Debate resumed (Order, 22 June).
Question again proposed,
That provision may be made in relation to the rates at which capital gains tax is charged.
I welcome the opportunity to open the second day’s debate on the Budget. There are two tests to be applied to this Budget. The first is what it does to ensure that we can secure the recovery and get long-term sustainable growth, and therefore support jobs. The second is what it does in respect of fairness and, in that context, what it says about the promises made by the parties that now comprise the Government.
I expect that over the next few days many points of detail will be explored, but I want to look at some of the bigger issues, especially the context against which this Budget needs to be judged. Before I do that, I welcome the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to his place. I have not had an opportunity to cross swords with him in this Parliament, and I look forward to doing that and to hearing what his views are now as opposed to what they were a mere seven or eight weeks ago.
I want to start with the context in which the new Government made their decisions on this week’s Budget. Yes, that context has to be the need for us to reduce our borrowing—no one disputes that, although there are very live and real arguments about how fast and the extent to which the deficit ought to be reduced. However, I believe that it must also be seen in the context of growth. For some, like the Business Secretary, what I have to say will not be news because, after all, he largely agreed with the approach that I took during a lot of the last Parliament. However, he seems to have become rather more forgetful in the past few weeks, so a reminder may be useful.
On 28 April, which the right hon. Gentleman may now regard as being ancient history, but for most of us does not seem that far away, he said:
“The deficit problem is easier to solve if there is growth. That is why the next government has to recognise the fragility of the economy and not take action which would precipitate a double dip recession leading to more unemployment and even bigger budget deficits.”
I agree with the sentiments behind his statement. He was right on 28 April, and my guess is that he will still be right on 28 June, but I cannot understand why he has changed his mind in the intervening period. Growth is slightly stronger than before the general election, because at that time we thought that it was just 0.3% in the last quarter. However, although it has improved, it can, on no view, be said to be anything other than pretty modest and pretty fragile. I believe that the measures announced in the Budget yesterday present a risk of derailing that recovery, and worse, of giving rise to a situation in which our economy simply bumps along the bottom for a number of years. In that way, we would not get the growth that we need, and we therefore would not get the jobs. Worse still, of course, we would not have the funds to reduce our deficit and, therefore, our debt.
The past three years have been tough for businesses and families throughout our country and, indeed, many are still experiencing the problems that arose because of the recession. However, as I said, we have seen a return to growth, but it is only 0.3% in quarter one; unemployment has stabilised and begun to fall; and tax receipts are higher than expected, which is why our borrowing is £11 billion less than I forecast in March. All those improvements are a direct result of the action that the previous Labour Government took.
Throughout this debate and for some time to come, doubtless we will hear the now familiar mantra that everything that is wrong and all our problems are confined to one country alone—ours—and that they are due solely to the actions of the previous Government. Like any Government, we got some things right and some things wrong, but I am absolutely certain that the action we took to stop this country tipping from recession into depression was right, as was the action we had to take to stabilise the banking system. I will not yield to anyone who says we should have done differently. We needed to stabilise the economy and to keep people in their jobs and homes. We took that action because we do not believe that in such a situation people should be left to sink or swim. Those actions were taken largely with the support of the Liberal Democrats when they were in opposition, but everything has changed in the past seven weeks.
I will give way to someone who is perhaps an unreconstructed member of the Liberal Democrats, especially one who represents a constituency in the north of Scotland that may be the subject of change because of his leader’s determination to reduce the number of constituencies, particularly in his neck of the woods.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those kind words, but I suspect I would be out of order if I responded.
May I bring the right hon. Gentleman back to the point he was making and remind him that when the Northern Rock crisis hit, my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary immediately proposed that nationalisation was the correct way forward, and that the Government whom the right hon. Gentleman represented prevaricated for six months before taking that action?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. He is right that the right hon. Gentleman called for nationalisation at an early stage. The current Chancellor, however, was dead against that. I imagine that if that situation arose now, the Chancellor’s view would prevail and the Business Secretary would have to do what he is told. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that at the time I agreed with a lot of what the Business Secretary was saying. For reasons that I will not go into just now because of the various legal requirements and other considerations, we did not nationalise Northern Rock until February 2008, but we were absolutely right to do so then. The Chancellor still thinks that we were wrong, but I am glad to say that the current Secretary of State for Justice believes that our action was right. The action we took, whether in relation to Northern Rock, the rest of the banking system or the rest of the economy, was critical.
While we are reflecting on recent history—the Chancellor yesterday spoke of the levels of debt prior to the economic crisis and blamed a long history of alleged Labour overspending —will my right hon. Friend speculate on why the Conservatives supported the Labour Government’s spending plans right up to the end of 2008?
The Conservatives did so because they thought it expedient, but at the end of 2008, they decided to change tack. In all we heard yesterday, the Chancellor did not explain why, if everything was going wrong and we were spending too much in the previous few years, he was quite happy to support such spending right up until the end of 2008.
I am listening with great interest to the right hon. Gentleman’s exposition of what the last Labour Government did. However, if everything is so good, why is our economic and financial position so much worse than those of our competitors after his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer?
It is largely because we have a very large financial sector that contributed about 25% of all our corporation tax receipts. When the banking crisis hit, those receipts fell. There is something in the argument that has been advanced on both sides of the House in recent years—although, perhaps in retrospect, sadly not as much as it might have been over the past 30 years —that our economy has become dependent on the financial services sector, particularly on tax receipts. I think we would all like to see that rebalanced. Of course, there is a big question about how we do that, and I cannot for the life of me see how cancelling the help to Sheffield Forgemasters, for example, will go anywhere towards helping that rebalancing. However, I shall come on to that in just a moment.
At the moment, our recovery is fragile. What makes matters worse is that the position in our main export market, Europe, is extremely worrying. I am far less optimistic than I was in March about what is likely to happen in the European Union economies over the next year. Growth in France has fallen back; in Germany, it is pretty flat—just positive; other countries have tipped into recession; and Spain has unemployment over 20% and other well-understood problems. On top of that, whereas the predominant view certainly until the beginning of this year was that we had to support our economies to ensure that we established growth, the Chancellor is right that he can pray in aid the change of view among some of his counterparts, such as in Germany, which is now pursuing policies to reduce the deficit that will impact on demand, not just in that country but within other parts of Europe as well. Germany is our major trading partner. If demand there is suppressed, and if taking large sums of money out of our economy here has the effect I suspect it will have, the result will be reduced demand, which will affect business confidence, its propensity to invest and, therefore, our ability to grow and generate the receipts we need to get our borrowing down. That is a real concern.
There is no doubt that, over the past few months, the balance in the approach has moved away from what one might characterise as the Keynesian towards the more orthodox. I, for one, think that that is a profound mistake.
Does my right hon. Friend share my worry about the much-cited examples of the quite savage cuts agendas in Canada, Sweden and elsewhere? They were done against the backdrop of growing export markets, monetary policy and currency devaluations. His analysis of what is happening in the eurozone at the moment should fill us with caution, if not dread, because if the Chancellor’s judgment is wrong, this country is going to hell in a handcart.
My hon. Friend’s point about Canada is an important one. Yes, Canada reduced its deficit quite dramatically. As a result of that country’s provincial set-up, a lot of the action was taken by the provincial governments rather than the national Government. It was taken, however, an the back of a growing US economy. Given the relative size of the Canadian economy compared with the US economy—it is much smaller than the Californian economy alone, for example—there is no doubt that the Canadians could do things on the back of their next-door neighbour’s rising prosperity. Our problem is that our next-door neighbours, the EU, are not in the same position at all—indeed, quite the reverse. Equally, when Sweden was going through a similar exercise, it was helped by the fact that the economy of much of Europe was growing at the time.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that he should also consider the example of Spain, of which I am sure he is more than aware, when talking about our EU neighbours? Despite having a lower debt-to-GDP ratio than us and a lower budget deficit, it is on the verge of a sovereign debt crisis. Its banks have been frozen out of the borrowing markets for the past three weeks, and it has reportedly held emergency meetings with the International Monetary Fund, the EU and others to try to arrange a bail-out package. Does that not make what we had to do yesterday even more critical?
There is another difference, of course. Official unemployment in Spain is more than 20%. The Spanish construction industry is in dire straits. A lot of Spain’s smaller banks, which are heavily tied to that industry, are finding things difficult. There is a world of difference between the Spanish economy and our own, just as there is a world of difference between the Greek economy and our own.
Just about every day in the run-up to the election, the hon. Gentleman’s party was anxious—desperate even—to compare our economy with the Greek economy. To his credit, the Secretary of State for Transport—he is not here today, but I made this point to him when we were debating on the television last night—said that Britain was nothing like Greece. The idea that we are in the same position as Greece or Spain is complete nonsense. Our economy is much larger and much stronger, and our ability to service our debt is much greater. The average maturity of our debt—as the hon. Gentleman knows, I assume—is 14 years, whereas in Greece the average maturity is three years and in continental Europe it is about five years.
Of course we have to get our borrowing down and ensure that we can get debt down as well. No one would disagree with that. The question for us is how do we do that in a way that maintains growth, so that we can ensure not only that we get growth in our economy and that we do not damage our future prospects, but that we do so in a way that is socially and politically fair? That is the difference, but to compare us with those smaller countries is, frankly, ludicrous, as many in the hon. Gentleman’s party realise.
The hon. Gentleman was not here in the last Parliament, but I was asked that on numerous occasions. No Government can ever eradicate economic cycles. They have been around for years, and I expect that the current Government will find that they will be around for years as well. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is this. Just before we went into this crisis, we had the second lowest debt level of the G7, behind only Canada, and although we had a structural deficit, it was much smaller—[Interruption.] Yes, we were borrowing to build schools and hospitals, but when they were sitting here on the Opposition Benches, Conservative Members used to call for more spending on schools, hospitals and the police, not less.
The point is that whatever we do, when we get that borrowing down, we have to ensure that we do it in a way that does not damage the fabric of the economy. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said that he was
“very much opposed to the Conservative approach of rushing into cuts…regardless of the condition in the economy. That’s not sensible.”
He was right then and he would have been right now, but he is pursuing a different policy.
No, I am going to make some progress.
The current context is a fragile recovery, with growth in Europe sluggish. Crucially, however, we cannot assume, as the Government seem to, that it is axiomatic that if we cut back on public expenditure, the private sector will come in and take its place. That is not guaranteed at all. We have seen that in Japan and other countries. Indeed, the private sector often relies on public sector spending in many ways, whether through investment and support or directly, because it supplies goods and services to the public sector.
As I have said, borrowing is too high and we need to get it down. As I said to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), our receipts from income tax and corporation tax fell, as did our stamp duty receipts when the housing market went down, but that would have happened—indeed, it did happen—to every other major economy. We are not talking about something that was confined to the United Kingdom. Of course, as unemployment goes up, social security spending goes up as well. Indeed, it is interesting that if we look at what has happened to other countries across the world, we see that the deficit this year in this country is about the same as it is in the United States. If we look at debt and the IMF comparisons that were published in 2009, we find that our debt was less than that of Japan, Italy, Germany and France, and, looking ahead to 2015, it will still be less than that of the United States, France, Italy and Japan.
The idea that we are talking about a particularly British problem simply does not stack up. It is not true, but it is used as a convenient excuse for what the Conservative party always wanted to do. The truth is that the Conservatives supported our spending plans right up until the end of 2008—the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) might want to consider this point. Indeed, when the now Prime Minister was challenged—I think by some right-wing newspaper—as selling the pass, he said that those spending plans were “tight”. That was the word he used. He said:
“This is why we are sticking to Labour’s spending totals. Taken alone, these are tight.”
That is what he said in 2008, but now the Conservatives turn around and say that what happened would not have happened if they had been in power for the past five years and that things would have been completely different.
Let us be clear: we all want to see borrowing come down, and we need to ensure that that happens. It is also clear that we need to understand the consequences of what we are doing, so that we do not damage our economy or damage the social fabric of this country. However, to suggest that we should not have done anything to support our economy as we went into recession or that we should not have stepped in to prevent the banking system from collapsing—and it was hours from collapsing—is simply nonsense, frankly. Indeed, if we had not done what we did, the cost, in terms of increased borrowing and higher debt, would have been far higher even than it is today, so that argument simply does not stack up.
We need a sensible plan to get borrowing down, but if we get this wrong we will cause major problems, given the scale and speed of the Government’s action. Again, the Business Secretary said a few weeks ago that
“it would be foolish to rush in significant cuts now which take the economy down even further, which lead to an even bigger deficit problem”.
He was right when he said that, yet the view of the Government of whom he is now a member is rather different. To be fair to the Chancellor, he has been consistent. He has wanted to take this risk for some time, and he is now taking it in great style. Even better, from his point of view, is that he has got the Liberals to front it up. No wonder that, once they are out of this Chamber, Conservative Members are laughing at the very idea of getting the Chief Secretary to the Treasury fronting up the cuts last week in his boss’s constituency. That is indeed new politics; I just wonder how long it will last. All I can say is that if things get better, there is no way that the Conservatives will allow the Liberals to front up any good news when it comes.
I am concerned at this time that we run the risk of derailing the recovery, which is why I took a different view. I thought that we should halve borrowing over four years, rather than go further and faster. Looking at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts published yesterday, I am concerned that it has downrated the growth forecast for this year, which it published a week before, from 1.3% down to 1.2%, and that it has downrated growth in 2011 from 2.6% to 2.3%. The OBR therefore recognises that growth is going to be suppressed as a result of what is being done.
I am honoured that the right hon. Gentleman has taken the time to give me tuppence-worth of his attention. Will he comment on whether he supports the creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility, bearing in mind his own predictions? In March he stated in this place that the growth forecast for 2011 was 3.25%, but now the Office for Budget Responsibility says that the forecast is 2.6%.
I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman, because the last time we touched on whether I supported the creation of the OBR, I think that the Chancellor said that I had always opposed it. However, I was careful before the election, and I think that I am right in saying that I did not oppose it as a matter of principle. The present Government decided to set up the OBR. If it works, it is worthy of support, so we will support the legislation in principle, but we will look at the detail. One interesting question is whether the OBR should be responsible to the Treasury or to Parliament—to this House in particular.
Let me come to the forecasts. Forecasting, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, is an art rather than a science. Let us just see, because as I understand it, the OBR is being advised by exactly the same civil servants who advise the Chancellor, and who advised me a few months ago. However, I note that when Sir Alan Budd announced the OBR pre-Budget report a week last Monday, he said that one of the reasons why he had changed his estimate was recent developments, including what is happening in Europe. As I said earlier, I am less optimistic now than I was three months ago about what is likely to happen to growth.
No, I think I have dealt with that point.
There will be some people who argue that the private sector would see faster growth and job creation if there was a swift consolidation that supported looser monetary policy. However, with inflation down, interest rates at 0.5% and bond yields coming down—they were coming down before the election, as well as after it—there is no evidence of suppressed private sector demand, so that argument does not stack up. I am concerned that we may see a situation when there are not the right conditions or the right confidence to bring forward business investment. I am happy to welcome the proposed reduction in corporation tax rates and other business help, but what governs whether businesses come forward with investment is whether they are confident that the economy is going to be growing so that people will buy their goods and services. That is what I am concerned about.
I am also concerned that the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast shows employment taking a hit of about 100,000 compared with what we had forecast previously. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development foresees unemployment rising and sticking around 3 million for this entire Parliament. The history of Japan in the 1990s—and, indeed, our own history back in the 1930s—provides a lesson in what happens if we get all this wrong. Wherever we sit in this House, we should all be concerned about rising and persistent unemployment. Not only is it an economic waste; it is also a social catastrophe, as we have seen on many occasions.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way—and, indeed, for visiting North East Somerset, where he will be welcome again. He has mentioned Japan, and what Japan got wrong. What it got wrong was massive overspending, as a result of which it is now forecast to have a debt to GDP ratio of 246%. Surely that overspending is exactly what we need to avoid.
What Japan got wrong was snuffing out a recovery at a very early stage and never really getting over it. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Japanese have had complete stagnation for a long period now. The debt is just going up and up, and understandably they are very concerned about it. The new Prime Minister was the finance Minister until a few weeks ago, and understandably, he has huge problems on his hands.
The tests we need to apply to the Budget relate to growth and jobs, which I remain very concerned about; there is a substantial risk there, and I would like to have heard more said about policies to promote growth so that we do not end up with years of very sluggish growth at best or, even worse, bumping along the bottom for some years.
I have said that one of the tests that needs to be applied to this Budget is its fairness and another relates to the promises made about it before the election. Where better to start, then, than with VAT? During the election there was a lot of discussion about that. The Conservatives, like ourselves, said that they had no plans to raise VAT. I remember having a discussion with the Chancellor when he announced his plans not to go ahead with at least some of the national insurance increases, and he said that he would fund that from efficiency savings. I remember saying that I thought that was highly doubtful, and that they would have to raise money from another big tax. Sure enough, VAT is going up.
Interestingly, for some reason, not much was said about efficiencies yesterday, although they loomed very large during the election. We now know that “no plans” on the Tory side meant exactly what Geoffrey Howe said in 1979 when he said he had “no intention” of doubling VAT. Of course he was factually right, as it only went up from 8% to 15%. It was the same with John Major when he was Prime Minister in 1992, and said he had “no plans” to raise “extra resources from VAT”: of course, VAT went up. Even last year, the Prime Minister said in opposition that putting up VAT was regressive. He said:
“You could try, as you say, put it on VAT, sales tax, but again if you look at the effect of sales tax, it's very regressive, it hits the poorest the hardest. It does, I absolutely promise you.”
I assume he was not absolutely promising to do that, but was trying to point out to the questioner that he thought that VAT was regressive. Yet here we have it—VAT going up to 20%, as I always suspected would happen.
What I find even more curious is how on earth the Business Secretary can back this proposal. He cannot have been unaware of the Liberal campaign which spent two days dealing with the “Tory VAT bombshell”. We saw the posters all over the country. They said a Tory Government would come up with “a secret VAT bombshell”, but the only secret appears to be that the Liberals intended to vote for it when it was introduced. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who is no longer in his place, said last week that he thought VAT was
“the most regressive form of tax”
in that it “penalises the poor”. When the Business Secretary said during the election that he would
“hardwire fairness back into national life”,
did he have this in mind?
I see that there are, wisely, only four Liberal Democrats in the House at the moment; the others are no doubt explaining to their constituents why it is that when they said, “Vote for us and keep the Tories out,” they completely misunderstood the position. It seems to me that this is not just a broken promise, as there are real issues at stake. I was criticised for what I did with national insurance, but I wanted to ensure that pensioners would not have to pay the increased tax and I wanted to protect people earning less than £20,000—of course, that has not happened.
The Chancellor keeps saying that we are all in this together, but the headlines in The Financial Times today suggest otherwise. Under the headline, “Well paid breathe collective sigh of relief”, the article quotes someone from RBC Wealth Management saying:
“Many high earners will be breathing a sigh of relief.”
Does that not prove that we are not all in it together?
That is 10% higher than under Labour.
The Chancellor says it is 10% higher, but when I raised capital gains tax to 18%, I remember the angry campaign waged against it by Conservative Members. They said that 18% would discourage enterprise and was a terrible thing, but they seem to have changed their minds on that absolutely and completely. By the way, we are not going to oppose the increase in capital gains tax; especially when there is a higher 50p rate of tax, sooner or later action would have to be taken to stop the real risk of leakage. As I think the Chancellor said yesterday, the real gain from raising capital gains tax comes from income tax receipts. The position of the Liberal Democrats, however, was quite different.
There are other areas, too, where questions of fairness will be raised. Where in the manifestos of either of the political parties that form the Government was it said that they were going to index benefits to the lower inflation index of the CPI—the consumer prices index—which takes about £6 billion away from people whose income, generally speaking, is not that great? Where was it said in their manifestos that they were going to cut more than £100 in relation to child benefit, or to freeze that benefit for three years? Other changes also deserve very close examination. Everybody knows that housing benefit is in need of reform, as is the disability living allowance, but as we all know, these are complicated, difficult and sometimes controversial issues. It will be interesting to see whether the coalition Government can deliver all the things they promised yesterday.
The shadow Chancellor said that action would have had to be taken on the CGT rate sooner or later, but I cannot remember him criticising his predecessor when the Labour party reduced CGT from 40% down to 18%. Is he now saying that that was the wrong thing to do, or not?
I am not saying that, and I am bound to say that I do not remember anybody—and certainly not the Conservative party at the time—criticising the reduction of CGT down to 10%. It was believed that it would help and encourage entrepreneurship—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman might like to have a long look at that, but I am sure that many arguments can be mounted both ways. As he knows, I made changes in 2007; I remember that the Conservative party’s complaint then was not about the reduction of CGT, but about my increasing it to 18%. As I said, with income tax rates at 50%, it is sensible to keep an eye on this.
I believe that people will find it difficult to characterise a number of measures announced yesterday as fair. On tax credits, the Chancellor said that the Government were going to start to taper away tax credits from household incomes of over £40,000, but that is already true now. In the following year the threshold goes down to £30,000. As we always said during the election—when it was denied—people on incomes as low £15,000 will be affected. Look at table A.5 on page 64 of the Red Book: it is there; it is all set out. It shows that cuts in entitlement to tax credits go far further than the right hon. Gentleman set out yesterday.
I think that the Liberals will have some difficulty in characterising these things as “progressive cuts”. I understand that the leader of the Liberal Democrats points to the table published in the Red Book, which makes it look as if people at the top end are bearing a fair share of the reductions and tax increases, but it shows that only because the Government have published a table showing measures yet to be introduced, including our national insurance increases. The top decile will be paying more because of measures that I, not the Chancellor, introduced. It is slightly disingenuous of the Prime Minister to give the impression, as he did at the end of Question Time, that what the Conservatives are doing is redistributive and fair. That is not the case.
The shadow Chancellor has told us that he supports the rise in CGT. Does he also support the rise in the personal allowance by £1,000, the re-linking of pensions to earnings and the freezing of council tax? If he does, why were they not in his last Budget?
Our policy, as the hon. Gentleman will know, was to restore the earnings link from 2012. I can see that bringing that forward to a year in which earnings are likely to be very low had a political attraction. I think that was the subject of exchanges at Prime Minister’s Question Time, and it will not have the cash effect that is thought. As for personal allowances, I am in favour of taking people out of tax if at all possible, but the same people who are being taken out of tax will be paying increased VAT.
Further to the intervention of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), will my right hon. Friend expose the nonsense of the supposed council tax freeze announced by the Government and the small amount of money given to local authorities at the 2.5% level? Is not the rug being pulled from under local government through swingeing cuts to grants? How on earth are local authorities supposed to plan ahead and make their budgets? Surely they will not be able to do that until they see the spending review.
I noticed that the spin on Tuesday morning was that council tax was to be frozen in England next year. By the time of the speech, however, the Chancellor was saying that if local authorities did certain things, he would see what he could do to help them, which is not quite the same.
Let me put some questions to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. On the Chancellor’s proposed levy on the banks, will the Secretary of State tell us precisely what the French and German Governments propose to do? I, too, had discussions with my French and German counterparts, but it was not always clear that they were proposing to do precisely what we might have done. Things have clearly developed, and I would like to know what those developments are.
The Chancellor announced measures to help development outside London and the south-east. He mentioned regional funds and other help, so will the Business Secretary give us further details? The Chancellor also mentioned that he wanted to change the approach to pensions tax relief. He made the point that the Labour Government had had a number of discussions; legislation went through on the nod, I think, just before Dissolution. Does the Chancellor’s alternative mean reduced annual allowances? My recollection is that that would affect far more people than we proposed to affect, and is therefore less progressive?
People are right to be concerned about the overall thrust of the Budget in relation to the effect on growth and jobs. Yes, we need to get borrowing down—we all know that—but we must do it in a way that is sensible and will result in us coming through all the problems and being able to grow and secure jobs in the future. The Budget also fails the fairness test. Over the next few weeks and months, we will consider yesterday’s announcement and, equally importantly, the cuts to departmental spending. The Business Secretary’s Department is not protected. Perhaps he will say what the effect of a reduction of a quarter in his budget would be, given that he is responsible for science, universities and business support.
We will return to those big questions. Like all Budgets, this one will be judged in the fullness of time. We are coming through a difficult period, and the action taken by the Labour Government was totally justified. We must be careful not to derail that effort and end up undoing all the work done over the past few years.
This is the first opportunity that I have had to debate with the shadow Chancellor from this side of the Dispatch Box. May I start by paying tribute to him? I have always said publicly, and am happy to continue to do so, that in many respects he was one of the people who emerged from the wreckage of the previous Government with an enhanced reputation. He did so for two reasons. First, he inherited an enormous banking crisis that was in part the result of the naivety and negligence of the treatment of banking before he became Chancellor. He dealt with it decisively in the autumn of 2008, through liquidity and part nationalisation, and I reassert that he deserves credit for that. Secondly, he has at his core a strong element of honesty and integrity, which occasionally involves him blurting out the truth. There was the famous occasion when he came back from a holiday in the Hebrides and uttered the blasphemous four-letter word “cuts” for the first time, much to the annoyance of his next-door neighbour in Downing street.
The question to which the Government have wanted an answer is this: why were we left £50 billion of cut commitments without any explanation of what they were going to be? On 12 June, the shadow Chancellor gave us an insight into what had been going on. He said:
“I wanted to show more examples of what we could cut, and more examples of what we could switch. But there was a more limited appetite for that than you might think.”
It was not just the appetite of his then next-door neighbour, who is now being blamed for everything, that was limited. I think that there was a limited appetite here and there, and as a result we have been left with the responsibility of spelling out what those painful cuts are.
There is another comment which is not a direct quote of the shadow Chancellor, and he might not even have said it, but let me give it to the House, as I think it reflects quite well on him. He is said to have made an insightful observation on the nature of sovereign debt crises. Apparently, he told the Cabinet, “The ice seems solid the moment before it cracks.” That captures beautifully the dilemma that the Government now face with a sovereign debt crisis in the background. I wish to return to that issue, but first I will briefly answer the technical points that he threw in at the end of his speech.
As I understand it, the French-German proposal is a balance sheet levy similar to what is happening here. The proposals relating to regional rebalancing, which are an important part of the Government’s proposals, have two elements: £5,000 relief from employer national insurance contributions for new companies with up to 10 employees outside the east, the south-east and London, and a fund that will be distributed on the basis of bids received for good projects, especially those with a high-technology and environmental component. The details on that will emerge in due course.
The hon. Lady knows the reason; it has been explained several times. A lot of questions had to be asked about the affordability, value for money and risk of that project. What was a very highly geared project promised extraordinary rates of return to the private promoter. We looked carefully at all the evidence, and the project clearly had positive aspects, but we decided that in the circumstances of a Government with highly constrained public finances, we could not support it.
I have answered the question; I do not want to pursue it.
Were the private promoters able to take the project forward, we would be delighted, because as a commercial project it has many attractions. However, the Government could not commit large amounts of money to such a project.
The shadow Chancellor made a series of challenges, which I will take systematically. He asked why we, and I personally, have endorsed austerity policies and especially quick cuts; he asked about the issues around fairness and value added tax, with which I will deal; and he asked about the important economic question of how we get growth emerging from a period of austerity, and I will try to answer that. First, however, let me explain why I changed my mind—for I did change my mind—about the necessity for early action on the budget deficit. Let me describe the sequence of events, because I think that it is quite important.
As the shadow Chancellor knows, because he was still Chancellor then, when the election took place there was, in the background, a major sovereign debt crisis in Europe. The day after the election, when there was a hung Parliament, the then Prime Minister suggested to me, I think for reasons for courtesy, that I talk to some senior officials in the Government and the governor of the central bank about the existing situation, in order to obtain their assessments of what was going on. I did so. The leader of my party talked to the governor, and I have talked to him since.
The advice that I received, uncompromising and unequivocal, was that the incoming Government, whoever they were—we did not know who they would be at the time—would have to act immediately and decisively on the budget deficit, because there was a serious threat to this country. I took that advice, but was left with a nagging question. The former Chancellor was presumably receiving the same advice. What would he have done? Was he proposing to disregard it? The line of policy that he is developing now suggests that he would have liked to disregard it, but was he going to do so, or was he going to be responsible, accept the advice and act on it? Because he is a responsible and serious man, I think he would have accepted it.
We now know, because the figures are becoming clear, that in the current financial year, when, as the shadow Chancellor said, the economy was fragile, he was introducing a fiscal tightening of £23 billion. The new Government have introduced a tightening of £6 billion. The last Government did not announce that fiscal tightening—it emerged in the small print from the Institute for Fiscal Studies—but the shadow Chancellor did it, and he clearly did it with good reason. The problem was that it was never clear what the Government were doing, it was done in a very chaotic way, and some Ministers—including Lord Mandelson, my predecessor—plainly wanted to support the Chancellor and to act in the public interest, and got on with those cuts. When I entered the Department, people such as further education lecturers and scientists were being made redundant as a result of the measures that had already been initiated by the Government in response to the crisis that they knew existed.
The right hon. Gentleman may well have had his damascene conversion, for who knows what reasons, but does he not owe an apology to the millions of people who thought when they voted Liberal Democrat that they were voting for a pro-growth strategy and against these massive cuts? Should he not apologise to his own electors?
Since the right hon. Gentleman referred directly to me and to advice and discussions that I may have had, let me say to him that there has never been any argument in the House about the fact that we needed to reduce borrowing. The discussion was always about when the reduction should start—before the election, he and I were on the same side on that—and about the extent to which, and the speed at which, it should take place.
As for Greece and the sovereign debt crisis, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will also have been advised that the real problem was that the rest of the eurogroup took far too long to do what was necessary to support the Greek Government. Had they done it in February, when the problems first became apparent, some, although not all, of those problems might have been avoided. As it was, they were allowed to become acute. No one is arguing that we did not need to reduce our borrowing, but we were not in the same position as Greece.
I know that we were not in the same position as Greece. I was not talking about what the Greeks and the eurozone needed to do; I was talking about what we needed to do, and the advice that we received.
There is an evidence base to look at. It is true that, as the shadow Chancellor said in his speech, the cost of borrowing in terms of bond yields was starting to fall under the last Government. That is because markets are driven by expectations, and they expected a change of Government. Since the election, however, and since this action was taken and announced, the cost to the United Kingdom of borrowing, in terms of bond yields, has fallen by 20 basis points. In Greece it has risen by 170 basis points, or 2% in ordinary language. It has risen by 94 points in Ireland, by 95 in Portugal, and by 65 in Spain. Spain is a serious, big country: we are not talking about tiny, peripheral economies. It is a serious country, which was caught up in the financial firestorm that we have had to head off from here. That was the basis on which we made decisions.
Let me now develop that immediate question into the broader issue of the Chancellor’s Budget and the magnitude of the task that we had to undertake. There is, of course, a difference between the problem of the deficit and the problem of the debt. There is a public debt problem, which is growing rapidly, but as the Chancellor has pointed out and as I have often pointed out myself, it is not greatly out of line with what is happening in many other countries, or with what has happened historically. The real problem for the United Kingdom is the massive level of public borrowing. That is why markets are important. The deficit in the last financial year was 11% of GDP; in the current financial year, it is 10.5% of GDP. That money—£155 billion—must be borrowed. My views on that, on how it should be dealt with, and on the kind of radicalism that is needed had nothing to do with the formation of the coalition. My views were set out a year ago, when I wrote a pamphlet which did, indeed, bear a strong resemblance to what the Chancellor produced yesterday in terms of scale, scope and speed.
Let me tell the shadow Chancellor why I feel strongly about the need to act in such a decisive way in terms of fiscal policy. There are two reasons. First, I saw the disaster unfolding under the last Government, when they were overtaken by a major financial crisis for which they were not prepared and to which they had massively contributed. Of course there is a global problem—we know that—but its impact has been much more serious in this country than elsewhere. That is because the Government allowed household debt, in relation to income, to rise to the highest level in the developed world; because they acted and planned on the assumption that house prices rise for ever, although we know from the evidence that they go up and down roughly every 17 or 18 years, as they have done for the last 300 years; and because they created, encouraged and fostered an almost Icelandic dependence on major international banks, the combined magnitude of whose balance sheets represented 400% of our economy.
The Government allowed that to happen. Some of us warned about the dangers, and they took no notice: they said that we were scaremongering. But the crisis hit them, and, having experienced it once, we on this side of the House are determined that such a financial crisis should not happen again as a result of sovereign risk. That is why we are decisive, and why we feel that we need to act.
If what the right hon. Gentleman says about the banks is true, why has the Budget been quite so lenient with them? Why has it taken only £1 billion from them, when the rest of the country is having to pay £14 billion as a result of the measures in the Red Book? What will his Department do to prevent the banks from passing even that £1 billion on to their customers?
That was a very strange intervention. It may reflect the fact that the hon. Gentleman—whom I respect a great deal—has rejoined the House following the election, and may not be familiar with the arguments that led up to it. He will know, however, that the last Government were going to phase out their bonus tax. We have reintroduced a stable system of taxation on banks, the incidence of which will increase over time. Of course, many things need to happen to the banking system. We will discuss, as colleagues, how we should deal with such matters as bank lending, on which there is an outrageous record of bank dysfunctionality.
The hon. Gentleman says that a gamble is being made. Certainly there is a risk. There are risks in tightening fiscal policy too quickly, but there are also risks in doing nothing, or in doing less. We have had to balance those risks, and we have concluded that we must act.
Since the questions are coming from Labour Members, let me now give the other reason why I feel strongly about the need to act decisively in the way in which the Chancellor acted yesterday. Thirty years ago, as an adviser, I occupied the office that I now occupy as a Minister. It was the end of a Labour Government who had chosen to ignore the build-up to a major financial crisis. As some people will remember, the painful measures—the taxes, welfare cuts and spending cuts—were not taken by choice. They were imposed from outside by the International Monetary Fund. Because I was there at the tail-end of that Government, I saw the consequences, not the least of which were the massive divisions that opened up. People in the Government such as Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and my boss, John Smith, believed that the Government had to be responsible, but there were a lot of others—I sense a growing echo of this feeling on the Opposition Back Benches today—who said, “We don’t need to do anything, we can fight the gnomes of Zurich and drive them underground, we can ignore the rest of the world and we do not need to act.” It was a disastrous alternative strategy, and the Labour party is in great danger of returning to that territory.
That is why I have come to the same position as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We come from different political traditions; I do not try to hide that. As it happens, my role models as Chancellor of the Exchequer include Sir Stafford Cripps and Roy Jenkins, because they understood the need for sound public finance and they combined tough action on budgets with fairness. That is the tradition that we have continued.
Let me list some of the measures in this Budget with which I am proud to be associated. There is the lifting of the tax threshold by £1,000, towards the £10,000 mark. There is the action on capital gains tax, which is not just a tax-avoidance measure, but is about fairness. We have acted on public sector pay not just by freezing some salaries but by giving special help to people on low pay in the public sector. We have introduced the bank levy. We have done what the Labour Government failed to do in 12 years and introduced a triple-lock to protect pensioners—the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), could not quite get her head around what the triple-lock is—and in addition supported pensioners through improved pension credit, which is a major cost on the budget going forward. We took action to head off any increase in child benefit, too.
Let me read a comment on child poverty made not by a politician, but by Barnardo’s, one of the leading charities. Yesterday it said:
“There’s some pain in this Budget for the poorest families, but we recognise the government has done what it can to protect the most vulnerable.
Our calls for child tax credits to be redirected away from more wealthy families to the poorest have been heard—an action we highly commend.”
I do not doubt the right hon. Gentleman’s motives during his journey over the years and the past few weeks, but does he give credence to the fact that there is an alternative that could minimise the risk to his communities and mine? It is not to do with rejecting an agenda of cuts, efficiencies or reprioritisation; it is to do with timing. It is not just me saying that, or the “dupes” on the Labour Benches. Paul Krugman, “Danny” Blanchflower, Will Hutton and many other economists are saying, “Minimise the risk; just delay, and make the decisions at the right time.”
I think that the gentlemen to whom the hon. Gentleman refers are mostly talking about competitive deflation in the world economy, which is, of course, absolutely disastrous. The Chancellor referred in his speech yesterday to the fact that other countries that are in surplus have to do the opposite of what we are doing in terms of fiscal consolidation. The Chancellor made that very clear in relation to action to be taken by the Chinese and action that should be taken by countries such as Germany. Of course we understand the wider context.
Let me return to the criticisms about value added tax. The shadow Chancellor put the question in a personal way when he asked why I was supporting the increase in value added tax. The three of us—the shadow Chancellor, the Chancellor and myself—went around the television studios during the election campaign; we were the three Chancellors, a bit like “The Three Tenors”. We had our several encounters and each of us was asked time and again, “What do you think about value added tax?” As I recall, all three of us gave an identical answer: “We have no plans to increase value added tax, but we have not ruled it out.” The reason why we are now having to confront the matter is that there is a bigger structural deficit than was appreciated and action had to be taken. That could have been a tax measure, or it could have been a spending cut. Is that what Labour Members are saying? Do they want more cuts in spending? Do they want another tax? What do they want?
Anybody who read my comments on tax policy over the past year would, I think, hardly imagine that there was a surprise or a bombshell, because I said on many occasions that if taxes had to be increased, it made much more sense to tax expenditure than income or corporate income or employment. That was my view, and I expressed it on many occasions.
I wish to associate myself with many of the measures that we as Liberal Democrats can take pleasure from in the Budget, including the increases in personal allowance and in pensions. On VAT, to what extent does my right hon. Friend accept that we could have explored alternatives, including increasing capital gains tax still further or increasing the bank levy to ensure that the balance of tax increases was more proportionate?
The Government did look at the possibility of raising capital gains tax further. They did serious analysis and the conclusion was that it would not raise any more revenue. That was the problem. It certainly would not have raised anything remotely like £10 billion. That is why we cannot evade this issue.
Let me turn to the central concern about value added tax, which is expressed on both sides of the House: the worry about regressiveness. I checked back on what independent analysts were saying about value added tax and its income distribution effects. It is worth looking at the work of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has conducted a distributional analysis based on expenditure. It came to the conclusion—this is its word, not mine—that value added tax was fairly “progressive” because of the exemptions that are given for zero rating, as food, children’s clothing and other essentials are key items in the expenditure patterns of poorer people. [Interruption.] The top 10% of the population pay three times as much in value added tax as the bottom 10%. [Interruption.]
Opposition Members are expressing righteous indignation about what they regard as regressive measures. Let me tell them which is the most regressive tax: it is council tax. Do they remember what happened to council tax under the Labour Government? On average, it went up 70%. Taking into account rebates, for the poorest 10% of the population it rose by 93%. It is the most regressive tax of all, yet they lecture us in this sanctimonious way about regressive taxation. They have no basis for doing that.
Finally, let me turn to the crucial issue of growth, which the shadow Chancellor raised. He is right that growth does not happen automatically; of course it does not. How do we proceed from the austerity that has to happen—from cuts in public spending—to growth in business investment and net exports, which we want to see? That is a genuinely important question, to which there are no simple answers. The perfectly fair point has been made that there are risks involved here, just as there are risks, which we judge to be bigger, in doing nothing, so let me try to answer this question seriously. If we are going to get growth, it will come partly through demand and partly through supply. How do we sustain demand? Essentially, we do so through monetary policy. That is what happened under the last Government. The reason why the economy kept on going through the recession was not Government fiscal stimulus. That was trivial, and it has now been withdrawn anyway. It was not for that reason; it was because we had very low interest rates, the expansion of money through quantitative easing and, of course, a big devaluation.
Those factors drove the economy in terms of demand and they will continue to do so. There is a reason for believing that that is what will happen: the Governor of the Bank of England called for this Budget and has now got it, and he has every reason to understand the need for monetary policy to support recovery.
The right hon. Gentleman says that the Budget will increase growth, but the Office for Budget Responsibility says in the Red Book, at paragraph C.18, that
“economic activity is weaker than in the pre-Budget forecast…this reflects Budget measures which restrain government spending and real household disposable income, holding back consumer demand.”
Does he agree with the OBR or does he now admit that the Budget will not increase growth?
That was not on the point I was speaking about. I know that the hon. Lady is a new Member, but I am sorry that she felt the need to read out her question in the way that she did. Nevertheless, there is a very simple answer on page 94 of the Red Book. It is a technical point made by Sir Colin Budd, who drew up this part. These issues are not comparable. Had the Labour plans been implemented, interest rates would have been higher than they now are, which would have dragged down the rate of growth and pushed up the level of unemployment beyond what it is. That is the distinction he makes. He also refers to the fact that there is a basic confusion. I noticed that the Chancellor did not repeat the point in his speech, but it was raised yesterday. That explains the hon. Lady’s genuine misunderstanding.
In addition to issues about how to stimulate demand, there is an issue about how to get business investment moving—how to get supply, and an understanding of the supply side of the economy. A lot of the Budget’s stronger points were about that issue. The Budget was about creating a tax environment within which business is confident to invest. It is about doing the things that my Department is now starting to do in conjunction with the Cabinet Office, such as looking at the 20,000-plus additional regulations that were built in by the last Government and which are shackling small business. It is about addressing the issue of bank credit that was lamentably neglected by our predecessors, and investing in things like apprenticeships, which we have started to do even within our few weeks in office.
On investment, will my right hon. Friend say a little more about the Chancellor’s words yesterday on enlarging the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which would help 2,000 small businesses? Some 90% of our economy is made up of small and medium-sized businesses. I have had two meetings with business representatives since the election, and they all tell me that one of the major problems is bank lending to good, viable businesses—particularly those that are exporting around the world. I am sure that those are precisely the sort of businesses that my right hon. Friend had in mind as those which will give us the private sector growth that we require.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and it is the problem of credit supply to the small and medium-sized business sector that has the greatest potential to disrupt the recovery. That is why the Chancellor included in yesterday’s Budget the finance guarantee, and why we now have to work on why banks that were rescued by the taxpayers do not lend to the good companies that the hon. Gentleman describes, which are solvent, have good order books and will contribute to recovery. That is a major task that the Government now have to undertake.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the importance of investment and about being fair to regions. The Northwest Regional Development Agency has played a critical role in setting up investment funds for businesses in the north-west and was key in setting up the centre of scientific excellence at Daresbury, which has been responsible for retaining skills in the north-west and for developing science-based businesses. Why does he want to abolish it?
I have met the Northwest Regional Development Agency and I have suggested to it that under the new structures that will be created—the local enterprise partnerships, and local businesses working with their local councils—it will have an opportunity to bid for status in order to carry forward useful projects that support development on the ground. There will be a change—those RDAs are going to be restructured—but there is a role for that kind of innovation locally.
The shadow Chancellor talked at some length about the need for growth. He is right that we need growth, but it has to be sustainable. We had a decade of what seemed at the time, at least to some Labour Members, to be strong economic growth. I am sure that hon. Members will remember, as I do, all those Budgets in which the then Chancellor told us that we had achieved the highest rate of growth since the Hanoverians—I think it was even the Roman empire on one occasion—and talked about a boom in employment. But the house was built on sand and it was all a mirage. It was not sustainable. It was based on levels of personal debt and Government borrowing that could not be sustained; it was also based on a housing market that could not be sustained and on a fragile banking system. We have to restore growth, but it has to be sustainable. That is what the Budget was about.
May I congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on occupying the seat that you now do, as this is the first time I have had the opportunity to do so?
The Business Secretary speaks with great authority and I noticed that the House listened to him with great care. I was particularly interested in the justification he gave for the reversal of his position on cuts. I listened to the two points he made on that with great care, but I was not convinced. First, he said that after the election, he was asked to get a briefing from senior officials. He then went on, in a way that I thought was not totally honest and that was certainly a form of elision, to talk about the situations facing this country and countries in the euro.
The then Opposition parties were offered briefings before the election. I assume the Lib Dems were briefed on the situation facing this country regarding the sovereign debt and other such matters, so it can hardly have been a surprise to the right hon. Gentleman to find that the circumstances were as they were. I find rather surprising the suggestion that he was surprised to discover—after the election, during the period when he was negotiating entrance into office for himself and his colleagues—that the situation was suddenly much worse than he had previously understood it to be.
There was a deliberate elision of the sovereign debt crisis being faced by Greece and Spain and the situation in the United Kingdom. The truth is that in Greece there is a 4% decline in gross domestic product—there is a collapse in output—and that in Spain more than 20% of people are effectively unemployed. Those two economies probably cannot sustain the debt they have incurred, but that does not in any way apply to the UK. I would be surprised if the Governor of the Bank of England had told the right hon. Gentleman, in what would have been a blinding revelation in the middle of the negotiations to enter into the coalition, that some kind of sovereign debt crisis was operating in the United Kingdom, given that the Bank of England’s quarterly bulletin, published the other day, refers to an increase in the flow of investments into UK bonds.
The structure and age of our debt is not in any way comparable to the situation in Greece or elsewhere. I therefore conclude that the meeting which the right hon. Gentleman no doubt had with the Governor and others came at a very convenient time, and that the abandonment of the policy that he and others had, to their credit, shared—that we should not cut further at this time—was linked more to the political opportunities that were opening up, given the nature of the election, than to the sudden discovery of a change to the situation facing this country that, rather conveniently, occurred 24 hours after the election.
I want to make a number of points about the Budget and the current situation that we are facing. I listened carefully to the analysis by the Business Secretary of how the crisis came about. From the implications that could be read into his speech, it seemed to me that there was a difference of view between him and Conservative members of the Government as to how the situation arose.
For the Conservatives, it is clear that the problem facing the country is almost ideological in nature, being one of government rather than of the markets. They believe that the problem lies with the state, which should be reduced, and not with the markets, which collapsed. I note that the right hon. Gentleman said that the crisis was global in character and that it was brought about by the collapse of the banks, and I want to refer once more to the question of bonds.
The credit rating agencies have been widely publicised for their judgments about the state of the UK economy, but those same agencies were happy to give triple A ratings to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and to some of the other banks and investment firms in the US. It is odd that much of the media now seem to rely on the judgments of those agencies as to the UK’s status in the bond markets—but speculating on that would take me away from the narrative thrust I am trying to develop and the points I want to make.
The Business Secretary referred to the collapse of the banks, but I think the judgments made in the Budget reflect a different analysis by the Chancellor. That much is clear from how the burden will fall: of the £40 billion fiscal tightening being proposed, it looks as though £13 billion will be achieved by raising VAT—and I shall return to that point in a second—and £11 billion by an attack on welfare. In contrast, £2 billion is being raised by the banking levy, and I believe that that reveals the priorities of this Conservative-led coalition: £24 billion is to be saved through reducing welfare expenditure and raising VAT, and only £2 billion will come from the banks.
The truth is that, in a constituency like mine, the Budget will hit people very hard. I represent some of the poorest people in the country, as do many other hon. Members. It will not have escaped them that the burden of the changes introduced yesterday will fall particularly heavily on the poorest, and on hard-working people more generally.
The right hon. Gentleman made a case for the rise in VAT, but the Chancellor said on television this morning that he had faced a choice, between raising income tax or VAT, and that he had made a judgment. Personally, I reject the idea that we should impose further fiscal tightening in the current financial year but, be that as it may, the Chancellor made it clear that there was a choice.
The Government’s choice—the Business Secretary’s fingerprints are on it as much as anyone else’s—was to raise VAT rather than income tax. However, about £1 of every £7 that poor people spend goes on VAT, while for the rich the figure is about £1 in every £25. It is a highly regressive tax, compared with income tax. If a tax is to be increased—and I am not saying that that would be my option—it should not be VAT. The fact that VAT has been raised reveals the Budget’s regressive nature and character, and reflects the right-wing agenda being elaborated by this Government.
My hon. Friend has referred to the welfare cuts, including to disability living allowance, that have been outlined although not specified at all. People on DLA—in his area, in mine, and elsewhere in the country—come predominantly from a manual working background. Does he share my concern that it is precisely their inability to do manual work that will be a problem when their allowance is cut? The people involved are not the intellectual office workers of the future.
I wonder whether the Business Secretary and some of his colleagues came into politics to restrict welfare benefits for the disabled.
People in our areas have reason to fear other elements of the Budget, apart from the VAT hike. Public sector pensions are going to be cut, and the Government will accelerate the rise in the pension age. We know that they are going to cut 25% of departmental expenditure, that there is to be a freeze on child benefit, and that there will effectively be cuts in housing benefit. All those proposals will affect the communities we represent.
I remind the House that it was Mrs Thatcher who stole milk from schoolchildren; now, it is this Government who will take money from poorer mothers. Let me list the effects the Budget will have on mothers, especially those in poorer communities, as it seems they are to be targeted.
According to the TUC, the announcements made yesterday show that poorer mothers will lose about £1,200 a year. From April next year, the Sure Start maternity grant will be available for the first child only. The £500 maternity grant available for poorer mothers having their second child is to be withdrawn, and that is a disgrace. The health in pregnancy grant—a universal grant worth £190 that was available to all mothers to promote child and maternal health and engagement with health services—is being abolished.
The baby element of tax credits is also being cut. That was an additional payment of up to £545 a year for families with a child aged less than one who were in receipt of tax credits. The previous Government’s introduction of a new toddler tax credit would have provided an extra £200 a year for children aged one or two, but that has been cut too.
As we know, child benefit has been frozen for three years, and that obviously amounts to a cut in real terms. Finally, the child trust fund worth £250 has also gone. That may not affect members of the Cabinet much, given that there are 22 millionaires sitting around that table, but I assure the House that £250 can make a difference to children and families in my area.
Whatever my differences with them, I do not believe that people who joined the Liberal Democrat party went into politics to attack poorer mothers, but that is what this Budget does. That is what they will be faced with voting for in a few days, and I ask them to consult their consciences—never mind their party members—to determine whether that is the right thing to do.
Earlier, I said that it would not be my priority at this time to go for further fiscal tightening, given the fragility of the economy and the lack of demand elsewhere in the world. However, that is not simply my view; it has also been expressed by people who are very significant indeed.
The House will be aware of President Obama’s letter to the G20, but hon. Members may not know that KPMG chief economist Andrew Smith has described yesterday’s Budget as a “kill or cure” Budget. I note that the same phrase was used in today’s Financial Times headline, and there is at least a risk that we might kill the recovery. It is quite extraordinary to see KPMG make such a statement, and Andrew Smith, its chief economist, went on to say:
“The aim is to eliminate the structural deficit over this Parliament, but it risks choking off the recovery. There is no guarantee that private demand will rebound just because the government retrenches.”
John Philpott, of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said that we would see unemployment rise to 3 million for the rest of this Parliament.
I am talking about yesterday’s Budget and I shall continue to do so. If the hon. Gentleman does not like it, he should think about whether he will vote for it next Monday and Tuesday.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, asked how hard it could be to understand that Governments can save economies rather than destroy them. It is not too hard at all, yet as he said:
“All around the world…politicians seem determined…to short-change the economy”.
A consensus has emerged in the media about the need for cuts, which is infuriating sometimes, because there is a counter-consensus that has not been properly heard, represented by many people on the Opposition Benches and by leading economists, President Obama and others: we are taking a huge risk with the future of our economy.
Two million private sector employees work for companies that are dependent on Government contracts—Sheffield Forgemasters has already been mentioned. Further damage will inevitably be done to the private sector by cuts aimed at the public sector. When we look at the performance of the private sector we see that it, rather than the public sector, has brought about the reduction in gross domestic product, especially in investment. People may not like to use the word, but if there is a strike going on at the moment, it is not the BA strike but the investment strike in the private sector. We can understand why it happened, but none the less, £6 of every £10 of the reduction in GDP is down to one factor alone—the decline in private sector investment. It is not clear to me how cuts now will suddenly lead to growth in private sector investment, nor have the Government explained how that might happen. Furthermore, the Red Book shows a decline in public sector investment from £47 billion in 2008-09 to £21 billion, which is less than half that amount, by 2014.
I am troubled both by the assault on poorer communities, which is what the Budget really amounts to, and by the underlying economic philosophy that by reducing the state the private sector will flourish. The reverse is true, as we know from the great economist Keynes and from what happened in the great depression of the 1930s. Recovery in the United States was not brought about by slashing public expenditure, but above all by the new deal. Roosevelt’s great adventure rebuilt the American infrastructure and economy. The private sector was able to revive through expenditure, not cuts.
With those reflections, I turn to the politics of the Budget. The election gave no legitimacy for the course the Government have set. The vast majority of people who voted for the Liberal Democrat party did so on the basis that there would be no further cuts in this financial year, and no increase in VAT. The Conservative party did not achieve a majority and did not significantly increase its vote, in terms of the total numbers of people who voted. On the other hand, it is also clear—I would not claim otherwise—that Labour did not win the election either, but looking at the combined votes for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, for a policy of careful financial management, we see that a vast majority voted for that objective.
My conclusion is that there is no democratic legitimacy for the Budget. When the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills described his conversion on the road to Damascus on the day after the election, his argument was much less than convincing. It feels as though there has been an attack on middle-class and working-class families and on those dependent on welfare. Inevitably, there will be resistance both in the House and outside. When people reflect on the fact that an extreme Thatcherite Budget has been agreed and will be forced through the House without the legitimacy of an elected parliamentary majority, there will be outrage.
It is for the Labour party, particularly our leadership, to reflect carefully on how we respond to a Budget from a Government who were not elected with a majority, and who propose to impose savage cuts on the living standards of poorer people. Resistance will emerge. The Labour party will want to react responsibly, but we will—at least we should—place ourselves alongside people and communities who are resisting the cuts. I very much hope we shall be doing that in the coming weeks and months.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak today. It is a great honour to address the House for the first time and it is with some trepidation that I follow the excellent maiden speeches of so many Members.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, Phil Willis, who served with great distinction for 13 years and built up a significant, thoroughly deserved personal reputation as a fine, hard-working constituency MP. I wished Phil a long and happy retirement, which may have been a little too early, because as soon as I had done so he was made Lord Willis.
I am only the fifth person to represent the constituency since it was created. One illustrious predecessor is the hon. James Ramsden, who became the MP nearly 60 years ago and was our country’s last Secretary of State for War. James once confided to me that there were not many of “us Macmillan’s Ministers” left now. I have not checked, but I think James is a member of a very small club.
Further back we had some rotten boroughs—the need to equalise constituency size goes back a long way—and over time they were represented by three Prime Ministers. However, the most famous political figure, if I may call him that, with links to my constituency is someone who played a big role in the history of this place: Guy Fawkes, who spent his childhood in the village of Scotton.
When I first arrived here, Members were introducing themselves to each other and asking where they came from. As soon as I said that I came from the Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency everyone said, “Ah, lovely part of the world.” They were right. The Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency is Yorkshire at its very best. I am proud to represent such a beautiful area, with its mix of historic towns and villages and rolling countryside.
Knaresborough is by far the older of the two principal towns, and is a very pretty market town with a marvellous natural setting. It has a river and a gorge, a castle and a crag, and a fascinating history. Earlier this year, there were great celebrations on the 800th anniversary of the first award of Maundy money, which took place in the town. I am always struck by the real community spirit in the town, perhaps best exemplified by the annual Knaresborough bed race, which is organised by the Knaresborough Lions and took place only a few days ago.
Harrogate is a spa town, perhaps most famous for its gardens and tea rooms. A regular winner of the Britain in Bloom competition, it is true that the gardens are beautiful, and Betty’s tea rooms are justifiably famous for their quality. They are a Yorkshire institution. I should perhaps confess that I have a lot of knowledge of that company, having worked for it, so there is a direct interest. But there is more to Harrogate than that. The quality of life there is very high, based on a robust local economy, which has a mixture of quality companies that operate in a diverse mix of sectors, including one of the UK’s largest conference centres.
Many hon. Members will have visited conferences at Harrogate and so will have experienced the transport links, which are poor, especially the rail links. Only 18% of the 350,000 visitors per year to the conference centre travel by rail. More direct trains between London and Harrogate would be far more convenient for visitors to the conference centre, thus boosting business and having a beneficial effect on the broader business community. I will be working to highlight that and to fight for improvements, although I am under no illusion how difficult that will be, given the appalling state of the public finances inherited from the previous Government.
Our public services are good, with motivated public servants delivering quality health care, education and other services, yet over the past couple of years, I have started to receive calls from people who work on the front line of those services to highlight the bureaucracy that they have to endure and, interestingly, what they see as the waste of public money. Contributions from those who deliver services on the front line will be absolutely crucial in ensuring that we make the right decisions in the changes ahead.
One of the reasons for the high quality of life in Harrogate and Knaresborough is the quantity and range of community groups and social enterprises. I have been particularly impressed on my visits to social enterprises such as Paperworks, Claro Enterprises, Horticap and the Little Red Bus. Numerous voluntary groups do so much to add to the quality of life in our area, and there are 400 charities registered. I have seen the difference that volunteering and social enterprises make, and I welcome the Government’s support for the third sector.
Harrogate is also the home of Army foundation college, where our junior soldiers train before being sent to their regiments. It is a fine organisation. It does great work with the 16 and 17-year-olds who join it from a very diverse set of backgrounds, yet all leave with pride and confidence in having made great achievements. I am always conscious that, whenever we hear of a casualty in Afghanistan, there is a high likelihood that that person spent some time training in my constituency. The junior soldiers whom I have met at the foundation college are a credit to our forces, and I strongly welcome the Government’s support for our forces.
One thing that I often hear about my constituency is that it is very affluent—parts of it are, that is true—but there are pockets of poverty, which are sometimes overlooked: perhaps pensioners living on fixed incomes, or people who live in rural areas or who work in the hospitality industry, where incomes are often very low. It may surprise hon. Members to know that the average wage from jobs in the area is £440 per week. That is less than both the regional and UK average.
I mentioned earlier that Harrogate and Knaresborough is the best of Yorkshire. In my constituency, we have one of the most desirable areas to live, a successful and diverse economy and an engaged community, yet one of the lessons of the recent election was that people fear that what they have may be under threat. I heard comment after comment from people fearful of the scale of debts facing our country, knowing that the action to deal with them would not be easy. People have understood that the need to tackle the issue was urgent, but that there would be better times ahead when the consequences of the previous Government’s debts are dealt with.
There is a lesson from Harrogate on the benefits of clearing debts. The local council has been active in repaying its debts, keen to clear liabilities and save taxpayers paying for interest. Paying interest does not appeal to Yorkshiremen and women—we are famous for liking value. Paying interest is using funds that could be put to better purpose. In this case, I believe that the money that is being saved will be used to expand the local recycling service. The contrast is stark: paying interest, or investing in environmental initiatives. In less than three years, the council will be debt free—the consequences of a good Conservative administration. It will take us far longer than that to clear the debts that we have inherited.
It is crucial for us all to get our economy moving, and I support very strongly the Government’s efforts to create the right environment for businesses to thrive. The cuts announced yesterday in corporation tax rates, with the expansion of entrepreneurs’ relief and the small business relief, mark a clear change of direction on business taxation, and that will be very welcome in Harrogate and Knaresborough.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor said that it was important to say that Britain is open for business. Well, I will be highlighting the fact that Harrogate and Knaresborough is open for business.
A further part of the right environment for business is the emphasis placed on education and skills. In Harrogate and Knaresborough, we have excellent primary and secondary schools. We also have Harrogate college, which is launching a business school tomorrow.
I have already met the representatives of rail operating companies and local education providers, because I know how critical it is to have a robust business sector, built on adding value. That is my background before I joined the House.
The trust placed in me by the people of Harrogate and Knaresborough is a great honour, and I take that trust very seriously. I pledge to use my time here to speak up for my area and everyone in it.
May I welcome you to your new position, Mr Deputy Speaker, and thank you for calling me so early in the debate?
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones). I am very pleased indeed to follow a fellow Yorkshire MP making his maiden speech. In particular, he talked about some of the best traditions of Yorkshire—first, the community spirit of Yorkshire people and, secondly, the great Yorkshire institution of Betty’s tea rooms. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will appreciate the fact that people can get a good cup of tea and a good piece of cake at Betty’s tea rooms.
I wish to comment on one of the other contributions to the debate. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills made quite an attempt at explaining his about-face in respect of what the Liberal Democrats fought the general election on and how he now comes to the Dispatch Box to defend the vicious and savage cuts in the economy. He is obviously a distinguished and well-thought-of economist, so it was rather strange that he did not pick up before that the position was so bad that he would have to change his party’s policy. He was seen as brilliantly forecasting some of the problems in the economy during the previous Parliament and he has been given great recognition for some of his forward-thinking views, but he was not able to pick that up in the weeks before the election. I was rather taken aback by how out of touch he claimed to be and by how he had to have the meeting to explain the current economic situation and to change his party’s policy.
I was also very surprised indeed to hear a Liberal Democrat try to argue that VAT is not a regressive tax. I have never heard anything like it, and it took my breath away when I recalled that my Liberal Democrat opponent in the general election made it clear on every hustings where I appeared with him that increasing VAT was not something that the Liberal Democrats would support. He constantly attacked the Conservatives for the fact that, whenever they have been in government, they have always put up VAT.
The main reason that I wish to speak in this debate is the growing anger—not only in my constituency of Kingston upon Hull North, but in vast swathes of the north of England—at the coalition’s policies so far announced and those in the Budget statement yesterday. Many of the policies that the coalition Government have proposed to the British people have no mandate—obviously, the deal was done after 6 May—and the electorate, particularly Liberal Democrat voters, feel misled, betrayed and disfranchised. When I talk to people in my constituency, they tell me that they did not vote for many of the polices proposed in recent weeks and yesterday. In fact, they feel that they were not given the opportunity to vote on the very policies that the coalition Government have proposed. As I have indicated, the Liberal Democrats sought election clearly on the mandate that they would not let cuts come during this financial year and that they were against VAT increases, but look at them now.
May I reassure the hon. Lady that I have spent a great deal of time talking to my constituents since the Government were formed and that the only thing that they wish to express is their overwhelming relief that the Labour party is no longer in government?
That is absolutely right. We have seen a political blind date, but we should not worry because it is clear that Dave agrees with Nick, and that Nick agrees with Dave, so perhaps it will be okay in the end.
There are a few measures in the Budget that I can support, such as the change to capital gains tax and the bankers levy, although I am surprised that the levy will raise only about £2 billion because I think we could raise much more. However, the broad thrust of the Budget is very bad news for my constituents. Hull North will see more individuals out of work, with people’s opportunities wrecked and a decline in their quality of life. The programme of fighting child poverty and inequality will go backwards, not forwards, and there will be big problems in health and housing. Most importantly, wealth creation and enterprise will suffer in Yorkshire.
I want to talk about four things in particular: the rewriting of the history of the economic situation by the Conservatives and Lib Dems; the dogma that drives the Budget; my constituency, and Yorkshire and the Humber; and Labour’s approach to dealing with the economic situation in which we find ourselves.
I am worried by the rewriting of the economic history of the recession and the falsification of the cause of the deficit. We know that the Prime Minister is familiar with airbrushing, and his deputy routinely airbrushes away more than 100 years of his party’s history when it suits him. The deficit was caused not by big government, but by big greed. Bankers and international speculators are at its root.
In 2006 and 2007, I was fortunate to be the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), whom I was pleased to see back in the Chamber today. During that time, early work was being carried out on the current 2008 to 2011 public spending period. We had enjoyed a decade of low inflation, steady growth and falling unemployment, and there was no serious deficit problem. At that time, the present Prime Minister and Chancellor used a soundbite about sharing the proceeds of growth. They also said that they wanted to match the Labour Government’s spending plans up to 2011, as they kept saying until the end of 2008.
We all realised at that time that the spending round would need to be tighter than the one immediately after the millennium, but the adjustment was not remotely on the scale of the deficit in the public finances that opened up from 2008. The events of the two years that followed came about because of the greed-fuelled banking crisis that tipped the world into the worst recession since the 1930s. It is wrong to airbrush out what happened, to blame the problem on big government, and to be oblivious to the fact that public services are important not just for fighting poverty and inequality, and for providing opportunity, but for an efficient, growing, modern economy. Since the middle of 2007, taxpayers have had to pay to rescue the banking system—and not just in Britain—but now hard-working families and public service workers are being asked to pay again because of the greed of the bankers and the speculators.
The Budget is driven by dogma, not good housekeeping. It cuts too early and too deep, and it will hold back growth, which my party saw as the main engine for cutting the deficit. We know that further cuts will follow, including departmental cuts of up to 25%, but I think that the coalition Government will make further cuts again and again, meaning that we have a spiral of cuts and debt.
When Labour was in office, the Chancellor berated our Government for not mending the roof while the sun was shining, but it now seems that he is up the ladder removing the slates as the storm clouds of a double-dip recession gather on the horizon. In Hull, we need public services and investment. They are important to the local economy. The coalition cuts, however, will harm our quality of life. The Tories said in the past—I think that they still say this—that mass unemployment is a price worth paying. The market zealots on the Government Benches who said for years that they wanted less regulation of the markets and smaller government are now getting their way.
I am sad to hear the hon. Lady advocate a double-dip recession so early in a new Parliament. The public do not want to hear those sorts of words. We need to get behind the Government and allow the coalition to do its job. I would like to ask her who was responsible for allowing Bradford & Bingley to give away 125% mortgages? Who was responsible for removing regulations in the banking industry in the late 1990s and thus allowing banks to lend people money in ways that they did not understand and when the payments could not be afforded?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that Conservative Members vociferously argued in the House year after year that there should be less regulation of the financial markets. They criticised the Labour Chancellor and Government for the regulations that they introduced. The hon. Gentleman has a rather selective memory of his party’s position in the late 1990s.
I fear that Yorkshire and the Humber will bear the brunt of the majority of cuts that come out of the Budget. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) is in the Chamber. She has been a powerful advocate for her city of Sheffield and wanted to ensure that the sensible arrangements that the Labour Government put in place for Sheffield Forgemasters went ahead. It is shocking that the coalition Government have refused to continue the process. Sheffield Members are making a strong case for the assistance, so it is a shame that the Deputy Prime Minister is out of step with his city colleagues.
Will my hon. Friend comment on the fact that the investment offered by the previous Government was covered by an equity stake from Westinghouse, one of the world’s largest nuclear industry companies? Given that that stake reduced the financial risk to the Government, the earlier comments made by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills were entirely incorrect.
I am sure that that is absolutely right. I must give credit to our civil service. Civil servants advise Ministers and respect the decisions that they make, but the civil service would have been clear if it thought that the assistance should not go ahead because public money would not be protected as fully as it should be.
I was surprised by the vague way in which the Business Secretary talked about the opportunities that his Department will make available in the regions. He cited just two examples: an incentive on national insurance contributions for small businesses and a proposed fund to be distributed in the regions. There were no details of the fund, however, and it is unsatisfactory that businesses and enterprises in Yorkshire and the Humber have to wait to find out what money might be available to them. That is not good government.
I am sorry that the Business Secretary is not in his place, but perhaps I will get some answers to my questions. First, in view of the cuts to Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency, and the demise of Hull Forward, and given that the Liberal Democrat-controlled council in Hull does not have a great record on regeneration and moving quickly and effectively, how will we be able to promote investment in my city, which still needs public investment to go in, year on year?
Secondly, what will happen to opportunities for those not in education, employment or training with the end of the future jobs fund and cuts to university places? I have the great pleasure of the university of Hull being slap-bang in the middle of my constituency. I am worried about local youngsters in particular not being able to access their local university.
How will the region’s construction sector fare, with council house building schemes being cancelled, road schemes threatened and questions still to be answered about flood defence and protection work? Despite the promised good news on port ratings, will the Humber actually get the investment that the Labour Government had identified for the Hull port area and the use of the site for wind turbine manufacturing? That is under review by the coalition, which is worrying, because it might well put off businesses coming to Hull. With the Typhoon fighter project’s future uncertain, what will happen to the skilled jobs at BAE Systems at Brough?
I see other hon. Members from the Yorkshire and the Humber region in the Chamber. What about the reduction or elimination of the Humber bridge tolls, which we were so close to achieving under the previous Government? Those are all questions that will affect the economic viability of Yorkshire and the Humber, and I want some answers.
I was previously a councillor in the hon. Lady’s constituency, so I consider her a friend. I was interested to hear that we were close to eliminating the bridge tolls. Exactly where had the money for that been identified? Will she confirm that the study started by the previous Government is continuing? To give the impression that nothing is happening on the Humber bridge tolls is not fair. I would very much like an answer to my first question, because some of us think that the previous Government started to talk about the Humber bridge simply because an election was coming.
The hon. Gentleman does a disservice to the fact that long before the general election, there was cross-party working by hon. Members on both sides of the House to make the economic case for reducing the Humber bridge tolls. He will know that the then Transport Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), had decided not to allow the increase in the tolls and a review was being conducted of whether the toll could be reduced to £1. All I was doing was questioning what was going to happen, and I would be grateful if the coalition partners threw some light on the subject. I am sure that all hon. Members are keen to get a satisfactory resolution to that ongoing problem.
I have a few comments to make about what Labour would have done, had we secured a majority at the election. It is clear—the shadow Chancellor made it clear—that of course we need to get the deficit down. Before the election we had legislated to say that we would halve the deficit within four years, and in the Departments work was being done to identify where reductions could be made. I was in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, so I know that areas had been clearly identified, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) told me that clearly identified savings had been put together in the Home Office. It is wrong to say that the Labour Government had not started work; however, we made it clear that we had to wait until the growth in the economy was secure.
A key issue that the coalition Government have to grapple with is the fact that just making cuts across the board is not the sensible approach. We need to think about what policies we can introduce to spend and invest now so that we can ensure that we save in future. One of the policies very dear to my heart is healthy free school meals, which piloted in Hull but was slashed by the Lib Dem council without the evidence being evaluated. I believe that there is an economic case to be made. Investing in children early on, making sure that they eat healthily and well and do as well as they can in their education, will reap benefits for us as a society later on. I was disappointed to see that the extension of the free school meals pilot has been abandoned by the coalition Government, as well as the extension of eligibility to those in receipt of working families tax credit, which would have made more families eligible to get free school meals for their children. That is very short sighted.
By cutting too deep and too early, we will risk jobs—jobs in Hull, jobs in Yorkshire and the Humber, and jobs nationally. We will have higher welfare costs and less tax revenue. Growth will be suppressed and I think that the deficit will be much worse.
The hon. Lady has spent her entire speech carping about my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s Budget. Can she not at least welcome the large regional fund that is to be set up, through which funding will probably come to her area and which may well benefit her constituents by providing jobs?
I do not know—there is no detail. We have had vague promises from Ministers about what the regions will get, but no detail. I cannot explain to business men and entrepreneurs in my constituency where the money is coming from to support and incubate their businesses. As far as I am concerned, this is all hot air. [Interruption.] Wait and see? Businesses in my constituency cannot do that. They need to know whether there is to be investment and support. If the coalition Government are serious about supporting the economy in the regions, they should have had their proposals and policies ready for yesterday’s debate and been able to explain what money is available to people in the north.
The welfare reforms and the tax changes announced yesterday will cause great problems in my constituency. Although basic rate taxpayers are promised an extra £170 a year in income tax allowance, that will be far outweighed by the VAT increase to 20% from 4 January next year. We have heard at length about the Lib Dem election campaign poster saying that there would be a Tory VAT bombshell, but the Deputy Prime Minister—bless him!—has done another U-turn that takes his party to a new level of opportunism. That regressive tax on growth will cost the average household £425 a year. That is without counting the other regressive changes in things such as housing benefit, child benefit and child trust funds and the disgraceful scrapping of the health in pregnancy grant.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle told the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister—the self-righteous brothers—they are leading this Government and repeating the PR mantra, “We’re all in it together,” but some parts of our country will be altogether more in it than others. A party that has never been known for sharing wealth and opportunity fairly is very keen to share austerity with everyone.
This past month shows that we have replaced a one-nation Government with a coalition of the two oldest parties, representing the misconceived interests of the privileged classes in this country. My constituents in Hull North, Bransholme, Orchard Park and similar areas, who need public support and public investment to give them the opportunities that, through no fault of their own, they lack, will suffer because of this Budget and this coalition Government.
I congratulate you on your election, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is the first time I have spoken with you in the Chair.
First, let me respond to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson). The thrust of her speech was almost entirely, “It’s the banks wot done it,” whereas her party, although in government, did not have a great deal of responsibility. She is right in that the major part of the crisis was brought to a head by the irresponsibility of the banking community throughout the world, especially in the UK, but she is not right to ascribe the whole crisis to that one cause, because there are two more that must be taken into account. Probably the most important—it has driven many of the problems in the economy—is the imbalances in the world economy. I served on the Treasury Committee in the last Parliament, and even before Northern Rock, that was something to which Members from all parties were drawing attention. There is a major structural problem in the world economy, and because of our particular weakness in relation to the financial sector, we suffered more than others.
The second thing that has to be taken into account is the amount of debt in the economy. The point is extremely well made by the chart on page 7, which sets out that relationship, so that one can see the inexorable rise of debt in the financial sector in comparison with debt in non-financial companies and households. If I remember the figures correctly, over the past 50 years or so, the consolidated balance sheet of the financial industry has gone from roughly half of GDP to five times GDP. That is the core of the problem: at every level in society we have been living beyond our means, and it is necessary to deal with that.
I want to focus mainly on enterprise, growth and rebalancing the economy, but I should like to make one or two general points about the Budget as a whole. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) is not in the Chamber now, but having shadowed him as a Minister in several Departments in the last two Parliaments, and having dealt with him in the Treasury Committee, I have great respect for him, and I echo the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills about his integrity. He was given a hospital pass when he accepted the keys to No. 11, and it is to his credit that he managed to stay on his feet. None the less there have been some significant mistakes, to which I shall allude.
Looking at the Budget as a whole, I ask myself two questions. First, how would I feel about the Budget if I were sitting in my old home on the Opposition Benches? Secondly, how would I feel about the Budget if I were sitting on the Government Benches supporting a wholly Liberal Democrat Government? We can all have aspirations. Let me answer the first question. I would feel extremely cross, deeply angry and irritated, because I would see a Budget that contained a mass of things for which I had just campaigned and which I had proposed to my constituents as things I wanted to do in government—so I would have been sitting on the Opposition Benches powerless, while whoever was in government was introducing all the measures for which I had fought. I would say to myself, “How on earth do I oppose that?” but I would not be able to come up with much of an answer.
As a matter of fact, given my experience on the Treasury Committee, I was extremely careful about what I said. I stated my preferences, but I also stated the principles underlying them; I shall come on to that in a moment. First, however, let me answer my second rhetorical question, which requires a little more consideration. The first thing that I would look at—this pertains to what the hon. Lady was asking—would be whether the deficit needs to be dealt with now in depth. I shall draw guidance from my experience as a member of the Treasury Committee and from my own experience of rescuing nearly bankrupt companies in the past.
In past three years or so on the Select Committee, I observed how often Members in all parts of the House were behind the curve in estimating the scale of the problem. When we looked at Northern Rock in our report “The run on the Rock”, it took time to perceive not only the scale of what happened at that institution but the fact that it was a precursor or early symptom of what was to come later in 2008. I remember the Governor telling us quite late in 2008 how this was a financial crisis that he hoped would not get into the real economy. Looking back, one has to say that that was a false hope.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration, as many people were behind the curve, but one person who was not is “Danny” Blanchflower, the economist, who spotted it coming, identified it and sent out the warning signals. We, collectively, were not listening. He is now warning, “Cut hard and deep and you’ll send the recession backwards.” Should we listen to him?
We should certainly listen to “Danny” Blanchflower, for whom I have great respect. He gave evidence to the Select Committee on several occasions, and he is one of a number of voices that we should—[Interruption.] Absolutely—it was David Blanchflower’s nickname at the time. We should certainly listen to him, but we should also listen to all the evidence. He was, on that occasion, more right. I am not persuaded, having heard other voices, that he is entirely right now—but he does highlight a danger, and we should certainly not disregard that. Across the piece, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, we did not appreciate the scale of what was coming.
When I look at what was happening in the early part of this year, my instinct would be to cut the least possible, and to stimulate growth as much as possible. However, there comes a point at which we have to deal with what is before us, rather than what we hoped might be before us. It became clear during the election—and I remember making this point at an all-party hustings—that throughout Europe it was a very different ball game from the one with which we had all been dealing just three, four, or five weeks before, and that we needed to take that into account.
I am therefore predisposed to assume the worst, and to look hard at the core problem. The next piece of guidance derives from my experience of running companies in the hospitality industry. I am not for a moment saying that the relatively small companies that I ran bear comparison to a country, but some of the principles do. I remember taking over two companies that were essentially bankrupt. If the owning shareholders had not guaranteed the finance, they would have gone into administration. In both cases, my job was to turn them round, and I heard arguments about how I should get hold of money and invest it on the one hand, or how I should redress the costs of the company on the other.
When people do not have money—the piggybank is empty, and it is difficult to get money from the banks—they have no choice but to live within their means. I learned that by stabilising company expenditure, and forgoing some investment for the future, I could produce a more stable enterprise. It is the same with this country and the balance of risk. The risk, on the one hand, of failing to take action is that we seriously run out of money, our credit rating is reduced, our borrowing costs go up, and we end up spending far more on debt interest than on health, education or defence. Something would then be imposed on us, as happened with the Labour Government in the 1970s. The risk on the other side is that if we cut too quickly, growth will be stifled and we will take longer to come out of our current situation. Balancing those two risks, I believe that the risk is greater if we do not deal with the deficit, so it needs to be dealt with.
Secondly, is the Budget fair? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills made an extremely good case for demonstrating that it is—in as much as any pain can be fair. I would far rather be standing here supporting a Budget that gave people lots of money. That would be lovely, but, as the Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, there is no money. So we have to be prudent, and that means that we have to share the pain. The whole point is that everybody will suffer, but we have to ensure that the suffering falls least on the most vulnerable, and most on those who can afford it. Charts A1, A2 and A3 in the Red Book set out exactly how the suffering will fall, and it is perfectly clear from them that those at the bottom will bear the least pain and those at the top bear most.
In my constituency average earnings are £21,000, and table A1 on page 64 shows that after the Budget somebody on £20,000 will be £170 better off, given the amount of income tax and national insurance that they pay. They will pay £170 less than they would have done. Table A2 shows that they will receive £145 less in family tax credit, but when we put the two amounts together we see that they will still be £25 better off. That is not a large amount of money, but it makes the point that if we take the Budget in the round, including VAT, which nobody can deny is regressive on its own, we clearly find that the pain is shared, and felt less by those at the bottom than by those at the top. So I conclude that the Budget is fair.
I welcome the Budget. It is not one that I would have liked to have to support. I would have liked to see the coffers full, and to be able to be nice to people—but in the circumstance this is the right Budget, and it is fair.
Will the hon. Gentleman not also reflect on the fact that those tables do not capture the punitive effect of the forthcoming 25% cut in non-ring-fenced public services on people who most rely on benefits and public services? Those elements in the tables and in the Budget do not really take into account—in the round, as he puts it—the full impact of the cuts that we will see.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Broadly speaking, 20% to 25% cuts are going to be introduced in this autumn’s spending review, and we will need to look at that. However, I find it difficult to take lessons on that from a party that introduced £40 billion of cuts without a single centime being allocated to anything whatever. That is like a bankrupt father promising his children a sackful of presents at Christmas as the bailiffs wheel him out on Christmas eve: it is deeply irresponsible.
Let me turn to the specific measures. I absolutely must commend the Government on their commitment to consider a pilot scheme for a remote rural fuel discount, because year in, year out I made that proposal from the Opposition Benches and the previous Government compared it to the cost of beer and all sorts of other things. My friends in the Conservative party chose to wait and see what would happen, and I am delighted that they did so, because they now agree that my measure should be considered, for which I thank them warmly.
On enterprise, it is critical that we rebalance the economy. First, we must achieve a rebalancing whereby there is more private sector and less public sector. That does not mean that the public sector has to shrink; the private sector has to grow to support the public sector. Secondly, we absolutely have to move our economy away from an utter dependence on financial services, which delivered 25% of tax revenue three years ago, and towards manufacturing industries and technologies and skills-based industries throughout the regions of the United Kingdom.
I am glad that the Government will continue with and enhance the enterprise finance guarantee scheme. However, the scheme has one flaw, which I have highlighted many times: the Catch-22 situation whereby the banks that do not lend then decide whether to include an enterprise in the scheme. There must be some way in which the banks’ decisions can be reviewed.
I also commend my right hon. Friend on the action being taken to get non-bank finance into small and medium-sized businesses, but may I gently ask my friends who are now on the Front Bench to look at the papers that I wrote—they were in the Liberal Democrat manifesto—on enterprise funds, and consider whether some of those ideas might help to address how we get equity funding into small businesses? May I also stress the importance of the regional growth funds and express the hope that the details of them and how they will work will be brought forward quickly? The concepts of an infrastructure bank and a green investment bank should be brought forward as rapidly as possible, too.
Having looked at the Budget, I conclude that it is not one that I particularly like to see brought in, but it is necessary. There is pain, and it has to be borne, but the Budget is equitable in that the pain falls least on those who have least. Notwithstanding my personal regard for the shadow Chancellor, I really cannot take lessons from him or his party, having listened for nine years from the Opposition Benches to their boasts about the end of boom and bust. We now know that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) was the father of all booms and the mother of all busts. That much-vaunted child, prudence, is lying battered, bloody and bruised in the gutter—and it is this Government who will take her out and restore to health.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I, too, congratulate you on being elevated to the position of Deputy Speaker?
Before I came to the House today, I thought about what was I going to say, and I was mindful of that saying, “Whenever the clouds are on the horizon, you can either shelter from the storm or run with the wind.” I am conscious that this Government are doing more sheltering from the storm. The question for us, as elected representatives at Westminster, and for our constituents is: is there somewhere to shelter? That is what I shall comment on, but I am also conscious of the comments that I make. I always try to make constructive comments, because that is my nature, but I shall also underline some concerns that I, as an elected representative and MP, believe I am duty bound to mention.
In Northern Ireland, and in Strangford, which I represent, there is a very clear tightening of the belt. The marks are already there, and I just wonder how tight the belt will be by the time the Budget is eventually farmed out to all parts of the United Kingdom and all Departments. We in Northern Ireland are mindful of that in relation to the block budget.
I am very conscious also of the serious economic state that we are in. I am not ignoring it, and neither are the people of the United Kingdom. We all recognise that drastic measures need to be taken, but I have to ask: are they being taken in the right place and taken correctly, and will they adversely affect my constituents and, indeed, those of many other hon. Members who have spoken today? I recognise the need for health and perhaps international development to be ring-fenced, and that the Budget will not necessarily affect those areas. There is some talk about education, or at least some parts of it, remaining untouched as well, but in that case there will have to be cuts in other Departments.
I recognise that this House is very supportive and proud of the armed services as they fight in Afghanistan, Iraq and all over the world. Is a 25% cut in defence fair? The Prime Minister has given a commitment to the soldiers on the front line, wherever the war is taking place. However, if there is to be a 25% cut in defence, someone has to feel the pinch and the pain, and if it is not the soldiers on the front line—and it should not be—it has to be those at home. I am pleased that the cut will not affect the front line, but concerned about how it will affect other areas. Will it mean that commanders are pensioned off? Will it affect the MOD in buying equipment? The MOD will look for the best prices, as it probably should, but we do not want spending to be diminished in such a way that its position is undermined.
The cadet forces make a significant contribution across the whole United Kingdom, but particularly in Northern Ireland. It is very important for us in Northern Ireland to have cadet forces that bring the communities together. We have tried to achieve that for years, and we are now seeing the partnership begin to work better than it ever has before. Cadet forces, by their very nature, are drawn from both communities. There are more people from the Roman Catholic side of the community in the cadet forces in Londonderry, which the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) represents, as well as in Limavady, Enniskillen and Strabane. That has come about because joining the cadet forces has been attractive to young boys and girls, who recognise that some day they will want to serve in the British Army and the other services, including the Royal Air Force.
I want to highlight lone parents. I welcome the fact that the Government want to encourage them back to work; I think we all want to do that. However, when they have the opportunity to do so, we want them to have the jobs to go to. It is great to have this support in theory, but how does it come about in reality? Do the people have jobs, and are there opportunities and options? I am not sure that there are. I am concerned about the Government’s position.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Does he accept that many of us represent constituencies with large numbers of single parents who are doing valiant work as parents, and that for them the problem is not a lack of work ethic but a lack of work?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; I wholeheartedly agree with his comments. It is all very well to have the theory of getting lone parents back to work, but if the jobs are not there, that theory is undermined. The Government must consider that.
In Northern Ireland, some 60% of jobs are in the public sector or public sector-dependent. I said this in my maiden speech a fortnight or so ago, but I will say it again because it is very important. I understand that the Government’s pledge is to increase private sector jobs and build up that area. However, before anything changes in the public sector, there has to be a private sector that fills the gap, so that those opportunities are there.
I turn to the 2.5% rise in VAT. In the area that I represent, there are a great many small and medium-sized businesses, which by their very nature create a lot of jobs collectively. Individually, that may amount to three, four or five jobs in a family business, but collectively they run into many hundreds, probably thousands. Although the rise is not going to kick in until January 2011, it causes great concern for the area that I represent, and specifically for businesses. Some small businesses may be hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and finding it very hard to get through difficult times, while looking ahead to perhaps another two, three or four years of austerity and the associated difficulties. Many businesses will try to absorb the VAT increase rather than pass on the extra prices, which they cannot do—not because they do not want to, but because they cannot do it in the competitive market that they are in. They have to try to take on large multinational businesses that have a bigger market and can therefore absorb such costs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest hindrances for small businesses across the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, is the level of bureaucracy and red tape that they have to handle, as they are very much hands-on operations? The new coalition Government have promised to remove that, and we need to see the evidence very quickly.
I thank my hon. Friend. I wholeheartedly agree, and I can give examples. I represent a very rural constituency. A questionnaire was recently put out to the farming community asking people about the biggest problem they had. They said that it was red tape and bureaucracy. The same applies to those in the fishing industry and those who have small businesses. It seems to be coming at them left, right and centre. Europe has an influence as well. That issue must be addressed very soon.
Let me turn to the position of pensioners. As representatives, we have an opportunity to really feel for people and to see issues they face. My area, like many others, boasts an increasing population of elderly people, and will have its greatest ever number of pensioners in coming years. I am very conscious of how pensioners budget, and how they will cope with a VAT increase on the products that they buy just to keep living. That is extra money that they have to find. Has consideration been given to how the increase will affect pensioners specifically?
There has to be good news in everything, like the curate’s egg that is good in parts. It is hard to find enough good parts in this curate’s egg, but that is by the way. The fact that the income tax threshold has been raised by £1,000 is good news—I give credit where credit is due. It will benefit some households to the tune of £175, at least, and perhaps more elsewhere.
At the same time, however, there is a negative factor: child benefit will not rise for three years in line with inflation. People will say, “Well, that’s how things are, and that’s how it has to happen.” As someone who keeps his ear close to the ground and understands how these things work—I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and I know how difficult it is for people to make do—I understand that the child tax credit and the working tax credit are critical. Many people visit my office and advice centre, just as they visit many other Members, and I can see what is involved in balancing the books and working out the weekly family budget. These people do not live beyond their means by any standard, but they require tax credits just to survive.
My provincial press today—I bought the papers this morning—gave five or six examples of people who will be affected. They included families with four children, single parents with two children, and some who are self-employed. Those people recognise the need for something to be done, but they do not feel particularly in tune with its impact on them. That concerns me, and I have to put it on the record. None of those half a dozen examples in the provincial press or the Belfast Telegraph involved people who would not feel pain over the coming period.
The Government encouraged people to take up tax credits, and they enjoyed a certain quality of life as a result. All of a sudden, that could change. I should like to say something about those in the middle class bracket. When someone is on £35,000 to £40,000 a year, we sometimes think they are doing all right, but half that income might go on their mortgage, and people’s hopes for their children and communities are in their houses. I am concerned about the impact on such families of reducing or freezing working tax credits or child tax credits over a three-year period.
The one great commodity over which international wars have been fought—there will probably be many more of them—is oil. The price of oil today is $77.55 a barrel, and prices for oil, diesel and petrol were at their highest three years ago, when a barrel cost $147. Who makes the extra money and extra profit, and how? Clearly, someone is making it. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) referred to the concessionary fuel scheme in his area. I represent a rural area, so I would be keen to know how that works. Perhaps the Government should consider reducing fuel duty to enable people to get over the hard times much more easily than in the past. Elderly people struggle to fill their tanks with oil.
For the fishing industry at Portavogie, which is an important part of Strangford, fuel costs represent 60% of the boats’ running costs. A great many of those fishermen are having difficulty getting through the times they face at this moment. There is some talk about European funding, but there have been delays. The hardships that the fishing industry faces are critical, and it may not survive.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to reduce corporation tax from 28% to 24%, which is significant. Last week, I met bank officials in my town, and they outlined the measures they would like. By and large, the Government have reflected what the banks wanted. However, what the banks want is not always best, as we have seen over the past year or two. The reduction in corporation tax is good news. The Government have realised that businesses need that help. The Chancellor stated that that is the lowest rate in any major western economy and the best rate in the G20, but the Republic of Ireland’s corporation tax is 12%. As Northern Ireland has a land border with the Republic, I suggest that corporation tax should be looked at more sympathetically for us than elsewhere.
Businesses are very conscious of corporation tax. I have met a number of business people in my area recently. Pritchitt Foods in Newtownards is one of the largest employers in the area, and corporation tax is the biggest factor for that company in trying to make its business work. It is a go-ahead, progressive firm that creates significant employment in my area. It feels that the 4% reduction will go part of the way to addressing its concerns. I have asked the Government about this matter, and I understand that they will be making a statement in October about corporation tax in Northern Ireland. I look forward to seeing whether we can have a further reduction, which would help us. We also have the largest energy costs in the whole United Kingdom. I suggest that that also needs to be offset and considered.
I could not let this occasion pass without commenting on child poverty. Wearing my other hat as an Assembly Member in Northern Ireland, I had the opportunity to contribute to an inquiry on the underlying issues. Some 20% of children in Northern Ireland are deprived through poverty. What will happen to those who find themselves in child poverty over the next couple of years? There is some £80 per household for children in Northern Ireland, as against £600 in other parts of the United Kingdom, so child poverty will be much more important to us.
The next days and months will tell us clearly what impact the Budget will have. I am concerned that the welfare savings of £11 billion will devastate the poor. Will the Chancellor look seriously at that?
I think that England and Slovenia have been playing for 15 minutes—I do not know what the score is—and am mindful that some Members will wish to see what is happening, but I want to make one last point, on disability living allowance. When I read of the DLA changes, I was exasperated and deeply concerned, because I felt that they were a direct attack on those who can least face up to such an attack. There are some delays in relation to how the system will be run. Many of the cases that I have fought as an elected representative have been on behalf of those who need DLA—those who have mobility problems, who are getting over cancer operations or who have immobilising diseases. Such cases have involved those with heart problems, and many involve people who have extensive care needs.
Why target a section of the community who basically need that money more than anything else? Do the Government see savings? They may see savings, but I see the people and their needs, as a great many other hon. Members do. I ask the Government to reconsider, and to look carefully at whether they should pursue savings from those who receive DLA. Doing so will impact on a group of people who can least respond and deal with the financial implications. People who are on DLA focus on their health and how to get through the day, as do the people who care for them. If the Government add to that a financial burden by making it hard for them to receive their benefits, their health will be affected. I am not in the business of doing that, and I hope the Government are not.
I rest my case on that point, and I hope that my comments will be taken on board. The Budget delivers some things for us. I am not being critical of all of it, but I am critical of some measures. I ask the Government to take those matters on board. I hope that they will have some better ideas on DLA. We all have to work with the Budget—we cannot do so individually—but the Government need to take on board the needs of those who are less able to face the financial burdens that will come upon them.
I welcome you to your place, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is 20 minutes past 3, so I am surprised—but glad—to see you in your seat, because the England game against Slovenia has now started. I know that you have been to Slovenia many times, and it is great to see you here.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on his passionate and balanced speech. I served in Northern Ireland and am aware not only of many of the challenges that hon. Members face over there, but of the opportunities. It is a pleasure to follow him, and I agree very much about the opportunities in the development and working of the cadets in bringing communities closer together. It is wonderful to see that initiative moving forward.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson), who has just walked out the Chamber, made an entirely negative speech. Yes, whichever party won the election would have faced challenges, but how can she stand there and simply demand more money for certain projects in certain parts of the country, without saying where it should come from? Labour Members have failed to understand the consequences of the election result. It was clear that nobody won, so why continue to look back at the manifestos of individual parties and ask, “Why are you now not doing this, or that?” We had to rise to the occasion and ask, “What is needed for the country?” We have to put aside our party differences and meet the challenge, which is to bring about stable government and leadership. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives were able to do that, but of course it meant a certain amount of compromise. So it is wrong to harp on about aspects of the manifesto and say, “Why haven’t you included this? Why haven’t you done that? You’ve gone against the people who voted for you.”
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in the election there was a fundamental divide over the approach to the economic recovery, which was encapsulated in the manifestos of the two main parties that lost—the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats? The Tories did not win outright either, but those two significant parties both, at the time, agreed with Nick and Vince that we had to delay making the cuts until the recovery was ensured.
I am grateful for that intervention because it gives me licence to underline the fact that, if we are to move into a coalition, there needs to be agreement, and it is a tribute to the parties and the leaders that in a short period they achieved something that, in countries such as Belgium, takes 100 days—forming a coalition grouping while all the horse-trading takes place. Yes, there are compromises and changes that were not expected during the election. However, according to the polls the country supports what we are doing.
Does the hon. Gentleman think it a minor omission that, although the Conservatives’ manifesto said that they would not increase VAT, they have done exactly that and introduced an enormous, £13 billion tax? There was no mention of that before, so should we trust their manifestos in future?
Rather than leave a curt note on the desk of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, we have given an indication of the real situation in the UK. Again, I underline the fact that there are aspects of the coalition agreement we perhaps were not expecting—that should be understood on both sides of the House. I fear that it will remain a Labour tactic to go on about this, perhaps to try to drive a wedge into the coalition. That is dangerous, out of touch and wrong, because the nation said to us, “We don’t support any one party outright”, but it approves of a coalition and the leadership, and the stability that they and this Budget are providing.
My hon. and good Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) made an excellent maiden speech. He mentioned Guy Fawkes wandering through his constituency, and I am sure he will make just as big a bang in this place as Guy Fawkes did. I cannot mention Harrogate without also paying tribute to Betty’s tea rooms. Those of us who have gone there for conferences will appreciate the delicacies that Betty’s provides—I only wish that could be emulated here in the House. The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), who also is no longer in his place, made the most Marxist speech I have heard in this place for many years. I was waiting to see how long it would be before Maggie was blamed for what has happened over the past 13 years—and that is what we got from him. I was astonished.
This emergency Budget is tough but necessary, difficult but unavoidable. It is not the time for timid steps in the hope that we can tiptoe our way out of recession. We needed a bold statement of intent, mapping out a clear route to recovery and invigorating confidence in our businesses and markets. That is exactly what we got. Three main themes run through the Budget and Red Book. The first is one of responsibility in reducing the deficit over the next five years, mostly through spending cuts but also, yes, through some tax rises. That is the price we must pay for Labour’s incompetence and legacy.
Economic growth is the second theme. Measures taken in the Budget are designed to support businesses and stimulate growth, which will help to generate jobs as businesses are able to expand. That will mean cutting red tape, which will free businesses, because removing red tape is the same as introducing a tax cut but without reducing public revenue. It also means preventing Labour’s job tax through a rise in national insurance, reducing corporation taxes and improving our infrastructure.
The third theme is fairness. Of course, we are in a period of austerity, but every part of society must make a contribution to paying off our debts. At the same time, however, we must protect the least well-off. Listening to some of the contributions from Opposition Members, one might think that no such initiatives were part of the Budget. However, we have ensured that those earning less than £21,000 in the public sector will not be subject to the pay freeze. We will see a £1,000 increase in the personal tax allowance for low and middle-income earners; and finally we will see a re-linking of the basic state pension and earnings—well overdue and promised for years by Labour, but never acted upon. We will also see a £2 billion commitment to child tax credits for the poorest families, helping to ensure that there is no increase in measured child poverty over the next few years.
These are the tough decisions we need to take. We have to do this to secure our financial markets and ensure that credit agencies do not lose confidence in Britain. If we do not, interest rates and inflation will rise, and that is what would lead to the dreaded double-dip recession. I am glad that our triple A rating is now secured, thanks to the Budget.
I will give the Labour Government their due: they acted promptly and expeditiously when the Northern Rock issue broke. But then what happened? We have been left with one of the worst economic inheritances imaginable. They racked up one of the biggest budget deficits in Europe. If that is not shocking enough, our borrowing amounts to unheard sums of money. They continued to live beyond their means, borrowing £1 for every £4 they spent, which led to the doubling of the national debt. I well remember Labour’s last Budget, in March 2010. I was sitting in this Chamber waiting for the leadership, initiative and guidance to take us out of this mess. It was the Labour Government’s last opportunity before the election to get us out of the mess they created, but it was more about the political, rather than the economic, cycle. The previous Chancellor went as far as announcing £40 billion of cuts, but he did not say where the axe would fall, so he managed to ring-fence a black hole, which was a first in this House.
Significantly, the Labour party really had nothing to say yesterday. The acting leader of the Labour party was almost like a rabbit in the headlights. Labour Members rolled out the same old line, which we have heard time and again—I am sure we will hear it again in the summation today—about “the same old Tories”, thereby exhibiting an insane refusal to acknowledge the scale of the economic crisis. We have seen Labour Members attempting endlessly to promote and fight a class war with the Conservatives. That is the direction in which they are now trying to take us, avoiding any notion of mea culpa or of taking responsibility for the mistakes made in the lead-up to the current crisis. That illustrates how out of touch the Labour party has become.
Labour continues to argue that we cannot rip the money out of the economy—through the cuts, the increases, and so forth—and also achieve growth, but I believe that we can. We need to give business and the private sector the space to breathe by reducing national insurance and corporation tax. Those are the measures we need to take. That is what will help us to avoid going into a double-dip recession, allowing our businesses to thrive and employment to grow. Labour’s tactic—I am worried about this, because I understand that the unions bankroll Labour to the tune of 60%—is to fight the public sector cuts. That is what we will see as things move forward: these astonishing arguments why, unlike any other part of our society, the public sector should somehow be ring-fenced and not have to share some of the economic pain we are experiencing.
The unions are clearly looking for a fight. I pay tribute to the nurses, doctors, teachers, train drivers—all those who work hard—but let us look at who is now taking over some of the unions: Dave Prentis from Unison, who has pledged to fight the cuts; Christine Blower from the National Union of Teachers, who has enthusiasm for industrial action of some form, as she has made clear; and Paul Kenny from the GMB. Then there is the Unite leader, Len McCluskey—we have all seen what he has done to British Airways—who is seeking re-election. If he gets re-elected, the consequence will be strike after strike, because the public sector unions—not the members, but the unions—do not recognise that we are all in this together.
Labour’s tactic is to blame the global downturn. We hear this all the time: “It’s not our fault; this is because of what happened right across the world.” However, as I pointed out in an intervention, yes, we are exposed—perhaps more than other countries—because of the size of our financial services sector, which is one of the biggest in the world. That is accepted, but we cannot get away from the fact that the previous Government changed the rules, making it unclear who was responsible for the City back in the late 1990s. That is why we got into the position where banks were lending money they did not have to people who did not understand the situation, and in ways that meant that they could not pay it back. That is what led to the current position.
We cannot blame Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae or the sub-prime market for the fact that, even up to about two years ago, Bradford & Bingley was offering mortgages of more than 125% to people who clearly could not pay them back. I remember when I was at university wandering into Midland bank, as it then was, and seeking a mortgage. I was told that I had to cough up one third of the price of the house. What happened to that rule? It went, and that is why we ended up with more money than houses were worth being lent to people who could not pay it back. That is a British problem, not an international one, and that is what led to the crisis we face now.
I repeat my earlier point: I think Labour are going to adopt the tactic of trying to drive a wedge between the coalition by saying, “The Lib Dems said one thing in the election and the Tories said another.” The nation will get bored of it. People want direction—they want leadership and stability—not harping back to what happened prior to the election.
Let us look at the numbers. Our focus is to try to balance the books by 2016. We will cut the structural budget deficit to zero in the next six years. That deficit represents the hole in the public finances that is not expected to be repaired by the economic recovery. That is why we need to take the initiative that we have. Let us look at what the shadow Chancellor has done. I asked him in an intervention whether he supports the Office for Budget Responsibility. I am pleased to say that for the first time, he placed it on the record that he does. However, it is difficult to take anything that he or anybody else on the Labour Front Bench says seriously, given that the OBR reviewed his figures and revised his growth forecast for 2011 from 3.25% to 2.6%.
As the hon. Gentleman is talking about the Office for Budget Responsibility and its forecasts, will he have the good grace to note that its recent deficit forecasts are considerably lower than those in the March Budget because more money has been collected in taxes? The deficit that the hon. Gentleman is obsessing about is actually 2% of GDP lower than the forecast in the March Budget. Will he have the decency to recognise the other side of the coin, as well as this side of it?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) says from a sedentary position, the structural deficit is actually higher.
Let me deal now with total borrowing as stated by the Office for Budget Responsibility. This is now expected to fall by 2.1% of GDP by 2015, or by £37 billion, which is exactly half of what Labour were predicting, and to reach 1.1% by 2016.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman was listening to the question I asked him. Given that he is quoting one particular forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility, will he have the good grace to say on the Floor of the House that the size of the current deficit is now 2% of GDP lower than we predicted in the March Budget? The situation in which we find ourselves is not a lot worse than we thought; it is better.
The hon. Lady has put her point on the record. My argument is that it is difficult for us to take what the shadow Chancellor says seriously when he has been looking through rose-tinted glasses for the last 10 years. Time after time, either he or his predecessor, the former Prime Minister, came up with growth forecasts that were well out of touch with what was happening. That is what led us down the path of thinking that the economy was doing much better than it really was. [Interruption.] If the hon. Lady would stop talking, she would hear what I am saying. She must understand that if the previous Government had not kept on expressing the view that the economy was on the mend when it was not, they would have recognised the position and put in place corrections to stop the spending. The first point I made was the fact that her Government were living beyond their means, yet the hon. Lady still sits there and argues, without even having the grace or the courtesy to say sorry to the nation for the mess we are in.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes a powerful point. Let us not forget that we are quibbling—well, not quibbling, but the hon. Lady is making an argument about pretty small sums of money if we consider that this country’s total debt is £932 billion. That is a record across Europe, it really is. It currently stands at more than 62% of GDP and is forecast to peak at 70% by 2013-14 and finally to start to fall in 2015-16. This is shocking; it is a cost to the taxpayer to the tune of £43.3 billion in borrowing alone. That is more than the defence budget—an outrageous position to be in. Any business presenting figures like that would be labelled bankrupt.
The OBR forecasts that the UK economy will grow by 1.2% this year and 2.3% in 2011—not what was predicted, as Chancellor said. Unemployment is forecast to rise to a peak of 8.1% this year, while inflation is expected to peak at 2.7% by the end of the year before falling back to the 2% target. What has happened is that we have put in the initiatives to ensure that we keep a cap on unemployment, a cap on inflation and, most importantly, a cap on interest rates. As the markets and financiers agree, if interest rates were forced to go up higher, that is what would lead to the double-dip recession.
Let me deal briefly with Europe. The Opposition now claim that we should not look over our shoulder at what is happening in Spain, Portugal or Greece, but I think it is wise to recognise the folly of what would have happened if Tony Blair had had his way when Labour were in power. I am still astonished that it has taken until, I think, last week to close the office of preparation for entering the euro. That is absolutely barmy. It is worth pointing out that if we had wanted to join the euro club, the maximum budget deficit would have been 3% of GDP in any year. In 2009, Greece’s budget deficit was running at 13.6%. We came in at 11.2%, so there are some similarities.
It is recognised that the eurozone is in a mess because of trading patterns. After joining the club in 1999, Germany’s exports to Greece increased by 133%, and the Germans are no doubt delighted about that. However, Greek exports to Germany increased by only 13%, so the system is one way. Not all those exports have been paid for, and that is probably why Germany feels obliged to help with the Greek debt situation. Part of the problem is also that the Mediterranean countries are not as open as they should be, and skewed the stats in order to join the club in the first place. That is why we were wise to stay out of the eurozone. With such huge fiscal disparities, the 16 economies that share the single currency face a massive reality check. In its current form, the euro could be finished.
Let me turn to specific Budget measures. I am pleased that the Office for Budget Responsibility has been created. I am also pleased by efforts to restore the pension link to earnings. My constituency has many elderly people, as does wider Dorset, and we have called for the measure for a long time. I also want to dismiss a myth from the election campaign that the Conservatives would get rid of winter fuel payments and free bus travel. Such scaremongering was completely out of order, and I am glad to say that the provisions are still in place.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because I heard his party on many occasions in opposition deride winter fuel payments, child tax credits and child trust funds as a waste of money. Therefore, it was reasonable for us to scare the horses, and it was right that the Prime Minister was forced to do a dramatic U-turn.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We all understand that things are said in the Chamber that perhaps cannot be said outside. During the election, however, the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), made it very clear that we had no truck with the idea of getting rid of the winter fuel allowance or free bus passes. He even said that in the debate with the then Prime Minister, and yet Labour still put out scaremongering leaflets. When we get into election mode, let us have a bit more honesty. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene again or has he given up?
I also welcome the freeze on council tax, and I am pleased that Bournemouth borough council has met the rules on that. It is important that there is a relationship to encourage local councils to take more responsibility for their own matters, but to get rewarded for that by Government.
I am pleased with the initiatives on small businesses. They make up 90% of our economy, and we need to look after them. In places such as the south-west and Bournemouth, tourism is important—it is our fifth biggest industry—and we do not do enough to support it. Benefit will come from the lowest ever corporation tax—the main rate has been cut from 28% to 24%—and the cut in the tax rate for small companies from 21% to 20%. There has also been an expansion of the loans guarantee system, without which many good companies were frustrated in getting money from the banks. I am pleased that the Treasury Front-Bench team has realised that.
Fat government will also be reduced. A 25% reduction over the next four years will be very difficult, but government became bloated and far too centralised under Labour. I look forward to a much simpler set-up that gives more power to communities.
This Budget is the most dramatic and far-reaching since the war. Balancing the books must be a priority, but even in these tough times the Budget promotes a cultural shift in Britain, encouraging the individual, the family, the community and the country to take responsibility. Ensuring that the banking sector and financial services are better regulated to avoid a repeat of the economic downturn is long overdue. This Budget is an ambitious effort to reduce the nation’s borrowing and repair the damage created by the last Labour Government. Labour will no doubt claim that many of these radical measures can be avoided, while secretly knowing that, had they miraculously won the election, they would have had to implement the very same changes themselves.
Let me end by congratulating the Chancellor and his team on producing such a comprehensive and robust Budget. While recognising the difficulties that it will impose on the entire country, I believe that it is appropriate and overdue medicine to expedite Britain’s way to recovery.
I have enjoyed the debate very much so far. It has exposed a fundamental division between our approaches to the question of how to emerge from the recession. Although it has been said that ideologies are dead, I think that it has exposed a fundamental division between our ideologies as well. What those ideologies and those approaches mean to me are the impact on a single mother on a council estate in my constituency or a pensioner who has put a bit away in a house at the top of Maesteg, and it is the same across the country.
I thank the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for reminding me just how vast the gap is between the ways in which we approach and understand the task of resolving the present situation. He began by asking us again to be “all in this together”. I hope I shall be able to go some way towards explaining why I cannot join him in that mission.
I knew before the election that if we were unsuccessful and were not returned to government, we could expect this approach. I must say in fairness to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues—including the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), who leads his party—that they were frank and upfront. We were not given the detail, but they said that this was what they would do. However, while I have a great deal of genuine respect for Members on the other side of the House—I am not trying to embarrass them—I did not expect that they would end up on this side of the fence when the moment came, and their action has disappointed me. It has exposed a division that will last in the Liberal Democrat party for a generation, which, from my perspective, is greatly to be regretted. I should have thought that we would still have some allies, as we did before the election, along with all the economists who are still saying that this is the wrong action to take.
I must apologise for confusing David Blanchflower and Danny Blanchflower, especially as there is, I understand, a football match going on somewhere at the moment. I am not a great football fan, although I wish England all the best. Unfortunately, Wales has not been in a major competition for about 54 years.
Well done England. Keep it going. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in wishing the Welsh team all the best in the repeat match against the All Blacks at the weekend.
I do not often get depressed in this place, but I was utterly depressed yesterday as the Budget statement approached, and not for the obvious reasons. First, I was depressed because we were sitting on the Opposition Benches. We will say what we can, and we will do our best to articulate a different vision of the best way forward and the practical measures that should be taken, but the truth is that we are now in opposition. Secondly, I was depressed because the members of the coalition appear to have closed their minds to any alternative argument. If they are right, and if in a year or two I see that my communities have not been damaged disproportionately by the measures that they are proposing, I will acknowledge that. However, I was surprised to note that—as has already been pointed out—the poverty commitment in the Budget extends for only two years.
In a moment.
The previous Government had a long-standing commitment to tackling poverty, and, although they were not succeeding in everything, they were doing a great deal to lift people out of it. That commitment could have been one of the fundamental principles in the Budget even in a time of austerity—a time of “We’re all in it together”—and not just for two years, but for the five years guaranteed by the 55% breakaway option. I hope that the hon. Lady will join me in saying to her Front Benchers, “Come forward with the figures that show that poverty is not going to increase for the five-year life of this Parliament.”
Thank you very much for giving way, and I am looking forward to hearing what else you have to say. What you have said so far would, however, have much more credibility if you had not represented a Government who tried a different approach for 13 years, with high-falutin’ goals to reduce poverty to help your constituents, and who failed miserably in that. Is the hon. Gentleman truly saying that in his view there should be no cuts—that the broken economic model should roll on as before and that that is the way to repair the economy—or does he have some idea of where the cuts should have fallen?
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, may I just say to the hon. Lady, first, that interventions are supposed to be brief—I hope that all Members will take note of that? Secondly, on the use of “you”, may I remind the hon. Lady that her comments are not addressed to me in the Chair? Given that we have been back in the Chamber for quite some time now, I think Members need to come back to addressing each other correctly when putting questions.
My apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker, for not welcoming you to the Chair.
My answer to the hon. Lady’s second question is: absolutely not. None of us can resile from the fact that there will need to be not just efficiencies, but cuts and prioritisation of projects and spending, and that will hurt. My fundamental point, which I shall return to in some detail shortly, is about how we do it and when we do it; the timing of it.
I have to say that I could not disagree more with the hon. Lady’s earlier point, and neither could most of the child charities or the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. [Interruption.] Yes, we have had criticism for not going far enough, but I return to the remarks of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about child tax credits. They can sometimes be complicated. I sometimes have constituents in my office who say, “Can you help me sort this out, because we have letters going back and forth?” I tell the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) this, however: none of my constituents would do without them because of the material difference they have made to them.
When I send my children to school, I know that if they come home and say they have a trip to go on and it will cost a fiver, a tenner or £20, I can say to them, “Don’t you worry. I’m on an MP’s salary; it’ll be okay.” I also know, however, that there are constituents of every Member in this House who will have to make the choice between putting groceries on the table and putting that money towards things such as school trips. So when the hon. Lady says this makes no difference, I can honestly say to her, “Go and look at the statistics. Go and look at the numbers of those who have been lifted out of absolute poverty under the previous Government.” If she shares this commitment—as I am sure she does—I tell her to put the pressure on the coalition Government to make it clear before the summer what their poverty targets are, and not for two years, but for five years.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will make a little progress first, and then give way.
The question that we should be asking is: how does this country get itself out of the recession more quickly and in better shape, rebuilding manufacturing and the private sector, with minimum damage to society—to front-line services and vulnerable people and communities —and also while minimising job losses, because we have been there before? I have not always been an MP. I used to work in the private sector, and I went into lecturing. When I was a lecturer, three types of essay were put in front of me. There were the poor ones, and I would offer constructive advice and say, “You need to do this to get better.” There were the essays that were done very well, and even then I said, “You need to tweak and adjust and do better.” There were also the ones that had misunderstood the question. I noticed in the Budget statement yesterday that the headline issue was dealing with the sovereign debt crisis. That was repeated by the hon. Member for Bournemouth East today when he said that the priority is to ensure our financial status to ensure our credit status. Those things are vital, but surely it is at least equally important to avoid the situations that we had in the 80s and at other times. Measures such as the current proposals lead unnecessarily —this is a judgment issue—to greater unemployment than that mentioned in the Red Book. Such levels of unemployment would lead to greater damage to individuals and communities. I really hope that the Chancellor is correct in his approach and that the Liberal Democrats are supporting the right way forward, but I worry that we have seen this all before.
Let us look at some of the detail. The Government are going to adopt the consumer price index for the uprating of benefits and tax credits from April 2011. The effect will be that benefits and tax credits will diminish and wither year after year. On disability living allowance, the Government will introduce the use of objective medical assessments for all DLA claimants from 2013-14. I am waiting to see the detail on that, because extensive work had already been done by the previous Government on welfare reform, medical assessments and the test. The lack of detail is what worries me. Is this approach about using the stick or the carrot? If it is entirely about using the stick, I guarantee that we will be punishing people who are very vulnerable and who do not have a voice to object. If it is about using the carrot as well—our Government were focused on that and I think that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who was looking into social mobility for the Government, suggested that measures should be more about using the carrot—where are those resources to come from? The worrying thing about this Budget is that we have no detail, and I should like to see that detail as rapidly as possible.
On tax credits, from April 2011, the second income threshold for the family element of child tax credit will reduce from £50,000 to £40,000, and from April 2012, the family element of child tax credit will be withdrawn immediately after the child element. Therefore, it is not just higher-rate taxpayers who will be hit by the measures; working couples could also be hit. The combined salaries of two people on low to middle incomes will take them out of that.
Let me touch on one other aspect of detail—the cost of housing benefit. Yesterday, the Chancellor used one example to illustrate how the system is broken. Various pieces of research could have shown another 100 examples similar to the Chancellor’s, but they would be examples of the extremes. Let me put a concern to the House. What will happen if the policy makes families homeless? What will happen when children are dislocated from their schools or their friends, or when vulnerable families are removed from social care packages and support as they flee to cheaper rent areas? Has any thought whatever been given to the effect of the policy on ghettoisation? Was there any discussion in the run-up to the Budget with organisations that represent the homeless, vulnerable families or children in poverty? I would really like to know that.
I happen to have worked personally with the Centre for Social Justice in the past couple of years, and I know that colleagues there have put enormous effort into all the areas that the hon. Gentleman has just listed. Of course the CSJ is independent, but the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is now in the Cabinet. The hon. Gentleman should rest assured that the Conservative party has put enormous effort into all those things.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his reassurance, but I will be reassured when I see the detail. I will be reassured when I see that this policy will not have the impacts that I have just laid out. We are privileged to be here and to be able to speak up for people. Let us speak up, as I am sure he would want to do, for those who could be disadvantaged by the unforeseen consequences of this response to Daily Mail headlines.
“Ending payments like the health and pregnancy grant and slashing child tax credits at a £40,000 joint income threshold is going to put pressure on families already struggling.”
Those are not my words, but those of Bob Reitemeier, the chief executive of the Children’s Society. He added:
“We are also concerned about the amount to be clawed back from the welfare bill over the next five years as the chancellor aims to find savings of £40 billion.”
Gingerbread, the charity for single parents, has said that families having a second child could be worse off by up to £1,200 a year. Chief executive Fiona Weir said:
“Having a baby puts the family finances under pressure. These cuts will really hit families with young children hard.”
The concerns are not mine alone, therefore, and I am genuinely not indulging in party politics. I will say well done to the Government if their proposals are right and they work, but my real fear is that they are acting prematurely and going in too hard, when there are alternatives that are not being considered and which I shall turn to now.
The Chancellor and the Business Secretary regularly cite the examples of Canada and Sweden when it comes to cutting deficits. However, I shall repeat until I am blue in the face that both countries acted against a backdrop of strong economic growth in their export markets. Unless I have missed something, that is not available to countries in Europe, or the eurozone.
Other positive elements in the case of Canada and Sweden were currency devaluation and the active use of monetary policy. However, in the first case we have been there and done that already with sterling and, in the second, hon. Members will know that our base rate is already low.
Without those three little helpers—those three legs of the stool—we do not get the economic support or growth that, under the plans being put forward by the coalition Government, are essential if we are to mitigate the worst excesses of the proposed cuts, beyond the Red Book. What we do get is all the pain of savage cuts, and absolutely none of the gain. That will go on for years.
In fact—I hate to say this, but I am not alone in doing so—we could well go backwards. If, in a year, we are slipping backwards or limping along like some invalid at the bottom of an economic cycle, it will not be because people such as me failed to stand up and make the opposing case. It is important that someone does that, alongside the economists outside the House.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I do not quite understand his logic. Two of the three legs of the stool to which he refers—the loose monetary policy and the devaluation—remain in place, to the benefit of British industry. It is only the third leg that is absent.
Indeed. Those two legs have been put in place already, but Sweden and Canada actively used both of them during the period of the cuts in order to make the cuts work. We can no longer do that, and we certainly do not have economic growth.
I put that to the Chancellor in this Chamber on two occasions last week. On the first, he dealt with what I said as a purely party-political matter, and swatted me down. I understand: we do that in this place. On the second occasion, however, he did not have an answer, saying merely that this was a matter of judgment—and that is what I am worried about.
This is a very important issue. All our funding for health, education, social services, local authorities, transport, and the attack on poverty is entirely dependent on one big macro-decision about how we go forward from this recession. If the coalition Government are right, I say good luck to them: they will get my praise in one, two, or five years. However, if they are wrong—and no one on the coalition Benches is willing to accept that there is even a scintilla of a possibility that they could be wrong—they must recognise that some people told them so in advance, and with good reason.
The scenario may have been different in the 1980s, but we saw the effect that the approach adopted by the Government had then. We saw it in a very personal way, as friends who used to have jobs became unemployed. They would knock on our doors asking to clean windows or do other odd jobs just to make ends meet. We knew what was happening, because our children went to the same schools, and that is why I ask the Government please to accept that there is an alternative.
What do others say? Economic commentators such as Will Hutton, Paul Krugman and David Blanchflower have all pointed out that the proposed cuts are about twice as extreme as those undertaken in Canada and threaten the recovery. The cuts seem to be motivated not by a good examination of the alternatives, but by ideology.
I return to my opening comments to the hon. Member for Bournemouth East. The Financial Times suggests that the emergency Budget will affect Wales—my home patch—disproportionately. I know that. As many as 50,000 to 60,000 jobs could be lost in the public sector, but that is not all. The knock-on effect of the loss of between 50,000 and 60,000 public sector jobs, in my constituency or in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), will be the loss of jobs in the private sector and the loss of retail confidence. High street shops will go and the bottom will be knocked out of our communities. Unemployment, and regional inequality, will grow and grow.
Will Hutton points out:
“No country has ever volunteered such austerity. It is as tough a package of retrenchment as the IMF imposed on Greece, a country on the brink of bankruptcy.”
He noted that it took Sweden three times as long to carry out the same level of cuts as the UK coalition Government want to impose.
The economist David Blanchflower noted that the effects of the Budget will hit young people disproportionately, and that a double-dip recession is almost inevitable. A double-dip recession is the spectre in the room—a Government Member urged us not to use that phrase but it would be remiss of me not to mention it. Of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, David Blanchflower says:
“If the young are first, I fully expect the disabled, the old and the weak to be the next target.”
There is an alternative way forward and I genuinely ask the Government to consider it. Will they also consider a new version of the Tobin tax, or Robin Hood tax—much derided for many years? It is good to see a bank levy, but it could have been more ambitious. An open letter to the Chancellor was signed by many Members, including our Green party representative, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), Welsh MPs, cross-party civic organisations, Save the Children Wales, Christian Aid Wales, the secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union Wales, the National Association of Probation Officers Wales and GMB Wales. It states:
“We are pleased that you support a bank tax, but a truly ambitious bank tax would mean those with the broadest shoulders bear the brunt of the cost of the economic recovery, whereas a rise in Value Added Tax or premature cuts to public services would hit the poorest hardest.”
That letter was genuinely cross-party. Some of the greatest advocates of that approach sat in the Liberal Democrat camp on the Opposition Benches, and we tried very hard to get a signature from a Welsh Liberal Democrat. It seems that the lines about premature cuts are now out of date.
I say to the Government, please be right. We often pull at the emotional heartstrings about the 1980s, but if the Budget damages my communities as I think it will, when there is an alternative, I shall certainly never forget or forgive, and nor will my communities, because we have seen it all before. I hope we are not seeing old-style 1980s Tory cuts. I hope that the measures that the coalition Government say will mitigate the worst excesses for the lowest deciles and quintiles are well judged, but I fear they are not. Why are the coalition Government not even considering an alternative way forward that minimises the risks to communities such as mine?
It is a privilege to make my first speech in this Parliament and to do so from the Government Benches. May I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your election? It is great to see you in the Chair. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) on a splendid maiden speech. He will obviously go on to represent his constituents with great poise and ability.
I should like to pay tribute to my new right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. Far from being the damascene conversion that Opposition Members have mentioned, his ability to meet the top officials in the Treasury and the Bank of England, study the evidence and conclude that he had been wrong in his assessment of how quickly we need to deal with the deficit shows a man of huge stature, to be honest. It is incredible that the shadow Chancellor, who must have been in possession of the same advice, came to a completely different conclusion.
Today’s debate has been fairly predictable, and I am certain that if Opposition Members were true to themselves they would say that they know perfectly well that, if they had been elected—God forbid—as the Government of this country, they would have had to take some pretty severe measures to deal with the deficit that we have inherited. I pay tribute to the coalition Government, frankly, for being as brave as they have been. This is an austere and difficult Budget, and every person—rich or poor—in the country will take pain. There is no getting away from that.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the volte-face performed by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills reflects perhaps more on his inconsistency and shifting values, as opposed to the position adopted by Labour Front Benchers that has been consistent either side of the election?
I rather wish that I had not given way for that intervention, but, frankly, it says more about the hon. Gentleman than about the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, whom I regard as having the greater stature because of what he has done.
I am amazed that the shadow Chancellor can conclude that severe action did not need to be taken to deal with our deficit. If we had not begun to take such action, the international markets would have taken the lead. Spot interest rates and bond rates would rise sharply. The cost of financing the huge deficit that we inherited would rise substantially. Business failures would accelerate. Unemployment would rise. Ultimately, by not taking the action that we have taken, we would return to recession. I completely take the opposite view from that of Opposition Members, who have said that we do not need to deal with deficit in the way we have now done.
Those siren voices of the Opposition would have led us into greater trouble than we are in now. What we see from the Opposition is a legacy where the gap between the rich and the poor grew in their 13 years in government. I would be bitterly disappointed if the Government’s actions do not lead to the economy being immeasurably stronger in five years’ time. We can then start to reduce that gap and put money into poor communities, exactly as the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) wants us to do, so that we can start to benefit some of the poorest people in society.
It was a huge tribute to the Chancellor that he said time after time yesterday that he wanted to bring the bottom of this country nearer to the top, with some of the measures that underlie the Budget—for example, how he will deal with the state pension. Opposition Members had 13 years to deal with the state pension. More than 1 million pensioners had to go grovelling to the Government and to fill in huge forms to get pension credit. We have now promised that everyone will receive a pension increase linked to earnings, prices or 2.5%, whichever is higher. That is real promise. Pensioners can now look forward to receiving at least a 2.5% increase from 2011.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Labour Government legislated to make the link between pensions and earnings possible in 2008, and that we were timetabled to introduce that in 2012. Will he confirm his Government’s intention to pay the winter fuel allowance next year at the same level as we paid it to our pensioners last year?
I remind the hon. Lady that the Labour party won the election in 1997. The Labour Government had between 1997 and 2008 to do something about that, but meanwhile more than 1 million pensioners had to go through means-testing and fill out huge forms to get pension credit. A considerable number did not want to claim the credit, because they were too proud to do so, and they therefore lived in poverty. In the first few weeks of this new Government, pensioners have got a better deal than at any point under the 13 years of the previous Labour Government.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Labour Government’s 75p increase for pensioners a number of years ago, which was reduced to 50p after tax, was an insult not only to pensioners, but to the people of this country, which is supposed to be one of the modern countries of the world?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Many pensioners have told me exactly that—that it was an insult—so I hope that we can move away from treating our elderly people in such a way. As I have said before in the House—I remember raising this point with the then right hon. Member for Sedgefield during Prime Minister’s questions—the way in which a society treats its elderly people is a mark of that society’s civilisation. I hope that we will treat our elderly people with respect.
In an excellent, sober speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) put his finger on an interesting yet under-mentioned aspect of our economic problems. It is demonstrated by the table on page 7 of the Red Book, which shows that private debt has doubled in the past 13 years. It is, of course, up to members of households to make their personal decisions, but it is also up to the Government of the day to regulate the totality of private debt. The level of private debt has become unsustainable, something on which I often chased the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) in Budget debates. As the Red Book shows, the savings ratio was lower by the end of the Labour Government than at any time since the 1950s. It is incumbent on any Government of the day not only to encourage savings, but to ensure that the savings culture exists in a stable regime in which inflation is not completely out of control. If we did not take the action outlined in the Budget, interest rates would rise, thus putting inflationary pressure on the economy.
No Government would willingly take such action, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor had to set out a host of tough choices yesterday, but I do not think that the Budget was ideological. The hon. Gentleman has to be honest with himself when he thinks about ways to deal with the deficit. We should not underestimate the scale of the problem. This year’s public sector net borrowing requirement of £149 billion is almost the equivalent of the combined budget for health and education. The scale of the deficit explains why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor had to make really difficult and brave decisions, but by taking such action now, I hope that we will be able to return to a situation in which we can start to help some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society, which is what any responsible Government ought to be about.
We will get out of this mess by promoting growth in the private sector and rebalancing our economy. We need to get Britain innovating and making things, and to sell our goods and services to the rest of the world. All the calculations in the Budget are predicated on a rate of growth, and it is the private sector that will deliver that growth. By taking the right measures in the Budget and concentrating on the right things, we might be able to exceed the growth targets set out by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor yesterday. Labour Chancellors have been pretty bad at forecasting growth rates. My right hon. Friend, in line with the Office for Budget Responsibility, has given very prudent forecasts of growth rates. I sincerely hope that we will be able to exceed those forecasts.
Until the election, I served as the shadow Minister for international trade and development, and I know that the actions of the Chancellor in supporting exporters will be critical to how our country moves forward in the coming months and years. After all, in the years from 1996 to 2004, firms that were new to exporting achieved, on average, a 34% increase in productivity in their year of entry—the very fact of their going into exporting made them increase their productivity—and 60% of the UK’s productivity growth was attributable to exporting firms. It is therefore welcome that the Chancellor mentioned exports twice in his speech yesterday.
UK Trade & Investment is the Government’s arm that encourages exports and foreign direct investment. Its chief executive, Andrew Cahn, worked under seven different Trade Ministers in the previous Government. I hope that we will not have that revolving door in the present Government and that we will have consistency of Ministers, who will be able to look at our exports problem and achieve considerable improvement. In the years of Labour Government, UKTI’s budget was cut consistently.
Manufacturing accounts for more than half of our country’s exports. Labour Members will not like the figures I give, but they are absolutely true. In 1997, manufacturing employed 4.19 million people, but by December 2009, under Labour’s stewardship, that number had fallen to only 2.592 million. In other words, there had been a significant decline in the number of people employed in the manufacturing sector. That happened despite the value of sterling falling 24% between July 2007 and the present day. Perhaps one of the most devastating of figures pertaining to the period of Labour stewardship is on our trade deficit in goods, which has increased from £3.1 billion to more than £21 billion.
If Labour Members want to know the reason why we had our longest and deepest recession of our post-war history, it is that the Labour Government failed to support sectors of our economy that provide sustainable economic growth. If we are to exit the grips of recession, cushion the impact of austerity and have a sustainable future, exporters will be the engine room and will need to be given priority in the Chancellor’s thoughts and, indeed, across all Departments.
In his Budget statement, the Chancellor said that departmental budgets will be set out in the spending review later this year—quite rightly, he set a date for that of 20 October—with an average real reduction for unprotected Departments of 20%. Let me say to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary, who is on the Treasury Bench, that UKTI—our trade promotion body—is a rare thing: it is one of the few parts of Government that actually makes this country money. To meet the challenges of the future, to provide adequate support for our exporters and to attract FDI into this country, its budget must be protected, so that it can continue to support private sector growth and job creation in the UK.
We must also recognise that real reforms are needed to how we support our exporters and attract FDI to adapt to an ever-changing global marketplace. Those changes cannot be made without the correct budgetary support for UKTI, but the rewards for successful implementation are there. We appreciate the opportunities presented to us by having Europe on our doorstep and through our close relationship with north America. Currently, 70% of our exports go to the traditional developed markets of north America and the EU, but the financial support available for firms seeking to export to the wider and increasingly accessible world beyond that must be maintained, because estimates suggest that, by 2020, the EU and USA share of global gross domestic product will have declined to less than 40%. As was correctly identified—I tried to intervene on the shadow Chancellor—we have turbulence in our European markets and EU growth is expected to be sluggish for some time. That is why it is important that we pay due attention to rapidly expanding global markets elsewhere, which cost proportionately more to service than the easier markets of Europe and north America.
We must be proactive, not reactive. British firms must be backed to head for the second-tier cities in larger markets such as India and China. They must also look for unrealised potential in other countries first, before our competitors have won all the contracts. I looked at that problem around the world, and I found country after country where there was huge potential. The British were welcomed, our business men went out there and expressed interest, but somehow it was the Japanese, the Germans, the Americans and the Chinese who popped in and got the contracts. We must provide better support for our companies.
We must benchmark the performance of UKTI against the best of other countries, so that our trade efforts match or exceed those of our competitors. With our overseas network of embassies, we have a fantastic platform for developing British business, and we cannot afford to let departmental cuts affect their work. We need a widely respected senior figure—a FTSE ex-chairman —to go out banging the drum for the UK, selling the country around the world, and consistently to visit those markets to build up contracts.
Nationally, we must concentrate our efforts away from the regional structure introduced by the previous Government. What nonsense that was. Different regional assemblies had offices in the same city, such as Shanghai or Mumbai, all competing with one another for the same business. What a waste of taxpayers’ money, and what confusion it caused to those countries in which they were located.
I am interested in my hon. Friend’s important proposal for a roving ambassador for British business. Does he agree that there might be potential to retread Sir Digby Jones in that role, particularly as he said yesterday after the Budget:
“I think that sign has gone up around the world saying that Britain is serious about sorting out its economic mess”?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that she was upbraided by Mr Deputy Speaker a little while ago—it takes a long time to sort out parliamentary language, and references to “you” and the “hon. Gentleman”. She is absolutely right. I was modelling my remarks exactly on Digby Jones, who did a huge amount of work for this country, and spent an enormous amount of time travelling around the world. He had great, in-depth knowledge of huge sections of industry, having served as chairman of the CBI. We need to appoint someone of that calibre, who has the time, energy and availability to be able to do precisely that job.
As I said, the notion that RDAs should have offices around the world competing with one another led to a huge dilution of the UK brand. It caused confusion in the country in which they were located, and it did not serve our interests of attracting foreign direct investment to this country. I have no doubt that Ministers will abolish that structure rapidly, thereby producing much better results. I welcome the proposals for local enterprise partnerships, which are a huge step forward. We can help the private sector by not having a stratified structure of RDAs across the country. We need different structures in different parts of the country, to deal with the problems in each area. We must concentrate Government advice on business sectors, rather than on regions. It was complete nonsense that the Government’s car adviser was based in the north-east, unable to give advice to car manufacturers and component suppliers in Birmingham. We must concentrate on sectors, so that the automotive sector, for example, has a proper advice team in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
We must try to support those sectors that the UK is good at, and see how we can improve their export structure. I say this with hesitation at the moment, but our oil sector was respected throughout the world. Our pharmaceuticals, defence and financial services sectors were respected throughout the world, too, and in line with Sir James Dyson’s recommendations, we must aim to become the No.1 high-tech exporter in Europe. We will do that by concentrating on the new, high-growth market sectors, such as those involving low-carbon and green technologies. Those are the industries of the future, and we ought to concentrate on them. We must also ensure that our universities and their basic research are world-beating, and that companies have the incentive to develop those world-beating ideas into products and services that we can sell in greater and greater quantities throughout the world.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says about the potential of our export and manufacturing sectors, but does he support nuclear power, nuclear energy and the supply of components to the nuclear energy industry as one of those sectors that are important for our future?
I am very grateful for that intervention. I have always been a supporter of nuclear power, and I am one of the very few Members who have been to Chernobyl and survived, so I can see what goes wrong in the nuclear sector. However, with modern technology—I say this carefully—I can see that the nuclear sector has an important role to play in the range and mix of our power generation.
The Labour Government left us with another really dire legacy, however, because if we do not introduce nuclear power generation to this country I do not see how we can keep the lights going in the next 20 years—[Interruption.] The Liberal Democrats had different views, but they have looked at the problem and signed up to a nuclear power programme, and I congratulate them on that, because it is the right thing to do. We in this House should not come up with ideological dogma; we should all look at the facts and see what is the correct thing to do, which is—[Interruption.] It is all very well the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) pointing at the Liberal Democrats, but we in the Conservative party have had to swallow things that we do not like. We have looked at the facts and seen the correct thing to do. Therefore, I support nuclear power.
My hon. Friend will know of my long-term support for nuclear power, which I expressed often in the House in previous Parliaments. However, the critical thing is to be in favour not of nuclear power, but of a proper engineering and scientific-based assessment of how to ensure the lowest carbon energy, and if that leads us to nuclear, that is the correct answer.
As always, my hon. Friend’s wise words are correct. Nuclear power is not only an efficient way of generating energy, but a clean way. We have to use the very latest technology to deal with the nuclear waste that is produced, but I am absolutely certain that if we adopt an open mind and let our scientists get to work, we will find better and better ways of dealing with the waste that nuclear power stations produce. I welcome my hon. Friend’s support on that.
Innovation and exports are just beginning to return, and I am sure that hon. Members from all parts, if they have listened to businesses in their constituencies, will have had that experience. I have a wonderful firm in my constituency, a small FTSE company called Renishaw. It is the world-beater in measuring technology—metrology—but unfortunately it had to lay off several hundred people during the worst of the recession. I am pleased to report to the House, however, that in the past month or so it has begun to re-employ people. That is good news, because we must all work hard on measures with regard to how we employ the maximum number of people in this country. There is nothing worse than people who want to work but are unemployed—and unemployed through no fault of their own. We should concentrate on the terrible figures for 16 to 25-year-olds not in education, employment or training—the so-called NEETs—who are without jobs at the moment, because we have inherited a shocking waste of young talent.
In fact, in the 1980s youth unemployment was far higher than it is now. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that youth unemployment is a major challenge, but when I look around my own constituency at people who have never worked, they are almost all people who found themselves as young unemployed people 20 or 25 years ago. That is the real problem, and words are not enough—we need to find solutions.
I think, without knowing the hon. Lady’s constituency backwards, that there are particular factors in her part of the United Kingdom as to why there was that rise in youth unemployment. We can argue about what happened 20, 30 or 40 years ago, but that is almost irrelevant. I am concerned about what the situation is today and what my right hon. and hon. Friends are going to do to deal with it, and I think that they have got some interesting and innovative ideas .
I have another example of a small company. It exports 300 sidecars a year to the Japanese market. We have heard about how difficult the Japanese market is. At our very best, our small and medium-sized, and even our large companies, are very innovative and very good at getting out there and exporting into some of the most difficult markets in the world. They just need a little more support, and then we can get more businesses exporting to the rest of the world. Chatham House recently reported that
“a combination of services and high end manufacturing places Britain in a strong position to meet the needs of the world’s emerging economies in ways that will enable it to sustain its strong comparative advantage”.
It is the small and medium-sized firms that will lead us out of recession. It is the private sector that will compensate for the jobs that are lost in the public sector. It is the private sector to which we must give the right climate and right environment, and then it will thrive.
We have not only the right fiscal environment, but the right environment for dealing with bureaucracy and reducing the amount of burdens that Government place on the private sector. We must give it the right incentive to export and the right tools to do the job. I believe that this Government will lead us out of recession and that we will have a very much stronger economy in four or five years. I look forward to holding the hon. Member for Ogmore to his word. When we have a stronger economy, and when we start helping the most vulnerable in our society, I expect an apology from him.
May I join those who have congratulated you on your election, Madam Deputy Speaker? If I may give the House an update on the score in the England match, it is still 1-0. I think it is no coincidence that I am surrounded by an unusually large number of Welsh and Scottish colleagues. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this important Budget debate—the most important in more than 30 years.
Thirty years ago, in 1979, I was a young slip of a thing—only 17 or 18 years old—and I remember what I saw in the following years. I am not going to have a go at the record of the previous Tory Government, so those on the Government Benches can settle down. In areas such as South Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire, we saw huge devastation of our economies. Those of us who know the Don valley—I know that the Economic Secretary knows it very well—from its origins up in the north of Sheffield and in Barnsley through to Doncaster will remember the devastation of that lunar landscape: that is the only term that could have been used at one point to describe the lower Don valley. We saw the flattening of Hatfield, where now we have the Meadowhall shopping centre, and the devastation—as in the valleys of Wales—caused to other south Yorkshire valleys such as the Dearne valley. Where there were the pits of Manvers, Wath and Cortonwood, we now have a Morrisons supermarket and a retail centre.
I well remember all that. I remember, too, the work that we have done since then to try to repair the damage. We have tried to diversify our economies in the north of England—in places such as south Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire. To some extent we have succeeded. We have biosciences, sport and leisure, and retail—and we still have advanced manufacturing.
We were making progress, albeit very slowly, on reducing the gap in economic growth and prosperity between London and the south-east and places such as Yorkshire and the Humber, but what is happening now poses a new threat to our economy in the north. If we suffer significant damage yet again because of a return to recession, the fear is that that damage will be permanent and irreparable, and that we will be unable to move forward as we had previously hoped without even more funding—significant funding—from Government and Europe. That is the context to today’s debate. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) that the impact of the Budget on individuals and communities must be at the forefront of our minds.
Unfortunately, the Budget is a wasted opportunity to help the British economy on the road to recovery. Instead of investment and the promise of future jobs, we have a Budget of cuts for the poorest and regressive tax increases—a Budget that risks our future. The race to austerity that the Government seem determined to follow belongs to a lesser-known branch of economics called ignorance economics, as Leslie Budd of the Open university calls it. As he correctly points out, although it is sensible to cut waste, the slashing of spending can do much more harm than good. That is what the Budget, with its massive cuts to public spending, will do.
Unprotected Departments could have real-terms cuts of 25% over the next four years. The key question is this: how many nurses, police officers, teachers and other civil servants will be thrown on to the scrap heap in the years and months to come? How fair is it that one of the significant cuts in the local government budget will be in the area-based grant? Sheffield Hallam is one of the richest constituencies in the country, and Sheffield Brightside one of the poorest. The gap has decreased in the past 13 years, but there is still a 14-year difference in life expectancy between those constituencies. The abolition of the area-based grant will hit Brightside, but it will not hit Hallam in any way at all. How can that be fair?
The pupil premium has been promised, but we are hearing that it will be based on the abolition of additional educational needs funding and vulnerable children’s grants. If we roll that funding up into a pupil premium, will it be distributed fairly, or will more of it go to the south of England at the expense of the north?
Although I welcome, and offer my support for, the increase in personal allowances from next April, it will be more than wiped out by the regressive increase in VAT to 20% from January next year. There is no rise in the personal allowances for over-65s, which will disappoint many of my older constituents—indeed, I received an e-mail on that subject just this morning. That gives the lie to the argument that the Budget is all about fairness. Although the confirmation of Labour’s policy of linking the state pension to average earnings is welcome—it builds on policies developed by the Labour Government—not increasing the personal allowance for pensioners in line with those for everyone else is just wrong.
It is obvious that the Prime Minister’s words before the election—never mind the Deputy Prime Minister’s words—that he had no plans for an increase in VAT were as worthless as similar words spoken back in 1979. I remember very clearly that in 1979 the Conservatives said they would not double VAT. The first thing they did on coming into office was increasing VAT from 8% to 15%. That was not quite double, but it might as well have been.
When there is a need to maintain demand in the economy, the Budget risks squeezing demand and creating a double-dip recession, which could be worse than the one that we recently experienced. Let us get rid of the myth that the public sector is bad and that only the private sector can get the economy growing again. The balance has to be right, as we in south Yorkshire know better than others; we know it all too well. However, the two sectors are interlinked. Private companies benefit from Government investment, which is why we brought forward the capital projects—to keep the economy moving and to keep construction workers in work. Ensuring that the private sector works with the public sector can give us growth.
Let us also demolish the myth that only by putting forward austerity measures will we see growth in the economy. The lessons of the 1930s show that not to be true. Although the 1929 crash dealt a massive blow to the global economy, it was the neo-liberal austerity budgets that followed that led to a vicious decline in international economic activity, leading to protectionism, a collapse in world trade and depression. My fear—it is shared, I think, by every Opposition Member—is that that is exactly where we will go. We have seen austerity measures introduced not just by the UK, but by Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain. The House ought to think carefully before going down that path. It was only after the new deal in America that growth started to return in the 1930s. Sadly, Government Members do not seem able to learn the lessons of that period in our history.
The current rhetoric from Government Members is, “Look at what Canada did!” It has been mentioned already by Labour Members that Canada’s actions in the 1990s to wipe out its sovereign debt were taken in a completely different context. Canada was able to reduce interest rates quickly, and had a route for its exports in a booming US economy, because the value of the Canadian dollar was allowed to fall. Interestingly, Canada once again has a large public debt and is not considering the reckless action that the Government are pursuing. Those options are not sensible or credible in the current situation.
Let us also bury the myth about Greece. The UK is not in the same position as Greece. In 300 years of national debt, the UK has never defaulted on its sovereign debt. The UK’s debt has a long time to run, with an average of 14 years to maturity—twice as long as most other European countries—which means that the UK needs to finance much less of its debt in any given year and, therefore, is much less sensitive to rising interest rates.
We hear from the Liberal Democrats that fairness is important, and yet they now say that it is right that public sector workers should see real cuts in wages, while capital gains tax rises by only 10% for higher rate taxpayers. They also say now that VAT should rise to 20%, which they once said would be totally unfair on the poor. The Liberal Democrat way now is that it is right to cut benefits by £11 billion for the poorest in our society. Where is the fairness in that? Members can use as many words as they like and whatever sophistry they like, but they will not persuade the British people of the credibility of their position if they say one thing one minute, and another thing the next, just because they have taken the reins of power.
Where is the fairness in freezing child benefit for the next three years—a benefit that is often the only one paid directly to women and mothers? When that is coupled with the reduction in tax credits, many of my constituents will see that this is not a fair Budget. It is a regressive Budget that I believe will get the reception is deserves.
Does the hon. Lady agree that if the interest payments on our existing loans, which are approaching £40 billion a year, were half that amount, we would not be in our present situation, and we would be able to spend the money on the things that she is now suggesting?
As I think I said earlier, equating the national economy to a household budget has already been declared by many respected economists to be ignorance economics. It has been discredited by respected economists throughout the world, including economists of the centre right in the United States who recognise the lessons of the 1930s and recognise that we need investment and public spending to bring back growth and jobs.
However, the question is whether the Budget is needed. According to the new body set up by the Government—the Office for Budget Responsibility, which I think we all support—the economy is in growth. OBR statements make it clear that the previous Government’s spending plans were credible and would have reduced the deficit gradually, over a four-year period. I believe, as I think everyone on the Labour Benches believes, that that was a sensible course forward. Therefore, it has to be said that the reason why the Government are pursuing this path is ideological dogma. They are cutting for the sake of cutting, in an ideological drive towards the small state. The language of the TaxPayers Alliance is alive and well in the corridors of power, but it is cloaked in the language of “Needs must”.
The prospect of a race to austerity is so worrying that President Obama’s Administration in the US have felt it necessary to write to the leaders of the G20 countries urging them to continue with the economic stimulus—something with which, as I have mentioned, many economists agree. Although the help for new start-up companies in the regions and the creation of regional development funds are welcome, those measures will be more than offset by the run-down of the regional development agencies, such as Yorkshire Forward, and the loss of no doubt thousands of public sector jobs. It has been said today in the Financial Times, but let me put it on the record, that the overall impact of the Budget, contrary to statements made yesterday, will be a 60% reduction in capital investment by the Government by 2016.
Let us not think for a minute that this is a Budget for investment. The Government have fallen at the first hurdle on that idea. With the £80 million loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, they had the chance to show that they were interested in investing in growth and exports, in state-of-the-art technologies and in UK manufacturing. However, they chose not to do that. The loan would have earned a 3.5% interest rate, and would have involved Westinghouse taking a stake in the company and giving a guarantee of forward orders. It would also have transformed Forgemasters into a major player in the nuclear castings sector. The loan was secured against the company and would have been part of a total package worth around £140 million, with £80 million from the Government on a loan basis.
That would have meant £140 million for Sheffield and UK manufacturing, allowing for the purchase of a 15,000-tonne press capable of making the pressure vessels at the centre of a nuclear power plant. To put things into perspective, the only other company in the world currently making forgings of a sufficient size for the international market is Japan Steel Works, which has recently tripled its capacity in order to make 10 pressure vessels a year. However, 11 new nuclear power stations were commissioned around the world last year, and the pace is accelerating, with 55 reactors in planning at the end of 2009 and more than 30 licence applications under active discussion in the US. Not only that, but with only one company in South Korea and two companies in China now intending to enter the business of making such forgings, any future project for building new nuclear power stations in the UK will have to import pressure vessels.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) said last week on hearing the announcements, the champagne corks will indeed be popping in Japan and South Korea. The investment was not, as the Deputy Prime Minister would have us believe, set up in the dying days of the previous Government. I would testify anywhere, in any court in the land, that those negotiations had been going on for more than two and a half years, and they went through the most rigorous scrutiny possible. The scheme would not only have given value for money; it would have been of major strategic importance to the economic future of advanced manufacturing in the UK. Again as my right hon. Friend said, pulling the plug on that loan is a piece of gratuitous economic vandalism—but then again, what should one expect from a Tory party that almost completely destroyed steel making in south Yorkshire in the 1980s?
We heard a lot in the previous speech, by the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), about the importance to the economy of an export-led recovery. I completely agree with what he said, so why did his Government not put the money into Sheffield Forgemasters, as that was all about exports, the future of UK manufacturing and the rebalancing of the UK economy? They turned down the chance to help this economy to recover. They failed the challenge on grounds of—[Interruption.] Well, tell me what the grounds were—ideology, dogma, pressure from Sheffield Forgemasters’ competitors to say no? We would like to hear about them.
If this is an example of the Government’s investment strategy, we should all be worried. For a relatively small loan that carried a commercial rate of interest, the UK would have had a company capable of being at the forefront of the supply chain for the nuclear power industry. It would have created jobs not only in south Yorkshire, but throughout the country. It would have led to high-value exports and secured the future of high-value steelmaking in the UK. Crucially, I know from working with Corus, Forgemasters and Fox Wire in my constituency how important it is for UK steel to stay ahead of the game when it comes to skills and advanced technologies. We cannot compete with China and the rest of the Asian economy on low-value steel casting and steel forging, yet we are giving that advantage to our foreign competitors.
It is also of interest to note that on the day the plug was pulled on the Forgemasters loan, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills confirmed the building of a research ship for £75 million. There is nothing wrong with that investment, and I will support it, but the ship will be built in Spain because there are no longer any British yards capable of building it. The Tory Government of the 1980s decided that investment in shipbuilding was a waste of resources.
We should add to all this the fact that this Government have pulled the future jobs fund and slashed university places by 10,000. The hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) mentioned earlier that he had a relatively elderly constituency. Well, I have a lot of young people in my constituency, and they are worried about whether they will get the places they are looking for in the university system over the next five years or so.
We are having a history lesson in here, but I think you would agree with me that every time there have been cuts like those in yesterday’s Budget, they have always been on the back of a Labour Government who have brought the country to its knees. I originate from an area similar to your constituency, and I lived in a community that was depleted by the miners’ strike. I saw exactly what it did to my community, but what has to be addressed here is the fact that that was then, but this is now. This country is on its knees as a result of the Labour Administration. You are in complete denial that this has happened. It has taken a coalition Government with a Conservative Prime Minister to try to put some equilibrium back into the country and into the politics of this House.
Order. I want to be helpful to the Chamber by explaining that when hon. Members make their contributions, they address the Chair. When hon. Members say “you”, they mean the occupant of Chair—and according to parliamentary convention, the Chair should not be blamed for everything. Also, interventions should be brief.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. All that I would say about the hon. Gentleman’s intervention is that the recession was caused by the collapse of the global economy, and principally by the bankers. If the hon. Gentleman would like to come and have a look at the ex-mining and ex-steelworking areas of my constituency, I could show him how much progress was being made in repairing the damage and how much that repair is now at risk because of the policies pursued by this Government.
I fear the worst for the young of our country. The 1980s saw the creation of a lost generation, and we are still feeling the effects. I believe this coalition will create yet another lost generation. I fear for the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the elderly and the hard-working public sector. Now we are getting to know just what the “big society” is all about. It is about an ideological drive towards a US-style small state; it is about people being left on their own; it is about the poor and the disadvantaged being left to help themselves; it is a return to the days we thought had been left far behind when the previous Tory Government left office. The only surprise is that this time they are being aided and abetted by the Lib Dems. That just goes to show that, as we have always suspected in south Yorkshire, the Lib Dems are yellow Tories at heart.
Increasingly, when I look at the Lib Dems in government, I am reminded of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. The pigs, led by Napoleon, campaign for an overthrow of the old politics on the farm. Gradually, however, the pigs morph into the humans they once despised, and their slogan of “Four legs good, two legs bad” changes to “Four legs good, two legs better”. In Sheffield, we are all aware that our Napoleon has started walking on two legs. The Deputy Prime Minister is a Tory in all but name, and we fear the consequences of his betrayal for our economy, both regionally and nationally. He should hang his head in shame.
May I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker? I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this vital debate, which has been interesting and lively. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) on an excellent, effective maiden speech, and I look forward to hearing more from him in the future. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on constructive, thoughtful and progressive speeches, which addressed the problems facing our country.
I am disappointed by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and some of her colleagues who seem to think that there is a right-wing ideological agenda. The Budget has a practical, realistic approach, from a coalition Government who are determined to get our country out of the economic mess in which the Labour Government left us. We will not forget that, and we will take no lessons from them about the situation in which we find ourselves. Many of us would prefer not to have to take some of the measures in the Budget, but the 13 wasted years under Labour have resulted in a real mess.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) is no longer in his place, because his was a constructive and passionate speech. I say to him and to Labour Members, including those on the Front Bench, that most of us came into politics to improve the condition of everybody in society, not just one section of it. We are determined to look after the disadvantaged and to help the less well-off, the disabled, pensioners and those in real need, but to do that we must have a strong economy and money to invest in such services. It is regrettable that the Labour party destroyed our economy and the opportunities for many people. I agree with the comment that most Labour Members who have spoken seem to be in denial about the problems that they have created and the situation in which we find ourselves. They keep on with the mantra, “It is a world situation” and so on. Of course, there is a world recession, but it was made worse by the incompetence of the Labour Government and their failure to deal with the issues early enough and to take the necessary measures to ensure that we could weather the storm. The consequences are a disaster for the whole country. History lessons will not do when we have had 13 wasted years.
My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary made a progressive, rational and measured speech and explained to us all his thinking and how he has come to his decisions. We value that, because he has looked at the facts and figures and made a reasonable judgment accordingly. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on a positive and constructive Budget in very difficult times. It was positive in its aims and objectives, based on fairness and reasonableness, and in its twin approach of dealing with the debt problems and planning for the future.
Having been a Member of the previous Parliament, I also welcome the Chancellor’s candour, openness and clarity about the situation in which the country finds itself. How different this was from Budget statements under the last Government. Those were all spin and propaganda, and Members had to leave the Chamber and read all the minutiae in the small print to find out what they really meant. Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer was open and frank, telling the people about the problems and what needed to be done about them. He did not conceal the facts in the small print or hide them away in other paperwork.
After 13 years of Labour government, our economy has been shattered by mismanagement. We have a huge public debt and great unfairness in the tax system, and businesses, particularly small businesses, feel battered and bruised. We really do need a new approach and a new direction. Yes, the Budget is tough and austere, but it is also necessary and fair, and it is unfortunately unavoidable because of the position in which we find ourselves. We need a decisive breach with the past so that we can build facilities and services for the less advantaged and the most disadvantaged, such as those who are sick and will need more help in the future.
I want to concentrate on enterprise, pensions and training. As a Conservative, I believe passionately in lower taxation, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer also aspires to achieve that goal—when the time is right. When the time is not right, we must increase taxation, however hard that may be, in order to balance the books. I know that my constituents will appreciate my right hon. Friend’s approach, because after 13 years of Labour they feel that they have been over-taxed and over-regulated, and that there has been too much bureaucracy and red tape and not enough support for their business activities.
My constituents have experienced the problems of increasing unemployment and economic inactivity, and most of them feel that bureaucracy and taxation have been excessive. Regrettably, those problems must be addressed with vim and vigour. Local business men tell me that central Government support was inadequate during the recession, and that publicly owned banks were unhelpful when they applied for credit or assistance. They were cast adrift by a Government who said wonderful things in the House, but did not follow them up with real measures to help small businesses make the wealth on which our country depends. It was clear that action by the new Government was urgently required to deal with that on all fronts.
The Government have already cut £6 billion of spending because we cannot afford it. If we are to create jobs and growth, it is vital that we help the small and medium-sized businesses that are at the heart of our economy. We need to show that Britain is open for business, and attract firms into the United Kingdom. We need reforms of tax and regulation to make it less costly and bureaucratic to run or start a business. We need to shift the balance in our economy back towards private enterprise, rather than the public sector dependency that we saw during those 13 years of Labour government.
I agree with the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge that the public sector has a vital role to play, and that it can create wealth and opportunities. Most wealth, however, is created by the small and medium-sized businesses which pay the tax and allow us to spend the money that we need to spend on our vital public services. I am amazed at the increase in public sector pay and pensions over the past decade. We would surely expect the Prime Minister to have a higher salary than anyone else in the public sector, and when we see that people at the BBC and in some local authorities are being paid considerably more by the taxpayer for doing a less demanding job, we have to ask what has gone wrong.
We also need to deal with the problem of waste. The hon. Lady mentioned regional development agencies, an issue that I raised with the Prime Minister at Question Time last week. Although some RDAs have done a good job, others have wasted money in their bureaucratic way. We have heard about extravagances and expenses that have been in no way connected with the job that those people should have been doing, involving entertainment, offices abroad, novelty items or taxis, which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds. That profligacy is another Labour legacy that I am pleased to see the new coalition Government will take on.
The managing director of a lighting business in my constituency advised me that he thought the support for small businesses during the recession was
“neither adequate nor well advertised.”
He also said that
“there was nothing for a small business in our position or if there was, we didn’t find out about it.”
His business also had problems with the publicly subsidised banks. Higher banking costs were imposed on it, leading to its having to reduce staff to meet the cost of the charges. That is not the way to get a successful business developing and going forward. In addition to the problems in getting Government support and dealing with an over-complicated tax system, that managing director experienced a great deal more red tape and regulation, which in turn increased costs. That was a legacy of the last Labour Government: more regulation, more red tape and more costs.
I also received representations from a car manufacturing firm in my constituency. Its managing director thought the previous Government did a good job with its advertising. However, when it came to applying for assistance, his company found that support was not available. That is a terrible legacy. He said the investment company appointed to manage the capital for enterprise fund for the Government was interested only in venture capital parameters such as high rates of return. The company also alleged that it did not receive support from its bank. In fact, it suffered increased charges from very early in 2009.
Both those businesses will benefit from the measures announced in the Budget. The reduction in corporation tax will mean they have more money of their own to invest in their business, and either to take on new staff or extend the working of current staff. The Budget will bring benefit to small businesses in particular. They will welcome the lowest ever rate of corporation tax, which will fall from 28% to 24% during this Parliament. The tax rate reduction for small companies from 21% to 20% will also be welcomed, and the extension of the enterprise guarantee scheme will provide a real boost for small businesses struggling to get credit.
The Budget therefore contains a lot that is positive, contrary to what was suggested from those on the Opposition Benches, where all was doom and gloom. There is enthusiasm for enterprise to get things moving, which is very important for the future of the country, because we must get the debt down and the public finances under control before we can have economic growth. We must never forget that high levels of debt put an unfair burden on future generations. Our role is to look after the future and make sure that our children and grandchildren are not in hock to debt because we have failed to manage the national finances. This emergency Budget will go a long way to rectifying the situation for the future.
Action to stop Labour’s job tax by increasing the threshold for employers’ national insurance contributions by £21 a week will also be positive. As a result, the number of employees for whom employers pay no national insurance will rise by 650,000. That is another real, positive move to endeavour to ensure that we get ourselves out of the appalling mess we find ourselves in.
The second issue I want to raise is pensions and pensioners. I am delighted that the earnings link is to be restored after 30 years. We have to admit that sometimes the Conservatives made mistakes in government, and it was a Conservative Government who made the mistake of breaking the link. [Interruption.] It is no good the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) laughing and smiling, because the Labour Government had 13 years to do something about that, but they did not do a thing. They sat on their hands and made nice noises, but action speaks louder than words. This coalition Government have already taken more action on pensioners than the previous Labour Government did in 13 years.
Will my hon. Friend remind the House that when we broke the link in 1980 we had an inherited situation of huge debt—an economic basket case—as a result of a Labour Government spending beyond their means. Does he think that that sounds familiar?
Exactly. My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is history repeating, is it not? I am sure that pensioners in my constituency and across the country will be pleased by the triple lock, whereby the basic state pension will rise by whichever is the higher out of earnings, prices measured by consumer price inflation or 2.5%. That is good news. One would not believe on listening to the Opposition that there was any good news at all in the Budget, but there is. We will never have pensioners getting a meagre increase of 75p on the basic pension, as happened one year under Labour. That was an insult and the pensioners knew it. We will not allow that to be repeated.
I will be one of the first to admit that the 75p increase was a mistake. Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, under the Budget, the means of raising the money to bring in the link to earnings a year early might be raising the age at which women can claim the state pension?
It is nice to hear the hon. Lady admit that the Labour Government did something wrong. I do not think we have had one word like that today, and I have sat through the whole debate. One would think that Labour Members thought that everything they did was wonderful, but in their heart of hearts they know the truth: there were mistakes. We are endeavouring to rectify those mistakes to make sure that those who are vulnerable, such as the elderly, have the dignity in old age that they deserve, and we passionately support and believe in that.
Fairness is key in the tax changes. Far too many people on low incomes pay too much tax. When I was in this place under the Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, people on low incomes paid low tax, but in the past 13 years, because of the policies of the last Prime Minister, including when he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Labour managed to push more people into tax than ever before—people on low incomes who should never have been paying the level of tax they were. Five or six weeks into office, this Government are already taking action in the Budget to deal with the awful situation of people on low incomes having to pay tax.
My hon. Friend is making an impassioned and thoughtful contribution. There was no more cruel example of what he has just said than the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) abolishing the 10p tax rate, because that put so many poor people into paying not only a low rate of tax, but quite a high rate of tax, on relatively low earnings. In contrast, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has taken a significant number of people out of the tax net altogether with this Budget.
That point is absolutely spot on. The Opposition’s crocodile tears on these issues are lamentable, because they did not do anything in government. They took away the 10p rate, as my hon. Friend has said, and they pushed people on very low incomes into paying tax when that was unfair. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it quite clear in yesterday’s Budget that fairness was the underlying key. It was about making sure that everyone pays a fair amount. Those on high incomes will pay more and those on low incomes will pay considerably less. Families, low earners and pensioners have to be a top priority.
In opposition, I was the shadow spokesman on further education and skills, and I believe that training and skills were one of the Labour Government’s greatest failings. Our society needs a well-trained work force who can adapt and take on board challenges, such as those facing small businesses, to make sure that they can get employment and worthwhile involvement in order to make something of their lives. One of Labour’s biggest failings during the recession was not properly investing in skills so that people who lost their jobs could reskill, upskill, retrain or find new jobs.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being extremely generous. Did he see the figures published today that show the shameful legacy of 13 years of Labour government, which is that one in four of our 18-year old boys is a NEET—not in education, employment or training? That is the record of the previous Government.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is a lamentable record that almost 1 million young people are classed as NEETs. That is a waste for them and their futures, and for their communities and our economy generally. Those young people have so much to contribute, but they cannot get on in life if they are not given opportunities because they are not trained and do not have the skills. If that is the case, they are unable to do something for themselves, or for their communities and our country generally.
Britain needs to grow stronger out of this recession. It will do so if it can invest in the skills that mean that people can adapt, develop and take advantage of the new jobs and opportunities that are coming along. This Budget will get rid of over-regulation and red tape, and I hope that it will allow businesses to expand and create the jobs that we need.
Regrettably, we are starting from a weak skills base, with 5 million people in this country classed as functionally illiterate and millions more struggling with basic numeracy and literacy skills. Those are really important reminders of Labour’s failure on skills, and they highlight the need for fresh thinking and new ideas. Those are not just figures: we are talking about real people, and we on this side of the House are just as passionate as Opposition Members about providing opportunities for young people to get jobs.
Some of Labour’s skills programmes are not working, with Train to Gain providing public subsidy for courses that some employers would pay for anyway. That does not represent getting value for taxpayers’ money, but the Budget shows that that is something that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his team are looking at. This Government want to help people, but they also want to make sure that they are getting good value for the taxpayer.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. The House should be aware that, although the statistics show that 550 young people are claiming jobseeker’s allowance in my constituency of Watford, there are plenty of training schemes. However, the problem—into which I am currently carrying out research—is getting young people to go on those schemes. Money is being spent, but I am afraid that that is happening in the usual irresponsible way that was sanctioned by the former Government. As my hon. Friend noted, the important thing is to ensure that the money is spent wisely, but that will require a lot of work.
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the point that I was making with a practical example from his constituency of how things have gone wrong and need to be rectified.
In view of the time and the fact that other people wish to speak, I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said that this was a Budget to show the world that Britain was open for business again, and I believe that he was right. The measures included in it will ensure that our country and all of its people are on the road—a rapid road, I hope—to recovery and prosperity.
This country has a potentially great future. What we need are the Government and the measures to encourage that development so that we can make progress along that road. I believe that we have that in this new coalition Government. I think that we are on our way, and that this Budget is an important step to ensuring the future progress and success of our economy.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker, and it is good to see you in your new position.
The Government’s mantra is that this Budget is both unavoidable and fair, yet more and more evidence demonstrates that exactly the opposite is true. In reality, this Budget is neither unavoidable nor fair: instead, it is a massively failed opportunity to shift the economy into the greener, fairer direction that we need.
Devastating public spending cuts of the kind announced yesterday are not unavoidable. They are not some kind of economic inevitability, but an ideological choice. The reality is that there has been no public debate about the choice between tackling the deficit through cuts or through progressive and radical tax reform. Quite simply, that case has not been put.
That is hugely significant, because the fact that these cuts will have an enormous impact on generations to come means there needs to be a national consensus that they are the right way forward. There is not that national consensus; there is a growing sense of anger and disbelief about the scale of the cuts proposed, as well as a growing sense that the Government have been economical with the truth.
Let us be clear: we are not in the same position as Greece. Our cumulative national debt is not large by international standards. The structure of our debt is very long term—about 14 years. Much of this year’s debt will be sold to British-domiciled individuals and companies, so the international sovereign debt crisis has much less impact on us. Those are the truths of the situation.
The hon. Lady said that our sovereign debt situation is not as bad as that of Greece. We do not just have to use Greece as an example; other countries have faced drastic situations and austerity measures. It is not reasonable to look at the size of the debt as a proportion of GDP; we also have to look at the amount of debt we have been issuing, borrowing £3 billion a week to help fund it. I am sure the hon. Lady is aware that last year the former Government printed about £200 billion in cash and borrowed about £225 billion on the gilts market. The only other country with a similar policy was probably Zimbabwe, so I am sure she is not advocating that we continue in that way.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, but if the then Government had not done that our situation would have been an awful lot worse. Many commentators are saying that this is a time to be investing, not taking money out of the economy. Our current situation would have been much worse if we had not had that stimulus at that time.
Despite what the Government say, we are not all in this together. Some people had more responsibility for the crisis than others and some benefited more from the boom that preceded it. It seems to me that those who enjoyed the largest benefits should pay the highest price. We need progressive tax reform. Increasing the tax take from those most able to pay it and helping lower earners by reintroducing the 10% tax band now would be a good start, both in raising revenue and in addressing inequality.
If we are looking for ways to find more revenue, let us bear in mind the huge extent of tax avoidance, tax evasion and unpaid tax in the UK. The figures are truly staggering. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs admits that tax evasion and avoidance together come to almost £40 billion a year, and in November 2009 it admitted that £28 billion of unpaid tax was owing. Shocking as those figures are, some experts out there suggest that the total target for necessary action to collect tax due and owing could be more than £100 billion a year. Why do we not see more efforts to go after that kind of money?
There are a range of options for changing the UK tax rules progressively so that more than £40 billion of additional taxes could be raised each year by the end of the life of this Parliament. With tax-collecting efficiency savings, that would deliver more than £60 billion of tax revenues for the UK, thus preventing any need for cuts to public services.
I say that not because I think we should introduce all those tax measures—certainly not straight away—but to prove that we have a choice. Spending cuts are not the only way to address the deficit. Fairer taxation has never even been put to the public as an option. That is a betrayal.
We also have a country that is at its most unequal at any time since the second world war. If someone asked me whether I would like either progressive tax reform or a much more equal society, I know which I would choose, because so much evidence suggests that unequal societies are not just incredibly damaging for those at the bottom of the heap, which is fairly clear; they are corrosive for everybody in society. Books such as “The Spirit Level” have demonstrated just how corrosive inequality is for everybody in terms of health outcomes and general well-being. I am happy to say here and now that I would much rather see an equal society. Of course, that is something the coalition Government told us the Budget was all about. It was supposed to be a fair Budget.
What choices were made? Let us be clear again that they were political choices; they were not inevitabilities. It was a political choice to make effective cuts to child benefit, the child tax credit and child tax funds that, together, cost £2.5 billion. Those cuts could have been avoided if, for example, the Chancellor had chosen not to cut corporation tax. It was also a political choice to increase VAT—a tax that hits the poorest hardest and that both Government parties said they were not in favour of increasing.
Raising the income tax threshold as some kind of compensation does nothing for the poorest households that do not pay income tax anyway, since in any given year about one in four families contains no income taxpayer at all. Uprating future benefits and tax credits only in line with consumer price inflation, rather than retail price inflation, will have a dramatic effect in increasing inequality in society. If we add to that the severe cuts in housing benefit, which will have a devastating impact on areas where significant numbers of people depend on it, such as my constituency of Brighton Pavilion, we can see that the menu we are being served up is very damaging indeed.
Let us remember that the vast majority of people who claim housing benefit are pensioners, people with disabilities or who care for relatives, or hard-working people on low incomes. As the director of Shelter has said,
“If this support is ripped out suddenly from under their feet it will push many households over the edge, triggering a spiral of debt, eviction and homelessness.”
If we add to that—if that were not enough—the impact of swingeing public spending cuts, we see a hugely bleak picture. Unemployment will grow, and anyone who leaves school or college in the next five years faces a grim future.
Of course, meanwhile, the rich have been largely let off. That is why we have seen the coverage we have seen in the Financial Times and everywhere else, with people saying that they are breathing a sigh of relief because the Budget did not hit them as hard as they thought it might. The rich will hardly notice the VAT increase. The bank levy is puny—less than half the £5 billion to £8 billion originally predicted—and is a fraction of City bonuses. That is not unavoidable; it is a political choice. The Government could have introduced a Robin Hood tax to raise billions—they did not. That was another political choice.
Unprotected departmental budgets will be savaged. Local government will need to slash services if it is to freeze council tax. Public servants, who did nothing to cause the slump, are being asked to bear an unfair share of the burden. Again, one thing we can say for sure is that we are definitely not all in this together. People on middle and low incomes have done much worse than expected, and the rich have been let off much of what they feared, but we will all suffer from an economy that now has a very real risk of going into a double-dip recession.
Many Opposition Members have talked about the importance of listening to commentators, such as Noble prize winner Joseph Stiglitz or David Blanchflower, about the real dangers of that double dip. David Blanchflower is one of the very few people who saw the recession coming. We should listen to his warnings now. The economy is still fragile. Today’s measures will certainly slow recovery and could well stop it in its tracks. Even Martin Wolf says in today’s Financial Times that we should be printing more money, rather than taking it out of the economy.
I should like to suggest that the real way out of the crisis, as well as fairer taxation, is through a major Government investment in the green infrastructure that this country so urgently needs if we are to emerge stronger from the recession than we were when we went into it. My party has called for the introduction of a green new deal—a massive and sustained investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy generation, which would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, as well as cutting carbon emissions and making our economy more sustainable.
Let me give an example. Greens on a council in the north of the country brought an idea to the table that was accepted by the council and is being rolled out. Essentially, they leveraged some money from the energy companies and matched it with some council funding, and they are now rolling out free insulation for 40,000 homes in that area. That is not only cutting emissions, but saving average families about £150 a year on their fuel bills and creating 200 jobs. That sort of programme needs to be rolled out country-wide.
What about green measures in the Budget—or, better, where are the green measures in the Budget? Let us remember what the coalition manifesto promised. It said that it was promising
“a full programme of measures to fulfil our joint ambitions for a low carbon and eco-friendly economy”.
Those ambitions cannot have been very high.
The coalition’s first Budget offered little more than a passing reference to the green investment bank, just a few lines about future reforms to the price of carbon dioxide and a renewed promise on energy efficiency, so where exactly is this famous full programme of measures? I searched in vain, but instead I saw old style, big picture macro-economics, with a 4% cut in corporation tax over the Parliament and a regional growth fund for new businesses from next April that will provide
“a stable economic foundation for private sector growth”.
I am not against that, but what kind of growth are we talking about? Where is any commitment to sustainability in the vision for growth? What about the commitment to the green investment bank, which is urgently needed to drive £2 billion into clean energy by 2020? Apparently, we are going to have to wait, as there was no particular urgency on the green agenda in the Budget.
We were told instead that the Government will put forward
“detailed proposals on the creation of a Green Investment Bank”
after the spending review, but we have heard that before. We are told that the Government are considering a wide range of options, but there is no confirmation of legislation and no mention of capitalisation. With nothing in the Budget on the green deal for households, we must wait for this autumn’s energy security and green economy Bill. The low-carbon industrial strategy already appears to have lost urgency and direction.
The Chancellor talked a great deal yesterday about the crisis of national debt, but he barely mentioned the much bigger and more dangerous crisis of climate change. When the coalition Government were formed, Ministers said they would be the greenest Government ever. As I pointed out at the time, that, sadly, would not be very difficult, given Labour’s lamentable record, but it does not look as though serious steps are being taken to make this a green Government either.
The Budget is economically dangerous, socially divisive and completely lacking in any kind of vision for sustainability. Tragically, an opportunity has been missed to introduce something genuinely progressive, such as a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, measures to increase employment and cut emissions through a green new deal, and measures to introduce fairer taxation—in other words, measures to take us closer to the fairer, greener Britain that the coalition says it wants to achieve, but from which, after the Budget, we are further than ever before.
As a north-west MP, I welcome you to your new role, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I would like to think that a bit of history is being made today because, as the first Conservative MP to have been elected for Carlisle since 1959, I am the first Conservative from Carlisle to be making a maiden speech for 50 years. Since becoming a new Member, I have become conscious of the protocol that interventions, questions, answers and speeches should be short and to the point. I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I shall follow that tradition.
My predecessor was a Labour Member, and although our politics, outlook and the way in which we do things are different, I acknowledge that Eric Martlew had the interests of Carlisle at heart. He came from Carlisle, he believed in Carlisle and he clearly did his best for Carlisle, and I do not think that more can be asked of a constituency MP.
I would like to cite two examples of Eric’s work. In 2005, when we had the great floods in Carlisle that were devastating for many people, he got heavily involved and managed to convince the Government to spend considerable sums on building flood defences. I am delighted to say that those flood defences are now almost complete. Eric also had a great interest in rail and was a member of the all-party group on the west coast rail line. During his years as a Member, the Euston-to-Carlisle train journey time dropped considerably. I am benefiting from that, in that my train journeys are half an hour to an hour shorter than they would have been. If the high-speed rail link is introduced, I would like think that that journey time will drop further.
If hon. Members were to get the train to Carlisle, I do not think that they would be disappointed by our great city. Our compact border city is welcoming and friendly, and in many respects it is a well-kept secret—it was so secret that it successfully avoided being mentioned in the Domesday Book. The city is just 10 miles from the Scottish border, and as a Scot who has been elected for an English constituency right on the border, I am delighted to report that border relations are good and we support England’s result today.
Carlisle has a rich heritage. Its castle was built by William II, and its cathedral, although small, dates from the 12th century. Of course, we have the world heritage site of Hadrian’s wall, which is a popular spot for people walking from the east coast to the west coast, as well as the Tullie House museum.
We also have an industrial heritage. In the past, we had railways and crane makers, and the builder Laing originated in Carlisle; today, we still have a lot of manufacturing, with Pirelli cars, Nestlé, Carr’s Milling and, with food manufacturing being a big thing in Carlisle, Carr’s water biscuits—a real favourite of mine. We also still have a strong building society—the Cumberland building society—and long may that continue to be the case. Sadly, we have lost Border Television, although probably the only thing that people remember about that company is that it produced “Mr and Mrs”. I hope that there will be a rebalancing of the economy. Carlisle may well benefit from that, because manufacturing is still very much a part of our local economy.
The most important thing is, obviously, people. I came to Carlisle 18 years ago and was made very welcome by the people of the city. I have lived and worked there, and there is no greater privilege than to become their representative. However, there are problems everywhere, and Carlisle is no exception. We have the legacy of the previous Government to deal with, and I believe that rebalancing the economy, improving education and helping the low-paid will be the key issues for Carlisle.
How are we to make those improvements? In my view, first, we must decentralise. It is important that we take decision making back to the communities and allow local people to make local decisions for themselves. Whitehall has a role, but that role has become far too big. We now have the opportunity to return power to local people. I genuinely believe that elected mayors offer a way forward, because they bring transparency to local decision making and make people aware of who is in charge of their local community.
The Budget has been described as tough but fair. I genuinely agree with that description and think that three things flow from the Budget. First, we must encourage business. The real recovery will come from the private sector and we can achieve that only through the changes to taxation, which I welcome, and, of equal importance, less regulation and less interference in business. That is how businesses thrive.
Secondly, and very relevant to Carlisle, we must look after the low-paid. I think that the Budget helps with that through the increase in the personal allowance and child tax credit, linking pensions with earnings, and the council tax freeze. The pay freeze does not affect the low-paid—those paid less than £21,000—in our public services.
Thirdly, we have the public sector. The public sector is still important—still vital to our economy and our communities—but it has to innovate, think differently and do things differently. Let me make one suggestion to Government Departments. Carlisle has a low cost base, housing is of good quality but relatively cheap and our industrial sites are cheaper than those in many other places. I therefore suggest that the Government should consider moving Departments from the south to the north. Doing so will save them money and help to regenerate parts of Carlisle.
The Treasury team and Ministers in other Departments have many difficult decisions to make in the coming months, but they will not go far wrong if they follow Carlisle city’s motto, “Be just and fear not.” If I follow that motto as the Member for Carlisle, I think I will have done okay.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I say to hon. Members that we are running out of time and quite a lot of Members still want to speak in this debate. I am therefore setting a 12-minute limit on speeches, so that we have time for the winding-up speeches as well.
Noted, Mr Deputy Speaker. I welcome you to your new position.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) on making an excellent maiden speech. I made my own only a couple of weeks ago and know that it is a nerve-wracking affair. He gave an extremely assured and insightful performance.
I want to nail a disgraceful canard, which has been repeated several times this afternoon, that Welsh Members present today are absolutely uninterested in the England football score. I assure the House that I am very interested in that. I wish England well and hope they go all the way, but, to be blunt, such is the seriousness of today’s debate that I had to forgo the pleasure of watching the game and instead sit in the Chamber throughout the afternoon, listening to the excellent speeches made by Members on both sides of the House. Far more seriously, there is another canard that I would like to try to nail: the belief that Labour Members have acted both before and since the election as if nothing needed to be done in the face of the economic crisis. We did act before the election, and made tough decisions to attempt to shore up the economy to make sure that there was not a more profound recession or, indeed, a depression as a result of the global economic crisis. I believe that we secured a better future for the country as a result of those actions.
Before the election, we acknowledged that we would need to tighten our belt and make post-election savings to redress the balance and to draw down the deficit. We certainly spelled out the fact that we would make cuts and savings of £40 billion. We did not spell out exactly where those cuts would fall, but neither did the then Opposition. They gave us the impression that they would do more, and they mentioned £6 billion of savings that they would make in efficiency cuts. We were not told about the specific measures that appeared in the Budget yesterday. We were not warned about the VAT rise that they have now deemed necessary, and we were not warned about the enormous and savage cuts that we expect in the autumn to public services. Those things were not spelled out by the then Opposition. If we had won the election—doubtless, many Liberal voters, both in my constituency and up and down the country, now wish that we had done so—we would have to make some tough decisions. However, I believe that we would make them in a way that was genuinely fair and informed by principles of social equity and economic justice.
I do not believe that the decisions announced in yesterday’s Budget meet those principles. Many people say that politicians are all the same but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), we can no longer go on believing that there are not genuine ideological divides between the two sides of the House. Yesterday’s decisions clearly mark out the Government’s territory, and I contend that if we were in a similar position, the values that I have just outlined and which inform our politics would lead to a different set of conclusions that would not result in the poorest and the most vulnerable having to bear the pain and pay the price for paying down the deficit.
I commend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills for the chutzpah with which he performed today’s volte-face. It was truly remarkable to see him stand at the Dispatch Box and defend this Tory Budget and Administration to the hilt. He bore eloquent testament to the old adage that there is no one as zealous as a convert. He invoked the name of Sir Stafford Cripps, the famously austere Labour Chancellor, who—this says a few things about austerity—was rumoured to get up in the morning and prepare with an ice-cold bath at 5 am before coming to the Chamber. I am not sure that the Secretary of State does that yet; perhaps he will move on to that. It was wholly unfair of him to invoke the name of Sir Stafford Cripps, because while the 1949 Budget was an austere Budget—he was right at least to imply that it was a Budget in which a Labour Chancellor raised the forerunner of VAT—the austerity of the measures that were recommended yesterday is such that even Sir Stafford Cripps would find them breathtaking and, indeed, eye-watering.
The scale of cuts proposed by the Government—25% in non-ring-fenced departmental budgets—was previously unimaginable in the history of Parliament. We have never seen cuts on such a scale.
We have heard invoked many examples—analogies—of other countries where similar cuts, or allegedly similar cuts, and programmes have been implemented, but today we have heard those analogies thoroughly knocked down. Canada and Sweden are two such examples. We know that Canada succeeded in implementing a programme of cuts which was half the size of what the Government now propose, and did so in twice the time. Government Members have repeatedly referred to Sweden, but again the very clear evidence of history is that Sweden tried to implement swingeing cuts of only 20% and did so over 15 years, not five. So we have something that is twice as draconian as what was done in Canada, three times as draconian as what was attempted in Sweden and, on many measures, more punitive than the extraordinary programme of cuts that the IMF has imposed on Greece—an analogy that even the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills acknowledges is not appropriate. Many Opposition Members have already outlined the statistics that underpin that contention.
I stand here as a Welsh Member fearful that my constituents will suffer disproportionately as a result of the Budget. The Financial Times stated earlier this week and the Manchester school of economics pronounced only this morning that, inevitably, parts of the country such as mine will suffer disproportionately. For all sorts of reasons, we have greater economic problems, relating to our post-industrial heritage, and a greater reliance on public sector jobs and spending, and I am deeply worried that currently there are no indications from the Government about how they will alleviate or offset that damage in areas of Wales such as my constituency.
As we look at the blizzard of statistics in yesterday’s Red Book and trade them across the Floor of the House, the human impact of those cuts is too often forgotten. I went back to my office yesterday evening to find several e-mails from constituents who are deeply worried about the proposals. I highlight the case of a couple, Phillip and Sandra Woods, who said that they were terrified that they would see an assault on the benefits that make their life liveable. They are severely disabled and rely on disability living allowance, jobseeker’s and employment allowances and housing benefit. For those people, who live on meagre amounts of money, hand to mouth, week to week, the Budget presents a horrifying prospect. Equally, they were right to point out their anger that so many Government Members castigate such people as part of the problem, as opposed to people who need to be supported in our communities.
I have one more human example of the cuts: the public sector workers at Companies House in my constituency at Nantgarw. They are relatively low-paid public sector workers, working in a Government Executive agency—sitting beneath the Department for Business, Innovation Skills—that is profitable. It is statutorily mandated to operate within its costs and to return to the Exchequer 3.5% per annum. I cannot understand the logic or fairness of what has happened to those people, because they are being asked to suffer 11% cuts. That means moving jobs out of my constituency, fewer jobs moving into Cardiff and the local management imposing a pay freeze that will not be offset by the £21,000 cut-off suggested by the Government yesterday. Companies House management, in order to meet their requirements of 11% savings, will have to freeze pay across the board and stop any staff promotion. Both measures are punitive and unfair, and when I meet the workers at Nantgarw I cannot explain why they should be asked to pay the price for a crisis that was made on trading floors and in bankers’ back rooms.
It is a shame that the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) has left the Chamber, because he gave a paean of praise to UKTI earlier, and he ought to know that UKTI will be subject to that 11% cut. Far from its being protected, it too will be subject to serious cuts.
Why have we been told that we need to make these cuts? It is because of the false spectres that are being raised on the Government Benches, including the notion that our markets were in danger of pulling the rug out from under the economy and that we were about to have our triple A rating withdrawn by the very people who got all the ratings wrong, or certainly got their call wrong on where we stood in respect of sub-prime debt. Equally, we are being fed lines about the nature of the unaffordability of our debt that I suggest we should ignore.
I close with a plea that Government Members remember the human cost of budget cuts and look ahead to the comprehensive spending review, when we anticipate seeing even greater cuts implemented. They should think hard about how that will bite on ordinary working people in our communities in places such as Pontypridd, and think hard about what we can do to alleviate that and to implement cuts in the most sensitive and affordable manner possible.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) on his passionate speech and on speaking up for localism. That is something that Government Members strongly believe in, and I hope that we will see it acted out in the Government’s manifesto.
Having listened to Opposition Members during today’s debate, it is interesting that not a single one of them had anything positive whatsoever to say about this Budget; in fact, many of them have denounced it in no uncertain terms. There has been a great deal of shaking of heads and gnashing of teeth. What always happens in these cases is that Labour develops something called collective amnesia about why we are having to make these tough choices on public expenditure and on taxation. Let me therefore remind them, once again, why that is the case. I see that the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) is laughing, but he really should try to understand why this is happening. The reason is very clear. Under Labour, we have had the deepest recession on record and the longest recession of all the G20 countries. Under Labour, we have ended up with the largest deficit in Europe, and the national debt has doubled.
Let me quote what the co-chief investment officer of Pimco, the largest bond fund manager in the world, said in January 2010:
“The UK is a must to avoid. Its gilts are resting on a bed of nitroglycerine. High debt with the potential to devalue its currency present high risks”.
The trajectory under Labour’s plans is pretty clear. If we were to do what Labour is suggesting, we would have the potential loss of our triple A debt rating, higher interest rates, more business failures, and sharper rises in unemployment—everything that nobody, on either side of the House, wants to see. There has been a lot of talk about Greece. Perhaps Labour Members should look at what happens in a country such as Greece when it does not get to grips with its public finances and there is a loss of confidence by the capital markets.
In 1997, the Labour Government inherited a golden economic legacy. In 2010, what did Labour leave the current Government? Oh yes—a note from the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury declaring, “I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left.” That is exactly why we are having to make these cuts. Let me absolutely clear about this, although Labour Members may not agree: out there—outside this House—very many members of the general public take the view that these public expenditure cuts are ultimately Labour’s public expenditure cuts, and that the tax rises are ultimately Labour’s tax rises.
Of course, the pied piper of Labour’s decade of debt—the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)—has not been seen in the House for quite some time, but I hope he has had the chance to reflect on the damage his Government’s policies did to our economy, and that when he returns, he will say the one word we had hoped to hear from a Labour Member: sorry. I am sad to say that we have not heard it.
In the past four years, I spent a lot of time talking to businesses and business organisations in Reading, so I should like to spend the rest of my speech talking about the measures in the Budget for them, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, which are the backbone of our economy, save to make one point on public services. We can all agree that we want a world-class health service and the best schools for our children, and we want dignity and financial support in retirement for our pensioners, but to fund high-quality public services, we need a vibrant private sector to lead growth and recovery.
Businesses in my constituency in the past few years have invariably told me that they feel overtaxed, overburdened by red tape and regulation, and overwhelmed by a complex tax system. They want help in getting credit flowing. The base rate may be 0.5%, but that bears little relation to the spreads that businesses must pay when they go for bank debt. We need to get to grips with that. Above all, businesses want us to tackle national debt and to get some confidence back into the country. That is what we hope the Budget will do.
We talked about over-regulation and the tax system. Because of the previous Government, we now have the longest tax code in the world. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, small businesses spend seven hours a week filling out forms. According to the British Chambers of Commerce, new regulation since 1998 has cost British businesses almost £77 billion.