May I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?
I listened attentively to the Budget statement and tried to hear something that was positive, not just for exports, but for manufacturing, for business and for productive industries. There were just two things that we, of course, welcome: the £2,000 off national insurance contributions and the increase to 10% of the research and development credits for those investing, which I am pleased to say several companies in my constituency have already welcomed. The trouble is that those two things pale into insignificance when we look at the scale of the problem we face; they just are not going to tackle it.
The problem can best be measured by looking at the plan from 2010 and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts attached to it. Two crucial elements were going to support that plan and those forecasts. I recall saying in the debates that followed that they seemed to be the two most solid pillars on which the Government were building, but that, as far I could see, there was nothing underneath to support them or the OBR’s very optimistic forecasts. Those two elements were: manufacturing exports—exports on the visible account; and the increase in output from manufacturing. We were told to expect a 10%—I believe the figure given was 9.8%—increase in output from the business sector, but what have we had in the two years to the end of 2012? An increase of less than 5%—barely half what was projected. Alok Sharma said that we are doing well on exports—I am not sure whether we were more interested in exports or Reading—but compared with what was projected and with what we need the outcome in those two years has been terrible. I believe that the projected figure was 6% and we achieved minus 0.3% to December last year in the value and volume of exports.
I am not saying it is easy, but one thing I am sure about is that either the OBR has no idea about forecasts or we need to reconsider the OBR model, as it continually gets everything so wrong. My right hon. Friend Mr Darling, the former Chancellor, was kind enough to say that he thought the estimates were optimistic—that the sunny uplands kept moving to the right and that the further out the OBR went, the more optimistic it became, but that was the case from the very beginning and nothing has changed. We should now be in those sunlit uplands. I do not understand why the OBR, with its much-vaunted independence, continues to get things so hopelessly wrong. Somebody needs to rethink that model. It is not enough to take responsibility out of the Treasury and pop it somewhere down Victoria street—one should not think that that will put everything right. There we are; that is one problem.
One part of the Budget that I thought might lead to some positive movement concerned the construction industry and the house building sector in particular. In an intervention on the Secretary of State, I welcomed the Firstbuy initiative, and a development on the old Jaguar site in Coventry has made quite a contribution, but the extension of the mortgage scheme, which is much bigger, is—yet again—a measure that has not been thought through. The problem with this Government is that they are totally incapable of thinking anything through. They should not be consulting on whether millionaires can have subsidised mortgages for second homes. That should have been ruled out in principle right from the beginning, before the consultation began. Many things require consultation, but not that. I cannot imagine why it was left in as an option—well, I can; things were not thought through.
We are in real need with housing starts down 11%, 70,000 construction workers unemployed and the lowest house building programme since the ’20s. That is the scale of the problem and such tiny measures show that the Government are fiddling around the edges—fiddling while Rome burns, as it were. Central to it all is the attitude of the Treasury and the Chancellor. If the Chancellor has lost self-confidence to such an extent that it impacts on confidence in the business community and consumers in the UK, he must consider whether he any longer has the vision, courage and self-confidence—whether he ever had those things is, of course, another question—to do what is necessary and change course.