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Economy: Inflation

Volume 752: debated on Tuesday 11 March 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the latest report of the Office for National Statistics on the consumer prices index and its impact on household budgets.

My Lords, the consumer prices index measure of inflation decreased on an annual basis to 1.9% in January 2012 from 2% in December. This is the lowest rate since November 2009, which is good news for families and businesses. In its December economic and fiscal outlook, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast average nominal earnings growth to rise more rapidly than CPI inflation this year.

I wonder whether my noble friend saw the excellent speech by the chairman of the Engineering Employers’ Federation last week in which he said that he thought now was a good time for employers to give a good wage increase to their employees to make up for the restraint they had exercised during the years of Labour’s great recession. Does he agree with this sentiment? Does he further agree that it would be even more excellent news if, in the Budget next week, the Chancellor thought it fit to raise, once again, the income tax threshold, thus reinforcing our commitment to the low paid?

My Lords, I agree with the EEF on the desirability of wage increases, particularly for those on lower incomes and not only, as has happened all too frequently in recent years, for those on the board. I also agree that raising the income tax threshold further is an excellent way of helping people on modest incomes and I hope that we can do more of it.

My Lords, I take it that the noble Lord agrees with Robert Peston of the BBC—I am not referring to my dear and noble friend Lord Peston—who said that, on the figures given by the Government, the change from RPI to CPI would cost £83 billion over 15 years. That would mean substantial losses in retirement for pensioners in private sector businesses, not those in the public sector. This is a substantial loss in revenue for those people. What plans do the Government have to compensate those pensioners in retirement, who will suffer considerably?

My Lords, the noble Lord knows that this Government and the previous Government decided to move to CPI from RPI as a measure of inflation simply because we believe it is a more appropriate way of measuring inflation. It is as straightforward as that. Everyone who is affected by CPI rather than RPI will be affected by a better measure of inflation.

My Lords, while the operational independence of the Bank of England on monetary policy is of the first importance, would my noble friend consider saying gently to the governors that their authority would be greater and the effectiveness of monetary policy enhanced if they were to talk rather less about matters that are market sensitive?

There is a tension as far as the Bank of England is concerned. If it does not say anything it is criticised for not giving any indication of what it thinks; and when it does say something, it is criticised for saying what it thinks. That is an inevitable problem. On balance, it is better to have the governor and other members of the senior management of the Bank of England explaining what they think is happening to the economy, what they are doing and why they are doing it.

My Lords, the average family has paid £1,350 extra in VAT since it was increased by the Government. I am hearing noises from the Government that the economy is supposed to be looking up a little. If that is the case, would the Minister consider asking the Chancellor to revert back to a rate of 17.5% in his Budget next week?

The noble Lord is not alone in hearing that the economy is improving: the economy is indeed improving. The British Chambers of Commerce increased their growth forecast to 2.8% only yesterday; the growth in permanent jobs, according to KPMG, was last month at its second highest since records began. As far as VAT is concerned, the noble Lord is asking the Government to spend somewhere in the region of £12 billion to £14 billion extra. We have not eliminated the budget deficit: the only reason we have what now looks like sustainable growth is that we have a credible path for the public finances and interest rates and we are not going to throw that away.

My Lords, the items which undoubtedly have the greatest and most disproportionate impact on the household budgets of those on low incomes are energy bills. Will my noble friend give some indication as to what action the Government can take to reduce these bills for low-income households?

My Lords, as my noble friend is aware, we took action in the autumn to reduce household energy bills. In the longer term, the key aim is to ensure that we have sustainable energy supplies; the Government’s energy policies are designed to do just that.

My Lords, the figures indicate that in four years’ time, in 2018, typical living standards for a household will be 3.5% lower than they were in 2007, before the financial crash. Does that not indicate that the Government have to be open and honest about the situation, so that, in the Budget next week, the Chancellor will bring forward policies that will assist hard-working families and households in this country who feel the pressure ever so much as the months go past?

My Lords, the GDP is going to be higher in the second half of this year than it was before the crash. We are going to have more people in work. These are the two key determinants of how the average household is going to feel. In the mean time, by taking actions such as freezing fuel duties and increasing the threshold for income tax, we have given some relief to tens of millions of individuals and we intend to maintain those policies.

My Lords, in respect of my noble friend Lord Lawson’s question, is it the Government’s view that forward guidance by the Governor of the Bank of England on interest rates was helpful or not?

Yes, my Lords, the Government welcomed the decision by the current governor to issue forward guidance last August. We continue to support the concept of forward guidance.

My Lords, the Minister might try to wear his rose-tinted spectacles, but he knows the facts. He knows that ordinary working people on average have lost £1,600 a year since this Government came into office. He knows that families, through the Government’s tax and benefit changes, have lost £891 pounds a year and he knows from the most recent statistics that zero-hours contracts have increased threefold since this Government came into office. By heavens, they have a lot to do to make up for those deficits.

There is a question over whose deficit we are talking about here. The noble Lord knows that since the 2010 election, employment has increased by 1.3 million; unemployment is down by 152,000; there are more women in work than ever before; and every single survey for the future suggests higher income, more people in work and a growing economy. That is a record to be proud of.

This has all become a little bit distorted. Does my noble friend agree that inflation is a bad thing and that keeping it down is the rightful priority of the Bank of England?

Indeed, my Lords. Whatever the forward guidance of the Bank of England, it does not detract from its basic purpose, which is to keep inflation at or around 2%. That is the position we are now in and we believe that it will be the position going forward.

My Lords, I hope I will not alarm the Minister too much if I say that I have been listening carefully to what he has been saying and, if I had come from outside, I would find it impossible to answer the question as to whether the Minister was a member of the Liberal Democrat party or the Conservative Party. Bearing that in mind, does he agree that, come the next general election, if people want a Conservative Government, the best thing to do is to vote Conservative; if they want a Labour Government, the best thing to do to vote Labour; and if they are thinking of voting Liberal, that is probably a waste of time?

The noble Lord knows that I speak from the Dispatch Box for the Government. I am sure that he will not be surprised to know that I am extremely proud of this Government’s record on the economy.