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 Budget 2014 and Autumn Statement 2013, combined with the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Economic and Fiscal Outlook (2014) and Fiscal Sustainability Report (2013), which forms the basis of the United Kingdom’s Convergence Programme.
I welcome this opportunity to listen to Members’ views on the information that will be provided to the Commission this year under section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993. As in previous years, the Government will inform the Commission of the UK’s economic and budgetary position in line with our commitments under the European Union’s stability and growth pact. The Government plan to submit their convergence programme today, with the approval of both Houses.
The convergence programme explains the Government’s medium-term fiscal policies, as set out in the 2013 autumn statement.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early in her speech. As she will know, today is the last day for the convergence programme to be submitted under the economic governance pact. As she said, it requires the approval of both Houses. The other place is not sitting today. Has its approval already been obtained and why have we waited until the last day?
I know that my hon. Friend is an assiduous follower of these matters, and he is right. The other place had a short debate on the convergence programme on
I have raised this matter before on similar occasions. First, there is constant talk about convergence, but the European Union’s economies have always exhibited divergence, not convergence. Secondly, do we want to converge with an economy that is failing and growing more slowly than we are?
I have read previous debates and know that the hon. Gentleman is assiduous in attending such debates and in following these matters. The language used in titles of various EU programmes is not a matter of choice for this Government. Perhaps a better word could be used, but it has not been selected by the Government. I take his remarks on board. I think all of us know that the eurozone has not been as strong as even those of us outside the eurozone would like it to be—it is important for our businesses and our exporters—but I will come on to show that things are looking better. The recovery taking place in the rest of the European Union is slower and it is important that we are fully aware of, and the European Commission fully monitors, the economies of other eurozone countries, even though—let me make it clear again—the Government have no intention of joining the euro.
The convergence programme explains the Government’s medium-term fiscal policies as set out in the 2013 autumn statement and in Budget 2014, and also includes Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts. As such, it is drawn entirely from previously published documents that have been presented to Parliament. With the Budget on
The document forms part of the European semester process, which provides a broad framework for the co-ordination of the monitoring and surveillance of member states’ fiscal and economic policies, including necessary structural reforms across the EU. The positive value of the European semester is that it is a useful means to encourage other member states to grip the urgent growth challenge across the EU.
Budget 2014 set out the Government’s assessment of the UK’s medium-term and budgetary position. The UK economy is still recovering from the most damaging financial crisis in generations. We had the biggest bank bail-out in the world, the biggest deficit since the second world war and suffered the deepest recession in modern times. In the face of such a daunting economic challenge, it is essential to have a clear and comprehensive plan.
In 2010, the Government set out clear, credible and specific medium-term consolidation plans to return the public finances to a sustainable path. Our plan makes clear that we will fix the economy and deal with the deficit, cut tax to encourage investment, back businesses, control welfare and invest in skills. We are putting that plan in place. We have adhered to it and we are delivering results with it. The Government’s fiscal strategy has restored fiscal credibility, allowing activist monetary policy and the automatic stabilisers to support the economy and ensure that the burden is shared fairly across society.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for outlining the excellent economic policy that Her Majesty’s Government have so successfully been following. I wonder whether she can give me the assurance that no part of that policy has been changed in any way to meet the requirements of European convergence.
I am certainly not aware of any changes. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that we have led the way in Europe and the eurozone in showing exactly how important it is to return to growth and the actions that need to be taken. It is interesting to see other European countries watching what this country has done and following some of the policies that we have put in place so assiduously. It is, as I have said, very important that they return to growth for the sake of our businesses and exporters, too.
The long-term economic plan has protected the economy through a period of global uncertainty and provided the foundations for the UK’s economic recovery, which is now well established. Since last year, economic growth has exceeded forecasts and has been balanced across the main sectors of the economy. Inflation is below target and the deficit has been reduced year on year. More than 1.5 million private sector jobs have been created. Employment is at record levels and interest rates are near record lows, helping to keep costs down for families and businesses. The Government are also making significant progress in reversing the unprecedented rise in borrowing between 2007-08 and 2009-10. The deficit has been cut by a third, as a percentage of GDP, over three years, and is projected to have fallen by a half, as a percentage of GDP, by 2014-15. The OBR also forecasts public sector net borrowing to reach a small surplus in 2018-19. The independent OBR has judged that the Government remain on track to meet the fiscal mandate one year early.
The Government’s consolidation plans have been central to the reduction in the deficit, with £64 billion of the £80 billion spending reductions in spending review 2010 already implemented. The Government are continuing to take action to improve financial management and spending control. Departments remain ahead of their consolidation targets and are again forecast to underspend by £7 billion in 2013-14. The OBR judges that fiscal consolidation has not had a larger drag on the economy than it expected in June 2010, and the UK’s fiscal vulnerabilities argue strongly in favour of maintaining our commitment to deficit reduction. The OBR forecasts that the underlying structural deficit is falling, but it is falling no faster than previously forecast, despite higher growth.
The persistence of the structural challenge supports the Government’s argument that economic growth alone cannot be relied on to eliminate a structural deficit. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has said, the job is not yet done. More work will need to be done to tackle historic weaknesses, including low productivity, poor skills and inadequate infrastructure. The deficit is still one of the highest in the developed world and the UK needs to continue to deal with its debts. We are on the right track. The deficit has already been cut by one third. Budget 2014 is fiscally neutral, despite lower borrowing across the forecast period, with an overall reduction in tax funded by a reduction in spending. We have set out our fiscal consolidation plan and it is vital to stick to it in future years.
Budget 2014 announced that the Government are cutting income taxes and freezing fuel duty to help hard-working people to be more financially secure; creating more jobs by backing small business and enterprise with better infrastructure and lower job taxes; capping welfare and controlling immigration, so that the UK economy delivers for people who want to work hard and play by the rules; and delivering the best schools, skills and apprenticeships for our young people. The OBR has revised the UK’s growth forecast upwards and it is now among the highest in the EU.
As the Chancellor said, the job is not yet done and the same is true for the rest of the EU, which is the UK’s most important trading partner. Some 45% of our exports are destined for the EU, and seven of the UK’s top 10 trading partners are EU member states. Without sustainable economic growth, the EU will be unable to repay its debts, create jobs or maintain its standard of living. Much of the answers to these problems lie with national-level reforms, such as creating flexible labour markets. Clearly, the European semester has a key role to play in encouraging member states to make ambitious reform commitments. The UK has an interest in making sure those reforms happen. An ambitious EU-level reform agenda is also a key part of this equation and an essential counterpart to national-level reforms. While I can understand that some may be cautious about encouraging the UK to do more, an EU growth agenda would make a major contribution to growth across the EU as a whole and benefit the UK. Recent European Councils have underscored the strong commitment of Heads of State or Government to supporting growth and competitiveness. I know that the Prime Minister has been driving forward this agenda, along with leaders from a substantial group of like-minded member states.
Some would claim that we cannot have EU economic growth without EU spending growth. I disagree. While some areas of the EU budget, such as spending on innovation and research and development, have the potential to support growth, this in fact represents only 13% of the total EU budget. However, deploying EU-level policies in support of economic growth, such as the single market, regulatory reform and EU-level free trade agreements, can achieve maximum growth impact at the least cost.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As we are a part of the EU and contribute, as a country, to the EU budget, it is absolutely right that some of that money comes back to this country—or to particular parts of this country—and we see the benefit of that financial contribution. He mentions his area of the country, and I know that EU funding in the midlands has been particularly valuable in supporting vital work on things such skills and apprenticeships.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend should be a bit careful about welcoming EU spending in this country because it was our money in the first place and it is not necessarily being spent in the way that Her Majesty’s Government would wish to spend it because it has to meet the requirements of the European Union. Therefore there is the risk of getting inefficient spending out of our own net contributions. We risk wasting money and having a bigger deficit by dong this through a third party, rather than through the actions of our own Government.
My hon. Friend is right, and he tempts me down a particular path—to say whether membership of the EU broadly benefits this country. I am sure that we could have a whole debate on that, and I know that he could go on for hours and hours on that particular subject. [Interruption.] We will not do that, Madam Deputy Speaker; I take your guidance. Of course, this Parliament is getting less money because the previous Government gave away at least a percentage, if not half, of our rebate. Over the course of this Parliament, this country will receive about £10 billion less from the EU than we would have done had we stuck to the rebate arrangements agreed by a previous Prime Minister—probably the best part of 30 years ago.
Is the Minister aware that this very morning, money was granted to the Isle of Wight and plenty of other parts of the country through the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend Michael Fallon. Yet instead of that being done here and now, the money had to go all the way over to Europe for the EU to sort out some mad scheme.
To respond briefly, I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s point. I suspect he will be pleased that the money has come to the Isle of Wight. I take his broader point about the benefits of membership and the amounts of money spent, which could be the subject for a different debate at a different time. In respect of the EU budget, it is also worth remembering that the Prime Minister went to Europe last year to negotiate a smaller future budget contribution over the course of the next seven years, which had never been achieved before. His determination to work with like-minded member states to achieve that is what enabled it to happen. I would have thought that all Members, and particularly Conservative Members, would hugely welcome that.
The need comprehensively to address Europe’s growth challenge, tackling overall low productivity and the lack of economic dynamism and flexibility, is more pressing than ever before, and it is in our interest to make urgent progress. That is why the UK will continue to push this agenda at the highest levels and encourage the new Commission to take structural reform seriously.
To conclude, the Government are committed to ensuring that, in line with section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, this House approves the economic and budgetary assessment that forms the basis of the convergence programme. Following what I hope will be the House’s approval of that assessment, the Government will submit the convergence programme to the European Commission, which will make its recommendations to all EU member states in early June. These recommendations will then be considered by the ECOFIN Council on
To reiterate, the convergence programme contains no new information, but only information that has been presented previously to Parliament—information from the OBR’s economic and fiscal outlook and from the Budget, which sets out the Government’s strategy to return the UK to sustainable growth. For the reasons I have outlined, I ask the House to support the Government motion and I look forward to hearing the debate.
I am grateful to the new Financial Secretary to the Treasury for her introduction to the debate, and I congratulate her on her promotion to her new post. I look forward to continuing the debate with her in the Finance Bill Committee, which got off to such a strong start yesterday.
When I first looked at the motion, I was mystified about the nature of the debate, which is why I have thanked the Financial Secretary for her introduction to it. The motion, as framed, does not exactly leap off the Order Paper. When Members go to the Vote Office, as I did to find the convergence documents, they will find that the motion still does not quite leap out at us in respect of what is going on in the House this afternoon. That situation is not a state of affairs that is alien to Members, given that we often have to debate issues that can sometimes seem impenetrable to those on the outside, and often to those on the inside too.
Let us turn to what could be described as “minus page 2” of the Red Book. I thought it quite telling that underneath a note about the Crown copyright and the ISBN number, are the words:
“Printed on paper containing 75% recycled fibre”,
“The Budget report, combined with the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Economic and fiscal outlook, constitutes the Government’s assessment under section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993”.
That is relevant to today’s debate, as the Minister helpfully outlined in her introduction. This is in a very small font and is easy to miss, and it is not immediately clear what it really means.
Looking at the 1993 Act, Members will have spotted that it refers 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”.
Article 103 is relevant, too, as it talks about economic policies being a “matter of common concern” that should be co-ordinated within the Council. For some Members of all parties, these are the sort of words that are difficult to stomach. That 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”.
Once we break through the rather impenetrable language and the odd nature of this old treaty obligation, the emphasis of which has changed from when the obligation was made to the state of play within the EU today, what we get to is the fact that the House is essentially being asked to approve the Budget Red Book as a true and accurate reflection of what is happening in the UK economy. When we are finally able to frame the question in that way—asking whether the Red Book is in and of itself a true and accurate reflection of that—I would have to say, “Where shall I start?”. It will probably not surprise Government Members to know that the Opposition do not consider it a true and accurate reflection of what is happening in the UK economy
Let me start with the top line of page 4 of the Red Book:
“The government’s long-term economic plan is underpinned by its commitment to fairness.”
I seem to remember that during the run-up to the last general election, before the Government began their life in the current Parliament, Mr Osborne, who was to become Chancellor of the Exchequer, uttered his famous line about how they were not going to balance the books on the backs of the poor. There was also that other famous line about how we were all in it together. On the face of it, who could say that those sentiments were wrong? Certainly, if they had proved to be genuine, we should be in a very different place.
At the heart of those lines of rhetoric, however, is the implication of a deep commitment to fairness. My charge against the Government is that that commitment—and the “commitment to fairness” to which the Red Book refers—can only be seen as genuine if we accept that “fairness” can describe an economic plan that gives a huge tax cut to the wealthiest in our country. In the 2012 Budget, the Government announced a tax cut for millionaires that would be worth an average of £100,000 to each of them—a sum that is far out of the reach of millions of people in our country today. Meanwhile, the Government are presiding over what might be termed one of our more successful growth industries, which, unfortunately, happens to be the food bank industry. The number of people receiving three days of emergency food has grown from 67,000 four years ago to 913,000. How can it possibly be true that, as the Red Book states, the Government have a deep “commitment to fairness”, when the richest members of our society receive a huge tax cut while the poorest, in ever growing numbers, are being forced to use food banks?
Later in my speech, I shall deal directly with issues relating to household income and what is happening to the ability of families on low and middle incomes to make ends meet.
The hon. Lady has been making a big point about fairness. Would it not be fair to point out that, since coming to power, the Government have considerably increased the personal allowance—from just under £7,000 a year to £10,000—and that that has helped the poorest who are in work and paying taxes, as well as middle-income families?
I shall deal with precisely what has happened to the personal allowance later in my speech, but let me make this point to the right hon. Gentleman now. It is true that the personal allowance has risen, and the Opposition have supported those changes, including yesterday when we debated clause 2 of the Finance Bill in Committee. However, it is also true that ordinary working people continue to be worse off despite the changes, and will still be worse off in 2015 than they were in 2010. This is a classic case of the Government’s giving with one hand and taking away much more with the other, and it goes to the heart of the “fairness” charge that I am laying at their door.
I was very struck by the suggestion made by a welfare Minister, Lord Freud, that the reason for the massive increase in the number of people who are using food banks and having to rely on food parcels from them was that
“there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 2 July 2013; Vol. 746, c. 1072.]
I had to read that comment several times, because I could not quite believe that such words could emerge from anyone’s mouth during a discussion about food poverty and the fact that people are going hungry in our country. When the story about the huge increase in the number of people using food banks hit the news a couple of weeks ago, I was also struck by the main attack line from those on the Government Benches: the claim that the increase had a lot to do with advertising and the fact that many more people are now aware of food banks.
Order. The hon. Lady will be aware that this is a very narrow motion. I am sure that she is using the matter to which she is referring as an example, which is in order, but I expect that she will be very careful not to stray too far from the very narrow terms of the motion.
I will, of course, be careful, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, the point that I am making relates directly to what is in the Red Book, to the nature of the motion that we are being asked to support, and to whether we are being presented with a true and accurate reflection of what is happening in the United Kingdom economy. My view, and that of other Opposition Members, is that the Red Book implies that the “commitment to fairness” is being met. I do not believe that a situation in the United Kingdom economy in which more and more people are being forced to use food banks while the Government see fit to give a tax cut to the wealthiest in our country indicates a genuine commitment to fairness, and it is for that reason that I have rejected the thrust of the motion—which asks us to approve the Red Book as such an accurate reflection—and supported the amendment.
The Red Book paints a rosy picture of the goals that have been met and the targets that have been delivered, but, although I looked very carefully, I could not find any reference to the Government’s failure to meet the terms that they had set themselves for their so-called long-term economic plan. The Minister said earlier that the Government were “on track”, which is fair enough, but the track to which she referred is not the track that the right hon. Member for Tatton said that we would be on when he became Chancellor. At the beginning of this Parliament, the Government said that the deficit would be eliminated by 2015, but we now know that that is not the track they the are on. The deficit will not be eliminated by 2015; indeed, the current forecast is that it will not be eliminated until 2017-18, when we shall be well into the next Parliament. That is not the test that the Government set themselves for their economic plan, which has failed on its own terms.
What we are being asked to do today is approve a document on the basis that it is an accurate reflection of what is happening in the UK economy. I am afraid that the document does not accept the fact that the Government are not on track to meet the challenge that they set themselves, and promised the electorate that they would deliver on at the last election. They suggested that, if the Chancellor’s programme of fiscal consolidation was pursued—which it was—the budget deficit would be eliminated by the end of this Parliament, and the fact that that is not going to happen goes to the heart of the motion.
However, the Government are not just off track in relation to the central promise that they made to the electorate at the beginning of this Parliament about the elimination of the deficit. The national debt is rising, and the Government are set not to meet their target of ensuring that it falls as a share of GDP by 2015-16, although anyone reading the Red Book in isolation would be forgiven for thinking that everything was going exactly according to their original plan.
I am enjoying a good deal of the hon. Lady’s speech, but she ignores the crucial point: the Office for National Statistics substantially revised downwards the economic growth in 2008 and 2009, so the origins of this problem lie with the previous socialist Government, who ruined the economy. Blaming it on the marvellous work of this Government is entirely false.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but he will not be surprised to learn that I wholly reject the point he makes. Government Members often try to lay the whole cause of the global financial crisis at the door of the previous Labour Government, but it was a global financial crisis that affected countries all over the world; the Labour Government were not responsible for the fall of Lehman Brothers in the United States. That is the first point I would make in response to him. The second point is that this Government have now been in power for four years and they cannot keep trying to get off the hook about their own record. The important point is that they set a target for themselves. Previous Red Books show what was supposed to happen with this programme of fiscal consolidation, but it has not proceeded at the pace the Government set for themselves. That is not spelt out clearly in the Red Book in open language that anybody could understand.
Anyone looking at the Red Book would be forgiven for thinking that these are halcyon days and everything is exactly as it was always planned to be, but that is not a true and accurate reflection of what is happening in the economy. On page 1 of the Red Book, in a section from which the Minister quoted, we see that
“GDP growth has exceeded forecasts”.
It also states that
“the deficit as a share of GDP is forecast to have fallen by a half by 2014-15 compared to 2009-10”.
Again, that implies, “Everything is okay. Move along. There is nothing to see here.”
Yesterday’s growth figures and the 0.8% growth we have seen in the first quarter are welcome, but they do not make up for the previous three years of flatlining in the economy. We have to remember that in quarter 2 of 2010, growth was at 1.2%, and in 2010 after coming into power the Chancellor said that the economy would have grown by 8.4% by now, whereas in fact it has grown by just 3.8%, which is less than half of what he forecast. Again, what has happened is not quite as rosy when compared with what was supposed to happen in terms of the challenge the Chancellor set himself. It is also not as rosy a picture as is painted in the Red Book.
Let me deal with the point about personal allowances raised by Mr Burns. We see a similar flannelling about what is really going on in the economy when we look at the impact of tax and benefit changes on people on lower and middle incomes and, in particular, on the interplay with their living standards. The Red Book tells us that
“a typical basic rate taxpayer will pay £705 less income tax…in cash terms than they would have paid in 2010-11.”
Page 10 of the Red Book tells us that pressures on household budgets “have eased”, but that is simply not the experience of millions of people on lower and middle incomes in our country. I fail to see how that statement can be true at the same time as the OBR tells us that wages will be 5.6% down in 2015 compared with 2010.
Treasury Ministers have failed to admit that latter point; they have been asked a number of times to accept that the OBR has said that wages will be 5.6% down, but no Treasury Minister has ever answered yes or no to that question. I will happily give way to the Financial Secretary if she wants to confirm that that is the case, but she is looking at her papers and I think she is going to do what every other Treasury Minister and colleague of hers has done, which is duck the opportunity to confirm on the Floor of the House and for the benefit of the record that the OBR is right in saying that wages will be 5.6% down in 2015 on the 2010 level.
I am listening to the hon. Lady’s arguments. Would she like to add that because the income tax cut is a flat-rate amount it has the biggest impact on the low-paid and that the low-paid, particularly those on the minimum wage, have had a real-terms increase in their net pay?
And yet people in our country are on average £1,600 a year worse off. Let us look at the combined impact of tax and benefit changes. The Institute for Fiscal Studies figures, analysed for us by the House of Commons Library, show that on average people will by next year be about £1,000 a year worse off. This comes back to the central point: the Government say in the Red Book that pressures on household budgets are easing, but people are worse off, and not by trifling amounts, such as a tenner or £20 quid—they are worse off by nearly £1,000. That is a huge sum and it has a huge impact on a family’s ability to make ends meet.
The Government talk a lot about the personal allowance, and when the charge is made that ordinary people are suffering a deep-seated cost of living crisis, they often say, “But of course we have taken a large number of people out of tax altogether because of the increase in the personal allowance.” Although the personal allowance increases have been welcomed and supported by everybody across the House, they do not in and of themselves given a family the ability to make ends meet. We still have people who are desperately struggling, and who have their head in their hands every time a bill comes through the door. The truth remains that people on lower and middle incomes are worse off, and they will be worse off at the end of this Parliament than they were at the beginning of it. The balm offered, by the increases in the personal allowance in particular, is not enough to heal the deep wound that has been inflicted by all the other changes this Government have implemented since they have been in power. As I say, the combined impact of tax and benefit changes means that by next year people on lower and middle incomes will be about £1,000 a year worse off.
“If you are a maker, a doer or a saver, this Budget is for you.”—[Hansard, 19 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 781.]
There was not much in the Budget and the Red Book to help those who are making do—the people struggling with the cost of living crisis. But for the savers, there is much in the Red Book: about retirement choices, individual savings accounts and other savings devices. The Red Book has twice as much about savers as about supporting households. Again, however, it is not a true and accurate reflection of what is going on in the economy, because the Red Book fails to recognise that for many people saving, particularly at the moment, is a luxury that is desperately out of reach. I can imagine the welfare Minister I described earlier as being baffled about why people go to food banks being equally baffled about why people cannot save. People go to food banks because they have no money and they are going hungry. People do not save because they do not have any money left once they have met their other costs of living.
Hidden away in the documents that accompanied the Budget we found that the OBR says that the savings ratio has fallen in recent months and is projected to fall every year until 2018. I put that point to the Chancellor yesterday when I asked him to confirm that, despite his Budget for savers, the savings ratio is forecast to go down. He ducked the question and refused to accept that that is what the OBR is saying is happening to the savings ratio.
In recent weeks, we have had a number of surveys, particularly an important one carried out by the Money Advice Service, which have shown that 16 million British people are living life on the edge with no savings at all. Just 27% of people say that they can save on a monthly basis, and 37% say they have fewer savings now than they had last year. The truth, which we do not see in the Red Book, is that savers withdrew money from their accounts last year at the fastest rate for nearly four decades, according to Bank of England figures. Britons ended up taking out £23 billion from long-term savings in 2015. The ability of ordinary people on lower and middle incomes to save and to have enough money left over after the working week to put aside even £1 a day is fairly limited. Again, that is something that has not been spelt out in the Red Book.
It has certainly been spelt out in the convergence document produced by Her Majesty’s Treasury. Page 12 makes it quite clear that falls in the rate of saving are to be expected in periods when confidence is increasing. It goes on to say that total household debt as a percentage of disposable income has fallen more than 30 percentage points since its pre-crisis peak under the previous Government.
I am afraid that that does not get the Government off the hook when it comes to the impact of their own record. The decisions that the Government have made, both in this and previous Budgets, have left ordinary people worse off. The rhetoric around savers and how much there is in the Red Book for savers in our country misses the point and does not spell it out in ordinary language for the ordinary person to understand that saving is a luxury today for millions of people struggling with a deep-seated cost of living crisis.
The Red Book gives a rosy picture of what is happening in the UK economy, but is just a good line in rhetoric that is rather removed from the reality of daily life for millions of people in our country. For that reason, I urge Members to reject the Government motion and to support our amendment, which, at the very least, introduces an element of reality into what is a surreal characterisation of today’s British economy.
I welcome my hon. Friend Nicky Morgan to her new post as Financial Secretary. It is an enormous pleasure to see her there and one of the great outcomes of the recent reshuffle. I also thank her for her courtesy to this House, which has not always been achieved by her predecessors, for holding this debate before the documents have been given to Brussels, which is an improvement. There was no suggestion on this occasion that the matter be debated in a Committee; it has come straight to the Floor of the House. I am grateful for that as it is important that this House has the ability to discuss such matters properly.
I apologise for the other members of the European Scrutiny Committee, who are meeting at this time. My hon. Friend Mr Cash, the Chairman of that Committee, can achieve many things, but unlike Padre Pio, that noted saint, he is unable to manage bilocation. No doubt, in a few years’ time, he will be able to achieve the ability to be in two places at once.
I think that it is an unfortunate concurrence of atoms. If we had not had a statement earlier, it would have been possible to fit in both, and that is how things go at the end of a session. I am not so cynical as to think that this could possibly have been planned.
I want to answer immediately the point about savings made by Shabana Mahmood. In all that she said on savings, she missed the reclassification of savings that the Office for National Statistics has just introduced. It has roughly doubled our savings rate, because it has reclassified the amounts that private companies put into pension funds as saving rather than as expenditure. That has transformed our savings rate, and therefore the UK economy has had a much higher savings rate than the figures have captured for many years. We should be rather pleased with the savings rate that we have and that we continue to have. Her point on savings, therefore, is, regrettably, fundamentally misfounded.
I want to come on to what underlies this whole debate. People with long memories will be aware that the Government—the British nation—had an opt-out of only stage 3 of monetary union. They did not have an opt-out from the earlier stages, and that included the convergence criteria to be ready to join the euro should that be the wish of the British people at any stage. These documents are part of the convergence criteria to show that we are making headway towards the requirements set out by the European Union under a number of agreements, the latest of which was in 2011, which basically ask for a deficit to be no more than 3% and for the national debt to be no more than 60%. It is about meeting those convergence criteria so that we could if we wished join the euro. It is important to bear that in mind. I am glad about the way the Government have approached this. Had they decided to prepare a whole new set of papers, devoting a great deal of energy and resources on the matter, as the previous Government did with their eurozone entry team, which cost millions of pounds and went on running for years, they would be buying into stages 1 and 2 of convergence for entering the euro. By simply sending the rather splendidly recycled—not just 75% but 100% of the fibre in this document has been recycled—to the European Union, it shows our deep suspicion of the whole process. In the reading of the documents, I could find only two references to performance against EU targets and convergence: on page 22, which runs to a mere three lines, and in the chapter headed “Excessive deficit procedure” on page 53.
I am pleased that the Government are taking an approach of saying, “This is what we understand is happening with the British economy. You, the European Commission, can have it, look at it and chew it over, but we are not running our economic policy in accordance with the convergence criteria.” I was reassured by the Minister’s comments that our policy is not determined by the requirements of convergence, and thank heavens for that. The convergence criteria have been at the heart of the ruination of European economies. There has been one crucial thing that the Government have been able to do since 2010, which the previous Government started, and that is to run a loose monetary policy with a tight fiscal policy. That has ensured that we have been able to get the deficit down without crunching the economy to pieces and without running the risk of a deflationary and elongated depression. That is possible only because we have not been aiming to meet the convergence criteria in the midst of a credit crunch/ depression. We have been able to set our own policy because we have had our own currency and therefore have not been trying to maintain the exchange rate at any particular level. It is notable that, throughout this process, the exchange rate has acted as one of the crucial automatic stabilisers for the economy. In 2009, the sterling-dollar rate bottomed at $1.35 and is now above $1.65, and that has acted as an automatic stabiliser on monetary policy during the process of this downturn—all of which has been dependent on our having our own currency, and has allowed both this Government and the previous one to be tighter on the fiscal side than would otherwise have been possible. It has avoided the absolute disaster affecting the eurozone countries, of having a tight monetary policy and a tight fiscal policy at the same point, which has led, in some countries, to riots.
I am broadly reassured, but there are inevitably some concerns. As I have mentioned, this is about meeting the convergence criteria that allow us to enter the euro. The European Union has no specific enforcement powers, but there are certain commitments that we have made. We are obliged, as are other EU member states not in the euro, to submit a convergence programme focused on the national fiscal policy. From 2011, EU legislation on economic governance introduced a new obligation on member states, including the United Kingdom, to take due account of EU guidance issued to them in the development of their economic, employment and budgetary policies before taking key decisions on their national budgets for the succeeding years, and progress will be monitored by the Commission.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and he is making a characteristically interesting speech. Presumably one of the enforcement options open to the EU if we do not meet the criteria is not to allow us to join the euro. Will he enlighten us on whether, through his studies, he has come across any other enforcement procedures that might be brought into play if we do not meet the convergence criteria?
It is always difficult to know what action can be taken until action has been taken and until the European Court of Justice has adjudicated on whether that action is legitimate. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman’s point that we could be prevented from joining the euro is brilliant and I am impressed that the Liberal Democrats are so keen to prevent us joining the euro that they would like legal action to be brought by the European Union to prevent that.
My warning is not so much that I can see a specific threat coming down the track, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood said. There were a lot of tracks in the hon. Lady’s speech, and I wondered whether she was confused with Monday’s debate about the Government’s production of a lot of extra track in one direction or another. There is always a problem if Governments commit themselves to things that they have no intention of doing. At some later date a body comes back and says, “Actually, you agreed in 2011 that the European Commission would have the right to challenge you on how you were developing your fiscal and employment policies. That is not being done, so we want you to put your house in order.” Then we reach the question of what action can be taken to enforce that.
It is worth concluding on the glorious issue of convergence simply by saying that we are so lucky that we are not converging and that the Government have managed to make policy in this country so much more successfully than our continental friends. For example, the EUROSTAT figures—I shall cite a European body, not because I want to but for the sake of consistency, as similar figures are used across the areas covered—show that in 2013 the UK economy grew by 1.7% against 0.1% growth in the EU as a whole and 0.4% contraction in the eurozone. According to our own figures from the Office for National Statistics, we are now, according to the quarterly figures, growing almost as fast as China at an annualised rate, which is very encouraging. I never thought, even with my confidence in the Chancellor and his team in the Treasury, that we would manage to achieve near-Chinese rates of growth under this Government—emerging market levels. We also have much lower unemployment than our continental cousins, and that applies not just to adult unemployment but, most importantly, to youth unemployment.
Let us hope that we do not converge but continue to diverge from the failures that the eurozone has inflicted on itself, to maintain our independent economic policy, to have an economic policy that thrives and succeeds because Her Majesty’s Government know what they are doing, unlike their predecessor, and can therefore boldly and with confidence send these statements to the European Commission and say to Señor Barroso and all the rest of them, “If only you had the sense to do what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is doing, you, too, might grow as well.”
It is always a pleasure to follow Jacob Rees-Mogg in a debate on Europe. I tend to agree with his analysis of and almost everything he says on Europe, but, fortunately, I do not agree with his analysis of the British economy. It gives me an almost unique pleasure to be able to vote with my own party on a European resolution, which I have not done for some time, and I was surprised and pleased when the Opposition tabled the amendment.
First, it is also not unique for a Minister to come to this Chamber with almost nothing new to say, but it is unusual, to say the least, for the Minister to explain to the House that she has nothing new to say. There is a reason for that. The House is expected to report on the Budget and what we are doing financially to the European Union. In one sense one might take the rise out of that and have a little joke about it, as we are just sending the documents that we have already produced to the European Union and to Brussels, but we must remember that the European Union is a thin-end-of- the-wedge organisation. If it cannot get what it wants immediately, it will concede a little. It will say that as it cannot control our budgets, which it would like to do as it wants to create a much more centralised European Union, we should send it the details of them. Initially, that happened under the guise of looking for convergence since the euro was created just over 10 years ago. For a House that believes and should believe in its sovereignty, there is danger in that process even if nothing is being added to what is being given to the European Union.
My second point is the obverse of the point made by the hon. Member for North East Somerset. We certainly do not want to converge with the European Union, because the euro has been the biggest machine for destroying jobs in Europe since the 1930s. It has been a complete and total disaster. It is not just a matter of our not wanting to converge with the euro and the rest of the European Union. There is still an insistence within the eurozone on convergence and trying to converge is a disaster for the countries inside the zone and for the United Kingdom, because we want to trade with a thriving economy. While the euro is there, that economy cannot thrive. It is as simple as this. In Germany, the euro is simply an undervalued Deutschmark that is helping the German economy to trade around the world. That is hugely successful and Germany is building up huge trade surpluses. The rest of the eurozone, particularly the Mediterranean regions, is dealing with an overvalued euro that is depressing its economies.
Without the ability to change exchange rates, those countries are effectively in a competitive deflationary situation and it is very unlikely that they will ever be able to pay off their deficits and get into a better economic situation. The only way they could do that is if the German surplus was taken and spent in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece, where they have huge unemployment rates and where there is unemployment in what industry is left. It is very difficult—almost impossible—for the eurozone to converge, and that is bad for those countries and, because we want to trade with them, for this economy.
If the eurozone had done better since the banking crisis five or six years ago, this country would not have suffered as much as we have.
I am carefully following the hon. Gentleman’s argument, with which I absolutely agree. I must admit that since I first became a candidate for the Liberal Democrats, the policy on the euro was the one policy on which I disagreed with my party for exactly the reasons that he is outlining. However, to be positive, does he agree that sending these documents to the EU might, in the spirit of learning, make it reconsider the errors of its ways?
The EU is not only a thin-end-of-the-wedge organisation but absolutely not a learning organisation. It is ideologically committed to ever-greater and closer union. It will not listen to arguments, however sensible they are, and however well this economy has or has not done over the past five or 10 years, and it will not take empirical lessons because its ideology is different from that. I will not repeat my previous points about starting the process of this sovereign Parliament’s reporting to the EU.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest, and he has evident expertise in matters European. Does he share my concern that one of the problems with our so-called convergence with Europe is the impact on our trade deficit with Europe, which, I understand, is large and growing? That might well be partly a consequence of the tremendous economic recovery in this country and competitive devaluation in Germany, but, given that we are meant to talk about convergence today, my concern is about the growing deficit in trade with our European partners.
Yes. The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point.
I had finished what I wanted to say about the EU, the eurozone and the process. I just want to make three quick points about the Minister’s statement and the points raised earlier in the debate. First, the Minister said that the Prime Minister had achieved a reduction in the European budget. If my memory is correct, the Prime Minister negotiated a reduction in an increased budget but with actually increased expenditure in European budgets. I should be grateful if the Minister checked and corrected that fault.
Secondly, to re-emphasise the points that a number of hon. Members made in their interventions on the Minister, this country would be a lot better off if we did not make our contribution to the European budget. On every project, we put twice as much money in as we get back. I might one day promote a private Member’s Bill to say that as an alternative to having the 12 EU stars on projects and saying, “What a wonderful project it is!” there should be a sign that says, “We could have had two of these projects if we had not contributed to the EU.”
Finally, I should be grateful if the Minister told the House how she intends to protect the rights of the House to decide on taxation if the European Court of Justice decides later that it wants to impose a trading tax on the City—a Tobin-type tax, 90% of which would be paid in this country and not in the rest of Europe.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow my near neighbour from Greater Manchester, Graham Stringer. As he and the House are aware, I agree with him on the issue of our membership of the European Union.
I want to bring the debate back to the motion, which states specifically:
“That this House approves, for the purposes of Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, the Government’s assessment”— and so on. I will not read out the whole motion. It is purely for the purposes of complying with section 5 that we are being asked to approve the motion today—purely to comply with our obligations under European Union rules and regulations. I oppose the motion for that reason, as I have in previous years. I oppose it, but not because I oppose the Government’s financial policies—indeed, barely a week goes by without further evidence to prove that the policies are working. We could debate, as we have earlier this afternoon, whether things are going fast enough, and whether they are going as quickly as someone previously predicted, but I think all that is irrelevant. What is relevant is the fact that the economy, by any stretch of the imagination, is growing. Things are going in the right direction.
I welcome the fact that we have the opportunity to say that, but I regret the fact that we are having to do it in the context of submitting documents to the European Union. As has been said, this is the very last day for submission of the documents. I am not sure what would happen if—as I very much doubt would be the case—the House refused to support the Government’s motion. I will be voting against it and I would be interested to know what would happen. In last year’s debate, my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg mentioned that if the EU does not agree that we are carrying out the policies to its satisfaction, it can send a surveillance mission to the country, or even an enhanced surveillance mission. If so, I am sure that we would have great delight in meeting them, because they have a lot to learn from what this country is doing.
I do not agree that we, as a sovereign nation, should have to submit our economic policies to the bureaucrats in Brussels like some naughty schoolboy having to report to the headmaster with school work. There is no reason why we should have to go through this annual charade. It is an annual occasion when we have to approve, purely for the purposes of section 5, these documents. I see no reason why we cannot tag the motion on to the end of the Budget motions, for example, if we want to comply with this ridiculous law.
For once, I disagree with my hon. Friend. I think it is of immeasurable importance that this debate remain a specific debate on the Floor of the House, because there may come a time when the House wants to refuse to report to Brussels and we need to preserve that right.
I entirely agree on that point with my hon. Friend. If I had my way, we would disagree with Europe quite a bit more often than we do. I oppose the motion for that reason and no other, because I do not think we should send these documents to Europe. As I have said in previous years, and will probably repeat later in my speech, if the European officials are so interested in our documents, they are all available online. There is no reason why we need to produce this document.
For all that has been said about the fact that we have not spent any time on this subject, we do have before us a new document entitled “2013-14 Convergence Programme for the United Kingdom.” It is 247 pages long—slightly larger than last year’s document. It has been produced by Her Majesty’s Treasury specifically for this purpose and no other. So somewhere along the line the requirement to produce the document is costing the British taxpayer money.
We must be clear that the sole reason why the UK is making this submission—I quote from the treaty on the functioning of the European Union—is:
“In order to ensure closer coordination of economic policies and sustained convergence of the economic performances of the Member States”.
Why does the treaty require that? Simply because it is all part of their grand plan to forge together a single country called the European Union. That is what they want to see. That is why they want to have these documents sent in to them.
We are fortunate in this country that the UK electorate—the British people—had the good sense at the last general election to elect a Conservative-led Government with a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was prepared to take the difficult decisions necessary to put our country back on the path of economic recovery, which means living within our means.
It is instructive to compare the progress that we have made, and continue to make, with that of the European Union. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset mentioned, the European Union’s own official statistics body—interestingly named EUROSTAT— reported that the United Kingdom economy grew by 1.7% last year, compared with a minuscule 0.1% in the rest of the European Union. Even worse, there was a 0.4% contraction in the economies of the countries within the eurozone. And even that performance figure is flattered by the fact that it includes the figures for Germany and France, whose economies, EUROSTAT reported, grew by 0.4% and 0.1% respectively.
The situation is the same for the respective unemployment rates. EUROSTAT reports that the unemployment rate for the European Union as a whole was 10.8% last year, and the latest figures show that unemployment in the UK for the three months to February was 6.9%. That is reflected in my constituency. The latest figures show that in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington there are 451 fewer unemployed people than there were a year ago, which means 451 more families have the security of a regular wage coming in each week. More new businesses are being started, business confidence is growing and all the signs indicate that the plan is working and we are on the road to recovery.
The rest of Europe ought to be looking at what the UK is doing and working out how they can adopt our Government’s policies and increase their growth rates. As the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton said, we want our European neighbours’ economies to grow, because they are important trading nations, as I never fail to accept. The fact that I want us to leave the European Union does not mean that I do not want us to trade with it; I just do not think that we should have to pay a net contribution of £9 billion to have the privilege of doing so. It is simply unnecessary, because we trade with many other countries around the world without having to pay a membership fee to enable us to do so. Therefore, I do not believe that submitting a 247-page convergence programme document is necessary.
In conclusion, let me put two simple questions to my hon. Friend Nicky Morgan, whom I warmly welcome to her new role as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. First, what response has the Government received from the European Union on last year’s submission? Did we receive any acknowledgement from the bureaucrats in Brussels? Did they tell us that we were doing a good job and that they would use our document as a model for economic success? Did they say that they would encourage our partners to accept some of the policies set out in our convergence programme document?
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly—in view of the Prime Minister’s declared aim of putting an end to the commitment, which we are presently signed up to, to ever-closer union with the rest of Europe—will my hon. Friend confirm that, as part of any renegotiation of the United Kingdom’s obligations to the rest of Europe, the obligation to submit this annual convergence programme document will be removed? Does she agree that not removing that obligation will be seen as clear proof that those renegotiations have failed?
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this extremely interesting debate. I will deal briefly with some of the points that have been raised. I hope to address all of them, but if I do not I will obviously be happy to discuss them afterwards and to try to answer any further questions.
I thank the shadow Minister for welcoming me to my new post. She is absolutely right that we will be seeing a lot of each other over the next few weeks as we deliberate the Finance Bill upstairs in the Committee Room. What I think was most interesting about her speech was that, rather like the Leader of the Opposition’s response to the Budget statement, it did not mention the EU very much at all. She went through the Opposition’s views on the Government’s economic policy, but I must say that I did not detect any signs of their own economic policy, which appears to be missing. That was interesting, given that Graham Stringer did mention the EU—I will mention his speech in a moment.
It is extraordinary that the Opposition, having previously claimed that there would be no recovery, that any recovery would be choked off and that we would have 1 million more unemployed people, are now saying that the recovery is too slow. No doubt they will move on to another form of criticism in due course. However, I am pleased that the hon. Lady did at least welcome yesterday’s figures on GDP growth, which are significant. As I said in my opening remarks, they show that the economy is growing and that we have momentum, but the job is not yet done.
My hon. Friend is being far too modest —hiding her lamp under a bushel—because her own publication clearly states:
“Since early 2010, the pace of net employment creation has been 3 times as fast as over the same period in previous recessions and recoveries” since 1973.
I thank my hon. Friend for reading the document assiduously and quoting from it. Yesterday’s figures are a positive step, and the employment figures are very encouraging. As we know from the note left by the last Chief Secretary to the Treasury under the previous Government, there was no money left, because they had spent it all. This Government have had quite a task to rebalance our economy and fix the deficit.
The shadow Minister mentioned the Budget’s focus on savers. Let me tell her that millions of basic rate taxpayers are savers, because she somehow dismissed them by saying that we are not talking about households. I do not know where she thinks savers live, but they form their own households. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said, we are on the side of savers and hard-working people of all types. She also mentioned the savings ratio. The latest OBR forecast shows that the savings ratio will be around 4% over the next two years, which is still well above the pre-recession low of 0.2%. I honestly do not know how she has the nerve to criticise the ratio when people are still saving more in this country.
Let me move on to the characteristically eloquent speech from my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, which showed his expert understanding. I was delighted not only that he could be here for the debate, but that he supports the Government’s approach. I have taken his comments on board, but I am glad that he can support the announcements my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made on recent fiscal events and this document. That is very important.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton set out his unhappiness with the process. I understand what he was saying. He also mentioned the impact of the eurozone crisis on our economy over the past few years, which was important, and I am glad that he did so. He asked two specific questions. On the multi-annual financial framework, the Prime Minister agreed a real-terms cut in the payment ceiling to €908.4 billion, which is €80 billion lower than the Commission’s original proposal, €35 billion lower than the 2007-2013 multi-annual financial framework and €24 billion below a real-terms freeze on the last completed budget in 2012. That is why I could make my remarks about the Prime Minister’s achievements in negotiating a real-terms cut in the multi-annual financial framework.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton also mentioned the financial transaction tax, and we have heard the news today from the European Court of Justice. Let me set out that the UK will not be joining the enhanced co-operation financial transaction tax. Today’s judgment confirmed that the UK can challenge the final proposal for a financial transaction tax if it is not in our national interest and undermines the integrity of the single market. Today’s announcement also confirms that the UK can challenge the eventual implementation if necessary without running the risk of the challenge being too late. We needed to make an early challenge in order to set out our stall for later negotiations for a financial transaction tax should they prove to be disadvantageous to the UK.
My hon. Friend Mr Nuttall set out in his characteristically forthright style that he fundamentally disagrees with the whole process, which I fully respect. I am, however, sorry that he will not be joining us in the Lobby this afternoon. He will understand that we are currently part of a treaty that requires us to submit this convergence programme, and I explained to him following his earlier intervention why we wanted to submit a final document, rather than the draft that has been submitted in previous years.
My hon. Friend also asked about last year’s response from the EU. There was a response and I sent the European Scrutiny Committee an explanatory memorandum about that. He also asked about renegotiation, and I take note of what he said. We clearly will not be setting out a negotiating stance at present, but I draw his attention to the recent article written by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in The Sunday Telegraph—I do not have the exact date, but it was certainly within the past month or so—in which he set out some key areas for renegotiation. He talked about:
“Powers flowing away from Brussels, not always to it”,
“National parliaments able to work together to block unwanted European legislation.”
I hope that all of that is music to the ears of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North. As he would expect, further announcements will be made in due course.
Following this debate and Parliament’s approval, the Government will inform the European Commission of their assessment of the UK’s medium-term economic and budgetary position. The convergence programme will be submitted later today, which is a legal requirement under the EU’s stability and growth pact. The Government of course take legal requirements seriously. At the same time, however, I reiterate to hon. Members that, as in previous years, the document is based entirely on previously published documents that have already been presented to Parliament. The submission of convergence programmes by euro-outs and stability programmes by euro area member states provides a framework for co-ordinating fiscal policies. As I said, a degree of fiscal policy co-ordination across countries can be beneficial to ensure a stable global economy, which is in the UK’s national interest. It is important that we continue to use the European semester process to encourage member states to take national decisions on structural reform and growth that will help to support the European economy.
Budget 2014 set out the next steps in the Government’s long-term economic plan to secure the recovery and build a resilient economy, which requires tough decisions to put the public finances on a sustainable path. Budget 2014 supports businesses to invest, to export and to create jobs and cuts taxes for hard-working people. There is much still to do, however, and the Government are not complacent.
Ultimately, sustainable growth is the only way for both the UK and other EU member states to pay down their debts and to exit the current difficult economic times. The UK Government are leading the EU growth agenda and making the case for ambitious EU reform. On that basis, I am pleased to commend the motion to the House.
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 Budget 2014 and Autumn Statement 2013, combined with the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Economic and Fiscal Outlook (2014) and Fiscal Sustainability Report (2013), which forms the basis of the United Kingdom’s Convergence Programme.