Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:21 pm on 23rd March 2015.

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Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling Labour, Edinburgh South West 6:21 pm, 23rd March 2015

My right hon. Friend is right. Our debt levels were the second highest of the G7 group of economies in 1997, but 10 years later they were the second lowest. On public spending, last week the Chancellor blamed all our woes on our alleged overspending. How was it that the Conservatives were supporting our public spending plans right up until December 2008? As for the Liberal Democrats, they were in a different stratosphere from the rest of us when it came to calling for more public spending.

At the last election five years ago the essential argument between us was whether we could halve the deficit in a five-year period, which was my judgment as to what we could safely and realistically do. The Chancellor—the shadow Chancellor at that time—said that that was woefully inadequate. But what was woefully inadequate five years ago was announced as a personal triumph last week. He has managed to do what I said we could do, but he somehow says it is a great triumph on his part and something we should be grateful to him for.

Let us look at what the Chancellor has actually done in relation to borrowing. He announced last week that at long last borrowing was on a downward curve. Every Budget he has ever presented shows borrowing on a downward curve. The difference between this Budget in 2015 and the Budget in 2010 is that it is on a downward curve all right, but he is borrowing three times more than he expected to borrow in 2010 because the economy slowed down so badly in 2011-12.

As for debt, we all expected that it would be shown that we were not going to hit the Chancellor’s original target of debt reducing as a share of national income by 2015, and that was what was expected from his autumn statement in December, yet, lo and behold, last week suddenly he was meeting his target, by a minuscule amount—coming from 80.4% to 80.2% of GDP. Why was that? It was not because of some economic miracle. It was because he looked around the Treasury cellars and found assets he could sell, one of them being a thing called Granite, which is an absolute monster of financial alchemy. Northern Rock produced it, into which it fed sub-prime mortgages, and the more sub-prime they became, the more mortgages had to be fed into this thing to keep it going. After five years it is, of course, possible to manage these things and get them to come right, and that is why the debt is coming down—because he is selling off this asset—yet even the OBR says it is highly uncertain whether or not this target will actually be met. So when we look at what the Chancellor said on the causes of where we are now and what he has done over the last five years, I have to say his credibility and track record are not as great as he would have us believe.

On the public expenditure figures of last week, the OBR has described the Chancellor’s spending profile as a rollercoaster. If we want to go on a rollercoaster, we go to Disneyland, not the British economy. Anybody else whose plans had been described as a rollercoaster would have hung their head in shame. What sort of planning can people put in place when they have no idea what is going to be spent? We have the absurd situation where the Ministry of Defence may have to lay off armed services personnel in 2016-17 because of the steep decline in public spending, only to say, “It’s all right. We’ll be able to re-engage you in two years’ time.” How can universities plan for research and development when we have such a steep decrease in public spending now, with the promise of perhaps something in the next few years?

The former Chancellor the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe knows as well as I do that when we look at spending profiles for four or five years, the last two years are pretty doubtful.