I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The clauses that we are here to debate are another important step on the long road to economic recovery. They will promote growth and provide support for households and small businesses under pressure. They will encourage investment as well as enterprise, and they will help us to clean up the mess that the previous Government left behind.
As we start this debate, it is worth recalling the state of the economy that this Government inherited nearly a year ago. Britain had endured the longest and deepest recession in living memory. We were borrowing one pound for every four we were spending. We had the largest budget deficit in our peacetime history, one of the largest in Europe and the largest in the G20, yet no detailed plan was in place to deal with it—and that was not the end of the story. In the preceding decade Britain had slipped down the international league of competitiveness from fourth to 12th. We had seen our share of world exports decline, and we were considered to be a worse place to start a business than many of our European neighbours.
That was the coalition Government’s inheritance, which is why we have set about restoring confidence and stability to our economy, with a clear strategy for growth. At its heart is a credible plan to tackle the enormous deficit—a plan we are already implementing—so that the current structural deficit will fall in each and every year of this Parliament, and is forecast to be eliminated by 2015. National debt is forecast to fall as a proportion of gross domestic product in the same year, so that we can finally start to reduce the huge interest payments with which this country has been saddled—the lasting legacy of Labour’s failure.
The action we have taken on the deficit has shown that Britain’s economic future is now in safe hands, that this is a Government who know how to manage the country’s finances and that we have a credible plan to deliver the strong, sustainable and rebalanced growth that this country needs.
If things are so rosy, why has the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast for growth gone down from 2.6% to 1.7%? Why has it projected that unemployment will increase by 200,000 as a result of this and previous Budgets? Why is it that we are doing so badly under this Government?
I do not think I said that the position was rosy. I was going out of my way to describe the calamitous state of the public finances that the Labour party left.
I would like to touch on growth first. In the Budget we set out four economic ambitions: that Britain should have the most competitive tax system in the G20; that Britain should be the best place in Europe to start, finance and grow a business; that we should be a more balanced economy by encouraging exports and investment; and that we should have a more educated work force who should be the most flexible in Europe. The clauses in the Bill set us on the road to meet those objectives.
For the past decade Britain has been losing ground in the world economy. While other nations have reduced their business tax rates, ours have lost competitiveness. While other countries have removed barriers to enterprise, ours have grown higher still. We cannot afford this to continue. Instead, our plan for growth is based on private sector enterprise, not public sector borrowing—growing businesses, not growing debts—and on securing sustainable long-term investment.
Essential to that is creating a competitive tax system—one that enables our businesses to compete on a global stage. That is why clause 4 will see our corporation tax rate fall by 2% this year. As the House already knows, we will implement further cuts of 1% in each of the next three years, so that by 2015 we will have the lowest corporate tax rate in the G7, allowing businesses to invest more of the money that they earn, hire more workers, export more goods and support the recovery.
The right hon. Gentleman says that in order to encourage business growth he will drop corporation tax. Why has he taken a completely opposite approach to those who are developing the North sea oil and gas reserves?
For the simple reason that the very high price of oil on the world markets is having a direct effect on consumers and, I am sure, on motorists in the constituency of every Member. It is right, I think, to ask the one industry that is benefiting substantially from the high price of oil to make an additional contribution to help us to reduce fuel duty.
I will deal with the supplementary charge in more detail later, and the hon. Lady might want to come back to me at that stage, but I shall make some progress now, if I may.
An efficient tax system is not just about lower rates. To be competitive we must also look at how we tax, how that affects our businesses, and what has been holding them back in the past. The Bill legislates for reform of the taxation of foreign branches, as well as making interim changes to the outdated controlled foreign companies rules—a process started and consulted on under the previous Government. This will stem the tide of businesses leaving our shores for more favourable climes, and will ensure that the UK is an attractive place to locate and headquarter. This shows that Britain is once again open for business.
so, how the changes in the North sea tax regime accord with one of them—namely, that there should be certainty over time to enable businesses to plan?
I have looked at those principles. The Government will, of course, respond to the Committee’s report—along with other reports—in the usual way, but the principles seem very sensible.
In fact, this is among the Finance Bills on which there has been the most consultation in advance. I believe that 260 of its 390-odd pages were published in draft some months before its publication. [Interruption.] I am replying to the question asked by Mr Tyrie. We have taken on board some of the principles to which he referred, but the Government must be able to respond to economic circumstances with their tax policy. As I have said, one of the predominant economic circumstances that we face is the high price of fuel. The Government considered that in order to relieve motorists of some of the burden on them—which we felt was incredibly important—we should ask the oil industry to pay a little more tax in the form of a supplementary charge.
As the hon. Lady knows, the price of gas has also been on an upward path. However, we have discussed the matter with representatives of the industry, including Centrica, which has raised it directly with me and with other Ministers. We said in the Budget that we were willing to consider extensions of the field allowance regime to provide breaks for particular fields in the event of particular problems, and we are doing that at the moment. Existing rules allow breaks for very deep oil wells and heavy oil, for example. The discussion continues. It is right for us to engage with the industry openly, in recognition of the issue raised by the hon. Lady.
The right hon. Gentleman says that the price of gas is rising. It will be driven up by, possibly, a third because the $75 trigger point established by the Government is equivalent to about 80p a therm. The gas price is currently about 57p a therm. The Government’s actions will drive the price up to an extraordinary extent. Did they not understand that before they set their Budget?
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. As he will know, we are currently consulting and engaging with the industry on precisely that question of the trigger price.
I am sure Members in all parts of the House agree that on the road to sustainable growth, access to finance is also a critical issue. For that reason, clause 42 increases
the relief available for the enterprise investment scheme to 30%, encouraging further investment in small and growing businesses; clause 9 doubles the lifetime limit on entrepreneurs’ relief from £5 million to £10 million; and clause 43 raises the rate of research and development tax credits for small and medium-sized enterprises to 200%. As we announced in the Budget, from next year it will rise again to 225%, providing real support for small firms investing in research and development.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are the driving force behind the recovery. They employ 60% of Britain’s work force, and contribute to about 50% of all output. Their success will help to define the future of our economy. The last Government planned to increase the small profits rate of corporation tax, but we have chosen to do the opposite. Clause 6 will reduce the rate paid by small businesses to just 20%. The Budget also revealed that we would continue to provide business rate relief for small firms for another year, which will support growing businesses up and down the country.
Many firms will, of course, be grateful for the reduction in corporation tax, but will not the slashing of investment allowances go a long way towards offsetting any benefit that might have been gained by small companies in particular? According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the real beneficiaries of both measures will be the less capital-intensive service sector,
“historically typified by the financial sector”,
rather than the small companies that export and depend on investment which the Chief Secretary is seeking to help.
I believe that the reduction in corporation tax will benefit businesses in all sectors. As for the question of capital allowances, the changes in relation to short-life assets have been welcomed throughout the business community, and particularly by the Engineering Employers Federation.
In 2007 the last Government reduced the writing down allowances from 25% to 20%, and we are reducing them from 20% to 18%. That is a balanced move which will ensure that firms in all sectors, including manufacturing, benefit from the new corporation tax environment that we are introducing.
The Chief Secretary has mentioned small business. It is clearly agreed throughout the House that the SME sector will make a vital contribution to future growth in the economy. Does it worry him that, once again, it has been demonstrated that lending to small business fell in the first quarter of this year, despite the attempts to boost it in Project Merlin? What is he going to do about that?
Of course I am worried if lending to small businesses is falling. The Merlin agreement, which we announced at the end of February, was an agreement with the major United Kingdom banks to secure an additional £10 billion of lending to small businesses this year. We will monitor the position, the figures will be made available, and we will watch the banks
like a hawk to ensure that they deliver on the agreement. That is critically important: this Government have acted as the last Government did not manage to.
I am going to press on now. I want to deal with the issue of fairness.
Although growth is key to improving everyone’s prospects in the medium term, we know that many families face real financial pressure now. The Bill therefore includes measures to help hard-working people with low and middle incomes, and to support families who are struggling to make ends meet. The Government are committed to real increases in the personal allowance every year, until no one earning less than £10,000 is caught in the income tax net. Clause 3 takes the first step towards meeting this objective by increasing the personal allowance by £1,000 for this tax year. That is the largest single rise in history. It means that 23 million taxpayers in Britain will be £200 better off this year in cash terms, and that more than 800,000 people will be taken out of income tax altogether.
The Budget also revealed the next step in the process. An increase of £630 next year will keep us on track to deliver the £10,000 allowance by 2015, as promised. That is progressive action by a coalition Government who recognise that those with the broadest shoulders should continue to bear the largest burden, and that those on the highest incomes should pay their fair share.
The Bill includes 11 new measures to close tax loopholes that have remained open for too long. For example, clause 26 will help to end the unfair practice of disguised remuneration. No longer will highly paid employees be offered virtually tax-free lifetime loans which, in truth, will never be repaid. Such arrangements are completely unacceptable. We will ensure that they cannot continue, and that all income is properly taxed. We have consulted to ensure that the impact of the legislation on commercial arrangements is limited, and we intend to make further changes when the Bill is considered in the Public Bill Committee.
Those measures will give us more resources to help families who pay their taxes, but who are struggling with the daily cost of living. The same motivation lies behind clause 7, which increases the supplementary charge on the large profits being made from oil and gas extraction in the North sea.
I understand that the increases in the supplementary charge are controversial, at least in the oil and gas sector. Given that the sector is benefiting hugely from the rapid rise in the world oil price, which currently stands at $124 a barrel, it was right to ask it to share some of its profits with motorists, but we are listening carefully to its concerns about specific investments. As we said in the Budget, we are discussing with several firms the possibility of using the field allowance regime to continue to support investment. The industry is understandably concerned about the stability of the tax regime, given the long-term nature of investments in the North sea. That is why we committed ourselves in the Budget to working with the sector to provide certainty about the long-term future of decommissioning relief, and why we announced a fair fuel stabiliser to reduce the supplementary charge if oil prices fall below an agreed trigger level.
However, we should not lose sight of the fact that this money is financing a much-needed package of support for motorists. First, it is funding the 1p reduction in fuel duty to which clause 19 refers. Secondly, it has helped to cancel Labour’s inflation uprating until January next year. As a result of these two changes, fuel is 6p a litre cheaper now that it would have been under the plans we inherited.
I should also remind the House that this Government inherited plans for above-inflation increases in fuel duty for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. The increase in the supplementary charge has allowed us to abolish this fuel duty escalator, so that duty will not rise above inflation for the rest of this Parliament. As with fairness, so in understanding the issues facing hard-pressed motorists it is this coalition Government who are looking to share the burden of higher oil prices.
Let me now turn to the issue of taxing Britain’s banks. The previous Government announced and implemented a temporary tax on bonuses for one year only. Indeed, it was the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Darling, who advised against repeating that. Clause 72 introduces a permanent levy on bank balance sheets, which will raise £2.5 billion in each and every year of this Parliament. That amounts to £10 billion of additional tax from the banks over the next four years, and, thanks to the decision announced by the Chancellor in February, an extra £800 million for this year too. There will be extra money to help us support jobs and growth this year, such as by providing the finance for an additional £100 million of investment in new science facilities at Cambridge, Norwich, Harwell and Daresbury, and £250 million of investment in the FirstBuy scheme for new-build homes, giving a helping hand to 10,000 people as they climb the first rung of the property ladder.
The Bill will also deliver fairness over the longer term. The changes to the requirements on annuitisation set out in clause 65 have long been called for, and will give people more control over their finances. They will allow those approaching retirement to make their own choices about how they use their pension savings, and they will offer greater flexibility in planning for old age. The introduction of automatic enrolment that is supported by the taxation changes in clauses 68 to 71 will help ensure that a low-cost pension scheme is available for the 5 million employees expected to save in the National Employment Savings Trust. The simpler, fairer rules on pensions tax relief in clauses 66 and 67 will limit the amount of tax relief received by those who make the highest pension contribution. From this year, the annual allowance will be set at £50,000 and the lifetime allowance will be reduced to £1.5 million. That will generate about £12.5 billion by the end of this Parliament, and it will ensure that the pension system remains generous for savers, is fair to taxpayers, and is affordable for the Exchequer. At the other end of the age range, clause 40 introduces individual savings accounts for children, offering a simple and tax-free way to save for a child’s future
Turning to the environment, the introduction of a carbon price floor in clause 77 is a revolutionary move. It demonstrates this Government’s commitment to being the greenest Government ever, and it makes us the first country in the world to introduce such a measure for the power industry.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept, however, that there is concern about the amount of hidden subsidy for the nuclear industry in the Finance Bill, and given the coalition agreement that there is to be no subsidy for nuclear power, does he share my concern on behalf of manufacturers, particularly in my constituency, that if there is any windfall tax it should be directed to promoting energy and waste-resource efficiency in terms of manufacturing? Is there not a complete mismatch here?
I understand the concern, and I know that it has been expressed by a number of lobby groups, although I have to say that I think it has been grossly exaggerated. The purpose of the carbon price floor is to ensure a stronger, and strengthening, market over future years for investment in low-carbon energy. It will deliver a genuine incentive for green and renewable energies to be developed and invested in. Meeting the carbon reduction targets, which I think all Members support, will require several tens, or even hundreds, of billions of pounds of new investment in renewable and other energy sources, and I think that introducing a carbon price floor is exactly the right mechanism to achieve that.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that raising the carbon price floor initially to such a level above the EU emissions trading scheme will not actually reduce emissions across Europe because they are fixed on a European basis, will risk investment moving to the other end of the interconnectors, and will move us substantially away from consultation on the issue of £1 above EU ETS, which I think most people would have accepted as a starting point for a longer-term carbon price floor to move towards the 2030s? Does he accept that he has got that price floor wrong, and that he needs to review it so as to make it actually work by genuinely increasing investment and reducing emissions?
No, I do not accept that we have got this wrong; I think we have got it right. The level of the carbon price floor was set out in the consultation. A range of options were given, and we have taken a mid-point of the various responses we received. I think it is right that this country is the first country to introduce a carbon price floor. That is a very important mechanism to help us deliver on the low-carbon power generation to which I thought those on the hon. Gentleman’s side of the House were as committed as we are on this side. Of course this will have an impact; it is designed to have an impact. It is designed to have the impact of ensuring that companies and industries seeking to invest in low-carbon power generation have a clear sense of certainty about the price they will receive for that energy over future years. As a result of that, our country can ensure that we deliver on our targets for renewable energy and carbon emissions reduction, which are, I hope, very important to every Member of this House.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not see any contradiction in terms in what he has said about making industry more competitive by giving it tax breaks? Introducing a carbon price floor will take more money from industry than corporation tax reductions give to it. Does he not recognise the
point made by Dr Whitehead: that in places like Northern Ireland this will simply push investment in electricity into the Irish Republic because of the single electricity market, rather than keep electricity production in Northern Ireland?
I recognise the force of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and I have great respect for the detailed way in which he puts them forward, which I have learned about through the relationship we have had as a result of his role as Finance Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly Government. On this point however, I have to say that I think he is wrong. I hope that the carbon price floor will, alongside other measures, encourage investment in low-carbon power generation, including in Northern Ireland. That is what we are seeking to achieve through this mechanism. I think he also referred to energy-intensive industries, and we have announced that the climate change agreements, which are to the benefit of such industries, are to be rolled forward for another phase and that the relief given through those agreements is to be significantly increased. I hope that will ensure that such energy-intensive industries will be able to make the transition to lower, or different, energy use in a way that does not have the economic effects he describes.
Given what the right hon. Gentleman has just said about the importance of investment, does he agree that the Budget should actually be giving the advantage to energy efficiency? Because of the delays in developing the green investment bank, are there not now real concerns about where we are going to get the resource efficiency from?
I agree that energy efficiency is important, of course. That is precisely why the Department of Energy and Climate Change has been working so hard to bring forward the green deal scheme, which will start next year. It is designed precisely to give additional encouragement and incentive, and to provide a mechanism for people to engage in the sort of action on domestic energy efficiency in which they have not previously engaged over the years, which I hope the hon. Lady agrees is very important. Also, there are not delays in respect of the green investment bank. Quite the contrary; we announced in the Budget both a trebling of the amount of public money going into the bank, partly through asset sales, and that it will start its operations in September next year, thereby providing yet another strand to the additional investment we all want to see in green energy.
The measure I have been discussing will make us the first country in the world to introduce a carbon price floor for the power industry. It will help to provide an incentive for the billions of pounds of investment in cleaner sources of energy that this country needs, so ensuring we are on course to meet our carbon reduction targets. We have also preserved the link between the climate change levy and prices, through clause 23, to act as a further incentive to low-carbon investment.
The Bill will also help to address other important social issues. The new duty on high-strength beers in clause 15 will help to tackle problem drinking, increasing
the cost of a typical can of high-strength lager by 25p. That is coupled with a reduction in the duty on lower-strength beers to help encourage the consumption of alcohol in a more responsible way.
I agree with the intention of the measure, which is to encourage people to drink lower-strength beers. However, does the Chief Secretary agree that what would help both the industry and the health of the nation would be if the Government were to go to Europe to argue for that level to be raised from 2.8% to 3.2% or 3.4%, so that brewers could brew something tasty and drinkable that would nudge people to reduce their alcohol consumption?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. He will perhaps know that the Economic Secretary, having taken this measure forward, is making that case for greater flexibility at a European level. As this country has taken a lead on having greater flexibility in beer duties, we are in a stronger position to argue this case. Similarly, as this country has taken the lead on deficit reduction, we are in a stronger position to argue the case that we must argue at a European level, which is that further increases in the EU budget are unacceptable. So in a number of ways the actions this Government have taken put us in a position to make strong cases at European level.
Are the Government not just tinkering with the alcohol measures, rather than facing up to the reality of the drink problem that Britain faces? Would it not be much better to have a significant unit price for alcohol, which would not affect pubs, beer drinkers in pubs or the average bottle of wine, but would raise the floor price for those who drink to excess, particularly the young?
If the hon. Gentleman were being fair, as I hope he would be, he would recognise that this Government have taken a number of measures to tackle problem drinking and that our approach on beer taxation, which is the subject of part of the Bill, will send further right signals. I hope that many hon. Members would agree that the consumption of high-strength beer is a particular problem in relation to antisocial drinking, and that allowing this sort of differentiation within the tax system should help to send the right signals. The Bill also includes a further step to help people to stop smoking, as clause 16 raises the duty on tobacco.
In conclusion, the Bill sets out changes that will enable our businesses to grow and succeed, supports the necessary plan to deal with the deficit, helps to tackle the rising cost of living, supports growth and supports fairness. I commend it to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That”
to the end of the Question and add:
“this House declines to give the Finance (No. 3) Bill a Second Reading because whilst the Minister of State for the Cabinet Office acknowledged that the country faces an ‘immediate national crisis in the form of less growth and jobs than we need’
this Bill does not address it;
because the economic approach set out by the Government in this Bill puts jobs and growth at risk;
because the Bill cuts capital allowances to businesses who invest in growth;
because the Office of Budget Responsibility estimates that after all the measures in the Bill are taken into account the number of unemployed will be higher by up to 200,000 than forecast in November 2010; because the Bill fails to reverse the higher petrol prices faced by families as a result of the Government’s VAT increase in January 2011; because it does not address the damage done to family living standards caused by the wider tax and benefit changes this month; and because without a repeat of the bank bonus tax, the bank levy alone will mean lower taxes for the banks at a time when families and children are bearing the brunt of the Government’s cuts to household incomes.”
At the beginning of the Second Reading debate on a Finance Bill, it is appropriate to take stock of the situation that we face in the UK and of the Government’s handling of our economy almost a year into their time in office. This was the self-styled “Budget for Growth” that downgraded the growth figures. When one in five young people were out of work, it was a Budget that forecast higher levels of unemployment. This was a Budget from the deficit cutters which forecast £46 billion of higher Government borrowing.
After listening for months to his analysis of the economic challenges facing this country, I must confess that I am very worried about the credibility of the Chancellor. His explanation of the origins of the banking crisis and the recession that it caused is partisan fiction—it has very little connection to economic reality. It seems that I am not alone in worrying about his grasp of the facts, because over the weekend he has been attacked by the enemy within. He has been accused of “fiddling the figures” and telling “untruths”, threatened with a lawsuit and told to withdraw “completely unfounded” claims or risk losing “his credibility as Chancellor”—that is just what the Energy Secretary is saying about him.
“a right-wing elite, a right-wing clique who want to keep things the way they are”.
Perhaps the Chancellor could tell us, if he bothered to turn up—[Interruption.] Perhaps the “Orange Book” Liberals are part of that right-wing clique. Perhaps the Chancellor will tell us whether this right-wing clique all have a uniform as fetching as the Bullingdon club tux?
“I think it is a real shame that this sort of pretty desperate scaremongering is going on.”
Well let me tell the Chief Secretary that I know just how he feels, because the Chancellor has been indulging in pretty desperate scaremongering about the threat of a UK sovereign debt crisis since his theatrically named “Emergency Budget” last June, and he has been aided and abetted by none other than the Chief Secretary. As the Energy Secretary said in his letter to the Chancellor over the weekend:
“Robust debate is normal in British politics. Persistent resort to falsehoods is not.”
In the meantime, will the Chief Secretary now admit, in the interests of not persistently resorting to falsehoods, that the banking crisis and global recession were not caused by the previous Prime Minister? The truth is that he helped to avoid a global depression and that the current Chancellor got every important call in those days of world crisis wrong. Will the Chief Secretary also have the decency to admit that the deficit was not caused by too much spending on schools and hospitals or by the profligacy of nurses and teachers? The truth is that the crisis was caused by unforgivable excess in the banking sector. Will he also take this opportunity to disown and stop repeating the Chancellor’s irresponsible and pretty desperate scaremongering about Britain being on the brink of a sovereign debt crisis like Greece or Portugal, when it is obvious that it is not?
Like the Energy Secretary, I believe that robust debate is normal in British politics, but persistent resort to falsehoods is not. Will the Chief Secretary therefore now disown the “pretty desperate scaremongering”—I use his own words—about the supposed threat of a UK sovereign debt crisis? The truth is that it was the banking crisis that had a disastrous impact on the public finances. Between 2008 and 2009, nominal GDP fell by 1.8%—that cost £20.6 billion—and tax receipts dropped by 3.7%, costing £19.9 billion. Will he acknowledge that this sudden collapse in economic activity is responsible for the bulk of the deficit? This is not a deficit caused by too much public spending before the crisis, but a deficit caused by the crisis. The truth is that the deficit is the price that we are paying for the failure of the banking system and the recession that was caused by that failure. It is also the price that we paid to prevent a global recession from turning into a worldwide depression, and it was essential to our future well-being as a nation that a depression was averted. We could all have a more mature and relevant debate in this House about the formidable economic challenges facing us, if we began with an acknowledgement of the truth of these facts.
Last June, in their first Budget, this Government embarked on a risky and dangerous experiment with the future of our economy. Last year, they abandoned Labour’s plans to halve the deficit in four years and decided to plough full steam ahead with a deficit reduction plan that went further and faster than that of any other major economy in the G20. So preoccupied were they with their desire to make the biggest public spending cuts since the second world war that they also failed to ensure that growth formed a key part of deficit reduction. They opted for a high-risk approach, and this Finance Bill continues that dubious experiment.
It appears that the Government are in thrall to the economic dogma of a long-dead 19th-century economist, David Ricardo, and their ideological preference for a small state. They imagine that the smaller the government, the less taxation and spending there will be. They think that the private sector will somehow automatically fill the gap left by cuts and that the economy will just grow. That is why they have embarked on a drastic programme of deep and immediate cuts that, if their theory is correct, should already be turning the economy around by now and why they are so uncomfortable with publishing their wholly inadequate self-styled, “Plan for Growth”, which was meant to be the public relations centrepiece of the Budget. Their laissez-faire economic approach assumes that growth will happen automatically without
the need for any Government support, much less a plan. That is why the plan was so delayed and of such dubious merit when it finally arrived. Keynesians, however, believe that the economy works very differently and that the Ricardian equivalence dogma is wrong. We ignore the insights of Keynes at our peril, which is why the Government’s economic policy, as set out in the Bill, is taking us in the wrong direction.
The great banking crisis of 2007, which began in the American sub-prime mortgage market, administered a huge and near-fatal shock to the world’s financial system.
I agree entirely with everything my hon. Friend has said. The Government have completely failed to understand the importance of demand in the economy if we are to get growth, and demand looks as though it is weakening. Even the Treasury now estimates that by the end of this Parliament, borrowing will overshoot by £11 billion. The Government are driving the economy in precisely the wrong direction.
That is essentially the insight that Keynes developed from his experience as a practising economist. We ignore his insights at our peril—[ Laughter. ] Hon. Gentlemen on the Government Benches can laugh, but if we get this wrong and the economy does not grow or develop, the price will be paid through a smaller economy, fewer opportunities and lower standards of living for men and women up and down the country. That is not something that the Government or the Government parties should be making a joke of.
The great banking crisis transmitted itself to the real economy in the form of a synchronised global recession. Nothing so serious has been experienced in the advanced economies since the Wall street crash. That great crash destroyed the economic and social fabric of many societies in the interwar years, causing untold hardship and misery. Governments in the 1930s were in thrall to the same Ricardian dogmas as now hold sway in both the Government parties. They did not see a role for the state in protecting the economic and social well-being of their citizens. Their lack of vision and hands-off approach to economic policy led to the great depression and ultimately, the collapse into dictatorships and a cataclysmic world war.
Fortunately, in 2007 the previous Labour Government and economic policy makers the world over did not make the same mistake. They had absorbed the lessons of the interwar years, and they took actions to prevent the recession from turning into a global depression, but before the recovery had become securely established, the deficit hawks reasserted themselves, demanding austerity despite warnings from leading experts around the world that that would be the wrong approach.
That is true—the Liberal Democrats gave us such warnings before the election.
Undeterred by the lessons of history and without an electoral mandate for such drastic cuts, the new Administration in the UK have proved to be the most extreme of the deficit hawks. They decided that dealing
at breakneck speed with the deficit created by the banking crisis was more important than any other consideration, including protecting people against long-term unemployment or against cuts in vital public services. So, before the patient was long out of the emergency room, the Government decided to start administering a deficit reduction shock therapy that could end up being worse than the original illness. There is nothing in economic theory that dictates that Governments should plan to eliminate deficits in four years rather than eight.
The sheer scale and speed at which the Government have proceeded came as a surprise, not least to the 6.5 million people who voted Liberal Democrat at the last election. The Business Secretary warned about the dangers of cutting too far and too fast before the election, only to go along with the most savage cuts that we have had in the UK in peacetime straight after it. Meanwhile, in his speech to the Liberal Democrat Scottish conference last year, the Chief Secretary promised to
“create…jobs and boost the recovery”.
Instead, he has followed the example of the leader of his party when it comes to election promises—he has done the exact opposite of what he said he would do.
Just today, Mr Gary Millar, a councillor in Liverpool, has quit the Liberal Democrats in disgust over their broken promises. He said that he was once
“happy to call myself a Lib Dem, today they make me question my integrity and reputation.”
Like so many others, he feels personally betrayed by the Liberal Democrats, which is why they will face the wrath of an angry electorate next week.
At the time of the election last year, the economy had begun to improve from the depths of the banking-induced recession. Growth was up, inflation and unemployment were falling and borrowing had come in £20 billion better than forecast in the 2009 pre-Budget report. Formidable problems lay ahead, of course, but we were moving in the right direction and growth was seen as part of the solution.
Since the fiscal hawks rolled up at the Treasury, our economy, which was improving, has ground to a halt. Unemployment is higher, inflation is double the Bank of England target and the Chancellor has presided over a collapse in consumer confidence to lower levels than it reached in the depths of the 2009 recession, because he made the political choice to inflict on ordinary families the largest and longest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s. As the cost of living rises and wages fall, he has chosen to impose the increase in VAT, huge cuts in local services and a reduction in the support for child care that threatens to drive many women out of their jobs. His VAT increase alone will cost the average family with children £450 this year, far more than they will gain through increases to tax thresholds. Little wonder, then, that the Office for Budget Responsibility has downgraded the growth forecast again and again.
In his Budget speech, the Chancellor boasted:
“Our country’s fiscal plans have been strongly endorsed by the International Monetary Fund, by the European Commission, by the OECD, and by every reputable business body in Britain.”—[Hansard, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 951.]
The IMF has lowered its growth forecasts for the UK, however, and its head, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has warned against cutting budgets too far, creating long-term unemployment and abandoning entire generations to a
workless future with no hope. The recent interim OECD assessment of G7 economies predicted that the UK was expected to grow more slowly than any other G7 country except Japan, which has just been hit by powerful earthquakes, devastating floods and the ongoing battle against a nuclear disaster.
Again, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who is making an absolutely excellent speech. There is another factor, however, driving deflation, and that is the fear of unemployment. When people are frightened of losing their jobs, they stop spending their money and try to pay off their mortgages. That is what is happening now and that is why demand will be savagely cut by this Government’s policies.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point about confidence and sentiment in the economy transmitting their way into the real figures through their effect on demand.
Even those who gave their personal stamp of approval to the Chancellor’s aggressive cuts agenda last year in a letter to The Daily Telegraph are now voicing their doubts about weak growth. Ex-Tory MP Archie Norman is worried that the Government’s growth predictions are too optimistic and former Asda boss Luke Bond is predicting a two-year retail recession, which picks up on the point that my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins has just made.
The Government are going too far too fast, and we are paying the price in lost jobs and slower growth. Their phobia about the deficit means they are cutting public expenditure much further and faster than any other major economy. They have made deficit reduction the only thing that matters, regardless of how terrible its social or economic effects will be; they appear to be blind to the lessons of history; they refuse to listen to public concern; and they fail to recognise the absolute necessity of re-establishing growth to get the deficit down. Without growth, austerity measures simply make the deficit worse and impoverish the society they are inflicted on. The Chancellor should, as he so notoriously lectured us in February 2006, “Look and learn from across the Irish sea”. Ireland is on its fourth austerity budget with no end in sight. The evidence shows that all the countries that implemented drastic austerity measures saw their economies go into reverse in the fourth quarter of 2010. Those economies shrank in Greece by 1.4%, in Iceland by 1.5%, in Ireland by 1.6%, in Portugal by 1.5% and in the UK by 0.5%. In contrast, both the German and the American economies grew.
The Chancellor is not solving the problem; he is in danger of making it worse. The day after the Budget, the ratings agency Moody’s embarrassed the Government by suggesting that the UK’s triple A rating might be at risk not because of the deficit but because of slower growth. I would take any pronouncement from the rating agencies with a very large pinch of salt, as they are hugely compromised by the part they played in making the banking crisis worse and they need to be reformed, but, unlike the Chancellor, we have neither made their flawed and partial judgments the central justification for our economic policies nor installed them as the most important judges of our success by giving a dangerous credence to the fiction that the UK’s ability to finance its debts is at risk for reasons of petty
party politicking. Their influence makes the inconvenient point for the Government’s political cuts narrative that growth is equally important to successful deficit reduction. Without growth, the deficit will not be sustainably reduced.
According to the Government, one of the major contributors to growth in coming years will be an increase in net exports, but with all our European partners struggling, as has been shown, how are we meant to get that increase in net exports and demand?
With a 25% devaluation in the value of our currency, we certainly ought to be seeing strong increases in economic performance, but my hon. Friend makes an important point about demand in other areas of the economy, especially in the European Union, which is our largest export partner—60% of our exports go there.
The Chief Secretary will already have seen the growth figures for the first quarter of 2011, and I am looking at his face for any scrutable or inscrutable reaction. The figures are due to be released tomorrow, so he has an advantage over the rest of us. I do not know whether he is going to give us any facial hints as to what is in them, but if the OBR’s three-times downgraded forecast of 0.8% is right, the economy will have grown a tiny 0.3% over the past six months against the 1.8% it achieved in the previous six months under the influence of the previous Government’s policies for recovery. As the Financial Times says today,
“it will be difficult to claim that the recovery is self-sustaining unless Wednesday’s number is at least 1.2 per cent and possibly as high as 1.7 per cent.”
The Government’s growth strategy is a hotch-potch of reheated Thatcherite fiddling on the supply side. At its centre is the dubious belief that the most important driver of economic growth is creating a low corporate tax jurisdiction for multinationals, but the economic literature shows that growth tends to be higher in countries that have a higher investment in social and intellectual assets, as well as good capital infrastructures. The Government have a simplistic view that cutting corporate taxes will automatically lead to more investment, but we believe that an investment strategy is needed and that it sends the wrong signal to cut investment allowances. The £200 million one-off extra investment in science and apprenticeships, although welcome, is dwarfed by the £5 billion-a-year cost of reducing corporate taxes, which will help growth only if that money is reinvested in business activities in the UK. The Government’s decision to abolish the regional development agencies and cut regional growth funding by two thirds has set back many viable plans for development that could even now have been building an economic recovery in every region of the UK.
Despite the biggest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s, the OBR is forecasting that one quarter of economic growth this year and a third next year will come from UK households and will be financed by a sharp increase in household debt. Close study has revealed something that the Chancellor chose not to mention in his Budget speech: the OBR expects families to go deeper into debt each year between now and 2015 and expects household debt to rise to a record high of 175% of disposable income, or £77,000 per family, by
the end of this Parliament. The Chancellor claims that the only thing that matters is getting Government borrowing down, but he does not say that his plan is to pass that debt directly on to already hard-pressed families. Although they did not cause this crisis, ordinary hard-working people and families are being made to pay for it. People are suffering under the pressure of the Chancellor’s hike in VAT, sky-high petrol prices and inflation, and we know that his real economic strategy is to force people to take on even more debt just to make ends meet.
What then of the sector that caused the crisis? Instead of making the banks pay more this year, the Government are giving them a tax cut. Project Merlin, the Government’s so-called final settlement with the banking sector, is a damp squib. As the majority shareholder, the Government have just approved, for the chief executive of the nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland, £7.7 million in pay and bonuses for last year despite the bank’s having lost £1 billion. It has also emerged that bank lending to small businesses fell again in the first quarter of the year. Lending to small businesses is vital to recovery and despite all the promises from the banks it is going down, not up. The Government should not be giving the banks a tax cut, but should follow Labour’s suggestion and repeat the bank bonus tax this year. That extra money could be used to build 25,000 extra affordable homes, to create more than 100,000 jobs to help tackle youth unemployment and to boost enterprise in the regions.
The Government are hellbent on taking us back in time to the divided Britain of the 1980s. The Tory leaders in the coalition are trying to re-enact the failed Thatcherite policies of the past, which resulted in one part of our society being divided against another. Not only are they making life tougher for people, but they are kicking away the ladders to a better future. They are teaching people to blame the weak and despise the poor. It is happening all over again, just like in the 1980s, but this time the Liberal Democrats are helping them to do it. At the weekend, the Deputy Prime Minister accused the Prime Minister of “defending the indefensible”, but I think that the Deputy Prime Minister and his Government colleagues are doing a pretty good job of that themselves. In public they complain, but in private they roll over and agree to every damaging Tory plan.
The Government fail to recognise the pain that their economic strategy is inflicting on people up and down the country. They want Britain to have a smaller state; they want to create a nastier, meaner, shabbier society that leaves people to fend for themselves; and they are trying to fool the country into believing the myth that the economic storm was all Labour’s fault and that this extreme and dangerous fiscal consolidation programme is the only option to deal with it. The Government need not have cut this far or this fast, because there is a better, fairer and safer way. They need to wake up and accept that their economic polices are not working and are just hurting, and they need to change course before it is too late.
I welcome the Finance Bill, which will reform the economy, deliver real growth for business and create jobs. One of the very
special parts of the Bill is what it does for the very smallest businesses, as they are going to be the key to re-growth in our economy. I am sure that the House is well aware that two thirds of our businesses are so small that they have fewer than five employees and a turnover of less than £250,000. They may represent only 15% of our economy but they are vital because, first, all our successful businesses have to start somewhere, and it must be there, and, secondly, without those very small businesses—whether it is the plumber or the electrician—some of our rural communities and some deprived urban communities would find it difficult to keep economically active. For these very small businesses, I am pleased to see a mandate for growth.
I shall elaborate on some of the provisions mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary and look at what they deliver and how they might be developed in future. Businesses rates are, for me, one of the most important issues and the subject of many complaints from small businesses in my constituency. I am delighted that the small business rate relief has been extended for a further year, and pleased that half a million businesses will benefit. In the south-west, which is my part of the country, 68% of businesses will see some economic benefit from that relief.
Will my right hon. Friends and the Treasury team look carefully at business rates in future? An awful lot more needs to be done. Issues such as turnover are relevant criteria. It is not uncommon for me to walk into a pub and to be told by the publican that the way in which the business rates have been calculated is biased against small pubs. It is not uncommon for me to walk into a small retail business and to be told, “This used to be the high street but it’s not any longer, and I feel that my business rates are disproportionate and inappropriate.” A shake-up of business rates is needed.
I welcome the reduction of fuel duty by 1p and the removal of the escalator. Without that, the projection from the Federation of Small Businesses that all small businesses would find their bills going up by £2,000 in six months would have become a reality. To me, that reduction is crucial. I am sure that those on the Opposition Benches would be the first to say, “But at the pump, prices don’t seem to have come down.” My response is that they would have been an awful lot higher but for these changes. We need to consider how to ensure that those who are delivering petrol at the retail end are passing on those reductions to the customer. A number of people have expressed concern that the help that we as a Government are giving has not been passed on to the consumer.
If I follow the hon. Lady’s logic correctly, she welcomes a policy, the results of which, she admits, have not been passed on to the customer, so what benefit have most of her constituents received from the fuel duty cuts?
They are 6p a litre better off than they might otherwise have been. The challenge that we face is the retailer, but I do not believe that the Opposition would have been able to do anything different. That is another aspect that needs to be looked at going forward. But we digress. Let us move on to some of the other issues facing small businesses, such as income tax and national insurance.
For many small businesses, national insurance is a headache and it is one of the key reasons why they will not take on new employees. We have the largest tax code in the world. One of the things that I am pleased to see predicted for the future, though not in the Bill, is a move to simplify tax and to consider combining income tax and national insurance. That would be a great step forward and a huge saving in administrative time and burden for very small businesses. I was sad to see that the NI holiday was not extended further for existing businesses, a matter that I have raised with the Treasury team on a number of occasions. If in future we could find a way of combining income tax and national insurance, that would be a good step forward.
I am pleased that corporation tax is coming down to 26%, and I am pleased to see a move to deliver the lowest corporation tax in the G7. That is extremely good news. Given that my mandate is to shout loud for the very smallest businesses, it would have been even better for the small companies rate to have come down further. I appreciate that it has already come down to 20%, which is a good move, but anything further that can be done going forward would be welcomed. The special provision to increase the SME rate of research and development tax credit to 200% is extremely welcome. I thank the Treasury team very much for that as it will make a significant difference.
The crucial challenge for many small businesses is finding investment, so I am particularly pleased to see entrepreneur relief changes which will increase the capital gains tax lifetime limit to £10 million. That is a hugely welcome step. I am pleased that the enterprise investment scheme has been also been developed so that the income tax relief has moved from 20% to 30%, and the eligibility criteria have changed so that larger businesses will be included in EIS. However, I would be grateful if the ministerial team would look at how we can extend EIS so that it attracts investment for the very smallest businesses. At present it is much more geared towards a small or medium-sized business and corporations. It is not intended for a sole trader or a partnership. If we could come up with EIS-lite in some form, that would be extraordinarily helpful.
In summary, I am delighted to see the focus on the smallest of businesses. I sincerely hope that that will be a trend to be welcomed for the future. One thought I have for the Treasury team is that, going forward, we might look more closely at a specific definition of a micro-business, a small business and a medium-sized business. If we did that, as happens in other countries, we might find that the Treasury team had a little more flexibility to give particular help to the very smallest businesses, from which growth will ultimately stem.
I shall speak about the oil and gas industry, to which the Chief Secretary gave prominence in his contribution. I am sorry that he has gone. He claimed the credit for the policy, but he may in future regret that rather naive political claim. He has produced a system that is too clever by half and does not pay much attention to the reality of the oil and gas industry.
The oil and gas industry is probably the single most important industrial investor in the UK. Some £6 billion was invested last year alone, with anticipated increased
investment this year, led by the high oil price. The industry supports nearly half a million jobs throughout the UK, either directly or in the supply chain. A substantial proportion of those jobs are located in just four constituencies around the city of Aberdeen—my own constituency, Aberdeen North, and Aberdeen South, Gordon, and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, where we have a grand total of just over 132,000 oil and gas-related jobs. That has a huge impact on our local economy.
Oil jobs exist in other parts of the country too. There are, for example, 14,250 such jobs in the City of London, where many of the major companies have their headquarters, nearly 8,000 in Reading East, and over 8,000 in Poplar and Limehouse. Uxbridge has 2,170 oil and gas-related jobs, and Stockton North has 2,270. Even the Prime Minister in rural Witney has about 1,000 such jobs, according to figures produced last year by Oil and Gas UK. So it is not just a regional issue or one that involves only East Anglia or the north-east of Scotland. The last time such a survey was done—this one was carried out about a year ago—the Economic Secretary to the Treasury would have been able to claim several thousand jobs in her constituency, but Kellogg Brown and Root, which used to be located in Putney, has moved on. The industry affects the whole country.
Last year, the industry paid £8.8 billion in corporation tax and the estimates show that £13.4 billion is likely to be paid in 2011-12. Of that, £3 billion to £4 billion in revenue is linked directly to the oil price, so the Government are already benefiting from the spike in oil prices. Before the Budget the industry was already the most heavily taxed sector in the UK economy, with 50% to 75% of all UK continental shelf profits going to the Government. Given that we own the oil after all, since it was nationalised under the Petroleum (Production) Act 1934, such a split does not look excessive on either side.
However, exploiting our oil and gas resources is a dangerous and expensive operation that requires high levels of commitment and investment. Investment decisions in the UK industry are not all made in the UK. It is a genuinely global industry and UK sector decisions are made in Houston, Dallas, San Diego, Paris and Vancouver as well as in London and the middle east. Competition for investment is fierce. UK management has to fight against bids from other oil provinces, such as Brazil, Australia and India, and from emerging oil provinces such as west and east Africa and from a host of other foreign company headquarters.
The managers who make those decisions consider a number of factors in addition to the most prominent one—the likely return on investment. The key factors are a stable political background and a stable financial background. Above all, for long-term investment the oil industry needs certainty in the tax regime, and I am sure that the Economic Secretary had that message hammered home very seriously by the industry when she visited Aberdeen not so long ago.
Ever since the 1960s, when oil exploration started in the North sea, we have done very well on investment, mainly because we have had a stable political system and a more or less stable tax system, but it is getting much harder. The UK continental shelf is a declining province and the Government’s aim should always be to ensure that that decline is managed and is as shallow as possible. That means keeping the tax regime attractive
enough to encourage investment while ensuring that the public purse gets its fair share. The Chancellor’s decision, which the Chief Secretary apparently claimed was his idea, will accelerate that decline rather than slow it down.
Professor Alex Kemp and Linda Stephen from Aberdeen university recently produced an authoritative study on the impact of the tax changes. The report looks at the impact of the Budget on a range of oil and gas price scenarios. It finds that at a $50 a barrel oil price and 30p per therm of gas, over the 30-year period to 2041, there could be a reduction of 23 new field developments and substantial incremental developments undertaken. There would be a cumulative reduction in production of 920 million barrels of oil equivalent and a reduction in field investment of £19.2 billion, at 2010 prices. Total field expenditure would be reduced by £34.9 billion and tax revenues would be reduced by £12.8 billion.
Under a $70 a barrel scenario, with 50p per therm of gas, there would 62 fewer new field developments, loss of production of 1.7 billion barrels and a total field expenditure loss of £33.2 billion, but for the Government the tax revenues would increase by £23.3 billion. The analysis for the $90 a barrel scenario, with 70p per therm of gas, shows that even at the top of oil and gas price scenarios damage is done—79 fewer fields, 22.54 million barrels of oil equivalent lost and total field expenditure of £52.2 billion—but, again, tax revenues would increase by £51.6 billion. The question we must ask in these scenarios, which have come from a very authoritative source, is whether that is a price worth paying, given the reduction in our oil and gas producing capacity and the importance of the industry to the country. The Government increase their tax take, but at a considerable loss elsewhere.
I have known Alex Kemp for many years. He is the country’s leading expert on oil and gas taxation and many hon. Members in the Chamber with an interest in the oil and gas industry will have had many conversations with him. He has advised many companies, emerging oil countries around the world on their tax systems and various Select Committees in this House. He is completely independent. He and his colleague have produced a damning indictment of the impact of these tax changes.
The approach that the report takes is extremely important. The oil price is volatile and can change dramatically. For example, I remember that in 1985, when I was a young and aspiring parliamentary candidate ploughing my furrow in Aberdeen, the oil price dropped from $32 to $8 a barrel virtually overnight. The oil industry is, if nothing else, extremely focused and unsentimental. If a company is not making the returns it anticipated, it will quickly change direction. In 1985-86, the price we paid was that a huge number of projects were quickly shut down. Estimates showed that around 50,000 oil jobs were lost, mainly in the north-east of Scotland. That is the sort of picture that Professor Kemp and Dr Stephen paint for us in their report.
The House of Commons Library has produced a valuable report on oil prices which shows just how serious that volatility is. For example, the Library’s figures show that in 2008 the minimum price for a barrel of oil was $39.25 and the maximum was $132.40, all in one year. Of course, that was the year when the global banking crisis was at its height. That was a huge shift in
extraordinary times, but these are extraordinary times, too. Who can predict the oil price next month, never mind next year?
The average price for 2011 will be higher, mainly because of the crisis in the middle east. Perhaps the price will go as high as it was in 2008, but again, who knows? Will we still have the disruption in the middle east next year? Will the world economy have improved, increasing the demand for oil, or will it still be bumping along the bottom? What new technologies will come along? Shale gas is transforming gas industry economics and new oil provinces may be discovered, along with massive oil fields, as new technology allows us to explore in more difficult areas.
In the meantime, UK oil and gas production continues to decline. It is sustained by investment, much of it coming from new entrants in the North sea introducing new techniques to improve recovery from existing oil fields, many of which are the most heavily taxed under the new proposals. The development of much smaller fields relies on existing infrastructure, much of which is well beyond its expected working life and requires constant investment to maintain it. The report by Professor Kemp and Linda Stephen shows just what the impact of these tax increases on investment will be.
As other Members have said, there is also real concern about the application of the tax increases to gas. Gas projects in the UK are highly marginal and the economics of gas are very different from those of oil. The price of gas is much lower and is likely to stay that way, particularly given the continuing discovery of substantial gas deposits around the world and the growing impact of shale gas on the economics of gas. The current value of gas, as has been mentioned in previous interventions, is the equivalent of $55 a barrel, well below the Government’s proposed threshold for the tax increase, but there is no sign that gas revenue will be excluded from the increase. To pick up on the point made by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in response to interventions, I do not think that tinkering with the field allowance will have much of an impact on the gas industry. It needs a lot more than that and a recognition of the different economics.
The west of Shetland area is estimated to hold around 17% of the UK’s remaining resources, and much of it is natural gas. Development will be challenging and expensive, but the Laggan and Rosebank developments, for example, would open up other areas west of Shetland and provide a lifeline for the Sullom Voe terminal on Shetland. By the way, roughly 1,100 jobs on Shetland and Orkney are sustained by the oil and gas industry. Development in this area is crucial to the national interest, but these are just the sorts of projects that are threatened by the tax increases and the lack of any differentiation between oil and gas as products for the application of the increase, which makes the threat much more serious to all future gas projects in the UK.
It is worth adding that those consumers who are saving a penny on their petrol bills may well end up paying it back in other ways. One major gas producer gave me figures showing that the extra cost of importing gas into the UK from abroad to replace gas which would otherwise have been produced before the introduction of the tax increase could be as high as £100 per household per year, which is a significant potential increase. There would obviously be other major effects on the economy because of the loss of an indigenous resource and the need to import gas to replace it.
Of course, this is not the first time a Government have increased oil taxation. The previous Conservative Government did it in 1993. The reception then was as bad as this one, as it came out of the blue without prior consultation, and a number of companies were hit hard. In 1998, the Labour Government proposed an increase in taxation on the industry, started a formal review and consultation process and flagged up the possibility of a supplementary charge. For the record, I have never been opposed in principle to taxing the profits of multinational companies, but on that occasion I opposed the measure. At the time it seemed the wrong thing to do, even by my own Government, because we were going through a sustained period of low oil and gas prices. It was the wrong time to apply a tax increase, and the review concluded with exactly the view that I take: the industry was suffering a sustained period of low prices, and it was not the time to increase taxation. The then Chancellor accepted that view, and no increase was imposed in that Parliament. He also made it clear that the decision would stand for the life of that Parliament.
In 2002, things in the industry had changed and the supplementary charge was introduced. It was increased in 2006, and just for the record I did not oppose those measures, because I thought that the industry could afford them at the time. On each occasion, in 2002 and 2006, as in 1998, however, the Chancellor made it clear that the tax decisions would be for the duration of the Parliament, and that was a crucial reassurance to the industry: nothing would happen in the following year’s Budget or the one after that; the decisions were sustained for the Parliament.
When Labour took office in 1997, it quickly understood the importance of the oil and gas industry to the economy—and how little it was understood by government and civil servants. The Oil and Gas Industry Task Force was created as a regular forum for discussion between the industry and government, and relations between both sides improved considerably. Treasury officials were not initially involved, but in the past few years they have attended as observers, and there was a strong feeling that right across Whitehall, and particularly in the Treasury, government understood the oil industry much better than it had in the past.
In 2006, the Labour Government, again, started a review of the offshore oil tax regime, and it has been clear for a long time that the regime, which developed for a growing industry, has to be changed to take account of the decline in the industry and, particularly, the needs of decommissioning. That review survived the change in Government, and all the feedback that I have had from industry and from some Ministers is that the process was being dealt with constructively on both sides, and that good progress was being made, particularly on some of the more difficult issues, such as decommissioning.
All that work has been undermined by the unexpected decision to increase the tax rate. The Chancellor, with the increases, has taken UK into the top three in the world league of high oil and gas tax payers. I think that we were No. 2 in the league table that I saw, a long way from the mid-point where we used to be. He is playing a dangerous game with a crucial but declining industry that will continue to need foreign investment to survive. At a stroke, he has destabilised the industry and prejudiced the view of potential investors. All new developments
offshore have long lead-in times, and many can take as much as 10 years to plan, design and construct, with expenditure in the billions of pounds before a single barrel of oil is produced or a penny earned. The oil and gas industry wins big rewards, but it takes big risks.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s remarks on what remains one of Britain’s greatest industries, but does he agree that there is a national security and geopolitical dimension to the issue? As events in northern Africa and in the middle east show, much of the gas and oil in the world is in areas that are unstable and not readily associated with democracy or human rights, so the more energy we can produce ourselves in Britain or offshore, the better for our national security. That is a crucial defence reason why we should cherish the industry.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he makes his point with the authority of having been Energy Minister for many years in the previous Government. The security that our indigenous oil and gas industry gives us is one of its most important benefits. We have never had full energy security, but the industry gives us a considerable edge in the current climate.
I mentioned the volatility of oil prices and the tax system in the UK, and the risks to future investment are real. The Chancellor has introduced even more uncertainty into the system with his proposal to link oil tax with fuel prices. We have a volatile system, and most predictions for oil prices in the medium to long term are wrong. We have not seen the Chancellor’s scheme for the new tax system, but it seems clear that it will add to more uncertainty about the tax rate.
The Government are absolutely right to express their concern about rising fuel costs, particularly given the impact on taxation, but I cringe a little when I hear Ministers talk, as the Chief Secretary did, about the Labour Government’s escalator. The escalator was introduced by the previous Tory Government, and during the Labour Government, particularly after the fuel crisis at the turn of the century, it was dropped. In 11 out of our 13 years in power, the escalator was suspended. That is the reality.
The current Government could have dealt with the problems faced by motorists in another way, without introducing all this complexity and the confusion that it will cause—particularly if the crisis in the middle east recedes and the oil price declines again. They have made a serious error by linking fuel costs to the taxation of the oil and gas industry.
Importantly, the oil industry has reacted very badly to the increases, with one senior figure describing them as a “drive-by shooting”. The industry relates to government in a very sophisticated way, and it probably has more contact than any other industry with government, but there is clearly genuine shock and concern about this Government’s decisions.
I have had many years of contact with leading figures and companies in the industry, and in the past I have seen the industry cry wolf more times than I care to remember. At the end of the day, it makes whatever adjustments necessary and gets on with it. This time, however, it seems very different. The sense is that there has been no proper consideration of the needs of the industry, as an industry in decline but one that will
make a major contribution to our economy with the right support and management from government.
The sense is that Treasury Ministers in particular do not understand the industry and simply see it as a cow to be milked. They have taken a short-term decision, and the sense is that the cow has been milked for short-term political reasons—to throw some crumbs to the motorists and to accelerate the reduction of the deficit. Both are perfectly respectable aims, but not at the cost of causing the severe damage that Alex Kemp’s report envisages to our indigenous oil and gas industry.
I came to this Second Reading debate to get an outline of the Government’s case on the Budget and the Finance Bill, as I heard from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and because I felt that the Opposition spokesperson, Ms Eagle, would give us the Opposition’s view. I tried to follow her as best as I could, but we seemed instead to get a lengthy diatribe on any spats that there might have been over the AV referendum, and a repetition of the arguments used after the emergency Budget some several months ago about public spending cuts.
We heard the cliché that the coalition wishes to turn the country back as far as government is concerned into a “small state”, to use her expression. That ignores the fact that the size of the state in public expenditure terms after the five-year programme will be back to that of 2008, which I am sure the then Government would not have described as a “small state”. We heard also great support for the Liberal, Lord John Maynard Keynes, which I found interesting, and the blaming of everything on “a synchronised global recession”.
Those are yesterday’s arguments, however, because we are here to talk about this Budget and this Finance Bill. The debate is about one thing above all others: after the budget deficit is dealt with, the plan for which the Government explained clearly in the emergency Budget, how do we ensure that the economy can expand without the problems of the past? Such problems occur when the economy expands, imports are sucked in without a commensurate export boom and migrants come to work here because we have unemployed people who do not have the necessary skills or, indeed, ability to fill the available jobs. Whether it is because they are unwilling, live in a different part of the country or do not have the necessary skills, that has been a problem. In my constituency, about 2,000 people, including young people aged 18 to 24, are on jobseeker’s allowance, yet companies still have to bring in labour from Poland, because their alternative is to shut the factory and move it abroad. The long-term purpose of the Budget is to deal with such fundamental core problems.
It is not just a question of consumption. The media and, to some extent, the Opposition are obsessed with retail sales numbers, but in the past booming retail sales have led to some of our problems, with imports being sucked in and household debt expanding to fund consumption. Adam Smith, a great hero of Conservative Members who has some support even among Labour Members, said:
“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production”.
When he said that, the economy was far less sophisticated than it is today, and he did not mean that retail spending is the be-all and end-all. Indeed, the Office for Budget Responsibility expects British households to account for about a fifth of economic growth this year and about a third next year. There is a lot more to it than just consumption and what is spent in the shops.
The Daily Telegraph said in an editorial just after the Budget:
“The Chancellor bets on business coming to the rescue”.
That is absolutely true. The coalition’s strategy is based entirely on allowing business to produce the necessary jobs, exports and consumption so that the economy can expand, this time on a firm base rather than on the basis of property debt and financial services—although I am pleased to say that financial services, particularly international financial services, are very important for this country. Comments about the banking crisis and bankers’ bonuses tend to push to one side what I would regard as the core argument, which is how we can be competitive as an international financial centre. As the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, the Government’s strategy is based on allowing us to be one of the best places in the world to do business and to be competitive. That includes the financial sector, but it does not exclude the rebalancing of the economy that is one of the main aspects of the Bill.
The test of the Bill is whether it facilitates real growth given that we have a skills shortage—there is no question about that—and a work force among whom some, particularly in the south of England, where there has been a shortage of labour, regard it as acceptable to be on jobseeker’s allowance for very lengthy periods. Watford is in the south of England, and it has 2,000 unemployed people. Does the Budget bring about a change in this climate to deal with people who lack of skills and those who lack an ability or a desire to get a job? I would argue strongly that it does. Many aspects of the Budget help with that through incentivising people to set up businesses and allowing investors more tax relief through the enterprise investment scheme and other schemes.
The Government’s approach to tax cuts has been the best that they can take in the economic climate that they inherited. The corporation tax reductions are a good start, as is the relief for investment in enterprise. However, tax is a major issue for businesses and individuals. I believe that the 50% tax rate will prove to be a disaster, first, in the money that it brings in—we are waiting for the numbers on that—and, secondly, in providing a disincentive. In one of the first speeches that I heard after the 50% rate was brought in, my right hon. Friend Mr Redwood said that he feared that business people will, to use his expression, go on strike—that they will reach a certain age and say, “Why should I work harder if significantly more than half of what I earn is to be paid over to the Government?” My point is not to do with any principles of mine. I am very much in favour of taxation being used as a form of redistribution of wealth and of wealthier people paying a much higher amount than people at the lower end of the income scale, but the unfortunate fact is that it provides a disincentive. It is a free country, and when someone gets to a certain level of income they can decide whether to work a lot harder or to do what the Americans call “going to the beach”. I hope that I am wrong, but I believe that 50% tips the balance in the wrong way.
In the long term, it is in the best interests of this country for us to be able to provide the kind of public services that we all want to provide. Notwithstanding what the hon. Member for Wallasey said, a Conservative-led Government, just as much as a Labour Government, want to provide really good-quality public services. The way to do that in the long run is to reduce the burden of taxation to encourage people to enter new businesses or to work harder in the businesses that they are in. They will not do that in return for progressively higher amounts of tax. I wish it were not the case, but it is human nature and unfortunately we will see it happening.
Business is a bit lumbered, in a way, because there are no direct votes in business. In the past, it has been easy to impose taxes as a burden on business—high business rates, employers’ national insurance and corporation tax are the obvious examples, as well as many other taxes—because there is not the immediate reaction from business that there is from the public. We now have to decide that what is good for business is good for the country, because employees make up businesses. People who demonstrate against companies that pay a small amount of corporation tax forget the billions of pounds paid by the employees in their national insurance and income tax and the VAT on what they spend.
As for skills, the Red Book points out that unfortunately 9.4% of all 16 to 24-year-olds are unemployed and not in education. A few weeks ago, I visited a company in my constituency that makes lenses—Davin Optronics. The business is 100 years old. It has declined a lot in the past 10 years, but it still turns over £4 million and employs 50 people. I was told that its biggest problem is that its skilled work force are getting older. The managing director said, “Young people don’t want to work here. They want to work in Top Shop or TK Maxx, or wherever, but they don’t want to work in a factory.” I am very pleased about the apprenticeship scheme that was introduced in the Chancellor’s Budget. We must somehow make people regard qualifying to do a skilled job as being as important and high-status in society as getting a degree. The 80,000 extra work experience places and the extra apprenticeships are very good news.
Small businesses are different from large businesses, not only in relative size but because many do not have the facilities to set up training schemes to recruit in a systematic manner and to deal with local further education colleges as regards the training side of apprenticeships. I hope that what the Budget and the Bill are doing in relation to finances will be enhanced by the training of people at further education colleges, at Government expense, to find businesses that would never have dreamed of offering apprenticeships and to show them how good such apprenticeships are for those businesses.
Confidence is everything in the economy, and the measures that this Government have taken have done a lot for the confidence of employers. I read in that great oracle The Sunday Telegraph, no less, that according to its City editor business has got £71 billion of cash in reserves; presumably that is worked out by some piece of software that adds up everything on the balance sheets of all the companies at Companies House. That money needs to be invested. In bad times, companies hoard cash because they are frightened of what might happen if sales go down, there are problems with exports, and so on. It is confidence that will make those companies
spend that cash in investment. The tax breaks help a lot, but the fundamental benefit of this Finance Bill is that it is employer confidence that will get these jobs provided.
We have to get the economy right, and I think that the Finance Bill passes that test. We have to get the tax regime right, and there have been great improvements on that, although I realise that it has to be done very slowly. We have to get the work force right, which means having skilled workers and incentivising people to work. If we can do all that and incentivise companies that make profits to keep and reinvest them, I think that the economy will enjoy a proper, genuine boom in time, and not one based just on debt or consumer spending. In my view, the Budget and the Bill go a long way towards achieving that.
The Finance Bill follows the Budget in March. On the opening day of the Budget debate, I laid out the SNP’s opposition to a large number of the measures in the Bill. Today, I will take the lead from Mr Doran and concentrate on the most damaging single proposal: the Chancellor's and the Chief Secretary’s determination to see a 60% increase in the corporation tax supplementary charge on oil and gas production in the North sea from 20% to 32%. The proposal will take about an extra £2 billion a year in tax from the sector, and that is on top of last year’s £4 billion windfall as a result of the rising oil price and this year’s windfall, which is over and above the 2010 forecast as a result of oil trading at about $120 a barrel.
The proposal also runs counter to the Chancellor’s stated objectives: his objective in 2010 of providing tax stability for the North sea; his objective of delivering a growth agenda, which was meant to be at the heart of this year’s Budget; and his objective to see production here in lieu of imports. The proposal will drive a coach and horses through those worthy objectives laid out over the past year by the Government.
When the tax raid was announced, it was reported almost immediately that the leading figures in Oil and Gas UK, the sector’s trade body, gathered in a state of disbelief over the Government’s plans. It was reported almost immediately that oil companies were preparing to cancel and suspend investment plans, and that up to 40,000 new and existing jobs were at risk. It was reported that Statoil was suspending the development of the heavy crude Mariner field, putting the development of its sister field, Bressay, at risk. That led Jeremy Cresswell, the editor of The Press and Journal’s “Energy” supplement, to say:
“Statoil’s decision to stop the massive Mariner development and probably Bressay too represents a huge blow to future investment in the North Sea.”
That is significant. For those who are unaware, The Press and Journal in Aberdeen covers oil and gas in a way that no other newspaper in the UK can or does. When its energy correspondents and editors view what is going on, they do so with huge experience of the sector and of the implications that tax changes might bring.
To help us understand the impact of the Chancellor’s decision on his own strategy, a senior UK oil executive has warned that a slowdown in North sea activity will increase the country’s reliance on imported oil and gas, with the consequence of an even higher balance of
“Undeveloped and undiscovered oil and gas pays no taxes”.
Of course, he is absolutely right. He was talking about future development and revenues. However, Valiant Petroleum acted immediately and said that its near £100 million project was no longer viable because of the surprise Budget move. Even the oil giant Chevron, the second largest US oil company, has warned that there will be unintended consequences from this move. Oil and Gas UK is clear that it has
“shaken investor confidence to the core.”
All we have from the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary is complacency. The Press and Journal reported that when the concerns had been put to the Chancellor, a Treasury spokeswoman said:
“Mr Osborne did not expect investment to be damaged.”
I am not sure who he was listening to, but that quotation proves that he is complacent, and I think that he is wrong.
Jim Hannon, a founding partner of the drilling analysts Hannon Westwood, warned that 30,000 people could lose their jobs if exploration activity drops by only 15%. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North quoted Professor Alex Kemp and Linda Stephen at length. I was delighted to hear all the various scenarios described in detail, because it is important that nothing is ignored, and that was particularly helpful. Professor Kemp and Linda Stephen have warned that 2 billion barrels of oil and gas equivalent could be left in the North sea because of this decision. Derek Leith, the oil and gas partner at Ernst and Young, has warned of projects being delayed and cancelled:
“I think Statoil is only the tip of the iceberg…There are a lot of companies that will not pursue projects but will not go public about it.”
He repeated the point that the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary clearly fail to grasp:
“barrels left in the ground do not provide energy, do not pay tax and do not support jobs”.
Oil and Gas UK tells me that the tax increase announced in the Budget saw the value of investments in the UK continental shelf fall by 24% overnight. That is bound to have an impact on activity. This is a global industry and the ability of the UK to compete for capital to explore and develop new fields and, importantly, to extend existing fields will be impacted significantly. The level of the impact is explained in the research by Professor Kemp, who revealed, as we heard in some detail, that the tax increase could reduce UK oil and gas investment by up to £30 billion and production by up to a quarter over the next three decades.
I have spoken mainly about oil, but one of the biggest casualties is gas, which accounts for 46% of UK continental shelf production, and yet trades at prices substantially below the $75 trigger price proposed by the Government. Gas production is not seeing the same price increases, and the tax change will result only in less investment and lower recovery of this important asset. It is worth noting that although I am concentrating on the increase in the supplementary charge, the Government have also decided to reduce decommissioning relief, which might accelerate the decommissioning of essential infrastructure
and make the extension of fields by the new entrants that we have heard about more difficult. The combination of those proposals leads to an 81% marginal tax rate for mature fields—not just the 62% proposed under the supplementary charge increase.
I am indebted to Centrica for its detailed assessment of the problem in relation to gas. It makes the point that gas projects are highly marginal and that gas economics are very different from oil economics. Brent crude trades at about $120 per barrel, whereas UK wholesale gas trades at about $57 per barrel equivalent. Centrica is convinced that the proposed increase will result in the decline of the North sea, as gas projects become uneconomic, which is likely to have a direct impact on jobs in the sector, the regional economy and the wider economy.
Centrica has a broader concern that the increase will add to existing upward pressures on customers’ energy bills. It makes the technical point that oil markets are deep and global in their nature, whereas gas markets are regionally priced and shallow. Increases in UK tax costs that result in reduced UK investment will therefore mean that lower-priced North sea gas production will be replaced by higher-priced gas imports. That leads to the conclusion that there may well be further increases in prices for gas and power consumers in the UK, with increasing wholesale energy costs adding to existing upward pressures. That was alluded to earlier by the Chief Secretary when he said that gas prices are rising in line with oil prices. We do not want to see the gas price hit the oil price. That would be the equivalent of an increase of a third in the cost of gas, which would be catastrophic for families and heavy energy-using businesses.
Centrica argues that the tax increase should apply to gas, but not at the equivalent trigger price to that for oil. The $75 a barrel trigger for oil proposed by the Chancellor is the equivalent of 80p a therm, which is much higher than the 60p a therm or so at which gas is currently trading. Centrica’s overall warnings are actually starker than those from the oil sector. It believes that the tax changes will result in an annual cost to the UK economy of up to £8 billion a year by 2013, undermining the Government’s intention to reduce the deficit. It believes that that will influence investor sentiment in other sectors as well, because of the global nature of energy companies. There will be an impact on the low-carbon agenda and the security of supply and jobs, and up to £100 billion-worth of energy investments and associated jobs will be put at risk. Those are frightening figures.
Of course, the warnings did not just appear for a day or two after the Budget when the industry was in shock; they have continued almost daily for a month. PricewaterhouseCoopers has said today that the increase in North sea oil taxation could cut offshore investment. It argues that whereas mergers and acquisitions in the oil and gas sector worldwide in the first quarter were not down on last year, the emphasis in deals was on frontier territories such as India rather than mature provinces such as the North sea. The chief executive and chairman of ConocoPhillips, Jim Mulva, has joined the chorus of condemnation and said that the “unexpected nature and scale” of the increase has damaged investor confidence and will hamper investment. He has said:
“Although the chancellor has shown an appetite to consider granting companies tax relief for new field developments, these can be rendered ineffective by tax increases…The industry has
lost confidence in the UK’s fiscal landscape. With three major tax increases in less than 10 years, it is now a difficult place for future investments.”
Instead of being complacent, the Government ought to heed the warnings. I cannot believe that the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary are right and Oil and Gas UK, Statoil, EnCore, Valiant, Chevron, Professor Kemp, Ernst and Young, Hannon Westwood, Centrica, PricewaterhouseCoopers and ConocoPhillips are all wrong. It strikes me as inconceivable that a month of warnings should be ignored simply to fill a hole in the Government’s books.
I hope that the Government will think again. They have an opportunity on the first day of Committee, as early as next week, to bring forward sensible amendments that recognise the difference between gas and oil and the dangers to investment and jobs. They can do so before the investment profile of this country becomes so bad that we begin to lose not only investment but many new and existing jobs, as has been warned about for more than a month since the announcement in the Budget.
I largely support the Bill and the Chancellor’s Budget proposals. He has inherited a poor hand, which he has played well. He is sticking to his plans to reduce the budget deficit, a strategy that is supported by the International Monetary Fund and the OECD and that will ensure the country’s long-term prosperity.
The Bill contains proposals that will help achieve two important objectives. First, the Chancellor is creating an environment that will encourage businesses to grow and to create new jobs. Policies such as reducing corporation tax, getting rid of red tape, reforming the planning system, investing in science and innovation and promoting apprenticeships will help create a business-friendly environment in which businesses can flourish and create jobs. The proposal to create 21 new enterprise zones is to be applauded, and I am an enthusiastic participant in the competition that he has launched, helping to promote an energy enterprise zone in Lowestoft, in my constituency, and the adjoining Great Yarmouth.
Secondly, the Chancellor has made proposals that will help to rebalance the economy in the move towards a low-carbon future. The establishment of a carbon floor price, the renewable heat incentive and the green investment bank will help achieve that objective. My personal preference would have been for the green investment bank to have had borrowing powers straight away, but I recognise the difficult financial constraints in which he has had to work and commend him for providing an additional £2 billion of investment to be added to the £1 billion already allocated, and for bringing forward the bank’s start date to 2012.
The Chancellor is to be congratulated on recognising the difficulties that people and businesses are experiencing due to high fuel prices, and on coming forward with proposals to ease the burden by cutting fuel duty by 1p, by deferring future fuel duty increases and by abolishing the fuel duty escalator and replacing it with a fair fuel stabiliser. However, those proposals are to be funded by an increase in the taxation of the oil and gas industry, which I believe requires further scrutiny and refining.
I make my observations having listened to people and businesses in my constituency who work in the oil and gas industry in the southern North sea. There is concern that, as matters stand, the proposals will discourage further investment, which could jeopardise jobs and threaten the move towards improving the nation’s energy security.
I have two specific concerns, which are along the lines of those set out in detail by the hon. Members for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie). First, a flat-rate tax would unfairly penalise smaller oil companies looking to work marginal fields. Such an approach could well result in such projects becoming financially unviable and companies diverting their activities to other countries where the taxation regime is more favourable. Not only would that lead to the loss of local jobs and income to the Exchequer, but it would mean that, as a country, we would become increasingly reliant on energy imports, often from areas of high political risk. It is important that the Government do all they can to ensure that we utilise our own oil resources fully.
Secondly, I am worried that the proposals will have a significant adverse effect on the gas sector, which is particularly important in the southern North sea. As we have heard, the financial parameters of gas projects are very different from those of oil schemes. Gas prices are considerably lower than oil prices. Whereas Brent crude is trading at approximately $120 a barrel, UK wholesale gas trades at approximately $57 per barrel equivalent. Although development costs are lower, they are not lower by a proportionate amount, so a tax increase would push lower gas returns down ever further. That would result in gas projects becoming uneconomic, with the result that schemes would not proceed and lower-priced North sea gas production would be replaced by higher-priced gas imports. That would feed through to higher gas and power prices for domestic and business consumers.
The East Anglian coast has the opportunity to play a vital role in providing for the country’s future energy needs. I am worried that the proposals in question jeopardise that role, and I wish to make three further observations about them. First, they could discourage investment by energy companies that work on a global stage and are footloose in deciding where to invest. Britain has a proud record of providing a stable political and fiscal regime that is conducive to attracting such investment, and it is vital that we do not lose that reputation.
Secondly, offshore renewables provide an exciting future and can help towns such as Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth reverse years of economic decline and create new long-term jobs. Many of the skills employed in the oil and gas sector are transferable to wind and wave technology. If we discourage investment in oil and gas in the North sea, there is a danger that the supply chain and skills base could be irretrievably damaged. In due course, that could deter investment in renewable energy.
The hon. Gentleman, like me, serves on the Environmental Audit Committee, and he speaks with great knowledge about the renewable industries. Does he agree that the problem that he describes would affect not just constituencies such as his but manufacturing areas such as mine? We are seeking to manufacture the
ingredients, if I can put it like that, of the renewable energy industries. If the Government do not adjust their plans towards his vision, we will not have the manufacturing capacity that we need or the ability to get people back to work.
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. I would love that manufacturing to take place in my constituency, but if it is not to be there, I hope it is in hers.
Finally, there will be a time lag before investment in offshore renewables results in electricity coming on stream. Until that happens, the gap needs to be plugged so that the nation’s lights do not go out. That could be achieved by making the best and full use of our national oil and gas assets in the North sea, thereby providing a triple dividend of more jobs, additional income for the Exchequer and improved energy security.
I request that the Government look closely in Committee at their proposed tax increase and that they address two issues. First, smaller oil companies should not be discouraged from making investments in marginal fields. Secondly, there should be a different taxation regime for gas to reflect the differences between the oil and gas sectors and the lower profitability of gas.
The Bill has a great deal to commend it, but it contains a fundamental flaw that I urge the Government to address.
This is a very useful debate. I particularly enjoyed the three well-informed and well-evidenced speeches on energy policy and the implications of the proposed tax changes for the North sea. A bit of my past tempts me to follow the theme of energy, but instead, I shall talk about the impact of the Budget decisions and statements, and of the Bill, on aspects of social security.
Welfare states across the world, not least in Europe, are in many respects on the defensive and under political attack. They are in difficulties because of demography—the ageing of our populations—and the impact of the economic situation on public finances, but also because of a loss of confidence in parts of public opinion in the foundation stones underlying our welfare states.
I shall ask two questions of the Budget. The first is on the future of our national insurance system and the crucial contributory principle, and secondly, I want to address whether we are wholly right to pursue the policy, which we are now doing quite rapidly, of raising the age at which our people can claim old age pensions in the light of increasing life expectancy.
On the contributory principle, I would welcome Ministers’ comments on paragraph 1.77 of the Red Book, which states:
“The Government believes that integrating the operation of income tax and National Insurance Contributions…can remove distortions, reduce burdens on business and improve fairness.”
However, what are the likely impacts of that on the contributory principle? To be fair—I want to be fair, because I do not think that I am making a partisan point—the Government say that they
“will maintain the contributory principle”,
which I welcome, but how can we bring about that administrative change, which presumably affects people of different age groups and income levels differently, while maintaining the contributory principle? That is a genuine question to which I am seeking an answer.
The right hon. Gentleman touches on the important point of the contributory principle, but does he agree that the longer-term project of amalgamating national insurance and Inland Revenue contributions would at least do away with the nonsense of reducing the amount that people pay in income tax while increasing the amount that they pay in national insurance contributions, and of selling that as a policy of reducing the amount that they pay?
Such policies have regressive implications and I understand why the hon. Gentleman asks that question—a not dissimilar one could be asked of VAT contributions. Deeply regressive changes to how we gather money in from the wider community are taking place.
Although the contributory principle has for many years, and arguably for several decades, been withering away—it certainly looks tired and rusty—we need it in the 21st century. One reason why is that if we are to maintain our broader welfare state and social security system as an instrument for redistribution and for tackling the emerging needs of this century, not least those associated with long-term care and the ageing of our population, we need an ethical foundation to underlie social security, rather than bits-and-pieces mechanisms that can be hard to communicate to a wider public.
One basic concept in that respect is that of citizenship. What is it to be a citizen in the 21st century? What are our rights as citizens? Equally importantly, what are our duties and responsibilities? For me, in moving from that simple piece of social philosophy into policy mechanisms that work, we would do away with or neglect the social insurance contributory principle at our peril. That principle says that when people are able to work and to contribute to that community chest, they should do so. That is a duty. However, as of right as citizens, people should be able, at certain times in their life cycles or at times of social need, to draw out not means-tested benefits, but benefits that they have earned through their contributions.
Of course, that was the principle underlying the Beveridge report—that great Liberal—and the one that the 1945 Attlee Government sought to introduce after the war. I am arguing that we should today try to bring about a renaissance of belief in that principle, and to make it an underlying concept of our social security system.
The principle is well understood historically. Long before the advent of the modern welfare state in the 20th century, there were friendly societies, building societies and co-ops, and trade unions emerged. It was well understood that members had rights, but also that they had duties and responsibilities. People paid contributions to trade unions and building societies—interestingly, that was in the early days, when building societies actually built houses—and to friendly societies. As of right, they could then draw benefits when eligible.
It is no coincidence that when we wander through Members Lobby, we see great statues of pioneers of the national insurance system. We could even argue which party has done most for social insurance, as it used to be called, or national insurance. Churchill can lay claim to have done much of the work in the pre-war years, and Lloyd George had more than a hand in it, as did Clement Attlee and his 1945 Government. Our entitlements to claim social security, and our rights and duties, are not simply technical matters that should be detailed somewhat obscurely in social security manuals, but a social philosophy foundation stone that folk in this country can understand as fair.
Of course, the national insurance system as devised in the modern era by the Beveridge report and the Attlee Government was not perfect. Rightly, it was subjected to critique by women’s organisations and feminists, who said that it had more to say about a typical man’s life cycle than a woman’s. Past Governments have done their best to rectify the inadequacies of the system when a mother leaves her career, which happened for quite a long period in the past, to care for her children, and to deal with what happens to the insurance contributions of family carers, who are usually but not always women, who have had to leave the labour market. Labour Governments and others have done their best to modernise the national insurance system, but not with total success. I am therefore saying, not that the principle of national insurance has worked perfectly historically, but that it is a basis on which we should build.
One of the biggest difficulties with national insurance over recent years has been that increasingly our friends in the Treasury—both Ministers and officials—have regarded national insurance as just another form of taxation. To be blunt I would point my finger at Labour Governments as well as Conservative Governments. The Treasury has lost sight of the Beveridge report and the philosophy of citizenship. When considering how to raise revenue, it tends to ask, “What share should come from income tax, corporation tax or VAT, and what share should come from the national insurance system?” That is illustrated by the fact that when, a while ago, the two major parties were having that ding-dong—that argument—about whether extra revenue should be raised by VAT or national insurance, that is how it was viewed. There was very little in that debate about what national insurance should be about and how it should relate to a modern social security system. One reason why the contributory principle has grown rather tired-looking is a failure of communication and presentation. Governments have not gone out there to argue, as I hope to do—albeit inadequately—that social insurance and the contributory principle remain valid foundation stones for this aspect of our social policy.
The other aspect of the contributory principle I want to raise concerns the plans set out by the Department for Work and Pensions and, in particular, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Steve Webb, to move towards a far simpler state pension system in which everyone would be guaranteed a certain state pension. On paper, that looks like an interesting concept. I understand that, in theory, everyone is in favour of greater simplicity, but let us consider the matter in relation to the social insurance principle. I am alarmed by bits in the DWP document, “A State Pension Age for
the 21st Century”, which was mentioned in the Budget. Although it states that in the future people should get the new simple pension after 30 years of qualifying, which addresses the issue about women—so far so good—it seems to imply, unless I have seriously misunderstood it, that no one would get more than a pension to which they had contributed for 30 years.
The Government are at pains to tell us that more and more people will have long life expectancies and will work longer in the labour market. What happens, therefore, to those who work 40 or 50 years? I might have misunderstood, but I was alarmed by paragraph 96 of the document, which reads under the heading, “Impact on individuals”:
“Groups who would expect to build up more significant amounts of State Second Pension, such as those with longer working lives and higher earners, would not be able to do so under this option.”
Well, why not? Is there not a danger of being so besotted with the idea of simplicity that we undermine the idea that if someone contributes more through their working life because they are working harder, they should be able to get more out of it at the end through a decent state pension scheme? I have serious concerns about that. Although there are many doubting Thomases in respect of social insurance, we must bear in mind the principles underlying it, such as citizenship and its common-sense nature: people can understand that they should make a contribution when they can and draw out of a community pot when they need to. If we sacrifice those things, we sacrifice a lot in our social security system.
I want to touch briefly on a matter that relates to a paper I published on my website last week. I question whether we are in the right place when it comes to raising the state pension age in the light of increasing life expectancy. May I say first and foremost that I am signed up—not least as a former pensions Ministers—to the reality of increasing life expectancy for most people. It cannot be right that we stick to state pension ages and occupational pension ages devised 40 or 50 years ago, given that more and more of us—hopefully—will live into our 80s and 90s.
My hon. Friend wants to become one of the centenarians. Indeed, to warm us up for difficult decisions, the DWP is now telling us, courtesy of statistics from the Office for National Statistics, that 11 million people alive today can expect to live to 100. That is an extraordinary piece of demography. I accept the logic, therefore, that most of us should expect to leave the labour market, retire and draw our state and occupational pensions at a later age. However, the main reason for raising this matter in the House today is that this is insensitive to, and has no understanding of, social class variations. There is an assumption that these broad figures about life expectancy apply equally to all of us, regardless of geography, constituency, whether people live in the north or the south, or the kind of work undertaken.
When I looked at some of these issues in the light of social class, I am afraid that, not for the first time, socio-economic status reared its ugly and unequal head. Nineteen percent—almost one-fifth—of men from social
class 7, which encompasses those with routine occupations, such as cleaners, packers, van drivers and unskilled labourers, many of whom have been in work since the age of 15 or 16, are dead before 65. They never live long enough to draw their state pension. That compares poorly with those from the professional and business classes. There is a difference for women as well, but it is not so stark. I question, therefore, whether a one-size-fits-all scheme of increasingly raising the state pension age—the Government now want to consult on raising it even further to 68—is a sensible way ahead in this area of social policy. Furthermore, a second pension penalty is, of course, paid by the poorest men and women in our communities. Although most people from those social classes reach pension age, they enjoy far shorter pension lives than those from the better-off social classes. So a second pension penalty is paid.
The arguments for raising the state pension age across the board are based on the assumption that the labour market is sufficiently dynamic and flexible to provide the jobs for those people. Again, however, this ignores social status and the realities of many people’s working lives. It can be no coincidence that many who compete in a kind of macho competition to say how late we should draw our state pension—66, 67, 68, why not 70?—tend to be people from big business, the political class or the media, who may be able to continue their working lives almost indefinitely, writing articles, having portfolios, doing consultancy or, if they are unlucky, in the House of Lords. These people might be able to continue their work, but what about the van driver, the bus driver, the woman who cleans offices, the steel workers, the people with creaking backs and aching limbs, who come their 60s need to retire in a very old-fashioned sense?
The DWP would need to work on the details, but surely we could say that people in those social classes who typically started their working careers not in their early 20s, which will have been the lot of many of us, or their mid-20s, which will be the lot of many of our children and grandchildren with postgraduate qualifications, but at 15 or 16, and who often have worked hard ever since, once they have worked for, say, 50 years—we could check that in national insurance, tax and employment records— deserve a rest, in an old-fashioned sense. They need to retire. Given that the demography shows that those people are, sadly, likely to die four years before the average age, it would surely be only fair and just if they could draw their state pensions four years earlier than most of us.
After the sound and fury of the Budget debate, every year we follow it up with a Finance Bill with its technical clauses, amendments to previous Finance Acts and anti-avoidance measures, that does not grab people’s attention in the way that the Budget does. All this will be considered when we reach the Committee stage, which I am sure will drag on for many sittings, as those who have served on it before—some of us have done that on many more occasions than others—will know from past experience. However, the Bill proposes many far-reaching and fundamental changes to the taxation system, paving the way for further reform, as the right hon. Member for
Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) said, in what was quite a thoughtful speech. I want to dwell on three of the Bill’s provisions: those dealing with income tax and national insurance—which we just heard about—environmental taxes, and taxation of the banks.
Clause 3 raises the income tax threshold to £7,475 this month, April 2011. That raising of the income tax threshold was the cornerstone of the coalition agreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, and implements the Liberal Democrats’ No. 1 manifesto commitment from the 2010 general election. The benefit of that commitment being implemented in government will be felt by wage and salary earners up and down the country in their payslips at the end of this month. Some 900,000 people will be raised out of the income tax bracket altogether, while those still in the basic rate bracket will see a tax cut of up to £200. The Budget also announced next year’s rise in the threshold—which will no doubt be implemented by next year’s Finance Bill—in April 2012, lifting a further 1.1 million people out of tax. This Finance Bill and this Budget help the poor and reward work.
I look forward to the review of the operation of income tax and national insurance which was announced in the Budget, which the right hon. Gentleman also spoke about. National insurance was introduced in 1911. This year is the centenary, which would be a good point for that review to announce its ending, at least for employees. Although I agree with quite a lot of what the right hon. Gentleman said, there was a touch of Victorian values in some of what he said about the contributory principle, which is what the founders of national insurance—he mentioned Churchill and Lloyd George—wrestled with. They were very much products of the Victorian era, but the right hon. Gentleman’s own party forebears—Aneurin Bevan in particular—rejected the contributory principle when founding the national health service, insisting that it should be based on broad taxation, not individual contributions into an insurance fund.
The right hon. Gentleman made many thoughtful points that will have to be considered in the review of national insurance, but the contributory principle has failed. He mentioned women and the fact that people sometimes find that they have not accrued the pension rights that they might reasonably have expected. He talked about citizenship, and that is where a citizen’s pension will be relevant. I hope that this Government will introduce one. However, it would be right to recognise the contributory principle for unemployment benefit, which he did not mention. I would not want someone in short-term unemployment to have to undergo a means test to claim unemployment benefit. One benefit of the contributory principle at the moment is that people who are unemployed for up to six months do not have to undergo a means test to claim a benefit to which their national insurance records prove they are entitled.
We will therefore need to retain some contributory benefits in the existing national insurance scheme for employees to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. None the less, the scope of the changes in the Finance Bill and the Budget to our income tax and—if we get them—our national insurance regimes represent the biggest shift in our direct taxation system for many decades. The reforms in the 1980s, particularly to income tax, tended to favour the better-off; the reforms of this coalition Government will help the low-paid.
The second area in the Bill to which I want to refer contains the provisions dealing with environmental taxes. Clause 25 raises landfill tax from £56 to £64 next year, giving local authorities a further incentive to achieve a step change in recycling. My local authority—Bristol city council, which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats—has shown a steady increase in the rate of recycling. We now have the best record of any city authority in the country, recycling close to 50% of our recyclable domestic waste, and we are aiming for 90% over the next few years. In the Easter recess, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and I visited the plant being built at Avonmouth, just outside my constituency, by New Earth Solutions, which will screen the residual waste that people have not recycled from their doorsteps in order to extract the remaining recyclable materials. Landfill tax is a well-established tax that is achieving its aim, but we know that we have some way to go in many parts of the country.
A new tax in the Bill that several people have mentioned is the setting of a carbon floor price, at £16 a tonne this year, which it is proposed should rise to £30 a tonne by the end of the decade. There will obviously need to be much debate and thought about how the carbon floor price will operate, but it is an essential reform if we are to incentivise a switch to a low-carbon economy and make renewable sources of electricity generation competitive with carbon-intensive forms of electricity generation. There is an important debate to be had about how that affects nuclear power, and I am meeting Greenpeace later this week to discuss its concerns. I am also working with party colleagues to develop Liberal Democrat ideas on how the carbon floor price and carbon taxes can operate, in order to inform the debate as it unfolds.
A third aspect of the Bill that I want to mention briefly is the introduction of something that has been talked about for some time over the past year—the bank levy; it is almost hard to believe that a statutory basis for it did not exist until now. The detailed provisions governing how it will operate are in schedule 19, which I am still trying to plough my way through and understand. [ Interruption. ] Judging from their facial expressions, I am sure that Opposition Front Benchers are trying to get their heads round it as well. I am sure that they will be well advised by colleagues outside the Chamber.
The operation of the bank levy is incredibly important, but its introduction is incredibly important as well. The shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury referred earlier—as does the Opposition amendment to the motion—to the bonus tax that the previous Government introduced. This bank levy will raise more money year on year than that bonus tax. It is also renewable every year, unlike the windfall tax, which could be levied only once, in the unique circumstances of 2009. Such a levy on the balance sheets of banks is the first component of something that many people, including myself, have campaigned for—a Robin Hood tax. I hope that the Government will now move towards adopting the second component of such a tax plan—a financial activities tax—in order further to bring about reform in this area. That would require European Union co-operation, and I hope that the Government are seeking to achieve that co-operation among our fellow member states.
The Bill contains 91 operational clauses and 26 schedules. It is a particularly fat Bill, although not actually a record-breaker. As is the nature of Finance Bills, probably not much of it will endure in the memory. Several
elements of it will stand the test of time, however. The reform of income tax, the reform of national insurance promised in the Budget, the lifting of the low-paid out of taxation and the further reforms to environmental taxes will be an enduring legacy of the coalition Government.
Despite what Stephen Williams has just claimed about the Bill’s great achievements, I am afraid that the Liberal Democrats will be remembered for only one thing—the fact that they all, including their leader, pledged not to raise tuition fees. That is never going to go away, and everything else that they say will be seen in the light of that betrayal of the future of our young people in this country.
I was pleased to hear the thoughtful contribution from my right hon. Friend Malcolm Wicks on the proposals on pensions, and particularly on pension ages. If we look back at the history of the actuarial analysis that was used to set the pension age at 65, we see that it was set at that age because most working-class people—there were many more people in heavy industry then—died before they reached the age of 65 years and six months. The calculation was made to minimise the amount that would have to be paid to the working class for their pension contributions. The change that is now being introduced adheres to that same principle. It does not involve earned rights through contributions. Rather, as my right hon. Friend said, it is seen as an imposition if someone without an adequate income lives too long, and has to rely on the state for support.
I am going to disappoint my right hon. Friend now, because I am going to return to the subject of the oil and gas industry. The contribution by my hon. Friend Mr Doran was important but, like that of Stewart Hosie, it related to the upstream industry—the oil and gas exploration and production industry. I shall quote from the June report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, which the Government do not seem to have read. It says:
“The oil and gas industry operating on the UK continental shelf currently faces a quadruple whammy of high costs, low prices, lack of affordable credit and a global recession. Unless the fiscal and regulatory regime is well designed and highly attractive then the likelihood is that the UK may not recover anything like as much of its reserve as would be desirable.”
The Committee did not realise that there was another spectre to add to the quadruple whammy—a predatory Chancellor who did not even consult the industry when he brought in a £2 billion rise in the tax burden. This is not so much about the level of the rise as the method of its introduction. Changing a tax regime overnight without consultation creates uncertainty, which increases risk. According to the economists with whom I trained when I was studying, when the net present value calculations are made when looking at board bids for investment, such activity can reduce the investment’s attraction. We heard that again and again from the Members who spoke about the upstream industry.
I have been pursuing the so-called responsible Department with questions about the downstream industry—the UK oil refining industry. I tabled an early-day motion on
fact that two oil refineries were up for sale. They have since been sold to overseas investors. I said at the time that 150,000 jobs were involved. Those jobs are now genuinely under threat.
We have looked at the opportunities as well as the warnings, however. One opportunity involves the fact that there are massive deficits in low-sulphur, high-quality diesel and in aeronautic fuel in the EU at the moment. With the right incentives, it would be attractive for someone to invest in those. The Budget proposals that the Government are putting forward in the Bill should therefore provide those incentives.
It is interesting to note that an opportunity was spotted by Mr Ifty Nasir, who owns Essar, an Indian oil company, which bought a refinery at Stanlow. He said on
I wrote about this to the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, Charles Hendry. I asked what future support for our refineries in the UK would be forthcoming. In his reply of
“We work closely with the downstream oil industry and its representatives to understand the impact of policy on the sector and to ensure this understanding is shared across a range of Government Departments.”—[Hansard, 5 April 2011; Vol. 536, c. 886W.]
We had an hour and a half’s debate this morning in Westminster Hall about oil refining. I come here tonight to ask Ministers about the Treasury’s understanding of this issue and what its response has been, as I can find no indication that the Chancellor is joined up to the real world in any way in respect of his Budget proposals that will affect the UK refining industry.
Let us consider the background to oil refining. When the climate change levy and the EU emissions trading scheme were brought in, they were to have an impact on manufacturing, but were also to be tax-neutral. The scheme was about redistributing energy-reduction incentives in other parts of the economy, and it is about to become the European trading system mark 3. It puts £15 million a year on to the cost of refining oil in Grangemouth, a refinery in my constituency, alone. That is a high price to pay, but the industry accepted that environmental standards meant accepting it.
What we have effectively is a 15% disadvantage in EU refining, of which we are part, in comparison with the rest of the world, including India. If we bring in the new carbon tax, which the hon. Member for Bristol West seemed to be lauding, it will add another 10% disadvantage on top of that 15% one—and for UK refining alone. We will be disadvantaged in Europe by 10%, and in the rest of the world by 25%, in terms of the environmental taxes we pay. The cumulative cost to UK manufacturing business in general—we should remember that the Government said that they were going to “rebalance” the economy with their taxes and incentives—will be £9.3 billion. That price will not be faced by other parts of Europe or other parts of the world.
I want to know from Treasury Ministers what thought went into this policy. What extrapolation did they make? What cost-analysis or impact-analysis did they do when they thought up this scheme? The scheme does not attract me, when 1,350 jobs are at stake in the refinery in my constituency. Beyond that, another 4,000 or 5,000 jobs in Scotland are dependent on that downstream work. About 150,000 people working in the refinery industry can see someone coming over from India to import a product that is refined in India where the pollution standards are much lower than here, yet the Indian owner does not have to pay either the emissions trading scheme costs or the carbon floor price. I want an explanation of why that tax is in this Budget.
Let me illustrate what happened on the day of the Budget because of the announcement that a carbon price will be introduced in 2013. A forward pricing exercise run by Heren shows what happened to electricity prices on that day. The electricity price for 2013 went up by £2.20 per megawatt-hour because of the fear and risk that had to be factored in. We spoke of the same thing earlier in connection with the impact of the Government’s decision to plunder the profits of the offshore industry. The price has now risen by another £3 to £56.50. That 5% increase will affect all industries that are heavy electricity users. The oil refining industry cannot pass it on, because its margins are so small. The Government said that they would rebalance the position in favour of the manufacturing base of our economy, but instead they have laid that burden on it.
The second tax that I wish to discuss is the carbon reduction commitment, which was designed by the Labour Government as a tax on office spaces and other entities that could not be reached by the emissions trading scheme. It has since been simplified, and we understand that it will also apply to the manufacturing industry and to United Kingdom refining. The UK Petroleum Industry Association has described it as no more than another general tax. Will the Treasury exempt manufacturing industries and the UK refining industry from that tax? If not, it will impose another burden on the UK’s manufacturing capability.
Not only has the tax been extended to a wider range of bodies, but the Treasury has removed an incentive for firms to reduce energy consumption. Some of the money that they had paid into the scheme used to be returned to them, but that will no longer be the case.
The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. That incentive has gone. Ports such as Grangemouth, in my constituency, cannot pass the tax on to those who rent or are sublet property. It will not make people who rent property more energy-conscious, although it was originally designed by the Labour Government—who employed an excellent methodology involving a great deal of consultation with the industry—as an incentive for the reduction of energy use.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is probably partly responsible for matters involving the oil refining industry, although it seems to be burying its head in the sand and kicking that responsibility over to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The two Departments are supposedly engaged in a study of the cumulative impact of climate change and energy
policies. However, the Treasury must be involved as well, and it must take responsibility for the damage that it will do if it does not moderate its carbon taxes. Specifically, anyone who pays the costs of the European emissions trading scheme should be exempt from them. It has been calculated that the carbon price in the UK is likely to reach €54 per tonne, while the price on the European mainland will be only €36 per tonne. We are therefore at a disadvantage in relation to Europe, let alone the world.
There is a further tax that the Treasury consistently hang on to. Those who import a fuel oil must pay tax on what they land at the depot or terminal. If, for example, Grangemouth refinery supplies the terminal in the north of Scotland by tanker, it will pay tax on the amount of product that it puts into the tanker. However, an evaporation factor places an additional burden on every tanker load, so no one with any sense will convey fuel from a UK refinery to any UK destination. INEOS in Grangemouth prefers to import it from Lavera in France, because it pays less tax on the same tanker load, because of evaporation. Regardless of which party is in Government the Treasury has retained that tax, but it is time to reconsider. If we want products to be made in this country and taxed in this country, we must have a tax system that gives incentives to industry rather than punishing it.
There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repenteth than over the 99 who are not in need of repentance, and it has been wonderful to listen to Michael Connarty, because he made a wonderfully Conservative speech, saying that taxation and over-regulation are fundamentally bad things—bad for the economy, bad for business, and bad for Britain. That is absolutely true, but unfortunately it misses the point that when this Government came into office, the coffers were bare. There was no money left, and therefore tough action has needed to be taken on both spending and taxation. I want to see taxes fall in every possible area—I want taxes on income, capital gains, companies and oil companies all to be reduced—but I only want Her Majesty’s Government to do that when it can be afforded.
We need to look back at the seriousness of the situation we inherited, and at what this Government are doing. Gross debt issuance from 2008-09 to 2010-11 is £540.5 billion. That is money that has to come from savers and from foreigners, and a good chunk of it actually came from the Bank of England: some £205.9 billion—getting on for half the total—was just printed by the Bank of England. That is not a way in which any responsible Government could ever have carried on; to have done so would have been desperately inflationary.
I want to come back to the point made so eloquently by the shadow Chief Secretary about Ricardian equivalence, because that is relevant. No one is saying that every £1 in debt is necessarily going to relate to £1 in future taxation, but the broad principle is right. The electorate understand this; they understand it from their own financial affairs and they see it from the Government’s. They understand that if a huge debt is built up, it has to be repaid, and it will be repaid by them out of their earnings or their assets. We already see not far short of £50 billion a year being spent on interest payments. The
British electorate know that that £50 billion is coming out of their taxes, as will the repayments. Indeed, as we get on to the repayments and refinancing, we will have a further gilt issuance of £578 billion between now and 2015. Enormous amounts of money are still being raised on the debt markets even when the Government are implementing a programme of tough cuts and some tax rises, which people do not like, but that is because of the severity of the situation the Government inherited, and if they had not implemented that programme, the confidence of the markets would have evaporated.
That confidence is what allows the Government to finance themselves. This is where the gilt market is so important. The five-year gilt is trading 5% away from its historical real average; that is 500 basis points, which is a gigantic amount in gilt market terms. The five-year gilt is usually at a 2% premium to the retail price index, but it is currently at a 3% discount to RPI. That shows that the financial markets believe that the Government have got it right.
Most economic decision making takes some years to come into effect, and I must confess that in this regard we have heard a lot of nonsense about quarterly growth figures relating to decisions on cuts taken before any of their consequences had actually come through. It takes much longer than that for economic results to happen, and I would therefore say that the figures for this quarter, the last quarter and the one before that are to the credit of the Opposition, and not as yet to Her Majesty’s Government; it will be to the credit of Her Majesty’s Government when we have got 2.5%-plus growth. The gilt market and the currency market are, however, immediate responders to Government policy, and the response that they have given is a vote of confidence. They know that the Government have broadly got it right. The currency has strengthened, and is continuing to strengthen, against the dollar—an indication, perhaps, that the United States has not got its fiscal situation as well sorted out as we have here.
Let us consider some of the specific things that the Government are doing in this Bill. I particularly welcome, as does my hon. Friend Stephen Williams, the increase in the tax threshold. A wonderful pamphlet produced by Lord Saatchi and Peter Warburton a few years ago asked why poor people pay tax and why we have this merry-go-round whereby we take money out of someone’s pocket and put it back into their other pocket having taken some element of it to finance our bureaucracy along the way. The more the Government can raise the tax threshold, the less of that money will be wasted as the machine churns through and the more people will be taken out of tax.
I will add one point that may not be deemed helpful. My hon. Friend mentioned that over a couple of years 2 million people are to be taken out of tax, but Her Majesty’s Government might like to know that the Chinese Government have just succeeded, by increasing the income tax threshold from 2,000 renminbi a month to 3,000 renminbi a month, in taking 76 million people out of tax. That is something for the Treasury to aim for, because that number exceeds the entire population of the United Kingdom.
The increase in the tax threshold is extremely welcome, as is the reduction in corporation tax. Being competitive on corporation tax is something that the Irish were so clever about, and may we wish them well in their fight
against the European Union’s attempts to make them increase it. By reducing corporation tax we attract businesses that could otherwise go anywhere in the world. We know that businesses can move and that WPP is thinking of moving back to the United Kingdom because of the right trend in taxation. In that regard, I encourage Her Majesty’s Government to avoid any of this nonsense about a Robin Hood tax. Robin Hood was not as good as he was made out to be—particularly for the sheriff of Nottingham—but even if such a tax were as heroic as the late Robin Hood, it would still be a very bad tax for this country.
I am not entirely sure that that is what he did. I think he also stole from the Church, which is why I have my doubts about him; I am not really in favour of people pinching things from holy mother Church.
The other great thing about this Budget—this is why it should be welcome—is that it recognises the limitations of governmental power. Let us consider what has happened in Japan since 1990. The Japanese Government have tried loose monetary policy and loose fiscal policy, sometimes at the same time and sometimes at different times, and they have managed to take the fiscal debt to 200% of GDP without managing to achieve any growth in this period. Governments cannot command economies in the way that some socialists think that they ought to be able to do. Governments can only set the right terms for business to be done, and that is where the deregulation programme is so important.
If the Government can follow through on that programme and sweep away the burdens that stop business doing business, that is how we will be able to get economic growth. It will not be Government expenditure that leads to the economy recovering rapidly because—let us return to Ricardian equivalence—people will recognise that there is great waste in Government expenditure. It will not necessarily even be very low interest rates that will do that, although I am in favour of a loose monetary policy, because eventually we reach the point where there are no borrowers there to borrow—we may be in that position. The Red Book points out that total private sector debt is 450% of GDP. If that does not make your blood run cold, Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not know what will, because that is an extraordinary level of private sector debt and it is very hard to pretend that an economy can grow by further private sector debt being taken on. So we are back with the real opportunity being a deregulatory one for the Government to push that agenda as hard as they possibly can so that businesses can do business, investors can invest and people can work. That will then lead to the tax coming through at lower tax rates and the expenditure being made that the Government wish to make, and we will be back to the glorious time that we had when Nigel Lawson was Chancellor of the Exchequer.
As a Member who represents part of the United Kingdom that has seen the highest increase in unemployment and that will
see £4 billion taken out of public spending over the next four years as well as a 40% reduction in capital spending, may I say that I trust that the Chief Secretary was right to say what he did about the purpose of this Finance Bill, the objectives the Government have set for it and their hopes for it? That might seem strange from someone on the Opposition Benches, but if we consider the impact of the recession and the absence of growth on my constituents and on the public across the United Kingdom, we can only hope to get back on to a growth trajectory as quickly as possible. I am not so sure, however, given the proposals in the Finance Bill and the Budget, that that will be the case.
As the shadow Chief Secretary said, there is a lack of ideas on the demand side. Indeed, over the next five years, the Bill will put only £20 million additional money into the pockets of businesses and consumers, which is hardly a big increase that will allow the public and businesses to spend money. We know that Government spending is curtailed. As for investment, I believe that it will not have the impact that the Government hope that it will. The Government are relying on one other aspect of aggregate demand—exports. As I shall point out, some policies in the Bill will make it much more difficult for firms to be competitive. On the supply side, firms will invest only if there is a degree of confidence, if there is consumer demand and if there is the infrastructure that can give them that confidence. With cuts in the capital budget, in particular, I am not sure that that will be the case.
I do not want to get into a macro-economic analysis of the Finance Bill, as I want to follow on from the theme taken up by Michael Connarty and to consider the impact of some of the environmental taxes. Specifically, I want to consider the distorting impact that they will have on growth, industry and consumers in places such as Northern Ireland.
Some Members will know that I am not a great fan of green taxes—indeed, for many reasons, I do not believe that the adjustments that such taxes will make and their impact on CO2 output in the United Kingdom will save the world or have a great impact on the climate in 100 years’ time. They are not designed to be behaviour changing and, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk has pointed out, some that have been claimed to be behaviour changing have resulted in nothing but stealth taxes. If we consider the Government’s predictions for the revenue from such taxes, it is clear that the Budget is dependent on their not changing behaviour. Otherwise, revenue predictions will be short of what the Government anticipate. The final reason why I do not support the taxes was shown in the illustrative example about the oil industry. Rather than helping to achieve the objective set out by the Government, namely to make our tax system the most competitive in the G20 and to encourage investment and exports, these taxes will make industry less competitive.
Let me deal with one tax to start—the carbon price floor. We have heard from the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk about the impact on the oil refining industry. If one considers the Budget figures published by the Government, one can see that over the next five years firms will, as a result of the reduction in corporation tax, save approximately £1.1 billion in year five. As a result of the imposition of the carbon price floor, they will pay £1.4 billion. All the gains from the reduction in
corporation tax will be wiped out and more by one specific environmental tax. Of course, that cost will fall more heavily on the very industry that the Government hope will lead the charge for growth, namely manufacturing, which is one of the biggest consumers of energy. As energy prices go up as a result of the carbon price floor, it will have an impact on business costs. We have heard the example of what will happen in the oil industry. The Government have published figures showing that for some heavy energy consumers, such as firms that make glass, tyres or metal products, the impact will be a rise of as much as 9% on their energy bills.
The carbon price floor will also have an impact on consumers. If the Government’s figures are anything to go by, electricity prices will have gone up by 6% by 2015. Let me put that into context: it means an increase of £30 a year on an average household electricity bill of £500. However, as a result of the Budget and the tax changes in it, households with income at the 10th decile—the lowest-income households—will receive an increase in household income of £1.42 a year. So, the impact of this tax, which the Chief Secretary has proudly said we are the first in Europe to impose, will be to increase fuel poverty among the lowest-income households and to make manufacturing industry less competitive at the very time when we want it to lead the charge for growth.
The tax has specific connotations for places such as Northern Ireland, because we are part of a single electricity market that links us to the Irish Republic, which has not gone down this route. The way in which the single electricity market runs means that electricity is drawn from the cheapest producer first and then, as demand increases during the day and at peak times, it is drawn from more expensive producers. The impact of the tax will be that the cheapest producers will be in the Irish Republic, which will have two impacts on people in Northern Ireland. First, our security of supply will become imperilled, because we will become more reliant on producers from the Irish Republic. Secondly, as the tax will be imposed on gas, which is used in Northern Ireland mainly for electricity generation, the cost of extending the gas network in Northern Ireland will fall on consumers as the consumption of gas goes down. The whole purpose of exempting Northern Ireland from such measures for a number of years was, first, to try to deal with fuel poverty by increasing gas distribution across Northern Ireland, thereby making businesses more competitive by ensuring there was a gas network, which enabled them to use cheaper fuel, but the carbon price floor is likely to put all that in jeopardy.
I welcome the discussions with the Treasury and the fact that it wants to investigate more fully the impact of the carbon price floor on places such as Northern Ireland. I hope that there will be a revision once the full extent of that impact is seen in terms of what it does to the electricity market, to the cost of energy for consumers and businesses and to the ability to increase the gas distribution network. Those who are concerned about carbon dioxide output and production will find it ironic that the tax could drive power production towards coal-fired power stations in the Irish Republic—so it will not even achieve, on a European basis, the objective that the Government have set out for it.
The second tax that I want to consider, which has been frozen for this year, is air passenger duty. The tax was designed to cut air travel and, in doing so, supposedly
to reduce the amount of CO2 produced by people who fly around the world. One of the problems in a region such as Northern Ireland is that the Government of the Irish Republic, who received a loan of £7.5 billion from the Government here in London, have used part of that to reduce their air passenger duty to €3 and intend to reduce it to zero. That has an impact on the one international flight from Northern Ireland. Members may say, “Big deal—one international flight,” yet a large part of our economic strategy involved attracting investment from north America. We have succeeded in getting Citibank, the New York stock exchange and a range of other big investors into Northern Ireland, bringing high quality, highly paid jobs on the basis that there was a direct transport link between Northern Ireland and north America, as north American business men wanted.
As a result of the distortion of the air passenger duty, we are likely to lose that Continental Airlines flight, our only link with north America, as the airlines find that it is much more competitive to fly from Dublin, 100 miles down the road. That is one of the ways in which an ill-thought-out tax can cause distortion. It is not as though there is not an answer to it. Recognising that air passenger duty caused problems for areas away from the centre, the Government have already introduced an exemption for the highlands and islands of Scotland. An exemption could be made as part of the rebalancing of the economy of Northern Ireland. I look forward to the discussions with the Treasury on the impact of the tax, which may or may not be beneficial. I leave Members to make up their own mind about it. It may reduce air travel, or simply make it more difficult and more expensive for our constituents, but the distorting effects must be taken into account.
The third topic is the aggregates levy credit scheme—
Before my hon. Friend moves on to that, does he agree that the carbon issue, as well as the issues of air passenger duty and corporation tax for Northern Ireland, arises because Northern Ireland has a land frontier with the Irish Republic, which is a unique circumstance within the United Kingdom? [Laughter.] That is not special pleading, but a recognition of the special circumstance in which Northern Ireland finds itself, because it shares a common land frontier. England, Scotland and Wales do not; we do, and therefore people find it easy to go down the road and fly out of Dublin, as opposed to Belfast. Government Members may laugh at these matters of fact and economics, but they are harsh realities for those of us who live in Northern Ireland, who try to make the economy work and who are trying to grow the private sector. All we are asking is that a Government committed to the private sector should help us in that, not diminish us or reduce our efforts to do so.
One can see the mirth of Government Members. I can understand why the Liberal Democrats are keen to see regulation, interference and high taxation, but I would have thought that Members on the right wing of the Conservative party would sympathise with the case that I have been making, which is that less regulation helps to grow the economy and that less of the distorting impact of the influence of Government can help to improve the economy of Northern Ireland and enable people to stand on their own two feet.
I thank the hon. Gentleman—if I may say so, my hon. Friend—for giving way. Many of us on the Government Benches sympathise with that point of view.
I knew from the hon. Gentleman’s speech that he has sympathy with that view. Indeed, I hope that such sympathy will also be found among Treasury Ministers as we discuss these matters.
The problems with the aggregates levy credit scheme are also a result of the land boundary with the Irish Republic. The aggregates levy was designed to encourage the recycling of building materials and reduce the use of virgin stone from quarries. It is good not to waste building materials, and the levy made sense in an area that is surrounded by sea and does not have a land boundary with another country that also quarries stone but does not impose such a levy, so allowances were made for firms in Northern Ireland. The Government are sympathetic to the continuance of the scheme, but as a result of a referral to the EU Commission it has been stopped. I notice that provision has been made in the Bill for a new scheme, albeit an altered one, which can be made available once discussions have been held with Europe. Again, I look forward to that and hope that we will get a positive response from Treasury Ministers.
I very much doubt that there is a great deal of sympathy for my views on the green taxes, but I hope that there will be sympathy and support for the need to look at their distorting impact on a part of the United Kingdom that is up against competition from a country that does not impose the same level of taxation. The Government have said that they want a competitive tax system; we want that. They say that they want to create a situation in which exports and private industry can grow; we want that. I therefore think that cognisance must be given to the points that I have made.
I welcome the Finance Bill in so many ways, many of which are to do with creating growth and jobs. The former Chancellor, Mr Darling, noted in his comments after the Budget that it will create growth, so it is interesting that some of the newer members of the shadow Cabinet on the one hand praise him for the things he said but on the other ignore his praise for a Budget that creates growth.
The Budget is helping to rebalance the economy, which is never an easy thing. We need to get more from private sector, as we have been over-reliant on the public sector. An important point that is often missed when discussing the private and public sectors and whether the Government should spend more money here or there is that the Government do not have any money. It is not our money; it is the public’s money. It is the money we take off people and businesses and from trading throughout the world. It is not our money for us to do with as we like. It is the public’s money, and we should ensure that we deal with it responsibly.
I am following my hon. Friend’s powerful argument closely. Will he add that, to the extent that we go into debt, it is actually our children’s and grandchildren’s money?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an important point. That leads me to the problem, which I had not intended to mention, of how indebted the nation was personally. Indeed, my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg made the point that a total private sector debt that is 450% of GDP is something to fear and shake at.
One reason I believe we did not see the increase in the public’s spending in certain areas despite the historically low interest rates—the Bank of England brought interest rates down and I think we understand why—was because people saw the opportunity to use the extra money they had in their pockets from the reduction in their mortgage payments to start paying off credit card debts, although many were on fixed-rate mortgages. That money was not poured back into the economy as was originally envisaged because people saw the writing on the wall and started to reduce their personal debt, and the Government should take a big lesson from that. We need to get debt down if we are to sustain future growth. We talk about interest of £50 billion a year on £1 trillion-worth of debt, but that does not mean anything to people because those numbers are huge. However, when we tell them that £120 million is being given to foreign nations every day because of the money we have borrowed, they start to realise the situation we face.
We all face such situations in our constituencies, where certain services are being cut—there is some politics involved, but that is not my point—and local councils need more money, which they cannot have because of the situation we are in. People realise that rather than going to foreign nations, that £120 million could be used to go some way towards addressing, for example, the closure of a leisure centre in my constituency that is losing £100,000 in a year.
That is why we needed to rebalance the economy. We became far too reliant on public debt and public money—public money that comes from private money—and we cannot keep magicking public money out of the air, because in the end it leads to hyperinflation. Indeed, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Ms Eagle, made some link, which I could not follow, between our policies and the rise of the far right in the 1930s, which in turn led to the second world war. Hyperinflation certainly played a big role in nationalism among Governments, however, and it came about precisely because of the economic circumstances that we were moving towards recently.
I take issue with the hon. Lady when she says that we are attacking ordinary hard-working people. That is, quite frankly, a disgraceful comment to make. There is not a person on either side of the House who deliberately wants to attack the ordinary hard-working person, so let us just put down a few facts. We have just brought in an income tax cut for 23 million people and taken almost 1 million people out of income tax altogether. Let us compare that with doubling income tax for the lowest paid in society.
indicated dissent .
But you cannot deny that your Government doubled income tax for the lowest paid in society and destroyed pensions—not you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but the previous Government. The previous
Government destroyed pensions, leaving many people whom we would class as the most vulnerable in society to take their pensions with fear and trepidation. At least we have brought in the triple lock on pensions, meaning that people should never again get the 75p rise in their pension.
In addition to the facts that my hon. Friend is bringing to bear in this debate, is it not shocking that the amount that the Government have borrowed only over the past year is equivalent to more than £2,000 for every family?
Again, that illustrates my earlier point: when the figures are brought down to a smaller level, people can understand their full impact and the state of the nation’s finances. When I compare that to our personal finances, I say to people, “For every £1 we’ve spent, we’ve borrowed 25p. How long would your household finances survive with that sort of economics?” They simply would not. Indeed, the increase in private debt and in people’s credit card debts, with some even committing suicide because they used credit cards to pay off credit cards, is a lesson that Governments should learn.
Let us look at the growth and debt figures. Our debt is 10.4% of GDP, Spain’s is 9.2% and Portugal’s is 9.1%, but I do not see our interest rates on the gilt markets being as high as Portugal’s. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset made an excellent point when he described the percentage rates being below RPI by 300 unit points, or 500 unit points below normal. That shows that a credible plan had to be put in place.
I find it distressing when we get into this argument with the Opposition, who say, “You don’t need to do all this.” I will give the House an analogy. For 13 years, the previous Government fed everybody chocolate and burgers, and every person in this country now weighs 35 stone. Along comes the doctor, in the form of this Government, who says, “I’m afraid if you don’t lose at least 20 stone you are going to die very young and it is going to be disastrous for you.”
Your doctor said that?
Yes, probably! I am in a rotund position to say this, and I certainly speak with a certain authority on these matters, but it is never easy to lose weight, as indeed I can testify. I am getting married in a month’s time—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you. I am desperately trying to lose weight, and it is not easy, but it is never easy for someone if the previous lot who fed them when they were trying to lose weight say, “Go on, have another bacon sandwich, it won’t do you any harm. Have another chocolate. We’ll pay for that on the credit card by the way, which we’ve nicked off you.” But seriously, if we do not get the economy under control, we will find that it leads to the situation that we see in Portugal.
What does that mean to the public? The Opposition have attacked the Government and said that they have not done anything to protect people, but what would higher interest rates do to people? We have had an interest rate of 0.5% for well over a year. We used to think that 3% or 4% was a low interest rate when the
Bank of England maintained it at that level for a good period of the last decade. If the interest rate went back to 4% in the next six months, what effect would that have on the people of this country? Having spent a great deal of time with interest rates at an historically low rate, they have learned to live within those means. We do not have the option to go back to 4% interest rates—that would be a disaster for hard-working families. Ironically, it could increase the pound’s value against the dollar, reduce the oil price and reduce petrol prices—I suppose there is a quid pro quo to everything—but let us not get away from the fact that going back to what we then thought were historically low interest rates would be seen as an absolute disaster.
I get annoyed with the twisting of the Keynesian argument when people say that in times of recession Governments should pour money into an economy. That was only half the truth: the other half was to invest it in capital investment.
My hon. Friend misses the other half of the other half, which was to accrue a surplus in a time of plenty.
My hon. Friend pre-empts me, because I was going to say that the Swedes put aside 2% of gross domestic product during the good times and the Australians paid off their national debt in the last quarter, leaving them well placed to deal with these issues.
People often say that the new deal in America, with its Keynesian attitude, dug the American economy out of its hole. No, it did not—that was achieved by the second world war and the fact that America was able to lend money and sell armaments to the rest of the world while not having its mainland invaded. That put the Americans in the economic driving seat, from which they have never looked back.
I want to talk about fuel prices. The Opposition were going to add another 5p to the price of petrol. I know that it is difficult to prove a negative. If we say to people, “We’ve cut 6p off a litre of petrol,” they will say, “No, you haven’t—you only cut a penny,” because if they are not paying that 5p it is difficult to prove it to them. However, at least we have done something to help, and we have to pay for that somehow. We cannot just go on printing money and saying, “It doesn’t matter. It’s the Government’s money—we’ll supply it, don’t worry about it,” because that completely misses the point and gets us into these problems. Under the previous Government, fuel prices rocketed because of taxation; under this Government, fuel prices have gone up because of the oil price, over which we do not have influence. If we are to believe what is said, we may have reached peak oil. We could have a discussion for three hours about whether that is so, and people would say, “Well, more oil comes online because at the current high oil price it becomes more economical and there is plenty of oil out there—it isn’t going to run out.” However, the key to that argument is that it relates to the current oil price. Let us not forget that the oil price is controlled by the oil traders and speculators, and if they believe that we are at peak oil, that oil price is here to stay. We have tried to cushion the impact and help hard-working families, and it is pretty cheap for Labour Members to snipe at that.
Drawing on the comments by the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, at the same time as the argument that we should try to reduce our carbon emissions, we hear that we should not build any nuclear stations or put any subsidies into moving forward with nuclear power. We have seen an absolutely terrible and disastrous event in Japan—something that shocked the world and daily covers the newspapers, and still gets talked about constantly, with Russia now making criticisms. As far as I am aware, that nuclear reactor has not killed anyone. It is funny how quickly people completely forget about the 20,000 people who died in the tsunami: the real human cost. But no, they focus on a nuclear power station hit by the third biggest release of energy the world has ever seen and a 30-foot tsunami doing 60 mph, and everybody says that that is why we should not have nuclear power. Nobody adds that more than 20,000 people have been killed by this natural disaster. Let us get some perspective. We know that nuclear power may not be the best way forward, but it is the best way forward at this moment. Until we develop the technology so that we can get to nuclear fusion and perhaps some better green technologies, these are our options and this is what we face. We cannot keep saying no to everything.
The Opposition always want it both ways. They want to cut the fuel price, but they do not want to tax oil companies. They want the banks to lend more, but they want to tax them so much that they would leave the country. They want to reduce carbon and to have secure energy, but they do not want to go nuclear. They are a joke. Their speeches vary from Member to Member. Some could be on this side of the House, some could be old Labour and some could be new Labour. I do not know what their policy is, but the blank sheet of paper is certainly something that they are all sticking to vigorously. We have seen very little in the local election campaign except for criticism of the Government.
The hon. Gentleman speaks about nuclear energy and fossil fuel energy. Does he have an opinion on the Scottish National party’s view on nuclear energy?
Order. The hon. Gentleman must sit down. He has asked his question. Members should not just walk into the Chamber and intervene.
I am not aware of the SNP’s policy. It may have escaped the notice of the hon. Gentleman, but I stand here as a Conservative Member of Parliament.
I have a final plea to the Minister. I know that there are problems with the European Union interfering in all aspects of alcohol and that we cannot do certain things, but can he look at putting higher taxation on non-draught beer? He may have done so already and it would be interesting to hear about that when he sums up. That does not involve saying that if beer is sold in a supermarket it will be taxed more, which brings competition law into play, but just that draught beer will not be taxed as much as other beers. The reason for raising tax on non-draught beer is that draught beer is served in pubs and publicans have a responsibility to ensure that people
do not drink out of control, because they are licensed and controlled. I think that that idea would go some way towards countering the binge drinking problem. It may be that we cannot do that under European law, but I make the plea to the Minister. I will be interested to hear whether it is something that he has considered.
I support the Bill and believe that it is the only way we can secure growth. It is an intelligent and credible way forward that, frankly, is not just trying to get a good headline in The Guardian, which the shadow Chancellor seems keen on.
Alec Shelbrooke has taken political propaganda to an all-time low this evening in trying to convince the Chamber that he has not eaten out on Labour’s chocolate and burgers, to use his words. That is a bit rich. None the less, I wish him well for his wedding, which is coming up shortly, and I hope that his battle with the bulge means that he will eventually fit into the dress come the big day.
I am delighted that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is back in the Chamber, because I want to wish him a happy anniversary. It is exactly a year since the leader of the Liberal Democrats said in a TV interview with Jeremy Paxman:
“Do I think that these big, big cuts are merited or justified at a time when the economy is struggling to get to its feet? Clearly not.”
I wish the Chief Secretary a happy anniversary a year on from that bombshell from the Deputy Prime Minister. It is still the contention of Labour Members that the coalition Government are going too far, too fast, and that that approach is killing growth and causing rising unemployment in this country.
The Chancellor announced with a fanfare that this would be a Budget for growth that would add fuel to the economy. He gave his bold growth fanfare against the backdrop of the economy shrinking by 0.5% in quarter four, even though it was clearly on the road to recovery in quarters one and two of last year under the previous Government. On top of that came a huge embarrassment: the Chancellor’s trumpeted Budget for growth downgraded economic growth in every year of the economic cycle and predicted increased unemployment. The Chancellor’s own Office for Budget Responsibility concluded that the Government’s Budget for growth, which he said would “go for growth”, reduced the economic growth figures. Astonishingly, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is still in his place, blames Labour and not the snow.
We cannot pay back any deficit with lower growth and more people out of work. The Government’s decisions contained in this Finance Bill do nothing to help hard-working ordinary people and families up and down the country. We have heard several times this evening about the potential decimation of the UK oil industry, which will cost yet more jobs.
Is the hon. Gentleman therefore opposed to the measures taken in the Budget to reduce fuel taxation on hard-working motorists?
No one would ever deny that a 1p cut would help motorists, but there are certainly no petrol stations in Edinburgh South where fuel is now cheaper than it was before the Chancellor’s Budget. Indeed, money is being taken off the oil and gas industry, and billions of pounds in jobs and future research and development are being put in jeopardy for a 1p cut in fuel prices that nobody is actually seeing at the pump. The Government have to take that on board and act with ferocity.
I agree with the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, Mr Letwin, who let the cat out of the bag during an Environmental Audit Committee hearing just before the Easter recess. He said that prior to the Budget, the Cabinet had discussed the fact that there was
“an immediate national crisis in the form of less growth and jobs than we needed”.
The Government’s response to that crisis was to produce a Budget that would make growth and unemployment levels worse—the “Dad’s Army”, “Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring” approach to what they claimed was a “national crisis”.
Of course we need to get the deficit down, but by cutting too far and too fast, by hitting children, women and families the hardest and by following an ideology that attacks the economic drivers of this country, the Government risk a vicious circle of perpetual slower growth and fewer people in work. With fewer people paying tax, there will be more people drawing benefits and not spending hard-earned cash. The Government have presided over a set of decisions that have resulted in a collapse in living standards not seen since the 1920s.
On the subject of living standards, the Prime Minister promised to lead the most family-friendly Government ever. The Chancellor said, “We’re all in this together,” but changes to tax and benefits this month will hit those least able to pay—ordinary, hard-working people up and down the country—the hardest.
We have been through a global financial crisis, not a recession that was made in Britain. Like every other major economy in the world, the big challenge for us is how to get the deficit down. It cannot come down while confidence is low. VAT will cost a family with children an average extra £450 this year, draining much-needed funds from tight family budgets and potentially harming consumer confidence.
Of course, from this month, there are also cuts to the amount that parents can claim for child care; the freezing of child benefit for three years; the scrapping of the baby element of child tax credit; the setting of benefits on a permanently lower path, with a real-terms cut that means less generous benefits this year and every year in future; the cutting of the second income threshold for the family element of child tax credit; and the increasing of withdrawal rates for tax credits to 41%.—and of course the Liberal Democrats’ champion policy of increasing the tax threshold at the lower level is outstripped tenfold by the VAT increase and the change from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index for uprating tax thresholds, which will erode any threshold increase over time.
The message of this Finance Bill is not growth but the fact that the Government are giving with one hand and taking away with many other hands. They have
demonstrated in the Budget and the Bill how out of touch they are. They do not get the fact that hard-working people are being hit by VAT and now face cuts to tax credits and child benefit too. They do not get the fact that communities throughout the country are being damaged by cuts to local services. Even the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said after the Budget that
“there is an awful lot of giving with one hand...and taking away with lots and lots of other hands.”
That was an independent commentator talking about what the Government are doing.
The Government often look overseas to build up their justification for this austerity Budget and the Bill, but we have only to look at Ireland to see what too far, too fast austerity measures produce—yes, Ireland, a country that the Chancellor declared had an austerity package that was something of a success story. I suspect that no one in Ireland would agree with him now.
Let us turn, as I might be expected to do, to the Conservatives’ bedfellows on praise for Ireland, the Scottish National party. The SNP held up Ireland as the foundation for their arc of prosperity and as the economic model that an independent Scotland should follow, but look what happened! The SNP not only no longer talk of independence, but they never talk about the arc of prosperity. If Scotland were independent, our banks and our economy would have collapsed, and Scotland would be worse off than Ireland, Greece and Portugal combined.
To be fair to the SNP, not only Ireland formed its arc of prosperity policy, but Iceland too—another economy shattered by the worldwide economic crisis. The Irish austerity measures went too far and too fast, and now the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury never mention Ireland, and neither does the SNP—they have changed indeed.
I could go on and savage the SNP’s 4.8p local income tax proposals, but I know that that is not to do with the Bill, which I shall finish by addressing. The Bill is driven by ideology—an ideology that some have developed in exchange for ministerial Mondeos. The Bill does not improve growth or reduce unemployment, and it continues to hit families and ordinary people the hardest. It kicks away the ladder of opportunity for our country’s young people. It is hurting but certainly not working. For those reasons alone, we should not give it a Second Reading.
I am grateful for the chance to speak briefly at the end of this debate. This Finance Bill is but one part and but one significant change to the economic policy framework in the UK. The significance of some of the details in the Bill is matched only by the modesty of the amount of comment that they attract. We are debating many of the detailed changes, such as expanding gift aid, helping low earners, supporting motorists and improving the environment for enterprise. I support all those measures and will speak about them later, but I first want to address the context and background set for the Bill by changes to the economic policy framework.
One of the big changes has been referred to explicitly and implicitly throughout the debate. Ian Murray spoke about the
Office for Budget Responsibility, and every Labour Member has referred to its figures. In that magnificent British way, we have managed to establish and accept a new tradition—the OBR—as if it were ever thus. I argue that that innovation in economic policy and others are significant and noteworthy for the long term. Over many years, evidence grew in the academic economic debate that economic policy is best set for the long term, and the short-term dash for growth became discredited. In the ’80s and ’90s a consensus grew that fiscal policy should be set for the long term, and that monetary policy should be set through an independent Bank of England and used to regulate demand in the shorter term—to keep inflation low and growth going. In fact, that became the cross-party consensus in the House. The shadow Chancellor even wrote a book on what a magnificent set-up that was.
The problem with that arrangement is that it stabilised only one part of the economy, and it was far too narrow. Where discretion was allowed, and within closely prescribed rules, policy worked reasonably well, and policy makers hit the inflation target with commendable accuracy. However, the success of that narrow area of economic policy making led its creators to believe—absurdly—that they had solved the problems of economic policy making. We know the phrases. They said that boom and bust had ended, but that hyperbole led them to ignore the growing signs that all was not well elsewhere, and to commit vast policy mistakes that led to the enormous crisis that we have gone through, and that Government Members are trying to help to clear up. The Labour Government admonished anybody who claimed that Britain’s economic policy framework was anything other than perfect, and that belittled debate.
The problem was that by aiming at one target only—inflation, and consumer price inflation specifically—everyone missed the huge and unsustainable growth in balance sheets throughout the economy. There was unsustainable public debt and unsustainable private debt—a classic debt bubble. The problem first became obvious in fiscal policy. The now discredited fiscal rules allowed the Labour Government to claim that all was rosy—indeed, the shadow Chancellor still claims that all was rosy. In fact, they were borrowing an unsustainable amount at the height of a boom. They then tried the classic trick of borrowing to fund their re-election. As the House knows, they fiddled the figures and moved the goalposts to keep on spending when the facts started to prove otherwise.
The new OBR will bring long-term independence to fiscal policy making, which will constrain not only the current Government, but—I hope—all Governments to come. Crucially, the OBR’s forecasts will define the discretion within which policy makers can operate, and will bring this constrained discretion, similar in structure to monetary policy, into fiscal policy. Different though the execution will be of course—because the policy levers will be different—the structure will be similar.
Although having an OBR in the past might have meant not entering the crisis with unsustainable public finances, what of those unsustainable private finances? No one can argue that the amount of debt in our economy—in our banks and households—was sustainable. Britain entered the crisis as the most indebted nation in the G7 ever, and also had the biggest banking bust in
the world. Those are not unconnected, however, because household debt and the banking debt that supports it are a reflection of each other—one group lends to the other. That combination of unsustainable public and private debts means that Government Members have a huge mess to clear up.
The combination of targeting only narrow consumer prices inflation in one part of a tripartite system and the regulation of individual banks in another meant that the crucial piece of the jigsaw—looking at how bank balance sheets affected debt across the economy—was missed. It is a bit like a balloon: we pushed down on consumer prices and kept control of them, but all the extra liquidity shot out into prices of other assets, including, as we know from our personal lives and those of our constituents, the biggest asset of all—housing. We had a bonanza housing boom: equity withdrawal; get-rich, buy-to-let schemes; more than 100% mortgages. We all know about them. The bubble lasted all the longer, however, because it had a credible story behind it—of the extra savings being made in China and the rising Asian nations—and was harder still to argue against.
Nobody was there to pull the punch bowl away when the party got going. As we know to our cost, the power to do that was removed from the Bank of England in 1997. At the time, my right hon. Friend Mr Lilley predicted it would cause problems. The link between looking at the sustainability of individual banks and looking at the macro-picture had been broken. Now that link is being restored. First, clause 72 and schedule 19 will introduce and increase the bank levy. It will be a levy on banks’ balance sheets, not bonuses, so will contribute to financial stability. Secondly, and crucially for the context in which we think about the Bill, the proposed financial policy committee, which will first operate in shadow form, will monitor that link. It will link the management of the country’s debt and balance sheets with the management of the macro-economy, linking fiscal policy and monetary policy through financial policy, and therefore allow for a holistic big picture of how we are managing our economy. Instead of allowing a bubble to build up by omission, the FPC’s job will be to look for it and act on it. Unlike under the former system, in which the Bank of England could complain and raise concerns but not act, the FPC will be empowered. Crucially, because the discretion is embedded in a respected institution, it will have the authority to exercise that discretion. For whereas discretion without rules gives us tyranny, rules without discretion give us futile bureaucracy.
The changes have been praised by the OECD and the IMF, and they represent a substantial and fundamental shift in how we run our economy. However, we should resist the hubris of saying that these reforms will ever be finished or that the ancient challenge of economic management, first recorded in Genesis, is complete. As we debate the details of the Bill today, we should consider how the context of those changes, in strengthening our economic framework, is about learning the lessons from the past and helping us to be stronger as we face the inevitable challenges ahead.
If a week is a long time in politics, then a year—and perhaps some aspects of tonight’s debate—is an eternity. Yet a
year ago, when we were all candidates and none of us was allowed to stand in this place, things were very different. The economy was beginning to recover, as unemployment was falling and growth was returning. Crucially for today’s debate and the provisions in the Bill, that meant that the deficit came in at £21 billion lower than was forecast. Well, here we all are, a year later, and just as the faces in the Chamber have changed, as have the sides that we are sitting on—some would say not for the better—so too has the economic picture. Given where we were last year, one would have expected the economy next year not simply to have recovered, but to have begun motoring; and yet now, thanks to snow it seems, it appears that the reverse is true. By cutting too fast and too deep, this Government are delivering slow growth and higher unemployment, which is why they will now have to borrow £46 billion more than they planned.
However, the question that this Bill raises is about not just whether to cut the deficit, but how we do so and who ultimately pays. Our national Exchequer certainly will: slower growth plus higher unemployment will make it harder to get the deficit down. As we pay out in jobseeker’s allowance, we will also lose out as families fear spending money that they do not have. That is what I want to highlight this evening. We have a duty to consider how the proposals will help or hinder the finances of families across this country, because it is not just the Chancellor who will have to go cap in hand for extra funds. Contrary to what Alec Shelbrooke seems to think—I am sorry that he is not here; perhaps he is in the gym preparing for his wedding—public debt and private debt are linked. Although public debt is down by £43 billion, private household debt is up by £245 billion—five times as much.
Matthew Hancock is a man for whom I have tremendous respect—both him and his pullovers. He lauds the role of the Office for Budget Responsibility, but like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he is hoist by his own petard, because the OBR forecast last June that household debt would increase from an average of £58,000 in 2010 to £66,000 by 2015. The OBR now expects the figure to be £77,000. That is the downside of the Chancellor’s deficit reduction plan. As taxes increase and public spending squeezes households’ disposable income, they will be forced to take on more and more debt in an attempt to maintain their living standards. In fact, the OBR’s March forecast shows household debt rising from £1.6 trillion this year to £2.1 trillion in 2015—or, from 160% of disposable income to 175%. The OBR reports that households will have to borrow more money than forecast in order to maintain their living standards. With the planned cuts in public spending, the only way the Government will see an improvement in the OBR’s forecast for growth is for that ratio to increase.
I know that many Members will be sick of hearing me talk about credit and debt. Many may also argue that it does not matter, because we are a nation that is comfortable with debt—something the hon. Member for West Suffolk talked about. We have always had a different approach to personal debt from many other countries. We are a nation comfortable with borrowing in ways at which other cultures baulk. It is no surprise that we have the highest level of personal debt in the G7. That is not a problem if it can be managed. Much
of the money that this country owes is housing related, which reflects a culture in which mortgages are routine. The truth is, however, that the debt that families are now getting into is not related to such investment in their future or about luxury living; it is about the money that they spend on everyday items. That is what is missing from their family finances.
In the current economic climate, UK adults face an average shortfall of £165 each month, with 26% unsure whether they can pay their bills on time. Recent research shows that more than 2 million people have used credit cards to pay their mortgage or their rent. That is an increase of almost 50% in a year. Since the recession, nearly a third of Britons are now spending more than they have coming in each month, and 22% of consumers will carry a credit card debt throughout 2011, with 7% of people saying that they will still be paying for Christmas 2010 after June 2011. It is estimated that 5 million people are now permanently overdrawn, and that 18 million have gone into the red at some point in the past 12 months. Nearly 8 million of us failed to pay at least one bill in the past year.
It is not just the poorest consumers in our society who are affected. According to Experian, the biggest rise in insolvencies in 2010 was among the people whom it calls “suburban mindsets”, a consumer group comprising married, middle-aged people. That situation has not come about by chance. It is a direct consequence of how this Government have chosen to address the deficit.
I do not wish to extend the love-in much further, but the hon. Lady’s arguments, which are being passionately put, would carry much more weight and credence if she were to disappoint her Front-Bench team and accept Labour’s role in bringing about this situation.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not been listening closely. Let me make it very clear: the figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility that I cited refer to this past year. Forgive me, but as far as I am aware, his party has been in power during that time and it has presided over this increase in the private debt that households are now taking on.
Let us talk about some of the things that are causing that increase. VAT is costing a family with children an extra £450 this year, on average, due to the rocketing cost of buying basics such as telephones and clothes and of getting a boiler or a washing machine fixed. That is before they even consider getting out and about to spend money. Many Conservative Members have talked about fuel prices, but the increase in VAT is adding £1.35 to the cost of filling up a 50-litre tank with unleaded fuel. The cut in fuel duty gives back only 1p, but the VAT increase costs us almost 3p a litre.
Those who are in work are finding it even harder to make ends meet as a result of the Budget. Since
benefit. Credit Action has pointed out that, of the 45 changes to the tax and benefit system made in the Budget, 26 will have a negative impact on households.
There will also be fewer chances of getting a better-paid job, or of getting back into work, because unemployment is set to be higher in every year of this Parliament as a result of this Government’s actions.
Those in the 16-to-25 age bracket who are unemployed will soon top the 1 million mark. Does the hon. Lady share my concern, and that of many other hon. Members, about what the future holds for them?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have been a close reader of the work of Paul Gregg at Bristol university, who has shown how unemployment can scar young people and affect their earning potential for life. I am extremely worried about young people in this country who are facing unemployment and have little prospect of a place on a training scheme or in a university.
There is little sign that these pressures on family finances will ease. With the current wage squeeze expected to continue until at least 2013, average wages are expected to fall to less than £25,000, which is more than £1,800 lower than in 2009. People do not have the pounds in their pockets that they need in order to keep spending in the way our economy needs if it is to grow. If we add to that the anticipated rise in interest rates and mortgage payments, which has been one area of respite in the past few years, we can see that things are going to get a lot bleaker. As our newspapers warn daily, and as the Bank of England has pointed out, interest rates are likely to climb, piling pressure on the 60% of low to middle-income families who are already struggling to pay their bills.
It is no wonder that four in 10 people are worried about their current level of debt, with 4 million fearing redundancy and 4 million more having taken on debt in recent months. We know that the cuts that we have seen so far are just the beginning. The ones that families across the UK felt this month accounted for a mere 10% of the total savings planned before 2015 from changes in the tax credit and benefit system. More than 40% of the cuts kick in in 2013.
Loading debt on to households helps this Government to cut the deficit at the pace they desire, but it is the job of Opposition Members to challenge them on the cost and consequences to all of doing so. In an economy where jobs and growth are in short supply, such debts do not just mean lower consumer spending, higher levels of bankruptcy or repossessions. Nearly 30% of British parents admit they are arguing over their family finances and a third of parents are suffering the stress of sleepless nights because they are worried about money.
Such changes also directly impact on our chances for economic recovery. As the Bank of England pointed out,
“prospects for consumption…have an important bearing on the outlet for activity”,
but it added:
“Near-term prospects have weakened further over the month. The squeeze on households…was likely to dampen consumption materially over the next year or so.”
Even after a sharp reduction in its private consumption forecasts, that favourite of the hon. Member for West Suffolk, the Office for Budget Responsibility, expects British households to account for just over a fifth of economic growth this year and for almost a third next year. The truth is that if the average family is not willing to dig itself deeper into debt, those figures might have to be revised.
The Bill reflects the Government’s complacency about the challenge. There is no commitment to act on these problems—only a general sense of unease, summed up best by the Minister for Equalities, Lynne Featherstone, who wrote:
“What is tough—and will get tougher—is losing jobs. People in work will mostly get by—somehow. People on benefits will mostly get by—somehow. But for those who lose their job—it will be devastating. The cuts were announced last year. Their impact has yet to fully hit. This budget promised growth. The proof will be in the pudding. And the question will be whether there’s a new job to be found within a time frame that can keep health, hearth and home together—and we need to keep a watch over that.”
Well, I want to do more than keep a watch over that, and I hope to answer a question posed by Government Members about what policies Labour Members could suggest.
Today, I argue that we could do more than squabble over Keynes or the Ricardian equivalence; we could do something to help those people in immediate danger of insolvency and bankruptcy. At present, this Bill is missing that. Given the large numbers of people facing financial difficulty, we should be deeply concerned about the strategies that families have to cope with these pressures and how the Bill could do something to help.
To cover costs, more and more people are turning to sources of credit, which might seem like short-term solutions but quickly become long-term problems. The number of people who say they are likely to use an unauthorised overdraft this month has nearly doubled since July last year—from 900,000 to 1.6 million. Similarly, the payday lending industry in the UK, with its 4,000% interest rates and more, has quadrupled in the past 18 months.
Being able to borrow in a way that does not leave a long-term scar on the family finances is the new dividing-line in our society. Those who can access mainstream credit might just scrape by in austerity Britain. Those with little option but the legal loan sharks, maxing out their credit cards or racking up unauthorised debt, could spend a generation or more trying to become debt-free.
This Government want to pretend that such kinds of personal debt are solely a private matter, but Opposition Members see the social and economic consequences and we must beg to differ. A lack of regulation of the high-cost credit market in comparison with other countries allows that industry to go unchecked in the UK. Recognition of the problems caused by casino banking in the City is widespread across the House, but that is only half the battle; we should not forget the financial needs of those in our communities. For the sake of our economic recovery and for the sake of those families, credit should not be lent in a way that is detrimental to consumers without those who profit from exploiting them being made liable for the consequences.
When this Government announced their Budget, I asked a simple question: how can they be so keen to show that they are so tough on national debt, yet so
blind to the growing crisis of personal debt that their policies are stoking? Today, with this Bill before us, we are no closer to an answer, but thousands more edge closer to personal financial problems as a direct result. That is why I will table amendments to review whether the supplementary charge or the bankers’ levy could be applied in a way that would disincentivise negative, high-cost credit lending. It is time that this Government put the fortunes of every family first. Other countries have done that to protect their consumers, and I do not see why British consumers should be denied the same opportunity.
Let me offer an open invitation to Treasury Ministers to do what their colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have signally failed to do, and respond to the concerns of Members throughout the House. I invite them to meet us to discuss how we could cap the total cost of credit. Campaigners all over the country who support such action—Churches, trade unions, community groups and consumer associations—would thank them for taking it.
I hope that Members who share my concern about personal debt will support my amendments, and will join me in holding the Government to account for what they are doing to the personal finances of families in every constituency in the country.
Thank you for allowing me to contribute to the debate, Mr Speaker.
Many Bills are based on evidence, but this Bill takes a huge gamble on the judgment of a Chancellor who regards his plans for fiscal consolidation more as an article of economic faith. The extent of the tax rises that it imposes, when added to the effect of the Government’s decision to reduce spending by £81 billion over the next four years, threatens to remove about 2% of GDP from output. As Anatole Kaletsky wrote in the most recent edition of Prospect, that is the equivalent of the annualised growth achieved in the whole of 2010.
The theory that underpins the measures in the Budget and the Bill is that of expansionary fiscal contraction: the idea that cutting deficits as quickly as possible while also making a massive reduction in the scope of the state will liberate private sector capital to fill in the gap, and will create higher levels of growth. That theory is deficient for two reasons. First, in countries where it has been applied there has been a marked expansion in the export sector, normally accompanied by a depreciation of the currency. Secondly, it has tended to be applied in countries pursuing a policy of monetary easing. Neither factor is likely to obtain in the circumstances faced by the UK economy. In the last quarter of 2010 the country recorded the worst trade figures since 1985, there is weak demand in the rest of Europe apart from Germany, and inflationary pressures are making a rise in interest rates more likely than not this year. Nor is it credible for the Chancellor, who in January 2009 described printing money as
“the last resort of desperate governments”
whose other economic policies had failed, to rely on further quantitative easing to provide any additional monetary stimulus beyond the £200 billion already utilised by the Bank of England.
Government Members have prayed in aid of their fiscal consolidation plans the experience of the Canadian Government of the 1990s who faced the largest deficit in the G7. In a report entitled “Whose Canada?”, Mario Seccareccia of the university of Ottawa noted the real reasons for the success of the Canadian fiscal consolidation programme. High growth in the United States, Canada’s largest trading partner, a sharply declining Canadian dollar and the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement combined to push the export sector’s share of Canadian GDP to 45% by 2000. In addition, an expansionary monetary policy raised consumer spending, and continued until the financial crisis. None of those factors is likely to obtain in the United Kingdom.
Here we have a Finance Bill that imposes the largest squeeze on living standards for British households since the 1920s. As was ably pointed out by my hon. Friend Stella Creasy, its most worrying feature is the massive rise in personal debt and borrowing that underpins its provisions. The Office for Budget Responsibility expects total household debt to rise from £1.56 trillion in 2010 to a staggering £2.13 trillion in 2015, a rise of 36.3% in just five years. Whereas debt represented 160% of household income last year, the debt-to-income ratio will reach 175% by 2015. Through the higher taxes in the Bill and his Budget’s spending cuts, the Chancellor is transferring the burden of debt from the state to private individuals. As the International Monetary Fund’s recently published global economic outlook report finds, the global recovery remains unbalanced. High unemployment is likely to persist in the coming years. In the European Union economy, an underlying low rate of potential output is the biggest problem. The managing director of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, noted in a speech at the Brookings Institution on
“The jobs crisis is hitting the young especially hard. And what should have been a brief spell in unemployment is turning into a life sentence, possibly for a whole lost generation.”
He further states that
“fiscal tightening can lower growth in the short term, and this can even increase long-term unemployment, turning a cyclical into a structural problem. The bottom line is that fiscal adjustment must be done with an eye kept keenly on growth.”
Those are wise words indeed.
The Office for Budget Responsibility’s upward revision of projected unemployment for the remainder of this Parliament shows that there is little in this Bill to help tackle youth unemployment and to stop it nearing 1 million and surging over 20%. Indeed, the Government are cutting investment allowances to small and medium-sized enterprises by £2.6 billion in total, which will hurt manufacturers, particularly in the automotive and renewable sectors, and will most benefit high-profit but low-investment companies. As Richard Koo of the Nomura Research Institute in Tokyo says, drawing on his analysis of the Japanese economy in the 1990s, many businesses may remain in a “balance sheet recession”, preferring to pay down debt and protect cash flows and yet shun investment.
Despite this Bill’s lifting of some poor families out of income tax, there are cuts in child tax credits and child care support, and an increase in the withdrawal rates for
tax credits to 41%. So the £48 per year which the Chancellor is giving through the increase in the personal allowance in income tax is more than exceeded by the increases in VAT, lower tax credit entitlements, and the slashing of child care support by 10%.
By the decisions the Chancellor has made in his Budget and by the tax rises introduced in his Finance Bill, he has boxed himself into a corner, and has made the economy the prisoner of the OBR’s growth forecasts. Missing the target for growth, as has already happened three times in the last year, means less revenue for the Treasury and a higher than expected deficit.
With tomorrow’s publication of the UK quarterly growth figures, we may get more of an idea of whether it was just the snow or, more likely, the Chancellor’s policies that put the economy in reverse in the last quarter of 2010. For output to bounce back from the calamitous fall in the autumn, the growth rate would automatically need to achieve the minimum level of 0.7%. If the OBR is correct in its above-average estimate for 2011, growth in the first quarter would need to fall in at around 1.2% tomorrow for the economy to be in recovery. If it does not, the Government will have to say how far they will be prepared to see unemployment rise before they decide to change course. It is not too late for a plan B, and I urge the Chancellor to take on board the advice from Gus O’Donnell and the Institute for Public Policy Research on a plan B and a slower rate of deficit reduction.
This Finance Bill is an example of faith-based economics and cynical politics from a Chancellor in whom this country is losing its belief. Britain deserves better, and only with alternative fiscal and taxation policies will we have a fairer way to sustainable public finances and rising living standards for the British people once again.
The amendment before the House declines to give the Finance Bill a Second Reading for simple reasons: because it will increase unemployment, it fails to tackle higher petrol prices, and it lets off the banks with their bonus tax being lower than it need be. The Bill will fail the British people and we will oppose it this evening.
We have had a good debate, in which we have brought out the differences between the Government and the Opposition on these key issues. There has been some agreement, for example, as the hon. Members for Watford (Richard Harrington) and for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) said, on the need to tackle the deficit. We do agree that we need to grow the economy and to reduce unemployment, and we should do those things in a fair and equitable manner.
However, the differences between the Government and the Opposition are wide and deep, and during the passage of this Bill they will be shown to be based on principle. The backdrop to the Bill is important and cannot be spoken about in isolation—indeed, hon. Members have not done that today. From January, VAT increases have cost families with children an average of £450 extra. As my hon. Friend Ian Murray has said, we face cuts to the amount parents can claim on child care. We face child benefit
being frozen for three years and the scrapping of the baby element of child tax credits, which is worth £545 a year to people. Benefits are being set on a permanently lower path of inflation, and basic and 30-hour elements of the working tax credits are being frozen. The second income threshold for family elements of tax credit is being cut and the withdrawal rates for tax credits are being increased to 41%.
This Government are clearly determined to hit families hard, and this Budget and Finance Bill do nothing to take those issues forward in a positive way. The Government’s argument is that we need to tackle the deficit. We agree with that and we had a plan to tackle the deficit by cutting it over four years—the Department in which I was a Minister in the previous Government planned to save £1.4 billion. This Government’s measures go too far and are too deep, and they will increase the debt in this country considerably through the levels by which unemployment and benefit expenditure will increase.
The Labour Government had a plan to lower the debt, and before the worldwide crash our national debt was lower than that of America, France, Germany and Japan. The actions of the banks caused the recession and the deficit, and without the support of active government, from which this Government seek to withdraw, we would have faced even more unemployment and even more house repossessions. We are clear that these cuts are too deep and that they are being made too fast, as my hon. Friend Stella Creasy said.
If the Minister does not wish to agree with me, perhaps he will agree with the Member who said:
“If spending is cut too soon, it would undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs.”
He also said:
“Do I think that these big cuts are merited or justified at a time when the economy is struggling to get to its feet? Clearly not.”
Those things were said by the leader of the Liberal Democrats one year ago this very week. He called for no cuts in public spending. He wanted cuts to be not so deep and not so fast, but he has changed his tune now.
We accept that getting the deficit down is important, and what happens to jobs and growth in our economy is crucial. That is why when last year the economy started growing, unemployment was falling. But cuts in public spending are now hitting not only people in the public sector and families and people who need support; they are hitting the private sector and private sector businesses harder. I heard Anne Marie Morris say that she was concerned about the private sector. This morning, I visited businesses in Ipswich and I was told that because of the fear of public spending cuts and the actual public spending cuts people were not buying things in the shops any more. I was told that the cuts were too deep and too fast, and that they were damaging the growth in our economy as a whole.
Last year’s Budget should have contained a bank bonus tax creating more than 100,000 jobs, building 25,000 affordable homes, rescuing construction apprenticeships and boosting investment in businesses, but this Government have failed to take those actions. As well as cancelling the fuel duty rise—we did the same in government when oil prices were rising—the Government
should have reversed the VAT rise on petrol, which adds £1.35 to the cost of filling a 50-litre tank. The 1p fuel duty cut in the Bill does not go anywhere near far enough towards offsetting the increase in VAT that the Chancellor imposed in January this year.
The Finance Bill contains no real plan for growth. In clause 10, the Government cut Labour’s proposed allowances for manufacturers by £75,000, using that money to give a corporation tax cut that disproportionately benefits the banks when we could have had more investment in research and development and tax relief for small businesses as a whole. On living standards, the rise in allowances given to people in the Bill is taken away by the VAT increase in January. The House of Commons Library has shown that families will be £1,700 a year worse off because of the Government’s tax and benefits changes.
We know that the Government have not done enough to help drivers. We have seen the planned fuel duty rise delayed, which Labour Governments did when world oil prices were rising, but the Chancellor has done nothing to help individuals by increasing VAT, which has added to the cost of filling up tanks with unleaded petrol over the past three months. The cut in fuel duty gives only 1p back, while the VAT rise has cost almost 3p per litre.
We know that this year there have been tax cuts for the banks. Labour said we wanted an additional bank levy from the Government this year and that we should have repeated the bank bonus tax and raised at least £2 billion so that the banks did not get a tax cut and so that funds were provided to invest in jobs, growth and housing. The Government have said no. In future years, the Government should increase the bank levy to ensure that the banks continue to pay their fair share of tax, so that taxpayers are not left to pick up the bill for the banking crisis.
Finally, clear concerns have been expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) and for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and by the hon. Members for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) about the investment proposals for North sea oil and the risks that the Government are taking. At the very last minute, with no consultation, the Government have made proposals to tax North sea oil still further. Oil and Gas UK has criticised the Government’s decision and uncertainty has been expressed from organisations across the board about this hasty move. The Government took the decision at the very last minute with no consultation and next Tuesday we will seek to discuss the matter in more detail and to ensure that we get further consultation.
The Government are cutting too far and too fast and the Finance Bill does nothing to help gain confidence, increase employment or secure the future for our society as a whole. The Government have implemented front-loaded cuts, which are hitting vital services and families, while giving the banks a tax cut. The Government need to think again about the devastating impact of their policies on our economy. We shall scrutinise the Bill in Committee and we shall undoubtedly welcome certain aspects of it in due course. Tonight, however, I ask my hon. Friends to vote for the amendment and against the Bill. The Bill will damage our economy, it does nothing for our society and I urge my hon. Friends to reject it.
We have had a very useful debate this evening with a number of contributions. In particular, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), for Watford (Richard Harrington) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who spoke about the measures for small businesses in the Budget and the Finance Bill, my hon. Friend Stephen Williams, who brought his expertise in tax matters to the debate in a wide-ranging speech, my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), who, in their different—but both eloquent—ways, set out how a Government must live within their means, and my hon. Friend Matthew Hancock, who brought his economic expertise to the fore by highlighting the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
I remember our debate on last year’s Finance Bill following the June Budget, and this has been a somewhat shorter debate. I listened with great care to the speech of Ms Eagle and I think that only two of her 26 minutes were devoted to the Finance Bill. I wonder whether the Labour party’s interest in these matters is diminishing. If so, I would like to think that that is because much of the content of the Bill is uncontroversial, and because we have relatively few areas of contention. The Bill has been widely welcomed. It promotes growth alongside fairness, encourages investment and responsibility and provides for those who need help by supporting a more balanced economy on the basis of a credible and sustainable position.
We have set out our plans to reduce corporation tax—by 2p this year—moving us towards having one of the most competitive tax systems in the world once again, and meeting our objective of having the most competitive tax regime in the G20. We have set out our reforms of the taxation of foreign branches and our interim changes to the controlled foreign companies rules, which are resulting in companies looking to move back to the UK, not away from it. Britain is open for business again. We have set out our plans to double the amount of entrepreneurs’ relief to £10 million, and we have increased the research and development tax credits for small and medium-sized enterprises to 200%. Clause 42 increases the relief available through the enterprise investment scheme to 30%. Of course, tax rates matter as much to small companies as to large ones. Last year, we announced that instead of increasing the small profits rate we would cut it, and clause 5 reduces it to 20%.
Clause 1 increases the personal allowance by £1,000, which is the largest ever increase. In doing that we are removing 800,000 people from income tax altogether, as a step towards meeting our objective of a personal allowance of £10,000. Indeed, we announced in the Budget further measures toward achieving that objective.
Although supporting business is a necessary part of all this, it is important that the sectors with circumstances on their side contribute sufficiently to helping society. That is why we have increased the supplementary charge on profits from oil and gas extraction in the North sea. That will fund the 1p cut in the fuel duty that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget and will delay the increase legislated for by Labour. As of
On VAT—this point was ignored entirely by the shadow Chief Secretary—it is remarkable that the shadow Chancellor still wants to talk about reducing VAT on fuel, which would take six or seven years to negotiate if it could be achieved at all. There is an easier way of cutting tax on fuel: it is by reducing fuel duty, and this Government have done it.
There are long-term proposals in the Bill dealing with annuitisation, the national employment savings trust and the taxation of pensions. At the other end of the scale, clause 40 introduces individual savings accounts for children, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced that support will be available for looked-after children through junior ISAs.
We are providing for a better environment. Clause 77 introduces a carbon price floor, which will provide the incentive for billions of pounds-worth of investment in cleaner sources of energy. The fact that we have ensured that the climate change levy maintains its real value adds to that incentive.
The Bill also helps to address other issues. The new duty on high-strength beers will help to tackle problem drinking by adding 25p to the price of a can of super-strength lager. That is coupled with a reduction in the duty on lower-strength beers to help to encourage the more responsible consumption of alcohol. I cannot promise my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell that there is anything in the Bill on draught beer, although we note his comments. I can only suggest that as he is dieting for his wedding, perhaps he should stay off the draught beer for another month or so. On behalf of the whole House, I wish him well. It is clearly the wedding of the year, and everyone will be looking forward to it.
We have set out to have a better tax system in the way that we make tax law, through a more deliberative and consultative approach, with greater emphasis on simplification. First, the corporate tax road map published last year set out changes to the regime. By introducing the changes to foreign branches and controlled foreign companies, the Bill takes the first steps alongside the corporate tax road map. Secondly, we published the majority of clauses in draft in the autumn. The Government have allowed proper time for better developed proposals and consultation. More than 200 responses were received on the draft clauses. Through the tax professionals forum which we set up, I received a large number of positive comments on our decision to consult.
The tax system needs to be simpler. Simplicity reduces the burdens on businesses—[Hon. Members: “Give way!”] Let me finish this point, then I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman. Simplicity reduces the burdens on businesses, individuals and HM Revenue and Customs. The Office of Tax Simplification set up last summer has already provided the first in a
series of recommendations, and the Bill takes forward the first of those recommendations by removing tax reliefs. We will introduce further abolitions next year, after a period of consultation.
The Bill sets out our objectives. We need a competitive tax system. We must respond to the needs of the British people, who are facing higher fuel prices. The Government have been able to respond. Most of the debate today has not been about the specific measures; it has been about the broad approach. The Government believe that the structural deficit needs to be eliminated by the end of the Parliament. That position has the support of the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the European Commission, the World Bank, the Governor of the Bank of England, Tony Blair, credit rating agencies, the leading bond traders, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and a host of business leaders.
It is the lonely position of the official Opposition to believe that the biggest problem facing the UK economy is that the Government are not borrowing enough, but what have we seen in recent weeks? We have seen the likes of Portugal, after its Parliament could not reach agreement on a credible deficit reduction package, having to seek a bail-out. We have seen credit rating downgrades for the likes of Portugal and the Republic of Ireland. We have seen long-term interest rates rising, and we have seen, in response to the situation across the world, President Obama setting out a deficit reduction plan that is faster than that proposed by the Government.
It is clear that this is no time to be complacent about the dangers to our economy from failing to reduce the deficit. To abandon our plans for fiscal consolidation, as advocated by the Opposition, would risk a credit rating downgrade. It would put at risk our long-term interest rates and even put us back in the danger zone of a sovereign debt crisis. Those are not risks that the Government are prepared to take. That is why, in the Budget and the Bill, the Government remain determined to stay on course. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Bill read a Second time.
(1) Clauses 4, 7, 10, 19, 35 and 72 be committed to a Committee of the whole House;
(2) the remainder of the Bill be committed to a Public Bill Committee; and
(3) when the provisions of the Bill considered by the Committee of the whole House and the Public Bill Committee have been reported to the House, the Bill be proceeded with as if it had been reported as a whole to the House from the Public Bill Committee.—(Mr Vara.)
That the Finance (No. 3) Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.—(Mr Vara.)