I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to withdraw the Charter for Budget Responsibility: Autumn 2015 update, which was laid before this House on 12 October 2015, and to lay before the House at the earliest opportunity an alternative update which provides the basis for stabilising the UK economy and providing long-term investment for growth.
I see that the Chancellor has not joined us today. I was hoping he was going to improve on the record of his predecessor for attendance, but it is good to see the Chief Secretary on every occasion.
What the leave vote said to many was that a new economic approach is needed. Too many of our country’s places and people feel they have been left behind, and this Government’s current fiscal rules are clearly exposed as inappropriate for an economy facing this kind of shock. So we need a new framework for fiscal policy that will support the investment this country desperately needs, yet all of us have been left without any clarity from the Government over their future direction. Business groups today report they are increasingly concerned about the Government’s current lack of direction and their lack of interaction with the Government. The lack of a clear plan is already harming investment.
The Prime Minister indicated in her initial speech that she was looking to set a new direction for Government economic policy. We agree that a change of course is needed, including more investment and an industrial strategy.
The hon. Gentleman is hinting at what we hope will be a change of direction for the Government. For far too long, the Government have concentrated more on achieving a balanced budget than on managing the economy. They have not been creating demand. They should have been listening to the likes of Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Richard Murphy, all of whom have been giving the Government a map to follow for years. The fact that they have failed to follow it explains why we are in this situation today.
I will come on to the way in which the fiscal rule implementation has harmed the economy and prevented economic growth, resulting in the slowest recovery from recession in our history, but I shall now press on. I listened—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
It would be helpful if I could just finish this sentence.
I listened to the Prime Minister’s answers at questions today, which unfortunately suggested that she will largely be sticking to the fiscal approach that has failed so badly. So the uncertainty continues, and until this Government make their plans clear, Britain will be on hold.
On the speed of the recovery, we are coming out of the deepest recession that we have perhaps ever known, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would recognise the fact that we have recovered far faster than many of our major industrial competitors.
This is the slowest recovery in our history. The last time a date was put on it was 1066. The way in which we are recovering is on the basis of increased household debt, low incomes and insecure jobs. I do not think that any Government should be proud of that record.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Let me just finish another paragraph before I give way again.
A new set of rules for fiscal policy is needed. I know that some Members have questioned the need for fiscal rules at all. During the discussions on the Fiscal Responsibility Bill in early 2010, I recall the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), who was then shadow Chancellor, saying that the Bill was a “completely feeble stunt” and the
“biggest load of nonsense that this Government have had the audacity to bring to Parliament in this Session”.—[Official Report, 5 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 72.]
That was the then shadow Chancellor condemning Gordon Brown for having a fiscal rule. A short while later, when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, he produced his own fiscal rule: the fiscal responsibility charter. He missed every target in his first charter, so he brought in a second one. He was on course to miss the targets in his second one, so he brought in a third.
The shadow Chancellor has just questioned the performance of the economy under the fiscal rule, but is it not the case that the deficit fell from 11% to 4% of GDP, that the economy created 2.6 million jobs—more than in the rest of Europe put together—and that the employment rate increased by 4% and now stands at the highest level in our country’s history? Is not that evidence that the approach of the last Government worked and should be continued?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that under his own Government’s fiscal rule, the deficit should have been completely eliminated last year, and debt should have dropped but it has increased. I will send him a reading list.
When the Prime Minister was first elected last week, she said that she would govern for the many and not for the few. However, in response to questions today about the fact that poverty is affecting many people in this country, she gave the usual answer, which was that we have to have a strong economy. That suggests that she is departing from what she said in Downing Street a few days ago. Does my hon. Friend agree that this has been the longest recession resulting from punitive measures since the second world war? The second world war lasted for six years; this has lasted longer. It is brutal and it is punishing the needy in society.
I was trying to take heart from the fact that when she spoke in Downing Street, the Prime Minister recognised just how divided Britain is between the wealthy and those at the sharpest end of the austerity measures. I was hoping that that would be translated into an acknowledgement today that the fiscal rule must go.
Several hon. Members rose—
Can I just press on a bit further before I give way again? I am sure there will be plenty of time, Madam Deputy Speaker.
As I was saying, the former Chancellor missed every target in his first charter, so he brought in a second. He was on course to miss the targets in that second one, so he then brought in a third. In September last year, he presented his 2015 update. The current charter for budget responsibility sets targets for an overall balance on Government spending inside five years, with debt falling in each year of the Parliament. However, the Government knew last summer that the vast majority of economists who were asked had criticised the approach, as had the Treasury Committee. Almost without exception, the Labour party agreed with the macroeconomic profession that the approach was likely to prove misguided. We were defeated in the Lobbies that day, but our warnings have been proved prescient.
The shadow Chancellor will know that any critique of the Government should be accompanied by a coherent alternative strategy. On that basis, is he embarrassed that the Leader of the Opposition’s economic adviser Richard Murphy described the Labour party’s approach as having
“no policy direction, no messaging, no direction, no co-ordination, no nothing”?
He is not the economic adviser and never has been, because we doubted his judgment, unfortunately. He is a tax accountant, not an adviser. He is actually excellent on tax evasion and tax avoidance, but he leaves a lot to be desired on macroeconomic policy.
Turning to the Government’s performance, their charter for budget responsibility lacked credibility from the moment it passed into law and has now lost what shreds it retained this year. Since last September’s debate, every target in the charter that could have been missed has been missed. By the time of the March Budget, the OBR announced that the Government were on track to miss their target for the welfare cap for every year of this Parliament. The charter also insisted that the debt to GDP ratio would fall in each year of this Parliament, but the OBR said in March:
“We now expect the debt-to-GDP ratio to rise between 2014-15 and 2015-16”.
The Government managed to stay on target for its 2020 surplus only through some accountancy that might best be described as imaginative. The writing was already on the wall and then in June the then Chancellor used the backdrop of his fiscal charter as the pretext for threatening British people with a further austerity Budget should they vote to leave the EU.
This is all very technical, but politics is about people. I was told today that unemployment in my constituency is higher than it was this time last year and remains more than double the UK average. Stockton Council, the Tees Valley local enterprise partnership and local companies are doing their bit, but our people are suffering more under the Government’s austerity measures. Is it not time that the Government looked again at council and development budgets and based them on the real needs of our communities?
Saying that the fiscal charter is a technical matter is a good point, but it is the foundation upon which these poor—to say the least—decisions are being made, and a lack of investment is the result.
Following the vote to leave the EU, despite the threat of a punishment Budget we have seen an entirely predictable U-turn. No punishment Budget is scheduled and we have been told by both the old and new Chancellors that one will not happen and that, on the contrary, we must be realistic and accept that the deficit will not be gone by 2020, as predicted by the charter. From the responses at Prime Minister’s questions, it seems as though the surplus target for 2019-20 has now been dropped or has at least slipped to some unknown date in the future. Let us be clear: the Conservatives claimed that their approach would eliminate the deficit in five years, but it will not have happened after 10 years. Three targets set—every target missed. The 2015 charter appears to be dead in the water.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. Does he agree that it is appropriate to have a fiscal charter as a matter of principle? Strong economies, such as those of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, all have such a rule.
Of course. That is why we support a fiscal charter approach and have produced a realistic one—fiscal charters must be realistic. If the Government set targets and then miss the three that they set themselves, that undermines the credibility of the Government’s economic policy making.
The only hope of rescuing the existing charter is by activating its knockout clause, which the Chancellor referred to in an earlier speech. To remind hon. Members, if growth has been below 1%, is below 1% or is forecast by the OBR to be below 1% on a rolling four-quarter by four-quarter basis, the charter’s targets can be suspended. The problem is that the OBR recently announced that it will not release new projections until later this year, so we remain in the dark about whether the charter targets are still in operation. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we can only assume that the charter still holds. That means Departments and other public agencies are operating under the old rules; they are still implementing planned spending cuts and still holding back investment decisions. It is essential for the wellbeing of this country that the House repeals the updated charter, because as it stands the charter still requires achieving a surplus, which we all know is impossible to achieve, as I believe the Prime Minister admitted today.
One flaw in the current charter is that it is all about the supply side—reducing welfare costs, reducing debt and eliminating the deficit. What this economy needs at this moment in time is investment. We need investment in infrastructure and in skills, and we need investment in the future.
As always, my hon. Friend is spot on. We are on the same page as almost every organisation that has an interest in the economy in this country: the CBI; the Federation of Small Businesses; the British Chambers of Commerce; and the TUC. All of them are saying exactly as he has said.
Controlling welfare spending has been a key element of this Government’s economic plan and has helped to make the fiscal charter a reality. How would the hon. Gentleman plug the black hole? Would he raise taxes, raid pensions or print more money?
The problem with the hon. Gentleman’s contention is that we were told the way to control welfare spending was to introduce a welfare cap, and this was part of the charter. The Government have now breached that charter consistently and are forecast to breach it in every year throughout their Administration. The point I am making is that the fiscal charter is almost redundant now, because it is so ineffective. Housing benefit did rocket, but the way to control welfare is by building council homes again, so we are not pouring money into the pockets of private rented landlords.
Let me just press on; I commit to coming back to the hon. Gentleman. Madam Deputy Speaker might get a bit hot if I continue to take too many interventions.
Households and businesses up and down the country need clarity and guidance, and it would be irresponsible to leave them without guidance as to the Government’s actions until the autumn. Waiting until October is a luxury this economy cannot afford, and Britain is on hold until the Chancellor makes his plans clear. Unfortunately, this is only the latest consequence of a shocking lack of planning by the Government for the eventuality of a leave vote. The then Chancellor said back in March that a credible blueprint was completely missing from the leave campaign, but a blueprint of any kind seemed to be missing from the entirety of the Government. The Chancellor must now take the necessary steps to give himself the freedom to invest in the economy, without being bound by a surplus rule he has conceded is likely to be ditched in the autumn in any case.
I very much hope that Madam Deputy Speaker is not too hot at this point in time. The hon. Gentleman is trying his best to put forward his arguments, but his approach completely lacks credibility—he has not even brought any Labour Members in to support him today. Is the truth not that even two Eds were better than none?
I will have to watch my language, Madam Deputy Speaker. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that when someone is going to crack a joke in this place—I know this because I have failed so often—it is best that they get the script right. As for Labour Members, the message has come across in every debate we have had, consistently since September, including today, that this is about the difference between having a fiscal charter that allows us to invest and one that does not. It is as simple as that. I respect his views and I have listened to his contributions in the past, but on this issue I believe that even those on his own side are beginning to move.
Britain is on hold until the Chancellor makes his plans, because, unfortunately, as I said, this is not the only consequence of the lack of planning. I say to Conservative Members that it is important now that we recognise the decisions that have to be made as soon as possible, particularly on the surplus rule. We already know about the black hole in March’s Budget brought about by the Government’s U-turn on personal independence payments, but following the leave vote, the former Chancellor also announced plans to reduce corporation tax to below 15%. That is a significant fiscal announcement. According to the ready reckoner of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, by the time it takes full effect it could mean an enormous additional £4 billion giveaway by the Treasury. This is money that could otherwise be spent on public services. It would be useful to know today whether the successor Chancellor is planning to be similarly generous to large corporations and whether the reduction to 15% is still part of the Government’s plans.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way yet again. He has mentioned a couple of times that Britain is on hold, but just this week SoftBank bought ARM Holdings, a company in Cambridgeshire that spans my constituency, for £24 billion, which shows that Britain is still open for business. People still very much want to invest here, and there is nothing in the economy on hold.
I will come on to that, but I have to say that there are some concerns about the sale of British assets, and I am simply echoing what the Prime Minister herself said only a few weeks ago.
Energy-intensive industries are also concerned about the lack of planning in the country. They are extremely anxious about the future of emissions trading schemes inside and outside the EU, and many are desperate for British Government action to ensure that they can stay in business in the longer term. They want action on crippling carbon taxes now, and after we leave the EU. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must address these issues, and that it is time the Chancellor made a commitment to champion and help to finance carbon capture and storage?
I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench were listening to that. The Chancellor has a long list of issues that he needs to address to give some certainty, certainly if we are to see long-term investment in such things. I share my hon. Friend’s views: there is too much uncertainty with regard to a whole range of taxation and support initiatives from the Government. To be frank, it is jeopardising jobs as well as the future of our planet.
We have been hearing this refrain that Britain is not on hold and that things are happening, but they are not. Britain is very much on hold. It is actually worse than that, as we see if we look at our neighbours. The hon. Gentleman might remember how, a number of years ago, this House mocked both Iceland and Ireland. It does not say much about them now when Ireland has treble the growth of the United Kingdom and Iceland double the growth. On a recent visit to the Central Bank of Iceland, I was told that the economy had grown so fast that it needed to be slowed down, and that it needed migrants to fill its jobs. These are economies that were once mocked in the United Kingdom and that are now very much laughing quietly to themselves as they speed into the sunset.
I think the argument is sound. Until we obtain a fiscal rule that reflects the reality of our economy and our future, we will not return to the dynamism that is needed to restore growth and to ensure that we have wages and jobs that are beneficial to the community overall rather than the low paid and insecure work that we have at the moment.
Let me press on, because I do not want to strain your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is not just Members on these Benches who believe that the fiscal rules adopted by the Government are not fit for purpose. The former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), called for a £100 billion infrastructure fund to invest in schools and housing. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government called for tax cuts across the board and spoke about a Growing Britain fund, funded by more borrowing. The new Prime Minister repeated today the need to abandon the surplus target—perhaps to let it slip. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spoke about the need for “prosperity, not austerity”. We welcome all those conversions to our line of argument, but none of this can be achieved within the confines of the charter as it now stands until the Office for Budget Responsibility advises otherwise.
We saw the consequences of the policies based on the old fiscal framework yesterday in a report from the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies. Let me just remind Members what the report said: the incomes of young people are still 7% below where they were before the financial crisis, and the incomes of those in their 30s, 40s and 50s have remained stagnant. Andy Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England, has spoken about a “lost decade” for earnings. McKinsey reports that four fifths of households have seen either no improvement or falling earnings. That is what we have to show for the year of fiscal rules from the former Chancellor. There is a consensus now across the country, from the TUC to the CBI, that investment is needed. Earlier this year the IMF told the Government that it had no objections on the grounds of fiscal responsibility to the Government undertaking more investment. The OECD agrees, but until the OBR gives permission to suspend the surplus rule, the Chancellor is constrained by his own rules.
The Government’s current plans for public sector net investment for the rest of this Parliament are for it to fall in each year, from £36.4 billion this year to £32.1 billion in 2019-20. Of course, we do not expect a full Budget now, but the least we need is a commitment to recognise the changed times that we are living in. The uncertainty about public investment comes on top of uncertainty about the structural funds for regions—which are set to lose up to £10 billion if we leave the EU—and further uncertainty for those reliant on projects funded by the European Investment Bank. I repeat that it is essential that, as a minimum, there is a guarantee from the Government soon to protect these funds in some form on an equivalent level.
There is an alternative; there has always been an alternative. Members of the Government Front-Bench team now see it, in part. Opposition Members have said so for some time. There is an alternative based upon investing in the future, growing the economy and allowing fiscal policy to work hand in hand with monetary policy. Professor Mariana Mazzucato has argued for the need for long-term, patient investment. We support that. It is true that the sale of ARM Holdings to SoftBank indicates that there is potential for new industries and innovation, but that potential needs long-term financing, which includes Government investment in infrastructure and research.
After the leave vote, more forecasters have cut their growth forecast. The IMF has joined them. Yesterday it revised down its prognosis for next year from 2.1% to 0.8%. With the current account deficit having hit record highs in the past year—in the most recent figures, it stands at 6.5%—our plan for the future cannot just be to fund that indefinitely with more overseas sales, such as that of ARM. We hope that the Chancellor will heed those who are calling for a much needed and eminently affordable change of direction.
It is a tragedy for this country that the Conservatives have only noticed that there is an alternative as a result of the leave vote, which I fear they helped to bring about. I announced on Monday that the Labour party supports a large programme of investment and will support the Government in a large programme of investment.
It was only a year ago that the hon. Gentleman was telling the media that he supported George Osborne’s austerity charter. He has changed his mind and I welcome that U-turn, but more than 20 Labour MPs voted for the charter. Not a single SNP MP has voted for austerity. When will the people of the UK see a unified position against austerity across the Labour Benches, or can we in the SNP expect to continue ad infinitum as the only credible opposition to Tory austerity?
Good try. Initially last year I thought the fiscal charter was so ludicrous that I was just going to rubbish it or ignore it. Then, as people remember, I made a U-turn because I thought we could defeat it, because we had virtually all the Labour party and others demonstrating that it was ludicrous. We predicted that every target set in the fiscal charter would be missed, and we were right. The Labour party is an anti-austerity party. We will campaign against austerity, but more importantly now, we are campaigning for a long-term future plan of investment.
I think we are winning the argument right across the piece. As I said, from partners in industry and across the political parties—even in the Conservative party now, as we saw in the leadership campaign—there are voices calling for hundreds of billions of pounds of investment. We are winning that argument. The problem is now that we need decisive change from Government with regard to the fiscal rule; otherwise Britain will remain on hold.
I am sure that one of the things that my hon. Friend learned, as I did, during the referendum was that, as I mentioned, the British people have had enough of austerity. They want politics to change. They want investment. Some of my hon. Friends have mentioned the areas of investment. It is important that we learn the lesson of the referendum—that people have had enough of austerity.
Many voted to leave on the basis that they and their towns and regions felt left behind as a result of seven years of austerity, which have brought about high levels of poverty, lack of investment, and low-paid jobs and insecure jobs. As a result, I think there was an expression of anger in the referendum about a whole range of issues. People were saying to the Government, “We’re not satisfied with your performance, we’re not satisfied with the way we are being governed and we want change.”
There is something in what the hon. Gentleman says, and there are parts of the country that clearly felt angry and left out, but I found that, overwhelmingly, the reason why people were going to vote to leave was their concern about immigration. My understanding is that he supports limitless immigration—not putting controls on it—and that matters if he is going to bring the Brexit debate up in his speech.
Let us be clear, because it is best not to exaggerate people’s positions. I think the response on immigration was a response to the concerns people had about the undercutting of wages, the pressure on public services and so on. That is why, on the development of the free movement of people, we have always argued—particularly from the Opposition side—that we should ensure there are sufficient controls, but also mechanisms to prevent the undermining of wages. That is why the last Labour Government—I praise them for this—set up a fund to alleviate the pressure on public services. I think a whole batch of grievances was wrapped up in the vote, and we have to learn from that.
One of the key grievances, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) said, was the impact of austerity on people’s daily lives, which is caused by the adherence to a fiscal rule that we now know is virtually bankrupt and having counter- productive implications for our economy by holding back the investment that many people—even on the Government side—now feel is needed.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Would the hon. and learned Lady allow me to finish? I have taken several interventions, and she will be able to speak. [Interruption.] Oh, go on.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he is being very generous. He said there are a number of alternatives to the position the Conservative Government put forward. He also said in answer to an earlier intervention that he accepts there should be some sort of fiscal rule. Will he tell the House when Labour would return our budget to a surplus?
Let me outline Labour’s fiscal credibility rule, which we set out a number of months ago. We said that we would have a forward-looking target to achieve a cyclically adjusted current balance by the end of a rolling five-year forecast period. Why? Because that gives us the flexibility to adjust to shocks such as the one we have seen. Capital expenditure would be excluded from the deficit target in order that the Government can invest for higher growth. The contentious issue last September was that the then Chancellor included capital investment in the overall fiscal rule, which held back investment, and that is why we have seen the figures for Government investment falling. Debt as a proportion of potential GDP would be lower at the end of each five-year Parliament than at the start. Again, that gives an element of discipline.
However, we also make the point that when conventional monetary policy is hampered by the lower bound to interest rates, the rules will be suspended in order that fiscal policy can then work, but we have suggested that the Monetary Policy Committee should be the determinant of that. Why is that more flexible than the existing rule? It is because, as we have seen, the Office for Budget Responsibility, for example, is not going to report until the autumn, but the Monetary Policy Committee meets monthly, so that will give us more flexibility. In our credibility rule, we also said that the OBR would be responsible to Parliament, with a clear mandate to blow the whistle on any Government breaching those rules, so that gives an element of independence. It is a fiscal rule, but a credible one. If it was operating now, we would be abiding by it, and we would be investing for the future.
Let me press on to the end. We hope the Chancellor will heed those who call for a much needed and eminently affordable change in direction. It is a tragedy for this country that the Conservative party has come to notice that alternative only as a result of the leave vote. As I said, I announced on Monday that we would support a large programme of investment to help to ensure that the potential of our economy is met. We proposed a national investment bank, which would help to boost investment across the country, ensuring that no community is left behind.
In conclusion, Labour will do all it can to ensure that the price of any negative shocks from the leave vote will not be paid by working people in any part of the country. In March, we saw the fastest unravelling of a Budget almost in living history. Now, the entire fiscal approach, as underpinned by the current charter, has collapsed in almost a year. The Government’s economic credibility faces nothing less than a catastrophe unless they rise to the challenge.
We cannot wait for the OBR to report in due course that there has been a negative shock and that the targets are suspended. To be frank, the mandate as it stands is shredded and must go. There is no credible option left to the Chancellor but to undo what should never have been done, to put right his predecessor’s mistakes, to repeal the charter and to support this motion, bringing forward an alternative that provides the basis for the stabilisation of the UK economy and the provision, above all else, for long-term investment in growth.
This Government have been clear that we will not waver in our determination to take every opportunity to stabilise and strengthen the British economy. Ever since we were elected in 2010, we have been resolute in carrying out our plan to build a more resilient economy—one where we invest in our future growth; one where we return the public finances to a sustainable position; and, therefore, one where we are ready for whatever comes our way.
It has not always been an easy course to follow. The Government and the British people have worked hard to fix the public finances. We have had to make tough choices and difficult decisions.
We can be proud of what we have all achieved over the past six years. We have brought down the deficit by almost two thirds from its post-war peak in 2009-10. We have the highest employment on record and the lowest rate of unemployment in more than a decade. There are almost 1 million new businesses in our country since 2010 and, working with the Bank of England, we have strengthened the financial system. That is a long way to have come.
The second thing that we can all be proud of are the strengths that we still have in this country. We are still one of the best places in the world to do business, one of the best places in the world to invest, and one of the most innovative, forward facing and outward-facing countries in the world.
It is because of that hard-won recovery, and because of our hard-working families and businesses and the enduring strengths that we still have here in the UK, that we are all now in a position, and are as ready as we could possibly be, to see out whatever challenges come our way next.
On the question of the UK being a great place to do business, does my right hon. Friend agree that cutting corporation tax, which was referred to by the proposer of the motion, is a very positive sign and a way of attracting businesses to locate and invest in this country?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Our record on corporation tax—we cut it from 28% in 2010, it is now 20%, and we have legislated to reduce it to 17%—has made the UK much more attractive. The likes of the OECD have made it clear that corporation tax is one of the most distorting and, therefore, least growth-friendly taxes. The fact that we have moved so dramatically in this era—during which we have also put the public finances on a sounder footing—to make our business taxes much stronger puts us in a much stronger position than we would otherwise be. It is striking that, in survey after survey of international businesses, the position of the UK has improved in terms of our reputation as a place to do business. In particular, our tax reforms have helped attract investment here. I know from the meetings that I have had with international businesses when they are choosing where to locate activity that the fact that our corporation tax regime is more competitive is a factor that helps to drive investment to the UK.
Alongside that, we have taken significant steps to ensure that the international tax system is such that businesses pay the taxes that are due, but it is absolutely right that the UK positions itself as a more competitive place, and that is what we have done.
For clarification—I raised this in my speech—is it still Government policy and in their plans to move towards 15%?
The Chancellor has made it clear that he will look at all the options when it comes to the autumn statement. It is the case that we have legislated to move to 17%, and it continues to be the case that we want to send out a signal that the UK is open for business and that we will still have a competitive tax system. My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) has already raised that important point. The precise policies we will follow at the autumn statement are a matter for the Chancellor to announce then, but Government Members are united in our belief that the steps we have taken on corporation tax have made us much better prepared for the uncertainties of the future.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his position. I also welcome the Financial Secretary to her position, and I believe that the Exchequer’s gain is the Department of Health’s loss. The Chief Secretary talks about this country being the place to do business. He heard me talk about carbon capture and storage in an earlier intervention. Will the Government now commit to doing more to help energy-intensive industries—with energy costs, but also by dealing with some of the carbon taxes they face—and commit to greater support for carbon capture and storage?
I entirely agree, in relation to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, that the Treasury’s gain is the Department of Health’s loss. I will not pre-empt any autumn statement announcements on energy-intensive industries or any other area. I would point to the steps we have taken as a Government to help energy-intensive industries. We have responded to the points made to us by that sector with support for energy costs and so on. No doubt, the hon. Gentleman will continue to make his case on behalf of those industries.
I want to follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin). On cutting corporation tax, does the Chief Secretary not agree that the key point is that, although many people are calling for huge investment programmes by the Government, the investment we need must come from the private sector, and that if the private sector pays less tax, it will invest more?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In particular, in the context of corporation tax—after all, it is a tax on profits and on the return on investment—if we lower the rate and increase the return on investment, we would expect, all other things being equal, to see an increase in investment by such companies. In recent years, we have seen increases in business investment and in foreign direct investment. I would argue that we face some immediate challenges as a consequence of the Brexit vote, but I remain convinced—the evidence is very strong—that the steps we have taken on corporation tax will ensure that we are better prepared than we would otherwise have been.
In the context of the challenges we face, whatever one’s views—remain or leave—I think everyone predicted that a vote to leave would result in some short-term turbulence in our economy. As the Prime Minister has rightly said, Brexit means Brexit, but we have to get through this immediate period, in which some of the risks that exist will crystallise. Since the referendum, the value of our currency has dropped by a tenth compared with the dollar, and independent commentators expect to see a general slowing of investment, exports and business decisions. However, if we do all we can to stabilise our economy and set it back on a clear path, I believe we can prosper in the new circumstances.
Are we not missing a trick here? The Chief Secretary will know that bond yields are at an all-time low. Private sector growth is not as strong as it perhaps ought to be. There are really good projects that are ready to be invested in and there are companies that are desperate for investment. Is it not now time for the Government to redouble their efforts to refocus their economic policy on a proper programme of investment in growth?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman gives the Government the credit we are due for what we are doing on infrastructure. I understand the argument that we need to do more to improve our infrastructure, but let us remember what we have done: more than a quarter of a trillion pounds has been invested in infrastructure since 2010, the average annual investment in the last Parliament was 17% higher than in the preceding one and we have set out plans to invest more than £100 billion in infrastructure by the end of this Parliament.
We are taking measures on infrastructure, but we must put those in context. We also have to ensure that we have sound public finances. The immediate response to the shock of leaving the European Union has to be to work closely with the Bank of England as it carries out its role of providing stability and confidence in our economy. Monetary policy should be the first means of response to an economic shock such as this. We will use the summer period ahead to assess the situation, based on the economic data, and come the autumn we will report back to the House, setting out how we will respond on spending and taxation.
Let me be clear with the House: we continue to believe in fiscal responsibility. This country should not, as it did in the earlier part of this century, make itself vulnerable to economic shocks by letting public spending get out of control. As the Chancellor has made clear—and, indeed, as the previous Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), made clear—our target to reach a surplus by 2019-20 should not be sought in the economic circumstances we now face.
As hon. Members know, our fiscal plans to reach a surplus always came with a clear caveat: if our economic circumstances were to alter significantly and the independent Office for Budget Responsibility were to forecast less than 1% real growth on a rolling four quarter on four quarter basis, that target would be reviewed. With expert forecasters suggesting that we are highly likely to see that risk to our growth crystallise in the time ahead, we have announced that we will no longer seek to bring the budget into balance by 2019-20. As the Chancellor has said to the House, that does not mean that we can go forward without a clear framework for achieving fiscal balance over an appropriate timeframe. We will address that issue in the autumn statement.
I hear the argument that we should go for growth, but fiscal responsibility does not preclude our achieving economic growth. As has been pointed out in this debate, the UK has grown pretty well as strongly as any other major western economy over the past six years, even though we have undertaken a period of getting the public finances under control. The idea that there is a straightforward tension between economic growth and fiscal responsibility simply is not true. Indeed, it is by pursuing a policy of fiscal stability that we have maintained the confidence not just of the markets, as a consequence of which our gilt rates are lower than they would otherwise be, but of the general public, who know that in the end, if we keep borrowing and keep borrowing and keep borrowing, they will have to pick up the tab.
For the sake of completeness, the Chief Secretary will probably want to thank the central Bank for its quantitative easing programme—flooding the market with money by buying Government gilts—because that is a substantial reason for the very low yields the market is seeing.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making about gilt yields, but none the less the Government’s credibility because of our determination to address the public finances—with a degree of pragmatism on timing that I fully acknowledge—has helped to ensure that the UK has not been drawn into a sovereign debt crisis or indeed anything like one. That is a significant achievement for this country.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his well-deserved promotion. The employment figures are fantastic and what the Government have done on tax avoidance is very laudable, but before he gets too self-congratulatory I caution him to bear in mind that we have had six years of falling living standards, with a bubble of household debt and a house price bubble; and in those six years the national debt has gone up by 60%. As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) said, we need capital stimulation through the state spending money, on house building in particular. That is politically acceptable to the vast majority of the population of the United Kingdom, because we would have council houses owned by the state—the state would be borrowing money to invest in bricks and mortar, just as everyone else in this country does if they can buy their own house. The national debt is up 60% and we do not have a lot to show for that; let us put it up a bit higher while interest rates are low and have some houses to show for it.
There are those who will argue, in the light of Brexit, that we should not worry about borrowing and debt. They are usually—not always, and I certainly exclude the hon. Gentleman from this—the same people who have argued consistently for the past 10 years that we should not worry about borrowing and debt; it is the reasons that have tended to change. First, they argued that we need not worry about borrowing because the business cycle had been abolished and there would be no downturn, so that was all right. Then their argument was that we should borrow because we needed a fiscal stimulus, and then because gilt rates were so low. But with debt last year at almost 84% of our GDP, maintaining fiscal credibility must absolutely remain our priority. If we had not taken the measures we have on public finance over the past few years, we would be in a far worse position still. Analysis shows that from 2010 to 2020, if the structural deficit had remained the same we would have borrowed an additional £930 billion. That is a huge sum to add to our current debt total.
We have already set out our plans for finding departmental savings and in my new role I will be working closely with my fellow Ministers to make sure we stick to those plans. We have a strong record on delivering such commitments—we have done so every single year we have been in government, and we are not going to let up in our efforts now.
I am also determined to look at what further scope there is for delivering the value for money that the taxpayer deserves. I have spent the past six years working hard to make sure we get the tax revenues in, so am not about to see those revenues spent without delivering as much for our money as possible. I will therefore also take forward our work on finding further efficiencies across the public sector. That work was announced at the last Budget and I will be taking it forward straightaway, to explore all avenues for making innovations, finding reforms and saving time and money across the public sector.
This is without doubt a time of considerable uncertainty. That has its own implications for the current stability of our economy. We anticipated short-term turbulence in the event of a decision to leave the European Union, and that has been reflected in the economic developments that have unfolded. It is clear that we must pursue policies that help us grow in the future. That means pursuing pro-business tax policies, improving our skills and our infrastructure, and looking out to the world, enabling us to trade and benefit from globalisation, as there are real signs of opportunities ahead from such an outward-facing approach.
I congratulate the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Financial Secretary on their promotions. Does my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the Prime Minister’s proposals for infrastructure bonds, which will boost economic growth and give the country vital infrastructure?
My hon. Friend raises an important point about how the Government are doing all they can to support infrastructure in this country. As I said, we have a proud record on that, and an infrastructure pipeline worth, I think, £480 billion. We have taken steps to reform our planning system to help infrastructure, and established the National Infrastructure Commission. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the proposals set out by the Prime Minister in that area.
We can take measures to help improve infrastructure in this country, but all measures to help growth—whether our outward-looking approach to trade, our pro-business tax policies, or improving infrastructure or skills—can and must go hand in hand with the need to take our public finances seriously, and the Government will pursue that balanced approach.
What we hear from the Labour party continues to be unbalanced, and there is a failure to take into account the need for credibility with the public finances. Labour may have changed a lot of its personnel, but I fear that there is a degree of continuity in the failure to face up to challenges in the public finances, and the motion reflects that. I therefore urge the House to oppose the case for fiscal indiscipline that we have heard today, and to oppose the motion before us.
I am glad that the Minister mentioned short-term turbulence as a result of the Brexit decision—the Chancellor has already spoken about that. The Minister is a pragmatic politician, so if that short-term turbulence turns into medium or long-term problems in two, five or 10 years—not least because of the absence of trade deals with the world’s biggest trading bloc—I hope that he will turn on the pragmatic tap even more strongly than he has perhaps tried to do in the Treasury so far.
This debate is about the fiscal charter, so I will run through a small bit of history and make some other comments. When the coalition Government first introduced the charter for budget responsibility, the fiscal mandate was for a cyclically adjusted current budget to be balanced by the fifth year of a forward-looking forecast period—that was similar to the plan laid out by the Labour shadow Chancellor earlier. As the Library has helpfully pointed out—it has helped a great deal with this debate—that plan was shortened to the third year of the forecast period in the December 2014 charter update. That also focused on the current balance, which is the difference between Government revenue and current, rather than capital, expenditure. Focusing on the current Budget was designed, at least on paper, to protect public sector capital investment, which is important.
A number of speakers have mentioned capital investment today, but the real problem is that capital expenditure forecasts, and real capital investment, have been rising and falling over the past few years like a yo-yo. There is concern that the National Infrastructure Commission was designed not so much to facilitate investment and drive it on, but rather to delay some of it further—but I digress.
The previous mandate used a measure of the budget balance adjusted for the economic cycle to allow the flexibility to run a deficit during recessions and a surplus during booms. The fiscal mandate was accompanied by a supplementary debt target. Originally that was for public sector net debt to fall as a share of GDP in 2015-16, but that was moved to 2016-17 in the December 2014 update. That target, of course, was not met—one of a number of broken promises by the Government in the previous Parliament, in which debt, deficit and borrowing targets all failed to be delivered as promised in 2010.
That brings us to the current charter for budget responsibility and the fiscal mandate. The charter sets out the OBR’s role, how it performs its duties, and the required content of its publications. It lays out the Government’s fiscal mandate, supplementary debt target, and essentially the cap on welfare spending. The OBR assesses and reports on progress against those targets in the economic and fiscal outlook. Just in case anyone has forgotten, the current fiscal mandate target is for the public sector’s overall budget—public sector net borrowing—to be in surplus by 2019-20. Once a surplus has been reached, the target is for a surplus to be achieved every year. Frankly, that is impossible if we are to manage the economy in a sensible way. The other target is the supplementary debt target, where until 2019-20 the fiscal mandate will be supplemented with a target for public sector net debt to fall as a percentage of GDP in each year. Those targets, as the Chief Secretary said, will apply unless the OBR assesses there has been a significant negative shock. That is, in effect, where we are today.
If annual real growth in the economy is less than 1%, the OBR will judge there to have been a significant economic or negative shock and the economy will be out of what it calls “normal times”. If the OBR judges that a negative shock has occurred or will occur, fiscal targets will be suspended. That is the nub of the problem with these rules. If the OBR looks backwards over a 12-month period before confirming that growth was less than 1%, that might mean that changes to monetary or fiscal policy may not be delivered or enacted as quickly as they should have been to minimise the problems of a slowing economy. Likewise, if the future forecasts are overly optimistic—quite a common phenomenon in this place—necessary changes to fiscal or monetary policy required to protect jobs and growth might be delayed longer than they should be. In essence, the charter and the rules are a policy for inertia, rather than a policy for action.
Part of the charter requirements are that, should the rules be suspended, the Treasury must set out a plan to return the budget to surplus, including temporary fiscal targets. That plan must be approved by a vote in the House of Commons. One of the last acts of the previous Chancellor was to appear to suggest a suspension of the rules. I think he said—the Chief Secretary can correct me if I am paraphrasing this incorrectly—that the automatic stabilisers would be allowed to function and that corporation tax would be subject, potentially, to deep cuts. If that was the plan, it was not very detailed. I have not yet heard of any temporary targets and Parliament has not yet voted. We are about to go into recess and there is no vote on the horizon. I think that that tells us all that the charter is not fit for purpose and that the rules in place for when promised targets fail are not even remotely being adhered to. It would be better, I think, not simply to suspend the charter, but to rip it up and start again. I am rather less concerned with a plan and a charter to deliver an arbitrary surplus. More important is a plan to deliver real economic growth.
It is worth pointing out that over the past six decades or more, budget deficits have been the norm. Surpluses have been very rare. Since 1955-56, the UK’s public sector budget has been in surplus for only eight years. The last surplus was 15 years ago. The OBR suggested that the UK was set to return to surplus by the end of the decade, but that now looks unachievable—another broken promise. There is, however, a bigger problem than a surplus rule, which the OBR described, in civil service code, as
“ambitious relative to the fiscal performance of past governments”.
I will translate that, Mr Deputy Speaker: it means the Government will not meet their targets. The bigger problem is that it is designed to suck consumption out of the economy before recovery is secured. The scale of that, even as recently as the 2016 Red Book, is breathtaking: not just cutting £10 billion a year more than is necessary to run a balanced economy, but by 2020-21 cutting spending by £50 billion a year more than is necessary to run a balanced current budget.
We know where the cost of this austerity falls: it falls on the poorest in society. How do we know that? The Government have told us. As the cuts and tax rises have risen, so has the ratio of cuts to tax rises, placing the burden of austerity and an arbitrary fiscal target squarely on the backs of the poorest.
This mandate is now collapsing around the Government’s feet, along with the much-vaunted and never-delivered long-term economic plan—a plan that is a bit like a unicorn: everybody knows what it looks like but no one has ever actually seen it. [Laughter.] I used that in a previous speech, but I did not get a laugh that time. It has been said that fiscal rules can be applied in other ways, but the previous Chancellor and, I presume, the current one believe that the current level of public sector debt is too high and that running a budget surplus is the only reliable way to reduce it.
The Treasury Bench has argued that high levels of debt are too risky and too damaging for the UK, leave the UK vulnerable to future economic shocks and squeeze out other public spending through high debt interest payments. At face value that is fine, but there are other credible and fiscally responsible ways in which the deficit can come down and debt can fall as a share of GDP.
The hon. Gentleman is making a detailed and, in his own way, cogent argument, but—[Laughter.] It was meant to be a compliment. The key word, however, is “investment”, and my view is that investment needs to come primarily from the private sector. He talks about the benefits of getting debt down. Surely one of the key benefits is the confidence it builds in the economy among those big international companies that we want to invest in the UK.
I agree that confidence will come from a reduction in debt as a share of GDP and a real reduction in the deficit, and I have no aversion whatsoever to genuine, substantial private sector investment. Unfortunately, in the current climate, because of the Brexit decision, there is a bit of a hiatus—substantial investment is being put on hold and might be lost. Trust me, in the competitive international world, every other country in Europe will be saying, “See that £10 billion you were putting into the UK—bring it here.” They will be saying that in Germany and France, and when we are independent, we will be saying it in Scotland too. This is when the UK Government should be stepping in to make sure that any gap in essential investment is filled.
On the alternatives, others have pointed out that the UK can run deficits and allow the ratio of debt to GDP to drift down over time, arguing that the value of debt can be eroded through economic growth. We have not heard a lot about growth. For many years, the mantra from the Government was: growth alone will not solve the problem. I happen to agree, but there has been no plan for growth at all. Instead, we have had almost a fetish and obsession with austerity and cutting debt, irrespective of the growth consequences.
The hon. Gentleman says he has not heard enough about growth. I will give him some stats. The IMF says that UK growth will be greater than that of Germany and France. They might well try to lure expenditure in their direction, but our growth is still exceeding that of our European partners.
Growth in the UK exceeds that in other countries sometimes. It is higher than G7 averages sometimes; other times it is not. The most up-to-date forecast is for a likely cut in growth to 0.8% next year. That would be lamentable and unforgivable if it is avoidable.
My biggest problem with the charter is that the poor pay the price for this obsession with cuts. The fiscal charter was not delivered in isolation; it was delivered with a welfare cap limiting how much could be spent by Government on certain social security benefits over the rolling five-year forecast period. Performance is then assessed by the OBR, which reports at each autumn statement on whether the relevant welfare spending has met or exceeded the level of the cap. It is highly likely, as we have seen and heard and as the Government have effectively conceded, that the OBR will tell us that the cap has been breached and will continue to be so for the rest of the Parliament.
We have, therefore, a fiscal mandate designed to suck consumption out of the economy; a fiscal mandate driving £50 billion a year more in cuts by the end of the Parliament than is necessary to run a balanced current budget; a mandate that, in essence, delivers inertia and might delay the necessary fiscal and monetary policy steps required to maintain growth; and a fiscal mandate that is ripped up if it fails, without a new plan—which would be necessary—put in its place. That fiscal mandate, in essence, is simply not worth having, so we will vote for the Labour party’s motion today. I would say to the Government, however, that they should suspend the fiscal charter, go for growth and build consensus on a charter or a mandate that has the confidence of politicians, the markets and the public.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this timely debate. Although the Chamber is not as full as it could be, this is an incredibly fundamental debate on the key issue of the moment.
I start by congratulating the Front-Bench team on their promotions, including my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) as the new Financial Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke) as Chief Secretary. I attended a school in Hertfordshire and represent a Suffolk constituency, while he represents a Hertfordshire constituency and was educated in Suffolk. The East Anglian Daily Times was particularly excited by his promotion as a son of Ipswich. I congratulate both of my colleagues again.
I am proud of this Government’s economic record. As the Prime Minister said when she opened a fantastic performance at Prime Minister’s questions today, we have record employment once again, we have an 11-year low in unemployment at 4.9%, and we know that the deficit has been cut by two thirds—an incredibly significant achievement that cannot be underestimated. I was reassured by the Prime Minister when she said that we still aim to live within our means. That was her key point when asked about austerity by the Leader of the Opposition. I was reassured, too, by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary when he said that the Government are still committed to fiscal discipline, which is so important.
As both the shadow Chancellor and the shadow SNP spokesman have said, we have been looking at this change in the fiscal target as regards a surplus. As they said, the interim fiscal mandate was for the public sector’s overall budget, more correctly known as the public sector net borrowing, to be in surplus by 2019-20 in normal times. That target was to apply unless the OBR assessed that there had been a significant negative shock. Understandably, therefore, there has been a lot of discussion about why this change, putting back the time for meeting this surplus, has come about. I found the Chief Secretary’s explanation reassuring—and the word “reassurance” is key.
My understanding is that when the British people made the decision on Brexit, it was in many ways a shock for the country. Just as the Bank of England Governor came on our television screens to reassure, talking about the steps he would be prepared to take to ensure confidence was maintained in the UK economy, so has the Chancellor of the Exchequer come forward as a reassuring presence, saying that he is prepared to take any necessary steps. I view this as part of an overall package. As the Chief Secretary said, it is of course monetary policy that has the primary responsibility when there are shocks to the economy. We have heard about the possibility even of a cut in the base rate from 0.5% to 0.25%. I see the decision about the surplus as part of the reassurance that the Government are prepared to take steps and react to circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that monetary policy is the first port of call when there is a shock. If it were deemed to be necessary, however, to invoke some kind of fiscal measure—whether it be a stimulus or anything else—does not the hon. Gentleman agree with SNP Members that the rules are so flawed that we have to wait until the autumn before the Government can even get a green light to make fiscal policy changes that might be necessary now?
I agree on the importance of monetary policy, and once again the hon. Gentleman makes a cogent point in his own way. Fiscal policy has been compared to a blunt instrument. It is not easy for the Government and the Treasury suddenly to make things happen in the way the hon. Gentleman describes. We need to wait on the figures. I understand that there are reports in the media today that the Bank of England’s agents have said it is business as normal out in the country despite Brexit, and I am very reassured by that. Let me be frank: I campaigned to remain. I was concerned about the economic impact of leaving, and I still am concerned. I always felt that the biggest potential impact would be on inward investment, but I think it will take time for us to see whether that is the case.
Is the hon. Gentleman not surprised, as I was, that the only body with a plan for Brexit was the Bank of England?
I will repeat the point. I think that monetary policy comes first in the present circumstances. I think that the Governor of the Bank of England is a very reassuring force in these times. He issued those warnings about Brexit because he was asked to state his opinion, and he stated it as honestly and transparently as he could. Once Brexit was the result—and it was a shock, as I think everyone concedes, even those who wanted Brexit passionately—he was a very reassuring presence for the Government.
As for fiscal policy, Opposition Members have mentioned measures such as huge amounts of investment. This may be only my personal view, but I would always emphasise that it is private sector investment that we should seek to drive, and a key part of that is the credibility of the Government’s overall stance.
We hear calls for a fiscal stimulus, and I recall that there were similar calls during the financial crisis. People demand shovel-ready infrastructure projects, saying, “Let’s spend the money,” but such things always take time. The idea that a magic tap can be turned on and immediately flood the economy with a fiscal stimulus is illusory, and that is why people turn to monetary policy first. There are those who get excited and say that we need the ability to change now, but I think that that is a delusion.
I agree with my hon. Friend, but I would make one point about shovel-ready projects. We have quite an advanced business plan for a Sudbury bypass. If the Government decide to go down the Keynesian route of looking for shovel-ready schemes, we are ready in South Suffolk, and we are waiting for the bypass for which we have been campaigning for many decades.
There is an aspect of the charter for budget responsibility that has not yet been mentioned during today’s timely debate. The charter states:
“The Treasury’s objectives for fiscal policy are to: ensure sustainable public finances that support confidence in the economy, promote intergenerational fairness, and ensure the effectiveness of wider Government policy”.
The phrase “promote intergenerational fairness” strikes me as incredibly important. I hope that my Whip will show me some intergenerational fairness, and allow me a couple more minutes. I will not be long.
We have had a Conservative leadership election, and we are still having a Labour leadership election, but, as far as I am aware, no one has debated the following facts. Our national debt stands at £1.65 trillion; according to the Institute of Economic Affairs, our liabilities amount to £5 trillion; and it is estimated that, by 2062, all pensioner benefits will cost £491 billion. I was going to say a lot more about that, and there is a lot more that needs to be debated, but I am getting the hint.
I will end with this point, which I think will interest the shadow Chancellor. In March 1997, two months before what was a considerable low for our party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) came up with a policy called Basic Pension Plus, and I still believe passionately that that is the direction in which our country should go. The cost of the state pension—which, after all, is only £119 a week—is crippling, and the cost of pensioner benefits is enormous.
We need to debate those matters. I simply make this appeal: I hope that when I have a chance to speak again—when we all do—we shall be able to talk openly about the huge liabilities and costs that we face. As it is, the charter is there, we have been debating it, and, as I have said, monetary policy is at the forefront.
Given the huge amount of interest in this debate—[Laughter]— I shall try to be as brief as possible.
Let me begin by welcoming the Chief Secretary to his new post. I have always found him very courteous, extremely helpful, and irrepressibly optimistic about Government policy.
During his very interesting opening speech, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a number of references to fiscal rules, and that brought into my mind what I consider to be part of the problem with this whole debate. It is not so much about, “What are your rules?” It is a matter of, “Do you have an understanding of the nature of the economy that underpins any rules you may wish to set?” That is part of the problem.
I was also interested when the hon. Gentleman mentioned Andy Haldane of the Bank of England. I was at a speech Andy Haldane gave a few weeks ago, at which he pointed out that one of the things that had not been taken into account nearly enough was the nature of culture and behaviour in the financial area, and I would say in the economy as a whole.
I have a bee in my bonnet about the fact that much of the debate that happens in all parts of this House makes a fundamental assumption about the nature of economics today. It is broadly accepting of what many people would call neoclassical economics. That, to me, is a fundamental problem, and I will try briefly to explain why.
My critique of neoclassical economics is also based on what Andy Haldane talked about: an understanding of behaviour. Behaviour is fundamental to understanding economics. That has largely been lost in many of the analyses of the economy today.
As recently as 1 May this year, the distinguished Professor David Simpson wrote:
“Discontent with neoclassical economics has finally boiled over with the failure of Treasury civil servants and central bankers along with almost all academic economists to anticipate the largest recession since the 1930s, and the powerlessness of these policymakers in the face of the subsequent stagnation of output.”
There, for me, is the rub: current dominant thinking has taken economics down a mechanistic cul-de-sac, where it is no longer the purpose of economics to say, “How are you going to ultimately affect people in our society?” Instead it is about some surrogate technical measures that can be conveniently measured by the mathematicians among the Treasury, but fundamentally classical economics was about people and the effect behaviour had on people through markets.
Economics should involve qualitative at least as much as quantitative change measures. A market economy needs to be understood as an evolutionary—a change—process. Its changing nature inspires innovation and change and thereby creates complexity. That essential feature of innovation, according to the late Tom Burns—which he called the application of novelty—finds however absolutely no place whatsoever within the current dominant tradition. We cannot accommodate these types of behavioural variance that do not lend themselves to linear algebra. Therefore, factors that are not easily measured are left out by Treasury economic models.
Indeed, as Mervyn King pointed out in his recent book, “The End of Alchemy”, things like the political decision to go ahead with monetary union in Europe in 1999 had profound effects on output and growth in the western world, yet found no place whatsoever in the economic forecasting models used by central bank policymakers. I would add therefore that Government models of the economy are singularly ill-equipped to model the impact of Brexit. Hence, all the uncertainty we face today.
Sometimes it is intelligent to recognise when models are broken. It is little wonder therefore that Government forecasts have in recent years always been wrong, because they cannot take account of the type of behavioural change I have hinted at. Indeed, it would be utterly astonishing if by some fluke they were regularly accurate given the current model of the economy.
Let me give a couple of examples of why behaviour is important. I mentioned one in this House a few days ago in a debate about EU nationals. It involves a constituent of mine, Dougie Grant, who arranges mortgages for people. As a result of the Brexit vote, a deal he was about to close for two of my constituents was called off at the last minute because they were EU nationals who did not want to take the risk of investing here when their future was so uncertain. That could not be modelled by any linear algebra.
When I was on the Finance Bill Committee with the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I tabled a few amendments relating to subjects such as the effect of dividend tax on corporations. I am sure he remembers that debate well. When I asked whether the impact of certain measures on micro-businesses and small businesses had been modelled, I was told that HMRC does not model the size of businesses. Following a subsequent question that I sent to the Treasury about another aspect of the economy, I have received a written response in the past few days saying that the model of the Treasury’s economy does not take account of the size of businesses. Yet there is not a businessman in this House who does not recognise the profound difference in behaviour between someone leading an international corporation and someone running a small family business. We need to return to the human element, the behavioural element, of economics to enable us to understand more. That is my plea to the Government, and I will be supporting the Opposition motion today.
I begin by congratulating the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), on his well-deserved promotion. I also welcome the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), to the Front Bench. I am looking forward to our first debate, and I hope there will be many more to come.
I thank all Members across the House for taking part in this important debate. My favourite quote was from the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) who said that the ex-Chancellor’s long-term economic plan was like a unicorn. We also heard from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), who rightly highlighted the importance of intergenerational fairness, although I am not sure that this charter actually delivers that, by any stretch of the imagination. We also had a fantastic speech from the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin), who highlighted the problems associated with neoclassical economic thought in a very articulate way.
As the House will be aware, the Opposition did not support the charter for budget responsibility that we are debating today. And as we have heard throughout the debate, the Government were fully aware last summer that large swathes of respected economists did not find the then Chancellor’s charter for budget responsibility economically credible—if indeed the true intention was to generate growth and prosperity for all. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), the shadow Chancellor, said at the time:
“The charter before us today…has little basis in economics.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 437.]
This has proved to be the case. If, however, the charter was simply the vehicle to implement an economic ideology that was dedicated to sucking wealth up to the top 1% and that systematically undermined and dismantled public services, it was a very clever plan indeed. I do not intend to spend time in this debate arguing about the moral conundrums of Conservative party economic doctrine, however. Today, I will try to be the moral compass of the new Chancellor and his team, as we are all acutely aware that the economic future of the country is standing at a critical crossroads.
As the shadow Chancellor has already outlined today, the Government have missed or been forced to abandon all three pillars of the charter. The welfare cap was missed in the last financial year and is due to be missed in each year until the end of this Parliament. The debt-to-GDP target has been spectacularly missed. Not only is the ratio of debt to GDP not falling; it has risen, with public sector net debt at 83.3% in the last financial year. Finally, the budget surplus, quite impossible to achieve without finding funds to fill the black hole that opened up in the March Budget, seems to have been more or less conveniently abandoned now on the pretext of the EU referendum result.
I suspect that many on the Government Benches realised some time ago that the target of a £10 billion surplus by 2020 was simply unachievable without drastic cuts to public spending, resulting in a short-term budget surplus. However, the price to pay simply to save embarrassment for missing this fiscal target was long-term economic stagnation and the loss of vital public services. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury may tell the House that the current charter provides a get-out clause whereby the rules are suspended if the OBR assesses that there is a negative shock to the economy. However, the OBR said that it will not publish any revised figures until the autumn, so I urge the Chancellor and his team not to risk floating along directionless until then.
Our approach would allow substantial investment in infrastructure and skills to address the underlying issue of low productivity in our economy. Unfortunately, business investment has been falling for the past two quarters, even ahead of the referendum, and early indicators of pauses in investment and threatened job losses suggest that it could fall even further. British business needs the Government to step in and invest in industry to make Britain a better and more stable place to do business. Businesses do not want cuts to the headline rate of corporation tax. They do not want a raft of foreign takeovers as a result of the fall in the pound following Brexit. British businesses and their workforces should be the kings and queens of global industry. We desperately need a Government that are genuinely committed to what I call “industrial patriotism”, but we have sadly not seen that for some years.
Fortunately, the Chancellor and his team have an ideal opportunity to turn things around and develop their own direction for fiscal policy. The new Prime Minister said in her first speech to the nation:
“When we take the big calls we will think not of the powerful, but you.”
We know that the new Chancellor supported further welfare cuts despite public outcry, so I must educate him as to how bad things really are. We have suffered nearly a decade of economic decline, increasing and stark regional inequality, and deep-rooted alienation and despair in communities that feel left behind, so it was no wonder that people voted in their droves during the referendum. They voted for an answer, for someone or something to blame for the dire economic situation that their communities were in.
Only a few weeks ago, the first Salford poverty truth commission was launched to examine the facets of poverty experienced throughout everyday life in Salford. At the launch, 15 members of the community stood up with real guts and courage in front of a packed hall to tell their individual stories. If the Chancellor and his team could hear what I heard that day, they would know that the economy in its current state is not working for the many.
I heard tales of people suffering horrific childhoods, turning to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain in the absence of counselling—there is no support for them, given the cuts in mental health provision. I heard from families on the breadline, unable to afford to heat their homes and forced to use food banks. I heard from those the Government would deem to have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps—people who are university educated and with well-paid jobs, but still struggling, crushed by a mountain of household debt. I heard from mothers forced to turn to prostitution just to keep a roof over their children’s heads. I heard about families hiding behind the sofa when the loan shark or bailiffs came calling, telling their children to be as quiet as mice. Mr Speaker, you may know that L. S. Lowry, the famous Salford artist, was a rent collector by day in the 1920s, knocking on doors just like today’s bailiffs. He tried to encapsulate the misery and struggle that he encountered in the pictures that he painted. What would he say if he knew that families were still going through the same agonising struggles in 2016?
We have called this debate today to give the Chancellor and his team of Ministers an opportunity to set out their stall, after 10 years of failed austerity economics. It is an opportunity to turn this country around and address regional imbalances; an opportunity to provide investment support for businesses in those areas hit hardest by economic decline; and an opportunity to invest in skills and infrastructure, and to allow businesses to form the capital to invest in themselves. We can make this nation’s economy the envy of the world and we can ensure that the prosperity we generate when we do that is enjoyed by the many not the few, but the direction of fiscal policy over the next few months is critical to that. It is one of the biggest calls this Chancellor is ever going to have to make. I really hope that his team has listened today and that the Prime Minister’s gesture towards “prioritising the many”, as Labour Members do, is not merely rhetoric.
I thank those Members who have been kind enough to welcome me to my new position on the Front Bench, including the Opposition spokesman. I was going to spend some time thanking those Opposition Members who contributed to today’s debate, but there is an obvious problem with that—none of them did! It is unusual to call an Opposition day debate and then not muster any Opposition Back-Bench speeches. I fear that the Scottish National party will be renewing its bid to become the official Opposition before too long. Nevertheless, we have had a good and thoughtful debate, and a number of serious points have been made. I therefore thank the Opposition for giving us the chance to debate this important topic, for allowing the House to reflect on the changes in the economic situation that the UK now faces, and for allowing Members to make contributions on how we move forward to rise to those challenges.
I must say at the outset that I do not recognise the picture of our country and of our economy that was painted in the speech we just heard. The phrase “dire economic situation” is simply not borne out by the facts, particularly on a day when we had excellent employment statistics. Turning to the situation in hand, the Government have made it clear that we will not hesitate to work with the Bank of England, wherever required, to stabilise our economy in the immediate term after the referendum decision, and we of course continue to monitor the position extremely closely. We will take any action that we can to prevent risks from crystallising, as we have made clear on numerous occasions, and we will look at all avenues to strengthen our economy. Although I hear this disputed from across the House, we must be clear that the UK economy starts from a fundamentally strong position; we totally reject some of the alternative views of history that were presented in this debate. Again, today’s employment figures are just one example of this, with unemployment falling to 4.9%, its lowest for more than a decade. That does not emanate from a dire economic situation, as was just suggested to us.
Any revision of our responsible fiscal framework would be set out following a thorough assessment of the economic data. We have heard the urging from those opposite to respond immediately, but it is important to examine what the economic data are actually saying, and that is what we are doing very carefully. That is why we have no plans to withdraw the autumn 2015 update of the charter for budget responsibility As the Chancellor and Prime Minister have made clear, we will update the House with further details in the usual way, through an autumn statement later this year.
I welcome the Minister to her place and thank her for what she just said, which was that the Government are prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to stop potential risks crystallising. That is an important thing for her to say on the record. Notwithstanding the fact that she is saying there will be a delay until the autumn and they will look at the numbers properly, may we have an assurance that if those numbers are as bad as they might be, she will not rule out any fiscal measures to stimulate the economy if that is what is required?
As we have said—the Chief Secretary was clear about this, and I think the point was conceded by the hon. Gentleman—we have already heard from the Governor on monetary policy, and that is really important. Conservative Members have spent the past six years making the strength of the British economy the nation’s No. 1 priority. We will look at what is happening, and it remains our priority to make sure that we continue to chart a course that recognises some of the risks that exist in the current situation, makes sure we can manage them, and looks at the opportunities that are there to be seized. We have heard so little of that in this debate. We have heard a lot of talk from both the Scottish National party and Her Majesty’s Opposition about austerity. As the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions, the other way of talking about that is to say that it is living within our means. By being prepared to address that really difficult issue of a country living within its means, this Government and the coalition have secured hard-won credibility from which we can now move forward. That credibility is not held in every part of the House. It is not an accident that we are now able to move forward from a position of strength, or that people are prepared to invest in this country; it is because of the difficult decisions that have been taken over many years, the vast majority of which were opposed by those on the Opposition Benches.
Let me take this opportunity to make it very clear that any revisions to our plans will not alter the Government’s clear commitment to this country that we would restore balance to our economy. As the Chancellor has said, we will no longer pursue the target to reach a surplus in 2019-20. Our plans to do so were based on the assumption of a different-looking economic climate. As is regarded internationally as good practice and as we see in fiscal frameworks right across the globe, our fiscal plans had a flexibility built into them, so that we could make revisions in the case of significant alterations to our economic situation. Here in the UK, that means that, if the independent OBR were to forecast four consecutive quarters of less than 1% growth a year, that target would be suspended. Admittedly that risk is perhaps more prevalent now than it once was, but it remains the conviction of this Government that any responsible plan for the long-term good of this country must be centred on a determination to tackle the deficit and reduce our debt.
In the good speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), he made a point about intergenerational fairness. There is no greater intergenerational unfairness than bequeathing massive amounts of debt and deficit to those generations yet to come. That remains at the heart of our plans to ensure that the British economy is healthy and able to respond to unexpected shocks.
We often talk about bequeathing the public debt to future generations, but is not what is actually happening private debt—huge mortgages, study loans and so on?
The hon. Lady makes her point. Fundamentally, if we look at the debt the nation is carrying forward, the point remains that it is totally unrealistic of the Opposition to imagine that we can borrow massive amounts of money after they have spent the past six years voting down any spending cuts that were proposed by the Government. They just do not have the credibility to make that point.
We have seen, as a result of the referendum, how important it is that we have an approach that ensures that we are ready for any surprises that come our way. The Prime Minister told the House earlier that we have not abandoned the ambition to move to a surplus. As we have made clear, we will be setting out further details in the autumn statement.
Making savings, living within our means, and spending money efficiently are just one side of the task ahead. We cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal when it comes to creating the right conditions for growth, and there are many ways in which we can do that. In all fairness, speeches in this debate addressed that. For a start, we know that if we want to help our economy grow, we need to invest wisely in the right infrastructure. There has been much discussion about infrastructure spending, but some of that discussion has suggested that it is rather a binary choice between living within our means on the one hand and investing in infrastructure on the other, but, as the Chief Secretary said at the beginning of the debate, that is simply not true. We are putting more than £100 billion into infrastructure over the course of this Parliament alone, and that will go to funding some essential improvements and new developments right across our country. We will keep working to make sure that this country keeps improving the skills in our workforce so that our businesses have what they need to stay on top.
It is important that we remain resolutely outward-facing. Now is not the time to pull up the drawbridge. Now is more than ever the time to open the door and to hear the message of young people that they want us to be an outward-facing nation. We want to seek all those international opportunities. We heard not a single word in the debate about today’s employment figures, which reveal that youth unemployment is at its lowest since 2005. That is surely something that we should celebrate, for the sake of our young people.
It is vital that the UK remains one of the best places in the world to do business. We are sending out that message loud and clear. That involves making sure that our tax system remains fiercely competitive. It also means that we have to continue to take difficult decisions elsewhere to balance the books, because we have made major cuts in corporation tax to create that extremely competitive environment to attract business. Only this week we saw a great example of inward investment in our country.
Without doubt there are a range of challenges ahead, but there are also a range of ways in which we can continue to bolster our economy as we open a new chapter for the UK outside the EU. We are determined to do everything we need to do as a Government to restore confidence, stabilise the economy and navigate our way through the times ahead. As we start our negotiations to leave the EU, we will tackle those new challenges head-on and we will take on board any new risks that start to emerge.
It is vital that we send out a message of confidence, and not just from the Government. It is important that we as a nation and we as a House send out a message of confidence, and some of the speeches today, I am afraid, bore no relation to the reality of life beyond this Chamber. It is important that we send out a unified signal that Britain is open for business, that we remain outward-facing and open to inward investment, and that we have confidence in ourselves as a country and in all the things that we can achieve in the years ahead. The hard-won reputation that we have as a good place to do business cannot and will not be squandered as we look for those new opportunities. For all those reasons and many more, the Government reject the motion and urge the House to do the same.
20 July 2016
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details