I wish to inform the House that I have selected for debate the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Standing Order No. 33 provides that on the last day of debate on the motion for an address to Her Majesty the House may also vote on a second amendment, selected by the Speaker. I have selected the amendment in the name of the leader of the Liberal Democrats. The vote on the amendment will take place at the end of the debate after the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition has been disposed of.
I beg to move an amendment, at the end of the Question to add:
“but humbly regret that the Gracious Speech fails to deliver a clear direction for British economic policy, does not contain measures to assist in building a low debt and low tax economy, and lacks any radical action to unblock the credit channels of our banking system; note that many individuals have seen returns on their savings severely reduced as a result of the economic downturn and regret that the Government has no plans for emergency protection of pensioners with a suspension of annuity rules; further regret the absence of a clear strategy on value added tax; and further regret the absence of measures to avoid the United Kingdom undergoing the worst recession in the G7 next year.”.
Thanks to your decision, Mr. Speaker, to grant our request for an emergency debate, it has been three weeks since we last examined the Government’s handling of the recession that is now engulfing our country. We were then told by the Chancellor from the Dispatch Box that the measures in the pre-Budget report would hasten the end of the recession by bolstering confidence at home and the credibility of British Government policy abroad.
What has been the judgment in the last week alone on the Chancellor’s claim? The pound has fallen against the euro, hitting a record low earlier today and demonstrating again the Prime Minister’s maxim that a weak currency is a reflection of a weak economy and a weak Government. The loss of international credibility has sent the cost of insuring British Government debt higher than insuring the debt of those two homes of French fries, Belgium and McDonalds. An independent survey out today says that the drop in the VAT rate seems to have made little difference in lifting consumer confidence and encouraging consumers to spend. The head of Barclays bank says that despite the measures announced by the Government over the past few weeks, such as those on stamp duty, house prices will fall by at least as much next year as they have this year.
This lunchtime, the Minister for the Olympics has contradicted every statement made by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor over the past six months by admitting, in her words, that Britain is facing a recession
“deeper than any that we have known”.
So, what about all that talk about the 1980s and 1990s now? The Finance Minister of the world’s third largest economy has described the Government’s approach as “crass” and “breathtaking” and as raising debt to a level that will take “a whole generation” to pay off. That is the problem with saving the world—sometimes the world answers back.
The Chancellor and the Prime Minister tried to dismiss the German Finance Minister’s comments—indeed, the Prime Minister again did so just a few minutes ago—as their being all to do with the internal politics of Germany. Mr. Steinbrück is a Social Democrat, and the Christian Democrats issued the statement:
“Peer Steinbrück’s comments have nothing whatsoever to do with internal German politics, as Prime Minister Brown has suggested.”
Indeed, one could feel the sense of schadenfreude after all those brusque encounters with our Prime Minister at ECOFIN meetings, when the spokesman continued:
“After years of lecturing us on how we need to share in the gains of uncontrolled financial markets, the Labour politicians can’t now expect us to share in its losses. The tremendous amount of debt being offered by Britain shows a complete failure of Labour policy.”
That is not a Conservative politician—it is not even a Liberal Democrat—but the spokesman of another Government.
Of course, this debate should be about more than the mistakes that the Government made with their pre-Budget report, serious though they are; it is about the legislative programme for the coming year, so my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) will speak about the welfare reform and child poverty Bills. Let me make it clear to the Chancellor that our offer of co-operation to ensure that the Banking Bill, carried over from the previous Session, passes through Parliament by next February still holds, but we expect the powers we give the regulators to be enforced in the courts if necessary, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made clear today.
I wish that today’s debate was an opportunity to examine the Government’s response to the Equitable Life scandal and the damning report from the parliamentary ombudsman. After all, only a couple of weeks ago the Prime Minister made an absolutely unambiguous promise at the Dispatch Box:
“There will be a statement before the House rises at Christmas. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that that will be done.”
When Members on the Opposition Benches shouted out in disbelief, the Prime Minister said:
“There will be a statement before the House rises this Christmas.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 38.]
Indeed, that was followed up by a letter from the Economic Secretary to my hon. Friends the Members for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) and for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), saying that the Government would give their considered response to the ombudsman’s report to the House shortly, and—in the Economic Secretary’s own handwriting—“before the recess”.
Those were the promises made to Parliament—to Members of the House—yet now it seems that the promises are to be broken. Having waited months for the Government reply—indeed, they have had a draft report for well over a year—desperate policyholders will have to wait even longer. As the Public Administration Committee put it in a report today:
“Justice further delayed will mean justice denied to even more people.”
Equitable Life policyholders have suffered enough: raising hopes and then dashing them before Christmas is a shabby way to treat people. It is time the Government said sorry and accepted the ombudsman’s report. I suspect that the Chancellor will not do so today, but I am sure that he will be forced to in due course.
Instead, we must focus our attention on the deepening recession into which the Government have led us, and what better place to start than by reminding the House what the Chancellor told us in the debate on the Queen’s Speech a year ago? That debate was held many months after the August seizure of the credit markets. It took place long after the Chancellor had discovered from reading his Financial Times that a credit crunch was happening. It was after the Northern Rock run and after warnings had come thick and fast about the downturn that lay ahead; in other words, when the Chancellor rose to speak in this debate a year ago there was absolutely no excuse for his not facing up to the economic realities, preparing the country for a forthcoming recession and readying the House for the difficult decisions that lay ahead. However, instead he told us that Britain
“will grow the fastest of all the developed countries. Inflation is around target…The foundation for all those things is a strong and stable economy…That is why, as I have said time and again, we shall take no risks with stability.”
Britain was to grow faster than any other country and inflation was to be on target—it just shows what a complete fantasy world the Treasury was living in.
To be fair to the Chancellor, he gave us the following warning, which turned out to be nothing short of prescient:
“What risks stability is getting into a position of making promises that cannot be afforded. That will result either in increased taxes elsewhere or, more likely, increased borrowing, which puts pressure on interest rates. That is the last thing we need, especially at this time of international uncertainty.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 701.]
A year ago, he said that increased borrowing was the “last thing we need”, but it is the very first thing he proposed in the face of the recession.
How did the Government move from the position a year ago, when the Chancellor boasted that he would take no risks with stability, and predicted that Britain’s economy would grow the fastest of all developed economies, to today’s position? Now, the prediction from almost every international body is that Britain’s economy will contract the furthest of all developed countries in the world, and the Chancellor is taking enormous risks with stability—risks that mean increased taxes, increased borrowing, and pressure on long-term interest rates, as he warned us a year ago.
The Government’s answer is that it is all America’s fault. That has become a kind of mantra for the Government, like something in a panto; I know that the Chancellor has been spending time with panto characters. The Government blame sub-prime, Lehman Brothers, AIG and all that. Of course, all those things help to explain why all countries are facing tough economic circumstances; the Chancellor says that that is right. However, they do not explain why the slow-down is forecast to be worse in Britain than in any other major economy. They do not explain why the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development predict that Britain will have one of the steepest recessions and one of the sharpest rises in unemployment. For a decade, when the Prime Minister was Chancellor, he took personal credit for the fact that, as he modestly put it, Britain was doing better than anyone else. Now, he refuses to accept any personal responsibility for the fact that, as the world sees it, Britain is set to do worse than anyone else. That will not do.
Eleven years ago, the Prime Minister inherited a strong economy from the predecessor Government. Now, once again, Britain is on the path to being the sick man of Europe. Labour has done it again. The blame for that lies fairly and squarely with him. The truth about the Prime Minister’s record is that during all his years at the Treasury, he became so convinced of his own propaganda about abolishing boom and bust that he mistook a finance and housing boom for stability, and never prepared Britain for the bust.
The Prime Minister talked of prudence endlessly from the Dispatch Box, but ran up a huge structural budget deficit. He pledged that he would be the iron Chancellor, but let spending rip. He went on and on about the long term while wrecking our pension system. He preached a kind of Presbyterian morality, yet presided over an age of excess and irresponsibility. He created a regulatory system that allowed the biggest financial crisis of our lifetime to develop entirely unnoticed. Indeed, last week he pleaded to a newspaper that he did not know what was actually happening behind the scenes.
When the credit markets froze last year, the Prime Minister froze, too. The Government were paralysed by indecision, because, as ever, he did not want to do anything that might lead him to admit that he could, in some way, be held to blame. The Budget came and went without anyone noticing, except the poor motorists, who were to be hit by higher taxes. Just days before his own party decapitated him, the drama of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual threw the Prime Minister a lifeline and enabled him briefly to seize the international limelight with the recapitalisation plan that the Bank of England had drawn up.
Ever since then, the Prime Minister has been scrabbling around for other things to announce—on housing, on VAT, on almost anything—regardless of whether the measures would work, regardless of the absence of any detailed policy, regardless of the cost or the impact on national debt, regardless of the burden placed on future generations, and regardless of the damage done to Britain’s international credibility or creditworthiness. The attitude is, “It doesn’t matter whether it is the right or wrong thing to do, just so long as it can be spun as something rather than nothing.” That is what the last few weeks have been all about—the short-term political plans of the Prime Minister, not the long-term economic interests of this country.
That is why Britain is where it is today—badly prepared for the recession, and badly led now that the recession is upon us. It is not just that the Prime Minister failed to fix the roof when the sun was shining. [Interruption.] I will say it again: it is not just that the Prime Minister failed to fix the roof when the sun was shining—his plan for the recession is now failing. Britain has been in recession since July—almost half a year—and at some point the country will ask whether all the promise of action has actually delivered. There is no evidence that the bank recapitalisation has got credit flowing again to businesses; no evidence that the stamp duty holiday has persuaded a single person to buy a house; no evidence that the £12 billion temporary VAT cut has made the slightest difference to the confidence of a single consumer.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument carefully. He has noted the importance of getting credit out to businesses, so that they can open again after Christmas. One obvious way of doing so is to use the two nationalised banks, and perhaps the moneys that we are putting up, to cut VAT. On Wednesday, we have a chance to vote on the VAT reduction—will the hon. Gentleman seek ways to vote against it, so that Government Members who would like the money to be spent in other ways will similarly be able to vote?
If I needed persuading before that intervention, I am totally persuaded now. We plan to vote against the VAT reduction, which has already come into effect. Because of the procedures of the House, the Government did not allow us to have a vote before it did so. Our argument, made over many weeks and against quite a lot of criticism, not just from Ministers but from various economic commentators and so on, was that we were standing in the way of a fiscal boost that would deliver a transformative effect on the British economy. There is an independent survey—the first, I suspect, of quite a few—out today that shows that there is absolutely no evidence that that measure has had any impact whatsoever on consumer confidence.
May I push the hon. Gentleman further on that? Members on both sides of the House will be desperately worried about how the unemployment figures out on Wednesday or Thursday will begin to affect their constituencies, and what the level of unemployment will be after Christmas. The one thing that we could do to mitigate those redundancies would be to ensure that firms, which will prosper only if the banks deliver credit to them, received credit. The banks are clearly not going to do that, so we should use the moneys from VAT to go through the two nationalised banks so that firms can get credit and open again after Christmas.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a compelling case, with which I agree, about the need to get credit flowing from the banks to businesses. That is essential if we are to keep small and medium-sized businesses in particular, but also larger businesses, afloat. That is the single most pressing problem facing the Government. I disagree with him about the method: I think that a different approach is needed, and I shall discuss it in detail—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) giggles, but I think that the Chancellor is about to copy something akin to what the right hon. Gentleman or I have announced about a loan guarantee scheme, so perhaps she will have to swallow her giggles. However, I certainly agree that we need to do something about the problem. I would introduce a loan guarantee scheme similar to the inter-bank scheme that is now in place, with the Government underwriting lending, and I shall come on to discuss that in more detail.
Supporting businesses is an aim shared by Members in all parts of the House. The Government have borrowed £37 billion of taxpayers’ money and given it to the banks, but they have set an interest rate to the banks of 12 per cent. They then expect the banks to lend to small businesses at a rate of about 3 per cent. The banks cannot be pulled both ways: that is why money is getting stuck, and it is why small and medium-sized businesses are not receiving the support that they need from the Government.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Again, I shall come on to discuss recapitalisation. I certainly think that the Chancellor needs to revisit the terms of recapitalisation, as the 12 per cent. charge is too high, if one considers the coupon bond charged in the United States, Germany, France and other countries. That is one reason why our banking system has the problems that it does.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is always gracious to me. I understand that he and his party are concerned about fiscal stimulus. As their amendment states, they want
“a low debt and low tax economy”.
To me and many of my constituents, that suggests that there would be considerable cuts in public expenditure. That is a coherent political position, but my constituents deserve to know what cuts the hon. Gentleman and his party propose to make to public expenditure.
Let me say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, if we use the same methodology as the Labour party used against us at the last election—as, indeed, the Chancellor used—the thing that Labour Members all cheered a couple of weeks ago amounted to a £37 billion cut in public expenditure, so no one will ever believe anything they say again about spending cuts. Secondly, when it comes to specific Departments—[Interruption.] Treasury Ministers say, “Answer the question.” They probably do not know the answer to this question, so I have some sympathy with them.
As I understand it, the Chancellor has announced that he would take £5 billion in efficiency savings from Government Departments from 2010 onwards. There is absolutely no indication from the Government which Departments that will come from. They cannot tell us what the total spending will be on health, defence, schools or anything else, so it is a little unreasonable of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) to ask me what my health spending would be as opposed to the Labour party’s, when we do not even know what the Labour party’s plans are because they came up with the £5 billion figure and have not filled in the details yet. Once again, further evidence that everything they say on spending is total nonsense.
Before the shadow Chancellor moves on from VAT, may I point to him that it is £12.5 billion of real money in the real economy—about 1 per cent. of GDP? Would he have been more satisfied if the Government had been straight and said that business would keep that to see themselves through the recession, rather than pretending that it would be passed on to consumers?
I shall make a little more progress and perhaps give way to the hon. Gentleman later.
I was speaking about the lack of evidence that the stamp duty holiday, the VAT cut and so on had made the slightest difference. There is plenty of evidence that the prospect of a trillion pound national debt and the tax bombshell to pay for it is undermining national confidence in the future, and that makes the recession worse today. We will begin to see proof of whether the Prime Minister’s tax and borrow recession plan is working when we see the unemployment figures later this week, and particularly when we see the unemployment figures in January and February, by which time the Government will have been dealing with the recession for more than half a year.
The Prime Minister has staked his claim to office on the performance of the economy. Let him, then, be judged by it, just as we are prepared to be judged by the positive action that we now urge on the Chancellor—action that really would help reduce the length of the recession and instil the confidence that we need for a future recovery. That action begins, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said, by addressing the problems in our credit markets, for this is a credit crunch, and until we address the lack of credit, the Government are only scratching at the surface of the deep problems that we face.
The problem for the Government, and particularly for the Prime Minister, is that it requires an admission that he does not want to make. That admission is that the bank recapitalisation may have rescued the banks back in September and October, but it has not rescued the wider economy. There remains an acute shortage of credit. An over-leveraged economy is de-leveraging—[Interruption.] The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who survived the fire that was taking place behind her on the Andrew Marr programme yesterday, is obviously very excited by the incident and is gabbling away. If she wants to make an intervention, she is more than welcome to do so—
I notice that, again, there was not a word on Equitable Life; perhaps the Chancellor will deal with that issue. In a recession, of course we want to be getting money to the front line. I think that the money for things such as the pensioner bonus could have come from within Government.
By the Chief Secretary’s own admission, there are billions of pounds of efficiency savings to be made. We have said that the £12 billion VAT cut was a waste of money. If, when he responds, the Chancellor of the Exchequer can provide any evidence that that cut is having a significant impact on consumer confidence, or changing the spending patterns of British people in the run-up to Christmas, I will be delighted to hear it. So far, we have seen absolutely none.
What would the hon. Gentleman say to the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who spoke in support of the VAT cut on Sky News yesterday? He said that the best fiscal stimulus was a VAT cut, and that such a cut gives a little boost to consumer demand and stops us hitting the bottom too hard. Is this another split in the Tory party?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, I should say that I think that she is reading the planted Whips’ note from three weeks ago. It has not been updated to take account of the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has made it very clear that, given the scale of Government borrowing, this could not be afforded. He said that in the House and on many occasions. I apologise, but if that was a Whips’ note issued yesterday, the Labour party needs a new set of Whips as well as a new set of notes.
On the hon. Gentleman’s plans for recapitalisation and repairing the banks, why has the Conservative party set its mind and not made any positive comments about the use of what might be described as the “bad bank” solution—that is, taking bad debts off the banks’ balance sheets so that they feel more confident about lending to each other? Has that been a consideration in policy making within the hon. Gentleman’s party?
We are looking at all the options. The idea of a bad bank is at least worth considering, although the problems that the troubled assets relief programme, or TARP, encountered in the United States make it clear that that route is not easy. However, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, because of his knowledge in this area, there is plenty of speculation that this may not be the end of the story of bank recapitalisation when it comes to rescuing the banks. We may need some further form of recapitalisation. That might take the form of injections of share equity, as we have seen, or something else, such as a TARP scheme for the United Kingdom. It is not sensible to rule any of those options out, but if we look at the problems with the Paulson plan—or the Paulson-Geithner plan; we will see what Mr. Geithner does in office—we see that there may be other, better routes to pursue.
Another aspect of bank recapitalisation was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East. As I said, there remains an acute shortage of credit. An over-leveraged economy is de-leveraging at an alarming rate, and money is being withdrawn from our economy—withdrawn because those who used to fund loans from the wholesale markets cannot get that wholesale funding; withdrawn as US money market funds and other international investors pull back from the UK because they can see the truth about our economic prospects; and withdrawn as recapitalised banks use what resources they have to pay the Government’s coupon or buy out the Government’s stake as quickly as possible, instead of using the resources to lend out to business.
The fact is that the 12 per cent. rate that we are charging the banks is too high; it is more than twice the rate that the American Government are charging and half as high again as the rate that the Germans and French are demanding. Instead of summoning the bank chiefs to endless summits and briefing the press in advance about the ticking-off that they are going to get, the Chancellor would surely spend his time better looking at exactly what he is asking the banks to do. He wants them to pay the Government coupon, repay the preference shares, rebuild their balance sheets, lend more money in a deteriorating economy and pass on rate cuts to borrowers while protecting rates for savers—no wonder that last week the Council of Mortgage Lenders took what for it was the pretty extraordinary step of issuing a press statement:
“Current policy objectives are conflicting and incoherent…The tug of war with lenders being pulled in every direction at once needs to end.”
The Treasury and the Prime Minister need to go back and negotiate a different deal with the banks, cut preference share rates, and cut the costs of the inter-bank guarantees, as the Dutch have done. If that requires them to swallow some pride, they should swallow a bit more and introduce, alongside the recapitalisation deal, the Conservatives’ national loan guarantee scheme, for which we have been calling for over a month.
Earlier, in his statement on the European Council, the Prime Minister said that the Chancellor is about to announce a lending scheme of some sort. We will wait to hear what he has to say about that. I hope that he follows our lead and the model that we have set out, which has been discussed with and approved by many business organisations and individual businesses. We need the Government to underwrite, for a fee, lending from the banks to businesses in the same way as they are underwriting lending from one bank to another. That is the only way to ensure that sound firms get their overdrafts extended and their loan facilities renewed. It will not be enough merely again to back up securitisation in the international markets.
I would argue that directly guaranteeing lending is the only way to restart the credit insurance that, for example, underpins the supply chain, the absence of which contributed to the sad demise of Woolworths. Everyone knows that that is required. The CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce all support a version of the Conservatives’ national loan guarantee scheme, and it needs to be introduced now. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has a long and distinguished history of copying the ideas that we propose from this Dispatch Box, is more than welcome to copy this one. If he does, it is of course an admission that the Government are looking to the Conservative party for solutions to the Labour party’s recession.
To substantiate what my hon. Friend is saying about our proposals for a loan guarantee scheme, is he aware of further evidence—if that is required—from a new survey by Essex chamber of commerce showing that a quarter of all businesses have found that their banking terms and conditions have deteriorated markedly in recent weeks courtesy of the banks’ tightening of conditions? There is clear evidence that credit flows are not working and small businesses are suffering, and the Bank needs to stop talking, get on its bike and start acting to get some fresh proposals.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I would be delighted to read the survey from Essex chamber of commerce. He makes a good point. There are all sorts of ways in which credit is being withdrawn from businesses. In some cases it is simply refused, in others a very high interest rate is being charged, and in others a very high arrangement fee is being charged. This credit famine is manifesting itself in several different ways. There are other ways in which the Government can help businesses that are struggling to stay afloat and to keep people in work, which I entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is the key priority for the Government. They could allow businesses to defer their VAT and tax bills, cut national insurance costs for the smallest employers, or provide a chapter 11-style breathing space so that problems can be worked out before the liquidators are sent in.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, although this is not a question about Germany. One of the sectors that have been particularly badly affected by the credit crunch is that of housing associations building social housing, which are being offered terms by banks whereby they will get new loans only if they renegotiate the terms of their existing loans to give them higher interest rates. Does he agree that one of the worst effects of the inability to get banks lending falls on people in our society who desperately need new houses and proper Government financing to be delivered for those homes now?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that that is another example of how the credit problems in the economy are affecting all sorts of different sectors. One of the Prime Minister’s great boasts was that he was going to build 3 million homes, but house building has virtually ground to a halt. That is due not only to the lack of a market for homes to be sold to the private sector but to the lack of credit for social landlords and the like. That is further evidence of why we need to address the credit problems.
I have given way to both hon. Members, and as many Members wish to speak in this debate I shall make a little more progress.
The Government can do other things to help businesses, all of which would keep people in work over the coming months, which must be the priority. With a freeze on council tax, which I am delighted to say many Conservative-controlled councils are trying to bring about anyway, and which a Conservative Government would help them to bring about, we can bring rising household bills down and give greater confidence in the future.
That greater confidence has to be the priority. We have to rebuild confidence in Britain’s ability to pay its way in the world. People need to know that we can bring public spending under control and get government to live within its means. Our independent office for budget responsibility will tell the country the truth about this country’s liabilities, including the liabilities for the 10 years of dodgy PFI deals that they all signed up to.
On the point of control of Government expenditure, the hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful speech—he is more thoughtful today than he is often, and I salute him for that—and I understand that in the medium term he cannot tell what will happen to the economy, as none of us can. However, perhaps he could tell us, without contrasting it with the spending of the Labour Government, what the position of his party is in the medium term on the percentage of gross domestic product that a Conservative Government would spend each year?
Since we are in a recession of unknown length, and the hon. Gentleman cannot tell me what gross domestic product will be even in a year’s time, let alone in three or four years’ time, how can I be expected to offer a percentage of that as what a Conservative Government would spend? I do not believe in setting figures as a percentage of national income for public expenditure; I believe in public expenditure that is affordable for the Government given the prevailing economic circumstances and the demands of the public sector, and that is what I will do.
It is generous of the hon. Gentleman to give way to me a second time. He has shown that he is determined to use realistic policies to bring the economy out of trouble, but one of the problems for the banks is that they are so shocked by the losses that they have incurred, they are unwilling to risk any further losses. Would his loan guarantee scheme provide protection for the banks’ initial losses? It is only by following that route that the scheme will be successful.
The way in which we envisage the scheme working is that the losses will be shared pari passu. It would greatly reduce the risks to which the banks are exposed, but to remove all risks for the banks could lead to some considerable distortion in the operation of such a scheme. It is right, by the way, to use the banks’ ability to assess credit risk in businesses, and the network that they have.
I would like some clarification of the hon. Gentleman’s fiscal policy. Is he still committed to the full use of the automatic stabilisers, and, if so, does he accept that the vast majority of the projected increase in Government debt will come about through the use of a fiscal policy that relies on the automatic stabilisers?
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I and many other Conservatives have said, we are committed to the use of the automatic stabilisers, as the Conservatives were when in government in the early 1990s. There are several components of national debt. There is the element of the automatic stabilisers, of course, but there are other elements, too. The Government took a large structural deficit out of the boom years, almost alone among the advanced economies, into a bust at about 3 or 4 per cent. of national income. That is an absolute scandal. They had the biggest boom of almost any economy because of the size of financial services and the property industry, but still managed to run a large deficit. That is part of the problem. There may be a new form of structural deficit caused by their over-reliance on tax receipts from the City and property—when those may return we do not know. There is the element of the automatic stabilisers, and then there is the additional discretionary element, such as the VAT reduction. We took a decision on that, and I think the Liberal Democrats will also vote against the VAT cut later in the week. Both parties agree that that is not the best use of Government money.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have given way a number of times, so I shall make a bit more progress.
As I was saying, our independent office for budget responsibility will tell the country the truth about things such as the components of national debt. There is an alternative to the generation of higher taxes that we have had under Labour. This matter is not just about future recovery, but the current recession. The public are not fools. They can see the bills that they will pay for Labour’s failure, and they fear Labour’s increase in national insurance on the incomes of everyone earning more than £20,000, which is a tax on the incomes and jobs of middle Britain. The public fear the Labour Government’s plans for a permanently higher VAT rate, which the Treasury so helpfully leaked to us. They fear Labour’s lack of credit; they fear the rise in unemployment under Labour, and they can see what is coming down the track.
A survey from the Bank of England today showed that that lack of confidence in the future is holding many families back from spending today. Britain needs a Government who can inspire confidence in the future and in employing people without the fear of higher employment taxes. Britain needs a Government who will inspire the confidence needed to buy a house without fear of further measures that might damage the housing market, and who will enable people to plan for their family’s future without the threat of having a generation weighed down by national debt. That confidence is not coming from this tired and failed Government, who have brought about the greatest failure in economic policy for a generation and given Britain the prospect of the worst recession in the industrial world. By their own admission today, this is the deepest recession we have ever known. The Government are failing to offer any confidence of recovery: they have had their chance and the British people should have the chance to get rid of them.
Yet again, the shadow Chancellor was pretty thin on what he would do in the face of the global downturn with which we are faced, but I will return to that matter shortly.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has again promised support from his party for the Banking Bill, which is essential as we continue to deal with the fallout from the credit crunch. I hope that the Conservatives now regret that they opposed the Bill to nationalise Northern Rock in February last year, without which it would not have been possible to deal with the problems at Bradford & Bingley during September, in the summer recess.
The proposals in the Queen’s Speech for welfare reform will also be extremely important. At a time like this, when people are likely to lose their jobs, it is important to do everything that we possibly can to help such people get back into work. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will discuss that when he speaks to the House at the conclusion of this debate.
There are also measures to continue to build a fairer society, to help victims of crime, to tackle discrimination and to help with training and apprenticeships, and further NHS reforms, all of which have been debated during the past few days. I also welcome the shadow Chancellor’s welcome for legislation to ensure that the Government meet the obligation to eradicate child poverty. Let me just say this: a commitment to eradicating child poverty is important, but so too is a commitment to producing the means to enable us to do that. I do not think that a future Conservative Government could provide such a commitment.
Next year, we will, of course, continue to work with other countries to tackle climate change, as the Prime Minister made clear earlier, and we welcome the agreement reached by the European Union leaders last week. The Climate Change Act 2008, which imposes a legally binding obligation on British Governments, is important and shows that we can set an example to other parts of the world. That is yet another example of how we work with other countries to deal with international problems. Of course, we continue to work with other countries to deal with the problems that have arisen as a result of the credit crunch, which affect every single developed country and other countries.
That is why it is important that we continue to work with other countries as we hold the presidency of the G20 next year. We have an opportunity not only to address some of the problems of the past that have helped to cause the problems we now face, but to ensure that we reduce the likelihood of such events happening again and, crucially, that Governments across the world act together now to reduce the impact of a recession and help our economies get through this downturn as quickly as possible.
The Chancellor is talking about international co-operation and the international context. The European Commission and the International Monetary Fund have both said that the UK recession will be deeper than that of any other developed country. Does he agree with that and if so, why?
We are going to be affected more substantially in relation to the loss of revenues that we are now experiencing because of the lack of profitability in the financial services sector. London is the major financial services sector of the world—something that was welcomed in all parts of the House. Of course we are likely to be more severely affected as a result of profitability being reduced, and I have made that point on many different occasions in the House. We are also affected by the downturn in the housing market, because of the reduced revenues from stamp duty.
Of course we are being affected, but the other point is that there is not a country in the world that is not being affected, whether it be America, in the eurozone, China, India or in south America. This truly is a global problem. The only person in the House who does not want to recognise that is the shadow Chancellor. The fact is that the problem started in America, as the Americans themselves admit.
But we are trying to make a keen distinction. Was the Minister for the Olympics right today to recognise that the recession is deeper than any that we have previously known? Notwithstanding the fact that all countries face a problem, why does she think that the recession here is going to be deeper than any that we have previously known, which therefore means that we were less prepared than anyone else?
What I know is that my right hon. Friend the Minister, like everyone on the Labour Benches, supports the measures to ensure not only that we tackle the causes of the recession, but that we help people and businesses through this difficult time. That is the difference between the two major political parties at the moment.
I am grateful to the Chancellor for giving way. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) asked a very specific question. The Minister for the Olympics, who attends Cabinet, said today that Britain was
“facing a recession deeper than any that we have known”.
Does the Chancellor agree with his colleague?
I have made it very clear that we, along with every other developed country the world over, face a huge challenge because of the current economic downturn, the like of which we have not seen in generations. I have been saying that for months. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman may remember that in the summer, when we were both pursuing our aquatic summer holidays in our own way, I encountered a degree of turbulence when I said what I said, but I meant it, because we faced—as we all know we still do—severe problems right across the world, because of what is happening in every corner of the world.
I shall make some progress and perhaps give way later.
It is pretty clear that the difference between the two sides in the House is that the Government are prepared to take action to help people, whereas the Conservative party is not. What we are also seeing is the massive contradictions in the Conservative party’s approach. The Conservatives are not leading the debate; they are simply following it. Even today, I noticed that the Leader of the Opposition gave a speech in which he called for more regulation of the financial services industry. I agree that we need to strengthen the supervision and regulation of the financial services industry. However, I also came across what the shadow Chancellor said in April 2006:
“Regulation … inhibits enterprise. For example, speak to any business in financial services—from the largest investment bank to smallest independent financial adviser—and the threat of future regulation from Whitehall and Brussels is now their number one concern.”
Well, it is not their No. 1 concern today.
Most people recognise that the regulatory system needs to be strengthened. However, just at the time that the problems in the sub-prime market in the United States were starting to emerge, the shadow Chancellor told the Tory party conference, in October last year, that the report from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who had been commissioned to advise those on the Conservative Front Bench on these matters,
“sets out how we liberate our economy to compete with the likes of India and China … cut Government regulation, planning restrictions and red tape”.
What was in that report? Under the heading of “Mortgage regulation”, it stated:
“We see no need to continue to regulate the provision of mortgage finance, as it is the lending institutions rather than the client taking the risk”.
Well, do we not know that that is the case, when we look at what has happened?
Today, the Conservatives try to tell us that, during the past 10 years, it was they who were calling for tighter regulation all along, yet they were the party of self-regulation in the 1980s and the 1990s. We were the Government who introduced the Financial Services Authority, bringing together a disparate range of regulators, and we are also the party that will bring forward proposals to help to strengthen the system of supervision and regulation.
That might be effective criticism of the Conservatives for the purpose of putting out leaflets, but surely the problem is that the huge powers of regulation that the Government gave to the FSA have proved entirely ineffective. Regulation did not work; it regulated the wrong things and ignored the huge leverage that was taking place in the financial markets. We should have had focused regulation to prevent this disaster from taking place.
As I said a few moments ago, there are obviously lessons to be learned from what has happened, not just here but in the United States, in Europe and right across the world. All of us need to learn lessons from what has happened. The other people who need to learn lessons are those sitting in the boardrooms of the banks, who should have asked themselves whether they really understood the risks to which they had allowed their institutions to become exposed.
I am following the Chancellor’s argument on regulation, but given that regulatory failure was beginning to be understood in the summer of 2007, why did he say in his pre-Budget report speech that, while he was going to look at regulation and supervision, he would not have proposals put before him until spring 2009? Why have this interminable delay in doing the right thing?
Legislation aimed at strengthening the supervision and regulation of the banks is already going through the House. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of it—or perhaps not—but it is also clear that we will have to take further action. That is why I have said that we need to make further proposals to strengthen the system of supervision and regulation.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman was perhaps going to raise a slightly different point. Sadly, there are two examples in Scotland of banks that should have realised the risks to which they were becoming exposed, and perhaps taken different decisions that would have produced a different result from the one that we now see. Fortunately, we have been able to intervene, but I have to say to him yet again that the Scottish economy would not have been able to support the degree of intervention that the UK Government were able to bring to bear in order to help the RBS and HBOS. It simply would not have been able to do it—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can discuss this for ever and a day, but it will not alter the fact that the strength of the United Kingdom greatly benefits Scotland.
The strength of the United Kingdom is in the borrowing of £1 trillion in order to fund some of the proposals that the Chancellor is now talking about. That is not about the intrinsic strength of the United Kingdom. Does he agree that HBOS and the RBS were almost brought to their knees by the failure of this Government to take decisive action in the way that the Irish did when they guaranteed all deposits? The Irish have seen no runs on any of their banks, and no bank losses.
That is patent nonsense. I do not think that many people would agree with the hon. Gentleman.
As I was saying, since September we have clearly seen a deterioration of the situation in relation to the banking sector. That was, perhaps, typified when the United States bank Lehman Brothers finally collapsed. Indeed, since March every single Wall street investment bank has collapsed, merged or had to change its business mode, such is the scale of the problems that we face. More than $30 trillion has been wiped off the value of share prices across the world this year: that is twice the size of the United Kingdom economy.
Here, we recapitalised the banks in October. We also introduced a credit guarantee scheme to guarantee new lending between banks. Earlier this year, through the special liquidity scheme, we ensured that banks had sufficient liquidity. Up to £200 billion was guaranteed. Those steps were absolutely necessary to prevent the collapse of banks in this country. Since the schemes were introduced, no United Kingdom bank has failed, and not one saver in a British bank has lost out. The £50 billion of new capital, both public and private, will be taken up by the eight major banks and building societies, and the measures that we have introduced to maintain financial stability at home have been widely copied throughout the world. Those measures were essential to maintain the stability of the banking system, and they have helped to ensure that banks are beginning to extend lending. A great deal more needs to be done, but to assert that what we have done has made no difference whatsoever is quite simply wrong.
Surely the Chancellor can at least see that the bank recapitalisation package has failed to restore lending to anything like normal levels, and that the main reason—or a major reason—for that is the terms of the preference stock, at 12 per cent. Does he accept that it is now essential for the Government to present a revised set of proposals, even if that means eating humble pie, to get the banking sector working again? Without such proposals, we shall be stuck with very little lending.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the 2007 levels of lending, which both the RBS group and the Lloyds-HBOS group must maintain. That is part of the agreement. We also want to ensure that other banks extend their lending. The RBS has promised not to increase overdraft prices for small and medium-sized enterprises. Lloyds has agreed to pass on its rate cuts to its SME borrowers. HSBC has announced substantial increases in borrowing for both home owners and small businesses. Today, Barclays has indicated that it will increase the amount of credit available to the small and medium-sized sector by £1.5 billion. What we are doing is having an effect, but clearly a lot more needs to be done.
I can tell those who said that the credit guarantee scheme would not work that we expect some £100 billion of guaranteed credit to have been issued by the banks and building societies by the end of this year. The take-up is as strong as we expected. Moreover, the rate at which banks lend to each other and which drives the rate at which they charge their customers—LIBOR—is down by more than 3 per cent., and the cost of insuring against bank failures, which is another measure of assessments made in relation to banks, is down by about 40 basis points for the RBS and HBOS. So what we are doing is having an effect.
The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) referred to preference shares, and mentioned a figure of 12 per cent. The House will no doubt remember that when I made my statement in October and set out what we proposed to do in relation to bank recapitalisation, many Members—particularly Conservatives—fell over themselves to demand that we extract a sufficient price from the banks to ensure a fair return for taxpayers. They were right, but the hon. Gentleman is confusing what was charged in relation to the preference shares—which was to ensure that we did not just lend money to the RBS or HBOS which would then pass straight to the shareholders without benefiting the strength of the bank as a whole—with the cost of actual borrowing, which, as I have said, is driven largely by inter-bank lending.
The Chancellor needs to explain why he set a coupon rate of 12 per cent. When we look at the American and German systems, we see that they have set an interest rate of just 5 per cent. Unless the Chancellor is willing to return here with another set of plans, I fear that it will not be long before he goes cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund, just as Denis Healey did a number of years ago.
The reason we imposed a charge was to ensure not only that the taxpayer got value for money, but that the money we put into the banks did not simply get passed straight through to the shareholders, which people would rightly have complained about. I made it clear last month that we would look at this scheme, and that we would do so before Christmas. The hon. Gentleman was slightly ahead of himself, because just over an hour ago we announced some changes to the credit guarantee scheme. We will lengthen the scheme from three to five years’ maturity, lasting until April 2014. We will also widen the range of currencies in which banks can borrow the guarantee, and lower the fee used for the credit scheme while still keeping it on commercial terms.
All these measures will continue to help to ensure that we get bank lending going again. It is difficult because, as the shadow Chancellor said, and as I said to the Select Committee last week, there is potentially a tension between the need to get banks to recapitalise and build up their strength and the need to encourage them to lend to the wider economy. None of these things would have been possible, however, if the Government had not been prepared to take action, and to ensure both that we made money available to strengthen and recapitalise the banks and that the banks had the funds so that they are available to the wider economy. As I said, many other countries across the world are now doing exactly the same thing.
On the Chancellor’s recapitalisation plan, was he surprised that in the case of the Royal Bank of Scotland, for example, not a single external shareholder, as far as I am aware, chose to invest at that point, and therefore the Government have shouldered the entire burden of that recapitalisation? Was that his plan?
It is what we expected. It was obvious that in the conditions prevailing in October it would be highly unlikely that RBS would be able to raise money on the markets in the normal way. That is why we set up the scheme in the first place. Indeed, if we had thought it would be possible for all the banks to raise money on the markets in the normal way, we would not have had to introduce the scheme, so the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is unequivocally yes, I was expecting it—and, indeed, I was absolutely right.
As I have said, I will keep all those things under review, because I want to ensure two things—that banks can lend because they have the funds and can lend into the wider economy, and that the taxpayer gets a return for what is a very substantial investment.
As I said, the central difference between the Conservatives and the Government today is, as it has been for some considerable time, whether we should take further action over and above monetary policy—reductions in interest rates—in order to support the economy. Countries across the world—the United States, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and China—have signed up to putting more money into their economies to support them. The shadow Chancellor had some fun when he mentioned Germany in his speech, but the fact is that Germany, too, has already put in place a fiscal stimulus of almost the same size as our own. That demonstrates that countries all over the world are doing what we are doing: supporting their economy, supporting businesses and supporting people, because that is absolutely essential.
People will ask themselves why the Conservative party seems so ready to repeat the mistakes it made in the 1980s and 1990s, when it did precious little to help an entire generation of people who were simply written off as the Conservatives sat back and let the recessions take their course.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a sad day for democracy when we have an official Opposition who are against fiscal stimulus and want a low-debt, low-tax economy, but who will not tell the electorate what they think UK Government spending should be in the medium term as a percentage of gross domestic product? Is this not a sleight of hand?
I was just going to come on to that point, because the shadow Chancellor made pretty heavy weather of trying to answer the question put by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) about whether he supported the borrowing that arises as a result of the automatic stabilisers of the loss of revenues and the increased cost of benefit.
Of course, in October the Leader of the Opposition said:
“Borrowing goes up. That’s inevitable and you have to allow that to happen.”
If he believes that, he has to accept the consequences—that is it necessary to meet the cost of that borrowing.
No, I want to make some progress; the right hon. Gentleman has just intervened.
The Leader of the Opposition also said, in July, that what the Government ought to be doing is cutting taxes—that they should be giving a fiscal stimulus to the economy. If he still believes that those two things are right, how can he justify his position today, when we are doing precisely that? Indeed, in September, he also said:
“The lightweight thing to do would be to make unrealistic promises about slashing Labour’s spending”
levels, and yet what happened just last week? The shadow Chancellor said that, whatever spending limits I announced, he was going to cut them further. Yet when he was asked on “Newsnight” on 9 December what he would do—he was asked on 19 separate occasions what cuts he would make, or what he would reduce—he could not, or would not, say. On 13 different occasions he was asked the same question, and he could not answer. Rather like the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who had that difficulty during the last general election, the shadow Chancellor could not say, or, more likely, would not say. Well, he may not be able to say today, but he will at some point before the next general election have to spell that out. If he really believes that he wants to cut public spending, especially at a time when the economy will still be suffering from some of the effects of the downturn, surely at some stage he is going to have to say where exactly he is going to get that money from.
Has the Chancellor just given a hint of the date of the next election, or is he saying that his projection that the recession will come to an end by the third quarter of next year is wrong? Which is it? Will we have an election before that, or is the projection wrong?
What I found very interesting during the shadow Chancellor’s speech was the lack of an alternative. More importantly, he talked about decent housing, looking after families and so forth, but equally, he never said how he was going to do that. What we have had today is an absence of an alternative policy from the Opposition.
Indeed, and that is precisely the problem that the shadow Chancellor has. It was not that long ago, although it seems like light years away, that he was talking at this year’s Tory party conference and promising more beds in the NHS, yet there was a funding shortfall of about £8 billion. He was calling for new school places; there was a funding shortfall there. He is still talking about cuts in inheritance tax, at a time when many people would think that there are other priorities that a Government might have, and there is a shortfall there of about £2 billion. He had a whole list of promises that he was making. Even on the loan scheme that he was outlining this afternoon, he does not have the money to pay for it, because he says that there would be no more money under his proposals. Yet somehow he offers the prospect of additional funding for companies and firms in this country.
On looking at all the proposals made by the Leader of the Opposition at the start of this debate on the Loyal Address, we see that he is in no position to implement any of them, because he has made it clear that under the Conservatives, there would be no more support for the British people or for British companies. He is not in a position to make these promises, because he simply does not have the funds to pay for them.
It is the case that debt and borrowing will rise. The shadow Chancellor was complaining about what we have done over the past 10 years. We reduced substantially the amount of debt that we inherited from the last Conservative Government, which meant that we are able to spend on front-line services. At the same time, we spent more on public services—on schools, hospitals, police, transport and housing. All those things needed more money after many years of underinvestment. We did increase public spending, but at the same time we reduced debt. Let us consider the position today. Despite all the things that we have had to do to support the economy, our debt will still be less than that of the United States, Japan and Italy. No one wants to be in a position where they have to borrow any more than they need to, and we want to keep debt at as low a level as possible, but to take money out of the economy now at a time like this, if that is what the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark)—
The debt is increasing, as I have said to the hon. Gentleman, just as debt doubled in the 1990s during the recession then. The difference is that because we were able to reduce debt substantially over the past 10 years, when we met the fiscal rules that we set, we have now been able to increase borrowing because it is the right thing to do to support people.
I am most grateful to the Chancellor. I have come into the Chamber because he has just said that at the last election I was unable to identify the savings in Government expenditure that I was proposing. His memory is playing him entirely false. Does he not now accept that when I proposed £35 billion of savings in Government spending it was all set out in detail in the James report, in which he and his colleagues were entirely unable to pick a hole during the whole of that campaign—a figure that is almost identical to the savings now proposed by the Government?
I think that the electorate came to the view that we were able to pick rather a large hole in it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was not here at the time, but I was referring to the fact that in the same way as the shadow Chancellor had an uncomfortable time on “Newsnight”, I seem to remember that the right hon. and learned Gentleman had a very uncomfortable time, being unable to answer questions for some considerable time.
I wonder whether the Chancellor can help me. By accepting the automatic stabilisers, the official Opposition have accepted that public debt will increase. Given that the Government’s GDP fiscal deficit next year is to be 8 per cent., can the Chancellor confirm that 7 per cent. of that will result from the automatic stabilisers and that 1 per cent. will result from the fiscal stimulus, and so what the official Opposition are debating is the amount of money given to people to help them through this recession?
As I said to the House, the shadow Chancellor, having said that he accepts the need to allow the automatic stabilisers to rise, must accept the consequences of that. I think that we need to do more than that; we also need to put an additional fiscal stimulus of 1 per cent. into the economy. Of course a lot of our public spending is in the form of maintaining capital spending investment—it is at its highest level for about 30 years—which will make a big difference to our economy in the future, especially as we come through this.
I am going to make some progress. As I was saying, it is important at such a time that we take action to help people. We have reduced income tax for 22 million basic rate taxpayers—that will be worth £145 each from April next year—and I brought forward the payments being made in relation to child benefit and made additional payments for pensions. It is all very well for the Conservatives to say, “Yes, we welcome them,” but they have to answer the second question, “How do you pay for them?” There is no point in making promises if they are not willing to produce the means to pay for them.
In addition, we have brought forward capital spending, which will, among other things, help jobs in the construction industry. We have also introduced substantial measures to help businesses in relation to guarantees for loans for small firms, guarantees for small exporters, money from the European Investment Bank and measures to help businesses that are having difficulty with their taxes. Those are all measures that will make a substantial difference.
I am grateful to the Chancellor for giving way, particularly on the point about the likely debt that will result from the fiscal stimulus. Is not this the first time in a recession that the Treasury has assumed that we will lose 4 per cent. of output for ever and that a large part of the debt resulting from the projections arises because we will not regain the previous trend? Is that designed to keep No. 10 in check? If not, why is it that the Chancellor has failed to persuade the Paris-based OECD of the same phenomenon? Its estimates of the structural deficit are substantially lower than his own.
The estimates that I set before the House reflect the fact that, as I said earlier, we have a large financial services sector here. It built up quite rapidly over the last decade and it is quite substantially affected by what has happened. It is sensible to proceed on the basis that the revenues we get in will be reduced and it will take time before the economy comes back. Anyone setting out their prospectus for how we ought to proceed over the next few years has to take account of those realities, just as they have to take account of the fact that we have to pay for the additional spending that will come from increased benefits and other expenditure resulting from the economy slowing down.
Not just now. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) is right, but if we are to ensure that we come through this with less pain—helping people and businesses—it is important that, in addition to supporting the economy in the normal way, we do more. That is the difference between us. I believe that we need to take action to help people and to help businesses. People expect their Government to do that at times like this. Indeed, it is only the strength of Government that can enable us to do it.
Like every other country in the world, we face a difficult period. I am confident that we will get through it, and I am confident because we are taking the right action. We have low interest rates now, compared with the 15 or 17 per cent. interest rates that we saw in the 1990s and the 1980s—[Interruption.] Yes we did. Interest rates were sky high in the 1980s and 1990s, and this country paid a very high price for it.
Next year, we will also see inflation coming down. We will benefit from the reduction in oil prices, which will pass through to what people pay at the pump. We want to see the benefit of that in relation to gas and electricity prices as well. We will get through this because we are taking the right action. We are prepared to support people. We are prepared to support businesses in this country. That is the difference between us. That is why I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to return to some of the issues in an economic situation that is deteriorating rapidly, and is already significantly different from the environment that we discussed three weeks ago in relation to the pre-Budget report.
Before I move on to deal with the big economic issues, I want to say a little about one aspect of pensions. One thing the Government need like a hole in the head is another administrative disaster like the loss of computer discs, but I am afraid that they have one with public sector pensions. I was rung up 10 days ago by a journalist from Radio Ulster about a story that she had picked up regarding a company called Xafinity Paymaster, which pays out public sector pensions to former members of the armed services and the national health service, among others. She understood that this company had been paying out excessive public pensions, probably to hundreds of thousands of public sector pensioners, and that this error had just been discovered, and that the company was about to start retrieving the money from the pensioners.
I made inquiries of the Government, and last Thursday had the courtesy of a telephone call from the head of the civil service, who confirmed that this problem had arisen. He asked me not to publicise it for several days in order to give the Government the opportunity to inform the pensioners personally of their difficulties—I think that I have now abided by that. He said that tomorrow, a written statement would be made that would explain the background to the problem.
As the House does not have the opportunity to respond to a written statement, I thought that it would be more useful to mention the subject this afternoon and to pose the obvious questions, to which I hope that the Minister who concludes the debate can reply. How many people are we talking about? How much money is involved? What steps will be taken to retrieve the overpayments? I understand that in some cases those overpayments go back decades, and are potentially enormous. I do not know the answer to those questions, and I hope that the Government will clarify them. I hope that none of us will face the possibility that large numbers of ex-servicemen will suddenly be faced with bailiffs turning up and asking them to repay overpayments, as we have already seen in the appalling instances involving tax credits. I simply ask for a proper explanation of what has happened.
I half expected the hon. Gentleman to intervene earlier. There will be a statement tomorrow, but I want to clarify one of the points that he made. He was asking about repayment of money that has been wrongly paid. I think it would be better if I made it clear that that will not happen. It will be necessary to adjust what is paid in the future, but the Government recognise that there have been such payments for a long time. I would not want people to think that we will start clawing back money that has been paid erroneously. Things need to be put right from next year, and there will be a statement tomorrow by the Cabinet Office.
I thank the Chancellor for that clarification. I am not sure about the reference to adjusting what will be paid in the future, because that could mean returning to the normal arrangements or it could mean a clawback. We will no doubt receive clarification on that.
I endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) about Equitable Life. I think that I have introduced at least three debates on the subject over the past 10 years, and we are finally grinding to a conclusion. It is inexplicable that yet another postponement has occurred. The hon. Gentleman did not mention the dreaded word “compensation”. I would simply like to ask the Chancellor whether in the current environment compensation payments would be regarded as a fiscal stimulus; that might help the Government to face the issue that they will have to face.
Let me turn to the main issues surrounding the economy. The position is deteriorating very fast. Quite apart from the difficulties in our own economy, within the past few days the five leading German economic institutes have suggested that the German economy may decline by 5 per cent. next year. We are seeing similar figures from the United States. The fixed-interest market, if it is extrapolated forward, suggests that the markets are already expecting that the period of deflation will last for five years in the US and for three years in the UK. We are talking about something much more serious, much deeper and much longer than any Government forecasts have yet acknowledged. I do not say that with any relish, but simply because we need to face up to the implications of what is involved.
One commentator observed this morning that this is no longer a question of averting the modern equivalent of the 1929 crash. The crash has already happened. The question is whether we can avert 1930, 1931 and 1932. As a reminder, in that period the American economy declined by 30 per cent. and took a decade to recover. Britain’s experience was not dissimilar.
We are talking about a magnitude of crisis way beyond what has been contemplated hitherto. We need to approach it in that spirit, and not with the tiresome party games that we have several times a week in which we decide whether the Prime Minister is 80 per cent. or 20 per cent. responsible for the problem and whether, after the crisis is over, he should be subjected to the economic equivalent of a Nuremburg trial. The responsibility is shared. There have been policy failures here and there is a big international crisis at the same time. We do not need to say anything else at this stage. We need to focus on solutions.
I want to address three issues that have come to the fore in the past few weeks that we need to think a little bit about. The first is the issue of exchange rates, which is relatively new. Secondly, we need to reflect a little on where we are with the fiscal stimulus arguments. We then need to talk a little more about the banks. The hon. Member for Tatton raised the problem—if it is a problem—of the euro-sterling exchange rate for the first time several weeks ago. He was chided by the Government for being unpatriotic and for talking down the pound. I want to make it clear that I have absolutely no truck with such idiotic arguments. It is perfectly reasonable for the hon. Gentleman, or anybody else, to talk about the pound, and to do so pessimistically or optimistically. That is an entirely sensible subject for debate and there is no reason whatsoever why he should not talk about it—although whether what he said is sensible is a different matter.
Talking about the euro-sterling exchange rate, does the hon. Gentleman accept that for a decade or more the pound was overvalued relative to the euro, and that we had a structural trade deficit as a result? Have we not just experienced a sensible readjustment? Does he think that depreciation is a necessary condition, if not a sufficient one, for Britain’s recovery?
I agree with almost every word of that, which makes me wonder why the issue was raised in the first place. Is it a problem? Why is it a problem? If it was raised as a problem, what is the solution? The question of whether there is a problem goes back to the precise point that the hon. Gentleman has just raised: all the manufacturers tell me that they are privately rather relieved that they can compete more effectively in their export markets and, even more importantly, compete against imports.
I shall come to that in a moment.
If there is a problem—the Conservative spokesman clearly thinks that there is—what is the solution? We need to ask why the pound has been falling for a prolonged period against the dollar, and for a rather shorter period, but substantially, against the euro too. The standard answer, of course, is that there are interest rate differentials and the markets expect bigger movements in interest rates than would occur in the eurozone. Of course, that is a mechanical answer. Why has the British reaction to the crisis had to be so much more dramatic than that in the eurozone? There are two reasons for that. First, the bubble in the British housing market was much more extreme. The other reason, which is an important one, is that Britain has a much bigger financial sector.
Professor Buiter at the London School of Economics, who I believe is offering advice to the Conservative party on these matters, has set out a very careful argument along the lines that Britain is beginning to suffer from, or already suffers from, what he calls an Icelandic problem, which is that it is very dangerous for a middle-sized country such as Britain to have a very large banking sector or financial sector. That exposes such countries to big financial shocks and to big movements in the exchange rate. If that is the case—I think that it probably is—there are two practical solutions. First, of course, one can reduce the scale of the financial sector and do to the City what Mrs. Thatcher did to the coalmining industry; one can reduce vulnerability in that way. However, that is brutal and negative and destroys a lot of wealth creation in the process.
The other solution is to lock in the exchange rate to a much bigger area. I shall not cause excitement by saying that that is what we ought to do, but we certainly need to have an open mind on the issue, and when the crisis is over, we may well have to return to it. I leave that with the Conservative spokesman. If he wants to raise the pound-euro issue, he must presume that there is a problem and that there is a solution—and if that is not the solution, I would be interested to know what is.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, despite the fact that that displeased his colleague the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), who is sitting next to him. Is not a better measure of the problem the credit default swap and the way in which the spread is widened out to 113 bases at once for five years of CDS? Surely, as has been suggested in the media, the problem is that the Government are ultimately liable for the £9 trillion of liabilities and assets from the banks. The country is exposed to a very real danger if the Government are driven to nationalising the entire banking sector, excluding HSBC.
I think the hon. Gentleman is putting my point in a slightly different way: the British financial sector is extremely large relative to the economy and a lot of risks flow from that. I should be interested to hear his solution.
The second issue arises from the controversy with Mr. Steinbrück in Germany over the past few days about fiscal stimulus. I agree with the hon. Member for Tatton that there is an element of schadenfreude. The Germans have been lectured for years about how wonderful it would be to adopt the Anglo-Saxon model of financial capitalism and how they should copy everything the British Government have been doing, but have now discovered that it was not so clever after all. The Germans are obviously having a bit of fun, but Mr. Steinbrück has been making a serious point about the lack of wisdom—as the Germans appear to believe, or at least he does—in having a fiscal stimulus.
The Conservatives have taken a certain amount of moral encouragement from the fact that they have at least one ally in the argument. I am not sure how firm the ally actually is, because over the weekend the Germans seem to have capitulated and agreed that there should be a fiscal stimulus after all. None the less, there is a strong argument made by the Germans and, among others, the Polish right wing, that we should not have fiscal stimulus. We need to examine such arguments carefully, because this is absolutely crucial to where we go from here.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will take interventions shortly.
Western economies are in an extreme state of crisis. If interest rates cannot do the job, fiscal stimulus has to be the alternative. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), has already pointed out, we already accept a fairly high degree of consensus that a large part of the present deficit will have to happen; we are arguing about whether a little more should be put in on top. In the British case, we are talking about between 1 and 2 per cent.
What are the arguments against the fear felt by the Germans—and, presumably, the British Conservatives? Their first argument is that there is no point in a fiscal stimulus because people will not spend, but will just save. They will see taxes coming in the future so they will see no point in spending the windfall; they will hoard it and save it, so nothing will happen. There may be an element of truth in that, but it depends on exactly how the measure is applied. One of the reasons why we shall be coming back to discuss the VAT changes on Wednesday—having prayed against the order—is that they are not the best way to provide fiscal stimulus. They create precisely the problem that the Germans have identified, which is why we argue that fiscal stimulus is better done the American way, predominantly through public works. What the Americans call shovel-ready projects are a much better way of getting income into the economy.
The other way of arguing that fiscal stimulus is a bad idea is to say that although we get something today, we shall have to pay for it tomorrow—an argument that Keynes famously demolished with the line:
“ in the long run, we’re all dead.”
He was not simply saying that the long term is further away than the short term, as it obviously is, but was making the more profound point that if Governments do nothing the recession is even deeper, so the public finance position is even worse. Government deficits and debt will be even worse if there is no financial stimulus. That is the core of the argument that all the other members of the developed world—and, it would appear, the Chinese and the Indians too—now accept. It has to be right—and Mr. Steinbrück has to be wrong—that a fiscal stimulus is a necessary part of the solution. I am very disappointed that the Conservatives have not understood that fairly simple basic point.
There may have to be, although we are rapidly exhausting it. The issue we face—and a question I intended to put to the Chancellor—is whether what has been done is too little, too late to avoid a major contraction. The issue being raised by the chairman of the United States Federal Reserve is that we need to go further than cuts in interest rates and fiscal stimulus; he used the phrase “quantitative easing”, which is a nice, economist’s way of talking about printing money. That raises all kinds of concerns in “The Dog and Duck” about what printing money actually means—but in fact it would mean the Government borrowing from the central bank and using that money either to make cash available or to buy up bonds to drive down the interest rate yield on long-term bonds and the cost of capital, or it could mean buying up assets. The Government can do lots of things, but that is the next issue on the agenda. If we are to have a forward-looking approach to the problem, it would be useful to know the Government’s view of that idea. Would they support it? Are they advocating it?
The question is whether Britain can afford a fiscal stimulus, not whether China, or indeed the United States, should undertake one. There is pretty broad consensus, expressed recently by the European Commission:
“For Member States, particularly those outside the euro area, facing significant…imbalances, the aim of budgetary policy should be to correct those imbalances.”
In other words, Britain cannot afford extra discretionary borrowing. It relates to the point that the hon. Gentleman was making earlier when he was comparing the British and Icelandic situations; there are serious issues not only about Britain’s creditworthiness, but also about how a country that goes into recession with a high budget deficit can afford to add to it in a discretionary way.
The European Commission is not always right, and on this occasion I think it is wrong, for two reasons. The first is that although the British economy undoubtedly has problems—the British fiscal deficit is one of the largest in the western world—British public debt in relation to the economy is not exceptionally large. It is lower than in the United States or in Germany, which puts Mr. Steinbrück’s comments in context—but I do not totally disregard what the Conservative spokesman said; we have to be careful. We are already beginning to see that highly indebted countries such as Italy are finding it increasingly difficult and costly to borrow in international markets. If we reached that point, we would be in some difficulty. What he says is not completely wrong, but there is much scope for the Government to act, and they should act.
Does it not give the hon. Gentleman pause that the Government’s figures, set out in table 1.1 of the pre-Budget report, show that if they borrowed in accordance with their plans, both the new borrowing they incur and the total stock of Government debt resulting from that borrowing would be higher as a percentage of national income than at the peak during either the 1975 recession or the recession of the early 1990s?
The right hon. Gentleman is right, because this recession is very bad and public debt as a share of the economy will indeed rise to alarming heights, as it will in all other major western countries.
The Conservatives constantly ask the Government to confirm that British debt will double. Of course it will. Why cannot the Government admit it? It is part of the logic of what is happening.
The House would find it valuable if the hon. Gentleman could spell out the differences between Government and Liberal Democrat policy. Might the difference be that his policy has a much greater chance of raising revenue, because he would change the value of tax allowances to the rich—for people who were claiming the allowance, who would thus already be paying tax—whereas we just hope that the rich will be a little more honest in completing their tax returns?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making my point. I think the Government are saying that they will not make the change for two years, but if the top rate is raised to 45 per cent., top-rate taxpayers will have two options: to convert their income to capital, on which they need to pay only 18 per cent., or to put the money into large pension pots, where they will have relief at the 45 per cent. top rate. It is to stop those two things happening that we suggest a more far-reaching reform of the tax system, which would raise much more revenue.
Let me move on to my third issue, which has to do with banks. Again, the Conservative spokesman was absolutely right to emphasise that decisions taken on the banking system are much more important than many of the issues that we have been discussing. The balance sheet of two of our banks—the Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays—is substantially bigger than the whole of Government debt; that puts what we are talking about in context.
I should like to refer to several points raised in the debate. The suggestion was made that the Government coupon on the preference shares should be reduced; I think that the phrase that the hon. Member for Tatton used was that 12.5 per cent. was “too expensive”. What is too expensive, I ask? When Barclays tried to raise money for itself in the market, it paid 16 per cent., so what is too expensive and what is too cheap? If we go much below 12 per cent.—if the Government were to negotiate—we would be talking about a subsidy to privately owned banks. We would effectively be resorting to privatising profits and socialising risks, as the old adage has it; that is what the Government seem to be being urged to do. It may be the right thing to do; perhaps there is no alternative. However, let us be clear about how much subsidy is being advocated.
Would the hon. Gentleman agree that the 16 per cent. that he quoted is not really a market figure? There scarcely is a market for the papers that we are talking about at the moment. That market hardly exists, so the figure is not a reasonable comparator on the basis of which to try to calculate the size of the subsidy.
It is the only comparison we have, and it is what the bank paid, so presumably that is the alternative benchmark that we have to use. None the less, my point is a simple one. If the rate is to be cut, what will it be cut to? If there is to be a subsidy, who will pay it, and what should it be? I agree with the more fundamental point that the hon. Member for Tatton made—indeed, I have made it frequently myself in the past few weeks and months—which is that the banks are being given completely contradictory objectives. They are being told to lend more. They are being told to lend less by the Financial Services Authority, which wants them to hold more capital—perhaps too much capital, given the context. They are being told to repay the Government’s loans. They also have their own objectives—to service their shareholders.
Surely the one thing that the Government have to do above all else is to be absolutely clear about the priorities. If the priority is to lend more, that has to be spelled out explicitly, and it has to override the other objectives. It does not matter whether we achieve that by putting people on boards, or simply by making the objectives very clear. What is completely lacking is any clarity at all about the strategy for the banks. That really has to be sorted out.
Finally on banks, the Conservatives have come up with a positive suggestion—the idea of guaranteeing new credit. That suggestion is part of the mix, and I welcome it. I should confess that when it comes to that subject, I have some form: 25 years ago, in the last banking crisis, I was invited to work with Lord Lever, whom some Labour Members may remember, on coming up with a way of getting credit going in a banking crisis—in that case, the crisis related to Latin America. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh was involved in the same exercise. The solution that we came up with was a loan guarantee scheme. It never actually worked. The problem posed was as follows: either we insist that banks take a share of the risk—that is the right and fair thing to do, but if we do that the banks do not do anything, because they do not want to take risks—or we effectively underwrite the lot and nationalise credit. It is not clear which of the two is being proposed. It seems to be a bit of each, or something between the two.
A rather perceptive comment was made by the political editor of The Independent, who said that
“the National Loan Guarantee Scheme is potentially even more statist than Labour's schemes.”
That may be right. If the scheme is to work on a large scale, that is what is involved—the nationalisation of credit, and some of us are not totally repelled by the idea. None the less, we should be clear about what is involved.
In conclusion, we are faced with a desperately serious and deteriorating situation. The figures that have come out in the past few weeks for some of the other developed countries are positively alarming. What is required is not a single-bullet solution, but a combination of measures: a radical approach to monetary policy, cutting interest rates, fiscal stimulus and radical action to get bank lending working. What is needed is not one of those measures, but all of them.
It is a pleasure to speak in this Queen’s Speech debate. The 2008 pre-Budget report stands as a testament to the significant change in outlook for the economy over the next few years. There has even been a change since the forecasts provided by the Treasury at the time of the 2008 Budget. The downturn has spread to the real economy from the financial sector, so it is appropriate and important that we examine the issue of bank lending.
The Governor of the Bank of England, in his evidence to the Treasury Committee on the November inflation report, stated that he was in
“no doubt that the single most pressing challenge to domestic economic policy”
“to get the banking system to resume lending in any normal sense”.
However, the market is telling the banks that they must hoard capital, so individually banks are trying to strengthen themselves by reducing their lending. That action on the part of each individual bank is having a collective effect. The reduction in bank lending is slowing the economy to the point where jobs are being lost and companies are becoming insolvent. That in turn raises the loss rates on bank lending.
One expert witness before the Committee said:
“It seems to me to be not adequate to give the banks money to back up their balance sheets and then expect them individually to behave in the collective interest; they cannot. Any self-respecting bank management, not having confidence that the others were going to do the same, would batten down the hatches and be cautious—to the point of recklessness from the point of view of the collective interest.”
Let me stress the key phrase: banks are being
“cautious—to the point of recklessness”.
The Government face a dilemma. Despite the considerable injections of capital and the credit guarantees, bank lending seems either unavailable or overly expensive. Where, ask the public, is the payback for the taxpayer assistance provided to the banks?
We must be prepared to think flexibly, perhaps even radically, about the next steps. If the lending panel is unable to persuade the banks to start lending again, we may have to be bolder in our prescriptions. Nothing should be ruled out. Indeed, when the Governor of the Bank of England came before the Committee a couple of weeks ago, he said that nothing should be ruled out, including the possibility of nationalisation. The Government must consider directing the banks to lend, as suggested by Roger Bootle to our Committee. It could be considered a market failure if the banks did not lend more, so a public sector intervention could be warranted to produce a better overall outcome, as I have said.
Of course, if the banks take that direction, it will raise its own problems. A careful balancing act is in operation between the Government’s need to receive repayment, the needs of the banks, which do not want further to damage their future profitability, and the needs of consumers and businesses, who need additional lending by the banks now. One of the messages that the Government should get across to the banks is that they should consider themselves nationalised for quite a long time, so that we can get the problem sorted out. The Committee visited Sweden; in the 1990s, that country had problems, and some of the banks there are still nationalised. In fact, there is still 20 per cent. Government investment in the top bank there. A long time is needed to sort out the problems that we are discussing.
That is my hon. Friend’s viewpoint. If we can get the system working, and do not rush to judgment, that is fine, but I want the system to work. We do not want the banks to lend recklessly. In the long term, we recognise that bank lending will need to come back into line with savings. We will need to close the £700 billion funding gap. I am talking about the difference between the level of savings and lending in the banking system; that gap has opened up since 2001, when savings and lending were in equilibrium. Seven or eight years later, there is a £700 billion gap. We will all have to address that in the medium or longer term. We need the banks to lend constructively in the short term. At present, viable businesses are not getting the money that they need, and if the economy is to recover as the Government forecast, the banks must begin to lend. The pre-Budget report highlights that lack of lending as a risk to the Government’s forecasts, and certainly the Treasury Committee will scrutinise that problem regularly. We will conduct a banking crisis inquiry in the new year, when it will still be a big feature.
May I discuss the fiscal stimulus to the public finances which, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) eloquently said, is absolutely necessary if we want to avoid a longer, deeper recession? The fiscal stimulus—excluding weakening tax revenues and a rising benefits bill; the so-called automatic stabilisers, which have been accepted by the official Opposition—has cost £20 billion so far. It is not a question of whether we can afford that but of whether we can afford not to have a fiscal stimulus. The answer to that is a resounding no.
Economic growth in 2009 is forecast to be about half a percentage point higher than it would have been in the absence of a fiscal stimulus. The 2005 figures from research undertaken by the House of Commons library show that the Exchequer cost for each additional unemployed person was about £10,000 per year in benefits and lost national insurance contributions. Those figures take no account of indirect costs, such as reduced output and corporation taxation, increases in bad debts, and the social costs of unemployment, which result in higher demands on the NHS and social services agencies. They do not take account, either, of direct local authority costs through housing and council tax benefits and free school meals. Action at this stage can therefore prevent catastrophe at a later stage for individuals and families.
We cannot allow the recession simply to take its course, and wait for the resulting redundancies and repossessions to materialise. Not only would that be completely unfair on thousands of hard-working families and undo a decade of the work Labour has done to combat poverty and promote social and financial inclusion. But as I have said it would be expensive in the long run. We cannot rule out the possibility that we may need to go further and invest more to guide the economy through the downturn. The Government should consider putting money into the pockets of those with the lowest incomes—they are the people who need the most support during these tough times, as they are most likely to spend rather than save any extra money given to them—as that would provide a kick-start to the economy.
I have looked at the blogs of certain right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who said on 10 December:
“Any tax reductions this year should be Income Tax reductions helping the lower paid.”
That is a very good start to the fiscal stimulus—someone is coming on to our side on that issue. There are a number of inconsistencies in the argument made by the official Opposition. They have said quite clearly that they would do nothing to protect the homes and jobs of families across the UK during the recession, and the Leader of the Opposition said on the “Today” programme last week that he would let the “automatic stabilisers” operate—he would allow tax receipts to fall and unemployment costs to rise, as is normal during a recession.
However, as I said in an intervention, Treasury figures show that most of the Government’s borrowing is down to those automatic stabilisers, which the Conservatives support. Next year, when the Government’s fiscal deficit reaches 8 per cent. of GDP, only about 1 per cent. of that will be due to the Government’s fiscal stimulus measures, with the other 7 per cent. made up of increases in borrowing relating to the automatic stabilisers. Indeed, figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which the official Opposition love to quote, show that over a five-year period until 2013, due to automatic factors alone, projections of Government borrowing have increased by more than £310 billion compared with the outlook at the time of the March Budget. That is far above the Government’s discretionary measures, and the Conservatives have committed themselves to it. The Conservatives are therefore committed to increasing public debt, and they should be honest, clear and transparent about the issue.
The Conservatives have spoken, too, of a tax grab after 2010. Again, according to the IFS, the measures in the PBR will increase the tax take by only 0.6 per cent. by 2013. It is economic growth that will be the major factor in paying off the extra debt, not higher taxes. When the economy returns to growth, the automatic stabilisers will therefore reverse. The official Opposition need to be reminded that between 1997 and 2002, the Labour Government decreased public sector net debt from the 43 per cent. of GDP that they inherited to 29 per cent. That was not the result of higher taxes, but of economic growth and careful financial management. When the deputy governor of the Bank of England, Sir John Gieve, appeared before the Treasury Committee and was asked about that extra borrowing, he said that if we went back to the position in the early 1990s with GDP debt at 8 per cent., that could be cleared up over a 10-year period. We must therefore have faith in the fiscal stimulus, and in the longer term ensure that the budget is balanced. If we could do it from the ’90s to 2000, we can do it now.
Roger Bootle said in The Daily Telegraph:
“Extra borrowing by the Government, if it encourages more output, can be self-financing.”
The debts can be paid off when the economy returns to growth. The official Opposition, however, would cut spending now, at the worst possible time for the economy. Cuts in public spending mean cuts in benefits and public services, and public sector job losses. At a time of recession, that is economic madness. The Government plan to reduce spending when the time is right, to allow our debts to be paid off when the economy returns to growth, and they are absolutely correct to do so.
The official Opposition say that under the Government’s policies public debt is too high. Again, the Leader of the Opposition said on the “Today” programme:
“We are going to have the public finances of Italy”.
What absolute nonsense. What sort of statement is that? The Leader of the Opposition should know that the public sector net debt in the UK will peak at 57 per cent. of GDP in 2014, which is lower than today’s public sector net debt figures for France, Germany, and the USA and, indeed, Italy, which has double that figure at over 100 per cent. The debts of other countries will increase, too.
The Conservatives have found themselves on the wrong side of the argument on the international stage, as the G20 have agreed with the Government. They have found themselves on the wrong side of the argument with respected economists such as Sam Brittan, who said:
“Maxims about debt that might be prudent for families can be the height of folly for governments.”
They have found themselves on the wrong side of the argument with the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Michael Portillo, who wrote in The Sunday Times yesterday that
“the opposition is... doomed to replay its bad dream.”
He said that the Leader of the Opposition would find himself on the same ground as two previous leaders of his party, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), and would be asked repeatedly at the next election where the cuts would come from. We should not allow the British public to face the chill winds of the economic recession over the next few months alone. We must do everything to assist and help them, so that the recession is more palatable for them, we can come out the other side, they can spend and we can end up with a balanced budget.
Under the 10-minute limit for speeches, one can really utter only a few soundbites, without giving any supporting arguments. I will save nine and a half minutes by saying that I agree with almost everything that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, and that I am a regular reader and admirer of Mr. Bootle’s articles in The Daily Telegraph. That saves a lot of argument.
To be entirely serious for a moment, I am probably one of the few people in the House—perhaps the only one today—who remembers the 1930s slump. My father was unemployed, and I remember my mother weeping in the kitchen, and all that. I agree with the hon. Member for Twickenham that we are facing a very grave situation indeed which, I am afraid, will be comparable, in due course, with the 1930s. So I do hope that the House of Commons will stop the amusing knockabout atmosphere in which these matters have largely been discussed up till now. They are too grave. Nobody enjoys parliamentary knockabout more than I do, but the country faces the gravest crisis since May 1940. The whole world capitalist system is in danger and there could be mass unemployment in this country in two or three years.
In 1932, 20 per cent. of our work force were unemployed. I have listened with interest and studied all through the past week the quotes from Germany, but it is worth remembering that Chancellor Brüning, who was the chancellor in the last years of the Weimar republic, was advancing views and pursuing policies almost identical to the speeches that we have just heard from the German Minister of Finance. Although it was quite unintentional on Chancellor Brüning’s part, he had the effect that whereas the Nazis got 8 per cent. of the vote in 1928 and 20 per cent. in 1930, they were in power by 1933. Herr Brüning, as he had then become, very wisely fled to Harvard and spent the rest of his very long life lecturing on the merits of classical economics.
I am not suggesting that anything of that kind is likely to happen in Germany again, but it is interesting that Chancellor Merkel slapped down her Finance Minister within 48 hours by signing up to a fiscal stimulus of €200 billion for the 27 countries of Europe. My German friends—hon. Members may be surprised to know that I have quite a lot of them—tell me that she is waiting to produce a much bigger fiscal stimulus at the same time as President-elect Obama’s Administration produce theirs. I predict that when President-elect Obama becomes the President, he will produce the biggest fiscal stimulus that the world has seen since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Of course, every country is different, and each country is influenced by its history. The German nightmare has always been the inflation of the 1920s, and our nightmare has always been—though perhaps much more among my generation than among younger Members—a return of unemployment. I remember when the Speaker in Ted Heath’s day had to suspend the sitting of the House of Commons when unemployment went over 1 million. There would not be that reaction today, but in the early 1970s everybody in the House remembered what unemployment was like. People have forgotten it, and it will be much more difficult this time because the benefits system is so infinitely more generous. The enormous increases in expenditure that we will have to make in order to look after our unemployed will make the whole financial situation even more difficult.
I am just as good a monetarist as the next man. I am a Keynesian, and nobody wrote about monetarism with more authority than Keynes, but deflation is a very much more difficult problem to deal with than inflation. Everybody knows how to cure inflation, although it is extremely painful. To some extent, everybody had proceeded on the assumption that Keynes had buried deflation. Well, it has now risen from the grave and it is extremely difficult to cope with, because once one has reduced interest rates to a very low level, the monetary weapon ceases to be at all effective, as the governor of the European Central Bank pointed out yesterday, quoted in the Financial Times.
In America people have been pouring money into the three-month Treasury note market, which as a result is already showing a minus zero return. At the same time, the long end of the bond market—the Government end—has gone up enormously. I, naturally, have all my life savings in the American dollar and in long-dated bonds. The dollar has gone up enormously and the bonds have jumped by 20 per cent. in the past month. I do not understand why all our pension funds are collapsing. All the fund managers had to do was to do that and they would all have had enormous increases, but the fact is that the people who run our affairs are quite fantastically incompetent.
I made five suggestions to the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House before his Chancellor produced the pre-Budget report. He said subsequently that he had accepted and adopted them all, but that I had not convinced those on my Front Bench. That is not a new experience for me. I did not succeed in convincing those on my Front Bench not to join the exchange rate mechanism; I failed to persuade them not to introduce the poll tax; and I failed to persuade them not to support the invasion of Iraq. So I shall try again and suggest that we should not rule out the possibility of fiscal stimulus at a time when we face the prospect of the biggest deflationary slump that anybody can remember and when the monetary weapon has been virtually neutralised.
That is one of the reasons why—I want to try to curry favour, as always, with my Front-Bench team—I am a great admirer of their plan for a national loan guarantee scheme. It will be £50 billion, and what I like so much about it is that it will be a magnificent fiscal stimulus. As was pointed out with reference to the south American experience, one can be quite sure that the banks will not take on any of the risk. It will all be taken on by the taxpayer, it will be paid for by extra borrowing and it will do an enormous amount of good, because the three great dangers are, first, the banks not continuing and having to be bailed out, secondly, that the banks will not lend to each other, and thirdly, that the banks will not lend to business. The national loan guarantee scheme will greatly encourage banks to lend to business, which is exactly what we want, and will perhaps mean that unemployment will therefore not soar quite as high as I fear.
Most of the debate has, understandably, been on the grave economic situation that faces the country and our constituents. I, however, will move on to issues connected with welfare reform and the future of our welfare state.
I preface my remarks by saying something with which most people would agree. I believe that the advent of the welfare state, which my party in particular is pleased about in terms of our role, but which nevertheless has politically mixed parentage, has been one of the most civilising forces in our society. It has helped tackle some of the debilitating impacts of inequality, and within that welfare state our social security system is crucial. That is why I support reform of our welfare state.
Our welfare state, as it has developed over the past 10 or 20 years, faces many pressures and demands. Some are demographic—the ageing of our population, and hence the importance of the pension question, both the state pension and occupational pensions. There is a debate to be had about what I regard as unfinished business in relation to the costs of long-term care, which are a significant worry to many of our constituents and many families.
There have also been significant family pressures. We have seen a revolution in patterns of family formation and family dissolution, including the fact that growing numbers of our children in Britain, for reasons that we can understand, now spend significant parts of their childhoods living with just one parent, rather than two. All that raises a host of questions and any sensible answers that we seek in the coming months and years need to be grounded in an understanding of what a welfare state should be about in the early years of the 21st century.
Recently, I visited one of my constituents—an elderly gentleman who wanted to talk to me about these issues. He had two political heroes: Winston Churchill, whose portrait was on the wall, and Ernie Bevin. My constituent told me that during the war years and the period of social reconstruction, based significantly on the Beveridge report, after the war, British people understood what he called the “rules of the game”. He meant that people would make national insurance contributions when they could—that was their responsibility—and that, when in need, they had an equal right to take from the community chest of those contributions. His concern was that he felt that there was no longer any kind of consensus about the rules of the game. He thought that the welfare state did many good things, but that people did not understand the foundation of values on which it was based. I have been reflecting on that since my conversation with my constituent from Croydon, North.
Clearly, the Government’s, and surely Parliament’s, objective is that those in a position to work or who could be in a position to work, with adequate support—perhaps through extra training and skills enhancement—should do so. That would be good for the individual and their family, good for the economy and good for the public sense of fairness; it would build up confidence again in our welfare state and what it is about. Moving from principle to practice has never been easy. A number of specific questions arise, such as, “Which citizens are able to work?” Those with the most serious disabilities—and I mean the most serious—cannot work, and they deserve our support through social security and wider welfare state provision. But how do we account for the extraordinary increase in the numbers of our citizens on what we have until recently called incapacity benefit? Between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, the number of people claiming it trebled.
There is a different kind of question: how old should be the youngest child of a lone parent—who is sometimes, but not always, unsupported by the child’s other parent—before that lone parent can reasonably be expected to seek a job? There are many other questions, but those two issues of incapacity and lone parenthood are at the heart of our reform agenda. They account for millions of our people, both adults and children. They involve billions of pounds of the public’s money and are complex and controversial—not least because many of those affected are among our most vulnerable and deprived fellow citizens.
To help us through this political, economic and human minefield, I should say that the starting point should be about developing a new—I suppose that I really mean “a renewed”—public understanding, and therefore as much consensus as possible about the relationship between the citizen and the state. That should start with citizenship, a concept to which too often we pay lip service but neglect. What are the rights of the citizen in relation to the welfare state? Equally, what are the citizen’s duties and responsibilities? I mean the duties to work, when that is practicable, and to provide for dependants, even when separation or divorce means that one parent no longer lives permanently with his—or sometimes her—children.
The British welfare state was established on a firm principle, which, as I implied earlier, was widely accepted; it was certainly accepted by my elderly constituent. It was that if people could work, they should work and they would work. However, if they could not, they could draw benefits, as of right, without stigma or fear.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me about one point in the fine speech made by the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell)? I believe that the hon. Gentleman went wrong in saying that the benefits provided to those who might be squeezed out of work would be infinitely more generous than they had been. That gives the impression that people can somehow fall back on cushioned indolence. That is the impression held by some members of the journalistic profession and of the wider population. It is not the case, however; benefits are a base from which to work, but they are certainly not generous.
Let me pursue my argument, because I will touch on that issue—and, I fear, not necessarily in ways that will please my hon. Friend.
Where are we now on these issues? I believe that the great majority of our constituents still accept the principle that those who can, need to work. I met another constituent at my advice surgery who was going to enormous efforts to maintain her work in the most difficult family circumstances, including domestic violence. That sense of work ethic is still held by the vast majority. However, I have learned—not so much through my past research studies, but more through the seminars, so to speak, at my advice surgery—that a minority do not accept their responsibility to work. Understandably, the majority of our constituents feel resentment towards them. A minority feel that work is merely one option alongside an equal option to stay on benefits. I have met those people; they sometimes come from households in which no one has worked for 10 or more years, despite having adult status.
We need to consider the workings of housing benefit; there is some review of the issue at the moment. We also need to consider the issue of fraud. To be blunt, if we are honest—the public know this, and we should—we need to look at those who are lone parents in terms of their benefit status, but are part of a couple in terms of their living arrangements. We need to be honest about that if there is not to be a gap between what the public understand on the estates and elsewhere, and what we in Parliament understand.
Alongside those work-shy households—my elderly constituents would call them that—are other citizens in the most chronic need. When I go around my constituency, I am struck by the fact that those in greatest need are still those with serious disabilities. Sometimes they are young children who have suffered the consequences of measles—that is another debate. Sometimes they are grown-up children and sometimes they are the frail elderly. Those people, who often get a great deal of support from the public, need yet more. They and their carers need some of the help that we are squandering at the moment by not putting the principles about work first into practice.
I do not have the time to, sir; I am sure that we can debate these matters later in a prominent London borough.
Some of the people who feel that they have a right to stay on benefits have little understanding of the effect of that on their fellow citizens; those who pay for benefits include people on low wages, and their circumstances are often little different from those of people on benefit.
In conclusion, although I support the broad thrust of what the Government are doing on what we now call—copying the Americans, for some reason—welfare reform, we need to approach the task sensitively. The Government are doing that. I always thought it nonsense that until very recently we were telling lone parents that they could stay on benefit until their youngest child was 16. That was nonsense, given that many other parents in two-parent families were working when their children were far younger. The policy did not do the lone mother or her children any good.
I like the direction in which we are moving now; we are being more realistic about the issue. However, we need to be sensitive, and Ministers are being so. There is some talk that people should be in work when their child is one year old. Let us be sensible. By all means, we should encourage such parents to go on training and enhance their skills and the rest, but such children are so preciously young and we should not spoil a good policy by appearing to be too tough-minded and too negative about those caring for the youngest child.
The right hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks) made a thoughtful and constructive speech, and I am sorry not to follow his theme, but I want to talk about the economy.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his Budget in March:
“Britain is better placed than other economies to withstand the slowdown in the economy.”
He went on to say:
“I am able to report that the British economy will continue to grow throughout this year and beyond.”
Later he underlined the point by saying that
“we enter this period of uncertainty better placed than any other major economy.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 285-287.]
Since then, of course, the markets have blown the Government a decisive raspberry. The pound has fallen 26 per cent. against the dollar and 14 per cent. against the euro. The Government have clearly got this completely wrong, and the situation is dire. For 10 years, they have been boasting about their brilliance, notably the current Prime Minister with his glutinous self-satisfaction in his Budgets. How did they get away with it for 10 years? The truth is that during that period we have had a tailwind of globalisation, with first, the Asian tigers, and then the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China. They have had 9 to 14 per cent. growth, and the rising tide of prosperity has covered the horrors that this socialist Government have imposed on us.
There are two main issues: first, we are over-taxed; and, secondly, we are over-governed. Both are equally important. Tax is cumulative—we pay direct taxes, indirect taxes, fuel duties, excises, and council tax. The burden of tax is too high, unfair and, in many cases, too complicated. We are over-governed, with all kinds of legislation under the umbrella of human rights, European legislation, health and safety, freedom of information and the ghastly tax credits system. We are being micro-managed, and too many public sector jobs and pensions have been created. The situation was really quite bad, but it has taken this Government to make it dire.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) tried to think of a doppelganger for the Prime Minister and came up with Stalin and Mr. Bean. I have been pondering this, and I think that I have come up with a better one. Think of a big guy, a bit overweight. He is a Labour Member of Parliament, difficult to work with, thinks that he is brilliant and the rest of the world is stupid, tells us that black is white and white is black, and goes around stealing from pension funds—yes, it is Robert Maxwell. I mention pension funds because the two legacies that this Prime Minister will leave are the damage to the economy and the damage to the hopes of many people in their thirties and forties who have no chance of enjoying the level of dignified and comfortable retirement that current pensioners have. The Prime Minister is responsible for that serious problem, which results from the loss of and damage to pension funds together with the weakness of the stock exchange and assessments on longevity.
I want to turn to the banking crisis and where we stand now. The diagnosis of the problem and the analysis of how to work our way out of it have been very unsophisticated. In the United States, the concept of putting together a $700 billion fund to buy out toxic assets was completely wrong. Similarly, in this country, pumping money into the banking system has been unsophisticated. Why should anyone invest in an asset of uncertain value? The best analogue for our present situation is the situation at Lloyd’s of London in the early 1990s—it was called the spiral. Lloyd’s underwriters would underwrite a risk and pass it on to sub-underwriters, and it went round in a spiral, with sometimes the same risk being insured several times—not just twice or three times but many times more than that. The spiral caused Lloyd’s immense problems. I was there. Following my time as a director of a secondary bank in the 1970s, I sat on the Council of Lloyd’s—in fact, I sat on its audit committee as an outside name—trying to put the situation right.
I have made this comparison before, and I am pleased that others have now made it. The Financial Times reported on 17 November:
“Lloyd’s, the insurance market that almost collapsed under heavy losses, survived through a restructuring that was the ‘prototype of the bad bank’, offering hope to financial institutions grappling with toxic debt, said Lord Levene of Portsoken, chairman of Lloyd’s.”
Lord Levene went on to explain how this was done. Banks should create a subsidiary to accept the assets that cannot be confirmed to be of a certain value; for the sake of shorthand, I will call them toxic debts. The toxic debts are put into the toxic subsidiary, and then the purged entity—the parent company—is a bank that can demonstrate its value and the fact that it is worthy of investment. As I said, why should anyone invest in an institution if its assets cannot be confirmed to be of a certain value? That is why people have been so reluctant to invest in the City and in banks, and why all banks are now reluctant to pass on credit to other banks and make loans.
That approach can work out extremely well, as it did in the case of Lloyd’s. The subsidiary in question was called Equitas. Each of the insurance underwriting syndicates delegated its toxic assets to Equitas, which was managed separately. As Lord Levene said in his interview with the Financial Times:
“‘If you have got this great boulder hanging over your head you need to concentrate on that all the time’, he said. It makes it easier to move on, ‘if you say we will let someone else concentrate on that and we will carry on running the ongoing business.’’’
In the case of Equitas and Lloyd’s of London, the asset was eventually sold off to Warren Buffett. The toxic assets had been “managed on”. The great advantage of doing it in that way is that by pulling together the spiral of collateralised debt obligations and other assets that have been loaned on from bank to bank and identifying the weakness in the market, one finds that the loss had provision made against it by more than one institution, so the provision against loss is not only duplicated but multiplied many times, and the loss is less than one originally expected.
The Government have completely failed to identify the main problem, which is the banks’ unwillingness to lend. The Conservative Opposition are exactly right in proposing a scheme that would guarantee lending and carefully target action where it is most needed. This Government are floundering. I have never felt more strongly that workers and advisers in the Treasury and the Bank of England should argue their point strongly with the Government. Above all, however, it is crucial that we have the opportunity to give the voters a chance to vote this Government out and a competent Government in.
Like most other speakers, I want to concentrate on the recession and how we should be dealing with it. Let me say at the outset that I strongly support the Government’s fiscal stimulus. When I listened to the shadow Chancellor, I heard nothing that persuaded me to change my mind about the fact that the Tories are making a very big mistake if they believe that showering the banks with billions of pounds of public subsidy at taxpayers’ expense is compatible with treating the situation of the rest of the population in the real economy as a no-go area, with retrenchment and massive public expenditure cuts.
Having said that, I believe that the means that have been chosen to deliver the fiscal stimulus need re-examining. Let me explain why. First, the Government are obviously right to try to increase demand by trying to get the banks to lend more credit and putting money directly into people’s pockets, but we seem to be getting the worst of both worlds. The Chancellor keeps urging the banks to pass on lower interest rates and to lend more credit, but it is just exhortation without any sanctions. There are no targets for lending in exchange for the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money that the banks have received, and no penalties for falling short. I regret that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has left the Chamber. In his statement about welfare reform, conditionality was all the rage, but when it comes to the banks, in a much bigger economic forum, conditionality appears to go out of the window. That is a mistake.
The Government have also tried to put money into people’s hands directly through the 2.5 per cent. VAT cut. The trouble is that it is extremely costly in terms of lost revenue and it is disproportionately less effective. The deadweight cost of £12.5 billion in increasing demand is extremely high in the context of retail discounts, which have already been given, of 20 or 30 per cent. A far better way of trying to get money spent is to give to all people on the standard rate or below non-cashable vouchers for domestic goods and services that expire in, say, three or six months. They would have little option but to spend those vouchers. That would have been a much better idea.
The second area where the fiscal stimulus could be managed differently and rather better concerns the question of affordability, about which there has been some discussion today. The Tory argument is that the level of public borrowing is extremely high, which it is, and that we therefore cannot afford the fiscal stimulus. There are two ripostes to that argument. First, the Leader of the Opposition has made it quite clear several times that he is fully in support of the automatic stabilisers, which give benefits to people when they lose their jobs, and that they should apply in the normal way during the recession. Those stabilisers, of course, account for the vast majority of the increase in borrowing. If we look at the Treasury figures, we see that the Budget deficit will rise from 3 to 7 per cent. of GDP precisely because of the automatic stabilisers. All that the Government have done is add a further 1 per cent. To say that we can afford 7 per cent. of GDP but we cannot afford 8 per cent., which appears to be argument of the Leader of the Opposition, is totally unconvincing.
There is another answer to the central dilemma of alleged affordability that I fear neither Front-Bench team seems ready to contemplate. To be fair, the Chancellor did impose a higher tax rate in the pre-Budget report: 5 per cent. more for those earning more than £150,000, starting in 2011. I regard that as welcome, but it is little more than window dressing. The money raised will be only about £670 million, the rise applies to only 1.3 per cent. of taxpayers and the money will not start rolling in until 2011, whereas we need the money now.
That approach would have potential if it were used more widely, however, and I shall give two or three examples. First, companies are currently given their CO2 pollution allowances free. After the EU Council last weekend, they will be required to buy permits by auction; even if they bought just 10 per cent. of those permits, the Government would raise up to £20 billion to £30 billion a year. Shell and BP alone this year made windfall profits calculated at more than £20 billion, and they are expected to make a further unearned profit of £9 billion over the next four years from being given those permits for free. They should be made to pay for them in full.
Secondly, an extremely interesting report was written recently by the celebrated tax accountant specialist, Richard Murphy, called “The Missing Billions”. It details precisely how the Treasury loses more than £13 billion a year from tax avoidance by super-rich individuals, plus a further £12 billion from tax avoidance by the 700 largest corporations. These are all official figures. In addition, the Treasury estimates that a further £8 billion is lost from artificial tax restriction measures, such as switching to another family member, an offshore company, a trust or a tax haven. On top of that, tax evasion, which is of course illegal, is reckoned to lose the country about £10 billion a year. If even half that total of £43 billion a year could be clawed back by a strengthened and better-resourced Revenue and Customs, the fiscal stimulus would not need to depend at all on unfunded tax cuts or increased borrowing.
I have one more example. It is easy to be accused of sloganising, but this example is for real. The Inland Revenue shows that those paid more than £100,000 a year—roughly 2 per cent. of the population—now receive no less than £8 billion a year in reliefs and allowances. Pension tax relief alone costs the nation £36 billion a year, and higher rate taxpayers get more than half of that. If those subsidies to the richest 2 to 3 per cent. of the population—and after all, they are the ones who need it least—were significantly pared down in the current extraordinary circumstances, that could certainly generate another £10 billion to £15 billion a year for the Exchequer. Finally, it is estimated that if the iniquitous non-dom rule were done away with, another £5 billion or so would be available to the Treasury. For all those reasons, the fiscal stimulus is not only affordable, but it could be extended substantially if we needed to do that—and we may well—without any increase whatsoever in borrowing or unfunded tax cuts.
The third way in which I believe the fiscal stimulus could be better managed concerns public expenditure. We know that the PBR indicates a proposed cut of £37 billion for the years 2011 to 2014. Instead of expanding public expenditure programmes as a potent stimulant of economic activity, it is proposed that public expenditure be reduced to staunch the ballooning Budget deficit caused by bank recapitalisation and unfunded tax cuts.
What is really needed is a carefully targeted increase in spending in sectors of the economy that are threatened by sharp decline or even meltdown, particularly construction and housing. It could be paid for by increased taxes, national insurance contributions and reduced benefit payments that come from higher employment, by the tax surcharge on the super-rich and corporate tax avoiders that is clearly needed at the moment, and by an increase in the minimum deposits that the commercial banks are obliged to hold with the Bank of England, which could then be lent directly to the Government for new spending programmes. There are many options that I hope the Chancellor will look at—
I begin by declaring an interest as a director and shareholder of a trading company.
Harold Wilson famously said that a week was a long time in politics, but in 2008, three months has come to seem like half a lifetime. It is worth reflecting on how far we have travelled since 1 September. Three months ago, the Prime Minister was still bathed in a sort of jaded afterglow from his affair with prudence. It is ironic, given the events of last week, that at the beginning of the autumn, our most reliable ally in arguments in ECOFIN was Germany. The Germans saw the British Government as one of the most reliable advocates of the case for the liberal market economy, which is ironic given the statements that came out of Germany last week.
At the beginning of September, the Chancellor retreated to a Scottish island and told us by newspaper interview that we faced the worst outlook we had seen for 60 years. In the ensuing three months, we have seen things happen that were unthinkable as recently as summer this year. The Government have emerged as a majority shareholder in the Royal Bank of Scotland, and they are a major shareholder in Lloyds. They swept through a sweetheart deal between Lloyds and HBOS, which has established a dominant position for that bank in the domestic mortgage market, and we have seen the Budget deficit balloon in a period of eight months. The estimated Budget deficit for next year has increased by £80 billion, from an estimate of £38 billion at the time of the Budget to £118 billion now. There has been a new initiative every day and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) made clear earlier, we have seen all the weaknesses of government by headline. Ministers have not thought through the detail of one policy before moving on to announce the next.
Against that background, I want to offer the analysis that two major policy developments have taken place during those three months: one with which I broadly agree and one with which I fundamentally disagree. I shall start with the analysis with which I broadly agree, and which led the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to call a press conference and say that the key priority facing the liberal economies of the world this autumn was the stabilisation of the banking system. That analysis led them to address the weakness of the balance sheet of the banks, and I believe that it was 100 per cent. right. There is no point in trying to build a future outlook for a market economy that does not recognise the centrality of the banking system to the allocation of capital within a capitalist system, and there is no point in talking about liquidity and getting credit moving again before the banks have been stabilised as institutions.
The Government were right to put the emphasis on achieving that result, but they have not followed through that analysis, because having stabilised the banking system, we have then witnessed round after round of ministerial frustration. We have been told repeatedly that the banking system has not been freed up; well, of course, it has not been freed up. One simple policy move—strengthening the balance sheets—has not solved the myriad problems that built up in the banking system in the period before autumn this year. The ministerial drive to move on to the next initiative rather than focus on the core priority of getting the banking system moving again is one of the core weaknesses of the Government policy that has evolved during the autumn.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) was entirely right to say that we cannot expect the banking system to function properly again until the issue of inherited toxic debts is seriously addressed. The banks have to fess up to the level of bad loans that they have and the number of bad assets that sit on their balance sheets. Until those are cleared out, they cannot raise new loans in the inter-bank market and get the banking system moving again. That is one element of the problem.
Given the experience of what has happened to us during the past 12 to 24 months, far from being told by Ministers that we need a return to 2007 lending levels, we—and certainly lenders to banks—want confidence that the banks themselves have relearned the basic essentials of good, sound risk assessment in making lending decisions. The ministerial focus—the focus by the authorities—on recreating a functioning banking system was an entirely correct priority, and it is overwhelmingly the most important priority we face today. It is regrettable that Ministers have flitted from initiative to initiative, rather than focusing on the delivery of that central priority.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) said—he bemoaned the fact—one can cover things only extremely superficially in 10 minutes. I said there was one area with which I agreed and one with which I disagreed. I have focused on the former and emphasised the need for the re-establishment of effective lending at the centre of the capitalist system. However, I profoundly disagree with the implication in the debate today that there is somehow a choice to be made about whether we are in favour of or against a fiscal stimulus, and that one can merely opt for one side or the other of that argument without any assessment of the quantum of fiscal stimulus being advocated. That is why I sought to intervene on the Chancellor and did, in fact, intervene on the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable).
I wish to point out that, because of the choices that the Government have made to deliver fiscal stimulus and allow the stabilisers to work, and most importantly to build upon the inherited structural deficit that has built up over the past four to five years, we face, as we go into this recession—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle about its severity—a situation in which, according to the Government’s own estimated borrowing plans, in 2009-10 net borrowing will run at 8 per cent. of national income, and that assumes that they do not overshoot. However, at the same point in the 1975-6 cycle, the Denis Healey chancellorship incurred a borrowing level of 7 per cent. of national income, which is 1 per cent. lower than that currently planned by Ministers. All those figures were set out in the pre-Budget report published by the Government.
We are already planning higher borrowing than the level the Government had in the mid-70s—which led to the arrival of the International Monetary Fund—both in the new borrowing to be incurred during 2009-10 and in the planned level of net debt that the economy will bear by 2012-13. That is the peak level in the Government’s plans, which show 57 per cent. of net debt to national income against a peak level of 54 per cent. in the 1970s. The argument is not whether we are in favour of or against a fiscal stimulus. Of course, we know that if the stabilisers are at work, Government borrowing will increase during a recession. Conservative Members are concerned about the attitude of Ministers, because having gone from being prudent and cautious and seeking to dress themselves in the language and clothing of caution, they now imply there is no limit whatever on the Government’s capacity to borrow to restimulate the economy. Ministers are already planning to take us into a deeper hole than the one Jim Callaghan’s Government took us into in the mid-1970s.
I wish to revert to the sombre note that the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) sounded, and the reality that he gave to the 1929 to 1931 slump by describing the impact on his family. He was too polite to remind the House that national income fell by 5 per cent. during the whole of that slump—a huge drop. He described the impact of such a fall in national wealth on employment.
The results that the National Institute of Economic and Social Research published a few days ago for the last completed quarter show that national income is falling at 4 per cent. a year. One hopes that the cumulative effect will not occur, but the treacherous economic domain into which we are entering may be as serious, if not more so, than the inter-war slump. We are debating that today, and we need to deploy whatever talent we have to try to influence Government policy.
In some ways I am more miserable than other hon. Members, because I fear that the Government do not have the room to manoeuvre that many Back Benchers suggested in their speeches. The amount of borrowing that we have to undertake and the potential troubling rate of inflation, which will dominate our economy, place genuine restraints on Government action.
I do not believe all this guff about how we are about to enter a period of negative price increases. I think that, sadly, the opposite will occur. The projected levels of borrowing that the Government gave us in their pre-Budget report, which the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) touched on a moment ago, are in the region of £150 billion a year for every year until the Government stop estimating. There will be real problems in unloading that level of debt in the gilts market. The amber signals will flash for the economy when long-term interest rates are pushed up, which will kill the chance of a quick economic recovery.
I have also questioned elsewhere whether we will be able to unload that level of debt, and what that will mean for parliamentary and party government in this country. It is crucial that the leaders of the three major parties and the parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland should now be involved in talks about what we do if the worst scenario comes about. Of course we all hope that the best scenario will embrace us, but we also have a duty to think about the worst scenario.
That is why Wednesday’s debate on the VAT increase will be so important, because it will be a pointer to the markets. Nobody is now defending the 2.5 per cent. cut in VAT. It is like spitting in the face of an economic hurricane. The shops are already cutting prices by 30 to 50 per cent. If anybody on the Government Benches thinks that a cut in VAT will save one job in their constituency, I will give way now. Sensibly, nobody is rising to the challenge.
Because of the restraints on the Government, we desperately need to look into how we best spend our money. We need to spend our money on extending credit to the firms that will go bust unless they can secure it. If hon. Members do not take the argument seriously enough, let me give an example. The cargo rates to China are now one tenth of what they were last year. The reason is not that China is not trying to suck in huge amounts of the world’s primary resources, but that people who trade do not believe that their bills of exchange will be met. Companies will fold—they will fall like dominoes—unless the Government act.
No, I will not give way—well, I might in a minute.
My plea to the Government is to rethink how we can get some of that precious £20 billion that will otherwise be wasted on the VAT measures into credit for firms, and thereby protect our constituents’ jobs.
The other thing that limits the Government’s room for manoeuvre is inflation. For the Bank of England to say that inflation is not a worry, when the current rate of inflation is well over two times higher than the top of the target range, is moonshine. The spot market in oil is already prophesying that the price of oil will be significantly higher next year than it is now. Hon. Members nodded in agreement when the Liberal Democrat spokesman pooh-poohed the worry about the falling pound. A falling pound might give our exporters a greater chance, if there are markets in which they can sell, but a falling pound pushes up import prices and therefore adds worryingly to inflationary pressures, which are already high in this country.
There are two huge restraints on the Government. I beg them before Wednesday, when we debate the order giving them the authority to make what now appears to be an absurd cut in VAT, to save that £20 billion and get it to companies, which may save some of our constituents’ jobs. Before I leave this point, I too remind the House what the 1930s were like for someone who had to live through them. We now need to move together to try to get policies that will mitigate the terrible economic disaster that is about to engulf our society.
In saying that, I welcome the welfare reform measures. We have a most talented Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but he is being wasted by the absurd programme, to which he has nailed his colours, that says that if we talk tough and start roughing up claimants, they will somehow start going to work. Claimants know that Governments have spoken like that before, and then we hardly apply any sanctions.
The one piece of information that I want to give the House, however, is this: one third more claimants were leaving jobseeker’s allowance at the bottom of the last recession than were leaving it earlier this year, at the top of the boom. There is clearly something happening in our labour market to suggest that welfare reform is crucial. I make a plea that we do not get too serious about single mums, who actually have the job of raising children. However, there are large numbers of people under 25 who have never worked, who think that they have a minimum income from the Government, and who have no intention of working. That applies in my constituency and in every other constituency in the country.
The previous Labour Government introduced the community programme, which was workfare by another name. It did some useful work in our constituencies. My plea is that we should scrap all this new deal stuff—the treadmills that people are on that punish them by sending them on training, instead of regarding training as a reward to get them out of the rut that they are in—and concentrate money on reinventing the community programme. We should say to young lads, “You’ve been on benefit for this long. There’s now a job for you on the community programme. You either take it or you lose benefit.” That would smack of serious welfare reform. Given our Secretary of State’s talents, I hope that he will return to that theme before too long.
The theme of this debate is, rightly, the sombre note that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle struck. We might be on the brink of an economic catastrophe, and we need to mitigate its effects on the lives of our constituents.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), and I am glad that he mentioned the pound. In the past few debates on the Budget and the pre-Budget report, I have commented on the balance of trade deficit. Last year we had an £87 billion deficit in goods and a total deficit of £70 billion in goods and services. Even with the collapse in the value of the pound sterling, the deficit is forecast to approach £50 billion every year over the next three years. That puts us in a serious position, and probably speaks volumes about the decimation of our productive capacity, and the loss of the 1 million manufacturing jobs that we have seen since Labour came to power.
I want briefly to take the House back to the late summer, when the banking crisis came to the fore in the public eye. Politicians from all parties suspended their usual criticisms of the Government to build a consensus on the stability package that was designed to bring confidence back to the banking sector. I found it incredibly disappointing that within days, the Government began to use the crisis for narrow political advantage. As the crisis in banking became a crisis in the real economy, I was doubly disappointed that they were using that, too, as a partisan lever.
The Government did that at the same time that they were saying that the global crisis—or the downturn, as it was described in the Queen’s Speech—had nothing to do with them. Well, the crisis did not come from nowhere; it did not grow on a tree in the Amazon. Some of it was down to the lack of confidence and the risk associated with the American sub-prime mortgage sector, but it was also down to a combination of bad policy, poor regulation, a failure to act decisively and weak leadership on the part of leaders around the world, including our Prime Minister in the 10 years when he was Chancellor.
The crisis was also down to a failure to learn lessons, and there were many lessons to learn, not least in the 2000 edition of the Bank of England’s “Financial Stability Review”, which gave a good assessment of the then recent banking crisis in south-east Asia. It showed, in both the macro and the micro measurements of how to forecast a banking crisis, any number of metrics, including significant property-related lending, the degree of reliance on inter-bank lending, and domestic credit growth. I know that the Bank collates this information and that it is reported, but I make a plea to the Government and to the Treasury Select Committee to look not at how the information is collected and collated but at how it is analysed, so that we no longer find ourselves in a position—as we did with the 2007 report—in which many of the risks are documented but then glossed over, in line with the Government’s assertion that everything is fine and that they have done everything correctly.
On the issue of burgeoning credit, among the many flaws that hon. Members have identified is the fact that too much credit was allowed into the system in the early part of the economic cycle, and there was too much public debt at the end of it. This has resulted in our having to borrow £300 billion more over the next three years and to triple the debt two years after that. The Government were effectively saying that there was nothing in the tank to stimulate the economy when the cycle ended—as it was always going to, because boom and bust never ended.
I would also add the criticism that this Government changed the system of banking regulation to allow banks to overexpose themselves to weak business models. This is not a critique that says that we need either a heavy-handed regulatory framework or a soft touch. However, we needed a regulatory framework—we still need one now—that identifies and manages the risks properly. I shall come back to that in a moment.
Would the hon. Gentleman regard it as reasonable for the Scottish people to be taking on all the additional debt that has been taken on by the UK? Would it not be better for Scotland to leave as quickly as possible, so as not to be burdened with a debt that is far too huge for it to carry?
It would be useful for Scotland to be independent as soon as people want it to be. I will not be too distracted by the hon. Gentleman’s question—but given that Scotland has had an average surplus for the past 30 years, while the UK is building up a £1 trillion debt, there is much merit in his argument, and I shall certainly look at it in more detail in the future.
A further criticism of the Government is that when the banking crisis was at its peak, Ireland moved decisively to guarantee all deposits in its banking system, yet they delayed and dithered, which weakened the position further and brought HBOS and RBS to their knees. More stark than that, however, was the Government’s failure to have on the statute book a proper system for dealing with failing banks, even though they began to look at this issue in October 2007, when the Northern Rock failure commenced. Since then, we have had the recapitalisation of the banks, the facilitated takeover of Bradford & Bingley, a massive expansion in liquidity provision, an increase in deposit protection, and the Government standing behind inter-bank lending. I welcome much of this, but we did not have the appropriate provisions in place at the time.
Even the Banking Bill, which introduces a process for dealing with failed and failing banks, is not new. It was in the Queen’s Speech, and will receive its Third Reading on Wednesday, but it will not be on the statute book until 2009. Given that we have a problem that started in the middle of 2007, yet we will not have a law to deal with it until 2009, the one criticism that we cannot level at the Government is that they have acted decisively.
There is a paucity of any real economic measures in the Queen’s Speech. One thing that struck me during the Chancellor’s pre-Budget report speech, and again during his comments today, was that he said that we needed to improve the system of regulation and supervision. It is therefore extraordinary that he also said that he would not have the relevant proposals reported to him until spring 2009. A Bill will be introduced two years after the problems began to emerge and became widely known, and the regulations or changes that it contains might not come into effect until 2010.
The fiscal stimulus in the emergency package has been widely discussed today, and we welcomed many of the measures in the pre-Budget report. However, the Government have said time and again that they were taking the lead and acting decisively—
Indeed. However, the stimulus package came after the announcement of the $150 billion package from the USA in February, and after the €18 billion plan announced in Spain in April. It also came after the announcements in October of the plan in France to fund 100,000 subsidised work contracts, and the $275 billion plan in Japan that would result in $20 billion going straight to Japanese households. The package also post-dated Germany’s announcement in early November of a €50 billion plan, and even China’s £375 billion economic plan. So there has been a great deal of puffed-up hyperbole from the world-savers on the Labour Benches, but this Government have not led, nor has the Prime Minister saved the world. Indeed, I think that the old adage might well apply to him: he is their leader; he must follow them.
The UK Government have argued time after time that in this global crisis, we cannot insulate ourselves from the financial turmoil. That is absolutely true, but it does not allow them to abdicate responsibility for their part in the crisis. They look at this situation through a particular prism, which allows them to say that they have done everything right and that national debt was always low. That is ridiculous, because it was already a colossal £500 billion in the last Budget. It seems even more silly when we consider the hundreds of billions of pounds of private finance initiative liability, much of which is off balance sheet.
In this year’s pre-Budget report, we saw PFI liabilities to 2033 reported at £216 billion—an increase of nearly £30 billion since last year. That increase is set against an increase of only £4 billion in the capital value. That means £7 of repayments for every £1 of capital—and that is not even the end of the story. Secreted away on the Treasury’s website is the full list assigned projects—reporting to 2048—involving another £24 billion of liabilities, which were not even included in the pre-Budget report.
In economic terms, we have become used to the Government trying to hide things and making the wrong decisions. They reduced the Scottish Government’s block by manipulating the English spending Departments’ baselines. They hid their plan to raise VAT to 18.5 per cent. They subjected the whisky industry to two duty rises in a single year. They also kept on the books their plans for a real fuel duty escalator from 2010, and they are planning a £1 billion cut in Scottish spending when we are entering a recession and public expenditure must play an essential part in the stimulus package.
The fundamental problem with the Government’s economic plans in the Queen’s Speech and the pre-Budget report is that they are based on wildly optimistic assessments. They assume an early exit from a short recession, and rapid growth thereafter. The International Monetary Fund suggests that the recession will be deeper, and the recovery longer and much more difficult. Even with £300 billion of borrowing over the next three years and a doubling of the national debt thereafter, the Government already have a black hole in the public finances that can be measured in tens of billions of pounds.
My biggest fear of all is that this Queen’s Speech was not concerned about the future of the economy. It was a thin, sparse, cut-and-run Queen’s Speech from a Government who think that they have got their lines against the Conservatives bottomed out, and now want to play politics with the misery of millions of people as we head into a very deep recession.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to take part in today’s debate. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie), although he will not be surprised to hear that I disagreed with most of his analysis, most of his proposed outcomes and most of his politics. However, it was a pleasure to listen to him.
This is my first Back-Bench speech since 1998, when I first became a Government Minister. I was a new MP for only a relatively short period of time before being catapulted into the Government Whips Office, so I did not have time to brush up on my technique; I feel as though I am among experts here, and I hope that colleagues and other Members of the House will understand.
A lot has changed since 1998—not least the fact that, until recently, we had enjoyed one of the most consistent periods of growth and increasing wealth for generations. It is little wonder, therefore, that people in the UK have been startled by the recent turn of events. However, the greatest shock for many of us was not what was happening in America, but what was happening here in Britain, under our own noses. A British banking system had built its reputation over hundreds of years on prudence and propriety. Having been found out, it had apparently abandoned those principles and indulged in some of the most spectacular examples of speculation and risk.
In Scotland, we were stunned to learn that our two iconic financial institutions, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax Bank of Scotland, had not only been indulging in the same practices but, in doing so, had put their customers, shareholders and work forces—and indeed the banks themselves—in serious jeopardy. The Chancellor should be congratulated on the comprehensive action that he took. If it had been left to a so-called separate Scotland, as envisaged by some of my colleagues in the House, the banks in Scotland would have gone under because Scotland would not have been able to afford to bail them out.
The business model proposed by the Scottish National party was the arc of prosperity consisting of Iceland, Norway and Ireland. If Members wish to make comparisons between Iceland and Ireland—and, indeed, to discuss Norway and what has happened to its oil fund—we should have a debate on the subject, even if we do not have it tonight. I do not want to talk about banking, however. I want to talk about maintaining the momentum of welfare reform, and making jobs and employment support available to those who need them most—those who have often been abandoned to live on benefits, either ignored or written off as being unable to make any contribution to the world of work.
I know that, in a period of economic uncertainty and increasing unemployment, it is sometimes felt that we should not continue to invest in those who are most distant from the labour market, but I hold the opposite view. It was abandoning people on incapacity benefit during the 1980s and 1990s that left good folk all over the country on a benefits scrap heap with no support and little prospect of building up or maintaining the skills and experience that they needed, or—in some cases more important—maintaining the motivation that could return them to the world of work. That aspect would be understood by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). It involves not just motivation, but maintaining the discipline of getting up in the morning.
In the late 1990s, we had to take up a challenge. For many individuals, families and communities, work was an alien concept because the necessary support had not been provided. That is why I welcome the ideas in the White Paper that will form the basis of the legislation outlined in the Queen's Speech. We have seen a transformation in the welfare state over the past 10 years. We have seen developments underpinned by the strengthening and deepening of our anti-discrimination legislation, not least in regard to disability.
Over those same years, we have seen a greater focus on reducing welfare dependency. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead may be cynical about parts of it, but it should be recognised that some of the work done through our welfare to work programmes has brought more single parents on to the labour market, making a real impact on child poverty. It has also encouraged older people to retrain for different kinds of work, and helped more disabled people into jobs.
However, there are still some who have been left behind. More than 2 million people are on incapacity benefit—people with long-term health conditions or disabilities, who all too often are judged on the basis of their disabilities rather than their abilities. Like the Secretary of State, I believe that no one should be left out or written off, and that approach is recognised by many welfare organisations representing disabled people which have voiced their opinions on the proposals. They have some problems with the details, but they generally accept the underpinning principle that no one should be written off. I hope that the Secretary of State was pleased to note the comments of the Royal Society for Disability and Rehabilitation—RADAR—on the “right to control” proposals in the White Paper.
The real difference of opinion is on whether, in return for the increased community, society has the right initially to encourage people but ultimately to insist that they take up the opportunities that exist, and on whether, if they refuse for no apparent good reason, they should be able to do that without consequences. I understand many of those concerns. The legacy of welfare reform in this country is based on the experience of many people during the 1980s and 1990s, an experience of cuts and the demonising of people on benefits. That is why I welcomed the Secretary of State’s clear assurance in his statement last week that his welfare reform programme was about rebalancing the rights and responsibilities of the state and the individual, and emphasising that the state, as well as the individual, has responsibilities.
It is important that those receiving incapacity benefit are not abandoned to a life of inactivity as a result of the tyranny of the sick line which states “unfit for work”. Many people are not unfit for work, but unfit for the kind of work that they have been doing. If Members truly believe that work is good for us and that it is the best way out of poverty, why do we not encourage all people to consider all the options and opportunities? Why should we, as a society, make people feel that they have no further contribution to make to the world of work?
There are people who are now in work because of the intervention of the new pathways to work approach. According to that approach, we cannot impose a template on our welfare system, and must understand that in the case of those who have been out of work for many years a range of issues should be taken into account. I was delighted when the Secretary of State described the breadth of the investment that he was prepared to make in people, rather than casting aside those who needed the greatest investment. I hope that his words will give some comfort to organisations that fear that this is all about benefit cuts rather than support.
Conditionality means more than just cutting the benefit at the end of the line. It is about investment, and the investment highlighted by the Secretary of State in the access to work programme is a tremendous example of the way in which the investment of resources can enable people to go out to work. Labour Members should take great pride in the fact that the resources in that programme have increased more than four times since the Government came to power, and are set to double again. However, we must recognise that there are great gaps in our provision. There is no easy access to rehabilitation: people often cannot obtain the support that they need when they need it, so that they can make a full recovery and return to employment. What happens to people if they cannot obtain advice quickly?
The Labour party was built on a philosophy of fairness, but the philosophy also recognises that alongside fairness, we—as a society, as individuals and as a community—have rights and responsibilities. I believe that our welfare reform programme balances those rights and responsibilities, and I am delighted that it has been included in the Queen's Speech.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). She made a thoughtful speech which is worthy of careful consideration. It was preceded by—as usual—an excellent speech from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who has a tremendous passion for the issue of welfare reform and a great deal of personal knowledge of it.
There is much to be welcomed in the welfare reform programme, and it is important for us to deal with it in the context of today’s wide-ranging debate on the economy, pensions and welfare. We need to realise that there are those who genuinely wish to obtain work, and that it is important to enable people to get back to work or into work. Our problem is the number of job losses throughout the country as we enter the depths of a recession. It will be difficult to get people into work if the jobs are not there for them, and that is another challenge for us to face.
We must also bear in mind that there are those who do not want to get into work; we should be honest about the fact that there are those in society who desire to remain on benefits because they receive less for going out to work than they do from being on benefits. We must look into that, and the Government must tackle it, because it is vital that every person who is capable of working is given the opportunity to do so—and, indeed, is encouraged to do so, as it is very good for those people personally and for their families that they have gainful employment and therefore a reason to get up in the morning.
The hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) said that society has two problems in that we are both overtaxed and over-governed. I have much sympathy with that point of view. I certainly believe that we are overtaxed, and many of those taxes are indirect taxes that are slipped in—they come in unawares. Our constituents loathe such indirect taxation, whereas direct taxation is open and lends itself to being debated. We are also over-governed; business and society are over-laden with bureaucracy. That is another issue that a Government of whatever political hue must tackle.
I want to focus in the remainder of my speech on the economy. It is true that many of our citizens in the UK have enjoyed prosperity and good times. However, we are now facing a situation of crisis proportions, and it is a situation that is deteriorating. The economic challenges we face are perhaps tougher than any previous such challenges, and the younger generation have certainly never experienced a similar situation. The credit crunch and recession are realities, and it is true that worldwide influences have played a part in that recession. Job losses are also a reality, as are fear and concern within communities. We are, therefore, facing tough economic circumstances, and many fear that we are facing a very deep recession. Although it is true that the situation has evolved and worldwide global pressures are placed on us all and on Government, the Government must also accept their responsibility. Responsibility can be shared, but accountability must be accepted by those who are in authority over us. At such times of crisis, therefore, people look to Government to give them a very definite lead.
I listened with interest to the advice of the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell). He talked about the knockabout debate that goes on in the political arena, and he encouraged us to take our debates beyond that. In listening to this debate, I have heard Members of different parties claim that the Prime Minister or the Chancellor said this and that the Leader of the Opposition or the shadow Chancellor said that—and Members will then refer back to the paper record of events and find out what they actually said. Where does that take us? We are facing a very serious situation and the long-term economic prosperity of our country is at stake. Therefore, we must ensure that the steps that are taken go towards solving the current situation and laying a solid foundation for the future prosperity of our people.
I have spoken twice on the measures that have been taken: in an intervention in a recent debate, when I asked the Chancellor a question; and during Prime Minister’s questions last week, when I asked about the banks’ situation and encouraged the banks to pass on the cuts in the cost of borrowing to both their domestic and business customers. Many small and medium-sized businesses are facing a financial crisis, and some are going to the wall. They are going bust not because the basis of those businesses is not good and their plans are not solid, but because they do not have the financial wherewithal to progress their business and face the challenges of this particular time. Therefore, we once again ask the Government to take further steps to ensure that our banks, which have been saved by the taxpayer, pass on the interest rate cuts. I trust that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister will do that.
In Northern Ireland, there is also a situation involving the Presbyterian Mutual Society. The Government should work closely with Arlene Foster, Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland, to protect fully the millions of pounds belonging to Northern Ireland savers that were lodged with that society. Therefore, I once again encourage the Government to ensure the availability of bank credit. That has not been made available in the way we should be able to expect by the banks that have been bailed out by the taxpayer. This is the biggest single issue affecting businesses, and I trust that the Government can persuade—and, if necessary, force—the banks back to more normal lending. That would be of benefit to our economy. Also, although the decision to cut VAT by 2.5 per cent. was one way of passing money into people’s hands, we will have to wait and see whether the people spend it.
We must rebuild confidence. There must be openness and frankness in this debate. There are two sides to that. There must be openness concerning the fiscal stimulus, because any such stimulus will have to be paid for; that is the reality. However, it is also reality that if there is not a fiscal stimulus, there will have to be cuts. We had better be open, therefore, and I believe we need to lead from the front within the community. There must be openness and frankness. There is no single bullet; we must employ all our talents together. I appeal for a collective wisdom from across the House to ensure that we do what is best and what is in the interests of long-term stability, by facing the present challenges while building for the future prosperity of our people.
In this debate so far, every Member who has spoken on the economy has touched on the issue of banking and the need to stabilise the banking system. We have heard broad support for that from across the Chamber. I, too, want to focus on banking, but to go one step further than just thinking about the banking system in our own country. I want to look at some of the root causes that led to the current problems in the banking system not just here, but across the world.
When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was in the Chamber reporting back to the House on the G20 meeting he attended, he referred to fundamental reform of the supervision of the financial system, and we understand that G20 teams are working on a series of papers to turn that into reality, which will be presented to the G20 at its next meeting in March. I welcome the fact that work is being done on the international regulation of banking, but I have some concerns that the timetable for that work to be done is extremely rapid while the issues that need to be grappled with are truly huge. The slight risk is that we might achieve only marginal change, whereas, on the evidence of what has just happened, the situation suggests that we need to go much further.
My right hon. Friend also referred in discussing these matters to “revising the Basel accords”, and I want to take a moment to look at the Basel system. When what is now called the Basel II system was agreed in 2004, it was launched in glowing terms and it was said that
“the revised framework will promote the adoption of stronger risk management practices in the banking industry”.
That claim now seems very hollow indeed. The Basel II agreement was a replacement for the original Basel agreement, which had proved to be not up to the job. However, I am afraid that, after a decade of negotiation, Basel II, which has been launched relatively recently and is only just beginning to come into effect, is already dead on arrival. The sub-prime crisis has shown that the model envisaged in Basel II is already inadequate and therefore beyond tinkering with. If we are really to address the problems in the international banking system, we need to look for something with much more substance than that.
We can see now that the Basel system displays a significant number of weaknesses. First, it comprises what has been described as “soft law”. In other words, it is in no way legally binding. Its status is not even permanent: there are no permanent staff behind it to support it. The second major weakness of the Basel approach is that it is not at all about compliance; it is only about supervision. Nor does even Basel II—the so-called strengthened version—address at all the issue of systemic risk. In fact, it very much reflects the G10 banking culture that dominated all the negotiations that led up to the agreement. That culture is not relevant to the many parts of the international banking system that are now caught up in the consequences of what is unfolding.
The real problem is that the Basel system depends on more than 100 different national regulators. Here, the Financial Services Authority is the first to interpret and then to apply the guidance given in Basel. The system’s other weakness is that it concentrates almost entirely on the issue of capital requirements, which was also an obsession throughout the decade of discussion that led up to the eventual agreement. It says very little—in some cases, nothing at all—about the problems of banking liquidity, about leveraging, about reputational issues or about the use of off-balance-sheet activities. Yet, as we have seen, those are some of the major faults in the system that have given rise to the current problems.
Most of the difficulties that I see in the Basel II system—this is why I suggest that it needs fundamental reform, rather than mere amendment—rest essentially on internal risk-basing. That was the absolute principle that the banks demanded throughout all the negotiations, and that Governments in the end conceded. However, there are four main problems with internal risk-basing, which are now painfully apparent after what has happened. First, it allows banks with complex risk-taking models to select their capital adequacy levels from a range of options. Secondly, it allows banks to use their own measures to determine the degree to which they are exposed to risk. Thirdly, it allows banks to allocate their own risk-weighting to their assets, including those that are off balance sheet. Fourthly, it allows banks to use their own estimates of the probability of any one of their assets going into default.
What are the consequences of such a system, based as it is on internal, risk-based assessment? The system says that it is fine to reduce capital charges on what it declares to be lower-risk lending. What example of lower-risk lending does it cite? It cites residential mortgages. Well, we have seen the consequences of doing that. We saw another consequence when Adam Applegarth appeared before our Treasury Select Committee. He said that it was Basel II compliance that suggested to him that it was fine for the Northern Rock bank to increase its dividend, rather than shore up its levels of capital.
As I said, Basel II has only soft-law guidance—nothing harder than that—which has been shown to be wanting in the conditions that we now face. Basel II therefore displays fundamental weaknesses in terms of a system of governance or regulation of international banking, which is now what we are seeking. In truth, what we have is a global financial structure supervised by a balkanised system of regulation. That is, and is always going to be, an unequal struggle, and international standards will always come off worse in that conflict.
That is the situation that we are in, and I am afraid that that system will result in a race to the bottom in terms of in-country regulation, because regard for national competitive advantage will always trump regulatory concerns in those circumstances. We have seen, through the negotiations that led up to Basel II and the way in which it has been applied in the last year or so, that Governments in the end generally cave in to the banks’ demands, because that architecture allows the banks to use the “going offshore” threat that resonates so much with Governments.
So the question is: if the G20 is looking again at the Basel agreement and is working on proposals for the spring of next year, what do we need to do to put in place a system that is appropriate for the challenges that we face, and which can move beyond the platform that Basel II itself presents? What we really need is regulation or supervision on the scale of that which we are trying to regulate or supervise; that is the imbalance that must surely be corrected. The logic of that points to a very different approach from the current one. The gaps that need to be filled are fairly obvious. We must have a system that addresses systemic risk.
Banks can now prove beyond all doubt that some of them—many of them—are too big to fail. The underwriting that Governments have now put in place, which was of course the right thing to do, has introduced what is called “shadow equity” into the system, and with it a potential moral hazard. However, because it is there, I see it as giving Governments the right to insist, if we are taking forward a new model, on some global minimum standards of regulation that must apply across the international system. Those must go beyond simply the issue of capital adequacy. We have got to address liquidity, leveraging, securitisation, off-balance-sheet activity, accountancy standards and incentive structures, and we must have early-warning devices. At the moment, Governments around the world rescuing their banks have the upper hand in this argument, but as time passes the terms of trade may shift back towards the banks and away from Governments.
The hard truth is that if we are not to revisit this situation at some future time, we need some pooling of regulatory sovereignty, giving powers to an international supervisory or regulatory body that is on an appropriate scale to supervise or regulate that which needs to be regulated.
Order. Before I call the next Member to speak, let me say that a large number of Members are seeking to catch my eye. It would be most helpful if Members took less than their allotted 10 minutes; then, I will try to call as many Members as I can.
First, I declare my interest in the Register of Members’ Interests: I am a director of a family property and building company.
We live in difficult, almost uncharted times, and I am not sure that we have the solutions to what will be a difficult few years ahead. Ours is an open, liberal economy with a very large financial sector that benefits and has benefited us and has created lots of very well-paid jobs. That means that we will be affected by what happens worldwide. However, it is also legitimate to say that there are signs that we have gone into a difficult period rather less prepared than we could have been. A lot of that goes back to one of the first decisions that this Government made, which was to give independence to the Bank of England. Two things then occurred: the Financial Services Authority was set up to regulate banking; and a lot of the big disasters occurred under that system, which has also given us occupational pensions, the Equitable Life situation and the various other things that have gone wrong in the past few years.
I rather think that the previous system, in which the Bank of England regulated the City, was better. I remember that there was a banking crisis when I left school in 1973 or 1974, when many secondary banks went out of business. Slater Walker had problems. Several other banks went out of a business, a lifeboat was formed and the banks sorted the problem out before it became a major one. Changing from a rather more informal system, whereby there was a flow of information, to a much more formal clipboard-type of system has not worked that well. I am aware that the City is a far larger and more international organisation than it once was, but I cannot help feeling that the FSA’s watch has not been a good one.
The other relevant issue is the independence of the Bank in setting interest rates. On the whole, that has received plaudits over the past decade, but I begin to wonder whether the Bank’s independence and its setting interest rates has done us any great favours, given that we now have one of the biggest financial busts. I say that because it is clear that there should have been a squeeze and higher interest rates rather earlier. When 120 per cent. mortgages are available, when people are borrowing four or five times their income, when the house-price boom is clearly unsustainable and when first-time buyers cannot get into the market, that is bound to have an inflationary impact on the economy. Therefore, the Bank of England should have acted earlier.
Against that backdrop, it was a little foolish of the Government to continue spending up as they have. The profile of our tax receipts—a lot is City-related and a lot is housing-related—means that they should have done what the Germans did: run a fiscal surplus. One of the reasons we are going to find things very rough and why our room for manoeuvre is rather more limited is because we spent. The Government argue that they spent on schools, hospitals and so on. There were many good things that the money was spent on, but given the rough weather that we have encountered, their decision was foolish and it means that they are far more limited in what they can do.
We have had some discussion about whether the VAT changes will make a lot of difference, and set against the discounting in the high street, I am somewhat sceptical that they will. Indeed, many businesses are finding that there are quite a lot of costs attached to altering VAT. Poole borough council, among others—indeed, all the local authorities that we represent—has spent quite a lot of money making the necessary alterations.
The most important thing is that we deal with the credit markets and with the banking system, because credit still is not flowing. I commend the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), because we must get credit flowing to businesses. If credit does not flow to businesses, either through banks or through some support for lending, no matter what the Government do we will have a sharp downturn that will result in very high unemployment.
I am sceptical about the VAT measures, but if the Government are serious about achieving a fiscal stimulus, they could do a lot worse than to start building some council housing. There is a need for housing, there are a lot of unemployed building workers and land is available because the private sector is building almost nothing. That would be a logical sector in which to provide a stimulus and it would leave a lasting legacy, as opposed to opting for a temporary VAT cut, which will not do what the Government want it to do.
There may be an argument for a fiscal stimulus, but what the Government are doing will not have the impact that they hope. As we all know, the difference between Government spending and tax revenues are two very large figures. If the Government are being a little optimistic about the outlook and the profile of this recession, the real figure might be rather larger than 8 per cent of gross domestic product in terms of debt and we would start to get into areas of difficulty. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) warned about inflation, and I agree. In particular, if the pound is very soggy, we will import quite a lot of inflation and will end up with higher rates of inflation and a downturn—classic stagflation—which would be very difficult indeed.
Like many Members, I have constituency cases. Some of the people I see who still have housing problems are those who were affected by the downturn under the previous Conservative Government and who perhaps lost their homes because of negative equity—that has a long-term difficult effect. One of the major changes in the British economy is that individuals carry a substantial amount of debt on their credit cards and mortgages—rather more than they might have done 10, 20 or 30 years ago. My real fear is that if unemployment increases beyond 2 million and towards 3 million, many of the people who lose their jobs will be carrying very heavy debts and will find that their long-term prospects are difficult. I welcome what the Government have announced on assistance with mortgages. It will be very valuable, because the long-term impact on many families who lose their jobs and find themselves with major debts against the home or against credit cards when they expected to have a major income will be horrific.
What has happened in the global markets is that a lot of wealth has simply disappeared, because people do not know what many of the debts that banks hold are worth and there is no confidence within the market. That cannot wholly be filled by Governments, and a major adjustment will have to be made. The head of Barclays was probably right today when he talked about house prices falling by 30 per cent., and the sooner prices fall so that we can get to the bottom of the market, the better it will be in terms of the economy’s starting to readjust.
One relevant factor is that whereas years ago first-time buyers used to get into the market at about 26, in recent years they have done so at 34 or 35. That is partly because of high house prices, but it is partly because of lifestyle choices—people getting married later and wanting to travel more; they want to go to Kathmandu and so on. When we get to a point where both the housing market adjusts to a lower level and those many young people are feeling more secure in their jobs because they have survived a wave of unemployment, there will be the prospect of people getting back into the housing market and our getting back to a more regular, sensible rolling housing market again. There is some hope, but the housing market has been distorted. A world in which the City paid out bonuses last year of £16 billion and where Russian billionaires buy properties in Chelsea has lifted a lot of the housing market in the south-east. Simply because people will not receive that level of bonuses in the next two or three years, the housing market will have to find a bottom. That will come when first-time buyers do what people have always done—get married and want to buy homes. I hope that the adjustment in the market is quick and that we get back to a more organised market, rather than have a slow fall, and it looks like that is happening.
We have a very unusual recession. People have benefited over the past few years, because as house prices have increased they have been able to withdraw equity for homes, cars, holidays and sometimes for their businesses, but now we have reverse of that process. It will be very painful for those who lose their jobs—we hope that there will not be too many of them—and for all of us in dealing with the consequences of this very serious situation. I commend the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton. I fear the worst, but hope for the best.
First, let me say a word about Afghanistan, because it feeds into this debate. It looks like we are going to commit more troops, and I say do not do it. Since the invasion of Iraq there has been a catalogue of failure, and we cannot really carry on as though the missed opportunity has not been missed, because it has. We are losing the hearts and minds of a growing number of the population, mainly because of the random bombing of civilians by our US allies. There has also been a chronic failure in terms of development, because infant mortality has risen—War Child’s October report talked of a quarter of children dying before their fifth birthday, and that is the third highest level in the world—and the UN development ranking gives only three countries a lower ranking. We cannot afford an unproductive war such as this. Joseph Stiglitz’s book called it “The Three Trillion Dollar War”. That figure is likely to increase if we go down this path. Given the figures that the Select Committee on Defence has produced, and the cost trends and the extra troops, it is likely to be £5 billion a year, and we cannot afford that.
This situation is compared with the 1920s and 1930s, and it is said that the war got the world out of the slump. That is a misreading, because at the end there was greater debt, massive asset destruction and countries were devastated. That took a long time to pay off, and there was a continuation of rationing. What is relevant is that the 1929 great crash also came from unbridled, uncontrolled capitalism. It led to a depression, massive unemployment, misery and hardship for millions, and from there, social upheaval and fascism. Fascism promoted rearmament, which put people back to work, but for conflict.
Elsewhere, the lesson came from Keynes and Roosevelt that government can maintain employment by public works and the welfare state, but admittedly at a cost of increased borrowing and debt. However, it is not unreasonable to do that. In fact, it is essential. Local authorities built swimming pools, parks and halls, all paid for over 60 years, and it is okay that those benefiting from them years into the future pay towards them. So, it is not a case of putting future generations into hock.
I am not opposed to a fiscal stimulus, and I think that the VAT cut was a clear signal to encourage trading. It is certainly more appropriate in this context than what the Tories propose—a council tax cut, which is irrelevant in this context. There needs to be more money for those on low incomes and on pensions, but the emphasis should be on capital programmes such as transport infrastructure, new schools, the NHS and new homes. The role of local authorities should be boosted, particularly in building new homes—the point has been made about council houses.
It was right to take a stake in the banks, particularly the commercial banks, to provide stability and to implement our essential socio-economic agenda of getting funds to small businesses and home owners, but regulation needs to be substantially improved. There is no clearer example of that than today’s story of Madoff, with his $33 billion fraud. The City of London is grossly inadequate in these terms. I wrote to the City at the time of the events involving Conrad Black and said, “You wouldn’t have got a prosecution in this country, the way you are operating.” Amazingly, the US is better than the City of London at getting prosecutions. I have not had a reply from the City.
The Tories are still against regulation; their party wants the light touch, or no regulation, that brought us into this mess in the first place. The Tories use the level of debt and borrowing as a political argument to do nothing—laissez-faire economics—but it also goes further: it is the basis of a political position that says for the well-off, “Our share of the cake, whatever it is, is more important than maintaining or having a larger cake overall.” That is an argument for inequality and it writes off a large chunk of the population as victims of unemployment or other aspects of the recession. The Tories leave them abandoned.
There has been overdependence on financial services in the UK, but that has been made worse by the profiteers and speculators thinking of themselves as the lords of the universe who should not be subject to regulation because they are the wealth producers. That is combined with the Chicago school Friedmanites, who are determined, as an ideological doctrine, to eliminate and privatise the state. Naomi Klein has described that very well in her book, “The Shock Doctrine”. The Tories have been the cheerleaders for both those schools of thought, and they have not changed.
For the future, we need more emphasis on productive industry and less on financial services. The emphasis should be rebalanced that way. The bankers have been saved, but Woolworths staff have not. That is unfair. We must have an industrial strategy that protects productive jobs. We need control over who makes credit and in what way. The Government cannot abrogate that matter and give it to the private sector in an uncontrolled way. There needs to be tight control of fancy financial vehicles such as derivatives, which end up worthless. There needs to be accountability and transparency, including of offshore transactions. The state has to be the basis of stability and the guardian of the public interest. That cannot be left to the private market and its free-for-all, fraud and failure. Taxpayers must get their money back whenever the banks renew profitability. There must be no swift return to the privatisation of all profits. I say this: taxpayers are more likely to get their money back with Labour than with the Tories.
The Bank of England recently estimated global bank losses at £2.8 trillion. The banks clearly need time for write-offs and state investment is buying that time. In the process, savings and shareholdings are saved from being at zero value, or worthless. It is appropriate for that to apply to the commercial banks—alongside, I might add, tighter regulation, an end to the bonus culture, requirements for them to do their job properly and a shift-out of the top level failures—but I am not convinced that it is so appropriate for the investment banks and hedge funds. By the way, Roosevelt did not want anything to do with them and would not make them legal.
A principal factor about which I am concerned is the pension funds that those investment banks and hedge funds hold. They have been rendered worthless, but those institutions also have them at the end of the queue for payment. The state could take them over at what they are worth now, and then enhance them. Savings could be protected by the scheme that is in place already. However, we could let the rest of the banks—those investment banks and hedge funds—go down. It could be cheaper and fairer in the long term and it would remove that worthless, stultifying debt from the system, thereby allowing the chance for new capital to emerge. Those banks should look to their previous managers and owners in the courts to recoup their losses.
Those are my feelings on the way forward.
It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), even if we do not follow all his arguments all the time. Bearing in mind what he said, I wonder how he managed to sit on his hands over the last 10 years, as the very rich became even richer under his Government. No doubt he has an answer, and a charming one, as always.
Just as a dog will ultimately take on the characteristics of its owner, or vice versa, a Queen’s Speech tells us something of the character of a Government. A tired and rather thin Queen’s Speech tells us a little about a weary animal that simply wants to pack up and go home to the fire. The rationale for this Government left when Tony Blair walked out of the door, and since then the Labour party has struggled to convince anyone that it had any intention of doing anything in government except be there to keep the Tories out. I must admit that that has a Machiavellian logic to it, but it probably is not what the public are looking for.
Before I comment on the subject of today’s debate, may I make a couple of brief remarks on other matters in the Queen’s Speech? The snappily named Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill legislates for, among other things, the transfer of planning powers from the unelected regional assemblies to unelected regional development agencies. I have not met anyone connected with regional development agencies who wants those powers. They see them as a poisoned chalice and a way for the Government to get out of their failed regionalisation policy. I hope that the Bill perishes either in the Lords or here.
The policing, crime reduction and airport security Bill will, among other things, finally provide coherence in the provision and costing of airport security, but not before some £2 million has been lost to Bedfordshire police due to the Government’s decision four years ago to cut expenditure on Luton airport—a major national port of entry and departure with obvious security interests. The Government’s inexplicable decision to cut the funding and ask Bedfordshire police to take up more of the burden has increased costs for a hard-pressed police authority. A lot could have been done with that £2 million, and I hope that during the passage of the Bill an amendment will be carried that provides a suitable vehicle to repay that cost.
Although the Government’s continuing efforts on welfare reform are belated, they are to be commended. The Government seem to be accepting some of the analysis that my Opposition colleagues advance consistently, and which Labour Members, most notably the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), occasionally mention. As a former Minister for disabled people, I welcome the improvements to the access to work scheme. Those improvements, as well as the improvements to ensure that those with disabilities have rather more control over their own lives, follow the path laid down so well by Sir Nicholas Scott during his tenure in that important post. I am pleased to see those developments continued by the Government.
Two further points on welfare reform are worth mentioning. First, any social welfare reform now carried forward without being fully informed by the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and his Centre for Social Justice will be off track. His comprehensive pulling together of so much statistical information on our damaged communities has done much to mould opinion in recent years and to help us recognise that attempts to move people from benefits into work and to promote economic independence cannot achieve success unless they are accompanied by an understanding of the extent of family and relationship breakdown and of its impact on communities.
Any time spent with those who work on the front line of a country that now exhibits clear signs of social apartheid suggests that while a fortune is spent on the consequences of family and relationship breakdown, too little is spent on supporting relationship structures in the first place and trying to prevent their breakdown later, particularly when children are involved. As recent court cases have further revealed the depth of that brokenness, we need somehow to find national consensus on tackling a problem that will last, Government in, Government out, over the next 50 years. I suggest that my right hon. Friend’s work provides an excellent basis for that.
Secondly, I would be interested in seeing an amendment made to the welfare reform Bill. When I visited a community furniture re-use project in my constituency recently, the organiser raised the issue of community care grants. The project deals with a number of clients with addiction issues. When community care grants are paid in cash, there is an understandable temptation and risk that they will not be used for the purpose intended. My local project has suggested to the regional Jobcentre Plus that vouchers should be given rather than cash, and those involved in the project believe that vouchers are in use in some parts of the country. The response from the regional Jobcentre Plus was that to give cash to some individuals and not to others would be rather unfair.
During the passage of the Bill, I wonder whether the Government might consider running some more pilot projects, relegating the concept of “fairness” and giving preference to an understanding of the individual needs of a client. Individual decision making on whether to give money or a voucher to someone who is addicted might require them to be given a voucher, which would be better all round. I would be grateful if the Government could think about that.
Finally, let me move on to the economy. It is clear from many speeches made by Members of all parties that, whatever the intentions of the Government and Whitehall, the financial injection into the banks is not getting through as we would have intended. The chamber of trade in Biggleswade tells me that banks are approaching business customers to tell them that even as base rates are reduced, they are holding businesses to the rates of interest on their loans or credit facilities that were originally agreed. There is a widespread belief, notably shared by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, that little has been added through the £12.5 billion spent on VAT reduction. Most constituents are aware of price reductions elsewhere, as businesses adopt the traditional practice of dropping the price to sell the goods.
There is a further pressure affecting recession in areas such as North-East Bedfordshire. Earmarked for significant building in the future, the area has now a large number of building schemes that are now at best on hold or might be shelved. In addition to the schemes, the section 106 funding that goes with them has been taken into account in the local authorities’ plans. If the section 106 plans fall foul of the economy’s collapse, the agreements will either be renegotiated or lost and local authorities will find themselves looking for new money to fulfil promises that they have already made to the community. Under the straitened circumstances that they are in, they will be unable to do so. That will put further pressure, which is currently rather underrated, on local economies.
The Government’s attitude to the fall in the exchange rate is puzzling. I have twice attempted to ask both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer what they believe the reasons to be for the fall in the value of sterling over the past few months. My questions, and those of others, are now met by a standard reply, which is that the Government do not give a “running commentary” on the value of the exchange rate. That is not what we are asking for. Asking for an explanation of what has happened is not the same as asking for a running commentary on what is happening now or might happen tomorrow. The now Prime Minister worked that out when he was shadow Chancellor, when he said that a weak currency was evidence of a weak Government. The probity of asking about the value of exchange rates did not worry him then.
There are three answers to the question. The first is to say that the world has got things completely wrong, that it is misjudging our economy and that everything is dandy. To say that while praising the rest of the world for ostensibly following what the Government are doing would put the Government into difficulties, so that answer is not given. The second answer to the question of what has happened to the exchange rates is that there has been a snap answer to a series of sudden problems in the British economy; things will pick up next year and people will realise that they have made a mistake. That is not a bad answer, but it indicates that there are some problems at present, so it is not an answer the Government give. The third answer is that the world is completely right: we are in a total Horlicks, the judgment is correct and we are very sorry. That is the right answer, but again it is unlikely to be given. Any of those three answers would be better, however, than simply saying, “We are not giving a running commentary.” Perhaps the Minister who replies to the debate might be given the opportunity to answer the question.
As a nation, as individuals or as a people, the answer to the economic crisis cannot be that we should just go back to where we were. We cannot ask people to return to over-borrowing, not saving and being offered money that they cannot afford to take. They must not be urged to buy things they cannot afford. Consumerism as the answer cannot be where we want to put people after all this is over. Whatever reflections there are after the recession, one of them will surely be to try to understand that the concept “enough” should mean more to us than the concept “more”. At some stage, we shall have to face that as a nation, rather than being asked to go through this whole cycle again.
I shall consider some of the means that we need to adopt if we are to eliminate child poverty in the United Kingdom by 2020, ensuring that the Government’s ambitious aim becomes a reality for the people on low incomes whom I represent. The Government are rightly proud of their progress in tackling child poverty thus far, but I fear that in the capital there is still much to do. At present, one in four of London’s children live in poverty, almost twice the national average: 650,000 children—a figure equivalent to the entire population of Sheffield.
London is a wealthy city, but that wealth and strength is in massive contrast to the entrenched pockets of deprivation that can be found across the capital. To achieve the child poverty target, co-ordinated cross-departmental action is required. We need a London strategy if we are to reach our target, as the capital faces a unique set of challenges: high rates of worklessness, staggeringly high housing costs and a relatively low skills base. Additional challenges are posed by a highly transient population—transient through necessity, not choice.
The national minimum wage has had a real impact on reducing child poverty across the country. It was a just and morally right policy to pursue and has resulted in positive advancement for many workers and families. However, I fear that the national minimum wage has not had the same impact for Londoners. Many of my constituents work their guts out for the minimum wage, which is peanuts in an area where the costs of housing, day-to-day essentials and child care are so very high.
The notional hourly rate of the London living wage is £7.45, but at present about 10 per cent. of full-time workers and a massive 45 per cent. of part-time workers do not receive that rate. The issue needs to be addressed. My next point will be controversial, but we need a debate on whether we should consider the introduction of regional differentiation in the minimum wage to address the needs of the capital. Wage rates matter when we are trying to deal with poverty.
I listened with great interest to the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks). I represent constituents in a borough where the challenge from long-term worklessness, ill health and disability is as entrenched as anywhere in the country. Nearly 7,000 people in my borough have been receiving incapacity benefit for more than five years, and 4,710 receive IB as a result of mental disorders. It is right to remind the House that Department for Work and Pensions research on the pathways to work pilot found that
“the most important factor in finding work was how health conditions were perceived and managed.”
The research also found that the imposition of sanctions—not work per se—worsens existing health problems, provokes new mental health problems, has a worse impact on the most deprived and isolated people and rarely improves positive engagement:
“Pathways In-Work Support advisers commonly identified customers with mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety or low self-confidence, as the most significant customer group”.
That document goes on to describe a series of representative cases in which people have struggled to take on work, have been exhausted, panicked, and drained of confidence, and have sometimes failed. For those with physical health conditions, the dominant issue was managing to fulfil their work obligations without experiencing pain or worsening their health condition. It was reported that clients often develop mental health or emotional difficulties such as depression or low confidence as a result of their poor physical health and the impact on other aspects of their life.
I applaud the White Paper’s support for a vision of personalised conditionality, matched by personalised support. I cannot emphasise too much the importance of cross-Government working to explore how we can integrate health, work and skills services for people with mental health conditions.
As I am sure that the majority of Members would agree, adequate, safe and affordable housing is essential for good mental health, and central to the fight against child poverty. The announcement of an £8 billion programme last summer to deliver 180,000 affordable homes has given hope to many young families. Families living in grossly overcrowded homes often fail to thrive. Many tensions are created and the children struggle to keep up at school.
I am concerned that the Mayor of London may prioritise public subsidy of low-cost home ownership projects. I accept that many families in my constituency aspire to become home owners in future, but Housing Corporation research shows that London has a surplus of those projects, with almost 10,000 shared ownership properties standing empty in London because Londoners cannot afford to buy them and the banks will not lend on them. In monetary terms, that represents more than £600 million-worth of public investment currently doing nothing to help the homeless and overcrowded families who need it most.
While I am on the subject of overcrowding, I would like to remind the Government of the promise, made during the progress of the Housing and Regeneration Bill, to introduce secondary legislation to change the definition of overcrowding to a bedroom standard. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), committed to introducing such secondary legislation. Committee members were told that secondary legislation could be introduced in 2009. Well, 2009 is upon us.
Having encouraged the new Minister for Housing, who attends Cabinet, to act on overcrowding and home building, I urge her to assist the Government in their aim of poverty eradication. I also ask her not to consider any late amendments to the Bill that would downgrade the security enjoyed by council and housing association tenants. Stories in the press suggested that she might do that. Perhaps the stories were placed to bounce my right hon. Friend into backing plans to scrap secure and assured tenancies, but thankfully, the lady was not for bouncing. My hon. Friends and I were greatly reassured by her willingness to dismiss those back-door briefings as
“speculation … to put it mildly.”
She has pushed back the publication of the housing reform Green Paper until next spring, and that shows that she has a grasp of the real issues to do with tenancies and worklessness.
John Hills’s detailed research, published last year, made it clear that the reasons for disproportionate rates of worklessness among those in social housing are complex and manifold. Anyone who doubts that need only look at how much higher the rates of worklessness are among homeless families placed in non-secure, expensive temporary accommodation. Housing benefit often drives people further from the job market and deeper into the poverty trap. That is why I welcome the commitment by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to undertake a housing benefit review to look into the difficulties associated with the housing benefit taper. The consequences of no reform in that area will certainly have a negative impact on the Government’s commitment to halving and then eradicating child poverty in London.
Before arriving in the Chamber today, I had an extremely productive meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher), in which we discussed that very issue. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her time and her intelligent analysis of the extremely problematic issues. I am genuinely hopeful that a solution will be found to help families who cannot afford both to work and to keep a roof over their heads, and the heads of their children.
My contribution today has, of necessity, been short, and short contributions can mean that arguments are not fully developed. However, I hope that I have highlighted some of the challenges and complexities that will need to be addressed if we are to ensure that the Government meet their commitment to eradicating child poverty by 2020.
First, may I declare that I am an RBS pension holder—I hope to be paid a pension at some stage—and I hope that my NatWest overdraft will continue to be provided. More importantly, I do some work in the City, and I provide services to customers such as the World Bank and Scandinavian local government funding agencies, which are involved in the debt markets that I shall discuss.
I was pleased by the remarks of the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) about the attractions of pursuing the bad bank solution. There are strong arguments for pursuing that means of dealing with the difficulties in the financial markets, which may be more cost-effective than the routes pursued by the Government. I was taken with what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said about the importance of the Government being cautious about the way in which they spend their money. What is happening is a bit like a hunter who has been disturbed in the middle of the night by a bear outside, and bravely jumps out and starts shooting in the dark, not entirely sure that they are going to hit the target, and in great danger of running out of ammunition by the time the time the bear is upon them. The Government have acted with great vigour and rigour, but unfortunately, they may not always have the right solution.
My hon. Friend is discussing the financial market, and he will be as concerned as I am about the Madoff swindle, which could cost HSBC and the Royal Bank of Scotland alone a sum approaching £1.1 billion. How will that impact on hedge funds, and what should the Government do about that right now?
It is important that we debate that issue on the day on which the extent of the Madoff scandal and fraud has come to light. At over $50 billion, it is much bigger than the amount of the fiscal stimulus proposed by the Government. To provide confidence in the hedge fund industry in the UK—my hon. Friend is right to emphasise the fact that the crisis is attacking the financial industry here in London—it is important that proper work be done as a matter of urgency to audit hedge funds in the UK.
The Government try to make a great merit of the importance of fiscal stimulation. I strongly believe that the fiscal approach must be the premier approach compared with monetary policy, but fiscal stimulation must be more effective than the 5p reduction in VAT on the £2.35 price of a Costa coffee. The reduction in VAT to 15 per cent. has a minimal effect on the price of the coffee. Normally, one would expect to buy nine coffees before being given one free, but now one must be particularly hyper, consuming 47 cappuccinos at £2.30 each before seeing a tangible return on one’s discounted morning pick-me-up. Perhaps that is what the Government meant by stimulating the economy.
Unfortunately, the figures that the Government face in the crisis are serious. Despite the determined way in which Ministers have acted since the crisis fell upon them in the autumn, someone was definitely asleep at the wheel when it came to regulation. UK bank assets more than doubled—up 125 per cent. in seven years—and one of our leading banking institutions had a leverage rate of 60:1. The Government make bold statements about the fact that it is their intention to ensure that the extent of lending in 2007 is maintained but, unfortunately, that is a quixotic aim, because it was the securities market—securitisation—that provided liquidity for the economy, and we must bear in mind the fact that over the past seven years, the amount of annual liquidity provided to the markets by UK securitisation rose from £13 billion to £257 billion, so £240 billion a year has gone out of the lending market as a result of the destruction of the securities market. We must acknowledge just how challenging the Government’s task is. It is difficult to criticise the banks for not lending when one realises that they are in fact lending more, but the securities market has been destroyed, so what we as Members of Parliament see at constituency level is a huge contraction in the credit supply.
The Government need to think carefully about how they set about providing additional liquidity. I am disappointed by the announcement today by the Government that it is their intention to extend further Government guarantees for the public issuance of debt by banks. It must be remembered that British banks using the guarantee are issuing that debt at the equivalent of 1 per cent. more per year in interest rate costs than the equivalent LIBOR gilt yield rates.
That has the effect of greatly increasing the cost of that money to the Government. It would be better for them to secure funding for the UK banks 1 per cent. more cheaply through issuing gilts directly, and lending that money directly to the banks. That would give the Government greater control over the banks, which we as Members of Parliament crave, and would not allow the standing of Government debt to become so debased by being issued at the ridiculously high rate of LIBOR plus 90 basis points.
The sum of £250 billion is what the Government intend to allow the banks to borrow using the guarantee of Her Majesty’s Government, but we could theoretically save 1 per cent. a year on that borrowing by deciding that that borrowing should be issued directly through gilts. Over the three-year period that these bonds are allowed to be issued, that would save a total of £2.5 billion, which could be better spent on schools or hospitals, or perhaps even paying for a minute part of a further recapitalisation of a bank. It must make sense in the context of the approach that is being taken. I had a great deal more to say, but many other Members wish to speak in the debate, so I am happy to conclude now.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), who gave a short, reasonable and measured speech.
I shall concentrate on the economy and the impact on my constituency and region, the west midlands. Economic historians will debate for many years the culpability for the current international economic crisis. The central problem seems to be that international finance and the mechanisms and tools used to move money round the world have outstripped the national and international supervisory and regulatory bodies. It ill behoves Opposition Members to criticise the Government for not regulating the finance market properly, when the Opposition were advocating total deregulation of the market.
In the end the public will judge us not on who is culpable, because it clearly is an international crisis, but on what the Government do about it and what mechanisms they are prepared to adopt to deal with the problem—interest rate monetary policy, or monetary policy plus fiscal stimulus. From my discussions with electors and above all with local manufacturers, it is clear that a combination of the two is needed.
People in my constituency and the black country as a whole remember the monetary policies of the early ’80s, which were devastating—and happened within an international economic context far more benign than the problems with which we are dealing at the moment. The manufacturers whom I meet do not talk about balanced budgets. They talk about the availability of credit and needing loans, as well as about needing rate relief on empty properties which the Government have now delivered. Above all, however, those manufacturers say that there is no point in providing companies easier access to credit if those companies do not have an order book to respond to. Order books can be built up only if the economy in general is stimulated. I believe that the VAT £12.5 billion stimulus will provide that stimulation, as will the public works that are being brought forward.
At the end of the day, small companies face diminishing order books and the necessity of laying off workers. The only legacy of the 1980s that the manufacturers remember with any regard is, ironically, the one interventionist Thatcherite measure—the short-time working directive, when workers were subsidised for not leaving the employment of a small company. It is absolutely essential that we preserve our manufacturing base. If we do not have any industry when the upturn comes, we will not be able to take full advantage of it. Areas such as mine in the west midlands are in many ways a litmus test of the sort of policies needed to keep our industrial base intact.
I turn briefly to the car industry, which represents about a quarter of the manufacturing output of the west midlands. Land Rover-Jaguar alone employs 13,000 people, and including the automotive components industry, car industry employees make up a huge section of the west midlands work force. The Government have rightly intervened in providing money for the banks; that was essential to stop our national finance system seizing up. However, over and above that, we have to recognise that vital industrial sectors may need supporting in a way that has not so far been envisaged. We have tried to get cheaper credit through the banking system, and we may need to consider industry-specific measures designed to provide cheap loans from the finance arms of the car companies, to stimulate the purchase of cars, which are such a vital and strategic part of our industrial base. Similarly, we may have to look to measures to preserve the cutting-edge research and development in our car industry.
Although I praise the Government for their work so far, I finish by reminding them that that work is not over. The issue is about saving not just the banking sector but our industrial sector; so much of the work done with banks will be lost unless we do the latter. I ask the Government to take that on board, and—if necessary—to be bold.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), who is a worthy champion of the motor manufacturing industry. Many of the small manufacturing companies in my constituency supply some of the major motor manufacturers in his, and we work together on those issues.
I should like to start by injecting a note of blame. Some other hon. Members have chosen not to blame the current economic crisis on the Government, and that surprises me. Today, we heard the Chancellor delivering a speech while presiding over what is, as one Minister admitted today, the worst recession. The Chancellor is presiding over a currency in free-fall and a public sector debt that is to double in the next five years. Yet despite the Government’s having been in power for more than 10 years, Labour Members say that that is not the Government’s fault. I find that extraordinary.
It is particularly extraordinary to claim that this is all down to global causes and that other economies are suffering alongside the UK, because none is suffering as badly as ours. Sterling has fallen further and faster than any other major currency this year. Why is that, and why has it happened particularly in the past few weeks? It is because currency markets increasingly lack confidence that this Government will be able to borrow what they need to borrow, by their own admission, over the years to come. That is why the currency is collapsing.
The Chancellor was not prepared to admit, when challenged today, that he is doubling the public sector debt under his watch. If the gilt markets are not prepared to fund the Government’s borrowing, two things could happen: interest rates will rise to the point whereby that funding becomes available or the Bank of England will print money to enable the Government funding to be established. Either way, we are heading for significant deflation or stagflation, neither of which Labour Members should feel any comfort about. Commentators are now asking themselves whether the UK will have to follow the path of the Seychelles or Ecuador by defaulting, or they are starting to talk about returning to international agencies to bail the economy out of a prolonged period of Labour Government, as has happened before.
I should like to talk briefly about the banking crisis. Government measures have led to a succession of errors helping to compound the problem, in our economy in particular. We have heard much talk about the regulatory problems being not of our making. I remind Labour Members that the new banking regulatory system, which was put in place 10 years ago by the then Chancellor, now Prime Minister, and the then Chief Secretary, now Chancellor, was found wanting a year ago when the Northern Rock crisis took place and the Financial Services Authority itself admitted that it had not regulated properly.
When Conservative Members argued in favour of the independence of the Bank of England, we were not arguing in favour of the FSA taking over banking regulation—that was not how we saw it then or see it today. When Northern Rock got into difficulty last year, the Government were unable to take the swift decisions necessary in order to deal with the crisis as it arose. Despite ministerial denials ever since, they dithered and shilly-shallied and did not take the opportunity to place Northern Rock into the safe hands that were on offer.
The bank recapitalisations of this autumn have also been poorly executed. As other Members have said, they have been funded by an extraordinary series of preference share issues which have provided terms that would prevent anybody else from participating, so should those banks require funding in future there will be no sources of capital other than the Government available for them to dip into. The recapitalisation has created a structure in which, by definition, only money from the Bank of England or the Treasury will be able to continue any sort of bail-out. It is not helping the real economy, because the banks have been faced with conflicting signals. On one hand, the excessive borrowings of the past decade widened their capital adequacy ratios dramatically—accentuated in some cases, as the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) said, by the Basel II regulations, the classic example being Northern Rock. The expansion of the loan books had been so significant that, whereas in the 1970s the gross assets to common equity ratio was in the order of 15 times, in recent years it has been in the order of 90 times, on the narrow definition of common equity.
There has been a dramatic expansion of risk in bank balance sheets, which is why many of the assets that banks invested in require recapitalisation when they turn sour, either out of profits, which banks find extremely difficult to generate in the current environment of falling interest rates, or capital, which will not be forthcoming other than from the banks. The banks are being encouraged to lend by the Government but at the same time they are trying to generate capital to cope with the asset write-offs that they can see coming, and that circle cannot be completed.
Time is running out, and I shall allow other hon. Members to speak.
I was very interested in what the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) had to say—he is not in the Chamber any more—because I seem to remember that he was the Minister who introduced the Child Support Agency a long time ago as part of John Major’s Government. He may cast aspersions on others tonight, but some of us have long memories, and people have been trying to put the CSA right ever since.
I represent Coventry, and we in the west midlands have been concerned about manufacturing for a long time. Over the years, certainly under the previous Government, the industrial base was eroded to the point where the west midlands now provides in the region of 25 per cent. of this country’s manufacturing. We are obviously very concerned about that, and when we consider that the west midlands produces about 10 per cent. of this country’s wealth, we see that it is an area to be reckoned with.
I support the measures taken by the Government. They had to take those measures; when we look at history or at documentaries about the 1930s, we can see why the Government have to do what they have got to do. Any measures that the Government take will never be perfect, but nevertheless, they have to get the central thrust of what they are doing right or, as some people have predicted, we could end up in a situation comparable with that of the 1930s.
That takes me to the issue of Northern Rock, an issue which the Opposition have always ducked. Northern Rock gave the public a snippet, as it were, of what could be around the corner, which could be compared with the 1930s. Let us remember that people were queuing up to withdraw their money from Northern Rock, and that a number of societies were in the same boat. Let us remember that the Opposition dithered when we eventually took some action to stabilise that situation, and that they criticised us for doing so. When we listen to the Opposition, we are led to believe—the previous speaker just said it—that everything is the Government’s fault. There is a big, wide world out there. Apparently, we are insulated from that, and everything we do has no bearing on the world, but in actual fact the world has a big bearing on us. The situation started about two years ago, when India and China were forcing up commodity prices. The Opposition conveniently forget about that little thing that happened two or three years ago. It had a knock-on effect on oil prices, and we all know the story of how those prices then went through the roof.
We must not forget that the major problem started with mortgages in America, and others cannot duck the truth, as much as they would like to, because if they do not recognise it, they will never get a solution to the problem. We could give a litany of what has happened since then. The Government have been operating in a difficult situation, trying to persuade people that their course of action is the right one, with little support from the Opposition. As I remember, their support lasted only 10 days before the Leader of the Opposition withdrew it.
Let us take the other argument that the Opposition use quite a lot, which is that we did not prepare for a rainy day. We did, because we followed a Tory budget for two years—people tend to forget that. For every pound that was paid in tax, 50p of it was to pay off Government debt. We also invested for that rainy day, when we were able to, by spending on schools and the health service. The Conservatives cannot run away from the fact that we did invest for a rainy day. We also invested in modern technology and research and development, which our major industries rely on. Universities rely on that money, because it is part of their seedcorn funding. We also invested in skills and a number of other areas of the economy. At the end of the day, to suggest that the Government did not prepare for a rainy day is slightly misleading to say the least. It is totally misleading to say that if everything had been right in this country, somehow everything else in the world would have been okay, because the fact remains that the problems started outside this country, and I have highlighted a few examples of that.
Earlier today, the shadow Chancellor said that the Conservatives cared about families, decent housing and so on, and that Conservative local authorities would do the same sort of thing. However, in Coventry, for example, they have spent £40 million out of £70 million of reserves and they are introducing £9.4 million in spending cuts, which could affect 189 jobs, such as neighbourhood wardens. It will also affect youth services and library hours, and lead to cuts in certain areas of education, foster and social care. I know that my hon. Friends are waiting to get into the debate, but I wanted to highlight Coventry city council proposals and suggest that it look at them again.
It is a pleasure to speak after my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), who represents the area where I went to school in the 1980s. My family weathered the terrible recession of that time and saw the devastation of the car industry—the plant at Massey Ferguson, the Alvis tanks factory and the car body factory were all closed.
A series of devastating public sector spending cuts resulted in teachers’ strikes, and many of my friends and I missed out on large parts of our education. Opposition Members perhaps have not suffered a teachers’ strike, but when that happens, children go into school at the beginning of the week, pick up their work for the rest of the week, do it quickly that afternoon and go off to play for the rest of the day. As a 12-year-old, it was a recipe for happiness, but I am sure that it had a devastating and long-lasting impact on many of the people with whom I was at school. I would also like to share the fact that in 1982, I had to buy my own O-level physics textbook. In 1982, £12 was a lot of money for a 14-year-old who earned £1.50 from a paper round. Many of us can remember other recessions. The recession of the 1980s was perhaps not as desperate as that of the 1930s, but there was 20 per cent. unemployment in Northern Ireland and 16 per cent. unemployment in north-east and north-west England.
I shall consider two issues: the temporary reduction in VAT and, if time permits, the welfare reform proposals. The Government have done the right thing with the temporary cut in VAT because it will reduce prices and improve consumer spending. The measure is not about people buying 25 cappuccinos, as the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) rather facetiously implied, but about 25 people who would not otherwise buy cappuccinos doing so. We need to allow people to keep making the discretionary expenditure that they would otherwise not make. Increasing the higher rate of income tax to 45 per cent. for those earning above £150,000 is a bold, positive and progressive move by the Government that will ensure that the pain of this recession is shared by the few, as well as the many—to paraphrase a famous new Labour phrase.
It is important to bring forward spending on large infrastructure projects because that will enable construction companies that have been badly affected by the recession to remain in business. It is crucial that £3 billion is invested in our motorways, social housing, schools, hospitals and energy efficiency. The phrase of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) that we did not fix the roof while the sun was shining has become rather hackneyed, but I can tell him that, as a Labour Government, we have invested money in repairing schools and hospitals. Again, Opposition Members might not have had the pleasure of going to an outside lavatory at their school—I am sure that the Eton Rifles and the Bullingdon boys were not allowed to do that—but in some schools, the classrooms were out of action for years at a time because of leaks in the roof.
At Pinderfields hospital, Wakefield, which I visited two weeks ago with the Secretary of State for Health, a £250 million contract has been put in place and the infrastructure—the bones of the hospital—are in place. That hospital had not received any major building investment since almost the second world war—and that investment had consisted entirely of prefabricated portakabins. When I visited to celebrate the NHS’s 60th birthday this summer, we went to a children’s ward where the beds had previously been lost because the rain was getting through a hole in the roof. That is one of the challenges that doctors, nurses and care professionals in Wakefield faced in delivering health services, but now we are talking about the roof in Pinderfields hospital being physically fixed through a £250 million investment from the Government.
Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families announced new money for play areas. Wakefield will receive £1.1 million of investment this year, rather than in 2010-11, in 22 areas. In Kirklees, which I also represent, and the wards of Denby Dale and Kirkburton, £2.2 million will be invested in 28 play areas and two adventure playgrounds. I am determined not to let the Tory-Lib Dem coalition on the council allow my rural children to miss out.
It is also good that we are providing £15 million for free debt advice, which has been an issue in Wakefield. People trying to access debt advice at Wakefield’s citizens advice bureau currently face a three-week wait, which I raised with Treasury Ministers in the House in October. That demonstrates the nonsense of the Opposition, who published a paper in the summer calling for the deregulation of the mortgage market. We are all now only too aware of the dangers that such an approach would bring.
I have only 20 seconds left, so I will miss certain sections of my speech, but I want briefly to mention welfare reform, which is vital. It is difficult to get people back into work during a recession, but we cannot allow worklessness to become an ingrained habit, as the Conservatives did in the ’80s and ’90s. They want spending cuts, but I say that it is better to increase the national debt than to have 200,000 people losing their homes or one in 10 people unemployed. It is better that the national debt should rise than that entire sections of the manufacturing and coalmining industries should be left to wither on the vine: doing nothing is simply not an option. We in the Labour party have an action plan. Only time will tell whether it will be enough, but the “no action” plan from the do nothing party would seriously let down the people of this country.
If anyone had any doubts about the clear contrast between the approaches of the main parties towards dealing with the financial crisis and the recession, those doubts will not exist after today’s debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) pointed out, in spite of repeated requests and challenges in this debate, neither Tory Front Benchers nor Tory Back Benchers have proposed any programme to deal with the situation. All we have heard is an occasional reference to the loan guarantee scheme, which was hardly the centrepiece of the speech that the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) made earlier. I wonder whether that proposal is rapidly going the way of the employment creation scheme, which the Conservatives proposed a few months ago, but which seemed to disappear from their agenda once it was dissected by the Federation of Small Businesses.
The ability to access the credit needed to continue operating is essential to all businesses. Ensuring that banks can continue to provide businesses with support and with access to credit is crucial, but only as part of a package. It is certainly not the only solution or the panacea that it would appear to be to the Conservatives, from the limited suggestions that they have made this evening. I speak to small businesses in my constituency, and access to credit and the rates that some are being charged for overdrafts and loans are central to their concerns. Above all, however, what both small and big businesses want are customers. Businesses want people to buy from them. Retailers want people to go into shops—that is where the reduction in VAT is important. Businesses in the non-retail sector want people to buy their products and services.
The public sector also has a vital role to play in providing a stimulus to the economy in our communities. Not surprisingly, those of us who speak regularly to businesses, as most of us do, will report that businesses with a relatively high proportion of their trade deriving from the public sector are weathering the downturn better than many others. This underlines the particularly important role of public sector spending on infrastructure in the present circumstances. That is why the boost to such public sector spending is a vital part of the programme, and I welcome the priority that the Government have given to it. We have seen the emphasis on investment in infrastructure in the short term, but we now need to turn to a strategy for continued investment in the medium term as well. Whatever the trajectory of the present recession might be, it is clearly going to take some time to recover from the difficulties that we now face. I certainly support infrastructure investment as a major theme of the Government’s activity, and I look forward to more of the same in due course.
The need for investment in infrastructure is particularly important to those of us who represent constituencies in Scotland. In England, we see new schools and hospitals continuing to be built, and we shall see investment in transport and other key sectors of the economy. In Scotland, however, we face a different situation. Although we can see that kind of investment in building projects going ahead in our constituencies at the moment, the public sector investment programme will begin to peter out in the next year or so, just at the time when we need a boost to infrastructure investment in our communities.
Over the past year and a half, the Scottish National party Government have been ideologically pursuing their so-called Scottish futures trust, a device that is meant to bring investment in public sector facilities in all our constituencies, but that has, to date, not delivered one single brick, despite the spending of about £30 million in preparatory work. Not one project has yet been agreed, and even the SNP Government themselves have now accepted, in their transport strategy that was announced last week, that some of their major programmes cannot be funded by the mechanism that they had hoped to use. As a result, not only transport programmes but many other capital spending programmes—which are vital not only for the facilities that they offer but to the building industry—are now subject to a great deal of uncertainty.
As I have said, there are signs that the SNP Government are beginning to rethink their approach to public sector investment in Scotland. I welcome that, and if we are indeed seeing a new sense of reality in the SNP Government about the need to invest in public sector infrastructure in Scotland, not only the Labour party but the construction industry and business in Scotland will welcome it. At the end of the day, we can have our debates here in the House of Commons, in which the Opposition parties will understandably challenge the actions and policies of the Government, but when the UK Government and the Government in Scotland are of different political colours, it is essential for those of us who represent Scottish constituencies that they work together. We must ensure that the initiatives taken by the Secretary of State for Scotland to bring together key organisations in the poverty sector are followed up by similar initiatives in infrastructure investment and in the financial services industry in Scotland.
I urge the Minister to convey to the Secretary of State for Scotland the need for the initiatives that have been introduced to deal with poverty in Scotland to be taken forward into the infrastructure industries and the financial services industry, so that we can adopt the joint approach that this Government want to see. We must ensure that the SNP Scottish Government are challenged to join us in meeting the needs of our communities in Scotland.
The UK and, indeed, the wider global economy are entering an exceptionally difficult and uncertain time. This global economic downturn has, in one way or another, affected the lives of many businesses and families throughout the world, including those residing in the United Kingdom. Although the problem started with the sub-prime housing market in the United States, globalisation caused the problems to spread quickly and to affect the world economy, placing a tight squeeze on the availability of credit. That has resulted in the collapse of several major international financial institutions, and an accompanying collapse of market confidence. Unprecedented sums of Government finance have been provided to assist in the recapitalisation of our banks. At the same time, mortgage approvals and lending in general have declined, and home repossessions are on the increase. Interest rates for businesses and families are still fairly high. Lenders are slow to pass on their cuts to consumers, and when they finally do, they do not pass them on in their entirety.
Furthermore, a substantial number of small businesses say that their overdraft charges are higher than they were a year ago despite central bank rate reductions. Interest rates for loans, credit cards and store cards are typically very high, and have remained so despite the recent rate cuts. All that has compounded the problems of a slowing property market that is also currently suffering a decline.
The pre-Budget report set out a positive and much-welcomed plan of action in the shape of the substantial £20 billion fiscal stimulus package to be introduced between now and April 2010 to counter the effects of the recession and to aid the economic recovery. The package includes a permanent £600 increase in the income tax personal allowance, a temporary reduction in VAT, no significant changes in vehicle excise duty until after 2010, the bringing forward of child benefit and child tax credit increases, and a one-off £60 winter payment to pensioners on top of an increased winter fuel allowance payment.
I commend the Government for having addressed some of the key economic issues. They have provided greater protection for bank depositors by guaranteeing deposits of £50,000, reaffirmed the commitment to investment in public services, and taken steps to pump liquidity back into the market. I also welcome the introduction of the new charter for mortgage holders, announced last week, which is designed to prevent hard-working families from having to face the fear of home repossession.
The charter provides three practical safety pillars for home owners: an agreement by the banks to hold back repossession proceedings until three months after the home owner falls into arrears; a new pre-action protocol making it clear that repossession is to be pursued only as a last resort with free debt advice available in every court and judges expecting lenders to exhaust all other options first; and the opportunity to defer a proportion of interest payments for up to two years, with the Government guaranteeing banks against the risk of loss from such deferred interest payments.
The charter has been welcomed by market specialists, and is testament to the pledge of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to provide real help for families during these very difficult times. In contrast, the Leader of the Opposition has shown that not only does he not understand the nature of the economic problems, but he does not care about lessening its possible effect on families.
However, we must be prepared to go further in our efforts to assist businesses and families. We must ensure that the banks play their part in meeting the needs of consumers in what is proving to be a very demanding time for our economy. At present they are failing to do so, as they have not resumed lending to the levels seen before the credit crunch. They have also been unwilling for a second time to pass the full amount of the Bank of England interest rate cuts to consumers. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has rightly said that that is unacceptable. It is reassuring to see a new lending panel chaired by the Chancellor and Lord Mandelson set up to monitor lending levels, but, given the emerging evidence that overdraft limits for small businesses are being reduced and, in some cases, withdrawn completely, it is more essential than ever for us not to allow viable businesses to fold owing to a lack of credit.
We must take a more robust approach. The banks should be fully aware that if they fail to act in accordance with the strings attached to their rescue plan, we will seriously begin to consider some of the suggestions recently made by market specialists to the Treasury Committee. They include introducing credit market control measures and appointing Treasury officials to sit on banks’ executive boards. I am not a fan of bank nationalisation, but if the banks do not behave, the option of full nationalisation should be adopted to make them start lending again.
I shall endeavour to keep my remarks brief, but I want to say a few words about the economic measures outlined in the Queen’s Speech and the pre-Budget report, and also to touch on other key issues in the Government’s programme.
I think there is consensus on the fact that we are in very serious economic times, but there certainly is not consensus on how to deal with that. I strongly support the Government’s commitment to act decisively to make sure that we enter economic recovery as soon as possible. That is in stark contrast to the approach of the do nothing Tories. The Government are offering real help for those who are being affected by the economic downturn, and I especially welcome the measures aimed at families, pensioners and small businesses, such as the £60 pensioner’s payment, increasing child benefit, more loans and deferred tax payments for small businesses, bringing forward £3 billion-worth of capital projects and, more recently, credit card protection. I know that that will be welcomed by my constituents, many of whom have recently come to my surgeries to talk to me about the actions of credit card companies.
That is all real action to help. Apparently, however, the Tories would rather we followed their path and did absolutely nothing. We in Durham still remember the “unemployment is a price worth paying” Tories and we do not want them back. At a time of economic hardship, a great deal of attention is rightly focused on how to deal with economic problems, but we must also pay attention to the role that public spending can play in reducing unemployment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) was right to focus on the role that public spending can play in providing infrastructure. We need this investment in infrastructure to continue. In Durham, we are currently consulting on the building of two new schools; one is to serve Durham city and is jointly sponsored by the county council and the university. This is a necessary investment for the future, not wasteful public expenditure as the Tories would have us believe.
Education is crucial to economic development. From Sure Start for pre-schoolers through the school system and on to apprenticeships and university courses, we must continue investing in training and education, because that prepares our young people and adults for the future economy. That is why I very much welcome the Government’s children, skills and learning Bill, and in particular the attention that is being put on apprenticeships as a key measure in helping to engage young people and adults in training, to improve their chances of employment in our future economy.
The Government have high aspirations for every child in the country. By providing better education and training, they are challenging the underlying causes of poverty and helping children and young people to raise their own aspirations. It is essential that we reduce the educational attainment gap; it must be closed if social mobility is to be improved.
I want briefly to take issue with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on training. That is essential. We should not rule out “make work” schemes as part of welfare reform, but they should not replace any emphasis we place on training.
The Government’s work on child poverty has been leading the world. The child poverty Bill will enshrine in law historic commitments to eradicate child poverty in a generation. That is much welcomed. In passing, I note that the Conservatives have refused to make any real pledge on ending child poverty.
Local initiatives and regeneration are crucial to tackling poverty and improving economic regeneration, so I welcome the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill, and I hope that it ensures that local authorities can be much more active in economic development in their area.
Finally, I want briefly to thank the Government for putting into the police and crime Bill measures to give local people a greater say over whether to have lap-dancing clubs in their area, and I hope to be called to say more about that on a future occasion.