Today there is total chaos, contradiction and confusion. Where is their policy? What is their plan?

Mr Gauke: As per usual, there is no plan; it is just chaos. We cannot get a consistent position from the Labour party. First it says that it will not borrow more, then it says that it will borrow more. There is simply no consistency.

Mr Anderson: In the unlikely event that the Minister is in charge after 7 May, is he as confident that he will reach the target in 2017 as he was in 2010 that he would get rid of the deficit in four years, at which he completely and utterly failed?

Mr Gauke: We stand by the OBR’s projections. We have made considerable progress at a time when other economies have struggled and when there has been a eurozone crisis. But for the steps that we have taken, our debts would have risen much more quickly.

Let us return to the position of the Labour party. Where are its answers on deficit reduction? We get the old answers, which are that it would squeeze the rich

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and reintroduce the 50p top rate of tax. It conveniently forgets that the previous Government had a top rate of 40p for all but 36 of their 4,758 days in office.

The House will want to be aware that our move to the 45p rate cost only around £100 million—a small price to pay for making the international message loud and clear that we are open for business. How much does Labour think that reversing that policy would raise? I am happy to give way to the shadow Minister on that. To say that a return to the 50p rate would bring in an extra £3 billion a year, which is what he implied, is frankly ludicrous, and I challenge him to identify one reputable economist between now and 7 May who will support such a position.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The Minister has probably forgotten that when it came to the millionaires’ tax cut, the Labour party abstained and did not vote against it. More importantly, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research said that if it were not for austerity, UK GDP would be 5% higher. The tax take with 5% more GDP is about £32 billion, or equivalent to 30% of the current deficit. Does the Minister accept that austerity has been a mistake and that we should have gone for growth through investment?

Mr Gauke: I am not persuaded by the argument that if we borrow more we ultimately borrow less—I am afraid that is far too easy an answer.

The Government believe that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden, and as the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed today, that is exactly what is happening. That is why the richest in our society now pay more in tax than at any point under the previous Government. The Labour party can lecture us all it likes about taxing the rich, but it was not on our watch that private equity managers paid a lower rate of tax than their cleaners. It was not on our watch that the wealthy could sidestep stamp duty, or that higher earners could disguise their remuneration as loans that were never repaid. Under our watch, however, every single Budget that we introduced raised revenues from the most well off in society.

Mr Raab: Will the Minister confirm that, although the motion talks about reversing our changes to income tax, the latest HMRC data show that someone who earns £10,000 to £15,000 a year will pay 54% less income tax than they did under Labour, while someone who earns £1 million to £2 million pays 14% more?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, and the big tax cut that this Government have delivered has been the huge increase in the personal allowance that has benefited millions of hard-working people up and down the country.

Stephen Hammond: The Minister is right to point out those things, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) pointed out, we have taken many people out of tax altogether. On Labour’s watch, if it were ever to be in government, the deputy leader of the Labour party has already said:

“Yes I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes”.

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Therefore anyone earning more than £26,000 will have a tax rise under the next Labour Government. That is what the deputy leader of the Labour party has committed to.

Mr Gauke: As I said, the money has to come from somewhere, and middle-income earners are probably pretty high up the list. To be fair, it is not just the 50p rate, although that is the only policy mentioned in the motion. In television interviews, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury has proclaimed one other policy to reduce the deficit. This is the key to deficit reduction and the policy that will restore public finances to health: a future Labour Government will put up fees for gun licences. How much will that raise? A whopping £17 million—except, to be fair, the shadow Home Secretary has already pledged to spend that money elsewhere.

Chris Leslie rose—

Mr MacNeil: Give him both barrels!

Mr Gauke: I will give way to the man who believes that the answer to our public finances is to raise fees for gun licences.

Chris Leslie: The hon. Gentleman urged me to give the Minister both barrels, but I will try to resist. It is all very good banter trying to claim that that is the only way we would deal with the deficit, but of course that is absolute nonsense—when asked for examples, we give examples. The Minister raises an important point about gun licences. It is a small amount of money but it is still worth doing. Is he saying that we should not raise gun licence fees? Is he ruling that out because he thinks it is the wrong idea?

Mr Gauke: It was an attempt to show how ridiculous the Labour party’s economic policy is when the only example it puts forward, apart from the 50p rate, which is likely to cost money, is increasing the cost of gun licences. I did not really expect the shadow Chief Secretary to take it seriously that that was the big policy. Does he disagree that the shadow Home Secretary has already claimed that that money will be spent on policing? It is going to be spent on policing, is it not? There was a time in debating these matters when the big argument from Labour Members, their big macro-economic analysis, was that we were going too far, too fast. Now it has come down to this. What have they got a few days away from a general election? They have a policy on gun licences—that is it. What has the great Labour party come to? Gun licences!

Mr Stewart Jackson: Perhaps the Minister can help me out. The Labour party had a top tax rate of 40% for 155 of its 156 weeks in office, which apparently was the epitome of social justice. Why does he think Labour is attacking us for having a 45% rate, which brings in more money but is suddenly seen as feathering the nest for the rich?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The problem with the 50p policy is that it is not an effective way to raise revenue. Our record is very clear: we have been very effective at getting more money out of the

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wealthy. As we see from the IFS analysis today, the wealthiest have made the biggest contribution. What we are left with is a symbolic gesture, not a tax policy.

Mark Garnier: Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is quite remarkable that the Labour party has not yet come out categorically and refused to raise taxes through a jobs tax? Is it not worth remembering while we are debating a possible jobs tax—or not, depending on what they want to do—that there has never been a Labour Government who have not failed to increase unemployment?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is right that we highlight that point. They do not like our spending plans, but what are they going to do? Are they willing to borrow more? Are they willing to tax more? It must be one or the other or both. Which is it to be: a borrowing bombshell or a tax bombshell?

Helen Goodman rose—

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab) rose—

Mr Gauke: I will give way to the hon. Lady. She will give us an answer.

Helen Goodman: I want to bring the Minister back to the point he was making about five minutes ago, when he said that there should be £12 billion of cuts to the welfare budget. Would he like to spell out for the House and the nation what those £12 billion of cuts will be?

Mr Gauke: We will set out the full details in due course, but we have already said that £3 billion of that will come from freezing benefits. If the Labour party is ruling out touching the welfare budget, which is a considerable part of public spending, where else is the money coming from?

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Gauke: Let me give way to my hon. Friend.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): One of the reasons the Opposition are focusing on the gun licence is that they have got it wrong on just about everything else. Will my hon. Friend remind us who said it was not possible to cut spending and create jobs?

Mr Gauke: I think the Leader of the Opposition might be the person in my hon. Friend’s mind. I think he was making predictions of 1 million more unemployed as a consequence of our policy.

Several hon. Members rose—

Andrew Bridgen: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is right to try to pin down the Opposition on how they will fund their spending commitments, but it is a forlorn hope. It is like trying to bottle fog. He should remember their cornucopia of endless money, the bankers’ bonus tax. They have used it 12 times already. Surely they will be using it again before the election.

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Mr Gauke: To be fair, we have gone this far in the debate and they have not once yet made a claim for it, but it is still early days.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Gauke: I will give someone the opportunity to make a claim for it.

Mr Bain: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way at last.

The “Charter for Budget Responsibility” states that the Treasury will balance the current budget

“by the end of the third year of the rolling, 5-year forecast period.”

Can the Minister point out the reference to 2017-18? If he cannot, his figure of £30 billion of cuts is entirely bogus.

Mr Gauke: It is by looking at where we are and then adding three years. It is really not that difficult.

In the motion, the Opposition attempt to evade the hard choice between more tax or more borrowing facing those who oppose spending cuts by saying they will grow the economy faster so that wages go up and the problem is solved, despite this being a structural issue. Every Government want the economy to grow faster. When François Hollande came to power, with a new economic model praised by the Leader of the Opposition, I have no doubt that he wanted the French economy to grow faster, but it did not, and I have no doubt that in 2008 the Labour Government also wanted the economy to grow faster, but that did not prevent it from shrinking by 6%. Wanting an economy to grow is not the same as achieving economic growth, and nor is it an excuse for not making the hard decisions necessary to reduce the deficit.

Where is Labour’s plan for growth? If we examine the motion, do we find a single policy that would help economic growth? One specific policy is mentioned, about punishing high earners, but that is hardly a policy for growth. After five years, where are these policies for growth? They could mention increasing the number of apprenticeships, reforming banking regulation and increasing infrastructure investment, except that those are policies delivered by this Government. Or they could set out how they would encourage business investment by putting in place competitive business taxes and reducing regulatory burdens, except those are policies they intend to reverse. Or they could mention improving education standards or securing the future of universities, except that they would abandon the progress we have made, not least with their shambolic policy on tuition fees.

Labour’s policies have three characteristics: they are not long term, they are not economic, and they do not constitute a plan. The motion reveals a vacuous Opposition horribly ill-prepared for government. The motion, like the Opposition, has little to say on macro-economic policy and nothing to say on supply-side policy. It is evasive on the deficit and incoherent on economic growth. The motion, like the Opposition, is destined for a heavy defeat.

Several hon. Members rose

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Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. There is a seven-minute time limit on all Back-Bench contributions, starting with the next speaker.

4.2 pm

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): For some reason, my mind is drawn increasingly to the time that people are in particular positions, and I note this afternoon a conspicuous absence on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I think back to the early part of this Parliament, when the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) held the post of Chief Secretary to the Treasury for a total of 17 days, and I recall being in the Chamber when, with barely disguised glee and in a remarkable contribution that has continued in the approach of the coalition, he began the process of cutting back on investments, some of which have since been re-announced. This was at a time when the economy was beginning to grow after a long global banking crisis out of which we are only just starting to emerge. Since then, for the past five years, for the vast majority of constituents in all parts of the UK, things have been getting worse, not better. The coalition justified it on the basis of shoddy analysis of how our economy and situation was the same as that in Greece.

Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I notice that there are no Scottish nats in the Chamber at present, which is not unusual. Will my hon. Friend touch on the effect of the price of North sea oil on the economy of today?

Tom Greatrex: My hon. Friend makes a different point from the one I was making, but an important one. The reduction in the price of a barrel of oil has had a significant impact on revenues. If Scotland had become a separate country or was in the process of becoming a separate country, the impact on revenues would have amounted to the equivalent of the entire education budget. That much would have been wiped out in the course of the last few months, highlighting the dangers of an economy being over-reliant on what the record shows to be such a volatile commodity, and indeed, by definition, a declining one, given the amount of oil still left in the ground. This is an important point for Scotland.

The tenure in office of the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury has been slightly longer, and 1,591 days ago, the Prime Minister said:

“In five years’ time, we will have balanced the books.”

He has 63 days left in his job, and I suspect that he is not going to meet that promise.

Andrew Bridgen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tom Greatrex: No, I am going to make some progress, and I have a relatively short time.

The Office for Budget Responsibility has said that borrowing for 2015-16 is set to be £75 billion and that the Government are borrowing over £200 billion more than they planned in 2010—hardly an exemplar of a functioning economic policy.

The last five years, then, have indeed seemed long term—and they felt long term to many of my constituents, who have suffered from declining incomes and struggling

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to find work. During that long-term five years, they have certainly suffered real economic pain. Such economic pain might well not be appreciated by the Government Members who have chosen to turn up this afternoon, but it is real and long-term economic pain to my constituents. If Government Members were to pay some attention to the entirety of their constituencies, they would find that it is exactly the same for them.

I believe that the Government have failed their own test on the economy because they have failed the test set for them by people’s expectations. Over the last five years, they have failed to create an economy that works for the majority of people. Working people are, on average, £1,600 a year worse off than they were at the start of the Parliament. Wages are stagnant for many people, and I know that all too many of my constituents who have been able to get back into work are in low-paid, insecure work. They are regularly on contracts that make them wait for a text message at the start of the week to be told how many hours’ work they are going to get for that week. [Interruption.]

I note the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) shaking his head in disdain, so I invite him to come to my constituency to meet people in my surgeries each week who are suffering as a result of what has been allowed to happen and because of the failure of his party to take action to tackle these types of exploitative contracts. If he thinks that that is a fair basis for our economic growth, I suggest that he is not speaking even for his own constituents, let alone the majority of people in this country.

David Rutley: The hon. Gentleman argues with passion; I argue with similar passion. If he looks at the statistics, he will find that it is clear that the vast majority—more than 70%—of the jobs created are for full-time, permanent work. That benefits his constituents as well as mine. It is working.

Tom Greatrex: Many people in my constituency who were out of work and are now in work are employed on zero-hours contracts—as I said, contracts that make them wait for a text message at the start of the week to find out whether they will get any hours that week. They have variable levels of hours from week to week. It does not involve simply doing a top-up job or an additional job. In many cases, this provides these people’s main source of income, and these contracts have increased over the last five years. That is the reality, and the hon. Gentleman should be ashamed that his Government have failed to tackle it. It is a disgrace that this is where we are in the 21st century—and that is exactly where we are at present.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Tom Greatrex: I will, but for the last time.

Sandra Osborne: My hon. Friend will be aware of the thousands of people using food banks in our constituencies up and down the country—and many of the people using them are in work.