Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:11 pm on 8th March 2017.

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Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Economy) 2:11 pm, 8th March 2017

The right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. I can say with absolute certainty that there was never, ever a threat of an immediate collapse. Indeed, I am on record as saying there would be no problem in week one, month one or year one, or even in year two or year three, which gets us to just beyond the negotiation. The danger was always the long-term risk of decreases in foreign direct investment and trade, and of loss of GDP from reduced migration, to which I shall turn because the Chancellor did not.

Much of the previous failure came about because the last Tory Government strangled the lifeblood from recovery by cutting too much or too quickly, with little or no regard to the consequences. That error was set in stone by the old fiscal charter and its requirement to run a permanent surplus quickly, almost irrespective of the economic conditions. The new fiscal charter, which was not really given a look-in today, is certainly more flexible than the last one, but it still targets a surplus early in the next Parliament. The numbers and the timescale look precarious. The forecasts for a current account surplus are tiny, not even reaching 1.5% of GDP in this Parliament. If there is any external shock or any capital flight, if we suffer more devaluation, which is quite likely, or if the negotiations go badly, the figures could fall apart very quickly indeed.

These numbers are being delivered before the full impact of a hard Tory Brexit are felt. We cannot even assess properly what the consequences of that will be, because the OBR tells us

“there is no meaningful basis for predicting the precise end-point of the negotiations as a basis for our forecast.”

That is a central assumption that pretends Brexit does not exist—a ridiculous thing to do with the invocation of article 50 looming.

The OBR’s central forecast is in rather stark contrast to what we already know. The Treasury had reported previously that the UK could lose up to £66 billion from a hard Brexit, and that GDP could fall by almost 10% if the UK reverted to WTO rules, which echoes what the Chair of the Treasury Committee said. Other assessments mirror that. The London School of Economics says:

“In the long run, reduced trade lowers productivity.”

That is a huge problem for the UK. It went on to say:

“That increases the cost of Brexit to a loss of between 6.5% and 9.5% of GDP.”

It puts a range of figures on that of between £4,500 and £6,500 per household.

Last year’s PricewaterhouseCoopers report suggested that employment could fall by 600,000. The figures for Scotland produced by the Fraser of Allander Institute suggest that a hard Tory Brexit could result in 80,000 lost Scottish jobs and a drop in wages averaging £2,000 in a decade. If we add to that the report by senior executives in the FTSE 500 saying that Brexit is already having a negative impact on business, and the British Chambers of Commerce reporting that half the businesses surveyed have already seen a hit to margins due to devaluation, we can see the scale of the problem. What we should have seen today is mitigation to match that.

To be fair to the Chancellor, he did move a little last autumn with announcements of additional support for capital investment and research and development. Today, he reiterated some of the R and D statements and put some flesh on the bone of other investment, no doubt taking his cue from the IMF, which had said previously that the Treasury had done enough to stabilise finances for the Government to embark on extra investment spending. However, the figures from last year’s autumn statement show public sector net investment falling in 2017-18 to 2018-19 and not recovering again until we are in the next Parliament. The figures today for public sector gross investment show them falling this coming year, 2017-18, to the forecast made only three and a half months ago. The money should be spent now to mitigate that rather than waiting for the OBR to say that the damage has been done.

However, it is not all about broken promises on debt, deficit and borrowing. It is not even about repeating the mistakes of the past on investment. We are now in such uncertain times that, to protect jobs and the current account, trade should be front and centre, but little was said about that today. The Red Book tells us already that the current account is in negative territory for the entire forecast period. The impact of net trade will be zero or a drag on GDP growth for almost every year in the forecast period. That is after an average 15% devaluation in sterling since the EU referendum.