I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern that UK economic growth is flatlining and was choked off well before the recent Eurozone crisis, that youth unemployment is now more than one million and that Government borrowing is therefore expected to be £46 billion higher than forecast over the Parliament; further notes with regret that the Government has failed to deliver a credible growth plan, is undermining critical industries in which the UK must compete, is failing to use strategically procurement and other tools to drive growth and innovation, and is holding back regional growth with its flagship projects mired in inertia and with most business still waiting for Regional Growth Fund money seven months after the recipients were announced; therefore calls on the Government to deliver a growth plan that provides an immediate boost to the economy to increase demand and growth, including a £2 billion tax on bank bonuses to fund 100,000 jobs for young people and build 25,000 more affordable homes; and further calls on the Government to bring forward long-term investment projects to get people back to work, to reverse the damaging VAT rise of January 2011 for a temporary period giving families a £450 boost and providing immediate help for the UK’s high streets, to provide a one-year cut in VAT to five per cent. on home improvements, repairs and maintenance to help home owners and small businesses, and to provide a one-year national insurance tax break for small firms to help them grow and create jobs.
In his Conservative party conference speech last October, the Chancellor said he would stick to his plan to cut faster than any other Chancellor in our history, regardless of the consequences, because, he said, it was necessary to put our economy on a sound footing. With reference to the Business Secretary he said:
“Together, Vince and I have started to open Britain for business.”
A year later, what do we find? The economy has grown by just 0.5% in the past 12 months. This compares with growth of 1.5% in the US over the same period and is significantly down from the 2.6% growth in the previous 12 months, thanks to the measures taken by the Labour Government. Have the Chancellor and the Business Secretary opened Britain for business? The figures tell a different story. The number of UK enterprises fell by 20,000 in the year to March 2011, with decreases in business numbers in every region except London and Scotland, and business confidence nose-dived following the announcement of the Chancellor’s spending review.
What effect is this having on the people of this country? More than 2.6 million people are out of work, the highest rate in 17 years. More than 1 million young people are now out of work, the highest since comparable records began in 1992. Let me be clear: these are not our statistics. They are those of the Office for National Statistics. They are the facts.
How have the Government responded to the facts? Last week, when we learned of the youth unemployment figures, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the Minister with responsibility for employment took to the airwaves. He told us that the 1 million figure for youth unemployment was “a distraction.” The 1 million figure for youth unemployment is not a distraction. It is a disgrace. What a tragic waste of talent. He not only described the figure of 1 million as a distraction, but attempted to blame it on the eurozone crisis. Does he really think that the British people will fall for that?
In fairness to the Business Secretary, when the figures came out his unofficial spokesperson, the noble Lord Oakeshott, told The Guardian:
“It’s ridiculous to blame this rise in unemployment on the crisis in the eurozone. All economists know it’s a lagging indicator, so this is the result of what has been happening in our economy over the past year”.
I could not put it better myself. Despite that view, the Business Secretary remains resolutely wedded to the Government’s economic strategy, however disastrous it is turning out to be. He does so in the name of deficit reduction, yet the independent forecasts published last week show that the Government are projected to borrow, on average, more in each remaining year of this Parliament than we would have done under our more balanced deficit reduction plan. Those are neither the Opposition’s figures, nor those published by the Office for National Statistics; the summary of independent forecasts was published last week by the Government themselves. Of course, the Office for Budget Responsibility has already forecast borrowing to be £46 billion higher than previously thought. The evidence is clear: the Government’s strategy is not working because reducing borrowing requires growth, which they choked off by cutting spending and raising taxes too far and too fast, and long before the eurozone crisis.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place on the Front Bench, which gives the Opposition the opportunity for a fresh start in putting forward their policies. He noted that according to later assessments the deficit will be higher than originally estimated, but does he accept that the key thing the Government got right was to set the tone for interest rates so that this country’s businesses can benefit from much lower interest rates than those in other countries, and would not the policies that his party proposes put that at risk?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, the reason the Monetary Policy Committee has set our interest rates so low is that we are struggling to find growth in this country. Without growth, we will be unable to reduce our borrowing. Our not being in the eurozone is another reason we are able to adopt lower interest rates.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his much-deserved elevation and on his speech, which has been very interesting so far. I put it to him that the Opposition’s plan would have been to borrow about £100 billion more than the Government plan to borrow in the current Parliament, which would lead to higher interest rates and push us closer to the situation Italy and Greece find themselves in and to what is happening in the eurozone, which would be irresponsible and reckless.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to my post. First, if he looks at page 22 of the Government’s summary of independent forecasts, he will see that they are projected to borrow, on average, over £100 billion more than the Government thought they would. Secondly, when he returns to his constituency he might wish to explain to his constituents, particularly the young people—youth unemployment there is up by 155% since January this year—why he cannot get his Government to change course.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has shown considerable courtesy already in giving way. Does he accept that the markets set long-term interest rates, whatever the MPC does, and that the problems in countries that have let their fiscal position get out of hand with interest rates have been driven not by a choice given by the European Central Bank, but by the markets setting the prices for their medium and long-term bonds?
The market is not irrational, as the Government seem to suggest. The suggestion is that if they move their direction and course by even one millimetre, even if economic circumstances justify such a change, they will be hammered by the market, but that is clearly not the case. I invite the hon. Gentleman to read the numerous articles and speeches by the former adviser to the Chancellor and the Prime Minister and former chief economist of the Cabinet Office, Mr Jonathan Portes, now director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, who makes that very point.
Does my hon. Friend recall, as I do, the Prime Minister telling the House in June of last year that employment would rise in every year of this Parliament, and did he notice in last week’s unemployment figures that employment fell by more than 100,000 in the year after that pledge was made? Is it not absolutely clear that the policy is not working and must now change?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. Of course, another question for the Government is why they will not listen to business organisations that have been calling for action. The CBI is calling for infrastructure spending to be brought forward, the Federation of Small Businesses is calling for a one-year national insurance break for every small firm taking on extra workers, and the Federation of Master Builders would like a targeted cut in VAT to 5% for home improvements, maintenance and repairs. Business organisations, from those representing the food and beverage sectors to those representing businesses on our high streets, which are suffering, are calling for a reversal of this year’s hike in VAT. What do all those measures have in common? They are all part of Labour’s plan for growth and jobs. As our motion stated, the Government must take action now to increase demand and growth and give immediate help to the high street—[Interruption.] The Minister of State, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), chunters from a sedentary position. If he wishes to ignore all the various business organisations, people might put a big question mark over his judgment. It is clear that the Government need to back our plan and that they must do so now.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the Government have been listening to businesses organisations with regard to employment law and deregulation? I am surprised that he, as a former employment lawyer, has not included in the motion a single proposal to make it easier for small businesses in Britain to take on staff.
When businesses get in touch to tell me about the problems they are suffering from, none of them tells me about problems with employment law. They tell me about the lack of public procurement and problems with VAT and financing from the banks. Those are the concerns that need to be tackled, rather than the side issues that Government Members are pursuing.
I agree with my hon. Friend. We all know what is holding back business in taking on workers: the forecast economic projections for this country. That is the real problem. What has been the centrepiece of the Business Secretary’s alternative offer? How will he turn things around? The answer is the regional growth fund. The aim of the fund is to unlock private sector investment, support areas that are dependent on the public sector and help them become more balanced economies. Good. We take no issue with those objectives. We want that money to get to business and to create the jobs that will support growth, yet the scheme has been managed shambolically. It has been an utter fiasco. The fund is a third of the size of the moneys distributed through the regional development agencies, which have been scrapped without effective replacement, so it has been hugely over-subscribed, which demonstrates businesses’ craving for capital. Of the 956 bids received, only 50 were successful in the first round and 119 in the second round. There have been many more losers than winners. It is difficult for the losers, but what of the winners?
Of course, due diligence is needed to ensure the proper use of public funds. The permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills told the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that due diligence on successful bids tends to take between two and six weeks, and that until it is complete the successful bidder is not given its money. Yet, clearly, very few successful bidders have received what was promised, because it has taken so long for due diligence to be completed.
I have written to the Secretary of State and tabled parliamentary questions, and in fact the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford, who has continually chuntered from a sedentary position today, provided the answers. I tabled those questions to get the answers, to get the facts and to get to the bottom of the delays and mess.
On Monday I received answers to those parliamentary questions, indicating that 30 weeks—30 weeks—after the original announcement just nine of the 50 first-round winners have completed due diligence. When I asked why due diligence has taken so long, I was told:
“It is for successful bidders to initiate due diligence upon receipt of a conditional offer letter from the Department.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 154W.]
Usually, the Government blame us for all the mistakes; now, it seems that they are seeking to pass on blame to the very businesses that they claim to want to help—and the bidder has to pay for the due diligence cost, too.
As it happens, I met—[Interruption.] Ministers shake their heads—
I will in a moment.
Last week I met one of the first-round bidders, who told me that on learning of their successful bid in April they immediately sought to progress due diligence but, despite chasing the Secretary of State’s Department, received no further documentation for four months. When they got it, they immediately responded but, again, heard nothing for another three months—until around the time that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised the issue of the regional growth fund at Prime Minister’s questions. I am sure that the timing was totally coincidental.
Even now, formal due diligence is not complete, and the matter is due to go to the permanent secretary’s committee for approval on 2 December.
On that important point, the Institute of Chartered Accountants believes that one reason for the length of time taken on due diligence is the disappearance of the RDAs’ expertise in following up the process, and the efficiency savings within the Department, meaning that the skills base there has evaporated, too. Is that not the case?
I reiterate the point about the expertise that has been lost due to the abolition of the RDAs. The European regional development fund is another vital source of money for businesses. Millions of pounds, particularly in the north-east, remain unspent, and only one fund, from the regional growth fund in Manchester, has been used as match funding for ERD funding. That is a huge waste of important business support that could be going to people throughout the country.
Perhaps the Secretary of State will address that comment in his response.
Almost one year after the regional growth fund was announced, and six months after due diligence should have been completed, the winning bidder to which I have referred has still not received any money from the regional growth fund. It is clear to me, in that case, where the blame lies for the delay: it is not with the successful bidder. That organisation provides onward distribution of fund awards to businesses that desperately need it. As a result of the chaos, confusion and delay, the bidder in that case tells me that between 3,000 and 4,000 businesses are being deprived of the moneys they need, putting an estimated 11,800 jobs at risk.
What about the other bidders that provide the onward distribution of funds, and the businesses that could support jobs and growth? As I have said, the situation is a fiasco. It is no way to run a Department, and it is no way to treat our businesses or grow our economy. The Secretary of State and his Department are not doing enough to get our economy growing; what little they are doing, they are doing badly.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about ERDF delays, one of which I have drawn to the attention of Ministers myself, but, having spent 10 years a councillor in the city of Hull dealing with organisations such as Yorkshire Forward, I must say that the nirvana picture of the RDAs that he tries to paint is certainly not my experience. The points he makes now are exactly the same points that we could have made about Yorkshire Forward and its processes for the past 10 years. The problem is the systems, not, as he outlines, how we structure them.
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, the question is whether the Department is doing what it promised to do for those businesses, which is to give them money and to carry out due diligence in a quick and timely way. It has failed to do so. I do not claim that there was a nirvana in relation to RDAs, but we are talking about the regional growth fund, and we actually want it to succeed.
The Government’s latest attempt to grow the economy consists of making it easier to fire, not hire, people. Today, to great fanfare, the Secretary of State said that the service required to claim for unfair dismissal should be increased from one to two years. He said this morning that
“this will mean that business can once again have the confidence to hire the staff they need to grow and thrive.”
That is a retrograde step for a Government who think that watering down employees’ rights is a substitute for a proper growth plan.
Even at the height of the Thatcher years, there was no attempt to target individual workers—their unions, yes, because industrial tribunals were a Conservative Government invention, but the measure under discussion is utterly shameless. The efficient European economies are partnership economies, but targeting weaker workers and, particularly, women workers is to the utter and contemptible shame, above all, of a Liberal Democrat Business Secretary.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend brings up the Thatcher era, because a well known noble Lord was asked on Sunday whether such initiatives, which seek to make it easier to fire as opposed to hire people, act as a stimulus to job creation. He told the BBC what he thought of that, saying:
“I’ve been responsible for one of those deregulation initiatives for many years and I would be quite frank in telling you that I don’t think we achieved much.”
He went on to say that
“you want to be very careful in political terms that you don’t get the reputation that all you’re trying to do is make life rougher and tougher for large numbers of people.”
Those are the words of the noble Lord Heseltine, and, if a Conservative-led Government are unable to persuade him to buy into the concept, why should the rest of us do so?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about what Lord Heseltine said, and the evidence is that, when we create uncertainty for workers by attacking their rights, we find that their behaviour changes in relation to the economy. They stop spending money in the economy, and that undermines the opportunity for growth and the support for businesses, so any Government Member who thinks that cutting workers’ rights is a way to grow the economy is sadly mistaken.
My hon. Friend is right, and when the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development looked at the economic effects of the proposal to increase the service requirement from one to two years, the chief economist, Dr John Philpott, said that
“any positive effect on hiring is likely to be offset by a corresponding increase in the rate of dismissals. Increasing the qualifying period for obtaining unfair dismissal rights thus runs the risk of reinforcing a hire and fire culture in UK workplaces. Although the policy change will undoubtedly be welcomed by the de-regulation lobby, it isn’t the way to boost growth and jobs.”
I withdraw that comment.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether business organisations were in favour of increasing the unfair dismissal service requirement from one to two years. That policy may sound good on the face of it, but what will happen—I say this as a former employment lawyer—is that we will simply end up with more employees making spurious discrimination claims, because there is no service requirement for them. When we put that to businesses, they take quite a different point of view of the policy.
I have given way several times, and I want to make a bit of progress.
Instead of reverting to the tired old mantras and doing over the people who work in this country, perhaps the Secretary of State could tell us what he will do to get banks lending to small and medium-sized businesses that are, by his and the Chancellor’s own admission, currently being starved of credit. We know that the Project Merlin accord between the banks and the Government failed. The Secretary of State more or less admitted as much when he said:
“Merlin was necessary but it was never going to be sufficient. I don’t think any of us pretended it was enough.”
We know that the figures published under Merlin are entirely misleading, because under the agreement between the banks and the Government a gross lending measure was adopted, not the more meaningful net figure used by the Bank of England. The truth is that Project Merlin was really no more than a public relations gimmick designed to get the Government out of a hole when banks’ declarations of bonuses were in full flow earlier this year.
For real businesses, the failure is real. The Bank of England’s “Trends in Lending” publication for last month showed the stock of lending to UK businesses contracting overall in the three months to August. The Bank’s latest agents’ summary, for this month, stated that small businesses were still reporting that credit conditions
“remained tight, and in some cases had become tighter.”
That is supported by the figures released this morning by the British Bankers Association, showing lending by the high street banking groups to non-financial businesses contracting this month.
To resolve that problem, the Government first need to change their overall economic strategy, to give businesses the confidence to borrow and grow. The small and medium-sized enterprise finance monitor published last week showed that the main barrier to future borrowing by SMEs was the economic climate, but that the other major barrier was the lending practices of the banks. The Government need to use their influence with the banks, particularly through United Kingdom Financial Investments in the case of the banks in which the state has a stake, to insist that they get money out of the door to responsible businesses that have sound business models but are struggling to access finance. In addition, they must urge those banks to adopt a better lending culture—for example, by ensuring that they have local relationship managers on the ground who get to know the business concerned.
I am sure the whole House has considerable sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s position. Unfortunately, the Government’s hands are somewhat tied, because UKFI was set up on the basis that it was at arm’s length. When the original deal was done with the banks, the then Government did not force any lending targets on them. This Government have been trying their best to undo that damage through Merlin and other measures, but the previous Government should have got it right in the first place and have made it harder now.
When will Government Members take responsibility? I wish that we were still in government, but we have not been for 18 months now. It is about time that they got used to the fact that they are in government and took responsibility.
Business is crying out not for a Government who step aside and fail or refuse to act but for one who adopt an active approach, using all the tools at their disposal to create the conditions for private sector growth. For all their claims about our record, such as the ones that we have just heard, the Government have kept in place some of the support measures for business that we left them on leaving office. I should point out that under Labour, 1.1 million businesses were created. When we left office, the UK was rated fourth by the World Bank for the ease of doing business, and first in Europe. Under this Government, the UK has dropped to seventh in the global rankings. We will take no lectures from the Government on support for business.
In government, we set up the Better Regulation Executive and the Regulatory Policy Committee to improve the quality, and where appropriate reduce the quantity, of regulation on business. I note that the Government have continued with them.
I cannot name the top five, but the whole reason the Better Regulation Executive and the Regulatory Policy Committee were set up was to reduce regulations by a huge number and improve their quality.
In government, we also conceived the technology and innovation centres, to promote innovation. The Government are now rolling them out across the country, and they have sought to build on the measures that we put in place to reduce the bureaucracy of Government procurement and increase SMEs’ access to it.
In many other areas, however, there has been a disorderly retreat from an active approach. The Government have undermined certainty for investment, cut the science and research funding budget by 15% in real terms and abandoned the 10-year funding plan, and they have abandoned sector strategies such as the defence industrial strategy. The Automotive Council continues, but the RDAs, which could have helped make a reality of the ambition to strengthen companies’ supply chains, no longer exist.
The Government have undermined new industries, such as green industries, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) will outline in the debate that will follow this one. They have delayed the roll-out of universal broadband and undermined the collaborative institutions that we set up to work with businesses, such as the Office for Life Sciences and the Technology Strategy Board, which are widely respected. The higher education sector, the seventh-largest export industry, has been put in disarray by the Government’s visa changes. Support for the digital, creative and educational sectors has been scaled back. Then there is the decision to award the £1.5 billion contract for new Thameslink trains to a manufacturer that will make them in Germany, which means that Bombardier is reviewing its activities in Britain.
The Government have retreated from action, undermined confidence, failed to unlock investment, failed to deliver a credible plan for growth and failed to use action to back business. They need to back our five-point plan for growth now and put in place a credible plan to build for our long-term success. These are difficult and challenging times for businesses and people in this country. They deserve better from a Government who say, “We are all in it together”, but who, time and again, show that they have absolutely no understanding of the concept.
I should like to respond to the motion, which actually bears only a passing resemblance to the speech made by the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna). I will start with issues of fact that I hope we can agree on.
The motion makes perfectly legitimate points about the state of the economy. It is certainly true that there is slow growth across Europe and in the UK. We fully understand that. We have not had the double-dip recession that has been predicted since the very first day of this Government, but yes, we do have slow growth. We accept that we have a worrying level of youth unemployment, although the largest component of that, the NEETs—those who are not in education, employment or training—were actually at their peak level before the financial crisis occurred. It is correct to say, as the motion does, that we have a high, and we would argue excessive, level of borrowing. That makes it all the more perverse that the single policy that the hon. Gentleman is offering to us is to increase that level of borrowing, which he considers so toxic.
The Prime Minister’s constituency has 1.8% unemployment and mine has 7.9%, yet the Secretary of State’s Government have chosen to leave a full employment service in Witney and to close down the jobcentre in Deptford. Does he agree, and will he support me, in asking his colleague to return an employment service to Deptford to help the 1,000 young people who are out of work now?
Obviously, I do not know the particular position in Deptford, but I am very happy to take up the specifics if that helps.
The particular question that the hon. Gentleman started with was fair: why did the economic slow-down occur? He quoted my colleague in the upper House and others of varying views about why we have lower growth than was predicted by independent forecasters 18 months ago.
Let me try to deal with this issue. We would all probably accept—I hope that the hon. Member for Streatham would accept—that the Governor of the Bank of England is an independent, non-partisan, non-political analyst of what has occurred. Let me read to him the Governor’s account given a week ago on why the slow-down in growth has occurred. He said:
“This reflects the impact on the United Kingdom of the deterioration in prospects internationally, working through weaker net trade, higher credit spreads and the likelihood”
of elevated uncertainty. He goes on to describe the impact of world energy and commodity prices, and the 35% increase in the sterling price of oil, none of which was mentioned in the hon. Gentleman’s speech.
Let me just finish this argument. Some of us have argued for a long time that the underlying problem is that, since the beginning of the crisis, the British economy has suffered—I use my own metaphor— the economic equivalent of a heart attack. There is a profound problem, and what lies behind it is the fact that, more than any other developed country, we have quite extraordinary levels of debt.
There are different kinds of debt. Household debt is 160% of gross domestic product and, after the boom that took place under the previous Government, it is higher than in other developed countries. Banks’ balance sheets are more than 400% of GDP, after they were allowed to run out of control. Government debt is 180% and rising as a result of the deficit financing we had to undertake. If we put those things together, as McKinsey has done, they show that the position we inherited is one where total debt in the UK is approaching 500% of our GDP. The only other country with a problem of that scale is Japan. That is the inheritance we are now seeking to manage.
First, on borrowing, does the Business Secretary accept that the average of the independent forecast that his Government published last week shows that, for all his claims to be working to a strategy to reduce our debts, his Government could end up borrowing more in every single year remaining of this Parliament than under Labour’s more sensible deficit reduction plan? Secondly, does he accept that confidence indicators when he took office and took charge of his Department were not too bad and were improving until the comprehensive spending review was announced, after which it nosedived?
On the level of borrowing, let us wait until next week and see what the independent forecast is in the Chancellor’s statement. Of course, the reason why borrowing rises when the economy slows down is the flexibility that is built in—the so-called counter-cyclical stabilisers that we employ as part of our fiscal policy. Unlike the United States and other countries, we allow slow-downs to be accommodated in that way, supporting the economy.
The hon. Gentleman asked me what our strategy is to deal with this problem. I will summarise it. There are three parts. First, we have to stick to fiscal discipline to maintain the confidence of the people who lend to us. That is a very simple proposition that is very difficult to realise and it is something we have done. He quoted various comments from business organisations around the country. I keep in touch with such organisations regularly and go around the country to the regions and nations of the UK. I have yet to meet a single representative of the business community who has asked us to slacken our process of deficit reduction—not a single one. They all make it absolutely clear, including the CBI, that they regard plan A, as it is called, which is deficit reduction, as an absolutely necessary pre-condition to stabilising the economy.
The second element relates to the first. Precisely because we have a large amount of debt in our economy, the priority for Government has to be to preserve an environment in which there are low interest rates. The stimulus we get in our economy—the source of demand—comes primarily through monetary policy. Through the Bank of England acting on short-term interest rates, through long-term interest rates related to bond yields, through quantitative easing at the Bank of England—now credit easing—and through a competitive exchange rate, we have a monetary policy that supports growth and demand. Given the massive debt we have inherited, it is only through monetary policy—relatively low interest rates—that we can possibly support the economy.
It is certainly a last resort in a major economic crisis. I am sure he appreciates that we are living through an economic crisis that is unparalleled in our lifetimes. That is why not only Britain, but the United States and other countries are having to resort to unorthodox monetary policy. That is a reflection of the desperation of many western countries. Our Bank of England has been comfortable with our fiscal policy and, to that extent, has been willing to support it through monetary means.
Those are two of the three elements of the strategy. The third is rebalancing the economy. We inherited an economy that was horribly unbalanced in favour of debt-supported consumption and banking, and we are now rebalancing the economy towards exports and trade. Rapid growth is taking place at the moment in British exports. That is the strategy on which we will proceed and on which we will be judged. The alternative we have been offered is something called plan B, which I think has been renamed the “Antiques Roadshow” in respect of the shadow Chancellor. No serious business organisation is arguing that such financial irresponsibility has any prospect of success.
In the document that I have in my hand the shadow Business Secretary says, regarding the new economy, that we need to build an economy that is
“less vulnerable to global shocks”.
How does the Secretary of State think that building an economy based on £100 billion of extra borrowing by 2015 will deliver that?
I can give a bit of substance in answer to that. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which has been critical of the Government in some respects, has done its own simulation. On the use of fiscal policy to support growth, which I think is what the Opposition plan B is all about, it says that in order to stimulate growth from 1% to 2% we would need to have a Government borrowing account of about 12% of GDP. Is that actually what the Opposition are proposing, because that is what their plan B—fiscal stimulus—means?
I have tried to explain that wherever I go, not just in the business community, there is an understanding that, given our inheritance, we have to pursue fiscal discipline. It is as simple as that. We will support that with economic growth measures that I will develop, responding to the comments of the hon. Member for Streatham, in a moment.
The Secretary of State knows that some of us, even on the Labour Benches, have always admired his grasp of economics, and his analysis is impressive. I also know that he gets around the country; he has recently been to my constituency. However, what people are telling me when I go around the country is that they understand the analysis but want to know where is the imagination that is needed when a Government see 1 million young people unemployed. Where is the charismatic leadership? Where is the air that something is really being done fundamentally to help these young people?
I will describe in more detail, as will the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, some of the initiatives that we are taking on apprenticeships, for example, which reflect real imagination and real change.
Let me try to respond to some of the points that the hon. Member for Streatham made. First, he wholly misunderstands what is happening with the regional growth fund. More than half the projects are under way in the first wave of the regional growth fund. The factories have been built and the jobs are being created. Because of due diligence, the disbursement—I have had this confirmed—is still taking an average of three to six weeks. I am happy to pursue the individual cases that the hon. Gentleman raised. As I understand it—I may be wrong—the case that he dwelt on at some length is the result of the applicant having radically changed the status of their application, and we will happily look at that. However, I am not going to take lectures on the disbursement of Government money. I do not know whether he is aware of this, but the previous Government set up a £5 billion trade credit insurance scheme which, after two years, has managed to disburse £81,000. The regional growth fund is proceeding as predicted and suggested by Lord Heseltine and his team. We are following those processes. The factories are being built and the jobs are being created, and that is what matters.
The hon. Gentleman challenged me on procurement. I have been to Derby and talked to the people involved. Obviously, we are very concerned about what has happened in that case. The problem with procurement is that for a decade or more the public procurement policies pursued in this country were unbelievably short-sighted and legalistic. In the case of the Thameslink contract, we inherited a contract procedure based principles that did not allow for the wider effects on the British economy. However, that particular decision has been made. I have made it absolutely clear, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office made it clear two days ago, that we are going to approach public procurement in a different way. We are going to do it strategically and take account of supply chains. Of course we will operate within the law and will not be protectionist, but a lot can be done through public procurement that we are now going to pursue. My only question is why on earth Labour Members did not do this when they were in office if they care so much about it.
Is the Secretary of State now in a position to give me an answer that he could not give when I questioned his departmental report a couple of weeks ago—namely, exactly how many jobs have been created by the regional growth fund so far?
No, I cannot do that, because the projects are under construction. When they are fully completed and fully staffed and their supply chains are established, it will be possible to come up with a meaningful number.
The third area of criticism and questioning of the hon. Member for Streatham related to the banks. The motion recycles the idea of a bank bonus tax, so let us go over what that involves. The current estimate from the CBI, which has carried out research on this in the City, suggests that the yield from bonuses this year—the bonus pool—is likely to be something in the order of £4.2 billion. Of that £4.2 billion, £2.5 billion goes to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in tax because of high tax rates on bonuses, and rightly so. That leaves £1.7 billion in bonuses paid out, assuming that the projection is correct. The Opposition are suggesting that they will have a £2 billion tax on bank bonuses. Where is this £2 billion going to come from? It is considerably more than the total bonuses paid out. Even if they applied 100% tax, which is implausible, what would happen, obviously, is that pay would be consolidated. They have not thought this through. Perhaps that is why the hon. Gentleman did not bother to raise it. Can he can tell us how it will work?
I am happy to do so. I am slightly bemused that the Secretary of State should quote those figures from the CBI. It represents all the banks, so would he expect it to say anything different? Of course, the bonus round has not yet been completed, so we have absolutely no idea what the final figure will be.
I see that the hon. Gentleman is playing for time.
Apart from this slightly mysterious bank bonus tax, what is extraordinary is that we are being lectured on the banking system by a party which in government allowed the banking system to run completely out of control. There was no regulation on cash bonuses. Despite the fact that the banks had an implicit Government guarantee, they were not required to pay any tax for it. We have introduced the banking levy. Labour allowed tax avoidance on an industrial scale and did absolutely nothing about it, yet the hon. Gentleman now presumes to lecture me on banking. I really do think that Labour Members need to reflect a little on what happened in the banking system.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman made various references to spending commitments—or our damaging spending cuts, as he saw them—and tax cuts. This is the time of year when my grandchildren write letters to the north pole addressed to Santa Claus. I have to say that compared with what we are hearing, those letters from my five-year-old grandson are a model of financial discipline and economic literacy. The hon. Gentleman’s predecessor was very eloquent in criticising the cuts to the university teaching grant. The hon. Gentleman has adopted other targets—for example, he has criticised the cuts in the regional development agencies. He has also criticised cuts in the science budget. Last week, he made a very eloquent statement on this, despite the fact that the scientific establishment had been very complimentary about the fact that we had protected the cash budget for science.
When I came into my current job, the one thing I knew was that my Labour predecessors were planning to cut the Department’s budget by 25%, and that is what we have done, because that was the economic reality. I am therefore left with a question to which I have been trying to get an answer. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can be more forthcoming and economically rounded than his predecessor in telling me how the Opposition are going to achieve their plans. Where is the money going to come from? We have a whole lot of spending commitments in every area of our Department, but not a single suggestion about where those heroic cuts are going to come from. Of course we would like to spend more money on science and other things, and of course some of the tax cut proposals are very attractive, such as the VAT rate on building repairs, which would cost £1 billion, but where does the money come from? This gets to the heart of the problem, which is that the Labour Opposition’s proposal is financially irresponsible. It deals with the problem of Government borrowing by adding to it and deals with the problem of Government debt by adding to it.
The various commitments that we have made are all costed and fund themselves. The Business Secretary has said a lot about banking. If he is so fiscally responsible, will he join us in committing to use all the proceeds from the sales of the public stakes in the banks towards reducing the deficit?
The hon. Gentleman’s numbers may have been costed but they do not add up—that is the problem. As for the banks, it will be quite some years before the sales take place. The Northern Rock sale has gone ahead—that is a small bank—but for the major banks, it is likely to be some years ahead. We do not know whether it will be in this Parliament or the next; we have no idea what the economic conditions will be. It would be ludicrous for me to hypothecate about revenue receipts at this stage.
I will move on to my final passage, because I would like colleagues to have an opportunity to speak. I will summarise some of the positive things that we are doing, albeit within a very constrained budget, to support growth. Of course, fiscal discipline and monetary policy have to be supported by interventions. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is a role for state intervention. I am not in favour of laissez-faire. There are things that we can do.
Our concentration is on export growth. There has been 13% export growth over the past year. We are outward looking. The motion does not even mention trade. It is unbelievably parochial. I spend a lot of my time in emerging markets with British exporters—I have been to all of them—to support export growth. I do not claim personal credit for the growth, but we have acted as a catalyst for export growth in Brazil, Russia, India and China—the BRIC countries—of 26%, in India of 34% and in Turkey of 30%. I keep in touch with our exporters by working with them and alongside them to deal with overseas Governments. That is where the recovery is going to take place. It is on the back of those exports that we are getting rapid growth in manufacturing in certain sectors such as the automobile sector, which has attracted big inward investment from Jaguar Land Rover and others.
UKTI has been radically reformed, thanks to the Minister for Trade and Investment, Lord Green. I think that it will perform an excellent function. What I found was that British export activity in the big emerging markets, which is clearly where future growth lies, had been sorely neglected for many years. As somebody put it to me, when we turned up on the beach the Germans were already in the deckchairs. They have dominated the market in these countries and we are a marginal player. It will take years to turn that around, but that is where our emphasis lies.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of one of my best lines. It is partly a compliment to Ireland that we trade with it so extensively, but that fact is an appalling commentary on our neglect of the big emerging markets.
Export growth is one key focus for us. The second is people and apprenticeships. The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning will say more about this in his summary. Despite a severely curtailed budget, we have increased apprenticeships—actual people doing training—by 50% over the past year. There are now 350,000 people in such training. We do not accept that that is the end of the road. We have to improve the quality and refocus as much as possible on younger apprentices, thereby addressing in part the problem of youth unemployment. This is a major success story and we are proud of it.
On access to finance, one of the major themes of my analysis has been that what we are dealing with is a collapsed and non-functioning banking system. It is right for Members to continue to cross-question us on the Merlin agreement, because that is at the heart of the problem. We have stopped, at least in relation to small and medium-sized enterprises, a process of rapid deleveraging. We are using Government funding through the regional growth fund and, from next year, the Green investment bank to co-finance private capital so that there is access to finance for British industry. We are taking initiatives to support equity finance. The business growth fund is not Government owned or controlled, but it is a major initiative that should have been taken decades ago to get equity finance functioning. Access to finance is a critical issue—of course we accept that. It is a consequence of the banking crisis that we are focused on it.
I want to give one final concluding thought. When I hear the Opposition speaking about the economy, I think that lying at the back of their world view is the idea that what we are currently in the middle of is a cyclical problem—we had a boom, we had a bust, we will press a few buttons, spend a bit more money, and we will get back into a boom again. This is not a cyclical problem; it is a profound, long-standing structural problem. We had the wrong model. Growth was based on fundamentally the wrong principles, it was not sustainable and it collapsed. We are now having to repair the damage.
I will bear in mind your comments, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The problem in a debate like this is where to start. I will start with what I want to see, which is business growth. Business growth delivers job creation, which in turn delivers tax revenues and growth for individuals, the importance of which we should not underestimate at any cost. The fundamental question that we are discussing is whether Opposition and Government Members believe that the Government can be a driver for growth. I and a number of my colleagues believe that they can be.
Why is this debate so important? It is important to my constituents because people in my constituency are losing jobs, and businesses in my constituency are going bust. The industry that I have been involved in since I was 18 years of age has been decimated by the Government. In Ochil and South Perthshire, 5.6 jobseeker’s allowance claimants are going after each job. I realise that that is by no means the highest rate in the UK. The number of JSA claimants in Ochil and South Perthshire has risen by 95% since 2006. The overall number of people in employment is falling. In the last year, 93% of constituencies saw a rise in their claimant count. That has been caused by the speed and depth of the cuts, and by the private sector not being able to keep up with them, just as the Opposition said would happen.
That is why we want the Government to do more to help UK businesses. Helping business helps employment. The Government have cut capital budgets by 11%. Because their deficit reduction plan is failing, they will have to borrow more to pay for unemployment and to cover falling tax revenues. That is the backdrop that has led to this debate. The Government should listen hard to what is said by my colleagues on the Labour Benches.
As I said, I have been in the construction industry all my life. I remain involved in that business today. In the time that I have left, I will talk about what the Government can do and should be doing to help the construction industry. It is my view that the construction industry gives a measure of the economy as a whole. It is of the private sector, but it needs the public sector and the private sector to survive. If businesses want to expand, they need the construction industry to do so if they need premises, transport networks or communication infrastructure. If the construction industry is on its knees, the country is on its knees. The Government need to grasp the fact that every pound spent in the construction industry generates £2.83 in the wider economy. That point is not disputed.
The Opposition’s five-point plan would benefit the construction industry from point one through to point five. I will focus on one or two of the points in the short time that I have left. Bringing forward investment projects to get the industry working again would regenerate our infrastructure, allow future growth and give skills to individuals.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend wants to comment on the call of the International Monetary Fund for a global growth compact, which supports exactly the initiative that he is suggesting. It says that there must be infrastructure development in the west—not just this country but the whole world—to recover from this economic downturn.
I agree with my hon. Friend. If we do not get our infrastructure right, we will not be in the position that we want to be in when things move forward and we will be disadvantaged. I ask the Government not to look solely at big individual projects when they are trying to regenerate the economy. We need local and regional regeneration and investment in local and regional infrastructure.
Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the Government’s introduction of the Work programme, which will help many of those JSA applicants of whom he spoke, and the new enterprise allowance, which gives significant sums of money to unemployed people who want to set up a business?
My experience of the Work programme is that it is a not-working programme.
The cut in VAT to 5% for home improvement repairs and maintenance—another part of Labour’s five-point plan—would discourage the black market and encourage investment in our housing stock at a time when the Government are wringing their hands about the green deal. Experian data show that a cut from 17.5% to 5% would have produced a £1.4 billion stimulus to the UK economy in 2010, which would have got Britain building. It is working on reviewing that figure in the light of the current 20% VAT rate.
On housing, which is an important part of the construction industry, social rent starts and affordable home starts have fallen by 99%, but in 2007, there were 357,000 first-time home buyers in the UK, who generated £2.1 billion in our high streets. That is the real power of the construction industry and why the industry is so important to the whole of the UK. I hope the Government plans announced earlier this week to regenerate the housing market deliver progress, but one must ask: why have they been asleep at the wheel for the past 18 months?
On lending, we are a country of small businesses, yet the Federation of Small Businesses tells us that credit lines for financially sound businesses have been tightened and interest rates have increased. The Federation of Master Builders has reinforced the point about that failure.
The Government have announced a desire to look at credit easing, which suggests that Project Merlin has failed. Do they know how much of Project Merlin’s compliance agreements are re-signed and recycled arrangements? Do they know that banks are withdrawing overdraft facilities and setting businesses up with term loans?
The hon. Gentleman echoes the shadow Secretary of State in criticising the Government for undertaking quantitative easing. In truth, this Government and the previous one undertook quantitative easing, but there is a huge difference between them. This Government are using QE to buy bank debt to put liquidity into the banks, which is much needed by business, whereas the previous one used QE to buy Government debt, because at the time, the rest of the world had lost confidence in buying it.
I never mentioned quantitative easing—I was talking about term loans. Term loans are being offered to businesses because they are better for the lender, not the borrower, and because they deliver a skewed figure into the Merlin arrangements. That cannot be acceptable. Business should not be run on term loans.
As this is a business debate, I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) on introducing this debate and on the thoughtful way in which he presented his case. As I said in an intervention, he offers an opportunity for a fresh approach. What a contrast this debate is to the one on the economy called by his colleague the shadow Chancellor a couple of weeks ago, which turned into an episode of “Romper Room”—some hon. Members are old enough to remember that—with childish comments being made left, right and centre. The hon. Member for Streatham presented a much more cogent case today, but that is the root of his problem. He is the fresh new hope, but unfortunately he is held back by sad and discredited ideas, the core policy of which, as the Prime Minister has said, has been reheated and resold at least eight times already.
I encourage the hon. Member for Streatham to be a little bolder in setting out his ideas. I know that he agrees—his speech lasted 31 minutes, but only in the 30th did he get round to talking about Labour’s so-called five-point plan. I ask him to spend more time developing his ideas, and not to be held back by the discredited Labour past.
Back-handed compliments aside, it is unfair of the hon. Gentleman to say that I did not talk about the different elements of the five-point plan. I remind him that I cited a list of the different business organisations that have called in different ways for parts of that plan to be implemented—from the Federation of Master Builders to the Federation of Small Businesses and the CBI.
I appreciate that, and I shall continue to listen intently to all the hon. Gentleman says.
The challenge that this country faces to restore growth is immense. It needs good ideas from both sides of the House and full commitment to the task. On that point, may I say gently to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is a noble individual and a good gentleman, that sometimes people feel that commitment may not be there 100% of the time from the Department, and that is a commitment to the role of the free market and business. It is as though we have at times a literary equivalent of Dr Cable and Mr Hyde. There is one part of the personality of the Secretary of State that embraces the idea of business and likes the approach of free markets, and then there is the other side of the personality that likes to hang out with a bunch of people on a camping holiday outside a well-known church musing on the merits of capitalism.
That is absolutely true, but the challenge that we face is more immense because of 13 years of over-regulation by the previous Government, and because of the challenge of the international community. From the Secretary of State’s announcements today, I know that the sunshine side of his personality is more to the fore, and that he will demonstrate a strong and full commitment to the hard work that entrepreneurs and business leaders are putting in around the country.
I encourage the Secretary of State to take action on three further areas. First, I encourage him to work more strongly with the Treasury on ideas for credit that work for all sizes of businesses. Although there is a lot of emphasis on trying to make the banks a useful conduit of finance to small businesses, that is not working for very small businesses. Please can we look at alternative measures? Can we look again at tax relief for debt financing for our micro-businesses? For the first time, can we consider peer-to-peer lending organisations such as Funding Circle, which provides an alternative way of raising funds for small businesses? It is not enough to come forward with another policy that relies on the banks doing something tomorrow that they are not doing today.
Secondly, I encourage the Secretary of State to look at the sector that is the biggest drag on our economy, namely the bureaucratic state. If we want to create a growing economy, we cannot ignore such a substantial part of it. I encourage him to ask other Ministers to enlist our public servants and bureaucrats in the task of identifying growth. Every single day, the employees of small businesses in my constituency work very hard to create growth and the conditions for profitability, and they tell me that they are not getting the support they need from either their local government or their national Government. We need a culture change in our Government Departments. They need to say: “Our primary task—our national mission—is to support the growth of enterprise and business. What can we do every day to help people to achieve that?”
Will the Secretary of State also look at the opportunity provided by social enterprises? The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who is the Minister with responsibility for the civil society, is doing a lot of work with social enterprises to free them from some of the burdens of regulation. Will the Secretary of State have his Department look at how the power of social entrepreneurs can be brought to bear on our public services and public sector so that they can be more productive? Social enterprises are a fantastic way to encourage growth.
Will the Secretary of State consider using Parliament to review outdated statutory instruments, laws and regulations that are a bureaucratic drag on productivity and business? Rather than using Parliament to pass new laws, we could use it to scrap existing ones. I am sure we can find time for that.
Thirdly and finally—this underlies all our efforts to create growth—I benefited in my career from two fundamental pushes on growth in our economy: building out the global supply chain and the consequential growth of financial services, which gave people the ability to buy goods and services much more cheaply than they would have got them had we relied only on a national economy; and the growth of information technology. The next source of fantastic growth is likely to be when households in India and China want to buy our goods. But that is not here today. That is not going to be here in the next five years. What we can do in that period of time is have a national campaign led by the Secretary of State to create an entrepreneurial society recognising that there are different motivations for being an entrepreneur. Not only do entrepreneurs want to make money; people are motivated by spiritural objectives. Let that be the mission and legacy of our Secretary of State.
It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful speech by the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller). He and I have a common interest in the supply chains that he ended his comments talking about. The Secretary of State knows that I have been working hard in the north-west region to improve the automotive supply chain. That is one of the solutions because we are now in a position to recapture work from countries to which work in the automotive sector was previously exported as a result of changes in those countries’ economies. As labour costs have risen, as they will continue to do inexorably in Poland and China for example, we will be able to start thinking about recapturing that work. There needs to be common ground there.
I want to correct one point: for the second time, the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) made a mischievous intervention concerning the previous Government’s record on deregulation. I think that the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) will back me up on this point because she attended the Regulatory Reform Committee assiduously when I was its Chair: we could count on one hand the number of times a Conservative Member turned up to the Committee in the last Parliament. Perhaps they are finding their road to Damascus at last.
That was certainly the case with the Regulatory Reform Committee—it used the framework of the House to make limited adjustments—but we should remember the legacy left by Sir William Sargent, who did an amazing amount of work leading the Better Regulation Executive and putting in place the framework now being utilised. To ignore his work would be an insult to a fine public servant.
On skills, I am pleased that the apprentice Minister or the Minister for apprenticeships—whichever way it is—is here. I understand that he has indicated his wish to visit West Cheshire college. He is most welcome to visit that fine college built with resources provided by Labour but I would like him to think about some issues, particularly the needs of apprentices and young people coming to train from areas of extreme deprivation. There are many simple things that he could urge the Treasury to think about. For example, in my area there are plenty of vocational courses leading to jobs in specialist sectors, yet young people from deprived areas who, had they stayed on at school, would have got free school meals get no support to help them eat when at college.
TTE training runs a good training centre in my constituency providing Cogent training courses—I recently had the great pleasure to attend the royal visit to the centre organised at the behest of the royal family. That training centre is doing fantastic work at the high end of the petrochemicals sector—with players such as Shell and Ineos Chlor—but it is having difficulty finding a financial solution to deal with the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises. The Secretary of State will know that in Germany the burden is often placed on the large players, which are encouraged to finance the supply chain. That is one possible solution but the important point is that we need a practical solution, otherwise we will have no way forward and the young people making themselves available to go on such courses will be—
The hon. Gentleman is being mischievous by suggesting that there was a great deregulatory fervour about the previous Labour Government. For the past eight months he has served assiduously alongside me on the Löfstedt review looking at the reform of health and safety law. Would that review have been carried out under the previous Labour Government? Should it have been carried out? If so, why was it not?
I do not want to be tempted to comment on the review because it would breach the embargo—of course, the hon. Gentleman and I have seen its contents—but I shall be happy to express my views publicly in days to come. However, there is a fair amount of agreement between him and me on this point so I ask him not to tempt me down that line.
Mention has been made of the serious issue of the science base. The Secretary of State has got to get to grips with the confusion in the university sector. A combination of things has impacted on the universities, such as the fees structure changes, the capital spend problems and the overseas student issue. Yes, it is welcome that millions of pounds are being spent on a graphene centre in Manchester, but would it not have been ironic that had these rules been in place, Andre Geim might not have been at Manchester university to make those fantastic discoveries? The Government have to think carefully about the possibility of damaging a £5 billion industry that provides us not only with a superb base for our own research and development and science-based companies, but with a huge export of knowledge, which improves our relationship with so many of the countries with which we do business. I urge the Government to rethink what they are doing in the university sector.
When I read the title of this debate—about supporting business to encourage economic growth and employment—I hoped that all the parties might for once argue constructively to come up with ideas together. I am sure that we all agree that business in this country needs support, and we all want it to get that support. On the economy, however, that is probably where the consensus ends. The coalition Government cannot abandon their plans and adopt the seductive mantra of going less far, less fast. The consequences of doing that can be seen across the channel in Greece, Portugal and Spain, which have borrowing rates of 32%, 11% and 7% respectively, compared with Germany’s 1.82%, France’s 3.12% and the UK’s 2.28%.
The hon. Lady is in danger of becoming complacent about the Government’s policies, which, as has been pointed out, are resulting in an increase in borrowing well beyond what was predicted. Is there not a danger that the UK could become the target of those who want to speculate on rising debt? We need a change of policy internationally, as was suggested earlier, to prevent the entire world economy from falling into a cycle of more depression, recession and less growth. That is the answer. She should not be complacent about the situation in the UK as a result of the Government’s policies, which are leading to increased borrowing.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and he is absolutely right to say that there is more borrowing than we had anticipated. However, the amount of borrowing will be going down year on year. I am sure that my colleagues on the Front Bench would agree with me that we cannot get out of a debt crisis by borrowing more. At some stage we have to start actually paying the money back. The UK is borrowing at low rates—we have that confidence. Let us just imagine how many more jobs would be lost and how many more people would be suffering if we were borrowing at 32%—that is, if we were in one of those dark places.
The motion starts with the usual party knockabout. For example, we are supposedly “choking off” growth and
“failing to use strategically procurement and other tools to drive growth and innovation”.
However, it is not true that we have failed in that respect. We have cut corporation tax, and by the end of this Parliament we aim to create the most competitive corporate tax system in the G20. Research and development credits will rise by 200% this year and 225% next year. Then there is regulation. We have scrapped the proposals that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) was talking about, with savings to business currently amounting to £350 million a year. Whatever we did in our little Committee, it never amounted to that sort of saving. We have also introduced a moratorium on new regulation for micro-businesses.
Then there is technology and innovation centres, and so on—I do not have time to say much more in five minutes.
The exemption for micro-businesses is a key development from this Government. Does my hon. Friend think that some of the arrogance of Opposition Members comes from their never having worked in a small business, and that that absence of business experience is influencing their views?
I would not dream of criticising Opposition Members. I know that quite a number of them have run their own businesses—micro-businesses and bigger businesses, too—but I also give our Government credit for coming up with that exemption, because it is an important source of help at a difficult time.
Finance has been a big issue. We have not got it right yet: there is more lending, but we still need to do more. We have continued the enterprise finance guarantee scheme and the programme of enterprise capital funds. We are also encouraging a more enabling environment for business angel investment, taking forward a package of investment readiness through a network of growth hubs. Then there is the bank-led £1.5 billion business growth fund, to provide funding of £2 million to £10 million for small and medium-sized businesses with strong growth potential. What is more, as I am sure even the Opposition would concede, we have not failed to use strategic tools to bring forward growth. Indeed, a number of those strategic moves are ones that Labour introduced.
After the knockabout we come to the constructive part of the motion, which is very welcome; indeed, I agree with some of it. However, the plan to levy a £2 billion tax on bank bonuses—this week it is to fund 100,000 jobs for young people and 25,000 more affordable homes—is a nice idea, but as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, it is just not practical. We are already taxing banks every year to the tune of £2.5 billion, on the basis of the banks’ balance sheets. That is more than the Labour party raised with its £2 billion bankers’ bonus tax—a move that the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) has already admitted has “failed”.
Opposition colleagues also suggest reversing the VAT rise for a temporary period. That is great, but how are they going to pay for it? What other cuts will they make instead? Is this part of their slowdown programme—their “not too far, not too fast” agenda, which has so spectacularly failed in America, whose credit rating has been downgraded and whose debt is now $15 trillion? The motion calls on us
“to bring forward long-term…projects to get people back to work”.
I totally agree with that—who would not?—and I hope to see more strategies that complement the things that we are already doing, such as the Green investment bank, the green deal, house building, the growing places fund, and so on. I would also like the council house building programme to be brought forward before we receive the receipts from the sale of 100,000 council houses. Why wait? Let us build those houses now.
I also agree with the suggestion of a one-year cut in VAT on home improvements, repairs and maintenance. The Treasury is losing many millions of pounds in revenue because of a growing black market involving private customers and small businesses paying cash for jobs done in their homes. The one-year national insurance tax break to help small businesses grow and create jobs is a great idea—one for which I have lobbied for some time. However, as a start, and to make it more affordable, why not introduce it for small businesses? I would greatly like to see—
It is easy to launch into a debate about the macro policy, but we all represent individual businesses. The most frustrating thing for our electors, whatever seat we represent, is the gap between Government policy and rhetoric, and the reality on the ground. I would like to use three businesses in my constituency to illustrate the way in which Government policy is damaging growth.
The first businessman, who should remain anonymous, is a local plumber, known to Members in all parts of the House because he has replaced many MPs’ bathrooms. He faces a dilemma because of the increase in VAT to 20%. After 40 years in the industry, he tells me that the increase has become a psychological barrier for many customers, as they are immediately able to work out the amounts involved. People understand what they are paying much more than they do when the rate is 15% or 17.5%. He is afraid that the VAT increase is a double whammy for the economy. First, there will be more VAT avoidance and the tax take will fall, thereby making it harder to reduce the deficit. Secondly, the increase will lead to people not doing jobs around their homes, which will stifle economic growth. The Opposition have said that we want to reverse the VAT rise and have a one-year cut to 5% on home improvements. I strongly believe that we should analyse the impact of the VAT increase on small businesses, in the long-term financial interests of the country.
The second concern is about banks’ lending policies. Terry Withers, of Admiral Scaffolding, a company of 20 years’ standing, says that Government-backed RBS refused to let the business go overdrawn by just £5,000, even though it was the first time he had ever asked for an overdraft and the business had uncleared cheques going through its account worth £26,000. The company was also refused a loan that would have seen it convert all its vehicles to the latest green technology and expand its scaffolding kit, which in turn would have allowed it to increase the number of people it employs from 100 to 140. Mr Withers says that he is exactly the sort of business man who has lost out because of the failure of the Government’s Project Merlin.
In the first three quarters of the year, over half the SMEs applying for an overdraft for the first time were refused. A few months ago, when I took up the case of another business in a similar position, the Merton chamber of commerce told me that local firms were pessimistic about the future because of constraints on their working capital and the difficulty of raising finances. No wonder the CBI has found that almost two thirds of business leaders are considering changing their work force plans. The truth is that, so far, the Government have been unable to make the banks lend—that includes even our own banks, such as RBS—and when the banks refuse, direct Government help is pitiful.
My third case concerns Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. I would like to take this opportunity to voice my anger about its disgraceful attitude when dealing with MPs’ casework. I have always had difficulties in dealing with HMRC. In the most recent case, which was brought to my attention by Simon Walker of SPS Timber, a window manufacturer and replacement company in my constituency, I wrote to HMRC in August. It wrote back nearly four weeks later to say that it hoped to reply to me by November. Then when the reply came it was full of inaccuracies. The issue concerned HMRC’s penalties for late cheques for payroll. Mr Walker says that HMRC had not told him of the penalties. He argues that those penalties are a false economy, as they could be the breaking point for some small firms.
HMRC’s reply described a letter allegedly sent to Mr Walker in May, even though Mr Walker says that he keeps all his correspondence and has received nothing. My visit to his business showed him to be an assiduous record-keeper. HMRC admits to not having any record of the letter it sent him. HMRC claims that it spoke to a “Catherine Walker” about this in October, but nobody of that name works for the company, and in any case this was months after the penalties were charged. My telephone conversations have been just as infuriating. I am sure I am not the only Member who finds HMRC utterly unsatisfactory.
My hon. Friend may recall that the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said a few moments ago that we were arrogant in raising these issues, but she is absolutely right to raise all the concerns of our constituents. We do not raise them because we are arrogant, but because we see the effects of Government policy on our constituents every day. We know that the Government might be trying to a certain extent, but what they are doing is not good enough and it is not working. That is why we want action now to deal with people’s problems with tax and unemployment—and it must be more than what the Government are doing already.
I do not want to take up too much time because I know others have things to say. I am seriously concerned about HMRC’s handling of casework and I do not think that it has the capacity to balance its role in raising taxes with its key role in generating economic growth. I hope that we can explore this concern on future occasions. I am grateful for the opportunity to let the House know how my constituents feel.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this important debate. There is no doubt that growth and employment should be at the top of everyone’s list of priorities, and I know that that applies to this Government, who are trying to promote that agenda. This motion, however, does nothing to build on that. It is just more of the same from the Labour party—the party that brought us to the brink of bankruptcy. [Interruption.] It is the party that just loves to spend other people's money.
I think that the hon. Gentleman might have dropped his script. According to his own party, growth and job creation are not the No. 1 priority, which is deficit reduction. We absolutely support the hon. Gentleman in what he said, so will he start to put some pressure on his party to put growth and job security at the top of the agenda again?
I put the two hand in hand. [Interruption.] Yes I do. The Government have a cogent plan, but as I say, they have to deal with the reality that we inherited.
As I was saying, the Labour party just loves to spend other people’s money. We all like to spend money: it give us that warm glow inside, but I imagine that the rate at which Labour has spent money, and wants to spend it again, would give a white-hot glow. Labour Members do not even try to hide the fact that they spent all the money. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) informed us in his now infamous note that there was no money left. Again, it falls to us to clear up their mess.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked about problems at the Inland Revenue, but is not the truth that the botched merger with Customs and Excise has meant a vast deterioration in performance, which has affected many of my constituents? That is the fault of the Labour Government.
I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. That is another problem that we have to sort out by clearing up the mess left by the previous Government.
Despite what Labour Members say and despite the sentiment behind this motion, we are, I believe, making good progress. As we have heard, we are creating the most competitive tax system in the G20; we are investing in businesses to help them start up and grow; we are encouraging inward investment and supporting exports; we are investing in science and technology and creating a more educated and more flexible work force. Of course there is still more to do, and I believe we are doing it.
For example, today, my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary announced new reforms to employment law—mentioned by the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna)—as part of the Government’s plan for growth, which will cut unnecessary demands on business while safeguarding workers’ rights. However, if we listen to the instant reaction from Labour, we find that they would have us believe that these measures are anti-employment and the reforms are about making it easier for companies to fire staff. I believe that the reverse is true. The Opposition spend a lot of time trying to cast employers as the bad guys—as a group of money grabbers trying to get rich off the backs of the workers.
I would indeed agree with that view. I believe that all Government Members, and I suspect some Opposition Members too, would agree that the vast majority of businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, know that their most valuable asset is their staff. Employers need staff and staff need employers. The problem has been that in the current economic climate firms are cautious about taking on additional risk, and that often means being cautious about taking on additional staff. I believe that making it easier for companies to manage their staff levels makes it easier for them to take on staff. Knowing that the risks of employment have been reduced might well unlock the employment door.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the worst things for an employer, particularly a small business, is having staff who are unsettled, looking for other jobs and fearful for their own future, which is actually bad both for the business and the economy, because those people spend less money? The measures proposed by the Government will simply contribute further to that, and make the situation worse.
I agree that having an unsettled work force is not healthy, which is why it falls to business men to reassure their staff. However, it is possible to unsettle a business by insisting that it employ staff when there is not necessarily a role for them and it might be difficult to afford them.
No I will not, I am afraid.
Responsible businesses have, and recognise that they have, a duty of care towards their employees and will often put their welfare before their own. They will not take decisions that would destabilise an existing business. As someone who has run my own business—and, unfortunately, had to let staff go—I know how difficult those decisions are to take and how painful they can be on both sides of the divide. Businesses do not want to take risks with the livelihood of those whom they already employ, so they may not hire additional staff unless absolutely they are sure that they are needed and affordable. Trying to downscale later could be costly and time-consuming, so they avoid the risk.
The proposals announced today might well help employers to make the decision to hire earlier, thus stimulating employment and growth, especially in small and medium-sized enterprises. If each one were to employ one additional member of staff, we would have an employment deficit. This will build on what has already been achieved in the last 18 months, with 500,000 new private sector jobs, more than 500,000 new businesses created, the manufacturing sector growing and our credit rating restored.
Labour Members would have us believe that they left us with some golden economic legacy, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the 13 years they were in power unemployment rose, workless households rose, and households where no one had ever worked more than doubled. Unfortunately, we also saw youth unemployment, which we all accept is a problem when it has risen to nearly 1 million. That is why I welcome the measures that the Government have brought forward, particularly in my own constituency, which has seen the number of apprenticeship places rise this year from 560 to 740.
The Opposition’s plan B is not credible. It just means spending more money that we do not have, because they have spent it all. It means borrowing more, and hang the consequences. It means saying, “Hide the bills, stop opening the post, don’t answer the door.” Well, that will not work. When you are in a hole you must stop digging, but we are trying to climb out of the hole that we are in. The Opposition’s solution means doing the equivalent of going to a payday lender to borrow and spend your way out of trouble. We all know what happens when people do that: they lose their credit rating, and that is a really serious problem which could cost this country many billions of pounds that it does not have.
The audacity and complacency of Government Members is truly extraordinary, given the present state of the economy. The headline figures for UK economic growth are deeply worrying. Growth is flatlining, and it is becoming increasingly obvious to anyone with any sense that the Government’s decision to cut too far and too fast is choking it off. We also know that growth began to stall before the effect of the eurozone crisis kicked in, and that even now the full impact of that crisis has not yet been felt.
The figures show that consumer and business confidence began to decline when the coalition Government were formed, at the time when the Prime Minister started talking about Britain being bankrupt. Was not the Prime Minister very unwise to make such comments?
Indeed. We also know that as a consequence of Government policies—and according to independent forecasts—it is very likely that borrowing will have to increase. That is having devastating consequences. Unemployment is rising, particularly among the young, although women are also being disproportionately affected.
The headline figures should concern us, but what should also trouble us greatly is the uneven way in which the consequences of the Government’s disastrous economic policies are being felt across the country. Once again the north-east seems to be bearing the brunt of the Conservatives’ economic policies, but this time—and I hope that this point is not lost on the voters of the north-east—they have the collusion of the Liberal Democrats.
The current unemployment rate is 11.6% in the north-east, but only 6.3% in the south-east. Similarly, the claimant count is highest in the north-east and lowest in the south-east. As I have said, the situation is even worse for young people. In the north-east, unemployment among young people increased by 106.3% between January and October 2011, prompting real fears that the region would return to the economic dark times of the 1980s. Yet this dire situation is so unnecessary.
Contrary to what the Secretary of State said—it is unfortunate that he is not present, because I wanted him to hear this—in the north-east gross value added actually grew between 1989 and 2008, as did GVA per head of population. That was primarily because money channelled through the regional development agency One North East levered in £9 for every pound spent—much more than the national average—and skills levels also improved year on year.
The first technology innovation centre, Sheffield’s advanced manufacturing park, was established by a Labour Government through a regional development agency working with the private sector. Such arrangements have been criticised by Government Members, particularly Liberal Democrats.
I am sorry; I am running out of time.
We know that the RDA helped to invest in a new generation of advanced technologies with expanding markets around the world, which greatly helped growth in the north-east. Through industry, Government and university collaborations, a number of sectors were identified in which growth should be prioritised, including the processing and chemical industries, automotive and advanced manufacturing, and printable electronics. Those sectors, critically, were underpinned by centres of excellence supported by the regional development agency.
Did the incoming Government seek to build on that? No. What they did instead was get rid of One North East, although it had extensive support from businesses and the community in the north-east, and what we have in its place is the regional growth fund, about which I shall say more in a moment. The loss of the regional development agency led to a loss of expertise in regard to the sectors that needed to be developed in the north-east, and a loss of what was necessary to support that development. In great contrast, the regional growth fund not only has less money but is not strategic at all. I am very pleased that a number of north-east companies have benefited from the RGF, although the Secretary of State must address the fact that getting the money through to the companies is taking a long time.
No; I am sorry, but I am running out of time.
The RGF along with local enterprise partnerships and enterprise zones do not by any stretch of the imagination add up to an economic policy for growth for the north-east, or for anywhere else for that matter, because they are fragmented initiatives with no local coherence. The RGF will not help to narrow the north-south divide, either. As I have acknowledged, a number of companies in the north-east have benefited from the RGF, and according to the Government’s own figures that will secure about 8,500 jobs, but in the same RGF round money went to the south-east to secure 30,000 jobs.
The north-east’s problems are compounded by the fact that the RGF money is not a sufficient injection to the private sector to enable it to make up for the jobs that are being lost in the public sector. To put the figure of 8,500 jobs in context, last month alone unemployment in the north-east rose by 19,000. The Government must do more, therefore. In the past couple of weeks a number of independent commentators, including the North East chamber of commerce and PricewaterhouseCoopers, have said that the Government need to do more to support private sector development in the north-east, and our five-point plan for growth sets out a clear way for them to start supporting the economy.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to bring a Welsh perspective to this debate. The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) is no longer in his place, but I must say that his speech was much more coherent than the Opposition’s motion.
When considering economic growth across the entire United Kingdom, it is important to remember that there is a Labour Government in Wales, and we can compare and contrast what is happening in Wales with the positive steps the coalition Government are taking in supporting enterprise and private sector growth. Businesses in Wales are crying out for the enterprise zone idea to be implemented in Wales, yet we are still awaiting a coherent announcement from the Welsh Assembly. We in Wales have a Labour Minister for enterprise and the economy who has stated that she regrets capitalism. It is therefore no surprise that the Institute of Directors and other organisations have stated they feel that there is no partnership with the Labour Assembly Government and that Labour rejects, rather than embraces, the private sector.
Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that there is a symbiotic relationship between the public and private sectors? If we cut one, the other bleeds. What is needed at present is a transfusion for the private sector, which is part of Labour’s five-point plan.
If what we are seeing in Wales is an example of Labour economic thinking, I am very pleased that it is in opposition in the rest of the United Kingdom. The truth of the matter is that the Labour party in Wales has shown across the generations a failure to understand the importance of supporting enterprise.
Not at the moment, as I wish to finish the point I am making. The valley communities in Wales have suffered extremely badly not just for 10 or 15 years, but over a period of 30, 40 and 50 years, and it is fair to point out that throughout that entire time they have, unfortunately, been electing Labour councillors, Labour MPs and Labour Assembly Members. There was a fantastic business support programme in the south Wales valleys called the heads of the valleys innovation programme. It was such a good programme that in 2010 it won the award for the most successful enterprise support programme in the entire United Kingdom. What did the Labour Administration in Cardiff do? They cut its funding, and that was the end of an organisation that had supported hundreds of businesses and protected more than 4,000 jobs in some of the most deprived communities in the United Kingdom. It was cut because it was supporting private enterprise, which the Labour party does not understand or embrace.
Despite the fact that the motion, in general, is incoherent, I want to follow up a few points. In my constituency, we are extremely dependent on tourism, which is a major driver of growth in north Wales. It is imperative, in my view, that that sector is supported. I should point out that under pressure the Welsh Assembly has finally acknowledged that the sector deserves support, but initially the Welsh Assembly Government stated that tourism deserved no support whatsoever.
My concern about tourism is that as a coalition Government we stress the need to create a competitive tax regime for our businesses but in Europe other countries are significantly reducing VAT on tourism. It is important that we have a level playing field and I ask the Secretary of State to consider discussing the issue with the Treasury to ensure that tourism in Wales can benefit from similar VAT rates to those in other parts of Europe, including Ireland and France. There are reports to which I have access that state that the multiplier effect of making such cuts would be financially beneficial to the Treasury.
The other issue that is imperative for growth in the economy is support for small businesses. It is all very well to say that there will be a cut in the corporation tax rate, but most of the new start-up businesses that are creating real employment in my constituency will be sole traders and partnerships. Obviously, they will benefit from the increase in personal allowances, but a key issue that creates a problem for them is the VAT registration threshold. Nobody denies that the UK has a very high VAT registration threshold at £73,000, but that is not my complaint. As businesses grow and start to reach the threshold, they find themselves on a cliff edge. If they go over that level, they have to register for VAT and lose a significant part of their profitability. We need to reconsider the VAT threshold to support small businesses.
I understand that we are running out of time in the debate, so I shall leave that issue with the Secretary of State. To support small businesses in my constituency, we need to consider the VAT threshold and how it interacts with profitability.
I thank all those who have participated in today’s debate. On this side, we heard sparkling presentations from my hon. Friends the Members for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). We heard interesting contributions from Members on the other side of the House, too, including a speech from the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who appears to give our five-point plan two out of five, and a particularly stimulating speech from the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller)—I do not think, however, that it will put him on the Secretary of State’s Christmas card list.
It is clear that for businesses, councils and communities across England, this has been a wasted and frustrated year for growth in England’s regions under the Department’s watch. It has been a wasted and frustrated year for the entrepreneurs and communities who have found their ability to grow and innovate stifled through the Department’s inability to present a coherent framework for growth or to stand up for their interests against other Government Departments. In all three key areas that are vital to growth—supporting the local enterprise partnerships, making the regional growth fund work properly and securing regeneration funding from Europe—the Department has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Time and again, the Department has failed to be the Department for growth.
As long ago as last September, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), felt the need to write to the Secretary of State to warn of the icebergs ahead. He listed the organisations that were anxious about the way the LEPs were being set up and the failure to make them more sufficiently business-orientated and he ended by warning that
“the danger is that the CBI and others become detached from this policy heralding likely failure in large parts of England”.
Who can forget that the Secretary of State himself famously described the process as Maoist and chaotic, while the former CBI director general, Richard Lambert, simply confined himself to saying that it was a shambles?
That should come as no surprise given that in June 2010 the Secretary of State went to the Northwest RDA, praised the work that it and other agencies had done and gave them assurances, only to have to confirm their abolition two weeks later after he lost the argument with the Chancellor, who wanted them axed. It was an early example of the loss of authority and dismemberment of decision making that his Department has endured ever since. BIS Ministers allowed a decade’s worth of expertise and local know-how to be lost almost overnight. Experienced RDA staff were let go before the LEPs were up and running and at the very time when they could have provided crucial assistance.
No wonder that even the Government’s growth tsar, Lord Heseltine, who heads up the regional growth fund, has come out and said that their hasty abolition of RDAs was a mistake. Not the least of the errors was the fact that this swept away all the informal architecture and channels of connection between business, further education, higher education and small employers that had been built up to boost growth in the English regions. We saw the cost of their hasty abolition when Pfizer announced the closure of its Sandwich plant in February. The South East England Development Agency had previously been able to act swiftly with a task force to help those affected to find jobs, but this time the Government failed to use that RDA even though it still had some people in post who could have given advice.
No, I will not because there is not time.
The Government failed to put Sandwich in the initial list of enterprise zones or to approve any of Kent’s first-round RGF bids. We saw the same pattern of help being denied initially and then an enterprise zone being hastily cobbled together when disaster struck at Derby with Bombardier and with BAE at Warton and Samlesbury. The Department is behind the curve and out of touch with events on the ground.
Back in February, the Labour Front-Bench team made six proposals to support LEPs, such as giving them first refusal on assets, providing them with start-up funding, giving them powers over skills funding, allowing them to form larger groups for infrastructure projects and giving them a central role in the delivery of funding from the European regional development fund. The Government’s response, however, was to block them from receiving assets or even acquiring them by deferred payment. It was only the broad support across a whole host of business organisations for our direction of travel that pushed the Government into a climbdown over their proposed fire sale of RDA assets.
The Government have given only limited seedcorn funding to LEPs—about £6 million for 40. That remains inadequate and the future of LEPs, especially for those without enterprise zones as growth vehicles, remains fragile. The Government have also failed to address other key measures that would empower LEPs and give them the tools to do their job—despite repeated calls for the LEPs to be given more powers. As has been warned by the Federation of Small Businesses and, more recently, Centre for Cities in its report, the Government need to get a grip of underperforming LEPs before it is too late. There are real fears that entrepreneurs and local businesses in LEPs will simply walk away if they simply become talking shops—as the Forum of Private Business has warned in its briefing today.
We have always argued on principle that money intended for the regions should remain in the regions. That is the stark contrast between our real localism and the Government’s sham localism. They preach localism but when they had the chance to give LEPs additional powers in the Localism Bill they funked it. As growth in the economy has flatlined, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has become progressively enfeebled as it has lost turf battles to the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Treasury.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills still protests that the regional growth fund will save the day but, as my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State has so forensically detailed, there is no more fitting emblem for its failures than the regional growth fund. Right from the start, the Department’s grasp on the fund has been feeble and flawed. In rounds one and two it was hopelessly oversubscribed, but the only response of the Minister of State was “That’s life”. Well, he should tell that to the consortia and to businesses. He should tell it to those who have had to wait an age for the cheque in the post. No wonder Andrew Neil said so memorably on “Daily Politics” to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, “The £1.4 billion fund has so far disbursed £5.8 million. Why is your Government so useless?” How many people does the Department have working on round two? The answer that was dragged out of them through parliamentary questions was that there are only 11 full-time staff working on the fund. We can do the maths ourselves. How long will it take 11 people to work through the 119 successful bids to the second round?
Small and medium-sized enterprises, which are a key element in growth across the regions, find themselves short-changed and unrepresented on a number of the boards. They are frozen out by the Government’s thresholds of £1 million minimum on RGF funding and £5 million on the business growth fund. No wonder there is such frustration. What is more, the growth fund seems to have hardly any regional input. All the decisions are being micro-managed by Whitehall civil servants. There is no regional consultation or input and no sign that local offices will play a meaningful role in the process. With the propriety of some of their decisions called into account, the Government have pulled down the shutters on the detailed parliamentary questions that we have tabled about the process and the conflicts of interests on the advisory panel. That is not surprising, as BIS presides over a scheme into which it does not put a penny. Despite proclaiming, as he has done again today, the number of jobs that will be created, the Secretary of State has admitted that they are merely going on their own estimates.
Despite the money that the Department for Transport has put into the growth fund, the fund has failed to look at new public transport projects or build on the importance of travel-to-work areas. The Government have abandoned the active industrial policy that, in our last years in office, we pursued, and that led to the successful carbon strategy pursued by One North East. Ministers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should have done everything in their power to unlock the European funding that did so much good and boosted jobs and growth across the regions, but in this, as in other areas, they have been sidelined.
Why have the Government produced the Growing Places fund like a rabbit out of a hat? Is it because even the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government have given up on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? Once again, there will be no BIS input in the process—only tanks on its lawn from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
England’s regions are full of people with ambitions and ideas about how to bring growth to their area, but the indecision and powerlessness shown by the BIS ministerial team has short-changed them and failed to rebalance our economy or provide a plan for growth. They have failed to stand up for the needs of local businesses, whether it is small towns in Kent or former industrial areas in the north-east. They have gone too far, too fast, in scrapping the regional development agencies and their collaborative structures, and become mangled in lost turf wars with CLG and the Treasury. They are like a rabbit caught in the headlights, petrified of the markets, but there are positive things that could be done for the fight. Roosevelt famously said that there is nothing to fear but “fear itself”, and Lincoln said that when the
“occasion is piled high with difficulty…we must rise high with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”
The Opposition understand that, which is we have a five-point plan for growth. We understand that young people across England’s regions are crying out for the opportunities that our national insurance changes will provide by enabling us to build affordable homes and reduce VAT to 5% on repairs. We understand the need for an industrial strategy, and we understand the need for new ideas, and then, by thinking anew and acting anew, we will save our country.
First, the previous Government inherited a boom, and then they bequeathed a bust and a massive deficit, so our top priority must be to deal with the consequences of that and keep out of the downward spiral into which countries such as Greece and Italy have fallen.
As my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Richard Fuller), for Solihull (Lorely Burt), for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), and for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) have argued, more than ever we need a plan to give confidence to markets, businesses and our people. This debate was introduced by the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna). It was his first major outing, and I thought that his speech was fair. It was better on structure than on presentation—but then again, I suppose the 11 advisers write the speeches; they do not deliver them. [Interruption.] No, I am a fan of the hon. Gentleman. It has become orthodox to say that he has been over-promoted, but I think that that is a welcome change from the self-promotion that has characterised his career so far. We can therefore be grateful that he is at the Dispatch Box, as he predicted he would be for so long.
The problem with the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members—in fairness, we heard some good speeches from them—is that they still refuse to acknowledge that reducing the deficit is central to any credible plan. We only have to look at the continuing crisis on the continent to see what would happen if we do not do so. To be analytical about it, the hon. Gentleman made a speech about cyclical problems in a structural context. The issues around debt and deficit in this country are structural, and they will not be solved by cyclical solutions.
The Minister seeks to give me a lecture on reducing the deficit. Can he explain why, as I asked the Secretary of State earlier, in the average of the independent forecasts, his Government are forecast to borrow more in every remaining year of this Parliament than we were under our more responsible deficit reduction strategy?
That was the ponderous exaltation of a basic economic fact: when tax yields fall because there is less growth than expected, and welfare payments go up, of course that is a result, but it is not a reason not to have a credible fiscal policy. The hon. Gentleman remains in denial, just as the shadow Chancellor remains in denial, but the OECD—
I am sorry, I will not give way. I usually do but I do not have time.
The OECD says that we have a £37 billion structural deficit and that it is the largest in the G7. It is not just about the Government debt. The hon. Member for Streatham must know that if we look at debt as a whole, we have the largest debt as a proportion of GDP in the developed world, with the exception of Japan.
No, I will not give way again. Time does not allow.
So, the first thing we have to do is deal with the deficit. The second thing, as the Secretary of State said in his penetrating analysis of this weak motion, is to rebalance our economy in favour of making things, selling them and exporting them. That means an investment in human capital as well as in infrastructure. That is why we have put so much emphasis on apprenticeships.
I noticed that, sensibly, neither the proposer of the motion, the hon. Member for Streatham, nor the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), who summed up and who has rather sensible views about these things for the most part, attacked our apprenticeships policy. They know that we have delivered the biggest growth in apprenticeships in modern history. They know that across regions and across sectors, we have shown growth in apprenticeship numbers. There is a great deal of discussion about this so let us get the facts on the record.
Apprenticeships among 19 to 24-year-olds have grown by 64% in two years, and among 16 to 18-year-olds by 29% in two years. They have grown even more among over-25-year-olds, but the biggest proportion of growth has been at level 3. It has been across sectors and across regions. The biggest regional growth—I say this to the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods)—has been in the north-east.
The third element of the strategy must be to deal with tax, cut red tape and bureaucracy, and support businesses to create jobs and fuel growth. Much has been said about what the Government have done in that respect. It is true that we have launched the growth and innovation fund, which is supporting life sciences, the creative industries, the hospitality industry and others. It is also true that the regional growth fund is doing that job as well. In the first phase the regional growth fund will support 50 projects and ultimately more than 150 projects. That will leverage more than £8 billion of private sector investment to create or safeguard more than 300,000 jobs. That is the simple fact of the matter.
Labour does not have a credible alternative. The Opposition’s five-point plan is rooted in a denial about deficit which would undermine confidence in business and in the markets, push up interest rates and do lasting damage to Britain. The Labour party inherited a boom. Its legacy was a bust.
The shadow Chancellor is not present, but his fingerprints are on the motion once again. He said recently that he cries at “The Sound of Music” and “Antiques Roadshow”. We all wondered why “Antiques Roadshow”. I will tell the House: he is wedded to the idea of an over-valued, tired out, worn out old Cabinet, and it is the one that he was in. The previous Government and current Opposition would be better taking advice from a singing nun than from the shadow Chancellor or the hon. Member for Streatham.
I urge the House to choose between the past and the future, between despair and hope, between fantasy and reality, and vote for hopeful reality by opposing the motion.
I now have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day. On the motion relating to Schengen governance, the Ayes were 461 and the Noes were 23, so the Question was agreed to.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]