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10 Mar 2015 : Column 135

House of Commons

Tuesday 10 March 2015

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Uncollected Tax

1. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What recent estimate Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made of the amount of uncollected tax in the UK. [907957]

4. Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): What recent estimate Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made of the amount of uncollected tax in the UK. [907960]

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): HMRC published its latest tax gap estimates on 16 October 2014. In 2012-13, the tax gap was estimated at £34 billion, 6.8% of total tax due.

Rosie Cooper: I thank the Minister for those figures. Will he confirm that HMRC’s own figures show that under this Government the amount of uncollected tax has risen by £3 billion?

Mr Gauke: The number I quoted a moment ago, 6.8%, is a lower percentage of tax due than was achieved in any year under the previous Government.

Mrs Glindon: There has been speculation that the Chancellor’s Budget next week will deal with tax avoidance and evasion, but there has also been speculation that by 2016 the number of staff working in HMRC will drop from 50,000 to just over 40,000. How do the Government expect to deal with evasion and avoidance if they are unwilling to properly resource HMRC?

Mr Gauke: Over the course of this Parliament, HMRC has brought in more yield year after year. If the measure is just on the number of staff, the hon. Lady will be aware that, when HMRC was formed in 2005, it had something like 92,000 members of staff and that by the end of the previous Parliament it had below 70,000. It is not about the number of staff. We are seeing a huge improvement in HMRC’s performance.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that HMRC’s compliance yield target has actually been revised up this year to £26 billion, which is £9 billion more than when this Government came to office?

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Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The important point here is the output, not the input. I should point out that the number of staff employed in enforcement and compliance has gone up over the course of this Parliament.

17. [907973] Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): A young man in my constituency had his jobseeker’s allowance taken away because he missed an early morning appointment, despite having notified the jobcentre of the illness that prevented him from attending. He is just one of many vulnerable people affected by the sanctioning regime imposed by this Government. According to the House of Commons Library, the amount lost in tax evasion and tax avoidance exceeds the entire spend on JSA by £2 billion. Does the contrast between the persecution of the most vulnerable and the Government’s failure on tax avoidance not say everything about their priorities?

Mr Gauke: Over the course of this Parliament, the number of prosecutions for tax evasion has gone up fivefold. The reality is that the Government are taking more measures to deal with tax avoidance and tax evasion. We have done that consistently at every Budget. Ever since the 2010 spending review, there has been a greater focus on HMRC being able to bring in the yield. The numbers, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) pointed out, speak for themselves.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Hundreds of millions of pounds are lost in revenue, criminal gangs are financed and untold damage is done to the environment in Northern Ireland as a result of fuel laundering. Why have the Government resisted putting effective trace measures into fuel, which would stamp this out? Is the Minister concerned that despite numerous raids nobody is ever caught for fuel laundering in Northern Ireland?

Mr Gauke: Our record across the piece shows that we take tax evasion and criminal activity in this area very seriously. This is a complex matter, but the hon. Gentleman will know that considerable efforts have been undertaken to address fuel laundering. This is a matter we take very seriously.

Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): The Minister must acknowledge the significant damage that the recent HSBC tax avoidance and evasion scandal has done to the public’s confidence in the Government’s willingness to pursue tax avoiders and evaders, thereby reducing the amount of uncollected tax in the UK. In the Chancellor’s absence, will the Minister now answer the question that the Chancellor failed to answer six times on the “Today” programme? Did the Chancellor ever discuss tax evasion at HSBC with Lord Green—yes or no?

Mr Gauke: As I have pointed out, the Government’s efforts and success in dealing with tax avoidance and tax evasion are a huge step forward from what we inherited. On the appointment of Lord Green, the proper processes, as put in place by the previous Government, were undertaken. The Cabinet Secretary looked at Lord Green’s tax affairs, and just as the previous Government appointed him to their business advisory council, so he was appointed as a Minister—an appointment that was welcomed by the Labour party.

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Shabana Mahmood: Still we have no answer to the simplest and clearest of questions. If we cannot get a straight answer from the Chancellor or his Ministers, we should at least hear from Lord Green—the man who was in charge of the bank and was then made a Conservative Minister—either in front of a parliamentary Committee or through a statement in the other place. Why are the Government parties so desperate to silence Lord Green? What are they so afraid he will reveal?

Mr Gauke: We are not afraid of anything. The Government have been more successful at prosecuting criminals involved in tax evasions, more successful at closing tax avoidance loopholes and more successful at getting money in. That is a record we can be proud of.

Tax Credits

2. Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): What proportion of recipients of tax credits are in employment. [907958]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Andrea Leadsom): In total, 4.5 million households are in receipt of tax credits, and 71% of them are in employment. The Government believe it is right to provide additional support to those in need through the benefits system, but we have been clear throughout that we want to ensure that people are better off in work than on benefits.

Jessica Morden: Will the Minister confirm that the Government’s real-terms cuts to tax credits will not only hit more people in work but hit far more women than men?

Andrea Leadsom: I am sure the hon. Lady shares my delight at the great news that the gender pay gap is lower than it has ever been, that there are more women in work than ever before and that 1.85 million people are in work who were not in work at the time of the last general election. That is cause for celebration. The Government have strived at every point to support women into work, whether through entrepreneurial allowances, support for women with child care or other measures.

19. [907975] John Howell (Henley) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of the Institute for Fiscal Studies report on living standards showing that living standards are back to where they were before Labour’s great recession? Does this not help the very people she has mentioned?

Andrea Leadsom: Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right. The IFS report also showed that 200,000 fewer people were in relative poverty in 2014-15 compared with 2009-10, including 100,000 children, and that since 2010 the number of children under 16 in workless households had fallen by about 390,000, taking it to the lowest level since records began. That is very good news.

25. [907981] Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): The average wage in my constituency is £450, which is £71 per week less than the national average. How can the Minister

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defend real-terms cuts to tax credits for these hard-working people, particularly the women, in my constituency?

Andrea Leadsom: The hon. Gentleman will surely be delighted at the news from the IFS and other forecasters that real wages are now rising at a higher rate than inflation, and it is thanks to our long-term economic plan that inflation is so low. We have had council tax cuts and fuel duty freezes, and we have done everything we can by raising personal tax-free allowances to enable people to benefit from a recovering economy, but we can only do it by sticking to a long-term economic plan.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Am I right in thinking that universal credit will replace working tax credits and child tax credits, making 3 million households better off by an average of £177 per month and improving work incentives by allowing people to keep more of their income as they move into work?

Andrea Leadsom: Yes, my right hon. Friend is exactly right. Universal credit is a major reform that will transform the welfare state in Britain for the better. It will replace the current complex system of means-tested working-age benefits, including tax credits, and make 3 million households better off by on average £177 a month.

Infrastructure Investment

3. Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): What steps he is taking to invest in infrastructure. [907959]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Danny Alexander): This Government have revolutionised the approach to infrastructure through long-term planning via the national infrastructure plan, which we conceived and published, that sets out an infrastructure pipeline worth more than £460 billion of public and private investment. In the 2013 spending round, I committed over £100 billion to support infrastructure investment across the United Kingdom.

Jack Lopresti: I am delighted that the Government have made significant commitments to the south-west region, such as the fantastic £50 million-worth of investment for a new junction on the M49 in my constituency. Will the Minister confirm what further investments he is making for improvements to transport across the south-west region as a whole?

Danny Alexander: Investment in the transport infrastructure of the south-west has been a much higher priority for this Government than, I think, for any previous Government. We have committed £7.2 billion-worth of investment in the transport infrastructure of the south-west, including £2 billion in roads—for example, dualling the A303 and the new tunnel at Stonehenge, sorting out the A30 all the way to Camborne and the electrification of the Great Western main line with new inter-city express trains. I have recently asked the south-west peninsula rail task force to bring forward more proposals for investment in strategic rail schemes for the region.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): Last month, a couple of hundred senior business figures gave a very warm welcome to the second stage of the review that Sir John Armitt has done on infrastructure

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for the Labour party, including plans for a new independent national infrastructure commission to identify the country’s long-term needs and monitor Governments’ plans to meet them. Business backs Labour plans; business organisations back Labour’s plans; will the right hon. Gentleman back them?

Danny Alexander: Of course, the Labour party’s belated conversion to long-term planning for infrastructure is welcome, although it was not the practice during its 13 years in office. I think that the national infrastructure plan and the architecture around it provides the right framework for delivering that long-term planning. I am not convinced that a new quango is the best way to solve the problem.

Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Last week, the HS2 Select Committee wrote to the Treasury asking for more flexibility on big infrastructure projects where farmers have difficulty finding suitable replacement land within the statutory time limits for capital gains tax relief, leaving the businesses not knowing whether or not a discretionary power could be granted. Can the Chief Secretary give some comfort to my constituents who are affected by this?

Danny Alexander: I do take seriously my right hon. Friend’s point. The Department for Transport is working on the plans to flesh out how these things will work in respect of HS2. I would add that HMRC can provide extra flexibility where there are particular impacts on particular farmers or other businesses. I would certainly want to maintain an open mind on the points that my right hon. Friend is raising.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): I could not help but notice that when my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) was asking the Chief Secretary’s sidekick to answer a question about Lord Green, the Chief Secretary was constantly having a laugh at his expense. I am going to give him a chance: will he now answer the question about meeting Lord Green. Now is the opportunity to make a name for himself. Come on.

Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has made his point, but unfortunately it does not relate to investment in infrastructure.

Mr Skinner: How do you know?

Mr Speaker: I am trying to use such powers of anticipation as I have, but let us hear the Chief Secretary respond.

Danny Alexander: I do not recall ever having had any conversations about investment in infrastructure with Lord Green. Matters relating to ministerial appointments are, of course, a matter for the Prime Minister. What matters is making sure that in this country we have a zero-tolerance approach to tax evasion and tax avoidance, and that where organisations are facilitating or encouraging tax evasion, we put in place the proper penalties.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Does the Chief Secretary agree that no British Government should fail to invest in the infrastructure, the personnel and the

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equipment of the armed forces at a rate less than the NATO-recommended minimum? Will he have a word with his leader and with mine to make sure that the necessary commitment is given before the general election?

Danny Alexander: We have met that commitment in the present Parliament, and we will do so in 2015-16 as well. Spending on defence will, of course. be a matter for the next spending round. However, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should have regard not just to the total amount spent, but to the efficiency of the expenditure. We have made great progress during this Parliament in securing better value, in terms of defence equipment and output, for the limited money that we have to spend as a country.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): The Treasury has had meetings with the European Commission to discuss the reinstatement of the aggregate credit levy scheme for Northern Ireland, which could serve as a further tool of investment in infrastructure. What further discussions have taken place?

Danny Alexander: I know that discussions have been ongoing, and that the issue has been the subject of a protracted dispute. I have no further updates, but I will ensure that my ministerial colleague who is responsible for the scheme writes to the hon. Lady.

NHS Funding Pressures

5. Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): What recent representations he has received on fiscal steps to address funding pressures in the NHS. [907961]

Danny Alexander: The Government have protected the health budget in real terms throughout the current Parliament. Of course a strong national health service needs a strong economy, and the Government plan to deliver that strong economy, along with a fairer society. The NHS budget has already increased by £12.7 billion during this Parliament, and in the autumn statement we announced an additional £2 billion for front-line NHS services. That money is intended to meet demand pressures in the next financial year, and also to help to start the process of transformation that was outlined in the “Five Year Forward View”, which is probably the most important representation that I have received on NHS funding in the last year or so.

Andrew Gwynne: Hospitals have struggled to cope with the pressures during the winter. Labour has made a fully funded commitment to provide the extra doctors, nurses, home care workers and midwives who are needed through a “time to care” fund. Analysis of Conservative party spending plans shows that more than 260,000 elderly people risk losing their social care packages during the next Parliament. Is it not time for the Government to commit themselves to taxing hedge funds and tobacco companies in order to raise the extra resources that our NHS so desperately needs?

Danny Alexander: Let me gently say to the hon. Gentleman that he ought to be a wee bit cautious about believing too many of his Front Benchers’ spending plans. They say that they want to deal with the deficit but have set out no plans to do so, and they have made

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multiple spending commitments without any sense of how those commitments will accord with their fiscal strategy.

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right to suggest that going too far and reducing the deficit reduction by more than is necessary in the next Parliament would have a damaging effect on public services. I would say that his party has got it wrong and the Conservative party has got it wrong, but the Liberal Democrats have got it right.

23. [907979] David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Despite the economic chaos that was inherited by the coalition Government, spending on the NHS in England has been protected and increased. Does that not compare very favourably with the position in Wales, where a Labour Government have slashed NHS spending by 8%? Should we not judge these people by their deeds rather than their words?

Danny Alexander: My hon. Friend has made a very fair point. Comparing the NHS performance of different Administrations is an important activity, in which I am sure he will engage very fruitfully over the next few weeks. Let me add that if we are to judge a Labour Government by their actions, we should look at the mess that the Labour party made of the economy when it was last in power. If we found ourselves with problems of that kind again, money for our NHS would be one of the resources that would suffer.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), the pressures on the NHS are already putting care services in crisis. Why has the Chief Secretary colluded in Tory plans to shrink public investment and take an additional £70 billion from public services in the next Parliament, thus posing an even bigger risk to health and social care? He has dodged the question in the past; will he give us a straight answer now? Why did he sign off those Tory plans in the autumn statement?

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman would do better to begin any question about the NHS with an acknowledgement of his own party’s failures I have made it clear that the figures published by the Office for Budget Responsibility represent a neutral assumption. I think the hon. Gentleman’s party would borrow too much and the Conservatives would cut too much, and that what we need is a balanced approach in the middle.

Chris Leslie: I do not know whether the Chief Secretary knows what he is doing. The letter from the OBR’s Robert Chote explicitly says—I have it in front of me—that the forecast for that £23 billion of surplus in 2019-20 was

“signed off by the ‘quad’”,

of which I think the Chief Secretary is a member. Is Robert Chote wrong, or did the Chief Secretary not realise what he was signing up to? Will he at least assure us that, if that was a mistake or he did not spot it in the past, he will be opposing a repeat of those Tory plans in next week’s Budget Red Book?

Danny Alexander: Matters relating to the Budget will be revealed by the Chancellor in his Budget statement next Wednesday and not before, as I am sure you would

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expect, Mr Speaker. I have listened to the hon. Gentleman today, as I listened to him on the “Today” programme yesterday, and there was not a single answer about how Labour would balance the books, and not a single answer about how Labour would invest in public services. I heard yesterday about Labour’s zero-based review, which seems to mean zero savings, zero ideas, zero economic credibility.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Health services in Chester and west Cheshire are facing increased pressures because of thousands of people fleeing from the Welsh NHS and seeking treatment in England. Will my right hon. Friend guarantee to provide more money for hospitals on the English side of the border, to protect them from the failure of the Labour party in Wales?

Danny Alexander: Clearly, there are issues in the NHS in Wales, but I would caution my hon. Friend about the tone of his question, because health workers in England and in Wales are working as hard as they can to provide the best treatment they can for people on either side of the border. Of course there are failures in terms of funding in Wales and issues that need to be dealt with, but everyone on this side of the House should unite in respect and admiration for our nurses and doctors and the work they do to keep us healthy in this country.

Wine Duty

6. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): If he will make a comparative assessment of the level of duty on wine paid in the UK and in other EU member states. [907962]

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): Industry estimates show that there are 135 wineries in England and Wales, producing 4.5 million bottles of wine. The UK’s growing and award-winning wine industry benefited from the Government ending the wine duty escalator at Budget 2014.

Tim Loughton: There will be much responsible dancing in the streets if the Chancellor completes a hat-trick of beer duty cuts in his Budget and there will be much responsible celebration if he cuts the duty on spirits. But there will be much wailing and irrepressible disappointment if he does not reduce the duty on wine, which has gone up by 54% since 2008 alone and accounts for 67% of all the duty on all wine in the whole of the EU. Will he complete a fantastic treble-whammy by dropping the duty on wine, too, which it has been estimated would generate some £3 billion in extra revenue—and 20,000 jobs!

Mr Gauke: If it is not already too late to make this suggestion, I think my hon. Friend deserves a good bottle at lunchtime after that effort. He has put his case on the record, but of course all announcements are for the Chancellor on Budget day.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): If this Government do indeed have a long-term economic plan, which most of my constituents do not believe, will the Financial Secretary stop worrying about the older generation of wine drinkers and start concentrating his

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mind on the young people of this country who are underprivileged and overtaxed and have more problems in getting a good job? It is about time that the 18 to 35-year-olds, rather than the older wine drinkers of this country, were taken into account by this Chancellor.

Mr Gauke: First, may I reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is a long-term economic plan, and thank him for using the phrase? Credible public finances will benefit the younger generation, who will not face many years of paying off higher debt levels.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): While the Financial Secretary is looking carefully at the duty on English wine, will he redouble his efforts to support artisan and small-scale cider makers, who risk being put out of business as a consequence of a disastrous recent EU decision?

Mr Gauke: I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend. The Government’s support for small cider makers across the piece has helped to create a diverse and vibrant market in this area, and we will continue to study the Commission’s arguments carefully because we want to support this industry.

Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion Schemes

8. Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): What plans he has to introduce penalties for financial advisers who promote aggressive tax avoidance and tax evasion schemes. [907964]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Danny Alexander): This Government have been relentless in cracking down on tax avoidance and evasion. We have introduced a tougher monitoring regime and penalties for high-risk promoters of tax avoidance schemes, and the unprecedented common reporting standard will mean that by 2018 more than 90 countries will be exchanging information on offshore accounts automatically, helping Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to find and pursue offshore evaders successfully.

Charlie Elphicke: I thank the Chief Secretary for that answer. Does he agree that more has been done on tax avoidance in the past five years than was done in the previous 13, so craven were the previous Government before big business and big tax avoidance? Will he welcome the Financial Secretary’s announcement yesterday of further action on tax avoidance-promoting schemes?

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in both things that he says. The Financial Secretary’s announcement represented very important further progress, but if we look back over the past five years, we see that the relentlessness of our pursuit of measures to crack down on avoidance, be it the general anti-abuse rule in the tax system, the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes regime, the monitoring regime that we are putting in place or the measures to increase prosecutions for tax evasion, has made it clear that there is absolutely no tolerance for aggressive tax avoidance and tax evasion in this country.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): The Chief Secretary will know that 10% of UK wealth is held in offshore bank accounts, which is a much higher proportion than in the United States, so why is he not focusing on that tax avoidance and evasion, at a time

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when 65% of people on jobseeker’s allowance in Swansea have been sanctioned and are living on a pittance? It is a disgrace.

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening to my first answer, because we have put in place something unprecedented: working with our colleagues in other countries, the common reporting standard will mean that more than 90 countries will be automatically exchanging information on offshore accounts, so that HMRC has the information it needs to find and pursue offshore tax evaders successfully. We need to make further progress on how we deal with organisations that encourage, promote or facilitate tax evasion. I have said I want to see further work done on that, and I am sure we will be hearing more about it soon.

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): In 2006-07, a hedge fund manager avoided millions in tax through a film scheme later judged unlawful. HSBC received £438,000 for acting as an intermediary, so does the Chief Secretary agree that there should have been a penalty on HSBC for its role in this scam?

Danny Alexander: I do not know the details of the specific instance to which my hon. Friend refers, but I do think that in cases where an organisation is facilitating or promoting tax evasion and a penalty is then paid and tax is paid, as it should have been in the first place, the organisation facilitating the tax evasion should be liable for exactly the same amount of money, to be paid to the Exchequer. In that way, there would be a strong financial as well as legal incentive for people not to get involved in this practice in the first place.

Local Authority Borrowing (Home Building)

9. Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): What recent representations he has received on caps on local authority borrowing for building homes. [907965]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Danny Alexander): I have received many representations on local authority borrowing caps, but I would refer the House to the recent excellent review of the local authority role in housing supply carried out by Natalie Elphicke and Councillor Keith House. They made many suggestions as to how the local authority role in house building could be improved, but one of their conclusions was that the problem was not a lack of money but the way in which resources are deployed and organised in the local government sector.

Sarah Newton: I very much welcome the answer to my question and the other comprehensive measures the Government have taken to enable people to buy their own homes, such as First Buy. Will the Chief Secretary explain a little more about some of those findings and what more we can do to ensure that hard-working people who need social housing can get it?

Danny Alexander: The hon. Lady raises an important question. In this Parliament we are building more affordable homes than has been the case at any point in the past 20 years, and in the next Parliament we will be building even more. However, I do not think any of us should be complacent; we need to raise substantially the level of

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house building in this country. That is why I welcome the recommendation of Keith House and Natalie Elphicke on a housing finance institute. It is also why I set out around the autumn statement last year moves towards Government taking a direct commissioning role to ensure that we meet a 300,000 homes a year target. That will be piloted at the Northstowe development, which I encourage the hon. Lady to find out more about.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I declare an indirect interest, which is on record. Local authorities are at the sharp end of this Government’s failure to deliver the housing that the country needs, particularly affordable rented housing. Labour Plymouth is proactively doing what the Minister has just said—bringing forward land and building 1,000 homes. It has a view on the cap and about meeting the need. Greater concerns, however, surround the announcement of the starter home scheme, which will lead to a massive loss of affordable home building— developers get out of any requirement to do it and the local authority has no say. Can the Chief Secretary please tell the House what the impact assessment of that policy was and the impact on affordable rented homes?

Danny Alexander: The idea behind the starter homes scheme is precisely to offer homes at a discount to young people who want to get on the housing ladder. I would have thought that was an objective that everyone in the House would welcome. If the hon. Lady wants to look at social rented housing, in this Parliament—and continuing in the next Parliament—we have the highest annual rate of social house building than under the previous Government or for the past 20 years. During Labour’s 13 years in office, the number of social homes fell by 421,000; we have increased it by over 300,000.

Tax Devolution

10. Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Finance Secretary of the Scottish Government on devolution of taxes. [907966]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Danny Alexander): I have had frequent and largely constructive discussions with the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, including on the matter of devolution of taxes, as have my ministerial colleagues. The Scottish Minister recently met the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We have made huge progress in the area of tax devolution.

Michael Connarty: From reading the text of the Smith agreement, it seems to me that we have handed over income tax in particular to the Scottish Government, whereby allowances and bands can be varied. In fact, we have created the possibility of an independent tax system, apart from hanging on to the 20p tax as a kind of fulcrum around which it must work. Has the Treasury looked at the impact on the UK if there were an entirely independent tax system in the north of the United Kingdom?

Danny Alexander: Yes, we have. The hon. Gentleman is right. The Smith commission—rightly, I believe—devolves power over rates and bands in the income tax system. It

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does not devolve control of the tax base or the personal allowance. One of the bits of work that remains to be done is to ensure that we have a fiscal framework in place around that which means that the fact of devolution does not offer a financial advantage in and of itself either to Scotland or to the rest of the United Kingdom. I have had constructive discussions with John Swinney on that point and on many others. It is, of course, a matter for the Scottish Government to make sure that they have competent administrative machinery in place, which they will need next month when the process of the first wave of income tax devolution starts.

Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West) (LD): Is my right hon. Friend, like me, waiting with bated breath for the latest Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland figures to be published? Does he expect that they will bolster or demolish the Scottish National party’s case for full fiscal autonomy?

Danny Alexander: Bated breath might be overstating it, but I expect the new GERS figures very soon. In recent days we have seen evidence of the damage that the Scottish National party’s ideas would do to the UK economy—higher debt for the whole of the UK at the end of this Parliament than at the beginning of it, and an extra £5 billion a year being spent on interest payments. Having been defeated on its proposals for independence, which would have undermined and damaged the Scottish economy, the SNP seems inclined to offer the same damage to the UK economy as a whole.

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): Under the Scotland Act 2012, from April 2016 Scotland will indeed have significant new tax-raising powers. HMRC’s own risk register shows that the risk that Scottish taxpayers will not be identified by April 2016 has risen from amber to red, so can the Chief Secretary tell the House why, despite these being the biggest changes to Scottish tax ever, only 11 full-time equivalent HMRC staff are working on them and, according to Audit Scotland, they rely on a single official in the Scottish Government?

Danny Alexander: I am confident that the resource being applied at the HMRC end of the spectrum is sufficient to ensure that we can deliver the devolution that is planned. That process is going on at present. Stamp duty devolution starts in April this year and income tax devolution the following April. Whether or not the Scottish Government are applying sufficient resource, effort or people to make sure that the tax system will be competently administered is a question for them to answer. I recently signed off the orders to devolve stamp duty, and they will now need to make sure that that is done properly.

Cathy Jamieson: I thank the Chief Secretary for that response, although it does not entirely fill me with reassurance. Is it not the case that this whole process risks descending into absolute chaos, and is it not time that both the UK and the Scottish Governments got a grip? How many HMRC and Treasury officials have been seconded to the Scottish Government to help clear up the mess? If people have not been seconded, will he now have urgent discussions to see whether that would help?

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Danny Alexander: I am afraid that it is a feature of devolution, which the hon. Lady and I both support, that devolved Administrations have to take responsibility for matters that are in their purview. Frankly speaking, it is not for the Treasury to send officials to bail out Revenue Scotland. If it approaches us and says that it does not have enough people, it cannot do it and it is not ready, that is fine. But having discussed the matter with John Swinney and received assurances that he believes that it is in a good position to carry on taking on those functions and to do so properly, that is sufficient for me to sign the orders to hand over the powers.

Fiscal Support for Businesses

11. Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): What fiscal steps he has taken to support businesses. [907967]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Andrea Leadsom): The Government champion business. We have cut the main rate of corporation tax to 21%, the lowest in the G7, we have allocated more than £460 billion for infrastructure projects, and we have committed to unlock up to £10 billion of business finance through the British Business Bank by 2017-18.

Mary Macleod: Businesses in Chiswick, Brentford, Isleworth, Osterley and Hounslow have been hugely helped by the Government through lower business rates, reduced tax, better infrastructure and two new free schools, which were announced yesterday, to help build the skills for the future. Does my hon. Friend agree that only a Conservative Government with a long-term economic plan can help make Britain the most attractive place in the world to start and grow a business?

Andrea Leadsom: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. She is right that we want Britain to be the best place to start and grow a business. I am delighted for her that she has 9,600 new start-ups in her constituency, which she has fought for diligently throughout this Parliament, and that, as a result of this success, unemployment is down 38% in her constituency since 2010. I was particularly delighted to pay a visit with her to one of them, My Plumber Ltd, and to meet the wonderful Ollie, who was the apprentice there in charge.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): One fiscal measure that affects business a great deal is the rate of VAT, and every Conservative Government put up VAT. In 1979, they put it up from 8% to 15%; in 1991, up to 17.5%; in 1994, on fuel and power; and in 2010, VAT was raised again to 20%. So we know what they will do, but let us give them one more chance. Will the hon. Lady rule out putting up VAT if in power after May?

Andrea Leadsom: It is extraordinary. I wonder if the hon. Gentleman would like to admit that every Labour Government when they leave office leave unemployment higher than when they came in. That is the truth of the matter. The Government are sorting out the mess left by the Labour Government, which was the worst financial crisis in British peacetime.

18. [907974] Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that, thanks to our long-term economic plan, the Government have supported businesses through cutting businesses taxes?

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Does she further agree that the real difference between the Government and the Labour party’s approach is that while we have been cutting taxes on businesses, it wants to put them up?

Andrea Leadsom: Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right. There is the risk under Labour of a return to an anti-business system that has already been recognised by people who are themselves trying to run businesses in the UK that are contributing to our economy. She has been assiduous in her constituency in supporting business. She has more than 8,000 new start-ups, and I was delighted to visit Clare and to meet the Ealing Mums in Business, who are doing everything that they can to build successful businesses from small beginnings, to talk to them about access to finance.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): One of the steps designed to assist businesses in Northern Ireland is the devolution of corporation tax. In light of the reneging of Sinn Fein on the introduction of welfare reform, what implications does the Minister see in the devolution of corporation tax in Northern Ireland?

Andrea Leadsom: As I think the hon. Gentleman will know, we will agree to devolution for Northern Ireland if it is sustainable, and if it is felt by all sides to be a sustainable proposition.

Youth Employment

12. Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): What assessment he has made of recent trends in the level of youth employment. [907968]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Andrea Leadsom): This Government have taken decisive action to boost youth employment. We have been a Government who are very much on the side of young people, and the results are clear: youth employment is increasing, up by 110,000 over the past year, and the number of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance is at its lowest level since the 1970s.

Mr Stuart: Youth unemployment in my constituency is down by 53% since 2010. In the city of Hull, it is down by 54%. Does my hon. Friend recognise the opportunity that has been created by the growth in apprenticeships under this Government? Does she agree with the Education Committee that it would be “a mistake” for level 2 apprenticeships to be abolished for young people, as the Labour party proposes? Does she agree, on this occasion, with the TUC, which says it would be “a grave injustice”, or with the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, which says that, on apprenticeships, Labour has “got it all wrong”?

Andrea Leadsom: My hon. Friend is right. Under this Government we have seen over 2 million new apprenticeships, and level 2 apprenticeships are absolutely vital in giving young people a chance. Young people have shared in the success of our long-term economic plan, with the UK now having the fourth highest youth employment rate in the EU and the second highest in the G7. Very importantly, young people’s wages are also

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on the rise, with the latest data showing that the earnings of 18 to 21-year-olds who work full time have increased by 6% over the past three years.

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Yesterday I had an exchange with the Minister for Employment in which I made it abundantly clear that youth unemployment in my constituency continues to rise. She has said that the recent rise in youth unemployment is just “a tiny blip”. Does this Minister agree with that?

Andrea Leadsom: The hon. Gentleman should surely be delighted that since 2010 youth unemployment in his constituency is down by 47%, so I cannot agree with him, and that since 2010 unemployment is down by 34%. In the past 12 months, long-term unemployment is down by 38%. Surely he should be celebrating those numbers.

Marriage Tax Allowances

13. Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): What his policy is on the future of tax allowances related to marriage. [907969]

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): The Government have introduced the marriage allowance for married couples and civil partners, which takes effect from 6 April 2015. The transferable amount has been fixed at 10% and will rise in proportion to the personal allowance.

Sir Edward Leigh: More than 4 million people could benefit from the marriage allowance, for which they have been able to register since 20 February. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is about much more than just pounds or pence—it is about valuing commitment and marriage as a bedrock of society?

Mr Gauke: As the Prime Minister made very clear in the 2010 general election, it is right that we recognise marriage in the tax system, and that is precisely what we have done. As my hon. Friend rightly points out, it is now possible for people to register to be able to benefit from the transferable tax allowance.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Does the Minister consider it either fair or socially useful that money is being spent in this way when only one in four of the couples who benefit are raising children?

Mr Gauke: This is about recognising marriage within the tax system, but it should also be noted that it will benefit many low-income households, including 1 million households where tax credits are claimed.

North Sea Oil and Gas

14. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): What steps he is taking to support jobs in the north-east of Scotland by maximising the economic recovery of North sea oil and gas. [R] [907970]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Danny Alexander): The Government have made significant progress on supporting the North sea oil and gas sector, including the announcements I made in December about an

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investment allowance and other changes, although I recognise that there are very serious ongoing problems at the moment.

Sir Robert Smith: I thank the Chief Secretary to the Treasury for recognising the problems in the North sea. Does he also recognise that the job losses that have been announced predate the fall in the oil price, and that it is crucial that in the Budget we see long-term structural change for the maturity of the province?

Danny Alexander: I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. I have had a number of meetings with Oil & Gas UK and representatives of the oil industry. Having set out in December the fact that the tax regime for the North sea is going to be on a declining path, recognising precisely the issues that he mentions, we have set a clear direction of travel, and the Chancellor will set out our decisions in the Budget next Wednesday. Let me reassure my hon. Friend that this Government take incredibly seriously the need to make sure that we have a fiscal regime that supports maximum economic recovery of the resources of North sea oil and gas.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): The Chief Secretary knows that the fundamental issue is the cost of doing business in the North sea basin. The up to 81% marginal tax rate on production is something that the Government could do something about. Given that this Chief Secretary boasted that putting up the supplementary charge was his decision, will he now apologise for that and make sure that the charge begins to be reduced in the Budget next week?

Danny Alexander: In fact, we made sure that the supplementary charge began to be reduced in the autumn statement in December, so the hon. Gentleman should catch up on his facts. The fact remains that the measures we are taking to support the industry—through the Wood review, the establishment of the Oil and Gas Authority, and decommissioning deeds and field allowances —have already created an environment that has seen very substantial investment in the North sea in the past few years. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) made is right. Making sure that we have a climate for long-term investment is precisely what we are trying to do, and the hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the Budget for our decisions.

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): What are the Government doing to encourage the offshore sector to co-operate and to have common standards as a better way of reducing costs in the supply chain than laying off the very people we will need when, I hope, things in the North sea begin to pick up again?

Danny Alexander: The hon. Lady makes an important point about co-operation in the industry. It is precisely such co-operation that has led the Wood review to recommend and the Government to create the Oil and Gas Authority. We find that particularly in respect of the sensible and low-cost use of infrastructure in the North sea, where greater co-operation between fields and so on will help to reduce costs. That is one of the early challenges that Andy Samuel is getting to grips with at the Oil and Gas Authority, and I think he has the support of the whole House in doing so.

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Topical Questions

T1. [907982] Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Danny Alexander): Mr Speaker, I should say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is at ECOFIN, making sure that Britain’s voice is heard in the European Union, and the Exchequer Secretary is unwell. I am sure that the whole House wishes her a speedy recovery.

The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability and prosperity of the economy.

Ian Lavery: Will the Chief Secretary confirm that the Treasury has had discussions with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Energy and Climate Change with regard to UK Coal’s application for state aid for the British coal industry? What stage are the discussions actually at?

Danny Alexander: It would be wrong for me to go into the ongoing discussions between BIS and other Departments and the industry. However, I can certainly say that I am aware of the issues that the industry is experiencing, and a discussion on that subject is going on with the Government.

T2. [907983] Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): Under the previous Labour Government, thousands of pubs closed and the brewing industry was taxed to the point of extinction. The Campaign for Real Ale now says that the Chancellor has saved 1,050 pubs, sold 75 million extra pints and has been the saviour of Britain’s brewing industry. Does the Chief Secretary agree that this Government have been positive for beer and pubs, and will he urge the Chancellor to keep on supporting our breweries?

Danny Alexander: This Government have undoubtedly been positive for beer and pubs. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), have campaigned on this issue. It is of course for the Chancellor to announce the Government’s decisions in this respect—I am sure that he has not pulled all those pints himself—but it is certainly the case that the beer and pub industry is stronger in this country, as part of a stronger economy, because of the decisions that this coalition Government have so far made.

T3. [907984] Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): Do the Government expect operating oil companies in receipt of tax concessions to develop contract strategies to enable UK fabricating yards to participate in large contracts with the potential to support thousands of jobs across the whole country?

Danny Alexander: If the hon. Lady has specific issues in mind, I would gladly engage in further discussion with her, but the steps this Government have taken—including the establishment of enterprise zones in many areas where there are fabrication yards, and measures such as electricity market reform to get offshore wind and other such production going in the UK—all support

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the objective that she describes and which I share. If she has further ideas on how we can pursue that, I would gladly hear them.

T4. [907986] Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): The Chancellor recently highlighted the major part that my Cleethorpes constituency and the Humber estuary will play in the growing northern economy. However, much depends on continued investment in transport infrastructure. Will the Minister assure me and my constituents that that will continue as a high priority?

Danny Alexander: I certainly can. In the final Treasury questions of this Parliament it is worth reflecting on the fact that, despite the tough economic decisions we have had to make, this country is making the largest investment in our rail network since Victorian times and the largest investment in our road network since the 1970s, and we have a programme to roll out superfast broadband across the entire country. Those things will leave our economy with a stronger long-term growth potential, as well as having given us the best growth rates in the European Union at the moment.

T5. [907988] Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Is it not the case that those earning more than £1 million a year have benefited from an average tax cut of up to £100,000 a year in this Parliament? Does that not illustrate that, as ever under the Tories, the mega-rich get richer and the poor get poorer—and that this time they have been aided and abetted by the Liberal Democrats?

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): It is this Government who have dealt with disguised remuneration by which loans were never repaid, benefiting the highest earners. It is this Government who have increased the rates of stamp duty land tax on high-end properties and ensured that they are properly enforced. It is under this Government that capital gains tax has gone up so that cleaners do not pay a higher rate of tax than hedge fund managers. It is this Government who have ensured that those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burden, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed last week.

T6. [907989] Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con): Is my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary aware that in my rural constituency, businesses regard the words “long-term economic plan” with the same degree of comfort and familiarity as evensong in an Anglican church? Will she be good enough to give an assurance that, following the election, those words and the benefits that they bring will continue, not least through the expansion of broadband which is so important for rural business?

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Andrea Leadsom): It sounds as though evensong in my right hon. Friend’s constituency is a fabulous occurrence, and hopefully not just on a Sunday. He is right to point out that this Government have sought to ensure that the benefits of the economic plan are felt right across the country and that the growth is balanced, with all three major sectors—services, construction and manufacturing —growing by 2.5% or more for the first time since records began in 1990.

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Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): We all want to see an end to big companies wriggling out of tax by offshoring profits, but what assessment has the Minister made of the impact on kitchen table digital industries, such as the sale of knitting patterns, of the way in which HMRC has implemented the new EU rules on VAT being collected in the country of sale, and what can he do about it?

Mr Gauke: Those are EU rules. It was the previous Government who signed up to the principle of changing the way in which the VAT system worked, and they were right to do so. This Government have taken two measures to try to mitigate the impact on some smaller businesses. None the less, without the support of other member states, we are still faced with a change in the rules.

T7. [907991] Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): Under this Government, food and drink manufacturing is a great British success story. However, our dairy farmers are being badly affected by volatile global markets. Will the Financial Secretary look favourably on proposals to implement tax averaging reforms, such as those in Ireland, to help these essential producers who contribute so much to our rural economies?

Mr Gauke: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question; I shall take it as a Budget representation. I am sure she will understand that I cannot say any more about it at this point, other than to thank her. She has been vigorous in putting forward that case.

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): For hard-pressed taxpayers, the real test of whether the Government are committed to cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance will be whether this month’s Finance Bill contains legal penalties for breach of the general anti-abuse rule. Will the Financial Secretary tell us whether those will feature in the Finance Bill—yes or no?

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the Finance Bill to be published and to hear the Budget statement next week. He should reflect on his party’s record in office on these matters. Frankly, when the coalition Government came to office, we inherited a tax system like a Swiss cheese: it was so full of holes that tax was leaking all over the place. We have plugged a lot of those holes and there is more work to be done, but I do not think that he should give us any lectures.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): I am sure my right hon. Friend will welcome the report by the Electrification Task Force, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and praise its work. The report said that in tier 1 the Harrogate-Leeds-York line should be prioritised, but does the Minister agree that we must also put in the 1.1 mile of track to connect Yorkshire’s Leeds Bradford airport?

Danny Alexander: I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) and my hon. Friend on the their work, and I met them recently to discuss it. There is a strong case for investment in the Harrogate-Leeds-York line and in the rail link to the airport that my hon. Friend describes. Ensuring that

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degree of connectivity for one of the fastest growing airports in the country, which has huge potential for growth, could also take off the roads the traffic caused by people travelling to other airports in the country. We shall be considering the matter carefully.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): The Minister will have noticed the substantial depreciation of the euro in recent times, which is bound to cause damage to the British economy. When will the Government take the exchange rate seriously and seek to secure an appropriate exchange rate for sterling?

Danny Alexander: We take seriously the need for this country to have a set of policies that ensure the long-term health and growth of the UK economy, and the appropriate mix of fiscal policy, monetary policy and long-term investment. That is why we have the fastest growth in the United Kingdom of any advanced economy, and why there are now more than 2 million more people in work in the private sector than there were in 2010. That is a record I am proud of, and the hon. Gentleman should congratulate the Government on it.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): When considering the allocation of LIBOR fines, will Treasury Ministers consider carefully the submission of Alabaré Christian Care in my constituency? It is seeking to construct a new veterans village in Wilton that will be transformational for veterans across Wiltshire.

Andrea Leadsom: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As he will know, the LIBOR fines imposed on banks for the appalling rigging of LIBOR are being used for mainly military charities, and a few other ideas have been put forward. I shall bear his remarks in mind and mention them to the Chancellor.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Further to Question 8, what measures is the Chief Secretary taking to tackle the activities of payroll and umbrella companies that promote bogus self-employment which in turn fuels widespread tax evasion?

Danny Alexander: We have already announced measures to deal with intermediaries, both offshore and onshore. As the hon. Gentleman will know, a consultation on the issue is taking place at the moment, and it is important to ensure that companies cannot put in place artificial arrangements that are designed to reduce their tax bill and often have the consequence of removing important employment rights from workers. We continue to take that matter incredibly seriously.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Does the Chief Secretary agree that one key aspect of the long-term economic plan is investment in skills, and will he reassure the House that the Government will carry on doing that?

Danny Alexander: Yes I can. As this is national apprenticeship week it is worth reflecting on the fact that in this Parliament we have created more than 2 million more apprenticeships. That is a great achievement of this Government and has helped to ensure that young people have the skills they need to succeed in today’s economy. From my perspective that will continue to be a priority in the next Parliament.

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Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab): To follow up the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), it appeared from recent written answers that the Government are leaving open loopholes that see workers lose hundreds of pounds a month from rip-off umbrella companies. Why is that?

Danny Alexander: As I said, we are consulting on that matter and have already taken considerable action to deal with intermediaries. I am sure that more will be said about the issue in due course.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Youth unemployment in my constituency has halved under this Government, and the Chief Secretary met some of the young people in new jobs at Anthony Best Dynamics in Bradford on Avon last year. Will he or the Chancellor accept an invitation to accompany me to one of the advanced manufacturing businesses in Chippenham which, with the support of the relevant Government programmes, can extend many more opportunities by creating jobs in 21st-century products in Chippenham?

Danny Alexander: I gladly accept the invitation, although time is limited. As my hon. Friend said, through visiting Anthony Best Dynamics I have seen precisely the benefits that apprenticeships can provide for young people wanting to get highly skilled jobs in the technology companies that are creating very high value added for the UK economy. The work that he has done in his constituency to promote businesses taking on apprentices is an example to the entire House.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Why was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury so discreet about the application for state aid for the three remaining deep

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mine pits in Britain? Is he aware that in February 2014 the Government took £700 million out of the mineworkers’ pension fund for themselves? That kind of money in state aid could save those three pits so that they could exhaust their reserves. Now come on—tell us what’s happening!

Danny Alexander: I am not going to change the answer I gave to the earlier question. I appreciate the sensitivity of these matters, and I would say that this Government have taken steps, wherever we can, to support that particular industry. I am not sure that it would be appropriate for me to comment further.

Mr Speaker: Last but not least, Sir Oliver Heald.

Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be aware that Hertfordshire is a prosperous and successful county. However, it had reached the point at which growth was being compromised because the A1M was not being widened between Stevenage and Welwyn. That work has now been announced but, for the future, are the Government satisfied that they are planning such infrastructure projects far enough ahead to enable us to maintain the kind of strong economic growth that we have at the moment as a result of the long-term economic plan?

Mr Gauke: I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend and fellow Hertfordshire Member of Parliament. He is absolutely right to highlight that issue. As my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said earlier, we have in place a pipeline of road building and train improvements, the like of which we have not seen for many years. All of that will benefit Hertfordshire in particular and the United Kingdom as a whole.

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Troubled Families Programme

12.36 pm

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement about this Government’s troubled families programme. In 2011, the Prime Minister set a bold ambition for this Government that by the end of this Parliament we would turn around the lives of 120,000 of the country’s most troubled families. Turning their lives around meant: drastically reducing the antisocial behaviour and crime for which they were responsible; ensuring that truanting children were back attending school; and getting parents into jobs. Today, with great pride, I can announce to the House that 90% of the families we promised to help have achieved those outcomes. More than 105,000 families have had their lives turned around, and the programme still has three months left to run.

I want to extend my gratitude to the army of front-line workers who have worked tirelessly with those families to bring stability back to their lives. I also want to offer my congratulations to the families who have grasped the opportunity that this programme has offered to them to end a dysfunctional and negative way of life and offer their children a better future. I also want to put on record the fact that the programme exemplifies how central Government, local government and their partner public services can successfully work together with a sense of common endeavour and shared objectives. All 152 upper-tier local councils across England, irrespective of political control, have worked closely with my Department, and it is only by working together that we have delivered this challenging programme at great pace.

In 2011, I was deeply honoured when the Prime Minister asked me to lead this programme, but I was also acutely aware that its bold ambitions had eluded the efforts of previous Governments. Looking back, we can see how the success of the programme has come from its simplicity, and from the clear aims and straightforward methods that have captured the hearts and minds of public servants at all levels.

I am sure that many Members of the House will know the frustration that comes from seeing how our services and systems have failed to deal with the root causes of problems and only treated, or reacted to, the symptoms. How many of us know families in our constituencies who have been failed by services but have at the same time placed a huge and disproportionate burden on those services through successive generations? Young men follow in their fathers’ footsteps into trouble; young women fall victim to abusive relationships; and families push through the revolving doors of hard-pressed services with recurring problems of addiction, violence and mental and physical ill-health.

I believed that there was a better way for those hard-pressed services to operate and through the troubled families programme we have found it. Families in the programme have signed up to a plan that gets to the root cause of their problems and makes a real difference to their lives. It involves tough love and practical help from people who take a no-nonsense, persistent approach, who will not go away and will not give up, and who will not be put off by missed appointments or unanswered doors.

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A typical family in the programme has nine different problems to contend with. A child’s bad behaviour and truancy leads to exclusion from school and a life of petty crime. The school tries to help, but its efforts are undone by a mum who simply cannot get out of bed in the morning to ensure that her son goes to school. She suffers from stress and anxiety and drinks heavily. Why? She is in arrears on her bills and is regularly beaten up by the boy’s dad. The result is that the child’s poor prospects become entrenched and the cycle of the family’s problems continues.

The key worker’s job is to break the cycle and they will prioritise what needs to change first. In this case, they will get the police and others to stop the violence and help the mum to budget better and start on a path to employment. For a while, the key worker will arrive at 7 am to ensure that she is up, making some breakfast for her son and packing him off to school. As her mental health improves and improvements grow, the key worker can step back, mentor and gradually let go.

The figures we are publishing today prove beyond doubt that the approach is working for families. It also helps the communities where they live and of course delivers substantial savings for the taxpayer. The key worker has replaced the expensive swarm of services buzzing around the family that deal with individual symptoms rather than addressing the root causes.

Today, my Department is releasing new information from local authorities that clearly demonstrates the savings generated by the programme. This year, Manchester estimates that for every £1 invested in family intervention, local public services receive an estimated £2.20 in savings. For Redcar and Cleveland, the figure was £1.94. For every four families helped under the programme, the equivalent of a police officer’s starting salary could be saved. In the London borough of Wandsworth during the first year of the programme, the total savings from reducing demand on the criminal justice system were nearly £1.2 million. The 70% reduction in domestic violence in the families being helped saved the borough £70,000. Salford has identified benefits to health services of £1,700 on average per family. Those savings follow a nearly 60% reduction in alcohol abuse and a 50% reduction in drug misuse in the 12 months following family intervention. If those savings were representative of all the 105,000 families who have been turned around by the programme so far, a total of £1.2 billion would be generated in gross fiscal benefits.

Those gains for the public purse are reason enough for celebration, but what makes me most proud of the programme is its impact on people’s lives, especially in getting family members into work. That is no easy task when we consider that they were previously a million miles from being able to hold down any kind of job. Figures released today show that more than 10,000 adults from troubled families have moved into sustained work. I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who placed 150 of his jobcentre advisers in local troubled families teams. They have worked wonders in some really challenging cases.

This approach works for taxpayers and the families involved in the programme, and this Government will build on that success. I am delighted that we have secured cross-Government support for an additional

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£200 million of funding for an expansion, to work with 400,000 more families from 2015 to 2020. That work has already started ahead of time in two thirds of areas.

I would like to end by referring to a letter from a head teacher in Leicestershire to her troubled families team. She confesses to being a

“notoriously grumpy Head Teacher on welfare issues”,

but says that the troubled families team is “something quite different” that she “can’t praise enough.” Why is that? It is because

“for once, everybody seems to know what is going on”.

She concludes by saying:

“I have never come across anything quite like this before.”

Neither have I. That is why I am genuinely honoured to have led this remarkable, life-changing programme for the Government, and why I am delighted that it is being expanded to help more troubled families across the country. I commend this statement to the House.

12.46 pm

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): May I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, and for his personal commitment to providing support to local authorities up and down the country that are working with the most excluded families through the troubled families programme?

It is not often that we in this House pay tribute to public servants, and we do not do it as much as we should, so I would like to thank Louise Casey for the leadership she has shown and all the staff working in all the projects for their extraordinary dedication, patience and commitment. Their skill in, above all, building trust with the families they work with is absolutely fundamental if together they are to succeed.

We on the Opposition Benches support this important work. As the Secretary of State has generously acknowledged, the previous Labour Government started the family intervention project, and a future Labour Government would want to see this work continue and go from strength to strength.

As the Secretary of State will know, a number of local authorities and Labour pushed for the original criteria to be broadened to enable local authorities to provide support to those families most in need and to ensure that there was proper long-term follow-up to see whether families could maintain the progress that had been made. I welcome the fact that the Government listened to those representations and made the necessary changes.

It is clear that we need to provide hands-on support to families with multiple complex needs, in order to help them to break cycles of disadvantage. It is also clear that we need to move away from trying to contain problems, at great expense, towards trying to prevent them in the first place. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the concentration in the most deprived communities of families taking part in the troubled families programme? I ask that because we know that, under this Government, households living in areas that rank in the 10 most deprived communities have seen their local authority spending power reduced by 16 times as much as those in the 10 least deprived communities.

Demands on children’s services are increasing and the figures show that local authorities are doing their best to protect them. However, the National Audit

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Office has found that, between 2010-11 and 2014-15, budgeted spending on children’s social care actually fell by 4.3% on average in authorities with the highest cuts in Government funding, compared with real-terms increases of 14.8% in authorities with the lowest cuts. How is that going to help?

Last August, it was announced that the troubled families programme would be expanded to work with 400,000 more families from 2015 to 2020, with funding of £200 million for 2015-16, but the Secretary of State has just said that he has secured cross-Government support and an additional £200 million for its expansion from 2015 to 2020. Will he confirm whether that £200 million is for 2015-16 or for the whole period from 2015 to 2020?

The Secretary of State referred to the 10,000 adults who have moved into sustained work, which is a great achievement, but it still leaves more than 100,000 families where that has not happened. Would it not help those families if we were to guarantee a job, as Labour is proposing, to every adult who has been out of work for more than two years and every young person who has been out of work for more than a year?

The Secretary of State rightly talked about the problems that a number of these families have in paying bills. How many troubled families are being hit by the profoundly unfair bedroom tax? Surely, to help them, that tax should be scrapped, as we have committed to do? Why are the Government so intent on penalising people on the lowest incomes, and how many of those families currently rely on food banks to help feed their children?

Over this Parliament, the Secretary of State has spoken regularly about the number of families who have been turned around. However, within the original programme, a family could be so classified if they reduced the level of crime committed by just a third. Will he confirm whether such families are counted in the total he gave today?

In 2011, the Prime Minister said that troubled families were costing the state an estimated £9 billion a year. However, in his statement today, the Secretary of State said that if these savings were representative of all 105,000 families so far, it would generate a total of £1.2 billion in gross fiscal benefits. Can he square those two figures and confirm whether these savings are in fact being achieved? As he will be only too aware, demonstrating savings will be really important for securing future funding for the programme from other parts of Whitehall.

We know that intensive support really can help families transform their lives. Raising children can be challenging and we can all do with help and advice at times. We support the programme precisely because the local authorities that are implementing it on the ground are convinced that it makes a difference. However, the Government also have a responsibility to help all families, whether in difficulty or not, in other ways. Insecurity, zero-hours contracts, a lack of affordable housing and high rents are real concerns for them. If we are really to help all Britain’s families, we need a Government who will do something about those things as well.

Mr Pickles: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. In particular, I would like to endorse his views on Louise Casey. It has been

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a privilege over the past five years to get to know a number of senior civil servants, but none have I enjoyed working with more than Louise, who is definitely one of a kind. She has been an absolute joy to work with. I also recognise that none of this could have been achieved without all-party support.

The right hon. Gentleman made a number of points on how we can demonstrate success and square the £1.2 billion with the £9 billion. He knows as well as anybody that this is notoriously difficult territory, because Governments of all types are absolutely terrible at measuring outcomes. We have made a start—he might have had an opportunity to look at the research—by looking at seven exemplar authorities and extrapolating the findings to produce some financial analysis. To answer his questions, I think that it is only fair to have that audited independently. As he will know, we are due to have a very comprehensive audit of the programme. I am confident that the exemplar authorities indicate what has been achieved. I think that I have been conservative—no pun intended—in estimating what can be achieved.

The right hon. Gentleman made a number of points about spending power. The point needs to be made that the Government are spending the most in the most deprived areas; we are spending an awful lot less on prosperous areas. I remind him, with great humility, that under the system in place before this Government came in, we were throwing money at the problem and achieving precisely nothing. By addressing some of the social ills, dealing with the problems, shoulder to shoulder with Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat councils, we have been able to achieve these benefits. It so happens that it is cheaper, but it is actually better and more caring, because we are not throwing people away, condemning them to a life on benefits.

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Having been Minister for Criminal Justice at the birth of this programme, and having seen it operating on the front line in my constituency since, may I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating Louise Casey? I congratulate him on the leadership he has given, along with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in bringing this home. I slightly regret the tone taken by the shadow Secretary of State, which I think disguises a recognition that the programme has really worked by bringing all the agencies together, which is something he and I saw back in 2000 when we served together on a Select Committee. I ask my right hon. Friend to ensure that we learn the lessons that will emerge from the first four years of the programme and see that it carries on in the excellent way it has started.

Mr Pickles: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. It is of course important that we learn the lessons of the programme. I think that it has been quite clear that by keeping things as simple as possible, by looking very carefully at the different criteria and by having a completely straightforward approach—some Members have suggested that we might be fiddling the figures by reducing crime, although reducing crime seems to me to be pretty important—we have kept the programme transparent, so people can actually see it. I believe that we have treated everyone in this process with respect, particularly the troubled families.

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Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): The Communities and Local Government Committee has been very supportive of the whole approach on troubled families. However, when the Secretary of State announced his expansion of the programme in 2013, the Committee pointed out that the increase in Government funding was not in proportion to the increase in the number of families to be helped. Does he believe that local authorities can be as successful in future, given the reduction in the amount that central Government spend per family? Given that savings to one public body can be a cost to another as part of the programme, will not real success in the end be the roll-out of whole-place community budgets, so that a proper account can be taken with a total approach to public expenditure in an area? How does he see that being rolled out alongside the troubled families programme?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point. It is usual for a Government to aim for the low-hanging fruit when starting such a programme, doing the easy things first before going on to those that are more difficult. We did exactly the reverse by starting with the most difficult families. The troubled families involved in the extended programme have nothing like the complex needs of those in the first tranche, so I think that it will be easier, cheaper and better when we start dealing with them. With regard to money coming in, he might be interested to know that in Sheffield there were 1,680 troubled families over that period, 100% of whom have been turned around, with expenditure of £6.6 million. In Leeds, there were 2,190 troubled families, 100% of whom have been turned around, with expenditure of £7.79 million.

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State, Louise Casey and all those associated with the programme, not least the participants. How does he envisage the lifestyle changes being sustained as we move on to this very welcome and massive expansion of the programme?

Mr Pickles: We need to be absolutely clear that we are almost certainly not turning out model citizens. We are, however, giving children from troubled families the opportunity to have a better chance of success. That is something we are keen to monitor, check and make sure happens. In that way, we have an opportunity to break the cycle.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. The programme in Stockport is very impressive in bringing together local agencies to help families. He will be aware that there is an under-reporting of child abuse, child sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse in many of these families. Does he agree that one of the outcomes, in measuring the success of the programme, is the prevention of child abuse and child sexual exploitation in these families?

Mr Pickles: The hon. Lady is the author of a very good report on the subject of child sexual exploitation, and she and I discussed this matter at a seminar last week at Downing street. She makes a very reasonable point. I think the reason the programme has had a fair amount of success is that it does not deal with this problem through social services or the benefits agency

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alone. There have to be different disciplines in the room. The same applies to tackling child sexual exploitation. Social work is very well set up and very good at dealing with child sexual exploitation within a family; when the problem involves organised crime, it becomes more difficult to deal with. I think the point she made at the seminar is this: who would have thought that we would need to regulate taxis and the night-time economy to deal with child sexual exploitation? A broader approach will bring much better co-ordination and the greatest chance of success. I agree with her.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his vision, persistence and leadership in seeing through this very important programme that helps to change lives and transform people’s prospects. Will he tell the House how many children have benefited from this programme and will now be able to fulfil their true and fullest potential?

Mr Pickles: Time will tell how many children will benefit in the end. Getting children back into school and attending three successive terms makes a big difference. In my hon. Friend’s area, the total number of families we would describe as troubled is 2,560. Some 80% have been turned around. So far, just short of £10 million has been expended in that process.

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State, Louise Casey and the families who have turned their lives around. On behalf of my constituents, many of whom now have a more peaceful existence, may I also, through him, thank the front-line workers who have brought about these changes? In “Feeding Britain”, the cross-party inquiry into hunger in this country, the Secretary of State may recall that, although we drew attention to those families who simply did not have enough money to feed their children, there were other scallywags who could not be bothered to feed their children. Is it possible for him to confirm that schools, which prevent those children from being hungry, could in the next stage have the right to refer families directly to the troubled families unit?

Mr Pickles: It works, I think, remarkably well now. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that in the main part of my statement I referred to a head teacher from Leicestershire. It makes a big difference if we involve everyone. Sadly, I have not visited Birkenhead in this process—I know that 80% of the 910 troubled families there have been turned around, with £3.3 million expended—but I was fairly close by, to look at the team in Chester. It is the most remarkable thing to see a whole bunch of people from different disciplines sitting down together, including representatives of firefighters, who play an important part in picking up intelligence and information.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): The families supported by this programme are often affected by multiple problems, which are then responded to by multiple agencies. Is the success of the scheme not due to the ability of Louise Casey and her team to cut across the previous silo mentality and join up the support that has enabled lives to be changed?

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Mr Pickles: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who should know that there are 805 troubled families in his local authority. Some 99% of them have been turned around, with an expenditure of just slightly more than £2 million. Louise Casey is a remarkable woman, but this could not have been achieved by her presence and determination alone, formidable though they are. We are bringing people along and they are getting the opportunity to do something about the process. I have seen an enormous sense of leadership in different authorities right across the country, because they can now do something about the problem.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): I welcome the announcement of the future funding for this programme, but the Secretary of State failed to answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and say whether the £200 million is for 2015-16 or the full five years of the next Parliament. On current funding, the Secretary of State has been withholding from Rotherham council about £750,000 in troubled families and transformation award funding. Given the special circumstances and the challenges we face, will he now release that funding to Rotherham?

Mr Pickles: As far as the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency is concerned, there are two local authorities. Barnsley, with 645 troubled families, has achieved a 95% turnaround, which has cost slightly more than £2 million. Rotherham, with 730 troubled families, has achieved a 89% turnaround, which, again, has cost slightly more than £2 million. He makes a really interesting point: even in that sea of dysfunction, the work with troubled families has been very successful. I am delighted to tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have released the money. The money will go to Rotherham today.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I sincerely thank my right hon. Friend for his leadership of this project, which has helped to turn around the lives of 1,165 families in West Sussex. Will he join me in sincerely thanking the workers in my constituency who have made such a positive difference to individuals and to our community as a whole?

Mr Pickles: I think the House is divided into those who know exactly the number of troubled families in their areas and those who do not. I confirm that my hon. Friend’s arithmetic is absolutely correct. I also confirm that the improvement is entirely due to the enormous hard work of the people in his area determined to make a difference.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): This is an important and successful approach. It is the kind of approach that I took when I first started my social work career more than 30 years ago and that, in those days, many social work staff took. One of the reasons why silos developed was the pressure on budgets. Given that many local authorities have tried to protect children’s services but they continue to be under threat, how will the Secretary of State ensure that services, which are preventive and help troubled families through this programme and children’s services, continue and are given priority, so that we do not go backwards, whether with children’s services or troubled families?

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Mr Pickles: The hon. Lady’s analysis is good. I think there has been too much silo building taking place inside local government. It has been almost like, to mix a metaphor, laagering the wagons. That has been a mistake. It is not possible to deal with something as complex as troubled families by relying solely on social work or a children’s department. It involves many other agencies. We get change in government when we deal with issues. We tend not to work terribly well when we become obsessed with governance.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State deserves praise for taking this originally Labour policy and pursuing it energetically to this stage, and on any other day I would welcome it and celebrate it with him unreservedly, but this is the day when Her Majesty’s inspectorate, Ofsted, revealed that two thirds of children’s services departments are in a dire situation. Children in this country are exposed to great danger, and departments up and down the country are at risk because of the cuts to local government finance. Will he put that in context and please come back to the House to tell us what he is going to do about it?

Mr Pickles: When the hon. Gentleman decides to give praise, I sincerely hope that I am here to see it, but I think that it is some distance in the future.

Given that the shadow Chancellor has made it absolutely clear that there is no additional money for local government, the hon. Gentleman’s comments ring rather hollow. Had he read the report carefully, he would have seen that it specifically states that our approach to troubled families offers them a future and the best way of doing things, and he should be aware that, in Kirklees, he has 1,115 troubled families and that 88% of them have been turned around, with an expenditure of just short of £4.5 million.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): The savings the Secretary of State has mentioned are welcome, but surely the scheme’s value should be measured by its impact on individual lives and its success in lifting families out of hopelessness, bringing them into sustainable work and giving them hope for the future. I welcome that, but what consultation or discussions about the scheme has he had with the devolved Administrations?

Mr Pickles: We have kept the devolved Administrations completely informed of what we are doing, and I would urge them to take this up. It is clear that the project works, and I think that we could see benefits across the piece. I absolutely endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the proof being life change—the money is great and the savings are wonderful, but it is the changed lives that we are after.

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Trade Union Reform (Civil Service)

1.12 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on trade unions in the civil service.

Trade unions can play an important role in the modern workplace. Some important reforms implemented under the coalition Government, such as changes to the civil service compensation scheme and public sector pensions, were the subject of extended and constructive discussions with a range of public sector trade unions, and I am grateful to union leaders for the forward-looking and thoughtful way in which they have engaged with the need for reform. However, further reforms were needed to how the unions operated within the civil service, and I want to update the House on progress.

Facility time describes the arrangement whereby union officials and representatives have paid time off for trade union duties and activities. Properly controlled and monitored, this can assist with the rapid resolution of local disputes and grievances, but five years ago in the civil service, it was neither controlled nor monitored. We found that thousands of civil servants were paid, sometimes including travel costs and expenses, to attend union conferences. We found that more than 200 civil servants were being paid to work full time on union business. Several had been promoted, one of them twice, without ever doing the job for which they were employed.

The total cost to taxpayers of trade union facility time taken by these officials and the thousands of other part-time representatives was a staggering £36 million a year. Unacceptable at any time, this was particularly intolerable at a time when the coalition Government were making difficult decisions to get the country’s finances back on track. Facility time in the civil service is now rigorously monitored and reported. Now, unless specifically authorised by a Minister, all trade union representatives must spend at least half their time doing the civil service job for which they were employed. Gone is the automatic paid time off to attend seaside union conferences.

Today I can tell the House that the cost of trade union facility time has dropped by nearly 75%, from £36 million in 2011 to just over £10 million now, saving taxpayers £26 million a year. The cost has fallen from 0.26% of pay bill to just 0.07% for the latest rolling year to date—well below the benchmark we set of 0.1%. I can also reveal that the number of full-time trade union officials on the public’s payroll has fallen from 200 in 2011 to just eight today. With the civil service now over one fifth smaller—like for like—than it was in 2010, I expect the overall number of representatives to continue to fall over the coming years.

Check-off is the practice where the employer collects trade union subscriptions from payroll on behalf of the union, and decisions on whether this should continue are delegated to individual Departments. The civil service management code requires Departments to recover the cost of check-off from the unions, which only two Departments were doing, so the head of the civil service has written to permanent secretaries of Departments where check-off remains to remind them of this obligation.

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So far, eight Departments have served notice to the trade unions that they intend to remove check-off: Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for International Development, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Others have started the consultation process to allow this to happen. I believe that this change will enable unions to build a much more direct relationship with their members, without the need for the relationship to be intermediated by the employer.

Taken together, these reforms have made a considerable contribution to modernising Departments’ relationships with their trade unions—reforms that were long overdue—and I commend the statement to the House.

Hon. Members: What was the point of that?

Mr Speaker: Well, it was apparently judged worthy of an oral statement.

1.16 pm

Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the Minister for advance sight of the statement—it is good to see that at least this member of the Cabinet is not ducking difficult questions in Parliament today.

It is election time, so we have a Tory Minister coming to the House as part of a pre-election union-bashing exercise. There is absolutely nothing new in this statement, so one wonders what his motives are. The Government have a clear strategy towards public servants up and down the country: “The Government do not value the work you do and are hellbent on disfranchising you and weakening your rights at work.” Government Members, especially those in marginal seats, should be worried about the impact this is having on public sector voters in their constituencies.

One has to ask whether this so-called statement is just a smokescreen for a Prime Minister running scared of a debate about the future of our country and a Chancellor whose economic plans threaten £70 billion of cuts that would take us back to a time before there was even an NHS. This Minister is a reasonable man, and I support what the Government are doing on many aspects of civil service reform, but I will not support the steps he has taken under the name of trade union reform, which have resulted in souring relations, low staff morale and unnecessary industrial action, and have scuppered some of his otherwise valiant attempts to change how government is run.

Facility time is an important resource not just for union members and employees but for the employer and, in this case, the taxpayer. Labour is clear that facility time is not political time; where well deployed and not abused, it reduces many human resources costs to a company, such as by reducing the number of disputes going to an employment tribunal, recruitment costs and the number of days off sick and workplace injuries. That is why some of the biggest companies, such as Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover, support facility time—because it is part of an effective HR strategy and a productive workforce.

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Of course, we support genuine attempts to eradicate abuse, but the Government’s rhetoric tells a different story—one that is more about their political ideology than good accounting. Check-off is another example. Many major private employers use it: in construction, there is Balfour Beatty; in pharmaceuticals, there is AstraZeneca; in manufacturing, there is BAE Systems, GKN and Rolls-Royce. All of these private sector companies recognise its benefits, but unsurprisingly this Conservative-led Government have done everything they can to end check-off. Given that the cost of check-off is relatively low and that most unions are happy to pay the cost of administering it themselves, it is clear that this is another stage in the long campaign to weaken trade unions and disfranchise their members. Would it not have been better to give the trade unions and their tens of thousands of members across government proper and ample time to move members on to a direct debit system, which I am sure we all agree is more sustainable in the long-term? That is what we will do, and I want to put it on record that when we win in May, we will ensure that this is made possible across all Departments.

The Minister has come to this House today with his Lynton Crosby route 1 election strategy: bash the unions and duck the leaders’ debates. Hard-pressed public sector workers will see this for what it is, and they know that they deserve better than this.

Mr Maude: It is lovely to see the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) taking time off from her pressing duties of holding the Labour party’s election campaign together. It is good to have her here. I thank her for her gracious support for most of what we do. It is important to stress that much of what we have done on civil service reform has commanded widespread support across the political spectrum. I am grateful to her and her predecessors for the constructive way in which they have done that—[Interruption.]The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) makes a comment that is rather less graceful than his colleague.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): It was me.

Mr Maude: It is very hard to tell.

Let me deal head on with the hon. Lady’s points. She says that this is an attack on public servants, but it is absolutely the contrary. She talks as if this is an attack on union facility time. It is not. I said in my statement—she might have listened to it; she had it in advance—that I supported the use of facility time. Facility time for trade union duties is protected by law. Trade union duties—the resolution of disputes and grievances—are important, and the presence of trade union officials and representatives within the workplace can be helpful in achieving that. What we are concerned with is the abuse and the use of paid time off in facility time for large numbers of civil servants to attend their union conferences with their expenses paid by the public. That is not acceptable. That is what we have called time on.

I know that the hon. Lady and her colleagues do not like it, and we know what the reason is. The reason is perfectly simple: it is that the Labour party is paid for and puppet-mastered by the trade unions. She should come clean and say that the Labour party election

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campaign that she is trying to hold together and conduct is paid for by exactly the trade union leaders who have no doubt written the script that she has read out to the House today.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): The practices that the Minister described as seeing on his arrival at the Cabinet Office in 2010 will have come as a complete shock to my constituents. May I tell him that my constituents will very much support the steps he has taken to ensure fair use of union time by officials?

Mr Maude: My hon. Friend is completely right. To be honest, it was a complete shock to us to see how much this system had been abused, and how little effort was made by our predecessors to count and control the costs of what was happening. Opposition Members say that this is an attack on public servants, but the truth is that public servants would much rather have this money spent on public services, which is their vocation, than on supporting trade union officials at the taxpayers’ expense.

John McDonnell: We are going to have to develop some criteria for providing statements to this House, because this is a complete waste of the House’s time. The Minister needs to get up to speed: the Public and Commercial Services Union has never been affiliated to the Labour party and has never funded it, so he can drop these accusations. This is all about union busting, so I want to know what investigation took place into the union-busting strategy within HMRC, where leaked reports said that trade unionists were to be victimised and the union to be broken within that department. What did the right hon. Gentleman do about that?

Mr Maude: First, I never said that about the PCS. I know it is not affiliated. The PCS dislikes the Labour party nearly as much as it dislikes us. Secondly, when it comes to attacks on public servants, the hon. Gentleman’s attack on hard-working public servants in HMRC—the management of HMRC, those senior hard-working officials who have decided in conducting their vocation of public service that check-off should be discontinued—is disgraceful.

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that unions can perform an important role in the workplace, but that the creation of a so-called super union would damage the perception of the independence of civil servants and that many would wish not to join such a union?

Mr Maude: I saw a report this morning suggesting that there was a plan, not yet divulged to the public, for the PCS to be swallowed up by Unite. Civil service political impartiality is an essential part of the way in which our system of government works.For the largest civil service union to be controlled by the same puppet-master and paymaster that controls Labour would be a matter—[Interruption]—of very considerable concern—

Mr Speaker: Order. When I say the Minister is finished, let it be clear. It is no good him sitting there shrugging. When I say he is finished, he is finished. It is important not to waste the time of the House. It is beneath the level of a Minister.

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Mr Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East) (Lab): Government Departments offer a range of check-off services to their employees, including deductions for membership fees, for private sporting clubs, for private clubs more generally and even for private medical schemes. What is it that makes the payments of trade union dues exceptional? Why would any employer want to withdraw this from its own employees?

Mr Maude: As the right hon. Gentleman, who is knowledgeable on this subject, knows, many employers have taken exactly this step. Many unions have sought to withdraw from check-off arrangements themselves, because they take the view that a modern union in a modern workplace should have a direct relationship with their members, not intermediated by the employer. Check-off dates from an era when many people did not have bank accounts and direct debit did not exist. It exists now, and many unions take the view, and indeed the PCS has said, that the easiest way to collect their dues is through direct debit.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Will the Minister join me in congratulating the TaxPayers Alliance on its important work which shows that £100 million of public money is wasted on facility time? Does he share my concern that a PCS-Unite merger would undermine our democracy and mean that the Labour party would be even more bought by the unions than it is today?

Mr Maude: I make the point again that the perception of political impartiality in the civil service is fundamental to our system of government. That should not be imperilled in any way. My hon. Friend is completely right to draw attention to the much wider scale of facility time and the cost borne by the taxpayer—money that would be better spent in the delivery of front-line public services on which vulnerable people depend. That is something that all public authorities should be looking at.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that all he needed to say today was quite simple: Tory Ministers are continuing their spite and vendetta against trade unions? This is nothing different from what has occurred previously.

Mr Maude: That was not really a question, Mr Speaker, but by way of response, most public servants and most members of the public and the people who use public services would prefer the money to be spent on the delivery of public services, not on the delivery of trade union salaries.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): This statement is called “Trade Union Reform (Civil Service)”, so will the Minister correct himself and the record and confirm that none of the civil service unions is affiliated to the Labour party or pays towards it? Rolls-Royce, Tesco, Virgin Media, Odeon Cinemas, Jaguar Land Rover —some of our biggest and best British companies—work with trade unions, recognise trade unions, and offer check- off to trade union members and facility time to their representatives. Why are the Government not dealing with their staff and unions in the same decent, modern way?

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Mr Maude: I support the use of trade union time, but it must be controlled and monitored, and it must not be abused. I also support the presence of trade unions in the workplace, and I personally have worked very closely with them. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury and I spent 12 months in productive discussions with the TUC and public sector trade unions when we were considering public sector pension reform, and we made a number of changes to reflect the concerns of the unions that were prepared to engage with us. I need no lectures about the importance of engagement with the unions, but the arrangements should be controlled and modernised, and the right way for that to be done is the way that I have described.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I have seriously tried to understand the rationale for what the Minister has announced. It appears that the management were not controlling the check-off arrangements properly, because the unions would have paid the costs willingly, but those costs were not paid. It also appears that the management could have monitored the difference between facility time for activities and facility time for duties, but did not do so. That suggests a failure in senior management. As for attendance at conferences, it seems that trade unions will still be paid if they hold their annual conferences in Newcastle, Glasgow, Birmingham or Liverpool, because the Minister mentioned only seaside conferences. The truth is that this is nothing more than another attempt to find the bogeyman whom the Conservatives have tried to find for the last five years. They want another Arthur Scargill so that they can try to rattle a can in the next few weeks. That is what this is all about.

Mr Maude: Given that Opposition Members apparently do not think the statement should have been made, they are finding plenty to say about it. Indeed, we are having a good and productive debate. It is important for the issues to be debated, because they do matter.

As I said, I take my relationship with trade unions very seriously. I continue to chair the public services forum which was set up under the last Government. We

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engage with each other very fully, and I am happy to say that I have warm relationships with a number of trade union leaders.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I am probably the only Member of Parliament who is a former branch secretary of the First Division Association, and I think that the Minister’s attempt to divide junior from senior officials is wholly misconceived. It reminds me of the time when Mrs Thatcher kicked the trade unions out of GCHQ.

Why has the Minister chosen this moment to crack down on check-off? Has he done so because the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast a 1 million reduction in the number of public servants, and he wants to weaken the unions before that happens?

Mr Maude: The hon. Lady’s mind is more elaborate than mine. We have looked at this in a perfectly sensible, straightforward way. We want trade unions in the civil service—and in this context I am talking only about the civil service—to engage in a sensible, modern fashion, and we want public money to be deployed in the delivery of public services rather than the delivery of trade union officials’ salaries.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister said that Departments were entitled to recover the costs of check-off from the unions, and rattled off a list of Departments that were ending check-off. Have any of those Departments made any attempt to negotiate with the unions on the costs of check-off, or does the Minister simply want to get rid of check-off altogether?

Mr Maude: For many years, the civil service management code has obliged Departments to recover the costs of check-off from the unions, but only two have been doing so, namely the Ministry of Defence and HMRC. Check-off remains in place in a number of Departments, and the head of the civil service has very properly written to their permanent secretaries telling them that they should rectify the position.

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Point of Order

1.34 pm

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am a new Member of Parliament, but I understand that it is a convention in the House for a Minister, or any other MP, who is to visit a constituency to inform the Member who represents that constituency. Over the last six weeks I have had the pleasure of receiving numerous visits from Conservative Ministers who, no doubt, have wished to see how a Liberal Democrat-controlled council and the Liberal Democrat MP are managing to make such a good fist of it in Eastbourne, and they have always been kind enough to let me know, even when there has been only an hour to go before their arrival. However, I was disappointed to discover that the Secretary of State for the Home Department had visited my constituency yesterday, and I had not been notified.

This morning I spoke to Beryl Healy, who is a former mayor of Eastbourne and a well known and established constituent of mine. She told me that she thought that this was simply bad manners, but I believe that the Home Secretary is a very courteous parliamentarian, and I admire her courtesy even when I disagree with her. In that respect, I feel that she has let me down. Can you advise me on how I can address the Home Secretary on this matter, Mr Speaker?

Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has made his own point in his own way, and he has used the device of a point of order to register his discontent. Let me say this to him. The convention—and it is not a rule or a law—is well established, although I am sorry to say that it is frequently honoured as much in the breach as in the observance, a phenomenon that tends to be exacerbated in the run-up to an election.

I would prefer Members to resolve these matters satisfactorily without their having continually to be aired on the Floor of the House. I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that he must now rely on his own devices to ward off repeat performances that he judges to be discourteous.

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Mesothelioma (Amendment)

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

1.36 pm

Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Mesothelioma Act 2014.

Let me begin by paying tribute to my predecessors Paul Goggins and Lord Morris of Manchester. Paul had been fighting hard for mesothelioma victims shortly before his sad death last year. Alf, who introduced me to public life, had been doing likewise, seeing that work as an extension of his groundbreaking Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. Today, I walk in the footsteps of giants.

Mesothelioma is an invasive form of lung cancer, caused primarily by earlier exposure to asbestos. There is currently no cure. Patients often experience complex and debilitating symptoms, and most die within 12 months of diagnosis. The United Kingdom has the highest rate of the disease in the world. Mortality rates are increasing, and have more than quadrupled over the last 30 years. It is estimated that more than 2,500 people will die of the disease in the UK this year, and that during the next 30 years about 60,000 will die unless new treatments are found.

Relatively little is spent on mesothelioma research in the UK in comparison with what is spent on other cancers involving comparable mortality. In 2012, the National Cancer Research Institute reported that just £1.2 million had been invested in research by its partners. That is significantly less than the £9.9 million and the £5.3 million that were spent on, respectively, skin cancer—or melanoma—and myeloma, two conditions that kill a similar number of people each year.

Research funding could have helped Derrick and Adele. Derrick was diagnosed with mesothelioma in December last year and sadly died just over a month later, on 17 January this year. He was exposed to asbestos as a young joiner in the early 1950s, when he was working on council houses and building pre-fabs. Like many joiners and construction workers, he was exposed when working with insulation board and corrugated roofing—both were used widely in the construction industry between the 1950s and the 1980s—all of which was riddled with asbestos.

Although the dangers of asbestos were well known to those who produced the materials, Derrick was not advised of those dangers; nor was he given protective equipment to shield him from the asbestos fibres. He had had no known exposure to asbestos after 1956, but his exposure to it as a young man was enough to lead to the diagnosis of terminal cancer nearly 60 years later.

Adele is a 46-year-old old single mother who was diagnosed with mesothelioma just before Christmas 2014. As a young hairdresser, she had been exposed to asbestos fibres that were contained in the old-style hood hairdryers. Hairdressing is not typically thought of a job that would cause such a risk. Unfortunately, asbestos has been a feature in many different workplaces, and it can take only very low level, or fleeting, exposure to cause mesothelioma. The added tragedy for Adele is

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that her father was also diagnosed with the disease less than six months before her own diagnosis, caused by exposure at his own workplace, a double burden for this close-knit family to endure.

The results from the funded research projects have, however, been impressive. New researchers from other areas of therapy have started taking an interest in mesothelioma, bringing with them new expertise and insights. MesobanK, Europe’s first mesothelioma tissue bank, has been created to collect and store biological tissue from patients for use in research, and work is being funded to identify the genetic architecture of the disease.

There have been ongoing conversations with the insurance industry regarding research funding for many years now. In January 2015, it was announced that two insurance companies—Aviva and Zurich—had agreed to donate a combined £1 million over two years to the British Lung Foundation’s mesothelioma research programme. However, although the funding from Aviva and Zurich is welcome, £500,000 a year alone does not come close to addressing the multimillion-pound funding deficit currently endured by mesothelioma research when compared with cancers of comparable mortality. Many more insurance industry donations of this kind will be required to justify the preference, expressed by several MPs during the Mesothelioma Act 2014 debates, for such funding to be secured through voluntary agreements, rather than to have a statutory underpinning. It is estimated that there are 150 insurance firms active in the employers’ liability insurance market, and a small statutory contribution from each could transform mesothelioma research. That is what this Bill hopes to achieve today.

The recent funding I have already mentioned is only secured for two years. This does not address the need to put funding on a sustainable footing. We need this for the benefits of research breakthroughs to be built on, and not lost. Dr Peter Campbell, who is conducting research identifying which genes are the most important targets for mutations, has stated:

“Only by understanding its basic biology will we be able to develop a new generation of drugs targeted at the specific abnormalities of mesothelioma cells. This requires sustained investment at all levels of mesothelioma research, from basic genetics and cell biology through drug development to clinical trials.”

Dr Robert Rintoul, who works at MesobanK, sees the importance of research not only for the UK, which is dramatically affected by this disease, but the rest of the world. He says that

“asbestos is still being used in an unsafe and unregulated way. Although the number of cases of mesothelioma in the UK will

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fall over the next 30 years, there will continue to be an epidemic of the disease globally and the lessons that we learn today about the biology of the disease will be used by doctors the world over in years to come.”

Unless a change is introduced in the way mesothelioma research is funded, we risk stagnation and endanger potential life-changing, even life-saving, breakthroughs. Currently, research relies on ad hoc contributions from insurers, charitable donations and modest funding from the Government. This unreliable approach to funding jeopardises ongoing research, impacting not only the British research industry but mesothelioma mortality in the UK. That is why statutory funding is needed; it must be secured for the research.

Let us commit on this day, at this time and in this place to Derrick and Adele, and to those who did not make it and those to come, to make the change required. I beg to move.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mike Kane, Andy McDonald, Mr Andy Slaughter, Tracey Crouch, Ian Paisley, Sammy Wilson, Jim Sheridan, Jim Shannon, Dr Wollaston, John Woodcock, Mr lain McKenzie and Steve Rotherham present the Bill.

Mike Kane accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March 2015, and to be printed (Bill 185).