In broad terms, the Budget is extremely welcome. It continues the extremely sensible policies that the Chancellor set out as long ago as 2010, the essence of which is on page 127 of the Red Book, which sets out receipts and expenditure as percentages of GDP. Tax receipts will run at 35.7%, 36.3%, 36.9%, 36.9% and 37% of GDP over the next few years, which is in accordance with the normal long-run averages. Only in the highest years of tax receipts, going back to the 1970s, has taxation in this country managed to get as high as 38%. That sets out a limit for public expenditure if there is to be a balance, which it is obviously important to achieve when the economy is going well. We therefore see that public expenditure will be managed in line with the receipts that will come in, so that expenditure will be less than receipts by the end of the period.
That is absolutely what the Chancellor promised all those years ago when he said that he would mend the roof when the sun was shining. A glimmer of sun has come through the clouds of international crisis and the Chancellor has been busy on his ladder fixing the roof with his nails, his hammer and his wood. The process is now nearing completion, for which he deserves a great deal of credit.
Turning to the details of the Budget, the Chancellor also deserves much credit for his reforms of corporate taxation. It was Napoleon who first called us a nation of shopkeepers, and I noticed that the Chancellor quoted Napoleon in his speech. That may say something about his European ambitions, with which I am in less agreement, but we are indeed a nation of shopkeepers. Reducing the burdens of rates, VAT and bureaucracy is only to be welcomed and is thoroughly desirable. Ensuring that multinationals pay taxation according to law is also desirable, but it is always worth remembering that tax avoidance is perfectly legal. If tax is being avoided, it is for this House to change the law so that tax must be paid. It is not some moral virtue to pay more tax than the law requires, so removing loopholes is to be much commended.
I fully support the broad thrust of what the Chancellor is doing. He has got it right, and most of his tax measures are welcome, particularly his changes to personal taxation, an area in which I would like him to go further. Having made £8 billion from cutting the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p in the pound, he should go further in an exuberant, Laffer-like fashion and cut it back to the rate at which Gordon Brown had it throughout his period as Chancellor.
The area with which I find the most disagreement is found on page 19 of the Red Book, which sets out the economic opportunities and risks linked to the UK’s membership of the European Union. [Interruption.] I am delighted that the nationalists, who so crave independence for themselves, none the less wish to be shackled to the European Union—it is one of their idiosyncrasies that many of us find so charming. If I may, I will deal with that extraordinarily tendentious page, strewn with errors, overstatement and over-egging of pudding. Let us start with the very first line, which states:
“Membership of the EU has increased the UK’s openness to trade and investment”.
That is entirely disputable. In fact, all our membership has done is put us in a customs union with very high levels of regulation and a high external tariff. The tariff on dairy products coming into this country is 42%, much to the disadvantage of our friends in New Zealand. So EU membership has not made us more open; it has closed us to some areas.
Page 19 continues with the statement:
“The UK’s full access to the single market…clearly increases the openness of the British economy”.
There is a word for that, and it is “balderdash”. What access to the single market does is put the dead hand of regulation on the 95% of British businesses that never trade with the continent. They are suffering from that regulation, and their business is made harder to do. This has nothing to do with openness; it is to do with burdens.
Then we get to a bit that I think shows the Chancellor’s wonderful and sophisticated sense of humour. He says:
It has to be said that the EU was most certainly not reformed at that Council, and our settlement in it was so small as to be hardly noticeable. At the same time it gave away our ability to veto any treaty for fiscal union to follow the monetary union. We said we would do nothing to obstruct that, so we gave away our strongest negotiating hand for nothing—for thin gruel.