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May I join those who have congratulated you on your election, Madam Deputy Speaker? If I may give the House an update on the score in the England match, it is still 1-0. I think it is no coincidence that I am surrounded by an unusually large number of Welsh and Scottish colleagues. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this important Budget debate-the most important in more than 30 years.
Thirty years ago, in 1979, I was a young slip of a thing-only 17 or 18 years old-and I remember what I saw in the following years. I am not going to have a go at the record of the previous Tory Government, so those on the Government Benches can settle down. In areas such as South Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire, we saw huge devastation of our economies. Those of us who know the Don Valley-I know that the Economic Secretary knows it very well-from its origins up in the north of Sheffield and in Barnsley through to Doncaster will remember the devastation of that lunar landscape: that is the only term that could have been used at one point to describe the lower Don Valley. We saw the flattening of Hatfield, where now we have the Meadowhall shopping centre, and the devastation-as in the valleys of Wales-caused to other South Yorkshire valleys such as the Dearne valley. Where there were the pits of Manvers, Wath and Cortonwood, we now have a Morrisons supermarket and a retail centre.
I well remember all that. I remember, too, the work that we have done since then to try to repair the damage. We have tried to diversify our economies in the north of England-in places such as South Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire. To some extent we have succeeded. We have biosciences, sport and leisure, and retail-and we still have advanced manufacturing.
We were making progress, albeit very slowly, on reducing the gap in economic growth and prosperity between London and the south-east and places such as Yorkshire and the Humber, but what is happening now poses a new threat to our economy in the north. If we suffer significant damage yet again because of a return to recession, the fear is that that damage will be permanent and irreparable, and that we will be unable to move forward as we had previously hoped without even more funding-significant funding-from Government and Europe. That is the context to today's debate. I agree with my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies that the impact of the Budget on individuals and communities must be at the forefront of our minds.
Unfortunately, the Budget is a wasted opportunity to help the British economy on the road to recovery. Instead of investment and the promise of future jobs, we have a Budget of cuts for the poorest and regressive tax increases-a Budget that risks our future. The race to austerity that the Government seem determined to follow belongs to a lesser-known branch of economics called ignorance economics, as Leslie Budd of the Open university calls it. As he correctly points out, although it is sensible to cut waste, the slashing of spending can do much more harm than good. That is what the Budget, with its massive cuts to public spending, will do.
Unprotected Departments could have real-terms cuts of 25% over the next four years. The key question is this: how many nurses, police officers, teachers and other civil servants will be thrown on to the scrap heap in the years and months to come? How fair is it that one of the significant cuts in the local government budget will be in the area-based grant? Sheffield Hallam is one of the richest constituencies in the country, and Sheffield Brightside one of the poorest. The gap has decreased in the past 13 years, but there is still a 14-year difference in life expectancy between those constituencies. The abolition of the area-based grant will hit Brightside, but it will not hit Hallam in any way at all. How can that be fair?
The pupil premium has been promised, but we are hearing that it will be based on the abolition of additional educational needs funding and vulnerable children's grants. If we roll that funding up into a pupil premium, will it be distributed fairly, or will more of it go to the south of England at the expense of the north?
Although I welcome, and offer my support for, the increase in personal allowances from next April, it will be more than wiped out by the regressive increase in VAT to 20% from January next year. There is no rise in the personal allowances for over-65s, which will disappoint many of my older constituents-indeed, I received an e-mail on that subject just this morning. That gives the lie to the argument that the Budget is all about fairness. Although the confirmation of Labour's policy of linking the state pension to average earnings is welcome-it builds on policies developed by the Labour Government-not increasing the personal allowance for pensioners in line with those for everyone else is just wrong.
It is obvious that the Prime Minister's words before the election-never mind the Deputy Prime Minister's words-that he had no plans for an increase in VAT were as worthless as similar words spoken back in 1979. I remember very clearly that in 1979 the Conservatives said they would not double VAT. The first thing they did on coming into office was increasing VAT from 8% to 15%. That was not quite double, but it might as well have been.
When there is a need to maintain to demand in the economy, the Budget risks squeezing demand and creating a double-dip recession, which could be worse than the one that we recently experienced. Let us get rid of the myth that the public sector is bad and that only the private sector can get the economy growing again. The balance has to be right, as we in south Yorkshire know better than others; we know it all too well. However, the two sectors are interlinked. Private companies benefit from Government investment, which is why we brought forward the capital projects-to keep the economy moving and to keep construction workers in work. Ensuring that the private sector works with the public sector can give us growth.
Let us also demolish the myth that only by putting forward austerity measures will we see growth in the economy. The lessons of the 1930s show that not to be true. Although the 1929 crash dealt a massive blow to the global economy, it was the neo-liberal austerity budgets that followed that led to a vicious decline in international economic activity, leading to protectionism, a collapse in world trade and depression. My fear-it is shared, I think, by every Opposition Member-is that that is exactly where we will go. We have seen austerity measures introduced not just by the UK, but by Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain. The House ought to think carefully before going down that path. It was only after the new deal in America that growth started to return in the 1930s. Sadly, Government Members do not seem able to learn the lessons of that period in our history.
The current rhetoric from Government Members is, "Look at what Canada did!" It has been mentioned already by Labour Members that Canada's actions in the 1990s to wipe out its sovereign debt were taken in a completely different context. Canada was able to reduce interest rates quickly, and had a route for its exports in a booming US economy, because the value of the Canadian dollar was allowed to fall. Interestingly, Canada once again has a large public debt and is not considering the reckless action that the Government are pursuing. Those options are not sensible or credible in the current situation.
Let us also bury the myth about Greece. The UK is not in the same position as Greece. In 300 years of national debt, the UK has never defaulted on its sovereign debt. The UK's debt has a long time to run, with an average of 14 years to maturity-twice as long as most other European countries-which means that the UK needs to finance much less of its debt in any given year and, therefore, is much less sensitive to rising interest rates.
We hear from the Liberal Democrats that fairness is important, and yet they now say that it is right that public sector workers should see real cuts in wages, while capital gains tax rises by only 10% for higher rate taxpayers. They also say now that VAT should rise to 20%, which they once said would be totally unfair on the poor. The Liberal Democrat way now is that it is right to cut benefits by £11 billion for the poorest in our society. Where is the fairness in that? Members can use as many words as they like and whatever sophistry they like, but they will not persuade the British people of the credibility of their position if they say one thing one minute, and another thing the next, just because they have taken the reins of power.
Where is the fairness in freezing child benefit for the next three years-a benefit that is often the only one paid directly to women and mothers? When that is coupled with the reduction in tax credits, many of my constituents will see that this is not a fair Budget. It is a regressive Budget that I believe will get the reception is deserves.
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