Public Expenditure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:09 pm on 18th February 1987.

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Photo of Mr David Howell Mr David Howell , Guildford 8:09 pm, 18th February 1987

I shall refer to some of the points made in the lengthy speech by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), but first I shall make a passing reference to the speech made by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), who led the debate for the Opposition. I must confess that I rather enjoyed some parts of the speech by the hon. Member for Dagenham. It was a light speech. Indeed, it was a souffle speech. It hardly touched upon the policy issues. Of course, we have heard that the speeches made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) were judged in some quarters—I think also by some of his hon. Friends — as a little like heavy pudding. There has been an extraordinary contrast between the diet of the hon. Member for Sparkbrook and what we were served up this afternoon. The matter has now gone the other way to ludicrous extremes. If it tells us nothing about Labour's policies, it tells us a great deal about what is going on in the inner circles of the Labour party.

There are two amendments on the Order Paper, one of which has been called, and the other one—to which I hope it will not be out of order to make a glancing reference—is in the names of various members of the SDP and the Liberal party. As I understand it, that amendment calls for a number of things, but ends by saying that it does not like tax cuts and wants to do other things. The official Opposition amendment takes a different line. They say—this theme has come through in a number of speeches, both inside and outside the House, from the Government's critics—that the present phase of expansion will be short-lived, is artificial, is concerned with vote winning, is unsustainable and will end in a major balance of payments crisis, and, indeed, that any tax cuts in the Budget will make matters worse.

It is interesting that the official Opposition critique of the Government's economic policy has changed. For a long time, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby will remember, the Keynesian economic establishment and the more moderate elements on the Labour Front Bench were critical of Government policy. They said that there could be no recovery under the policies of the Conservative Government. Now the answers have changed. So, like the Irish in the 19th century, they changed the question. Now they say, "There is a recovery, because we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that it is all around us" — the hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred to some aspects of it — "but it will not last, it cannot be sustained and, therefore, we are headed for the familiar pattern of overheating, rising inflation and a balance of payments crisis." In other words, the Opposition say that nothing in the British economy has altered.

I shall refer to the proposition about the sustainability of the present phase and its ingredients. It is by that proposition that we can judge the viability of the Government's public expenditure plans and the wisdom of choosing from tax cuts, public expenditure or reduced borrowing to help try to influence interest rates. The first point to be noted in answer to critics who say that it will all end in disaster, that it is temporary and artificial, is that the boom is not deficit-financed. It is not, as some economists say, comparable with the Barber boom or the Maudling boom, in which substantial and growing Government deficits were visible. Perhaps—here I move on to rather delicate ground; the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth) referred to this—the nearest comparison is the situation that existed in 1969 when the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins), brought forward a pattern of Budget strategy that led towards a balanced Budget.

The trend towards a balanced Budget set by my right hon. Friends will not lead to the same electoral result as happened in 1970. As a matter of fact, if it had not been for the Budget presented by the right hon. Member for Hillhead, the Labour defeat would have been much worse. In that sense, it was a positive electoral result. In many ways, the situation is more comparable with the right hon. Gentleman's style than with the talk of pre-election booms and so on that we hear from Opposition Members. The boom is not deficit-financed. On the contrary, we see the prospect of substantial undershooting of the PSBR.