I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Standing Order No. 33 provides that, on the last day of the 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 Mr. Nick Clegg for that purpose. The vote on that amendment will take place at the end of the debate, after we have disposed of the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
I beg to move an amendment, at the end of the Question to add:
“but humbly regret that the Gracious Speech fails to provide a credible plan to tackle the fiscal deficit and national debt, contains no measures to help families and businesses in the recession, fails to provide real measures to begin to tackle rising entrenched poverty, fails to lay out plans to reform the public services and improve outcomes in the NHS, and fails to include proposals to combat Britain’s falling economic competitiveness; condemn the absence of any measures to bring down youth unemployment and the number of people out of work and any measures to provide help for savers and pensioners; regret the absence of measures to address the failed tripartite system of regulating the financial system; and further regret the absence of a plan for sustained economic growth.”
Today we discuss the economy and two Treasury Bills soon to come before the House, and we also bring the week-long debate on this empty Queen’s Speech to a close. Apparently, we have something to look forward to at the end because my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has just informed me that it has been 20 years since he last wound up a debate on a three-line Whip in the House of Commons. In a few hours’ time, we will get to hear that.
We have this debate, of course, the day after the Office for National Statistics confirmed through its revisions that the British economy continued to contract in the third quarter of this year. While we all hope, indeed expect, some kind of recovery by the end of the year, Britain is still officially in recession a full 20 months after it entered it. That makes it the longest recession since the second world war and, of course, the deepest recession as well.
The economy has contracted by far more than the 3.5 per cent. that the Chancellor forecast in his Budget this spring. That poses a question that should hang over our debate today and every contribution to it: why is Britain still in recession when the rest of the world is recovering? Why is Britain still in recession when America, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Sweden and virtually every single other country in the world have come out of recession? The Government have absolutely no answers.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does.
Given that the state of the British economy is as bad as the hon. Gentleman describes, why is it that I am unequivocally in favour of Labour losing the next general election, but the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who is winding up the debate, does not share my view?
What my right hon. and learned Friend is completely against is having to rely on the Liberal Democrats—and with an intervention like that, we can see why.
The Government have no answer to the central question of why Britain is still in recession when the rest of the world is recovering. If one pauses to think about that question, one realises how the entire edifice of the Government’s argument over the past two years—the argument that Britain was better prepared; the argument that the great helmsman, the Prime Minister, would steer us through the storm; the argument advanced by the Prime Minister that, thanks to his policies, Britain would, in his words, be “leading the world” out of recession—has come crashing to the ground when we face the simple fact that Britain has not led the world out of recession, but the rest of the world has left Britain behind in recession. That is what has happened. Confronted with this truth and unable to provide a convincing answer to how the Government got it so wrong, one would have thought that they would use this Queen’s Speech as a moment to pause and rethink.
I may be able to assist with the hon. Gentleman’s inquiries. I had lunch the other day with someone who works for a very big bank in the City, as one does, and he told me that he thought the official figures were wrong and that we were already out of recession. That was his opinion, which he said was also the opinion of his bank. Last night—[Interruption.]
Order. I think that the hon. Member has made his point.
I look forward to reading the diary entry about that one. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was served a lot of very good wine at the lunch.
My point is that a lot of hope was placed in the fact that when the Office for National Statistics came to revise its figures for the third quarter, they would show that the economy was, in fact, expanding rather than contracting. Well, we have had the first revision, which is often the most significant one, and the figures show that the economy is still contracting. We all wish that that were not the case, but those are the official figures, no doubt endorsed by the Government and the Treasury, and that is the reality with which we have to deal. The fact is that Britain is still in recession when almost every other country in the world, including the United States, has now come out of recession.
One would have thought that the Government would use the last opportunity in this tired Parliament to address the fundamental problems that hold back a sustainable and strong recovery: the lack of credit and the lack of confidence in the British economy—the lack of credit to finance the recovery, the lack of confidence that the country can deal with its debts and go for growth. But no, the Government have not addressed those fundamental problems and instead they chose to use this Queen’s Speech to try to establish their famous political dividing lines.
Many Back Benchers have taken part in these six days of parliamentary debate on the Queen’s Speech, but as it happens, the most accurate analysis of what this Queen’s Speech was really about was provided by the very first Labour Back Bencher to be called by the Chair to speak in the main debate. The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) said this, just minutes after the Prime Minister had sat down last week:
“Instead of legislating in a way that sets out a constructive ambition for the future, I fear this Queen’s Speech shows that we are dominated by the political fear of our opponents. That is not the right way for Labour to win” —[Official Report, 18 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 37.]
in 2010. There we have it: no constructive ambition for the future and not the best way to govern the country. That is not a Conservative MP speaking, but a former member of the Labour Cabinet. Some Labour Members will, of course, dismiss their former Home Secretary as one of the most usual of the usual suspects, always plotting to unseat the leader of the Labour party—and always, to our great relief, failing in those plots.
The truth is, however, that the right hon. Member for Norwich, South is not the only one who thinks that the Queen’s Speech was little more than a cynical exercise in political calculation. My attention has been drawn to the blog of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope). It goes under the inspired title of “The Audacity of Pope”— inspired because it presumably attracts millions of unwitting visitors who thought they were hitting on something a bit more presidential. If we look at this Labour Member’s blog, we discover that “Pope” has the audacity to say this about the Government’s programme that we are being asked to vote on tonight. He says:
“The Queen’s Speech… will be designed to put the Tories on the spot apparently. We are told that there will be clear dividing lines between us and the Tories… The people I represent don’t want this kind of yah-boo politics, they want to know what we are going to do for them. The purpose of the Queen’s Speech is to... outline a vision of what the Government can do for our country; its purpose is not to score points off the other parties.”
The hon. Gentleman then says:
“Am I alone in thinking that this strategy is, well, not brilliantly thought out?”
I can reassure him that no, he is not, as this has been the most transparently cynical, empty and political legislative programme put before this Parliament in living memory.
Our country is in recession as the rest of the world recovers; the great social problems of our age go unanswered; our political system has lost all trust. It is time that we had strong national leadership. Instead, we have a Queen’s Speech that even the Government’s own supporters say has everything to do with the narrow interests of a beleaguered Prime Minister and nothing to do with the national interest.
This is what a member of the Cabinet could not resist boasting to The Times newspaper two days before the Queen’s Speech was even delivered. It will be, he said, the
“most political in 12 years”.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to use the protection of parliamentary privilege to name the Cabinet Minister I believe responsible for saying that. I have done my research, cross-checked with past records, and I believe those remarks were made by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. It is exactly the pattern of behaviour that we have come to get used to from him. In June, for example, he told everyone he was going to have the Chancellor’s job in a couple of days’ time, while earlier this month he briefed on how he was winning his spending battle with the Treasury.
I wonder whether the Chancellor—I do not expect him to say anything—has noticed the similarity between the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and one of those James Bond villains, who sits in his secret lair, stroking the cat, cooking up his dastardly plans for world domination, and then, just before he puts them into effect, he is unable to resist the temptation to show off and tell everyone about those plans. We know what happens next in the films: Bond escapes, the plans collapse, and our villain departs in an escape pod and abandons the imploding mother ship. We fully expect to see the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families attempt the political equivalent in the next few months. It is precisely because Cabinet members have told us that this Queen’s Speech is so cynical, so transparently an attempt to draw artificial dividing lines, and so little motivated by what would serve the national interest, that we must approach each measure with considerable suspicion about its motives.
The Treasury has put two Bills before us: the Financial Services Bill and the fiscal responsibility Bill. Do either of those Bills even begin to rise to the economic challenge that we face? Will they provide the credit and confidence that is so badly lacking? Will they tackle the deficit and go for growth? No, they will not. As we will debate the Second Reading of the Financial Services Bill on Monday, I will not dwell on it today, except to comment on the Walker review published this morning. Everyone wants the boards of banks to do their job better and to understand more fully the risks that they are running. We do not want a repeat of what happened at the Royal Bank of Scotland, where an all-powerful chief executive went unchallenged by his own board, by Government regulators, and by a Government who instead chose to knight him for services to banking.
I spoke to David Walker this week, and we support his plans to shake up the bank boards and improve their risk controls. We also support his proposals to make those banks disclose the number of their employees who are on high salaries. What happened to all the talk from the Government that they would disclose people’s names as well? Lord Myners said just two months ago that the pay and the identity of the highest-paid bankers would be disclosed by the Government. However, when asked about that on the radio this morning, David Walker said that
“the idea being canvassed by Lord Myners…is not supported by a shred of evidence of the kind that I am interested in.”
That is not what one would call a ringing endorsement of the Chancellor’s City Minister from the Chancellor’s City adviser. Perhaps Lord Myners will be the next GOAT to slip the tether. When it comes to the Government and the banks, surely the public are entitled to ask why the Government talk tough and make promises, but then fail to deliver. As we wait to see bonus payments over the coming months, we will remember the Prime Minister’s promise that the era of the big bonus is over.
We will look in detail at the Financial Services Bill next week, but we know that it will do nothing fundamental to alter the tripartite system of regulation that failed Britain so spectacularly. Why? The simple and political reason is that the Prime Minister is the sole architect of the structure and does not want to admit that he got it wrong. We also know that the Financial Services Bill will do nothing to address the real financial scandal in our country today—that tens of thousands of businesses are still facing a credit crunch.
The debates on the Queen’s Speech have been littered with contributions from Members on both sides of the House who have firms in their constituency facing bankruptcy because they cannot get reasonable access to credit, on reasonable terms. The Bank of England’s figures show lending to business continues to contract, and the chambers of commerce say credit conditions are getting worse.
A year ago, the Chancellor talked at length in the Queen’s Speech debate about all the Government programmes that would help. Let us look at what has happened to them 12 months later. What happened to the capital for enterprise fund? It has helped seven businesses. The Chancellor told us that the trade credit insurance scheme would provide £5 billion of credit insurance; instead, it has provided £18 million of credit insurance. What about the guarantee for asset-backed securities, which, we were told, would tackle the heart of the credit crunch? Not a single guarantee has been provided by that scheme.
If we want answers to the central question of why Britain remains in recession while the rest of the world recovers, we can start by looking at the dismal failure of this Government to deliver on their promises to get credit flowing in our economy.
My hon. Friend has been uncharacteristically generous to the Government. Will he also remind the House that the automotive assistance programme, which was promised as a £2.3 billion scheme in January, turned out to be a £400 million guarantee, and so far just one loan of £10 million has been made, to Tata?
My hon. Friend speaks not only with his experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, but as a west midlands Member, and he is absolutely right that the promise of credit assistance to the car industry has not been delivered on.
Let us turn to the other big Treasury Bill: the fiscal responsibility Bill. I congratulate the parliamentary draftsmen who gave the Bill its title on their sense of humour. We must at least give the Chancellor credit for keeping a straight face when he tells us that a Government who have tripled the national debt and run up the largest budget deficit the country has ever known will be introducing a fiscal responsibility Bill. I have looked around the world for precedents for such a Bill, and I have asked for research to be done. I can tell the House today that I have found one precedent. The paragon of financial rectitude and transparency that introduced a fiscal responsibility Bill is Nigeria.
What Britain needs is an entirely new fiscal regime, with an independent office for Budget responsibility, so that the figures are not fiddled and Ministers are held to independent account for the promises they make. That is what the Conservative party will introduce in government. Instead, what Britain gets today is a Bill that has invited mockery and ridicule before it has even been debated; a Bill that proclaims to the country that the Government will halve the soaring budget deficit, but does not say how; a new law that achieves a constitutional first of imposing no legal sanction on the person who is likely to break it. No other Chancellor in the long history of the office has felt the need to pass a law in order to convince people that he has the political will to implement his own Budget.
As one commentator observed this week, there are only two conclusions. Either the Chancellor has lost confidence in himself to stick to his resolution, and is, so to speak, asking the police to help him, or he fears that everyone else has lost confidence in his ability to keep his word, but hopes that they might believe in the statute book if not in him. Neither is much of a recommendation for the Chancellor of the day.
Was there not one important point behind this idiotic Bill? The Labour Government are now saying that they need to either cut spending or increase taxes to the tune of £100 billion. Does my hon. Friend think that Government Back Benchers have realised what that means?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. I do not think that Government Members have begun to wake up to the mess of the public finances or what will be required. Let me be a little generous: I think the Chancellor is beginning to realise, because, every day, Bank of England and Treasury officials are telling him the real situation. However, he has a big problem: he has not convinced in any way his next-door neighbour, the Prime Minister, who is still intent, as his conference speech revealed, on coming up with new, uncosted spending pledges, instead of dealing with the very serious problem that this country faces, and recognising that public spending must be cut.
It is probably more important to be concerned about Opposition Back Benchers rather than Government Back Benchers, bearing in mind that the hon. Gentleman will likely have the Chancellor’s responsibility in a few months’ time. But is it not also important to be cautious about the timing of public expenditure cuts, given the fragile economy that he has described? Is one way out to go for growth, by pursuing a Reaganomics-type approach of having lower taxes, rather than higher ones?
I am not a believer in Reaganomics. I am a fiscal conservative, as is the leader of my party. The best comment on the matter that I have read recently came from Richard Lambert, the CBI director general:
“History tells us that these are really difficult nettles to grasp but if you grasp them in a clear and bold way, then the pain lasts for a shorter period than if you just limply grab hold of them…Our strong instincts are that the risks of going too soon are less than the risks of waiting too long…Two full parliaments of chancellors being responsible just seems too much to expect.”
I agree with what he says.
To return to the fiscal responsibility Bill, who on earth does the Chancellor think that he will convince with that piece of legislative fiction? Are economists convinced? No, as one former Monetary Policy Committee member has said:
“Fiscal responsibility acts are instruments of the fiscally irresponsible to con the public.”
What about the markets? The verdict of one leading City analyst is that
“the government’s plans for legislation to cut the deficit are not convincing and are probably just camouflage—a sort of ‘fiscal figleaf’—for the lack of genuine action in the upcoming PBR.”
What about the public? Surely they will want to know what happens to the Chancellor who breaks his own law. Will he be fined? Will he be imprisoned? No, he will not. The Prime Minister only wants to kick the Chancellor out; he does not want to lock him up.
This fiscal responsibility Bill will have exactly the same effect as the amazingly similarly named code for fiscal responsibility which his predecessor, the Prime Minister, introduced when he was Chancellor. That was the code that gave us all that nonsense about golden rules, prudence with a purpose, and 40 per cent. debt-to-GDP ratios, and all the while the national debt has been allowed to triple. No one was there fixing the roof when the sun was shining.
We are all in this together, as it happens, and the sooner the Government understand that point in the last few months they have left in office, the sooner they can start to salvage some of their reputation. A big choice faces the Chancellor of the Exchequer: is he going to stand up to the Prime Minister of the day? Is he going to be like Roy Jenkins and do the right thing even if it is politically inconvenient? Is he going to be Roy Jenkins or not?
I wonder whether I can ask the shadow Chancellor a question in the light of what he said about Richard Lambert’s remarks, which he quoted with approval. Do I take it that it is his policy to eliminate the deficit in one Parliament?
My view is shared exactly by Mervyn King, who told the Select Committee that there would have to be, in the next Parliament,
“a really significant reduction in the deficit, the elimination of a large part of the structural deficit”.
That, he said, would have to take place “over the lifetime” of the next Parliament,
“which is the period for which a government is elected. Beyond that is a statement of intent and hope rather than a plan for which someone can be held accountable.”
My views on the issue are the same as those of the Governor of the Bank of England. I have no idea whether they are the same as the Chancellor’s views. Perhaps he will intervene on me again. I should like to know, just as a matter of interest, whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer of this country agrees with the Governor of the Bank of England.
The hon. Gentleman quoted Richard Lambert, who, he said, had expressed the view that the deficit should be eliminated in the space of one Parliament. I asked him whether he agreed with that. My position is quite clear. I think that the amount of borrowing must be reduced by half, but what concerns me is that we do not get ourselves into a position in which we seriously damage the economy by removing support in a way that would harm businesses and enterprise. The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that he would go further than what I am proposing. I simply ask him to clarify that.
If the Chancellor’s concern is about seriously damaging the British economy, I wish he had had that concern a couple of years ago.
I agree with the Governor of the Bank of England. That is who I agree with. The Chancellor, very strikingly, has not said publicly that he agrees with the Governor of the Bank of England. So we have someone in charge of monetary policy and someone in charge of fiscal policy, but we have no idea whether those two people agree with each other.
I suspect that this fiscal responsibility Bill was not the idea of the Chancellor of the Exchequer at all. I suspect that the Chancellor would happily be rid of the ridicule that he will invite when he takes the Bill through Parliament, but the Prime Minister will not let him, because, as we all know, it was the Prime Minister’s idea, cooked up in the bunker in No. 10. It bears all his hallmarks: form over substance, spin over reality, passing a fake law instead of having the courage to deliver what you promised.
The fiscal responsibility Bill is like so much of the rest of this Queen’s Speech. The Government are trying to make illegal what they have so far failed to promise and deliver. The Bill is there to create a feeble dividing line. The issue with which we must deal is the budget deficit, which is larger as a proportion of our economy than the deficits in the United States, France and Germany—even larger, now, than those in Ireland, Iceland and Hungary, the three countries that have been most exposed to the credit crunch.
How much longer can the Government ignore the growing clamour of concern from the international markets and, indeed, domestic businesses which believe that we are risking Britain’s international credit rating? How great does the spectre of higher taxes, higher long-term interest rates and higher unemployment have to be before the Government change course?
We know that there is a fierce battle afoot between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister appears to be pursuing a policy of scorched earth and poison pills. The Chancellor may live in a terraced house next to the Prime Minister, but he has become the semi-detached member of the Government. We look to him to protect the nation’s interests against this Prime Minister, who is clinging to survival.
The hon. Gentleman has courageously said that he agrees with a policy of eliminating the Government deficit within one parliamentary term. The leader of his party has said that he is against big government. Will the hon. Gentleman give us an idea of what size he thinks government should be—that is, what Government spending as a proportion of GDP should be—in, say, five years’ time?
I am not going to set some artificial target for the size of government as a proportion of GDP, not least because it will depend on the size of the GDP, which may alter every year. It may shrink, which is what we have seen it do in the last two years. I am pretty clear about the fact that the current level of over 50 per cent. is unsustainable, and I would imagine that most Labour Members agree with that.
Let me correct the hon. Gentleman. What I said was that I agreed with the Governor of the Bank of England, who has said that there needs to be
“an elimination of a large part of the structural deficit”
“takes place over the lifetime of a parliament”.
Let us look at what the international community is now saying about the Government’s plans. According to the verdict delivered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development this week,
“an announcement of concrete and comprehensive plans upfront would enhance macroeconomic stability”
in the United Kingdom, and would strengthen the recovery. The director general of the CBI has said:
“The UK’s rating must be put beyond doubt”.
I should like to hear from the Chancellor, when he stands up to speak, whether he thinks that it is a matter of Government policy to try to protect that credit rating. I should like to know whether he thinks that it is a top priority for the Treasury. That is the issue that is being discussed out there in the international market, and by domestic businesses deciding whether to invest in this country.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the key point in relation to public confidence is the interest that the country will be paying on its national debt? The rate was 5 per cent. last year, and it may rise to 9 or 10 per cent. We are talking about over £65 billion, and that is surely something that the Government must address.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A growing issue in British politics will be the amount of Government money that is being used just to pay the interest on this debt. That amount is larger than the schools budget. Labour Members may remember that when they stood for election to Parliament in 1997, the phrase “the bills of social failure” was used to refer to the amount of money that the Tories were spending on unemployment benefit, debt interest and the like. According to that definition, the “bills of social failure” are far higher now, under this Labour Government, although there are low interest rates at present because of the monetary policy action taken by central banks. When and if the rates start to climb—and some of the long-term rates have already begun to do so—those bills will become even larger. That is why dealing with the deficit is a prerequisite for the building of a strong and lasting recovery, and providing a platform of stability for other policies for growth.
Yes, we need lower and simpler business taxes instead of the Government’s corporate tax regime, which is driving companies abroad. Yes, we need to get Britain working, and we have the reforms to do it—devised by the person who used to advise the Prime Minister. The Government’s policies have left one in five young people without work. And yes, we need to sweep away the red tape that strangles our small businesses.
What happened, in the Queen’s Speech, to the radical regulatory budgets that the Prime Minister told us would
“transform the culture of Whitehall”?
They have been completely abandoned. What happened to the Regulatory Policy Committee that Lord Mandelson set up with such a great fanfare? It has not met for seven months. The Business Secretary has not found any space for it in his diary between the shooting weekends. [Interruption.] I know all about Peter Mandelson.
We should be sending a message loud and clear: “Britain is open for business. If you invest here, create jobs here or set up businesses here, we are on your side.” We need another enterprise revolution, yet there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech to bring it about. “An end to boom and bust”, the Government promised, and we have had the greatest boom and the deepest bust. “Leading the world out of recession”, they promised, and now a recovering world leaves Britain behind. “Better prepared”, they have claimed for the last year, and now we face the largest deficit crisis in the developed world.
All Labour Governments leave office with unemployment higher than when they entered office, and leave the economy in a greater mess. This Labour Government have done it in horrific style. The sooner we get rid of them the better; the sooner we can change our Government, the sooner we can have a lasting recovery.
We have just listened to 30 minutes of the shadow Chancellor’s customary political knockabout, but we have not heard very much in the way of any specific alternative proposals he might have, which is a pity because this occasion is an opportunity for us to discuss the future of our country. This debate is taking place at a critical time, because the decisions we take now and over the next few weeks and months, particularly on the economy, will determine our future for the next five, 10 and 20 years. It is therefore very important that the debate is about how we can ensure that this country can prosper in a globalised economy, and how we can secure sustainable growth over the long term, because that is one of the best ways of restoring health to our public finances and creating jobs in the future.
Our approach has three strands. The first of them has been to take action to help people and businesses in order to ensure that the recession is less painful and less deep than it otherwise would have been. The Conservatives have always made it clear that they have been against each and every such step and proposal. Secondly, as I made clear in the pre-Budget report 12 months ago, in my view it was essential that as recovery was established we reduced the deficit. I set out a plan then, which was confirmed in this year’s Budget, to halve the deficit over four years, because I believe that is a reasonable thing to do, but we must do it in a way that protects front-line services and does not damage the economy. Crucially, the third strand of our approach—I thought we might have heard more about this from the Opposition today—is to ensure growth, because that is very important for shaping our future.
At every stage, the Conservative party has made the wrong call. Too often, it has played politics rather than dealt with the real issues we faced. It was calling for austerity, rather than having the ambition to go for sustainable growth. Interestingly, although the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) managed to utter the word “growth” three or four times today, in his keynote conference speech just a few weeks ago he did not utter the word once. That is odd given that we read in the newspapers at the beginning of this week that growth is the new Conservative party mantra. Warm words will never achieve growth. What is needed to ensure we achieve it are specific proposals.
I am sure the Chancellor is serious in trying to deal with the critical state the country is in, but is he not disappointed that fellow members of his Cabinet see this Queen’s Speech as an opportunity not to tackle the serious issues he raises, but to create dividing lines—to introduce legislation designed not to improve the state of the country, but purely to try to recover the Labour party’s position?
The measures outlined in the Queen’s Speech will not only improve our quality of life, but will help us make some of the long-term decisions that are needed, such as in relation to energy, and also in relation to the Bill that I shall discuss shortly, and which we will debate next week, to strengthen the responsibilities of the Financial Services Authority. These are important policy areas, but we do not have to create dividing lines, because they already clearly exist. I have just made the point that there is a big difference between the Labour and Conservative parties. We believe that the Government have a responsibility to help people and businesses as we go through one of the deepest ever recessions, but the Conservative party does not; it would have done nothing at all in response to recent events. I believe the Government can make a positive difference to the rate of growth that we achieve in the future, but the Conservative party does not agree. There are clear differences, therefore; the differences of opinion are blindingly obvious, and it is the people who must make a choice.
I am bemused by those comments. Let me read out some quotations from The Herald. They appeared under the headline, “Mandelson warns of austerity ‘for next decade’”, and are dated 15 July:
“Lord Mandelson has raised the prospect of an age of austerity…in Britain under Labour…In the gloomiest assessment to date…the Business Secretary said there would be ‘constraints for the next decade’”.
If we are to discuss these matters seriously, we must stop attributing the Labour Government policy of austerity and cuts to everybody else. Instead, come clean and let us get on with it.
My noble Friend Lord Mandelson talks about growth in speeches about three or four times a week. Like the rest of us, he has been making the case for the need for the Government to take action to get growth, for example by ensuring we get more broadband and we have the right infrastructure in this country. He has been making the case.
The record of economic growth during the current Chancellor’s tenure in office is far from impressive. However, the leader of the Conservative party has been explicit on this point: during his time as leader of the Conservative party—not when he was a student politician—he said GDP was no longer the party’s priority and that what mattered now was GWB, or general well-being. We know the position of the Conservative party, therefore: the Chancellor is potentially inadvertently misleading us, because we know it is not a party that has growth as its main economic priority.
I have said that I am not convinced by the Conservative party’s proposals. Its policy changes very often—two focus groups and it changes. It is going for growth now because it discovered its message on austerity was not going down too well with the public. All the parties will be judged on what policies we have to help people now, to ensure we get our borrowing down and to secure growth in the future. What people want to know is how the Government can intervene to make a difference so we get long-term sustainable growth, because that is what our ability to protect jobs and secure new jobs for the future will depend upon.
Will the Chancellor give way?
No, I will make a little progress, but then I will come back—
If the hon. Gentleman sits down nicely, I will let him back in later. I am mindful of what his ancestor did to a former Prime Minister when he fell out with him, so I will be very careful and make sure that I come back to him.
We need to be reminded of the recent action we have taken. That has made a difference, and people will look at how we reacted to what has turned out to be one of the deepest recessions ever and make a judgment on that. Let us compare what happened in the last big recession of the 1990s with current events. The extent to which Government intervention has made a difference is remarkable. It has made the downturn less painful than it otherwise would have been. In the 1990s, relative to GDP figures, twice as many households were repossessed, and about two and half times more businesses became insolvent. Crucially, relative to the fall in GDP, almost four times as many people would no longer be employed if we had followed now the policies that were adopted then. It should also be remembered that in the 1990s and 1980s interest rates were not 0.5 per cent., as they are today. In the 1990s they were 15 per cent., and they were higher still in the 1980s. As a result of that difference between then and now, at present someone paying a mortgage of about £100,000 is saving over £200 a month, whereas in the 1990s they would have been paying over £900 more a month. That demonstrates the difference that is made when a Government are prepared to take action to help people and businesses.
Is the Chancellor aware that most private businesses either cannot get any credit at all or are paying 10 to 20 per cent. in order to secure less credit than they actually need? He should be in the real world. It is only the public sector that borrows at somewhere near 0.5 per cent., because they are printing the money for themselves. The private sector is still in a credit crunch.
I will talk about bank lending in a moment, but let me point out something that the right hon. Gentleman will remember, because he was a Minister in the 1990s and also, I think, in the 1980s—in both those recessions. There is no doubt that one of the economic problems we faced at that time was very high interest rates that held back our economy. That was undoubtedly painful and it had to be dealt with.
I shall now give way to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), before he turns on me.
The Chancellor was speaking about enterprise and wealth creation a moment ago. Can he tell the House what good the agency workers directive will do for small businesses, job creation and enterprise?
At every stage in relation to the directives that have come from the European Union, we have tried to do everything we can to ensure that we protect British jobs and have a vibrant labour market. Although unemployment in this country is too high and, unfortunately, will continue to rise for a while, one of the successes over the past few years is that because our labour market is more flexible than it used to be, unemployment here is lower than in America, France and many other countries. That is a very important factor.
I shall make further progress, and give way later.
Our support for individuals—whether we are talking about the cut in VAT, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates has had the same effect as a 1 per cent. interest rate cut, the 22 million basic rate taxpayers who are paying less tax, the pensioners who have seen the benefit of our increasing the amount of capital that they can hold before they lose eligibility for pension credit, or the increase in pensions—shows that we have done everything we can to help people through this downturn. For home owners, we have managed to reduce the level of repossessions that was expected. The “time to pay” scheme has helped more than 150,000 businesses spread their payments of £4 billion-worth of tax, and at the end of the day, 95 per cent. of that is still repaid to the Revenue. The numbers involved in the scrappage scheme might be small, but it has had a tremendous effect in boosting confidence. For example, Honda has announced that production of one of its models will be moved to Swindon from Japan, and Nissan has been able to take on more people. The outlook at the beginning of this year for the automotive industry was pretty grim, but the measures that we have taken have made a difference in improving and lifting the level of confidence. None of that would have happened had the Conservative party been in power.
Would the Chancellor please give me his answer to the simple question that I pose: why is Britain still in recession when almost every other country in the world has come out of recession? The Prime Minister said that he would lead the world out of recession, so why has Britain lagged behind the world in coming out of recession?
First—I shall come directly to the question—I should say that I have always been of the view that we would not see positive growth until the turn of the year; I have said that on many occasions in this Chamber and elsewhere. I have always been clear that I was not expecting, even in the revision we saw yesterday—it is good that the revision is in the right direction and that the rate of contraction was less than the Office for National Statistics had thought—to see us return to growth until the turn of the year. It was inevitable that countries would come out of recession at different rates. This country has a very large financial services sector, which in the long run will be of benefit to us, provided that the sector is properly supervised and regulated. That sector has patently had to go through some very difficult conditions, and that is bound to affect the rate at which we enter recovery. I do not think there is any great mystery about that; I would have thought that that was rather an obvious point.
The hon. Gentleman made great play of the fact that we have still to come out of recession. I think it is a good thing that other countries are coming out of recession, and I should say to him that every country that has done so has one thing in common: they all put in place a stimulus to their economy. That is something that he opposed, and when America came out of recession he tried somehow to pretend that nothing had been done—even the Republican Administration took a different view, let alone President Obama and his subsequent work. The stimulus is one of the reasons why America has come out of recession, and that is a very good thing, which I support.
The Chancellor says that it was always obvious to him that because Britain had such a large financial sector we would be among the worst affected and our recovery would be delayed. Why then did the Prime Minister say that Britain would be leading the world out of recession? What did he mean by that?
The Prime Minister has given an extraordinary lead in getting international co-operation, which has helped a great deal. I would like to think that I have been fairly consistent on this. When the hon. Gentleman and I were on our respective boating trips two years ago—my boat is somewhat smaller than the one on which he was spending his time, and it does not seem to have quite the same facilities—I said, when I came ashore briefly, that I thought this downturn was going to be quite long lasting and more profound than many people thought. And that is how it has turned out.
However, I also say—I stand by this—that I am confident that we are coming out of this, and I believe that we will see growth around the turn of the year. I have been absolutely confident about that. One of the reasons for that confidence is that we have taken the action necessary to stop the pain being greater, as it would otherwise have been. Furthermore, we are prepared to take the action to ensure that as recovery is established we not only strengthen our fiscal position, but get growth for the future. We need to remember what happened in the 1980s, when we came out of recovery only to go back into recession again. It is important to try to avoid that problem.
I will give way to the Liberal Democrat spokesman and then I will press on.
The Chancellor said that he had always predicted that the British economy would return to growth at the turn of this year—presumably he was talking about the first quarter of 2010. However, my recollection is that the initial prediction under his Chancellorship was that the economy would return to growth in the third quarter of 2009—in July 2009—so that was not always the forecast. The forecast was revised backwards six months in the light of events. Is that not his recollection too?
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the forecasts that I made at the time of the Budget, he will see exactly what I said. I was making the point that there is no doubt that this downturn has been substantial, but I believe that the measures we are adopting are helping. One of the big things making a difference is that we have been able to get people who have lost their jobs back into work far more quickly than in the past. More than half the people who lose their jobs are back in work within three months, and almost three quarters are back in work after six months. Let us compare that with what happened in the past, when a whole generation went on the dole and stayed on it, many people finding that they were always last into jobs and first out when there was ever any difficulty. We were never prepared to accept that as an inevitable consequence of a downturn.
May I ask my right hon. Friend to stress the issue of unemployment more? I believe that in his 30-minute speech the shadow Chancellor mentioned it once, in the penultimate minute. That surely shows that the Conservative party still does not care about unemployment, and still seems to think it is a price worth paying. Secondly, I should say that almost all the countries mentioned by the shadow Chancellor as starting to come out of recession have considerably higher unemployment than the United Kingdom.
That is the case: unfortunately, unemployment is 10 per cent. in America, 10 per cent. in France, 8.6 per cent. in Canada, 7.6 per cent. in Germany and 7.4 per cent. in Italy. Unemployment is higher in many other countries. This is about not just the economic responsibility of a Government, but their social responsibility to do everything possible to get people, particularly young people, back into work.
My right hon. Friend mentioned that the shadow Chancellor talked about the level of unemployment among young people, stating that one in five were unemployed. Does my right hon. Friend have the figures to hand on youth unemployment under the Conservative Government?
My hon. Friend is right to say that youth unemployment in the 1980s and 1990s was one of the reasons why not only were we held back economically, but whole communities were scarred. That was especially so because a lot of the people who had lost their jobs were from particular communities that had very high unemployment. It is really important that we spend this money. The Conservative party’s stance right from the start has been to oppose the action that we have taken and oppose the money that we put into the economy, including the £5 billion to help people get back into work.
Will the Chancellor give way?
Not just now. The shadow Chancellor was keen to quote people, but as we move towards a situation in which recovery is established he and his party are calling not only for opposition to the proposals that we put in last year, but for a start in cutting public expenditure now. I remind him that Dominique Strauss-Kahn of the International Monetary Fund said at the CBI earlier this week that it was
“too early for a general exit…We recommend erring on the side of caution, as exiting too early is costlier than exiting too late.”
We should remember those words. If we get this wrong, if we follow the advice of the Conservative party, there is every chance that we will seriously damage the economy.
I am sure that the shadow Chancellor will have looked at yesterday’s debate on the economy in the other place. I noticed that Lord Skidelsky, the author of an acclaimed biography of Keynes, said
“the fall in the deficit will come about as a consequence of the recovery of the economy and will not be the cause of it. If you try to cut the deficit now in the mistaken idea that it will boost confidence, you will simply be adding to unemployment. Do Messrs Cameron and Osborne want to hand the Government the slogan, ‘If you want higher unemployment vote Conservative’? That is what their pronouncements can fairly lead people to expect.”
His point was that if we get ourselves into a situation where we start cutting expenditure and damaging the economy now, before recovery is established, we will all pay a heavy price. I wonder why Baroness Noakes, who wound up for the Conservative party in the other place last night, said:
“There is no settled view on when and how fast to cut the deficit.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 November 2009; Vol. 715, c.390, 459.]
That is not the policy of the Conservative party—its policy is to start cutting now. The Leader of the Opposition has made that clear, not least this week. Clearly, the Conservative spokesman in the other place takes a completely different view.
To return to the question of the deficit and the CBI conference, is not the strange paradox of the CBI’s position, quoted by the shadow Chancellor earlier, the fact that it is simultaneously calling for deeper and quicker cuts to the deficit while being the most passionate advocate for big expansion in infrastructure? When it comes to Heathrow, Crossrail, high speed rail or the vast public subsidies that would go into nuclear power, the CBI wants more spending. It wants more spending on skills training and investment. Is there not some contradiction?
I noted that point when I last met the director general of the CBI. As I understand it, it is the policy of many of its members that we should maintain public expenditure, not least in the areas in which they have an interest. It is certainly the CBI’s view that infrastructure spending is important. It is important, not just now but in the future.
Given that the United Kingdom is lagging behind all other major industrial nations in coming out of this recession, does the Chancellor feel that he would have liked to have put even more money into a fiscal stimulus? If so, why did he not do so?
I announced the measures to support the economy at the pre-Budget report 12 months ago and in the Budget this year. I believed that it was necessary for us to support the economy. Some measures will cease at the end of this calendar year, such as the end to the reduction in VAT, and others, such as those governing the time to pay, which I mentioned earlier and which has been hugely beneficial to business, will continue.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) raises an important point that is worth reflecting on. Just as I think that we were right to support the economy as we did, and as we are doing at the moment, I believe that to withdraw the support now would be utter madness and completely damaging.
Of course, if we consider what has happened, the downturn in our economy and in other economies at the beginning of this year was far more severe than most people expected. Data have shown that most economies, our own included, suffered a severe shock in the first quarter of this year. To account for that, the majority of external forecasters are revising their predictions for this year and next. That is not surprising. Today, the average external forecast for 2009 is much lower than it was in April. Some, such as the OECD, are forecasting growth of minus 4.7 per cent. However, I believe that notwithstanding that we expect to see growth around the turn of this year. It is also interesting that whereas external forecasters at the time of the Budget said that my forecasts for next year were optimistic, the same external forecasters are now predicting more or less what I predicted for next year. Things have changed during the course of this year and, provided we make the right calls, they will change for the better next year and the year after.
These are still very modest numbers in terms of economic growth, which shows the dangers of cutting public spending now and snuffing out the economy. However, I am very concerned about the story on the front of today’s Guardian about moving public sector jobs away from the south-east. Croydon has 29 per cent. of its jobs in the public sector. Is it the Chancellor’s intention to take those jobs away from Croydon to elsewhere in the country?
It is important that all parts of the country share in the benefits of public spending. I know that Croydon is a big employer, particularly through the UK Border Agency. Obviously, when we consider how to disperse jobs to different parts of the country, we do not want to damage a local economy without ensuring that we take compensatory steps. Decisions will have to be taken from agency to agency and from group of workers to group of workers, but I think that the idea of dispersing jobs is important.
A number of hon. Members mentioned financial services reform. We will return to it next week, and like the shadow Chancellor I think that we should debate the Financial Services Bill more extensively next week—I sense that that is the mood of the House. Giving statutory responsibility for financial stability is very important. As I have said on countless occasions, I do not share the shadow Chancellor’s view that the FSA and the Bank of England should be merged. The fact of the merger would create a lot of uncertainty, especially at a time such as this when there is still a lot of work to be done. I believe that the organisations have distinct responsibilities and that the organisations can work together. Indeed, the new council for financial stability will ensure that proceedings are rather more open and transparent in the future, which is important. I have also made the point that other countries have many more regulators than we do.
The legislation will also provide for the implementation of the Walker report. Like the shadow Chancellor, I welcome the conclusions of Sir David Walker. We will implement them in full and the legislation will allow us to do that when we need a statutory change. There might be an argument for having more bands, or wider bands, in relation to the disclosure of income. I am not in favour of disclosing the names of individuals, for reasons that I think that most people would understand, but it is in the public interest for people to know the range of payments that are made. Sir David Walker has done a very good job of work, not least because one thing that clearly went wrong over the past two years was that it is obvious that a number of non-executive directors simply did not do their jobs. They were not asking the questions that they should have asked and they were not holding the chief executives to account. That has to stop and David Walker’s measures will go some way towards ensuring that.
I said that supporting the economy is important and so, too, is ensuring that we strengthen our fiscal position as the recovery is established. The pre-Budget report will take place in just under two weeks, and the House will understand why I do not propose to go into any of the detail that I will need to set out at that stage. I shall return to the question of the fiscal responsibility legislation at that stage, too.
The House should be in no doubt that it is important that we should ensure that, as recovery is established, we halve the deficit over that four-year period. I set out that proposal last year and repeated it at the Budget. That remains the Government’s policy and it is something that we will do. It is very important, not just because borrowing needs to come down—it has inevitably risen because of the downturn—but because it is part of the conditions that we need to ensure growth in the future. It has to be done in a way that does not damage individuals and businesses at the same time.
As the Chancellor says, the pre-Budget report is coming soon. It will be coming at a very difficult and important time for the economy, and the House should scrutinise it effectively. In business questions, the Leader of the House said that she would not timetable debate for the pre-Budget report. Is that at the request of the Chancellor? Does he not want to see his pre-Budget report fully debated, or is he willing to have it debated and is the Leader of the House not providing him with the time for it?
I missed that exchange, exciting as it must have been. I am more than happy for the pre-Budget report to be debated and I hope that the usual channels will make that possible, preferably before the House rises for the Christmas recess. There is certainly no barrier on my part.
The shadow Chancellor was telling us that he too believed that we had to be more responsible. However, he needs to have a good look, not only at his plans for reducing the deficit, but also at the plans announced by him and his colleagues for additional spending. It is remarkable that, at a time when they are telling us that we should not be spending so much, the Opposition have produced proposals on the married couples allowance and inheritance tax, as well as on getting rid of the top rate of tax at 50p and changing pension tax relief—[Interruption.] Some Opposition Members ask when the shadow Chancellor said that, but he has done so at just about every opportunity. We see shadow spokesmen and spokeswomen jumping up and down promising to spend more here, there and everywhere.
The Conservative party’s proposals on inheritance tax remain its policy, but I have been looking at the impact and the total cost of all its proposals. What I have mentioned so far amounts to only about £10 billion of promises, but there are others as well. The more interesting question is, who gains? We know that all the benefit from the inheritance tax proposals would go to about 2 per cent. of the largest estates, and that 98 per cent. of the public would not benefit.
Again, if we look at the Opposition’s married couples allowance proposal, we find that the highest earners would receive 13 times as much of the benefit as people at the other end of the income scale. If we look at the 50p increase, it is patently obvious that people at the top end would benefit, as they would from the proposal to reverse the pension tax relief.
The Leader of the Opposition said that his party cared about poverty and inequality, but it is not surprising that he was cheered at the Tory party conference. People there obviously knew that he did not mean it and that he would not let the richest down. The Conservative proposals would benefit people at the top end of the income scale. Nothing has changed with the Conservative party.
For the sake of the record, will the Chancellor confirm that the Government are proceeding with their cuts in inheritance tax for the next financial year?
The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the pre-Budget report for details on all tax matters. What I am not proposing to do is to make changes to inheritance tax whose only beneficiaries would be a handful of people. As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, they are the ones who stand to gain from his proposals. Nor will I introduce a change to the married couples allowance that would mean that the highest earners would get 13 times as much as other people. At a time like this, that seems to me to be grossly unfair and wrong.
I asked a very specific question. In the 2007 PBR—and people will remember that that was a week after the Tory conference—the Chancellor announced a three-part cut to inheritance tax. The third part of that cut is due to take place in April next year. I want to know whether the Government are still committed to the plans set out in their previous Budgets.
As I said, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the PBR for details on all matters of tax. He would expect that at this time, but I repeat that his policies are not just the wrong things to do for the economy. At a time like this, it cannot be right to go out of his way to give the tax cuts that he is proposing to people at the top end of the income scale. That seems absolute nonsense—
Will the Chancellor give way on that point?
No, as I have given way on it already.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Once more, and that is the lot.
I want to press the Chancellor on this point. He is introducing a 50p tax rate next April. I presume that that will go ahead and that we do not have to wait until the PBR for confirmation. He has announced pre-financed plans for a cut in inheritance tax next April, and I want to know whether that cut will take place or not.
I did not think that the hon. Gentleman would be adding anything new to the debate.
His friends want to know.
From a sedentary position, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) says that the shadow Chancellor’s friends want to know. That is probably absolutely right.
I want to conclude by saying that the one matter about which I expected the shadow Chancellor to have something to say was growth, yet he said absolutely nothing about it. We must make sure, for the sake of skills and employment, that we have the right infrastructure in the future. That is essential, especially in the transport and energy sectors, where this country has been badly served over decades. We are beginning to make real changes, and to see real improvements. It is also essential to support businesses, when it is right for the Government to do so. If we do not, we simply will not see the growth that we expect.
I give way first to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke).
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. I believe that the Government behaved very courageously when they repeated the commitment to devoting 0.7 of gross national income to overseas aid by 2013. We have heard absolutely nothing from the official Opposition on that. Does that omission concern him as it does me?
That is another subject about which I have heard many Opposition Members talk, but my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our commitment to development is very important: it is part of our responsibility and it is in the interests of this country.
I shall give way to both of the other hon. Members who rose, and then I shall stop.
I am grateful to the Chancellor for giving way, but an examination of spending habits suggests that people in the top 10 per cent. income bracket will gain nearly £800 a year from his VAT cut, while those in the bottom 10 per cent. will gain only about £100. That VAT stimulus will be paid for through a rise in national insurance payments that will tax jobs that otherwise would have gone to unemployed people. Does he not agree that that is surely totally inequitable?
I do not agree. I know the view that the hon. Lady takes on the VAT cut in general, but I think that it has benefited the whole economy and the whole population. It is nothing like as skewed as some of the proposals that she backs—such as those on inheritance tax, for example.
I shall give way for the final time to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea).
I thank the Chancellor for giving way. He is talking about growth, which is very important, but does he accept that many small and medium-sized businesses are struggling? They need more consideration so that they can get bank loans at a reasonable interest rate. What more can he do about that?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The figures show that the amount of commercial lending is broadly the same now as it was just before we got into the banking problems in August 2007. Many businesses, for understandable reasons, have repaid very substantial sums, but we still have to make sure that credit flows into the economy—something that is particularly important as the economy begins to recover. That is why we are continuing to work closely with all the banks, and not just the ones that we own, to make sure that the credit is available. It is also of critical importance that people are able to see how much that credit costs, not just in terms of interest rates but in terms of fees and everything else. That is important in every part of the country, including Northern Ireland.
It is absolutely essential to have a policy on growth, and it is quite clear that the Opposition do not have one. Growth was barely mentioned in the shadow Chancellor’s speech today, but the Government have taken action in relation to broadband provision, businesses, innovation and planning to ensure that we do get growth in the future.
People cannot say that they want to go for growth while in the same breath they commit to pulling support from the economy. We have to make sure that we get the economy into recovery. We need to get that recovery established, and ensure that we reduce our borrowing over a four-year period in a way that does not damage the economy. That is very important, but it is also important that we get growth for the long-term future.
In today’s debate, we have had confirmation that the Opposition would not have done what was necessary 12 months ago. They have opposed every measure that the Government have introduced. They had no answers then, and it is clear that they have none now.
This Queen’s Speech sets out some important measures that will make a difference to the economy. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
My party’s approach to the Queen’s Speech is summarised in the amendment put forward by my party leader and my colleagues. Essentially, it is that the limited time that remains in this Parliament should be used for some modest political reforms and that devoting it to the range of legislation proposed in the Queen’s Speech is not justified. However, two economic Bills—on fiscal policy and on banking—have been announced and it seems appropriate that we take the opportunity to discuss them.
I shall start with the question raised by the Conservative spokesman concerning Britain’s place in the current economic crisis. It seems a good place to start: why is Britain in the worrying position of having suffered a recession that is deeper and longer than that faced by other developed countries?
Essentially, there are two reasons. One is that the consumer boom, which was based on inflated asset prices—particularly for housing—and consumer debt, was allowed to get out of control. There was a great deal of complacency about that.
The bigger reason, which the Chancellor has just given from the Dispatch Box, is that Britain is unusually dependent on the banking sector. We had a major international banking crisis; British banks’ balance sheets account for roughly 4 to 5 per cent. of our gross domestic product—far in excess of the United States or most European countries. It was inevitable in those circumstances that a major banking crisis would inflict great damage on the British economy. In that sense, the Chancellor was absolutely right in his analysis. It is unfortunate that his predecessor, now the Prime Minister, went around claiming that we would get out of this recession much sooner than everyone else, because the underlying structural problems were so obvious, and the Chancellor has correctly identified them.
Let me proceed to two specific issues, one of which is the fiscal responsibility Bill. We have all had our fun with it. The Conservative spokesman had a bit of fun today, with jokes about the Chancellor being hauled off to the Tower of London, and about unenforceable legislation. I shall try to approach it in a different way, to try to understand what the Government are trying to do.
Is there a role for declaratory legislation, which sets an objective that is not intended to be enforced or cannot be enforced? Does such legislation actually have a role? The point that has been made to me, and has also been made from the Back Benches, is that such legislation has been introduced in other contexts; for example, climate change. I think all parties have signed up to targets in that context. That is a serious point.
There are two differences, however. First, setting quantitative targets that have a major impact on long-term business planning is different from setting financial targets in a rapidly moving economic world. There is a fundamental difference. The climate change targets are important, too, because they link directly to treaty obligations, so there is an argument for embedding them in law. I accept that. It is an interesting precedent for the law being used to set good objectives that cannot be enforced. Let us apply it to the present case. Is it sensible or helpful for the Government’s fiscal objectives, which I think are to halve their estimate of the structural deficit within a Parliament, to be embodied in law?
The Government have created a dilemma for themselves. If there is a rapid economic recovery, which I know the Government hope for and some of their projections suggest will happen, the objectives are far too modest, because if there is rapid growth it will be possible to reduce the fiscal deficit more rapidly. On the other hand if, as I fear may be the case, the British economy does not recover rapidly, we shall have all kinds of impediments. The banking system will not be working properly. The monetary policy stimulus will have to be terminated within the next year or so, in all probability, so we shall not have growth. In those circumstances, the Government’s modest objectives may be much more realistic. However, we do not know which of those two futures will evolve.
There is a particular difficulty with the position that the Conservative shadow Chancellor has taken. He assumes that the next Government, or this one, can somehow create rapid economic growth. Going back to the early days when the Prime Minister was in his ascendancy and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families was at his side, they claimed that they had in some way changed the fundamentals of British economic growth. The rather mundane truth is that the underlying rate of economic growth in Britain has been pretty much unchanged since the Napoleonic wars. Different Governments claim that they have found a magic formula—Mrs. Thatcher did, as did the present Prime Minister—but of course they do not fundamentally change anything. Underlying growth is likely to be quite modest, in which case there will be a significant effect on what it is possible to do in terms of fiscal policy.
If we enter a period of rapid growth, the Government’s aims will be too modest. There is a real danger that we shall get stuck in a slowly growing, recession-hit economy for a significant period, with high levels of unemployment. If that were the case, it would be disastrous to embark on rapid deep cuts in public spending in the short run. It would be completely inappropriate. Because we do not know what conditions will be, it seems foolish to set targets in stone in legislative form.
Does that mean that the legislation is completely pointless? No, there is a role for legislation to strengthen the fiscal framework. I am probably not too far from the Conservative spokesman in his belief that we need an additional independent element in fiscal policy, as we have in monetary policy with the Bank of England. However, my party’s approach would be more modest. There is probably an argument for giving the National Audit Office a stronger role in auditing what the Government have done—not just their forecasts as at present. The NAO could make an assessment about whether the Government have delivered on their targets.
We have already had some strengthening of the legislation regarding the independence of the statistics office. That was a step forward and there is an argument for an independent audit role—an Ofsted—on fiscal policy. I agree with that, although I should not create quite such an elaborate institution as the Conservative spokesman proposes. None the less, there is a role for strengthening the institutional backbone of fiscal policy.
I switch to the other, much bigger subject: what is happening in the banking system. Over the past couple of days, we have been reminded in several ways that major problems are still unresolved. There was yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on banks imposing what many people regard as unfair charges. There were also the revelations about the so-called secret loans. Today, we have seen the pathetic report from a City insider—the Walker report, which is an absolute disgrace. Before I came to the Chamber today, I was in a television studio with Lord Myners, whose eyes were rolling in embarrassment as he tried to explain away the fact that the Government are committed to that rather pathetic and limited document.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although the covert lending was probably right in the circumstances, it was unethical for the Government then to lean on another bank and broker a deal under which shareholders could not be told about the covert loan? One bank merged with another with a huge loss of shareholder value. Even if we accept that the covert loan should have happened, we cannot accept mergers of institutions without openness, truth and transparency about what is really happening.
I think that was exactly what I said yesterday in relation to Lloyds bank. Equally, I said, and meant, that it was right for the Government to support the banking system and that there was a role for covert lending. I have no difficulty with that. I just want to make it clear, as I have done many times in the past, that although I have major disagreements with the way the Government managed the economy up to the crisis and with the way they have managed the banking system since, the intervention last October was right in almost every respect. It was right to give the guarantees, to make major Government equity investment and partially to nationalise the banking system. I do not retract that in any way.
However, major problems are unresolved and the Government have been failing by not addressing them. The first—where the Conservative spokesman rightly started—is the failure of lending. As information trickles out, we are discovering that although Lloyds is broadly meeting its gross lending objective, its net lending flows are very limited indeed. NatWest and RBS are failing even to meet the limited lending objectives they were set. One noticed in the press last week that RBS was willing to cough up enormous sums to help Kraft to take over Cadbury, but that semi-nationalised bank is still unwilling to lend to very large numbers of good, solvent British companies. They have a good credit history and track record, yet they cannot get credit on reasonable terms. There is a major policy failure, which is the failure of Government representatives in United Kingdom Financial Investments Ltd to make it absolutely clear that the banks have an obligation to act in the national interest.
Although I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, does he not feel that a fundamental problem is that huge amounts of toxic assets in our banks have still not been identified? That is the main failing. He is right to point out that it has been manifested in the lack of credit for small and medium-sized enterprises, but many people regard the unravelling of toxic assets as work that is very much in progress. It will take another two years.
The unravelling of the toxic asset problem may take a decade, which was the experience in many other banking crises. In the meantime, there is absolutely no reason why a clear steer should not be given to the nationalised and semi-nationalised banks to maintain a lending policy that helps to sustain the British economy, but that is clearly not happening.
The second big issue, which is not being addressed properly, is the structure of the banks. The Chancellor always groans when I raise the subject with him, and comes back with his prepared line: “That’s got nothing to do with the structure of the banks, and it was small, narrow banks such as Northern Rock that collapsed.” I do not particularly want to turn this into a personal argument with him; I simply suggest that he reads the evidence that the Governor of the Bank of England yesterday gave to the Treasury Committee.
The Governor said exactly what we Liberal Democrats have been saying: the structure of the British banks is not sustainable, and that is a serious problem. That problem does not centre entirely on the issue of the links between the narrow banks and the so-called casino banks, but he is seriously concerned. He is absolutely right to be concerned, because some of our very large global banks, which, for the most part, happen to have large investment banking operations, are expanding, or wish to expand, on the back of the Government guarantee. We know that in future crises, that guarantee will be called, as it was in this crisis. That is not an acceptable or sustainable position.
At some point in the near future, the Government will have an obligation to intervene to break up the very large banks, so that those banks do not create such a degree of risk. I am not sufficiently expert on the banking system to be precise on how that is to be done, but it could be done in different ways. The Government must respond. I do not expect them to respond to me, but I expect them to respond to the warnings of the Governor of the Bank of England, who continues to point out that the issue is the major unresolved problem; it has not been addressed.
On the issue of bonuses and remuneration, I have read the relevant sections of the Walker report. It pretty much reiterates what was said some months ago by Lord Turner, and what was already largely agreed at the G20. The issue is implementation, and how we create a regime in which bonuses are paid predominantly in shares, rather than cash. My question for the Government is whether legislation is necessary to achieve that purpose. I am not a parliamentary draftsman or a lawyer. I was under the impression that the financial services legislation and the powers devolved to the Financial Services Authority were adequate to allow it to impose an appropriate regime on the banks. Is that the case? What legal advice available to the Government has told them that they have to come back with yet another banking Bill to introduce measures that the FSA has clearly said are absolutely necessary to maintain the stability of the system?
The Walker report became a topical issue today, particularly as it relates to transparency and disclosure. There has been a movement in the argument over the past few months. It was clear that Ministers expected and wanted the Walker report to propose full disclosure in relation to not just the generality of what they call top-end employees, but those employees’ individual rewards. The Walker report has clearly backed off from making that recommendation under pressure.
I think that Lord Myners is on record as having said that he saw no problem with individual disclosure. Why should there be a problem with it? Board members of public limited companies disclose their emoluments. What is there to hide? We are not talking about private companies that are completely independent. I can well understand why an entrepreneur setting up an engineering company—a private company—might wish to protect their privacy and not declare all their income, except to the tax man, but why should that apply in the cases that we are discussing? The banks in question are ultimately guaranteed by the taxpayer, and have an obligation.
We have had an embarrassing light shone on dark corners in this House in the past few months. It has been quite painful, but I think that most people now accept that it was legitimate to shine that light, and that it is fundamentally healthy, in the long run, for there to be more transparency. That applies not just to Members of Parliament, but to other people in society, particularly those who depend on a taxpayer guarantee. The Government should have absolutely no inhibition in demanding individual disclosure. That is the central weakness of the Walker report recommendation. I note, however, that the Chancellor appears to be conceding that £1 million is perhaps a little bit too high an amount at which to set the poverty level in the City; he seems to be willing to drop that amount a little, and that is a step forward. On the question of individual disclosure, the report is, frankly, pathetically weak. Stronger action from the Government is needed.
I agree with quite a lot of the things that the Conservative shadow Chancellor said, but he has a phrase that he invented: “We’re all in this together.” The truth is that we are not all in this together. Some people have done extraordinarily well out of the crisis. There is enormous prosperity in parts of the country, much of it unearned and much of it lucky. At the same time, there is enormous poverty and hardship, and there are people struggling with unemployment. We need to reflect our concerns about those widening inequalities of income and wealth in the tax system, and in how we approach the regulation of remuneration.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on speeches? That applies from now.
I welcome the Government’s measures in the legislative programme, just as I welcome the steps that they have taken to get the economy growing again. The extraordinary global crisis that we have been through has reinforced the case for strong Government action, and there is no doubt that the action that our Government and others have taken has made the difference between recession and depression, and has shortened the period of recession.
I would like to flag up two areas of concern, where a positive response from Ministers could make our programme even stronger. One is the position of mutuals, an issue to which others have referred on other days in this debate. Successful mutual financial institutions have particular strengths, in terms of a sensible balance between their borrowing and lending policies. They enjoy greater trust, especially among customers, than most banks. They are important to many communities and families throughout the country and, of course, they are critical for the housing market.
It is crucial that mutuals should not suffer from distortion of the financial markets because of the huge amounts of money and effective underwriting that the Government have had to provide for the banks. There is widespread concern about that among building societies. That concern was voiced a couple of weeks ago by the Building Societies Association chairman, Graham Beale, who said that in circumstances in which financial institutions were trying to refinance their balance sheets in the retail rather than the wholesale market:
“The net consequence is that the margin between savings rates and mortgage rates has been eroded.
But the demand for retail deposits is so intense that rates have been pushed up in some cases to uneconomic levels. And this is often by institutions that carry real or implied unlimited guarantees because of their full or part state ownership.”
Similar pressures and potential distortions operate in the wholesale and inter-bank markets. The building societies that are able to access those markets face a bigger differential, as compared with the banks, than they did a few years ago. I hope that the Minister who replies to the debate can give me an assurance that the Government and the Financial Services Authority are fully seized of that, and of the importance of ensuring fair conditions and regulations for the building society sector. It would be an utter tragedy if the action taken to rescue the public from the banks that were responsible for the financial mess had the perverse consequence of weakening the building societies, which were not responsible for it.
The second issue that I want to raise, which has not featured much so far this afternoon, is the importance of environmental sustainability and responsibility in bank regulation in general, and in the lending policies of banks sustained by public funds in particular. Let us take the example of the Royal Bank of Scotland. The Guardian reported on 2 March this year that in the six months following the initial bail-out, RBS had been involved in financing loans worth nearly £10 billion to coal, oil and gas companies. That is more than a quarter of the amount that the bank had received from taxpayers at that point. Its loans finance oil exploitation in conflict regions in Africa and south Asia, drilling in untouched areas of the Arctic, tar sands oil extraction, and open-cast mining. We need to question very seriously whether, at a time when we rightly voice the priority that must be given to combating climate change, those are the investment priorities that public funds should be underwriting.
I ask the Government to consider the environmental conditions that they should place on the bailed-out banks’ use of public money, and I commend to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and his colleagues the excellent book by Nick Silver, chair of the actuarial profession’s resource and environment group, who, in conjunction with a number of environmental non-governmental organisations, puts the case for RBS becoming a bank of sustainability.
There are three main thrusts to the argument. First, UK Financial Investments Ltd, as the custodian of the public interest, should ensure that RBS and others in which it holds a stake follow good practice for institutional investors in relation to environmental, social and governance considerations. The Government also have environmental and social obligations, so they should go further and seek positive incentives for environmentally sustainable investment policies, including targets for, and the monitoring of, cuts in damaging emissions.
Secondly, as RBS is an important provider of finance to fossil-fuel and carbon-intensive industries, it, together with the businesses in which it invests, is attempting to externalise the risks of climate change which, sooner or later, will fall on taxpayers. Those are the same taxpayers who now own RBS, so those external costs are no longer carried by a third party. We can cut the long-term cost to the taxpayer by acting now on sustainability. That is the important message.
Thirdly, if we are to cut our carbon-reduction targets, we need a huge increase in investment in low-carbon industries and renewable energy. I know that the Government accept that point, and clearly RBS could play a big and environmentally beneficial role, by making good use of its expertise in renewable energy. The Environmental Audit Committee commended that approach to the Government in its report on 10 March, when it recommended that
“the Treasury examine and report on how some form of environmental criteria for the investment strategies these”—
“banks pursue might be imposed, and what impacts this might have on UK sustainable development objectives.”
I hope that the Government will see the good sense in those ideas, and I am pleased that my good and right hon. Friend the Chancellor is here to hear them. There is enough of the Treasury chip still in my brain for me to know how resistant Treasury culture will be to those ideas, but they raise vital issues that will not go away. If there is a global danger even more potent than financial meltdown, it is climate change. It is surely right that, in pumping billions into the banking sector and looking at how to regulate it against financial irresponsibility, we put in place requirements for environmental responsibility to help the world to avert climate catastrophe.
I am just about to refer to the Chancellor, so, as he is leaving the Chamber, I hope that he will not mind if I take issue with what he said earlier this afternoon. My point relates to the very serious matter of the loan that was made to HBOS and RBS. I am not arguing with the principle that the Government wanted to keep it secret so as not to destabilise the markets; I am saying that there are clearly established protocols, whereby, when the Government decide to give an indemnity in secret—for instance, on a matter affecting national security—they must inform Parliament in confidence through the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Treasury.
There is a very good reason why. It is not my amour-propre, or that of the Treasury Committee Chairman, who is equally upset about the matter; it is because if I, as the Chairman of the PAC, had been informed of the matter, I would have told nobody. I would not have told anybody from my party’s Front-Bench team or anybody else. I would, however, have discussed it with one person—and one person only: the Comptroller and Auditor General. He is the auditor of the Government, an independent figure, and he would have checked matters out and ensured that the whole thing was kosher. That is why he is there, and he would have done so in complete confidence.
Over the eight years that I have been Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, I have been told in confidence of many instances, particularly concerning national security, when the Government have had to issue indemnity. I have never leaked a single thing. In the 150-year history of the PAC, no Chairman has ever leaked anything that has ever been given to them of that nature. It is a serious matter—that, contrary to all those protocols and conventions, the Government decided not to inform Parliament in confidence through the Chairmen of those two Committees.
Even more seriously, I believe that the reason I was written to this week, 13 months late, is that the National Audit Office was closing in. The NAO’s report on the banking support measures is imminent, and earlier the Treasury Committee Chairman spoke, on a point of order, in much stronger terms than myself. He said that he believed that the NAO was closing in and the Government decided that they had to release the information now, 13 months late. That is a serious matter, and I shall not let it go.
I shall keep pursuing it, because this is why Parliament is set up—to protect the interests of the taxpayer and the people of this country. Occasionally Governments have to do things in secret and to protect the markets, but if they do, they have to observe the protocols. They did not do so, and for the Chancellor to tell me yesterday that he was absolved from doing so by the Banking Act 2009, which by the way came into force months after the indemnity was given, is not good enough. I shall leave the matter there, but we must return to it.
Like all other hon. Members who have spoken, I want to express extraordinary concern about the fact that, as of 31 October, total public sector debt stood at £829 billion. That is 59 per cent. of total national output. My hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor made the point that there is now a very real danger that the ratings agencies—Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s and so on—may start to question the UK’s ability to pay its debt and downgrade the triple A rating that we currently enjoy. That would make it more expensive for all of us to borrow. For the UK and for corporations, lower investment in the UK and higher unemployment could result, leading to a disastrous double-dip recession.
Let us forget party politics for a moment. There is no choice: we have to address the deficit. The Government tell us that they are, indeed, going to reduce the deficit by half by the end of the next Parliament, but they have offered only broad clues about what they intend to do, with hints at tax increases and spending cuts. They are only hints, however; there are few detailed policies. There was one detailed policy, which would have saved only £300 million, and that was a pay freeze for top public sector earners. That is £300 million; it is nothing. Surely the people of this country, or Parliament, must have some idea of what the Government, if they are re-elected, will do to try to deal with public sector debt of £829 billion.
I shall not get involved in great macro-economic arguments with any ideas that I might have; I shall go right down to the micro level. I have now chaired the best part of 400 PAC sessions, in which we have looked at Government efficiency, and one way in which we can climb out of this black hole—it is only one way in which we will achieve only part of the object—is to carry out Government programmes much more efficiently.
I am worried that if a new Government are elected in May, or even if this Government are re-elected, Ministers, for instance at the Ministry of Defence, will be under Treasury instructions to cut x per cent. off their budget. So, the number of new aircraft carriers may be reduced from two to one; there may be a question mark over the joint strike fighter; or the number of Trident submarines may be reduced from four to three. In other words, the MOD will get up to its old tricks of moving programmes sideways and delaying them. But what about the efficiency of the procurement executive? New Ministers will have to get to grips with that issue on day one, and they may have to bring in outside help. We cannot allow the public sector, particularly the civil service, to continue with layers of management which simply do not exist in the private sector.
The PAC has, I think, made some progress in the past eight years. We can make only so much, but we have identified proven savings—I wrote to the Chancellor earlier this week on the matter—of £4 billion. However, we have now gone further and identified another £9 billion that we can save without changing a single policy. I know that this is the detail of the debate and that it is not as exciting as the party political debate, but £9 billion is a serious amount of money and it can be saved. The savings have all been audited by the National Audit Office, representatives of which come to our Committee. If the recommendations we have made in the past eight years had been carried out, we could have saved not only the £4 billion, but another £9 billion.
I shall give a few examples. Some £1.4 billion could be saved by Departments sharing back-office services such as finance and human resources; and £2.5 billion could be saved by all Departments matching the level of staff cost reductions achieved by the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Ministry of Defence. Even a relatively simple twist of the hellishly complex benefits system could save a staggering £110 million, which would be a start. If the whole of Whitehall matched the example of some Departments in reducing running costs such as those for accommodation and IT, more than £1.3 billion could be saved. There is more. Improving how the public sector contracts and manages construction projects could save more than £2.6 billion, and developing the commercial skills of those who wield the Government’s significant buying power could realise potential savings of more than £700 million, through cannier procurement of goods and services. Better use of consultants—the Committee has done a lot of work on them—alone could save £400 million. That is £9 billion just there.
I am not making a sales pitch for the PAC. I believe that there must be a total change of attitude in the public sector; that Ministers and civil servants should assume that when they are spending public money, it is as if they are spending from their own personal bank accounts; and that the days of rapid rises in spending are now over.
Actually, in a way, the days of targets may be over, because targets work in a growing budget. Typically, in the past 12 years, the Government have come out with a worthy objective and required the civil service to carry it out. When that did not happen, the Government had to impose targets. It is going to be very difficult to impose targets on a shrinking, contracting budget. The Government are going to have to trust professionals and cap their budgets in the health and education services, and they are going to have to ensure that our civil servants and managers deliver services to the front line, and not cut them while protecting their own jobs. That is not a good enough attitude from our public servants.
May I begin by saying that I welcome the economic measures in this Queen’s Speech? I believe that they demonstrate the continued importance of the Government performing a substantial role in bringing this country out of a worldwide recession.
It never ceases to amaze me that the Government’s critics seem conveniently to have forgotten the cause, scale and unknown depth of this recession. In the context of employment, this year alone 38 million jobs will be lost worldwide, in which case Britain has done exceptionally well to withstand the hurricane of job losses devastating the jobs market around the world. Without Government action, a further 500,000 jobs would have been lost. Cutting VAT and cutting income tax were designed to help people and support the economy; 150,000 businesses were given more time to pay their tax bills; and unprecedented measures have been put in place to help 300,000 people stay in their own homes.
The Queen’s Speech sets out a programme of tough action on the big issues that matter to people. There is of course an alternative vision, which I would characterise as fundamentally pessimistic. The claim that Britain is broken is simply not true and I will offer my rebuttal in due course in this speech. Nor is it true to say there is no alternative to looking towards an age of austerity. Leaving people to sink or swim in a recession is an untenable, unforgivable and unworthy stance, and this Government can never be accused of taking it.
Of course, this is a difficult period for our country but we need to remain optimistic. Britain has a bright future based on its greatest strength: the talent and enterprise of our people. There will be difficult decisions as we move out of this recession, but the answer is not to drain the life blood out of our constituents nor drain them of confidence and hope for the future. It would be a grave mistake to end the economic stimulus at this time. We have learned that when Government do nothing, the market does not necessarily always provide. Choking off recovery by turning off the life support prematurely would be fatal to growth, jobs, prosperity and our capacity to grow, not just for now, but for years to come.
I particularly welcome the proposed measures in the Financial Services Bill, which demonstrate how the Government can provide the regulatory framework for a prosperous but stable financial sector. In the past year, I have received more inquiries from small businesses in my constituency than ever before. In the main, they have been about bank lending. I have made those representations known to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, including as recently as yesterday, and I am delighted to acknowledge that the Prime Minister in his recent speech to the CBI said that RBS and Lloyds, backed by the Government, will provide £27 billion of new lending for businesses this year and next and that other banks will follow. That is exactly the leadership language and action that small businesses up and down the country want. That is why the business community will always reject the notion of austere government.
I am acutely aware that the construction industry has suffered during this recession. Re-igniting house building programmes would help not only the industry, but those who seek to find homes for themselves in future. I should like to cite just a couple of ideas that resonate with many in the construction industry, namely placing new obligations on banks proactively to lend to small and medium-sized enterprises, and making mortgage finance available to key first-time buyers who are priced out of the market by exorbitant deposit requirements. In my view we will never get the demand back into the housing market unless there are some special provisions for first-time buyers.
Recently in my constituency, I had a meeting with Scottish Enterprise officials. The subject under discussion was the failure by some banks to lend to small businesses. However, that should now start to change. I urged Scottish Enterprise, as I do again today, to step up its efforts, and stressed that, in a time of recession and given the considerable public investment in Gartcosh business park in my constituency, it was time that the full potential of this site was realised. In terms of vision, location, connections and opportunity, this site has it all, and more importantly it has the capacity to employ around 1,200 people. That is what I want to see happen sooner rather than later, as a quarter of a century is a long time to wait. When that does happen, unemployment in my constituency will start to fall dramatically.
I am also pleased that there is much activity in the business start-up rate. In Lanarkshire, 2,000 individuals have been provided with pre-start-up advice. Total starts are well ahead of the same period last year. There is still a healthy number of higher growth prospects in the pipeline, but difficulties raising finance are obvious. We have a vibrant local business community in my constituency. While I applaud the steps that the Government and other agencies have taken to help, there is always more that we can do. I know that the Chancellor is working hard to increase lending, and I ask him to continue to work hard for small businesses. We may see more evidence of that in his pre-Budget report.
I end by paying tribute to North Lanarkshire council which successfully bid for 1,080 jobs from the Government’s future jobs fund. This stimulus has helped bring the country to the verge of recovery as predicted earlier this year. I am glad that the Government are manifestly helping families through this difficult period. What it proves is that business prospers when the Government invest and regulate sensibly. There is no question but that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have won the argument here in the United Kingdom, and their leadership skills during this economic crisis are admired around the world.
It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), who is one of the most decent and loyal Members of the House. I share his optimism about the prospects for our nation, but we need to admit that our society, politics and economy are all broken and need a fresh approach.
If more time had been available, I would have liked to paint some of the background to the economy that underlies my concerns and to talk at length about the issues confronting the unemployed, especially the young unemployed. It was an unusual deviation from his normal high standards for my good friend the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) to say that because we did not talk about unemployment much, we do not care about it. Of course we care passionately about unemployment, but I do not have the time to talk at the length that I would wish.
The Queen’s Speech has four characteristics, which are some genuinely good things; some dividing lines, which we would be better off without; some missed opportunities; and some very good intentions, although we all know what the road to hell is paved with. The good things include the ban on cluster munitions, which is absolutely right albeit far too late, and the home-school contracts, a very good idea from this side of the House. I welcome those aspects of the Queen’s Speech.
I am the Chairman of a Select Committee and I do not want to be too partisan today, but the dividing lines worry me. My hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor set them out well in his opening remarks and I say as a parliamentarian, and more in sorrow than in anger, that a Government at the end of their allotted span should be concerned about the good of the country, not trying to wrong-foot the Opposition. It is a shame that the Government do not realise where their priorities should lie. It amuses me sometimes when with some justice things blow up in their face. For example, the free personal care proposals in the Queen’s Speech blew up in their face, just like the 10p tax rate. Dividing lines do not always benefit those who seek to do the dividing.
The tragedy is that the good intentions in the Bill are often also used to seek to divide. The commitment to continue to enshrine in law the abolition of child poverty by 2020 is an honourable aspiration, although one might ask why 2020 and not 2018 or 2022. As for the intention to legislate to halve the deficit, halving or reducing the deficit is clearly a good idea, but why halving? Why do we need legislation to do that in the first place? That point was ably made by the shadow Chancellor and the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman. To ask who would be prosecuted if we fail and what would be the legal sanction is to understand the folly of the proposal. Who is being prosecuted for the Government’s failure to meet fuel poverty targets? As far as I am aware, no one is.
We do not need legislation on such issues. We share a commitment across the House to achieving those things in different ways, to different time scales or by different methods. It is not the legislation that matters: it is the action that we should be taking. What we should have heard from the Government is a clearer establishment of their priorities, not their spurious legislative intentions.
Protecting our long-term competitiveness as a nation requires action, not law, as well as some difficult decisions. To be fair to the Government, they are taking some of those difficult decisions, as well as some easy ones. I wish publicly to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), for the announcement he made yesterday about the filling of the post of chief construction adviser. That is a valuable response by the Government to a recommendation from my Select Committee that will greatly help the construction industry to improve its relationship with Government. I am really pleased about that.
Let me say another public “thank you” to the Minister. Towards the end of the previous Session, he gave me a rather churlish reply to a parliamentary question on the national competency strategy, but he has responded magnificently today with what appears to be a good strategy and the welcome announcement of a major national composite centre of excellence centred on Bristol, which is the right place to put it. That sounds like a very boring and anoraky subject to those who do not understand it, but composite technology lies at the heart of our economic competitiveness, particularly in the aerospace sector and, as the document—I have not read it in detail—rightly says, in the manufacture of wind turbine blades. It is applicable in a whole stack of areas, including marine renewables technology, that require composites that do not corrode like metal. There are huge opportunities, so well done to the Government on that—although it would be good to get the same amount of enthusiasm behind getting the automotive assistance scheme up and working.
There are some difficult decisions to take in the context of the severe budget constraints that we all know we face, Conservative Members included. If I argue that we should not cut funding for university research, as I think that we should not, what conclusions do I reach on other aspects of Government spending? If I also think that the budget of UK Trade & Investment should probably be protected to help our exporters to export out of recession and bring wealth to the country, what further compromises do I have to make? I was struck by the fact that the radical proposals by the Institute of Directors to slash £50 billion from public spending also exempted UKTI from the axe.
In the dying months of this Government, we need a focus on action, not legislation. I worry that such declaratory legislation takes time away from issues on which we do need to legislate; it distracts us with unworthy debates that we do not need to have. I think particularly of what is, for me, perhaps the most important Bill in the Queen’s Speech—the Digital Economy Bill. That raises some hugely important questions that we started to tease out with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), who is also Financial Secretary, a couple of days ago. We do not know what the 2 megabits per second universal service obligation mentioned in the Bill really means, which is worrying. Is it a minimum? Is it an average, and if so, which kind—median or mode? Is it an advertised speed? We all know what that means, coming from internet service providers.
Are we right to put public investment into a massive expansion of next generation access networks beyond that which the market would deliver? That is an important issue for the House to examine. Should we not be concentrating on the 40 per cent. of households who do not have access to broadband at all because they choose not to? It is there, they could take it, but they do not—why? Rather than worrying about imposing new taxes—the 50p tax on fixed lines seems very regressive, and, interestingly, represents one of the first occasions on which the Treasury has authorised an hypothecated tax, which could be a dangerous precedent—should we not be sorting out the mess of the business rate system, which deters investment in new fibre optic cables? Is it right for the Government to pick technologies to roll out next generation access? What will happen to satellite technology over the next few years? It might deliver faster, cheaper options for more remote communities.
However, the Government are certainly right to attack illegal file sharing. Getting the protocols right and ensuring that proper warnings are issued by ISPs before they cut off the account holder is absolutely the right thing to do. Protecting the UK’s creativity lies at the heart of one aspect of our economic prosperity, and I congratulate the Government on their position on that.
I am sorry that clauses 38 and 39 of the Bill do not address the provision of compensation for radio microphones flowing from new access arrangements for the electro-magnetic spectrum. In their “Digital Britain” White Paper, the Government made a commitment to providing compensation for radio microphone users, but they seem to be wriggling off that hook. I hope that that commitment will be honoured in full. It would breach the sector’s human rights, apart from anything else, and possibly destroy large sections of our entertainment, broadcasting and sporting industries were that compensation not to be offered as promised. That is one of the missed opportunities in the Bill.
Another missed opportunity relates to a Bill that died a sad and tragic death in the last Session—the Postal Services Bill. I understand that the Government think that the linkage of part privatisation and settling the pension deficit should be brought together, but no longer feel able to propose that. We all know the reasons, but I will not go into that today in the limited time available. But what about regulation of the sector? We could move to make the reforms suggested in the Hooper review and bring Postcomm within Ofcom. Indeed, I would suggest that the Digital Economy Bill provides a vehicle to do that. Why not take the sections of the Postal Services Bill dealing with regulatory issues and implement them as part of that Bill? The sector cannot live in this regulatory hiatus, with Postcomm dying on its feet, not knowing its own future. Urgent action is required.
A lot of other things could be done, too. For example, I believe that an omission of some seriousness from the Queen’s Speech is measures to deal with illegal immigration, particularly that caused by fraudulent student applications. Why can we not move to a system of accreditation of institutions? Good universities and further education colleges know who they are admitting, but at present we are not working on that basis and there has been a massive increase in what appear to be fraudulent applications from the Indian sub-continent. Why can we not say that if an accredited institution is in receipt of a student, there should be an automatic assumption that that student’s application should succeed?
If we want to do good by small deeds, as I believe we should, why not legislate for a grocery market ombudsman, as called for in early-day motion 192, which I signed today? What a good step that would be to help the small business sector. That is the type of small good deed in a wicked world that the Government should be doing, rather than following grand strategies and making grand statements that are politically motivated and achieve nothing. This Government should have died with dignity. Instead, new Labour dies as it lives—partisan and divisive. It is a sad epitaph after such a confident beginning back in 1997.
I welcome the measures set out in the Queen’s Speech. There are some useful measures that will serve the country well if they make it on to the statute book. However, I wish mainly to draw a contrast between what is happening today in our country and what happened in the 1980s and 1990s, when we had a Conservative Government.
A good starting point is the recent credit crunch and downturn that we have experienced as part of the worldwide credit problems. There is no doubt that it has been a serious downturn with serious consequences, and we have heard a great deal of statistics relating to it today. However, in 1991, at the height of the last Conservative Government’s downturn, unemployment in Knowsley as a whole, including my constituency, stood at 25 per cent. Now, as we start to move gently out of the current downturn, it stands at 8.9 per cent. That is unacceptable, by the way, and I am not for one minute crowing that it is only 8.9 per cent., because it means that a lot of people who want jobs do not have them, but the contrast is nevertheless worth pointing out. Some economists forecast that if the Tory approach to the economy were adopted, in so far as we can work out entirely what it is, it is quite possible that unemployment would reach 5 million. Some reputable economic forecasters have made precisely that point.
My second point is about public services and investment, and the partnership between, in my case, Knowsley council and a Labour Government. Through the Building Schools for the Future programme, every secondary school in the borough has just reopened, or will reopen over the next few months, as a brand-new learning centre at a cost of £150 million. Not only are they in brand-new buildings, they have a completely different education philosophy. It is important to relate the matter back to real young people by saying that even before that, the rate of A* to C GCSE passes increased in the past decade from a pitifully low 17 per cent. to more than 57 per cent. It is still climbing, and there is still room for improvement, but that shows the contrast rather well.
In addition, we can consider the health service. Two weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and I had the privilege of visiting the brand-new hospital in Whiston, which will serve our constituents. It is an astonishingly good building that cost £250 million, and it simply would not have been built without a Labour Government.
To bring the debate back to a human scale, a few weeks ago, a constituent of mine, Dave Ryan, who is a head teacher, went to a local NHS walk-in health centre feeling ill. While he was there, they discovered that he was in the middle of a heart attack. He was then taken to the cardiothoracic centre in Liverpool, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) has had some happy experience. Within hours, Mr. Ryan had had surgery and was back on the road to recovery. Let us contrast that with the hours of waiting on trolleys and months of waiting for an operation, or even an appointment, that were typical of the Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s.
I come now to the “however”: Knowsley council, together with Tesco, put together a £400 million investment package—all private sector money—for Kirkby in my constituency. The package received planning permission from the local authority, went through a public inquiry and then sat on the desk of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who yesterday announced that he had turned down that opportunity. He has turned down £400 million of private sector investment in Kirkby, which, notwithstanding the improvements that I described earlier, and which we have genuinely experienced as a result of having a Labour Government, is one of the most deprived towns in Britain. I am astonished that the Government can turn away £400 million of investment in a town that desperately needs regeneration. It still needs investment in jobs, of which that package would have produced thousands.
The local authority, many residents and those who support progress are now bitter about the action taken by the Secretary of State. I am calling for the Government to work with me, Knowsley council, Tesco and Everton football club, which is involved in the project too, to consider whether a new application, perhaps slightly scaled down, can be fast-tracked and put before the Secretary of State, so that the regeneration of Kirkby and the necessary number of jobs can be delivered.
One of the reasons why my right hon. Friend turned down the application was the major opposition from Liverpool city council, St. Helens council and West Lancashire district council. The Liverpool city region now has a multi-area agreement and a city region cabinet led by the excellent leader of Knowsley council, Councillor Ron Round. But what good has it done us? What good has all the borough’s work on that city-wide layer of government brought us? All it has brought us is opposition and no help from surrounding local authorities.
I spoke to Councillor Round this morning, and I must warn the Government that he is considering whether Knowsley can carry on within the city region cabinet, which he leads and chairs. He might well conclude that he has to withdraw, and if he takes that decision, I will support him.
Finally, there is the question of my support for the Government. I have been in government and out of government, but in more than 20 years of being a Member of Parliament, I have always been a loyal supporter of a Labour Government when we are in power, and of a Labour Opposition when we have been in opposition. However, unless the problem in Kirkby is resolved quickly, the Government cannot continue to rely on my support.
I declare my interests as recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. We have just heard an extraordinary speech, and I think that all hon. Members greatly respect the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) for his commitment to his city, his constituency and his constituents. Obviously, whatever course of action he takes, we will admire it because he does it in the interests of his constituency.
Listening to the Prime Minister last week, it seemed incredible that this was the iron Chancellor who 10 years ago proclaimed prudence and thrift and put in place golden rules. It is also difficult to believe that, at the start of the recession, the Chancellor’s Budget in March 2008 included a forecast of public borrowing of £38 billion, or 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product. He stated then that net debt would remain below 40 per cent. and that it would be at that level till 2013. Fast forward 18 months and the figures are horrendous. The borrowing forecast in the previous Budget was £175 billion— 12.5 per cent. of GDP. That is now likely to go up to £200 billion and beyond. Our national debt is now 60 per cent. of GDP and increasing. It will probably reach 100 per cent. in a year or so. Public borrowing for last month—October—was 88 times the figure for the previous year. The figure of £200 billion that I just mentioned may therefore seem optimistic. All the time, tax revenues are plummeting.
I am concerned about the interest on our national debt that we are paying now and that we will pay in the years to come. It is currently around 6 per cent. of GDP, but it is likely to reach 10 per cent.—more than £75 billion, which is more than the combined budget for schools and transport. In 1976, national debt as a percentage of GDP was 10 per cent. when the then Chancellor, Denis Healey, went to the International Monetary Fund. Any amount over 10 per cent. means that the debt begins to compound, and most credit rating agencies start to get worried about any figure over 12.5 per cent. because one is then heading into uncharted territory, and there is a genuine problem about funding gilt sales.
There is an assumption that the debt will be bought and that investors will still have the appetite to continue buying it. I wonder whether they will, because the UK Government alone are planning a record issuance of £220 billion of debt this fiscal year and exactly the same amount in each of the next four years. That means that the total worldwide sovereign debt for next year will reach £9.1 trillion, which is an extraordinary figure. I am concerned that, if UK interest rates go up by even a small amount, we will be in real danger of reaching a debt trap. It is therefore essential that the Government—and, indeed, the next Government—can convince the markets that serious action will take place to address the debt crisis.
In relation to the horrific amount of debt in the global economy, it is not clear where the debt will be mopped up. For example, various sovereign wealth funds in the middle east and the Chinese Government have traditionally been able to take up such debt—but it is estimated that some third to a half of the £9.1 trillion will not be taken up by such areas. In other words, a major problem is likely to arise in the bond markets before the world is too much older.
My hon. Friend is much more in touch with these issues than I am, but I certainly share his concerns. The position here is looking grimmer than elsewhere because of the state of our economy. Indeed, apart from Greece, we are the only country in the EU that ran a consistent budget deficit rather than a surplus during those boom years, which means that we are singly ill equipped to deal with this financial crisis and recession. That is, of course, an appalling scar on the Government’s record.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) pointed out earlier, the UK’s growth between July and September was minus 0.3 per cent. For six consecutive quarters we have been in recession—the longest since records began. That figure for the quarter compares with America’s 0.9 per cent. growth and the eurozone’s 0.4 per cent. growth. That shows how we are in a very parlous position.
As the Government rebuild public finances, it is going to be very important to impress on the markets our determination to do so, but I feel very strongly that if we do not take the necessary action and confidence then dissipates, we could be facing a sterling crisis, rising interest rates and perhaps a gilt issuance strike as well.
Her Majesty’s Government have to rebuild the public finances without putting the brakes on demand. That is why even though public expenditure is going to have to be cut and whoever gets into office after the election will have to think about tax increases, it has to be done in a way that does not stifle the private sector, but allows it to continue to maximise wealth creation. That means more enterprise, more entrepreneurship and supporting small and medium-sized enterprises. It must mean lower business taxes, lower business rates and better access to credit, and it must also mean substantially less regulation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton said a few moments ago, we need another enterprise revolution.
As I look around my constituency and talk to businesses large and small alike, they tell me that they are not getting access to finance and credit, or the help from the banks that they expected. Indeed, they are not getting the support they need even from the publicly owned banks, the ones owned mainly by UK Financial Investments Ltd. Furthermore, they are very worried about business rates. I received two e-mails over the last couple of days from businesses in my constituency, which explained that the business rates to be paid in the next financial year are going up by 27 per cent.—and that comes on top of a 34 per cent. increase in 2005. The Government must look at the business rate burden on SMEs; they must look at the rate of small firms’ corporation tax; and they must look at the regulations being put on business.
If we are to have any serious supply side reform, the Government must row back from their propensity to put more and more burdens on small businesses. That is why, in an intervention an hour or so ago, I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the agency workers directive, which will be a job-destroying directive. Agency workers themselves do not want it and small businesses do not want it, as it is going to add a great deal of cost to small businesses, while those very agency workers that the directive sets out to protect want their independence and flexibility. They do not want a directive. Having said over many months that they would resist that directive and do all they possibly could to stop it going through, the Government are now going to legislate to bring in protection for agency workers to give them the same rights as normal workers. I think that is very bad news indeed.
I will not give way, because I will not be allowed any more injury time. [Interruption.] I will be allowed it, so I will give way.
I am grateful. On the agency workers directive, I completely understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying about workers such as professional contractors. However, there is an underclass of people who are being exploited, and I believe that we do need to legislate, in the interests of all those people.
The hon. Lady makes a perfectly reasonable point, but I simply say to her that we are facing a truly horrendous situation. When the economy starts to grow again and unemployment comes right down, it might well be sensible to work with SMEs, business and business organisations on bringing in some form of protection for the agency workers that she mentions. She has accepted, however, that the vast majority of agency workers, particularly contractors to the IT industry and to the food industry—a big sector in my constituency—do not want the directive because it will reduce their flexibility.
What else do the Government give us? They give us the Equality Bill. All Conservative Members are in favour of gender equality, but do we need such a thoroughly bureaucratic, over-prescriptive approach, which is bound to put pressure on small and medium-sized enterprises, especially those in my constituency that rely on public sector procurement? They will have to show three years of accounts, and fill in a 42-page form and questionnaire. Lots of businesses will ask whether it is really worth the candle. In my judgment, that will destroy enterprise and wealth creation. Now is not the right time to introduce such a measure.
On the supply side of the economy, we will get more and more regulation from the Government and no attention paid to the crying need to reduce business taxes. The Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills may put my mind at rest in his winding-up speech, but as far as I am aware the Government are not planning any action on business rates. The Opposition, on the other hand, propose action on business rates, a cut to corporation tax and a bonfire of regulations. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has made it absolutely clear that we will have a one-in, one-out policy. That cannot come a moment too soon, because businesses are crying out for it.
The Government keep saying that they rely on the wealth creators in this country. The wealth creators will get us out of this recession. I entirely accept that there is an argument to be had about the timing of reductions in public expenditure and increases in taxation, because the last thing we want to do is stifle any stuttering growth in the economy that might occur in the next quarter. The Government say that they will rely on the private sector to create jobs and growth, but they must ensure that it is given the right encouragement. I have no confidence that the Government are capable of that. Their record does not stack up well, and business is fast losing confidence in the Government.
We can guarantee such firms their future, and guarantee that enterprise revolution, only through a complete change in policy, and for that a change of Government is needed. The measures in the Queen’s Speech do not stack up, and do little for business. When the business community starts to look at the detail, it will be depressed and appalled by the Government’s total lack of understanding of its needs.
I start more or less where the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) left off, with the agency workers Bill, which I welcome. An insidious development —the growth of outsourcing—has taken place in the past 20 years or so, and with it has grown an underclass of people who no longer qualify for sickness pay, paid holidays, redundancy pay and all the things we quaintly associated with civilisation during the 20th century. Often such people work alongside others who do have such rights. I hope that the agency workers Bill will do something to put a stop to that ominous trend.
At the heart of the Opposition case on the economy is a dishonesty, which pretends that the public debt has nothing to do with the bankers’ crisis and their friends in the City—the derivatives traders, hedge funds and the rest—and that it is all due to the profligacy of the Labour Government. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was engaging in that again last night at an event at the Institute of Directors, which I attended. In his very entertaining 20-minute speech, in which he had a great deal to say about public debt, I did not hear him once concede that any of this—at one point he made a comparison to Mugabe’s economic management, and I realise that he was probably pulling our leg a bit—has anything to do with the activities of the banking sector. It does. I think that the Opposition’s case would be that much stronger if they stopped referring to “Labour’s debt” and “the mess that Labour has got us into”—I think I am quoting from a Conservative party crib sheet, because I have heard those phrases used repeatedly since this year’s Conservative party conference—and honestly faced the fact that much of this has to do with the activities of their friends in the City.
I do not know whether you saw it, Madam Deputy Speaker, but at the end of September and the beginning of October there was a three-party series on BBC2 entitled “The Love of Money”.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was paying such close attention to my speech last night. I entirely accept that the hubris of our bankers, along with the complete failure of the regulatory system that our Prime Minister had put in place, was the greatest cause of the deep recession that we went into. Last night I was dealing with why our economy is the slowest in coming out of it, and debt plays a very big part in that. We can agree in criticising bankers, but the hon. Gentleman cannot wave aside—as the Government are trying to—the problem of debt, which is slowing us down in our recovery.
I do not seek to wave aside the problem of debt. I am glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has at last conceded—perhaps he will do so again when he winds up the debate for the Opposition—that this crisis, or “Labour’s debt” and “the mess that Labour has got us into”, as I keep hearing Opposition spokesmen call it, has something to do with the bankers. I am grateful to him for putting that on record, albeit with one or two caveats.
Let me return to the BBC2 documentary. It was about the banking crisis and the global financial crisis, and how they had arisen. Episode 3 consisted of interviews with the American Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, with American and European bankers, and with the French Finance Minister. They all said, more or less as one, that the British intervention in nationalising the three banks in the autumn of 2008 had been decisive in halting the slide towards the breakdown of the global financial system. One of them went so far as to say that the global financial system had come within hours of meltdown, and that if the British had not acted when they did, it might indeed have melted down. As we know, the Americans had their plan, but it was bogged down in Congress after they had spent 14 days talking about it. Incidentally, it is not only the people interviewed on that programme who have expressed that view. I have heard the Prime Ministers of Spain and Norway say something similar, and also the Australian Prime Minister.
As I watched the programme, I asked myself “Why is this a secret? How come no one in this country knows about it? How come only foreigners seem to know about it?” I concluded that that was, in part, a tribute to our free press, who, as we know, have been preoccupied with other matters. On each of the occasions when our Prime Minister has gone to Washington in the last year, the press have decided from the outset—before he has left British soil—that his trip will be a disaster. On the first of his two trips, they pursued him with a single question: “Prime Minister, will you apologise for the recession?” They kept that up. I believe that Mr. Nick Robinson even took it into the Oval Office of the White House. The Americans were amazed.
During the second trip, which took place only a few weeks ago, the headline was “Obama Snubs Brown”. As Members may recall, the President and the Prime Minister were going to New York to attend a United Nations meeting. There was not to be a face-to-face meeting between them there; but the next day they were off to the G20 summit in Philadelphia, where there was plenty of face time, and the story swiftly faded. Nevertheless, it had dominated the headlines, even in the broadsheet newspapers. If Members wonder why we in this country know nothing about the British Government’s intervention in the banking crisis, it may have something to do with those distractions.
Let me summarise what the hon. Gentleman has said: the United Kingdom Government have no responsibility whatsoever for any of the failures, the Prime Minister saved the world, and the 943,000 youngsters who are on the dole should say thank you to Labour for fixing the problem. I just wanted to get it right.
As so often, the hon. Gentleman does not get it right. I am not arguing that. I am just saying that the British Government did quite a lot in bringing this most recent—and particularly large—crisis to a halt, not just in this country, but around the world. Many distinguished foreigners appear to have noticed that, even if the hon. Gentleman and we in this country have not. I was pleased to hear the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), acknowledge that today, as he has done on several previous occasions. That is why he is taken more seriously than the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), who speaks for the official Opposition on these matters.
Let me mention something else I thought while watching that programme. I also thought it at the Institute of Directors dinner last night, at which I had a ringside seat. IOD director general Miles Templeman was demanding less Government interference, of course, and as he was playing on home ground that was greatly welcomed by his audience. In fact, he was asking for many of the same things that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk was just requesting: less Government interference, less red tape, less this and less that, and smaller government. I thought to myself, “Goodness, it’s lucky there was some Government interference around last autumn, when the banks went belly-up. I didn’t hear any talk about the need for smaller government then, when the world economy faced potential ruin.”
Over the years, all the main political parties have indulged to some extent in the pretence that we in this country can have a European level of public services while paying only American levels of taxation. We are all guilty of having encouraged that belief. As a result, when there is an argument about cuts versus tax increases, it is assumed across the board that only cuts will do. Indeed, there was a period a few months ago when the leaders of all three main parties appeared to be vying with each other on cuts. The leader of the Liberal Democrats was, I was shocked to hear, calling for bold and savage cuts at his conference, which cannot have gone down too well with his punters. The leader of the Liberal Democrats is a wide boy and a chancer as far as I am concerned, and if he thinks that is going to get his party any votes, he is wrong. If people want bold and savage cuts, they will vote for the Conservatives, not the Liberal Democrats.
I think that we do need to contemplate the possibility that, sooner or later, the basic rate of income tax will have to rise—I am not talking about taxing the rich, because that is often a cop-out as it does not raise the necessary sums. The basic rate of income tax has come down consistently over the years. It was 25p in the pound as recently as 1995, but successive Chancellors have reduced it so it now stands at 20p. Sooner or later, a political party in this country will have to confront the electorate with the reality that if we want European levels of public services, we will have to pay European levels of taxation. That cannot just be paid for by the rich; the prosperous—or the relatively prosperous—will have to contribute as well. There may well need to be a rise in the basic rate of income tax, therefore.
Finally, I want to say a few words about “broken Britain”. We have heard quite a lot on that subject from those on the Conservative Benches. Those of us who represent less prosperous areas of the country know a thing or two about broken Britain. When I was first elected to Parliament in 1987, at every single surgery that I held people from the poorer parts of my constituency came to me begging to be evacuated from various notorious estates. All that has stopped over the last five to 10 years. There were parts of my constituency where normal life had broken down to such an extent that we had to evacuate the few remaining residents and demolish entire streets—indeed, in one case, a large part of an entire estate. I fear that there is a danger that we might return to that situation. That is broken Britain.
Sandhill View school in my constituency is a secondary school. Twelve years ago it was achieving a GCSE result rate on the five A to C grade measure of less than 10 per cent. Today, that rate is more than 50 per cent. The school has been completely rebuilt, it is under completely new management and more than 50 per cent. of the pupils are getting those results, despite the catchment area being the same. So when somebody tells me that nothing has changed and everything is bad and getting worse, I can put my hand on my heart and honestly say that the poorer people in my constituency—I would be surprised if this were confined only to my constituency—are significantly better off as a result of this Government.
I dread that in future we may go back to where we were in the late ’80s, when there was mass unemployment, and a breakdown in the social fabric and in law and order. Some future Government would then have to clear up the mess, as this Government are still doing to some extent. I hope that we will not go down that path again. I am told that a new, merciful and compassionate Conservative party has arisen from the ashes of the greedy and mean Conservative party—I accept that there have been some changes at the top, but I do not believe that down below that is the case. I think that the party has the same philosophy and wants one thing only: tax cuts for the already prosperous.
On the face of it, there does not appear to be a great deal for business in this Queen’s Speech, so I wish to focus on business. Legislation is not always needed to make changes, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) said. I trust that that proves so and that having introduced a plethora of measures, some of which have worked and some of which spectacularly have not, the Government are not resting on their laurels, thinking that we are through the worst and that everything will be all right. If the measures that they have announced had been properly implemented, business would not be suffering in the same way as it is now.
Recent talk about recovery is encouraging, but we must be realistic and recognise that businesses are still suffering and our gross domestic product is still falling, with the third quarter figure showing the decline slowing to 0.3 per cent. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) cited a figure of 0.4 per cent. but I believe a revision was made yesterday—either way, the situation is bad and GDP is still declining. The level of bank lending to businesses continues to decline, with third quarter lending decreasing by £23.2 billion. The level of unemployment is still increasing, with the figure now at more than 2.5 million. Manufacturing investment has decreased by more than a quarter and construction investment has decreased by almost a third.
Despite all that, an array of business support is due to end before the recovery has been secured: the trade credit insurance top-up scheme ends on 31 December 2009, just when it might have become useful as the credit insurance market stabilises; the vehicle scrappage scheme ends in February 2010—or earlier if the Government funding is used up; the enterprise finance guarantee scheme ends on 31 March 2010; an extension on empty property rate relief ends on 1 April 2010; and first-year capital allowances of 40 per cent. end in April 2010, when we understand they will return to 20 per cent.
Although we have heard noises from the Government about extending these schemes, no clarity has been provided. They have left it late before explaining their plans, which has left businesses with little time to prepare. The worst thing that we can do to businesses is leave them in a state of uncertainty. How can they make provisions when they have no idea of what is coming? Can the Minister tell business today which of the schemes are to be extended? The Chancellor has said “no”, but he is not serving the interests of businesses by making them wait until the pre-Budget report. Despite the endless announcements about help for business, some Government actions are holding business back. Businesses face an overnight increase in business rates of up to 12.5 per cent. from April. That is a significant cost, especially for small businesses. Empty property rate relief is due to be withdrawn on the same date, encouraging unnecessary demolitions and destroying the capacity of the economy to grow in the future.
We have long said that fundamental reform of business rates is required to make them more equitable. Let us take the timing of the VAT increase as an example. Despite modest, well-argued representations from business, the Government refuse to change the timing of the VAT increase from midnight on 31 December. The Federation of Small Businesses has called for it to be deferred to 1 February to avoid the peak January sales—a sensible measure, but one that the Government are ignoring. What a happy new year message that will be to retailers.
Another example is an increase in the burden of tax. The small companies tax rate is due to increase from 21 to 22 per cent. In last year’s pre-Budget report, even the Government realised the counter-productive effect of that change and deferred it from last April to next April. I hope that they will reconsider this ill-timed additional burden on small companies and that the Minister will comment on that.
I want to see a new sense of urgency in the Government, with fewer announcements and more action. The sense of urgency among businesses is palpable as they struggle to stay afloat. I do not want to be unfair—some of the Government schemes have worked, although some have not. One that has worked relatively well is the enterprise finance guarantee scheme. Will the Minister confirm what will happen to that scheme?
One scheme that has not worked is the automotive assistance scheme. Guarantees of only £400 million have been promised, compared with £2.3 billion of ostensibly available guarantees. For six months of this year, no money was forthcoming but 10,000 jobs in the automotive industry were lost. Jaguar Land Rover, in my constituency, finally decided after months of being messed around by officials that the game was not worth the candle and got financial help elsewhere. Will this scheme be quietly forgotten now? Will the Minister respond on that point, please?
The trade credit insurance scheme was most welcome when it was announced, but it has been an absolute disaster. Although the Government said that they expected a £3 billion take-up by October, only £13 million has been allocated. The conditions have been far too restrictive. Will the Government consider relaxing the criteria so that struggling companies can benefit or will they quietly forget that scheme, too?
I agree entirely with what the hon. Lady is saying about the various Government schemes and the need to consider which work and which do not. Does she agree that as well as Government schemes, the banks and the financial lending institutions need to be doing a lot more? Although Government help is very welcome, more pressure needs to be put on the banks to do more for businesses, because that is what businesses are crying out for.
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) made that point quite strongly, so I have not concentrated on the banks, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
Let me finish by looking towards the longer term. I do not want to focus merely on the difficulties and challenges that we face. This country has a legacy of innovation and enterprise that should give us confidence for the future. It is now time for the Government to get ahead of the game and to begin to support enterprise in the longer term by creating an environment in which small and large businesses can flourish side by side. I welcome some of the moves to generate wealth through the knowledge and skills of our young people, such as the creation of a cluster of university enterprise networks to harness the value of the academic knowledge that is taught in our universities to drive future entrepreneurship and long-term economic growth.
The upturn will bring some risks. In the downturns of 1980 and 1990, insolvencies rose significantly after the technical end of the recessions as businesses rebuilt their working capital on returning to growth. Will the Government make sure that they take adequate steps to prevent the destruction of jobs and livelihoods this time round?
We all know that the state of the public finances means that there are limits to the help that can be provided, but there are no limits to what the Government can do when it comes to creating a level playing field, reducing interference from Government and enabling businesses to drive forward the diverse, vibrant and sustainable economy that is the key to our future.
I and my colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches will do all that we can to offer support for any step that is taken to help and enhance this country’s business future and prosperity.
I want to concentrate on the banking system, the case for major reform of which continues to be greatly understated. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) that we should never forget that the root of the problem is to be found overwhelmingly—not entirely, but very largely—in the behaviour of the banks.
The Financial Services Bill unveiled in the Queen’s Speech gives the FSA the power to crack down on bankers’ bonuses and to tear up contracts that expose the banks—and the taxpayers standing behind them—to excessive risk. That will obviously be very popular, but it is also absolutely justified. However, the central question remains: is that sufficient to prevent a recurrence of the epidemic of bankers’ greed and recklessness that so nearly brought down the entire global financial system? One has only to ask that question to get the answer that it clearly is not.
Certainly, the Bill offers important steps that will help to curb the most obvious and visible banking excesses that rile the public most, but they fall well short of the root-and-branch reform of the whole banking sector that I now think is so urgently needed.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the mistakes in the banking sector were made by a very small number of proprietary traders, and that they represent only 1 or 2 per cent. of the total number of sector employees? It is true that they were not overseen properly, but surely we need a way forward that recognises that the vast majority of bankers were highly responsible.
The hon. Gentleman makes my case for me. It is of course true that the problems were precipitated by only a small proportion of total banking staff, and that many of them, as he says, were involved in proprietary trading. However, the financial sector is incredibly important to the whole economy, and the fact that it cannot be—and was not—managed properly by directors in the boardroom is something that desperately needs to be addressed. I do not think that the measures in the Financial Services Bill—or, as I am about to make clear, any of the reforms that have been suggested so far—are adequate in that regard.
The Government’s policy on the banks seems to consist of only three elements. The first is to limit bonuses, although I think that I am right in saying that the FSA already has the authority to intervene in that area. The second element is to increase regulation but—and I say this with great respect—we will judge the effectiveness of that approach when we see it. The third element is to introduce some increase in capital ratios. I think that everyone agrees that that is necessary, but by exactly how much will they be increased? That is the key question, and the answer has not yet been specified. However, the Government’s policy still leaves the City as dominant as it is now, and the rest of the real economy hobbled and dependent.
If I understand it correctly, the policy of the Opposition is very little different. They are proposing living wills, by which the banks can wind themselves down in the event of a collapse, higher capital reserves—exactly like the Government—and more support for long-term equity finance, although again they have not said exactly how they would bring that about. I do not disagree, but it, too, is minimalist reform. I do not want to be over-partisan, but given the Tory party’s dependence for major donations on City institutions and on the British Bankers Association, whose chief executive is a former Tory MP, and given that both those institutions have no wish for radical change, we are entitled to wonder how much of even those modest reforms are likely to see the light of day.
The truth is that the original financial crisis flowed from several causes other than the monstrous bonuses that generated thoroughly irresponsible banking practice. Such factors include mammoth bank size—beyond the capability of any reasonable manager to control—a dangerous confusion of retail and investment banking roles, excessive debt leveraging prompted by over-cheap money, global proliferation of toxic derivatives, the suborning of credit-rating institutions by banks and other bodies whose creditworthiness they were supposed to be assessing, and an orgy of offshore speculation and tax evasion taking preference over industrial investment and the real economy. None of those fault lines is being addressed.
All the big four remain—to use the customary phrase—too big to fail, not least RBS, which at the time of the collapse had an exposure level 12 times the entire UK gross domestic product. Even with EU intervention, the bank is still far too large. The only dent in that behemoth structure was brought about by the EU Competition Commissioner.
The Treasury consistently—I think wrongly—refuses to consider the separation of retail from investment banking, no doubt partly because of heavy lobbying from the City of London. The effect is that it still leaves the taxpayer as the ultimate bailer-out of last resort for grossly irresponsible banking practices, some of which are already beginning to revive.
I am following the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks carefully and I agree with them. Is it not the case that neither the Government nor the FSA have really taken on board the point that utility banking, with its implied taxpayer support, has to be separated from the other issues? Until that core point is taken on board, whether we go with John Kay or Paul Volcker, the system cannot be regulated properly.
I completely agree. That is the single biggest deficiency in the reform programme.
Fundamental reform is needed, not tinkering. No action is being taken in respect of the shadow banking system, which is driven by the investment banks, trading funds, hedge funds and private equity. They are too big, too powerful and too risky. No action is being taken to address the finance sector, which is too large for a country the size of the UK and is still crowding out industrial and manufacturing investment. No action is being taken to reform the financial architecture—to dynamise innovation and long-term productive investment rather than simply continuing to concentrate on mortgages and consumer credit.
Above all, nothing is being done to regulate closely, or in some cases even prohibit, the derivative trading that lies at the dark heart of finance market fundamentalism. There is no action even to require that new derivatives should be approved by a sanctioning authority, which, considering that the massive toxic market in credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations nearly brought down the entire global system, one would have thought was the absolute minimum regulatory requirement. Little or nothing is being done about offshore speculation, unless of course we have a Tobin tax, which could be operated domestically through the UK CHAPS system. If that saw the light of day, it would be an important and valued reform, so I hope the Government will proceed as fast as they can.
No action is being taken to introduce greater competition in the financial sector, which is still frankly too large, even after intervention from the EU. Surely what is needed if we are to have real competition is the breaking-up of the over-dominant big four by, say, a dozen banks, all with particular specialisms. Those specialisms might include infrastructure—that, of course, is what the CBI wants—and should certainly include science and technology research and development, investment in small and medium-sized businesses, and other institution building in the real economy.
Quite simply, the banks are out of control. It is not the state that has taken over the banks, but the banks that have taken over the state. The taxpayer has bailed out the Royal Bank of Scotland to the value of 84 per cent. of its equity, yet the Government have no involvement in the running of the company, even as regards the insistence that there should be an increase in lending to business. The Chancellor keeps intoning—he has done so to me on a few occasions—that the Government believe that the banks are best managed in the private sector, but how does he reconcile that with the fact that those same private banks are the main cause of the financial crisis? How does he reconcile that with the view recently expressed by the Minister with responsibility for banking, Lord Myners, that before the crash, RBS was, in his exact words,
“the worst managed…bank this country has ever seen”?
How have the banks been allowed to get away with being given gargantuan sums on the specific condition that they continued lending to home owners and businesses at 2007 levels, when the latest M4 figures—the relevant money supply figures—show that bank lending to businesses is now actually negative? In other words, banks are clawing back more money from businesses than they are lending to them.
As has been said, only today we learn that banks are to be allowed to impose whatever overdraft charges they like on their customers with impunity, so that they can use the money to subsidise more profitable services for their richer clients. We learn that in his report on bankers’ pay, Sir David Walker—a former Morgan Stanley grandee, and a soft touch for the City if ever there was one—resists the obvious public demand to cap bonuses. He merely proposes disclosing the numbers, but not even the names, of bankers on more than £1 million—the feeblest option on the table.
We learn that Lord Myners is exasperated at the City’s unwillingness to agree to change. When did the Government last expect that they need only wag their finger at the malefactors for the predators in the temple of Mammon to doff their caps, say sorry and promptly mend their ways? Oh, come on! As McEnroe would say, “You cannot be serious.” When will the Government accept that voluntary exhortation is completely inadequate? To cap it all, £62 billion of our money was handed over to RBS and HBOS covertly a year ago. The motive was certainly not to prevent another bank run; it was to avoid the public’s confidence in the banking system as a whole being shaken by revelation of the sheer scale of its failings and corruption. There is something deeply rotten in the City of London, and until that is clearly and fully dealt with, this country will not be free of the risk of a bigger, further financial collapse.
It has been said today that we are in this together. Some Members might not be happy with that comment, but I happen to believe that it is true. Whether we are elected from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, the general public have sent us here to do a job for them. Those who have listened to the programme set out today will be interested only in hearing what the House will do for the United Kingdom, for business, or for the people in business.
Having said all that, we are, of course, enduring a financial and economic storm. The economy must therefore be kept centre stage. For that reason, I welcome the opening words of Her Majesty’s Queen Speech:
“my Government’s overriding priority is to ensure sustained growth to deliver a fair and prosperous economy for families and businesses as the British economy recovers from the global economic downturn.”
A sound and secure business foundation is vital to that.
We might be seeing the first, fragile signs of a recovery, but it is early days, and the extent of the recovery is a matter of debate, with almost as many theories as there are so-called experts. However, we need to assess the damage that has been done to our finances and economy and determine where we go from there. Although we wish to see growth, we must guard against artificial, unsustainable growth. The Republic of Ireland illustrates the point. Aided by European funding, its economy surged ahead as the Celtic tiger, but that growth was largely false, and we now see the affects of the recession in the Irish Republic; it is almost bankrupt.
Growth must be sustainable and built on solid foundations. We must grow a dynamic and innovative economy that ensures a well-qualified and properly qualified work force. We should do everything possible to reduce the burdens on business and move away from a culture of bureaucracy and red tape, which stifles business and, especially, the small-business economy. Rather than stifling the incentives to engage in research and development, to concentrate on exports and to be innovative, flexible and inventive, we must encourage such activity.
My party leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland recently said that
“the real drivers behind the economy are not the politicians nor civil servants but those entrepreneurs who are prepared to take a risk and start a business. It is their drive and innovation that will make the difference. We in government need only give them the chance and then let them get on with it as unhindered as possible.”
Her Majesty also referred to
“active employment and training programmes.”
High unemployment will be the lasting scar of this recession, and we are told that unemployment could reach as high as 3.3 million by the end of 2010. Therefore, training programmes must be geared towards robustly tackling the issue. Schools and universities must play their part by giving realistic careers advice to pupils at an early stage of their education. We churn out too many graduates with no useful purpose in the workplace. That leaves too many young people unemployed and almost unemployable, but we must not forget our existing work force. Companies must ensure that they develop corporate and individual skills, and they must think strategically and invest much more in research and development. We can attract high value-added jobs to the UK if we show that our people have the necessary skills and competences.
I shall turn to another area of concern—the financial sector and the need for reform. Owing to the fact that the financial sector is a crucial cornerstone of a free economy, the Government bailed out the banks at taxpayers’ expense, but, as taxpayers now have a stake in the banks, it beggars belief that some elements of the sector have resorted to type and begun lining their own pockets again. They seem to have forgotten that they owe a debt to the public, whose taxes helped bail them out of trouble. We understand that banks need to be prudent on lending, but too often they seem reluctant to help sound businesses that, in many cases, have been banking with them for generations.
I know from constituents that some banks, far from offering support, actually make life harder. That is outrageous. The banks owe us all a debt—not a toxic debt but a genuine debt—of gratitude. Just because some of them played fast and loose in the past, that does not mean that they should now sit on their hands and fail to support genuine businesses.
I say this to the Government: despite what the banks are saying publicly and perhaps privately to the Government, things are not happening on the ground. Businesses are being strangled because of the attitudes of the banks. A small, family business in my constituency that employs 50 people contacted me in February this year to see whether I could get it some breathing space with the banks. I rang the bank, and someone said, “Well, there’re two sides to every story.” However, we managed to get the company some breathing space. It is still going strong and has just employed another 10 people, but if the bank had had its way in February, the company would have gone. That is one story, but many in the House could tell stories like it. What the banks are doing to businesses is unacceptable.
We must remove bureaucracy and red tape, and anything that will hinder the small business. I remember speaking to Michael Gallagher of the US State Department about business. I referred to the large companies that they have in the United States and he stopped me and said, “Look, David, it’s like this: our backbone—the backbone of the United States—is the small to middle-sized indigenous businesses, which have existed for many, many years.” It is exactly the same in the United Kingdom. The small, indigenous businesses are the backbone of this great United Kingdom that we cherish, and we need to support them.
Large companies come in, and quite rightly so, and create large employment opportunities. They get millions of pounds in Government assistance. When they come to this country, as we have seen in Northern Ireland, they may last 10 or 15 years, but all of a sudden they leave for some other country where the labour force and costs are a lot cheaper.
Does my hon. Friend accept that as the general public, through the Government, are major stakeholders in some of the banks at the moment, it is about time the Government called the tune? Does he also agree that many businesses are being strangled and crippled not only by the fact that they are not getting the loans necessary at a critical time to maintain a level of employment and strengthen their business, but because of unacceptable interest rates?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The way the banks are dealing with companies is unacceptable. If companies do not manage to clear an overdraft by a certain date, the banks are imposing horrendous fines on them. If a company cannot deal with its overdraft at a certain time, it could face paying thousands of pounds in fees and penalty clauses. That is unacceptable.
We want to see the Government making every effort they can to deal with the banks. I do not know what control they have over the banks, but they need to use every endeavour to ensure that small companies, whether small retailers or small manufacturers, are helped. That needs to happen.
Before I get into my own remarks, I should like to pick up on one or two comments made by previous contributors, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). He spoke about the international global situation and the fact that there is an attempt to caricature this financial crisis as Labour’s crisis or mess, or whatever word from whatever crib sheet Opposition Members happen to be using. It is unfortunate that that caricature is being used on such a serious issue, because the reality is that the financial decision that had to be made last year was probably the biggest that ever had to be made in international global finance. It was this Prime Minister and Chancellor who made that decision and called it right. It does no one any great credit to try to undermine that.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) made great play of the claim that this is the deepest recession since records began and that somehow all the ills that we face today are the fault of this Government. However, there is an inherent contradiction in his argument. If this is the deepest recession since records began, we need to challenge the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the Conservative party to tell us why we do not have the levels of unemployment that we had during the lesser recessions that they managed; why we do not have the levels of interest rates that we had in those previous recessions; and why we still have more people in employment today than in those recessions. There are a lot of myths floating around the Chamber.
There is also a lot of agreement about some aspects of the situation. Back in March, when I last had the opportunity to speak about the economy, I raised the issue of the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises, much as the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) has just done—and I apologise for not paying the usual courtesy in recognising that I follow him. In my earlier speech, I examined how the downturn was affecting SMEs in my constituency and across the country. At the time, those SMEs were running out of credit. That was their major and basic problem. As we all know, SMEs have little room to manoeuvre when the going gets tough. Some of them faced then—and still do—serious cash-flow difficulties, and credit is the oxygen on which those firms survive.
Eight months later, how are we doing? I have to tell Ministers that it is still a very mixed picture. The Scottish Federation of Small Businesses recently gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee about the state of SMEs in Scotland. Some 30 per cent. of businesses consistently report an increase in the cost of existing credit, 22 per cent. reported increased fees for new loans and overdrafts, and more than 30 per cent. have said that their banks have been less than helpful. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is now a little easier to get funding, but the fees charged are increasing dramatically.
Of most concern are the reports from small businesses that banks are finding new ways to charge. Entrepreneurial skills are being brought into the banks again and firms are facing increased fees simply for maintaining existing overdrafts. Larger arrangement fees are being charged, and maintenance fees are even being charged for unused overdrafts—so firms are being charged for not borrowing. Nor is there any room for negotiation.
I have been following the progress of some firms in Stirling that have contacted me about the difficulties that they have experienced. In March I mentioned the case of a constituent who runs a small commercial property business. He had banked with the Bank of Scotland in its various manifestations for nearly quarter of a century. HBOS had slashed his overdraft facility and increased the charges levied on it. Eight months on, matters have not improved. Without that overdraft facility, he cannot pay his staff through to the beginning of next year.
I mentioned another constituent who had an import-export business that had held strong for 30 years. To the credit of the Royal Bank of Scotland, it phoned me the next day and asked for details, but it should not have taken an MP raising the issue in the House of Commons for RBS or any other bank to intervene in that way. However, in that case, sadly, it was too late because the bank had already withdrawn the facilities.
I do not want to encourage frivolous lending—we do not want to get back to that situation—and I certainly do not want to second-guess the commercial decisions that have to be made. As I am sure the hon. Member for Upper Bann will accept, there are often two sides to the story. However, finance needs to be rigorous, not flexible. The Government have put in place a programme of supportive and positive measures, which I welcome, but more pressure needs to be brought to bear on the banks, particularly those in which we own a controlling stake, to help small businesses by reducing lending charges.
We should not underestimate how much importance people put on the fact that they now have a stake in these banks. The other night, on my way home, when I paid the taxi driver I handed over a Scottish £20 note. Members who have ever tried to do that in London will know that it is sometimes quite difficult.
In the case of the Bank of Ireland Northern Ireland that might be even more difficult. The taxi driver took my £20 and said, “I own part of this bank.” We should remember that people are making a correlation between their stake in these banks as a taxpayer and what they expect back from the banks.
Is there is scope to consider some of these issues in the Financial Services Bill? I feel very strongly that we need to make it easier for customers to seek redress if they believe that their bank has not treated them fairly. I have a constituent whose bank did not want to meet him, although he had been a customer for 40 years. Again, it took my intervention, not only to get the meeting but to allow it to facilitate a situation that allowed him to continue in business. I can see that some colleagues recognise that scenario.
Of course, I have welcomed the wide range of measures that have been implemented to help companies.
I am listening to the right hon. Lady carefully. I am sure that her sentiments and experiences as regards businesses that contact us are shared by everyone in the Chamber. Given that her Government put together the package to deal with the banks, what does she think they got wrong that leads to these situations where the money is not coming through?
I do not think that the Government got it wrong. It is an easy hit to say that it is a Government problem. The banks are part of the partnership with Government. It is not my right hon. Friend the Minister who is sitting in the bank manager’s office saying, “Sorry, you can’t have the loan.” We have put in place the programmes and we need to ensure that they are being delivered through the banking system. There is a whole range of measures, including the Scottish business gateway, the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, the VAT reduction, and tax payment deferrals. I have lost count of the businesses that have complimented the Government on how Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is relating to them.
In some instances, local businesses in Scotland—I am not making a criticism of any particular aspect of Government—are finding it difficult to access information. I ask Ministers to ensure that there is maximum co-operation between Westminster, through the Secretary of State, and the First Minister and the Finance Secretary in the Scottish Government to ensure that businesses are getting the information they need, when they need it.
Another issue that was raised by the Scottish FSB is the consolidation of banking between the two great big monoliths. It said that about 78 per cent. of business in Scotland is being conducted through those monoliths. I welcomed the Chancellor’s statement earlier this month calling for more competition in the marketplace; that will make a significant difference.
Finally, I welcome the decisive action taken by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, who have guided us through unprecedented global financial crisis. They took difficult decisions when they needed to be taken, and they remained calm in the face of a financial tsunami, unlike some other political parties, which did not know from one day to the next what their position was. However, I hope that my colleagues recognise that there is still more to be done. The SME sector did not get us into this financial crisis, but it will be crucial to getting us out of it.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who was particularly helpful to me with a constituency case when she was a Work and Pensions Minister.
I wish to focus my contribution on child poverty. A Child Poverty Bill was, of course, announced in the Gracious Speech, but the subject also impinges to an extent on the Bill on improving schools and safeguarding children. Child poverty has risen for the third year in a row, and there are now 4 million children living in poverty, a rise of 100,000 since last year.
The Child Poverty Bill defines child poverty in four ways and sets out worthy targets. There is a target of 10 per cent. of children living in relative low-income poverty by 2020, which means households with less than 60 per cent. of the median income. There is another target of 5 per cent. of children living in combined material deprivation and low-income poverty, which means households with less than 70 per cent. of the median income. There is persistent poverty, defined as children living in relative poverty for three out of four years, and finally absolute low income.
Those measures all relate to a family’s financial circumstances, and I believe that there is a fifth category of child poverty, which is cultural and emotional poverty. That can hamper a child’s education and future employment prospects just as much as financial deprivation, if not more in some cases. In an ideal world, parents give priority to the welfare and development of their children. They give them a sense of security, love them demonstrably and share family meals and conversation. They take a close interest in their children’s education, read and listen to them and provide interesting experiences. They encourage hobbies, sport, clubs and playing musical instruments, and importantly, they set standards and values by example.
Sadly, a minority of parents fail their children in that respect. It might be the result of drink or drug habits, but sometimes it is simply because of the absence of instinctive parenting skills. An unhappy childhood can sometimes lead to neglectful parenting. A bad experience at school can mean that parents may not know how to help their own children with their homework, or even be motivated to ensure that they attend school regularly. Such parents are also least likely to become involved in school activities, join the parent teacher association or help at the fête and thereby make an important link between school and home. Their children are least likely to belong to a scout or guide troop, the Boys Brigade or Girls Brigade, an armed forces cadet corps, sports teams, choirs, drama groups, youth clubs or a Church.
Those children experience child poverty of a special kind, because they miss the sense of belonging that flows from such life-enriching activities. They miss out on belonging to a team, being reliable and being able to rely on others, acquiring social and interpersonal skills, and trying their best and being appreciated for it. They do not learn to win and lose with good grace, which is an important life skill. Many of those learning activities are well disguised as having fun, but they are learned nevertheless.
Each of our lives could be viewed as a Venn diagram, with the overlapping circles representing all the “belonging” components. Most of us would belong in any number of shared spaces—family, personal friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, clubs and hobbies, the place where we live, our religion—and our sense of belonging and purpose come from those shared values and experiences. The absence of them creates a void readily filled by membership of a street gang of similarly impoverished young people and all the associated dangers that that can bring. We have seen many tragic consequences of so-called feral youths who, feeling that they do not belong anywhere or that nobody is particularly interested in them, develop misplaced loyalty to a charismatic or manipulative gang leader with values wholly unacceptable to the rest of the community, such as carrying knives and just being at odds with the rest of their world.
I pay particular tribute to the invaluable work done by Barnardo’s in identifying the minority of children and young people at risk of becoming involved in criminal and antisocial behaviour. Barnardo’s supports these children and their families, addressing their individual concerns and sticking with them to break the cycle—benefiting them, their communities and society as a whole.
The child poverty resulting from inadequate parenting is demonstrated in children’s lack of self-esteem and confidence, under-achievement at school and lack of aspiration and ambition for a more fulfilling and productive life. It is not necessarily the exclusive province of families in financial poverty. Well-off parents sometimes use over-generous pocket money and a lack of supervision as an easy way out. Such indulgence and lack of behavioural boundaries can also lead to the same cultural and emotional poverty and the feeling that nobody really cares what they do or where they go.
These children belong—I use the term deliberately, because we do not want them to separate themselves from the rest of society—to the next generation of adults, and they should be prepared with the social and practical skills to enable them to take their place in the adult world, to find gainful employment and to be a part of the future of our country. It is up to us to prevent them from slipping through the net.
The Children’s Society goes further and asks for a clear legal definition of parental responsibility, not just in education, but in safeguarding and promoting the child’s health, development and welfare. I have not mentioned that to any barristers I know, but I imagine that it would be difficult to define such things in law because they are subjective and even more difficult to enforce. However, the principle is a good one, and if it could be considered, and a way found, without intruding on the privacy of the vast majority of families who manage their affairs perfectly well, we ought to think about it.
The importance of parental responsibility cannot be overestimated, and for children not benefiting from good parenting, we must find ways of making as many opportunities as possible available to them. For example, public libraries are an amazing source of entertainment and information. A good book can transport a child into another world, enchant, horrify, amuse or broaden the horizons of the mind. Our libraries are free of charge—no child living in poverty need be deprived of the wonder of books or the opportunity to develop knowledge, vocabulary and spelling through the enjoyment of reading.
I know that our schools already have huge expectations placed on them, but perhaps librarians could be invited into schools to promote book borrowing, reading clubs and other library activities among families where books are not important. Even the simple possession of a library ticket can give a child a sense of belonging—of being part of something. Similarly, leaders of young people’s uniformed organisations might also be invited in to talk about their activities, or even to start a group on school premises to attract children previously excluded. Police community support officers, youth offending teams and youth outreach workers could also play a part in getting excluded children involved.
The Bill on improving schools and safeguarding children contains some promising elements, including on clarifying parents’ responsibilities in their children’s education. All community groups have so much to offer to children in overcoming cultural and emotional poverty. Our challenge is to make those connections. If we do not, however much progress is made towards meeting the four targets in the Child Poverty Bill, the fifth category of child poverty that I mentioned will remain. The bills of social failure, to which my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor referred in his introductory speech, will be high indeed.
I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
About three hours ago, I listened to the opening speeches from those on both Front Benches. At that time, I intended to say something, if I caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, about a constituency issue that relates to flooding and the resources required for that. I still hope to talk about that and some labour market issues. However, having been provoked approximately three hours ago, I would not do myself justice if I did not allow myself the opportunity to respond a little to the provocation.
Opposition parties must oppose, but when countries are in crisis, as we clearly were less than 15 months ago, political parties have a responsibility to look after the nation’s interest first and other considerations, whether party or even constituency considerations, second. There is much evidence in British history of that happening. I will not try to identify examples; I think we all know them. When I first became a Member of Parliament more than 20 years ago, there were many occasions on which issues were considered to be in the national interest and colleagues took stances based on that.
The Conservative party did itself a disservice in October last year by not recognising a national crisis that needed a national response and a national solution. The whole world said—broadly speaking; I use shorthand—that the proposals of the Prime Minister of Britain to the international economic forums and the actions that those forums and the main countries associated with them, including European Union countries, Japan, China, India, the United States, took constituted the right policy position. If the Conservatives had accepted that at the time, they would not now be in a position whereby, having opposed what seemed eminently sensible to the rest of the world, they are picking at the aftermath to try to find differences with the Government. I essentially accuse the Conservative party of a political response to an economic crisis. The Conservative party is now in the position of arguing that, because of x, y and z, it would be capable, should it be in government, of paying back more debt more quickly than the Government, should they be re-elected. That is economic nonsense.
As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, growth rates in this country tend, broadly speaking, to be secular. I do not believe that Governments can do a lot to improve a country’s growth rate—perhaps a little bit here and there. However, they can do a lot of damage in undermining the secular growth rate at a particular point. Again, there is much evidence that Conservative party policy—I do not blame current Conservative Members—did that in the early 1980s. We know the consequences for many communities throughout our country. That was repeated in the 1990s, albeit not with the same devastating consequences. However, they were still pretty devastating.
The danger is, were a Conservative Government elected, and they carried out as the economic policy of the country the commitment made in opposition for political reasons it would at the very least damage our ability to recover from the current position. It would arguably cause further deep and serious damage. I urge the Conservative party to try to think a little more in the national interest.
Having got that off my chest to some extent, I greatly welcome the Bill to control flooding. We do not have time to go into it in detail—there may be another opportunity for that, should it get a Second Reading. There is a need to change the structures that deal with flooding. I have had flooding in my constituency and I ended up co-ordinating the activities of the Environment Agency, the local authority, the water company, social services and several other people. That, however, is not really the role of an MP; an MP’s role is to have an interest in it and to know what is going on. A lead agency should be made responsible for it, but I do not think that there is one. All the agencies are trying to do everything, so there is need for some structural change. We await the detail in the Bill.
Secondly, resources will be required to tackle whatever recommendations are put forward in any particular part of the country. Our planning regulations need to be looked at as well. The House may well have considered this on another day, but people who think they can simply stick concrete or tarmac anywhere they want as part of a development really have to be stopped. There needs to be a much more considered environmental approach to these matters, so that at least some of the territory where the development is taking place has a porous surface that will allow rainwater to drain in a more natural way. We rarely see serious flooding, apart from river floods, in the middle of fields; we now see a lot of it in urban areas because of the inability of our drainage systems to take the water away. I look forward to this important Flood and Water Management Bill. Especially after last week’s events in Cumbria, I hope the House will reach a consensus and allow the Bill to become law before the end of this Parliament.
Thirdly—I will also have to try to find more time for this on another occasion—I am vice-chairman of the Council of Europe Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population. We deal with demographic issues as they arise—basically in the world, albeit in their relation to Europe. We look at asylum, refugees and all those things. In the Queen’s Speech, the Government rightly identify training as an important issue. Some people might ask about the link between that and migration. I believe that the political world has to start raising the importance of that link. We have got to stop talking about migration and immigration as burdens that have to be shared among European countries. Migrants make enormous contributions to our economic way of life in this country and throughout Europe. We have got to start recognising that. Figures given to the Davos conference in 2008 showed that there will be massive changes throughout Europe in the proportion of the population that is over 65. It will be a much bigger proportion— 10 per cent. more at the moment; about 30 per cent. or 40 per cent. more in the future.
Conversely, there will be a dramatic reduction in the proportion of young 18 to 30-year-olds. I know that the British Army is looking at future recruitment patterns and wondering where it is going to get enough young people to join it in the necessary cohort. The answer is either that it will have to recruit them from somewhere else or that we will have to cut the size of the Army. A lot of employers are looking at the same issue and trying to find ways to recruit in the future. The political world has to take a lead in this and say, “Yes, we need migration.” I believe that managed migration is what we need. I know that no specific provision has been made for this in the Queen’s Speech, but some background speeches have been made to illustrate the Government’s position.
The Government are in the right territory on this: the points system is fine, but I think there also needs to be a more frequent review of the points within every category so that the system responds to labour-market conditions more flexibly than at the moment. I would like to have seen something to deal with that in the relevant Bill, but it is not in it.
Let me explain the link to training. If we allow so many of our young people—I know many students cannot get work at the moment and the Government have some plans to deal with it—to believe that we are not doing enough to help them to get work and that we are relying on migrants, we will create the conditions for deeper social conflict in the years ahead when we will really need those migrants. We need more active training schemes to help people—including some in parts of my constituency whose families have not been in work for generations—back into work. It is crucial that at the same time as we meet some of our labour demands from migrants—we will need to do so—we also bring into work people from communities where they have not worked in the more recent past. We need to combine those two aspects in our plans to meet labour demands over the next 25 years or so. We need to start now; we cannot start doing this 10 years down the line when the shortages are critical. I know that the Government have their minds on this and I hope that they will concentrate them a little more. If the Queen’s Speech helps them to do that, it will certainly have my support.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) and to speak in this debate, although I suspect that the measures announced in the Queen’s speech will play second fiddle to many of those announced in the pre-Budget report and the Budget next spring. At that point, at least the Chancellor will be forced to describe, in more detail, the public finances and our economic condition, which he failed to do today.
We know that our deficit is at least £175 billion, or 12.4 per cent. of GDP. That is forecast to fall, based on what were considered very optimistic growth figures, to 5.5 per cent. of GDP by 2013-14. That will still be more than twice the level of the pre-crash deficit rate of 2.4 per cent. in 2007-08. On the treaty calculation, the national debt is forecast to hit £1.6 trillion in 2013-14, which will be £60,000 per household.
As appalling as those figures are, they might yet be wide of the mark, given that they were based on what were considered to be, putting it gently, heroically optimistic growth forecasts. That is not least because this recession is already longer and in many ways deeper than the two Tory recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, of which I have personal memories—they were not pleasant experiences. Both those recessions lasted for five quarters, while this one has already lasted for six quarters, and their GDP declines were 4.7 and 2.5 per cent. respectively, while this recession’s GDP decline has already hit 5.9 per cent. It is inconceivable that it will take any less time to return to pre-recession GDP levels than the two full years that it took, in both cases, after the crashes of 1980-81 and 1990-91.
The tragedy of the recession is that unemployment and youth unemployment are higher today than under the Tories in 1997, just before Labour came to power. Between March and May 1997, all unemployment stood at 7 per cent., compared with 8.1 per cent. today, and youth unemployment was at 12.5 per cent., compared with 18.6 per cent. today. Under Labour, 943,000 young people are now on the dole. That is bad enough, but the real killer is that in both previous recessions unemployment kept rising when the recessions technically ended: for three full years in the case of the 1980-81 recession, and for two full years in the case of the 1990-91 recession. Therefore, things could get much worse.
The Government’s response to that, at least in the Queen’s Speech, has been precisely nothing. On economic matters, they have suggested a Financial Services Bill and a fiscal responsibility Bill. The Financial Services Bill would introduce powers over contracts and bonuses, powers to allow class actions, and powers to act on short selling, which are all to be welcomed. Removing the incentive to take too many risks is sensible, as is establishing a council for financial stability to consider emerging risks. However, the Bank of England already produces a financial stability report, so the creation of a new body is less important than how its members analyse the data and measure the risk, and whether they feel that they have the authority and ability to stop risky activities that lead to the systemic problems seen in the banking crisis. In that, the Financial Services Bill is sorely lacking.
Back in 2000, I think, the financial stability report included a detailed description of the south-east Asian banking crisis, and set out all the factors that led to the problems: easy credit, over-reliance on income from property and so on. By the time we got the 2007 Bank of England report, many of those factors were in existence. The Bank of England glossed over them, and said that the risk had been spread and that everything was fine. The risk had not been spread; the risk was everywhere, and no one had confidence in any of the assets held by the banks. That was a huge part of the problem that stopped the banks lending to each other.
On banking reform more generally, in the “Reforming financial markets” White Paper in June, the Government spoke about action to enhance the robustness and functioning of key derivatives markets. However, as I think I said at the time, that amounted to no more than a road map to improvements, support for international efforts and the principle of transparency. The new Financial Services Bill does not even build on those statements.
There is no timeline at all for the creation of a regime properly to minimise the systemic risk of these weapons of financial mass destruction. The details of the fiscal responsibility Bill, to be announced in the pre-Budget report, may give us a little more, but all that has been announced so far is a pledge to halve the deficit over four years. Given the Red Book’s forecast of a £173 billion deficit next year and a deficit of £97 billion in four years’ time, in cash terms the Government will need to find an extra £11 billion worth of cuts over the next four years. In terms of percentage of GDP, a fall from 12.4 per cent. to 5.5 per cent. would mean that they were almost there, but those figures are based on growth forecasts, which were pretty much knocked out of the park last year.
Government consumption has been the main element supporting demand in the economy. It is 2.2 per cent. higher now than it was a year ago. Household consumption has fallen by 3.6 per cent., business investment by 20 per cent., and gross fixed capital formation by 17 per cent. If we strip out what has been keeping the economy afloat at this point—as we go into what is only a gentle recovery—we will risk dipping the economy back into recession, or causing a double-dip recession. The real challenge is to stimulate the economy, get people back to work, reduce social protection costs, increase revenue yield and, after that, tackle the deficit and the debt.
Then there is unemployment. What the recession has laid bare, and what none of the measures in the Queen’s Speech will address, is the difficulty of creating jobs in what has become a wholly unbalanced economy. We have become far too dependent on the tax and jobs created by the growth in financial services, to the detriment of traditional employment. There has been a 40 per cent. fall in manufacturing employment over 30 years, and at least 1 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since Labour came to power. Fewer than 10 per cent. of the work force are now employed in wealth-creating manufacturing. Even with sterling down against the dollar and the euro, between 2007 and the beginning of 2009 the United Kingdom had a balance-of-payments deficit of £93 billion in the trade in goods, and a total balance-of-trade deficit that suppressed GDP growth by 1.6 per cent. That is wholly unsustainable. We need to find a strategy that does not rely wholly on tax and jobs for financial services, but creates wealth and gets people back to work.
These are the lessons that I hope the Government will incorporate in the Bills announced in the Queen’s Speech and in the pre-Budget report. First, the proposed deep and savage cuts in public investment are wrong. The Government should re-profile capital expenditure for a further year to protect recovery. Secondly, there must be a real focus on rebalancing the economy to create new and sustainable manufacturing jobs. Thirdly, as well as doing their important work on bank bonuses and contracts, the Government need to address the difficult issues of derivatives, securitisation and counter-party risk, so that they can deal with the real systemic problems that caused the banking crisis rather than merely tinkering around the edges.
I thought that Labour had given up on the “We are investing while everyone else is cutting” argument because that is patently untrue, as is clear from the real-terms cut in the Scottish Government budget delivered by the Labour party in Government in London. It was massively disappointing to hear the Chancellor return to the old rhetoric. There will be no credibility in anything that this Government do, good or bad, if they persist with the “We are investing and other people are not” line, because objective reality tells us that London Labour Government budget cuts are driving cuts in every spending Department, every council and every devolved Administration in the country.
I was a little disappointed while listening to the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), outline how he would approach the current economic difficulties. Eighteen months or so ago, the Opposition’s main argument was not to do with the economy; their theme then was that Britain was a broken society. Since then they have abandoned that, however, and they are now instead trying to suggest there was no international banking crisis, but that the difficulties were all down to the Labour Government, even though most people know that to be untrue. The current economic difficulties are different from the difficulties of the ’80s; the current situation is an international crisis, whereas in the ’80s it took place in this country and was Government-made. That is the fundamental difference, and it is one of the reasons why the current economic crisis is also a lot deeper.
I certainly remember the ’80s, and it is worth while all of us remembering them. I have a manufacturing background, and in the ’80s under the previous Government manufacturing was almost entirely massacred, certainly in the west midlands. We need only recall what happened to the car industry—what happened to all the car companies that were household names not only in our country, but internationally, and the small businesses that relied on them for their trade. There were some problems with Rolls-Royce, too. All that happened under the previous Government. The Conservatives do not like to talk about the past, because when we look at how they behaved in the past, it gives us a good idea as to how they will behave in the future.
In today’s debate I have identified only one Conservative alternative proposal to our policies: public sector cuts. That has serious implications. Would such cuts mean that we would go back to having fewer doctors, nurses and schoolteachers? Would public sector pension funds come under attack? The throwaway line on those cuts in the shadow Chancellor’s speech today gave a lot away, although he was not spelling it out. However, if the Conservatives want to be an alternative Government, they need to spell this out to the British people now; they cannot hide from that. All the shadow Chancellor did today was quote Labour MPs and attack the Chancellor or the Prime Minister. That was a smokescreen put up to hide the fact that his party’s proposals would represent a return to the past in the form of a modern-day version of Thatcherite economics.
I want to discuss some matters of local concern for me and for my Coventry constituents, in particular the recent announcement by Ericsson that 700 jobs will go. A couple of years ago there was a similarly arbitrary proposal from Peugeot. It is clear from talking to the labour force that they feel that they do not have as much protection as labour forces in Europe. We could refer back to more of the history, such as what happened at Rover. The Government must seriously think about giving people’s jobs in this country more protection. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) would confirm, the company in question told us in a telephone conversation that it would not go back on its decision, but that it would start to consult. In such circumstances, all that happens in a “consultation” is that company representatives announce, “We’re now going to tell you that your jobs are going.”
The other important factor in the Ericsson situation is that we are short of technicians in this country, yet most of the jobs that will go will be technicians’ jobs. That is another reason why the situation is so serious. That will, of course, have an effect on Coventry, but there is another issue that we in Coventry want to talk about in connection with investing in skills in the area and the wider west midlands region. We know that Warwick university is going to make cuts, yet we are always saying we want more skills. There is also a big debate going on about student tuition fees. If we are not very careful, that could become a form of student rationing. More importantly, however, jobs may be going at this university. We are due to have a meeting with the vice-chancellor to discuss that.
If the Government truly want to help Coventry economically, they could also look at the Nuckle project. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West and I have had a number of meetings on that over the last five years. The council blames the Government for the delay, and the Government blame the council on the basis that the council has not produced a business plan. If the Government truly want to start getting the west midlands economy going—and in particular the Coventry economy—they must start to throw their weight behind that project, because it is, in a way, a west midlands project.
I am sure many Members will know about the Ricoh arena in Coventry, which is now in many ways really a national arena. It attracts a lot of visitors, as well as a lot of bands and various groups, and it could be a major player in the Olympics. That is why the Nuckle project that I mentioned is important, because we need a new railway station in the vicinity of the arena to allow people to travel back and forth. The project could create more jobs, and I hope that the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills will talk to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to give this a little push; as he is a west midlands MP, I would like to think that he will.
I must pay tribute to my Front-Bench colleagues from the west midlands, because the Government have taken the area seriously. If they had not, would we have had a Select Committee and a Minister? The aim is to give a bit of impetus to the west midlands, but it is equally important that Ministers understand that unemployment in the west midlands is far too high. It is probably about 10 per cent. now—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) seems to agree with me, and he is quite good with figures.
The Government have to start to take a good look at what is happening now in the west midlands, particularly in manufacturing. The innovation fund could be used a little more to help companies such as Jaguar and a number of others that wish to go into green technology. That is where the fund could play a major part in creating the new industries for the west midlands, and Coventry in particular. Its universities have always played a major part in engineering projects in Coventry. If the Government can get strongly behind these areas, they will start to get the west midlands moving again and give the labour force confidence, and we will retain those skills in the west midlands. These issues are therefore vital to the west midlands.
As a fellow west midlands MP, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that unemployment is higher there than anywhere else in the country. I am sure he must also know that the university enterprise network scheme is being piloted at Coventry university and the university of Warwick. What a fantastic way that is to harness the skills and innovation of young people and to introduce the enterprise culture—it is common in the west midlands, but we need more of it at the moment.
The hon. Lady makes my point for me; Warwick university is fourth in the country, and we do not want to lose that impetus. Surrounding the university are the business and science parks and all sorts of things. When we went down that road about 25 years ago, a previous Minister in the Thatcher Government said that the local authority had no business getting involved. Who was looking ahead to the future—was it the local authority or the Thatcher Government? Hon. Members can take their pick. I agree with the hon. Lady that unemployment in the west midlands is far too high, which is why I made some of my remarks about what we can do when we put some shoulder behind things.
Another issue that worries people in Coventry is the amount of credit available to small businesses. Like many others who have spoken today, I think that banks have been very slow to release credit for small businesses, and when it has been made available small businesses have been made to pay a high price for it through interest charges and so on. The Government should certainly put their shoulder behind things in that area, because as we all know, and as has been said in previous debates, small businesses are the backbone of innovation and industry in this country. These are areas in which the Government have done a lot, but we have to keep the pressure on them and tell them that although they are doing a good job, they must do more.
I hope that Ministers will take back with them some of the things that I have said today, but I wish to finish my contribution by discussing the King’s Hill project. It will have major implications on the environment in the King’s Hill area in Coventry, particularly in relation to the green belt. There has been a major demonstration in Coventry about the King’s Hill project. It all centres around the fact that the region was asked to provide 365,000 houses. Lots of negotiations went on with local authorities—which are trying to blame the Government—but they reached a figure of 33,000 for Coventry.
It is said that the brown belt—or brownfield site—can take only 25,000 houses, and those involved want to cross into the green belt. The green-belt area of Coventry—the King’s Hill area—goes back to mediaeval times. There is a vacant mediaeval village, a monument, all sorts of wildlife and all sorts of environmental things to attract schoolchildren. In my view, it would be a desecration if 3,000 houses were allowed to be built there. The infrastructure will not take it. There was a suggestion of a new railway station that would help the infrastructure, because there would then have been transport facilities, but that has now been abandoned. The roads are congested at the moment—about a fortnight ago it took me two hours to get home from my surgery—and now they want to heap more traffic on those roads. All in all, I would say that it would be an act of environmental vandalism to allow that project to go ahead.
The main theme of my speech will be a common theme today: the banks and the problems that many of their customers in small and medium-sized businesses face.
In a short space of time, the banks seem to have gone from one extreme to the other—from excessive risk-taking to excessive caution. We all have companies in our constituencies coming to us with the same story. They have a good sound business, a good track record and plenty of orders, but when they try to raise money from the banks to see themselves through the recession, they are either turned down flat or, if money is offered, it is offered at a very high interest rate with a large arrangement fee and often demands for high levels of security for any loans that are offered.
Another common theme is complaints from small businesses that the cuts in the base rate are not passed on by the banks to individuals or to business customers. Getting lending moving again at reasonable interest rates is important, because although we are, I hope, starting to come out of the recession, there will still be difficult times ahead for businesses. For example, the Government’s plans are to reverse the VAT cut shortly and many of the other schemes to help businesses will also come to an end.
I remind the Government that when they reduced VAT last year, two sectors did not benefit from that cut because fuel duty and alcohol duty were put up to cancel it out. Both sectors are of importance in my constituency. Fuel duty increases penalise my constituency because we must, out of necessity, drive long distances. I shall return to a theme that I have raised often in Finance Bill debates and urge the Treasury yet again to consider making use of the EU derogation that allows countries to levy lower rates of fuel duty in remote rural areas. If the Treasury could take advantage of that EU derogation and levy a lower rate of fuel duty at filling stations in the remote parts of the highlands and islands, that would contribute greatly to the local economy. It is important to remember that people in the highlands and islands face higher fuel costs as well as having to travel long distances, so the price of fuel is very important.
As far as alcohol duty is concerned, I much preferred the policy of the previous Chancellor to that of the present Chancellor. The previous Chancellor, during his long tenure in the post, had a policy of freezing the duty on spirits while allowing that on beers and wines to go up in line with inflation. The alcohol duty on spirits is far higher per unit of alcohol than that on beers and wines. Surely, if alcohol is taxed for health reasons, the only logic is that it should be taxed at the same rate per unit of alcohol. I urge the Chancellor to revert to the policy of his predecessor and freeze the duty on spirits. Whisky distilleries are major employers in my constituency, providing jobs on remote islands where other work is hard to find. I therefore hope that the Chancellor will listen to that advice.
As I said earlier, small businesses still face a difficult time. The banks that were bailed out by the taxpayer with eye-wateringly large sums of money should have a duty to help small businesses through these difficult times. Nationally owned banks should act in the national interest, and the Chancellor is the main shareholder in several banks, having a controlling interest in some and a substantial holding in others. When the Minister sums up the debate, I hope that he will tell the House what instructions the Government have given to the banks in which they are the main shareholder.
I sincerely hope that those banks have not been told by the Government that their sole duty is to maximise their profits, and that they have also been given a duty to help solvent British businesses through the recession. I do not mean by that that they should encourage risky lending, but there are solvent companies with good prospects and good track records that need loans to help them through these difficult times. Banks with a substantial Government shareholding should consider the needs of the entire economy, and not just focus on maximising profits.
I shall give an example from my constituency that involves the Bank of Scotland, which is now part of Lloyds Banking Group and is 43 per cent. owned by the Government. The bank decided recently to withdraw all but one of the business relationship managers from its branches in my constituency, even though local managers living in the remote communities know them in a way that business management teams located in Edinburgh, for example, could never match.
One of the affected branches was on the island of Islay. The decision to remove the business manager there has caused great outrage and concern among the island’s business community, which will now be served by a manager in a business team based on the mainland. I am in full agreement with the members of that community that a manager and a team based on the mainland will never understand the special circumstances of Islay’s economy as well as a manager who lived there would, and I back their campaign to reinstate the post on the island.
To the bank’s credit, it has amended its plans in response to the campaign, and there will now be a dedicated team for business customers in the highlands and islands. That is a welcome step forward and an improvement on the original proposals, but I still think that the mainland-based team will not have the same knowledge of Islay’s economy as a manager living there would. That is an example of how banks with the taxpayer as their main shareholder should look to support local communities. I hope that Ministers will take this issue up with the Bank of Scotland and urge it to reinstate the post.
Another way for the Government to help both individuals and small businesses would be to establish a post bank, which would have 10,000 branches throughout the country. I was pleased with the announcement about the post bank that the Prime Minister made at the Labour party conference, but I have been disappointed with the slow progress since then.
Post offices are still closing, and two have shut in my constituency since the end of the planned closure programme. As well as helping individuals and small businesses with their banking, a post bank would also help to rescue the rural post office network. I hope that the Minister summing up the debate will have progress to report on the post bank proposal.
As well as supporting businesses through the recession, the Government should also be looking at investing in the infrastructure that the country needs so badly. Infrastructure investment is needed in school buildings, public transport, broadband provision, the national grid and so on. We need a mechanism for reducing the cost of capital through Government guarantees, while at the same time tapping into private savers’ demands for long-term investment. That is why I support a UK national infrastructure bank, and I hope that that it is an idea that the Government will also support.
I was very disappointed by the Supreme Court decision yesterday that the banking practice of imposing unfair overdraft charges on individuals was within the law. I was disappointed that the court sided with the banks in that judgment and I hope that the Government will soon introduce legislation to outlaw those unfair charges.
I endorse what the Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee said earlier about the need for a supermarket ombudsman. Such a post is badly needed to help small businesses and consumers, particularly in the dairy industry where there is a huge gap between the farm-gate price for milk and the price the consumer pays at the supermarket. I hope the Government will accept the Competition Commission recommendation and set up the post as soon as possible.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. I hope he will tell us what instructions the Government have given the banks in which they have a major shareholding, so that banks can help British businesses through the recession, rather than simply maximising profits.
One of the most depressing aspects of the Government’s record over the past 12 years has been their unwillingness, bordering at times on the foolhardy, to take long-term decisions. One thinks in particular of nuclear energy or our transport infrastructure. The flagrantly tactical rather than strategic nature of the Queen’s Speech represents more of the same.
Collectively, the nation was lulled into a false sense of security by the clement economic conditions that prevailed for a decade from the mid-1990s, alongside a delusional feeling that the good times would last for ever. In that sense at least, the Government may have been in tune with public sentiment. There is an almost primeval human urge to avoid confronting the unpalatable in the hope that today’s problems will simply fix themselves. “Something will turn up” is the watchword of the cheerily optimistic and the insanely reckless alike.
One of the underlying characteristics of the deep financial and debt crisis in which we find ourselves is that continuing state of denial. Part of it is understandable. Two years of almost constant news headlines have suggested that we are living in a massive financial crisis, yet those headlines have not been matched—except for people who have already lost their jobs—by any sense of financial sacrifice among the public at large. More and more Government money is being pumped into the economy, so the sense of denial continues. Far too few of us in Parliament, across party divides, have woken up to the enormity of the debt crisis that will follow hot on the heels of the economic downturn, yet the seriousness of what will follow cannot long be denied.
For sure, technically the worst of the economic recession may now be behind us, although it would be premature to conclude that a double-dip recession is not on the cards as the effect of the continued fiscal stimulus dies off—probably just after the general election next spring. Despite some of the glib green-shoots commentary, we should understand that the banking crisis represented nothing unusual. Indeed, it signalled the end of another in a long line of boom-and-bust cycles—positively commonplace in the second half of the last century—caused by speculative euphoria and an excess of credit.
It is of course in the Labour Government’s narrow interest to present the current downturn as entirely unprecedented, caused by modern financial alchemy gone wrong, failure by regulators or rank unforeseen misfortune. That is not so. It is true that the global nature of the economic crisis has made things far worse, but there are clear lessons we can learn from the past. One of the grand old names of British banking, Barings, collapsed owing £780 million only 14 years ago; today, RBS survives courtesy of a £45.5 billion bail-out. It is only the extent of the economic downturn, not its cause, that is so very different.
The UK economic downturn began when the household debt and housing bubbles burst simultaneously. Our house prices rose 88.5 per cent. in the decade to 2007. Even in the sub-prime enhanced US that index rose by only 64 per cent. Similarly, our average household debt leapt from 105 per cent. in 1997 to 177 per cent. of disposable income a decade later. In both continental Europe and the US, the overall levels and the increases during that period were significantly lower.
For the first decade of this Labour Administration, we seemed to be living in the very best of times. However, in our complacency we planted the seeds of catastrophe. Consumer consumption in the US and Europe was maintained by unsustainable levels of public and private debt. The dotcom revolution of almost a decade ago was hailed as a new paradigm. Almost imperceptibly, the wages of middle income earners stagnated, while consumption in a low-inflation, low-interest-rate economy remained apparently robust.
In truth, as we have seen, the erstwhile Chancellor’s new economy was sustained by an old-fashioned private debt bubble. Cheap mortgages remained eminently affordable by virtue of the deflationary effects of China and India’s emergence on the global economic scene. Given the colossal sums of taxpayers’ money that have been spent globally, and given that immense Government guarantees continue to underpin the financial system, it is remarkable how little agreement there is on what constitutes the point at which the banking industry can be said to be fixed. To that extent, I agree with what the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) said.
Less still is there any emerging consensus on the ideal future landscape of the financial services world. That is no mere academic issue. The imperative to start repaying all that borrowing at the earliest opportunity cannot be overstated. However, commercial lending is unlikely to return to anything like normal until the second half of 2011, because toxic assets are being removed only gradually from bank balance streets. The credit crunch will be with all small and medium-sized businesses for some time to come. Extending quantitative easing beyond £200 billion would put our medium-term economic prospects at great risk, so when can the Treasury and the Bank of England call time on their short-term fixes? Despite all the euphoria of a narrative suggesting that recovery is perhaps within sight—the FTSE index has been back above 5,300—I fear that we are still a long way from being out of the woods.
I have spoken before in the House about the root causes of the global imbalances brought about by the west’s financial calamity. In many ways, those causes are the credit and debt bubble, along with the east’s aggressive desire to build market share in global trade. China’s policy of suppressing its currency to soak up the west’s debt in the bond markets further helped to keep down interest rates, yet the resultant over-investment, excess capacity and vast structural debt in the west remains in place. I agree that the underlying causes of the crisis have not yet gone away.
The biggest threat in the years ahead is that the indiscriminate pumping of money by the Bank of England into the economy will bring with it an unsustainable combination of inflation, rising unemployment, weak growth and diminished competitiveness. If we are not careful, that toxic mix will bring about stagflation—truly a back-to-the-1970s phenomenon. The very worst case scenario is that a future Government may regard a sustained dose of inflation as the quickest and most politically expedient way of helping to bring down the level of public debt.
In truth, any UK Government who are regarded as popular in 2011 or 2012 will probably not be administering effective economic medicine. To do the right thing on tax and expenditure in the years to come will not be seen as a politically easy option. The billions being borrowed now by the Government to ease the impact of the downturn for today’s electors will be repaid by future generations in the form of higher spending, higher inflation and reduced living standards, yet the true cost of all that will not become apparent in the months ahead. The Government are desperately hoping that neither the sands of time, nor the patience and good will of an increasingly alarmed gilt and bonds market, run out before they have to face the voters. That makes talk of economic recovery now very dangerous.
Contrary to the rather fatuous claims by the Prime Minister, there is not a simple, binary choice, in which Tory cuts are set against Labour investment. There is a hard slog ahead for any Administration. The trouble is that much of the debate on banking regulation has focused on how we should have prevented the last crash. That has not been helped by a Government whose recent economic policy pronouncements are governed less by national interest and more by a scorched-earth approach, designed to limit the room for manoeuvre for years to come of any incoming Conservative Administration.
The fact is that the stuffing has been knocked out of this Parliament—and, in truth, all parliamentarians—by the implications of the allowances scandal. Only the catharsis of a general election can end the expenses saga. Nothing would be more catastrophic for trust in our democratic institutions and processes than for that toxic controversy to be prolonged into the next Parliament. As a result of party managers’ repeated abject failure to clear up a discredited system, which many of us regarded for some time as illegitimate, the matter came to a head only when the country was in deep recession. That has made the parliamentary obsession with expenses and allowances even less palatable. The public have rightly asked, “If parliamentarians have not the ability to put their own house in order on allowances and expenses, how can they be trusted to regulate and legislate for the rest of the country?”
The political class needs to face some harsh truths. The impact of this economic downturn, to paraphrase Churchillian rhetoric, may not even be at the end of the beginning. We have been living through a phoney war, and the shock of the economic crash has been only to our senses: we are, as I said, wallowing in a lake of Government-funded cash.
I am not sure that politics in this country has ever before experienced anything quite like the current situation. We have a discredited, exhausted Parliament that shuffles on to its day of destiny with the electorate, and it is very sad that the Queen’s Speech reflects that intellectual bankruptcy and physical exhaustion. There is no flair, no vision, no passion, no conviction and no leadership—to the detriment of all whom we seek to represent. The 54th UK Parliament will not be much lamented.
I apologise for not having been present for earlier parts of the debate, but I am very pleased to have been called to speak now.
I shall discuss a particular incident that took place in recent weeks in my city, Coventry—namely, the sudden, unexpected closure of the Ericsson research facility with its 700 highly qualified scientists and engineers. I am pleased to see on the Front Bench my right hon. Friend the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills and my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who, like me, has a west midlands seat and has witnessed, over many years, the relentless, remorseless decline in our manufacturing sector. That is a matter for many in the House, not least the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who speaks for the Opposition on these matters. When he was Chancellor, he did his best in some ways to protect manufacturing and was always willing to speak up for it.
Nevertheless, the situation has occurred year in, year out, decade in, decade out, and not just over the past 10 years. It is sobering to think that over that period we have lost a further 1 million manufacturing jobs, but this is not a question of 10 years: the situation has been going on for 50 years. Ever since the war or, at any rate, the 1970s, we have seen that remorseless decline.
This is hardly a good thing, but one inescapable consequence of the recession from which we are now perhaps emerging, although we are a long way from returning to the growth rate that we enjoyed, is that people suddenly see how out of balance the economy had become. It looked great that the bonuses in the City could make good so much deficiency and decline elsewhere, but we should all have realised, and perhaps some did, that we were living in a fool’s paradise. We now know that, if not all, then a massive chunk of those service industries have disappeared for good, and the huge bonuses that the City brought with it are not going to return. We have to face up over the next period to rebalancing the economy, in which manufacturing will inevitably have to play a major role. It is not going to be easy, however.
From the Front Bench and elsewhere in the House, we all speak airily of how the green economy will bring the jobs of the future, through wind energy and, eventually, solar energy and wave energy, but when I look around and see the UK output and actual and prospective employment from it, I fear that it is yet another growth area on which we will all miss out. However, one area where we and the Government in particular could give a lead is clean coal technology. There, all the areas at which we, nationally, can excel come together—particularly in making different sectors work together. We have the straightforward engineering skills, and clean coal will be a massive engineering job; we have the science aspects, including chemical process engineering; and, not least, we have the physics aspects that will inevitably be involved. We do not need to pull together a committee that works out of the Department for Energy and Climate Change, even though it would be useful, and it would no doubt give a push here and there to make us go quicker. If we could pull together people in this country—inside and outside government and in institutions—as a combined team of engineers and scientists, and set out to crack the remaining technical difficulties that stand in the way, we could at least get back into one sector.
As things stand, we are certainly not going to get back into telecoms. The work force at Coventry—700 qualified scientists and engineers—represent the very last capability that Ericsson has in telecoms communication, in both systems and optics. No one is going to pretend that telecoms is an old-fashioned technology to which we are sentimentally attached, like motorcycles were at one time, but it is a technology of the current age.
I am not sure whether it should concern us that we have no indigenous presence, let alone a British-owned presence, in that vast and important area, but it worries me that the Government are not sure about that. I do not think they have even thought about it, because we do not have a strategy Department—I do not want to hear about picking winners or anything like that—or a basic capacity to evaluate the relative importance of new, modern technologies, which are vital to the persistence of an industrialised state. I believe telecoms to be one such technology. That we do not have the capacity to ask, “Does it matter at all that Britain is about to lose its last capability in that area?” concerns me.
I put it to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills that he should quickly convene a group not of the great and the good, but of people who know their business, and he should ask, “Does this really matter?” Those 700 people at Ericsson may get jobs in telecoms in this country in either maintenance or servicing, but not at the sharp end of research and development for the future, particularly in optics, which is the sector that seems to be going ahead very much at the moment, and in systems.
The Government could find a way of saving some of those 700 jobs—it would not be a case of saving the whole 700 and I doubt whether more than 300 or 400 are actually involved in that key area. Let me be perfectly direct with the Minister about this. It has been put to me by people not a million miles away from the Ericsson plant that it is involved in key areas that are at the forefront of everything that the company does. The whole integrated systems work, on which Ericsson depends, in turn depends on those few key areas.
The Minister spoke the other day about all the key funds that we have set up to enable people to move forward, which are excellent. Many of the funds are working very well, and we could use them on contractual arrangements for those key areas. Perhaps the research and development and the intellectual property rights would, initially and understandably, have to remain with Ericsson, but we should nevertheless retain the key element of that work force.
Instead, we have done what we always do. I make no excuse for that, because like everybody else, I do it. The unions phone up and we say we will have a meeting, at which they say, “Look, you’ve got to get the Secretary of State.” We say, “Yes, we’re going to a meeting with the Secretary of State.” We then go to the management, who say, “That’s great. Let us know how you get on. Are you going to help us?” We have a meeting here, and the Secretary of State, who is active long before we get to him—all deference to him for that—is on the phone twice, laying the law down, saying, “This isn’t good enough,” and Ericsson management reply, “Too bad.”
That is what happened, and it was to a very formidable Minister in another House that I put those suggestions. Only if we can create a sanction of some kind or an incentive that a company cannot resist will anything happen. Something along the lines of my suggestions to the Minister could well amount to such a sanction or incentive.
As the Minister knows, we are due to meet him next week—[Interruption.] I apologise if he did not know that. The meeting is tentative until he confirms. I may bring not only the unions, but one or two of the key technologists in the area, if they will come, who know what they could do and how the matter can be taken forward. What we do not want is to roll over once again, without knowing how critical it may be to our economy, and say, “Another 700 jobs gone. Isn’t it terrible? That’s 1,000,700 this year and in another five years it will be another 500,000.” We simply cannot carry on like that, especially now that the recession has bitten so deep. Look at the strength of Germany, France, Italy and Japan, let alone the newly industrialised countries. We have to have a more nationally focused effort, without picking winners, and I think that Ericsson would be a good place to start.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson). His contribution typified our debate. We had some good, fun, political knockabout from the Front Benches, but others have debated the much wider issues that our economy faces and the impact that the headline figures for unemployment, GDP and growth have on people in our communities. I shall focus on the human impact in my constituency of the economic difficulties that we are having, not least because the national statistics do not effectively capture some of the complexities that are experienced locally. There is a lot going on behind those large figures and my concern is that the difficult experiences of people, even if they are not unemployed, do not get picked up and are not properly addressed. Too many cases have been brought to my attention in which the rash of centralised initiatives that we have seen—in many different areas, including business support, housing and employment support—may have grabbed the headlines, but have not been so good at delivery.
The first example is the small business loans fund. I asked the South West of England Regional Development Agency how many applications it had received since April, how many were currently under consideration and how many businesses had received funding. I was told that 280 applications had been received, which is not bad. Of those, 80 were still being processed and only nine had received funds, only three of which were in Cornwall. A 3 per cent. success rate is not good enough, especially when the Government’s slogan is “Real help now.” Perhaps it should be, “Real help in a bit, when we get round to processing the applications.” Speed of response is as important as ensuring that the funds are appropriately directed, and it is clear the Government have failed many local businesses in my constituency that are trying hard to keep their head above water.
Another example is a coffee-roasting company that had hoped to expand and buy some capital equipment. It applied for a grant from the business investment fund. It was turned down by the RDA because the wages paid were not high enough at £16,500 a year. In Cornwall, we rely on small businesses and incomes are low. For many people in Cornwall, that is a decent wage, but the RDA finds it difficult to respond to the small scale of support that is needed.
The mortgage rescue scheme was yet another flagship announcement of Government support. Constituents of mine were told this time last year that they would be among the first people to benefit from the buy and rent back scheme that the Government proposed. My constituents had anticipated that when their fixed rate ended they would experience difficulties, and they did everything that they could to avoid that. They had never been in arrears and they told their mortgage company two months in advance. They were very excited by the prospect of some support that would allow them to stay in their home, even if they did not own it. They were told to stop making any contributions towards their mortgage while they were considered for the scheme, and as a result they ended up in arrears and with legal fees. In April, they were told that they were no longer eligible for the scheme, and they are now in a worse position than they would have been if they had not sought help. They are unable to remortgage because they have arrears, they have negative equity, and they are very worried that they are going to lose their house. From their point of view, the Government’s intervention has made their circumstances worse, not better. I am disappointed to report that following correspondence with the Minister for Housing, they felt that his Department had failed to accept any responsibility for the role that it played in their current circumstances, which are appalling. I hope that he will consider the case again.
I do not necessarily have a problem with the need for such initiatives, because businesses and home owners need support. Publicising those initiatives has an important impact on perception, but perception matters only if it matches up with experiences on the ground. Unfortunately, the experiences of my constituents are very different from what is highlighted in press releases when the initiatives are announced.
In tackling the current economic situation, speed of response is vital. I am not sure that the Government have accepted that. I would cite not only the example I gave about the small business loan scheme but the support that people are provided with when they are looking for work. This week, I visited Working Links in Redruth, which I found extremely impressive in terms of the work it was doing to deliver the flexible new deal, providing people with highly individual support that was important in giving them confidence. However, I could not understand why an individual has to be out of work for a year before they stand to benefit from such tailored, individualised support. Nor could I understand another aspect that would be simple to change and would address the fears of many of the people I spoke to during my visit. One of the clients said that they were worried about participating in the scheme because it involved signing off from jobseeker’s allowance for two weeks while they did some work-based training and then signing on again, which could result in administrative delays and, in turn, in their being out of pocket. Simply suspending jobseeker’s allowance instead of requiring people to come off it and then go back on it again would help to give people confidence that the scheme could help them. I hope that the Government will consider such simple measures.
I want to draw the House’s attention to one further example from my constituency that highlights the group of people I spoke about at the beginning—those who do not register on the radar in terms of unemployment numbers but are in a very difficult situation. Two of my constituents, Mrs. Blight and Mrs. Bennetts, have worked in a factory in Falmouth for 19 years; they are long-term, full-time employees. Since 6 July this year, the entire work force have been on a three-day week instead of 40 hours a week, and their incomes have nearly halved. They approached me to ask what I could do to help. This is an extract from their e-mail:
“After making several phone calls we find we are not entitled to anything to help people in this situation. The company can continue to keep us on a 3 day week indefinitely; we cannot request redundancy because we work more than half the week, no tax credits because we do not work more than 30 hours and no job seekers allowance because we work more than 16 hours.”
They are in a Catch-22 situation. They are low-income workers—basically, on the minimum wage—who are in a stable job and suffering genuine financial hardship. Again, there is no real help now for those people.
I ask the Minister to explain that situation. These people will not appear in unemployment statistics, but they are being hit hard by the current economic climate. They are the kind of people whose experiences need to be understood and properly addressed. Their circumstances are glaringly obvious at a local level, but they get lost as they are passed up the line to central Government, who are unable to respond on the scale that is needed, often on an individual or tailored basis. These people need a response and support that can be put in place quickly, and that is flexible and can change according to different needs on the ground. That can be done much more easily at a local level than from centrally driven Departments.
That is why I find the Queen’s Speech so disappointing. Surely now more than ever we should have had further moves on devolving powers and spending to a more local level so that local authorities and other local agencies have the power and resource at hand to provide help where and when it is needed. Instead, we have a Bill with no mention of any localist agenda whatever. My frustration is that at the very time when we need localism to receive support and be driven forward, it has disappeared off the agenda entirely. That is a great shame and will create great difficulties for many people experiencing financial troubles.
In the short time available to me, I should like to focus on one sector of the economy that is extremely important in both United Kingdom and Welsh terms, and that is the construction industry. It is a major driver of the British economy, employing some 2 million people in this country and accounting for some 6 per cent. of national economic output, worth more than £120 billion in 2008.
The construction industry is very much one of small enterprises. In fact, there are approximately 1 million construction enterprises in this country, some 85 per cent. of which are sole proprietorships. The industry has been severely affected by the recession. In the 12 months to this June, some 82,000 jobs, or 3.6 per cent. of the construction work force, were lost. While output in the economy as a whole fell by 5.1 per cent. in the third quarter of 2009, output in construction fell by some 13 per cent. It is clear that the construction industry is being affected severely and disproportionately, and the industry sees very little cause for optimism that the position will improve. Last month, the Construction Products Association forecast that construction output would fall by as much as 15 per cent. this year and a further 2 per cent. next year. Indeed, it forecast that we would not arrive back at 2007 levels of output until 2021. Clearly, the construction industry is in a severely worrying condition, and urgent action is needed on the part of the Government.
Frankly, what the industry needs more than anything else is access to cash, because banks are notorious for not lending to construction companies at all at the moment. I hear repeatedly in my constituency the complaint that it is almost impossible to start a new development, because of a lack of access to credit. The Government have put some measures in place, but frankly they are small-scale compared with the level of the problem, and they are somewhat timid. The enterprise finance guarantee scheme, for example, is worth only £1.3 billion in total, which is far too small a figure to make any significant impact on the industry as a whole. The trade credit insurance top-up scheme, according to recent surveys, has been taken up by only 1 per cent. of construction companies. Overall, measures put in place by the Government have done little or nothing to alleviate the plight of the industry. With the pre-Budget report impending, I entreat the Government to give urgent consideration to the Conservative party’s proposals for a proper, large-scale, £50 billion national loan guarantee scheme. That is the type of scheme that is required to make any significant impact on the plight of the building industry.
In north Wales, the industry is of considerable importance. Indeed, it is traditionally the most important industry in the region. In the whole of Wales, some 45,000 people are employed in construction. I therefore wish to touch on the importance of the coherent development of building regulations. It is a matter of great concern that at this difficult time for the construction industry the Welsh Assembly Government have seen fit to make an application to the UK Government for a transfer of functions order to enable them to have control of the building regulations system in Wales. That has caused immense concern in the Welsh building industry, principally because it, like the rest of the UK building industry, is now aiming to achieve the UK Government’s target of zero carbon emissions by 2016, which in itself is a highly ambitious target.
The Welsh Assembly Government, however, are seeking to bring the target forward to 2013. The response that I have had from constituents of mine engaged in construction is that, if that happens, it will have a devastating effect on the north Wales construction industry. North Wales builders will simply hit the A55 an hour earlier and start constructing in the north of England, and there will be a migration of skills out of north Wales. I entreat the Minister to confirm in his response that he will have words with the Welsh Assembly Government and put pressure on them to ensure that the new building regulations are adopted coherently and contemporaneously.
I am grateful for this opportunity to come in at the end of our response to the Gracious Speech. I would like to concentrate on two features. First, it seems incredible that the Queen’s Speech was virtually devoid of any mention of the state of the public finances. I appreciate that the pre-Budget report is only two weeks away, but there was precious little mention of the finances, with the exception of the suggestion of a fiscal responsibility Bill. However, I give as little credence to that measure as do the professional commentators who have chosen to speak on the subject.
In a press release this month, the Institute for Fiscal Studies stated that
“it is far from clear why investors and voters should be any more impressed by this [the Fiscal Responsibility Act] than they were by the Code for Fiscal Stability, which was enshrined in statute with much fanfare in 1998… Yet by early 2007, well before the current crisis—the Financial Times’ annual survey of City and academic economists found that ‘almost none use the Chancellor’s fiscal rules any more as an indication of the health of the public finances.’”.
That was before the public finances got into today’s dire state.
We find ourselves in an economy in which £1 in every £4 spent by the Government is borrowed, and I suspect that we will establish in two weeks that the Government’s estimates for borrowing have been massively overshot. The Government told us at the time of the Budget—hon. Members have referred to this figure—that we will be borrowing £175 billion in the current year. Last week, however, on the back of the announcement of the September monthly borrowing figures, the IFS indicated that public debt could exceed that figure by a further £42 billion this year. We could be looking, therefore, at a figure of £217 billion of public debt. The figures are almost incomprehensible and impossible for us to get our mind around, yet the Government seem to be oblivious to the fact that it is happening. All they have said is, “Well, we’ll set up a law to prevent it from happening again,” without introducing any credible measures for doing so.
It is not just people on the Opposition Benches and external economists commenting on such matters in this country who are saying those things. Other significant figures around the world are concerned about that approach to the deficit. I shall give one more quote. This is someone quoted in The Times on 18 November:
“I think it is important though to recognise that if we keep on adding to the debt, even in the midst of this recovery, that at some point, people could lose confidence in the…economy in a way that could actually lead to a double-dip recession”.
That was President Obama speaking about the US economy, which has already started to emerge from recession, unlike our own.
President Obama is right to point to those concerns. However, they are particularly pertinent in the case of our economy because we are faced with the worst underlying, structural debt of any of the major OECD economies. As my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor said earlier, that is giving rise to serious questions about whether the Government can maintain our credit rating, which is so fundamental to future projections for servicing this monumental debt with which we are now saddled. Some credit rating agencies have warned that we are starting to appear on their watch lists. The Government need to be immensely careful about that.
In the remaining minute before the winding-up speeches, I want to refer to one of the burdens that the Government are imposing on small businesses, which will be the engine of our economic recovery. It is the revaluation of business rates, which is due to come into force next April. By picking a revaluation at the peak of commercial rental valuations in April 2008, the Government, if they proceed with the revaluation—I sincerely hope that they will think again and follow the example of the Northern Ireland Executive and scrap it, as we have urged them to do—will lock businesses into historic high rating valuation methods for the next five years.
Although there will be some winners, there will be many significant losers. What it means to people in rural areas such as the one that I represent is shown in a message that I received from the proprietor of a filling station with the only general store in my local village. He is faced with a rating bill increase from £4,650 to £26,000 a year—a 459 per cent. increase. It takes him over the threshold for transitional relief and he therefore has no prospect of any relief on that. I urge the Minister to think again carefully about introducing the rating revaluation at such a critical time for the British economy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) described the fag end of a Parliament that we are undoubtedly in at the moment. As we all know, we have reached the stage whereby the Government are pointlessly going into a last six months because they cannot call an election with any confidence of winning at the time that they normally would. We therefore have to fill the time, and in this particular Parliament, that is not a pretty sight.
The death of a Government is never a pretty sight and the Government have decided that they are near death, but they are desperately trying to find some good political lines in the Queen’s Speech that might give them a last chance and hope. That is bad for a political system that is in disarray and discredited, and appallingly bad when we are in the deepest economic crisis that anyone living in this country has ever experienced and when it is urgently necessary to have some leadership and decisions. That is a sad background to the debate.
It has happened before. We have had fag-end Parliaments and doomed Governments; I have been in them, seen them—going, going, gone—but we have never had one behave in this way. When the Wilson Government were coming to their end in 1970, the dafter members of that Government thought that Roy Jenkins should introduce a giveaway, reckless Budget to save them, but he did not. He gave an extremely responsible Budget, which won the plaudits of history if not the thanks of all his colleagues at the time. The Callaghan Government, coming to their inevitable end in 1979, continued with the public spending cuts that were necessary to get out of the last very deep fiscal crisis that we experienced, which had caused them to go to the IMF. I did not think that we had much chance of electoral success when we faced the prospect of the 1997 election, but my last Budget was responsible—there were no poisoned pills in it. Indeed, the then Opposition supported and adopted my fiscal judgments. So straightforward were they that the Blair Government, keeping their promise to stick to my figures for three years, took us on to growth with low inflation and, eventually, a budget surplus, showing that it was possible for the political system to rise to great events.
What a contrast with the current Prime Minister and Government. We have a concoction of Bills—I suspect that all the responsible Ministers hope that they will not get on to the statute book to embarrass any future Government—and an extraordinary attempt to try to find some dividing lines on which to fight the election politically. We had Tory cuts v. Labour investment, but that has been modified. We ought to have a serious debate about the relationship between the prospects for growth and those for getting over the problem of debt. It is not a choice between going for growth and tackling the debt. Tackling the debt is a precondition of getting back to growth at any sensible or normal level. The Prime Minister’s attempts to drive us apart on that are absurd.
It has always been, I think, the holy grail of economic policy in Britain to go for growth with low inflation. Nowadays we should make that sustainable growth with low inflation, which we did for a period in the ’90s and the early part of this century. Of course that remains the objective on this side; we are putting forward what we are putting forward because we realise that growth is the way back to prosperity and that growth will eventually put this country back on its feet. Our policies give a greater promise that the flickering level of growth, which the Chancellor thinks we might see at the end of this year, can within a reasonable time—after some tough and necessary measures—be turned into normal growth and get us back to a prospect whereby trend growth of 2.5 per cent. starts looking like the likely basis for sustainable growth again.
We are in the longest and deepest recession we can recall. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) reminded me of its origins, which are now behind us, and many of those origins were here in this country and governed by his Government. He is quite right, however, that the hubris of bankers in the City of London rivalled that in Wall street. Our particular regulatory system, devised by the present Prime Minister, turned out to be completely and utterly useless, and this was the major cause of the depth of the recession here.
The Chancellor tried to explain why the recession has been particularly deep here and what it was that caused it to be so bad, making us lag behind the field in getting out of recession and into growth. There are some very good reasons. He gave one himself—that the financial services industry was a particularly large part of our economy—but that is only part of the story. The other feature here, as others have said, is that the housing market went through a bigger bubble here even than in places like Ireland, Spain or the United States, which also suffered from the problem. The level of household debt in proportion to gross domestic product was higher here than it was in the United States, but all that was tolerated and all the warnings were ignored by the Government.
The level of public debt in this country is more severe than that of most other countries in the developed world because our public finances were in a mess under the previous Chancellor before the credit crunch was even thought of or had even started. It is on top of that that the vast sums of money had to be put in to rescue the banks. That is why the rest of the field is moving away from us, with everyone else moving into feeble growth. We are still behind and the debt remains one of the handicaps around our neck that makes this country move forward slower; it will make our growth more feeble and slower unless it starts to be tackled now. There is a direct link between the two.
Other Members have talked about the problem. My hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) touched on it, and the problems of financing it were graphically described by several hon. Members. At the moment, we are financing this debt because the Governor of the Bank of England is printing money and is the principal purchaser of the debt. We are monetising the new debt, which we would never have dreamed of doing. The Governor of the Bank of England would never have dreamed of doing it either unless the crisis had been so bad. That cannot go on indefinitely.
As was said earlier, foreigners will eventually have to finance the debt. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster explained clearly, with the level of debt being run up by other developed countries, we have to persuade people to have confidence in this country to buy sterling-denominated assets and to finance our debt at an affordable price. Several Members warned about the rising level of debt interest as part of the public debt. Of course, as interest rates are brought back to a more normal level, if we are driven to higher interest rates because we have to sell our gilts and have to get somebody to accept the risk of financing our debt, we will find our economy slowed down by rising interest rates and the cost of servicing the debt will go up, perhaps leading us into a debt trap. I will not go on.
It is against that background that we have seen the utterly comic complacency of a Prime Minister who would not accept that we were going into recession, who told us we were better prepared than any other country and who then said that talk of drastic measures boldly set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) at the Conservative party conference was somehow a threat to the country’s future. All that is irresponsible in the extreme.
I strongly suspect that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, doing his best when he started, knows that perfectly well. There was a bit of a contrast between the emphasis he put in his speech and what is meant to be the main thrust of the election campaign being masterminded by my opposite number, when he has time between his other duties in another place, and that being put together skilfully by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the Prime Minister and the people who rather resent the Chancellor still being in his role. Perhaps that explains the difference, shall we say, in tone.
The other big problem, to which I have no time to do justice, but to which Members from all parties referred, is the overwhelming one of credit, which, in the short term, has not been solved. It is perceived rightly as the biggest threat to the continued existence of some of our medium and small-sized businesses, and certainly to any prospect of growth for most of them in the near future. At the beginning of the year, the Government brought out streams of schemes and measures to tackle the credit markets. I refer Members only to that part of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton in which he named some of those schemes, which turned out, in practice, to be trivial in their consequence, in contrast to the fanfare surrounding them when they were the initiative of the day.
We put forward our broad-brush loan guarantee scheme, which would have been a bolder, simpler approach. When and if we take office, depending on the state of the credit markets at the time, some bold action to get the credit markets going and to encourage banks to take more risk than they are taking at present with small and medium-sized business, will be essential. The Government have failed.
On the wider front, we have touched on the key subjects. When the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills winds up, I hope that he will give some explanation of why the Government have abandoned deregulatory budgeting, which we propose, alongside sunset clauses for the regulatory bodies. In my opinion, Tony Blair was genuinely enthusiastic about deregulation when he took office, and wanted to reduce the costs and burdens for business. He had been sold on that policy. As Prime Minister, however, he had no time and was not a great man for detail, and the matter got away from him. It has totally fizzled out, and the Government have no deregulatory proposals, but we will have such proposals, because lifting the burdens from business will be essential.
Tax proposals have been put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton. On employment and skills, we are addressing the comprehensive programme put together by David Freud and developed by all teams on the shadow Front Bench, in order to ensure that the huge problem, especially for the 1 million young people who are in a labour market that have no jobs, can be tackled effectively by the incoming Government.
Lastly, I will touch on the one matter to which the Chancellor hardly referred, and which sums up the cynical approach of the leadership of the Labour party, and such part of the party that still follows that leadership, in presenting this Queen’s Speech. I refer to the fiscal responsibility Bill. My hon. Friends the Members for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) were rather kind in their strictures on the matter. I think it is quite the most preposterous measure brought before the House for a very long time. A Government who have absolutely no policy proposals to control the largest deficit in the developed world, with a huge structural deficit at its heart, give us the reassuring news that if they have not halved the deficit in four years’ time, somebody will be summonsed. It is not even clear who will be held responsible. Will it be whichever hapless soul is the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Could it be the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, I think, would be entitled to say that his predecessor, if anybody, should be the person subject to legal sanction? The Bill is a ludicrous proposition, and is designed to give reassurance where there is no substance. This Government—new Labour—came in on the basis of all style and no substance. They still have no substance, and the style has become shoddier as we near the end.
I am a great fan of Benjamin Disraeli, and I looked up a passage that I often quote slightly inaccurately. Denouncing the dying Government of Mr. Gladstone in the early 1870s, Disraeli—he was about my age then, and sustained himself with a very large amount of liquor while making his three-hour speech in Manchester; only water is sustaining me—used a very grand phrase. He said:
“The ministers remind me of one of those marine landscapes not very unusual on the coast of South America. You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest.”
That quotation is not really suitable for today’s debate, however. These Ministers could not be described as volcanoes. They were merely foothills when they started. The Queen’s Speech shows that they are finished, and it is a pity that they go out on such a low note.
Let me begin by congratulating the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) on what, as we learned earlier, was his first winding-up speech in a debate of this kind for some 20 years. I believe that he was recently awarded the “Best Newcomer” award by The Spectator, and I congratulate him on that as well. Perhaps the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is the arena for comeback kids. If so, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is most welcome.
Today’s debate has focused on the parts of the Gracious Speech that are about recovery from the recession and establishing the foundations of future prosperity and economic growth. A number of Members have spoken, raising issues relating to Government debt, banks and access to credit for small businesses, and Government support schemes. I shall deal with those issues later, but one or two Members also raised issues specifically involving their constituencies.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) spoke with great passion about a planning application in his constituency that has been turned down. I hesitate to comment on individual planning applications, but I am sure that the attention of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has been drawn to my right hon. Friend’s speech. The one thing that I will say, and I hope I am not going too far in saying it, is that when such circumstances arise—and I understand that the Secretary of State’s recommendation was made on the advice of inspectors, not against it—sometimes an altered, or amended, application can present a way through the logjam. I hope that discussions will continue between my right hon. Friend, his local council and the Department.
Let me now turn to the main issue that is before us. The way in which we secure—[Interruption.]
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but there is far too much conversation going on. This is the climax of the debate on the Queen’s Speech, and the Minister should be heard.
Labour Members, at least, believe that how we secure future prosperity and growth is important. It matters to every family and every community in the country. People in the country have felt the pain of the downturn, and now they want to know about the economic future. They want to know how our industries are to recover, and how people are to be equipped for the jobs of tomorrow.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out the response that the Government had made to the crisis. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) drew our attention to the enormity of the decisions that were made, particularly just over a year ago when the banks were nearing collapse. I think that we are in danger of taking that for granted. One of my hon. Friends referred to timidity and a limited response. I really do not think that the unprecedented intervention in the banking system a year ago can be characterised as a timid or limited response. The decision to intervene on such a scale to shore up the banking system was a huge decision, and whatever the consequences and the difficulties now are for businesses and home owners—and they do exist—the consequences of not taking such action and allowing the system to collapse, which was the alternative, would have been absolutely catastrophic for the people we represent.
Why then did the Government propose the merger between HBOS and Lloyds, making the banking rescue dearer and more difficult?
It was the companies who came together; the Government did not force that merger.
All around the world, other Governments did things similar to what we were doing in terms of fiscal stimulus, but the Leader of the Opposition said:
“We were against the fiscal stimulus”.
He and his shadow Chancellor argued for public spending to be cut just when the country needed it most.
The taxpayer has saved the financial system, and the Financial Services Bill focuses on the need for responsibility in the financial services industry in return for the commitment given by the taxpayer. The Bill will make it clear that we want a strong financial services sector, but also that it has to behave in a way that acknowledges the support given by taxpayers and the obligation to them, rather than in a way that flouts that support or acts irresponsibly with other people’s money.
Like my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has welcomed the Walker report and has asked the Financial Reporting Council to take forward the work on engagement by institutional investors. However, our response to the recession has not just been about the financial services sector; we have also looked beyond the recession to the jobs and industries of the future, to ensure that there is national capability in key areas and to equip people to do the jobs that the changes will bring.
A number of Members, particularly those on the Labour Benches, spoke about the importance of manufacturing and the digital economy. Time after time in recent months, we have made announcements and allocated funds in these areas of future opportunity. The low-carbon industrial strategy, launched with our colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, set out support of up to £120 million for offshore wind, up to £60 million for wave and tidal power and £19 million for the nuclear supply chain. There is support, too, for aerospace, printed electronics and electric vehicle-charging infrastructure, and today my noble Friend the Secretary of State announced over £20 million to establish a national composites centre in Bristol and a competition to make sure we succeed in these technologies that are so important to our economy. None of this would have come from a Government determined to cut support in the middle of a recession.
May I take the Minister back to the issue of the Lloyds-HBOS merger? It was right to make the covert loans, but it was wrong for the Government to lean on the directors of Lloyds and encourage them to merge with the other company when they could not tell their shareholders the truth about the financial state of the other company.
I simply disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s account of events, and I refer him back to what I said on that subject a few moments ago.
There is all this emphasis on industry as well as finance because we on this side of the House believe the best way out of the recession is to foster pro-growth policies. Growth is the best antidote to debt. Growth will get industry back on its feet, will get orders moving again for services and manufacturing alike and, crucially, will get people back to work. However, throughout the entire economic downturn, the official Opposition said we could not afford to take the action we took. The Leader of the Opposition called this a new age of austerity. He said the Government should have started reducing their spending plans last year; he said that should happen
“right now. Not next year, not after the election—now.”
His shadow Chancellor followed that up by making a speech at the Conservative party conference that never mentioned growth once.
The problem for the Conservative party is that ideologically it cannot see a role for Government in fostering growth. Even after the events of the past two years—after the recession has hurt communities across the country and after all that has happened with the banks—the Conservatives have identified the biggest problem facing the country not as the irresponsibility in the banking system or the consequences that followed, but as “big government”. They told us that the age of austerity was dawning.
Will the Minister give way?
I really do not have time, and I want to make progress.
The Tories told us that big government was the problem, and that it must be cut down to size. The nation could only wonder where the Tory axe would fall. That was true until last weekend, when suddenly, faced with the public’s emerging view of this age of austerity, it dimmed from our view. It was obscured by the desperate screeching of brakes as the Leader of the Opposition made a hand-brake turn to talk about growth, after all those months of silence. That desperate change of direction did not communicate a genuine desire for growth; all the switching around has simply communicated confusion, uncertainty and risk in relation to the Conservative party’s plans. That matters, because getting the judgment on this wrong could set back growth and cost the country even more in the future. Having got it wrong on the recession the Tories are now getting it wrong on the recovery. Their obsession with seeing government as the problem has hobbled them and prevented them from forming a coherent response to the crisis that we have been going through.
Of course the country wants to reduce debt incurred as a result of the recession, and the Bill that we set out on this subject in the Queen’s Speech commits us to doing so. However, we have to do so at a time and in a manner that fosters growth and supports recovery, not that threatens to kill it off before it gets off the ground. That was the precise point made this week by Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn of the International Monetary Fund, who said of the timetable for stimulus withdrawal:
“We recommend erring on the side of caution, as exiting too early is costlier than exiting too late”.
In the same vein, the Engineering Employers Federation said this week that a squeeze on public spending should not start until there is “demonstrable evidence” that economic recovery is secure, and that premature action would risk
“pulling the rug out from companies just as growth looks set to return”.
If the Tories’ problem on fiscal policy is one of judgment, their problem on industrial policy is one of silence. Again, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe had nothing to say about future industrial opportunities for the country, nothing to say about the shift from a high-carbon economy to a low-carbon one, and nothing to say about the digital information revolution. The only two policies that I have heard from the Conservative party in two years of debating with him about this are getting rid of the regional development agencies, which are business led and are having an effect in our regions, and cutting capital allowances to companies seeking to invest for recovery.
Can the Conservatives confirm that their policy on capital allowances would mean that a company investing £l million per year would get almost £90,000 more tax relief on that investment in the first year under the current Government system than under the plans that they want to introduce? Can they further confirm that a small firm investing £50,000 would get £9,000 more tax relief on that investment in the first year under this Government’s system than under the proposals that they advocate? Theirs is not a plan to support recovery; it is a plan to withdraw tax relief from the investments necessary for a recovery.
Apart from that, all we get is the scorecard on our initiatives. We have launched a number of schemes to get lending moving and to support manufacturing, such as the enterprise finance guarantee, which has provided £660 million to 6,500 businesses. Some 150,000 businesses have been helped by the time-to-pay tax initiative.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendment proposed: at the end of the Question to add:
“but humbly regret that the Gracious Speech fails to provide proposals for constituents to recall hon. Members for misconduct, to provide for a code of financial conduct for candidates at the next general election so that the public can understand the financial affairs of those they are voting for, to complete the reform of the House of Lords to ensure that only people who have been democratically elected have power to make law, to reform party funding to ensure that the influence of large corporate donations is removed, to fix the length of the parliamentary term so that the date of a general election is known years in advance, to provide a Citizens’ Assembly to agree a new voting system for parliamentary elections and fundamentally to review the procedures of this House to strengthen the power of backbenchers, reduce the power of the whips and ensure that the business of the House is organised transparently in a formal committee of the House.”—(Mr. Burstow.)
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 33), That the amendment be made.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Address to be presented to Her Majesty by Members of the House who are Privy Counsellors or Members of Her Majesty’s Household.