I inform the House that I have selected for debate the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
I beg to move, as an amendment to the Address, at the end of the Question to add:—
"but regret that the Gracious Speech contains nothing that will reduce regulation, cut excessive bureaucracy or give the taxpayer value for money;
condemn the Treasury for sponsoring 70 new regulations per working day, for blocking real reform of public services and for the consequent failure to deliver cleaner hospitals, school discipline, controlled immigration, more police on the streets and a lower tax economy;
further regret that the Gracious Speech contains no measures to reverse the Chancellor's punitive taxation of pension funds and reductions in tax incentives to save which have contributed to cutting the savings ratio by one third whilst household debt now exceeds one trillion pounds;
are disturbed that more pensioners are means tested than ever before whilst 2 million pensioners live in poverty;
note that the Treasury's failure to provide taxpayer value and the waste of billions of pounds on unnecessary expenditure means that another round of stealth tax rises is inevitable under this Government;
and further deplore the fact that there are no measures in the Gracious Speech to reverse the Government's policy of high levels of regulation and taxation which have resulted in the UK slipping from fourth to eleventh in the international competitiveness league and having a lower GDP per head than Ireland.".
Before I begin discussing the main substance of today's debate, I want to make a few remarks about the Bills in the Queen's Speech relating to the economy. The Treasury's Bill on the merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise carries our general support, as the Chancellor is aware, although we remain concerned about its practical implementation. We are dealing with two organisations that have between them 250 legacy computer systems and some 13 million customers. It is no mean feat to put them together, and we will want to look at the details extremely carefully.
Before dealing with the Bills relating to the Department of Trade and Industry, I want to point out that the Queen's Speech does not include two Bills that might conceivably have been expected to be included.
One is the provision for real estate investment trust rights, and I hope that the Chancellor will confirm that clauses will be forthcoming to deal with the introduction of such rights either in the Finance Bill or by some other means. The Opposition believe that those new vehicles have a great deal to offer to our economy. We would want to ensure that the means by which they are introduced are not over-bureaucratic and restrictive, but we would want to support measures to introduce them into the capital markets.
Also notable by its absence—it was not present in the Queen's Speech—was any reference to a statistics Bill. I hope that the Government will draw up proposals to deal with the issues raised by the Statistics Commission about the transparency of national statistics. We shall produce proposals in that connection in the next few weeks and I hope that the House will have the opportunity to discuss and debate such matters during this Session.
In respect of Department of Trade and Industry legislation, the consumer credit Bill carries our general support. We are particularly keen to see some change in the extortionate credit test. As long as the Bill moves towards increasing transparency rather than imposing undue bureaucratic burdens, we will support its gist.
The equality Bill is in much the same position. The CBI, as the Chancellor will be aware, has warned that the new proposed commission for equality and human rights could too easily become too concerned with enforcement, too bureaucratic and not sufficiently concerned with promoting good practice. We will want to see whether those dangers are apparent in the Bill and we will want to debate the provisions in Committee.
I now turn to the main subject of today's debate. Tomorrow we will have an opportunity to see the Chancellor launch his personal election campaign with his customary brio and to discuss the very poor fiscal position that he is in. Today I want to take the opportunity to do something different and examine the Chancellor's economic record, which he is both pleased about and proud of. He frequently presents his economic record as being all for the best in the best of all possible worlds—[Interruption.] Government Front Benchers seem to be very happy about the situation. The Chancellor tells us that it will go on getting better for ever.
Yes, indeed. Under Labour, as the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position: that is the mythology perpetuated by the Chancellor. The hon. Gentleman says that it is true, so let me read him and Government Members an alternative viewpoint. In respect of the Chancellor, this view states:
"His economic inheritance in 1997 was better than that of any previous Chancellor in living memory."
I believe that the Chancellor once asked one of the Treasury officials whether he would like him to write a thank you letter for what had been done for the Chancellor before 1997. However, the person I am quoting continues:
"But there are limits to the length of time that public spending can increase at a faster rate than growth in GDP without causing problems. By the time I left Downing Street, Britain was approaching or had perhaps passed that limit. The regulatory burden had been increased, the tax system had become more complicated and the tax burden was rising too. Over the medium term, all this matters: it is easier for governments to mess up an economy than to improve it."
That was, as the Chancellor has recognised—
On the question of messing up economies, on
"We made the most dreadful mistakes . . . we spent too much money in 1990 and we did many other things of which we are deeply ashamed".—[Official Report,
Why should we expect anything better from the Conservatives next time?
The right hon. Gentleman has the uncanny knack of falling into the very trap that I am seeking to set for him. It is perfectly true that we are willing to admit it when things go wrong. The problem that I am about to illustrate is the fact that the Chancellor does not know how to do that.
The Chancellor is incapable of recognising that the inheritance we built up after the ERM fiasco—I admit that it was a fiasco—was the strongest inheritance that any Chancellor has had in living memory, as is attested by the Prime Minister's economic adviser. As that adviser points out, there is a question mark over the Chancellor's economic performance. Neither the right hon. Gentleman nor the Chancellor is very keen to admit it, so I shall go through the record.
It is fair to say that the Chancellor is especially proud of his record on stability. He speaks about stability on almost every available occasion. That record of stability has two aspects—fiscal and monetary. However, the remarkable fact about both those forms of stability is that they are due to the fact that the Chancellor has allowed someone else to set the policy. His fiscal stability, which is now running out—we will talk about that tomorrow—derives almost exclusively from the fact that for the first two years the Government's policy on spending was set by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke, the previous Chancellor, whose spending plans the Chancellor obeyed for two years. Had he not done so, he would not be within a million miles of adhering to his golden rule today. Indeed, he would be in the most terrible trouble.
Monetary stability is admirable, but again that is because the Chancellor has allowed someone else to run monetary policy—the Bank of England.
I personally never opposed the decision—[Hon. Members: "You did."] I did not. I was in favour of the decision from the beginning and I was part of the group of people who persuaded my party to adopt the position of being in favour of it. It was the right move. The point I am making about the decision, which the Chancellor is in no position to deny, is that the effect—
One does things out of party loyalty that one does not necessarily—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I have never personally opposed the decision. [Interruption.] I have been in favour of it—[Interruption.]
Order. It is very noisy. We must hear the right hon. Gentleman.
Fiscal stability has to do with obeying a set of fiscal rules, and the Chancellor would not have come close to obeying his fiscal rules had he not followed the policies of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe.
If we want to find the policies that the Chancellor himself has adopted—his policies—we have to look beneath the surface of the two forms of stability that have been created by other people. What do we see when we turn to the question of what the Chancellor himself has been responsible for? Let us take productivity.
No, I am going to continue for a while.
The Chancellor's pre-Budget report of 1998 said:
"Productivity . . . is a fundamental yardstick of economic performance."
Well, what has his record been on productivity growth? It has dropped by a third. The Chancellor shakes his head. Why does the Chancellor shake his head? It is because here we have a classic case of the manipulation of statistics by the Treasury and the contrast between the way in which the Treasury does business and the way in which the Office for National Statistics does business. The Treasury uses the so-called underlying trend rate of growth of productivity and it seeks to persuade itself that the productivity growth rate is reasonable. But the ONS, which is not in this respect governed entirely by Treasury diktats—thank God—produces a different series of actual productivity growth rates which show that they have dropped by a third.
The Deloitte UK productivity index—the latest figures—shows that productivity growth in the UK is now at its slowest for two and a half years and is below the EU average.
Let us turn to competitiveness. The Chancellor has frequently told us that his great vision, which he has been adumbrating in various newspapers recently, is to increase Britain's competitiveness—a very laudable ambition and one indeed that the 1997 Labour manifesto told us would be one of the Government's main hallmarks. It stated:
"We will build a new partnership with business to improve the competitiveness of British industry for the 21st century".
[Interruption.] The Chief Secretary comforts himself with the illusion that he has done some such thing, whereas in fact the Government have brought about a condition in our economy such that we have dropped from fourth to 11th in the international competitiveness league, we have record trade deficits and we have lost 790,000 manufacturing jobs. If that is competitiveness—
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generosity. Does he accept that his plans to slash the business support programme of the Department of Trade and Industry by £500 million would damage British competitiveness?
Absolutely not at all. The hon. Gentleman suffers from the most astonishing delusion if he believes that the Department of Trade and Industry is currently assisting British competitiveness. It is in fact the Department that has presided over the fall in our competitiveness. The DTI is causing extra costs for businesses through extra taxes and is producing astonishing little result. Our plans to reduce the bureaucracy of the DTI by four fifths will assist British business by reducing the tax on British business and by reducing the degree of unnecessary interference in British business, thereby promoting its interests—long overdue.
Let us turn to growth. The Chancellor is proud of his record on growth, too—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear".] Yes, his hon. Friends are very pleased about it, too, but they do not spend much time noticing that about six sevenths of the growth in the last quarter was due to the public sector. They do not do much comparison of our growth rates with countries that are growing fast. The Chancellor likes to compare us with the eurosclerotic zone; by those standards, he says, we are doing brilliantly. But what about the rest of the world? What about the other major English-speaking countries; how does our economic growth compare with theirs? It is slower than that in any other major English-speaking country. It is half the rate of growth in Ireland since 1997; our per capita income is now below that of Ireland. Why? Because in Ireland they have been following quite different economic policies from those of the Chancellor. They have gone for low regulation and low tax and have ended up with people investing in Ireland. The Chancellor has not achieved a similar growth rate because his policies were not designed to the same ends.
I can give the hon. Gentleman not three but thousands and thousands of examples. I will send him a very long list. My hon. Friends and I do not intend merely to cut regulation; we intend to cut the drivers of regulation. We intend to change the culture that creates regulation by cutting the bureaucracies that produce it. As the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about regulation and the question of what we shall abolish, he tempts me to move immediately to the very question of the Chancellor's statements about regulation—[Interruption.]
Order. The right hon. Gentleman is not giving way.
I was referring to the Chancellor's statements in the last pre-Budget report. He did not limit himself to three regulations. No, he said that he would abolish 147 regulations. Some interesting facts have come to light about those 147 regulations. The starting point of that interest is that the Chancellor was for once—I think it was unique—unduly modest.
Actually, when we got hold of the list it turned out that he was claiming to be abolishing 159.
I am sorry; the right hon. Gentleman has already intervened once and he did not do very well last time. I am not going to give him another go.
"Unfortunately, with one hand the PBR adds much more to the regulatory burden than it subtracts with the other . . . The PBR announcement of an enquiry into reforming or reviewing 147 different regulations was announced with optimism . . . the devil was . . . in the detail: only 25% of the 147 referred to tax and red tape issues."
In fact, the Ernst and Young team were pretty kind to the Chancellor, because when we asked parliamentary questions of the Treasury, the Treasury was able to name only one business measure in the 147, and when we checked on that measure, it turned out that it had already been announced in 2000 and again in 2002, and that it was not in the list of 147 or 159. So we asked—
No, I am not going to give way; I am going to continue this rather amusing sequence—amusing to me. So we asked the DTI, and for once we got a parliamentary answer from that Department. I do congratulate any DTI Minister who may see this set of remarks in Hansard on the fact that we got an answer—a very unusual thing to get from the DTI. And what did it tell us? It told us that there were six of the 147 or 159 that it would like to name. Unfortunately, five of the six were not in the list of 147 or 159. But one was—the Price Marking Order 2004. We went to look at it, and we got the regulatory impact assessment relating to it. What did it show? It showed very clearly that this measure increased the costs on business by £20 million; it did not reduce them at all.
If there is a problem about mentioning regulations that are for abolition, the problem lies with the Chancellor. From 1998 up to the end of 2003, the Government have passed 23,322 new regulations. I admit that in this one respect the motion is insufficiently generous to the Government, because that translates into 70 per week or 15 per working day, which is an increase of 53 per cent. on the figures for 1979 to 1996.
I will not give way for the moment; I intend to make progress.
The fact is that the Government have produced these dismal figures on productivity, competitiveness and growth in very large part because they have over-regulated our economy. They have overtaxed our economy, with 66 tax rises including many on business. The CBI, which has assessed the annual business tax bill at £54 billion in the year 2005-06 on current trends, points out that this is a rise of £7.6 billion from 1997, and adds that to the cost of the additional regulations to show that this Chancellor, who prides himself on being a friend of business, has actually added £15 billion a year of costs through extra regulation and extra tax on business.
There is somebody who is not one of the Prime Minister's advisers, and never was one of the Prime Minister's advisers, who had something to say about this problem of excessive tax and regulation on business. He said:
"An incompetent economy ends you up with higher taxes. A high tax economy is a low success economy".
That was not one of the Prime Minister's advisers; that was the Prime Minister, in 1994.
The fact is, of course, that the Chancellor does not like listening to the Prime Minister and he did not listen to him about that. This is the Chancellor who has imposed tax and regulation on business.
But it is not just by regulating and taxing that the Chancellor has undermined the foundations of our economy. The tale is even worse when it comes to savings and pensions. Next to the Chancellor sits the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and he prides himself no doubt on presiding over some kind of miracle of savings and pensions. That is not the view of Mr. Field, who very rightly pointed out that in 1997, just as we had the best inheritance of any Chancellor in living memory, we had the best system of savings and pensions in western Europe, and now, in the right hon. Gentleman's memorable phrase, we have "one of the worst".
Our savings ratio has dropped by a third; it is now half the EU average. We have a massive imbalance in the economy, with a low propensity to save and a high propensity to borrow, and about £1 trillion of household indebtedness. We all know what has happened. There is the £5 billion a year raid on the pension funds, there is the reduction of the tax advantages of saving in individual savings accounts compared with tax exempt special savings accounts and personal equity plans, and there is the vast expansion of means-testing, which has provided a huge disincentive to saving for people coming up to pensionable age—the three hammer-blows that the Chancellor administered to the already brittle glass of longevity and persistent low inflation. Finally—
No. The right hon. Gentleman is dying to speak and he will have an opportunity to do so.
The Chancellor has blocked every effort at radical reform of the public services to try to overcome the vast productivity gap there. He destroyed foundation hospitals. He destroyed them so much that he even led to the removal, by his own will, of the then Secretary of State for Health. What does the Chancellor do about this? He tries to deal with the figures rather than the facts. The broad fact is that we have had a 25 per cent. increase in spending on our hospitals in real terms, and only a 5 per cent. increase in the number of treatments or finished consultant episodes. And what happens as a result? The national statistician is called in, and he is asked to redo the productivity figures for the health service; and he calls in Sir Tony Atkinson. What does Sir Tony Atkinson do? He tries to create 10 different measures by which he could prove that the productivity of the national health service has not gone down. And what emerges as a result? On every one of the 10 measures, the productivity of the national health service is shown to have gone down.
So I return to my original question—what is the reality behind the myth? The reality is this. The stability that the Chancellor is so proud of is due exclusively to his allowing other people to determine his fiscal policy in the first two years and his monetary policy throughout. Underneath the stability, he has failed on productivity, failed on competitiveness—
Order. The right hon. Gentleman has indicated that he is not giving way. The Government Back Benches are far too noisy. [Interruption.] Order.
Order. This is a debate and I know what debates are like.
I am sure that Labour Members will have their opportunity to be less noisy and more coherent in due course, Mr. Speaker.
The Chancellor has failed—failed on productivity, failed on competitiveness, failed on growth. Why? Because he has over-regulated and overtaxed. Why? Because he is funding a vast and wasteful bureaucracy which will be the subject of tomorrow's statement and our debate following it, and he has destroyed or all but destroyed the savings culture in this country. The radical reform of public services has been blocked. He has presided not over the economic miracle that is his mythology, but over the gradual erosion of our economic fundamentals.
It is not just we who have noticed these things. Mr. Scott, to whom I referred at the beginning of my remarks, noticed them. The Prime Minister, whom I have quoted, has noticed them, and that is probably why we now have the bizarre situation of having two Chancellors—the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It is a sort of mediaeval joust, made even more bizarre by fact that the former Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who once reported to this Chancellor, now reports to the other Chancellor, and this Chancellor has to report to her as Minister for the Cabinet Office The message from No. 10 is clear: time's up, time to head to the Foreign Office—not a moment too soon for the British economy.
I will come to all of the shadow Chancellor's claims later in the debate, but is it not remarkable, in a debate about the economy, that he will not concede that we have the lowest inflation for 40 years, that we have the lowest interest rates for 40 years, that we have the highest ever recorded employment in our country's history, and that standards of living have been rising by over 3 per cent. a year—far higher than under the Major Administration?
I know that the shadow Chancellor may yearn for the good old days of the early 1990s—the good old days when we had 15 per cent. interest rates, the good old days when, under his economic advice, there were 3 million unemployed, the good old days when there were 1¼ million people with negative equity—but any comparison between the record of his Government and the record of ours shows us the facts. On inflation, consumer prices are averaging just 1.3 per cent. on the new index, 2.4 per cent. on the old index, contrasted with 6 per cent. average under the Conservative years. And inflation peaked at 21 per cent. under the party that he represents.
Interest rates have averaged 5.3 per cent. under Labour. They averaged more than 10 per cent. under the Conservative Government. The mortgage rate—what people have to pay to own their homes—has been 6.1 per cent. under Labour and 11.4 per cent. under the Conservatives. Debt has fallen to just under a third of GDP under Labour. It was 45 per cent. under the Conservatives. We are happy to draw a contrast between the Labour party and the Conservative party: we are the party of sustained growth; they are the party of the two worst recessions since the war.
The shadow Chancellor has the nerve to give the impression that the good record of the Labour Government exists because we adopted his policies. It is because we refused to adopt his policies that we have a good record. When we froze spending in the first two years of the Labour Government, the last Conservative Chancellor said that he would never have gone through with it.
As for the independence of the Bank of England, I hope that the shadow Chancellor will have the good grace to apologise to the House because on
"The new Labour Government is taking action which I believe is going to damage the future of this country."
That was not a party that wanted to give the impression, either in private or in public, that it supported the major decision on monetary policy that was taken by Labour.
I am glad that the shadow deregulation Minister has returned to the shadow Cabinet so that it has a more moderate image and looks more centrist, and therefore appeals to the middle ground. As recently as
"15 per cent. interest rates, sky-high mortgage arrears, negative equity, bankruptcies, entrepreneurs giving up the ghost on private-run companies and a lot of people losing their jobs. I don't think there was a family in the country that didn't experience at least one of those anguishes. My parents lost their jobs in the recession. A lot of my neighbours lost their houses".
That is the indictment of the Conservative party, and that is what would happen if it came back into power. I am happy to give way to the shadow deregulation Minister if he wishes to correct that.
First, I am sorry that the Chancellor misquoted what I said. I said that the effect on the stock market was as bad as in the 1920s—which it is, because it fell 20 per cent. Secondly, did the Chancellor support membership of the exchange rate mechanism, which led to the problems that this country experienced in the early 1990s?
Of course we supported membership of the ERM, but we did not choose the rate at which that Government joined it, and on which they could not deliver.
The shadow Chancellor tells us that this Government have a bad record on tax, regulation and productivity. Let us look at what the shadow Cabinet member responsible for deregulation has been telling the City. At the Techlocate conference in London on
"Businesses are reluctant to locate in places where: tax rates are high . . . Places like Ireland, the USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK attract because their tax rates for business are low."
So the shadow deregulation Minister does not describe the condition of the British economy as does the shadow Chancellor, who says that our tax rates are unacceptable, and has told an audience outside the House that tax rates are low.
The shadow deregulation Minister went on to say:
"The second most important consideration is a flexible and willing work force. The third issue is access to market and to supplies. The fourth issue is ease of doing business—do you feel happy there? . . . The UK's strong academic links around the world are an important part of our network" in finding jobs. Then he said:
"What are the most attractive locations today?"
The answer to the shadow Chancellor, who got his figures wrong on productivity and who imagines that every regulation damages business, although business often asks for things to be done, is, according to the shadow deregulation Minister:
"The lure of the USA; of China; of India; of the UK."
I am grateful to him, because he has given us a verdict on the Government that we will be able to use during the election campaign. It answers in substantial detail just about every point made by the shadow Chancellor, who claims that he is responsible for the good things that the Labour Government have done.
What of the next stage: the Queen's Speech itself, and our policies? The shadow Chancellor did not mention the child benefit Bill. It will enable the Government to extend financial support to trainees who are unwaged and to 19-year-olds completing a course of non-advanced educational training. That will remove the disincentives in financial support for young people to stay on in education while at work. With the growth of education maintenance allowances, it will help many of the 100,000 who do not stay in education and training. I hope that the Opposition will support the Bill, even though the right hon. Gentleman did not mention it.
That leads me to the difference between us and the Conservatives on the other issue of training, employment and opportunities for the future. Our policy is to expand the new deal so that there is a new deal for skills as well as for jobs. In the pre-Budget report tomorrow I shall announce measures that will enable more of the unemployed and those who are inactive, including incapacity benefit claimants, to get the skills to return to work.
Our policies have created 200,000 more jobs in the UK since a year ago. Two million more people are in work than in 1997—
The hon. Gentleman uses "public sector" as a term of abuse. There are 80,000 more nurses and 20,000 more doctors. Surely with its new policies, the Conservative party should welcome that. Does he not also realise that two thirds of the jobs have been created in the private sector, which he should support?
The unemployment rate—the claimant count—in the shadow Chancellor's constituency is 0.7 per cent. He might have been better off congratulating a Labour Government on the jobs that have been created. Unemployment in the shadow Chief Secretary's constituency is 1 per cent.—a reduction of 50 per cent. under the Labour Government. Is it not therefore an outrage that when all those things have been happening to get 2 million people into jobs, the Conservative party now wants to abolish the new deal?
The shadow Chancellor says that the new deal has been an expensive failure, yet 1.2 million people have been helped by it. He said:
"We have got to take painful cuts in the new deal"— which suggests that it might have been doing some good—
"to fund David Willetts' pension reforms."
Abolishing the new deal would cost money because the new deal for single parents, which, as an employment Minister, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was responsible for developing and is now responsible for taking further, saves £40 million a year by getting people off benefit and into work. Abolishing it is hardly a saving. Will not the shadow Chancellor take into account what the former shadow Chancellor said:
"It's not bad. It's based on programmes that we developed to put young people into jobs"?
"The programme has been effective in reducing long-term youth unemployment."
I hope he still agrees with that sentiment, and therefore agrees that to abolish the new deal would be a bad thing.
The Chancellor well knows that in attempting to run the Public Accounts Committee I try to rule by consensus, so we take a balanced view. If he is going to quote reports issued by the PAC, he should quote from the entire report. If he read the report, he would realise that we are prepared to see the good parts of the new deal, but we are also prepared to criticise it. We made a point of saying that the evidence was not clear as to how many real jobs the scheme had created.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, but it is a bad practice for the Chairman of a Committee to disown himself from a report. I was actually quoting what he said to the Lincolnshire Echo. I shall also quote what he said in The Birmingham Post, which shows that the Opposition are prepared to say things outside the House that they are not prepared to say inside it. The nearer they get to their constituencies, the nearer they get to some truth about what is happening. He stated:
"Clearly many young people have been helped by this programme and it has led to a fall in the overall level of long-term youth unemployment."
If that is not an acceptance on the part of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee of the importance of the new deal, I do not know what is.
Notwithstanding the fact that we are running up to a general election, we had hoped that we would have all-party consensus on the future of the new deal. It is unfortunate that both the Conservative party and the Liberal party, which is disowning the traditions of Lloyd George, who proposed a new deal to conquer unemployment, are opposing the new deal, which has done so much good.
The Chancellor has just illustrated the fact that the economy is pretty much at full capacity. Given that fact, is he concerned that our fiscal deficit is approaching £40 billion and our external current account deficit this year is likely to be in the order of £40 billion as well? Does he not feel that those imbalances present considerable risks for the future?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for sometimes saying things that his Front-Bench colleagues will not say. He claims that the fiscal deficit is £40 billion and suggests that the economy is running beyond capacity—[Hon. Members: "At capacity."] I am happy to correct myself—it is running at capacity. He must therefore be surprised that inflation is running at 1.2 per cent. Can he explain that?
I should have thought that the Chancellor understood that in a global economy, excess demand sucks in more imports rather than creates inflation. That has manifestly happened in the United States, whose deficit is relatively far larger than ours. The whole problem is that excess demand causes a massive external deficit.
The hon. Gentleman is basically claiming that the United States economy has precisely the same problems as the British economy. The Conservatives say that the European economy is doing badly; now the hon. Gentleman is trying to say that the British and American economies are doing badly. The fact is that we have had seven years of sustained growth, seven years of low inflation and seven years of rising employment. To put the former shadow Chief Secretary's mind at rest, let me quote his remark to "The World This Weekend", reported in the Financial Times of
"When you get something analogous to what happened in the later 1920s and early 1930s which, alas, is what is happening today, then the economic and political impact is potentially huge."
If that is not the former shadow Chief Secretary giving a hostage to fortune, I do not know what is. When the Conservative party was asked about his remark—the hon. Gentleman was still a Front Bencher when he made it—an official replied,
"Bear in mind his City background. He is a City expert giving his analysis."
Millions of voters in this country who have not yet decided whether to vote, and if they do, for which party, are tired of the tedium of the most tribal politics. Therefore, let me say straight away that I concede that the Chancellor was right and we were wrong about independence for the Bank of England; that was one of the best decisions that he has made. Does he, in turn, accept the verdict of a countless number of my constituents and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends that one of the worst decisions and most pernicious judgments that he has made was to tax the British pensions industry in such an underhand way, and to preside over a more than halving of the savings ratio? In that respect, a readiness to apologise and a display of just a modicum of humility on his part would be greatly appreciated.
Perhaps the curve will take him over the threshold. The savings ratio is 6.2 per cent. now; it fell to 4.5 per cent. in the late 1980s under a Conservative Government. The savings ratio is only 2 per cent. in the United States of America. The hon. Gentleman should check all his facts carefully before he intervenes, but as he has so few opportunities to speak for the Conservative party these days, I shall give way to him again.
The savings ratio reflects the cycle; it reflects the point at which the economic cycle is. If the United States' savings ratio is 2 per cent. and ours is 6 per cent., what conclusions does the hon. Gentleman draw? [Hon. Members: "Give us the figure."] The figure now is 6.2 per cent. and rising, and it fell to 4.5 per cent. under a Conservative Government. I am sure that Mr. Bercow does not want me to repeat to the House what he said about the international development budget just before he resigned from the Conservative Front-Bench team. The Conservatives never want to talk about international development, but let me remind the House that he said that a cut in the overseas development budget was completely unacceptable. I suspect that that is one of the reasons why he is now on the Back Benches. Perhaps the shadow Chancellor should think again about the international development budget.
Does my right hon. Friend recall, as I do, that in the heat of battle during the 2001 election campaign, Mr. Letwin was shut away in mysterious circumstances after he revealed rather too much about Conservative plans to cut expenditure? Will he share with the House how those plans have developed, and what he thinks the implications of the immediate £20 billion cut would be?
I was going to discuss fiscal policy. As set out in the spending review, total managed expenditure is to rise from £486 billion this year to £576 billion in 2007–08. In each year we will be able to invest more than in the last, and meet all our fiscal disciplines. We shall continue to meet those commitments, and all emergencies, while meeting our fiscal rules.
I wish to express the gratitude of the whole House to the armed forces for their work, especially in the most recent period. The budget for the Ministry of Defence and for our armed forces, on whom the defence of our country depends, is to rise from £29.7 billion to £33.4 billion by 2007–08. I confirm that we have provided £4.4 billion to meet the extra costs of military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and of meeting international obligations. I am setting aside in the special reserve a further £520 million for this year, raising the overall provision to almost £5 billion. At the same time we shall be vigilant, not only about what we do to help our armed forces, but about security at home.
Not at the moment.
Turning to the international development budget, during our G8 presidency the needs of Africa, development and delivering the Doha development round will be our focus. In the documents of the pre-Budget report issued tomorrow, the Secretary of State for International Development and I will set out our proposals for ensuring through our proposed new international finance facility that Africa and poor countries have the resources they need to fund education, health and anti-poverty programmes, and that the millennium development goals are met. We shall set out proposals for 100 per cent. multilateral debt relief from international institutions, which could complete the process of debt relief for the 37 poorest countries and could be extended to other poor countries as well. In next year's G8 discussions, we shall ask all countries to support our proposed international finance facility. So far 40 countries have done so, and this week Italy announced its support.
Funds for health are a priority of the new international finance facility to promote treatments and cures for HIV-AIDS, and it is appropriate that this is world AIDS day. To promote treatments, we have allocated in the spending review, in each of the next three years, £450 million, £500 million and £550 million. That is over the three years of the spending period. We will allocate £1.5 billion to tackle this scourge. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and I are today issuing new proposals on the basis of research showing that for every year we bring forward the discovery of an AIDS vaccine, we save 2 million lives that would otherwise be lost. We commit the British Government to push forward the decisions that have been made before to establish a new global AIDS vaccine enterprise and infrastructure for co-ordinating internationally an exchange of research into AIDS.
As with our offer for malaria vaccines last week, we will also be willing to join other countries to explore how to increase investment in AIDS research and how to develop a jointly agreed advance purchase scheme to make new HIV vaccines accessible to Africa and meet our millennium development targets on health. I hope that I can have all-party support in the House for these proposals that we will put to the G8.
As the Chancellor knows, the international finance facility has cross-party support.
To return to the point that the right hon. Gentleman was making about Ministry of Defence budgets, and as he was using this opportunity to convey some information to the House, may I ask him for clarification? When he said, if I caught him correctly, that £520 million would be set aside, did he mean that that would be done from the contingency reserve, or was that to be added to total managed expenditure?
My right hon. Friend made an appeal for cross-party support on aspects of international development. Does he agree that the standing of the House and of politicians would be greater if all parties endorsed his objective in reaching a target of 0.7 per cent. of GDP, which is universally supported?
My right hon. Friend has taken a huge interest in these matters over time. I am grateful to the shadow Chancellor for his support for the international finance facility. I am grateful particularly to Lord Griffiths, on the part of the Conservative party, who has been pushing forward the proposal internationally and working closely with us. I hope that over time all political parties in the House will come to accept that to meet the 0.7 per cent. target, with a timetable for doing so, is the best way forward. In my view, it is certainly the best way forward for Britain as we try to persuade the rest of the world, including all countries of the G7, to support further development aid.
We hope that during the course of next year, in the year when we are the president of the G8, we will make substantial progress on debt relief, on more funds for health, for the global health fund in particular, and on the IMF. I should add that we hope that by the end of next year we shall have the conclusion of the Doha trade development round—a round specifically in the interests of the poorest countries of the world.
The Liberal party has been making commitment after commitment on spending over the past few months. I believe that I have a duty to remind the Liberal shadow Chancellor, notwithstanding the fact that hardly any of his colleagues are in the Chamber, of the promise that he made on
"Our broad vision of public finances is that the overall proportion of national income the Government spends is currently roughly right—and we would not intend to change it significantly in the medium term"— that is, 41 per cent. of GDP at the time that the hon. Gentleman made that proposal. Presumably he would be cutting public expenditure this year.
If the hon. Gentleman wants public spending at 41 per cent. of GDP, or wants to give the impression that this is a decision that he is making over the cycle, perhaps he should have said that. That is not what he said and it is not what the leader of the Liberal party said on the same day, which was about the need to
"broadly stabilise the ratio between public spending and the size of the economy."
Oh, just a few billion here and there. The usual Liberal policy.
We are owed some precision from the Liberal party on these matters in this debate. If it is going into the election giving the impression that 41 per cent. is the correct figure, it will have to be honest with the electorate that it would be cutting public spending. At the same time, I look at all the proposals that have been put forward by the Liberal party—abolishing tuition fees, introducing maintenance grants, introducing free long-term care, introducing 10,000 more police officers, cutting council tax bills, extending off-peak travel—
The hon. Gentleman is saying "Hear, hear".
The list adds up to more than £10 billion. That is money that the hon. Gentleman cannot afford if he would freeze public expenditure. The money that we had last year has risen. As everybody knows, it has been rising this year and it will rise next year and the year after. Only last week, in the Queen's Speech debate, the Liberal environment spokesman, Norman Baker, said that he wanted more funding, and he regretted the fact that the Government had not provided it. He said that the Liberals would allocate Government money for endangered species— yet another example of Liberal party expenditure. That is like the Liberal shadow Chancellor.
I am happy to do so if the hon. Gentleman can clarify the matter. If he is setting public expenditure at 41 per cent. and at the same time he wishes to spend at least £10 billion more, what is the message going out to Liberal candidates? They cannot go round the country saying that they support more spending when they are outside Westminster, when the hon. Gentleman's rule is that spending would have to be cut. This is not a question of Liberal party policy nationally being that there should be more spending, it is a question of cutting the share of public spending in the national income. I hope that I can give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to clarify that.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so. The Chancellor is absolutely right that we have a set of spending commitments that amount in total to about £10 billion a year. Half that would be generated by the higher rate of tax. As someone who has argued in favour of social justice over the years, surely the right hon. Gentleman would be in favour of that. That is 50 per cent. tax on earnings over £100,000. The other £5 billion a year comes from cutting other elements of public spending, which undoubtedly include some of the things that the right hon. Gentleman believes in passionately, like the Department of Trade and Industry and the baby bond scheme. However, we would cut them to finance priority spending.
That is extremely illuminating. The hon. Gentleman will cut public expenditure by £5 billion. I think that he owes the House and the country an explanation of where these cuts will be made. He is also saying that he will increase public expenditure by £5 billion through a tax change. Yet at the same time he says that the share of public spending in national income will fall. I suggest to the House that his figures do not add up in any way. He is claiming that he will spend less, while in every part of the country the Liberals are committing their party to spend more.
Then we come to the issue of Gershon. To endorse the principles of the Gershon review, the hon. Gentleman said in his alternative budget that the Liberals
"would bank the long-term savings made as a reduction of the deficit."
There is £20 billion also. He would use the Gershon savings to cut the deficit. We have already written in these savings in our public spending figures. The hon. Gentleman is promising the country another £20 billion of cuts that he cannot deliver. It is about time Liberal Members went back to their constituencies and thought again.
I now come to the Conservative party's plans for public expenditure.
The right hon. Gentleman said one Sunday that, over a six-year period, he would provide the ability for us to spend about £35 billion less per year
"in the six years that Gordon Brown's spending plans provide for."
These are the figures. There are cuts of £6 billion in the first year, £14 billion in the second year, £19 billion in the third year, £24 billion in the fourth year, £29 billion in the fifth year and £35 billion in the sixth year. On top of that, the right hon. Gentleman must find additional money. He has allowed his shadow Cabinet colleagues to get out of control. He has allowed them to promise spending commitments all over the place that he has no way of funding.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he has to find money to fund 40,000 extra police officers? He would have to find money to fund 20,000 extra prison places. He wants to link the basic state pension to earnings. He would have to afford that over a period. There would be a tenfold increase in drugs rehabilitation places. Only this week there was a new £200 million spending commitment on schools. There is also a national parenting scheme, 20,000 extra special constables, a 15,000 increase in social housing, 10,000 student bursaries, offshore processing and detention centres. I could go through the whole list of spending commitments.
When Lady Thatcher was Leader of the Conservative party in the 1970s and was facing the 1979 election, her policy was not to make any spending commitments. However, the shadow Chancellor is not only promising to cut public spending with a headline figure of £35 billion but has to find another £15 billion to pay for the spending commitments that he has allowed his shadow Cabinet colleagues to make. There is a gap between the Conservative party's spending commitments and the real world, and it must find £50 billion of cuts, which cannot be achieved by savings on paper clips in the civil and public services.
The right hon. Gentleman tells us that those cuts can be achieved by efficiency savings throughout the civil service, but that £50 billion is not the only sum that he has to find—he must also account for the £20 billion of Gershon savings. If a Conservative Administration were in power tomorrow, they would be looking for a total of £70 billion of efficiency savings. That is the state of play for the Conservative party. I am happy, if he wishes, to allow him to correct the figure of £50 billion of efficiency savings plus the Gershon savings that would have to be accounted for if he were in government tomorrow.
I thank the Chancellor for allowing me to intervene at last.
I shall not respond to any of that garbage, as I would be surprised if the Chancellor could really delude himself that any rational being would listen to such stuff. I shall do something else, and defend the Liberal Democrats. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] If Government Members will contain themselves, the Liberal Democrats are my principal opponents in my constituency, and I do not believe that British politics benefits from the kind of rubbish of which the Chancellor was accusing them. Dr. Cable is a perfectly rational individual and made a perfectly rational proposition with which, however, I disagree. It is rational to disagree that we should have public spending broadly at its present level across the cycle. The Chancellor knows perfectly well that the Noddy arithmetic that he was using for the Liberal Democrat proposals is no better than the Noddy arithmetic that he was using for our proposals, and it is no way to conduct British politics.
If the shadow Chancellor had said that my figures were wrong and could prove that they were, I might have had some respect for what he has just said. However, he said on "Breakfast with Frost" on Sunday that he would find £35 billion of savings. Does he deny that? Of course, he does not. [Interruption.] He says that it is beneath contempt to point out exactly what he said on "Breakfast with Frost" on Sunday. However, he said that he wanted £35 billion of savings. He must also find another £15 billion, because other Conservative Front Benchers have made commitments worth £15 billion. If he is going to find that sum, as he keeps telling us on the radio and elsewhere, through efficiency savings, he must deal with a point made by Sir Peter Gershon, who said:
"It is important that the drive for efficiency should not put at risk the delivery of public services, and a target in excess of 2.5 per cent. is likely to present such a risk."
Let me tell the House what savings of £50 billion would mean. If the right hon. Gentleman froze civil service recruitment, as he plans to do, he would gain £250 million a year. In other words, he would get 0.5 per cent. of the savings that he claims that he needs. If he halved the civil service by sacking half its members tomorrow and getting rid of prison officers, probation officers, security officers, customs officers and people guarding our ports and coastguards, he would save less than £6 billion of the £50 billion that he needs to save. If he sacked every civil servant in the land—dismissed the whole domestic civil service—he would get only about £10 billion or £12 billion, so he would still be £38 billion short of the target that he is trying to reach.
The fact of the mater is that the shadow Chancellor is going round every television and radio studio saying that he will make £35 billion of cuts and that there are £15 billion of commitments by his shadow Cabinet colleagues. He says that he will find that sum without affecting the quality of services such as health and education by cutting bureaucracy and waste. However, if he sacked every civil servant in the country, including prison officers and probation officers, he would only find £10 billion of the £50 billion, which exposes the hollowness of the Conservative campaign.
Why does the right hon. Gentleman not tell the country the truth, and admit that he wants to cut services, not just bureaucracy? Why is he not honest and say that he has always believed in cutting the national health service, charging and privatisation? Why does he not say that privatisation, rather than the development of public services, is the goal of Conservative shadow Ministers? Why does he not tell the truth and say that he has always wanted to cut public expenditure to 35 per cent. of national income, which he said consistently until he became shadow Chancellor? Why does he not admit that that is the view of the Leader of the Opposition, who has also committed himself to massive cuts? Why do they not admit that what they really want to do is cut the number of teachers, nurses, doctors, home helps and carers? The issues that we should consider in our debate on the Queen's Speech are, first, stability under Labour against a party that cannot even be honest about its monetary policy, and, secondly, investment under the Labour Government against massive cuts under the Conservatives. I believe that, when we come to the general election, the country will deliver its verdict by supporting us.
We support the practical measures on the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise in the Queen's Speech. I am glad that the Government have noted the concerns that I have long expressed about consumer debt, which is to be dealt with in limited but useful legislation that we will support. I also support the sensible suggestion of Mr. Letwin about introducing legislation on the independence of the statistical service. A key theme over the next few days will be the integrity of Government figures, so such legislation would be a useful building block.
It was clear from his speech that the Chancellor has not listened to the advice from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and our man in Brussels to stop boasting about the Government's economic record. However, I am rather on the side of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because the Government have very little to boast about, and almost all that there is of positive note is on the economic side, so his points about economic stability were fair, as I have always acknowledged.
As for basic economic growth over the past seven years, the British economy has averaged about 2.8 per cent. a year, a little above the average for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Some European countries such as Sweden and Spain are doing better, as is the United States, but we have a perfectly commendable growth rate which—there is no point denying the underlying facts—is the product of a combination of fortunate external circumstances and a favourable international economic environment. The Chancellor has also enjoyed a helpful inheritance, including liberalised labour and financial markets, which have contributed to low inflation. Another helpful factor is sensible economic management—notably monetary policy, the independence of which, we all now accept, was a good move.
The Chancellor began by focusing on fiscal policy, and I am happy to respond to the challenge that he threw down. He obviously finds it psychologically difficult to adjust to an environment in which the Liberal Democrats are more disciplined about public spending than he is, but we shall continue to argue the case for making tough choices in public spending. The Chancellor asked me to account for our spending proposals, but it would be useful if he could elaborate on the progress of the Gershon savings exercise. How will he report on that progress? It has never been clear how we would know whether the Gershon savings had been realised and there are some opaque memorandums flying around Whitehall on implementing the recommendations. Will the Chancellor therefore undertake to set out concretely how much money is being saved under the Gershon programme year by year? What progress, for example, is he making in reducing the number of procurement agencies? We need to evaluate those concrete steps to be sure that the Government are serious about making savings. Whatever their motivation, we need a proper monitoring mechanism.
On fiscal policy, the Chancellor will have to acknowledge over the next few days that there is a growing consensus that he has a problem in meeting his fiscal objectives. It is not a political point. The International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research are not politically driven bodies, but they are all arguing that he faces that problem. It may not be a big problem quantitatively—£7 billion, £8 billion or £10 billion is a very large sum to most individuals, but in terms of the economy it is not a very large sum. That is the standard consensus projection of the extent to which the Chancellor will be adrift in respect of his fiscal policy objectives.
My concern is not the sum of money. Economically, it is not large and could easily be absorbed in the Government's overall borrowing requirements, since the debt position is comfortable. The issue is credibility—fundamental economic credibility. If the Government set tests, they should be able to meet them. The Government clearly understood from the outset that economic credibility was important. Indeed, this year the Nobel prize went to a couple of economists who spoke about the importance of economic credibility. Credibility was what lay behind the decision to establish the Monetary Policy Committee, and it has enhanced the credibility of interest rate setting enormously.
There is a problem, however, with the way the Government have approached fiscal policy. They set fiscal rules, which are broadly sensible, and more or less followed them, but there is a question about who decides whether those fiscal rules have been met. Will that be determined independently or by the Government? The golden rule is a highly technical area. Even for anoraks, it is a recondite subject. There are a couple of specific issues. First, who evaluates the assumptions that the Government make in their forward projections? At present, the Government invite the National Audit Office, on a restricted basis, to examine those assumptions and pass judgment on them. That is sensible, but the NAO does not have unrestricted access to evaluate the Government's assumptions, and it should.
The second aspect that is defective is who decides what the golden rule is and whether it has been met. That is a technical point but it is extremely important. Who decides when the cycle started and when it ends? That is a difficult question. In my private sector days, I was once set the problem by my company. If the company had known the answer, it would have saved a lot of money in investing in refineries and chemical plants.
Somebody must answer the question, and it should not be the Chancellor, but a genuinely independent body. That is why we argue that the National Audit Office should have an enhanced role—economically and technically, it has competent staff—to evaluate the full range of fiscal policy and give an independent judgment on which the Government can then base a credible fiscal policy. There is no party political advantage in arguing for such a structure. It would be in the Government's interest to have a fully credible fiscal policy, which they do not have at present.
As a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, I know that the NAO has to borrow civil servants to do its calculations. It would probably have to borrow civil servants from the Treasury to fulfil the role that the hon. Gentleman is setting out for it. Is he saying that there are civil servants in the Treasury who have been falsifying the figures, or that the credibility problem, as he calls it, is that people do not believe the figures because they come from the Treasury? What difference would it make to transfer people who currently do that work in the Treasury to do it at the NAO?
Nobody is suggesting that anybody is falsifying figures, but if the hon. Lady sat on the Public Accounts Committee, surely she understands the difference between a Government Department and a body that is directly accountable to Parliament. That is the fundamental distinction that gives the NAO credibility.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about this, as about the statistics. In a few weeks, we shall publish proposals and, I am glad to say, we shall probably have cross-party agreement. If we could just get the third party, Labour, to agree, we could have a credible system of fiscal discipline for the foreseeable future.
That was a helpful intervention and I shall bank it for future reference.
On the wider question of economic policy, we have discussed the rate of economic growth, which is respectable. It would help, though, if instead of looking back, we looked forward. Any honest assessment of the future must be based on the fact that the Government will face economic challenges that will make economic management much more difficult. Some of them are external and the Government have little control over them. It is still possible that we could be hit by a major oil shock. The Saudi Oil Minister was in London yesterday arguing that something of the order of $15 a barrel is still being paid, on account of the political risk arising from the war and enhanced terrorism risk in the middle east. The oil price could get a good deal worse, but it is not a factor that the Government can control.
A second challenge that is looming is the problem presented by the collapsing dollar. I could make the point that sterling is now higher than at any time since the days of black Monday, but it is not a domestic issue. It relates to the United States. The American currency is collapsing, at least in part because of fiscal irresponsibility caused by a tax-cutting agenda on which, I fear, we differ substantially from the Conservatives. It has had disastrous consequences in the US and it will have a major impact on this country.
We also have a home-grown problem, which is the problem associated with personal debt, and the linked problem of boom and bust in the housing market. Some revealing figures on personal debt were produced in the past couple of days. People who retire are facing mortgage repayments into retirement—40 per cent. of all mortgage holders face repayments into their retirement, which is twice the level 10 years ago. People are literally paying till they drop because of their mortgage liabilities.
On the position in the housing market, I have no views—it is not sensible for politicians to have a view on whether it is good for house prices to rise or fall. What is serious is that we have a boom-and-bust environment. Within the past few weeks, we have seen growing evidence of a very substantial collapse in lending and in equity withdrawal, which almost certainly, according to analysis by the Bank of England, will have major economic consequences. I do not raise the matter simply as a problem. It would be helpful if the Government thought through some of the steps that they could take to alleviate the problem. I shall make a few suggestions.
The Bank of England quarterly bulletin is full of articles describing the difficulties in detail. Why has the Bank of England taken on the job of setting interest rates in relation to the housing market? As the Governor has made abundantly clear, he is alarmed at the possibilities that will arise. There are certain things that the Government could sensibly do to alleviate the problem.
The first is to ensure that we have a price index that reflects the housing market. At present we do not. I understand that the Treasury is working with EUROSTAT to establish a new index that will fully incorporate the price of housing. It would be helpful if the Government would say whether they intend to adopt it and when. That would enable the Bank of England to take house prices much more explicitly and clearly into account.
Another problem relates to credit insurance. One way of stopping hundreds of thousands of people facing the disasters that people experienced in the early 1990s would be to ensure that their mortgage payments and credit payments were insured. If the Chancellor had studied the problem and thought about it, he would know that the mortgage insurance market in this country is unsatisfactory. It is expensive and defective. I hope that he can take some initiative to ensure that the competition authorities look at it.
Can the hon. Gentleman explain how his party's policies on removing the UK's only property tax and increasing the tax rate on those who are generally paying for houses would help to bring about a more sensible housing market?
Analysis shows that it would make little difference. We would do that to introduce a much fairer tax system in which local taxation is related to people's ability to pay. One-off effects may occur as a result of removing a property tax, but in the long run it should make no difference to the problem that I am describing.
Long-term growth and the factors that drive it is the third issue that I want to raise. I sympathise with the views expressed by the Conservative spokesman about the Government's remarkable optimism that their intervention in promoting innovation and growth will produce consequences. One of the reasons I am sceptical about pouring large amounts of money into the Department of Trade and Industry, which does some useful things, is my extreme scepticism about the extent to which that can drive economic growth.
Scientific research is clearly a Government responsibility: the market will never do it, but it is clearly a public good. That is why I am in favour of, among other things, bee research, which the Chancellor and the Prime Minister found so surprising and amusing. Research is clearly desirable and the Government should fund it. It is, however, another thing to argue that private companies, many of which would invest anyway, should be subsidised to do so, when they can raise money in venture capital markets and from charitable bodies such as the Wellcome Trust. The market enables growing companies to function without large-scale funding from the DTI, and I am sceptical about the role that the Government are playing in driving economic growth.
The other area of scepticism relates to the complexity of Government regulation. The Chancellor has a view, with which I happen to disagree, that somehow or other the Government can fundamentally change how business behaves and operates. The classic example of that is the belief that the Government have invested in research and development tax credits. R and D tax credits are a superficially attractive idea—"R and D is a good thing. Let's give them a big tax credit to support it."
All the research done in the past two years shows that R and D tax credits have made no difference to the level of research and development, because most private companies were doing it anyway and the policy has a large associated dead-weight cost. I am not suggesting that we should simply stop that tax credit, but we must evaluate its consequences. The belief that tweaking the tax system and adding great complexity somehow or other changes business behaviour and increases investment, innovation and growth is fundamentally flawed.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he would keep the tax credit, despite the fact that he thinks that it does not work, or is he saying that he would get rid of it? Will he get on to other Liberal Democrat tax and spending plans, because some hon. Members are interested in hearing them?
As I have said, any sensible Government of any party would evaluate the effects of policy before rushing in to change them. The research and development tax credit is a good example—we need to be guided by experience. If it works, we would judge it more sympathetically.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about the dangers of tinkering and meddling with the tax system, which the Chancellor is guilty of. Will he take one step further? Does he agree that tinkering and meddling not only fails to achieve end results, but distorts business behaviour, often in an unproductive way?
Yes. The hon. Gentleman is right. This morning, the Financial Times published a letter supplied by the Treasury, which makes the opposite point from the one that it was intended to make. It was published to highlight the horrors of tax avoidance and the iniquity of tax avoidance lawyers and states:
"As the government regularly changes the rules of the tax game, you need to be very vigilant. You have to check continuously to see you're still getting the best from your company".
That underlines the point that, if tax policy constantly changes, business behaviour is affected in order simply to skim the tax system.
The hon. Gentleman has sought to disparage the R and D tax credit and has assumed that companies that receive it would have invested anyway and remained in Britain. However, the market in a number of areas is international, both for business and for tax and rewards. A number of companies have invested considerable sums in Canada, where Liberal Governments have provided the kind of R and D tax assistance that the hon. Gentleman disparages in the United Kingdom.
If I were representing a company in front of the Treasury Committee, that is exactly what I would say. Why look a gift horse in the mouth? We have made the point that a good deal more clarity is needed about the benefits that derive from complex tax breaks, as opposed to a much simpler policy of moderate rates of business taxation.
My final point is rather different and relates to an issue, inequality, on which I probably share much more common ground with the Chancellor than do the Conservatives. One thing that has emerged from the statistics, which are somewhat unsatisfactory, is that, despite the Chancellor's undoubted commitment to that issue, income and wealth inequality in the UK are not very different—in some respects, they are even worse—than they were in the days of Mrs. Thatcher. There are several reasons why, some of which involve the workings of global markets, and some of which involve the workings of the tax system.
If we have a tax system in which the top 20 per cent. pay a lower percentage of their income than the bottom 20 per cent. of the population, it is clearly not working to alleviate the problems of inequality. A few months ago, a Labour Back Bencher tried to defend the highly regressive system of council tax. One of our criticisms of the possibly well-intentioned measures that the Chancellor has introduced on tax credits is that tax credits perversely aggravate the problem.
If the hon. Gentleman is in favour of increasing equality, why does his party oppose the new deal for lone parents, the pension credit and the child trust fund, which are three of the measures that do the most to help women and provide them with equality in modern Britain?
We have suggested that a better way in which to deal with the position of older pensioners would be to give them a decent, basic old age pension rather than a pension credit. One of the reasons for that, which we have debated extensively, is the fact that large numbers of pensioners do not claim pension credit. More seriously, those pensioners who claim face a very high marginal rate of tax—40 per cent. of them pay more than half their marginal income in tax as a result of benefit withdrawal. The system is so pernicious because it is a massive disincentive to save. It does not solve the problem of inequality.
In conclusion, the Chancellor has let it be known in the press over the past few days that he wants to present himself, his Government and his Budget with a flavour of Britishness. Economic policy will gain a patriotic element, which I appreciate because we all like to feel that we are patriotic rather than nationalistic. Under this Government, however, we have finished up with American levels of inequality, French levels of centralisation and, if the Home Secretary has his way, we will get Chinese levels of civil liberties.
I congratulate the shadow Chancellor below the Gangway, Dr. Cable, on a thoughtful speech. However, his political education would prosper if he read the minutes of the Treasury Committee on both the DTI—the regional development agencies say that it would be a disaster for them if it were taken away—and the R and D tax credit, which, as my hon. Friend Mr. O'Neill said, is essential to attract large multinational companies in an international competitive environment.
This debate is an important opportunity to assess the state of the economy and the public finances, which the Treasury Committee will do over the next few weeks when the Chancellor gives his pre-Budget report and appears before the Committee.
The Committee is interested in two areas: first, the state of the economy and the prospects for growth; and, secondly, the state of the public finances. As we mentioned in our report last year on the autumn PBR, the IMF has stated that the UK's economic performance is enviable, but there are fresh challenges in relation to growth. As we know, the Monetary Policy Committee has raised interest rates on a number of occasions to the record rate of 4.75 per cent. Some would say that the housing market has gone off the boil, which would have implications for the economy. The risks to the UK economy are largely international, with oil prices at $50 a barrel or so, the implications of the USA's current account deficit for the global economy and the sluggish growth in European countries.
One of the issues that the Treasury Committee will consider with the Chancellor is how to improve productivity. That has been a centrepiece of the Treasury's aspirations, and it is a challenge to all European economies. When the Chancellor comes before us on
On developing countries and how we try to marry up social justice and economic stability, is my right hon. Friend aware of the early-day motion in aid of Band Aid 20, in which we support the Band Aid single? The Chancellor has allowed the VAT on that single to be donated to the charity. Woolworths is donating all its proceeds from the single to the charity, and Asda phoned me this afternoon to say that it will do likewise.
I signed that EDM, and that is very welcome news. I have an Asda store in my local community, so first thing on Saturday morning I will be in there buying a Band Aid single. I congratulate Woolworths and Asda and ask other retailers to follow their example.
There are several sobering statistics for us as regards developing countries. Within 20 years, half the world's manufacturing exports could come from those countries. Already, China is exporting more than France, Italy and the United Kingdom. Indeed, Asia is exporting as much as the European area. We can learn a lot from what is happening in those countries in terms of the need for us to develop our skills in the knowledge economy. We pride ourselves on the information technology graduates who come out of our universities, but India and China are producing 125,000 computer science graduates compared with 5,000 in the UK. The question for us is how to embrace that change and get involved in it.
Currently, only 1 per cent. of UK exports go to India and China; we need to increase that proportion. In January, the Government are promoting the year of science in China—Lord Sainsbury is going out there—and in December there is a UK financial dialogue taking place with China. I welcome those steps. However, we need progressive policies on science and skills. As a chemistry graduate, I am very sad that Essex university is closing its chemistry department—[Hon. Members: "Exeter."] I meant Exeter university. At a time when the number of science, technology and engineering university applications is falling, we need to do more to encourage those subjects.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share our worry that unincorporated firms are specifically excluded from R and D support? That restraint is a particular concern for unincorporated enterprises that operate in universities. Has his Committee considered that, and if so what were its conclusions?
We took evidence from several vice-principals for a regional productivity report, and they made that point. We will examine that with the Chancellor when he comes before us, as it is a live issue.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this morning the Select Committee on Science and Technology took evidence from the Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainsbury, and was told of a letter sent from the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, with whom they are trying to work? It is a serious matter that chemistry departments are being closed, not only in Exeter but across the country. The Government cannot have it both ways, because that is against the interests not only of academic research but of the long-term sustainability of British industry and competitiveness.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is an important issue for the Chancellor, and we need a whole-Government response to it. The number of applicants is going down, and we have to tackle that if we want to challenge India and China and to work alongside them.
I want to say a few words about Europe. A couple of weeks ago, I attended the EU's budget committee for member states. Several issues arose, including that of the European budget itself. I asked what the EU's policy priorities were for 2005, making the point that good budgetary practice calls for reprioritisation when new needs arise and wondering whether certain of our activities should be reduced to make way for new ones. I did not receive very satisfactory responses. We know that the EU auditors have not signed off the books, so it is very important for the UK Government to look at the EU budget to ensure that it is spent wisely on the right things.
The EU needs to take action externally in two areas. First, despite the possibility of an accord in the Northern Ireland peace process very soon, it is still important that we contribute to the Peace 2 programme for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. That requires €60 million, but the EU appears not to be providing that finance in its main budget. I ask Ministers to press the EU on that.
Secondly, whatever position we may take on Iraq, we must ensure that the finances are there to ensure, ultimately, a peaceful settlement. At the moment, the EU does not agree to the use of the flexibility instrument, which would allow €200 million of spending in Iraq. It is insisting that €190 million of required resources will have to be met through the use of the flexibility instrument. A lot of pressure needs to be put on the EU on that point, and I ask Ministers to take it up.
Several Members mentioned savings. The official Opposition, in particular, referred pejoratively to means-testing. Means-testing takes place daily through the Inland Revenue, which taxes every one of us according to our income. The question is whether pensioners are in need of extra money. The figures for Scotland show that 327,000 individuals—or 270,000 households—are in receipt of pension credit. The poorest third of Scottish pensioners are on average almost £1,900 a year better off. That is a good deal for our communities and for our local pensioners. I commend the Government for that initiative.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his characteristic generosity. In the light of his comments about means-tested benefits, and in view of his consistent and stoical support for his right hon. Friend the Chancellor, would he care to explain why the Chancellor told the Labour party conference that it was a key aspiration of his to bring about the day when the means test for our elderly people was abolished?
I think there is a case for that, but given our inheritance in 1997—there were too many poor pensioners—the short and medium-term objective is to ensure that they have a decent level of income. Once they have that, we can move on to consider how we provide in the longer term. I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman on that point.
There are 3.17 million people in Great Britain who receive pension credit. That is a great testimony to the Government and their initiative since 1997. I also note that the Government will spend an extra £10 billion on pensioners in 2004–05; £7 billion more than an earnings link would have provided. Some parties offer an earnings link for four, eight or six years, certainly not for eternity. The Government are right about the issue.
Adair Turner and his colleagues on the Pensions Commission have been examining whether it is worth saving for pensions. They found that the pension credit, through the savings credit, rewards pensioners aged 65 and over who have made modest provision throughout their lives. It is worth £14.70 a week to individuals and £19.20 to couples. That is a welcome development. Are there pensioners who may lose out? Yes. Is it worth while saving in today's environment? That is manifestly the case. The Turner commission and others made that point.
Withdrawal rates were mentioned earlier. Before 1997, pensioners faced a withdrawal rate of 100 per cent., with savings being matched to benefits, pound by pound. The new savings credit rewards people for saving and that is a progressive policy.
Three issues dominate the subject of financial services, to which the Treasury Committee has given a great deal of consideration in the past. First, a healthy financial services industry is crucial to the country. It is a £2 trillion industry, a major employer, a major provider of capital to United Kingdom companies and a major repository of savings for nearly every family in the country. Policy makers cannot allow the industry to fade away as several great United Kingdom industries faded away in the past.
Secondly, rightly or wrongly, there is a loss of trust in the industry, and customers have departed. Ron Sandler said in his testimony to the Treasury Committee that local supermarkets are now trusted more than major insurance institutions. We need to correct that.
Thirdly, major parts of the financial services industry have abandoned everyday, average Britain. In many ways, it is a middle-class pastime. We have not reached those people on lower incomes and poorer people to get them to save. The industry must take that on board. The other side of the industry—the credit card providers—is inundating us with promotions for cards, but that does not apply to the asset gatherers. They have complex products and expensive distribution channels. That needs to change.
I have held discussions with the industry in the past few weeks. Along with the industry, consumers, the Association of British Insurers, the Investment Managers Association and others, we hope to establish a forum for the industry and consumers to come together to examine issues that affect financial services and consider the future so that we can rebuild a healthy industry. That is one of the reasons why I welcome the consumer credit Bill. The Treasury Committee has been banging on about it for many months.
The need to tackle unfair credit agreements, for more regulation, to excise the crooks from the market, for a fairer regime for business and, overall, as the shadow Chancellor said, for a clearer and transparent market, is important. We need to implement the Bill before May 2005. That is an arbitrary date but it is important that the measure is implemented before then. I do not want us to resile from that commitment. I therefore ask Treasury Ministers and others to respond to that specific point.
I agree 100 per cent. with the Chancellor about better public services. However, my right hon. Friend knows that civil servants, especially lower paid civil servants, are concerned about the number of redundancies that have been announced. The Chancellor appeared before the Treasury Committee in July and I note that the Public and Commercial Services Union welcomed his statement in July. However, it makes the point that there should be an agreement between the Government, the unions and other civil service organisations about the steps that Departments should take to avoid compulsory redundancies. Time should be allowed for civil service-wide machinery to be put in place. It is incumbent on the Government to do that, given that most of the individuals who could be made redundant are the lower paid.
The policies that were announced in the Queen's Speech and today's debate ensure that we will rise to the long-term challenges that face the country. How do we implement the Lisbon agenda? How do we make Europe a more competitive environment? How do we continue to ensure UK economic growth and more employment in our communities? How do we ensure safer communities for our constituents and their families? If we can achieve those aims, we will have a better Britain and a more contented country. I wish the Government well in that but warn them that the Treasury Committee will examine the detail of the pre-Budget report to ensure that the Chancellor and his colleagues live up to their promises.
Tomorrow, one way or the other, I believe that we shall hear the Chancellor's last pre-Budget statement. Today, we have heard the Chancellor being, a little unwisely, as complacent and boastful as ever. If he, like me, had got on his bike in the past few weeks and visited the financial community, on which so much of our earnings for our imports depend, he would have found it increasingly concerned about the deterioration in our public finances.
If I may put it simply, our economy is close to full capacity. The norms of Government borrowing are: borrow when an economy is well below capacity to keep it afloat, but that it is sensible when an economy is at full capacity to be in balance or even in surplus. However, our borrowings this year approach £40 billion. We have an external current account deficit that is likely to be around £40 billion. That is not a balanced, well positioned economy. It is irrelevant whether the Chancellor fudges the figures to fulfil the golden rule because the position is the wrong way round. The golden rule makes sense over a cycle if one borrows when there is slack in the economy and moves into surplus when it is at full capacity. Doing it the other way round leaves matters positioned wrongly for the future.
Estimates of the black hole that would have to be filled by additional taxation if the Government were re-elected vary between £11 billion and £20 billion. The latest City estimates have continued to increase. Again, on the golden rule and the true underlying position, it is disappointing that the Chancellor had to resort to cooking the depreciation figures to squeeze another few billion pounds in his favour. As we all know, instead of treating the cumulative deficit on a numbers basis—adding the pluses and minuses—the Chancellor resorted to a bogus method of average in relation to gross national product, giving a figure that is not the actual monetary cumulative deficit over the cycle.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin went through the wider issues that make it clear that the economy is no longer as well placed as it has been. We have dropped from fourth to eleventh in the world's competitiveness league. We have underperformed when compared with the other English-speaking economies, especially Ireland. Our productivity growth is a third down on what it was under the Conservative Government and below the EU average, when the Chancellor is perhaps among the most critical of EU economic performance.
The savings ratio is down not only because of the cycle; it has been down by a third on average in the past six or seven years. That presents considerable problems for pension accumulation and investment.
We still have a stock market, although the Government have done their best to wreck it. They appear to believe that long-term investment can be financed by cashing bonds. A sad disappointment may be encountered. This country's stock market has underperformed by 35 per cent. when compared with the United States and France. It has even underperformed by 10 per cent. when compared with Germany. I do not claim that the stock market constitutes a full measure of the position of an economy but it is ignored at peril. There are serious imbalances in the economy.
I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that they understand perfectly well what we are saying and that they are surprised that neither the Chancellor nor Labour Members seem to understand. I shall summarise it very simply; perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be able to understand. We have set out our spending strategy, which, instead of the Government spending 42 per cent. of gross domestic product, will result in us getting the figure down to 40 per cent. over the period to 2008. The amounts have been set out bit by bit.
I and various colleagues set up the taxpayer value review in which 60 people under David James have considered each area of Government. It is not quite complete, but there will be savings significantly in excess of the Gershon savings. Now, let us take those two together. We have made it clear that in some areas additional spending will be needed—for example, in defence, and for our policies of choice in health and education—but the resulting overall position will clearly permit some scope to reduce taxation by a significant amount over the next period of government.
I appreciate that the James study has not been completed, but there must obviously be some overlap between Gershon and James. Can the hon. Gentleman give us any indication of its extent, because surely any additional money over and above James is all the Conservatives would have to offer as a tax cut?
Again, I am grateful for the intervention. First, there is the question of how much of both is cash for real and how much accounting entries. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware that roughly half of Gershon is accounting entries, not for real. If he reads our announcements, he will see that we have got up to a figure of, if I recollect correctly, approximately £24 billion and covered about 70 per cent. of the territory. He can make his own estimates as to where we will get to in the fullness of time.
The second task is to consider how much of our work is cashable and how much is not. The answer is that the proportion that is truly cashable is substantially higher than Gershon. The James review has covered all the territories that Gershon has covered. There are a lot of territories that Gershon has not covered; I cannot understand why the Chancellor did not give the review a full brief to consider all areas. On the figures that are available to date and in respect of what I have just said, I trust the Chancellor understands that, in cashable terms, quite a significant margin will come through in excess of Gershon.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I think that is rather a strange question. The Conservative party has made it quite clear that the David James team is an independent body that is considering the whole public sector and will report back to the Conservative party, which will make its policies very clear when our election manifesto is set out. That is perfectly clear and straightforward.
The reality is that the Chancellor has presided over a rising tide of personal debt, but he has kept the figures looking good and created hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs, although only 100,000 of the total of 600,000 mean, as he has just said, more people in the front line—more doctors, more nurses and so forth.
What lies behind what has happened is the tale of the two Chancellors; I am sure Labour Members have read it. William Keegan wrote a superb book entitled "The Prudence of Mr. Gordon Brown", which I was asked to review earlier this year. Indeed, he set it out very clearly that the Chancellor, in his first three years in office, was deliberately prudent to seek to win the longer-term confidence of middle England and the financial community. Then, he embarked on a massive public spending splurge from 2000 onwards.
It is worth focusing on the macro figures and on the Office for National Statistics figures in relation to that public sector spending. By the end of this tax year, spending and taxation in cash terms will be up by about 60 per cent. Where has all that spending gone? Every citizen knows that they do not see improved delivery of anything like 60 per cent.—[Interruption.] If Labour Members would care to pause for thought, they would realise that the ONS figures show that approximately 80 per cent. of all that spending has been consumed by public sector inflation as the ONS defines it.
What is public sector inflation? It is a mixture of several things. It is basically higher pay for those working in the public sector and more people—another 600,000. When I was a student economist, I asked my teacher why people earned less in the public sector than in the private. He said that they had greater security of employment and better pensions. That seemed a fair balance to me, but the ONS now shows that, level by level, pay in the public sector is 20 per cent. higher than it is in the private sector. Indeed, many of my friends who work in the health service have made the point to me that the money is not getting through for additional facilities, but has come through in significant pay increases.
Again, we should consider the macro data. In 1997, public sector inflation was 1.6 per cent. It is now running at 10 per cent. We should consider the productivity data. The Government try to hide the figures, but productivity in the public sector has declined by 10 per cent. This is the overall story of failure to reform the public sector, failure to deliver, excessive regulation, excessive bureaucracy and more and more costs between money at the centre and getting it down to the delivery units.
As William Keegan's book points out, this was the Chancellor's great fear: that people would say, "You've spent all the money, but the delivery is not there. You've wasted it." So, the Chancellor set up his target regime. Alas, that was based on an entirely out of date concept that had not worked in the private sector in the 1970s and 1980s—management by objectives, setting targets from on high and dictating to the people working, rather than bringing them in and getting suggestions from the coal face on how to do things better.
We have heard little or nothing of the targets regime because, in the main, it has been a failure. Targets have not been met, they have distorted priorities, and they have greatly upset and demotivated people working in the public sector.
Last summer, I think, the European Central Bank commissioned a group to consider public sector spending in this country compared with that in other countries. It found that, compared with Japan and the United States of America, our public spending was enormously wasteful, citing a figure of 20 per cent. inefficiency. We were only slightly better than France and Germany.
Now, the ECB is hardly an organ of the Conservative party, but that is the magnitude of the inefficiency of our public sector. Indeed, that is why the Chancellor was eventually obliged to set up his own Gershon review, after we had started work on our review. I have already said quite a bit about that work in answering various questions, but I repeat the point that if the Chancellor wishes to understand what we are saying, rather than ranting a lot of, candidly, gibberish, he should consider what has been announced area by area in the David James review and what the shadow Chancellor said last spring about the spending plans. He will find that the figures add up perfectly logically.
There are a large number of areas. As the hon. Lady will be aware, broadly, the approach of Gershon has been to say, "Here are areas where money can be saved, such as better procurement and pooling back offices and various other things. Now, civil servants, try to find 2.5 per cent. savings." I was contacted by a friend who has been seconded to the Home Office who said that people there said, "We have not even got proper financial accounts to know what we are spending and how, and how we can effect the economies." That is a measure of how unsatisfactorily our public sector is run.
Broadly, the James review has considered matters area by area, detail by detail; in only a few areas has Gershon done that. I suggest that the hon. Lady would get an answer to her question if she read the summary reports of the James review and noticed that Gershon has not covered any of that territory.
I want to move on to two other big areas, but the essence of the point—I am concerned about complacency and, candidly, and so is the City—is that everybody knows that this country cannot afford not to reduce tax and regulation. We face the challenge of Asia. Most service businesses can move elsewhere and this country has become considerably less competitive. Capital inflows are trailing off quite worryingly and those who come to Europe increasingly go to central Europe, not this country. Unless we make our economy a good deal more competitive, we will have a less promising future than the Chancellor seems to think he is presiding over.
I want to say a little about pensions. Having talked to members of trade unions, I can see that everyone knows that the one thing that the Chancellor has really messed up has been our pension savings. Earlier in the debate, the Chancellor referred to my comments about the British stock market having halved. He does not seem to understand that as a result, first, of the £5 billion removal of advance corporation tax credit, the stock market fell 20 per cent. further than it needed to have done, because stock markets bottom when dividend yields cross over gilt yields. Logically, had 20 per cent. of dividend yields not been removed, the stock market would have bottomed 25 per cent. higher than it did. The extent of the fall led to forced selling by pension schemes, life companies and individuals, and a fall of 50 per cent. has understandably destroyed investors' confidence. If citizens no longer have confidence in long-term equity saving, it will not be possible for the whole economy to move forward satisfactorily, as that is where the money comes from for real investments.
A stock market fall of that extent, to which I referred at the time, has had a disastrous effect on equity savings, leading to the unwillingness of people to save. So far this year, there have been net withdrawals from individual savings account schemes. What bigger measure can one have of the loss of equity confidence? Again, if people think that pension funds will be able to accumulate enough through investing in bonds and cash, another thought is coming to them. The only way in which a sufficient amount can be accumulated over the long term is through successful equity investment.
My real criticism is not just of the £5 billion per annum that the Chancellor has taken away, but of the knock-on effects, which have been enormously greater. Outstanding final salary schemes still have deficits of around £100 billion. Coincidentally, if a price-earnings multiple is applied to the £5 billion loss of income—a multiple of 20 is a fair average—that is equal to exactly the £100 billion that is missing. More than 10,000 schemes have gone into wind-up, affecting more than 300,000 individuals. As the National Association of Pension Funds has recently warned, three quarters of employers' final salary schemes are facing funding difficulties. As companies must put that money into their pension schemes, that reduces their profits, and as their profits are hit, faith in equity investment in this country is hit.
I say to the Chancellor that the voters of Britain—not just the financial community—understand what has happened and do not like it. They are well aware of the biggest single area in which he has failed seriously.
I was very interested in the speech made by Dr. Cable and his desire, reflected in the shadow Chancellor's remarks, to secure a more independent base for statistics. I only wish that Mr. Flight had provided us with some statistical justification or evidence for the assumptions on which he based so much of his arithmetic. Indeed, if one wanted to examine the reasons for the difficult performances in the pensions industry, one need only look at such a so-called specialist and the way in which he glibly manipulates figures to suit his own purposes, as many of us have thought that many of the people responsible for pension funds elsewhere have done in the past. Certainly, such slick arithmetic does not make any serious contribution to an issue that vexes many people and has perhaps created greater distrust in the City and in financial institutions.
It is for reasons of that nature that we find that the savings ratio is not what we would want it to be—people do not trust financial institutions, because of mis-selling, bad calculation and failure to take account of basic demography. Consequently, while there may be some lack of sympathy for the performance of this Government in relation to pensions, there is no substitution of sympathy with the Conservative party, as evidenced by its woeful showing in the opinion polls.
I am well aware of the issue of mistrust in financial institutions. As a bottom line measure, however, does not the hon. Gentleman accept that the fact that ISAs—although largely about individuals buying individual shares and doing their own thing, and not the same as pension saving—have gone negative demonstrates that people have lost confidence in equity investment? That is the most worrying point.
I am not sure exactly what percentage of ISAs are accounted for by equity investments, in so far as many people take them through building societies and just opt for tax-free interest on a very safe investment. The hon. Gentleman, by his question, has illustrated my point: the evidence that he provides is, to say the least, superficial. We have had a repeated statement from the Chancellor today that the savings ratio has increased by 6.2 per cent. this year. I will not duck the charge that the savings ratio has been disappointing, but it is improving. It may be that people are taking money out of one account and putting it into another, although that is not what I wanted to talk about today.
The Queen's Speech has an interesting symmetry, because the preoccupation in debates earlier in the week was security, but in some respects no kind of security comes home more quickly to people than economic and financial security. If we are to sustain the economic security that many of our people still enjoy, with many people, certainly in my constituency, in employment for the first time in many years and enjoying a degree of security that they have not experienced previously in their working lives, we must recognise that there is a sense in which any financial or economic advantage that the country has will of necessity be short-lived.
We talked earlier about investment in research and development, and there was some disparagement of R and D tax credits. It is not long ago, however, that I and others, including Opposition Members, were coming to exactly the same conclusion—that to encourage companies to invest in research and development, fiscal incentives were necessary. There could still be other kinds of financial incentives to encourage investment beyond R and D.
Let us face it: within British manufacturing, there is still gross under-investment per head. If there is any identifiable factor involved in the poor productivity that besets this country, that is it. In France and Germany, far more money is put behind each individual worker in manufacturing industry in the shape of newer and better kit. I have often argued that the engineering industry could benefit from that to a great extent, and certainly an engineering industry that is currently severely beleaguered because of the sad difficulties affecting part of the car industry, which historically has sourced its equipment from the west midlands and the industrial manufacturing areas of the country.
The critical point is that were we to see further deterioration in the predicament of MG Rover or the plight of Jaguar, or the failure to secure investment in another model at Peugeot in Coventry, the supply chain for the British motor industry as a whole could become endangered. In turn, that would make it less attractive, particularly for Japanese companies when making decisions on their next model.
Sadly, the cycle occurs every 18 months to two years. A supply chain is weakened and, having become less successful, is less attractive to potential investors from abroad in the models that we need to go on producing.
As we would expect, the hon. Gentleman is presenting a very fair analysis of what is going on in the British industrial and manufacturing economy; but is he not opening up a dangerous line of argument? Is he not inviting us to give in to the idea that companies will invest in this country only if we bribe them with taxpayers' money? Surely we want them to invest in this country because it is the right place to be.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is not the point that I am trying to make. I am saying that the engineering supply chain for the motor car industry is currently fragile. We do not want to see a continuing deterioration in what might be regarded as the two UK bankers. Companies such as Jaguar are prestigious, and companies such as MG Rover still account for a large volume of orders, although perhaps not for a large volume of output, but many traditional manufacturing supply chain companies operating in this part of the world and the economy are fragile at present, and if they fell by the wayside Japanese companies would find inward investment less attractive.
Those companies do not necessarily need bribes any more, because we have a good labour force, good industrial relations and high productivity levels. We are confident that there will be demand for our product in the UK. However, they tend to operate on a "just in time" production basis. They need essential spare parts—widgets and so forth—to be close at hand: they need them yesterday, virtually. That becomes rather difficult if the supply chain extends to Budapest or Bratislava.
Perhaps China eventually. Anyway, I was making that point, not a point about assistance.
Nevertheless, assistance is important. Regional selective assistance is possible under European Union arrangements, although it is on a smaller scale than it was at one time. I understand that the Liberal Democrats in Cornwall and elsewhere in the west country believe that they can go to Europe and get more money because the budget in the area is being cut: that was suggested in a document from the west country that I saw yesterday. There is no magic wand, however, and RSA is nothing like the crutch that it once was.
The hon. Gentleman has visited most of the motor industry so far in his excellent speech, including Peugeot, Jaguar and Longbridge, which makes very difficult reading in the business pages nowadays. However, he has not mentioned another important west midlands motor manufacturer—Land Rover, in my constituency, which is critical to the many surrounding industries that supply it. Will he comment on Land Rover? I shall be content if he merely wishes it well.
I think that the Ford PAG group, of which Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo are all part, is vital to the high-quality end of British car manufacturing. We all want those companies to succeed, and I think we are confident that they can. The difficulty, especially in Jaguar's case, is short-term, and we hope that it can be solved. Sometimes when we start discussing the prospects of companies here, we draw attention to them in ways that may not be intended.
Let me take up a point that was made earlier. The Government should realise that if we are to have a research and development-led industry and promote the transfer of technology from the university laboratory to the workshop and larger areas of production, we must be sensitive to the plight of the unincorporated bodies that universities have created. That is an example of the law of unintended consequences, and I shall be very disappointed if the Chancellor does not find a way of dealing with it constructively and sympathetically. It may not be appropriate for him to refer to it tomorrow, but he could do so in his Budget speech, and it could be addressed in the Finance Bill. It should be recognised that it is through investment in science in the United Kingdom that we shall secure continuing development of science-based industry.
We keep talking about India and China in debates of this kind, but they are not necessarily the same. India has been able to invest in its fantastic output of graduates and in the Bangalore information technology areas, to provide world leadership, and to make a far more significant economic contribution than is represented by a couple of hundred thousand jobs in call centres. Apart from outsourcing and those call centre jobs, there are 200 million people in India who would be classified as middle-class. They are potential consumers of many of our goods and services—financial services, Burberry raincoats and scarves, Johnny Walker Black Label and all the luxury products that so many of our businesses should be getting out there and selling.
Many of our ambassadors should recognise that they are there not just to outsource but to outsell those in other parts of the world. Conservatism, with a small "c", and protectionism feature in the thinking of too many of our people.
China is a slightly different matter. It is self-evident that Taiwan, the offshore part of China, has turned its back on the type of manufacturing for which it was famed in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. It is now the largest single inward investor in mainland China. Its kit is being produced in China and is returning to Taipei and the surrounding area, where only the widgets are added. China may be a workshop, but in Beijing and Shanghai it can be seen that there is a demand for consumer goods. It may not extend much beyond those cities at present, but it will do so at a great rate; and if we are not there selling those goods, you can bet your bottom dollar that the Italians, the Germans and others will be. We must organise a much more concerted push to sell our luxury products.
Yes, those as well. One of the frustrating aspects of visiting China is that if you are going to get knocked over, it is a pound to a penny that you will be knocked over by a Volkswagen. Volkswagen has cornered the market there to a fantastic extent.
We must take advantage of this opportunity. Our country has many of the most attractive features for inward investment. We have a stable labour market, flexibility and high productivity among those employed by inward investors. The Government's economic legacy has enabled us to build on many of those attractions, but if we are to secure the future of the economic success that we have achieved we cannot just depend on the ability of Britain, as currently constituted, to attract investment from within and create the research and development that we need. We must have inward investment as well: there must be a balance.
Those who seek to make economies by doing away with this or that Department should bear it in mind that the civil service and public bodies will be required for many of the functions to which I have referred. Some Liberal Democrats may well want to get rid of the Department of Trade and Industry; but do they want to get rid of the offshore supplies office in Aberdeen, which serves the North sea industry? Do they want to get rid of the expertise of the Department responsible for energy? If they do, there might well be serious consequences—[Interruption.] Oh, they want to get rid of everything but that.
As a Scotsman interested in energy matters, I should point out that such issues are easy game. Across the country as a whole, every one of the bleeding-heart Liberal Democrats who wants to appear liberal would indulge in special pleading for the little niche that is for ever theirs. They may say, "But you couldn't do away with that," but which bits could we do away with? Which bits do they not like too much? Which bits are concentrated only in Tory or Labour seats, or in Victoria street? [Interruption.] They do not like it when the cheap shots are aimed back at them. The truth is that many of us believe that if we are to reform the machinery of government, it is industries such as the hospitality industry that should be reformed. It should be dealt with by a department of enterprise and industry, rather than by the Department that looks after museums and castles.
Perhaps it is appropriate that I should be called after that little diatribe. I should tell Mr. O'Neill that we Liberal Democrats certainly do not regard energy as a niche market. We have consistently argued—the point is made in our published policy papers—that energy should be dealt with by a department of energy, environment and transport. If we are to meet our Kyoto objectives, it is logical that all the factors that cause emissions be dealt with together, rather than being split among several Departments. I hope that that illustrates that the essence of what we are trying to do is to simplify government, reduce the number of Departments and operate more efficiently.
We believe that it is inefficient for the Government, through the Department of Trade and Industry, to engage with industry by trying to second-guess the market and use taxpayers' money to induce businesses to take decisions that they would take anyway—in which case, the money has been wasted—or to take short-term decisions in order to qualify for tax incentives that do not stick in the long term. There is plenty of evidence to show that in many cases companies are happy to take the money, but that they take a different decision when the money runs out. We are talking about substantial sums, and we have set out the figures in our existing policy documents. We will publish in more detail the logical consistency of our proposals.
I am very happy to debate this issue with the hon. Member for Ochil, and let us be clear: there can be an honest difference of opinion about the proper role of Government in business and industry. In our view, that role is to make life simpler and less regulated, to simplify the tax system and to enable businesses to get on with the job that they do best: running themselves, rather than having to engage too much with civil servants, and having bureaucracies tell them how to run their affairs.
I want to address one or two issues that are of concern to my constituents, as well as other aspects of economic policy. As a Scottish Member of this Parliament, I hope that in the coming years we will develop greater co-operation between Scottish MPs and the Scottish Parliament. Like every Member of this House, I am very worried about the GP out-of-hours service. This issue is relevant to today's debate because it shows there is a crossover in respect of what this Parliament does and what the devolved Parliaments do. Health is a devolved matter, but of course the reality is that the change in the out-of-hours contract was determined by negotiation across the UK. The fact that GPs no longer wish to work such hours might be a reasonable proposition, but it causes difficulties across the piece. UK Ministers need to work with the devolved Assemblies to ensure that we train enough doctors and consultants to cover the service and fill the gaps. I hope that we can do so in future.
I am also concerned about transport. Two of the transport Bills proposed in the Queen's Speech have implications for my constituents, and we need to know the reality of the situation. Are we getting a significant devolution of strategic decision making to Scotland, or does such legislation constitute an abdication of responsibility for those living north of the border? That issue needs to be clarified.
My constituents were incensed when the Strategic Rail Authority said that it would no longer support the upgrading of the service between Aberdeen and Inverness because of the unexpectedly high and over-budget cost of upgrading the west coast main line. That service runs from London to Glasgow—in other words, it terminates 140 miles from Aberdeen. Although it may be of some benefit to my constituents, most of the traffic between Aberdeen and London is on the east coast main line. It is therefore frustrating to be told that the upgrading of a line that does not directly serve my constituents is being used to justify the cancelling of promised investment.
If the devolution of funding to the Scottish Parliament enables the reinstating of such investment, that would be welcome. If, on the other hand, it means that the UK Government are simply abdicating their responsibility for strategic decisions on rail matters affecting my constituents, that is another matter altogether. I was not encouraged on hearing the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. Jamieson, say that for franchising purposes the east coast main line runs from London to Aberdeen but that for investment purposes it runs from London to Edinburgh. That makes it clear that there is no commitment to strategic investment in that line, even though it is the main line between Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
It takes nearly as long to get from Aberdeen to Edinburgh as it does to get from Edinburgh to London, despite the fact that the distance involved is little more than 100 miles. If there is to be a strategic decision, it should ensure that remoter parts of the country have access to fast transport, especially given the argument that too many people are flying internally in the UK when they could be taking the train. I would like to agree, but I can assure hon. Members that, as my hon. Friend Sir Robert Smith will confirm, it would be impossible for me to carry out my duties as a constituency Member and to serve in this House if I relied on the rail service. I have no option but to fly, which is regrettable, given the need to address such issues and their long-term environmental consequences.
I have a constituency interest in energy, an issue to which the hon. Member for Ochil referred, but in this debate I want to link together national and constituency concerns. In some respects, the recent increase in gas and electricity prices is entirely understandable, but in others it cannot be easily explained, and it does not seem to demonstrate the efficient functioning of the market. Those of us who monitor the industry know that many long-term gas contracts have come to an end, at a time when oil prices have been rising sharply. That has become an excuse and created a market gap, which has led to an increase in gas prices, but that does not explain why UK producers are exporting gas to the continent, where prices are lower, rather than supplying the domestic market, where prices are higher—unless there is another, perhaps ulterior motive relating to the long-term control of market supply.
I have pointed out that we Liberal Democrats are concerned about the fact that this country's emissions are increasing, despite our obligations and commitments under Kyoto. I do not regard rising energy prices as inherently bad, given that such increases probably encourage the more efficient and environmentally sound use of energy. We nevertheless have to accept that if they jeopardise businesses and increase fuel poverty before the mechanisms to deal with such poverty have come into play, genuine concerns will be expressed in all constituencies, including mine.
The Government will soon take over the presidency of the EU. Is it not also an important time for them to work out how to force the rest of Europe to recognise that the liberalisation of the energy and gas markets must be carried out across the whole of Europe? It is important to realise the distorting effects caused by the liberalisation of our market and its being attached to a market that is still under the firm control of the big suppliers.
The Conservatives may not like the implications, but the reality is that a Europewide energy market, if it is open and transparent, would be to our benefit. Our concern is that liberalisation is not proceeding fast enough.
I have written to the new Energy Commissioner, asking him to look further into that, as well as to the Secretary of State. I have been criticised by some people who claim that what I am saying implies a dislike of markets. I favour markets and market solutions, but there is something not quite right about this market at the moment. It has been a matter of concern to me that gas prices should automatically be determined by oil prices rather than by the actual costs of production and the fact that the market is not always the same.
I spoke a week or so ago at the annual conference of the Combined Heat and Power Association, which may not be at the top of people's agenda as the best place to speak. I have to say that I have not seen a more depressed looking audience for quite some time—and that was before I spoke. The serious point is that several billion pounds of significant investment, which could create many thousands of jobs—I already know of more than one Conservative early-day motion on the subject—are currently frozen. Those funds could genuinely help us to improve industrial investment, employment and our commitment to reducing emissions.
In the past few weeks, I have had interesting meetings with a significant number of businesses in my constituency, and many specifically welcomed the consequences of EU enlargement, not least in giving them access to good-quality, hard-working labour, which has helped them meet the significant shortages that they were experiencing until recently. One enterprise in the tourism sector had employed a substantial number of Slovakian young women in an enterprising leisure facility. Those girls had come here for two fundamental reasons: to learn English, which they view as an international language that will improve their skills; and to gain more productive and better paid work experience than they could gain in Slovakia. It is important to understand that that is of real benefit. Prior to enlargement, this business found it extremely difficult to get exactly the sort of labour that it required and is now delighted with the quality of staff that it has been able to recruit.
I fear that debates on immigration are sometimes conducted in the House in a way that fails to emphasise the significant benefits that can accrue. It may be of interest to the House to know that the city of Aberdeen has specifically said that it believes that its economic future depends on recruiting a substantial number of the work force from the new accession countries. It has taken a positive step to promote the virtues of living and working in Aberdeen to those people. It will help the economy to be dynamic rather than run the risk of having to export jobs to where the people are. We often lose sight of that fact, which is a consequence of not being able to recruit labour here in the UK. I have heard that general complaint from many businesses in my constituency.
I mention in passing that, as a member of the plenary assembly of the Council of Europe, the UK delegation will debate in January next year the issue of trafficking from the borders of the EU, and the Balkans in particular. I believe that trafficking is too kind a word. We are talking about slavery, and people being sold, often by their families, into slavery. The exploitation of these people is vicious, and some of our more draconian immigration laws make it harder for them to break out of it. We must make it clear to people that if they have been brought here by force, they can appeal. The fear is that if they make themselves known to the authorities, they will be immediately deported without help or subsistence, so we must show that we have some sort of compassionate rescue mission to deliver people back safely to their families under terms and conditions that will prevent them from being exploited in that way again.
My hon. Friend Dr. Cable made a passing reference to the British trade position, the exchange rate and the consequences of American policies. One general problem with US domestic policies is that they seem to constitute the worst excesses of left and right-wing ideologies brought together in one regime.
I would argue, in defence of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham and my own record when I was in the same post, that it is precisely not like our party, because we cost our proposals and try to demonstrate, even though it opens us up to pretty strenuous debate, how we would pay for our policies. We say what taxes we would or would not alter. What has happened in the US is that the public deficit has gone through the roof and tax cuts have been implemented that are clearly not sustainable. Yet as long as the rest of the world is prepared to support that by accepting devalued dollars, we cannot really blame the American Administration for taking advantage of it.
I would say to the Chancellor that one of the disadvantages stemming from having our own currency is the fact that it is not a very important currency. It certainly does not play influentially in the markets in the way that the euro currently does. There may well be an argument, as Mr. Anatole Kaletsky suggested, for the eurozone to cut interest rates in order to put inverse pressure on the dollar and perhaps also help stimulate the European economies to perform rather better.
Having attended the breakfast that the Chancellor provided for board members of Britain in Europe a couple of weeks ago, I know that he stressed the importance of the transatlantic relationship. Although I have been critical of the Bush Administration, I also support the transatlantic alliance as part of the UK's position in the world. If we have a special relationship with the US, however, it is important for the Americans to know that we also have a dimension of European co-operation and solidarity that is important to us. We should also expect Americans to take some responsibility for conducting themselves in a reasonable fashion in the world or to expect the consequences if they fail to do so.
I make no apology for mixing in some important constituency issues put to me in recent months. Indeed, debates on the Queen's Speech provide an excellent opportunity to do so. I have considerable scepticism about a Government who announce 32 Bills or draft Bills in any Queen's Speech, especially in a programme that everyone expects to be interrupted before half the Session is completed. We should acknowledge that much of the Queen's Speech is not a serious programme of legislation but a shopping list for a general election. It is frustrating to find, in seeking clarification from Departments as to which Bills will be introduced and when, that the answers become heavily caged according to political expediency.
In the few seconds left to me, I want to say that the one Bill that I am assured is likely to be introduced before Christmas is the consumer credit Bill. If that is the case, I welcome it, but I hope that the Government realise that we are talking not just about loan sharks but about shameful practices being pursued by high street banks—the biggest banks in the country—to push people into using credit and to sell them products that are much more expensive than they need be. Those banks are happy to take the excess profits that result. The legislation must deal with that problem. We should also recognise that door-to-door cash collection is not always against the interests of people on low incomes. It sometimes helps them to manage their credit, so we should not legislate that out of existence and open the way for the criminals who would inevitably step in.
This is a rag-bag of a Queen's Speech. It is really an election propaganda message, so I hope that hon. Members will support our amendment.
It is only right and proper for the Chancellor to remind the House of his and the Government's fine record of economic stewardship over the past seven years. It compares more than favourably with most, if not all, western European countries and the Government deserve credit for it. We do not always acknowledge the external pressures of globalisation on western economies. I do not believe that our Government, western Governments or even fashionable opinion have begun to engage with the consequences—social, foreign policy and economic consequences—of globalisation, despite the fact that countries such as China now dominate large sections of world trade.
Many hon. Members have always been concerned, rightly, about the effect of globalisation and the dominant influence of multinational companies on the poorest developing countries. On the other side of the argument are those who worship at the shrine of the free market and free trade, who see no adverse consequences to globalisation and brook no criticism of it. Indeed, the Director-General of the CBI appears to have been one of that cult's high priests in recent years. I read in the newspapers some extraordinary comments from him—perhaps he was not correctly reported—about the outsourcing of employment from Britain to places such as Bangladesh and India. He seemed to favour that and to want to see more of it. I do not think that he fully realises the consequences, but I await with interest an announcement in the near future that the bureaucracy of the CBI will be transferred to Bangladesh or Bangalore.
The anti-globalisation protestors and the pro-globalisation zealots display a lack of awareness that the pressure of globalisation is felt most by western countries. Western capitalism cannot cope with global capitalism. Countries such as China appear to be able to do capitalism with greater energy and ability than countries of the west, particularly the United States of America. We have heard about the balance of payments deficits in the US, but it arises in the main from trade with China, perhaps because of the traditional links that have always existed between the two countries. The devaluation of the dollar against the euro, which is no doubt happening as we speak, will not help the US very much with the massive balance of payments deficit it has with Asian countries, especially China. As we all know, the Chinese currency, the renminbi, is linked to the dollar, so as the dollar goes down, so does the renminbi. That is what is happening at the moment.
There is pressure on the Chinese to revalue their currency. They might or might not do so, but they will do so only if they believe that it is in their long-term trading interests.
Does my right hon. Friend have a view on the unprecedented situation in respect of global monetary structures? The Asian currencies are pegged to the dollar and other western currencies are floating—a hybrid system unlike any that we have experienced before. The globally dominant currency, the dollar, is experiencing pressure. Does he have any views on what might happen?
I do not know how it will unwind. There have been calls for China to be brought increasingly among the main economic nations, but the Chinese will probably go their own way and make their own decisions in their long-term trading and security interests.
The pressures on the US are considerable. An American think-tank recently looked at the prices of products in the US and in China. Prices in China were 30 to 50 per cent. below the cost of production of similar or identical products in the US. Such pressure cannot continue without destroying a country's industrial and economic base. It will mean a massive transfer of wealth from the US, which is already happening, and ultimately from the countries of western Europe to China and other Asian countries.
The European Union used to believe that it was immune from such pressures. Those of us who have sat through many debates on the EU remember that it was said that one of the reasons for its formation was that it could be ring-fenced. The common agricultural policy was a manifestation of that thinking. The countries of the EU, it was believed, could trade with each other and would not need to trade with anyone else. However, that world is going or has gone. Apparently, 10 years ago the EU had a surplus on its trading account with the countries of Asia and China. It now has a deficit of $10 billion, and that is with a low rate of European growth. The EU is not capable of withstanding the pressures that we will see from China and other Asian countries.
The problem is not only the balance of payments, but costs, wages and profits. The pressure on wages is now considerable. Last month, the average yearly increase in wages was 3.7 per cent., which is well below the Bank of England's 4.5 per cent. figure used in analysis of inflation and other factors. The minimum wage of £4.85 is fine, but my impression is that wages, certainly in the manufacturing sector, are gradually being driven down towards £4.85. That figure is seen as a respectable amount, so the pressure driving wages down is considerable. Of course, that has implications for the Chancellor. He subsidises wages through the working tax credit, and the cost of that subsidy will probably increase.
If costs cannot be reduced and prices cannot be increased, companies' profits will be affected. If profits do not go up, investment cannot be made. What about the effect on tax yields? No one has studied the effect of globalisation on tax yields, but if wages are driven down, yields from income tax will fall, unless more people can find work. Indeed, the Chancellor's estimate of revenue from income tax fell short. VAT is a tax on prices. If the price of imported goods falls, and the price of domestically created goods falls in competition, the VAT yield will be reduced. Perhaps that can be made up by VAT on services or in other ways, but the fact remains that globalisation pushes down wages, costs and prices. If it pushes down profits, the yield from corporation tax will also fall. Governments may have to look at ways of raising money from taxation other than the main taxes of income tax, VAT and corporation tax, because of the effect of globalisation.
In many ways, globalisation has had a benign effect on inflation. Prices have been driven down. The high inflation of the 1980s has gone, mainly because of competitive global pressures. Japan still has zero interest rates, because some people are now more worried about deflation than inflation. Alan Greenspan in the US was so worried about deflation that he reduced American interest rates to almost 1 per cent., although they have now gone up by a few quarters of a percentage point.
Our central bankers still try to claim the credit for reducing inflation. We have heard again today how wonderful the Bank of England is, and I bow at the shrine, albeit a little reluctantly. We have heard how wonderful it has been in keeping down inflation, but that is putting the cart before the horse. It is international competition that has pushed down prices. The governors of central banks, who are usually behind the curve, follow that by reducing interest rates. I accept that that is not a fashionable view, but I believe it is a better explanation.
The trouble is that those central bankers keep looking for inflation everywhere; they are a bit like generals who cannot find an enemy. For central bankers, the reds are still under the bed, and they are inflation. The Bank of England looks for inflation all over the place. I do not know how an interest rate of 4.7 per cent. can be justified when the consumer price index, flawed as it may be, is only, as the Chancellor told us, 1.2 per cent. It was a mistake for the Bank to raise interest rates on the last few occasions so that the rate is now 4.7 per cent. The signals coming from the Bank are extremely confusing, almost as confused as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report about which I read in the newspaper today.
We cannot wish away globalisation. Some of the effects have been benign and beneficial, as I have tried to point out, but there is a danger when a huge country such as China begins to dominate world trade in goods and can make such inroads into the productive capacity of western countries. We have to consider whether we can bear the substantial transfer of wealth from western countries to such countries, as the effects on standards of living, taxation yields and public expenditure will be considerable. The time is past when globalisation can be viewed merely as a consequence of free trade and countries such as China can be described as trading partners rather than as competitors. That type of imbalance makes a mockery of Ricardo's economic tenet that trade is good for all, because each country can export the products that it is good at making. That is no longer the case when a country such as China could completely dominate world trade.
It will not be easy to try to alleviate the consequences of globalisation and to stem the seepage of wealth from western economies, but we should at least recognise that there is a problem and that it cannot simply be left to the free market. Governments, whether of the left or the right, will have to interfere again to protect their economies, industries and societies from the pressure from free trade and globalisation. Once we acknowledge that there is a problem, perhaps we can find ways of countering it.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to contribute to an important part of the Queen's Speech: the economic affairs that underscore the country's wealth and prosperity.
I want to turn from the broad landscape of the global picture of economic affairs to something more local but just as important—the concerns of small businesses and the self-employed. I do so both as someone who was self-employed for more than 10 years before I became a Member and as honorary treasurer of the all-party small business group. I am especially pleased that it is the largest all-party group and I hope that that reflects the genuine interest and concern of all Members in the importance of small enterprises.
There are 3.8 million small businesses in the UK and 3.6 million people are self-employed. Those distinct but overlapping groups represent the backbone of our economy. After all, they employ more than half the private sector work force and they generate much of the wealth that enables us to afford the public services that we debate in this place. They are also often the most entrepreneurial and innovative enterprises in our economy.
There is an additional reason why I believe that small enterprises matter; indeed, it is one of the reasons that I joined the Conservative party. Family businesses—the self-employed and small enterprises—send out a clear message that no matter what someone's background is, whatever the colour of their skin, whatever their race or creed, if they have the ambition, the ability and the will to work they can be their own boss and make their own way in the world. That is a very powerful reason for us to consider the role of small businesses—not only in the context of the economic debate that we are holding today, but because those businesses reach beyond mere economics.
As a former freelancer, and having met many of the small business organisations in my constituency, it is clear to me that entrepreneurs are struggling. They tell me that they are struggling for two main reasons: the burden of regulation and the burden of the tax system. It is evident that both the volume and scope of regulation has worsened over the past seven years. We know that there are 15 new regulations every working day—a 53 per cent. increase since 1997. In absolute terms, the number is between 3,500 and 4,000 in any one year.
I am well aware that many of the regulations come from Brussels, but the majority still come from Whitehall. It is fair to say that Whitehall manages—extraordinarily—to make EU regulations even worse than they might otherwise be, but nevertheless regulations, and their burden, matter. They matter not simply as a debating point—in the jousting between the Opposition and the Government in this place—but because, no matter what their worthy aims may be, the costs of complying with regulations and of administering them actually count for businesses. Let me give a short example: the working families tax credit—apparently worthy in its aim, whatever one may think of its merits as a system—costs business £105 million every year to administer. That is a significant amount for business to take on, and it is but one measure. I know that it is a favourite of the Chancellor's, and given that tomorrow's will, I hope, be his last pre-Budget report, I hope that this measure will go with him. When the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions replies to the debate perhaps he will enlighten us on what I am sure the Government will wish to claim is their radical—nay, modernising—agenda to seek to reduce this burden. I look forward to his eloquence on that point.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because he is truly rivalling Cicero and Demosthenes in terms of the eloquence with which he is addressing the House. In the light of his philosophical points, may I put it to my hon. Friend that he should endorse the words of the late and great Winston Churchill, who famously said:
"The . . . vice of capitalism is the uneven division of blessings, while the . . . virtue of socialism is the equal division of misery"?
Far be it from me to seek to compete with Cicero, but my hon. Friend has made his point well and I have no doubt that when it comes to awards, the one for the most sincere impression of Cicero will go to him, not to me.
What tangible proposals does the hon. Gentleman have to reduce regulations? We all agree that this is a very big problem; will he give us a flavour of what he feels we should do about it?
It is always dangerous to try to answer such interventions in full, but I try to do so. In this case, let me simply say that I shall be touching on one measure in a moment, but first let me give another example of regulation—the ridiculous six-step, three-formula rule on abnormal rents, which Labour Members pushed through and which will have a punitive effect on business leases. I shall enlighten the House on other measures later.
I have talked about the costs of complying both in time and money, but another problem with regulation is that it restrains enterprises; it restricts their ability to compete in the international world. I am not afraid of the international world, and neither, I am sure, is Denzil Davies, but as the burden of regulation has increased this nation's ability to compete has declined. We have moved from the fourth most competitive nation in the world to the eleventh in just seven years, and that is a very disappointing trend.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the working families tax credit and its £105 million cost per year, which he saw as a burden on business. Is he aware that research from the Department for Work and Pensions shows that almost 90 per cent. of employers have no problem whatever with administering that tax credit?
My hon. Friend Mr. Willetts highlighted the change that will happen, but if the hon. Gentleman were to talk to businesses in Wolverhampton he would find a very different picture from that portrayed in the Government statistics that happily spew out of Whitehall. Indeed, I have found that, for many small entrepreneurs, the problem is one of time. The Federation of Small Businesses found that the average time involved in dealing with the cumulative impact of regulations is now over 28 hours a working month. Many of those present will realise what an impact on family time that clearly has on many small businesses, and it is an unsustainable burden. That is why more and more of what I would describe as the serial entrepreneurs—the people who create and recreate enterprises—the people whom we want to keep, are retiring or selling up. That is a significant drain on the skills and the ambition that this country can ill afford to lose.
Over the past seven years, the tax system, as part of the regulatory burden, has become hideously complex. I am delighted that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has joined us, albeit briefly. He will recall that this year's Finance Bill contained 310 clauses and more than 500 pages of new tax rules and regulations.
Labour Members might regard that as lovely, but I suspect that their view is not shared by their taxpaying voters. It is a symptom of a Chancellor who, frankly, cannot help meddling, interfering and tinkering. Every year we have a raft of new rates, thresholds and rules. Let me, if I may, offer a classic example that directly affects small businesses.
In 2002, the Chancellor introduced a zero rate of corporation tax on the first £10,000 of profits—apparently a very good idea, although the Government had not looked at it carefully. Of course it created a significant tax advantage for small firms to incorporate. Indeed, as I recall, the Paymaster General told us that this was a gift horse, which small businesses should not look at in the mouth. That was the exact quote; I apologise for the English. However, the result, of which the Government had been warned, was a massive 43 per cent. increase in incorporations in the first 12 months. That was far more than the Government had expected, so suddenly they realised that they were losing more than £1 billion, as I understand it, in tax revenue that they had not accounted for. Suddenly, we were warned by the Paymaster General that this was not a gift horse but a tax avoidance scheme—what a farce! To compound the error, they have proceeded not to reverse the policy and admit their own error but instead to add a further change with a 19 per cent. non-corporate distribution tax rate, to try to recoup the loss. Therefore small businesses have in three years seen four changes on different rates, which directly impact on their profitability. That is a measure of the tinkering and meddling of this Chancellor.
No, I am sorry but I am short of time.
We also had the farce of the IR35 regulations on the self-employed. That is a crude attack on freelancers and the self-employed. The regulations create barriers to work, especially in information technology. Even worse than that, however, despite being warned at the start that they would cost the Government £900 million and that they must act immediately, we discover three years on that, of the 500 cases that the Inland Revenue brought to challenge that apparently pernicious threat, it has won fewer than two—a woeful record. It has created enormous uncertainty for thousands of entrepreneurs and enormous legal bills for taxpayers.
In conclusion, small businesses do not want the Chancellor interfering and meddling. They want smaller government. They are fed up with being unpaid tax collectors and unpaid benefit officers for the benefit of the Government. They want fewer, not better, regulations. Above all, small businesses want to know where they stand.
It is a long peroration, so hon. Members must be patient.
Small businesses need a tax system that is not more complex, constantly changing and something that they can never trust. They need a tax system that is simpler, fairer and lower. Frankly, this Labour Government have failed to deliver for small businesses. They talk positively about deregulation, yet they pass more regulations. They talk warmly about tax reform, yet what have they done? Each year, they have passed a record-sized Finance Bill, with more rules, regulations and statutory instruments. That is the truth and the evidence of their record.
Despite the talk, the result of all that is that when I talk to small business organisations—I am sure the same thing happens when many of my colleagues speak to them—I discover that they have finally realised that behind the spin and the smokescreen this Government will never deliver for them and that only the Conservative party understands small businesses. Frankly, it is only a Conservative Government who will deliver for them.
Not only am I delighted to contribute to the debate, but I do so with real pride, rather than fear. I am enormously proud of the record for people in my constituency who have told me how much they have benefited from the various measures introduced by the Government, and who are encouraged by the promise that the Queen's Speech holds. They share my pride in having the lowest interest and mortgage rates for nearly 50 years, the lowest inflation for 30 years and the highest employment since the 1970s. The fact is that millions of people, whether they are young or old, or have young families, are benefiting from those hard-won gains, and I notice that the statistics have not been contested.
A record number of people are in work. That has to be a welcome development for hard-working families in constituencies such as mine, where unemployment is down by 37 per cent. and about 1,640 people have got jobs thanks to the new deal. Moreover, the Government are doing more for pensioners than any other Government at any time in our history. In my constituency, the winter fuel allowance alone warmed the homes of 12,286 pensioners in 2004, and Labour is helping all pensioners to enjoy a decent and secure retirement.
Will the right hon. Gentleman be broad-minded enough to concede that the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered a savage and severe repeated annual blow to occupational pensions of a £5 billion impost, which damaged those pensions and added to the demoralisation of the stock market?
I would do a great disservice to the facts, and not reflect the views of pensioners in my constituency, were I to do as the hon. Gentleman asks. I do not know the figures for his constituency, but I am sure that he is broad-minded enough to acknowledge that the 3,775 pensioner householders in my constituency who now benefit from pension credit, which is worth an average of £41 a week, did not receive that under a Conservative Government. That is a welcome change.
Had I said before 1997 that the Government would be able to manage such a turnaround of fortune for my constituents, and for millions of other people the length and breadth of Britain, my claim would have been greeted with sheer derision by Conservative Members—or at least, by those who attended such a debate; there are few present today. One of the reasons for the deep gloom that I observe among Opposition Members is that the Government's record has wiped the smile off their faces and encouraged a real glow among millions of vulnerable people, including pensioners.
Let me give an example: only last week I received a phone call from a woman who had just collected £400 to help with heating and council tax. She said, "Mr. Clarke, I would like to thank you very much. I am 82 years of age and I have never held that amount of money in my hand in my life." That is little wonder when we consider how few years the Labour Government have been in office compared with the Governments of the past century.
The Queen's Speech is not only about young people and the elderly, important though they are; it is about children, too. The Conservatives left us a shameful legacy in the form of one of the highest rates of child poverty in Europe: one in three children were living in real poverty. Our mission to end child poverty is grounded in our determination to secure social justice. I shall not be satisfied until child poverty is abolished completely, at home and abroad. I heard what the Chancellor had to say today about his policies on international development, but, domestically, child tax credit and working tax credit awards are helping 6,400 hard-working families in my constituency alone. I welcome that.
Having taken the courageous decision to give freedom to the Bank of England, we must not, and will not, repeat the mistakes of the past. We shall never return Britain to the boom and bust of the 1980s and early 1990s, when mortgage rates hit 15 per cent. for a whole year—my constituents will certainly never forget that—the homes of 250,000 families were repossessed, and 1.5 million suffered negative equity. People are proud of their homes; home provides a sense of security and much happiness for many. That is why mortgage rates are of the utmost importance to the electorate. Sustained low rates are saving mortgage payers an average of £2,600 a year—almost £220 a month—compared with life under the Conservatives.
Last week the Leader of the Opposition was campaigning in Cornwall—a county bereft of Tory MPs. Mr. Howard took over from Mr. Duncan Smith a year ago, but the polls suggest that he is just as unpopular with the voters. No wonder the mild-mannered, erudite Jeremy Paxman, who covered the visit, headlined the report "Same Old Tories". That reminds me of the past.
"Fifty years ago was the decade in which Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told us we'd never had it so good. Life in the 1950s was considered to be simpler, better and free from the ills of modern society . . . That's the theory. In practice, a survey suggests that life is much better now than it was 50 years ago. In 2004 we are generally more prosperous, do not work as hard and enjoy a far more comfortable lifestyle than in 1954."
I have quoted from last Monday's edition of the Daily Mail, so it is official. As Macmillan said, we have never had it so good. In view of the Chancellor's impressive handling of the economy, unmatched for a very long time, perhaps we should brace ourselves for the Daily Mail's next headline, "Britain under Brown is even better".
Returning to my main theme—jobs in my constituency—I shall set out two excellent examples and refer to two separate issues on which I believe the Government must do more.Within the village of Gartcosh in my constituency there is a large derelict site. Under the previous Government it was a thriving steel strip mill employing 600 workers. Since the closure, which I campaigned against, I have continued my campaign to have the site redeveloped and prepared for meaningful jobs.
I am delighted to say that last month I learned that Scotland is to get a new-style crime-fighting agency, which will gather together several key law enforcement agencies on one site, and it will be based in a purpose-built headquarters at Gartcosh. Discussions about the new centre of excellence are still at an early stage, but significant resources have been made available to enable planning to get under way. A new organisation will tackle the growing and evolving threat from serious and organised crime—something that is addressed in the Queen's Speech.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not have any concern that what he has lost was a business that was producing wealth, whereas what he has gained is something in the public sector that will be living on his constituents' taxes?
I had great concern, which I expressed in the House, about what the previous Government did to the steel industry, and what is still being done. If that has led in some way to an increase in crime, I certainly welcome the jobs and the opportunities that will offer themselves.
The Serious Organised Crime Agency for Scotland will house the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency as well as the forensic science department of Strathclyde police. It is understood that the Scottish arm of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, prosecutors from the Crown Office, Customs and Excise north of the border and immigration service workers could also be relocated to the site. I am pretty sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome all of that in the fight, in which we all join, against crime.
It is anticipated that the development work on the new crime campus could start as early as next year, with completion expected in 2006–07. So the hon. Gentleman has helped me to make the point that under this Government the old Gartcosh steelworks is like a phoenix. It is about to rise from the ashes of 18 years of waste under the Conservative Administration and to go places. I am delighted that my constituency will accommodate this new modern facility.
As I turn to another important issue for my constituency, I welcome the presence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the Chamber. The Government are committed to improving the efficient delivery of public services and bringing government closer to the people, in particular by rationalising back office functions, working across administrative boundaries, improving the interface between the Government and citizens through new technology, and slimming down estates.
However, I must tell my right hon. Friend that in Lanarkshire, the Department for Work and Pensions is planning to deliver operations from 10 sites, with varying levels of service. The Jobcentre Plus facility that serves Coatbridge would become a benefit processing site, which would end the current standard of service delivery to my constituents. Coatbridge is at the centre, or heart, of surrounding communities, and has a population of approximately 50,000. Irrespective of where my constituents live, they visit the local town centre, and can make use of a full range of public services, including health, housing and the Department for Work and Pensions, as well as carrying out their weekly shopping.
Frankly, it is unacceptable that Coatbridge should be treated unfavourably in comparison with other towns in Lanarkshire. DWP officials, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work, know my views and my opposition to the current proposals. I remind my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the matter simply will not go away, because it is an injustice for my constituency.
I was born in Coatbridge, so I know that it is a large community, but does my right hon. Friend accept that in small communities such as Bo'ness in my constituency, the number of footfalls in the town centre is just as vital to the shops as it is in a large town? To remove a service such as a jobcentre contradicts the Government's declared intention of bringing the service closer to the people.
I take my hon. Friend's point, but in view of the time, if he will forgive me I shall turn to another major issue that impacts on my constituency, and which Opposition Members may welcome my raising—road haulage.
Earlier this month I received representations from the Road Haulage Association. Ms Glancey and Mr. Fraser visited my office and put their case with great clarity and firmness. They argued that the UK is the only country in the European Union to charge more tax on diesel than on petrol. Every time the price of diesel increases by 1p a litre it adds an average of £800 to the annual cost of running a heavy goods vehicle. They therefore want the Chancellor to abandon further increases in fuel duty—an increase was postponed from September to November—and introduce a temporary fuel duty de-escalator for diesel. Oil revenue income could be used to reduce the duty and compensate for the rising cost of fuel, the process being triggered when world prices exceed $50 a barrel.
I have already written to the Chancellor about the issue. Tomorrow we will learn in the pre-Budget report what he proposes to do about it and other critical matters. I expect that he will listen extremely carefully to representations, and will have something interesting to say. In that spirit, I congratulate the Government on the Queen's Speech. I welcome their proposals, which reflect reality in my constituency and beyond. They will help to build a progressive consensus, which is welcome in Scotland, throughout Britain and, I am sure, in Europe too.
In addressing the subject of the Queen's Speech and the economy, I shall dwell on a number of topics. In Northern Ireland over recent years it has been argued that if the economy were made more robust and there were significant investment, it would ensure that in areas where paramilitary groups have a vice-like grip on working class communities, their grip would be broken. I do not subscribe to that theory and have consistently warned against it. However, if that grip can be broken—and we hope that it can be—there is no doubt that a vibrant economy based on a peaceful democratic economic regime would assist local communities to build themselves and improve their local infrastructure. The Government should ensure that that can happen.
I shall return to the proposition that has been discussed in recent days with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. There has been much media speculation in Northern Ireland in recent weeks about a regeneration fund. I know that discussions have taken place between the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Office, and my party and others have engaged in discussions in an effort to establish such a fund. It has been termed a peace fund. The term "peace" has been devalued in Northern Ireland down the years, because of overuse and because it has been applied when anything but peace existed, so I prefer to speak of a regeneration fund. Whatever it is called, it is important that the economy in Northern Ireland should receive as much assistance as it can.
The Northern Ireland economy has been suppressed for 35 years, principally because of the ongoing regime of violence and terror, the remnants of which we are still dealing with. Compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, salaries are lower than average, we have higher power and electricity prices, we have much worse deprivation levels and, correspondingly, we have significantly worse health and mortality rates across the population. It is essential that the regeneration fund is targeted at alleviating those problems.
UK central Government funding per capita is already considerably higher in the Province. In round terms, 40 per cent. of the UK economy is the Government. In Northern Ireland the figure is 60 per cent.—that is, 50 per cent. higher. How much more money does the hon. Gentleman want?
The hon. Gentleman obviously was not listening when I outlined some of the reasons why there is such deprivation in Northern Ireland. If other parts of the United Kingdom had been fighting a terrorist war for 35 years, they might well suffer in similar ways. Through the establishment of a regeneration fund, we are endeavouring to make the Northern Ireland economy less—not more—dependent on the public sector. If we get the type of funding that we are looking for, we can ensure that the private sector becomes much more active in Northern Ireland than it has been heretofore.
For example, tourism is one area in which we can make significant progress in a short time. Other parts of the United Kingdom have greater levels of tourism and experience higher spending per head of population. Again, that is because we are still coming to terms with the aftermath of 35 years of violence, but we hope that violence will come to an end. If we see a definitive end to violence, the tourism sector can take off in a few short years.
We have a magnificent product to sell. I represent one of the most beautiful coastlines in Northern Ireland. The principal resorts of Portrush, Portstewart and Downhill can take advantage of a significant influx of tourists, provided we have not only the product, but the marketing and expertise to drive up the spend and ensure that the number of people purchasing the product increases.
The other issue is the problems that have beset the manufacturing sector, which are not peculiar to Northern Ireland but have afflicted communities across the United Kingdom. The manufacturing sector in Northern Ireland has experienced a particular downturn. I concur with many of the comments made by Mr. Prisk about small and medium-sized enterprises. If our economy gets a significant boost in the next few years, we can significantly increase the SME sector, which could take off as it has not done in the past.
The Government have funded Invest Northern Ireland, the agency responsible for delivering economic development, to a considerable degree in the two and a half years since its establishment—but many of us are still not impressed by Invest Northern Ireland's results. The economy in Northern Ireland has become more buoyant, as has the economy across the United Kingdom, but I have tabled numerous written questions to try to establish how effective Invest Northern Ireland is at driving potential inward investors beyond the Greater Belfast area. Unfortunately, the answers have been minimal. It appears to many people in Northern Ireland that the body responsible for promoting the economy has a capital city mentality. Invest Northern Ireland does not get out beyond the motorway, and we must try to ensure that it does. It must address that point.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer could address this issue, and I have written to him on several occasions to try to get him to do so. In Northern Ireland, as in many other parts of the UK, the black economy is prevalent. Other hon. Members and I have lobbied for a significant increase in personal allowances. If, for example, personal allowances and the threshold at which individuals begin to pay national insurance were raised to £10,000 per annum, it would no longer be productive for any small employer to pay someone who is in the black economy and consistently draws benefits.
That would apply particularly to part-time employment. The part-time economy in Northern Ireland is buoyant, but if the black economy is prevalent, it is a drain on the social security budget. I hope that the Chancellor will reconsider the issue and raise personal allowances significantly above the rate of inflation. If we had, for example, that £10,000 per annum limit, part-time employees could earn £200 per week and pay no income tax or national insurance, and that would reduce the amount of regulation for small employers with such employees.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest, but there is a certain inconsistency in his argument. He suggests radical changes in revenue raising, but equally wants large lumps of public expenditure to be devoted to one of the most disadvantaged parts of Britain. That equation does not work out. We have to increase revenue in order to have the resources to increase expenditure; otherwise we will end up like Bush's America, and that is not what we are after.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I shall return briefly to the issue that I was attempting to address. We are, I hope, emerging from 35 years of murder and violence, during which our economy has been depressed and resources that should have gone into our infrastructural capacity have been channelled and sidelined into fighting the war on terror. If those resources can be channelled into the infrastructure—tourism and so on—many of us believe that that will of itself help to regenerate the private sector economy and make us less dependent on the resources that we get from the block grant.
I shall conclude by asking the Government to deal with the problem of financial institutions. Last month I tabled an early-day motion on the availability of free cash machines—ATMs—across the United Kingdom. The fact that that EDM received the most signatures of any tabled in the past three years by a Northern Ireland Member of Parliament reflects the great level of concern. In the past six weeks, Nationwide building society has issued a report that concluded that UK financial institutions were charging personal account-holders £60 million to access their own money through ATMs. That is a disgrace. The Government should pressurise those financial institutions to display their charges clearly on ATMs to ensure that people, particularly in poor deprived areas, understand that they are being charged £1 or £1.50 to access their own money, even though in many cases they are taking out only £10 or £15.
The hon. Gentleman raises a point that increasingly worries many of us as we see the development of cash machines that charge people to access their money, especially in poorer areas where they do not have the option of getting it in other ways. Does he realise that the Treasury Committee is soon to consider that, and hopes to come up with some views to pass on to the Government about what can be done about this serious and increasing problem?
I thank the hon. Lady. I noticed that the Committee made that announcement just after I tabled the EDM; I do not know whether the two things were connected. I heartily recommend that hon. Members sign early-day motion 93, and if the Treasury Committee advocates strong, positive and decisive action in respect of the financial institutions, many of which make hundreds of millions of pounds, in order to assist people in deprived areas, it will be doing a service.
I am pleased to follow Mr. Campbell and I endorse the points that he made towards the end of his contribution about charging machines. I shall speak about that subject later.
I welcome the measures announced in the Queen's Speech that relate to economic affairs, especially the Government's commitment to introduce a consumer credit Bill. I endorse the comments of other hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend Mr. McFall, who chairs the Select Committee on the Treasury. We hope that the Bill will implement many of our Committee's recommendations on consumer credit. I also agree with my right hon. Friend that the matter is urgent. I hope that the measure will be introduced soon so that Parliament can begin work on it.
The Bill is important because existing consumer credit laws are approximately 30 years old. As the Government rightly stated in the White Paper, "Fair, Clear and Competitive", which was published last year, the need to overhaul consumer credit legislation has become pressing. I am pleased that Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members have so far made broadly positive noises about the Bill. I hope that there will be broad consensus for our reform of consumer credit legislation.
The need for reform is underlined by the dramatic change in the world of credit since existing credit laws and regulations were written. When the initial legislation was introduced, I believe that only one credit card was in circulation, whereas there are now more than 500. The range of credit facilities is phenomenally greater. The complexity of the marketplace that offers credit bears no resemblance to the simple world that existed when the laws were introduced. Access to many different forms of credit is far easier. It is therefore vital to bring the laws that govern credit up to date .
Indebtedness is another reason for dealing with credit. The subject has already surfaced in the debate and attention has focused on the fact that total household indebtedness in the UK has passed the £1 trillion mark. Mr. Letwin commented on that. There is no need to get over-excited about the £1 trillion figure. Although it is a new high, it reflects 10 years of growth in the economy and the rise in disposable income. Before becoming too concerned, it is important to stress the balancing figure in the other column, which covers total household assets and wealth. That figure is £6 trillion. The relationship between one and six is reasonably stable and does not suggest an overall problem of indebtedness in the economy. However, in specific sectors and groups of society, there are problems. Some are due to weaknesses in consumer credit legislation. We need to deal with that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be helpful to try to clarify responsibility for credit card fraud, especially card-not-present fraud, before it becomes a major crisis? People are not sure who is responsible once fraud has happened, and disputes between the financial institutions are increasing.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and I am right to suggest that there is a growing consensus about such issues. I am happy to endorse his comments. Later, I shall consider other fraud issues, which are also the product of the market's evolution in recent years and underline the need to tackle the matter.
Many more people have access to credit as provision has grown so fast in recent decades. There are important imperfections in the credit market, and that is another reason to review the legislation. Choice and competition in the credit market and product innovation are all fine—no one would have a problem with that. They drive the market and make it so successful. However, with those things have come other consequences that Parliament needs to address. There is far more complication and a great deal of consumer confusion in this market, as well as opaqueness in terms of the consumer trying to understand what the product is or what will be the consequences of taking a particular form of credit.
That creates confusion for the average customer—many of us would include ourselves in that category—but things become far worse for the vulnerable consumer and move on from confusion to potential entrapment in a downward spiral of debt, which can lead to tragic personal consequences, as we have seen in recent years. Reform of the law is needed to realign credit legislation with the real nature of today's credit market.
Credit is very important to the economy, as it aids personal flexibility, helps us all in managing our personal finances and creates more opportunity than there would be without it, but we can improve the working of the credit market and support all its benefits while eradicating some of its excesses and bad practices, which we in the Treasury Committee have been studying and becoming increasingly concerned about.
The new Bill, when we have it in front of us, must achieve a number of important balancing acts. Yes, we need a genuinely competitive market in consumer credit, but to have it we need informed consumers. Yes, we want fair competition to be promoted and encouraged, but that requires an end to misleading promotions. Yes, it is important to achieve transparency in trading in credit, but that requires an end to the obfuscation that distorts so much of the market. We must have fair trading in credit and between credit providers and credit consumers. That means an end to many of the practices that constitute irresponsible lending.
To focus on an important issue, the market falls well short of being genuinely transparent. The credit terms that come with most credit cards are printed in minuscule type and written in the most opaque language that it is possible to envisage. It is very hard for the average consumer to understand—if they can even see them to read them—the terms of the contract that they have entered into.
Also, it is impossible to compute the cost of credit. One thing that we on the Treasury Committee discovered in considering the issue is that an average consumer who takes two, three or four credit cards from different issuers, all with the same annual percentage rate, assumes that the cash cost of credit on those cards is the same. It is not. Hidden away in the small print are so many other variables that a person can do the same transaction over the same period on those four cards, all at the same APR, and the cash cost of the credit might vary by as much as 40 per cent. It is very difficult for consumers to keep up with all that. There are even different ways of calculating APR. That, too, adds to the lack of transparency.
There is some progress in the industry—I hope that some of it is due to the work that we have done in the Treasury Committee—as it is moving towards a standardised APR, which I welcome. The industry is also introducing summary boxes, which summarise the key information on the credit, the offers and the statement. That is movement in the right direction, but it has been rather grudging and there is still a lot further for the industry to go.
I see those as down-payments on the complete reform that is needed. The summary boxes are not yet standardised, so it is still difficult to compare providers. The penalty charges that attach to the cards are still not clear and they represent a large part of the spiralling cost incurred by those whose debt goes out of control.
The point that we must try to reach when we reform the consumer credit legislation is that the full extent of the deal into which the consumer has entered must be on the table before the consumer signs up. The problem at the moment is that far too much is discovered after entering into the contract. That is the key change that we need to make if we are really to achieve proper transparency in the industry.
I hope that the Bill gives us a chance to achieve fair trading in the industry. We have found far too many examples of where that does not exist. I want to stress one, and one only: the unsolicited issuing of credit card cheques. These are being sent repeatedly to 5 million households in Britain, all of them unsolicited. They come with glossy accompanying promotional literature. Many of the banks that issue those credit card cheques encourage people, as they send them, to spend them on holidays, cars, gifts for other people, or credit transfers to yet another credit card. There is always room, it seems, to print on the cheques themselves and the promotional literature all the things that they can be spent on, but there never seems to be room to print the APR, the actual credit cost, what will happen if one only makes minimum payments and so on. There can only be one justification from the industry's point of view—it is an inducement to the consumer to use up more and more of their credit limit.
I have put the question to many providers of credit card cheques when they have appeared before our Committee: what is the justification for unsolicited issuing of credit card cheques? Answers come back along the following lines: credit card cheques provide convenience to consumers; they cover instances of payment when one cannot pay with a credit card or bank cheque; or they are helpful for balance transfers. All those are reasons for having credit card cheques as part of the credit business, but not one of them is a reason for the unsolicited issuing of credit card cheques. They are delivered repeatedly only because providers hope that they will land on the doormat on the same day as a glossy holiday brochure, and consumers will simply find it irresistible, put two and two together, and end up paying six for the privilege. It is simply an irresponsible extension of credit.
There is quite a simple answer. The industry can make the argument for the existence of credit card cheques—I have no problem with that—but the consumer should opt in to them, not have to face repeated issuing of them when they are not requested and not used. In the White Paper, "Fair, Clear and Competitive", to which I referred earlier, it is suggested that the unsolicited issuing of credit card cheques "could" or "may" be one of the instances of irresponsible lending. I would suggest that it "is" an irresponsible form of lending. There is no justification for it, and I hope that we will use the opportunity of the forthcoming Bill to end the practice of the unsolicited issuing of credit card cheques.
I also hope that when we consider the Bill in more detail, we can deal with the excessive interest rate problem in relation to store cards—credit cards issued by retailers. I can describe such interest rates as excessive, but it is not my description. When the Select Committee had the bosses of the four main banks in front of us, we asked them what they thought constituted an excessive rate of interest. The head of Barclays was unwilling to define it, but the others could—they put it in the region of 20 per cent. or more, against the backdrop of current base rates. Most of the interest rates charged by store cards are well in excess of that, so we can describe them as excessive—they are condemned as excessive by the industry itself, not just by consumer associations.
There are 21 million store cards in circulation, £5 billion a year is spent on them, 14 million adults have them, but they all charge excessive interest rates. I hope that we will have an opportunity, in consideration of the Bill, to do something about that, and to act on conclusions already reached by the Office of Fair Trading, whose report stated that
"the level of interest rates on store cards does not appear to be disciplined by competitive pressures."
We must move to a genuinely competitive market, and if we do we should see an end to excessive interest rates on store cards.
I want to pick up on the observations made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry about charging automated teller machines. That issue will also be examined by the Committee, and it is another area in which it is important to review regulations on money and credit. There is an explosive growth of charging ATMs. There are 20,000 of them around the United Kingdom, and they grew by 40 per cent. last year. Of the 5,600 new cash machines installed across the UK last year, 63 per cent. were charging machines. We are nearing the point at which there will be more charging machines than free machines, because some banks are selling their networks to charging operators. This means that we are paying for our own money.
The industry argues that it is all about convenience. It says that in remote areas, if there were no charging machine there would be no machine. That is not a convincing argument. Many charging machines are in areas that could not possibly be described as "convenience" locations. In Leicester square, for instance, there is a Travelex charging machine, which does not warn people that they will have to pay but tells them that they will have to do so only after they have completed five screen actions. On the other side of the square, there are free cash machines. That constitutes a total lack of transparency, and it is a further reason for my hope that the consumer credit Bill will deliver a transparent industry.
There is an urgent need for Parliament to consider this issue. We need an opportunity to lend a hand to the millions of consumers in Britain who are wrestling with the complex, obscure and frequently misleading world of credit.
I have a great deal of sympathy with what was said by the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) and for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) about consumer protection in the context of financial services. However—unsurprisingly, perhaps—I want to talk about the role of information technology in the UK economy, a subject on which Cicero and Demosthenes did not regularly speak.
For a number of reasons, IT is now centre stage in the political debate. It is no longer an issue on the fringes for the anoraks to talk about; it is something that we all need to consider. The Chancellor emphasised its centrality when he told us that he had already factored into his public spending plans the Gershon review savings, many of which depend on the success or otherwise of IT projects.
Government affects the sector as a whole because about half all IT spending in the UK is now made by the public sector. As Government spending plans depend increasingly on efficiency gains that themselves depend on IT, the expenditure is being ramped up. Sadly, the track record of Governments of all colours in procuring and implementing systems has been characterised by problems that we regularly examine on the Public Accounts Committee.
Many of the mistakes that we see continue to be repeated, and this year's programme contains a huge amount of new IT risk. Both the identity card system and the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise merger will be very IT-intensive. Major contracts from earlier years will also be of interest this year, notably the national health service's national IT programme, the large-scale outsourcing for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has already been awarded, and the £4 billion infrastructure project for the Ministry of Defence, which is due to be awarded early in the new year.
The record of problems that should form a background to our consideration has come to the fore in recent weeks with the failure to implement the Child Support Agency system effectively, and the desktop system crash at the Department for Work and Pensions, which was truly spectacular in technical terms. It takes real skill to bring down 60,000 work stations. Normally, servers are the problem; one machine is killed, and no one else can gain access. These people managed to kill 60,000 machines simultaneously, which deserves respect from a technical if not an operational point of view.
Stories of IT failures have been well rehearsed both in Committees and here, and I would rather spend my time suggesting solutions that I believe would produce a credible Government IT strategy on which we could pin spending plans with a degree of expectation of actually being able to meet them. I characterise them as "people, practices and purposes". IT problems often lie not in the detail of the technology, but in the "people, practices and purposes" that surround it. Let us begin with "purposes", sometimes described as "requirements" or specifications. We should view it in a broader context, and start by asking what any system is for. Far too often we do not look at the context of what we are trying to achieve in the wider world, but simply mechanise existing systems.
One example of our losing track of the wider world is the tax credit system. Like me, other Members doubtless get regular visits from constituents who complain that they have been overpaid tax credits and are now being asked to pay them back. The system works; it correctly calculates that such people have been overpaid, informs them—in a way that is completely unintelligible to me, and certainly to them—and then seeks to reclaim the money. In doing so, it loses track of the wider point that we are giving these people money in the first place because they are on low incomes, so our ability to reclaim it is bound to be limited. The purpose of delivering money to people on low incomes has been lost in the process of creating a system that works well at a technical level—it does not lose the Treasury's money—but which does not deliver what the customer actually needs.
My hon. Friend is making a valuable point about the impact on people with low incomes. Just today, a constituent got in touch with my office to explain how their problem was dealt with. They phoned the helpline, but the system is so chaotic that it told my constituent to write to their MP because there is nothing that it can do.
I have had precisely the same experience; people have come to my surgery to point out that they have been given exactly the same advice. Such incidents show that, in the broader context, the system is not working, irrespective of whether the technology is doing what it is supposed to do. These are the issues that we need to debate. Another example is the huge electronic medical records programme that the national health service is introducing.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. Before he leaves the subject of tax credits, may I ask whether he will join me in congratulating the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on insisting that claims made by people in receipt of income support will not be handed over to the child tax credit system? The decision has been delayed yet again, and it is clear that the Department for Work and Pensions is not confident that those on the lowest incomes would get the money that they need if they were handed over to that system. Long may the Secretary of State carry on battling in favour of long-established benefits and against this scheme, which is still so unreliable.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point very effectively. I agree entirely that if there were clear evidence that a particular programme would cause distress, we should not proceed with it simply because it had been started and a target date set. I am at one with the hon. Gentleman on the decision that has been taken.
The subject of tax credits appears to be a minefield. I give way to my hon. Friend.
I am grateful and I shall be brief. Does my hon. Friend agree that this issue is very relevant in the light of the Chancellor's intention to remove many people from the various Departments, and of the recent strike action taken by professional civil servants affected?
I have an enormous amount of sympathy with my hon. Friend's observation. As our surgery experience shows, many such changes are based on a business plan that involves getting rid of lots of people, but which does not recognise that, in the early months of its implementation—but hopefully not in the long term—more people are needed to deal with teething troubles. Otherwise, a huge backlog develops. Existing queries cannot be answered and more queries arise, leading to a cycle of difficulty. Sadly, that is what is happening with certain aspects of the tax credit system.
The NHS IT programme will be another major issue for debate in this House. To my mind, the purpose of that electronic medical records system is to improve patient health by ensuring that information is available to support clinical decisions. Its purpose is not to create electronic records per se, which would have no value except where they lead, directly or indirectly, to patient benefit. Again, we should think about such systems in terms of what they are trying to achieve for the public, rather than as the simple creation of electronic records. We frequently fail to debate such issues in that way.
The shifting of purposes should always be a clear warning of potential problems, and in my view—it will not be shared throughout the House—identity cards are a case in point. Whatever the merits of ID cards and the associated politics, they are certainly an example of shifting purposes. Initially, they were wanted for their own sake, but since then we have gathered up an ill-defined set of functions—preventing illegal working, national security, access to NHS services—and tacked them on. To me, that rings very loud bells as regards whether the system will work. I cannot see it as having a clearly defined purpose. We could have a separate debate about whether it would meet those requirements, which seem to be hazy.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. If I may say so, it is one anorak giving way to another. Does he agree that the gateway system introduced by the Government is another problem? The whole point of having a gateway review is that a project should not go ahead until gateway zero has been initiated, yet quite often—the hon. Gentleman mentioned the NHS as an example—we enter gateway three a long time after gateways one and two have been ignored.
In the case of ID cards, we know that the scheme has been through the first gateway, as the general feasibility has been looked at. One of the problems that the House will face is that, after public money has been spent and the best Treasury brains in the Office of Government Commerce have been applied to the project, we will not be able to see the outcome. We will have to debate ID cards in the knowledge that a report into feasibility has been drawn up, but is unavailable to us. I know that Mr. Bacon is working on the task of gaining access to the gateway reviews. After all, we are taking decisions about spending public money, so the information should be made available to us.
Gateway reviews are one of the practices that should be followed. Many have been dealt with in National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee reports and, to be fair to the Government, there are some signs of hope in the work of the Office of Government Commerce and, indeed, of some Departments improving their game. I believe that we should compliment Departments when they start to get things right, but there are still clouds on the horizon, especially in the apparent lack of competition in the market, which leads to companies that have failed in one area still picking up lucrative contracts from other Departments.
It is an easy target, but Electronic Data Systems is often singled out for its problems with tax credit systems, Child Support Agency systems and high-profile incidents such as what happened last week at the Department for Work and Pensions, a story that writes itself. Yet EDS remains a major partner and one of only two consortiums remaining for the £4 billion defence information infrastructure project that will be awarded next year. Understandably, people ask how we can end up with failure being rewarded by the award of another contract.
Only in very few cases have contractors been written out altogether; Accenture, in its old guise of Andersen, was prevented from bidding for Government contracts for a while after a national insurance record system cock-up. Generally, we see the same faces coming back. The problem is not with individual companies. The problem is systemic, because contracts are geared in such a way that smaller innovative companies simply cannot get in. They can find no way in and tell us daily of their difficulties in obtaining Government work. The contracts, tender documents and costs of bidding prevent those companies from bidding for that work, even though they could demonstrate better value for money.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We have already, quite rightly, done away with the private finance initiative for IT projects, but the level of in-house expertise, which I am coming on to now, is critical to getting these projects right. We have, sadly, developed a culture of tolerating failure in software development, which is simply not necessary. There are voices calling for proper software engineering principles to be applied, as mentioned in a very good report produced by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Computer Society. We should listen to what is being said. Correctly engineered software does not have to cost more than buggy software, yet there is a sort of lazy assumption out there that these things simply have to go wrong. That is not true. The engineering principles are there; the problem is that they are not being applied.
Improvements to Government performance could be made by instilling these disciplines in departmental IT centres of excellence. If we are to have IT centres of excellence, let us ensure that they are truly excellent and that they do not adopt some of the lazy practices offered by suppliers over the years. They must secure best practice rather than state of the art. State of the art is terrible; they need something better than that. We should use information architects, which is an important recommendation in the Royal Academy of Engineering report, and we should have requirement specialists to get the designs right from the beginning. We need to ensure that a broader range of companies is able to bid into the public sector market.
The most important, and often the most neglected, element of any IT project is the people. Industry—British Gas, BT and others—has learned to look at such projects as business change projects, rather than as technology projects. They are not about technology but about changing the business, with technology as a large element of that change. An example of how far the public sector is from that attitude is the national programme for NHS IT. The technology procurement appears robust—I am sure that Richard Granger's team will have bought some good technology—but the people have been left so far behind that the technical press, and even the more general press, are full of stories of clinicians in the NHS who are fighting the very programme that is supposed to assist them in their work. The project is getting the people side desperately wrong. If anything brings down the programme and leads to significant wastage of the £6 billion committed to it, it is likely to be on the people side, not the technology side.
We must ensure that the NHS now gives priority to working with its staff to implement the new IT systems and puts money into training. The NHS must ensure that it has in-house expertise so that people can use the systems and derive maximum benefit, rather than leaving the matter to external contractors.
The Government can improve their IT procurement, to the benefit of the public purse and, most importantly, the users of the services, if the will is there. The Government can do more to create a climate in which the UK IT sector can flourish to the benefit of the economy as a whole; the pointers to what needs doing are already there. Ofcom should be robust in promoting a competitive telecoms market and can expect a lively year ahead as it grapples with some of the more difficult issues of telecoms competition that have been left to ride over several years. The Government can respond urgently to the e-skills UK report, "IT Insights", which highlights the improvements needed in work force training. Other hon. Members have mentioned our competitiveness with China and India, but the report tells us what problems we will have if we do not address the issue of skills, all the way up to chief executive and ministerial level. We need IT skills across the work force if we are to be able to make correct and informed decisions.
We need to ensure that we continue to review our support for research and development in technology to ensure that it is genuinely additional and efficiently delivered, without the complexity that often makes it inaccessible to the very companies that would most benefit from it. Such companies often say that they cannot make their way through the bureaucracy to access the funds that are supposed to be available to support innovation, or that they have to employ an extra layer of specialists to do so for them.
I am not in the camp of those Jeremiahs who wish to see the Government fail in their objectives. That is especially so in the case of the improvement of public services through new technology. Indeed, I am desperately keen that the Government should succeed in that agenda. It is not in anyone's interests that such projects should continue to fail. It is a high-risk agenda, but not an impossible one. I hope that the Government will continue to learn the lessons. The Liberal Democrats believe that our approach to the issue is credible. We could achieve savings through the use of new technology, but it is incumbent on all parties who put forward a cost-saving agenda for the public sector to demonstrate that they have the credibility, have learned the lessons and will deliver.
I shall not follow Mr. Allan on the subject of IT in public services, although he made some good points about greater competition. The Government have to be clear about what they want from such contracts and there should be penalties for failure as well as rich rewards.
I welcome the programme of new legislation for next year that was announced in the Queen's Speech, including the 37 Bills—some of which are complex and important—the Chancellor's financial proposals in his pre-Budget report tomorrow, and the commitments in Labour's election manifesto, when it is published. The one thing that cannot be said about this Government is that they have run out of steam. They have plenty of ideas for improving society and the lives of our people.
I want to address one issue that the Government will have to address more fully in the next year—pension reform. I shall indicate some components of such reform that I think would achieve the most favourable outcome for the many, not just the few.
First, I shall give the House two recent examples that show pension schemes in a mess. On
"More than 1,000 former and current workers at APW—the UK electronics manufacturer, which announced the winding-up of its pension scheme yesterday—are set to lose up to 80 per cent. of their retirement savings . . . The wind-up is the second such case this week, after Henlys, the bus group, left more than 2,000 workers in jeopardy when it announced that it would be winding up its pension scheme . . . Despite a fortnight of debate over the final structure of the privately funded Pensions Protection Fund and the Government-backed Financial Assistance Scheme, members of the APW and Henlys schemes are still set to fall outside the requirements to qualify for either lifeboat."
That is appalling, although I pay tribute to the Government for bringing in the pension protection fund and the financial assistance scheme.
Another report in the same paper on the same day was headed, "Royal Mail warns it must double pension contributions", and disclosed a scandal that is repeated in many other companies. The report stated that
"for the previous 13 years, Royal Mail had taken a pension holiday, making no contributions at all."
The fact that companies and employers can do that is an enormous flaw in the current system, especially as the report went on to note:
"However, the organisation's top management . . . stand to collect millions of pounds in performance bonuses."
Some people get their bonuses by not putting money into pension funds.
Those are not isolated scandals; they are a flaw in the system, and not least in the Chancellor's approach of maintaining that his responsibility is the prudent management of public finances, which is laudable, while leaving the private sector largely to operate as it wants. Companies hold in trust, but are untrustworthy with, people's savings and workers' pensions.
On pensions, the Chancellor has said:
"If the voluntary sector"
—he meant the private sector—
"doesn't work, we'll have to look beyond that."
The examples I gave are among the many that show that the system does not work and that it is time for the Government to look beyond it.
The Tories attacked the Chancellor for abolishing the tax dividend on pension funds. I refer to the "Daily Politics" Tory conference special on
"the worst stealth tax of the lot".
Andrew Neil asked him whether he would restore the money and the hon. Gentleman replied:
"We're not in a position to make that pledge. We're not making that pledge."
Mr. Neil concluded:
"All right, so the £5 billion in tax stays."
The Tory attack is thus somewhat feeble.
The Chancellor is not out of the woods as far as I am concerned, however. On the "Today" programme on
"the result is that companies should be more profitable after taxes".
That was not picked up at the time, as it was Labour's conference week and news moves fast, but in effect the Chancellor said that he had taken out of workers' pensions to put into company profits. That is not appropriate from a Labour Chancellor and he will have to arrange to put back that money, and a lot more, over the next period.
I believe that there has to be dignity and well-being now for today's pensioners, and I praise the Government on their efforts on that. They were right to tackle the appalling legacy of pensioner poverty that they inherited from the last Tory Government. In 1997, 2.7 million pensioners were in poverty and expected to live on a total of just £69 a week. The poorest pensioners are now £1,800 a year better off and absolute pensioner poverty has been reduced by two thirds.
Savings used to be harshly penalised by a reduction in benefits. The new pension credit has changed that. The setting up of the pension protection board, to help the workers in those firms that go broke and wind up their pension fund, is also a very welcome move by the Government. But there need to be decent pensions for people in the future, and to achieve that reform is needed.
The recent interim report of the Pension Commission, chaired by Adair Turner, formerly of the CBI, said that a sustainable comprehensive approach was required for the long term. There are, it argued, four "unavoidable choices" for policy makers, at least one of which will have to be made. The first is that pensioners become poorer relative to the rest of society. The second is that taxes and/or national insurance contributions devoted to pensions will need to rise, or public spending on other services will need to be reduced, presumably to balance tax and national insurance. The third is that each generation will have to save more and be reliant on the next generation also saving more. The fourth is that retirement ages will have to rise. Without action on this, the report said,
"pensioners will on average suffer about a 30% decline in their incomes relative to average income between now and 2035."
So doing nothing is not an option and the Government will have to start to address the issue in a realistic way from next year.
I oppose raising the retirement age; I also favour a bigger basic state pension for every older person in this country. I would like the pension linked to earnings and to be free from means-testing. The Government's minimum income guarantee raised the incomes of the poorest among the elderly, but I have seen figures showing that the basic state pension is now just 15 per cent. of average earnings. In 1980, before Mrs. Thatcher abolished its link to earnings, it was 23 per cent., so in my view the Government have to raise the basic state pension.
I favour a compulsory savings requirement upon all people to individual savings accounts, which cannot be accessed until retirement or, for a spouse, death. There should also be compulsion for employers to contribute at a proper level, higher than now. They should also lose the power to manage and, potentially, to raid their workers' pension fund. The Exchequer should insert an initial sum, like that proposed with the child bond—which I very much favour, although the Liberals opposed it—into the individual savings accounts, and add a state contribution to extra private savings made, say a pound for every pound saved.
There should also be an extra boost from the Exchequer for women's pensions. Many women lose out on their occupational pension because they undertake important but lower paid jobs and miss out for a long while in their working career due to the time that they take out to raise their children.
I am not against Exchequer use of the private sector. It could use the private sector to manage the savings account sum in total, but managers' performances would need to be monitored and their contract terminated if their performance was inadequate.
The Government would also need to address the impact of stock market fluctuations upon savings for retirement, perhaps by adopting a system whereby they inserted extra cash during bad times and took it back at times of stock market rises. It should be possible to do that consistently in this day and age.
Effective robbery from pension savings by fat cat directors of finance companies who take excessive salaries and dividends for themselves, even when the savings that they are managing are underperforming, must be stopped. It is also time that the salaries, dividends and other payments that directors receive from companies, including their pensions, are published in annual accounts and not kept secret, as is often the case. I introduced a Bill to require that in the last Session and I hope that the Government will take up that point.
Those are my basic components for pension reform, which I hope will be taken on board. Over the next year, I hope that the Government will be for the workers, not the bosses, and for the many, not the few.
I cannot sum up the Queen's Speech any better than Anatole Kaletsky, who said that it is a rag-bag of unfortunate measures. It is one of the most illiberal Queen's Speeches for a long time. On identity cards, I walked past eight policemen this morning. That is the most I have seen in many towns in my constituency in the 12 years that I have been a Member of Parliament. Each one could have stopped me and asked for my identity card. Had they done so, I would have been late to make my speech. That shows what an ID card could do to the relationship between this country's citizens and the police.
The Queen's Speech is set against a world environment in which two particularly important things have happened. One is the general situation in the middle east, which has severe consequences. It has led not only to a huge oil price spike but to a significant cost, both here and in the USA, of keeping our troops in Iraq. That, of course, has led to the special provision by the Chancellor. The second is the substantial decline of the dollar, which has now reached a rate of almost 50p. That is because other world uncertainties have led commentators and others to concentrate on the very large twin deficits in the States and here.
The Chancellor has had an extremely lucky tenure since he has been at No. 11 because of the stable world environment. From what I said, it is clear that I believe that that might, sadly, become less stable. That will give him even greater problems in meeting his fiscal and monetary targets. In tribute to him, but in concert with many other central banks around the world, central banks have become much better at managing the macro-economy, injecting liquidity into an economy when it is needed, but also engaging in monetary tightening when economies are starting to overheat. That has led to a much more stable economic cycle.
I do not recognise the description of a stable world environment. We had the Asian contagion, which the British economy managed to work its way through because of our economic policies, and the aftermath of 9/11.
My comments on the stability of central banks include the Chinese and other Asian central banks. In particular, the United States Federal Reserve and Alan Greenspan's work, and the Governor of the Bank of England, have led us to manage the macro-economy in a much more stable way. That has been helpful.
The decline of the dollar will be important to both the American economy and our own and could well lead to a slowdown in world demand and growth. I hope that the same will not happen here, but there is no doubt that imports to the American economy will now be more expensive. America has been living on its huge fiscal deficit and on cheap imports, principally from China and India, but the US deficit and the huge Chinese economic surplus will have to be addressed in the not-too-distant future.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of this country's industries that operate in a dollar market is aerospace? A weak dollar could cause problems to the aerospace industry, which is important in my constituency in the north-west and in many other parts of the country.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, but aerospace is not the only industry for which the weak dollar might cause difficulties—there are several others. It is something that concerns us all. I hope that in the coming months the central banks of America and Europe will pay greater attention to the problem and see whether the dollar's further decline can be prevented.
Under present policy, over the next Parliament taxes set by the Chancellor will rise to their highest level for 24 years. The UK public sector has undergone a period of dramatic expansion and taxes are now rising to pay for it. They will have to rise even further after the next election, to pay for the Chancellor's black hole. Many people predict that next year the fiscal deficit will rise massively to about £20 billion—the equivalent of 8p on income tax. My right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has set up the James committee, of which the Gershon committee—to which, as usual, the Government gave very limited terms of reference—is a pale imitation. The James committee has real teeth and I understand that it has identified savings of approximately £20 billion. The message for the British people is simple: under the Chancellor's proposals, there will be a £20-billion black hole and their taxes are likely to go up by the equivalent of 8p on income tax; under my right hon. Friend's proposals, taxes will stay the same for the same level of public services. The choice at the next election will be clear.
How does the hon. Gentleman explain the fact that the ratio of what used to be called the Government deficit to the national debt now stands at 32.7 per cent., compared with the 43.6 per cent. ratio that Labour inherited in 1997?
The difference is that we were at a different stage of the economic cycle. At that point, we were on a rising part of the cycle; the Chancellor is in difficulty because now we are on a declining part of the cycle. He will have great difficulty filling the black hole; the only way he can do it is by putting up taxes.
In 2000–01, the Government were spending about £1 billion a day, whereas it is estimated that by 2006–07, they will be spending about £1.5 billion a day—a 50 per cent. increase in public expenditure in five years. That is not sustainable, but even if it was, we would have to ask whether it is buying results. As my hon. Friend Mr. Flight said, measured internationally, that is very inefficient public expenditure.
I wish to mention specifically one or two stealth taxes that have crept in. The first was highlighted in a fairly sharp exchange about the savings ratio. One of the nasty stealth taxes that have appeared in the Government's fiscal policy is the measure to cut ISAs in 2006, so that ISAs in equities will be cut from £7,000 to £5,000 and ISAs in cash from £3,000 to £2,000. Given that some of our lowest tax payers derive great benefit from ISAs, that is a spiteful measure.
The change by which Business Link will no longer be able to recover VAT will mean that millions of pounds that had been available to help small companies with tax and employment advice will go straight to the Chancellor. It is a small and mean-minded measure. Stephen Alambritis of the Federation of Small Businesses said in relation to this measure:
"We would be very concerned about any fall in overall revenue which would affect the efficiency and effectiveness of Business Link's operation."
Surely we want to encourage the 3.5 million small businesses, about which my hon. Friend Mr. Prisk spoke so eloquently.
There is also the disaster of pension credit, which was mentioned by Mr. Cohen, whom I am pleased to follow. Pension credit was introduced by the Department for Work and Pensions, which, incidentally, now has more employees than all our armed forces put together. Pension credit, introduced by the Department in October last year, guaranteed an income of £105.45 a week. That is good for anyone over 60. It guarantees £160.95 for couples. However, effectively it taxes savings of £6,000, which is only £120 a week, at more than 40 per cent. If the full indexation rules remain the same—the pensioners' withdrawal tax—experts estimate that as much as 80 per cent. of the pensioner population will eventually qualify for means-tested benefit. That is a situation that Mr. Adair Turner of the CBI has rightly described as unsustainable. It is wrong that pensioners who have a small amount of pension are taxed on that small amount and are often worse off, or no better off, than someone who has managed to organise their lives to claim the maximum amount of benefits. I know that my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench have proposals to deal with this problem.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Does he agree that there is also the human question for pensioners? Is it not humiliating for the oldest members of our community to have to give to strangers their personal financial details through this disgraceful process?
My hon. Friend has eloquence when he speaks on behalf of small businesses and even more eloquence when it comes to clairvoyant powers. He has touched on exactly what I was about to say.
The minimum income guarantee system, which was introduced by the Government, is an utter disgrace. Some of the poorest pensioners in the land—about 2 million—do not get the full MIG because they are too proud, for one reason or another, to claim it. The basic state pension is only £70 a week. The difference between that and the MIG of £105 affects some of the poorest people who cannot afford properly to heat their house or to feed themselves. That is an utter disgrace. The proposal to link pensions to earnings to improve the lot of our poorest pensioners is greatly to be welcomed. I think that the British people will greatly welcome it too.
My hon. Friend is bringing to the debate a welcome sense of realism about pensions and also a sense of despair among many pensioners. There is a looming crisis, for example, about the possible and uncertain ending of the traditional pension book in February next year. This will affect many very elderly pensioners who are infirm and fragile in their health. When the Government first mentioned this, they talked about an exception service. We have heard nothing about that for the past two years. I want a statement from the Government on this looming crisis in the very near future.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend Mr. Willetts will refer to the matter when he makes his winding-up speech. Indeed, he is nodding. This is an area where the Government, who claim to be the champion of some of the poorest people in the country, have failed our poorest pensioners. I put it as strongly as that because I believe that that is the case. Something needs to be done. I have no doubt that there will be a clear choice at the next election.
I want to refer to what I call fiscal drag. It is the issue of not uprating allowances in line with inflation, let alone earnings. The example of property taxes is perhaps the most stark. I declare my interest—it is in the Register of Members' Interests—as a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, so I do know a thing or two about property. It is a disgrace that the threshold for stamp duty is set at £60,000 when the average house price is £100,000. When the threshold was set, the average house price—my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, who also knows a great deal about property will correct me if I am wrong—was £22,500. The ratio is therefore the wrong way round, and a huge number of low and middle earners with modestly valued houses will be caught by the tax for the first time. It is a tax on mobility, including job mobility, which we desperately need to maintain a competitive economy. That feeds through to the allowance for inheritance tax. If we uprate stamp duty to reflect the increase in house prices, we must also uprate the exemption for inheritance tax from £262,000 to about £300,000. That is a much more realistic allowance for inheritance tax.
In his 2002 Budget, the Chancellor forecast net borrowing of £13 billion in 2003–04. A year later, he said that it would be £27 billion, but it turned out to be £35 billion, or 3.1 per cent. of gross domestic product. In his first tenure—and I listened to him hour after hour—he said that he was providing prudence for a purpose. Goodness knows how often we heard those words. Prudence has now jumped out of the window—poor Prudence has gone, never to be seen again by the Chancellor, who is now running the country into huge debt and does not know how he will get us out of it, except by taxing the people of this country more and more. The tax take has doubled in the past seven years, costing the average family £5,000 each. The British people have a stark choice—either their taxes are increased significantly under another Labour Government, or they can have a Conservative Government who will hold taxes at the same rate, do their best to reduce them over the cycle, yet produce a better level of public services. The choice is clear—I am sure that they will want to vote Conservative.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Clifton-Brown, who is clearly drawing up battle lines for the election. I merely point him to the latest polls showing how people may vote in any election in the coming year.
The themes of the Queen's Speech were clearly security and opportunity for all in a changing world. Before talking about opportunity, I congratulate the Chancellor on his economic record and the achievement of economic stability, which underpins all our subsequent policies as a Government and gives us the chance at long last to invest in and reform our sorely neglected public services, ensuring that we can create a fairer society with opportunity for many people who were left behind in the years of Conservative government. That economic stability has been achieved through political choices about, for example, the independence of the Bank of England and monetary policy, as well as a system of fiscal rules that have enabled us to steer a steady course through internationally choppy waters.
Whatever the Opposition's motivation in attempting to paint a different picture, the economic facts are unchallengeable and need to be put on the record. We have had growth in every quarter for the past seven years, thus achieving the longest period of continuous growth for 200 years. We have had the longest period of low inflation and interest rates since the 1960s, and while the Government have been in office 2 million more jobs have been created. Unemployment is at its lowest for 29 years. In my constituency, there has been a 57 per cent. fall in unemployment, and youth unemployment has been wiped out. Those are the lowest ever figures for my constituency, and I will be proud to campaign on them when the time comes.
Economic stability and growth have enabled sustained public sector investment in our schools and hospitals, child care, skills and the knowledge economy. For example, in Wirral borough, before a Labour Government were elected, capital investment in schools ranged from £1.5 million to £2 million a year. That has steadily risen to £18 million a year, and we have a transformed infrastructure in which our children can learn. In addition, there is a £55 million private finance initiative project that will deliver seven new schools.
Many people would have thought that such a changed environment for my constituents was impossible when the Government came to power in 1997. It contrasts with our experience of 3 million unemployed, 1.5 million households in negative equity and constant cuts in public services, which was the Tory record. We have heard today of the £35 billion of cuts that are the Tory threat and their platform for the next election.
I welcome many Bills in the Queen's Speech. I shall speak briefly about the consumer credit Bill. My hon. Friend Mr. Plaskitt made an extremely good speech dealing with the details of the problem that must be confronted in the Bill, including the introduction of summary boxes to deal with confusing interest rates, misleading advertising and the proliferation of complex products with opaque and confusing prices, sometimes with extremely high rates of interest, which are not clear, and even higher rates of penalty charges, which can often drag modest borrowers into serious trouble. We have all had examples of that in our constituencies.
I had an example of that this very week, with a constituent who took out a loan and has been ill. A reduced payment was agreed, but the interest payment is more than his monthly payment, and he now owes quite a lot more than he originally borrowed. Such a state of affairs is a disgrace.
Indeed. I hope that with the passage of the consumer credit Bill, we will ensure that such practices are brought to an end.
I want to deal with the prospects for the future, now that we have the economic situation triumphantly right. With the basics in place, we have an opportunity to carry out more structural change and engender greater protection and fairness for all our citizens. I shall spend the next part of my speech talking about the realities of post-neo-classical endogenous growth theory. I refer to the opportunity and anti-discrimination Bills in the Queen's Speech. Translated into English, that high-falutin' economic phrase means that if people are happier and are treated more fairly, they will generally be more productive and work harder, and the economy will benefit. We should remember that and act on it.
I am happy to see in the Queen's Speech a welcome package of reforms promoting protection from discrimination and exploitation for many people who are not properly protected at present. I have in mind the Disability Discrimination Bill and the equality Bill. I shall make a case for extending our activity to introduce what I call a single equality Bill updating the equality legislation that the joint commissions will be tasked with putting into effect.
The Disability Discrimination Bill will help the 14,000 people in Wallasey who suffer from some form of disability, as it will help the 14,000 people, on average, in every constituency who struggle to manage with one form of disability or another. The Bill will complete the Government's manifesto commitment to legislate for full civil rights for disabled people and is to be welcomed for that. It will put in place an end date for transport to be made accessible. It will introduce a positive duty to promote equality, which will help to prevent much of the thoughtless discrimination against people with disabilities that we see around us. It will extend the scope of reasonable adjustment provisions to allow the many hundreds of thousands of disabled people who feel able and ready to work now, and the million or more who aspire to be able to work, practical access to the labour market to enable them to get on with their lives and contribute to both the wealth that we create in our society and their own personal fulfilment and development.
The Disability Discrimination Bill will complete Labour's historic mission to introduce full civil rights, which was begun by Lord Morris of Manchester. The mission is currently being continued by one of the most talented Ministers in the Government, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, whom I have known quite well for most of my life.
Clairvoyance has never been one of my talents, so I await tomorrow's announcement with interest.
Many things can be done to help those who have been stuck on incapacity benefit to get back into the labour market and make their contribution. It is important that the Disability Discrimination Bill accompanies any effort in that direction, because it is no good expecting people with disabilities to be reasonable and try to get back into work if barriers in the workplace prevent them from doing so. We must sort out both sides of the equation. When the measures are unveiled, we can all judge whether they are practical and whether we support them.
I welcome the equality Bill, which will put together the current commissions for disability, gender and race and add other duties in order to create a more user-friendly organisation. I welcome the idea that different types of discrimination are not in competition with one another. If we can get anti-discrimination work right in one area, it strengthens the argument for promoting it in another.
I disagree with the Commission for Racial Equality's worries. A single commission for equality and human rights will strengthen the drive in our society to deal with some all-too-persistent discriminations, which are still around 30 years after some of the pioneering legislation in that area was put on the statute book.
Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that, having signed up to the Amsterdam treaty in 2000, it will take the UK Government until December 2006 to introduce age discrimination legislation, which will have taken six years to get on the statute book? The situation is ridiculous.
I am slightly more patient that my hon. Friend and am happy to see the Government getting on with it. On age discrimination, many knotty and thorny issues must be worked through, and the exemption until 2006 was implemented for a specific and good reason. However, I would like to see the work being done as quickly as possible as that date approaches.
I particularly welcome the positive duty to promote equality on gender grounds in the equality Bill, because I had a ten-minute Bill on that subject not long ago. Although I am sure that the Government have been listening to me, I suspect that the process went on behind the scenes for quite a while.
The Government have delivered on their commitment, which was made in 1999, and the legislation will help to shift the structure of our battles against discrimination in our society on to a preventive footing. The older legislation protects people and gives them compensation after they have been discriminated against. The new positive duties will prevent discrimination from happening in the first place and will enable us to create a culture—initially in the public sector, and in due course in the private sector—of prevention, which will enable employees to know that they have rights, and employers to know that they have responsibilities to ensure that unthinking and illegal discrimination does not happen. I welcome that move.
I welcome the equality Bill's extension to goods and services of protection on the grounds of religious belief. I should like that to include sexual orientation and age, which are the only two strands of employment protection that have not had goods and services protection extended to them. This important Bill will change the equality delivery infrastructure.
The UK's existing anti-discrimination legislation needs to be updated, as it is inconsistent, piecemeal and complex. Since the enactment of the first such legislation by Harold Wilson's Labour Government—the formidable and fantastic Barbara Castle piloted it through this House more than 25 years ago—it has developed into a package of 30 Acts, 38 statutory instruments, 11 codes of practice and 12 EC directives and recommendations. I am not surprised that even those employers who wish to do right find the increasingly complex and sometimes inconsistent regulations facing them to be a bit much. It is about time that we had a Bill to simplify, harmonise, consolidate and extend our legislation to make it much easier for employers and employees to comprehend.
Unless that is done, the Government's plan to combine the three different commissions, welcome as it is, will be flawed. It is important that employers who wish to do right know exactly what is expected of them and that employees who are subject to unlawful discrimination realise that they have been discriminated against and know that they can have redress. It is even more important that employers and employees can work together to eliminate from the labour market and from the provision of goods or services any unlawful discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, religious belief, disability and, I hope very soon, sexual orientation and age. Then, as our economy develops in the choppy waters that our Chancellor has managed to navigate so well, we can make certain that opportunities that have not been available in practice in the past are opened up to all our citizens regardless of their gender, race, creed, colour, disability, age or sexual orientation.
Extending and consolidating that approach will make our economy more efficient and enable us to use the undoubted skills and talents of our citizens, many of which are grossly underused, much more effectively. That will put us in a position to continue to make our way in the world and to enjoy the ever rising standards of living that we have experienced. It will also, crucially, help us to fight inequality, poverty and disadvantage, which we still find in all too many parts of our communities where discrimination has been suffered.
With the Bills in this Queen's Speech, the continuing work to ensure that we preserve our economic stability and the equality Bill to consolidate anti-discrimination legislation, we truly look forward to a much fairer and more progressive future.
I apologise to the House for my absence for a large proportion of the afternoon owing to another engagement, after being present for the opening speeches.
The commitment of Angela Eagle to dealing with discrimination and to disability issues is undoubted and it is hard to disagree with much that she says. However, I would counsel that, although many of the initiatives are worthy and desirable, they have an impact on business, especially the operation of small businesses. That must be carefully considered and I shall say a little more about it later.
I have heard the Chancellor make similar speeches on several occasions. Today, he simply made one of his typical speeches. He comes to the Chamber and is surrounded by Brownite Members. It is interesting to see who sits behind the Chancellor; we shall keep a little note of that. He approached the Dispatch Box with a fistful of press cuttings and extracts from broadcasts. He spoke for about 40 minutes and said little apart from reading comments that Conservative Members and Liberal Democrat Members had made to the newspapers. We witnessed a bit of a record today because, if I heard the right hon. Gentleman correctly, he quoted from the Lincolnshire Echo. He must have been scratching around for press cuttings to reach that level.
As always with the Chancellor, what he did not say was notable. We expected some sort of trailer for tomorrow, but there was nothing. He said little, if anything, about pensions, almost nothing about borrowing and the attendant problems that he faces, and nothing about the golden rule. We are determined to hear what he has to say about that tomorrow but we expected him to give us a bit of a clue to what it is all about. If he had taken an intervention from me, I would have asked about the rules of the golden rule, which get more mysterious as the days pass.
That is a good point. Given that the Chancellor's borrowing requirement is predicated on the golden rule, he should give the House his interpretation of it. We think that we know when it started because the Treasury tells us that, but we do not know when it finishes because we do not know when the right hon. Gentleman believes that the economic cycle will finish. Will that happen in 2005–06 or next year? The Governor of the Bank of England more or less hinted that it could be in a few months. It is difficult for anyone to make a substantial judgment on our position and that of the Chancellor's borrowing requirements without knowing the basis for the golden rule.
In 2002, the Chancellor predicted a borrowing requirement of £13 billion; a year later, he predicted a figure of £27 billion and now, if we are to believe PricewaterhouseCoopers and others, he predicts a borrowing requirement of £36 billion. That shows that he is on a rake's progress for borrowing. I hope that tomorrow will shed some light on the country's true financial state so that people can make decisions that affect their future.
The Chancellor said little about pensions, whereas many hon. Members have said a lot about them. They constitute the big crisis that confronts the country. I do not need to rehearse all the comments about specific problems, but one of the Government's most shameful acts has been to reduce a world-class pension system to a third world pension system, leaving many people in serious doubt about their future.
The boom in house prices is one result of the uncertainty about pensions. If people are faced with the prospect of their pension being of less value than they expected, the safe alternative is to pour money into bricks and mortar. That has driven up house prices recently as people have baled out of pension funds and gone into property. The consequent increase in interest rates becomes a serious problem for many people who have chosen that form of investment. Although there has been a softening in recent weeks and we have heard predictions that interest rates will not increase, it is alarming to read in the papers today that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development believes that we should have four more interest rate rises in the near future. Other predictions are that interest rates should go beyond 5 per cent. next year. That is alarming news for many people who have invested in property.
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that mortgage interest rate predictions of 5 per cent. are alarming, what on earth did he think about the 15 per cent. rates under the Conservative Government?
I agree that that is alarming, but the difference is in how interest rates go up. In earlier times, they were traditionally much higher and had been for many years, but they went down to 2.5 per cent. and have now doubled. That is a substantial jump in the calculation that people make and considering— [Interruption] If the hon. Lady will let me finish, considering the sums that are invested in property compared with those invested a decade or so ago, it hurts hugely.
The collapse of the pensions system explains another phenomenon.
The Secretary of State says, "Collapse?" and laughs at the word. He comes from a different background—public service—but if he had his own private pension he would know that he will probably get back more or less what he has put in, pound for pound, over the last 20 or so years and not a single pound in profit as a result of his investment. That is what most people in the private sector face, if they have a pension at all. Protected though he was by the public sector, he should, I hope, not be ignorant of what is happening in the real world.
There is obviously political knockabout here. The hon. Gentleman used the word "collapse" in relation to pensions, but will he confirm that the Pensions Commission has said that, at the moment, pensioner income is at record levels? It will continue to rise. There is no crisis at the moment; it will come 15 to 25 years down the road if Governments, whatever their political persuasion, do not act to ensure that we will be able to deal with the baby boomer generation moving on to retirement.
Crisis? What crisis? In fairness, the Secretary of State is talking about something slightly different. I am talking in particular about those with company pensions and private provision pensions. They are the ones who have been putting their money in bricks and mortar and in commercial property to safeguard their future. They are the people who are hit by the Chancellor's ridiculous decision to cut the amount that can be put tax free into individual savings accounts and other investments.
I accept what the Secretary of State says—in the long term, of course there is a problem down the line for the basic state pension—but that is a different problem from the immediate crisis that this Chancellor has caused for those with private sector pensions. It is a shame that he had nothing to say about that. The one word that we did not hear, as my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown pointed out, is the magic word—prudence. Sadly, prudence is now dead and buried.
I want to make one or two other points about the problems facing business and to deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Wallasey about the welter of legislation, such as all the European directives. I agree that such measures must be simplified, but it is important to acknowledge their impact on growing and smaller businesses.
I represent a constituency in the north-east of England, which, as everyone knows, had a large number of old, declining industries such as coal, steel, chemicals and shipbuilding, which have long since been laid to rest. We needed to replace those, which we did with a large number of important high-tech inward investors. Some of them, such as the Nissan car company, have been tremendously successful, but others have been what might be described as false friends. They came here and made a contribution, but when economic circumstances changed they moved from the north-east to lower-cost economies. The lesson we have learned is that while they helped with the transition from the old heavy industries to a new type of economy, they are beginning to disappear.
Regions such as the north-east must now rely on home-grown industries. We in the north-east have been very successful in doing so and, to name a few, we now have companies such as Sage; Greggs of Gosforth, which was a little baker's shop but is now a national chain; the Go-Ahead group; and Reg Vardy in motor distribution. Those are great success stories, but we need many more. We will achieve that by building up our new smaller businesses, but regulation can damage them so much.
Regulations on discrimination, paternity leave and maternity leave are well intentioned, but for a small business employing three or four people they become a considerable burden in both time and expense. Letters and representations from local businesses in my constituency, which are mostly small businesses, show that such regulations are becoming a heavy burden that restrict their development. That fact must be taken on board when such matters are discussed.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that consolidation and simplification of many different statutes, introducing a much-simplified and easier-to-understand statute, both for employees and employers, would improve the situation and not worsen it?
I wait to see the small print of what is produced and how it works, but in principle I agree that that would be desirable. When we have such a plethora of regulation, the way in which officialdom interprets it can often be the problem. In one area, enforcement can be draconian; in another, it can be more reasonable. Regulation in relation to access for disabled people requires a certain amount of common sense, and if common sense is not forthcoming, that can be very hard on a business. Such businesses need to grow, and we must not throw huge obstacles in their way. If the north-east is to rebuild itself and have a decent future, we need to encourage them, not discourage them.
I should also slightly chide Mr. O'Neill. Yesterday, if I read my Financial Times correctly, referring to the concerns of the British Chambers of Commerce about over-regulation, he said that its figures were "statistically dubious" and that employers were "obsessed" with protesting against regulation. I disagree fundamentally. My experience is that they are genuinely worried about such regulation, and see it as possibly one of the biggest drawbacks to expanding and developing their business.
I was questioning, in the first instance, the rather haphazard way in which the British Chambers of Commerce conducted its survey. There was no real sampling—it was a self-selected group of people, who had perhaps replied by computer, and perhaps sent in forms. It was rather sloppy, and it did not stand up to close examination as an accurate expression of opinion of British business. It was more of a propaganda tool for a group of people who seemed to have as much a political as a business agenda.
I am not sure that I can complain about the hon. Gentleman's last comment, but I am grateful that he has put it on the record. I urge him and his Committee to bear it in mind that over-regulation, and bad regulation, is seen as one of the greatest drawbacks for business.
Regulation can also be amazingly trivial. There is a small butcher's shop in my constituency, which, because it is owned by a number of farmers, likes to put up a sign saying, "This lamb came from so-and-so's farm", or "This beef came from so-and-so's farm." It received a letter about how it should label meat, its interpretation of which was that all that could be displayed on the board was a holding number, which would be utterly meaningless. I wrote a series of letters to Lord Whitty to try to get to the bottom of the matter. I discovered that the shop can show which farm the lamb came from, but that if it wants to do the same for beef it needs to obtain permission from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and then get a form, which it can download. I worry slightly about chaps who work in the butcher's shop downloading forms from DEFRA. Nevertheless, they can download the form, fill it in, send it back on-line, and, I hope, get permission to put up a sign saying that the beef came from Joe Bloggs's farm. That is a silly example, but it nevertheless illustrates the kind of regulation with which people must deal these days.
The Chancellor was silent on many aspects of the economy about which we wanted to hear. He was silent on one little aspect that is not mentioned much here nowadays, although it is very important, certainly to my constituency. Although it is never mentioned in Budget speeches or economic debates, agriculture—which had a reasonable year last year—has had a disastrous year in terms of farm incomes this year, because of wet weather and the new single farm payments scheme, which is causing uncertainty about the way in which they are paid. There have also been hugely rising costs.
Rising costs affect all businesses, but one of the businesses that they affect most is agriculture. Fuel and imported fertiliser costs form a large part of the agriculture bill. At a time when incomes have fallen because of a poor harvest, the supermarkets are yet again pushing down the price that they pay dairy farmers. One of Asda's suppliers is reducing the price by 0.5p a litre, which is a serious blow to the dairy farming community.
There was nothing much, apart from a rant, in the Chancellor's speech. I hope that we shall hear more tomorrow about how he proposes to address the real problems that face so many people in this country today.
I am grateful for the chance to speak, and particularly grateful for the chance to speak in today's debate. The Queen's Speech includes measures on the economy that are fundamental to the well-being of my constituents, and will be fundamental to what happens next year when the election comes along. They affect my constituents particularly in two ways: they illustrate the Government's continuing commitment to economic stability, and they introduce important new provisions. Economic stability has been fundamental to the security enjoyed by my constituents in their homes and in their work, and to their sense of well-being under the present Government. It has made possible sustained investment in public services, which has also greatly improved my constituents' quality of life.
Mr. Flight said that none of that was visible. In particular, he said that the spending was not visible and that public sector spending was ineffective. That is certainly not true in Northampton. The change in the fortunes of people there under a Labour Government are extremely visible, and continue to be so.
I well remember, in the run-up to the 1997 election, taking our then housing spokesman, my right hon. Friend Mr. Raynsford—now Minister for Local and Regional Government—to look at some repossessed houses. We thought that we would see one or two, but we saw rows and rows of them. Now repossessions are at record low levels because of low mortgage interest rates. I accept that the rates have gone up a little recently, but given higher employment and financial security, people have been able to maintain their mortgage payments. Unemployment has fallen further, by 28 per cent. in my constituency. The constituency has always had high employment levels, but this drop has made a substantial difference to the well-being and financial security of families who work.
As for public sector investment, one of the things that we inherited from the last Government was scandalously low pay in the public services. It is right that some of the extra money going into public services should deal with pay levels and employment conditions for the people who provide those services. But over and above that, such investment has transformed the prospects of many young people. For example, a £106 million private finance initiative scheme is rebuilding all our schools.
Mr. Prisk spoke persuasively about the problems that businesses encounter with regulation, and all of us can understand their frustration with red tape. But when I first became an MP, the local chamber of commerce's biggest complaint was the underperformance of schools and the skills gap. The extra investment in schools, particularly in secondary schools, is key to expanding the economy and creating the long-term security that the people of Northampton want.
The hon. Lady is right: schooling, the calibre of individuals and the skills aspect of learning in particular are important issues. Given that she recognises that the burden of regulation is an important issue for small businesses, does she think that the 53 per cent. increase in such regulation since 1997 is a good thing or a bad thing?
As the hon. Gentleman may have noticed, I am not a particularly tribal politician. Small businesses usually consist of people who are simply earning an income for their families, and for that reason many banks have virtually turned their small business financial services into personal financial services. I recognise that those who run such businesses do not like filling in forms. Of course we want to see a reduction in regulation, and I understand people's complaints in that regard. Nevertheless, if we want to expand the economy, we come back to the major issue of skills shortages.
We should remember that this Government have made available the finance to expand small businesses. The investment in early years has been key to the economic well-being of families, particularly because it has enabled women to go out to work. One of the last things that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions did before getting his current job was to visit University college Northampton, a higher education college in my constituency that will shortly get university status. The expansion of university places, and what that says about our attitude to skills, has been extremely important to the economy.
I want to highlight some of the wallet-to-purse measures that, although I previously identified such criticism with the Liberal Democrats, both Opposition parties have criticised—such as the new deal for lone parents, the pension credit and investment in child care, particularly the children's trust fund. The new deal for lone parents has been transformative, in that it has enabled some of the most excluded of unemployed people to return to work. It has allowed some of the women to whom I have spoken to get work, to provide a role model for their children, and eventually to buy their own homes. Similar things can be said of the investment in child care.
The pension credit has its shortcomings, but anyone who tried to persuade a female pensioner—a lot of the recipients are indeed women—that they would be better off without their £5, £10 or £20 a week would receive a blunt suggestion about what to do with their argument. As we approach the election, it will be interesting to discover what such people have to say once it becomes clear that not only are the Conservatives taking a hostile attitude to many of the measures that provide equality for women—we are well used to their doing that—but the Liberal Democrats are doing the same.
I want to move on to a couple of the measures in the Queen's Speech. There is a child benefit Bill, which will provide for an extension of the education maintenance allowance. I suspect that it will be one of those measures, little heralded and little talked about in this place that will produce lasting benefits for many people. Support is already provided for more than 1,000 people in Northamptonshire, and the feedback that I receive from single parents who are struggling to ensure that their older children stay on at school rather than go out to work has been very positive. I am rather surprised that we have heard no comments about that from either the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives. I quite understand that people may be waiting for Second Reading, but the fact remains that this provision has been piloted and is already out there, so I would have expected to hear some comments from the other two parties on the theory or practice of that support. The legislation will reach a particular section of the community and bring real benefits to my constituents. Not everyone among my constituents aspires to go to university—more's the pity, in some ways.
I assure the hon. Lady that my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills touched on the measure in his comments on the Queen's Speech, and welcomed the child benefit measures. His concern was with the introduction of new and higher charges for adult learners in further education colleges—another matter that we can debate further in the weeks ahead.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point, and I wish that the Liberal Democrats would clarify their position, which their spokesperson today did not do.
Some of my colleagues have mentioned the consumer protection Bill, which will provide important safeguards for my constituents. People in Northampton carry high levels of credit. We all know that Christmas is coming, and this morning I was told by the housing and money advice centre, which provides an excellent service for my constituents, that on average people will spend about £800 in presents, about half of which is likely to be on credit. Consumer debt and the need for safeguards are important matters at this time. I welcome the fact that the Bill will make provision for much needed better regulation and raise the present £25,000 limit. On the subject of local debt, about half the people who had severe problems, with debts of about £9,000 or more, were not in work. In an area with relatively high levels of employment, that is quite surprising. One sure way to deal with debt problems is to deal with the problems of poverty and unemployment, and the Government are committed to doing so.
I greatly welcome the measures in the Queen's Speech, although there is always room for more to be done—not just in extra measures, but in speeding up those already in place. The ending of child poverty was mentioned earlier. I would greatly welcome that, as I would the speeding up of the extra safeguards for children, particularly in connection with housing. I am reminded that last Friday night I visited a constituent who lived with her five children in a single room in the basement of a bed-and-breakfast hostel, placed there by a Labour council—no, it was not a Labour council but a Conservative one. That was a Freudian slip. It used to be Labour, but is now Conservative and standards have deteriorated. For a woman with five children to live in a basement flat is not appropriate in 21st century Britain, and she was but one of three women who came to my advice surgery with that problem. I hope that we can speed up some of those measures.
I would also like to see improvements to pensions, as several of my hon. Friends have said. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is very aware of the issues around women's pensions and the problems that women face as long as basic state pensions are closely linked to national insurance contributions. The issue of first-time buyers is also important.
The main thing that will safeguard the interests of my constituents is having a Labour Government, and the main threats to their interests are the two main Opposition parties. As always happens in debates on the economy, people focus on the big picture and the macro-economy, but for many of our constituents the little picture is the big picture. The £5, £10 or £20 in pension credit is what makes a big difference to their lives. Being able to get their children into nursery schools and the investment in the child trust fund will also transform the lives of my constituents. The education maintenance allowance, too, will help single parents who are struggling to ensure that their children stay on in school and get the qualifications that they need in an expanding economy.
I very much welcome the measures in the Gracious Speech and I look forward in particular to the two Bills that I have mentioned becoming law well before the magic date of
I wish to touch on three subjects that are fundamental to the Government's objective of building a stronger economy and an even fairer society—employment, training and opportunity for all. I also want to make some remarks about Britain's economic stability, because we have heard some wild and outrageous attacks on the competence and record of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, not least from the shadow Chancellor, who is not in his place.
The House has already been reminded that the right hon. Gentleman was such an embarrassment to the Conservatives at the last election that he had to go into hiding. What was his offence? He had accidentally blurted out the truth about £20 billion of cuts—a lower level of cuts than he now promises openly under the party's new regime.
We will have to wait for the Gershon report and we will all welcome debate on the James report when it is published.
The Opposition need a history lesson on economic competence that stretches further back than the one that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already given them today. That is just as well, because this debate falls on an anniversary well worth remembering for my constituents. It is 20 years to the month that post-war unemployment peaked in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Today, after seven years of growth and stability under this Government, the number of people looking for work in my constituency stands at just over 700. Twenty years ago, the dole queue was longer by 4,500 people—six and a half times more people. That is a fair measure of how much outlook and opportunity have changed under a Labour Government.
Twenty years ago, north Staffordshire's oldest pottery firm had just bitten the dust. Elijah Cotton founded his firm in 1758, a year before Josiah Wedgwood started out on his own. However, Cotton's descendants lasted barely a year under Margaret Thatcher. We should remember that that industry was more than decimated as Geoffrey Howe unleashed raw, uneducated monetarism on this country.
I shall come on to the beneficial inheritance of oil, especially for the Conservative Government. To set the record straight, under Labour, from 1976 until the 1979 general election, unemployment fell. It continued to fall until just a few months into the Tory Government, from which point it rose, rose and rose again.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is fond of quoting the 15 per cent. level to which interest rates shot up during the second recession that the Tories unleashed on this country much later, in the 1990s. Today, as we know, rates are still below 5 per cent. Then, however, there was a worse bogey figure with which to scare the wee bairn: during the first savage downturn under Thatcher, rates reached 17 per cent. Sterling soared and yet more industry fell. By the time the monetarist experiment was killed off, quietly, during the Falklands war, one in six families in my area—north Staffordshire—had been hit by redundancy. There was no respite, however. Far from it. In 1985, the biggest mine in my area, Wolstanton—our super-pit, which we visited when I was at school there and which had the deepest shafts in western Europe—closed for good.
Let us compare that legacy with the current record. We have never had lower unemployment; we have never had more employment and regeneration. The unemployment figure for the whole country is 836,000—nearly half the total in 1997, when it was 1.6 million. Since 1997, the figure has fallen steadily. Under the Tories, when the Wolstanton pit closed, unemployment broke through the 3 million barrier for the first, but far from the last, time.
Early on, the Tories' record made a mockery of their infamous slogan, "Labour isn't working". Our record shows that people are working, businesses are working and Britain is working. Labour certainly is working.
As we heard earlier in the debate, we are educating and training, too, and what a record of Conservative failure we are trying to reverse on that score. Before the Tories got into power all those years ago, skills in the pottery industry in my area were supervised by the ceramics training board and pay negotiations were industry wide, but under the Tories there was no such thing as society. They swept all that away and it was every man for himself.
Members may not believe this, but at the Michelin factory in Stoke-on-Trent all those years ago, apprentices were given free milk, lunch tokens and sun-lamp sessions to keep them healthy. Remember what the Tories did to apprenticeships—they disappeared. I am not asking for the return of the sun-bed sessions—[Hon. Members: "Oh, go on."] Some Front Benchers already benefit from them.
Over the past seven years, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been doing his level best to reverse that legacy of neglect in education, skills and training. When I made my maiden speech, I called for the pilot schemes for the education maintenance allowance to be extended to my town and nationwide. They have been extended. In Stoke-on-Trent, next-door to my constituency, the EMA has already led to more children from poorer backgrounds staying in education and training after the age of 16. In my constituency, our version—the Newcastle achievement scheme—is having similar positive effects that everyone can measure. Conservative cuts would, of course, sweep all those opportunities away.
In my area, the Ceramic Resource Centre, a partnership between the Ceramic and Allied Trades Union—the potteries trade union—the DTI and our regional development agency, is helping workers to retrain and find new jobs. It also helps to preserve valuable industrial skills that would otherwise be lost. Tory and—I am sorry to say—Liberal Democrat cuts would sweep that away, too.
In Newcastle, the new deal has helped nearly 2,000 people into work. Of those, more than 1,200 have permanent jobs as a result. As we have already heard, the Tories and the Lib Dems would scrap the new deal. The Chancellor has done all that while presiding over the longest sustained period of economic growth for two centuries. There has been no savage boom and bust, unlike the early '80s, the late '80s and the early '90s under the Tories and yet, despite that, and despite their record, they have the nerve to cast aspersions on our competence, on the Chancellor's prudence and on his golden rule. Conveniently their memories fail them again.
Today, we should remember that we are not living in what should have been the heydays of the '80s and '90s, when the Government enjoyed a twin set of riches—booming tax receipts from North sea oil and untold billions from privatisation. Labour did not enjoy them in the 1970s either, when the country, like the international economy, was suffering oil shocks and when we were investing for the future in the North sea. Now, of course, we are having to prepare for a post-oil and gas economy too. But what did the Tories do with their one-off riches? Did they invest in education and skills? Did they invest in public services and the country's infrastructure? No. They blew it and threw it away.
I remember well—I was working for The Observer at the time—all the gloomy faces on the Tory Benches when the Government announced that they had raised £22.5 billion from the sale of the third generation of mobile telephone licences. That was worth three privatised BPs, five British Gases, two whole British Telecoms—worth as much, indeed, as was raised from the sale of the electricity, gas and water industries all put together under the Thatcher and Major Governments. And of course, unlike their sell-offs, it was not a botched sale below value. Great care was taken. Bidders went through a carefully crafted auction of 150 rounds. My right hon. and hon. Friends immersed themselves in the intricacies of game theory.
Now compare that care, competence and prudence with what went on before. I remember the privatisation of the National Bus Company in 1986. I remember it very well because I was working in the City at the time, with Barclays De Zoete Wedd, the bank charged with its sale. [Interruption.] I am not afraid to admit it. No sooner had Nicholas Ridley chopped the buses up into 90-odd pieces than the patchwork quilt was zipping itself up again as the first companies privatised started buying the rest, as we warned the Government that they would.
The Conservative Government ignored our advice too on insisting on clawbacks of the profit on the future sale of companies, which was standard procedure in the private sector. They ignored it, and what happened? Ten years later, they were at it again, breaking up British Rail, wrecking an industry, selling state assets at a discount to profiteers. They did not listen and they did not learn because they did not care. And here is the nub. How did they treat the money? Did they, like the Chancellor, treat it as a one-off to pay off debt, as any prudent household—in Grantham, for example—might be expected to do? No. Conservative Governments treated it as negative public expenditure. No wonder then, when the silver ran out, that the public finances were in such a mess. The Chancellor need take no lessons in competence and no lecturing from the Tories on his golden rule or his golden record.
I think that it was the last Chancellor but one, Mr. Norman Lamont, who said, quite callously, that high unemployment was a price worth paying for low inflation. Now we have record low inflation and record low unemployment. Of course, Lord Lamont's repertoire also includes the infamous, "Je ne regret rien", which he sang in his bath both before and after the pound was unceremoniously dumped out of the exchange rate mechanism. I gathered with others around the Reuters screen when I was working for Reuters, just as the Chancellor and the Prime Minister gathered around the Reuters screen at No. 10, and I remember that, when the interest rates had gone from 10 to 15 per cent., that was not the limit of it because overnight money rates trying to keep money in this country were reaching 70 per cent.—a far bigger bogey figure.
Quite right. We are all committed to a stronger Europe, but we did not decide the level at which we entered the ERM, out of which we were then unceremoniously dumped. [Interruption.] I will say one thing to the hon. Gentleman. The Tories are nothing if not consistent: they learn nothing and