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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:14 pm on 24th March 2011.

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Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons) 5:14 pm, 24th March 2011

All I can say about the contribution from Lorely Burt is that it is a bit rich to hear her talk about the stance and policies of the Opposition when she represents a party that, over the years, has perfected and polished the art of opposition based on opportunism.

Some Budgets are remembered for decades to come. Some are instantly forgotten, and some are seen as a missed opportunity. I suppose that only time will tell how this Budget will be remembered. However, my best guess is that it will be seen as a missed opportunity to turn on to a different road that would lead to jobs, growth and long-term sustainable investment in our future.

Yesterday, we needed to see a change of direction, but what we got was more of the same from the Tories. Unemployment is now at its highest level for 17 years, and even more worrying is the latest youth unemployment figure, which now stands at 1 million. That is not only a tragedy for the individuals involved but a national catastrophe. The promise to help 100,000 youngsters is welcome, but it goes nowhere near far enough. It also raises the question of why the Chancellor abolished the future jobs fund last summer, condemning many of our young people to a bleak future. The real fear is that this Government are creating another lost generation, to go with the one that they created in the 1980s. That is my generation, and it has never recovered from the years of Thatcherism. If that happens, the Government will deserve all the scorn that will be directed at them.

Yesterday, we needed to hear how the Government were going to help to get people back to work, but, unfortunately, we heard very little of that. What is being offered pales into insignificance when compared with what the Chancellor has already done to damage our prospects for growth. The fact is that £80 billion is being taken out of the economy over the next four years as a result of the comprehensive spending review. That is twice the amount that we believe to be sustainable.

The 1.2% growth in the economy experienced in the spring of last year vanished in the cold of winter, to the extent that the economy contracted by 0.6% in the last quarter. With the first quarter figures for this year not expected to be much better, there is a real possibility of the country slipping back into the danger zone. Consumer confidence is at its lowest level ever, unemployment is on the up, living costs are squeezing people’s incomes hard, and the full ferocity of the spending cuts will start to bite in April, which is just a few days away.

All these factors have led the independent Office for Budget Responsibility to revise downwards its growth forecast for 2011, from 2.3% when this Government took power, to 2.1% after the emergency Budget, and now to 1.7%. Many people expect even that figure to prove optimistic, with the possibility of growth being even lower over the next couple of years. Even if the

OBR is right, the lower growth figures will have dire consequences for people’s jobs and living standards. It is already being said that lower growth figures will add £10 billion a year to Government spending, because of increases in unemployment and welfare benefit costs. To me, that is the economics of the madhouse.

It does not have to be like this. In countries such as America, growth estimates are being revised upwards, not downwards. However, according to Mervyn King himself, we are now seeing the longest fall in disposable income since the 1920s as a result of this Chancellor’s policies, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies is saying that households will be 6% worse off than they would have expected to be for the period from 2008 to 2011.

There is more to come, with cuts in housing benefit and tax credits in April. Tax credits played an important role in cushioning people during the recession. They provided a cushion for many people who were put on short working hours and had their incomes cut following the financial crisis. I saw men at Corus being put on short time to save the company, and Corus was able to do that successfully, with the co-operation of the union, because tax credits helped to keep those men’s incomes at a high enough level to prevent them from hitting the poverty line.

On top of those cuts, many people are being badly affected by inflation, which is now running at 5.5% on the retail prices index, which is more indicative of the situation. That is much higher than the Chancellor’s initial forecast. We know that one of the reasons for that is the rise in VAT to 20% in January. When they were in opposition, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats promised that they would not raise VAT. It is no wonder that consumer confidence has fallen to record low levels over the last few months, yet this Budget does not offer any help for hard-pressed people who are struggling to cope.

While the increase in personal allowances is to be welcomed, it in no way fully compensates for the previous increases in VAT and other tax rises being implemented. In a sleight of hand, the Chancellor has moved the uprating of tax allowances, as we now know, from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index, which will cost every taxpayer dearly and bring in an extra £l billion to the Treasury by the end of the Parliament—more than covering the increase in personal allowances.

Even the Institute of Directors, not generally given to rigorous criticism of the Conservatives, commented recently that average earnings were falling and that household disposable income faced a big squeeze. It concluded that this was, at best,

“the jobless and joyless recovery”— not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Chancellor’s policies.

This Budget gave the Government the chance to alter course, to reflect on a vastly changing global situation, to calmly look at the evidence and to realise that the country is not recovering. They talk about rebalancing the economy, and they could have changed their minds and invested in Sheffield Forgemasters rather than leave it hanging in the wind, but that is what they did.

What we have had instead from this Budget is the same old Tories making the same old mistakes and it is the ordinary people who will suffer with their jobs. We have a politically motivated Chancellor who is making cuts now to offer tax cuts at the next election. This is a Chancellor who puts his party and his politics first and the economic situation and prospects for the country last. The Chancellor said this Budget was all about growth, but independent growth forecasts have downgraded the prospects for it. In my opinion, this Budget is a missed opportunity to invest in the UK, to rebalance the economy and to help hard-pressed families all around the country to make ends meet. There is no doubt that the Chancellor’s policies are hurting, but in the end, just as under Thatcher, we will not see them working.