Orders of the Day — Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:04 pm on 10th March 1999.

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Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee 7:04 pm, 10th March 1999

I am afraid not, as I have only 10 minutes in which to speak. Normally, I would love to give way to my colleague on the Public Accounts Committee, but not today.

That cocktail could burden our economy in much the same way that it did in the 1970s. The pressure on welfare, health and education spending means that the Government will be tempted to finance much of their capital expenditure through the private finance initiative. That method avoids large sums of capital expenditure having to be found and spreads the costs over the life of the project.

The PFI has many virtues—after all, it was a Conservative policy in the first instance. The private sector brings good management, innovation and enterprise to the provision of public services. Properly used, it is a good thing, but the temptation will be to provide public services and public service capital assets on the never-never. Just as someone who accumulates hire purchase payments carelessly loses control of his or her financial affairs, the Government could do the same. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Red Book shows that they are planning about £11 billion in PFI expenditure. Every time that the Government undertake a PFI project, they commit tomorrow's taxpayer's money. If that is done imprudently, it will shackle the hands of future Governments every bit as tightly as though they had borrowed billions of pounds. Just like unfunded pension liabilities, that could grow to be an intolerable burden on the nation's finances. It concerns me that we may have a Chancellor who is living for the moment and forgetting his responsibilities to future generations in that respect.

The Chancellor may be behaving responsibly—I simply do not know—but to prevent that scenario he must set an explicit limit on how much capital expenditure he finances on the never-never. If he does not do so, his golden rule on capital expenditure will be meaningless. Clearly, stealth taxation accompanied by covert debt mean that today's expenditure will be financed not merely out of tomorrow's pensions funds, which we all know about, but out of tomorrow's taxes. That would be irresponsible and improper, and I urge the Government to avoid it by having proper rules to govern that type of expenditure.

On the longer-term aspects of the financial package that make up the Budget, rather than the details that my hon. Friends mentioned, this year, because there has been a change, assumptions relating to the labour market have been audited by the National Audit Office.

Incidentally, I broadly welcome the measures for the employment of people aged 50 and above—not merely because that decade is facing me, but because those people are socially valuable. In many ways, I think that the measures will be more effective than some of those aimed at younger members of the work force. The 50-year-old-plus man or woman is a valuable member of society and could continue to give a great deal.

However, within the labour market issues and assumptions in the Budget, the largest reduction in expenditure over the Red Book period—about £9 million—results from lower social security payments. That reduction arises because last year, not this year, the Department of Social Security told the Treasury that its assumptions for social security expenditure looked pessimistic. Fewer people were claiming income support and the job seeker's allowance than had been expected and fewer people were turning up for interviews. Why? It is a result of the reforms that were initiated by the Conservative Secretary of State for Social Security in the previous Government. I will give this Government credit: where they have continued and toughened up those reforms, as they have occasionally done, they have reinforced that case.