There is no doubt that the Budget statement delivered last Wednesday was one of the most significant that the House has heard in several decades, but I strongly suspect that the one that follows the next general election will be the most significant of all. Then, when the real decisions that will affect the whole country are taken, we will see the true extent of where we are headed, although we have a good idea of the general direction, having listened to the Government's projections for future expenditure growth, as well as the Opposition's.
The context of this year's Budget has changed significantly compared even with last year's. Earlier, we heard an exchange between Mr. Meacher and Mr. Love in which reference was made to Lehman Brothers. I remember just over a year ago, in the run-up to the US investment conference in Northern Ireland, in my capacity at that time as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in the Northern Ireland Executive, visiting Wall street and the headquarters of Lehman Brothers. I was taken to the 75th floor, where a presentation was made to me about the bank's global ambitions and how it hoped to expand and perhaps invest in Northern Ireland. The fact that that bank has now disappeared shows the extent of the change that has happened.
At this time last year, people's biggest concern was the cost of living—the rise in energy prices and the cost of mortgages. Now, their concerns are much more focused on whether they will have a job or keep their home. Various parts of our economy have been devastated, especially the construction industry. We in Northern Ireland know all about that, because the construction industry plays a massive role in our economy, particularly in the private house building sector, which has been utterly devastated. The extent of the downturn and its rapidity have staggered everyone and made people extremely frightened and anxious about where we are headed. We have heard all the talk about unprecedented times and the worst borrowing figures since the second world war. Given the eye-watering amounts that have been mentioned in connection with the banking crisis and so on, for most people these truly are uncharted waters, so they are extremely worried.
This year's Budget was largely defined by the massive downturn, although I think that most commentators were right to say that the Chancellor has been over-optimistic in his growth projections. The Budget will be regarded historically as very much a holding Budget before the real decisions are taken after next year's election. The fact is we have to deal with the present position; we cannot go over the history of how we arrived here—whether it is entirely a global phenomenon, or more of a domestic creation. I think that there is a little bit of truth in both analyses. The accusation can be made that, since coming to power, the Government have increased public spending based on additional receipts, but gained too little in terms of our public services and structural foundations. However, we have to address the here and now and how we get through the next period.
During this debate, we have heard much discussion of whether we should go for a fiscal stimulus, or ride out the current crisis and allow matters to take their course, and all the shades of grey between the two views. I have to refer to the contrast between what this country is doing and what others are doing in terms of borrowing now to invest. We should compare that with what is happening in the Irish Republic, which is having to try to cut its way out of recession. Of course, we know that one of the reasons it is in that position is that as part of the eurozone it has a lot less capacity than the United Kingdom, in terms of the currency being devalued, and in terms of borrowing and so on. People in Northern Ireland are grateful at the moment that we are part of the United Kingdom and out of the eurozone. Northern Ireland has benefited on both those scores.
The daily influx of shoppers from the Irish Republic to Northern Ireland shows that people see real value in the cost of goods and services in Northern Ireland, to the extent that one major national grocery chain in the United Kingdom has a 2 or 3 per cent. share of the market in the Irish Republic without having a single store there. That tells a story, and shows that people are voting with their feet.
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