I beg to move,
That this House
approves, for the purposes of section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, the Government’s assessment as set out in the Budget Report, combined with the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Economic and Fiscal Outlook, which forms the basis of the UK’s Convergence Programme.
I welcome this opportunity to debate the information that will be provided to the European Commission this year under section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993. As in previous years, the Government will send to the Commission data on the UK’s economic and budgetary position, in line with our commitments under the EU stability and growth pact.
The Government will submit their convergence programme by
It is because of the decisive action this Government have taken to tackle that deficit since the June 2010 Budget that we have secured and maintained the stability of the UK economy. Last month’s Budget builds on those strong foundations, safeguarding our economic stability; creating a fairer, more efficient and simpler tax system; and driving through reforms to unleash the private sector enterprise and ambition that are critical to our recovery.
As the Chancellor said in his Budget speech, Britain will earn its way in the world, but we can succeed in that goal only if we continue to safeguard our economic stability, tackling the record deficit and debt we inherited from the previous Government. That is why this year’s Budget has a neutral impact on the public finances, implementing fiscal consolidation as planned, and keeping us on course to achieve a balanced structural current budget by 2016-17 and debt falling as a percentage of national income by the end of this Parliament in 2015-16.
Fiscal sustainability is the vital precondition for economic success, but we are doing much more to catalyse growth. First and foremost, we are undertaking far-reaching reform to ensure that our tax system is simple, predictable and fair, and that it supports work.
Given that the requirement for the Government’s assessment was passed under the Maastricht treaty, for which no one in the country voted, and that it must go to a Commission that no one in this country has elected, why does an independent British Parliament have to go through this procedure—this charade—every year?
We have signed up to certain aspects of the stability and growth pact. One precondition is that we present this information, as we have done every year since the Maastricht treaty. I will set out later why the UK is treated differently in this process from other European Union member states, but there is nothing new in the information that we will supply and it has been presented to the House. When the EU sought to revise its economic governance package, we were very clear that, whereas other member states provide information to the Commission in advance of their budget-setting process, the UK will provide it after our process.
We are required to endeavour to achieve the Maastricht criteria. A very different regime is in place for the UK because of the opt-out that John Major negotiated under the Maastricht treaty. We have been clear, as the economic governance package has developed in recent years, on preserving that opt-out and the different treatment for the UK as compared with other European member states. One achievement is that we are not subject, for example, to the sanctions regime to which other member states are subject.
We jealously protect our particular position in the process, as I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House would want us to do. Clearly, were we to follow the Leader of the Opposition’s policy—he wants us to join the eurozone at some point—we would have to give up those safeguards and protections. That is not a policy that this Government or the Conservative party would support.
Setting aside my views on the Budget, which are probably not printable, is not talking about the stability and growth pact at this time simply building castles in the air? We have neither stability nor growth in any part of Europe at the moment. It might be that we are waiting for things to turn, but even in Britain we face savage deflation if we do not change our policies.
Europe needs to tackle its fiscal deficit and put in place the policies that will lead to economic growth. One reason for such uncertainty in the eurozone is that a series of imbalances have built up in different European economies. It is important that we tackle them and set out a very clear course for growth. I shall come later in my remarks to some of the actions that the UK Government have led to ensure that the EU spends more time talking about growth and finding ways in which we can accelerate economic progress in the European economies.
Let me mention some of the measures we are taking at home that were set out in the Budget. We are committed to creating the most competitive tax system in the G20. We are cutting the rate of corporation tax to 22% by 2014, which will be the lowest rate in the G7 and the fourth lowest in the G20. [ Interruption. ] Chris Leslie pre-empts my remarks, because I was about to say that we will remove the ineffective and uncompetitive top rate of tax.
I should say to the hon. Gentleman that I talk to businesses that wish to grow and businesses that want to locate here in the UK. They commend the Government for the corporate tax reforms in which we have engaged. In Treasury questions earlier, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor referred to remarks made by the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, who responded positively to the tax changes that we introduced. He is not alone—other businesses are moving to the UK as a consequence of our corporate tax arrangements.
Clearly, when we are trying to attract international businessmen to work here in the UK, and if we want to retain high-paid, talented business leaders here, the 50p tax rate is an issue. It is an outlying issue in G7 countries and affects location decisions for businesses. Cutting the top rate of tax is therefore the right thing to do. We set out the cost—£100 million—in the Red Book and highlighted measures that would raise five times that amount from the very wealthiest in society.
That was a difficult decision, but I believe it was the right one if we want the economy in this country to grow. As was mentioned earlier, one consequence of the higher rate that the previous Government introduced—they did not bother to introduce it in the first 12 years they were in office—was that 20,000 people moved from the UK to Switzerland. That demonstrates the negative impact of a 50p rate. If we want to be competitive, we need a competitive tax regime for both personal and corporate taxes.
I do not believe that nonsense about people moving because of the top rate of tax. In France, the socialist opposition have suggested a top tax rate of 75% and said that if people move away because of it, plenty of other people who are just as talented will be prepared to take their jobs because they will still earn a lot of money.
To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, I suspect he is one of the few Opposition Members who supported the 50p rate throughout the period of the Labour Government, and is not one of the late converts that many of his hon. Friends have become.
As I have said, it is important that we create the right competitive conditions for business to flourish, and this Government will continue to invest in our nation’s future. We have announced that we will take forward many of Alan Cook’s recommendations on roads and develop a national roads strategy; we have confirmed investment to provide ultrafast broadband to 10 cities across the UK, with a second wave of cities to be identified in future; and we will continue to support the establishment of a new pension infrastructure platform to unlock an initial £2 billion of investment by as early as 2013.
However, a return to prosperity in the UK depends not only on what is happening here, but on what happens beyond our shores.
My hon. Friend makes a coherent argument, but we have been told on many occasions that what happens in the eurozone is important for exports. Without any monetary stimulus, and without major fiscal changes or major structural reforms, how can a cumulative 3% year-on-year reduction of budgets in southern Europe in countries such as Portugal, Greece and Italy possibly assist us in growing our economy out of the recession of the past few years?
My hon. Friend needs to recognise that, in several countries that have a programme in place, there is a requirement to make structural reforms. A number of member states are already embracing structural reforms, tackling issues such as restrictions on the labour market and looking at ways to tackle the burden of regulation. We are seeing the structural reform that goes hand in hand with fiscal consolidation to create a stable and sustainable platform for economic growth. Here in the UK, we are undergoing fiscal consolidation, but at the same time we are engaging in supply-side reforms to help stimulate growth in the economy. I do not see the two as mutually exclusive. Indeed, they need to go hand in hand if we are to deliver growth.
I shall reserve most of my remarks for later when I hope to have the chance to speak. However, I must say that supply-side reforms are all very well, but if there is no demand in the economy, it will not grow but contract.
It has been demonstrated time and again in a host of different economies that supply-side reforms are vital, because they reduce some of the costs on businesses and enable them to invest and improve productivity, and in that way they stimulate demand and growth.
Hon. Members are right to focus on events beyond our shores. As the Office for Budget Responsibility said in its March report,
“the situation in the Euro area remains a major risk” to the UK’s economic forecast. More than 40% of our exports are to the euro area, and recent events in the markets remind us that euro area countries need to make painful adjustments to their public finances and external deficits. It is a difficult path that they have to walk, although new Governments in the likes of Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy are walking it. That is the logic of the single currency to which they are all committed, and progress is being made.
The European Central Bank’s monetary loosening has helped to stabilise the banking system, and the trillion dollars pumped in through the long-term refinancing operation has been helpful. There has been progress in stabilising Greece, and—as I have said—a number of countries have announced important economic reforms.
As well as these measures, important longer-term reforms have been made since we last debated the convergence programme. Those reforms include a stronger, more effective stability and growth pact following agreement of the “six pack” in December 2011. A new macroeconomic imbalances procedure will provide an assessment of potential economic risks across Europe, with sanctions for euro area countries that fail to take action. Importantly, the Commission has put forward proposals to improve co-ordination of budgetary processes between euro area countries.
The treaty on stability, co-ordination and governance—the fiscal compact—was signed in March by 25 member states and it also has the potential to embed stronger rules on fiscal discipline. Together, these reforms represent a stronger, reinforced system of economic governance for the EU and the euro area in particular. While many of these stronger measures may not be right for the UK, they can support stability in the single currency area.
If I may, I will finish my paragraph as it may clear up any misapprehensions that the hon. Gentleman has.
I would like to reassure the House that following these reforms the UK is still not subject to sanctions under the strengthened stability and growth pact—the EU treaty is clear that they apply only to EU area countries. Unlike other countries, the UK will only present its convergence programme to the Commission after the Budget is presented to Parliament—the procedure that we are following today.
Does the Minister read the newspapers? Has he not noticed that Europe is getting less and less politically stable and that many of the European economies are shrinking? Whatever titles are put on the policies, that is what is really happening. Would it not make sense for the Government and this country to support an as stable as possible break-up of the euro, which would provide growth in Europe and in the United Kingdom?
It would be inappropriate for the UK Government to dictate the economic policies to be followed by those in the eurozone. Members of the eurozone have made it very clear that they wish to remain part of it, and there are even member states queuing up to join it. Indeed, if we have an independent Scotland, it might consider joining the eurozone. There are challenges, but there is a strong political commitment in the eurozone for the euro to remain in place.
The Minister is making a genuine argument in favour of stability, but the rise of the far right—and Marine Le Pen receiving one in five votes in France—shows that whatever was said before, when all these treaties were signed, may not be current now. There is great unrest on the part of the public about what is being done in their name, both abroad and here.
It is not appropriate for any of us to provide a running commentary on the French presidential elections, but it is important that Governments, whether inside or outside the euro, make their argument as to why they believe that the measures required to bring about fiscal stability and economic growth are necessary. Those arguments need to continue to be made, because that is vital to Europe’s long-term interests. We will wait and see what the outcome of the French presidential election is and what the view of the new President is on the fiscal compact.
My hon. Friend should recognise the strong political consensus in the eurozone for the continuation of the euro. The actions of member states have sought to stabilise the situation in the eurozone, and that is why they have set up the European stability mechanism and boosted it with funds to strengthen the firewall. They are also looking at recapitalisation of banks and trying to stabilise the situation. The actions of eurozone countries are attempts to reinforce the stability of the eurozone, and they have also embarked on reforms to try to bring about closer fiscal integration, and the fiscal compact is part of that.
Will the Minister accept that even though we are not members of the eurozone, this country is still teetering on the brink of another recession? Does he also accept that the euro will continue for many decades to come—probably ad infinitum—albeit without some current members?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that as a consequence of the actions taken in the Budget one of the rating agencies, Standard & Poor’s, reaffirmed the UK’s triple A rating—[ Interruption. ] If the hon. Member for Nottingham East paid attention and read the newspapers—he accused me of not doing so—he would have seen that post-Budget one of the big rating agencies reaffirmed our credit rating with a stable outlook. Actions have been taken to stabilise the UK economy, and that is important.
This is not a debate about the future of the eurozone and whether individual members should be in or out, because that is a matter for the national Governments of those member states, not for us. What we cannot ignore is that the stability of the European economy is a vital factor in determining the level of economic growth in the UK. As I said, 40% of our trade is with Europe. We still export significant amounts to places such as Ireland and, historically, we have exported more to Ireland than we have to Brazil, Russia, India or China combined. It is important to recognise that jobs in all our constituencies are dependent on trade with the European Union and the strength of European economies.
I agree entirely with what the Minister has said about the need for stability, not least for UK recovery. I also welcome what he said about the fiscal compact and the other measures being taken. Does he agree that if there is a legitimate debate in any country about growth versus austerity, it is not—as some more excitable colleagues suggest—any indication of political instability in the eurozone, but merely a debate about the direction of travel that a country’s economy might take?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In any economy where there is economic change, there will be a political debate, and that political debate is helpful.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being his normal generous self. Do we not have a responsibility to the millions of young people in southern Europe who are on the edge of penury and economic misery, essentially because of this institutionalised, obdurate approach, principally from the Germans, and the failure to accept that the European Central Bank should be the lender of last resort? This political project, which the euro is, is plunging millions of working people in southern Europe into poverty for the next 10, 15 or 20 years. Surely we have a moral duty not to be complicit.
My hon. Friend would, I think, be the first to criticise other member states seeking to lecture us on our economic policy, so we need to be careful not to lecture them either. As I said, there is the political will in the eurozone to keep the euro, and its actions are consistent with that. Whether through closer fiscal integration or increased firepower for the European stability mechanism, those signs are there. The fiscal compact is a significant step towards closer fiscal integration.
The Minister talks about the political will in Europe to continue with the euro, but one wonders about the popular will among the peoples of Europe. He knows that the Irish Republic will shortly hold a referendum on these measures. Does he welcome that and would he encourage other countries to go to their people and seek their views, as opposed to the consensus among the political elites?
Different member states have different constitutional requirements and different histories on the use of referendums, so it is not necessarily appropriate for a politician here in Westminster to lecture others on how to ratify treaty changes.
Before I took the intervention from Graham Stringer, who has now disappeared, I was talking about how the UK fits into the economic governance measures. We will present the convergence programme to the Commission after the Budget has been presented to Parliament—the process we are going through at the moment. The EU, alongside other international institutions such as the OECD and the International Monetary Fund, can comment on the Budget, but, crucially, we are under no obligation to take action. It is up to the Government, not Brussels, to decide what action to take in the UK.
Of course, as the euro area moves towards closer fiscal integration, we must remain vigilant to protect the UK’s interests. Where matters are rightly for discussion or agreement by all 27 member states—for example, on the single market or financial services—they must be agreed by all 27 member states. In case there is any doubt, I can reassure Members that the UK remains at the heart of the EU’s economic debate. It is because of the Prime Minister’s recent letter with 11 other Heads of State or Government ahead of the March European Council that the Council conclusions were agreed with a commitment to ambitious structural reforms at the EU level. That included concrete Council conclusions on strengthening the single market and its governance; completing the digital single market by 2015; making further progress in reducing administrative burdens; and boosting trade by removing trade barriers and ensuring better market access and investment conditions.
The Government will push for even more ambition, however, because a return to sustainable growth is the only way for EU member states to pay down their debts and exit the current crisis. It is essential that the Commission uses EU-level policy levers fully to support growth, but member states must continue to take tough decisions to prioritise the most growth-enhancing reforms, matching the kind of ambition that the Government have demonstrated since coming to office, including in our most recent Budget. The Budget information we are providing to the Commission in the convergence programme is part of the European semester process, now in its second year, and will be something that the Commission will look at.
I do not wish to pre-empt the Commission’s conclusion—it would be wrong to do so—but when other international organisations have looked at the Budget and the Government’s path to fiscal reform, they have clearly endorsed keeping to the path and sticking to the course. That is important. It has meant that we have retained the confidence of international markets, and interest rates are low as a consequence, which is to the benefit of households and businesses. That is vital to the programme of continued economic reform in the UK.
It is important that we discuss these matters with international partners and have a debate about economic policy in Europe, but at home we have to stick to the path required to deliver the necessary reforms. The Budget builds on the Government’s ambition to create a stable and prosperous economy, it shows our commitment to fiscal consolidation and economic growth, and, along with the OBR’s forecast, forms the basis of the UK’s convergence programme. We are taking the right path, and I hope that—
I want to be clear in my own mind, because obviously this is important. If the House was to say no to this tonight and say, “Actually, we don’t think it’s got anything to do with the Commission what we are doing in our independent country. We’re not part of the eurozone,” what would be the repercussions? What would it matter?
As I said, all the information in the convergence programme is already in the public domain. It was published at the time of the Budget by both the Treasury and the OBR, in accordance with our commitments.
No, I will allow the hon. Gentleman to make his own contribution in his distinctive style, and doubtless I will have a chance to wind up and respond to the points made. However, I have gone on for nearly 30 minutes, and other hon. Members want to take part. I will now allow him to do so.
My hon. Friend Kate Hoey asked an extremely pertinent question, and I want to come back to it later. First, however, I commend hon. Members from both sides and all parties for spotting that this debate was so relevant. The motion, as framed, does not leap out from the Order Paper, and when hon. Members go to the Vote Office to find these convergence documents, they are met with a little mystification. Let us turn to page minus-2, so to speak, of the Budget Red Book.
Indeed, I was here this time last year making a very similar, uncannily parallel speech, but I will point it out again. Underneath where it talks about Crown copyright, the ISBN number and where it says:
“Printed on paper containing 75% recycled fibre”,
That is relevant to today’s debate. It is written in very small font for those who might have difficulty reading it. It mentions the European Communities (Amendment) Act, which sounds likely a very British piece of legislation, but, being eagle-eyed, hon. Members will have spotted that all that Act does is refer to the Maastricht treaty, article 2 of which states:
“The Community shall have as its task…a harmonious and balanced development of economic activities, sustainable and non-inflationary growth”.
Of course, it also relates to article 103, which talks about economic policies being a “matter of common concern” that should be co-ordinated within the Council. These are the sorts of words that some find difficult to stomach, but the article continues:
“For the purpose of this multilateral surveillance, Member States shall forward information to the Commission about important measures taken by them in the field of their economic policy”.
We will oppose the Government tonight, but we will do so not because we disagree with the European Union having a look at our Budget—these multilateral surveillance procedures have been going on for the best part of 20 years—but because we disagree with the measures in the Budget.
People will have their different reasons for opposing the motion, and my hon. Friend is right to state his reason for opposing it. My reason for opposing it is that, essentially, it asks the House to approve the Government’s assessment of the economy. That is the nub of the question. We are being asked to approve the Budget Red Book as their assessment of the economy. Sadly, we know that the Government are out of touch not only with the public but with economic reality. Their grip on what one might call the actuality of the real economy leaves a great deal to be desired.
This is an opportunity not only to take stock of the Government’s approach to the economy as a whole but to look at their analysis of what is happening. We know that they are pursuing failing policies on jobs, economic growth and deficit reduction. The Minister proudly defended the cut in the 50p top rate of income tax for the wealthiest 1% in society. The Government are giving a tax cut of about £40,000 to millionaires at the expense of pensioners and working people. Is it any wonder that their popularity is falling precipitously as a result? I am glad to have an opportunity, every time the Minister speaks at the Dispatch Box, to remind those watching these proceedings of the Government’s priorities. Living standards are being squeezed, and the VAT rise is hitting people hard, as are the cuts to tax credits and the cost of living generally. Independent experts say that a typical family will be worse off by £511 this year, but that is the Government’s choice; they want to give millionaires that advantage.
The motion relates to the Government’s assessment of the economy. Such a poor analysis as that presented in their Budget Red Book betrays either extreme wishful thinking on the part of the Treasury or, more likely, a dangerous detachment from the key decisions that Ministers need to confront. Their understanding of what is happening to business, employment and the cost of living is far removed from the experience of the vast majority of the public.
I urge all hon. Members to look at the facts and to examine the way in which the Budget Red Book is so detached from reality. On page 11, the Government claim that growth is
“strengthening over the forecast horizon”.
Growth was minus 0.2% in the last quarter for which we have figures, and the economy has been flatlining for a long time. It has performed very poorly since the spending review, while that of the United States has grown by more than 2%. The Office for Budget Responsibility is predicting growth of just 0.8% in 2012. Last year, in this very debate, we heard that the OBR was forecasting growth of 1.7% in 2012, and that was after several downgrades. There is clear evidence that the Government’s assessment of the economy is entirely out of touch with reality. The OECD is predicting good things for the United States, Germany and Japan, which are all predicted to grow faster than the United Kingdom this year.
What is worse is that on page 15, the Red Book states that we will experience
“positive growth, consistent with experience from past financial crises”.
Last year’s Treasury Red Book said that we were expecting a recovery that was
“in line with previous recoveries”.
I know that my hon. Friends who are students of these matters will be familiar with the charts and analysis produced by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and others that compare the progress of recessions and recoveries across the decades, from the great depression to the recessions in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. When we consider our present position, we see that we are still 4% off the pre-recession peak. We have not yet clambered out of the hole. This is proving to be one of the longest and deepest financial crises, and the Government have failed to make any headway in ensuring our recovery. Their claims that we are in a parallel situation to previous recessions and financial crises prove that they are not in touch with reality.
That is an interesting question. Obviously, I believe in the rule of law, and there is a legal obligation on Her Majesty’s Government to abide by the treaties. This is where we come back to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall asked earlier. She asked the Minister what the consequences would be if the motion were not passed by the House today. That is the key question that all hon. Members should be pressing the Minister on when he winds up the debate. I will give way to him now if he can answer it. What would be the consequences for us if we did not vote in favour of the motion today? I am happy to give way to him. For the reasons that I have suggested, the Government’s poor assessment of the economy does not inspire me to vote for the motion. I do not see why we would want to support their woeful assessment. The Minister is not giving us a reason for voting for it.
I entirely agree with not submitting the report to the European Union, but is not the growth situation even worse than my hon. Friend suggests? Even as we speak, the eurozone is plunging into a deeper crisis. Because of the weakness of the euro, the pound is unfortunately strengthening against the euro, which is going to make it harder for our manufacturers to export. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury said yesterday that we needed to make even more cuts than those already planned. So far, we have experienced only about a quarter of the planned public expenditure cuts. Is not the situation far worse than my hon. Friend suggests?
We have a blinkered and, in many ways, deluded approach to austerity—or über-austerity, as some might characterise it—which is hurting not only in the eurozone but here as well. What angers many people is that the Government’s approach to helping the eurozone out of its difficulties is to throw money at it. Technically, that money is going to the International Monetary Fund, but everyone knows that it is all about eurozone bail-out funds. We are giving a further £10 billion loan, even though the Americans and the Canadians are all saying that we should stand firm and negotiate with the wealthy eurozone countries, including Germany, and make them dip deeper into their own pockets. If they do not do that, and if Britain, China, America and others provide the money, those eurozone countries will not do the deep, serious thinking that they need to do, and they will not take the consequences of their situation within the single currency. They will not put up a proper firewall, as they ought to do; they will not build what has been characterised as the “big bazooka”.
That is why we have consistently expressed our scepticism about the Chancellor’s decision to cave in and give extra resources—British taxpayers’ money—to the IMF, which we all know is going to be used for that particular purpose. We like the IMF for its work with other countries in the developing world, and of course we want a strong IMF, but we should not be letting those wealthy eurozone countries off the hook. They need to confront those issues.
I apologise for coming in late, but I have just got off the plane from Denmark where I was meeting the chairmen of the scrutiny committees of all the other national Parliaments of the European Union. We have recently witnessed the resignation of the Dutch Government and the consequences of the French elections. Would the House be interested to know that there is deep disquiet behind the scenes throughout the whole of Europe, as I discovered through speaking to those chairmen in the last couple of days?
I am afraid that I am not surprised to hear that that is the case. The hon. Gentleman spends a great deal of time and effort monitoring how these issues progress. Personally, I feel we need to find ways of supporting and stabilising the situation in the eurozone, but I do not think that the Government’s strategy is the right way to do that. However, I digress.
I feel it appropriate to give the shadow Minister some friendly advice. One reason why my party was not credible on the economy until quite a few years after we lost the election was that in many respects we did not face up to the fact of the legacy we left. I remind him that he really should be looking at the wider picture of Europe rather than focusing on the national situation here. The fact is that real-terms public expenditure rose by 53% from £450 billion to £700 billion between 2000 and 2010. His party ran a structural deficit in times of economic growth. That is the situation in which we find ourselves now.
I obviously disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment, but he made an important point earlier about the plight of those who are suffering as a result of the austerity approach being applied in southern European countries in particular. I worry greatly about that; it is a matter of concern. It is also a concern, however, for our constituents here in the UK. We take a different approach on principle about the right ways to repair our economy. We believe that a stronger emphasis on growth is necessary to generate revenues; it is not just about public expenditure cuts, which do not provide the way out of the situation. I also disagree that the motion is a general debate about the state of the European economies. We are debating whether the Red Book provides a right, accurate, fair and good assessment of the state of the British economy such that we can submit it, as we are required to do by the treaties, to the European Commission. I am simply following the strictures placed on us by the Maastricht treaty.
That is the key point. The hon. Gentleman quoted from the 1993 Act—a Tory Act, of course—about the need to submit information to the European Commission, including information on industrial investment. We have seen forecasts of 6.7% business investment growth ending up being a negative 0.8% out-turn. He is thus absolutely right that the Red Book is not credible in terms of the objective set out in the 1993 Act.
It is that lack of credibility that makes me want to oppose the motion. The hon. Gentleman picked up on the point about business investment. I encourage hon. Members to turn to page 16 of the Red Book, which says:
“business investment will pick up and make an increasingly strong contribution to growth in each year of the forecast as confidence builds and credit conditions ease”.
Just yesterday, the trends in lending data came out from the Bank of England. Year on year, net lending to all businesses—small and medium-sized enterprises in particular—has fallen in every single month since the Government took office. That is despite Project Merlin and all the attempts at credit easing, which have still not come into effect and will do nothing to help credit availability. Last year, they said in their document that
“Credit conditions have shown signs of stabilisation.”
That has not come to pass, so I have no confidence that their current propositions will come to pass either.
On borrowing, page 12 of the Red Book claims that we are heading for
“£11 billion lower over the forecast period than was projected at Autumn Statement 2011”,
which is sophistry because we know that in the spending review figures from October 2010, the Government projected a set of borrowing statistics that have had to be ripped up, because we are on a trend that takes us into £150 billion of further borrowing over the lifetime of this Parliament. The new borrowing figures out this morning confirm that particular trend. That is where things are going.
The Chancellor keeps restating that the UK is “a safe haven”, although he slipped a little bit today in saying that it was “a safer haven”. There he was in Washington this weekend, saying that the UK has “solved our problems”. That is our Chancellor’s assessment of our economy. Such dangerous complacency beggars belief, and I think that it is a sign of arrogance.
Of course, that is because of the Government’s record of high unemployment, with statistics showing not much improvement, an increase in welfare costs and so forth. All those things are a drag on public expenditure; they are making things no better. That is the result of the Government’s misguided strategy. On the wider issue of employment and unemployment, I challenge hon. Members to find much in the Red Book that provides an assessment of what is going to happen to them. We know that we have the highest unemployment in 17 years, with 2.67 million people on the dole. We know the story that long-term unemployment doubled in the last year and that youth unemployment is at a record high. My hon. Friends do not need me to repeat these figures.
On inflation, the Red Book says that
“inflationary pressures, which the OBR considers to have been the main drag on UK growth over the past 18 months, have started to abate, easing the pressures on household incomes and improving the outlook for consumers.”
Well, consumer prices index inflation rose, I think, in the last month. We are at around 3.25%. We should not forget that the Chancellor’s target for the Governor of the Bank of England is 2% inflation. Indeed, Paul Tucker, the deputy governor of the Bank of England, warned this week that inflation is likely to stay above 3% for much of 2012. Again, even on inflation, the Government’s assessment of the economy is just not correct. There is no mention of consumer confidence in the analysis. Although there is a section on “Investment and confidence” on page 14, it does not mention consumer confidence at all. The consumer confidence indices have been down and are worsening at minus 31%.
My hon. Friend talks about confidence. Did he see the comments of Barney Frank, a leading US congressman, when he talked yesterday about this Government’s obsession with austerity measures, which went right to the heart of the credibility of whether or not they could reduce the deficit? Coming from Washington as he did, he was clear that this Government’s key measure for reducing the deficit in their period of office was counter-productive.
Indeed. All across the globe, developed countries are realising that a strategy focused singularly on austerity alone will not be the solution. We must have a greater focus on growth and job creation as a way of generating revenues.
I have spoken for too long. Labour Members believe that this motion is flawed because the Government’s assessment of the economy is poor. Others will have their own reasons for voting against it. I want to hear the Minister’s justification for the motion and to find out why it would be cataclysmic if it did not go through. The consequences of that are a key point. As I see it, the Government misunderstand the economy, they are misreading the growth prospects of the UK and they are misconstruing what is happening in the employment markets and business investment. I therefore urge the House to reject this mistaken assessment of the prospects for our economy.
I have some sympathy with the Minister in this debate, which is about colossal issues, such as the future of economic prosperity throughout the European Union and its impact on our own economy, yet it is also a rather absurd debate. Successive Governments have felt that they have to table documentation and figures to the European Union, but they are embarrassed by that fact because they know that many of us feel that it is this Parliament, which answers to the British people, that should debate and settle these issues, and that what we are doing is none of the EU’s business. If we do a good job, we will stay in office; if we do a bad job, we will be thrown out of office, and the British people will rightly choose another group of people as they decided to do in 2010 as this crisis developed. We think that that is the right approach.
I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that if the Opposition had tabled a motion suggesting that the House should tell Brussels that we would no longer send it these documents, I would probably vote with the Opposition, because I would consider that a sensible way of trying to send an obvious message to Brussels. However, we are being invited to spend more time debating the crucial topic of what kind of economic policy would best promote growth and stability in our own country, and what contribution wider economic policies can make to stability and growth in the European Union as a whole.
The description of the pact that we are debating as a stability and growth pact to be a grotesque bad-taste joke at the expense of the European peoples. It is clear from the way in which it now operates in the euroland countries that it is actually an instability and recession pact. It is a pact for mutually assured deflation. It is intended to do more damage at the very point in an economic cycle when an economy is performing very badly, to withdraw spending power from both the private and the public sector in an economy with too little demand, and to take jobs away in an economy with a problem of mass youth unemployment.
I accept that the policies of many euro area member states are deflationary, but it is ridiculous to deride them simply because those countries are members of the eurozone when our own Government’s policies are equally deflationary.
As I shall make clear shortly, our policies are rather different. For one thing, the coalition Government decided to increase current public spending, which is running at £64 billion a year more this year than in the last year of Labour government. The Red Book shows that real current public spending has risen in each of the two years of the coalition Government, although not by very much. The Government are clearly not trying to deflate the economy by introducing massive current spending cuts, given that overall current spending has been rising.
The right hon. Gentleman, who knows the Red Book inside out, will recall that it makes clear that the Government’s projected discretionary consolidation by 2016-17 amounts to £155 billion a year, of which 81% will be delivered by cuts in services and the remainder by tax increases. Mark Hendrick was right: the Government are embarking on precisely the policies for which the right hon. Gentleman is criticising others.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has not read the Red Book intelligently. The 80:20 statistic on which Members seem to rely relates to changes compared with much bigger growth in public spending that was in inherited programmes. It is not the reality. The reality of the Government’s strategy is a massive increase in taxes over the planned five years of the present Parliament to pay for rather modest increases in current public spending over the life of the Parliament, and to get the deficit down. The 2010 strategy suggested that tax revenues would be £171 billion a year more in year 5 than they had been in the last Labour year. The Government have now had to reduce that figure a bit because—as other Members have pointed out—the expected growth has not been forthcoming, for a variety of reasons.
We need to promote growth vigorously and actively, which is common ground between the Government, coalition Back Benchers and many Opposition Members. The argument, surely, concerns what measures are most likely to bring that about. It appears that over the last four years both Governments have operated policies involving actively increasing public spending, with the exception of capital spend—certainly overall spending has risen—and actively promoting massive borrowing, while at the same time the economy has bombed very badly. I am not suggesting that that is causal, but it should lead Opposition Members to ask why that fiscal injection—massive borrowing and an increase in current public spending—has not done the job. There seems to be some disconnection between the remedy that they recommend and the reality of what is happening.
When we look at the way in which other countries have pulled out of crises of this kind, and, indeed, the way in which Britain has pulled out of similar but, perhaps, less aggressively damaging crises than the one that we inherited, we see that there is nearly always a period during which public spending must be reduced or controlled quite strongly to make room for a private sector recovery, and that a series of measures to promote that recovery will then be necessary. As I have explained at length in the past, banking reform and competitive banking are crucial. The Government’s theory favours a tight fiscal policy and a loose monetary policy. They want to allow more money to circulate through the private sector through credit and through the banking system, and they want to lower the deficit gradually in the public sector so that the fiscal policy becomes a bit tighter.
The right hon. Gentleman makes great play of tax revenues. We all know where they come from—they come from those who can least afford to provide them—but given that only one private sector job is coming along to replace every 10 jobs that are being lost in the economy, where will they come from in future?
So far the strategy has generated quite a lot of new private sector jobs, which is very welcome, but it is obvious that it needs to generate many, many more over the next three years if it is to secure the savings on welfare benefits that I am sure all Members wish to see.
It is nonsensical for Opposition Members to say that the poor will be paying the taxes. We have just seen a big increase in thresholds which takes many people out of income tax altogether at the lower end of the income scale. Moreover, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the Red Book, he will see that there will be a sharp acceleration in self-assessment income tax—the income tax that is paid mainly by the rich—once we get the rate down. I know that Opposition Members do not like reading the figures in the Red Book, but it provides a much better case than Ministers ever provide for why we need to get back closer to Labour’s rates of income tax.
One of the things that I most admired about the former Prime Minister and last Chancellor of the Exchequer but one was his insistence that 40% was the highest rate of income tax that could be charged to optimise the amount of money obtained from the rich. He stuck to that view throughout his time as Chancellor and most of his time as Prime Minister. We all know that he only put it in as a political trap at the end of his period in office when he could see the writing on the wall, but it is obvious from the Red Book figures that he was right: 40% is about as high as we can go to optimise the revenue.
According to the forecast in the Red Book, the revenue will stream in after the rate falls to 45p. If Opposition Members look at the Red Book, they will see that last year, under the 50p regime, self-assessment income tax fell by an amazing 9%. That was because rich people who have a lot of freedom and ability to decide how much to pay themselves—I know that Opposition Members do not like that, but it happens to be the state of play—decided to pay themselves a great deal less. Both the outgoing and the incoming Governments had said that the tax was temporary, so they decided that they would hold back their income. It was obvious that they would do that.
I think that the UK economy may be growing. We will know the facts tomorrow, when we see the first quarter figures, but I suspect that the economy will grow this year. I accept the Government’s forecast of a slow and modest rate of growth. Why, though, is the economy not growing more quickly? There are two main reasons.
The first reason is banking. All the cash that the Bank of England is printing is not going into circulation in the private sector. It is very helpful to keep the Government’s rate of interest down, and it is very helpful to make the increase in public spending more affordable because it controls the interest rate cost for the Government; but the money cannot enter the private sector in any real quantity because the banks are under a huge regulatory cosh to hold more cash and capital at what is, in my view, the wrong stage in the cycle, which means that we cannot secure the growth in banking credit that would finance a better recovery.
The second reason is that taxation is now very high overall in the United Kingdom, which—combined with the inflation tax that has resulted from the high inflation rate that we inherited, which has remained persistently high—means that real incomes are being badly squeezed. It is plain to us all that real incomes started the squeeze under Labour, when the recession really hit, and that that squeeze has continued. A progressive squeeze on the scale that we have experienced since 2008 hits demand and makes recovery that much more difficult.
Is there not a third reason: that we are in the wrong part of the world, next to the eurozone, which has no mechanism for the poorer countries to get rid of their trade imbalances or for Germany to get rid of its trade surplus? Normally that would be done by revaluing or devaluing those currencies, but having one currency makes it impossible.
I know that you would like me to wind up quickly, Mr Deputy Speaker, because others wish to contribute, but it is such a pity, as this is a crucial issue. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is great difficulty in financing the big balance of payments deficits in the eurozone. Now that a mechanism has been found—German surplus deposits in the ECB being routed to weak member states’ banks through the ECB—the Germans are kicking up a fuss, because they suddenly realise that they have €600 billion at risk and they are not very happy. However, as the main surplus country, Germany has to finance the transfers in the union, and until she does so actively and in an encouraging way, there will be all these kinds of problems.
We have problems in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, which we know about. We now have deep problems developing in Spain, and we even have a problem in the Netherlands—which was meant to be one of the good guys—because of a falling out over the rather modest cuts needed to hit the Maastricht criteria. I agree that we need to get to 3% and 60% in due course—I have no problems with the European targets—but I feel strongly that we should do so for our own reasons, in our own time. It is nothing to do with Europe how we run this economy, and the sooner Ministers have the courage to tell Europe that, the better.
Let me say first that the Minister is heroic to take this brief, which is—to understate the matter—a difficult one. I do not envy him his job of having to try to sell it.
There are two good reasons for not sending the Budget report to the European Union. One reason, on which the Opposition agree, is that it is not a good Budget. The other reason, on which many of us on both sides of the House agree, is this: why should we send our Budget report to the European Union? If the EU wanted a copy, it could buy a copy. It is not a problem.
I am not as skilled as the hon. Gentleman in using the internet. Old-fashioned though it may be, I go to shops and buy books, I am afraid.
As for the Budget, the reality is that it will not solve our economic problems. Our problems are not really about the deficit; they are to do with unemployment. Looking back, another time when we had an enormous public debt and enormous deficits was the second world war, after which the then Labour Government ran a full-employment economy, which was the way they overcame our problems. If our Budget was directed towards creating employment, we too would solve many of our problems. The important thing is to generate directly in labour-intensive areas, which are not expensive. We are talking about relatively low-paid workers in the public services or the construction sector—labour-intensive sectors with low import content, which are just the sort of sectors where we want to be generating. However, public services and construction are the very sectors we are cutting.
If we had a massive Government-driven house building programme, along with the creation of more public service jobs, we would bring down unemployment and people would be paying taxes rather than living on benefits, and over time the deficit would solve itself. That is what the Labour Government did after 1945. We were living in Keynesian times then, and I think that Keynes was absolutely right. I like to think that if he were here now, he would be saying what I am saying, albeit possibly in a more sophisticated way.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could say where all those homes would be built. I believe the last Government had a target of some 1.8 million, but I recall that something like half were on a floodplain. Where are we going to build all those homes?
That is a problem for Ministers and local authorities, but it has been estimated that we need another 4.5 million homes over the next few years if we are going to house our people. However, I will not go into that now, because I want to talk about the European Union.
I do not agree with the Budget—I think we ought to have a different one—but even if it were a good Budget, I nevertheless do not think that we should necessarily be required formally to send it to the European Union. I say that because the motion before us refers to the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993—the Maastricht Act—which, I am pleased to say, my party voted against. Indeed, some Government Members voted against it as well. It is the Act that requires us to send the report to the European Union. Personally, I do not feel bound by that, because my party voted against it, and I do not think it is sensible anyway.
However, let us return to the stability and growth pact, which, as I have suggested, is like building castles in the air. What stability? What growth? We have grotesque instability at the moment—terrifying instability, in fact—and absolutely no growth. Indeed, even the powerhouse economy of Germany has serious problems. There is talk of convergence, but who do we want to converge with? Greece? Portugal? Some of the countries that are actually contracting, with mass unemployment? In Spain there is even talk of unemployment rising to 6 million, which, as a proportion of the population, is the equivalent of 9 million in Britain. This is absolutely insane. I do not want to be “disable-ist” about this, but anybody running that economy must want their head examined, quite frankly.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s important comment about the convergence criteria, does he accept that it is absolutely clear that what was thought would happen in 1993, when the Maastricht treaty went through, has gone completely off the wall, as we predicted at the time and as everybody now knows? The Prime Minister said recently that he thought there ought to have been a referendum on that treaty. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree, therefore, that there is a powerful case for having a referendum on the current situation with the euro and the eurozone?
Indeed, and I think many of the peoples of the European countries that are now suffering would like a referendum as well. What I find difficult to understand is why so many people in the countries facing difficulties still support the euro. I do not know why, because supporting membership of the euro is almost like having a death wish. If only there were some courageous politicians who could say, “The way out of our problems is to recreate our own currency, depreciate it against the countries we’re competing with and reflate behind that barrier,” those countries would start to solve their problems. However, they cannot do it because they are tied into the euro.
We have collective deflation, right across the entire European Union, and although this country is perhaps tinkering round the edges compared with some other countries, that is entirely the wrong way to go. One thing that is causing us problems at the moment is that the eurozone is in such trouble that the euro is now weakening, which, by contrast, is strengthening sterling and making life more difficult for our manufacturers. That is causing problems in many ways. However, if there were a sensible, managed deconstruction of the euro, with the re-creation of national currencies in many, or possibly all, of those countries, thereby allowing them to reflate their economies, they would benefit, as would we, and the whole European Union would then start to work properly—as a group of democratic, independent nations co-operating voluntarily for mutual benefit, rather than something driven by people in central banks or people in Brussels in the Commission.
I hope we do too. As for the repercussions, will we be taken to the European Court of Justice? I suppose that is what happens; however, I think the European Union has other things on its mind rather than punishing us for not sending the Red Book across to Brussels. It has more problems than it can deal with at the moment, and it will not be taking us to court simply for refusing to send across our Budget book, which it can buy in the shops anyway.
I apologise for not being here for the whole of the debate, but I was in the Finance Public Bill Committee. Does my honourable friend in European matters not agree that the Government have behaved much, much better this year, by allowing the debate in Parliament to take place before the book is sent to Brussels, and that we should encourage the Government in this reformed behaviour?
Indeed. I think we ought to debate many more of these things on the Floor of the House. I would like to think that many more colleagues, from all parties, would take part in these debates and appreciate some of the things that some of us, on both sides, have been saying about the nonsense of the European Union at the moment.
I have been speaking for rather too long, so I ought to stop. There are two extremely good reasons for not sending the Budget report to Brussels. I hope that many Members will agree with that and vote against the motion this evening.
As always, it is a great pleasure to follow Kelvin Hopkins. He referred to the fact that only a few Conservative Members voted with the then Labour Opposition on the Maastricht treaty—I rather suspect that I may have been one of them at that time.
May I correct the hon. Gentleman on one matter, however? He referred to our sending the Red Book. I wish that it were so, but we are not sending the Red Book; instead we are sending the 210 pages of the “2011-12 Convergence Programme for the United Kingdom, submitted in line with the Stability and Growth Pact”. It is a specially produced document. As last year, I oppose the submission of this convergence document to the European Union.
No doubt by contrast to the previous speaker, I entirely accept that the Government are pursuing a sensible economic policy that is designed to enable this country to start to live within its means once more. Of course there is a debate to be had in the House about whether taxation is at the right level in certain areas or whether public expenditure should be reduced further and faster, but those matters are not what this debate is about. It is specifically about whether the Government assessment of our economic position should be approved
which requires this country to submit an assessment every year of how well we are progressing on convergence. I object to that, as, I suspect, do many millions of my fellow Britons.
I wish to raise three questions about this convergence. First, what are we supposed to be converging with? Is it the eurozone? It probably is, and I certainly suspect that that is what the Eurocrats want us to do, but why on earth would anyone want to converge with the eurozone at present? It has a failing currency and is based on a failed idea that is continuing to survive in its current form only thanks to bail-out after bail-out and the failure of European leaders in Brussels to wake up and accept the reality that, as any sensible independent commentator can see, it is folly to try to tie together the economies of different countries with such widely divergent characteristics. Such a plan is doomed to fail.
Secondly, who are we supposed to be converging with? Surely not the struggling economies of southern Europe. Things are still going very badly wrong across the eurozone, as we saw only yesterday with the collapse of the Dutch Government because of the fall-out from the eurozone crisis. In addition, there are the economic data: first-quarter GDP shrank by a further 0.4% in Spain, and the eurozone’s own composite purchasing managers index—a useful measure of progress in the eurozone—has slumped to 47.4 in April, down dramatically from March’s 49.1, and we must note that any index figure of less than 50 means contraction. That collapse was both in services, down from 49.2 to 47.9, and in manufacturing, down from 47.7 to 45.0. Even the mighty German economy is being affected by the struggling eurozone. Its overall purchasing managers index figure is down to 50.9, with even German manufacturing at a 33-month low of 46.3. It is clear, therefore, that despite all the bail-outs and the firewalls and the new IMF fund that has just been created, the eurozone remains mired in deep crisis, and I submit that we do not want to converge with it.
Thirdly—and perhaps most importantly—why are we converging? Has anybody bothered to ask the British people if they want to be converging with the countries of the eurozone? We ought to be pursuing the policies that are right for this country, regardless of what the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels think.
May I reiterate an assurance that I gave earlier? We are following the policies that we think are right and are in this country’s interests. We are not going to be dictated to by Brussels bureaucrats.
I am most grateful, as I am sure are all Members, for that confirmation from the Minister. That answer raises the following question, however. No doubt many officials at the Treasury have been engaged in the preparation of this convergence document, spending many hours of precious time and energy on it, but why? What a complete waste of time! As was ascertained last year, anybody who is interested in this information could glean all of it from the internet, without any need to move any paper about. This is a complete, gigantic waste of time. It is a giant, paper-shuffling exercise.
As someone who took a very active part in the Maastricht debates, I can say that this current debate is a case of déjà vu. As my hon. Friend said, we are being required to submit this report under the provisions of section 5, even though everything has changed and it is utterly impossible for us to set out to achieve the stated objective, because it is impossible for us, in the national interest, to attempt to apply the convergence criteria. The whole thing is a complete mess, which is why we need to have a referendum on the whole issue, including our relationship with the European Union.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on both those points: first, this is a complete waste of time, and secondly, we certainly ought to have a referendum. That is not, of course, the matter before us tonight, however. Instead, this is the question under discussion tonight: what is the point of sending this document to Brussels?
The Minister admits that we pay no attention to what Brussels says to us, and that we govern our own affairs, so what is the point of producing this document? We should be honest with the people in Brussels and say, “Look, we’re not going to listen to you anyway. We’re independent in these matters, and we’re going to stop sending you this document every year.” It is a complete waste of time to send it this year—and I would be very interested to know what happened to last year’s document.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that it is a cruel paradox that the EU lectures member states to get their deficit down and then demands more money from them by way of public spending?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, and it prompts the following: if the bureaucrats in Brussels are keeping an eye on the eurozone, something has gone pretty badly wrong because right across the eurozone nobody is sticking to the rules and regulations. The growth and stability pact went west years ago. If the bureaucrats had stuck to it a bit more closely, all the bail-outs, mechanisms and IMF funds would not have been necessary. If they had spent a little less time reading convergence documents and a little more time concentrating on the problems in the eurozone, our country might be better off because our European neighbours might be better off too and would therefore want to buy our goods and services.
There is no useful purpose to our constituents in this document being sent to Brussels, and I urge the House to vote against the motion.
It is pleasure to follow Mr Nuttall, who has dealt with one side of this issue—how the documentation goes to Europe—with his usual rigour and care. I wish, however, to focus on the appropriateness of the Budget Red Book for the UK economy.
The Red Book has created a cacophony of confusion. We have had the pasty tax, the granny tax, the caravan tax, the churches tax and the tax on philanthropy—the list goes on and on. This is an omnishambles, if ever we had one. This Budget is neither fair nor effective. Indeed, Frank and Shirley, two pensioners, came to see me at my recent surgery and told me that they are really concerned about the impact of this Government’s policies on them. They are worried about the pensions move from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index and the effect of the granny tax. At the same time, they see their energy prices, fuel prices and other costs rising. That is what is happening to real people in the real world.
This was a Budget in which millions were asked to pay more so that millionaires can pay less: 14,000 people earning £1 million or more get a tax cut of more than £40,000 a year, while the average family lose £511 as a result of tax rises and cuts this year. A family with children earning just £20,000 lose £253 a year—that is in addition to the VAT rise, which is costing families in my constituency up to £450 a year. This Budget also includes a £3 billion tax raid on pensioners for the next four years.
This is not a fair Budget, so the issue becomes whether it is an effective one. The Government promised change. They promised that things would get better, but things have got worse. Their policies are clearly failing on jobs, on growth and on the deficit. We have 1 million young people unemployed—that is a shocking statistic—and women’s unemployment is at a record high. The economy has stalled, and there is speculation about tomorrow’s growth figures—not about how much the economy has grown, but about whether the economy is merely flatlining or is going back into recession. By contrast, in the United States, where investment is taking place in infrastructure, the economy is growing, albeit slowly. Our Government are set to borrow £150 billion more than they had planned because of this slower growth, so this Budget is not fair and it is not effective.
I represent Scunthorpe and the surrounding villages, where manufacturing is key. There is not enough in this Budget to address the needs of manufacturing; it does not contain an industrial policy. A promise was made about introducing a commitment for intensive energy users. The promise remains but that is still not happening; it is still in the long grass. Likewise, infrastructure spending and getting construction going, so that construction can drive the economy forward, are not happening although they need to happen. This Budget, as set out in the Red Book, which we are considering sending to Europe tonight, is neither fair nor effective. It is certainly an omnishambles. It is both heartless and hopeless, and I hope that the House votes against it.
I just wish to contribute a few words at the end of this debate, which I have listened to with interest. I am extremely concerned, but not because we are having to justify our Budget. I think that our Government are doing absolutely the right thing in cutting back on the deficit left to us by the previous Government, putting our house in order and putting the public first. That is where I would like to be: putting the public first. I do not wish there to be any consideration of whether Europe agrees that we are putting our public first or that we are putting European issues first. The European issues must be sorted out in Europe, among the people there. I do not feel that, as a sovereign Parliament, we should have to submit our Budget, regardless of whether the Opposition oppose or agree with it. It is up to us to decide the best for the British people and deliver the best for the British people—whether or not that causes “convergence” is neither here nor there.
The convergence that was perhaps envisaged in 1993 is not a route we would even want to go down now. As my hon. Friend Mr Nuttall said, we are not sure what we are trying to converge with. I do not know why we are submitting documents that have the word “convergence” on the front of them, unless people are giving us marks out of 10 for converging with something.
Has my hon. Friend noticed that the motion ends with the words
“which forms the basis of the UK’s Convergence Programme”?
The Government are therefore assuming that there will be a convergence. The questions are: with whom, about what, and for what purpose?
As usual, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Why do we want to converge? I do not believe that the British public even know that we are converging, given that this is so lost in the mists of time.
I fear that the convergence programme began so that countries could converge with the Maastricht criteria to join the euro. As it is clear that we do not want to join the euro, we should in no way be talking about convergence.
I shall not be supporting this motion, because I fundamentally disagree with what is on the front of the document—convergence. I do not think that our currency or our country should be converging with anything in Europe. Our sovereign Parliament should not have to hand in its notes to see whether or not they are acceptable to Europe. If there is convergence,
I am sure that somebody is marking us out of 10 on how far down the road we have gone. If we have gone down that road, I would happily stop doing so right this minute. I conclude by saying that at some point this Parliament has got to stand up for itself and say, “We are not going to do this any more.” I would like this to be the year when we are not going to do this any more.
I simply wish to say that I thought that my hon. Friend Mr Nuttall really put his finger on it. He told us exactly what the position is with regard to which paper we were considering and he identified the questions that needed to be asked, as did my hon. Friend Mrs Main. This is about whether that treaty that we entered into all those years ago, after all that contention, has or has not done its work. It has failed, and it has failed not only this country but Europe as a whole. That is why we need to vote against the motion; this motion makes an assumption that this treaty is still alive. It is as dead as a parrot.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That this House approves, for the purposes of section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, the Government’s assessment as set out in the Budget Report, combined with the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Economic and Fiscal Outlook, which forms the basis of the UK’s Convergence Programme.