I inform the House that I have selected amendment (g) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. I have also selected amendment (b) in the name of Mr John Baron and amendment (e) in the name of Mr Elfyn Llwyd for separate Divisions at the end of the debate. Those amendments may therefore be debated together with the Leader of the Opposition’s amendment. The amendments will be put in the order: (g), (b) and (e).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. For the benefit of the House, may I ask you to set out your application of the terms of Standing Order No. 33, relating to the number of amendments to the Queen’s Speech motion that are selectable?
Yes, I am very happy to do so, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I believe that there is a need to interpret the Standing Orders in a way that facilitates the business of the House in a developing parliamentary context. Conditions and expectations today are very different from those in October 1979, when that Standing Order was made. I must tell the House that I have studied the wording of Standing Order No. 33 very carefully. My interpretation is that the words “a further amendment” in the fifth line of the Standing Order may be read as applying to more than one amendment successively. In other words, only one amendment selected by me is being moved at any time. Once that amendment is disposed of, a further amendment may then be called. I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman—almost as grateful, I suspect, as he is to me.
I beg to move amendment (g), at the end of the Question to add:
‘but regret that the Gracious Speech has no answer to a flatlining economy, the rising cost of living and a deficit reduction plan that has stalled, nor does it address the long-term economic challenges Britain faces; believe that the priority for the Government now should be growth and jobs and that we need reform of the European Union, not four years of economic uncertainty which legislating now for an in/out referendum in 2017 would create; call on your Government to take action now to kickstart the economy, help families with the rising cost of living, and make long-term economic reforms for the future; and call on your Government to implement the five point plan for jobs and growth, including bringing forward long-term infrastructure investment, building 100,000 affordable homes and introducing a compulsory jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed in order to create jobs and help to get the benefits bill and deficit down, legislate now for a decarbonisation target for 2030 in order to give business the certainty it needs to invest, implement the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards and establish a proper British Investment Bank.’.
Thank you for your ruling, Mr Speaker. It is certainly in line with my understanding of the particular interpretation of that Standing Order, and I hope that it satisfies the Leader of the House as well.
It is an honour to open the final debate on the Queen’s Speech today, and to move the amendment, which you have selected on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. It is a Labour amendment that calls for decisive action and a stimulus now to kick-start the recovery, boost living standards and get the deficit down, including 100,000 affordable homes, urgent action to accelerate infrastructure investment and reforms to get young people and the long-term unemployed back to work, with a compulsory jobs guarantee.
The amendment also proposes radical long-term reforms to promote economic growth and investment in manufacturing, services and our creative industries by implementing the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, legislating now for a 2030 decarbonisation target to give businesses the certainty they need to invest here in Britain and setting up a proper British investment bank. It is a one nation Labour amendment, which stands in marked contrast to the complete and utter shambles we have seen from the Government over the past seven days since the Gracious Address—a divided coalition, out of ideas and running out of road, and a weak Prime Minister, out of touch and fast losing control of his party and his own Cabinet.
As I said in my opening remarks and as our amendment says, we need a stimulus now. We, the International Monetary Fund, the Business Secretary and The Economist all agree that taking action now to kick-start our recovery is the right thing to do. We should borrow now to get growth moving, so that we get our deficit down.
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that that very question was asked of the Business Secretary on the “Today” programme just a few weeks ago. He was asked by John Humphries, “So, should you borrow more?” Guess what the Business Secretary said? He said:
“Well we are already borrowing more”.
That is the truth—£245 billion more. I will tell you what I want to do—[Interruption.] I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. I want to get the borrowing down. Under this Chancellor, the borrowing has flatlined—the same last year, this year and the year after. That is the reality.
As I said, I want to see the borrowing coming down, and it is not coming down because this Chancellor has flatlined the economy. We have had almost no growth since 2010 and the result is that he is borrowing £245 billion more.
I have made speeches in the last two Queen’s Speech debates: I have said that there should be a temporary VAT cut, which would cost £12 billion. I have called for a national insurance cut, VAT at 5% and for infrastructure investment to be brought forward. If those things had been done, borrowing would be coming down now; under this Chancellor, it is not. The economy has flatlined and the deficit reduction plan has flatlined as well.
With the IMF here in town, what the Government should do is listen to the IMF chief economist, who says they are “playing with fire”. The IMF has said they should slow the pace of deficit reduction, stimulate the economy and get growth moving to get the deficit down. That is what the Government should do.
Is that the “borrow, borrow, borrow” advice that the shadow Chancellor gave to the President of France, whose deficit is well above the EU average and whose economy has shrunk by 0.2%? Is that the kind of advice he is giving to his fraternal friend?
The EU produced the latest growth figures today. The figures for France are disappointing. France has gone into recession. It is in the eurozone, trapped in austerity, and its economy is not growing. I looked at the figures today to see what French growth had been since the Chancellor’s spending review compared with the UK. Since the spending review in 2010, growth in France has been 1.1% and growth in the UK has been 1.1% as well, compared with Germany, which has had three times more growth, and America, which has had four times more growth. The eurozone is locked into austerity by virtue of those countries’ membership of the single currency. Our Chancellor imposed on our economy austerity that went too far, too fast, and what has happened? He has delivered the same growth performance over the last two years as that of the French economy, well behind that of Germany and America, where, as we now know, the deficit is coming down.
The hon. Gentleman should be congratulating me and the Labour Government on not taking us into the single currency in 2003. That is what he should be doing, but if he wants to have a debate about the IMF, this is what the IMF said in September 2011:
“If activity were to undershoot current expectations, countries that face historically low yields”—
such as Germany and the United Kingdom—
“should also consider delaying some of their planned adjustment”.
In April—just a month ago—it said:
“In the UK, where recovery is weak owing to lacklustre demand, consideration should be given to greater near-term flexibility in the fiscal adjustment path.”
That is technical language that means the Chancellor should slow the pace of deficit reduction, provide a stimulus and get the economy moving to get the deficit down. What do we hear from the Treasury? Treasury advisers, who a year ago were saying the IMF was on their side, now say that the Chancellor will ignore the IMF and plough on regardless with a failing plan.
I am glad to see that the shadow Chancellor is beginning to agree with our plans for regional banking reform with local banks. However, he would improve his banking credibility if he were to repay the £3 million owed by the Labour party to the Co-operative bank. Does he agree with that?
The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) has made some wise interventions in these debates. He said just last year that
“too often we are talking about the 50p tax, a tax which affects those on six times the average salary, rather than the taxes on the lowest paid.”
It is a pity his Front-Bench team did not listen to his views in this year’s Budget.
I want to make some progress, then I will take some more interventions.
This is not simply the Queen’s Speech of a coalition Government who have ground to a halt; it is much worse than that. At a time when living standards are falling; when child poverty is rising; when more than 950,000 young people are out of work; when, as we learned today, unemployment is rising again and is now higher than at the general election; when, as we also learned today, prices are rising four times faster than wages in our economy; when our economy has flatlined for three years; when overall business investment has stalled and actually fallen in the past two years; when, as a result, our triple A credit rating has been downgraded; when the Office for Budget Responsibility says that the deficit reduction plan has completely stalled; and when the International Monetary Fund is now in town saying that the Chancellor is “playing with fire” by sticking to his failing plan, you would think that the priority for the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Cabinet and the Conservative party would be to see what they could do to boost economic growth and long-term investment in our country. But no, it seems that that is not their priority.
We have already had a credit downgrade from one of the agencies, and the agency made it clear that that was a result of the problems that our economy has had in recovering. Is the right hon. Gentleman not concerned that if we were to abandon our plans, there could be a further downgrade? If we simply did as he suggests and opened the floodgates to more debt and borrowing, we would put our economy into severe crisis as a result of rising interest rates and a lack of credibility in international markets.
I ask the hon. Lady to reflect for a moment on the logic of her position. For the past three years, she and the Chancellor have consistently said that they had to stick to the plan, even though growth was low, even though the deficit was not coming down and even though living standards were under pressure, because otherwise they would lose the triple A credit rating. Now they have lost the triple A rating, but they still maintain that they have to stick to the plan. That is completely illogical. The credit rating agency said in terms that it had downgraded us because there was no growth in the economy, and that that was choking off deficit reduction. Sticking with a failing plan that is not working and that has resulted in the deficit reduction being stalled is not the way to keep our credit rating—if that is the Government’s objective. The way to keep it is to get the economy moving, get people investing and get people back into long-term sustainable jobs. Until we do that, the Chancellor is going to continue to fail.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for letting me have another go. I put it to him that he really does not understand the point about the credit rating agency in this context. The whole point about confidence in the British economy is that people need confidence in Britain’s ability to get out of the economic mess that his Government left us in. This is not about the absolute level; it is about market confidence. He must surely understand that keeping a very good credit rating is essential in order to have an affordable cost of borrowing.
I do not want to prolong this argument, but I must explain to the hon. Lady the term structure of interest rates. The 10-year bond yields are the accumulation of market expectations of three-month interest rates added up every three months over 10 years. Why are our long-term interest rates so low? It is because people think that short-term rates are going to stay low because the economy is flat on its back. People would have to be economically illiterate to think that our long-term interest rates were driven by market confidence at a time when we are being downgraded by the agencies. Our long-term interest rates are low because our economy is not growing.
I look forward to debating many issues with the right hon. Gentleman. The markets show confidence in this Government’s policy by keeping interest rates low. This is not purely to do with an expectation of where short-term rates will be; it is about confidence in the creditworthiness of the British Government under this Chancellor.
I have to say that that is a deluded view of the way in which credit ratings work. Let us not forget that in 2007 these same credit rating agencies were saying, “Stick with Lehman Brothers” and giving America a triple A rating despite all the sub-prime lending. That is the reality. The fact is that the credit rating agencies are downgrading Britain because our economy is not growing. That is the fundamental problem.
I will give the hon. Gentleman a bit of ground, however. It is true that the Labour Government left a longer-term interest rate structure than other economies. We had far less foreign currency borrowing and more index-linked borrowing than other countries. That helped, but the fundamental thing was that we did not join the single currency. In Spain, Italy and elsewhere, we see a currency risk premium, which relates to the central bank’s ability and willingness to stand behind sovereign debt. That is not an issue here. Our interest rates are low, and they have fallen because our economy is not growing. The market is therefore reflecting expectations of continuing stagnation. I am afraid that that is the reality—aside from the political rhetoric of the Chancellor.
In my previous intervention, I was careful to talk about the markets, not the credit rating agencies. It is the markets that count, because they reflect people investing their money. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the credit rating agencies got the whole of the pre-crash period wrong, but it is the markets we need to bank on.
Unlike the Chancellor, the markets do not pay a huge amount of respect to the credit rating agencies. The hon. Gentleman agrees with me on that. That is why, two or three years ago, it was so ridiculous for the Chancellor to say, “Trust me. I’ll keep us as a safe haven because I’ll keep the triple A credit rating.” We told him, in 2011 and 2012, that the plan was not working, that the economy was not growing and that the deficit was not coming down, but when we told him to change course, he said, “I can’t do that because the credit rating agencies will downgrade us.” Well, they downgraded us anyway, because the economy was not growing.
I am not going to write our Budget for 2015 two years ahead. That would be the wrong thing to do. Right now, if the Chancellor had done what I recommended a year ago, borrowing would be coming down. At the moment, however, it is absolutely flat.
What have we learnt in the last seven days? What have we learnt from today’s Tory amendment about the priority of the Conservative party? What are Conservative Members demanding in their amendment? What are they rebelling on? Accelerated bank reform? Energy market reform? Housing investment? Infrastructure investment? Tough welfare reform through a compulsory jobs guarantee? If they want all that, they can vote for our amendment today. But no, according to the Tory amendment, the No. 1 priority that is so vital that Conservative Members are planning to vote against their own Government’s Queen’s Speech involves enabling legislation to allow Eurosceptic Conservative MPs to try to take Britain out of the European Union.
The Tory amendment states that those Members
“regret that an EU referendum bill was not included in the Gracious Speech.”
Let me tell the House what they should be regretting. They should regret the fact that, after three years of pursuing a failing economic plan, the Chancellor is still ploughing on regardless, even when the IMF is telling him to change course. They should regret the fact that, when calculations based on Institute for Fiscal Studies figures show that families are, on average, £891 worse off this year, the Government have cut taxes for the highest earners, giving a £100,000 tax cut to 13,000 millionaires. They should regret the fact that the Government have refused to use the Queen’s Speech to put in place the long-term reforms necessary for our economic future—reforms that I fear will not be in the spending review, either. The Chancellor and the House should regret, too, the fact that the Conservative party seems to have been hijacked by those within its ranks, including within the Cabinet, who are determined to lead Britain out of the EU regardless of the impact on investment and jobs.
I have not seen the figures, but I would be happy to study them—it is when it spreads to the Cabinet that there is a real problem. The hon. Gentleman should regret the 15% rise in long-term youth unemployment in his constituency, which was confirmed today. I have to say that this coalition was really not worth his support.
The shadow Chancellor is generous in giving way. It is a shame he is not the leader of his party, because if he was he would make sure it was not the anti-referendum party—I think those were his very words. The message from today’s debate and tonight’s vote will be that Labour is against an EU referendum and the Conservatives are in favour of it. To put the facts straight, it is not just Conservative Members or just Labour and Democratic Unionist Members who signed the amendment—a Liberal Democrat Member signed it, too.
I will read our amendment to the hon. Gentleman so that he knows exactly what we will vote for. We say
“that the priority for the Government now should be growth and jobs and that we need reform of the European Union, not four years of economic uncertainty which legislating now for an in/out referendum in 2017 would create”.
Let me quote to the hon. Gentleman the press release issued this morning by the Engineering Employers Federation, which knows about manufacturing investment in the long term. It says:
“EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation believes the current debate is ‘letting British business down’ with politicians making claims that the EU isn’t working for Britain rather than focussing on how to work to make it better”.
Let me set out further our position on this reform agenda, which has been set out in recent weeks and months by the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Foreign Secretary, the shadow Home Secretary and me. Instead of four years of uncertainty, our Labour amendment says that the priority now should not be walking out of meetings or being entirely ignored but arguing with influence to get the reforms agreed. These include reform of the common agricultural policy, tough new budget discipline in the European budget with stronger independent audit—[Interruption.] Conservative Members should listen, as I would have thought they agreed with many of these things. The priorities include reform of family-related payments to EU migrants, greater national flexibility in transitional arrangements, a balanced growth plan and a new growth commissioner, an end to the wasteful Strasbourg Parliament and more powers for national Parliaments.
Let us reflect for a moment on what the president of the CBI said just a few weeks ago:
“UK membership of the EU encourages large company capital investments within the UK, creating jobs and wealth that trickle down to medium and small company suppliers”—
the kind of trickle down we quite like. He continued:
“Departure would be bad for employment and growth across a broad business spectrum.”
This is what Sir Richard Branson wrote in January:
“An exit would be very bad for British business and the economy as a whole...The EU is the UK’s biggest trading partner, its combined market dwarfs the US and China. For that reason alone the UK must stay in to help rebuild the EU.”
He was right.
Let this sink in: Conservative Back Benchers, with the blessing of many Conservative Front Benchers, are proposing today an amendment that aims to break our ties with our main trading partner, blight inward investment into the UK and put at risk upwards of 3 million jobs. Let it sink in, too, that the leader of the Conservative party, the Prime Minister of our country is not just too weak to do anything about it—he is caving in, day by day, to their demands.
I want us to stay in the European Union; I am absolutely clear about that. Our amendment is absolutely clear, too, about the effect of an in/out referendum announced now. I am going to quote someone, which might go down well with the hon. Gentleman but perhaps not so well with some Conservative Members. Lord Heseltine said:
“To commit to a referendum about a negotiation that hasn’t begun, on a timescale you cannot predict, on an outcome that’s unknown, where Britain’s appeal as an inward investment market would be the centre of the debate, seems to me like an unnecessary gamble”.
My answer to the question of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) is that we will not take that unnecessary gamble now. It would be the wrong thing to do. This is exactly the same position as the one the Prime Minister and the Chancellor joined us in the Lobby to vote against in October 2011. How things change!
Let us remind ourselves of what the Prime Minister told the Conservative party conference in 2006; it is worth reading the whole quote so we can understand its full impact:
“For too long, we were having a different conversation. Instead of talking about the things that most people care about, we talked about what we cared about most. While parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life—we were banging on about Europe.”
His party has certainly been banging on about Europe day after day over the last week—banging the nails in the coffin of Tory modernisation and in the coffin of this Prime Minister’s prime ministership, too.
We should not forget that this is the Prime Minister who last summer rejected calls for an in/out referendum. Then, just three months ago in his much-heralded Europe speech, the Prime Minister pulled his referendum stunt—a Europe speech to wrong-foot Labour and UKIP and unite the Conservative party. This is how The Independent reported Downing street’s gleeful boasting back in January.
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what The Independent said about Downing street; then we can reflect on it together in a few moments. It said:
“They judged that, to calm the fractious Tory pack, they had to split off the hardliners who want to leave the EU from pragmatic Eurosceptics...They also needed to unite the Tories at the next election and reduce the threat from the UK Independence Party...The best way, they calculated, would be to promise an ‘in/out’ referendum after 2015. The trick seems to have worked”,
the article concluded,
“at least in the short term.”
Downing street claimed the speech took six months to formulate; it has taken just three months to unravel. We have seen Tory Back Benchers last week defying the Prime Minister to vote against the Queen’s Speech; former Tory Chancellors openly calling for Britain to leave the European Union; serving Cabinet Ministers joining the chorus at the weekend, saying they would vote for Britain to leave the EU now; and the embarrassing spectacle and truly ludicrous sight of a British Prime Minister in Washington negotiating an EU-US trade deal, while back home members of his own Cabinet say they would vote to exclude Britain from its benefits.
Then, on Monday night, we heard the Prime Minister’s panic announcement that he would, after all, publish a draft referendum Bill—not as Prime Minister, but as leader of the Tory party—only to be told by his own Back Benchers the next morning that it was not good enough because the public did not trust him, and they did not trust him either. This is really what it means for a Prime Minister to be “in office, but not in power”. It is not John Major all over again; it is much worse than that, because at least he tried to stand up to the Eurosceptics in his Cabinet.
I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman fundamentally misrepresents the amendment. Members in all parts of the House believe that the time has come to give the British people their say on our relationship with the European Union. May I put this question to the right hon. Gentleman? Why does he not trust the British people on the issue?
I will answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question most directly, provided he promises to answer my question most directly. My answer to his question is that if the referendum were held tomorrow, I would vote “out”, but I support the Prime Minister in his idea of holding a referendum in 2017. If he can successfully renegotiate and re-engineer an EU based on trade and not on politics, that will be a different kettle of fish, and we will judge it at the time.
May I now return to my question to the right hon. Gentleman? He has ducked it, and that is what gives politicians a bad name outside this place. Why will he not give the electorate their say on this issue?
For precisely the reason that I gave in an earlier answer—and I have to say that I am not sure that the public like to hear us repeating ourselves.
Let me quote the words of another business organisation, London First. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] I will answer the question. London First—[Interruption.] London First—
No wonder the Prime Minister has gone to America, Madam Deputy Speaker, if that is what he has to put up with.
Let me quote the words of London First—[Interruption]—which is my answer.
“The announcement that a referendum on our membership of the EU may be held in a few years’ time, dependent on the result of the next General Election, risks condemning the UK economy to several years of further uncertainty.”
London First is completely right. We can see why the Prime Minister is so worried. If that is the kind of support he has, no wonder he is in trouble.
We have just had an exchange in the Chamber, Madam Deputy Speaker, in which I directly answered a question in return for the Chancellor’s directly answering mine. [Hon. Members: “Shadow Chancellor.”] I mean the shadow Chancellor. He has refused to answer my question. Let me ask it one more time. Why is he denying the British public their say on Europe?
I am the shadow Chancellor, not the Chancellor—at least for now.
I have answered the question, but I will answer it again. We do not believe that a referendum now is the right priority. The hon. Gentleman asked me why, and I have answered the question. I have answered the question because, actually, I agree with him. This is what he said last year:
“Austerity can only do so much. Longer term, the better solution is greater competitiveness and economic growth.”
I think that the priority now, in the Queen’s Speech, should be for the Government to act on economic growth, short-term and long-term. Hanging a sign above our door saying, “For the next four years, Britain is closed for business”, would be a very, very foolish thing to do.
I thank the shadow Chancellor for giving way. He is being gracious, if nothing else. However, he still has not answered the question. Why will he not support the concept of trusting the British people to make up their minds on this, say, in 2017? Does he support that position?
I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question. For us to join him, or the Prime Minister, in committing ourselves now to a referendum four years ahead would lead to lost investment and lost jobs, and would be the wrong priority for Britain. Our amendment makes it absolutely clear that we disagree with that strategy.
If there were a treaty change that altered the balance of powers, we would support a referendum. I think it important for us to listen to and understand people’s concerns about Europe, and show that we can reform. I must say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that we will not get the reform that we need by walking out of the room in a flounce, as our Prime Minister did in December 2011. That was one of the worst pieces of statesmanship we have seen for many years.
In order to be a member of the European economic area outside the European Union, would we not still have to pay a membership fee and accept most of the rules and regulations coming from Brussels? Would we not also lose our seat on the Commission, lose our seats in the European Parliament, and lose our voice on the Council of Ministers?
I have just explained that we do not support the idea of legislating now for a referendum four years ahead, for precisely the reasons that the Engineering Employers Federation, London First and Lord Heseltine have set out and I have set out in our amendment, as have my colleagues. I think that it would destabilise investment and jobs.
As my right hon. Friend knows, today’s figures show that unemployment has risen again. He also knows that the EU provides 50% of our trade. In the event of our securing a free trade agreement between the EU and the United States, alongside bilateral trading agreements between the EU and other countries such as China, what does he think the impact of withdrawal from the EU would be on growth, jobs and trade?
In 1983, our party supported the idea of withdrawal from the European Community, as it was at the time, but the Conservative party and the Confederation of British Industry agreed that it would cost 2.5 million jobs. Our trade share with Europe has deepened since then, and our labour market is bigger. I think that upwards of 3 million to 3.5 million jobs would be lost now, because we would be turning our face away from those big markets around the world.
Many other Members want to make speeches, and I have taken rather a lot of interventions already.
Let me ask a political question that brings us back to the economy. Why have things gone so badly wrong for the Prime Minister and his strategy over the past three, four, five months? I think I can help. I have discovered a column that was written in January by the Chancellor’s cheerleader, the former Member of Parliament, and now Sun columnist, Louise Mensch. Straight after the Prime Minister’s Europe speech, she wrote that
“the sound we just heard was Cameron shooting Farage’s fox...This speech saw the George Osborne/Michael Gove wing of government triumphing over the Nick Clegg one...Canny Tories will take this and run with it...George Osborne is a tactical genius.”
There we have it, from a former MP whose one political achievement was to make Corby Labour again. There it is, completely exposed: the Prime Minister is the front man, but the tactical genius—the brains behind the Europe strategy—is the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
We all remember when the Prime Minister said that his Europe speech represented
“a tantric approach to policy-making.”
I have to say that from this side of the House it looks more like sado-masochism—and we all know that the Chancellor likes a bit of that. “'If it’s not hurting, it’s not working” has been his motto for a long time.
I have checked this, and, sadly, it is true. A rather more serious Conservative commentator, Mr Paul Goodman of ConservativeHome, confirmed on his blog back in May of last year that the Chancellor was, indeed, the brains behind the Prime Minister’s referendum stunt. That casts further doubt on the judgment of the Prime Minister. Surely by now he has worked it out. After all, his Back Benchers and the country have worked it out. This is the Chancellor who claimed bringing back Andy Coulson would be a strategic triumph. He is the one who said taking child benefit away from middle-income families would be a masterstroke. He is the one who said that gambling his credibility on our triple A rating was sound economics, and that cutting tax credits and labelling as scroungers 3 million working families—an average of 6,000 in every Tory constituency—was somehow good politics, and that cutting taxes for millionaires would wrong-foot Labour. Surely even the Prime Minister has worked it out by now. This is the man who last year gave us “Omnishambles 1” and “The Budget debacle” and who has now given us “Queen’s Speech 2”, “Omnishambles 2” and the European debacle as well. The fact is the economic plan has failed, the deficit plan has failed and the European plan is failing as well, and when this Government finally collapse in chaos, it will be this Chancellor who gets the blame.
That was certainly an odd speech from the shadow Chancellor. He called me a tactical genius, but those on his side are going around calling him a busted flush, and after the extraordinary 40 minutes of comments we have just heard from him, we can see why. The contrast is with a Government who are building an economy where those who want to work hard and get on are rewarded. The contrast is with a tax system that is being changed to support effort, with the largest ever increase in the personal allowance. The contrast is with a welfare system that is being changed so it always pays to work and benefit bills are being capped so no family gets more from being on benefits and out of work than the average family gets from being in work.
In this Queen’s Speech we have measures to help those who want to set up a small business and employ people through our employment allowance—which was not mentioned by the shadow Chancellor, but I assume the Labour party will not vote against it. We have measures to help families who dream of home ownership and to help them with their mortgage costs. We have measures for savers, with a Pensions Bill that will provide a generous single-tier pension, and we have measures to help those who want to stay in their homes and avoid the lottery of care costs, with our Care Bill. The only reason we can do all these things is because we are clearing up the mess and the things that went so badly wrong in our economy.
In every single year under this Government the rich will pay more in tax than in any single year of the Labour Government that the hon. Gentleman consistently supported, and the top rate of tax will be higher than in any single year of the Labour Government he supported. We put up capital gains tax so we avoided the scandal that they presided over—indeed, that the shadow Chancellor presided over—of cleaners paying higher rates of tax than the hedge fund managers they work for. That is what we have done to ensure fairness in our tax system, and that is what we are going to continue to do.
Let us look at what the Governor of the Bank of England said in his press conference this morning:
“there is a welcome change in the economic outlook…But this is no time to be complacent—we must press on to ensure a recovery”.
Yes, there was also the disappointing news that unemployment had gone up, but we also saw that the claimant count and youth unemployment had come down, and the monthly unemployment data were a lot more encouraging than the three-month survey. That is the reality of the current data.
Does the Chancellor agree that the key problem is that the debt:GDP ratio will rise from 55% in 2010 to 85% by 2015? The answer to that problem is not just to cut the debt, but to increase GDP. Under Labour, GDP went up by 40% between 1997 and 2008, and the Chancellor inherited a growing economy which is now flatlining because of his policies.
We inherited an 11.5% budget deficit that was adding to our national debt every year, and what the hon. Gentleman and the shadow Chancellor want to do is add further to borrowing. The shadow Chancellor was asked time and again what the cost of the proposals in the amendment the Opposition are asking the House to vote on tonight would be. He would not give that figure, but I will give it for him: it is a £28 billion amendment that would add to borrowing. He comes up with the ludicrous argument that by borrowing more, we can borrow less. That is why he is making so little progress with his economic argument.
This is what I have to say about the idea that this Government had some kind of golden economic inheritance from the Labour party: we inherited a situation in which Britain had had the deepest recession since the 1930s, the worst banking crisis in the entirety of British history and the highest budget deficit in the entire peacetime history of this nation. If that is a golden economic inheritance, I would hate to see what the hon. Gentleman thinks a hospital pass looks like.
The shadow Chancellor mentioned France in his remarks. Exactly a year ago the Labour leader could not contain his excitement about the economic programme being unveiled in France and about the red carpet being rolled out for him at the Elysée palace. “Chers camarades” is how he addressed the Socialist party gathering. He said, “What President Hollande is seeking to do in France, I want to do in Britain.” We do not hear much these days about Labour’s French connection. We still have liberté and egalité, but not much fraternité—although fraternity has never been a great topic for the Miliband family.
What we did not hear from the shadow Chancellor was his response to the fact that 1.2 million jobs have been created in the private sector, and that although, yes, our deficit is still too high, it has fallen by a third. He says we are borrowing more. We were borrowing £158 billion a year as a country in 2009-10, and this year it is forecast that we will be borrowing £114 billion. That is a £45 billion reduction in borrowing. None of that has been easy to achieve, and every single measure has been opposed by Labour. Not a single measure in its amendment today would help deal with that deficit, but our plan of monetary activism, fiscal responsibility and supply-side reform is delivering progress.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Last year, employment in the UK grew faster than in the US, France, Germany, Japan and the eurozone as a whole. Employment in the UK is now above its pre-recession level. Of course we must go on taking the difficult measures necessary to get our deficit under control, and make sure we support businesses that want to hire people to support the private sector recovery. The path being offered by the Opposition, however, would lead to complete disaster.
When the Chancellor’s party was in opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) took the credit, before the banks collapsed, for the economic prosperity, claiming he had created it when he was Chancellor. How does the current Chancellor answer that point?
The hon. Gentleman is saying that somehow we have a responsibility for the financial crash or for the problems in the banking industry, but he neatly skips the fact that not only was Labour in office for 13 years, but the shadow Chancellor was the City Minister. He did not have any old job in Government —he was the City Minister when Northern Rock was selling those 120% mortgages and the Royal Bank of Scotland was thinking of taking over ABN AMRO. He is the architect of the tripartite regulation, which failed so catastrophically. He is, literally, the last person to have any credibility on this subject.
The euro preparation unit was shut down by this Government in 2010, but the shadow Chancellor does not seem to know what Labour policy is. The Labour party is committed in principle to joining the euro. [Interruption.] The shadow Treasury team do not know what the monetary and currency policy of their own party is—that is absolutely ridiculous.
The Government have set out a clear and costed economic policy, which they are pursuing. Does the Chancellor share my concern that the Opposition cannot set out their costings, cannot say how much they would borrow and cannot even say whether they would back a referendum? The shadow Chancellor has been completely unable to answer any questions put to him in any straight way whatever.
The shadow Chancellor could not answer the simple question of how much the amendment he is asking us all to vote on this evening would cost. Surely he must reflect a little and realise that each year his appearance in these debates is a source of consolation and comfort to the Government. He must wonder why each year he makes the same arguments for borrowing but there is no improvement in Labour’s economic credibility. He does not seem to understand that the public think that Labour spent too much, wasted their hard-earned money and would do it all again. Does he not feel that he owes it to the British people to apologise for the mistakes he has made and the damage he has inflicted on their living standards? Should he not stand up and say, “I’m sorry, we got it wrong and we won’t do it again”?
The Chancellor’s point, “You can’t borrow more to borrow less”, is a good soundbite, but he does himself a disservice, because some of the borrowing undertaken by this Government has been very effective in reducing the deficit. Only yesterday, we saw 850 new jobs in Allstate in Belfast as a result of investment in the broadband network—that is 850 new taxpayers. Does he not accept that we can borrow, and that by borrowing and putting the money into the right things we can bring the deficit down?
I am all for spending money on vital economic infrastructure, including broadband, and all for trying to switch the budget more from current spending to capital spending. That is precisely what we are engaged in as part of this spending round, but we have to take the hard decisions on where we are going to get our revenue from or take the hard decisions on what we will cut instead. We are making a sensible switch towards capital spending.
My party voted against the tripartite arrangement. I do not have the quote with me today—I will send it to the right hon. Gentleman or ensure that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary has it for the wind-up—but the shadow Chancellor at the time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), warned in this House that taking prudential regulation away from the Bank of England was a massive mistake and that the Bank of England would not be able to spot the growth of debt bubbles in the economy. Tragically, that is precisely what happened a decade later, and in part the responsibility lies with the people who set up the regulatory system. Is it not extraordinary that Labour Members get up and say that the Conservatives said this or that, yet we are looking at the City Minister at the time? We are looking at the person who, before that, was the chief economic adviser who devised the system and who used to take pleasure in telling everyone that he turned up in government and gave Eddie George a letter saying that he was no longer in charge of banking regulation—that used to be the shadow Chancellor’s story, but he never talks about it now.
I think the country understands that we could not go on as we did, with a completely unregulated City, with bonuses out of control and with unjustifiable profits. The Government’s policy on taxation is fairer now than it ever was under the previous Government. May I ask the Chancellor, however, to address the matter of the housing market, to which he partly referred? In addition to the welcome measures in the Queen’s Speech, will he look into how we can increase the supply of social rented housing and deal with the fact that many non-domiciled people are buying property in this country, not to live in or to rent out, but to keep empty, forcing up prices for everyone, beyond what people can afford?
We are putting in place, right now, new guarantees—the first time that the Treasury has done this—for social housing associations to enable them to build more social homes; in the Budget, we also confirmed support for an additional 30,000 social homes, so we are taking action to help on that front. With our Help to Buy scheme we are also helping those who want to buy their own home in the private market. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should do both, which is precisely what we are doing.
As we learned with great interest, there was much in the Queen’s Speech that will affect employment, skills and manufacturing in our country. This is an important part of our country’s future. Can the Chancellor assure me that there is a unit in the Treasury—or a plan for the Treasury—to carry out an independent evaluation of how skills, jobs and manufacturing would be affected if this country left the European Union?
The estimated cost of the Labour party’s plans is £28 billion. Labour opposes every one of our spending cuts, so does that not imply that it would fund the whole lot by pushing this country’s borrowing back towards £150 billion? Is that why the shadow Chancellor is so reluctant to say what more borrowing he could commit to?
My hon. Friend is right to say that that is the approach of the shadow Chancellor. The right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), who is sadly not in his place, gave the shadow Chancellor some unsolicited advice last week—I think it was unsolicited. He said:
“Labour’s Treasury team need to get out on the stump now and work even harder. It shouldn’t just be left to Ed and Harriet”—
Miliband and Harman—
“to carry the heavy load”
on shows such as the “World at One”. We could not agree more, because it is fair to say that when the Labour leader appears on the radio—I am not sure how to put this delicately—there is a little confusion about what Labour’s economic policy might be. Ten times he was asked whether borrowing would go up or what his party’s policy was, and he did not reveal it. I will be fair to the shadow Chancellor and say that he is much more straightforward. He has a much clearer message than his leader: “Vote Labour and borrowing will go up. Vote Labour and welfare bills will rise.” Vote Labour and he will do it all again. It is not just the right hon. Member for Neath who wants to see the shadow Chancellor on the media more—we want to see him on the media much more.
Yesterday, I met the chairman of Fujitsu, which has just put £800 million into the British economy. He told me that his company had done so only because this country is in the European Union. He was, however, rather disappointed not to have had a reply from the Prime Minister after writing to him with that news. Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer not understand that his Government should be more interested in providing stability for business than in pleasing their own Back Benchers?
It is very good news that Fujitsu is choosing to employ in the United Kingdom. I do not see the hon. Lady’s intervention as a hostile one that has put me on the back foot; what am I supposed to do about the fact that international companies are choosing the United Kingdom as the place to invest and create jobs? That is a tough one!
I have to admit that the hon. Lady has a point, but let me come on to say something about the change that is required, including the change in the European Union, which of course is a subject of debate today.
It is true that for much of my political life and, I suspect, the political life of many in the House, the concerns about Europe have primarily been ones of sovereignty and constitutional power—not exclusively, but those have been the most dominant. Those concerns have not disappeared, but they have been complemented by economic concerns, and those economic concerns have grown. There is concern that the European prescription of high taxes, expensive social costs and unaffordable welfare is slowly strangling the European economy. There are concerns from business that directive after directive, regulation after regulation load costs on European companies, especially small firms, and cripple their ability to compete against new challengers around the world.
The crisis in the eurozone has created an immediate institutional challenge for the UK: as 17 member states attempt to take steps to save their monetary union, how can we change the EU to protect our interests and make it work for us? But the crisis has only accelerated an economic argument that was coming anyway: is Britain’s membership of the European Union right for Britain’s economic future? My answer, like the Prime Minister’s, is that if we can achieve real change in Europe and our relationship with the EU, then yes, it is. That is the renegotiation that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister seeks—a Europe that is more globally competitive and more flexible, a Europe that creates jobs and offers its people prosperity and accountability.
Is not the Chancellor exactly right? Is not his view shared by those on the Conservative Benches? I am sure the Chancellor is forced by coalition politics not to be able to vote for the amendment, but if he were free from that restraint, would he back the Prime Minister’s policy by voting for the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron)?
This is a coalition Government with a coalition Queen’s Speech, which contains things such as the single-tier pension, the Care Bill and the help for small employers, which will make a real difference to people across the country. Our view is that the best route to achieving what I know my hon. Friend wants to achieve is by legislating in this House. As the Prime Minister said in his January speech, we now have draft legislation for an in/out referendum on the EU. We have done it in good time for this Session’s ballot for private Members’ Bills. It is now open to any hon. Members who do well in that ballot to adopt the draft Bill that we published yesterday and take it forward as the basis for legislation. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, we will do everything we can to make it law.
A moment or two ago the Chancellor said that if the renegotiation that the Prime Minister has set out on produced fundamental change, he would vote to stay in the EU. What will his position be if the renegotiation does not produce much change? That is what happened the last time this was tried in the 1970s. Not much change is not exactly an unlikely prospect, given the attitude of other European member states so far to the Government’s stance.
I do not think the Prime Minister will fail in his negotiating effort. I do not think the Conservative party will fail in its negotiating effort with the European Union. Do Members know why I do not think we will fail in that effort? The Prime Minister pulled us out of the eurozone bail-outs when everyone said that was impossible. The Prime Minister delivered a cut in the European budget when everyone said that was unachievable. The Prime Minister vetoed a bad treaty when people said that was unprecedented. I am confident we can achieve that new settlement.
There is another reason why I am confident we can achieve that settlement. I see around the table in Europe—around the ECOFIN table, where I was yesterday— many countries as concerned as we are about the future of jobs and investment on the European continent, people who know that the EU is not working as currently arranged.
I will give way to the Scottish nationalists in a moment.
It was not this Chancellor but the German Chancellor who said the other day:
“If Europe today accounts for just over 7% of the world’s population, produces around 25% of global GDP and has to finance 50% of global social spending, then it’s obvious that it will have to work very hard to maintain its prosperity and way of life.”
That was the leader of Germany speaking. I believe that there are out there other people who also seek change, but above all, for the United Kingdom, because of the changes happening in the eurozone, we need a new settlement and I am confident that the Prime Minister will deliver it.
As our Scotland analysis papers show, Scotland would have to apply to join the European Union as it became a new state. I am glad the Scottish National party is taking part in this debate on economic policy. Perhaps we will get a clearer view from SNP Members, after the shambles of the past three weeks, of what their policy is on the currency that Scotland would use, should Scotland vote to leave the Union. We have not had a clear answer. Some members of the SNP have said that Scotland should have its own currency, others have said that Scotland should join the euro, and still others have said that they would negotiate a monetary union with all of us in order to keep the pound. There is complete confusion in the SNP ranks and until they have a clear answer to that, they will not be listened to on much else.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government are committed to what one might call a policy of negotiate and decide, although that has a familiar ring to it? Would it not help the clarity of this debate if the Government set out exactly what they intend to negotiate on? That has not been clear from anything they have so far said.
As my hon. Friend knows, and he takes a close interest in these matters, this is the beginning of a process of setting out what we want to achieve in a renegotiation, and in a conversation about that. Of course, we will then seek to achieve that renegotiation, achieve that new settlement—I am confident that after the election the Prime Minister and a Conservative Government will be able to achieve that—and put it to the British people in a referendum.
One of the things my right hon. Friend drew attention to was the problems facing our European neighbours and the challenges posed by their welfare states. Our action in getting on top of the problems of welfare, reforming welfare and making sure that work pays is key to dealing with our place in the world and making this country competitive. I draw a distinction between that and the attitude of the Labour party, which has opposed every welfare reform proposed by this Government.
My hon. Friend is right. There was a ludicrous remark—I do not know whether anyone noticed it—from the shadow Chancellor when he said that Labour supports tough welfare reform. Labour Members have voted against every single welfare proposal put to the House. The shadow Chancellor thinks the benefits cap is “too low” and that it is not set at the right level at £26,000. That is the problem. Any view of Britain, and any view of western nations, is that they need to do more to constrain the growth of entitlement spending and more to make sure that welfare pays, and to spend the money that they save on things such as infrastructure in Northern Ireland, broadband, high-speed trains and the Crossrail project under London—the vital economic infrastructure that our country needs.
I will give way to Labour Members in a moment if they can help me answer this question. What on earth is the policy of the Labour party towards an in/out referendum on Europe? The shadow Chancellor was asked that again and again. The question is this: do the Opposition rule out offering an in/out referendum at the next general election—yes or no? What is the answer?
Perhaps the Chancellor can answer this question. Toyota, just down the road from my constituency and the biggest inward investment in western Europe, came to Derbyshire because it gave access to the European market. Does the Chancellor think that, if an in/out referendum was hanging over this country and Toyota was thinking about investing now, it would take that decision to invest in Derbyshire, or would it take its investment somewhere else inside the EU?
A lot of those big Japanese car plants came to Britain under a Conservative Government who were offering them a competitive place to do business in the world. I am pleased to say that under this coalition Government we now export more cars than we import for the first time since the mid-1970s, and we will go on having a successful car industry because we have specific policies to back the car sector, but above all because we have cut corporation tax and made this a competitive place in which to do business.
It is six months to the day since the voters of Corby in east Northamptonshire delivered a damning verdict on the Government. The key issues in that by-election were not the preoccupations of the right wingers in the Chancellor’s Tory party, but jobs and health care in this country. But since the Chancellor is so keen to ask us questions, will he answer the question that the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) answered very clearly, which is: if there were an in/out referendum tomorrow, how would the Chancellor vote?
The policy is this: change the European Union, seek a new settlement, then put that to the British people in a referendum. This debate has revealed that Labour cannot answer the simple question: does it rule out offering an in/out referendum before the next general election? If it cannot answer that question, it will not be listened to on this subject any more, and people will be very, very clear that the only way to get an in/out referendum on Europe is to have a Conservative Government after the next election, so people should vote Conservative in that election and make sure that they have their say.
I think it implies something. [Interruption.] I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman did not argue with me, particularly if he wants to be called in this debate. That is a very dangerous route to take. All hon. Members would do well to moderate their language and participation in the debate to a more reasonable level.
To avoid any risk of double-speak, Madam Deputy Speaker, in order to make sure that we have the full facts before us, the Chancellor claimed that he was tackling the welfare bill—[Interruption.] No, no double-speak. Let us be absolutely clear that between 2010-11 and 2012-13, expenditure on benefits has gone up, because of higher unemployment, inflation and other things, by £8.1 billion. To avoid double-speak, will the Chancellor confirm that welfare spending is up by £8 billion in the last two years?
We have spent more on pensions, and we are proud that we have done so, and we have a triple lock on pensions and pensioners last year got the biggest ever increase in the state pension. As for other areas of the welfare state, we have cut welfare entitlements by £19 billion a year.
Let me conclude, because there is a five-minute limit on Back-Benchers’ contributions. We have spoken about Europe, but many of the economic challenges that we face remain at home. We spoke about banking regulation, and an important part of the legislative programme this year is the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill, which is a carry-over Bill. We are making the changes necessary to fix our banking system, ring-fence our retail banks and make sure that we deal with the too-big-to-fail problem. We also have legislation to support small businesses. It will not be the most controversial Bill, because I suspect that the Labour party will not dare to oppose it, but it will be of enormous help to our constituents and to many businesses throughout the country. Our new employment allowance will cut the tax on jobs—
We have to get the legislation because we need a national insurance Bill, which is what—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman had 13 years to do something for small businesses, and the only idea he came up with was to put up the small companies’ tax rate.
From next April, every business and every charity will have their employer national insurance contributions bill cut by £2,000 a year. It means that a business will be able to employ four adults on the minimum wage without paying any employer NICs at all. I know that the shadow Chancellor does not want to hear it, because his policy was to put taxes up on jobs. That is what he fought the general election on, and that is what he still talks about when people listen to him in his interviews. That is the point. The Opposition offer more borrowing; we are reducing the deficit. They want to increase the size of government; we want it reduced. They penalise enterprise and wealth creation; we support it. They would put a tax on jobs; we are abolishing it. While they would repeat all the mistakes of the past, we are engaging in the great economic challenges of the future. We are building an economy that will enable Britain to compete and succeed in the world. We are building an economy that helps people who want to work hard and get on. I commend the Queen’s Speech to the House.
Order. I remind hon. Members that there is now a five-minute limit on contributions from Back Benchers. I ask that interventions are brief and relevant, and those waiting to speak might wish to be a little conservative, or however one might like to put it, and not make interventions that would reduce the time available to them later in the debate.
The best that can be said about this Queen’s Speech is that it is inadequate on the economy. A pattern is emerging in the way the Government weigh the national interests on the one hand against the interests of the Conservative party on the other. From the outset, the Chancellor claimed that we had to cut faster and deeper than Labour had proposed, because only that level of austerity would reduce the deficit. It was clear then that the speed and depth of the proposed cuts were dictated by a political goal—a massive early deficit reduction speedily followed by economic success well before the next election.
The Chancellor was warned then that the scale and pace of that austerity risked the fragile growth re-established before the election, but for potential political gain he was ready to take a huge gamble with our economy. To that gamble he added self-inflicted wounds. He constantly told the British people, again for political reasons, that we were on the brink of bankruptcy, and so almost destroyed confidence. He made a fetish of our triple A credit rating, and then he lost it. He has hit our economy with a double whammy—greater austerity and, as a direct result, higher, not lower, borrowing.
There are three ways to cut the deficit: growth, taxation and spending cuts. The Chancellor made it clear from the beginning that he preferred spending cuts to tax increases, though his VAT increase hit everyone. Now he talks only about either tax or spending; he never mentions growth, because he does not have any. Meanwhile, other developed countries that have not followed his lead are growing while we are not.
The Chancellor is neglecting the opportunity of green growth. Potential first-mover advantages in green technologies are, just, still to be had, and with them new high-skill, high-value-added jobs, but unless the Treasury allows more ambition, those jobs will be elsewhere, not in this country. Meanwhile, his cuts increasingly come at the expense of the most vulnerable, justified by the rhetoric of scroungers and strivers. He justifies the bedroom tax as encouraging people to downsize, but the Government must have known that for many people there is nowhere to downsize to, so it is just a cut. If we cannot afford not to cut that benefit, as he alleges, we cannot afford to cut taxes for millionaires in the same week.
With the EU referendum omnishambles, what began as a gamble with our economy in the interests of the Conservative party has become the disregard of our economic interests. The Conservative party claims to be the party of business, but a key hate of business is prolonged economic uncertainty. Now we are telling inward investors, “We might leave the EU, but we’ll let you know in four years’ time.” Japanese, American and European inward investors all make it clear that they are in the UK because the UK is in the EU. Millions of jobs are at stake. A semi-detached status, such as that of Switzerland and Norway, means being bound by EU decisions without having a voice. The voice we have now is continually being weakened by the continued uncertainty about our membership and whether the Government even support it.
It is crystal clear to everyone, in this country and outside, that that disregard of our national interest has nothing to do with cool calculation of how that interest is to be served and everything to do with the interests of the Conservative party. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor are running scared—scared of the UK Independence party and scared of their own Back Benchers. As has been said already today, they are in office but not in power.
I would like to thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for selecting the amendment standing in my name and those of other hon. Members, and I would like to thank those Members who have signed it for their unwavering support. There can be no doubt that the nature of our relationship with the EU is of fundamental importance to this country, but the EU has changed since we first joined, and it is still changing. “More Europe” is the cry, and “More political and economic harmonisation” is the shout, but that is not why we joined.
I completely agree. I think that the political system has denied the electorate their say for far too long and that Parliament needs to understand that. That is why some of us on the Conservative Benches have been campaigning for some time for a referendum in the next Parliament. I am pleased to say that the Prime Minister deserved credit for listening. In January he became the first major party leader to offer the country a referendum in 2017. But we, as a group on these Benches, have also long argued that our commitment must be both credible and believable. It is credible because the referendum in 2017 has an “out” option, but it is not yet believable.
The British electorate, quite understandably, are deeply sceptical of any politicians making promises about matters European, particularly EU referendums. Too many promises have been broken in the past. They remember Tony Blair’s broken promises about a referendum on the EU constitution, which never materialised. They are constantly reminded about Liberal literature promising an in/out referendum, which never materialised, even when they came to power. That is why we on these Benches have also campaigned for legislation in this Parliament for a referendum in the next, not because we do not trust the Prime Minister, but because the electorate do not trust politicians generally. I would argue that we as a party are more united on this issue than we have been for a generation. We have all signed up to the referendum in 2017; what we disagree on is the best way of convincing the electorate of the seriousness of our intent.
It could well be earlier, but I am very content having a referendum in the next Parliament, because that will give time to renegotiate. However, that option does exist.
That is why legislation is more believable than election manifesto promises, too many of which have been broken in the past. That is why I very much welcome the party’s promise to support a private Member’s Bill, something that was not on offer when I asked a week ago. I also support the publication of the draft Bill yesterday. It just goes to show that a week can indeed be a long time in politics. However, the problem with a private Member’s Bill is that it is the second best option. We all know that a determined minority can block it by letting it run out of time. The Bill will fail, as so many others do, on a soggy Friday afternoon when no one notices.
That is why I urge the Prime Minister—I am pleased to see that the Chancellor is still in his place—to support the amendment. It provides him with a golden opportunity. If we were to win, that would provide him with the mandate to try to introduce legislation through the normal channels, which would stand a far better chance of succeeding. He should seize the moment. He could claim, quite rightly, that the situation was not of his making and blame me or us as a group. It would therefore be outside the confines of the coalition agreement. I must say to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that the Liberals would be very hard pressed indeed to refuse to give time, given that Parliament would have expressed its view and that of the electorate. Let the media then knock at the Liberals’ door to ask questions.
The argument that there is no certainty that we would win such legislation is weak. There is no downside in trying. We may well win. Some MPs on other Benches—honourable and principled Members—support the concept. Even if we fail, we will have tried. On a matter of this importance, political transparency is paramount, and the electorate could then take note.
As a group on these Benches, I hope that we have helped in a small way to move the party closer to the electorate on this issue, but it is more important than party politics. I encourage other Members to do likewise within their own parties. Were the amendment to pass tonight, we as a Parliament would be opening the door to the possibility of introducing legislation that would stand a far better chance of succeeding. It would take a majority to defeat that legislation, rather than the determined minority it takes to defeat a private Member’s Bill. I therefore urge Members across the House to support it. I urge my own Front Benchers to support it. I urge the doubters to put aside their doubts and support it.
For too long the electorate have been unable to express their opinion on the changing nature of our relationship with the EU. The political establishment have essentially closed ranks over the past 30 years and denied the electorate a choice. We now have a golden opportunity to right that wrong. We should be bold of heart, seize the moment and do what is right by the electorate, and indeed by the country. I therefore intend to move the amendment.
I will first say a few words about employment, particularly in the light of statistics released today, and then a few words about Europe. The employment situation in the UK and in my constituency is frankly depressing, and the figures released today by the Office for National Statistics emphasise that. Nationally, 3.8% of those aged 16 to 64 are on jobseeker’s allowance. Today in Knowsley the number of JSA claimants is 4,245, which equates to 6.3% of Knowsley residents, well above the national rate. Similarly, the JSA count for those aged 18 to 24 is 7.2%, whereas in Knowsley it is 13.2%. In my view, therefore, there is no room for complacency.
To be frank, many of the existing opportunities do not reflect the expectations of an ambitious country. Practices such as zero-hour contracts and the use by many high-profile companies of unpaid internships and agency work amount in many cases to systematic exploitation, particularly of young people.
There is growing concern about what is often referred to as the race to the bottom. In The Times a few days ago, the noble Lord Sainsbury of Turville was reported as arguing for a more progressive form of capitalism that recognises social justice and discussing the role that institutions could play in bringing it about. He also rejected the neo-liberal consensus of the past several decades.
Frances O’Grady, the recently appointed general secretary of the TUC, has mentioned the Prime Minister’s ambitions to erode workers’ rights. She said:
“'The Prime Minister wants to ‘repatriate’ those rights, and not because he thinks he can improve them”,
but because he
“wants to make it easier for bad employers to undercut good ones”.
Moreover, on the question of employment rights, Jon Cridland, the director general of the CBI, has said that the Prime Minister’s proposals would not be his starting point in any negotiation. It is clear that there is an emerging consensus that we should be discussing the quality of employment and the opportunities for people, rather than taking away the rights and privileges they already enjoy.
I am a Eurosceptic compared with many on the Labour Benches. I voted against the Maastricht treaty, because it removed the social contract. I am in favour of renegotiating the terms of our EU membership and think there should be a referendum at some point. It is not healthy for our democracy that the relationship between the political classes and the country has eroded to the extent that it has.
Where I part company with the Prime Minister, however, is on the sort of Europe that he wants to renegotiate, which is entirely different from the sort of Europe that I want to be a part of. I believe firmly that there is a case for renegotiation and that it should be followed by a referendum, but I certainly do not agree with the sort of Europe that the Prime Minister wants to bring about.
No, and the reason why I am not prepared to do that is because the hon. Gentleman and the amendment anticipate a different kind of renegotiation from one that I would support. I have given serious thought to supporting the amendment, but it is possible on occasion to agree with the words of an amendment while not necessarily agreeing with the sentiment behind it. I do not want to be associated with a proposal to renegotiate Britain’s involvement in Europe that differs from how I would want it to be conducted. The difference between me and the hon. Gentleman and others who support the amendment is not necessarily over its wording, but over the intention behind it, which I do not want to be associated with.
I hope that in the coming years we will see a different arrangement between Europe and the United Kingdom. I also hope that we can improve people’s working lives and make work pay for a lot more people, particularly young people. I do not believe that that is the direction that this Government want to take, and I hope that when there is a change of Government we will be able to make the changes that I want to see.
Successive Governments have spoken of localism and sustainable communities, but the reality has not matched the rhetoric in many respects. That is particularly true with regard to the loss of post offices and neighbourhood and village shops, whereby Government policies over the past 30 years have hastened their decline, rather than helped sustain them to the overall benefit of society and the communities that lose them.
Nowhere is Government failure more obvious than in the closure of thousands of neighbourhood and village public houses—the traditional English “local”—and the rise of mega-drinking establishments with wall-to-wall boozing and round-the-clock easy availability of alcohol, aligned with below-cost-price special offers in supermarkets, which has fuelled an explosion in alcohol-related incidents in town and city centres, making many people wary of going to them in the evenings and putting serious extra pressure on our emergency services, including clogging hospital accident and emergency departments.
There is also worrying evidence from health professionals of an increase in drink-related conditions and that this self-inflicted rise in alcohol-induced illnesses is occurring in increasing numbers of young people. All this adds yet further burdens on the national health service and it also, of course, leads to devastation for the individuals concerned and their families. It is therefore a huge disappointment that we have not been presented with a Bill to address the failure of the past 30 years.
Early-day motion 57 supports a campaign group—a coalition of organisations—known as Fair Deal for Your Local, which is calling, as its name suggests, for a fair deal for local public houses. The group comprises the Federation of Small Businesses, the Forum of Private Business, the Campaign for Real Ale, Fair Pint, Licensees Supporting Licensees, Justice for Licensees, Licensees Unite, the Guild of Master Victuallers and the Pubs Advisory Service. That is a worthy list of organisations whose views both the coalition and the Opposition should listen to.
The campaign’s emphasis is on a much-needed reform of the tied model operated by large public owning companies, or pubcos as they are commonly called. Pubcos take more than is fair or sustainable from the sales of drinks, which makes it difficult or impossible for many licensees to make a living. This results in the failure, on a huge scale, of pubs up and down the country, with a closure rate of 20 or more a week and the pubcos selling them as though they were asset-stripping property developers rather than custodians of our nation’s rich social heritage.
The following statement could easily be adapted as a Bill:
“The Fair Deal for Your Local campaign believes that the way to ensure a fair deal for pubs—and to deliver the Government’s clear commitment—is to include in the statutory code an option for tied publicans to only pay a fair, independently assessed market rent to the pub owning company—a ‘market rent only’ option.”
It is estimated that this would bring down the cost of a pint in pubco-owned pubs—around a third of all British public houses—allowing many pubs to survive and thrive. It would also lead to fairer access to public houses for small brewers, which would boost their businesses and increase choice at the bar. I would have thought that the coalition welcomed such measures. It must be stressed that all family brewers would be excluded, because the code would apply only to companies that own more than 500 pubs. This relates to pubco public houses, but legislative help would also benefit other neighbourhood public houses.
In commending the Fair Deal for Your Local campaign, I congratulate the excellent work of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who tabled early-day motion 57. I also remind the House of what I have said on this subject in previous debates. In November I said:
“We need to amend the tax levy on beer sold in our traditional public houses. We should have a tax-neutral approach to keep the Treasury happy and bring huge social benefits, including job retention and creation, rather than there being the loss of jobs that we continue to witness in the sector.
Most publicans of neighbourhood and village public houses run responsible establishments. Their customers should be rewarded, not financially penalised because of the irresponsible marketing carried out by supermarkets and mega-drinking establishments.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2012; Vol. 552, c. 429.]
I returned to this theme in the Budget debate in March, when I observed that
“there are mixed messages on alcohol tax and the coalition Government’s desire to tackle binge drinking and improve the health of the nation.”
I described the confusion caused by having a debate on whether there should be minimum unit pricing alcohol when the Chancellor was knocking 1p off the price of a pint of beer, and added:
“We need a variable price structure to help traditional, community and village public houses, which would fit well with the coalition Government’s localism agenda and the last Government’s sustainable communities legislation.”—[Official Report, 25 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 1362.]
Time prevents me from mentioning other Bills that I would have liked to be included, such as one on building council houses. The lack of council house building over the past 30 years under the policies of the Tory Governments led by Thatcher, Major and Blair has led to a housing crisis.
Unlike some, I will loyally support the Queen’s Speech this evening.
As always, I listened carefully to the Queen’s Speech with the intention of examining how the new measures would affect my constituents. I was also looking for measures that would ease the strain on the families in my constituency who are worried about unemployment and the rising cost of living. I was sadly and expectedly disappointed.
Before listing my concerns, I will place on the record a couple of observations on how we got into the deep economic difficulty that is causing desperate hardship for many families in my constituency. The fundamental error of this stagnant coalition Government was to assume that they could clear the deficit in four years. Their plan was to use the final year in office to hand out sweeteners to the electorate, who would be so overwhelmingly grateful that they would elect a Conservative majority.
Dealing with the deficit is the defining issue facing this country. However, that should never have been conditional on or linked to the outcome of the next election. That was a political fix that was destined to fail. Everybody could see that it was politically too far-fetched, except for the opportunistic Liberal Democrats who disregarded their electoral mandate and traded their principles for government office.
The UK economy is 9% smaller today than was expected when this stagnant Government took over. In 2009-10, the deficit was £159 billion. It is now forecast to be down to £121 billion. However, the public debt overall is rising from £795.5 billion to a predicted £1.1 trillion.
On any reasonable analysis of our economic situation, two significant themes scream out loud and clear. The first is the continual anaemic economic performance and the second is our ability to pay off the debt, which is becoming increasingly strained as a consequence of the first point. While those two heads travel in opposite directions, our economy will never recover. The policies simply have to change. It is time that this stagnant Government chose to put the national interest first and their party political interests second.
Ordinary hard-working people and their families are struggling. Rents and mortgages have to be paid, as do ever-increasing energy and water bills. Families who spent £600 a month to cover those costs in 2005 now spend more than £800 a month. We have record fuel prices and record amounts of people in fuel poverty. We have 1 million young people out of work and left behind. Lending to businesses is continuing to fall. We have soaring unemployment. We have a Chancellor who has to borrow £245 billion more than he planned, who has failed his own economic test of retaining our triple A credit rating and who, over the course of this Parliament, will have delivered growth of a mere 1.7%. Ordinary working people are paying the price of this out-of-touch Government’s economic stagnation.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. While we witness the introduction of the second home subsidy, the effects of the bedroom tax are being seen in my constituency, where an estimated 2,128 individuals will be affected, two-thirds of whom are believed to have disabilities. Citizens Advice Scotland has revealed that nearly 800 victims of the welfare axe are desperately seeking its support. Welfare recipients are an easy target, but we should not point the finger too quickly because no job is safe in this economy.
To get our economy moving again, we need investment—investment for jobs, investment for the future and investment in the ordinary hard-working people of our country. We have been treated to a more-of-the-same economic plan, with no change on anything of importance. The Government are cutting taxes for millionaires while cutting support for our economy. Led by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, this stagnant Cabinet of out-of-touch, upper-class millionaires has run out of ideas and run out of steam, while our country is running out of time. What a way to run Britain.
As a secondary modern schoolboy, I am always pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke).
In the regrettable absence of a debate on foreign affairs, I will use today’s theme to focus on the EU’s rule in economic growth. The British economy is not an isolated beast. It is part of a global economy and, in particular, a European economy focused on the EU. That European economy needs reform, but we need to be part of it.
Global economic success is to be found in single markets around the world. We should look at the economic growth in Brazil, Russia, India, China and the USA. What do those countries have in common? They are all single markets. The EU single market, an invention of Margaret Thatcher, which stretches from Athens to Oslo, is the largest single market in the world. We in the UK are 60 million in a world of more than 7 billion—less than 1%. Do we want to face the global markets alone or as a member of a trading bloc that represents 500 million people?
What is the alternative? Perhaps we could be outside the EU, negotiating our own terms of trade. Perhaps we could be an independent sovereign state, calling the shots on our own terms like Norway and Switzerland. Those propositions may sound attractive, but I disagree with the Secretary of State for Education, who says that life outside the EU would be “perfectly tolerable”. Norway and Switzerland do not call the shots. They pay billions every year for access to the single market and Switzerland has been forced into renegotiation.
We would have to renegotiate our own free trade agreements. The holy grail of trade agreements is an EU-US deal. We would look pretty dumb if we were leaving the EU just as it was signing up to such a trade agreement. Imagine the impact on our car industry, which exports five out of every six cars made in the UK, if it had to pay the EU import tariff on cars of 9.6%. Where would a foreign car manufacturer invest, faced with that situation?
The United Kingdom has a trade deficit with the other 26 EU member states of £70 billion. I cannot imagine that the EU would want to cut itself off from the British market by getting into a trade war with the United Kingdom. May I also point out that we export more to the rest of the world than to the EU? The EU is declining in relative terms, whereas markets in the rest of the world are expanding. Surely we are a global trading nation, not just a regional trading nation, and that does not require us to be a member of the single market.
I am not giving way.
The EU is not going to let us set up an offshore free trade island like Hong Kong, undercutting its industries. We will have to pay for access to the single market. The EU will dictate the terms of trade, and we will still be under the thumb of Brussels. I say to my hon. Friend that that is not gaining sovereignty, it is losing it. The plan to impose an EU-wide financial transaction tax is just a warning shot. As a member of the EU, we can go to the European Court of Justice and challenge it. Outside the EU, it would simply be imposed and we would just pay the tax.
I say to the Economic Secretary that his policy on the eurozone is spot-on. Supporting policies that will stabilise the single currency area and encouraging growth through integration is exactly the right approach. At the same time, we expect the Treasury to keep a watchful eye on the national interest in the single market. A good example of that is the agreement on the single supervisory mechanism in the banking union, which shows the clout that we still carry in the EU and how we protect our position inside the single market but outside the eurozone. He should continue with that approach. That example also illustrates how far we have come in building alliances inside the European Union since the veto in December 2011. Inside, we simply have more strength.
No one denies that the EU needs reform, and I am no great Europhile on this. [Interruption.] May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) that that sort of contemptuous laugh does no good to the debate whatever? No one denies that the EU needs reform. Primarily, it has to choose between being a social market economy and being something tougher. In his Bloomberg speech, the Prime Minister set out a course of action that recognises British Euroscepticism but keeps us at the table, using our influence. Within the EU, the UK will continue to thrive as a major player on the world stage and our economy will be stronger, but outside, I believe that the future will be bleak.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. This Queen’s Speech is important, sandwiched as it is between the Budget and Red Book, which we already have, and the forthcoming spending review, the details of which we do not have but which still casts a shadow over the potential for growth and recovery in the UK. The Prime Minister mentioned growth in his speech on the opening day of the debate, stating that the measures in the Gracious Speech would “grow the economy”. He also said that they would
“deliver a better future for our children…win the global race”—[Official Report, 8 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 28.]
and “cut the deficit”. Given the austerity programme so far, it looks like it will lead to 300,000 more children being in poverty by the end of next year, and the forecasts are that there will be up to 4 million children in poverty in a few years’ time. It is difficult to see how any of the measures in the Queen’s Speech can possibly live up to the billing that the Prime Minister gave them.
Given that the balance of trade has been in deficit to the tune of more than £100 billion for the past two years, and that the gap in the total balance of trade has risen by more than £10 billion in the past year, it is difficult to see how anything in the Queen’s Speech can live up to the Prime Minister’s description and do anything to allow us to “win the global race”, whatever that means.
Bringing the deficit down was another of the Prime Minister’s claims, but as the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) said, net borrowing was forecast at £92 billion but ended up being £121 billion. The cumulative deficit—the net debt—was forecast to rise to about 92% of GDP in a couple of years, but it is now forecast to hit more than 100% of GDP and about £1.6 trillion. There is a great deal of Government rhetoric about what the measures in the Queen’s Speech are supposed to do, but very little real evidence.
However, it is not as though the Queen’s Speech contained no growth measures. There was one potentially significant one—the national insurance employment allowance—but that was not altogether new. It was in the Red Book and budgeted to cost the Government £1.3 billion next year. It is welcome, but because the impact of the Budget policy decisions is to be fiscally neutral over the five years from 2013-14, the overall impact on economic growth of that one meaningful measure will be muted to say the least. It is worse than that, because any beneficial effect on growth of that sensible policy will be wiped out entirely by the additional cuts to expenditure that are anticipated in the forthcoming spending review.
It would use sterling. We have answered that question many times. We are speaking about the UK Government’s Queen’s Speech and how their programme for the Session will fail to deliver growth not just for Scotland but for everybody throughout the UK.
Let us be clear that the impact of the one good thing in the Queen’s Speech, the employment allowance, will be wiped out entirely if the economy is supposed to absorb the anticipated £11.5 billion of new cuts. That is the figure most commonly used for what is likely to be in the spending review. That will take the UK to discretionary consolidation—tax rises and cuts—somewhere in excess of £155 billion a year, every year, from 2015-16 onwards. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has helpfully provided some information stating that it believes the real level of discretionary consolidation could reach £172 billion a year by 2017-18.
The Government plan to cut £11.5 billion, in addition to the cuts so far. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), that will be added to the 8.7% real-terms departmental expenditure limit cuts and 25% capital DEL cuts in Scotland. It seems extraordinary that when we are looking for real growth, the Government seriously propose stripping consumption out of the economy to the extent of about 8% of GDP and putting an additional £11.5 billion on top of the £140 billion or so of discretionary consolidation that is already planned, and replacing it with only a single sensible measure, the employment allowance.
What the Government are trying to do is not doable. They are trying to cut their way to growth, which cannot be done. They are ignoring all the evidence that austerity is hurting across the board, and I urge them even at this late stage to think again about their plan. They should rethink not just the contents of the Queen’s Speech or what we are likely to see in the spending review in June but the measures that we have already had in this and previous Budgets. Those measures will lead, as Olivier Blanchard from the International Monetary Fund has said, to the Government “playing with fire” if they allow the economic stagnation to continue.
When I received, somewhat to my surprise, a telephone call from my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), inviting me to add my name to an amendment that regretted the absence of an item in the Queen’s Speech, I confess I was somewhat astonished. I think it a mark of the enormous shift in opinion that is taking place on what has for decades been a matter of fundamental consensus in British politics that we find ourselves straining the conventions and normal behaviour, and even the Standing Orders of the House, to accommodate this debate. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) that I utterly respect the sincerity of his views, and I was expressing no more than frustration that he would not allow me a spare minute of his time to explain the statistics on which I think this fundamental debate should be based.
I agree with the terms of the amendment and will support it, although I might not have tabled it myself. I doubt that some of the noise and discord around this issue has impressed those who failed to support us in the elections two weeks ago, reflecting a certain and widespread despair about the ability of all three main parties to keep their promises on referendums, which has become an emblem of the distrust in which so many of our voters hold the British political establishment.
Many members of the British public, whether they hold the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) or those of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and indeed myself, would like to have the discussion. We went into a referendum on the alternative vote with a discussion led by the Prime Minister, who was not in favour of it, and other Members held honourable positions on the issue. This is about giving the discussion to the British public, however they would like to view it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will not debate at length the quality or timing of an EU referendum, although I think that those who voted for UKIP and are likely to do so in next year’s European elections will not be impressed unless we make every effort to hold a referendum as soon as possible, rather than when it suits the three main political parties for whatever reasons we have to continue putting it off.
I wanted to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South that I have the figures from the House of Commons Library, and our total earnings from abroad constitute 44% of our GDP. We are a global trading nation and trade a higher proportion of our GDP than any other major European state. Trade with the EU comprises 19% of GDP, and 25% with the rest of the world. The rest of the world is the growing proportion; the EU is the declining proportion. Manufacturing is the only part that would be excluded, by virtue of the tariffs that were mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend, and manufacturing exports to the EU comprise 10% of GDP, and 10% to the rest of the world—a substantial and important part of our economic activity.
The point is that there is no evidence that we would not continue to trade that proportion of our manufactures with the European Union—incidentally, the figures are inflated by what we know as the Rotterdam-Antwerp effect because a lot of what we export to the EU is instantly exported to the rest of the world. We are regulating our entire economy and burdening our taxpayers with the costs of the contribution—rising to £19 billion gross—with our membership of the European Union. One hundred per cent. of our economic activity is burdened with those regulatory costs for the sake of less than 10% of our overall GDP.
I totally agree. The irony of this debate is that a lot of people in UKIP are saying things that are similar to what is felt by a lot of people who would like to vote Conservative at the next election. There is a majority in this country, and I think the Prime Minister was right to say that he wants a different relationship—a new relationship with our European partners.
This entire debate is conducted on the premise that membership of the single market is indispensable to our national interest, is it not? Those who say we must remain in the EU come what may believe that the single market is indispensable to our national interest, but here are the facts. I have already mentioned how little of our GDP that we export in goods would be subject to tariffs were we not to have a free trade arrangement with the EU—probably around 8.7% of GDP. The idea that 3 million jobs are dependent on exports to the EU and that we would lose them if we left is a myth. There is no substantial evidence that we would lose any jobs. On the contrary, if we had a freer and less regulated economy, we would probably create more jobs by trading more easily with the rest of the world.
The EU is in long-term structural decline and our non-EU markets are expanding. The UK enjoys a trading surplus with the rest of the world—with which we trade much more effectively—and we have a £70 billion trade deficit with the EU. The rest of the EU would therefore not want a trade war with the UK; it would not be in its interest. The idea that Ireland, or even Germany, would enter a trade war with the UK is absolutely ridiculous.
By the Commission’s own admission, EU red tape costs 4% of the EU’s GDP. The single market does not reduce the costs of doing business in the EU; it is a regulatory burden on trading in the EU.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am not going to give way.
The EU internal market has become an end in itself—it is a means of promoting political integration. We must accept that, in the minds of our European partners, the single market is indivisible from the treaties. Even if the UK were to leave the EU altogether and apply for article 50, the EU would be legally required to negotiate free and fair trade with non-EU countries, so we would continue to have access to EU markets. That different perspective, which voters and large parts of business are beginning to appreciate, is shifting the burden of the debate.
Are we doing the right thing in creating such long uncertainty by putting off a referendum until 2017? Should we not have the referendum much sooner to bring the debate to a head? Are we too scared of our own voters to face the truth?
I am delighted to have caught your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to speak in the debate on the Gracious Speech. I made my maiden speech in a debate on the Gracious Speech on 8 July 1987, following Mrs Thatcher’s third victory. I remember using an analogy. I said that the Government and the Gracious Speech were more of the same poison in a different bottle. I thought of that comment when I looked at the Conservative Back-Bench amendment. It is déjà vu, or Maastricht, all over again. If historians check the speeches on the Maastricht debate in Hansard against what we have heard in the past hour or so, I am sure they will understand what I am saying.
The hon. Gentleman has been saying exactly what he said in the Maastricht debate ever since, at every opportunity. It will surprise no one, including me, if he continues to say those things, but I am speaking to the reality. Some say that the Conservative amendment is a UKIP amendment. In fact, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) accepted that he agrees with a lot of what UKIP says.
I remind the House of something the Prime Minister said in his Conservative party leadership campaign. He promised the country and his party that he would make the Conservatives electable again, and get rid of the “nasty Tory” image. He travelled to the Arctic to embrace huskies, and came back here and cuddled hoodies. These are changed days. Where is he now? This week, with conspiracies going on behind his back in his own party in Parliament, he is away negotiating an EU trade deal. You could not make it up! As my grandmother used to say, when the cat’s away, the mice will play. That is what is happening to him.
The debate and the run-up to it are more like Shakespeare’s assassination plot in “Julius Caesar”. The big question is who will be Brutus. Margaret Thatcher’s political assassination in 1990 had nothing, or nothing much, to do with Europe, but we have the same modus operandi. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) pointed out in a speech two weeks ago, the Conservatives kicked Mrs Thatcher out on the street like a dog.
My hon. Friend is asking questions, but not pointing fingers. Does he think it was significant that the Chancellor made a very anti-European statement today? He made it clear that he is in line with the people who are calling for the referendum, and demanding we join them, while the Prime Minister is away. He may not be the great wizard, but he is certainly the great Machiavellian.
I do not disagree with that. The Chancellor is supposed to be the campaign manager for the Conservative party and he could well fit the title of Brutus. I do not want to accuse him of being a Brutus, because there are so many of them about. It will be interesting to see who is the first to stick the dagger in. I should thank the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) for having the temerity to speak up from the Government Benches in a pragmatic and sensible way on our membership of the European Union.
One of the many questions thrown at our Front-Bench team is whether they support a referendum. Hon. Members should not bother to ask me. I do not support a referendum on staying in the United Nations, I do not support a referendum on staying in NATO and I do not support a referendum on staying in the European Union. Yes, the EU needs reforming, but it can only be reformed from within. We cannot reform it and influence it from outside, and I hope that can be taken as read.
It is my judgment, supported by a considerable weight of evidence, that today’s Conservative party is so far to the right that it refuses to select candidates that are moderate, pragmatic or pro-Europe. There lies the difficulty. I started my younger political life being anti-Europe, but I accepted that the world moves on and I moved on with it. In the Labour party in the late ’70s and ’80s, it was difficult to be a candidate for a European seat without being anti-Europe. That is exactly where the Conservative party is now. The selection process is causing all the difficulties for its leader today in Parliament.
The hon. Lady will know that I always try to be respectful, but that is a foolish comment to make on such a serious subject. If she wants me to give my comments on the leader of the Labour party, I am absolutely delighted. I supported the leader of the Labour party, and I might point out that he is not doing badly, because we are considerably further ahead in the opinion polls than the Conservative Government.
It looks like I am running out of time. The Queen’s Speech should have been about stability, growth and employment.
Basically, I regard the whole question of having a referendum as fundamental. I led the Maastricht referendum campaign, and the question now is about the same fundamental questions we were addressing then. This is the problem: nothing has changed, but much has got worse. The real problem is one of urgency. This is not just about an abstract theory of sovereignty; it is about the economy, who governs Britain and whether we can achieve economic growth, which is what the debate is actually about. We cannot achieve economic growth in the circumstances I shall now describe. In my judgment, it would be wrong to wait until 2017, given that the situation is so urgent, as hon. Members will hear in a moment. The British Chambers of Commerce, which represents 104,000 businesses and 5 million employees, is concerned about the delay and the uncertainty that goes with it and about over-regulation.
It is generally acknowledged by all parts of the House that our relationship with the EU has to change, but the trouble is with the institutional treaty changes, on which I have had meetings in Brussels. I saw Mr Van Rompuy only 48 hours ago and also Mr Olli Rehn, and the fact is that they are on a railway line, and are continuing along it. They talk about destiny, contracts with other countries—unenforceable as they might be—and more centralisation. The European Scrutiny Committee had an interesting meeting on that.
In his travels around Europe, has my hon. Friend gained the impression that there is any appetite in the Commission or among our European partners for substantial treaty change that would allow the United Kingdom to have a different relationship with the EU while remaining signed up to the existing treaties?
It is my opinion, based on extensive discussions yesterday and over several months, that there is absolutely no prospect of any changes that would even begin to alter the circumstances we are now in and which are pivoted on the existing treaties.
The problem is one of debt and deficit. We cannot pay for the public services needed in the country, whether health, education or whatever. I hear the point from Opposition Members and I agree with some of their arguments—it is not right that people should be deprived of services—and I do not believe that the entire answer depends on cuts. It depends on the subject of this debate, which is economic growth. We can grow with the rest of the world. We are running a trade surplus of about £13 billion with the rest of the world, other than the EU, with enormous potential in south-east Asia, India and Africa, which is where the emerging markets are. This is where we have to concentrate our efforts.
On our trade relations with the other 26 member states, I ask hon. Members to take account of the following very alarming figures. Two weeks ago, during a debate on the Maastricht treaty and the convergence criteria, I gave what was then the latest figure, which was that we were running a trade deficit with the other 26 of £47 billion. Now, some might think a deficit of that scale is an awfully big loss, but the following Monday the new figure came out. In one year, the deficit had risen from £47 billion to £70 billion. Furthermore, the German surplus, which was running at £30 billion, rose to £70 billion between 2011 and 2012. It is essential that we take note and hold this referendum—and hold it urgently—because we have to deal with fundamental changes in the relationship that will enable us to disentangle ourselves from the spider’s web that we have got caught up in and which we have not asked the British people about since 1975. It is a vital question of national interest, and I beg hon. Members to listen.
Is not the corollary of what my hon. Friend is saying that if we follow the programme of the Labour party and continue to pursue a policy of closer integration and more burdens on our economy, it will mean more cuts, more borrowing, slower growth and more unemployment than if we sort out this relationship?
I am listening with interest, as I always do, to the hon. Gentleman’ s speech, and I have heard it a few times—a lot of times, in fact. If he gets his referendum and the vote is overwhelmingly, or marginally, in favour of staying in the EU, will he then embrace the EU and work from the positive side, in the same way as everybody else?
I have come to the conclusion that we have to leave the existing treaties, but I will say one last thing. The UK Independence party argument is self-defeating, for a simple reason. If UKIP were to take a number of marginal seats on the scale that seems likely and we were to lose the next general election, UKIP will not get the referendum or make the changes it wants, because we would be faced with a Lib-Lab, pro-integrationist, anti-referendum situation, which would be a complete disaster. UKIP, with which I am quite obviously much in agreement, will not produce the answers, because it is not possible to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 or have a referendum without a majority of MPs. It does not have a majority and it will not get one.
The Tory party is obviously going through one of its regular hissy fits over the EU. My experience is that it is best not to intrude in toxic family feuds, so I will confine my remarks to the economy.
Support for the Chancellor’s policy has totally evaporated. His intellectual ballast, provided by Reinhart and Rogoff—namely, that growth rapidly declined once a threshold of debt of 90% had been reached—has been blown out of the water. The International Monetary Fund, the citadel of neo-liberal capitalism, has deserted the Chancellor. The British Chambers of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and even the CBI are now openly criticising from the sidelines. The only austerians who are still full square behind the Chancellor are those in the eurozone. I hope he takes comfort from the fact that that paragon of economic virtue is now his last remaining ally. Contractionary fiscal expansion—his policy—is, to use the words he used today, a totally busted flush. It is an absurd oxymoron, as it always was. Once the rate of growth has slowed below the expansion of debt, the policy is doomed, and that is exactly where we are. Given that, it is so counter-productive now to continue with a policy of semi-permanent stagnation that one has to wonder what the Chancellor’s real motives are—apart, of course, from his own personal survival.
The US has put in place demand-creating measures and is steadily coming out of recession. The UK and the eurozone have not put such measures in place and they are slowly sinking deeper into recession. So why is the Chancellor so obstinately refusing to accept what the evidence is telling him? Why is he refusing to accept what even the IMF is telling him to do? The only plausible explanation is that this is not, in the last analysis, a deficit reduction policy at all; it is ultimately driven by the obsession to shrink the state and squeeze the public sector into the farthest recesses of a fully privatised regime. If that is so, crucifying the UK economy on a cross of ideology is hardly a proper way to proceed.
Of course, the Chancellor likes to defend himself, as he did again today, by saying that any stimulus to the economy will only increase the debt and thus make matters worse, but that is simply not true. First, instead of being kitted out for privatisation, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds—which taxpayers and the Government own 82% and 39% of respectively—could be instructed to prioritise lending for industry, infrastructure, low-carbon technology and key manufacturing niches in which the UK has a natural advantage.
A second option is the taxation of the hyper-rich, who have so far contributed almost nothing to tackling the recession that they largely caused. The latest rich list published in The Sunday Times a month ago showed that the richest 1,000 people—that is, 0.003% of the adult population—have increased their wealth over the past four years since the crash by a staggering £190 billion. That is considerably more than the total budget deficit, and if it were taxed at the current capital gains tax rate of 28%, it could theoretically raise £53 billion.
As the hon. Gentleman and everyone else knows, it was 10% less. I strongly opposed that; I think that it was wrong. I do not think that 28% is right either. The rate should be where Nigel Lawson left it—namely, at 40%. But let us stick with 28%. That would easily raise enough money to create between 1 million and 1.5 million jobs in two years, which would kick-start a virtuous spiral of growth.
The third option is another tranche of quantitative easing. The gigantic sum of £375 billion of quantitative easing has already been printed, and it has disappeared into consolidating bank balance sheets. A further, much more modest, tranche of £25 billion, invested directly into the economy, bypassing the banks, could once again kick-start the economy without any increase in borrowing at all.
It is also highly relevant to point out, which the Chancellor never does, that the balance of payments on our traded goods, which has been going up for a long time, reached the staggering level of £106 billion in this last year. That is 7% of gross domestic product. Worse news can be seen when we consider the growth that we like to think occurred in the UK during the best years up to 2007. The National Statistics register shows growth of £300 billion, but that is slightly less than the total for equity withdrawal from housing for the same period. In other words, the inflation of property assets largely accounts for the apparent growth. So, rebalancing the economy, which is now vital, is not going to occur simply with a flourish of the Chancellor’s wand. It will need a hard-won, relentless programme of manufacturing revival, and the restructuring of the banks to ensure that they look after the national interest and not their own.
People used to say that England’s bread hung by Lancashire’s thread. In this debate, I want to focus on some of the good news on the rebalancing of the economy. The news has not been all bad, and, despite the economic circumstances, my constituents and the people of Lancashire have a good track record of rebuilding and moving forward and of expanding exports and manufacturing.
Manufacturing output rose last month. Today’s figures show that, in my constituency, unemployment dropped again. It dropped compared with last month and with last year. We now have 81,000 more people working in manufacturing than we did in 2011. Despite all the economic troubles, the people of Lancashire live in the real world. They know how the welfare changes have helped to encourage people to get back into work, and they know that the Government’s policy is trying to help businesses large and small to export and grow.
Despite our domestic difficulties on the European Union at the moment, that “real-worldness” of my Lancashire constituents has been demonstrated in the recent local elections. The real story in Lancashire was not the United Kingdom Independence party; it was that the Labour party failed to take back the county that it had run for 26 years. Funnily enough, people are not convinced by the Ed and Ed show, or by Labour’s economic credibility. But let us move away from the European thing. I know that the Opposition would like to focus on it, but I think that it will pass—[Laughter.] Opposition Members might laugh, but there are nine marginal seats in Lancashire, and if Labour cannot win Lancashire county council, it is not going to win a general election fast. Labour knows that.
BAE is one of our local employers, and 19,000 people work in the aerospace industry. Profits are up, orders are up, and it has recently landed a £2.5 billion order from Oman to build Hawks and Typhoons. The Typhoon Eurofighter is made in Samlesbury and Warton. That did not happen by accident, but because of the investment in skills that successive Governments and this Government have put into my constituency. Recently, the Government announced extra funding for Preston further education college, and more is on the way for Myerscough. Building up the skills base is one reason why BAE remains one of the most competitive and leading exporters in the country, training thousands of apprentices every year—some Government funded, some not.
As we speak, the Prime Minister is abroad yet again, trying to make sure that we negotiate a free trade treaty to allow British business to prosper in the American market. Only recently, we had a state visit from the President of United Arab Emirates, which was partly about trying to sell more British and Lancashire-made manufacturing to the middle east. The Prime Minister has taken rebalancing the economy and moving forward on growth seriously.
We have seen investment through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, under its Secretary of State—the Liberal Democrat part of our coalition—that has helped to support the Lancashire local enterprise zone in Samlesbury, where we hope to get skills academies and more investment in our young people.
Then, beyond that, are the changes the Chancellor has produced in the Budget—an increase in the use of the R and D tax credit that rewards our investment, for example, and the rolling out of the patent box, which means people who exploit their intellectual property in this country will pay some of the lowest corporation tax in Europe. That is why this country has a future in growing its manufacturing base and is on the right path to rebalancing.
In future, I want the Government to continue to invest in the F-35 joint strike fighter and the new generation of unmanned aerial vehicles. I also look to a city deal for Preston, hopefully worth £300 million—if we can get the Treasury to move along a bit quicker.
Something that is important for the future of the whole country is shale gas, and it is under my feet, in my constituency, that the Bowland shale exists. It is currently valued at 35 billion barrels of oil equivalent of gas—a $200 billion revenue stream, should it be extracted. We need it in Lancashire and in the country more widely for security of supply; we need it as alternative energy; and we need it to make sure that this country benefits from its assets and its mineral wealth.
We in Lancashire have a story to tell. Lancashire’s history is about reinventing itself and building for the future. It is not for nothing that Preston is one of the northern cities that bucked the trend since 1908 and has been one of the most progressive cities. Let us remember for the future that—
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), but I can assure him that it is not our party that is obsessed with Europe. I think he needs to get his own house in order.
The last few years have been enormously difficult for families trying to make ends meet, working really hard and trying to give their young people a decent start in life. Arguments will rage about austerity cuts and the lack of investment—there are as many opinions as there are economists. I do not want to rehearse those arguments today, but to talk about something practical that I believe can help to address our economy’s problems that are causing such misery to thousands of families across the land.
There is sometimes a moment—in business, in politics and in communities—when an idea begins to take root, to gather support and to gain traction and momentum. I believe that the emergence of social value is one such moment. If it is pursued with energy and integrity, it could make a reality of the so far rather nebulous concept of responsible capitalism.
Eighteen months ago, I worked with the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) to take the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 through this House, and I was delighted to do so. The duty to put social value at the heart of public procurement came in at the end of January. If implemented across government, across local government and in private sector supply chains, I believe it could make a huge difference to the number of apprenticeships, the amount of local labour, the building of small and medium-sized enterprises and the encouragement of innovation.
Over the last year, I brought some big companies together with social enterprises to see how they could collaborate to renew our economy. I have been heartened by the commitment from the private sector. Good companies know that this is not about philanthropy or altruism, because doing good is good business. Moving from traditional corporate social responsibility into a place where businesses are using their mainstream models to make a social impact in procurement, human relations, marketing and product development is helping to get social value into companies’ DNA. That is the way to get our economy moving.
Let me give a couple of examples. Sodexo, whose headquarters are in Salford, is working with one of my local social enterprises to take on ex-offenders to carry out grounds maintenance and facilities management. That is a fantastic partnership. Deloitte is helping 30 social enterprises to grow to scale under its social investment pioneers programme. CH2M HILL, which built the Olympics stadium and is working on High Speed 2, has values that extend to every level of the company when it comes to apprenticeships, training and social mobility. Trading for Good is a brand-new website where people can ask questions such as “Which is the company that takes apprentices? I want that company to redo my roof. Which is the company that is building local supply chains? I want to spend my money there.” It is a fantastic resource.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The combination of social value and the creation of social investment through crowdsourcing, peer-to-peer lending and the activities of the Big Society Capital bank, which was a Labour idea, will take us along precisely that track.
My final example is Interserve, which employs 50,000 people and has a turnover of £2 billion. Its chief executive, Adrian Ringrose, recently committed himself to reinvesting 3% of his profits in the communities where his companies operate. That is the kind of thing that good, decent companies can do, and it can make a big difference. Such companies want to rebuild trust and secure a better reputation for big business, which has suffered from a lack of trust because of the activities of the banks and others. There is also the fact that it is good business.
The challenge for the Government is to enable that activity to become mainstream, rather than a niche activity in which only a few people engage. I ask them to think seriously about extending the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 to cover goods and major infrastructure. Over the next five years, we shall spend £200 billion on the really important things that we need: energy, transport—including High Speed 2—and building broadband. Why should we not include social value clauses relating to local labour and local supply chains in all infrastructure contracts? Can we not imagine the difference that that could make?
When money is tight—and it would be tight for us if we were in government— we can make a real difference by gaining extra impact from procurement and by doing business differently. We need community reinvestment, and we need to provide incentives for companies such as Interserve to do the right thing. A year ago, when I presented a ten-minute rule Bill in the House, I suggested that bankers could voluntarily put some of their income into local social enterprises. That might even make bankers popular, for goodness’ sake, and it is a very practical thing that we could do.
The Government must also support the development of measurement and metrics for social impact. There is a lot of good work going on. The Connectives Limited in Manchester, which is run by two inspirational woman accountants, has done fabulous work on social audit and accounting, but if we are to make such activity mainstream, we need to ensure that the metrics are rigorous and substantial. I should like the Treasury to do some more work on that.
In the time that I have left, I want to mention the Big Society Capital bank. It was the bank’s first anniversary last week, and I went to an event to mark it in the City. There was standing room only because there was such a huge appetite for the creation of a social investment market. The leadership of Sir Ronald Cohen and Nick O’Donohoe is first class. They have some really good ideas about how to get products to market, and about new types of bond such as social impact bonds. They are trying to persuade foundations and pension funds to invest. I welcome the Government’s consultation on a tax relief for social investment; I think that that is a very good idea. It could release an extra half a billion pounds into the market.
Difficult economic times demand creativity, innovation and boldness. We must get behind that, and make it happen.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), who made a passionate and knowledgeable speech about social value.
Amendment (b) has been signed by 92 right hon. and hon. Members, drawn from the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Democratic Unionist parties. The amendment respectfully regrets
“that an EU referendum Bill was not included in the Gracious Speech.”
Members may wonder why I am speaking about the European Union on a day that was allocated to a debate on economic growth. The one thing that is certain is that there is absolutely no connection between economic growth and membership of the EU—quite the reverse. However, it is the Labour Opposition who choose the subject for each day of debate on the Queen’s Speech. On no day did they choose to debate foreign affairs, which indicates how little regard they have for international relations in general and Europe in particular. I suspect they did not want to let the House know of their divisions over Europe.
The Prime Minister would have liked to put an EU referendum Bill in the Queen’s Speech, but was blocked by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Liberal Democrats. However, yesterday the Conservative party published a draft EU referendum Bill. If this Bill can be debated in Parliament, I believe it can become law.
May I make a little progress, as I am about to quote the question?
The question is clear:
“Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?”
If the Bill is passed, the Prime Minister could try to negotiate a European free trade area or, in other words, a common market, without all the regulations, red tape, and cost, without the EU laws, the European Court, the European Parliament, the Commission and the bureaucracy, without the £19 billion a year it costs just to be a member of the EU, and without the £30 billion-plus trade deficit with the EU each year. However, ultimately I do not believe that these negotiations will succeed, not because of the efforts of the Prime Minister, but because of the attitude of the EU elite.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I sometimes think there are three parties in the coalition: my party, the Liberal Democrats; the sensible wing of the Conservative party, whose Members serve on the Government Front Bench; and the hon. Gentleman’s wing of the Conservative party. However, my information is that the Conservative party did not ask for this referendum to be in the Queen’s Speech, so I think he ought to have a word with his colleagues.
It is very good news that the Liberal Democrats have had a change of heart and will now allow the European referendum Bill to come forward in Government time. I appreciate that useful intervention.
In any case, once these negotiations have finished, there will, for the first time in 30 years, be a vote by the people of this country on whether we should remain in the European Union. That will happen no later than the end of 2017, but of course it may be much earlier.
Anyone who votes against the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) is clearly opposed to a referendum on our relationship with the EU. However, if Members vote for the amendment, they are clearly supporting the prospect of an in/out referendum. If the amendment is carried, the House will, in effect, have said that the Government should bring in an EU referendum Bill. It will say to the Prime Minister that the House of Commons supports his position. It will say to the Liberal Democrats, “How dare you block the will of this House and the will of the nation?”
The Liberal Democrats went into the 2010 general election claiming that they would offer an in/out referendum on Europe. On page 67 of their extraordinary manifesto “Change that Works for You”, the Liberal Democrats said:
“The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum”.
That works for me. This change of heart is, even by Liberal Democrats standards, totally absurd.
Now I shall turn to the position of the Labour party. The Labour Opposition promised a referendum on the EU constitution before they were elected, yet as soon as they came to power, they dropped the referendum. On Europe, they are the poodles of Brussels—they roll over and do everything the EU wants, including giving away Mrs Thatcher’s hard-won rebate. They simply cannot be trusted on Europe.
The shadow Chancellor sort of indicated that Labour Members would vote against the amendment today—it was impossible to know what he thought about an EU referendum—but every Member will have to make their mind up. Members who vote against the amendment are voting against an EU referendum—[Interruption.] Colleagues from the Scottish National party will do so, and their position is clear. Labour Members who do so will also make their position clear—they are against giving the people the chance of a say on the relationship with Europe.
A vote for the amendment today would give the Prime Minister the moral authority to bring in his EU referendum Bill as a Government measure. Members of the House should vote for the amendment because it is in the national interest. It is right that after 30 years the British public should have their say on Europe. When Members cast their vote tonight, they should not decide on the basis of party politics. That is not why we are in this mother of Parliaments; we are here to represent our constituents and to put the country first. I know that some principled Opposition Members will support the amendment, and many principled Opposition Members will oppose it, because they do not support having a referendum. One thing is for sure: every Member of this House must vote according to their conscience, and when it comes to the vote, their constituents will know whether they are in favour of an EU referendum or against it.
The central question since the financial crash has been how to secure recovery in tough economic times. When the election took place, economic growth had been restored and unemployment was falling, but since then we have seen precious little growth, and unemployment is rising once again. Dealing with that should have been the central purpose of this Queen’s Speech and this debate.
There are measures in the Queen’s Speech—some worth while—to help small businesses to recruit new employees, which we called for, and to extend apprenticeships, which were significantly expanded during our time in government. However, one is left with the impression that although some of the measures may be worth while, as a whole they are not equal to the depth and durability of our economic problems. In fact, the Government seem to have given up and are waiting desperately for the new Governor of the Bank of England to secure the economic growth that they have so signally failed to secure.
The Queen’s Speech seems to be more about positioning and fear of the UK Independence party than about genuinely dealing with the country’s economic problems. UKIP, however, is a movement against the political establishment as a whole. It is based on a vision of the United Kingdom as it used to be, not as it is or how it will be. I have to say to Government Members that they cannot fight nostalgia with policy or positioning; the only way to answer nostalgia is to offer a better tomorrow, rather than having an argument about a better yesterday.
The Queen’s Speech has been completely overtaken by the argument about Europe. The amendment has attracted more and more signatures, and as it has done so, the Prime Minister’s professed relaxation has become greater and greater—presumably, by 7 o’clock tonight he will be completely asleep. His relaxation is not strength but weakness, and it fools no one. It is not only about the Back Benchers; while he is in the United States arguing for a European-American trade agreement, his own Cabinet Ministers are touring the studios to say that they would vote to come out of the European Union. It all feels very familiar, and it is little wonder that John Major’s former press secretary said this week that
“there are some parallels with the back end of John Major’s premiership.
One of the differences is, that was when the Conservatives had been in power for 17 or 18 years. Now the Conservatives have only been in power in coalition for two or three years.”
No wonder President Obama had to warn the Prime Minister this week that the UK’s influence is greater when we are engaged with and in the European Union. The notion that we can swap membership of the European Union for some other transatlantic embrace is confounded by that warning, which I hope is heard on the Government Benches.
We then come to the draft Bill. There was no talk of that beforehand, no suggestion of it in the Queen’s Speech. It is a panic response to the amendment, a failed attempt to buy off tonight’s rebels. This tells us so much about how the Government operate—short-term tactics, not long-term strategy. However, the tactics fail to buy off the rebels, who are simply emboldened and come back for more. Even this afternoon we have heard people saying, “2017 is not soon enough. We need the referendum now.”
The truth is that whether the Bill is a private Member’s Bill or a Government Bill in this Parliament, no Parliament can bind the next Parliament. The time to put legislation forward to have a referendum is before the Government want the referendum, not four or five years in advance. The tactics will not work in the short term; they will simply increase the Government’s pain. Instead of stopping banging on about Europe, the Tories are back to doing little else. That is because too many people on the Government Benches care more about this than about the country’s economic problems or about being in government.
The centrepiece of the Prime Minister’s strategy is renegotiation. We have been here before, too. Harold Wilson had exactly the same strategy in the 1970s—renegotiate, then hold a referendum. He put the conclusions to the House in March 1975. To those who have not read them, I recommend that they do so. They will find plenty about beef, butter and sugar, but nothing about fundamentally altered terms of membership.
When today’s Prime Minister is asked what he wants from the renegotiation, the only specific he mentions is the working time directive. The working time directive was already renegotiated in the previous Parliament. We dealt with the on-call issue and the preservation of the UK’s opt-out. The important thing about that is that it was done without threatening to leave the European Union. If that is all that the Prime Minister can come up with, no one will believe it. Of course the European Union needs reform. It needs to be more flexible and less rigid and it needs to concentrate more on growth and jobs. The Prime Minister has a far greater chance of achieving those goals if he is not threatening to leave at the same time. This is a broader argument about our vision of the UK. Is it to be engaged or is it to retreat into nostalgia? I know which I prefer.
I was pleased to see that the Gracious Speech mentioned tackling tax evasion, and that the Chancellor later added tax avoidance in a G8 conference interview. He often says he is proud of a corporation tax rate that is the most competitive in the G20. Unfortunately, large companies can easily move their profits and operations outside the G20. I want to speak about the effect that this is having on the UK economy and growth.
There is widespread bafflement about how we can have an extra 1.2 million private sector jobs and so little growth. Part of the answer is tax avoidance, because many of those workers are employed by offshore companies. For example, Amazon is growing in this country at more than 20% a year. It employs thousands of people, but its sales of £4 billion do not appear in our economy. They appear in Luxembourg. Microsoft, eBay, Google and others have large businesses in the UK but their figures do not show up either, and the Google chief executive proudly talked about avoiding $2 billion in tax last year.
Now let us turn to the companies that are based here. The tax system encourages them to move manufacturing and other parts of their supply chain overseas. The Government’s change in controlled foreign company legislation makes this even more likely. Companies that do declare large profits here will find that they get a knock on the door from a well-paid tax partner of a large accountancy firm, who will put forward schemes whereby corporation tax can be avoided, the simplest of which is to export the profits to Luxembourg via interest payments. This is a route followed by well-known companies such as Vodafone and Pearson, owner of the Financial Times. In fact, it is done by most of our national newspapers, which might explain why media reporting of this issue is patchy at best.
If a profit-making company fails to succumb to the charm offensive of the tax partner, something more sinister is likely to happen. The next knock on the door could be from the vulture capitalists—representatives targeting an aggressive takeover of the company. Let us take a current example. The outstanding business success and growth of Betfair has led it recently to declare £247 million in profits. Its prospective suitors are CVC Capital. What will it bring to Betfair—better management; outstanding new internet technology? The clue is probably in the description of CVC as a London and Luxembourg-based venture capitalist. I am guessing that it will bring a shameless approach to exporting Betfair’s profits to avoid paying UK corporation tax. Boots and Thames Water are just two of the many companies that have been taken over and had their UK profits stripped out of the country and placed in tax havens.
The Government have themselves facilitated tax avoidance, not just through the tax framework but through their procurement and private finance initiative activity. The Green Book on PFI assessment still contains an assumption that 10% of total PFI payments, not profits, will come back to the Government in tax. This is risible when one examines the facts. The vast bulk of PFI deals now have an offshore element. HMRC’s own offices are owned in Bermuda, the Home Office HQ is owned in Guernsey, PFI schools in my constituency are 50% owned in Jersey, and, most bizarrely of all, junction 1A to junction 3 of the M40 is 50% owned in Guernsey. This is the story throughout the country. It is high time the Green Book was changed.
The leakage of money from our tax system and the incentives for companies to operate in certain ways are bad for the economy, bad for growth and bad for individual taxpayers. I welcome the moves that the Government have already made. Let us remember that nearly all the framework was put in place or left in place by the last Government, and they compounded the problem by sucking up to their friends in the City, stripping high-level resource out of HMRC and telling it to go easy on big companies.
I hope that the Government will consider limiting offshore interest payments and closing the loopholes in Luxembourg and Holland, via our membership of the EU. They should prosecute tax evaders and expose and, where appropriate, prosecute their advisers. They should add advisers to their team who are not from big business or big accountancy firms and can speak up for ordinary taxpayers and small business, and they should increase specialist HMRC resources. Tax evasion and avoidance is a cancer in our society and I hope that the Government will keep on acting aggressively to cut it out.
The debates on the Queen’s Speech are a good time to look again at the relationship between us as elected Members and those who sent us here. I always feel that the one thing that I should be doing for my constituents in Huddersfield is to try to ensure that they have a good life, and most of us know what that entails. One of the things that make me feel that the good life is achievable is that over the years we have come closer to being a high-skilled, high-paid economy. However, in recent years we have faltered, and we must look closely at the challenges that we face, globally and internationally, that might lead to us being a low-skills, low-pay economy. There is already great competition around the world from people with high skills who are low paid, and I think of India in particular. Any Queen’s Speech debate on the economy must think thoroughly about the policies that we pursue in order to obtain the good life for our constituents, with high pay in a high-skills economy.
I quite liked some measures in the Queen’s Speech, including those relating to capital allowances and the employment allowance. It is not all bad; it is just all a bit vapid. There are some big gaps; big opportunities. We have just spent about 18 months with almost nothing to debate in the House, so there is plenty of room for a vigorous programme to get this country moving and working again.
I would have loved to see more vision, leadership and courage in the Queen’s Speech. There are so many things that we could be doing. Everyone will know of my interest in skills. I think that any Queen’s Speech at this time, when nearly 1 million young people are unemployed, should have introduced a Bill to abolish unemployment before the age of 25. It would cost only between £4.5 billion and £5 billion a year, but it would have stopped politicians condemning young people to live in the shadows of society on a bit of unemployment benefit here and a bit of housing benefit there. We could have ensured that every young person in this country was in education, training or work experience of some kind. That would have broken, and can still break, the curse of intergenerational worklessness. That is what we should have had in the Queen’s Speech.
What is wrong? We can have high-falutin’ economics in this debate, but the fact is that I would be in favour of a little inflation and debt, rather than less. Keynes was in favour of that, and so am I. I am an economist, I am afraid, and my economics are from the London School of Economics. We had two good things there: we were pretty Keynesian in those days, but certainly not Marxist, and we believed in our motto, which was “To know the causes of things.” It means getting beneath a subject and understanding it in an intelligent way.
There are two things that I think plague us today. First, because people are so threatened, they are turning to UKIP, and the terror and fear on the Government Benches is apparent, as today’s debate has been taken over by a debate on Europe and fear of UKIP. The fact of the matter is that I have seen no major independent assessment of what the impact of leaving the European Union would be on the living standards of my constituents and on the well-being and good life of the people of this country.
Secondly—I will just throw this point in—I am a little worried about one thing that is in the Bill: HS2. It is expected to cost between £45 billion and £50 billion. That money, if invested in the northern and midland cities of this country, could transform the lives of cities that are now endangered. I will use the debates as the Bill goes through to make that point.
There were some good things in the Queen’s Speech, although there has been a bit of a diversion today, and it is sad to see the Conservative party in such a terrible state of distress, but the fact is that there could have been more content to get jobs, skills and homes into our country.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). I very much agree about the importance of apprenticeships, on which the Government are rightly concentrating. One radical solution would be to reduce welfare even further and use the money to encourage employers to employ youngsters so that we can train them and get them back into work, rather than giving them money to stay wherever they are doing nothing. That would be a radical solution, or part-solution, to our problems.
We have been talking about negotiating with Europe for some time, and I learnt from the Library today that we have failed to block a £6.2 billion hike in this year’s EU budget, a rise of 5.5% on the original plan. If that is a successful negotiation, I would hate to see a bad one. For the United Kingdom, that means an extra £800 million, taking our contribution this year to £14.7 billion.
Yesterday I heard Nick Robinson on Radio 4 describe the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), and signed by me and others, as “parliamentary graffiti”, which I understand to be a meaningless scrawl that has no real impact. I must say that I am slightly tired of the way the press and other commentators just deride the genuine aim of looking at our relationship with the EU, which is desperately needed. Members on both sides of the House—this is what is so extraordinary—agree on that point. As I indicated at the start of my speech, despite the negotiations that go on, we simply do not succeed.
After I left the BBC I think it certainly lurched to the left.
We have seen what happens when we peddle the line of fruitcakes and loonies: the electorate, who are disaffected enough with us as it is, vote for the party accused of having fruitcakes and loonies. The votes for UKIP two weeks ago only showed what thousands and millions of voters believe. They do not believe that the amendment is graffiti; they believe that we have a major problem and that we—this is why I was sent to this House—have to deal with our relationship with the EU.
The amendment is not, and we are not, attacking the Prime Minister at all. In fact, if hon. Members listen to what the Prime Minister has said, they will hear that he agrees with the amendment. We have been sent here—all of us—to look after our country’s interests and those of our constituents. It is my view, and that of many learned Members, that a renegotiation with the EU is vital. I suspect that it will not be successful, which will lead, I hope, to a referendum and the inevitable vote of “out”.
How often have I heard—I have heard it again in today’s debate—those who are opposed to leaving the EU say that we should focus instead on the economy and jobs? But that is what the EU debate is all about—it is about the economy and jobs. The hon. Member for Huddersfield turns his eyes to the ground as if to say, “Oh dear, here’s another xenophobic Euro-nutter banging on,” but that is not what I am doing; I am speaking for our country and acknowledging what the vote for UKIP showed. We have to wake up in this place.
I will carry on, if I may.
If we do not wake up, we will lose the respect of the people of this country. I would suggest that repatriating the competences that still go to the EU, despite the treaties that have been agreed and the promises that have been made, would do more than anything else to generate jobs in this country. This is a golden opportunity that we must take if we want to restore the trust in this House and this country that was thrown away as a result of the failed promises over Maastricht and Lisbon.
What more evidence do we need that the EU is dead? It is finished. Look around! Wake up! Greece is a disaster and Spain is potentially on the brink of civil war—53% of youths are unemployed. [Interruption.] Hon. Members say, “Oh, my God!”, but there are riots in the streets and their own police are bashing youngsters over the head. This is the Europe that we now face.
I will not give way, because I have only a short time left.
France is a basket case. Outside the EU, the economies of the BRIC nations—Brazil, Russia, India and China—and Asia are growing. In the past few days, President Obama has been encouraging our Prime Minister to fix the relationship with the EU. We have been trying to do that for years and years, but we have not succeeded. We joined the common market to trade with Europe and that is the relationship that we need and must have. Finally, this is not about nostalgia, as I think an Opposition Member has said, but about reality.