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May I congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on occupying the seat that you now do, as this is the first time I have had the opportunity to do so?
The Business Secretary speaks with great authority and I noticed that the House listened to him with great care. I was particularly interested in the justification he gave for the reversal of his position on cuts. I listened to the two points he made on that with great care, but I was not convinced. First, he said that after the election, he was asked to get a briefing from senior officials. He then went on, in a way that I thought was not totally honest and that was certainly a form of elision, to talk about the situations facing this country and countries in the euro.
The then Opposition parties were offered briefings before the election. I assume the Lib Dems were briefed on the situation facing this country regarding the sovereign debt and other such matters, so it can hardly have been a surprise to the right hon. Gentleman to find that the circumstances were as they were. I find rather surprising the suggestion that he was surprised to discover-after the election, during the period when he was negotiating entrance into office for himself and his colleagues-that the situation was suddenly much worse than he had previously understood it to be.
There was a deliberate elision of the sovereign debt crisis being faced by Greece and Spain and the situation in the United Kingdom. The truth is that in Greece there is a 4% decline in gross domestic product-there is a collapse in output-and that in Spain more than 20% of people are effectively unemployed. Those two economies probably cannot sustain the debt they have incurred, but that does not in any way apply to the UK. I would be surprised if the Governor of the Bank of England had told the right hon. Gentleman, in what would have been a blinding revelation in the middle of the negotiations to enter into the coalition, that some kind of sovereign debt crisis was operating in the United Kingdom, given that the Bank of England's quarterly bulletin, published the other day, refers to an increase in the flow of investments into UK bonds.
The structure and age of our debt is not in any way comparable to the situation in Greece or elsewhere. I therefore conclude that the meeting which the right hon. Gentleman no doubt had with the Governor and others came at a very convenient time, and that the abandonment of the policy that he and others had, to their credit, shared-that we should not cut further at this time-was linked more to the political opportunities that were opening up, given the nature of the election, than to the sudden discovery of a change to the situation facing this country that, rather conveniently, occurred 24 hours after the election.
I want to make a number of points about the Budget and the current situation that we are facing. I listened carefully to the analysis by the Business Secretary of how the crisis came about. From the implications that could be read into his speech, it seemed to me that there was a difference of view between him and Conservative members of the Government as to how the situation arose.
For the Conservatives, it is clear that the problem facing the country is almost ideological in nature, being one of government rather than of the markets. They believe that the problem lies with the state, which should be reduced, and not with the markets, which collapsed. I note that the right hon. Gentleman said that the crisis was global in character and that it was brought about by the collapse of the banks, and I want to refer once more to the question of bonds.
The credit rating agencies have been widely publicised for their judgments about the state of the UK economy, but those same agencies were happy to give triple A ratings to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and to some of the other banks and investment firms in the US. It is odd that much of the media now seem to rely on the judgments of those agencies as to the UK's status in the bond markets-but speculating on that would take me away from the narrative thrust I am trying to develop and the points I want to make.
The Business Secretary referred to the collapse of the banks, but I think the judgments made in the Budget reflect a different analysis by the Chancellor. That much is clear from how the burden will fall: of the £40 billion fiscal tightening being proposed, it looks as though £13 billion will be achieved by raising VAT-and I shall return to that point in a second-and £11 billion by an attack on welfare. In contrast, £2 billion is being raised by the banking levy, and I believe that that reveals the priorities of this Conservative-led coalition: £24 billion is to be saved through reducing welfare expenditure and raising VAT, and only £2 billion will come from the banks.
The truth is that, in a constituency like mine, the Budget will hit people very hard. I represent some of the poorest people in the country, as do many other hon. Members. It will not have escaped them that the burden of the changes introduced yesterday will fall particularly heavily on the poorest, and on hard-working people more generally.
The right hon. Gentleman made a case for the rise in VAT, but the Chancellor said on television this morning that he had faced a choice, between raising income tax or VAT, and that he had made a judgment. Personally, I reject the idea that we should impose further fiscal tightening in the current financial year but, be that as it may, the Chancellor made it clear that there was a choice.
The Government's choice-the Business Secretary's fingerprints are on it as much as anyone else's-was to raise VAT rather than income tax. However, about £1 of every £7 that poor people spend goes on VAT, while for the rich the figure is about £1 in every £25. It is a highly regressive tax, compared with income tax. If a tax is to be increased-and I am not saying that that would be my option-it should not be VAT. The fact that VAT has been raised reveals the Budget's regressive nature and character, and reflects the right-wing agenda being elaborated by this Government.
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