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IMF Economic Outlook

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2023

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question given in the Commons by my honourable friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury:

“This Government have three economic priorities; our plan for this year is to halve inflation, grow the economy and get debt falling. It is a plan that will alleviate the pressure on businesses and families today, and equip us to become one of the most prosperous countries in Europe. As the IMF said in its press conference today, it thinks that the UK is ‘on the right track’. It also said that the UK had done well in the last year, with growth revised upwards to 4.1%, which is one of the highest growth rates in Europe for 2022. Since 2010, the UK has grown faster than France, Japan and Italy. Since the EU referendum, we have grown at about the same rate as Germany. Our cumulative growth over the 2022 to 2024 period is predicted to be higher than that of Germany and Japan, and at a similar rate to that of the United States of America. The Governor of the Bank of England has said that any UK recession this year is likely to be shallower than previously predicted.

The actions we are taking, from unleashing innovation across AI, financial services and a host of other sectors, to improving technical education and protecting infrastructure investment, will spur and fuel economic growth in the years to come, benefiting industry and communities alike. However, the figures from the IMF confirm that we are not immune to the pressures hitting nearly all advanced economies. We agree with the IMF’s focus on the high level of inflation in our country, which is why this is our top priority. Inflation is the most insidious tax rise there is, and so the best tax cut now is to reduce inflation. That will help families across the country with the cost of living. As the Chancellor has said, short-term challenges, especially ones we are focused on tackling, should not obscure our long-term forecasts. If we stick to our plan to halve inflation, the UK is still predicted to grow faster than Germany and Japan over the coming years. That will help us deliver a stronger economy, one that is growing faster and where everywhere across our country people have opportunities for better-paying, good jobs. That is what the people in this country expect and what we are working tirelessly to deliver.”

My Lords, in another place, the Minister seemed to insist that the IMF forecast was somehow a British success story, because any recession caused in large part by the chaos of the September mini-Budget may be shorter and shallower than previously thought. Britain has huge potential but, under the Conservatives, ours is the only G7 economy still below its pre-Covid level. If growth is the Government’s number one priority, why is the UK forecast to be outgrown by sanction-hit Russia? If, as Ministers like to claim, this is all the result of global events, why has the IMF said that we are falling even further behind our international competitors?

I must correct the noble Lord on the cause of the disappointing figures for growth this year that we have seen. The IMF emphasises that Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to weigh on economic activity, and the UK’s relatively high dependence on natural gas and, simultaneously, a near-record tightness in our labour market are dampening our outlook.

The noble Lord asked why the UK economy had not recovered to pre-pandemic levels. If we exclude the public sector, the private sector has recovered to above its pre-pandemic level and is in line with other major European economies. There is a difference in the way that the UK estimates its public sector output compared to many other countries, and the ONS has said that international comparisons are difficult to make.

On the point about the optimism that my honourable friend expressed about the UK economy, the Government make no apologies for pointing out our underlying strengths. Last year’s growth rate was uprated by the IMF to one of the highest in Europe, and if we look over the cumulative period 2022 to 2024, growth is predicted to be higher than in Germany and Japan and similar to that of the US. That will happen if we stick to our plan for growth and tackle inflation.

My Lords, there is no harm in people being optimistic if there are grounds for optimism. Rather than taking this report as a very worrying indicator, the Government are spending their energy downplaying and discounting the bad news in it. Let us look at another indicator that points in the same direction: the ONS statistics on company insolvencies. Its survey, published today, shows a 57% rise in the number of companies going bust; that is more than at any time since the 2009 crisis.

Will the Minister now acknowledge that, as well as the problems that our competitor countries have, with which the Government seek to associate us, there are other problems that are unique to us? The Minister acknowledged the extraordinary problems we are having with skills and the lack of people to work, and the fact that our exports to the European Union have plummeted. Will the Government acknowledge that there is a problem so that they can start solving it?

I made it clear that the number one problem facing the UK is our high level of inflation, and that is why the Government have put it at the heart of our economic plans. We are determined to get inflation down. That is why we remain steadfast in our support for the independent MPC of the Bank of England, why we have made difficult but responsible decisions on tax and spending so that we are not adding fuel to the fire, and why we are tackling high energy prices by holding down energy bills for households and businesses this year and next and investing in long-term energy security. I fully acknowledge the challenges the UK is facing, and that is why we have a plan to deal with them.

Does my noble friend recall that the IMF has a little bit of a history of making forecasts where the UK is downgraded one way or another, and, lo and behold, a year later, we discover that we have not been as bad as it suggested? Is it not a fact that we now have before the House probably the most crucial financial services Bill that it has had to handle for a decade or more? My noble friend is taking through that Bill. At its core, there is just one word, which affects almost every clause, to help the City, businesses, trade, et cetera: “growth”, which is absolutely crucial to the future of this country.

I completely agree with my noble friend on the importance of the financial services Bill to unleashing further growth in our economy. It is also a really important example of how we will take the opportunity of the freedoms of Brexit to design regulation in a way that works best for the United Kingdom. Growth forecasts are inherently uncertain, but they still play a valuable role for government, economists, industry and others. Their uncertainty is a fact of life, but we should still look carefully at what they say.

My Lords, as of November this year, the EU will require additional travel documentation for those leaving the UK and heading into Europe. Do the Government have any estimates of the effect that will have on UK trade?

Does my noble friend accept that, if we are to equal the United States, we have to have investment in new green businesses which help in the battle against climate change? When will the Government bring forward the legislation that is necessary to do that? At the moment, we are wildly behind, which is clear from both the Skidmore report and the Climate Change Committee’s report last June—where I declare an interest. I dare say that “freedom” from the EU is not something that any exporter would believe today.

My noble friend is right about the importance of investment, which is why the Government are maintaining record levels of capital investment: £600 billion over the next five years. We have permanently set the annual investment allowance at its highest-ever level of £1 million. My noble friend is also right about the importance of green investment and driving green growth in our economy. We have one of the strongest legislative frameworks for tackling climate change and nature loss, and we will continue to build on that. Our record is clear: we are one of the most significant decarbonising economies in the G20, and we have achieved that at the same time as growing.

The Minister referred a moment ago to Brexit, and today happens to be the third anniversary of our departure. Can she remind the House of the Government’s attitude to the OBR forecast that Brexit has cost the UK about 4% of its GDP per year?

My Lords, I believe that that is not a forecast but a modelling assumption. We will look at the record of the UK economy since leaving the EU, and we continue to grow. Since the Brexit referendum, we have grown at a similar rate to Germany, and, last year, we had one of the highest growth rates in Europe. So we look at the record and the outturn, not just the predictions.

My Lords, last week, Tony Danker, the leader of the CBI, made a speech in which he remarked on the fact that private investment was flooding out of the UK because of the Government’s lack of a strategy to deal with the economic mess we are in. What is the noble Baroness’s response to that criticism from the main representative of business in the UK?

I believe that, last week, Tony Danker also welcomed a speech by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that set out his vision for growth in the UK, looking at the sectors that we are most competitive in, setting out proposals for new regulatory freedoms in those sectors and investing in the drivers of our economy, such as education and enterprise.

My Lords, we ought to add a bit of balance to this discussion and note that the report ended with a comment that Britain was “on the right track”—not that we should place too much weight on the views of the IMF either way, because its record has not been too good. Has the Minister noticed a report from the BBC this morning that it is very worried that its interviewers, editors and staff are not sufficiently apprised of the technicalities and the understanding of modern economics and modern economic trends, and that it is going try to do something about it? Would she encourage it to do something? The impression that invariably pervades the morning programmes—not only on the BBC but others as well—in response to this kind of report is that everything is going wrong. Of course, there are things that need repairing, but the bias—not a political bias between left and right—is between pessimism and optimism, which nearly always comes out on the pessimistic side, so we have a lot to learn and we should encourage them to learn it.

I did note the report this morning, and, of course, impartiality is key to the BBC. The report is very interesting but, obviously, taking forward its recommendations is a matter for the BBC, and I believe that it is going to take them forward.