Clause 1 — initial duties

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 3:15 pm on 20th January 2010.

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Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury) 3:15 pm, 20th January 2010

This has been a useful debate, and I thank the following right hon. and hon. Friends for their contributions: my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood and my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for Stone (Mr. Cash) for their speeches, and my hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) for their interventions. It is also noteworthy that, clearly after the Government Whips had trawled through the Tea Rooms and the Palace in general, we have had a contribution from the Labour Back Benches. However, in the speech of Mr. Todd, his thoughtfulness, as always, got the better of him, and his remarks were hardly the ringing endorsement that the Government would have wanted. To paraphrase his argument, what he said was, "I'm not sure this Bill will ever become legislation, but it does at least give us an orderly process for discussing the matter." That is a reasonable point, but I am not sure that the big moment the Government have been waiting for was a Back-Bench Member speaking in support of the Bill in such a fashion. There have also, of course, been a number of other Back-Bench contributions questioning the Government's proposed policy, such as that from Kelvin Hopkins.

I shall not enter into a wider debate about clause 1, as we will have opportunities to exchange selective quotations again when we move on to a future group of amendments. I shall, however, talk briefly about the Minister's remarks. I am grateful for two points that he made. First, he accepts that all political sides agree on the need for automatic stabilisers. Sometimes, Government Ministers-and in particular the Prime Minister-are less careful in their characterisation of Opposition policies than the Minister, and it is right that he said that. It is also welcome that the Minister displays a degree of honesty as to the difficult future choices the country faces; at least there was none of the "cuts versus investment" nonsense that has so characterised the Prime Minister's utterances on this matter over the last few months.

On fiscal targets, the Minister made the point that Ministers should be accountable to the House, which raises the question of why we need to put all this in legislation in the first place. It is entirely otiose-to use a word of which the Minister is fond-to do this. He also fully accepts that the structural deficit is a valuable measure, but he brings into question certainty in that regard. This Government have, of course, relied on cyclical measures for most of the time that they have been in power, and I know that that is not necessarily the strongest argument in favour of cyclical measures and targets, given how they were abused. However, the Minister did not say anything that got to the heart of amendments 1, 2 and 3, which is that, even if we accept that there is a need for a straitjacket-which we do, although we are doubtful about the need for a legislative straitjacket-it is important that we have the right straitjacket. This is the wrong straitjacket. Given that the Chancellor has said that if there was another banking crisis, he would just have to come back to the House and ignore the Bill, it does nothing for the credibility of these targets, and the Government's policy on the deficit, to have in place the wrong measure.

I remain confused about the Minister's argument that our proposal suggests cutting the deficit more slowly than the Government propose in both cases. He referred particularly to amendment 2, which relates to subsection (2). We end up with the relevant measure of borrowing by 2014 being half of what it was in 2010. I look at the numbers in the pre-Budget report, and the Government's projections show public sector net borrowing falling from 12 per cent. to 5.5 per cent. and the cyclically adjusted PSNB falling from 8 per cent. to 3.6 per cent. The ratio of those numbers in both sets is almost identical, so I do not think that that is right. It enables the Bill to take into account economic growth and the economic cycle. If economic growth turns out to be faster than the Minister anticipated, it would mean reducing borrowing by even more, and there will be scope to do so.

Clause 1 misses the main target and nothing that the Minister said today addresses that. I say to Labour Members, some of whom, I hope, will have listened to the debate, that ours is a more sensible and pragmatic approach. Let there be no doubt that we are very serious about the deficit and we think the Government are taking too long to address it.

In conclusion, I intend to press amendment 1 to a Division. Were that to be successful-on the balance of the debate in the Chamber, it should be-I shall press amendments 2 and 3. For the moment, I shall press amendment 1 to test the mood of the Committee.

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