The UK economy is fundamentally strong: we have seen 19 consecutive quarters of growth; unemployment is at its lowest level for 42 years; and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that a further 600,000 people will be in work by 2022.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is only by investing heavily in productivity and infrastructure, such as the new junction 10 of the M6 in Walsall, that we can truly build a Britain that is fit for the future?
I very much agree. It is for that reason that the Budget set out a devolution 2 deal with Andy Street, including £250 million for transport schemes such as junction 10 of the M6.
To enable economic growth among small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland, they need superfast broadband. That is critical in bringing more jobs, more opportunities and better wages, and in balancing work and family life. Will the Minister outline what he will do to ensure that that happens?
It is for investment of exactly the sort the hon. Gentleman mentions that we have invested in the national productivity investment fund, including a further £8 billion that was set out in the Budget.
The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts last week did show the UK economy growing over the forecast period, but only just. My hon. Friend will be aware that much of the economic growth has relied on household spending. Is he also aware of the Bank of England’s financial stability report, published this morning, which shows that household finances are starting to deteriorate somewhat? Can he provide confidence that the Government are aware of that and say what they are doing to help households maintain their balance sheets?
I know that the Treasury Committee, which my right hon. Friend chairs, and the Financial Policy Committee keep that matter under constant review. It is always assessed in line with the cyclical buffers that the FPC sets for the banks.
Will the Economic Secretary explain why the Government have decided to sell their shares in RBS now, at a loss of over £26 billion? The public bailed out RBS and have sustained its losses and paid its fines. Why, just as it appears to be on the brink of returning to profit, should the public not only miss out, but make a massive loss? Is it not the case that selling those shares and reclassifying housing association debt is the only way that the Government can claim that net debt is falling?
The Government are not selling the shares now. The Budget set out our intention, which it has always been, to return the bank to the private sector and sell those shares by the end of 2018-19. I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises that the balance sheet is half the size it was in 2008, when his party paid 502p a share. The bank is therefore in a very different place from the mess we inherited from the Labour party.