I beg to move,
That this House notes that there has been no growth in the UK economy over the last nine months, compared to 1.8 per cent. growth in the previous nine months; further notes that families are feeling the squeeze, unemployment is rising again and the recovery was choked off last autumn, well before the eurozone crisis of recent months; agrees with the International Monetary Fund’s managing director that ‘growth is necessary for fiscal credibility’ and the IMF’s recent report which warned that ‘if activity were to undershoot current expectations and risk a period of stagnation’ the Government should ‘consider delaying some of their planned consolidation’; further notes that borrowing is forecast to be £46 billion higher than planned because of the slower growth and higher unemployment arising from the Government’s policy of cutting spending and raising taxes too far and too fast; further believes that the Government need a plan for jobs and growth if the deficit is to be reduced in a sustainable way; and calls on the Government to implement a steadier deficit plan and the Opposition’s five point plan for jobs, which includes a tax on bank bonuses to fund 100,000 jobs for young people, bringing forward long-term investment projects, reversing temporarily the VAT increase to provide an average £450 increase for a couple with children, implementing a one-year cut in VAT on home improvements, repairs and maintenance to five per cent, and a one-year national insurance tax break for small firms taking on extra workers.
In opening this Opposition debate on the economy and moving our motion urging the Government to kick-start Britain’s choked-off recovery and adopt Labour’s five-point plan for jobs and growth, I shall start by setting out the facts for the House and for the country. Over the past year the British economy has ground to a complete halt. The latest figures show no growth at all since last autumn. Consumer and business confidence has slumped. For three months manufacturing output has been falling. More than 16,000 companies have gone out of business. Employment is falling and today’s chilling news is that unemployment has risen by 114,000 in the past three months alone.
Unemployment here in Britain now stands at 2.57 million people out of work—the highest level since 1994. Unemployment is rising across the country. We have the highest level of unemployment among women since 1988. Most worryingly of all, youth unemployment, which a year ago was falling, is now rising again, up 74,000 in the past three months, with 991,000—more than one in five—young people out of work. There has been a 60% rise in youth long-term unemployment since February, and the overall level of youth long-term unemployment is at its highest for 19 years. What a waste of talent, what a waste of money and what a betrayal of this young generation.
The former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, said yesterday:
“I think the economic proposition that Labour puts at the moment is unconvincing.”
How can the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) convince the House and the country when he cannot convince his former Cabinet colleague?
Unemployment is rising and growth is flatlining. The Prime Minister said just a few months ago that the only person supporting me was The Guardian leader writer. Since then, what have we seen? The OECD and the International Monetary Fund are saying that the Government should change course. What has happened to The Guardian leader writer? He has become the speech writer to the Prime Minister.
To those who say that these are just the effects of a world economic crisis now hitting Britain—the same people who absurdly claim that the global financial crisis was all the fault of the British Labour Government, but who now want to blame the British growth crisis on the rest of the world—I say yes—
In a minute.
Yes, the deepening euro crisis and the weaker US recovery have made things harder for British exporters in the past three months, but one cannot blame the eurozone or the world economy for the collapse of economic recovery here in Britain when, since last autumn, our economy has grown more slowly than that of any EU country except Greece and Portugal, when we have the highest level of inflation of any EU country except Estonia and Latvia, and when, over the past year, we have seen a bigger rise in unemployment than the EU average, when most EU countries have seen unemployment not rising, but falling. I know the Chancellor does not like it, but those are the facts. The Prime Minister said today, “I accept responsibility for everything that happens in our economy”. I hope the Chancellor will do the same today.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the trade deficit between ourselves and the 17 countries in the eurozone has gone up from minus £4 billion to minus £38 billion in the past year alone, and that one of the main reasons, both as respects the whole of Europe and as respects the United Kingdom, is that employment and social regulations are strangling small businesses, for which the Labour party was also responsible in Government? I am critical of the present Government, but am I not also critical of the right hon. Gentleman’s party’s performance in the past 10 years?
The Chancellor’s big boast over the past six months, which we were told regularly, was that between 400,000 and 500,000 more jobs had been created in the British economy, but today’s figures months show that employment has not gone up at all in the past 12 months; it has actually gone down. We were also told that public sector job cuts would be more than outweighed by the rise in private sector jobs, but I am afraid that employment is falling because the private sector has been unable to deliver the recovery we were promised. It has been a complete fantasy.
It is nice that the shadow Chancellor acknowledges the Government’s responsibility for the economy, but it would also be nice if he took some responsibility for the damage he did to it when he was in power. A former Chancellor has said that Labour lacks economic credibility. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot even convince a former Chancellor on his own Back Benches, how can he convince the country?
The hon. Gentleman will have to convince his constituents because, despite the fact that we were told a year ago that the recovery would be on track, growth has flatlined for a year and unemployment is rising right across the country, which means that borrowing will be higher, not lower.
The shadow Chancellor responds to questions about his failing to convince his shadow Cabinet colleagues and former Cabinet colleagues by talking about convincing constituents, so why have his poll ratings for economic credibility fallen among his constituents and my constituents and across the whole country?
I would be happy to have a debate with the hon. Gentleman on economic credibility. He said in June this year:
“Employment has gone up in my constituency and unemployment has been falling, which is welcome.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 426.]
The figures show that unemployment in his constituency has gone up by 456 in the past year. Perhaps he should apologise to his constituents for getting it wrong.
I will make some progress before giving way again. I am always very happy to take interventions. It is clear that the Chancellor has a good whipping operation in place today, although good whipping is something he knows quite a lot about.
A year ago, we warned that a global hurricane was brewing and that it was exactly the wrong time to rip out the foundations of the house but the Chancellor disagreed and recklessly decided to raise taxes and cut spending further and faster than in any other economy. The evidence is clear that his plan has not made the British economy better able to withstand the global storm and that by going too far and too fast he has left it badly exposed. Families and businesses up and down the country are asking how many more businesses must go bankrupt, how many more families must see their living standards fall, how many more young people will have to lose their jobs, how much more unemployment and misery and rising child poverty must we see. How much more evidence do the Government need before they finally change course?
I am grateful to the shadow Chancellor for giving way, but I wonder whether he has got it the wrong way round. With a global storm brewing, the right thing to do was ensure that the gilt market was secure and that we could carry on borrowing cheaply, which has ensured that a recovery will eventually come. He can no doubt find something I said in 1830 and quote it back to me, but that is not really the point.
I am not sure about 1830, but if the hon. Gentleman was in the House in 1930—he might have been—he will know the dangers of very low bond yields accompanied by rising national debt, rising unemployment and economies locked in stagnation. I do not know whether he was around at the time, but some forefathers and foremothers certainly were. Let me quote the director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, the think-tank of the year, who said:
“The reason people are marking down the gilt yields is because they think that the economy is weak.”
That is the truth.
Let me make a prediction. I do not expect the Chancellor to announce a change of course today, but will we hear him repeat his boast made this time last year that the British economy’s recovery is on track? I doubt it. Will he repeat the Prime Minister’s deeply complacent boast that Britain is out of the danger zone? I doubt that, too. Will he describe Britain as a safe haven that is immune from the global storm? Will he repeat his naive forecast that cutting public jobs will boost private confidence and create more private jobs? Even this Chancellor cannot fly in the face of the facts. Employment has fallen in the past 12 months. On the day when unemployment has risen again, will he give any indication that he understands at all how hard things are for families up and down the country? Is he so out of touch that he really believes that a £1.40 a week council tax freeze can compensate for a £9 a week rise in VAT?
Well, unemployment has fallen as a percentage—[Interruption.] As I said, that whipping operation knows no bounds. I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman was going to repeat what the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) said earlier this year. He said that
“manufacturing is expanding under this Government”.—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 1024.]
The trouble is that manufacturing output has fallen in every one of the past three—[Interruption.] I am going to agree with the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who wrote on his blog that
“deficit reduction alone isn’t enough. If we are to smooth the waters of this choppy recovery we need to ensure that we also support sustainable growth in the private sector.”
Where is that growth? Will the Chancellor repeat his claim that—
As a lifelong Keynesian, I fully understand that growth can be achieved only by increased demand. Every Finance Minister in the western world is grappling with that problem. What are the right hon. Gentleman’s proposals for increasing demand without causing damaging side-effects for the rest of the economy?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is no surprise that, if the Chancellor announces half a million job cuts in the public sector, those people will save rather than spend and that the people in the private sector, who normally sell things to them, contract and stop taking people on? It is no surprise that that very announcement underpins the lack of growth in our economy and puts the guilt on the Government side of the Chamber.
I think that the Chancellor will regret talking down the British economy a year ago, because the rise in private sector jobs has been swamped by public sector job cuts. That is why employment is falling. That is why the private sector is not investing. That is why his corporation tax cut has had no impact on private sector investment. Will he repeat his claim made in January 2009 that
“quantitative easing is the last resort of desperate governments when all their other policies have failed”?
Those are prescient words, because we know the truth, and so do his increasingly desperate-looking supporters on the Government Benches.
Let me say what the Chancellor cannot admit: the private sector-led recovery he promised has proved to be a fantasy, as we predicted. In the past year, the growth that he predicted has failed to materialise.
In a moment.
Unemployment is rising, and a vicious cycle of higher unemployment, fewer people in work paying tax and more people on benefit means that the Chancellor’s deficit reduction plan is going badly off track. We all know the truth, and so does he—plan A has failed.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. If, rather than preparing his intervention, he had listened to my last point, he would have understood why borrowing is already set to be £46 billion higher than the Chancellor planned. The reason is that if unemployment goes up, if the economy flatlines, if fewer people are paying tax and if more people are on benefits, you borrow more. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, 50 more people are unemployed than a year ago. Perhaps he should be apologising for backing a Chancellor who got it so badly wrong.
This increasingly desperate Chancellor is now relying on plan B—or should I say plan BOE? But quantitative easing cannot work on its own, and any sensible economist can tell him why that is. The new shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), who is a former Bank of England economist, can certainly explain to the Chancellor why quantitative easing cannot do the job on its own. Whether the current Chief Secretary—the former national parks press officer—could explain to the Chancellor how quantitative easing works is another question. As the shadow Chief Secretary could very well explain—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) want to intervene? If so, I will happily take his intervention.
I am so pleased that the hon. Gentleman has made his intervention, because we have missed him for the past couple of debates, and now he is back. Last time he intervened on me, he put this on his website:
“Shadow Chancellor boosts Matthew’s work in West Suffolk”.
I want to do the same again. His campaigns to get more money for schools, to keep Thetford forest safe and to stop cuts to school crossing patrols are going well. The chief executive of his council has been sacked, and the Labour council in Ipswich has intervened and backed his campaign on school crossing controls and libraries. I have a quote from the shadow Chancellor for his press release: “Mr Hancock has been tireless in his campaign against unfair cuts to local services imposed by the Conservative-led Government—cuts which go too far and too fast.” He can leave the last bit out if he likes; I do not mind.
I will give way, but before I do, let me return to quantitative easing. As these Bank of England economists know well, simply printing money cannot boost demand and keep interest rates low when they are already close to zero. Printing money cannot boost spending when companies are too scared to invest and consumers to spend. QE—the hon. Gentleman should know this—cannot revive a stalling economy by boosting demand in one direction when fiscal policy is working in a contractionary way in completely the opposite direction. As the Bank of England Governor said only last week, and in this respect I agree with him:
“We can do our part in it but we can’t solve all our problems alone.”
I now give way to the hon. Gentleman.
The shadow Chancellor is famous for being a supporter of Norwich City football club, so will he join me in welcoming the decision to break ground on dualling the A11—an investment project that did not get the go-ahead under Labour and is happening under this Conservative Government?
I think the hon. Gentleman got the name wrong. He does not mean Norwich City—he means premiership Norwich City, which is more than one can say for any football team in Suffolk. I will back his campaigns to stop the cuts and to spend more, and I fully support the dualling of the A11. At last some Conservatives have persuaded some Conservative councils to do the right thing about these proposals, which is very good.
It is all very humorous here today, but in my constituency we already have above-average national levels of unemployment and unemployment has increased. It is always interesting to hear an economist debate with another economist. However, may I ask the shadow Chancellor what direct personal experience he has of working in business, helping to create jobs, and knowing what it is like to make payroll each week? If he does not have any of that experience, will he please undertake to this House that he will go out and get some?
I have worked in Government and at the Financial Times. I have never run a business, but I respect people who run businesses and I understand why they are so worried at the moment. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, where unemployment has gone up by over 400 in the past 12 months, there will be some very worried businesses, and it is important that we listen to them and hear what they are saying.
That is why now is the time for our oh-so-political Chancellor to put politics aside and start to do the right thing. Protecting our economy and protecting valuable businesses and jobs is more important than trying to protect a failed plain. We do not have to wait for another month of unemployment rising, or for 46 more days until we finally get the economic and fiscal forecast from the Chancellor, to know what he is going to have to say. He is going to have to downgrade his growth forecast for this year for the fourth time in 18 months and downgrade his growth forecast for next year. As I have explained, we already have £46 billion more borrowing in the pipeline, and unemployment is now rising. He is going to have to admit that borrowing will be billions higher still than at the time of his last forecast. The Prime Minister says:
“You can’t borrow your way out of a debt crisis”,
but he just doesn’t get it. [Interruption.] No, he doesn’t get it. Because with growth flatlining, and with today’s bleak news of rising unemployment, the Chancellor’s failing plan is leading to not lower borrowing but higher borrowing than he planned.
The right hon. Gentleman has talked about infrastructure and the A11. Labour cancelled the road-building programme, whereas we are breaking new ground on the A11. In addition, so much red tape was put in place that we are now 83rd in the world for regulation. Does he think that is helping small businesses in our country?
To be fair to the hon. Lady, she is half on message, as she was back in January when she called for national police cuts, but not in Norfolk. That is little better than her neighbour over the border, the hon. Member for West Suffolk. I am in favour of the dualling of the A11. I personally wish we had done that, given that we did a lot of road-building and investment, but for some reason Norwich City season ticket holders did not have a strong enough voice in this House. Perhaps Mr Charles Clarke is to blame.
Is my right hon. Friend as outraged as I am by the series of east of England Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs who choose to ignore the massive cuts to programmes such as Building Schools for the Future, which would have rebuilt schools in their own areas?
My hon. Friend is being unfair. The hon. Member for West Suffolk campaigned to reverse the cuts in Building Schools for the Future, as we know. To be fair to the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), she has campaigned for fewer cuts in Norfolk. If only she did not take such a regional view.
I congratulate the shadow Chancellor on listening to what I said in this place a year ago and on the major change in Labour’s economic policy in the last three weeks, which has gone unnoticed. Last year’s policy of a permanent reduction in VAT has changed to the far more credible policy of a temporary reduction in VAT, which is precisely what I argued for in this place a year ago. Will the shadow Chancellor listen carefully if I have the chance to make a point about national insurance in this debate?
My hon. Friend is a leading indicator, not a lagging indicator.
The fact is that the deficit plan is going too far and too fast. As I have said, we should stop putting party political advantage before the national interest. That is why the right thing to do to help struggling families and businesses in the constituencies of Members across the House is to adopt a plan now to get our deficit down by getting our economy moving. We should repeat the bank bonus tax; build 25,000 homes; guarantee a job for 100,000 young people; genuinely bring forward long-term investment projects in schools, transport and roads; temporarily reverse the damaging rise in VAT, which would mean £450 for a couple with children; have an immediate one-year cut in VAT to 5% on home improvement, repairs and maintenance; and introduce a one-year national insurance tax break for every small firm that takes on extra workers.
The Chancellor does not have to wait 46 days. He can bring forward emergency resolutions in this House next week and we will support them. He can call the plan what he likes. If he wants to appease The Spectator, he can call it plan A-plus. That is fine by us. Britain just needs a plan that works for jobs and growth, which is why he should adopt Labour’s five-point plan for jobs and growth.
While we are on the topic of football, may I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his ample use of the substitutes’ bench, although it was of course not him who used the substitutes’ bench? What would be the cost of his temporary cut in VAT, how does he propose to finance it, and what would be the gain in GDP growth as a result?
“Jesse is the Clark Kent of British politics.” Unfortunately, that was said by the other candidate for the leadership of the Conservative party, Boris Johnson. What an endorsement for the hon. Gentleman to have on his own website! The fact is that the deficit reduction plan is going too far—
Get back in your phone box, I am answering the question. We need a slower pace of deficit reduction, not the £40 billion more that the Chancellor boasted of. An injection now to get the economy growing and unemployment coming down is the best way to get our deficit down. People do not have to take it from me; that is what the IMF and the OECD are advising the Chancellor to do. They say, “If the economy gets into sustained contraction, slow down the pace of consolidation.” I will give the hon. Gentleman another go.
The hon. Gentleman would know the answer if he listened. I said that attempting to go £40 billion faster in deficit reduction than the plan the Chancellor inherited is not working, but pushing borrowing up. The right thing to do now is to expand demand—[Interruption.] Look, a one-year cut in VAT in its own terms would cost £12 billion. The question is what would be the impact on jobs, growth and deficit reduction. I am afraid that the Chancellor is borrowing not £12 billion more, but £46 billion more. The flatlining economy and rising unemployment mean that his deficit reduction plans are going off track. He should take the advice of the IMF and the OECD and change course.
I will make a little more progress, but I will take interventions from people who have not intervened. Good grief, I have given the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) enough of the wrong type of publicity already and do not want to do his career any more damage.
There is a credible alternative. Why will the Chancellor not act? He used to be so confident that his plan was working. It is patently not working. He and his cheerleaders on the Government Benches claim that however bad things get, he is trapped by the financial markets. He cannot take the advice of the IMF and the OECD and change course because it would lead to higher interest rates and recession. However, the IMF has said that we cannot have credibility without growth.
The markets know that rising unemployment and zero growth are undermining the Chancellor’s deficit reduction plan. One chief economist in the City at Baring Asset Management said last week:
“Growth is essential if the UK is to be able to finance new debt, repay old debt and convince the markets and credit rating agencies there is a modicum of competency in policymaking. The longer we pursue current policies, the more likely it becomes that the UK will be the next target”.
That is the real market view. We know that the credit rating agencies put out their press releases, but the real view, as the IMF has told us, is that having a flatlining economy and rising unemployment is the wrong way to get the deficit down. As I said, even the Chancellor’s friend at the IMF has said that
“growth is necessary for fiscal credibility”.
Britain has no growth. That is why our Chancellor is losing credibility.
The Chancellor’s whipping team really must tell people to listen to the answers before they intervene.
The Nobel prize winner himself, Chris Pissarides, says in the New Statesman tomorrow that a temporary VAT cut is the right way—[Interruption.] I say to Government Members that Nobel prize winners who give good advice to the Chancellor should be listened to. Given that 70 more people are unemployed in the constituency of the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) than a year ago, perhaps she should start to listen too.
I know that the shadow Chancellor is aware of the “Cut the VAT” campaign, which wants the Government to reduce the VAT on home repairs, maintenance and improvement work from 20% to 5%. Its analysis shows that when the rate was 17.5%, cutting it to 5% would have injected £1.4 billion into the UK economy in the first year alone. I wonder whether he is aware that the campaign is backed by 49 business organisations.
I know the details of that campaign, although I do not know all 49 members. I know that it argues for a widening of our proposal.
One business organisation, the Federation of Small Businesses, has said:
“the Government’s growth strategy is just not working…We must see a cut in VAT to five per cent in the construction and tourism sectors to boost consumer demand.”
The business demand for a change of course is growing.
My constituents, my right hon. Friend’s constituents and constituents across this country are seeing growth—growth in their gas and electricity bills and in their food bills. That double whammy is hitting our constituents on top of the mess that the Chancellor is making.
Our constituents are seeing growth in VAT and in unemployment as well. The only thing that they are not seeing is growth in growth.
The markets are not the real reason why the Chancellor is determined to cling on to his failing economic policy. There are two obstacles in his way. The first is the coalition agreement. We know how desperate the Chief Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister are for the Chancellor to stick to the deficit reduction plan, because they steamrollered their colleagues into signing up to a manifesto that explicitly rejected it. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto stated:
“If spending is cut too soon, it would undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs.”
They were right, which is why there are so few of them here for this debate. They all know that their leaders graphically predicted before the election the very calamity that has happened after the election. The fact is, any successful coalition has to have the flexibility to change course when things go wrong.
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”
Wise words from Lord Keynes, and he was a Liberal. He must listen to the current incoherent, confused and contradictory ramblings of the Business Secretary and turn in his grave.
The shadow Chancellor is certainly showing flexibility in concluding that in time, it would be acceptable for VAT to reach 20%. When did he reach that decision, and will he be able to persuade his colleagues, whom we know are so adamantly against VAT at 20%?
When I became shadow Chancellor six months ago, I said that I could not responsibly come along here and make commitments on what would be in our manifesto in four years’ time. What I can do is give the Chancellor good advice, and a temporary cut now is the right thing for growth and jobs in our economy.
It is not just Labour Members who support me on this. Listen to the former Liberal Democrat leader, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy), who said on “Question Time” last Thursday that he was
“more at the Ed Balls end of the argument than the George Osborne end of the argument.”
In saying that—Superman will like this—he joined me and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in urging a change of course. Charles Kennedy, Boris Johnson and me—now that would be a coalition.
It is clear that the plan is not working. The markets know it, and so, increasingly, do the Chancellor’s coalition colleagues, but there is a second reason why this very political Chancellor will not budge. The clue was in the Prime Minister’s speech last week in Manchester. What did he say of the Chancellor? How did he describe his closest political friend? As “the man who would be king”. It was a very strange choice of book, because it is the story of two fantasists who end up stripped, beaten, tortured and forced to beg for their lives. That is some people’s idea of a good night out, but the idea that the Prime Minister should say that of the Chancellor is somewhat odd.
Anyway, there we are—“the man who would be king”. It was not in the printed text of the Prime Minister’s speech but was another slip from him. However, it is so revealing, because those words show why the Chancellor just cannot admit that he has got it wrong, even at a time when, at the weekend, The Sunday Times doubted his judgment. To change course now would be to admit that the Chancellor has got the key economic judgment of this Parliament wrong, and that would be a terrible blow to his ambitions. We therefore see him putting politics before the national economic interest.
Ploughing on with a failing policy is not leadership; it is the antithesis of leadership. It is not the making of King George; it is the madness of King George. A Chancellor without the strength to change his mind is a King Canute Chancellor, who says that he will stay the waves even as the tide turns before him. A man who would be king? He is a Chancellor exposed naked before the crowd, an emperor with no clothes, a Chancellor heading for a fall. I give him some good advice. For his sake, for his party’s sake and in the national interest, he needs to change course and do so quickly. It could be the making of the man.
In the face of the new global slowdown, we desperately need the Chancellor to rise above the here and now and see the need to change course, have a plan for growth and jobs, kick-start our economy and get us out of the slow lane. We need a balanced and credible plan on jobs, growth and the deficit, and action now before it is too late—Labour’s five-point plan for jobs and growth. I commend the motion to the House.
I welcome this opportunity to discuss the very difficult economic situation that this country and the rest of the western world face at the moment. After that vaudeville act, I am trying to remember whether the shadow Chancellor actually set out the five-point plan. He did not actually go through it, so we will go through it for him.
Of course, the concern of everyone here is to see growth, support jobs and get Britain through this debt storm; that is what we are talking about and working on. As this is an Opposition day, however, before I turn to what the Government are doing it is worth considering what the Opposition propose, and what the shadow Chancellor did and did not say. We should consider what his political friends, as well as his political opponents, are saying about him.
The right hon. Gentleman dismissed the intervention by one of my hon. Friends about Charles Clarke—[Interruption.] Well, there you go. It was not picked up by the microphones, but the shadow Chancellor just dismissively said, “Charles Clarke!” The Opposition dismiss everyone with whom they served in government. They boo their ex-Prime Ministers, they dismiss their ex-Ministers. Here is what the man who was the Labour Home Secretary said, not weeks ago but yesterday:
“I think the Labour conference failed to come across strongly with an alternative to what the Government is doing. I think the economic proposition that Labour puts at the moment is unconvincing…we are simply dismissed by most people thinking about the most central question facing the country today, which is the economy.”
That is the verdict not of the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats or anyone else but of former members of the Labour Cabinet.
If we want to know why the shadow Chancellor is failing to convince the country, let alone his own party, of why he has not come forward with a convincing alternative, I suggest that we focus on three things that were not in his speech. I will cover each in turn. First, there was absolutely no plan to deal with the deficit. There was a not a single suggestion of how public expenditure could be saved. Let us remember what he said—
I will in a moment, because perhaps the hon. Gentleman can respond to this point.
The shadow Chancellor said, when we debated the matter in August, that he would set out
“a tough, medium-term plan to get our deficit down”.—[Official Report, 11 August 2011; Vol. 531, c. 1110.]
He nods, but where on earth is that tough, medium-term plan to get the deficit down? It was promised two months ago. Where are the cuts that he would make? He should give us some examples. We have been waiting for three years for ideas from the Labour party about what it would cut, and none has been forthcoming. The former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), who is in his place, was pretty revealing in his memoir about what was actually going on. He stated that
“the ‘investment versus cuts’ argument…simply wasn’t credible…I did want some examples of things we were prepared to cut. I could see, though, that there was no appetite for this in No. 10.”
And we know who was advising the occupant of No. 10 Downing street at the time.
The International Monetary Fund has stated that if the UK has a period of stagnation or contraction, the Government should change course and delay their planned tax rise and spending cuts. The economy has flatlined since the autumn, with zero growth. Does that represent the sustained stagnation that would cause the Chancellor to take the IMF’s advice and change course?
The right hon. Gentleman quotes the IMF, but its managing director said a month ago that
“in the United Kingdom strong fiscal consolidation is essential to restore debt sustainability… The policy stance remains appropriate.”
The right hon. Gentleman also quoted the OECD, saying that it was telling me to change course, but the OECD’s chief economist, whom he used to quote in the House, says:
“The Government should not change its course. A cut in the VAT…would not be appropriate in our view.”
So before the shadow Chancellor bandies around the recommendations of international organisations, he should quote them properly in the House.
I will quote them verbatim. The Chancellor quoted the IMF from September and the OECD from before the summer, but let me quote the IMF from October, just two weeks ago. It stated:
“If activity were to undershoot”—[Interruption.]
Let me read it, because the Chancellor has asked for the full quote, which is from October.
“If activity were to undershoot current expectations and risk a period of stagnation or contraction, countries that face historically low yields (for example, Germany and the United Kingdom) should also consider delaying some of their planned consolidation.”
Is that stagnation and contraction in place, and has it been in place for long enough yet to justify his taking the IMF’s advice of just two weeks ago?
In precisely the advice that the right hon. Gentleman reads out, the IMF, in its current forecasts for the UK economy, is very specific that the UK should not change its fiscal stance. It has consistently recommended that this country undertake credible deficit reduction. The Government have set out many proposals—controversial proposals—to get our budget deficit down, but in the 16 months that we have been in office we have heard not one single suggestion from the shadow Chancellor on how he would get the deficit down.
I will take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention in a second.
Last week, the Opposition tabled an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill that would have cost this country £11 billion. That one amendment on one day in this House of Commons shows how completely incredible they are.
The shadow Chancellor has quoted the IMF. Why does the Chancellor think that the Labour party voted against our subscription to the IMF? Why did the Labour Government not put their best people to work to deal with the deficit and the debt, but instead hire 17 people and spend £4.8 million on the euro preparation unit?
The shadow Chancellor, who has just been quoting the IMF, wants to intervene again, but let me say this, because my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) reminds me of another important point. Will the shadow Chancellor explain why he led his party—not everyone in his party, because I can see in the Chamber some prominent Labour Members who chose not to vote in that Division—into voting against a quota increase to the IMF, which was a central part of the London G20 summit chaired by the previous Prime Minister? How on earth does he think he could be taken seriously in any of the international meetings taking place at the moment if he had succeeded in winning that vote? Why did he do it?
As the former chair of the IMF deputies, I am a huge supporter of the IMF. The rise in subscriptions is important, but for the Chancellor to try to ram it through the House before he sorted out the flawed European stability mechanism was a mistake—we voted against because we had doubts about his European policy.
However, to come back to my earlier intervention, let me ask the Chancellor this question again. Unemployment is rising, and output has been flat for a year: how much longer does he have to wait before he takes the IMF’s advice and changes his deficit reduction plan? How bad does it have to get?
Before my right hon. Friend was distracted, he quoted the previous Chancellor, who writes in his memoirs of his last pre-Budget report. He says that any coherent strategy would have been better than none, but that the previous Government simply did not have one. Are not the facts of the matter that the Labour party did not have a coherent economic strategy before the last general election, and that it still does not have one, as we all clearly heard this afternoon in the knockabout speech by the shadow Chancellor?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The previous Chancellor’s memoirs reveal the very divisive role that the shadow Chancellor played in stopping the previous Labour Government coming up with a coherent economic policy and a credible economic plan, and even in stopping Nos. 10 and 11 talking to each other.
I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what I inherited as Chancellor and what this country inherited from the previous Government: we inherited the second deepest recession in the entire world. The hon. Gentleman talks about GDP, but we had the biggest fall in GDP of any country in the world with the sole exception of Japan.
I will give way in a moment, because I want to ask Opposition Members some questions. The House is today asked to support an Opposition motion that would add another £20 billion to the structural deficit. They maintain the fiction that they are sticking with the so-called Darling plan on the deficit—[Interruption.] That is what they say. Does the shadow Chancellor agree?
The hon. Lady has to defend the record of the former Prime Minister because he never turns up in this House to defend it himself.
The one thing that we want to avoid in a debt crisis is a sharp rise in interest rates, but that is what the motion would bring about. Let me give the House some new information.
I will give way in a moment. Let me make progress. Do not worry: there will be lots of opportunities for Opposition Members to answer my questions.
I can give the House new information on what just a 1% rise in interest rates would mean for this country at the moment. Such a rise would cost British families an additional £10 billion a year in higher mortgage payments and the British Government an additional £6 billion a year in higher interest costs, and it would increase our net payments to foreign creditors by around £15 billion a year—£15 billion that would leave our economy. Given the sums involved, the impact on family mortgages and small business loans would completely outweigh any fiscal effects of the proposals in the shadow Chancellor’s motion.
I said that I would give way in a moment. Labour’s approach would lead to a credit downgrade of this country. The shadow Chancellor shakes his head, but there is no doubt about that any more. This is what the credit rating agency, Standard & Poor’s—[Laughter.] Opposition Members laugh at the credit rating agencies and the need for this country to preserve its triple A credit rating, but Standard & Poor’s says that the ratings would
“come under downward pressure if the Coalition’s commitment to fiscal consolidation falters”.
That is what we would get under Labour: a downgrade to our credit rating, higher interest rates and the economy sent into a tailspin.
Why does the Chancellor give such credence to Standard & Poor’s, which gave triple A ratings to every stupid, risk-taking banker, including those in Northern Rock? Standard & Poor’s advised Northern Rock on one of its products for about a year, and then surprisingly gave Northern Rock a triple A rating. Why should we take any notice of people like that?
That, of course, is the attitude of the Labour party. It ignores entirely the views of the world bond markets and the credit rating agencies. That is exactly the approach that got Britain into this economic mess. Because the Government have a credible plan, we are pulling this country out of that mess.
Does the Chancellor share my amazement at the lack of reality on the Opposition Benches? The eurozone is in crisis, the credit markets for the banking system across Europe are in desperate straits, and yields are rising, and yet the Opposition would squander £20 billion to £30 billion and increase our deficit.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Low interest rates are a precious commodity for the UK at the moment, and Members of the House, sent here to represent their constituents, have to ask themselves, “Do we really want an increase in interest rates at this time?” Is that what we want? It is what the motion would lead to.
As I have said, the British structural deficit is coming down because of the measures that we are taking, but the proposal put to the House today would push the budget deficit this year into double figures. No country in the world would consider that a sensible approach at a time such as this for a country such as Britain. It is economic nonsense, and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman knows it.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He is being very generous. May I take him back to his exchange with the shadow Chancellor on IMF quotes? On 20 September, Monsieur Decressin, the senior adviser to the IMF research department, said that the IMF view was that
“policies in…the UK should only be loosened if growth really threatens to slow down substantially, relative to what we are forecasting. For so long as the forecast seems to pan out, there is no reason to change fiscal plans.”
The IMF has set down a marker for growth and, in effect, said that if it falls substantially, as it is doing, it would accept fiscal loosening. Does the Chancellor recognise that if growth continues to flatline or fall, there is at least an argument for fiscal loosening?
The IMF is clear that on its forecasts, which are some of the more pessimistic forecasts for the UK at the moment, it is not recommending a change in policy stance. That is what it says. It is what the managing director has said; what the article 4 report on the UK said; what the OECD is saying; and what all the business organisations in Britain are saying. That is why the path that the shadow Chancellor has laid out for the country is so incredible and does nothing to deal with the problems that he left to the country.
In response to the question from the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), I would say that that is not the answer to a debt recession, because a debt recession relies on credibility. One of the key points in the motion is that the Labour party’s so-called plan would provide, through a temporary reverse of the VAT increase, a benefit of £450 for every couple with children. Has the Chancellor worked out the benefit to average families in the country of maintaining the credibility of our country’s finances and ensuring lower interest rates?
As I was just explaining, a 1% rise in interest rates—I am not talking about the level of interest rates in Spain and Italy—would mean £10 billion in higher mortgage bills for British families. That is the reality of what the shadow Chancellor is proposing.
The former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, who actually drew up the plan B that the Chancellor then shelved, said in August:
“Low long-term interest rates appear to reflect economic weakness and lack of market confidence in the prospects of the UK economy, not the reverse.”
Is the Chancellor saying that the former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, now head of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, is wrong to say that low interest rates are a sign of lack of confidence and prospects for growth?
I am glad that I took that intervention, because the implication is that the shadow Chancellor wants higher interest rates in Britain. That is the revelation we have just heard from him, and it tells us everything about what he is proposing: a catchy five-point plan—the clue is in the title—for a conference speech that would put Britain back at the mercy of the international bond markets, with higher interest rates affecting families and businesses and causing homes to be repossessed and jobs to be lost. We will have no part in it.
The Chancellor—the Chancellor!—must be the only person in the whole country who thinks that to have Bank of England interest rates at less than 1% for three months is a sign of economic strength, not of the fact that our economy has not grown for a year and that unemployment is rising. The long-term interest rates at the long end of the curve are a reflection of expectations that those interest rates will stay persistently low. The former chief economist said that they
“reflect economic weakness and lack of market confidence in the prospects of the UK economy, not the reverse”.
Is the Chancellor saying that Jonathan Portes, from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, is wrong?
My first point is that Jonathan Portes and I have had our disagreements for the past 16 months. He was not my appointment to the Government, but the shadow Chancellor’s, and he is not working for the Government any more. The second thing I want to say is that he cannot have it both ways. He cannot say that Britain is alone in facing these problems, which was the implication of his speech, and then not look at long-term interest rates—or, indeed, the short-term interest rates—in the United States and Germany, which are lower than ours, although we are close to them. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor says that they are weak. One of our problems is that the German, US and French economies have ground to a halt. That is why we also need a solution to the eurozone crisis, which has hit all western economies. His idea that Britain is unique in the world in facing these problems is frankly laughable.
My constituents listening to this will be unable to comprehend all the statistics that the Chancellor is placing in front of us. However, we are missing the human dimension. In Rotherham, for the first time in nearly 20 years, unemployment today rose above 10%. That is taking us back to the south Yorkshire de-industrialisation of the 1980s. We are talking about real people. Does the Chancellor have even the tiniest nanoscintilla of doubt about his policy? He has been in charge for nearly 18 months. Does he have any concerns that perhaps his policy is not working?
I am clear that what we are doing is tough but necessary because of the very difficult situation that we inherited. The right hon. Gentleman talked about the impact in south Yorkshire. We inherited a record budget deficit and a bigger recession than in any other country in the world apart from Japan. That is what we are recovering from. Arguably, it was the biggest banking crash in the entire history of the country—at a time when those banks were supposed to have been regulated by the Government of which he was a Minister. That is what we are dealing with. Of course, it is extremely difficult, and many countries are facing problems at the moment, but I think that the steps that we have taken have helped us to weather this global debt storm and kept interest rates low for people in Rotherham. I shall come on to the steps that we can take to ensure that Rotherham does not suffer in the future as it has done in recent years under the Labour Government.
I shall make some progress and then take some more interventions.
I shall touch briefly—because we covered this during Monday’s statement—on the situation in the eurozone. I set out on Monday what I felt was needed and what many in the world now feel is needed: we need to ring-fence the eurozone by giving its bail-out fund maximum power; recapitalise Europe’s banks when they are weak; resolve the situation in Greece; and then set out the path to the political and economic changes required to make monetary union work, with greater fiscal integration and improvement in competitiveness on the periphery. I said that Britain wanted no part in the fiscal integration, but that we want to protect our say in the single market, financial services and competition issues. We also want the whole of the UK to become more competitive—with a more complete single market and freer trade.
Since Monday’s statement, we have had the news that the Slovakian Parliament has voted down the proposed changes to the eurozone financial fund—the European financial stability facility—which is clearly a disappointment. We all hope that it will pass in the coming days and urge the Slovakian Parliament to pass it. What has also been disappointing in the past couple of days is the suggestion from the President of the European Commission that Britain should make a direct contribution to eurozone bail-outs. Britain chose not to join the euro and the British Prime Minister has fought hard to get Britain out of the bail-out fund to which the previous Government signed us up. I want to make it clear that whatever the Commission President says, British taxpayers will not be contributing to the eurozone’s bail-out of Greece—full stop. However, we will work with our eurozone partners to help them to resolve the crisis and work with our international partners in institutions such as the IMF to ensure that they have the resources to deal with the problems across the world.
I said that the first thing missing from the shadow Chancellor’s speech was a credible deficit plan, but there was—
Let me make just a little bit of progress and then I shall give way.
There was an absolutely staggering second omission from the shadow Chancellor’s speech, which was any reference—I will take an intervention if I have got this wrong—to Labour’s big new economic policy idea, which was unveiled at the Labour conference two weeks ago. I am referring, in case hon. Members have forgotten, to that great plan to divide British businesses into producers and predators—good and bad—and to levy different tax rates on them. Remember the speech from the Labour leader? Did the shadow Chancellor have any part in writing that speech?
At last there is something we agree on. It was absolutely the speech that we wanted to hear from the Labour leader at the Labour conference. I want to know what happened to this great idea, which was the centrepiece of Labour’s growth strategy for the new economy. Two weeks later it is not even referred to in the motion that we are being asked to debate. It is like the Lord Lucan of policy ideas: we do not know whether it is dead already or whether it has just gone missing for ever. I was really disappointed, because we know that the shadow Chancellor likes to cover all the policy areas in the shadow Cabinet and I was hoping for an explanation from him about how the idea was going to work. Are we supposed to grow our economy by levying new taxes and regulations on companies owned by private equity firms such as Boots, T-Mobile, the AA, Saga, Somerfield, Legoland and Chessington World of Adventures, those well-known centres of predatory business activity? [Laughter.] It would be laughable if it were not the centrepiece of the Opposition’s economic policy.
The Prime Minister gave his speech, which the shadow Chancellor should have paid close attention to, and made it absolutely clear that people are paying off their credit cards—because of the situation that the Labour party has left this country in—but I would ask the shadow Chancellor this question. He had a chance before; will he please mention—just once, in one intervention—the policy of the Labour leader? Come on, just get up and say you support it.
I think the research and development tax credit to encourage and incentivise investment in research and development was a good thing. I think our proposal to cut national insurance for small companies that take on more employees is a good policy. It was in the Leader of the Opposition’s speech; it was in our five-point plan; it is in the motion—so why do Government Members not vote for it?
I guess that is called an “Ed Balls endorsement”—that is what the last Chancellor and Tony Blair got used to. We increased the R and D tax credit for small businesses in the Budget, so we have taken that idea—which we came up with—and introduced it. I am very pleased that the Labour party now supports it, but what about this idea that a Labour Chancellor would sit there in No. 11 with his home-made scales of justice weighing up the companies he likes and those he does not like and levying different levels of tax on them? What happened to that? It was the centrepiece of the Labour conference two weeks ago, and it shows why Labour simply cannot be trusted to run the economy of this country and why it has become the anti-business party again.
I thank the Chancellor for giving way. It is interesting that he brings up those points, but can he please tell us where the ghost—or the ghoul—of the regional growth fund is? It has now been six months and the north-east is still waiting for the regional growth fund money that it was promised. Businesses are hanging on the wire for that money. Will he please tell us where that cash is?
Again, that was another opportunity to talk about Labour’s big economy idea. The hon. Gentleman did not take it, but I am glad that he raised the regional growth fund, which has allocated money to the north-east and other parts of the country. That money is flowing and those projects will get going. We are also setting up enterprise zones in Teesside and Tyneside, and doing what we can to get the north-east economy, which also suffered in recent years, on the front foot, creating private sector jobs so that that region, too, has prosperity.
I am grateful to the Chancellor for giving way. I welcome the work that he and his colleagues are doing on a growth strategy, which he said is needed. A big component of that is the £75 billion of quantitative easing. We are also told that there will be credit easing to get the money into private companies. Will that be on top of the £75 billion injection or within it?
It will be on top of the £75 billion. I have not gone through the QE and credit easing policies in detail today because I went through them in the House on Monday, but I would be happy to do so if Members like. QE is an operation undertaken by the Bank of England under the procedures established by my predecessor. The credit easing options that we are looking at involve the Treasury—or rather the Government—using its balance sheet to get money to small businesses either by purchasing securitised small loans, purchasing mid-cap company bonds in the bond market or issuing guarantees through the banking system. All those things currently happen in Britain, but on a very small scale. Our intention is greatly to increase them, and I will set out the proposals in November.
I am grateful to the Chancellor for letting me intervene. Would he be willing to release all the information relating to meetings and discussions that he had with the Governor of the Bank of England on introducing the latest phase of QE, and does he anticipate that we may need more?
No, and not even in my memoirs, because the conversations between the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England should be confidential. However, let me make it absolutely clear to the hon. Gentleman that we are talking about an entirely independent decision by the Monetary Policy Committee—not just the Governor of the Bank—and that I followed exactly the procedures established by my predecessor.
No, I will make some progress and then perhaps take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman.
We did not hear today about the big Labour idea on the economy that was unveiled two weeks ago. Hitting businesses with more taxes and more regulation at a time like this is absolutely the wrong thing. The way to help businesses to create jobs is to give them competitive tax rates. That is why we have cut corporation tax this year—we have three more cuts to come—and why we have reversed the proposed Labour increase in the small companies tax rate and frozen business rates for all. It is also why we have set up a series of schemes to help unemployed people who have either just lost their jobs or never had a job into the labour market by getting them work. We have launched the biggest back-to-work scheme that the country has seen in 80 years and funded 250,000 more apprenticeships and 100,000 work experience places. Today we have launched the new sector-based work academies to help tens of thousands of young people with training and job interviews. Youth unemployment in this country has been rising since 2004. The last Government did next to nothing to confront it; we are rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck in to sort out this long-term problem for Britain.
The Chancellor has been very generous in giving way, although not so generous in actually answering the questions that he has been asked. He has just laid out all the things that he is doing to put things right, yet the economy is flatlining, with record youth unemployment and no growth back in the economy. What is he going to do to improve the situation? Does he not recognise that we cannot just cut the deficit if we do not have growth?
We would not have growth if there was a big increase in interest rates. Let us look at other countries in the world that do not have a credible plan to deal with their deficits. Of course this is a difficult time, when many western economies have this problem, but we are taking the tough steps necessary to get the economy going and make it easier for businesses to hire people, which brings me on—
I will take interventions in a moment, because I want to know the Labour attitude to these policies that we are proposing.
We are proposing to extend the probation period before a new employee can make an unfair dismissal claim from one to two years. We are also proposing to introduce, for the first time ever, a fee that someone has to pay before they can take a case to an employment tribunal and which they get back if they win. Those are two difficult measures; they are controversial, but they will make it easier and less risky for businesses to hire people. I want to know whether the Labour party will support those measures when they come before the House of Commons. Will it? I want to know whether the right hon. Gentleman will support these things when they come before the House of Commons. Yes or no?
Let me just ask the Chancellor—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] Let me ask him a question to help us to shape our view. Will the impact of extending that probation period from one year to two years disproportionately hit men more than women, or women more than men?
It is not going to hit people; it is going to help people into work. I want to know another thing from the shadow Chancellor. I have made it clear that this proposal is going to help people to get into work and help businesses to hire men and women to do jobs without taking the risk that they might bring an unfair dismissal claim within the first couple of years. He kept talking about the Federation of Small Businesses in his speech; it supports the proposal. Does he? It is a simple question. Yes or no?
No, no—I am talking about claims for unfair dismissal, and I want to know whether the right hon. Gentleman supports those proposals. This is not about statutory maternity pay; it is about extending the probation period for unfair dismissal.
Here is another question for the Labour party. The trade unions are proposing to go on strike this autumn. That is what they are balloting on. I think everyone in the House would agree that a strike is absolutely the worst thing for the British economy at the moment, and I want to know whether Labour will support that strike or condemn it. Is the shadow Chancellor going to condemn the strike—yes or no? And I do not want any weasel words about a proper negotiation process; I want to know whether, if it comes to a strike, he will condemn it.
The whole country wants to avoid a strike, but that will require this Chancellor to change his proposals on a deeply unfair 3% rise in pension contributions. We can avoid a strike, but it will require this inflexible Chancellor to do the right thing, not the wrong thing.
That is another thing that Labour refuses to condemn. There we have it. We asked the former Labour Work and Pensions Secretary, Lord Hutton, to do a report for us. In his interim report, he set out a case for increased contributions. In his final report, he set out proposals for the defined benefit. We are negotiating on the basis of that. I want to know whether, if it comes to a strike, the people who are paid for by the trade unions are going to condemn trade union activity that would be the wrong thing for the British economy at the moment. Will the shadow Chancellor condemn it?
The only people in this country who want a strike are the people sitting on the Government Benches, because they think that they will get a short-term political gain from it. The Chancellor has mentioned interest rates a number of times. Is it not the truth that they, and confidence, are low because the economy has ground to a standstill because of his policies? Will he confirm that?
I will make a bit of progress before I give way.
Not only are we taking measures to make it easier to employ people and putting in place measures to get people back into work—[Interruption.] They are not going to hit women; they are going to help women get into work. We have also announced new investment in local transport links. We are spending more on roads and railways than the last Labour Government did. We have plans for 200,000 new homes, many of them on the back of a new right to buy. We have created two dozen new enterprise zones, and this month committed almost £250 million to world-beating scientific research. That is because, unlike the last Government, we think it is important that things are made in Britain again.
The Chancellor has just told us that there have been £31 billion of extra Labour spending pledges—£11 billion from an amendment last week and £20 billion today. Given that we already pay £120 million every day in debt interest, can he tell us how much extra debt interest we would be paying every day if those Labour proposals went through?
I will make a little progress, as I know that many people want to speak in the debate.
We have taken steps to try to help people who are facing this difficult situation. We have announced a freeze in council tax, not just this year but next year, and we have taken more than 1 million people out of income tax and delivered an income tax cut for 20 million more. The shadow Chancellor often talks about fairness in paying for all those things, but I want to know why, in all the years that he was chief economic adviser to the previous Government, he blocked and never introduced a permanent bank levy. Why did he never introduce a higher charge for long-staying non-doms? Why did he never conclude a tax treaty with Switzerland to get back some of the money that should be paid into the British Exchequer?
I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman after I have made this point. His only achievement in that field was to introduce a capital gains tax regime so riddled with loopholes that some of the richest people in this country boasted about paying less tax than the people who cleaned their houses. Is he proud of that record?
Under Labour, child poverty fell by more than 500,000. Will the Chancellor tell the House what, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, will happen to child poverty this year and the year after? Will it fall, or is it going to rise under his chancellorship?
The IFS says that child poverty is rising, but the reason it is rising is that the right hon. Gentleman put this country into a complete economic mess. I can see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions standing at the Bar of the House. He is introducing universal credit, which will do more than any other measure to bring child poverty down, to give opportunities to people who have none at all, and to ensure that work pays. That is what we are doing, and I want to know whether the shadow Chancellor supports that. Does he?
I support welfare reform—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Of course I do, but I have to say that I hope the Chancellor will give the Work and Pensions Secretary the money to make it work. The IFS said this week that any gain in child poverty through universal credit would be more than swamped by the Chancellor’s other measures, particularly the change from RPI to CPI, so that the fall in child poverty under Labour would be reversed under the Tories. Is the IFS right?
I thought that Labour supported the link to CPI. Is the shadow Chancellor changing his mind on that? In the debates, the Labour party supported the link to CPI, and he has just raised the matter. Has he changed his mind? [Interruption.] Thank God he has a new shadow Chief Secretary to give him the answer.
We have always said that we would support a temporary rise in CPI during this Parliament, but that we would not support a permanent rise. It is a permanent rise that will see child poverty rising year on year under the Tories. Child poverty fell under Labour; it will rise under the Tories. That tells us everything that we need to know.
The shadow Chancellor is all over the place. He was asking me about child poverty numbers in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and he said that, according to the IFS, the principal cause of the rise was a policy to link benefit increases to CPI. That is a policy supported for this Parliament—that is, in 2012, 2013 and 2014—by the Labour Opposition, and it is complete hypocrisy for them to complain about it now. Will the shadow Chancellor confirm that he supports the CPI policy for this Parliament—yes or no?
We have kept that target, but the right hon. Gentleman has still not confirmed that—[Interruption.] I welcome the shadow Chief Secretary to her position, but I have to tell her that the shadow Chancellor has just raised with me the question of the IFS estimates on child poverty over this Parliament. The IFS says that one of the principal causes is the policy on the link to CPI. That is the IFS’s view, although universal credit will do a huge amount to offset that impact. It is a policy supported by the Labour party, and it is completely hypocritical of the Labour party to come to this Parliament and raise those statistics and complain about that policy when they said they supported it all along.
Let me make a little progress, as I know many Members want to speak.
I shall touch finally and briefly on the last thing missing from the shadow Chancellor’s speech—and we all know what that was. It was an apology for everything that had gone wrong. The right hon. Gentleman has apologised for so many things now—for the worst banking crash in our history, the 10p tax rate, the 75p pensions increase, gold, although I am not sure that he has apologised for that, the feuds in Downing street—yet he still refuses to apologise for spending and borrowing too much. He said that Labour did not spend “more money” than “we had available”, but he missed his golden rule by more than £400 billion. He doubled and then redoubled the national debt. Everyone knows he was spending too much, and everyone has said so. The IFS, since he mentioned it, has said so; Tony Blair has said so; the last Chancellor conceded it in 2007. It is an open secret that half the shadow Cabinet want him to make this apology, but the shadow Chancellor refuses to do it—and we know why. If he did, it would be the final damning indictment of the economic policies he imposed on this country for a decade or more. It would be the final confirmation that his promise to end boom and bust—remember that?—led to the greatest boom and the biggest bust this country has ever seen.
What did we get? No apology; no mention of Labour’s latest economic idea; no credible plan to reduce the deficit. That is why Labour is neither convincing nor credible on the economy. Yes, these are difficult times; yes, this is a global debt crisis. We are dealing with Britain’s record debt problems. We have set out a course to ride through the storm and build a more prosperous future. Today we were reminded that no one, least of all the people who got us into the mess, has produced a convincing alternative to the course we have set.
As the Chancellor has referred to my book—and no doubt others will do so, too—perhaps I should draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
From listening to the Chancellor, it is easy to forget one important fact. When we left office in 2010, our economy was growing; 12 months later, our economy is not growing at all. Growth has stalled, probably for more than a year. Despite everything that the Chancellor and his colleagues said during the last election about its all being the fault of the last Labour Government and nothing to do with global problems or Europe, our economy was growing. Now, 16 months after that general election, while the Chancellor has been in charge and responsible for setting the economic direction, our economy has stopped growing. Even a few months ago people believed that we might see a slow but gradual climb out of recession into growth, but now, right across the world, people are seriously worried that we could be in for a prolonged period of stagnation—at tremendous cost to the country, as today’s unemployment figures show.
As we have heard today, the shadow Chancellor and the Labour party are still adopting my policy on the deficit. It was a sensible policy when I first announced it in 2008, and it is still a sensible policy today. The heart of my present argument is that while no one doubts that the deficit has to come down, the judgment to be made is about how fast we bring it down and the risks involved in doing so too fast and ending up crashing the economy. That is the position we have reached today.
It is interesting that the International Monetary Fund has been much discussed this afternoon. It is worth reading what the IMF and Christine Lagarde, who talks a lot of sense on these issues, have been saying. Of course the IMF is always going to be wary of taking on one of its principal shareholders, but we do not have to read too far between the lines to see what the IMF is saying. It is saying quite clearly that there is now a serious risk of a slow-down in major economies, including our own, which will result in not less but more borrowing, and economies stagnating.
It is also interesting that when the Bank of England announced last week further measures of quantitative easing, which I support, it did so against a completely different background from its first announcement in 2009. The Bank is now worried about what is happening in Europe, which means that the economy is slowing down. The Bank is seriously worried about the lack of growth. The QE announcement last week is just the beginning of what might be called plan B or even plan 1A, because the Bank is worried. That is why it is changing direction.
I was pleased to hear the Chancellor talking about credit easing for businesses on top of the £75 billion. Surely that is at least some recognition of the fact that the plan he announced with so much confidence last summer, which was going to do so much to reduce our borrowing, is not working. He has to adapt it and my bet is that—whether it be in the autumn statement in a month’s time or in next year’s Budget—we will see more measures that acknowledge that the policy pursued by this Government is simply not working. If we do not change it, we will pay a very heavy price.
I have always made my position clear. One of the big achievements of April’s G20 meeting, led by the then Prime Minister my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), was to get countries to sign up to an increase in IMF funding. That has always been my position, and I am not going to depart from it because I believe that the IMF has a central role to play. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, his intervention does not get him off the central point of this debate, which is what is different now from the position when we left office. My deficit reduction plan was on the back of an economy that had started to grow, so my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor is quite right to ask himself what we need to do now, 16 months later, when economic growth has stalled, and what other measures are necessary to get the economy going.
My right hon. Friend is also quite right to say that, although a few months ago very few people were talking about the need to reduce taxes, bring forward capital spending or take measures to help businesses, that has now become common currency among many commentators. It is only the present Government who simply do not accept that the plan they announced 16 months ago is not working. As my right hon. Friend said, the Chancellor has had to downgrade his growth forecast four times. I remember his having great fun at my expense when saying that my growth forecasts were wrong. Actually, mine lasted a lot longer than his. He should reflect on that and on the fact that he is having to borrow more.
I raised another point about quantitative easing with the Chancellor on Monday and I hope we will hear more about it. If that money does not leave the vaults of the banks and get out on to the high streets, it will have failed. I know that the Chancellor has had exactly the same trouble with the Bank of England as I had. I could not persuade it to buy corporate assets; he has obviously failed as well, which is why he has had to think up his own scheme. We really need to get that money out on to the high streets; if it is not manifested in the form of loans to businesses, it will simply not work.
I note that the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) is no longer in his place. He said that quantitative easing works only when there is a credible policy. Given that the Bank of England has said that it worked, we must have had a credible policy at the time. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not here to hear that; he might want to ponder it when he reads Hansard tomorrow morning, as I am sure he will. The Chancellor needs to ensure that the money gets out on to the high street; otherwise, it will fail. It is remarkable that the Bank of England is almost now doing what the Government should be doing. It recognises that the policy is not working, which is why it has embarked on another round of quantitative easing.
The Chancellor is fond of saying that all our problems are on account of the eurozone. That, too, is remarkable. When he came into office, the Tory story, backed by the Liberal Democrats, was that it was all the fault of the last Labour Government. All was fine with the rest of the world, so it was just Labour’s overspending that was responsible. Incidentally, the Chancellor supported it right up to the end of 2008 and the Liberal Democrats supported it until the day after the general election, so it could not have all have been wrong at that stage. Now they are saying that the problem is not domestic at all; that it is all to do with what is happening in the eurozone.
Of course the eurozone is a major problem and it is becoming a bigger one by the day. I hope the Chancellor was right when he said at the beginning of the week that wiser counsels are prevailing in Europe, but I am not so sure. We should remember this: although people talk about the fact that the German Parliament ratified the deal a couple of weeks ago—and Slovakia will probably put it through later this week—it was in fact agreed in July, and it is blindingly obvious that it is now out of date. At that time no one would talk about Greek default, whereas now everyone knows that Greece will default, and the only question is whether it will be done in a managed way or become a disorderly breakdown.
Another thing that is obvious—the Chancellor acknowledged this on Monday—is that the austerity measures being imposed on Greece simply are not working. Greece is reaching a point at which it is unlikely to be able to repay the interest on its borrowing, let alone reduce its borrowing and debt. The policy of austerity endorsed by far too many European countries over the last 16 months or so worked at first, but it is not working now, and Greece is living proof of that.
I hope that something compelling and convincing will be agreed at the G20 in a couple of weeks’ time, but I have my doubts. The trouble with the eurozone countries is that they are still fighting as though nothing has changed since the early summer, which has been their position since the early part of 2009. If we have any influence I hope that we will bring it to bear. If we do not, there is a risk, as the Chancellor himself recognises, that if things go wrong in the eurozone they will affect this country. While I agree with the Chancellor that we should certainly should not contribute to the bailing out of the eurozone, he is also right to say that a break-up of the euro at the present time is the last thing that the world economy needs, ourselves included.
That brings me to our policies back at home. I have always believed that reducing public expenditure at such a rate, in a climate in which the private sector is not taking its place, risks crashing the economy. I reached that view when my party was in office, and I still hold it today. The evidence seems to suggest that that is precisely what is happening now, and that is why it is so damaging.
I will not, because it will count against me if I give way again.
I hope that the Chancellor will produce measures to deal with the situation. He may wish to embark on infrastructure projects, although in my experience that is much easier said than done, and the interval between making a plan and putting a shovel into the ground can be a long one. Some of the road schemes that the Chancellor mentioned were planned by the Labour Government—one of them back in the 1970s—so we should not get too carried away about them. However, he should certainly introduce the tax reductions and other measures to help businesses to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) ascribed such importance.
It is clear to me that we cannot resign ourselves to circumstances in which people feel that nothing can be done, that it is all inevitable, and that nature must take its course. Governments can make a difference—they made a difference two years ago at the G20 in 2009—but we currently have no international leadership, and we have precious little leadership from our own Government when it comes to what we should be doing in this country. There is, and there must be, an urgency attached to getting these things right, but that means a change of policy here at home as well.
This debate about growth contains three distinct components, although, of course, there are close connections between them: the strategy to stabilise the public finances, the strategy to secure recovery, and the strategy to raise the long-run growth rate. I want to say a little about each of those.
There has been a fair amount of partisan politics around today, and I do not intend to add to it unless severely provoked. As I have said in the House a number of times before, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) deserves considerable credit for his March 2010 Budget, with its plans for sharp cuts in spending and borrowing. Equally, the coalition deserves credit for its own plans. Our present low debt service costs speak for themselves. They reflect the credibility invested by markets in the deficit reduction strategy and the belief that the coalition will stick with it, and the country will be the beneficiary of that.
As for policies to secure recovery, we can all agree that, given the eurozone crisis, the international economic outlook is much worse than forecast either by the right hon. Gentleman in his Budget 18 months ago or by the Office for Budget Responsibility this spring, and I am sure more surprises will follow. However, it is not true that the Government are doing nothing in response, as the right hon. Gentleman implied. They have rightly adapted to the situation, and the recovery strategy has changed. The Bank of England has adapted by announcing the second tranche of quantitative easing, and the Chancellor will adapt by announcing credit easing in his autumn statement.
I strongly endorse the Chancellor’s decision to favour monetary policy as the short-term tool rather than tinkering with tax changes, which is what is proposed in the five-point plan. I am sure that the Treasury Committee will want to examine exactly how the Government have changed their policy on the recovery strategy and whether QE2 and credit easing are the best tools, but I think everybody can agree that it was timely to take action. We can also agree that British taxpayers should not be asked to contribute to any further eurozone bail-out.
History shows that the use of monetary policy has invariably led to an increase in inflation, which has sometimes been a hidden deliberate policy aim. Regardless of whether it is a good or a bad policy, does the hon. Gentleman expect an upward drift of inflation as the conclusion to the way in which monetary policy is currently being used?
I will not answer that at any length, except to say that I am of course making my points in a personal capacity, because as a Committee we may comment on growth after the autumn statement. Let me also point out that the Governor gave a comprehensive reply to the hon. Gentleman’s question when he introduced the second £75 billion tranche of measures. He pointed out that money demand was extremely low at present, and that therefore he thought that the risk of inflation over the next two to three years was extremely low.
I broadly agree with that. There is always a problem with measuring inflation—there is always a dispute about exactly how to capture it best—and we will never get it exactly right. I will not go into any further details now, but I agree with the core of what my hon. Friend has said.
Work on both the deficit reduction plan and the recovery plan have been firefighting to deal with our inheritance—less from the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West than from his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). Let me now deal with the third aspect of the growth strategy, which consists of policies to improve the long-run growth rate and long-run economic performance: what the policy wonks call supply-side reform. The coalition's inheritance needed attention in that regard as well.
A few days ago I made a number of proposals for supply-side reform in a pamphlet, and they seemed to make everyone very excited. The Government growth agenda set out in the spring was a start, but, as the Chancellor said in his party conference speech,
“We need to do more”.
In that pamphlet, in a personal capacity, I made a few suggestions. In a nutshell, we need to work much harder to produce a comprehensive strategy embracing tax, reform of the labour markets, financial regulation, energy policy, transport and competition policy. We have been firefighting so far, but now is the time to start developing that longer-term strategy.
It is worth bearing in mind that it took the Thatcher Administration the best part of four years to get round to doing much of this, and I realise that this type of policy is easy to talk about but difficult to deliver. What matters most is that the creative energies of small businesses in our constituencies are released to increase the long-run growth potential of the economy. That is a big reform job. We have to bear in mind all the time that it involves millions of people—small traders and people working in small businesses—and that it is they who will restore the economy to health, not Governments and not Parliament. We need to make it much easier for them. Let us consider just one area: taxation. The Treasury Committee has flagged up some of the—largely inherited—contradictions and inconsistencies in the tax system, and argues that further tax reforms should be based on a few simple and coherent principles: certainty, simplicity, stability and fairness. We are a long way from achieving that in our tax system and there is a lot still to do. Encouragingly, the Chancellor said he strongly supported tax simplification; he has made that point on a number of occasions and he has created the Office of Tax Simplification.
The Chancellor announced in his speech at last week’s Conservative party conference that he would push ahead with further labour market reforms, and he has mentioned that again today. Of even greater significance could be the Chancellor’s commitment not to push ahead of other European countries on carbon reduction targets. I and many other people have been arguing for that for a long time, all the way back to our deliberations on the Climate Change Act 2008. The rapid pace of carbon reduction will push up business costs and also provoke great controversy, for example in respect of wind farms. Therefore, the Government are right to think again about that policy. It is now crucial that the coming autumn statement gives a decisive push to measures for improving long-run economic performance. It is equally important that that is seen not as a programme for a year, but as a remorseless project for the long term.
For much of the last decade, politicians of both major parties talked as if the economy need no longer be the top priority. For it was an age of abundance: it seemed that we could concentrate on how to spend it and quality-of-life issues. We forgot that most politics is hot air unless the economy can afford to deliver on the promises made by politicians. The complacency about growth that infected both parties encouraged the irresponsible lending and borrowing of the last decade. The electorate have noticed that they were led up the garden path, most notably by the absurd claim that Governments could put an end to boom and bust—so my final point is a presentational one. Politicians and Parliament must demonstrate that the public’s No. 1 priority is also their own No. 1 priority. The electorate’s No. 1 priority at present is to protect their living standards and their children’s prospects.
I now have to announce the result of the deferred Division on the question relating to tribunals and inquiries. The Ayes were 309 and the Noes were 20, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
This Government’s refusal thus far to countenance a plan B will come back to haunt the Chancellor, the Chief Secretary and the Prime Minister. The current plan to remove the entire structural deficit in the fixed time scale of a single Parliament was incredibly risky to start with, and now appears almost impossible. It was dependent on export growth from a strong eurozone, which is not there. To be fair, the overall trade figures are a little better this year: the balance of trade is £9 billion in the red for the first quarter, but in the second quarter it stood at £24 billion in the red, and the aggregate for the first two quarters is almost as much as last year’s catastrophic £99 billion deficit in the trade in goods out-turn.
The Government’s plan depended on business investment growth of a rather heroic 8% to 11% each and every year, but that is not there either. Indeed, the gross fixed capital investment figures for this year show that investment fell by 2% in the first quarter and is lower than in the same quarter in 2010. Growth is now effectively flatlining, and although borrowing was down between April and August, it is up between August this year and August last year and is forecast to be as much as £46 billion greater. Therefore, something needs to change, not least because according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research it is likely that the entire consolidation plan will cut almost an entire percentage point off GDP growth this year. It has said that
“it remains our view that in the short term fiscal policy is too tight, and a modest loosening would improve prospects for output and employment with little or no negative effect on fiscal credibility.”
If the Government are concerned, as they would be right to be, about the credibility of their plan and if others are saying that a modest loosening, which would help growth, would have no impact on the credibility of the plan, they should listen, not least because if they do not, the entire deficit reduction strategy is at risk, as the NIESR suggests.
On 2 August, the NIESR said that if things go on as they are:
“The Chancellor will miss his primary target of balancing the cyclically adjusted current budget by…around 1 per cent of GDP.”
Perhaps the Chancellor has listened and perhaps that is what he was alluding to in his statement on 11 August when he said that we should be “realistic” about the dangers in the global economy and “set our expectations accordingly.” I pressed him at the time on that and he was not very forthcoming. If he is to change his expectations, he is, as the previous Chancellor said, going to have to change his policy as well.
The Opposition motion, which the hon. Gentleman presumably supports, focuses very much on a plan for jobs and growth. I would like to share with him some statistics that I found with the help of the Library. They show that between 1997 and 2010, when the shadow Chancellor was the previous Government’s chief economic adviser, the number of jobs in business in my constituency shrank by 5,600, or by 13% of the employment work force in the entire constituency. From what I have heard today, plan B really amounts to adding more mortgage costs for families and doing nothing for growth of jobs in the business sector. This Government are doing a lot to help that with structural change. Does he agree?
We believe that there has to be a change because this plan is not working. That will involve: direct capital investment, which we know does work, and I shall come on to that; consumer confidence, which is vital; and access to bank finance. The Labour Opposition’s motion is a good tactic to debate this matter and we will back it, because in principle we want to see something done. However, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will concentrate on my proposals.
I have said that there are problems with the Government’s plans. This has not just been about the absence of a strong eurozone to export to or of heroic rates of business investment; it has been about the fact that the forecast rates of growth for this and the next years of 2.3%, 2.8%, 2.9%, 2.7% and 2.7%, as set out in the 2010 Budget, will not be achieved. Indeed, Robert Chote, the head of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, said that even to achieve a 1.7% growth rate now would require
“quarter-on-quarter growth rates of 1%...and there aren’t many people out there expecting that.”
I suspect that there are no people in here expecting that.
So the Chancellor needs to stimulate now, and the best way of doing so is through direct capital investment. As we know, the OBR has said that the impact multiplier for this is 1:1. It is the most effective form of stimulus that the Government have and they should use it. It is also the area where the Government can make the most damaging cut. I know that he wants to tell me that they are keeping £2 billion more in direct capital investment than Labour planned, but very large cuts are still being made. It was not just the OBR saying this, as the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association was doing so too. On 23 September, it cited the OBR’s view that
“boosting capital spending is a far more effective way of boosting GDP than cutting VAT, tweaking welfare entitlements or increasing current spending. In fact, the OBR’s multiplier on capital spending is one-for-one…This means that the Government could increase capital spending and still deliver the planned reduction in net debt as a share of GDP.”
So again, there is no lack of credibility in changing policy and there is no impact in the planned reduction of net debt as a share of GDP in changing the policy.
The BVCA goes on to say:
“There are other good reasons for targeting infrastructure. The dramatic cuts to the investment budget that were pushed through last year will weigh substantially on private sector productivity in the years ahead. Capital spending is due to be cut by about a third in cash terms between FY09/10 and FY15/16, implying an even larger real decline.”
So if the UK Government really are serious about private sector growth in the medium and long term, they should be very concerned that a body such as the BVCA is prepared to say that cuts now will weigh substantially on private sector productivity in the years ahead. Of course, its key point is not even that. It states that
“in order to have an immediate impact on activity, the Government would need to start spending money straight away. That could mean dusting off some previously shelved plans, as there is no point in waiting 12 months”—
I think it is right—
“for any boost to be felt.”
That is good advice and I hope the Chancellor is listening.
The Chancellor does not need to focus only on capital investment. He needs to ensure proper access to business finance and that the £75 billion of quantitative and credit easing hits the real economy. Evidence from Japan suggests that bank lending fell during the whole quantitative easing exercise, and evidence here shows that between February 2009 and January 2010, when £200 billion of QE was issued, bank lending fell month on month and has remained below the starting point in every month since. That is extremely damaging. This time, the Chancellor must ensure that that money does not go through a pipe to the banks to pack balance sheets but touches the edges and hits the real economy.
That is absolutely right. I heard the Chancellor say this week that he has considered how the Government might fund business investment directly. There is merit in that. I am prepared to give this term of QE and the credit easing a chance to work, but I tell the Chancellor that if the £75 billion-plus of new electronic money goes to the banks or is used to buy back Government debt and does not hit the real economy, neither the banks nor the Government will be forgiven this time if it fails. Too many businesses are hurting due to a lack of business finance.
No, I shall stick to the same adage as everyone else and give way twice.
The third thing that needs to be done is to restore consumer confidence and economic security. Fundamentally, that means keeping people in their jobs, and Government and their agencies remain responsible for plenty of jobs. That means that pay policy in the public sector should bring down the salaries of senior people, bonuses should be removed from senior public servants, there should be temporary pay freezes for those on average incomes, help should be provided for those earning under £21,000 and specialist systems and a working wage should be introduced for those earning least of all. However, it also means delivering a no-compulsory-redundancy policy for staff employed by Government, the NHS and the other public bodies when agreement can be reached. We know that this plan—a mix of direct capital investment, confidence, and improved business finance or taking some of the burden off businesses—can work. We have seen it in Scotland, where even with the unemployment figures published today, unemployment is lower, employment is higher and economic inactivity is lower.
We know that such a mix of activity can work and, of course, it is broadly in line with what Christine Lagarde called for in September, when she said that
“countries must act now—and act boldly—to steer their economies through this dangerous new phase of the recovery”.
It also mirrors her comment in August to the Financial Times when she said that
“short-term measures must be supportive of growth, yet economical in terms of the impact on fiscal sustainability, and can include policies supporting employment creation, advancing planned infrastructure and easing adjustment in housing markets.”
There is no reason, other than dogma, not to follow the ideas laid out by those on the Opposition Benches today to kick the economy out of its torpor. I urge the Chancellor to use his autumn statement to do just that. He can call it plan A-plus, he can call it plan B, but he must change, develop and deliver quickly.
I remind the House of my interest recorded in the register.
There is some common ground on both sides of the House. Growth is the key, and although the Government cannot create jobs and businesses, they can set the conditions for sustainable growth through sound money, a fair and competitive tax system, an infrastructure in which businesses can flourish and, above all, keeping control of their side of the economy—the public finances. The previous Government clearly failed to do that. They failed to balance their budget for nine successive years after 2001 and they doubled then redoubled the national debt, leaving us with the largest structural deficit in the G20. Worse still, for the longer term, they left us a rate of growth that simply was not sustainable because it depended on ever-increasing public expenditure—now, I note, more than 50% of GDP for the third year running—on a boom in commercial and residential property prices that simply was not viable in the longer term, and on an over-blown banking and financial sector. We are now dealing with the consequences of the collapse of that sector.
In the end, it was all an illusion. The previous Government created a pyramid of debt and called it investment. They spent all our money on an unreformed public sector without bringing the improvements in productivity that we saw over the same period in the private sector. On the capital side, they spent it on a whole series of expensively engineered, private finance arranged schools, hospitals and the rest. Above all, as was sadly confirmed yet again today, they left us a lost generation of nearly 1 million youngsters under the age of 25 who were under-educated, underskilled and under-equipped for the needs of modern business. That is why I support a Government who are now laying the proper foundations for genuine growth on top of their fiscal consolidation plan by encouraging bank lending, cutting taxes on business and cutting regulation.
I particularly welcome the announcement made by the Chancellor in Manchester, which he repeated today, about reforming the rules regarding employment tribunals, which will make employment easier. That is one reason why I support it—another is because it will reduce the huge cost to business not only of the awards themselves but of the time taken to manage and handle cases that businesses would prefer not to get to tribunal. I also support it because it is fundamentally, as the Chancellor has emphasised this afternoon, a deregulatory measure that recognises the rights of non-workers—those who are currently frozen out of the labour market but would be prepared to work if businesses found it easier to take them on.
We are being asked to accept that all small businesses that might take on employees have as their first consideration the possibility of being faced with an industrial tribunal, but, of course, if they are good employers, that is most unlikely to happen. Surely, the fact that they cannot sell their products if there is no demand for them because so many people are unemployed or feel at risk of unemployment, rather than whether they might be faced with an industrial tribunal, is the most important consideration for an employer in deciding whether to take on another employee.
Employers in my constituency tell me that they will do almost anything to avoid taking on any single additional member of staff. The hon. Lady has to recognise that the number of cases jumped to a quarter of a million in 2009-10. I welcome the change.
I hope that there might be agreement across the House on my next point. The two things that seem to be missing at the moment in our quest for growth are cash and confidence. I fully support what the Government are doing to encourage bank lending. It beggars belief that there was no agreement in place with the banks to stimulate lending to small businesses before the Merlin agreement was concluded this year. I support that agreement, but I also share the scepticism of the Chancellor and the former Chancellor about the stimulus that the first round of quantitative easing may or may not have given to bank lending. The jury seems to be out on that, but what it does seem to have stimulated is inflation. The Bank now admits, I think, that it may have added between 0.75% and 1.5% to consumer price inflation. Two years ago, consumer price inflation was 1.1%, whereas today it is four times that. I hope that the Bank will be mindful, if there is an inflationary effect, that inflation is already higher than we would like. If there is a squeezed middle, inflation is doing quite a bit of the squeezing, and I hope that the Bank will not forget its core task of getting inflation back on target.
In the end, confidence is the key. I hope that the Government will do everything that they can to back the companies that are successful, and to learn from their success.
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will excuse me.
I visited a small business in my constituency that I want to tell the House about. It is called Rotosound and—I say this for colleagues who play guitar or other stringed instruments—it is the prime maker of guitar strings. It sells them not only throughout the United Kingdom, but to 60 countries around the world, and it is one of our great success stories. It sold guitar strings that were used by Jimi Hendrix, The Who and many other bands. It sells them to China, which could quite easily make its own guitar strings, probably more cheaply. People in China choose to buy our guitar strings because they are associated with one of our most successful industries—popular music—and because they are British. We need to distil the essence of successful exporters such as that company. The Government need to find the secret of those companies and do everything possible to back more of them if we are to deliver the jobs that our young people need.
It is clear from the debate so far, and certainly from the Chancellor’s speech, that only this Government can help to deliver the growth that the economy needs by laying the proper foundations for our fiscal consolidation, so that we get the modern economy that we need growing successfully again.
I am delighted to see the Chancellor still in his place. Oh, he is just going. I have that effect on him. I think he has heard enough in the previous four speeches, three of which were by members of the Treasury Committee—its best members; the rest are coming now. The last four speeches were very thoughtful, in contrast with what happened when the two Front Benchers had a go at one another. The public must see that as the Chamber at its worst; it was described as vaudeville. That is not the fault of the individuals concerned; it is the way this place is.
Following on from the speeches of the Front Benchers were speeches from the former Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling); the Chairman of the Select Committee; the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), who represents the seat in which I was born; and my good friend from the Treasury Committee, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon). They were very good speeches, but that contrasts with what we heard before them, which is sad, in a way.
Two kinds of people watch the parliamentary channel during the day. There are people who will find the Front-Bench speeches lovely, because they are party animals of either party, and they like the cut and thrust, but there are also 100,000-odd additional people who are, or could be, looking at that channel: those who, in the last year—in the last quarter or month—have lost their job. Almost a million youngsters between 16 and 24 are out of work; they could be watching that channel, hoping that they will see that action will be taken to get them a job. They will have been despairing, until the last four speeches.
The hon. Member for Sevenoaks said that he saw some common ground. I think that there is some, inasmuch as whatever the bluster, something is clear after 15 months: cutting the deficit at the speed first suggested, backed up by a lack of a coherent growth policy—there was no growth policy; a document was hatched and brought forward six months later as an autumn statement—meant that the people watching knew that we were going to have a hard time. This debate will be an achievement if there is any acceptance in the Chamber that we cannot do what we have been doing for the past 15 months, but must do something additional—something different—because what we have been doing is not working. There are signs of that. The fact that the Chancellor went to the Bank of England and asked for credit easing to be done through the Bank, which was refused, and the fact that he is now taking the steps to do it himself, is good—
Shall I start again, Mr Deputy Speaker? You have put me off. Can you remind me where I was?
The Chancellor was turned by the Governor, but he was treated very well by the House because he had spent half an hour saying that he would not spend money. He now has the job for the next two months, until the autumn statement, of making a reality of credit easing, which means that because the Governor will not do it from the Bank of England, it will have to be done by the Government through public expenditure. And that, from a man who was saying that there is too much public expenditure and the only way is to cut, is a major achievement and a major philosophical breakthrough.
There are clear signs that the Chancellor realises that he boxed himself in. It was described three or four months ago on a radio programme as flexibility—“I have flexibility in my programmes”. That would give him the ability to move off plan A, but it is now clear that he is moving off with a vengeance because he sees the danger. When we in the House speak about growth, that means a lot to politicians, but the ordinary person does not realise that it means their job, the security of their home and their income. If the Chancellor is moving on that, it is very good.
I shall put three suggestions on the table for the Chancellor. First, he could reconsider the disastrous decision to abolish regional development agencies and the disgraceful decision to give the local enterprise partnerships that he set up in their place less money, no staff, no powers, no authority and no influence. They have pulled together in every area in the country schemes that have been presented to Lord Heseltine to filter out and put forward for funding. As only one scheme has come from each area, there is a whole list of good schemes sitting on the table that could be put into operation.
Secondly, when we speak about infrastructure, we invariably go to roads. The key, however, is housing because it triggers so many additional jobs and so much additional expenditure. There is one thing the Chancellor could do without spending any money. I know there is a balance. An average two-bedroom house costs £160,000. To get a mortgage requires a deposit of £32,000. Need we look any further to understand why youngsters are not buying houses? I know we have to protect people from being irresponsible, but such a value-to-loan ratio has knocked house purchase off the table. As we are not building social housing, it is a real block. Perhaps the Chancellor could speak to the Financial Services Authority and to the banks and say, “Ease off and look at each case on its merits.”
Finally, during the 1980s recession we had some very good community programmes—youth training schemes and so on. They were sometimes derided but they kept youngsters at work and gave them some self-belief and purpose. Youngsters got up and turned up on time. The schemes prepared them for work and kept them intact as individuals. In Leeds we had 2,500 places and we did enormous work across the city with unemployed people who, to this day, pay tribute to the fact that such schemes kept them going when they would have disintegrated as personalities if they had not had that discipline and chance. I should like the Chancellor to think about those.
I confess that as I listened to the shadow Chancellor this afternoon, I almost felt a growing sense of admiration for the sheer effrontery of the man. This man who came to deliver a lesson to the Chancellor was personally responsible for much of the economic mess that the country now finds itself in. He, of course, is no longer in his place, but I wonder whether I might give a quick economic history lesson to those Members on the Opposition Front Bench who have hung around to listen to the debate.
In 1997 this country had a national debt of £350 billion and was basically spending what it earned. By May 2008, well before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the banking problems, the national debt had already increased to £629 billion and the Government, during the boom times, had run a deficit of around £30 billion a year. I am yet to hear any Opposition Member explain why, when the country was booming, they spent £30 billion a year more than the country was taking in taxes. Once we hit the banking problems, which the previous Government successfully blamed all the economic problems on, the debt skyrocketed to £1 trillion.
Of course, even that is not the full story, because many sensible economists claim that the national debt is at least twice as large, as the figures used do not take into account the PFI contracts used for all the schools and hospitals that the previous Government built but never paid for. It does not take account of the liabilities for organisations such as Railtrack and Metronet, and of course it takes no account of public sector pensions. The reality is that we must now deal with a debt of at least £1 trillion and the deficit of £160 billion that we inherited.
Opposition Members like to blame it all on the banks. “It was all the fault of the wicked bankers”, they say. I have done a little checking with the House of Commons Library, and as far as I can ascertain the banks received £100 billion. That money was given out not simply in cash, but in shares and the rest of it, so a lot of it might come back to us. If we take the best-case scenario for the national debt, which is £1 trillion, rather than the £2 trillion suggested by many economists, and the worst-case scenario for the £100 billion that was given to the banks, which is that nothing will come back, even then that money accounts for only 10% of the national debt. What about the other £900 billion? When will the Opposition start accounting for that?
One trillion pounds is a lot of money. I was thinking about it earlier and trying to put it in perspective. If we were to create a graph and used 1 cm to show £1 million, it would have to stretch all the way from here to Highgate cemetery to show the scale of the wanton spending for which Opposition Members are responsible—I do not know whether it is relevant, but that is the burial place of Karl Marx.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman knows what the public sector debt was in 1997 and in 2007 before the recession.
Has the hon. Lady finished now, and may I continue? I am always fascinated by the fact that comparisons are made between levels of debt as a percentage of GDP. I will certainly give way again if someone can explain why we compare national debt with GDP. Why do we not do what any company would do and compare it with revenue? If we look at a comparison with 2010, when this Government took over and when the national debt was £1 trillion, we will see that the revenue coming in was £520 billion. The country had a national debt that was almost twice the revenue it was taking. Anyone who has run a company—most Opposition Members have not, but I have—will know that any company that found itself in such a situation would be declared bankrupt immediately.