Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:20 pm on 29th March 2011.

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Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead 7:20 pm, 29th March 2011

Labour Members have already expressed the deep anxiety that is felt in not just Labour households but many households in the country about what the future holds for them. At the end of my short contribution, I shall return to a refrain that the Chancellor used at quite an early stage in his introduction of measures intended to rebalance the economy. We all know that we are experiencing immensely difficult times, but the Chancellor told us that we were all in it together. The question to which I intend to return is this: are we sharing those sacrifices fairly or not? However, I also intend to describe the challenges that the economic situation has posed both to the country and to the political parties.

Let me deal first with the question of national debt. Given that we hope to win the next election, I want to consider the position that we will inherit if we are entrusted with power by the voters on that occasion. Comment has already been made about the size of the national debt when the Government came to office. It was £760 billion then. We are told that we are now experiencing an extreme programme of cuts the like of which we have never seen before, and that at the end of this Parliament the national debt will stand at £1,400 billion. In other words, it will have doubled.

Our views cannot entirely be explained away by the fact that we disagree with the Government’s policy of allowing unemployment to rise and the effects that that will have on Exchequer costs and revenues. Already, a third of the money that we borrow each year is to service our debt. The level of our long-term interest rates is therefore crucial and fundamental to our survival. It is difficult to see how we can come out at the other side as a great industrial and trading country if we lose our current rating and costs rise.

I have three more points to make, one to my own side and two to the Government. This is the first. Before the last election, we had a clearer view of our cuts programme. At this stage of a Parliament it is easy to blame the other side and to oppose all cuts, but the next election may be closely contested. We will have to account for our behaviour in this Parliament, and my plea to my party’s Front Benchers is that we regain the clarity that existed before the last general election about where we would cut, where we would not cut, and where we would fight cuts.

My second point concerns inflation. Although what we have is not wage-induced inflation but inflation that is imported, the Bank of England has been directed to reduce inflation to below 2%. The Government’s current strategy for growth is based on a tough fiscal stance and a loose monetary policy. My worry is that in abiding by that inflation target, we might encourage the Bank of England to drive up interest rates in a vain attempt to control inflation. We know that that policy will not work, but it might satisfy those who feel that we should make more of an effort to reach the 2% target. It is impossible for Governments, once they have set themselves such targets, ever to abandon them, but this Government need to take such action if they are to safeguard future growth.

My last point is the one about our all being in it together. I have never known a Parliament in which the changes came so fast and were plainly so important, and I have no clear view on who is getting off lightly and who is not. A few weeks ago, in a letter to the Prime Minister, I wrote that I would be very surprised if I were the only person in the country who wanted all of us to be in this together but wondered whether we were. I suggested that he set up, in public, a committee whose remit was to examine that very question: are we all in it together?

If we are concerned about families, we should bear in mind that families, both rich and poor, have taken a significant beating from the Government. Obviously, however, my concern is not only with them but with the poor in general. I do not believe that any Minister on the Treasury Bench could stand up and tell us honestly that we are all in this together, and I consider that appalling. I think that the Government ought to take measures enabling us all to be better informed about the question on the occasion of our next major debate.