It is a pleasure to open the debate, possibly for the last time, and to welcome this final Budget—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I knew that I would draw support from different parts of the House, and I am pleased to hear that I draw it from the Opposition Front Bench as well. Last week the Chancellor reiterated the Government’s commitment to our long-term economic plan—even the previous Chancellor, Mr Darling, slightly smiled at that one—restoring the public finances and supporting businesses while providing security and stability for Britain’s families.
At the start of this Parliament we inherited an economy that had suffered a greater collapse than almost any other country, with £112 billion wiped off our GDP and 750,000 people losing their jobs, contributing to a welfare bill that had risen by 60% in real terms under the previous Government. Over the past year, however, Britain has grown faster than any other major advanced economy, with the Office for Budget Responsibility’s future growth forecast revised up. Britain has had the best performing labour market in the G7, with employment forecasts revised up too, and unemployment revised down. We are on the path, therefore, from austerity to prosperity. The deficit has been cut in half. The fiscal mandate has been met in the target year. National debt is set to fall in the coming year. A surplus of £7 billion is forecast by the end of the next Parliament. Welfare spending is down in real terms for the first time in 16 years and is below its 2010 level as a share of GDP.
Underpinning this recovery is the remarkable performance of our labour market, with the highest employment rate that Britain has ever seen, at 73.3%. The rise in youth employment in the UK over the year is larger than the rest of Europe combined, and there are now more people in private sector jobs than ever before, more women in work than ever before, more lone parents in work than ever before, more older workers than ever before, more disabled entrepreneurs than ever before, and perhaps most importantly, the most households in social housing in work since records began. That is arguably the most important of all the figures.