Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:33 pm on 8th March 2017.

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Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 2:33 pm, 8th March 2017

I am running out of time, so I cannot take any more interventions. I welcome the decision to have more money for schools and the NHS, because there, too, my area has been poorly funded for many years. We are looking forward to getting a much better settlement for our schools under fairer funding, and I hope that there will be something for our schools as a result of the Chancellor’s sensible decision to make some increases. I think that colleagues will generally welcome the Government’s attention to schools, the NHS and social care funding. I hope that the rate relief fund will be generous, because I represent an area where there are likely to be substantial increases in the rates, but where businesses are not necessarily generating the extra turnover that makes it easy to pay those sharp increases. We particularly need to look after small and growing businesses. I hope that the fund will be well targeted and will deal with what will otherwise be a series of tough, hard cases.

I welcome the extra spending and relief on tax, because I am not as worried as some about the level of UK debt. We need to remember that the figures the Government are giving us are for the gross debt. They are saying that the debt, at 86% of GDP, is high and needs to be brought down, but of course quite a bit of that debt is owned by the Bank of England on our behalf, so we owe the money to ourselves. The adjusted figure is about 65%, which is a perfectly reasonable level, particularly at a time of very low interest rates. Whatever happens with advanced country monetary policies, we all think that interest rates will remain abnormally low for quite a long period of time—well below the averages we were used to before the banking crash.

This is not a bad time for the state to borrow, particularly if it is investing in projects that we need and that may have some return. We definitely need better transport and strengthened broadband, much of which can be done by private finance. We also need better flood control and, at the same time, more water reserves for the fast-growing areas of the country. We need a lot of extra housing, which brings with it the need for more provision of schools and hospitals.

If we are to carry on growing at something like the rate at which we have done in recent years, we have to accept that there is a backlog of infrastructure requirements—everything from roads to water supply, through to getting our broadband up to speed and sufficient in capacity. I want as much of that as possible to be financed in the private sector, and a lot can and will be, but the Government have an important role in all these areas. They have to offer licences and organise planning permissions. They may need to pump-prime. Parts of the networks may not be financially viable without Government money. That is certainly true of our road system, because we have a system that is free at the point of use, owned by the state in all its manifestations. As we need better roads, Her Majesty’s Government clearly need to invest a decent amount in roads.

I note that the Budget was mercifully short of measures on the tax side, although I am always in favour of measures that cut taxes, rather than increase them, and I would have welcomed rather more of those. The Chancellor understandably wishes to go to having one Budget a year, in the autumn. We look forward to a Budget that deals with taxation in the autumn. He has set out a number of ideas for consultation, or perhaps pre-announcements; I trust that there might be some modification to those by the time we get to the proper Budget in the autumn. I urge him to understand just how crucial flexibility is to our economy, and that flexibility comes from having so much, and a growing volume of, self-employment. We need to ensure that it is as easy as possible to get into self-employment, and that it is as worthwhile as possible when people are successful.

I always think it is a good idea to try to confine taxes, and certainly tax rises, to things that we do not approve of very much. We have quite a number of sin taxes, which are rather easier to sell to the public. We should not go out of our way to tax work, enterprise and success. I know we have to do some of that, because we need a lot of revenue for the range of public services we offer, but our taxes on those things are quite high enough. We might actually find that we raised more revenue from more work and more enterprise if the rates were lower, because there is definitely a beneficial effect if we can get our rates to a competitive level worldwide. We need to understand that other countries around the world are getting the idea of cutting tax rates. The new President of the United States of America is working with Republicans on the hill on a major set of tax proposals that could cut American corporate tax rates and income tax rates dramatically, which would give America an important competitive advantage and make it a much more attractive place for talent and inward investment. We need to bear that in mind as we go into our autumn Budget cycle here, because I want the UK to be the most competitive major economy in the world.

My last point, in response to the previous speaker from the Scottish National party, Stewart Hosie, is that he should not start painting this picture of misery and collapse in three years’ time, given that there was no collapse immediately after the vote. Were we to end up on World Trade Organisation terms, we would collect £12 billion in tariff revenue, which we could give back to businesses and consumers here; other countries would collect only £5 billion in tariff revenue from our exports to them, so we would be better off financially in that transaction. We would also be better off because if countries placed large tariffs on food exports to us, which would be an extraordinary type of self-harm on their part, we would presumably substitute a lot of imported food from cheaper parts of the world.