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Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation — Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:06 pm on 22nd March 2016.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Conservative, Rushcliffe 2:06 pm, 22nd March 2016

I am trying to be reasonably concise rather than too expansive. I apologise to Keith Vaz.

I tried to think of what I would have done had I been Chancellor in the present situation. Before the Budget was delivered, I expected a much tougher Budget. Thank the Lord that I am not in my right hon. Friend’s position; I never had to face problems of the kind that he inherited from his predecessor. My instincts are classic, traditional stuff for anyone for whom the iron of the Treasury has entered the soul. This is the first Budget after an election, we have not made fast enough progress in eliminating the deficit and debt, and we will not have sound future progress with a modern rebalanced economy unless we have done that, so my first thoughts would have been to get on with it.

I would have introduced a Budget, as I frequently did in my time, raising taxes and cutting public expenditure. I am glad to hear, for reasons that I shall return to later, that my right hon. Friend has committed himself to his continuing long-term objective, and has decided to pause. I thought this was going to be a popular Budget. People speculate as to why we chose an easier path. [Interruption.] The Chancellor has in the short term relaxed fiscal policy. It is good that the Bank of England is retaining a very relaxed monetary policy, but it will tighten it if we were to abandon fiscal discipline. In the short term, my right hon. Friend has lowered taxation and lowered Department spending targets for cuts. He has eased off on public spending and lowered taxation. I was surprised by that.

I assume that this was partly caused by the considerable uncertainty that the economy faces. No one has addressed that issue in any of these debates, although the Chancellor did in his Budget speech. The global economy is slowing down, and mainly as a consequence of that, the British economy is slowing down. The uncertainties for our economic prospects over 2016 are very concerning. There are many uncertainties, all of which would threaten most of the developed economies if things go wrong. We still do not know whether China, for example, is going to achieve a soft landing; I think it will. In the emerging markets—there are associated problems with emerging market debt—there is volatility and some unsoundness in the financial world.

And there is the risk of Brexit. I am very glad that the Governor of the Bank of England decided to reassure people by setting out publicly that he was prepared to take action if we had a flight of capital from this country should people be alarmed about the referendum.

So far, such risk has led only to a big decline in the value of sterling and the freezing of most people’s investment plans. One would be a bit of an idiot to invest in the British economy in anything that had the slightest risk when we do not know what the circumstances and trading patterns are going to be in six months’ time.

I assume one reason why my right hon. Friend took a more relaxed view than a traditional Chancellor would have done and did not make those big spending cuts or increase taxation—in fact, he eased taxation for businesses and the low-paid—was to avoid the mistake of being too severe when circumstances might well worsen as the year goes on. That underlines the point that, in the long term, one cannot forecast and fix these kind of things further forward.

A great deal of the debate around the Budget centred on the forecasts and the Office for Budget Responsibility. The fact that the OBR’s forecasts keep changing so rapidly just underlines what I am saying about the uncertainties for the immediate future. Fortunately, thanks to my right hon. Friend, the British economy has been the fastest growing developed economy in the last 12 months, and we are probably less at risk than most others. However, the fact remains that this was a time to be cautious. Personally, I would have maintained the squeeze—it has all been put off until the latter half of this Parliament, and into the next if we are not careful—because so long as the economy continues to grow, and there is a reasonable prospect that it will, we should not be running a deficit of this percentage of GDP, piling up more debt for our successors.

My doubt is whether this pause was totally justified. I accept that it probably was; but certainly we must resume things. I listened to a shadow Chancellor who plainly does not have an idea in his head about how he would save any money or do anything other than continue spending and borrowing. It is totally profligate stuff, as we have seen very much in the past.

I am very glad that my right hon. Friend made the changes to business taxation. When I was in office, I put up taxes, but I never put up business taxes because I was trying to encourage growth. We still need to make our economy stronger, so it is welcome that the Chancellor stepped in, keeping our corporation tax level at a competitive rate. I particularly welcome the help he has given to small and medium-sized businesses. Encouraging business is, of course, the best way of protecting ourselves against economic risks for the future in this uncertain world.

My right hon. Friend has not been wholly generous towards big business. He and the Government have been leading in the OECD on attempts to tackle the problem of tax evasion and tax avoidance on the part of big multinational companies. He has incorporated the first serious attempt for a long time to attack the problems of tax relief on interest when it is exploited and misused, on royalties and on past losses. I get told a lot about how the Chancellor should be collecting more from big international companies, but no Government have done a blind thing about tackling this tax avoidance for the past 20 years. This Government are leading international discussion towards agreement, which is what is needed, and in this Budget, the Chancellor has started to act.

We are told that we are relieving tax on the rich, but everybody knows—I certainly know, and not just from the newspapers—that the Treasury has been looking at the idea of doing more on tax relief for the wealthy when they contribute to their pension funds. If they have very high earnings, tax relief on pension funds is the way of avoiding tax and it is a great way of ensuring that 45% tax is not paid on a very considerable part of one’s income. That was the case, but we have now put a cap on it. I feel that we are still rather too generous, but in today’s politics that was another lobby, and when someone leaked it, it was seen off by the pensions industry in about 10 days flat. So my right hon. Friend was not allowed—on that occasion, I suspect, because of fear about what would happen on this side of the House—to proceed with fairly modest changes in tax relief for the rich.

As far as other tax moves that my right hon. Friend has made, on personal allowances and the thresholds for the higher rate, because the higher paid—the rich—now pay such a huge proportion of tax, it is almost impossible for Chancellors to ease the tax burden on the low-paid and the ordinary citizen without its being possible to demonstrate mathematically that they have done quite a lot for the rich as well. If Chancellors bought that argument every year, they would never move the threshold at which people start to pay tax, and they would never raise the 40% rate for the people who are currently in modest jobs and find that they are subject to a marginal rate of 40% because Gordon Brown started the habit of freezing the threshold in order to secure stealth taxation. Raising these thresholds is welcome, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend felt able to do it.

Other measures should be seriously canvassed. The pensioner benefits, to which I am entitled, are discussed every now and again. I am always told that we have put things in a manifesto, but I have yet to meet a candidate or an elector who read the last general election manifesto, which, although it seems to contain considerable detail, was certainly not crucial to my constituency victory, or, I suspect, to anyone else’s. We have ruled out ever raising income tax, ever raising national insurance, ever raising VAT; we appear to have ruled out doing anything at all that would stop the very wealthiest people having free bus passes and receiving the winter fuel allowance. I am not going to advocate the breaking of manifesto pledges, but I know of no prosperous pensioners, and certainly none who are in full-time employment like me, who would object to, at the very least, those benefits being made taxable.

I think that there is a case for considering those measures and various alternatives, but I will not risk going into it any further, first for reasons of time, and secondly because, given today’s populist politics, I fear that if I do, some lobby yet unknown to me will descend on me in the next two or three days in order to mount a campaign, through our ridiculous media, to blow that case out of the water.

Of course we must judge the Budget on its own merits, and I understand why my right hon. Friend has got to where he is. No two Chancellors have ever done the same in respect of every measure. Within our system, a Chancellor makes an overall judgment, and this Chancellor retains my full confidence: I am prepared to support his judgment.

I have another reason for supporting my right hon. Friend’s judgment. As I have already said, the present Government are in a strange position. Absolutely no alternative proposition is being advanced by anyone outside. Some pundits, and, as a result, some politicians, seem to believe that we are wrong to maintain our target of a balanced budget over the cycle, or however we choose to put it. They suggest that, actually, there are no problems, and the answer is simply always to run a deficit, on and on and on. After all, it is free money. It is a bit troublesome that interest rates might return to normality one day, but meanwhile, just let it pile up: it will sort itself out.

People on the far right say “Tax cuts, that is all you want. Tax cuts will inspire such tremendous entrepreneurship that jobs will be created, wealth will be created, and it will all be paid back. You will not be in debt for long.” On the left, the argument is “Boost every welfare payment, increase public spending on every public service, and that will generate such demand from the grateful taxpayer recipients that they will pump it into the economy, and it will pay for itself.” That is Mickey Mouse economics, as practised by the last Labour Government, and it got us into this trouble that we are still—thanks to my right hon. Friend—getting out of now.

As for my final reason for backing my right hon. Friend’s judgment, his record, after eight Budgets and six years, is absolutely amazing. I must concede, having been one of his competitors at one point, that he is far the most successful departmental Minister in this Government to date. If anyone had said, when he took over the state of affairs that he took over more than eight Budgets ago, that he would stand here, in charge of the fastest growing economy in the developed world, with near-full employment and with employment at record-breaking heights, able to demonstrate the steadily improving state of not only the public finances but the condition of the poor, as well as the alleviation of social problems across the country, that person would not have been believed. It is a quite remarkable performance.

So I back my right hon. Friend’s judgment. I am also delighted that he is helping us all to avert the risk of Brexit in the forthcoming referendum, because, if the public were so ill advised to vote for it, that would be the only thing that could really send this economic recovery off the rails in a big way.

Several hon. Members rose