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Economy: Deficit Reduction

Volume 733: debated on Thursday 15 December 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what evidence they have that their deficit reduction plan is working.

My Lords, tackling the deficit is necessary to supporting sustainable economic growth. The Government’s consolidation plan has restored confidence in the UK’s fiscal position, preserving our AAA credit rating and leading Standard & Poor’s to move the UK’s rating from negative outlook to stable. In May 2010, the spread of UK gilts to German bunds was in line with Italy and Spain; since then, UK rates have fallen by over 150 basis points but Italian and Spanish bond yields have risen by over 100 basis points.

In the midst of all that, the noble Lord forgot to answer the Question. As I am sure he will recall, the Prime Minister said that the deficit would be eliminated in 2015 and his own Office for Budget Responsibility has said that it will be 2017. Why was he not willing to say that? Is there something wrong in telling the truth that he has to give me a long, wordy Answer? However, it is even worse than that—and some very respected forecasters are forecasting that it could be even worse. Would he not accept that if the circumstances change, through no particular fault of the Government, changes in policy should take place? For example, we might do something to stop the unemployment figures announced yesterday being even worse. What does he have in mind in the event of some kind of major change in circumstances?

My Lords, the Government are on track to meet the fiscal mandate which was set by my right honourable friend the Chancellor. The mandate requires the Government to bring the cyclically adjusted current balance into balance at the end of five years. The Opposition may not like it but that fiscal rule means that there is an ability for us to be flexible in the face of very difficult economic conditions; it means that we can preserve the infrastructure expenditure, which is so important, to underpin long-term growth; and it means that the automatic stabilisers can operate. If the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, is suggesting that we should abandon all of that, I wonder what his policy would be.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the primary reason for our current deficit is the fact that public expenditure as a percentage of GDP grew from less than 40 per cent to close to 50 per cent in the first 10 years of this century? Will he confirm that the Government’s primary focus is therefore to get public expenditure back down below 40 per cent, where it can be supported by an affordable level of taxes?

I certainly agree with my noble friend that we inherited the worst peacetime deficit situation that this Government have ever known, and that getting the budget back into balance is indeed the priority of this Government.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that access to bank credit for smaller microbusinesses will be essential for economic growth and elimination of the deficit. Will the Government therefore take a look at the extraordinary barriers to entry of new potential banks into exactly this field, the FSA having now become so utterly risk-averse that it has lost any sense of balance?

My Lords, it is very important that credit flows to SMEs, which is why we announced a package of £21 billion at the autumn Statement, and it could go higher if the demand is there. I take my noble friend’s point about the importance of diversity and new entrants into our banking system. That is something that both the FSA and the Government keep under review.

My Lords, given that the stability message has failed, is it not time now for a growth strategy? Given the appalling figures on unemployment for both young people and others in the country, is there not hope to be given to people? Given that the Government can borrow, with the low interest rates, at a rate less than the private sector, is it not time to invest in infrastructure projects so that we come out of this recession and not make it a depression?

My Lords, that is exactly what we are doing: we are investing in infrastructure projects. Indeed, as was announced at the autumn Statement, we are targeting an additional £20 billion of private sector money coming into infrastructure from long-term UK investors. As to the policy mix, I can only refer back to the IMF’s latest assessment which said that the case for relatively tight fiscal and relatively loose monetary policy is strong.

My Lords, surely the question for most ordinary people not schooled in economics is whether the Government’s programme for rapid deficit reduction is actually a price worth paying. Could the Minister tell us how the Government propose to quantify the cost of deficit reduction in terms of the impact on people and communities?

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. The end objective here is not a balanced budget but sustainable growth, to bring down unemployment and increase employment in this economy. So what is really important, whether it is infrastructure spend, the fundamental reform of the welfare system or our education system, is that in the end we get a better balanced economy with more sustainable employment over the long term.

My Lords, the Minister has made it clear to the House today that the Government’s deficit reduction strategy is based on sand. It is always five years ahead. He has told us today that the target is to balance the budget by 2017; next year it will be 2018, the year after that 2019 and, like old age, it will simply retreat before us. Given that the Government’s strategy has been pushed off track and is failing to meet its deficit targets, why in the autumn Statement did they not cut expenditure more and raise taxes more to put the deficit reduction strategy back on track?

My Lords, first, the deficit reduction strategy, as the OBR confirms, is absolutely on track. If the noble Lord is suggesting that we should cut expenditure and raise taxes, is that the policy of his party?

My Lords, did the Minister notice that the credit rating agencies and the American-dominated $16 trillion debt system gave AAA ratings to all the hedge funds and banks that collapsed in the United States and elsewhere in the world just about a week or a few days before they actually did collapse. Are they really so reliable?

My Lords, the track record of the credit rating agencies as far as sovereign debt is concerned speaks for itself. It is quite different to the mistakes that they have made in other sectors.