Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation — Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:26 pm on 25th March 2013.

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Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling Labour, Edinburgh South West 5:26 pm, 25th March 2013

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but not in the way he intended, because that is nonsense too. Incidentally, in the leaked document from John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, the Scottish Government too faced up to some difficult decisions. The difference is that I and—to give them credit—the coalition Government were open about the difficulties we faced, whereas the Scottish National party wanted to keep them secret from the Scottish people.

It seems that the Chancellor has given up on doing anything. As I said last week, we are in the middle of a lost decade—it happened to Japan and it is happening to us now—and there is no sign that the Government have any idea how to get out of it. The Government’s Budget response on infrastructure is fine, but it does not come along for two or three years. On housing, I agreed with everything that my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, the shadow Secretary of State, said. The problem is that last week’s announcement is more likely to create yet another housing bubble by driving up asset prices. Indeed, some of it might even sow the seeds that gave rise to the sub-prime mortgage problem we saw in the United States, because we are suffering from an acute lack of housing in just about every town and city in the country.

I was encouraged by what the planning Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Nick Boles, said over the summer. Unless we break through this logjam and get more housing built, prices will go up and up and people will face the same difficulties they did in the past. The irony is that we are not prepared to build houses, but we are prepared, it seems, to finance the inflation of a bubble in housing prices. That is absolutely the wrong thing to do. The bedroom tax illustrates the problem; there simply are not the houses for people whose income is being cut to move to. That illustrates the need to improve our housing infrastructure, although the problem applies to transport and energy as well. I do not object to some measures in the Budget, but nothing in it is likely to get our economy going.

The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds referred to the Bank of England and said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had effectively said, “I can’t do anything further in fiscal terms. It’s all up to the Bank of England now.” Most Members have warmly welcomed the appointment of Mark Carney. I think he will be a very good Governor, but with the best will in the world we cannot expect him to do everything the Government are supposed to be doing. It is useful that we can tell the markets what we think will happen to interest rates. I suspect that most people do not expect them to rise for the next two or three years, although they might rise in the United States, given that the US Government are following a different policy from that being followed here and in Europe.

I do not think, however, that the sort of measures the Chancellor has in mind and which the new Governor might announce in relation to forward guidance will do the trick and get our economy going. I have said before that quantitative easing has played its role and stabilised the banking system—I have supported what has been done so far—but there is little evidence of what additional QE would do for our economy. The risk is that the money simply goes into the bank vaults, not into the wider economy. The Bank will play its part, but monetary policy and fiscal policy have to be complementary, otherwise they simply will not work.

Time does not allow me to mention the eurozone, other than to say that the last week has confirmed my suspicion that the eurozone is almost psychologically incapable of sorting out its problems. Unless it does so, it will hold back growth not only in this country, but elsewhere. At the same time, I am committed to this country remaining part of the European Union—that is very important—although we need to use our influence. Governments can make a difference. In 2008-09, through the G20, Governments from across the world, from communist China to the Republican-led United States, came together and we did what was necessary to support our economies. And guess what? Our economy was growing in 2010. Look at it now.