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UK Economy

Volume 836: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2024

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 19 February.

“High inflation remains the biggest barrier to growth, which is why halving it is still our top priority. Thanks to decisive action supported by the Government, inflation has fallen from over 11% to 4%. The Bank of England is forecasting that it will fall to around 2% by early summer, in only a matter of months, which is much faster than previously thought.

It is important to put all this in context. Just over a year ago, the Bank of England was forecasting the longest recession in 100 years. That has not happened, and the British economy has proved resilient in the face of unprecedented shocks. Forecasters, including the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund, agree that growth will strengthen over the next few years, with the IMF forecasting that we will grow faster than Japan, Germany, France, Italy and many others, on average, over the next five years. Wages have been higher than inflation for six months in a row, unemployment remains very low, and we are backing British business by delivering the biggest business tax cut in modern British history and rewarding work by cutting taxes for working people.

These are all reasons to be positive about the economy turning a corner. If we stick to our plan, we can be confident of seeing pressures reduce for families and of achieving healthy economic growth. At the Autumn Statement, we unveiled 110 growth measures, including unlocking £20 billion of business investment. This includes a substantial labour market package, delivering a tax cut to national insurance for 27 million people, as well as reforming pensions and extending investment zones. The real risk to economic growth and prosperity in this country is the fact that the Labour party has no plan for growth—no plan at all. While they may pretend that they have abandoned their £28 billion pledge, they are still committed to their damaging 2030 energy policy, which, as the leader of the Opposition has said, costs £28 billion. All of us across this House know what that means: higher taxes and lower growth with Labour”.

My Lords, the UK’s growth forecast was recently downgraded for every single year for the next three years. Debt is set to surpass £3 trillion for the first time ever. We are seeing the biggest ever fall in living standards and the tax burden is set to reach its highest ever level. Now, the ONS has confirmed that Britain has fallen into recession, with GDP per capita falling in every single quarter of the past year. Yet the Chancellor says, “Our plan is working”. Was it part of the Government’s plan, having spent 14 years in the economic slow lane, to now put our economy into reverse?

I absolutely believe that our plan is working. It is critical that we continue along the path that we have set out. One of the biggest challenges we have faced in this country over recent months is high inflation. That is the biggest barrier to growth and that is why halving it is still our top priority. Thanks to decisive action, supported by the Government, inflation has fallen. If one looks at what happens when inflation falls, one sees that interest rates can also fall, which will also mean that growth will begin to rise. The noble Lord mentioned growth. It is the case that the Government have very clear policies for growth. Noble Lords will discuss them with me shortly, as we debate the Finance Bill.

My Lords, the Resolution Foundation has reported that GDP per capita is now 4.2% below its path before the cost of living crisis. That is the equivalent of a loss of nearly £1,500 per household. The OBR has said that we are set to see the biggest fall in living standards since 1950. Do the Government understand that, for ordinary people, their plan is delivering real day-to-day pain and often deprivation? Nothing she has said or proposes to do changes that, as she will see if she looks at the forecasts.

What is absolutely clear is that the forecasts show that the UK is forecast to grow, and very strongly. The IMF has forecast that we are to grow faster than Japan, Germany, France and Italy over the next five years. I absolutely accept that the economy has seen some very significant challenges over recent years, with global instability in Ukraine and in the Middle East, and the legacy of Covid. I was a Minister throughout that period, and at no time did I ever hear any ideas from the party opposite or the Liberal Democrats that would have put the economy in a better situation than it is in now. They called always for more spending, for longer periods. We must fix the issues that appeared, mostly due to external factors, which is exactly what we are doing. The economy is turning a corner—indeed, it has turned a corner, thanks to our decisive action.

My Lords, the Minister referred to global headwinds. Would she accept that an economy such as the United States has experienced exactly the same headwinds? Instead of opening our newspapers and reading that the Chancellor intends to give enormous universal tax cuts on 6 March, would it not be more sensible for the Government to acknowledge that the people who are hurting the most from the cost of living crisis are the people at the bottom lower income deciles? Those are the people who should be targeted for assistance if there is any money going.

Obviously, I cannot comment on any potential tax cuts. I am sure the noble Baroness will agree that the US has a very different economic structure from the UK and tends to offer slightly less support to those at the bottom end of the ladder. She mentioned those who are the most vulnerable. Personal allowances have gone up by 30% in real terms than in 2010. That means that 30% of people now pay no tax. We are focusing our interventions on people at the lower end of the income scale, but we are also focusing them on growing business.

Would my noble friend agree that comparisons with the United States are not really appropriate, particularly given cheap energy costs in the States due to fracking, which we do not have? It might be better to compare us with European countries. Since 2010, the UK has had the fastest growth of any European G7 country—faster than Italy, Spain, Germany and France. Will she welcome today’s news that the budget surplus for net borrowing, excluding banks, shows a surplus for January of £16.76 billion, and today’s announcement that the UK purchasing managers index rose in January to 52.9? Rather than knocking the economy, let us celebrate the good news.

I agree with my noble friend—let us celebrate good news, and I believe there will be more good news to come. He mentioned debt. It is fair to reassure noble Lords that we are on track for debt to fall as a share of the economy. Public sector net debt as a percentage of GDP is expected to fall next year to the end of the forecast. If one were to exclude Bank of England debt, it will fall in the final year, and public sector net borrowing as a percentage of GDP is forecast to fall every single year. We also have the second-lowest debt as a share of GDP in the G7.

My Lords, the Minister talked about curbing inflation. The Government have a very strange policy. I characterise it as somebody who has an ailment and goes to see their doctor, who dusts off a 100 year-old book in which, regardless of the reasons for the ailment, the answer is the same remedy. Whether inflation is caused by wage rises, inequalities or profiteering, it is the same policy: we must increase interest rates and force ordinary people to hand over their wealth to the banks. That is no policy, because it causes other ailments. Will the Minister tell us what other ailments have been caused by this remedy adopted by the Government?

As the noble Lord will know, interest rates are just one of the levers that the Bank of England has to influence inflation. The Government can also play a key role in tackling inflation —for example, by ensuring that public sector pay awards are kept within reasonable bounds.

Can I have another bite here? The Minister said that public sector wages are within reasonable bounds, which suggests that the Government think wage rises are inflationary. But that does not apply to executive pay, profiteering, dividends or share buybacks—are they not inflationary as well? If they are, why are the Government not curbing them?

The noble Lord well knows that inflation is caused by a vast amount of different factors. When we announced our interventions at the Autumn Statement, the OBR said that they were not inflationary. That is another way in which the Government put downward pressure on inflation. As we have seen, the proof is in the pudding; we have gone from 11% in October 2022 to 4% in January 2024.

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister feels encouraged by the latest figures. Can she understand why some people who have inflated mortgages feel they have them because of the antics of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng—which is admittedly not the responsibility of the noble Baroness?

As the noble Lord will be aware, the reason interest rates are particularly high is to control inflation. The Bank of England now expects inflation to get back to the target of around 2% in the early summer. If that can happen, then of course interest rates would be able to come down.

Will my noble friend consider a longer-term anti-inflationary policy such as ensuring that the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, and the governor, build into their forecasting model a measure to take account of the growth in money supply each year?

Does my noble friend agree that it is highly complimentary to Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng to suggest that their actions are responsible for interest rates in every country around the world, which are broadly comparable to ours?

As I think I said earlier on in answering this question, all sorts of countries have faced the challenges that the UK has. There have been a number of countries, over the second half of 2023—either in Q3 or Q4—that saw a small technical contraction in their economy. Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England, believes that the technical recession may already be over. I expect us to return to growth very soon.