The Economy and Work

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 4:39 pm on 26th May 2016.

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Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 4:39 pm, 26th May 2016

I heard it. There was that one soundbite, that one belated effort to draw back from the brink, but we had three and a half minutes of the hon. Gentleman attacking the Chancellor before then, and complaining that there was no industrial strategy.

What do we have in the Queen’s Speech? We have a bit of nonsense about spaceports and electric cars. In Port Talbot where people are worrying about the steelworks, they are not too bothered about spaceports unless the Government are planning to stick one in Aberavon and create 1,000 jobs. This is window dressing. Where on earth is the industrial strategy? Where is the Bill to deal with this country’s productivity crisis, which is greater than just about anywhere else in the western world? Where is the Bill to deal with disabled people who under this Secretary of State are languishing on the scrapheap? Where is the Bill to halt the spiralling of personal debt to record levels? The Chancellor used to talk about the problem of debt, but he never speaks about personal debt or the fact that consumers are the basis on which he is trying to rebuild our economy. Where is the Bill to deal with the fact that our earnings are flatlining in Britain? The Queen’s Speech contains not a sniff of any such Bills. Many Labour Members have suggested that that is because the Government have run out of ideas and the Chancellor has run out of steam, but I do not think he has—I am looking across at him and he is looking as fit as a butcher’s dog. He has his 5:2 diet and a personal trainer on-tap. He looks full of ideas—he is certainly full of it.

The real reason why none of those things were in the Queen’s Speech is because they do not fit with the narrative that says that everything is tickety-boo with our economy. We have the makers marching, jobs for everyone, and the new national living wage: “Nothing to see here, move on, move on. Let’s keep going with where we are”. Of course that is absolute nonsense, because on every measure in every serious analysis of our economy, the Government are missing their targets. The deficit was meant to be cleared long since, but it is £76 billion. The national debt is meant to be falling as a proportion of GDP, but it is now £1.6 trillion— £600 billion more than when Labour left office. The Chancellor used to talk about not bequeathing debts to future generations, but that debt has increased by £600 billion on his watch.

What about business activity? It has gone through the floor. What about corporation tax receipts? We used to be told—I remember it well—that the secret to getting all that extra foreign direct investment, receipts and investment was slashing corporation tax rates, but just this week are told that that figure is down to 5.1%. That is not the mark of an economy that is booming by any stretch, and little wonder, because our trade deficit is at a record high. The gap between our exports and imports is bigger than it has ever been. [Interruption.] It is £13 billion, if the Chancellor wants to quibble about it. That is a big problem for him, and it is happening on his watch and because of him. That is the reality of this country’s economy, and the consequences for working people are significant.

The Government continually point to the jobs market as the one bright spot, and Labour Members welcome those new jobs. [Interruption.] I welcome those jobs, as I welcome every new job. We believe that people in this country are better off if they are working, but that will not stop me asking what people are earning. What if they are taking home less than they used to, and their wallets are getting thinner at the end of the month as a result of the poor quality jobs that Britain is now generating? What if the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is compounding those ills by cutting work allowances under universal credit?

I was at the Elephant and Castle jobcentre earlier this week, and I heard what a great problem low wages are. The Chancellor is making his savings, and the Government are going gangbusters as people move from Labour’s better resourced, more generous tax credits over to the less generous, universal credit under his Government. He will hit the £10 billion of savings that he wants, but on the backs of working people in this country. They are the people who are paying the price for this failing economy and this failing Chancellor. He looks at me across the Dispatch Box. I simply wonder when his Back Benchers are going to realise that he is failing them, as well as failing the country. If we look at the record it tells its own story: he is the third-worst-performing Tory Chancellor on growth in the past 60 years and he is the worst-performing Tory Chancellor on the economy bar none. We need to get rid of this Chancellor. We need a vote against the Queen’s Speech tonight. We need to vote for Labour.