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I speak not merely as a member of the Treasury Committee but on behalf of tens of thousands of working people in my county of Herefordshire. It is a county where the average income is £21,000, where residents face the very high costs of living in a rural area—especially for fuel and transport—and where there is a very high relative number of small businesses. These are real people putting in the hours to support themselves and their families at a difficult economic time.
I welcome the Budget and especially several measures that will have a direct impact on the well-being of my constituents. The first is the cut in fuel duty, which we have pushed for very hard with the Treasury. The second is the rise in the income tax threshold, which will take many Herefordians out of income tax all together. The third is the support for small businesses and entrepreneurship; for apprenticeships; for local housing; for the university technical colleges; for the green investment bank; and, finally—a measure that is perhaps as important as any of those—for filling in potholes, an area in which Herefordshire rather specialises.
The Budget marks a further decisive step in dealing with the disastrous legacy of the previous Government. We know the brute economic facts, but it is important to remind ourselves of the wider picture: that this country now faces paying nearly five times more in debt interest every day than it does on care for the elderly; and that we have, in addition to the disclosed public debt numbers, £200 billion-plus of off-balance sheet debt for the private finance initiative. The wider story, however, concerns the atmosphere of unreality on the Labour Benches, and particularly on the Front Bench, which one might describe as a fog enshrouding planet Balls.
The intention seems to be to rewrite history and to deny, as the shadow Chancellor did today, the fact that in 2007-08 the previous Government created a 3% budget deficit at a time of 3% economic growth—a structural deficit that had existed at that point for seven years. It is unrealistic to pretend that America and Germany are parallel cases to ours in terms of economic recovery. America has the global reserve currency in the dollar and therefore has a far greater intrinsic ability to inflate its way out of trouble, and Germany has benefited massively over the past year or two from the expansion in the American purchasing of industrial goods. Their situations are not parallel to ours. The truth is that our economy is grossly unbalanced and that that is what exposed us to the situation we find ourselves in.
Also unrealistic is the Opposition’s refusal to acknowledge the weight of expert opinion supporting the present policy, including from the G20, the IMF, the OECD, the US Treasury Secretary and even Tony Blair. The Bank of England testified only a couple of weeks ago that without the current austerity measures, our borrowing costs would be 3% higher. Given the amount of refinancing we have to do over the next two or three years, that implies additional borrowing of some £10 billion. If one has any doubts about this issue, one need only look at Portugal, which is close to economic meltdown.
Finally, we have the shadow Chancellor’s denial, which we heard again today, that any deficit ever existed. As they say, “De Nile is not just a river in Egypt.” [ Interruption. ] I am in town all week! Labour’s strategy has been pretty clear: ignore economic reality, disavow the previous Chancellor’s own plans to make cuts and increase taxes, attack the coalition wherever possible and hope the voters do not notice. The result has been a refusal to articulate any constructive, concrete proposals at all. I note the contrast with the Republicans in the US, who have opposed the Democrats with great vigour. Whatever their personal merits, the fact is that the Republicans in Congress have created positive alternative plans that have to be debated. That is in sharp contrast to the actions of the Opposition in this House.
The truth is simple: this country has suffered the biggest economic shock since the great depression. It will take years to recover fully from that shock and the world’s economic system remains very fragile. The USA took slightly longer than a decade to rebuild after the great crash of 1929. Japan started to recover from the asset-based deflation of the early 1990s only a few years ago and it will be a doubly cruel blow if the earthquake sets back its recovery any further. The idea being pushed by the Opposition that this Government are in any way responsible for the current economic mess is laughable.