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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:31 pm on 19th March 2015.

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Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 4:31 pm, 19th March 2015

It’s a date—and perhaps I can bring along the hon. Gentleman’s successor in his seat, Kevin McKeever.

Mr Walter made a weak joke, frankly, about how the Leader of the Opposition’s kitchen must be a butler’s pantry. That was particularly welcome from the hon. Gentleman, who I know has serious and relevant credentials for talking about the experiences of ordinary working families in this country. As an alumnus of Warminster boarding school, a former international banker and a freeman of the City of London, his comments were very relevant.

The Chancellor should have focused on the country’s long-term prosperity and competitiveness, using the Budget to do more to strengthen productivity, investment and trade, yet that did not happen. Today’s Financial Times stated:

“This was a Budget that offered little to business”.

It was revealing that the Chancellor did not once utter the word “productivity” in his statement, but tackling the productivity gap is the single biggest means by which Britain can improve competitiveness, raise living standards for all and ensure that the deficit is brought down. UK output per hour has fallen to 17% below the rest of the G7, the largest gap since 1991. It takes British workers until the end of Friday to produce what a German or American worker has produced by Thursday. The OBR reports that actual growth in productivity per hour has again been weaker than expected, with a fall in the final quarter of 2014. It states that productivity growth

“remains the most important and uncertain judgement in our forecast”.

Failing to act on productivity during the next Parliament will make the difference between the austerity well into the future that the Conservatives will provide and the better plan for business and rising living standards that Labour is preparing. We need to restore the link between economic growth and higher living standards for all. To do that, our economy needs more high-skill, high-pay jobs in the high-productivity sectors in which Britain has an advantage. That will require a proper, co-ordinated and focused industrial strategy, but Ernst and Young said yesterday that the Chancellor’s “scatter-gun approach” to UK industry will not help to deliver a proper industrial strategy, or to achieve the 300,000 additional jobs that a sector-focused strategy could produce.

Higher productivity would be boosted by higher investment, but spending on infrastructure has fallen by a third under this Government. The Red Book shows that there will be a planned reduction in capital spending over the five years to 2019-20. The OBR has said that business investment fell by 1.4% in the last quarter of 2014, following a fall of 1.2% in the third quarter. The failure of the Chancellor to announce future plans for the annual investment allowance disappointed business, has increased uncertainty and delay, and almost certainly postponed investment in new equipment and jobs.

Why did the Government not set up an independent national infrastructure commission to stop long-term decisions about the performance of our economy being kicked into the long grass? Why did the Chancellor not announce a boost to the investment in low-carbon technologies? Why did he not ensure that Britain is a world leader in green technology? The Business Secretary mentioned in passing, almost in embarrassment, changes to the green investment bank. Will the Economic Secretary put a little more meat on the bones of that proposal? The Chancellor put in place measures that will increase the demand for homes, but there was nothing to help the construction industry and the supply of new homes—things that are vital for the future of this country. Why did he not introduce a long-term innovation strategy for science and research, with a stable and secure funding framework, to improve the UK’s record on R and D?

Throughout his time in office, the Chancellor has made much of an export-led recovery. He said yesterday:

“Out of the red and into the black—Britain is back paying its way in the world today.”—[Hansard, 18 March 2015; Vol. 594, c. 770.]

He sounded less like Shakespeare and more like an episode of “Bullseye”. What he said was simply untrue. He will not achieve his objective of doubling exports by 2020. He is certainly not going to win Bully’s special prize of the keys to No. 10. I can hear the voice of Jim Bowen talking to the Chancellor: “Look at what you could’ve won.”

The OBR said yesterday:

“The current account deficit remains wide by historical standards.”

In the third quarter of 2014, the deficit was at 6% of GDP, which it said was

“the second largest quarterly deficit in National Accounts data stretching back to 1955.”

The contribution to GDP growth that is made by Britain selling things around the world is falling. Page 108 of the Red Book shows that in every one of the six years from 2014 to 2019, the percentage growth in imports of goods and services will exceed that in exports of goods and services. Our trade position is forecast to worsen in every single year. The Chancellor has failed to produce an export-led recovery.

In a very complacent and out-of-touch speech that was soaked in hubris and arrogance, the Chancellor said that people have never had it so good. After five years, he has failed. He has failed on debt, he has failed on deficit reduction and he has failed working families, who are on average £1,600 a year worse off. The Budget has shown what a further five years of Conservative rule would inflict on this country: a sharp acceleration in the cuts to public spending; a rollercoaster approach to managing the public finances; threats to our NHS and other valued aspects of British life; uncertainty for business that will lead to reduced investment; and, ultimately, poorer living standards for all. The British people will deliver their verdict on this Government in 48 days’ time. They deserve a better plan for Britain’s future, and that can be achieved only with a Labour Government.