In any debate of this nature, there is always a tendency of Opposition Members emphasising the negatives. In her headbutt-the-Opposition-and-kick-them-when-they’re-down speech—I do not mean that as an insult; I am congratulating her, and I quite enjoyed it—the Minister emphasised that we should not talk the economy down. That is true. She highlighted, as many other hon. Members have, the very positive things that have happened: high growth, the creation of a lot of jobs and inflation under control. We should not knock the economy, but equally, I have to say, we should not be complacent about its performance. Some of the headline figures have been good, showing that the Government have achieved some success in their plan for the economy. Nevertheless, there are very worrying underlying trends, and the Opposition and Stewart Hosie are right to identify them.
First, we have a problem with our balance of payments. Richard Fuller asked whether we should worry. Well, of course we should worry. If more money is being taken out of the economy as the result of a balance of payments deficit, that will be deflationary. As was pointed out, the difference has to be paid. The sale of assets or borrowing money from abroad has long-term consequences. If we are not exporting as much as we should, one measure that has been shown to improve the productivity performance of firms is exposure to foreign markets. Productivity and exports are therefore linked and we need to be concerned about them.
The fact that we have a huge deficit with the rest of the European Union answers those who say that, if we decide to leave, the EU would close the door on us. It could not afford to close the door on such a lucrative market as the United Kingdom. That is an important point to bear in mind in the wider debate about EU renegotiation.
Our export performance has been poor. Our productivity performance has been poor. Indeed, it has been described as abysmal. We have been meeting only a tenth of the long-term 2% trend in recent years. That in turn affects our competitiveness and the Government’s ability to bring in tax revenues, so productivity has an important role to play. The fact that we are one from the bottom of the seven major industrial nations in the world should cause us concern.
Another underlying trend we should worry about is the decline in our manufacturing. It is not enough to say the economy evolves and we are moving towards service industries, or that there is less of a distinction between service and manufacturing industries. Manufacturing is important. The Government, in their plan, accept that manufacturing is important. Yet we find that manufacturing output has actually fallen.
Measured against the Government’s own criteria, this is another factor we cannot be complacent about.
Finally, as has been well documented in today’s debate, there is a dependence on consumer demand for growth. Even the Chancellor seems to have either ignored this or tried to play it down. Why we should be concerned about Government debt, which is 80% of GDP, yet have no concern about consumer debt, which is 145% of gross disposable income, is beyond me. If public sector debt is not a good basis for growth then private sector debt is not a good basis for growth either, unless of course we can say it is going into the kinds of areas that are productive and yield a high return. We cannot afford to be complacent, and it is wrong of Conservative Members to attack those who raise the issue today by saying they are somehow or other being disloyal or hurting the economy. We have to try to get these things in perspective, and although there have been successes, which I hope I have at least acknowledged, there is no cause for complacency.
Let me look at the issues that need to be addressed, the first of which is productivity. The Government’s seven-point plan in “Fixing the foundations” highlights a whole raft of issues. There will be an important role for the private sector in some of them—investment by the private sector and training workers—and the apprenticeship scheme is putting more and more emphasis on the private sector, but many of the measures listed will require public investment. We need to make a distinction when we talk about borrowing and Government spending. If public investment can yield a return, why is borrowing for that purpose a bad thing? Borrowing is not a bad thing for firms or households to do if it provides a return, so why should that kind of borrowing somehow be lumped with all general Government borrowing, so that the Government can say, “Look, we can’t afford to do it”? If it brings a return, it is important. Whether the Minister has admitted it or not, “Fixing the foundations” indicates that substantial public investment will be required to build up the infrastructure needed to increase productivity.
Increasing exports is the second issue. Ministers in the House of Lords have
“pledged to mobilise the whole of government behind exporting, working alongside a more effective UKTI and better export finance.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 21 July 2015; Vol. 763, WA15.]
I wonder whether the Government have really lived up to that rhetoric. Yes, there are difficulties with Europe, but Europe is not the only market. Indeed, let us look at the growth in world trade. Why do we have such a small proportion of that additional trade? Firms would tell us one of the reasons for that. Eighty per cent of them do not export anyway, sometimes because of regulation. Some of it cannot be avoided if it is overseas, but some of it could be dealt with by changes here. The Government could make regulations on exporting goods less onerous.
How much do we use our network of embassies across the world when it comes to introductions to markets? There is a role for regional government to play in that. In Northern Ireland, our exports have gone up by 4% in the last year, but that has been the result of hard work by Invest NI, and there are lots of different ways of doing it. We now have the friends of Northern Ireland—expatriates and people who have studied in Northern Ireland and then gone back home—to look at contacts in markets that we want to target. Can we use that network on a more UK-wide basis? Do we make full use of the contacts that our embassies have? I know that trade missions from Northern Ireland have sometimes found embassies to be less than helpful. How can we take those initial steps? Many firms will say that they need to go out to a market two or three times before they start making contacts, which is expensive, especially for small and medium enterprises. What help can be given with that?
The last issue is boosting manufacturing industry. A number of contributions today have highlighted the issue of energy costs. The steel industry is only one example, and in Northern Ireland recently we have lost a lot of jobs from huge employers who cited energy costs as one of the main reasons. There appears to be a schizophrenic attitude, even from the Government. Although they are removing subsidies from the most expensive form of electricity generation, even today at Question Time the Prime Minister, while on the one hand saying it was more expensive to produce green energy, boasted about the amount of green energy in the pipeline that would be introduced in future. If that is the aim, let us be honest: we will find that we make it difficult for some kinds of manufacturers. It is significant than onshoring in the US has occurred as energy prices have come down. That is a lesson for us.
I shall try to abide by your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have had my 10 minutes. I trust that the Government will take this debate seriously. I accept that there is a role for regional government to play in Northern Ireland. We are reducing corporation tax, for example, and we believe that the devolution of air passenger duty for long-haul routes has been important in extending our ability to attract inward investment and bring inward investors into Northern Ireland by reducing the cost of travel. We have undertaken some other measures, but only the central Government can deal with the national measures that are beyond our control.