First of all, I should welcome a couple of things in the Budget. One, of course, is the Swansea Bay lagoon. If that is going ahead—I assume that the Planning Inspectorate has suggested it supports it—it will be more than a small step for green energy and a giant leap for the Swansea economy. Secondly, I welcome the VAT withdrawal from tolls on the Severn bridge, which will loosen the noose around the neck of the south Wales economy, although I think the toll should be reduced down to the maintenance and operations level—about £1.50 a car—to encourage inward investment, tourism and trade, particularly with the south-west.
In general, however, I think this is a candy-floss Budget—it looks bigger than it is and seems to taste nice, but afterwards we are left feeling hungry, and it is not particularly good for us. Prior to the Budget, we heard from the OBR that the previous plan was to reduce spending to 1930s levels. It is as if the Chancellor is operating a time machine. He has moved the switches, and he can move around the numbers, because the oil prices are down, so now apparently we are only going back to the year 2000. However, the executive summary from the OBR mentions that the cuts, increased for 2016-17 and 2017-18, are much harsher and sharper than in the previous five years, but then he plans the biggest increase in real spending for a decade in 2019-20, which of course is election year. In other words, this is cynical electioneering, rather than a long-term economic plan.
On the long-term plan, the two variables people talk about are the deficit and jobs. It is hardly a success to see debt as a share of GDP move from 55%, where Labour left it, to where it is now, hovering around 80%. It is hardly a success that the Conservatives and the coalition Government have borrowed more in five years than Labour did in 13 years, during which time we bailed out the banks. The reason for that is the failure to generate growth. It is claimed that there is lots of growth, because there is 2.6% growth at last, but annualised growth over the past five years has been about 1.7%. Under Labour, growth was 40% over the 10 years prior to the banking crisis in 2008. Again, this is not a great success. We have lost our triple A rating.
There is talk about jobs. There are more jobs, but productivity is down and overall production is being spread among more people. There are 800,000 fewer people in jobs earning more than £20,000, and more people than that are earning less than £20,000. Through the economics of austerity and low wages, we are generating less tax revenue, we cannot balance the books and debt is going up. That is hardly great news. Meanwhile, there is talk of people literally dying on sanctions. In Swansea, 65% of people on jobseeker’s allowance, surviving on
£72 a week, have been put on sanctions. Why are the Government not focusing on the 10% of wealth held in offshore accounts where it is evading or avoiding tax? We have heard something about that, but it is more talk than action and recovery.
The big choice is not about how much we spend versus tax and comparing the different numbers; it is about how growth can help to generate revenue and get the deficit and debt down. Anyone who, like me, has run a business knows that if they make a loss there are two ways forward: one is to make savings and the other is to grow the business. How are we going to do that? In fact, we are doing the opposite. We have the austerity of cuts. With the police, we have seen 26% cuts and another 20% of cuts are still to come through. The president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, has said that we are at a tipping point and there might be greater risks from disorganised terrorism. It is the same with defence, with massive cuts to the budget, while Russia is spending £50 billion or 3.3 trillion roubles on defence. There are threats out there in the world; are we rising to them? No, we are not. Why not? Because we are not generating growth.
Growth incorporates the three elements of consumption, investment and net exports. Consumption confidence was dashed in 2010 when the Chancellor said he would sack half a million people and people stopped spending money. Investment was undermined when the funding for lending scheme of the Bank of England was focused on mortgages, not businesses, so that lending to business went down by 40%. There was no growth in net exports in 2013 in terms of the balance of trade, with no net contribution. Last year was even worse, as we lost £8 billion. Firing up exports has been a complete failure.
So we need a plan for growth, which includes things such as tuition fee reductions. What that does is increase productivity and the size of the cake. Whatever the Business Secretary says, the reality is that people are being deterred because of the prospect of having these massive debts. People’s credit ratings are being reduced; people cannot buy a house. At some point, if their incomes go up, they hit higher payback thresholds, and they want to avoid paying it all. It does not make sense; we need to invest in productivity. Tuition fees are relevant.
We need to say clearly that we want to be part of the EU because we need inward investment from China or India, platforming into the biggest economy in the world—it is the EU economy—from an English-speaking place, namely Britain. Those thinking of making such investment do not want to worry about a referendum and the possibility of our coming out of the EU. We want city regions and we want them supported by money from regional banks. We want a house building programme and we want a procurement strategy through which small businesses, which pay British tax, are encouraged and not discouraged by the bigger players.
We also want fairer taxes, whether it be a 50p top rate or getting rid of the bedroom tax. The reality is that poor people spend all their money, and rich people hide it away. If we want growth through consumption, we need a better way forward with a fairer balance of incomes. The truth is that we have a Chancellor who is looking to the future walking backwards. He is taking us back to an age in which the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. We all want a fair share, and we all want to be productive to help make Britain succeed together. That will only occur with a Labour Government.