The Economy

Part of Council Tax Rebate – in the House of Commons at 4:47 pm on 31st March 2009.

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Photo of John Reid John Reid Labour, Airdrie and Shotts 4:47 pm, 31st March 2009

We are facing problems the likes of which none of us here has ever seen during our time in the House. The shadow Chancellor referred to the legacy of the Blair Government. I share responsibility for that and I share pride in it. When I consider the 700,000 people who are not on NHS waiting lists now or the people who are not losing their sight waiting for a cataract operation or dying because they need heart surgery because we have reduced the maximum time between the doctor's surgery and the operating theatre from some three years to 18 weeks and the average time to eight weeks, I think that, far from being useless expenditure, that is money well spent.

Let me also tell Mr. Osborne that as we spend that money during the good times, so we aim to protect people during the difficult times. Although today the shadow Chancellor made a few telling points against the Government, who must share some responsibility, as everyone else does—indeed, as his party leader has said, the Conservatives share some—nevertheless, to take the position that during such a recession we will do nothing and ought to do nothing to protect ordinary people is not sustainable. I genuinely believe that the hon. Gentleman has not risen to the occasion that the opportunity gave him. When he said that he will be in his position as shadow Chancellor right up to the election, perhaps his ambition is too modest. I fear that he may well be in his position as shadow Chancellor well beyond the next election.

Let me turn to the great challenges that face us, and they are indeed great. We are dealing simultaneously with a fairly typical recession and, on the other hand, a very far from typical financial crisis. The first of these requires a huge stimulation of demand and the second—the financial crisis—requires intervention to ensure solvency, liquidity, oversight, regulation and transparency in the financial sector. That statement is agreed by just about everyone in the world so far as I can see—except for Conservative Members. Both those elements require the widest and most measured range of co-ordinated international action.

For most of the world, this is not actually a debate about whether we should borrow or not, or about whether we should have stimulus or not; rather, it is a debate and discussion about the extent, the quantity and the measure of that stimulus and of that borrowing. This debate is taking place with every Head of State who is arriving here and with every Prime Minister, too. The only people sitting outside the framework of that discussion are, unfortunately, Members of the Conservative party—with the exception of the shadow shadow Chancellor, Mr. Clarke.

It is always easy to criticise the Prime Minister, as the shadow Chancellor did today. I think, however, that that is grossly unfair. The Independent on Sunday said that, and I agree; indeed, it not only unfair, but untrue. If the Prime Minister set his sights high and if the plans he pursued were of a magnitude unprecedented in the experience of most Members here, that is only because the challenges that we face are unprecedented. If the Prime Minister—it is the Prime Minister who is leading—fails to achieve everything he set out to achieve, or if he achieves only half of it, it will still be a light year away from what would have been achieved by a policy of doing nothing. The nation ought to be grateful for that.

So I believe we should avoid undue pessimism this week, as we tried to avoid the over-hyped press expectations last week. Let us remember three or four aspects of this whole debate. First, we have a range of weapons in our armoury, so the debate is not just about an additional stimulus. As I understand it, the Conservative party did not agree with the Governor of the Bank of England, because it objected not only to the next potential stimulus but to everything that has been done up to now, which is clearly different from the Governor of the Bank of England. We have automatic stabilisers, discretionary stimuli and quantitative easing, so we should not get particularly hung up on one specific example.

Secondly, let us remember that national predilections and preconceptions are not just irrational or political or ideological stances; they are shaped by the history of each of our countries. I do not blame a country such as Germany, with its sensitivity and great concern about the effects of hyperinflation in the light of what happened in the 1930s, for being rather cautious when it comes to the question of stimuli.

Thirdly, the point I made is absolutely correct. Even with that caution, Germany's stimulus has been 1 per cent. above what has been done in this country up to now. In the UK, our stimulus has already been significant; although a discretionary stimulus amounts to only about 0.5 per cent., the automatic stabilisers brought in about 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product of further stimulus. It is significant by international standards.

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