I should notify the House that, as a consequence of the fact that no fewer than 38 right hon. and hon. Members have applied to speak in the debate, I have imposed an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. There is no time limit on speeches from the Front Benches, but it would be appreciated by the House if Front Benchers would tailor their contributions accordingly. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment tabled in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House notes that on 22 June 2010 the Chancellor announced his first Budget with a target to eliminate the structural deficit by 2015-16 through an additional £40 billion of spending cuts and tax rises, including a VAT rise; further notes that over the last six months the economy has not grown, in the last month retail sales fell by 1.4 per cent. and manufacturing output fell by 1.5 per cent. and despite a welcome recent fall in unemployment, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that future unemployment will be up to 200,000 higher than expected; believes the Government’s policies to cut the deficit too far and too fast have led to slower growth, higher inflation and higher unemployment, which are creating a vicious circle, since the Government is now set to borrow £46 billion more than previously forecast; calls on the Government to adopt a more balanced deficit plan which, alongside tough decisions on tax and spending cuts, puts jobs first and will be a better way to get the deficit down over the longer term and avoid long-term damage to the economy; and, if the Government will not change course and halve the deficit over four years, demands that it should take a step in the right direction by temporarily cutting VAT to 17.5 per cent. until the economy returns to strong growth and by using funds raised from repeating the 2010 bank bonus tax to build 25,000 affordable homes and create 100,000 jobs for young people.
A year ago today, in his first Budget statement to the House, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a clear choice. He said that rapid deficit reduction was the overriding priority, and that it would involve fiscal tightening of such scale and severity that it would have to begin immediately. He said that the faster we cut, the better it would be for confidence. He said that there was no choice, and that the markets demanded this action. He also said that no alternative was possible and that anyone who said otherwise was a deficit denier.
The Chancellor ignored the evidence that budget deficits had risen rapidly in every country after a global financial crisis caused by the irresponsible behaviour of banks around the world, claiming instead that the root cause of Britain’s deficit was too much spending on the NHS, schools and the police. He ignored the evidence that Labour’s balanced deficit reduction plan to support jobs and halve the deficit over four years was working, that the UK economy was already recovering, that tax rises and spending cuts had been pre-announced, and that we were over-achieving on our deficit reduction plan in line with the G20 commitment.
I will take as many interventions as hon. Members want me to, but I am going to establish my argument first. I think that the House knows that I enjoy interventions, and I will absolutely take them all—Members should not worry!
The Chancellor also ignored the fact that we were not in the euro, that our debt maturity was long—
Order. I know that I have done this many times before, but I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members to have some regard to the way in which our proceedings are viewed by the people whose support we were seeking only 13 months ago. I do not care whether this sort of behaviour was traditionally thought to be a good thing; it is not, and if people behave like this and expect to be called, they will be disappointed.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
In the Budget debate, I took 16 interventions from Members on the Government side of the House. I will take interventions, but not from people who shout and are aggressive while I am still establishing my argument. Let me establish my argument; then I will take interventions. I will start with the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) in just a moment.
The Chancellor insisted, despite the fact that we were not in the euro, that our debt maturity was long and that our long-term gilt yields were historically low and had started to fall well before the election. He made the economically illiterate and preposterous claim that, like Greece, Britain was on the brink of bankruptcy. Having already abolished the child trust fund and the future jobs fund, he announced in the Budget immediate plans to take billions more out of the economy through a combination of deep spending cuts and tax rises. That included an increase in VAT to 20% and a cut in tax credits for thousands of families. It also included cuts to housing benefit, pensions and disability benefits. The Chancellor boasted in that speech that the Budget was progressive, not regressive, and that it would be an extra £40 billion fiscal hit in this Parliament. Labour Members warned him of the dangers, but the Chancellor said it would work. Let me cite what he said a year ago:
“These forecasts demonstrate that a credible plan to cut our budget deficit goes hand in hand with a steady and sustained economic recovery, with low inflation and falling unemployment.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 168.]
Things did not turn out that way last year.
Since the Prime Minister foolishly said in October that the economy was out of the danger zone, we have had the biggest fall in consumer confidence for 20 years; our economy has flatlined and not grown at all since the autumn; inflation is now higher than in every country except for Estonia and Turkey; the Institute for Fiscal Studies has declared the Chancellor’s Budget to be regressive, not progressive; and child poverty is expected to rise this year, next year and the year after, with women hit harder than men and families with children hit hardest of all. I have to say that this anniversary—unlike your anniversary, Mr Speaker—is not one worthy of celebration. It is certainly not an anniversary worthy of a 40th birthday party bash at Dorneywood. I do not know whether you were invited to the party at the weekend, Mr Speaker. I was not, which might be because I am not a Knight of the Garter.
I am grateful to the shadow Chancellor for giving way so early in his speech. While we are on the issue of credibility, will he explain why his sudden, completely unfunded £13 billion tax cut did not appear to be either agreed or even discussed with the shadow Cabinet? When the former Labour Chancellor was asked nine times this morning whether he agreed with it, he failed to endorse it. Why is the shadow Chancellor so isolated?
The former Labour Chancellor is not in the shadow Cabinet, as the hon. Gentleman will know—[Interruption.] He chose not to stand for the shadow Cabinet. We voted against the VAT rise earlier this year. The Leader of the Opposition said some months ago that it should be reversed. I repeated that claim last week and what I know, as it happened last week, is that when I go to speak to my leader, he understands the issues and backs me up, which is more than could be said for the Education Secretary, the Health Secretary, the Environment Secretary, the Lord Chancellor—and, I fear, quite possibly for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, too, if things carry on as they are.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He says he talks to his leader, so will he tell us when he released this information about the VAT cut to his leader—was it before he told the shadow Cabinet or did he treat his leader like just any other member of it?
I have to say that that is a ridiculous question. At a time when the economy has flatlined, confidence is down and our borrowing is up, is it surprising that I am asked questions like that? Of course I discussed all aspects of my speech with the Leader of the Opposition some days before I gave it. We agreed on this strategy because we think this VAT rise is a mistake. Families in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are being hit by having to pay £450 more in VAT, so one would have thought that he would be backing rather than opposing our plan to give them some help.
I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman again now; I might do later.
The reason why the VAT cut is needed now is that things are getting worse, not better. In recent weeks, we have seen manufacturing output and job vacancies falling and the biggest fall in retail sales for more than a year. The Chancellor likes to boast that a net 370,00 jobs have been created in the last 12 months; what he does not like saying is that 70% of those extra jobs were created in the six months before the spending review and only 29% in the six months after it. That is why his Budget forecasts of a year ago have gone so badly awry.
The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts for growth have been downgraded three times. Unemployment is now forecast to be 200,000 higher, while inflation is forecasted to be well above target this year and next year. The result of this stalled recovery, higher unemployment and higher inflation is that the Government are now forecast to borrow a further £46 billion more than was forecast in last year’s spending review. Public borrowing in the first two months of this year is higher than it was in the first two months of last year.
Whether or not the Chancellor comments, the fact remains that since the last OBR forecast, Britain’s growth forecasts have been downgraded by the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Everybody else is downgrading growth forecasts; we will have to wait for the OBR finally to catch up.
That tells you, Mr Speaker, how on the defensive Conservative Members are about the economy. The shadow Cabinet decided—[Interruption.] Look, just shouting does not get people to listen; the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) has got to learn that. The shadow Cabinet decided that the Opposition would oppose the VAT rise. In January, the Leader of the Opposition said it should be reversed. Last week, two days before I made my speech, I discussed the matter in detail with the Leader of the Opposition—[Hon. Members: “Aah!”] What do they mean, “Aah”? I discussed it 48 hours previously with the Leader of the Opposition, who backed me 100%—in marked contrast to the Prime Minister’s inability to grasp the detail, to stick with a policy or, most importantly, to support his own Cabinet members.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. On that particular point, why is the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) reported as being unhappy and feeling that she had not been consulted? Why did he not consult the shadow Cabinet?
I do my politics on the record. I am not going to comment on that kind of trash. [Interruption.] In view of all the Cabinet Ministers who have been briefed against in recent weeks by the Treasury—the Defence Secretary, the Health Secretary, the Lord Chancellor—perhaps the Chancellor should take a leaf out of my book on how to do things.
It is the contention of Labour Members that the Chancellor is wreaking long-term, as well as short-term, damage on British investment, incomes and employment. We know from the downgraded OBR forecast that our economy is already £5.6 billion worse off than it would have been if the Chancellor had got it right. The danger is that these policies will have a long-term impact, leading to a return of the long-term unemployment of the 1980s, a new lost generation of jobless young people and a permanent dent in our nation’s prosperity.
I will give way in a few seconds.
The test for the Treasury is not whether it can eventually get back to growth, but where it will make up the lost ground in jobs and living standards.
In this debate, I challenge the Chancellor to agree with me on three propositions: first, his plan is not working; secondly, he has the opportunity to change course; and, thirdly, there is a better and fairer alternative economic policy for our country—better for jobs, better for living standards, and a better, fairer way to get the deficit down.
Why does the shadow Chancellor think the Government are so surprised that he has announced a policy of cutting VAT when we cut VAT during the downturn and we voted against the increase in VAT that they imposed? Does he think that it is a sensible political strategy for the Government to highlight the fact that we want to cut VAT and they want to put it up?
I find that baffling as well. The fact is that cutting VAT was an effective stimulus, as the IFS said, which led to strengthening growth and falling unemployment a year ago. Now that cut has been reversed, and our position on the policy has been consistent. We propose not a move all the way from the Government’s deficit reduction plan to halving the deficit in four years, but a step along the road. That would be the right thing to do, and it would deliver for the constituents of Government Members a boost of £450 a year for a family with children, and of £275 a year for a pensioner couple. Why do they oppose action that would put money in people’s pockets and help to get the deficit down in a fairer way?
The right hon. Gentleman says that he likes to do his politics on the record. On the “Daily Politics” show on 14 March, he said:
“We’ve made no commitments at all, it would be totally irresponsible for an opposition to behave”
in that way. What is responsible about an unfunded £51 billion tax cut?
If that was written by the Whips, they will have to do better. What I said was that it would be completely irresponsible for me as shadow Chancellor to make a commitment now to a reverse in the VAT rise for our next election manifesto. Of course I cannot make an unfunded commitment for the next manifesto. The rise in VAT this January was a mistake. It was the wrong tax to raise, it was unfair, and it has depressed confidence and stopped people spending at the wrong time for the recovery. The Chancellor does not have to agree with us that he should not have raised VAT, but he should agree that he did it at the wrong time, and he should temporarily reverse it until the recovery is secure. We now hear from Conservative Central Office that the proposal to cut VAT only temporarily until the recovery is secure would have to be in place for four years of this Parliament. That tells us that the Conservatives think that the recovery will not be secure for the whole of this Parliament, which is precisely the argument that I am making.
Is it not the fact that the deniers here today are the Government who deny the collapse in consumer confidence? No one on the Government Benches is doing anything about it, and the economy will not kick-start again unless we tackle it.
I will give way in a second.
The fact is that the scale of the fiscal hit to demand and growth in Britain this year and next is unprecedented. It is happening when interest rates are already low, so they cannot be cut, and when other countries are trying to reduce their deficits at the same time. Confidence is also hit by the public debate about when mortgage rates will have to go up because of the Chancellor’s own-goal on inflation through the rise in VAT. That is why there is a problem. Instead, all we get from the Chancellor and the Conservative party is excuse after excuse.
It is good to see the IMF supporting the Government of the day. The IMF not supporting the Government of the day would be a catastrophe, and exactly the same has always been true, historically, for the OECD. There is no doubt that business has a growing worry about what is going on. There is also a growing worry in Ipswich, not least shown by a Labour local election victory there just a few weeks ago. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman’s colleague the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) is not in the Chamber, but obviously this local campaign is catching on. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) on his campaign to save school crossings, to get more funding for them from schools or parent-teacher associations, and his lobbying of the Secretary of State for Education to ensure that education in Ipswich gets the extra money it needs. “Save Sure Start from Cuts”—it is obviously all catching on.
I have plenty more; we will come to them in a second. Just think, “Good publicity, good publicity, it’s all good publicity.” It did not do the hon. Member for West Suffolk any harm; it did not do him any good either.
We do not hear much from the Chancellor these days about snow being the explanation for the contraction of the economy at the end of the year, because as he knew at the time, it also snowed in America, Germany and France, and they all posted stronger growth. In fact, Denmark, Ireland, Greece and Portugal were the only other countries with falling output in the last quarter of 2010. The Chancellor of all people, a regular skier on Europe’s slopes, should have known that even in winter it does not snow in Greece and Portugal. Instead we hear a new weather-related line. He blames the global headwinds, factors outside his control—rising oil prices, food prices, the eurozone, the Japanese earthquake, all reasons why prudent Chancellors should always be vigilant and choose caution over complacency. It is ironic to hear the Chancellor and the Prime Minister blame the rest of the world for Britain’s economic difficulties, as they did the opposite for their last four years in opposition.
Compared with other countries facing the same global headwinds, we are doing worse. We have gone from being in the top half of the EU economic league, to fourth from bottom in the past few months. It is no wonder that the OECD Deputy Secretary-General said a few weeks ago that
“we see merit in slowing the pace of fiscal consolidation if there is not so good news on the growth front”.
Even the IMF has said that
“there are significant risks to inflation, growth and unemployment”.
The excuses are not working, and the Chancellor is starting to be rumbled.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that when the Government took office, our country was on credit watch for a downgrade? Does he welcome the fact that this country’s borrowing rates are similar to those of Germany and nowhere near those of Portugal and Greece? Does he further recognise the impact that his proposal effectively to reduce VAT rates right now, unfunded, would have on our current national deficit?
The irony of a Conservative MP opposing tax cuts in VAT for families while allowing a tax cut, compared with last year, for the banks, is almost overwhelming. As everyone who studies the figures and not the political spin knows, we went into the crisis with lower national debt than France, Germany, America and Japan. Every country had a rise in its deficit, so of course we did. The fact is, however, that our gilt yields were very low and falling month by month before the general election, even as the opinion polls narrowed—
No, no, no.
Three months before the general election, the polls said that the Conservatives would get a majority. As the polls narrowed, our long-term interest rates fell, entirely disproving the point that the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) makes.
It is fine for the hon. Gentleman to be thinking of his intervention rather than listening to the answers, but the fact is that we had a lower budget deficit and lower national debt than we inherited in 1997. The IFS, in its report, “The public finances: 1997 to 2010” said:
“By 2007–08, the public finances were in a stronger position than they had been when Labour came to power in 1997.”
That entirely disproves his point.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that one reason for the remarkable fact that the world economy is growing steadily while Britain is flatlining, is the report from UK Trade & Investment that says that although UK inward investors are coming forward to build factories and growth in Britain, they are not being drawn down as the RDAs have been abolished? The Government are destroying the engines of growth.
I am sure that was one of the proposals in the so-called strategy in the Chancellor’s Budget.
As I have said, there is growing concern in the business community. There is even concern in the Conservative fraternity. As my friends on The Daily Telegraph said in a recent editorial:
“These figures should be giving George Osborne some sleepless nights.”
They should indeed be giving the Chancellor sleepless nights at No. 11.
Give me five minutes.
The Chancellor has clearly been paying some attention. There is no plan B yet, but there has been a change in the rhetoric. Now the Chancellor says that the economy is “choppy”, but that
“Changing course would be a disaster for our credibility”
and would lead to a Greek crisis here in Britain—a Greek crisis that the Chancellor now absurdly claims he has narrowly avoided in the past.
Well, at least that was not an animal noise.
Something has been puzzling me in recent months. Why does this Chancellor have such a love of the nautical metaphor? Navigating through choppy waters, steering a steady course, sailing into strong global head winds—where does he find all those boating metaphors? But this, of course, is the Chancellor who likes to spend his summers gossiping on the yachts of his friends.
I have said many times in the past year that the Chancellor must learn the lessons of history if he is to avoid repeating the mistakes of history. I am sorry to have to raise that rather unfortunate episode in his history again. I know that it is a bit irritating for Members, even a bit annoying, but the Prime Minister said that I was the most annoying person in politics, and I must live up to my reputation.
As a matter of fact, my reign at the top table did not last very long. A few days later, The Sunday Times conducted a poll asking the public who was the most annoying person in British politics. It turned out that the Prime Minister is just as annoying as me, it turned out that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is more annoying than me, and it turned out that the Deputy Prime Minister is more annoying than all of us. But who is the most annoying person in British politics today? It is still Lord Mandelson, the Chancellor’s yachting partner.
I know Lord Mandelson well. He is a good friend of mine. [Laughter.] He is, actually, and I know that he will agree with me on this. If the Chancellor and his friend the Prime Minister have found us annoying so far, they should bear in mind that this is only the beginning; and when the Chancellor boasts that he narrowly avoided a summer Greek crisis, we know what he is really remembering.
A man is known by his friends, and I think the shadow Chancellor has just proved that.
The right hon. Gentleman has talked a fair amount about the newspapers that he reads, such as The Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Eastern Daily Press. It must be very interesting for the shadow Home Secretary in the evenings. Perhaps he has also read the Tamworth Herald, which has revealed that unemployment in Tamworth has fallen to the lowest level since 2008 and that investment has been made in Tamworth by Ocado and BMW. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that we are doing so badly, how does he explain those developments?
I think the question that people will be asking in the hon. Gentleman’s local newspaper is this: why does he oppose a tax cut that would provide £450 for every family this year, and would boost failing confidence?
The hon. Member for West Suffolk does not seem to have turned up. It is so disappointing that he is not here, as he was last time, because I had a very good contribution for him.
Let me now set aside the Chancellor’s wild and nonsensical political attempts to draw parallels between Britain and Greece, and make a serious point about what is happening in Greece and how it affects the United Kingdom. The issue now is not whether Britain does or does not contribute to a further EU financial package for Greece. Like the Chancellor—I think—I believe that that would be the wrong thing for our country to do. It seems to me that we have reached a point at which talk of more temporary liquidity austerity packages, and further tough talking, is no longer working.
EU Finance Ministers must face the fact that Greece needs economic growth to succeed. Otherwise, it will be stuck in a debt trap. It is now very hard to see how Greece can stay in the single currency without a change of strategy on fiscal austerity and a substantial restructuring. The fact is, however, that it is precisely because the UK is outside the eurozone—and thank goodness we are; I will take an intervention on that if any Member wishes to intervene—and because our banks are less exposed to Greek debts than those in Germany and France that Britain should be an honest broker in these discussions. We are in a position to present an objective argument for immediate and co-ordinated action to restore jobs and growth and start reducing the debt, along with a sustainable, long-term plan for its reduction. However, we can do that without being accused by the people of Greece that we are merely looking after our own interests.
No. I am making a serious point.
In every crisis since 1997—the Asian crisis, the dotcom crisis, the Russian crisis, and the global financial crisis of 2008—Britain was constantly at the centre of discussions attempting to establish a solution for the future.
In one second.
For the first time in 14 years we have a Chancellor and a Prime Minister who are on the sidelines, silent, irrelevant and ignored. I believe that whatever the outcome of the present crisis—whatever happens in the eurozone and to Greece—people will say that we had a Chancellor of the Exchequer who was not there, who did not deliver, who was out of his depth, and who could not contribute to the long-term reforms that were needed.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very important point. The United Kingdom can make an important contribution to the debate, but it obviously should not lend money directly to Greece. Is he saying that he thinks the only way out for Greece now is a rescheduling of its debt and agreement on the fact that there must be a change of pattern to secure the necessary growth and enable the economy to accelerate?
In a moment I will deal with the parallel with the United Kingdom. Let me say first, however, that the lesson of history shows that it is not possible to deal with a solvency crisis by providing liquidity package after liquidity package, because that does not reach the heart of the issue. On the contrary, it makes the position worse and worse. At some point people will have to face up to that. Package after package has been agreed, but that has not worked. The debt has not gone down; it has gone up.
History teaches us that three things are necessary to the credibility of a plan, whether it involves monetary policy or fiscal policy. First, the plan must be for the medium term; secondly, there must be political support for it; and thirdly, it must work. If it does not work, that will eventually rebound on political support, as we have seen in Greece in recent weeks.
I entirely agree with what my right hon. Friend has said about both Greece and the need for a plan, but if a plan is to be implemented the country concerned must have control of its exchange rates, interest rates and fiscal policy, and that is not possible inside the eurozone.
Let me deal with precisely that point by returning to the subject of the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding what I consider to be a rather tawdry attempt to use what seems to be a political claim that a sovereign debt crisis exists here in the UK to give the Liberal Democrats an excuse to ditch everything in their manifesto and support a Conservative party policy, the fact is that the plan is not working here either.
The Chancellor likes to play this game. A few weeks ago, he told the “Politics Show” that if he “abandoned” his plan,
“Within minutes Britain would be in financial turmoil.”
As I have just said, the Greek Prime Minister’s experience shows that simply talking tough does not make someone credible and does not boost market confidence if the plan is not working.
The reason why there is now a question mark over the Chancellor’s credibility is that in recent weeks and months we have had an economy that has not been growing; fewer people in work and paying tax than there should be; and more people on benefits than there should be. That makes it harder to get the deficit down. We have had stagnant output for six months and we have forecasts being downgraded left, right and centre. This is not about bad news now and short-term pain. All that makes it harder to get the deficit down and undermines our long-term credibility, investment and confidence. As the former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, who is now head of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, said:
“You do not gain credibility by sticking to a strategy that isn’t working.”
That is the situation we are now in.
Whichever number we use—the £12 billion or the £51 billion unfunded tax cut—can the right hon. Gentleman tell us where that money might come from, or is he happy to bundle up further debt that we can then pass on to our children and grandchildren?
I have just made it absolutely clear that if we do not have a credible plan that works, it makes it harder to get the deficit down, not easier. Borrowing is now going to be £46 billion higher because of an economic plan that is not working. That is the reality.
No, no, no.
A year ago, we had a balanced plan: people paid their fair share, there were spending cuts and there were tax rises, but it was cautious and was not a pre-ordained political timetable or a headlong lunge. That is what the Chancellor should be doing now. He should be adopting a more sensible approach to deficit reduction, which would allow him temporarily to reverse the VAT change right now. He should also reopen the spending review and have a steady approach to spending cuts. A 20% cut in police budgets, front-loaded, is complete criminal justice madness. He should take up our plan to repeat the bank bonus tax, build houses and get young people back to work. As I have said, a temporary VAT cut now would put money into people’s pockets, boost confidence, push inflation down and give our flatlining economy the jump-start it urgently needs. That would be a better way of getting the deficit down.
My right hon. Friend will know that the UK taxpayer will still be contributing to any bail-out of Greece through the International Monetary Fund, but will he comment on the fact that if Greece does fail and subsequently other countries follow that failure into default, that could precipitate the end of the IMF? The loans that the UK taxpayer is making to the IMF would then never be repatriated.
The IMF is there to help countries through situations like this. We are a shareholder and a contributor to the IMF and that is quite right. It is a different matter our putting liquidity money into a eurozone strategy that patently is not working because it is flawed. My argument to the Chancellor is that it is ironic to see a British Conservative Chancellor backing the German Finance Ministry’s view over sanity and common sense. We have not seen that in our country for a very long time.
I put it to the shadow Chancellor that this is not just about the business of the unfunded VAT cut that he proposes; it is also about some £10 billion-plus of spending commitments on the Welfare Reform Bill. Billions here, billions there—that does not add up to a credible economic policy from the Opposition.
“I’ll protect border services, blasts Elphicke”, reads the headline.
“The UK Border Agency will not suffer due to Government spending cuts,”
claims the Dover MP. If the hon. Gentleman wants to have a debate with me about credibility and support for spending cuts, I will have it every day of the week.
It is the Chancellor’s credibility that is in trouble.
I have taken lots of interventions and I am coming to my conclusion.
That is why we have consistently said that the Chancellor should have a plan B. At the end of August 1992, three weeks before Black Wednesday, the then Prime Minister and his then special adviser stood in front of the Treasury at 8 am and said:
“There are going to be no devaluations, no leaving the ERM. We are absolutely committed to the ERM. It is at the centre of our policy. We are going to maintain sterling’s parity and we will do whatever is necessary, and I hope there is no doubt about that at all.”
That was almost certainly written by the current Prime Minister. Hon. Members have to learn these lessons. It is true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) said a moment ago, that back then the pound was constrained by a fixed exchange rate. It was very hard for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the day to change course, even though they could see that their policy was not working. Had we joined the euro—and as we have all said, thank goodness we did not—that would have been an even greater constraint on UK economic policy, but neither constraint exists now. The objectives for monetary and fiscal policy have lain squarely in the Chancellor’s gift and this is the fundamental problem: he has made a political decision to set a political timetable for a political goal that defies economic logic, and the evidence is growing week by week that he has got this wrong. The lesson of monetary and fiscal policy too, over the past 20 years, is that changing course when things are not working is not a knee-jerk reaction and does not damage credibility. It is the only way of being in control of our destiny and averting the crisis being forced on us.
Let me quote some wise words:
“The weak thing to do is just to keep ploughing on and say, ‘I can’t possibly change, because I might have a difficult time at a press conference.’ The tough, strong thing to do is say, ‘Yes, we can make these plans better’.”
That is what the Prime Minister said yesterday, explaining the U-turns on sentencing and the NHS. He has obviously learned some lessons from his time as special adviser to Norman Lamont. My only plea today is that the Chancellor starts learning the lessons of history too. The cautious thing to do is not to plough on and hope for the best, but to act now before we lose more ground. Unlike Norman Lamont, who was tied to the exchange rate mechanism, the Chancellor can choose. He does not have to box himself in this way, so stubbornly. He does not need to make the Major-Lamont ERM mistake all over again.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the previous Government’s policies when they embarked on a very timid programme of tax increases and public expenditure cuts a year and a half ago. Does he not accept that that was completely inadequate then and that the only reason it was accepted was because the international markets knew that there was a general election coming and that his party was way down in the polls? They lived for a better day.
I have been, in a friendly way, critical of the Chancellor’s engagement and participation in international affairs and matters of global economic management, but he does go to the meetings and sign up to the communiqués. As the Chancellor in June 2010, after the general election, he went to the G20 and signed up to the communiqué that said that Governments should halve the deficit in the next four years, which was precisely the plan we had, which they tore up. We are not going to take lectures from the Conservatives on credibility. As I have said, the credible approach is not to plough on regardless when things are not working but to change course before it is too late.
This is my conclusion.
I have taken loads of interventions and I am not going to do doubles.
The fact is that the path that our economy is being taken down is, I think, the wrong one, and the evidence is supporting that. It could prove very dangerous for growth, for jobs, for public services, for our living standards, for the deficit and for our mortgage rates too.
No, I am going to conclude.
At the very least, it looks set to be a path of slower growth and higher unemployment than needed to be the case. There is an alternative, it is more credible than the current plan, not less, and it is not too late to change course. The Chancellor has a choice; he is not stuck, this time, in the ERM or the euro. He cannot fall back on the idea, as back then, that Labour supports his policies, because we have set out a very clear and different alternative, including on VAT, this year. Most of all, he cannot say he has not been warned. We are on a path of slower growth, higher unemployment and more child poverty than was forecast a year ago. The Chancellor has a choice. On the anniversary of his first Budget, he should agree with our motion and admit he got it wrong. If he is prepared to start putting economics before politics, it is not too late to change course.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“welcomes the fact that in the last year a record 520,000 new private sector jobs were created, with the second highest rate of net job creation in the G7, exports grew by 13 per cent. and manufacturing activity was 4.2 per cent. higher and the latest labour market data showed the largest fall in unemployment for more than a decade; notes that the Government inherited a budget deficit forecast to be the largest in the G20; further notes that the previous administration and now Opposition has no credible plan to deal with the deficit and that the Shadow Chancellor’s recent proposal for a temporary cut in VAT has been widely criticised for lacking credibility and would put the stability of the economy at risk; notes that the Government has introduced a permanent bank levy that raises more revenue than the previous administration’s one-off bonus tax and that the Government has set out a credible plan that has been endorsed by the IMF, OECD, European Commission and the CBI, that has led to greater stability, lower market interest rates and an affirmation of the UK’s credit rating that had been put at risk by the previous administration; and notes that this stability provides a platform for rebalancing the economy and the Government’s Plan for Growth that includes reducing business taxes, investing in apprenticeships, creating a new Green Investment Bank, reforming the planning system, reducing the burden of regulation and reforming the welfare system to make work pay.”
I very much welcome this debate, and it was certainly worth attending for that priceless phrase, “I do my politics on the record”. That is right up there with, “There will be no whitewash at the White House”, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” and “No more boom and bust”. Really, we must put that phrase away, because we will need it in the weeks ahead.
It is good that we are discussing the economy, and the shadow Chancellor made a speech about what has happened to the economy over the past year—the subject of this debate—but he completely failed to mention that exports are 13% up, manufacturing is 4% up, investment is 6% up and, most importantly, the 520,000 net new jobs in the private sector. Remember the question a year ago, “Where will the jobs come from over the next year?” Well, we have had 500,000 answers from businesses around this country—indeed, the second highest job creation rate in the G7—but that is not a fact that we are likely to hear from the Opposition, because they are determined to talk this economy down. That is the truth.
The decisions that we took in the first few weeks on coming to office provided stability for the economy. That can be seen in the fall in market interest rates and the affirmation of our credit rating. Those things happened within weeks. Of course, some of the structural reforms that we are taking will take longer to come into effect, but that is why our package includes immediate action to bring stability; medium-term action to bring down tax rates, which is happening now; and of course the long-term reforms that I will talk about. That is the point that I should like to make to the hon. Gentleman and others.
I said a year ago, not recently, that the recovery would be choppy. How could it be anything other than choppy, when we are recovering from the greatest recession since the 1930s, the biggest banking crisis in our history, landed with the biggest budget deficit in peacetime? That is the inheritance that the Government has had, and yes, there have been other factors—international headwinds, such as the oil price—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”] Well, there has been a 60% rise in the oil price, which has apparently passed the Opposition by. In the words of the International Monetary Fund, despite all this,
“the repair of the UK economy is underway”,
and the truth is that the Opposition simply do not want to hear it. They broke it, and they cannot bear to see anyone else fixing it.
My hon. Friend makes two good points. First, there was a very welcome recent reduction in unemployment—the biggest fall for a decade. Secondly, he draws attention to one of the most staggering facts about the past decade: private sector employment in the west midlands fell in the decade leading up to the financial crisis. That shows how unbalanced the British economy became under the last Labour Government.
We fought the 2005 election and, sadly, lost it, saying that Labour’s plans were unaffordable. In 2008, we made it clear that we were coming off Labour’s spending plans. [Hon. Members: “You didn’t.”] We did. I happened to be there—I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman was. We came off Labour’s spending plans in 2008, and thank God we did, because we earned a mandate to make the necessary changes to put the economy back on track.
I will take a couple of interventions in a short while, but let me make the point that, since the shadow Chancellor took office, two things have happened. The first thing is that the measured economic credibility of the Opposition has steadily fallen, and the other thing is that the reported divisions in the Labour party have steadily increased. If anyone wants to know why its economic credibility is falling and why the divisions are increasing in the Opposition, the speech that we have heard told it all: not one word of apology, not one passage of serious reflection about why it all went wrong. The shadow Chancellor started talking about the fact that the Prime Minister was the special adviser in the early 1990s. He himself was the special adviser for the past decade in the Treasury—not a mention of the fact that he was the chief economic adviser when the advice was so catastrophic, not one mention of the fact that he was the City Minister when the City exploded. That is the record of the right hon. Gentleman.
The amnesia reached new heights in the right hon. Gentleman’s speech last week to the London School of Economics. Consider this recent quotation from the speech that he gave—this is from the man at the centre of British economic policy making for last decade:
“when I am asked in interviews what I would be doing differently to cut the deficit, the first thing I say is that I wouldn’t be starting from here.”
I can assure him that none of us would like to be starting from here, but the main reason why we are is sitting right opposite me.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it says everything that we need to know about the Opposition’s economic policy when the shadow Chancellor’s immediate reaction to the IMF report was, “They don’t know what they’re talking about”?
It went beyond that—my hon. Friend makes a good point—not only did the shadow Chancellor attack the IMF, but he also attacked in the speech that I have just mentioned the IMF’s acting managing director. So he laid into the Governor of the Bank of England a couple of months ago, and he is now laying into the IMF’s acting managing director. Anyone who disagrees with the shadow Chancellor, which means most of the world, has become his political opponent.
I want to apologise to the Chancellor for something that I said yesterday. On who said what in 2008, I said yesterday that the Chancellor had praised the previous Government’s spending plans in 2008, despite now condemning what he refers as a decade of over-investment. I was wrong, and I want to apologise. In July 2008, it was in fact the Prime Minister who praised Labour’s then spending plans. He said:
“we are sticking to Labour’s spending totals.”
It was in 2007 that the Chancellor said that a Conservative Government would match our spending plans.
The hon. Gentleman should get better handouts if he is one of the shadow Chancellor’s close advisers. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] I have answered the question. At the 2005 general election, we fought against Labour’s spending plans. In 2008, the year that he mentions, we came off Labour’s spending plans. Thank God that we did, because it has given us the mandate and the power to put the public finances back on track.
The extraordinary thing about the shadow Chancellor is that he takes credit for the things that went right. On Bank of England independence, he has completely written out of the script the then Prime Minister and Chancellor. He now takes sole credit for keeping Britain out of the euro, although, as far as I am aware—I am happy to take an intervention—the Labour party’s official policy is still that we join the euro in principle. Is that right? I do not know whether the policy has changed. [Interruption.] We have heard quite a lot from the Labour party in the past couple of hours about being on top of the detail. Surely, the shadow Chancellor knows what his party’s policy is on the euro. [Hon. Members: “He doesn’t.”] Oh, dear. Let me give him a clue. When I became Chancellor, I had to close down the euro preparations unit in the Treasury.
Of course, the shadow Chancellor takes credit, but he is nowhere to be seen when the discussion turns to the fiddled fiscal rules, the failed tripartite regulation, the doubling of the debt, the bank collapses and the destruction of our pensions—none of those things has anything to do with him at all. Now, he is at it again. This is what a member of the shadow Cabinet said a couple of weeks ago:
“he increasingly thinks his party is heading for the buffers and doesn’t want to be in the cab when the collision comes.”
His boss was called Macavity, and it turns out that Macavity has a kitten—son of Macavity. There is a reason for all this: because he cannot construct a credible story about the past that does not cast himself as a villain, he lunges forward in opposition from one incredible uncosted policy to another.
I will take interventions, but let me make this point.
Since this is an Opposition day, let us examine the latest idea of a £51 billion—£13 billion a year—unfunded commitment on tax. This means that the shadow Chancellor has presumably abandoned the Darling plan for this year, because the commitment was not funded in that plan, and that members of the Opposition Front-Bench team were not only too embarrassed to mention it at Treasury questions yesterday but, as we now know, they were not consulted. The shadow Cabinet was not consulted.
I will give way on this point. On television at lunchtime, the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), was asked eight times whether he supported the policy of the shadow Chancellor and he did not give an answer. Perhaps the shadow Chancellor will tell us whether the last Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer supports his plan—yes or no.
The previous Chancellor was the last man to cut VAT temporarily to get the economy moving. What is the right hon. Gentleman talking about? Let me ask him a very precise question. He says the cost of this temporary VAT cut, which I said should be in place until the recovery is secured, would be more than £50 billion. Exactly how does he get that figure, and how many years does that mean we will have to wait before the recovery is secured, following his reckless deficit reduction plan?
The right hon. Gentleman will recall that a year ago the predictions in terms of unemployment did not reflect the 510,000 new jobs which he boasted at the Dispatch Box today about having created in the economy. He will also remember that the OBR predicted 2.6% growth, which has not happened. How does he account for the fact that, despite the 500,000 extra jobs in the economy, growth has flatlined and the 2.6% growth predicted has not been achieved?
The hon. Gentleman draws attention to the 520,000 net private sector jobs that are being created. It is also the case, as we saw yesterday, that the tax receipts have not only held up, but are ahead of forecast. The IMF said that an interesting question arises when that is put alongside the GDP figures. These forecasts are independent. That is one of the fundamental changes that we made. The Office for Budget Responsibility is independent. It is also a central forecast, rather than a cautious forecast, as used to be the case. That was another important change we made. We shall see as the economic data come in. We should welcome the public finance data last week and we should certainly welcome the unemployment data.
I give way to my constituency neighbour.
Indeed. The share of manufacturing as a proportion of our economy halved as well. That is how unbalanced the British economy became. Financial services boomed—we all know that; manufacturing halved as a share of our economy. One of the things that we are seeking to do is rebalance our economy.
Let me make a little progress and then take some more interventions.
We are all being asked to vote tonight on the proposition put forward by the shadow Chancellor. We are all being asked to support his motion calling for a big unfunded tax cut. This is what the Financial Times commented when it heard about that. It said that the shadow Chancellor’s argument “increasingly sounds irrelevant”
and that it is
“favoured by those who are unwilling to face up to the true problems facing Britain’s economy today.”
The Economist said that the shadow Chancellor’s speech was
“steeped in cynical electoral politics, thinly disguised as an economics lecture.”
Well, there is always The Guardian, isn’t there? Not on this occasion. The Guardian said that the shadow Chancellor’s economic policy was the “wrong prescription”
and went on to say:
“The big job for Labour . . . is not to dream up a couple of policies but to work out a cogent position on the deficit”
and that there is
“No sign of that yet.”
No sign of a cogent position on the deficit—that was not a comment from the Government, the right-wing press or the IMF, but from The Guardian. That shows just how alone the shadow Chancellor is.
Let me make this point, then I will take interventions.
The position is worse even than that. Hon. Members might remember reading a couple of weeks ago about those leaked documents about project Volvo, the secret plan drawn up by the shadow Chancellor to rebrand his party. The president of Volvo Cars rushed out a statement saying:
“If only the Labour Party had been like today’s Volvos—dynamic, agile and innovative—perhaps the UK economy would have been in a better place than it finds itself today.”
While the Chancellor is on that subject, can he give a simple answer to a question—yes or no? Did he have advance knowledge that The Daily Telegraph had obtained the shadow Chancellor’s private papers, or any advance knowledge of the stories that it planned to write—as he raised the issue, yes or no?
Is it not also telling that after the Opposition have spent a year banging on about the American model and what the Americans were doing, we heard nothing today about the fact that President Obama had to introduce austerity measures because his massive input of billions into the economy did nothing except raise unemployment and increase the deficit?
The interesting thing is that in the United States the debate in the Congress has turned to discussions about the US budget deficit. The proposal from President Obama in his speech at George Washington university bears some striking similarities to the British Government’s plan, and is similar in pace, scale and composition between tax and spending measures. It shows that this is the discussion that the world is having, but it is not a discussion of which the shadow Chancellor is a part.
To follow up the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), and because this is a serious matter, I would like to give the Chancellor a second opportunity to answer. I answered his questions and questions from the Government Back Benches on my conversations with the Leader of the Opposition. Did the Chancellor have any advance knowledge or sight of papers taken from me which went to The Daily Telegraph without my knowledge? I would like him to answer the question.
We all read those papers in The Daily Telegraph. They revealed that the shadow Chancellor knew before the then Chancellor of the Exchequer came to the House of Commons that the 10p tax rate that Labour Members all voted for would hit the poorest in our country.
I hope the Chancellor will not describe me as a henchman. Writing yesterday, Lord Skidelsky said that taking £112 billion out of the economy in the next four years will be a massive fiscal contraction, and he described it as
“the royal road to stagnation, not recovery.”
What does the right hon. Gentleman have to say to Lord Skidelsky?
Of course there are economists, including Lord Skidelsky, who have made their views clear, but there are just as many—indeed, more—economists on the other side of the argument. The economic institutions that govern our world—the IMF, the OECD, and the European Commission, which does not govern our world, but produced a recent report on the British economy—all made the same point. We can set ourselves completely against world opinion, as the shadow Chancellor has done, because he cannot admit that the country had huge problems coming up to the financial crisis. He cannot do that or he would put himself centre stage. That is what this is all about, but the world has moved on and the Labour party has not yet moved on with it.
The Red Book says that current public spending will rise 3.8% this year in cash terms and it is running a little higher than that at present. Given that there is to be a public sector pay freeze, is it the intention that there should be a real increase in public spending this year? Does that not put the debate into some kind of context?
My right hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that although we have had to take very difficult decisions—everybody understands and sees that—we are not facing the sort of catastrophic scenario painted by the Opposition. The shadow Chancellor talked about Greece perhaps having to default and leave the euro, and as it is not in primary balance and it has a big budget deficit, that would lead to even more draconian cuts. The truth is that if we had not put in place a credible, measured, staggered plan to reduce the budget deficit, we would have been forced by the international markets into making much deeper cuts.
I have taken several interventions, and I will take some more after I have made a little progress.
The Government have put in place three measures: first, a credible plan to deal with the deficit; secondly, a plan for growth that supports the private sector and rebalances our economy; and thirdly—astonishingly, the shadow Chancellor did not mention this—a plan for the banking sector, to ensure that we deal with the problems we currently face while also preventing a repeat of the banking crisis in future.
Let me address each of those in turn. In terms of the budget deficit, our understanding is based on the following points. Britain has a large structural deficit; it emerged before the recession began; it will not go away automatically as the economy recovers; and it puts our whole economy at risk. We only have to look at what is happening in other parts of Europe to see that that is the case. Almost all the independent observers of the British economy agree with those points, including the crucial fact that we had a structural deficit before the crisis struck. The OECD and the International Monetary Fund estimate that before the crisis Britain had the largest structural deficit of all the G7 countries.
Tony Blair states in his memoirs that
“from 2005 onwards Labour was insufficiently vigorous in limiting or eliminating the potential structural deficit.”
[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor says, “Rubbish.” I thought that he conducted his politics on the record, and I am not sure that Tony Blair would have agreed with that; the last time he checked, he was the Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury in 2005.
My predecessor as Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West, says that by 2007
“we had reached the limits of what I thought we should be spending.”
What is the shadow Chancellor’s view? It is this:
“I don’t think we had a structural deficit at all”.
No one agrees with him on that; he is in complete denial.
At that point in 2007, what did the then Government do? They increased spending by £90 billion, far above the level of inflation, and going against the advice we now know they got from the Treasury. Was that not seriously negligent?
I have already been asked that question three times, and I have answered it, explaining that—[Interruption.] Well, I will repeat it. We fought the general election in 2005 arguing that Labour was borrowing too much. We came off Labour’s spending plans in 2008, in the approach to the last general election, and thank God we did, because it gave us the mandate to take the difficult decisions we have had to take.
Let me just make the following point before taking another intervention. The majority of Labour Members voted for the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) to be their leader. He did not get the job however, but this is what he would have said in the acceptance speech he never delivered, and it goes to the heart of the challenge we face:
“Step one is to recognise what is obvious: that we did not abolish the business cycle. We should never have claimed it. You can’t in a market economy. And public spending plans cannot depend on it. Nor can you write your own fiscal rules and then be the judge and jury for how they are calculated and when they are met.”
That is absolutely right, and it is why last May we created the Office for Budget Responsibility, a step that the shadow Chancellor opposed in Parliament when he was a Treasury Minister, although I hope his party now accepts it. That is also why a year ago we introduced the budget plan to get the deficit down and have a credible programme for recovery—and which is why we are having this debate today.
The Chancellor’s analysis of what went wrong under the Labour Government is completely right. However, does he agree that our current strategy must be about growth as well as reducing the deficit through making cuts? I know he understands that and would like to achieve growth, but we cannot achieve it, either in our own economy or in Europe, if 4% of our GDP is taken up with the costs of over-regulation, as has recently been suggested. The bottom line is that we have to deregulate, but we cannot deregulate European legislation without overriding it, and negotiation is not working.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a crucial element of our strategy must be to undertake structural reform of the British economy in order to reduce regulation and the burdens on business and make our economy more competitive. We would have to do that in any case, even without the recovery from recession we are having to undertake, but the truth is that it has been made more difficult by the accumulation of all the red tape over the past few years. It is remarkable that when we propose important changes—although not changes that go as far as we would like—to employment tribunal law, Labour opposes them. Those are basic changes that would enable more people to be hired and to be in work, but they are opposed by the Opposition. [Interruption.] We can tell by Opposition Members’ reactions that they simply do not understand what it takes to create jobs in the private sector.
The Opposition not only want to hold back the growth agenda; they also have a series of unfunded spending commitments and go in for gimmicks and bandwagon chasing. They will not be a responsible Opposition, or electable at the next general election, if they carry on in this way.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the last week alone, not only has the shadow Chancellor made a huge unfunded tax promise, but Labour voted against the welfare Bill, with its billions of pounds of savings. It is perfectly right for an Opposition to say, “I don’t agree with that, and I’ve got an argument with you on this,” but Labour’s voting against the entire welfare Bill was a catastrophic error of judgment, and we will remind it of its failure to reform the welfare system from now until the end of this Parliament. The Labour leader recently said that his party had become known as the friend of the welfare scroungers and the bankers. He was absolutely right about that.
The shadow Chancellor’s central argument was that the reason why we are undertaking this deficit reduction plan is because it is all part of some great partisan ideological plot. I therefore have a question for the shadow Treasury team: presumably therefore, the Bank of England is part of this plot? Is that the case?
So it is a Tory plot, is it, and the Bank of England is part of it? What about the IMF; is it part of this Tory plot? The right hon. Gentleman probably thinks the CBI is part of it.
What about PIMCO, the world’s largest bond fund: is it part of the Tory plot? It is based in Los Angeles, so it must represent the international branch of the Tory plot. It said this:
“We think the UK is implementing what is probably the best combination of fiscal and monetary policies”
in the western world. These groups—the serious commentators—have all come to the same conclusion as the coalition Government: that we need a credible deficit reduction plan to get our market interest rates right—to make sure that, even though we inherited a budget deficit higher than Portugal’s, our market interest rates are similar to those of Germany.
Who is paying the price for this approach to reducing the deficit? The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently pointed out that the inflation rate being experienced by the poorest families is 60% higher than that being experienced by the highest-earning families.
The truth is that the whole country has paid the price for the disastrous economic policies of the previous Government. There is no easy way to reduce the largest deficit in our history, but the Opposition oppose every single measure we introduce. That is incredible and it is precisely why they have been rumbled—rumbled by the serious economic press and by everyone else.
Is the truth not that the Opposition’s two policies—cutting VAT and halving the structural deficit over this Parliament, rather than eliminating it—mean just one thing: more borrowing? Does more borrowing not just mean one thing: us paying more interest? Is it not morally disgusting that when we came into government a year ago we were spending £120 million a day just to service the interest on their debt, which they now want to increase?
My hon. Friend is right. The debt interest payments would have increased to £180 million a day if we had not pursued our current policies. That became one of the largest Budget items under the Labour Government. Deficit reduction has avoided the interest payments that we would have had under Labour.
The Chancellor will be aware that Ireland is locked into a serious deficit reduction plan. He may also be aware that next week, as part of its budget for jobs, a targeted VAT cut to 9% will kick in for the tourism sector and last for 18 months. It follows similar cuts made by France and Germany to 7% and 5.5% respectively. Does he rule out targeted VAT cuts to support jobs and growth in particular sectors at the same time as deficit reduction, because that is what other countries are doing?
We put forward in the Budget targeted cuts for business. We are cutting corporation tax by 2% this year and a further 3% in coming years. We have put in place more generous research and development tax credits to help businesses. We have cut the small companies tax rate—
The right hon. Gentleman says that they supported it, but the plans I inherited from Labour’s March 2010 Budget, which presumably he voted for, were to increase the small companies tax rate. We reversed that and cut taxes. We are also taking more than 1 million low-paid people out of tax and trying to get the unemployed back into work.
I was in Northern Ireland on Friday, meeting the political leaders and visiting a very successful manufacturing business in Ballymena, and the point I make to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) is that we are consulting on the future of corporation tax rates there, reflecting the fact that it shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which has a much lower rate of corporation tax.
I have just taken an intervention from that side.
The first requirement to fix the mess is a plan to deal with the deficit. The second requirement is the plan for growth. While the shadow Chancellor was letting the debt build up, the underlying competitiveness of our economy declined and the UK fell from fourth place to 12th in the international rankings. More than 1 million jobs were lost in manufacturing. Regional inequality, which we heard about during Prime Minister’s questions, worsened during Labour’s 13 years in government as the gap between the regions increased. As I pointed out earlier, private sector employment in the west midlands fell. Those imbalances have become deeply entrenched and cannot be fixed overnight, but we are undertaking the long-term structural reforms necessary to make that happen.
We have extended the mortgage interest relief scheme—I inherited a plan for it, too, to end—and of course are trying to avoid repossessions, but there was a large number of repossessions under the Labour Government, and that is because—[Interruption.] I certainly inherited a huge economic mess from the Labour party. The truth is that one of the problems we are having to deal is the enormous housing boom, which was bigger than that experienced in any other major western economy, including the United States of America. We are putting in place those structural reforms, cutting corporation tax, creating more apprenticeships than the country has ever seen, lifting the low paid out of tax, reforming our planning system, reducing the burden of regulation, accelerating education reform, introducing the green investment bank and passing the landmark welfare legislation.
I will make some progress.
All those policies involved difficult decisions, but they have been opposed by the Labour party. There is one live example that I want to raise: public sector pension reform. The Government want to reform our public sector pensions system to ensure fairness for public sector workers and taxpayers. We asked Lord Hutton, Labour’s former Work and Pensions Secretary, to propose a solution. He produced an interim report and a final report. It is comprehensive, excellent and fair and the coalition Government back it. As everyone knows, we are in negotiations with the public sector trade unions on how it should be implemented. Sadly, a minority of union leaders seem more interested in strike action than in trying to reach a fair deal. At least their position is clear. What is the view of the Labour party? Complete silence. Will someone intervene and answer that?
The Chancellor is not asking the questions; I am intervening. Where is the Chief Secretary to the Treasury? Why is he going out in the middle of negotiations and breaching the good faith of those he is negotiating with? That is the question we need an answer to.
We are engaged in those negotiations, which the Chief Secretary and the Minister for the Cabinet Office are leading for our side. I have asked a very simple question: does the Labour party back public sector pension reform as set out by John Hutton? [Interruption.] That says it all.
I set out our position on these matters very clearly on Sunday. We agree that we need pensions reform and are studying the detail of the Hutton report, as everyone is. We thought that the increase in contributions before it was published was a complete abuse of the report and that the way the Government are rushing to increase the age of retirement is deeply unfair, especially to women in their 50s. The whole handling of this by the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has been totally and deeply shambolic.
Let me take that answer and dissect it. First, the shadow Chancellor deliberately confuses the state pension age with public sector pension because he does not want to answer the question. Secondly, he says that he is studying the Hutton report, but how long does it take him to read it, because it has been out for three months and an interim report was produced last year. Unbelievable.
I will end my speech shortly, because Mr Speaker requested that we ensure that many Members get into the debate. The third thing that is required, which was totally unmentioned by the shadow Chancellor, is a plan to reform the banking system and financial services. That is a central part of any British Government’s economic policy, but we heard not a word on it from him. We know why, of course. It is the same reason that we discussed on the deficit: he was the man who designed the regulatory system that failed. He was the man in the Treasury who designed the tripartite system of regulation; it was his idea, and it failed.
This is what the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), said—and he does not say this kind of thing very often:
“We set up the FSA believing the problem would come from the failure of an individual institution. That was the big mistake. We didn’t understand just how entangled things were. I have to accept my responsibility.”
When the former Labour Prime Minister accepts responsibility, is it not time that the man who was advising him accepted his responsibility, too, and admitted that the tripartite system failed and needs to be replaced?
The tripartite system was put in place following the repeated failure of self-regulation and of the regulation of the Bank of England in the period before 1997. I have said on the record loud and clear that we did not regulate the banks in a tough enough way, but throughout that period the current Chancellor personally attacked me for being too tough with regulation and for going too far. The idea is to replace a tripartite system with a quartet system that is even more complicated and byzantine, and we will look at that in detail in the coming months, but the Chancellor is playing a very dangerous game.
The right hon. Gentleman did not apologise for the tripartite system; he defended it. That is what he just did.
Now, the shadow Chancellor has just—I think for the first time—set himself against the regulatory changes that we propose. He says that he wants to study them, but I set them out at the Mansion House not this year, but last year, so he has had more than one year to study them.
And he says that he is really worried about them.
So, there we have it: the shadow Chancellor is against putting the Bank of England back in charge of prudential regulation; against the financial policy committee; and against the financial conduct authority, which is going to be tougher on behalf of consumers. The independent banking commission, which includes experts from throughout the banking field, has been working on the issue and come forward with an interim report. We have backed the principles of that report, but what does the shadow Chancellor have to say? Absolutely nothing—absolutely nothing about the plan that he would put in place. That is the truth.
That goes to the heart of this debate—the credibility that the shadow Chancellor talks about. The public are deaf to the Opposition’s arguments because of their political opportunism and the cynical way in which they are dealing with the most important issue facing our nation.
I thank the Chancellor for giving way, and I am proud to be the PPS to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown).
The Chancellor was so busy yesterday calling me “new” that he did not answer my question, and he did not listen to the shadow Chancellor just then or answer his question, either. Will he explain how his increased complication of the regulatory system will prevent further bank failure?
Of course, I welcome the hon. Lady to her—[Interruption.] I will answer the question that she puts. I have merely observed in the past that being the Parliamentary Private Secretary to someone who never comes to Parliament is not a very onerous job, but that is good, because she can think up important questions to ask me.
Our judgment, with which the hon. Lady is entitled to disagree, is this: what was missing from the tripartite system was an ability to assess systemic risks throughout the economy. No one was looking at overall debt or leverage levels—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor says, “Rubbish”. When the Royal Bank of Scotland wanted to buy ABN AMRO after the credit markets had closed and after the run on Northern Rock, the regulatory system allowed RBS to do so. That is what went wrong, and if the right hon. Gentleman wants to go on defending the system that led to the biggest banking crisis in our entire history he can be my guest.
When we reformed the Bank of England in 1997, we introduced a second deputy governor for financial stability. It was the job of the deputy governor in the Bank of England to monitor those things, and what has the Chancellor now done? He has added a third deputy governor, so there are now going to be three, and that is a more complex system. He is making a political case, but I do not know whether he even understands the financial and economic case.
Let me conclude now.
The scales have fallen from the eyes of Labour MPs. They realise that they have a shadow Chancellor who has to spend the next four years defending his record, and they are completely silent as they realise that they are going to be talking about the past, not the future.
The shadow Chancellor is a man with a past, but no ideas for the future. The Leader of the Opposition may be uncomfortable having him in the shadow Cabinet, but we are not, because he is going to be a living reminder that people can never trust Labour with the economy again. Meanwhile, the rest of us have got to get on and clear up the mess he left behind.
May I draw attention to my interests as registered in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?
My remarks will concentrate on the housing market, their theme being that that sector, which is fundamental to the healthy operation of the overall British economy, and after showing good signs of a recovery a year ago, is currently stagnant. It is in an extremely parlous position, and there is no evidence of the growth that is fundamental to delivering the jobs and the future prosperity that we need, but while the Government continue with their current policies, we will continue to see a seriously underperforming housing market which, in turn, will contribute to a seriously underperforming British economy.
The interrelationship between the housing market and the wider economy is widely understood. The recession of 2008 had its origins very much in housing. We saw the beginnings in the American subprime housing crisis; the contagion spread rapidly; and it was no coincidence that Northern Rock constituted the first evidence in the UK of the problems that were to engulf us. The crisis was the product of unsustainable lending that had fuelled an unsustainable bubble in this country and a number of others, and the consequences were dire.
That was not the first time we have seen such a process of adjustment after unsustainable growth in the housing market. It has been a pattern over the past 40 years, because there were growth bubbles in the 1970s, the 1980s and the mid-2000s. However, unlike the adjustment after the bubble of the Lawson boom in the late 1980s, the consequences for the public of the recent adjustment—which was painful in many ways and had a dramatic impact, as house prices fell by some 20% and the output of new homes fell by slightly more than a half—were far less damaging and severe than those of the previous recession of 1990-91.
Repossessions have been mentioned, and the following is very telling. Although in 1990-91 repossessions reached some 75,000 annually, with the disaster and tragedy for all people affected matched of course by a huge incidence of negative equity, this time, although the fall in the value of houses was more extreme, the level of repossessions was very much lower—peaking at about 40,000 and falling away, although, sadly, the evidence is that it is rising again—and the problem of negative equity did not blight the lives of millions of people as it did during the 1990s. The difference was that the Government and the Monetary Policy Committee had recognised the importance of swift and clear action to respond to the unprecedented challenges of the recession—through low interest rates plus a series of measures designed to restore confidence in the market, and through public sector investment to help to mitigate the impacts of the declines of private investment and people to retain their homes rather than suffering repossession. All those actions helped to mitigate the impacts of recession.
I recognise that the low interest rate is one of the reasons that the number of repossessions was so low. On the other hand, the Monetary Policy Committee’s remit was to tackle inflation, and yet we are now seeing the challenges that an ongoing low interest rate present to people on fixed incomes, whom he seeks to defend because they are suffering as a result.
I will not go into a detailed diversion on the whole issue of inflation. The Governor of the Bank of England has made very clear his view that the inflationary factors are not such as to create a fear of long-term damaging consequences and that it is right and appropriate to maintain the low-interest regime to ensure that we do not damage further the prospects for growth—the main theme of my remarks.
I am listening to my right hon. Friend with interest, and I agree with what he is saying. While the interest rate reduction has helped on this occasion, on the previous occasion under the exchange rate mechanism strategy the deflationary effects of high interest rates created 1 million extra unemployed, and that unemployment, certainly in my constituency, caused many people to hand over their keys and walk away from their mortgages.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. These factors are all interrelated. The lower impact of unemployment in this latest recession, compared with those of the 1980s and the 1990s, is undoubtedly one of the factors that has contributed to its having less severe consequences.
A year ago, before the Chancellor presented his first Budget, we were seeing recovery in the housing market. New housing starts were beginning to rise and confidence was returning, and it was reasonable to expect that real growth would be sustained through 2010 and 2011. Instead, the market has stalled. Prices are static or slightly falling. There has been a continuing very low level of starts, and consumer confidence is at catastrophic levels. For only the third time in its 37-year history, the GfK NOP consumer confidence barometer has been below the -30% level. That is an indication of just how devastating is the lack of confidence in current market circumstances.
Why are we in this situation? In part, it is the consequence of the Chancellor’s overall economic strategy and the way in which he is managing the British economy and damaging confidence. The confidence issue is not unique to the housing market. It is a much wider issue, as everyone will recognise, although it has a devastating consequence for the housing market. The situation is also the consequence of maladroit policies being pursued by the Government. I would be interested to know how the Chancellor approaches the Localism Bill, which his colleagues from the Department for Communities and Local Government are taking through Parliament with the confident claim that it will devolve more and more control to local neighbourhoods to be able to say no to developments that they do not like. As we heard in his latest Budget, he wants the default position on housing and other planning applications to be yes, but I am afraid that the truth is that most of the communities who have been given the prospect of far greater control over planning decisions want the default position to be no. There is a fundamental tension between the growth aspirations that he talks about and the actions of this Government, which are in many ways damaging growth.
The hon. Gentleman should be aware that during the period leading up to the recession we saw a continual increase in housing output. Net additions to the housing stock—the measure favoured by the DCLG as the best and most accurate measure—showed growth of 10,000 to 15,000 a year from 2001 to 2007. In 2007, net additions to the housing stock, at over 200,000, were the highest for 20 years. That was the position: there was a growth trend. We were seeing increased housing output and getting near to the target of 230,000 homes that the Barker report had indicated was necessary. All that has been put at risk. The number of new starts is now only just over 100,000; consumer confidence is absolutely shattered, as I have described; and the confidence of developers is severely damaged by the fear of such maladroit changes to the planning regime.
We have also seen inept cuts in public expenditure. The Homes and Communities Agency played an absolutely vital role in helping the housing sector through the crisis of the recession and giving confidence back to developers through schemes such as Kickstart and HomeBuy Direct and investment in housing associations. All those programmes have been cut back, except one. Six months after HomeBuy Direct was cut, the Government realised that they had made a terrible mistake, so they rebadged it as Firststart, or something like that. However, I am afraid that the others have gone, and the investment levels of the Homes and Communities Agency, at 65% below what they were under the previous Government, mean that the outlook for affordable and social housing is extremely grim.
We have a Government who talk about growth, but their actions are damaging to growth. The housing market, as a microcosm of the overall economy, shows that while current policies continue we have no prospect of getting the growth we need, the homes we need, and the jobs that will come from that, because the housing market has huge multiplier consequences for the economy as a whole. I hope that the Chancellor will not continue to base his case merely on the arithmetic of deficit and will look at what is happening in the real economy and the damage that his policies are doing.
I found many of the comments in the shadow Chancellor’s speech absolutely astounding. He began by talking about economic illiteracy despite the facts that he was in the Treasury when the previous Government announced that they had abolished boom and bust, and just a few days ago he proposed an unfunded cut in VAT costing £13 billion a year and £50 billion over the course of the next four years—a £50 billion increase in our national debt. Clearly, when he was talking about economic illiteracy, he was talking about himself.
The truth is that in 1997 Labour inherited a golden legacy. National debt was low, growth was robust, and the budget deficit was a third of what it is today and falling rapidly. Now we find ourselves in a situation that could not be worse. The national debt has grown from £350 billion in 1997 to £920 billion today. Servicing that debt costs £43 billion in interest this year—more than we spend on the defence of our country or on the education of our children—and, despite the effect of the fiscal actions that this Government are taking, it will rise to almost £70 billion in four years’ time.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point about the levels of debt that the Government inherited. It is also important to put on the record that many economists and observers of the national finances say that the debt may be significantly higher, depending on how we measure it and which liabilities we take into account. The situation we inherited, as bad as it sounds in his description, could be even worse if we factor in all the liabilities that the previous Government left behind.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are some very reliable estimates of unfunded liabilities of central Government standing at over £1 trillion, which would more than double the national debt—not to mention private finance initiative liabilities potentially worth £300 billion.
How can we prevent this from happening again once this Government have brought down our debt? There is a possibility that some time in the future, the public may, against their better wisdom, elect another Labour Government. Perhaps we should consider capping the national debt at a percentage of GDP, so that future Governments who think that they can spend like there is no tomorrow are held back. I am pleased to announce that on 12 July, I will present a ten-minute rule Bill, provisionally titled the national debt cap Bill, to suggest just such a measure.
We have heard a lot from the Labour party about the cuts being savage and reckless. It is easy to make those accusations without looking at the facts. The fact is that the cuts have not even started yet. The first fiscal year of cuts will be this year. It is important to go into the specific numbers. There will be cuts of 0.6% in real terms this year, 1.1% next year, 1.3% the year after and 0.8% in 2014-15. That averages out as a cut of about 0.9% in real terms each year. That is a total cut of 3.7% in real terms. Although such a cut cannot be dismissed, that is the absolute minimum that is necessary to bring sanity back to our public finances.
What it will mean for all workers in Bromsgrove, including public sector and private sector workers, is that there will be more jobs. They are essential to restore economic credibility. As a result of the announcement of the Government’s credible plan, interest rates are lower in Britain than they were before. Importantly, despite the deficit still being at 10% of GDP, which is higher than in Spain and many other European countries that are facing problems, our interest rates are almost on a par with Germany’s.
If hon. Members want to talk about savage cuts, why do we not consider the great example of Denis Healey? The country was brought to its knees and a bankrupt Britain was ordered by the International Monetary Fund to make cuts that amounted to 3.9%, not over three or four years, but in one year. If that is not a good enough example, let us consider what is happening in the United States, which failed to put its house in order when it had the opportunity and did not introduce a credible plan to tackle its deficit. As a proportion of GDP, its deficit and its national debt are not too different from ours. It is now being forced to introduce cuts in one year of 3.8% in real terms. It is no wonder that the IMF, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the OECD are all behind us.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the United States, where unemployment is rising because it failed to tackle its deficit early enough. In contrast, in my constituency, Siemens has just announced 600 new jobs. That is proof that our Government’s policies are starting to work.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
If we want to make the cuts less painful, that is possible. This does not all have to be about losing jobs. I noticed yesterday that local councils are still advertising for walking co-ordinators, obesity strategy officers, cycling officers and energy island administrators. If the public sector wants to make the cuts less painful, it has the power to do so.
Hon. Members talk about the unfairness of the cuts, but let us look at some of the changes that the Government have boldly introduced. We have put a cap on the amount of benefit that people can claim at the equivalent of about a £35,000 gross salary. What is unfair about that? Why should a family on benefits receive more than the average working family receives in salary? We have put a cap on housing benefit to ensure that claimants cannot live in better accommodation than ordinary, hard-working families. We recently suggested a cap on how much someone living in social housing can earn. There are Opposition Members who are earning a household income of more than £100,000 a year and who continue to live in social housing for about £175 a week. That is unacceptable and the public will find it unacceptable too.
The Chancellor asked why the Opposition do not have a policy on public sector pensions. I suggest that one reason is that the leader of the Labour party was elected and put in place by the trade unions and that many Labour Members get the majority of their funding from trade unions. I would therefore expect nothing else from them.
What alternatives do we have? That question brings me back to economic illiteracy. The shadow Chancellor seems to think that we can force the bond markets to buy our bonds. He seems to think that despite this country being forced to issue £4 billion in bonds a week—that is the amount we borrow plus the amount we have to refinance—and despite the competitive nature of the bond market, bond investors will just purchase our bonds willy-nilly. That is unacceptable economic illiteracy. The truth is that bond investors have a choice. Because of that, we are stranded and have no choice but to deal with the deficit.
In my last two minutes, let us look at the countries that have failed to take action. I have already mentioned the United States, which had huge quantitative easing programmes of $600 billion and $1.7 trillion. It has reached the ceiling on its debt cap and is in serious trouble. It will shortly have to follow similar plans to ours. The shadow Chancellor mentioned the eurozone. He was right to point out the problems in Greece, but wrong to suggest that he has never supported membership of the euro. It is the policy of the Labour party to join the euro, and its last manifesto offered a referendum on the euro. The problem with the euro was created by political dishonesty. Politicians in Europe were not willing to tell the truth about the euro and say that there could not be a single currency without fiscal union.
I suggest that there is similar political dishonesty from the Labour party. It is a party that, like Alice, lives in Wonderland. It believes that one can keep spending without any consequences and that one can abolish boom and bust.
It is said that there are three stages of a Government’s life. First, they blame their predecessors for all the wrongs of the world, including the decisions that they are making themselves. They then get into their stride and take responsibility for their own policies. Eventually, they make decisions that make the public unhappy, and things go downhill from there. I suspect that this Government may get through all three stages rather quickly.
As we have heard, today marks a year since the Government gave their first Budget. I hope that this anniversary marks the beginning of the Government entering the second stage and taking responsibility for the pain that they have inflicted on families in my constituency and throughout the country over the past 12 months.
We have heard repeatedly from Government Members that the previous Labour Government were wasteful with taxpayers’ money. That is simply not true. The Government should stop patronising the electorate and stop using the unhelpful credit card analogy. The national debt is in no way analogous to a credit card. The balance sheet contains both assets and liabilities. The Labour Government paid for additional infrastructure, roads, schools and hospitals. Even so, until the collapse of Northern Rock, we had a lower national debt than we had inherited from the previous Tory Government in 1997. We should ask how much our assets are worth compared with our liabilities, as one would if one inherited a home worth £200,000 with a £20,000 mortgage on it. The next generation will receive not only the debt, but the assets. One example is Building Schools for the Future.
Government borrowing was invested in production, such as the planned loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, which would have aided an export-led recovery. The country would have seen a return on that investment. Instead, this Government took yet another decision that led to the stagnation of growth and the rotting of assets, which will be passed on to the next generation. That is typical of Government policy over the past year. They have made quick, deep cuts that have saved a little money in the short term, but they have had no adequate plan for the future and blame the Labour party for the consequences.
Labour’s bail-out of the banks was universally seen as essential to combat the effect of the global financial crisis on Britain. I will concede that mistakes were made on our part in banking regulation, but the Tories in no way opposed our measures at the time. In fact, until recently deregulation has been central to Tory policy. For months after the collapse of Northern Rock, the Prime Minister continued to promote bank deregulation. He stated that plainly in a speech to the Institute of Directors in April 2008.
It is, of course, more comfortable for the Government to blame everyone else, but it is time they took stock of the effect that they are having on the people of this country. For example, since last year’s Budget consumer confidence has clearly collapsed, with the figures consistently showing consumer spending dropping. That drop in personal spending power is the first since the 1980s.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that there is bound to be restraint on the part of consumers considering the enormous level of household debt? Should not the Government learn from the public? The public are holding back, and the Government need to hold back.
I would argue that the Government’s policies in the past year have done nothing to increase the confidence of this country’s consumers. The British Retail Consortium and KPMG’s retail sales monitor shows that the total value of retail sales last month represented
“the worst drop in total sales since we first collected these figures in 1995…high inflation and low wage growth have produced the first year-on-year fall in disposable incomes for thirty years.”
Worse still, according to the BRC the main cause of inflation is not just wages or consumer-driven increases but external shocks such as the VAT increase.
I agree with many of the points that the hon. Lady is making in her thoughtful speech. However, my recollection of last year’s Finance Bill debate is that the House divided on a Plaid Cymru and Scottish National party motion to overturn the decision to increase VAT, and the Labour party abstained. Can she explain why?
I cannot explain why, but I hope that our shadow team will answer the hon. Gentleman’s query at the end of the debate.
The VAT increase has already had a considerable effect on stretched budgets in homes throughout the country. It has hit the poorest in our society hardest, as have this Government’s two Budgets as a whole. It has meant that people are living in fear for their personal domestic budgets, as they do not know what the future will hold. The decision to increase VAT, a regressive tax, illustrates the priorities of the Tory-led Government.
The Chancellor’s claim in the Chamber a year ago today that the emergency Budget was “progressive” was frankly laughable. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed that it was regressive, and that half a million more children in the UK will end up in relative poverty by 2013. That is disgraceful. The Government are feeding the cycle of poverty and repeating the mistake of Thatcher’s Government in the ’80s. The Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box today and claimed that his Government were helping people out of poverty, but the experts beg to differ.
Young people are particularly affected, and they have a right to feel victimised by the Government. There have been a series of failures, leading to their generation being hard done by. Thousands of young people will now be saddled with up to £40,000 of debt after completing a degree. I am glad that my constituents still benefit from Government-funded higher education in Scotland, but even they leave university with considerable debt from the living and material costs of what is usually a longer term of four years at university.
When a young person graduates from uni, they then have to find a home. Unfortunately, the average age at which a person in the UK can afford their first home has risen to 37 under this Government. The national drop in house prices has had a smaller effect in Scotland, as the prices were much less inflated originally than in the south of England. Despite that, Scots are still just as affected by the difficulties in obtaining a mortgage without the considerable deposit of about 10% that is often now required.
After leaving university with so much debt, people have to cope with low and frozen salaries, if indeed they are lucky enough to get a job. Many remain without a job, as unemployment is hitting young people and Scotland in particular. We had the lowest unemployment rate in the UK in 2007, but we are now closer to the highest after four years of the SNP’s budget mismanagement.
The scrapping of the future jobs fund was yet another massive blunder by the Government. To label it a waste of money and say that the jobs created were not real is frankly offensive. I have met numerous future jobs fund workers in Airdrie, Newarthill and Shotts who enjoyed their six months in the programme, learned essential skills, improved their self-confidence and, in many cases, ended up creating a role for themselves and being kept on. At the very least, they were helped to find a similar job once they left their placement.
Unfortunately, the new Work programme is more likely to make the poor poorer than it is to get Britain back to work. There are two major problems with it. First, the promise that it will give 2.4 million unemployed people jobs over the next five years depends entirely on economic growth, evidence of which remains to be seen. There are currently 2.43 million people unemployed and 2.4 million out of the labour force, but in the last quarter there were only 469,000 vacancies. Secondly, the Work programme operates on a payment-by-results basis. Although I welcome the fact that good results are required for taxpayers’ money to be spent, in today’s limited job market are not private companies much more likely to pick individuals who are not long-term unemployed?
The majority of unemployed people are looking for a job. Many have the wrong skills, or are in the wrong place, and unfortunately they have little hope of gaining funding for retraining at the moment. The housing market also makes it almost impossible for them to relocate. With limited means, people are supposed to pay for increased food bills and sky-high energy bills. Despite the fact that I now spend almost half my time in Westminster, away from home, I still received a letter last week, like many people in Airdrie and Shotts, telling me that my electricity and gas bill is going up by £20 a month.
Fuel bills are also rocketing, and people are rapidly finding themselves struggling to cope. At a recent meeting with my local citizens advice bureau, we discussed the fact that the people who are now coming to us for advice are not just those on benefits or very low salaries but people in a variety of salary brackets, who are seeing their wallets empty much earlier in the month. If those on half-decent salaries are struggling, how are those on benefits and the minimum wage even beginning to cope?
The Government have spent their first year in power causing successive growth forecast reductions and prolonging the effects of the recession on both families and businesses, and a generation of young people has been put on the scrap heap. When are the Government going to stop blaming everyone else and find a plan B that will get the UK working again?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash), who spoke with considerable passion about the plight of some of her constituents. However, I am sure she will recognise that the best way of tackling the poverty that she described is by getting our economy working more effectively, incentivising people who want to create wealth and spreading more jobs. That is the way to tackle the problems that she articulated.
On that note, I congratulate the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury team on sticking with the tough decisions that will rebuild our economy and prevent it from spiralling further into debt, and in so doing lay the foundations for future growth. We must stick with our plan. There is no need for a plan B.
Let us get this correct: we inherited an economy built on credit and public spending. That is not a climate that will encourage wealth creation. We cannot keep taxing private enterprise in order to fund an expanding public sector. We need to incentivise our wealth creators and set the economy free. It is clear from recent economic figures that the economic fundamentals are strengthening. Indeed, John Cridland, the director general of the CBI, said this weekend that we are well into recovery, even though it does not quite feel that way.