My first comments are about the nature of growth and the Chancellor’s triumphalist approach to the growing economy. Yes, it is growing, and that is welcome, but this is not economic growth led by sustainable increases in investment—that has been pretty stable during the last few years. It is not led by an increase in exports; again they have not reached anything like the level needed to get us out of recession. Rather it has been led by an increase in consumption and household debt, and by a housing-fuelled boom in London and the south-east.
Of the job growth in the private sector, 80% has been created in London. That totally contradicts the Prime Minister’s assertion yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions when he claimed that it was the other way round. I checked with the Library to see whether my insight into this was incorrect, but it referred me to the Centre for Cities study, which clearly says that 80% was concentrated in London. I hope that the Minister can explain the apparent contradiction between the Prime Minister’s assertion and the best available evidence.
I would like to focus for a few moments on what I consider to be a huge potential black hole in the Budget projections. In the autumn statement—Mr Heath commented on the connection between the autumn statement and the Budget—the Chancellor announced funding for an additional 60,000 higher education student places, funded by the sale of the student loan book. He said:
“The new loans will be financed by selling the old student loan book, allowing thousands more to achieve their potential.”—[Hansard, 5 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 1110.]
When the Minister for Universities and Science appeared before the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, he was questioned about what appears to be an inherently risky way of funding a long-term commitment. He informed us that it would be fully funded irrespective of the sale of the student loan book. That is welcome, but it has not been factored into any OBR predictions I have seen. The cost could be as much as £12 billion. The Government’s own advisers, Rothschild, said that without sweeteners and some form of subsidy, only £2 billion might be reclaimed.
That leaves a potentially huge hole in the Budget predictions, and I have not seen it adequately covered by the OBR or in the Red Book. When challenged on that, the Minister said that the Rothschild report is old and that market conditions have changed. If that is so, I would reasonably expect the Government to be confident enough about their assertion to put forward the figures and funding bases on which the policy has been built.
The other part of the potential black hole is the increasing resource allocation budget charges on the student loans arising from the increase in default rates. It is estimated that if those reach 47%, the cost of the current student-funded scheme will outweigh the old system. We are already at about 40% to 42%, and the latest predictions indicate that it will reach the threshold very shortly. That is acknowledged by the OBR, although there is no acknowledgment of how this will be funded.
I believe that there is a huge potential hole in the Government’s Budget predictions, because they are locked into a financial funding model for higher education that is increasingly becoming unfunded. Furthermore, they have grafted on to it a welcome commitment to funding extra places, but on the basis of a model that does not appear to be viable and a funding regime—the sale of the student loan book—that looks unlikely to realise the necessary amount of money.
I would like to have been able to talk at some length about exports. I will simply quote a press release from the Black Country chamber of commerce:
“This was nothing more than a political budget with a nod to Scotland and another example of the disconnect between politicians and the world of business”.
The fact is that the rhetoric does not match the reality on the ground.