The Chancellor started his Budget speech in an appropriate way by making a confession. He said that the commentators, including himself, his predecessor and many others in this House, had got it wrong when it came to the growth of the UK economy. In fact, he started by saying that the economy had “continued to confound the commentators with robust growth” since the historic vote to leave the European Union and that that growth was predicted to continue over the next number of years.
Several Members have already said that the Chancellor made no mention of Brexit, but many Members still feel that Brexit has been properly mentioned only if it is referred to in negative terms. They do not want to hear the good news that Brexit and the decision to leave the EU has not and will not destroy our economy. The Chancellor pointed out at the start of his statement that the Budget was designed to prepare the United Kingdom for a brighter future and to provide a stable platform for the negotiations. While I do not agree with everything in the Budget, we must accept that the spending on infrastructure development, innovation, research and development, and education, including the changes to technical education, is designed to make our economy more competitive and to enable us to take the opportunities that will be presented when we are free of the EU and therefore able to make trade deals with countries across the world. It is wrong to say that the Budget did not mention, does not cater for, or does not acknowledge the challenges that we will face when we leave the EU.
There are several things in the Budget that I particularly welcome. I will not go into all of them in detail in the short time available to me, but we have raised “Making tax digital” with the Treasury on a number of occasions, and the line in Westminster Hall debates has been much harder than what was announced today. I am glad that the Chancellor has accepted that the strategy was going to create huge problems for many small businesses. I trust that the arguments for extending and delaying its introduction for one year will apply in future years because, as has been pointed out, many businesses do not have the necessary facilities or even access to the internet. They rely on accountants and would have found it either impossible or costly to meet the requirement.
I welcome the extra £200 million for innovative broadband initiatives. In rural areas such as my constituency, despite BT’s monopoly and the money that it has received, we still do not have proper broadband coverage. Indeed, innovation is sometimes stifled by BT’s monopoly and its control of the network. I hope that we will see innovation there.
I also welcome the £120 million that will be available to the Northern Ireland Executive. However, the attitude that Sinn Féin has adopted over the past couple of days means that anybody—including the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—who does not accede to what they want is accused of waffle; their members then walk out. If we do not get the Assembly up and running, will the money be held? I fear that it may be some time before the Executive are in a position to spend that money, so will interest be added to it?
The forecast for growth still heavily depends on consumer spending, which depends on consumer borrowing. By 2021, consumer borrowing will reach 153% of household income, and I have a problem with the Government here. I understand that they have to control public spending and borrowing, but why is it okay for growth to be fuelled by high levels of consumer debt? In fact, consumer debt is twice the level of Government debt as a percentage of GDP. Why is it okay for consumers to continue borrowing to fuel growth, but not for the Government to accept that there may be arguments, in a low-interest-rate regime, for marginal increases in spending on the plenty of good infrastructure projects that could provide a good return for the economy through increased productivity?