My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Just last week, when listening to the Chancellor deliver his fourth Budget and its dreadful assessment of the state of the British economy, it was hard to believe that if everything had gone to plan for him and we had managed to pull off what he proposed in the emergency Budget, we would be well down the road to balancing the books and debt would be peaking this year as a percentage of GDP. Such a plan now seems nothing more than a fantasy.
Larry Summers, the distinguished American economist and Treasury Secretary under President Clinton, told a conference I attended last year about the response he gives when asked what one event would make him completely reassess everything he believes to be true about modern economics. He said that since 2010, his answer has been, “If the UK Government manage to bring about a rapid recovery through their deficit reduction plan.” I thought that was quite a bold statement when I first heard it, but of course, Mr Summers knew what he was talking about.
When the Chancellor took office in 2010 and first came to the House, he said we would have five years of pain to eradicate the deficit, but then we would have done it. Last week, he came back to the House to say that there will be another five years of pain, and then we will have eradicated the deficit—maybe. There has been almost no progress, but the pain for our constituents has been very real.
Stripping away all the partisanship in this Chamber, there are surely Government Members who thought last week, “What if we had done things slightly differently?” The truth behind all that misplaced rhetoric in 2010 about the UK being on the verge of bankruptcy or that we would be the next Greece, all but destroyed business and consumer confidence, before the measures in the emergency Budget were even on the statute book. When the Government’s agenda did bite, the combination of that, the collapse of confidence they had already fostered and the worsening eurozone produced an economic disaster. We all see the casualties of that every day in our constituencies. We needed more from this Budget.
There are three issues I would like to address in the brief time available to me, the first of which is manufacturing. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman that this Government have done some good things in that regard. I am pleased that there are Members on both sides of the House who, like me, are passionate about manufacturing, a sector in which a fifth of my constituents still work. However, the Budget speech made no mention of the “march of the makers”, and it did not address the two main issues that still remain: that such businesses cannot borrow money when they need to; and that they feel that the Government do not give them sufficient strategic direction, be it on renewable energy, High Speed 2, aviation policy or anything else. I hope the Chancellor has had time to read the excellent report by the former director of the Institute of Directors, Sir George Cox, on short-termism in the UK economy. I hope he will take on board its main recommendation: that we need to develop a coherent and workable modern industrial strategy if we are to remain competitive. I agree with Government Members when they say we are in a global race, but at the moment we do not even have a map of the course.
Secondly, despite the job creation record that Government Members like to emphasise, unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, is still a major problem. We know enough about the Work programme to know that it has not been a success. Due to the combination of a lack of jobs generally and an inadequate payments system, it has not had the impact it should have had. We had on the statute book a range of measures that were getting people back into work; the future jobs fund, for example, should never have been dropped. Much of the Government’s borrowing—they announced £245 billion on top of their 2010 figure—is paying for the costs of failure. It is not unreasonable to wonder what might have happened if we had invested a fraction of that sum in putting people back into work.
My third point is about the equity of the Government’s agenda and how things have been shared, because the lower down the income scale people are, the harder they have been hit. The contrast between the tax cut for millionaires in the next few days and the bedroom tax is startling. The latter is a tax on people struggling with their child’s disability, struggling with their own or their partner’s ill health, or struggling to be a good parent in the event of the breakdown of their relationship. The fact that it may lead to higher costs for the Exchequer, as families are forced to move into higher-cost private accommodation, flies in the face of all reason. On this measure, more than any other, we need another famous Budget U-turn.
Let me deal with some specific Budget measures. I welcome the concessions on fuel duty, which does have a real impact on household income, and the scrapping of the beer tax escalator, which will benefit real ale towns such as Stalybridge. The nod towards the Heseltine report is also good, but it could have gone so much further. Had the Government pursued the previous Government’s Total Place community budgeting reforms, they could have improved public services while saving billions of pounds. However, Lord Heseltine’s logic that regional leaders are best placed to determine spending which will lever in private sector investment is surely correct.
I also welcome the commitment to spend 0.7% of our GDP on international aid, and here I have the opportunity to qualify remarks that got me on to page 2 of The Sun a few weeks ago. I am a supporter of international aid, but we have to acknowledge that it is contentious to increase it when our constituents are facing hardship. I just want the focus to be on what aid will achieve, rather than simply patting ourselves on the back for what goes into it. That is a reasonable way to build support for aid among the British people.
There is no doubt that whoever was in charge right now would face difficult choices about where the pain that the British people face should lie. However, the deal we have to offer them is that the pain will be worth it, and that the distribution of that pain will be equitable and will show empathy with people’s lives. On all those criteria the Chancellor has failed, and it is surely time for a new approach.