I beg to move,
That the Charter for Budget Responsibility: autumn 2015 update which was laid before the House on 12 October, be approved.
Despite all the details of fiscal policy that we will discuss, and the mechanisms in the charter we are debating, the questions before the House and the country are very simple: is Britain going to pay its way in the world? Are we going to live within our means and bear down on our debts, so that next time disaster strikes we are better prepared? Do we have the strength and determination to finish the job that we started of turning Britain around and providing security to working families at every stage of their lives? Or will we be profligate again and spend money that we do not have, borrow for ever, mortgage the future of our children with debts that we could not pay ourselves, and consign Britain to a future of high debt, instability and low growth? No. Our answer, and the answer in the charter, is that we will put economic security first.
We resolve to put the livelihoods and living standards of working people ahead of the irresolution of politicians who lack the discipline to control public spending and deliver financial stability. We commit to learn from the mistakes of the past, not to repeat them, and we choose to put security first. After all that Britain has been through, it is remarkable that the proposition in this charter for budget responsibility should even be contentious. It states that now the economy is growing we should be reducing our exorbitant debts, and that we should do that each year by reducing the deficit until we eliminate it altogether and run a surplus. Once we have achieved that surplus, in normal times we should continue to raise more than we spend and set aside money for when the rainy days come. It is as simple as that: we should fix the roof when the sun is shining.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will give way to the former shadow Chancellor.
I am clear that we should not turn our face against a surplus, but it is important that the Chancellor’s definition of “normal times” safeguards some of our vital public services and ensures that we protect the most vulnerable in our society. Is there a danger in automatically going for a surplus without protecting some of those very basics for society? [Interruption.]
I was about to pick up on the point that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) just made, which is that the hon. Gentleman has shifted his position in the last few days. The former shadow Chancellor was telling us that the position adopted by the Labour party on this charter sends the wrong message to the general public, and in the brief period when he was shadow Chancellor he argued from this Dispatch Box that we should run a surplus. At the time I think he was trying to make the argument that the people who suffer most when Governments lose control of the public finances are precisely the most vulnerable in society and those who lose their jobs or get cast out of work. It is not trade union barons who lose their jobs when the economy fails; it is the poorest, not the richest in society who pay the price, and the most progressive thing that a Government can do is to run a sound fiscal policy and provide financial stability to the working people of this country. That is what we are debating.
What are the objections to our approach? There are those who say—including in the last couple of days—that the economy is not strong enough and that we need more growth before we cut the deficit. That advice on growth and the deficit normally comes from those who gave us the greatest recession and the largest deficit in our modern history, but let us put that aside for a moment. The British economy has been pretty much the fastest growing of any major advanced economy in the world, this year, last year and the year before.
We have had the latest jobs numbers today and they show we have more people in work than at any point in the history of this country—the highest employment rate in the history of this country. Unemployment is down 79,000, full-time work is up and, while inflation is falling, pay is now rising strongly at 3% a year. This is the strong economy that the British people have built with their hard work and sacrifice. If this is not the time to be reducing your deficit and your debt, when is? We are aiming for a budget surplus in 2019, because if we are not running a surplus nine years or more after the end of the recession, when the economy has been growing for these nine years, when will we ever run a surplus? The real answer from people who oppose this charter is never. Speaking of which, we turn to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann).
When the Labour Members of the Treasury Committee rightly identified this proposal as a gimmick in the Treasury Committee hearings in July, did the Governor of the Bank of England, or any of the other eminent economic brains we questioned, give a single word of defence for this political gimmick?
It is not a political gimmick to have sound public finances. What is a political gimmick is coming out on the eve of your conference with some policy that says you support what we are doing, and then two weeks later turning up in the House of Commons and voting against it. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw has described the policy of the Labour party as “a huge joke”.
That was two days ago. Two days is a long time in politics.
The hon. Member for Bolsover has got back his party and we’re pleased for him.
Several hon. Members rose—
Let me make a little progress, because we only have a 90-minute debate.
The truth is that the people who oppose this charter never want a surplus. They want to run a deficit forever. They never want Britain to be earning more than it spends. [Interruption.] They say “Nonsense.” Will they give me a date when they would like a surplus to be run from? I am setting a date—2019, years from now, at the end of this decade, nine years after the end of the recession. That is the date we are voting on. The truth is that they want to borrow forever. They want to run a deficit forever. They believe our debts should rise and rise, and never come down; they just do not have the courage to admit it to the British people.
The Chancellor is completely wrong. The objection to the game he is playing and the trap he thinks he has so cleverly set is that he has completely failed to hit all of the promises and all of the targets that he has established. Instead of indulging in this ridiculous game-playing, he should be concentrating on preparing Britain to weather the international storm and preparing for the problems we could face as a result of the slide in China.
That is precisely what we are doing. We are precisely preparing Britain to weather the storms. We came in five years ago. We promised to turn this economy around. We promised to take Britain back from the brink of disaster. And do you know what? We have a record number of people in work. I can see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions over there. A record number of children are no longer in workless households. We have the gender pay gap at the lowest rate in its entire history. Inequality is down, child poverty is down and the shambles we were left, as Ben from Exeter might put it, by the Labour party is what we are clearing up right now and we will continue to do so.
The second objection to the charter is that somehow reducing the deficit and running a surplus is inconsistent with a progressive state and great public services. Tell that to the Canadians or the Swedes, two great social democracies with surplus rules for two decades or more. Tell that to all the other countries in the world which, like Britain under this Government, are on course to run a surplus by 2020—Australia, Germany, Cyprus, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore and Korea. Tell that to the British taxpayers, who have seen the deficit reduced while their public services have improved over the past five years, with crime down, satisfaction with local government services up, and more children than ever in outstanding schools. The truth is that running a deficit forever is not socialist compassion; it is economic cruelty and Britain wants no more of it.
The very purpose of this charter is that we prepare for the future, reduce our debts and run a surplus in normal times, precisely so that we do have the resources to help the poorest and the most vulnerable when economic bad times come.
We do not stand here and claim we have abolished boom and bust—that ridiculous and dangerous suggestion that got Britain into this mess in the first place. We know there are ups and downs to the economic cycle. We warn again and again of the risks out there—from slowing emerging markets to the endemic weakness of the eurozone—and it is precisely because no one knows when the economy will be hit by the next shock that we should take precautions now. That is what we are doing in this charter.
Britain’s national debt as a share of its national income is more than 80% of our GDP. Unless we reduce it, we will not be able to support the economy and the British people in the way we would like to do when the shock comes, because we would not have the room for manoeuvre. Failing to address that is deeply irresponsible.
According to today’s figures, unemployment among 18 to 24-year-olds in my constituency is down 72% since the Chancellor walked into No. 11. That is what budget responsibility looks like. Will he promise to stay in the centre, moderate ground of British politics and keep fixing the roof while the sun is shining and reject the hard-left nonsense we are hearing from the Opposition?
I absolutely give my hon. Friend that commitment, because we have a responsibility to represent the working people of this country, who have been completely abandoned by the Labour party. That makes us the true party of labour here in this House of Commons.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.
Of course, the problem with people who say that now is a good time to borrow is that they always say it is a good time to borrow: in bad times they say we should borrow because we cannot afford not to, and in good times they say we should borrow because we can afford it. According to them, there is never a right time to stop borrowing and start saving. That is precisely the thinking that got Britain into a mess eight years ago.
This budget charter provides the discipline we need along with the flexibility we might require. It says that debt as a share of GDP should be falling every year when the economy is growing normally, but when recessions come or economic growth is very weak and below 1% the rule is suspended and the automatic stabilisers kick in. Then the Chancellor of the day will come to Parliament and present a plan to return the public finances to health and Members will either support or reject that plan. That is simple, clear, accountable, strong and flexible. It is a commitment to sound money and stability—the bedrock of economic security for working people.
The third argument we have heard today is that we do not need fiscal rules at all and that they are meaningless. Again, I disagree. I believe that democratic Governments should set out their approach to public spending. It is the public’s money, after all, and we should be held to account by them. Successful countries do set out long-term objectives and hold their Government Departments to account, rather than lurch from one year to another.
Of course, rules are meaningless if people are their own judges of the rules they set—we know that from the golden rule the Labour party set when it was in office—but we have an independent Office for Budget Responsibility and it is the impartial judge of whether we deliver what we promise.
There is an argument that because we have the OBR it can come to its own conclusion about the soundness of our fiscal policy, but that is profoundly undemocratic. Public spending should be determined by this House of Commons. That is why we are having this debate and this vote tonight. Under our system, the rules are set democratically and are independently judged, and the people can hold us to account.
This might be clever politics, but it is staggeringly bad economics. The Chancellor is incredibly irresponsible to imply that borrowing is always bad. If we borrow to invest, we increase jobs, stabilise the economy and increase tax revenues. That is good for the economy, not bad for it.
That is borrowing forever. There is never—[Interruption.] When would the hon. Lady stop borrowing and run a surplus? I am happy to give way to her as the representative from the Green party. When is the moment to stop borrowing and run a surplus?
The moment to stop borrowing is when we can no longer afford to pay it back—[Laughter.] We can perfectly afford to pay back our investment, which is why economists are laughing at the Chancellor—[Interruption.]
Order. [Hon. Members: “More!”] Order! Mr Cleverly, you are convulsed by mirth. You are in an uncontrollable state. I am worried about your perilous condition, man. Calm yourself and get a grip. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) must be heard—[Hon. Members: “More!”] Order. The hon. Lady’s remaining contribution, which I know will be extremely brief, will be heard by the House and the clock will be stopped if she is interrupted again. We had better be very clear about that.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. If we are investing in jobs, that gets taxes going back into the Revenue, which is good for the economy. That is why economists are saying that the Chancellor’s silly trick is very bad economics, even if it is very clever politics to make all his friends laugh a lot. People across the country are not laughing, because he is increasing austerity and increasing the burden on the poorest.
Borrowing until it cannot be paid back leads to national bankruptcy. That might be a good pitch from the hon. Lady to be the next shadow Chancellor, but it is not how we should run this country’s economic policy.
Several hon. Members rose—
Let me make a little progress, because I know that many people want to speak and this is a short debate—
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in due course—[Hon. Members: “Go on.”] Oh, all right. Come on, let’s hear him.
If everything in the Tory garden is lovely and if the Chancellor believes in fixing the roof while the sun is shining, why did he desert the people of Redcar?
We have not deserted the people of Redcar. We have provided £80 million of support to local people affected by the closure of that steel plant. That steel plant tragically closed under the previous Labour Government and there was nothing like that support for the workers then. We stand behind the workers of Redcar and we stand behind the workers in every steel plant to see what we can do, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman this: we will not have steel plants or any other plants open in this country if we do not have economic stability in Great Britain.
That point brings me to the final and perhaps most dangerous objection to this charter rule, which is when people say that Britain does not have to go to the bother of saving money and trying to pay for things but can instruct the Bank of England to print the money and use it to finance Government spending directly. The leader of the Labour party calls it
“quantitative easing for people instead of banks”—
that is an accurate quote from his leadership campaign. It sounds seductive, but it is actually called monetary financing. It might be a novel argument in this House of Commons and in the British political debate, but that is because no one has seriously proposed that approach in our country in recent decades. It is a very old argument.
Will the Chancellor give way?
No, I will not give way.
Order. The hon. Lady is pressing the point. The Chancellor is not giving way at this stage.
I think, quite frankly, that a period of silence from the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) would be very welcome.
Monetary financing is a very old argument in the economic history of the world and we know that it invariably leads to rising prices, soaring inflation, savings being wiped out, money being debased, stability being destroyed, jobs being lost and total economic chaos. It might sound new and attractive, but it is in fact very old and very dangerous.
This is what current and former Labour Members have said about that approach. The right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, warns that it is “really bad economics”. Jack Straw, pointing to the history of Weimar Germany and Venezuela, said it was
“bound to end in tears”.
The last Labour—[Interruption.] The Labour party now dismisses the views of Jack Straw and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. It probably also dismisses those of the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), who said to me a few weeks ago, “This approach will hurt the very people we should be standing up for, they will pay the price—the poor and the vulnerable.” Yet it is the much advertised economic policy of the shadow Chancellor and his Labour leader. It has been supported by the Labour movement, and it must be challenged and defeated.
(Ynys Môn) (Lab) rose—
I am going to make some progress.
I welcome the shadow Chancellor to his place, and I look forward to working with him when we can agree. In that respect, he made a good start, with his first big pronouncement on Labour’s approach to fiscal policy two weeks ago. He said:
“We will vote for it on the basis that we want to assure people that we will tackle the deficit, we will balance the budget, we will live within our means”.
That is precisely what the charter is for, and I thank him for encapsulating precisely the basis on which I urge all Members to support it, whatever their party. If they cannot support us, I urge them at least to abstain.
I am going to make some progress. [Interruption.] I think we are making quite a lot of progress as it happens.
Of course, since the shadow Chancellor spoke a couple of weeks ago, he has performed the most spectacular U-turn. We were told when he got the job that he would be a divisive figure. I just did not realise the split would be between two opposing views both held by himself. I have been standing at these two Dispatch Boxes for 10 years, and today, as on such occasions in the past, I have a sheaf of quotes from people in the Labour party from the past couple of days. I could read them all out, but the truth is that the complete chaos, confusion and incredibility of Labour’s economic policy is more eloquently expressed by Labour MPs than by any of my colleagues. To call the whole episode a shambles is an understatement—like saying the charge of the Light Brigade did not achieve all its objectives.
The serious point is this: in my experience, shadow Chancellors come and go, but what is permanent is the economic approach the Labour party is committing itself to tonight. It is becoming the party of permanent fiscal irresponsibility and never-ending borrowing, the party that would run a deficit forever—a Labour party that is a standing threat to the economic security of the working people of this country. It is not too late for Labour MPs to dissociate themselves from this reckless cause that their party has embarked upon, so I say to them: join us tonight, vote for budget responsibility and economic sanity, for eliminating our deficit and for reducing our debt, and help us prepare Britain for an uncertain future. Let us give those who elect us a Government that live within their means, a country that earns its way in the world, and economic security for the working people of Britain. I ask the whole House to support the charter tonight.
I suppose I should deal straightforwardly with the U-turn. Yes, two weeks ago, I recommended that Labour MPs vote for the charter, and today I shall urge them to vote against it. Is that embarrassing? Yes, of course, but a bit of humility among politicians never goes amiss. When circumstances and judgments change, it is best to admit to it and change as well, so I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the Prime Minister’s change of heart on the bid for the Saudi prisons contract.
Let me clear: I have changed my mind not on the principles of the need to tackle the deficit, but on the parliamentary tactics for dealing with this charter. Labour will tackle the deficit. [Interruption.] The Chancellor has a record of ignoring the targets he sets in these charters and mandates, treating his own charter with contempt, so I recommended two weeks ago that we should do the same. It is difficult to take seriously the charters and mandates when time after time the Chancellor has come to Parliament to revise his own charter. It is difficult to take it seriously when he has consistently failed to meet his own targets.
I remember the promises; I was here. The Chancellor promised to wipe out the deficit in one Parliament, but he did not get through half. In 2010, he promised to reduce borrowing to £37 billion by 2014-15. Last year, it was £87 billion—135% more than forecast. He promised public sector net debt would fall to 69% of gross domestic product in 2014-15. Today, it stands at 80% and above. It is no wonder that the charter has been seen as one of the puerile political traps the Chancellor likes to set.
Several hon. Members rose—
Let me make some room; I will give way in due course.
Voting against the charter makes someone a deficit denier; voting for it would lead to the Chancellor claiming for the next five years that we had signed up to support every one of his cuts in public services and benefits.
I regret that the procedure followed today is an unamendable order—a take-it-or-leave-it order. My initial view was to use today’s debate for a bit of traditional parliamentary knockabout to ridicule the Chancellor’s performance against his own charter. I admit it: I was trying to out-Osborne Osborne.
Apart from the economic analysis and professional advice I have received, what really changed my mind was a trip to Redcar last week, where I met steelworkers and their families in tears at losing their jobs, their livelihoods, their futures. The Government’s failure to invest in our manufacturing industry, even if only to mothball the plant until better times arrive, has meant the end of steelmaking in Teesside and immense distress to families. The Government’s refusal to invest will be embedded in this charter as it now moves on to limit all public sector borrowing.
I am grateful to the shadow Chancellor for giving way. According to Hansard, during the last Parliament there were more than 100 occasions on which the hon. Gentleman criticised the Government and other organisations for failing to consult sufficiently. Does he now understand the irony, given his complete failure to consult his own colleagues over his position?
In the Labour party, we have a democratic process involving the shadow Cabinet and the parliamentary Labour party. In fact, it is so democratic that it is reported in the press virtually daily.
This charter will be used time and again as an excuse for the Government’s refusal to intervene and invest, but the more we know about its potential use, the more my view is strengthened—it has to be vigorously opposed. It will be used to justify cutting services and support to families across the UK, including the cuts to tax credits, which are the working families’ penalty. I cannot support the cuts to tax credits for working families. These are people who have done everything asked of them: they have gone to work and looked after their children, yet because of the policy direction in this charter they are going to be hit with a £1,300 cut. Neither can I support the continuing attack on disabled people, which is inherent in this fiscal mandate.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will in a minute.
Disabled people are already harassed—some to death—by the brutal work capability assessment and often by benefit sanctions, yet they are to lose over £30 a week. Disabled people under this Government and under the coalition have been hit 18 times harder than other citizens by the impact of cuts. I do not want the Labour party to be associated in any way with these policies, and to dissociate ourselves clearly we need to vote against them tonight.
Everyone understands the hon. Gentleman’s views, but he has to explain to the House what circumstances have changed in the last two weeks. There has to be some element of consistency, and of trust in the Opposition: trust that, in future, he will not be blown off course so easily.
The hon. Gentleman has clearly not been listening. It was professional advice. It was watching the economic headwinds grow. But, in addition to that, it was meeting families who had lost their futures in Redcar that made me decide that we need a Government who would invest and would not leave them adrift.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will in due course.
It is increasingly clear that the charter and the fiscal mandate are not economic instruments, but political weapons. This is not an economic debate. It is about the politics of dismantling the welfare state, the closing down of the role of the state, and the redistribution of wealth from the majority to the minority. Austerity is not an economic necessity; it is a political choice.
The hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his speech that he wanted to reduce the deficit, but whenever any cut is proposed, he is against it. What would he cut? What would he do to balance the books?
If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, he will discover the answer. He is renowned for his patience.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. This is a limited debate, so I need to press on.
Over the last five years, the focus of the economic debate on the deficit has reflected the capture of the economic narrative by the right since the crisis in 2008. Over six years, the Conservatives have managed to convince many people that the economic crisis and the deficit were caused by Labour Government spending. It has been one of the most successful exercises in mass public persuasion and the rewriting of history in recent times. Today I am going to correct the record.
The facts speak for themselves. The Conservatives backed every single penny of Labour’s spending until Northern Rock crashed. The average level of spending under Labour was less than it was under Mrs Thatcher. It was not the teachers, the nurses, the doctors and the police officers whom Labour recruited who caused the economic crisis; it was the recklessness of the bankers speculating in the City, and the failure of successive Governments to ensure effective regulation. In opposition, this Chancellor and his colleagues wanted even less regulation of the banking sector that crashed our economy. The deficit was not the cause of the economic crisis, but the result of the economic crisis.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I need to—
I will give way.
What happened under the last Labour Government was that the Chancellor and his regulatory authorities allowed first the dotcom bubble and then the crazy credit boom. Tax revenues temporarily soared to astonishing levels. The Labour Government carried on running a deficit on top of those tax revenues, and then the revenues collapsed, leaving us with the worst annual deficit in the G20. The last Government were complicit in the consequences of 2008.
And when that expenditure was being determined in the House, the Opposition supported it, and never objected. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may well have rejected it, but I remember his Budgets. His Budgets balanced, but when they balanced, there were 40,000 homeless families in London. People were dying on waiting lists before they got their operations. Those were the consequences of his economic policies.
Focusing on the deficit continues to mask the underlying weaknesses and failures of our unreformed economic system. We are witnessing a recovery based on rising house prices, growing consumer credit, a ballooning current account deficit and still inadequate reform of the finance sector. I worry that some of the warning signs are reappearing. But the Conservatives have adhered to their dictum: never let a crisis go to waste. They have skilfully used their narrative of the deficit to enable them to cut public services, slash benefits, and give tax cuts to the rich and corporations. Successive charters and fiscal mandates brought before this House have been cynically used as a weapon in that cause.
The purpose of the original Fiscal Responsibility Act 2010, brought in by Labour, was to bolster the then Government’s economic credibility. I recall what the current Chancellor said. He described it as little more than a political stunt. But he soon learned what a useful tool charters and mandates can be, and immediately upon the coalition’s election, he introduced his own. The fact that he missed most of his targets was irrelevant to him; what was more valuable was that charters could be picked up whenever needed and prayed in aid to excuse any attack on the welfare state and any cut in benefits, and provide a means to redistribute wealth upwards.
The charter before us today also has little basis in economics. Let me quote Dr Ha-Joon Chang, Professor Thomas Piketty, Professor David Blanchflower, Mariana Mazzucato and Simon Wren-Lewis. Those eminent economists in our society said that it has
“no basis in economics. Osborne’s proposals are not fit for the complexity of a modern 21st-century economy and, as such, they risk a liquidity crisis that could also trigger banking problems, a fall in GDP, a crash, or all three.”
They go on to say that if the Government
“chooses to try to inflexibly run surpluses…Households, consumers and businesses may have to borrow more overall, and the risk of a personal debt crisis to rival 2008 could be very real indeed.”
The wording of this charter has not changed in the past two weeks, and I am therefore curious: what happened two weeks ago? Did the hon. Gentleman read the charter and not understand it, or had he not read the charter when he advised his colleagues to vote on it?
May I just say to the hon. Gentleman that it is always best before making an intervention to have listened to the debate so far and it is always best to make a calculation as to whether he is going to add to the sum of human knowledge by the intervention? [Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] All right, I was a bit harsh. Sorry about that. Mr Speaker, I am not usually so undiplomatic, am I? May I press on? The Chancellor may not appreciate the economic points that have been made, but—
I would like to make the point that my learned Friend—my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly)—was making: if there is no basis for this measure, why did the hon. Gentleman agree to it two weeks ago?
May I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, as I was too harsh? I certainly do not want to be with the hon. and learned Lady, but if she could just keep up it would be really helpful. I have tried to reiterate three times—I have said it three times. [Interruption.]
Order. Let us have a bit of order, on both sides. The nature of such a debate is the existence of strong and contrary opinions. If people insist on shouting from a sedentary position as part of a sort of group therapy, thinking they are being clever, they should just think of what the electorate want, which is a civilised debate, not the most juvenile badinage.
I am sorry for being so ungallant to the hon. and learned Lady and I apologise to her for that, but I have explained three times already.
We are getting to the crux of this debate, which is that this fiscal charter is intellectually moronic. It essentially commits this House to never borrowing to invest, even when the cost-benefit analysis of that investment is such that the country would benefit greatly. That is why it has not one serious economist backing it, other than the self-styled experts on the Government Benches.
I could not have said it better myself. Can we move on?
The Chancellor may not appreciate these economic points, but I believe many of his advisers do. That is why there is a sizeable get-out clause for the charter rules not to apply outside normal times when there is a significant negative shock to the UK economy. Not only are the social consequences of this programme devastating, but the scale of the cuts we are witnessing represents a false economy. They jeopardise the long-term economic prosperity of our country. It is a false economy to cut adult social care when the burden is shifted on to hospitals and accident and emergency departments. It is a false economy to pursue an ideological sell-off of council housing eventually to put up the rents and eventually increase housing benefit. It is a false economy, ironically, that when this Government came to office there were 70,000 people at HMRC and within the next year that is planned to fall to 52,000—a cut of more than 25% in the number of tax-collecting staff, when HMRC says that tax evasion is as high as £10 billion a year. But the worst—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
If the hon. Lady does not mind, I have taken a large number of interventions. The debate is time-limited. If she has any points that she would like to raise with me, I am happy to meet her separately or write to her. [Interruption.] I am doing my best to be nice. It is the new politics of the Labour party.
The worst false economy is the failure to invest. This will be a direct result of Government policy embedded in this charter, with its limits on all public sector borrowing. Economists from across the spectrum have written and commented on the need for investment for the future. The World Economic Forum ranks the UK 10th for the quality of our infrastructure, behind Germany, France, the Netherlands and Spain. This Chancellor’s strategy has given us investment as a share of GDP lower than all the other G7 countries, falling even further behind the G7 average in recent years.
That is why business leaders, trade unions and a host of others are calling for investment. It is incomprehensible for the Chancellor to rule out the Government playing a role in building our future. For him to constrain himself from doing so in the future, no matter what the business case for a project, has no basis in economic theory or experience.
We also face an uncertain medium-term future for the global economy. In recent weeks there has been mounting evidence of a decline in global demand, particularly in the emerging markets.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will press on, if hon. Members do not mind, as time is short.
Economists have warned of the potential for a future slowdown in western economies as a result. Former chief economist at the World Bank, Larry Summers, wrote last week that the dangers facing the global economy are more severe than at any time since the height of the crisis. Faced with these potential challenges, it makes no sense to close down the fiscal options available, especially when there is a possibility that monetary policy options may also be constrained.
I want to break the stranglehold that the focus on deficits has had on the economic debate in this country in recent years. Yes, the deficit is vitally important, but we need a paradigm shift to open up the wider debate on what makes a healthy economy, a prosperous economy, in which everybody shares in that prosperity and in which everybody is secure, not just the wealthy few, where everybody has a decent home in a sustainable environment, is able to develop their talents to the full, has secure, stable, well-paid and rewarding employment, and support when they fall on hard times. We will tackle the deficit, yes, but we will not tackle—[Interruption.] Hon. Members should listen and they will hear.
We will not tackle the deficit on the backs of middle and low earners, and especially not on the backs of the poorest in our society. We will tackle the deficit, but we will do it fairly and to a timescale that does not jeopardise sustainable growth in our economy. We will balance day-to-day spending and invest for future growth, so that the debt to GDP ratio falls, paying down our debts. We will do this, first, by ending this Government’s programme of tax cuts to the wealthiest in our society. This winter, when the letters go through the letterboxes telling working families how much they will lose in tax credits, we will be reminding them that their tax credit cut has paid for a cut of billions of pounds in the inheritance taxes of the richest families in this country.
Secondly, we will give HMRC the resources and powers to tackle tax evasion and avoidance—no more Facebooks paying less than £5,000 in tax despite £35 million in bonuses and total global profits of £1.9 billion—but above all else we will grow our economy. We will use smart Government institutions to strategically invest in the key areas that increase GDP in the future: education, health, research, technology, human capital formation and training—a progressive economic agenda that recognises that wealth creation is a collective process, working in partnership with businesses, workers, public institutions, and civil society organisations that create wealth in this country.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I have given way a number of times and this is a time-limited debate; I apologise.
That is why we will establish a national investment bank to invest in innovation across the entire supply chain, from the infrastructure we need to the applied research and early stage financing of companies. To tackle the growing skills shortages we will prioritise education in schools and universities along with a clear strategy for construction, manufacturing, and engineering skills to build and maintain sustainable economic growth. The proceeds of that growth will reach all sections of our society.
So we are launching the debate on the economy we need and the economic instruments and policies needed to achieve that prosperous and sustainable growth. That is why we are reviewing every aspect of economic policy and systematically assessing our economic institutions, the Bank of England, HMRC and the Treasury.
Today I can announce that I have appointed a former member of the Monetary Policy Committee, Professor David Blanchflower, to lead a review into whether the Monetary Policy Committee should be given a broader mandate. He is joined by Lord McFall, the former Chair of the Treasury Committee.
This is Labour’s radical project. It is based upon the sound advice of some of the best economic brains in the country. We will be testing our policies and economic instruments and we will be asking the Chancellor to give us access to the resources of the Office for Budget Responsibility to model our proposals. I am asking the same of the Governor of the Bank of England.
We are seeking the widest public engagement in our economic policy discussions. The dividing lines between us and the Government are not just on how to tackle the deficit and who pays for the crisis. They are more fundamental. It is about for whom the economy works and the role of the strategic state in this process. So today we will oppose this charter as an instrument for imposing austerity on our community unnecessarily. We are bringing to an end the petty game playing and moving on to a more serious debate of how the economy can work for everybody.
I welcome the spirit of the shadow Chancellor’s remarks and the fact that he wants a serious debate. Government Members do not favour austerity; we favour prosperity. We believe that the way to create prosperity is to have sound money and sound state finances that we can afford so we have decent public services and money and so that credit is also available to expand the private sector, create the extra jobs we need to get people into work and create the higher paid jobs we need so that they can be more prosperous in work. I hope the shadow Chancellor will understand that.
I am afraid the shadow Chancellor did make a couple of mistakes in his remarks. First, he wrongly said that Conservative Members were calling for less banking regulation in the run-up to the crisis. I chaired the economic policy review for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and there was strong advice that tougher regulation was needed on bank cash and capital. We expressly warned that the banks were over-borrowed and over-geared and that the whole system was very shaky, and I remember the Opposition constantly warning about excess debts in the system. The shadow Chancellor would be well advised to read what we wrote because the warnings were there although Labour and its regulators were not listening.
The shadow Chancellor should reread the Red Book, which set out a few weeks ago the five year spending and borrowing plans for this Parliament. It makes it very clear that there are going to be substantial cash increases in total public spending over the five years of this Parliament as all goes to plan, as we trust it will. As inflation is currently around 0%, that will mean real increases are possible, just as in the last Parliament when, despite all the noise from the Labour party, cash spending went up every year and real spending went up every year. It went up much more modestly than it did during the excesses of the pre-2007-08 period that helped to bring about the crash, but there was room for small real increases in public spending. That is because Government Members care about ensuring that disabled people are properly looked after, that schools have enough money and that there are real increases for the health service every year because there is greater demand and more treatments.
I welcome the charter, and I hope that this Government—which I hope will be re-elected—and any future Government will take it very seriously. The evidence is clear that during the first five years of the previous Labour Government, the economy worked pretty well. I give them credit for that. In three of those five years, they generated a public surplus. They inherited our prudent public finances and for the first few years they ran with them, which worked very well. I therefore refer Labour Members to their own excellent example from those early years. It was only when their Government let rip on spending, credit and borrowing for the state and the private sector that things got out of control and they showed that they could put the boom into the boom and the bust into the bust. They then took us through the biggest and deepest cycle of the post-war period, with awful consequences for the poor and for those who lost their jobs and businesses.
We need responsible finances. We want growth. We want prosperity, not austerity, and this charter will allow us to achieve that. Let us hope that future Governments stick to it. The debt was only £380 billion for the whole state at the point at which the Labour Government ceased to generate a surplus. It went up by almost £700 billion before they left office, and a lot of the increase occurred before the crash. It now stands at £1,600 billion, because getting it down is proving extremely difficult. I urge Labour Members to understand that they jeopardised the public finances, trashed the economy and destroyed jobs and businesses. We don’t want to go there.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I thank the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) for his extreme succinctness. Just before I call the Scottish National party spokesperson, I would just point out that, as a Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) will not be subject to the time limit, but that we must conclude at 8.45 and approximately 20 Back Benchers wish to speak—a point of which I know the hon. Gentleman will sensitively wish to take account.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I shall be as concise as I can be, within reason.
The Chancellor was right to talk about the ups and downs in the economy, and he is right to be cognisant of the risks involved, but to set out a charter with a fixed target with a fixed timescale—namely, to run a fiscal surplus by 2019-20—is precisely to remove any flexibility that might be required in the meantime. No one could have been in any doubt about the Government’s intention when the charter for budget responsibility summer update—the most recent update—was published in July. It was to target a fiscal surplus by 2019-20 and continue to run a surplus thereafter.
The problem for us is what that means in the real world, for ordinary people in the real economy. We kind of know what it means because many have told us—not least the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an organisation often prayed in aid by the Chancellor. We have had our disagreements with the IFS, but for the purposes of tonight’s debate I have to say that it is doing a sterling job. It has published an updated analysis on the scale and distribution of the public sector spending cuts expected in the November spending review. Those cuts underpin the charter’s objectives and the Government’s austerity policies, but the IFS says that those policies put a disproportionate burden on the most disadvantaged families.
The IFS also talks about the higher minimum wage, but says that it will not be enough to compensate lower income households for the welfare cuts. That is a particularly important point, given how many of the welfare cuts are now being directed at tax credits. We all believed that tax credits were an essential tool to “make work pay”, but they are now to be removed to the extent that perhaps 3 million households will be worse off. Also, the scale of cuts to public services envisaged by this trajectory in the public finances will be substantial, with non-ring-fenced Whitehall Departments being asked to find real-terms cuts of between 25% and 40% over the next four years. In short, the austerity measures announced in July will disproportionately harm the poorest and most vulnerable households and non-ring-fenced Departments while of course giving tax breaks to the better off, thus increasing inequality.
Indeed, the IFS and others have repeatedly warned that the planned changes to the tax and benefit system are regressive. They have said that, given the array of benefit cuts, it is no surprise that the changes overall are regressive, taking much more from poorer households than richer ones. The September analysis of the IFS said that the poorest two income deciles will each lose on average about £1,000 a year as a result of the tax and benefit changes announced for implementation during this Parliament. Of course the richest two deciles will be largely unaffected.
According to research by the House of Commons Library—this is the most commonly accepted figure—we are now looking at some 3 million households losing somewhere in the order of £1,300 a year. Importantly, notwithstanding the rhetoric we sometimes hear from the Government Benches, it is the case that the increase in the minimum wage for people aged 25 and over—wrongly branded a living wage—is nowhere near enough to offset the cuts in tax credits.
If we go back to what the IFS said, the national living wage is not a substitute for targeted benefits and tax credits when it comes to helping poorer households and tackling poverty, which runs rather contrary to the assertions made in answers by the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions today. The irony is that the largest part of the gains from the new minimum wage will not go to the poorest households. Indeed, 55% will go to households with higher than average median earnings. The Chancellor’s national living wage is no such thing. In the context of the charter it is important to remember that the real living wage reflects the minimum income necessary to achieve an acceptable standard of living and accounts for existing in-work support. As tax credits are cut, the current living wage, which is already higher than the proposed national minimum wage, will have to be increased further. On top of that, the UK Government are set to continue with their cuts to day-to-day public services. That is the implication of the fiscal charter. Those day-to-day cuts to public services in unprotected Departments will be around £24 billion—19% in real terms over the rest of this Parliament. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will see something in the order of a 5.2% real terms cut to their budgets over the same time frame.
Let us put that in context for the people who may be watching this debate. This will be 10 years of discretionary consolidation—a decade of austerity for real people and the real economy. Austerity strangled the recovery early in the previous Parliament and it will increase inequality in this one. All of that is driven by the fiscal charter. [Interruption.] I think I will leave our friends in the Labour party to their own mourning over the shambles of the position changes over the past 24 hours.
Before I move on to the fiscal charter, I will happily give way to the shadow Chancellor.
Is it not true that the proposals that the Scottish National party have now brought forward are actually Labour’s proposals from six months ago?
May I say gently to the hon. Gentleman, whom I genuinely like, that we voted against the fiscal charter on 13 January? Whether he liked it or not, it was his party that voted with the Tories. I am pleased that it has changed its position, but I think on balance it might be better to focus on this matter, where the Chancellor and his party are on rather weak ground, rather than on some internecine struggle.
Before I move on to the fiscal charter, I want briefly to ask the Chancellor about the consequences for Scotland. He knows that under the Scotland Act 2012 Scottish Ministers now have limited borrowing powers, so can he confirm that there is nothing in the charter that will limit the exercise of those statutory powers and that, irrespective of whether or not the UK is borrowing, Scottish Ministers will remain free to borrow up to the agreed limits?
What the Chancellor has done, of course, is insist that the economy not only breaks even, but runs a current account surplus that will hit £40 billion by 2019-20. He announced in July that, in order to do that, additional welfare cuts would total £33 billion in this Parliament. Cuts to essential capital expenditure would total another £5 billion in this Parliament. Essentially, he is cutting £40 billion more than is necessary to run a balanced current budget, and almost all of it will be paid for by punishing the poor and stripping the capital budget of another £5 billion.
I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman if he can tell me why he is going to support the economics of the mad house.
I will tell the hon. Gentleman very clearly. He talks about punishing the poor, but last week the Office for National Statistics showed that the number of workless households is at the lowest level on record. Does that not show that our strong economy is delivering not only stability, but social justice?
I am absolutely delighted when workless households get one or more people into a job and have the opportunity to better themselves, but what I am not prepared to tolerate is people who work harder than us having £1,300 a year cut from their tax credits, which stops making work pay.
Essentially, the Chancellor is cutting £40 billion more than is necessary to run a balanced budget, by cutting £30-odd billion from welfare and £5 billion from essential capital expenditure. As ever, these plans are dressed up in the argument that there is no choice. These are always political choices, and he has made the wrong one.
What we need more than anything is growth, and Governments cannot cut their way to growth. To get growth we must narrow the inequality gap. The UK lost 9% of GDP growth between 1990 and 2010 as a result of rising inequality, so it is irrational and counterproductive for the UK Government to be making the same mistakes all over again. To do that at the same time as raising inheritance tax thresholds and cutting tax credits is to take from the poor and give to the rich.
We campaigned against austerity during the election, and we did rather well on that basis. We will continue to hold to our position. Indeed, a modest real-terms increase in Government expenditure would have protected the poorest from the cuts, protected the Scottish budget and ensured that capital spending across the UK was not subject to more cuts while essentially still seeing the deficit fall and debt come down as a share of GDP. That is the option for the UK fiscal mandate suggested by the Scottish Government. It is credible, responsible and fiscally sustainable, and above all it is fair.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. In the light of the level of interest in the debate, a four-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches will apply with immediate effect.
It was good to hear the shadow Chancellor refer to his economic advisers. I believe that I heard one of them on the radio this morning. He said that economic policy can be messy. Well, he has got that right, if nothing else. He then said that economic policy can take some time to develop. Before entering this place, I spent 25 years working with investors, and I spent some time in the Treasury. Economic policy may take some time to develop, but rarely is the adage “first impressions count” more true than when setting out one’s economic stall to the markets. The message that the shadow Chancellor has sent out over the past two weeks is one of irresolution. Two weeks ago he was in favour of the charter, but tonight he is against it. It is fine to start a debate, but it will perplex international investors if he is on both sides of that debate at the same time.
The messages that we send out to those who invest in this country matter. A lack of confidence in the UK economy would affect all other facets. It could affect inward investment. It could cause a sterling crisis. It could increase the interest that we are paying on our debt. I do not believe the MPC fudge will work or hold water. No wonder the president of the CBI has stated: “Firms”—the very same firms that, as the Chancellor mentioned, are delivering the highest rate of employment ever in this country—
“have been unwavering in their support for the Chancellor’s deficit reduction plans and will welcome the clarity that the new fiscal rules provide.”
However, this is not just about the firms that invest and the investors that provide the wherewithal; it is about the message that we are sending to the people who send us here. They elected a Government on a platform of sorting out our national debt. We have made great strides in reducing the increase in the national debt, but it still stands at over £15,000 per man, woman and child. The current level of debt interest is costing us £1 billion a week. On an annual basis, we are spending half as much to service our national debt as we are to fund the NHS. The scary thing is that that is on a weighted average gilt rate of 2%—a full 3% below where the OBR thought we could be by this stage. I will allow hon. Members to work out the maths for themselves.
To have no concrete plan to reduce our national debt in the good times will mean one thing—a willingness to increase our national debt still further. As the Chancellor said, Conservative Members know that no Government can abolish boom and bust. We recognise that monetary and fiscal policy must be managed to give the Government the maximum ability to support the vulnerable in the down times. The flexibility that we have through the fiscal charter is meaningful, and essential for the UK. Part of that, crucially, is to reduce our national debt—an ambition that should be shared by Members on both sides of this House.
There is a saying in literature that normal is as narrow as the street that you live in. The Chancellor lives in a little gated community—a cul-de-sac with perhaps a problem neighbour next door. The constraint on his economic plans is the backdrop to the decision tonight on whether to have this charter. Yet he cannot cite anyone supporting the charter other than those who are sitting behind him. Our friends in the CBI are not supporting his charter. The City of London is not supporting his charter. The Governor of the Bank of England was not prepared, in the Treasury Committee, to support his charter. Indeed, all the economic experts who came before the Treasury Committee when we looked at this in some depth in July did not at any stage choose to support his charter.
There is not enough time to give way.
Indeed, the Chancellor’s own Conservative colleagues in the Treasury Committee, who are somewhat absent tonight, were reluctant to speak out in favour of his charter. The reason is that it is a political gimmick. It has no necessity other than politics. That is why he has no support anywhere in business or the City for it. Churchill said, “Don’t strive to be ‘normal’.” The Chancellor should heed Churchill’s advice, because “normal times” is the sting in the tail that makes the charter so pernicious. What has happened since Churchill? It is interesting. There has been a bigger percentage of budget surpluses under Labour Governments since Churchill was Prime Minister than under Conservative Governments.
Far be it from me to cite Margaret Thatcher as a source on this, but Margaret Thatcher, in all but one of her years, ran a budget deficit. Conservative Governments have usually run budget deficits more than Labour Governments. The Chancellor, every single year, has run a budget deficit—a record £505 billion since he came in. Yet he wishes to give us this lock-in that is purely a trap to try to entice the Labour party into stupidity.
This is Parliament, and in Parliament we vote on legislation. There is plenty of space for political games and political tricks outside, but not in here when we vote on legislation. That is precisely why everybody in the House should vote against it. There are vital economic debates on what the Budget should be—whether there should be cuts, how cuts should be made and what taxation should be, on all of which there are critical and different views—but this is a trick and a gimmick. It is something that our friends in business, our friends in the City and our friends as economists have refused to back. I therefore look forward to Conservative Members also opposing this political gimmickry.
In the course of the election campaign, my Conservative colleagues and I spent a great deal of time talking about a long-term economic plan. I did not know at the time that “long-term” meant anything longer than two weeks, but now we know. Tonight, I hope that we will see this, as I know the people of Boston and Skegness do, as the culmination of a policy made possible only by economic credibility. It is only with such policies that more people are in work than ever before, and that more people from workless households are coming into employment than ever before. In Lincolnshire, we see money going to revive deprived coastal areas such as mine in Skegness. We see the fruits of an economic plan coming on stream.
I hope that, with this policy tonight, we will see a genuine commitment that will be supported by Governments of all stripes throughout the future to making sure that we not only fix the roof when the sun is shining, but make sure we do not run the obscene surpluses—sorry, deficits—that caused so much damage in the past.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid that this is a time-limited debate. In the little time I have remaining, I want to emphasise that it is not a ludicrous ambition to have a target for a public sector surplus, as Opposition Members suggest. With economic credibility, it is possible and sensible to do so. In fact, for a credible Government, it should be the only option available.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid that I cannot give way.
I would like colleagues not just from the Conservative side of the House but from both sides of the House to accept that this policy will not just put us on a sustainable economic footing for the future, but make sure that that sustainable economic footing is locked into this House’s legislation. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) said that it was not right to put what he calls “a gimmick” into legislation, but surely it is right to lock in responsible behaviour, given that we know that that was not the case under previous Governments.
I hope that the House is able to agree that what we can do through legislation is to make sure that only an economically credible policy is the one that a sensible Government is able to offer. With that, I know that the people of Lincolnshire and, I hope, Members from across the House and people across this country understand that economic credibility must to be the defining characteristic of any Government. It is certainly the defining characteristic of this one.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman). He has clearly not read the columns of his former colleague Martin Wolf, who agrees with the arguments made by Labour Members. If anybody wanted to know whether this was a political gimmick, they only needed to look at the 90 minutes provided on the Order Paper for this debate—a pitiful 90 minutes to discuss something that is meant to be an important economic policy.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) said, we took evidence on this—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I will show the hon. Gentleman the same courtesy the Chancellor showed me.
We took evidence on this matter in the Treasury Committee in July. We found nobody who was prepared to endorse the Chancellor’s proposals. Even the Governor of the Bank of England, when pressed by the Chair of the Select Committee, said that he was
“declining to opine on specific legislation”.
He stated that
“the UK Government have had the announced intention in Budgets in place for a sustained fiscal consolidation. That is one of the headwinds against the economy”.
It was not just left-wing economists who criticised the Chancellor. The head of the Thatcherite Institute of Economic Affairs, Professor Philip Booth, said that the fact that
“these very damaging things have been done to child tax credit systems…is my biggest concern.”
“I think in the handbook of possible fiscal rules the Government is choosing a very, very, very bad one.”
One of the most pernicious things about the rule that the Chancellor has chosen is that it treats capital and current spending the same. He is ignoring the fact that investing in housing, science, broadband, transport and the university system is a way of strengthening economic productivity and increasing growth in the British economy. Nobody thinks that it is right to max out the credit card to pay the weekly grocery bill—of course not—but families up and down this country take out mortgages to buy their homes. There is a precise parallel here.
Opposition Members are not deficit deniers. We want to bring down the debt-to-GDP ratio, as the shadow Chancellor said. In that task, the Chancellor has failed spectacularly. The debt has gone up by £500 billion under his stewardship. To get the debt-to-GDP ratio down, we must do two things. We must run the public finances in a sensible way. That means making sensible savings, for example by tackling fraud in the housing benefit system and not going ahead with the ludicrous cuts to inheritance tax, which will benefit the richest in our country. At the same time, we must get sustainable growth into the economy. That means investment.
Several hon. Members rose—
The time limit will be reduced to three minutes to facilitate the participation of one more Member.
It is sometimes said that the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. On 7 May, the voters decided that it would be insane to let another Labour Government repeat the mistakes that the previous Labour Government made, which, at the very least, seriously worsened the recession. They borrowed too much in order to spend too much.
The public recognise what Labour Front Benchers seek to deny: that we cannot safeguard people’s jobs and mortgages without a secure and stable economy; that we cannot go on spending far more than we earn for long without getting into a lot of trouble; and that there is absolutely nothing progressive about saddling our children and grandchildren with enormous debts over which they have no say.
That is why this evening’s vote is a basic test of Labour’s economic credibility. It is not a test of the shadow Chancellor—those results are already in and they do not look good. It is a test for the remaining moderate Members on the Labour Benches: those Members who say that they have listened to what the voters said so clearly in May and learned from it; those Members who agree with the reported comments of my friend and constituent, the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), who is not in his place, that it is time that the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) started acting like the Leader of the Opposition, rather than a student union president; and even those Members—perhaps there are some—who remember why Tony Blair is still the only Labour leader in my lifetime to win a general election. If they fail that test, they will be failing to support this self-evidently sensible and moderate measure.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware from his research for his speech that no Conservative Government in history have ever hit the target being presented to Parliament tonight. None of those historical Conservative Governments ran surpluses according to this fiscal charter. Were the Governments of Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher not economically credible?
I am not sure that even needs dignifying with a response. We fought the election on having a balanced budget by 2019-20, as announced in the Budget, and a system with a fiscal mandate that puts us in line with many of the most successful economies around the world.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry but I must conclude.
If Labour Members fail this test, it will be clearer than ever that it would be absolute insanity to let them anywhere near the control of our economy.
The Liberal Democrats will not support the charter tonight. Whatever the machinations in the Labour party, our reasons for opposing it are clear: the charter is just as much about fantasy economics as was Labour’s magic money tree. We remain committed to abolishing the structural deficit by 2017-18, and to seeing debt fall as a percentage of GDP in the following years. We will not, however, abandon the critical need for continued investment in infrastructure, and we will ensure that our economy remains competitive in the medium and long term. We are for sound and stable economic policy—something that sadly has been abandoned first by the official Opposition and now by the Government.
The charter is a trap set for the Labour party into which it has fallen headlong, and I suggest that it is also a trap for the Government over which they risk tying themselves in knots. What will happen if the Chancellor discovers that the Government are on course to miss their surplus target but growth is just ahead of 1%? Which of his rules will he break? Economic credibility means that markets, businesses and other investors have confidence that the Government will do what they say, and the charter manifestly fails that test. We will vote no tonight because the charter will simply not work. Its purpose is purely political, and parliamentary time should not be abused in this way.
What we have seen tonight from the shadow Chancellor must be one of the quickest and most dramatic U-turns by a shadow Chancellor in history. Not two weeks ago he supported the Chancellor’s charter for budget responsibility, and he surprised us and the British people by seeming to agree that we need to run a budget surplus. That was too good to be true, and today he has set his face against fiscal responsibility. By doing so he sets his face against the British people, including my constituents in Kingston and Surbiton.
Today the shadow Chancellor has given us notice of his plans for more spending funded by more borrowing and higher taxes. In May the British people decided that the Labour party could not be trusted with the economy and that it had not learned from its mistakes last time around. Two weeks ago I was surprised to hear that the shadow Chancellor was ready to take the medicine of accepting Labour’s past economic errors, but now he has shown his true colours by rejecting that medicine and tearing up the prescription. Today he has written out a new prescription—Labour’s prescription—for our economy: more spending, more borrowing and more tax. That is not a prescription for a strong economy, growth or jobs; it is a prescription for economic ruin.
I see the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) is in his place. It is a shame that his colleague the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) is not, because just a few days ago he said on Twitter:
“There is now no collective Shadow cabinet responsibility in our Party, no clarity on economic policy and no credible leadership.”
We have seen none from the shadow Chancellor tonight.
The Chancellor is deliberately misleading the public by continuing to claim that all borrowing is irresponsible. It is not. What is irresponsible is failing to borrow to invest, providing we are able to sustainably meet the cost of borrowing. That is exactly what I was saying earlier, and what seemed to cause such hilarity on the Government Benches. As long as repayments are affordable, borrowing to invest makes sense. As the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said, nobody will be saying to homeowners that taking out a mortgage to buy a home is irresponsible, provided they can afford to meet the monthly repayment costs. It represents an investment in the future.
The Chancellor wants to deny the country the same kind of chance of security combined with planning ahead, whether it relates to investing in energy efficiency and renewables or building enough affordable homes. Fiscal surplus means taking money from the public but not spending some of it. That deprives the economy of money. Compensating for what amounts to a loss of earnings and spending power in the private sector through those unspent taxes is likely to lead to more borrowing elsewhere. In other words, focusing on the Government running a surplus simply means debt being moved somewhere else.
Even with a reduced rate of cuts to public spending in the run-up to the general election, there has already been a rapid and worrying increase in consumer borrowing. Personal unsecured debts are at an all-time high. The average UK household owes close to £9,000 in unsecured debt and this is expected to rise to £10,000 by the end of 2016. The poorest 20% are taking on more and more debt, while the top 20% have been paying it off. Already, Government policy is not just having the effect of shifting the debt burden on to householders, but is falling disproportionately on the poorest in society.
Many people might find their debt affordable now, but a 2% increase in interest rates would mean the average household having to find an extra £1,000 a year and an increase in bad debt. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that household debt will rise to a massive 180% of household income by the end of this Parliament. This is completely unsustainable and should be far more concerning to the Chancellor than affordable levels of public spending, not least because the consumer debt levels we are heading for are even higher than the previous record at the height of the debt bubble which brought the economy to its knees in 2008.
Finally, there is a certain irony in what the Chancellor is doing: clearing a space in the public finances for dealing with the outcome of the next crash, by way of making a fiscal surplus requirement that itself paves the way for future economic crises.
I shall be supporting the charter this evening and I urge colleagues on all sides of the House who want a long-term fiscally responsible country to do the same. My reasons for doing so are that we have just come through a period of record peacetime deficit left to us by the previous Labour Government, while we have had to clear up their legacy of rising unemployment, rising taxation and unsustainable public spending. It has been this Government, first in coalition and now as a Conservative majority Government, who have had to clear up the mess. It is therefore our duty to put in place this charter, so that no other Government have to face a similar situation again, with a post-it note left for Ministers saying there is no money left.
Like many households up and down the country who have tried to put money aside for a rainy day, the Government, with this charter, are trying to do just that. By spending less than the taxation we collect and reaching a point of surplus, we too will have money left for a rainy day, so that if we, as a country, ever face a global recession or another period of economic slowdown, we will have the money left to pay for vital public services. To households up and down this country who manage their own bills in this way, this makes perfect sense: to ensure first and foremost that you do not spend more than you earn, and, where possible, you save where you can.
If this set of economics makes perfect sense to the ordinary man and woman in the street, why are the deficit deniers on the Opposition Benches so confused? The Labour party is too weak to take the difficult decisions needed to cut the deficit, and by voting against this charter Labour Members are proving again that the deficit would go up if they were in government, with more borrowing, more taxation and more debt. The great British public did not trust or vote for Labour in May, and if Labour Members vote against this charter tonight, they are never likely to vote for them again.
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Speaker put the Question (Standing Order No.16(1)).
14 October 2015
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
That the Charter for Budget Responsibility: autumn 2015 update which was laid before this House on 12 October, be approved.
I call Mrs Caroline Spelman to present a petition. [Interruption.] I feel it necessary to make the point I almost unfailingly have to make in these circumstances: if there are right hon. and hon. Members who unaccountably are not staying to hear the petition, perhaps they would be good enough to leave the Chamber quickly and quietly so that the right hon. Lady can deliver her petition and be heard.