In his response to the Budget, the Leader of the Opposition set out an impressive list of spending commitments. Unfortunately, he ran out of time, so he was unable to spend much time on macroeconomic matters, wealth creation or setting out an alternative economic strategy.
The context of the Budget is that there are some good things in the economy. Growth has been better than many of us had expected, and better than most people forecast before the Brexit vote, were it to be a Brexit vote. The unemployment figures are singularly impressive: 2.6 million more jobs in the past seven years, one in five of them on zero-hours contracts, and the majority of those working part time do not wish to work full time. Inflation is up, and most economists say that a little bit of inflation is a good thing. The Government are prepared, quite rightly, to guarantee the triple lock on pensions only until 2020, because of their concern about intergenerational imbalance.
On the other side of the balance sheet, however, we have economic positives bought on a sea of debt. The Government have been spending money for the past seven years like a drunken sailor. The national debt has gone up almost 70% in the past seven years. We are still running a huge deficit on current expenditure, and the Government forecast that we will continue to do so. The Government have been sweating the infrastructure for the past seven years, so it is wearing out. We only need to look at all the potholes around the United Kingdom to see that.
The Government keep saying, “We are trying to cut debt for the benefit of the next generation,” when in fact they have loaded debt on the next generation—not only the national debt, which is up 70%, as I said, but student loans, which are a massive burden on the next generation, and of course the failure to address the market failure in housing across the United Kingdom has meant that the cost of renting or buying has shot up massively in the past seven years. Who does that hit the hardest? The next generation. It is nonsense to talk about lifting the economic burden on the next generation, because we have market failure.
Sammy Wilson said—to use my phrase, not his—that when we look at Brexit, we need to look at the silver linings: the things that we can do differently when we leave the European Union. There are some positives, and I say that as someone who thought we should remain in the European Union. We are not going to do so. Outside the European Union, we can adopt a more collectivist approach. We can have a bigger role for the state in our country. For example, we could have a state investment bank. In appropriate circumstances, the state could take equity stakes in our enterprises and could own patents—not just financing research and development, but owning patents—as a source of collective wealth for us in the future.
The Budget does not address the imbalances of wealth and power in our society, which is what Labour Members want to use the economic levers of the state to do. On wealth creation, which I mentioned earlier, we welcome the spending on productivity announced in the autumn statement and rehashed again today, but the state ought to take a stake in some of that investment in STEM matters. Similarly, on broadband, the Chancellor glibly trotted out his encouragement for 5G today, which sounds great. There is not yet even a standard on 5G, but the Government keep on banging on about it.
I welcome cutting down the number of skills qualifications from 13,000 or so to 15, because some of them, frankly, are Mickey Mouse qualifications. That continues the Government’s drive—their fetish—about having 3 million more apprenticeships. For many years, our country has been bad at workforce planning, as we can see in the NHS. Workforce planning in relation to skills for the future will be made worse by the Chancellor appropriating to himself powers over schools. We will have a worse school system in England, which will make skills provision and workforce planning worse.
The Budget totally failed to mention housing once not only in relation to its cost, but as a driver of economic growth and an investment for the future. We should allow councils to borrow to build council houses—a state-owned asset that provides a return for us all for the future, as well as better lives for people. We should look at rebalancing the economy away from London and the south-east, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend Diana Johnson, and we could do that with much better and targeted infrastructure spending.
On the taxation side, there were—as ever—many missed opportunities in this Budget. There will be fewer HMRC staff in fewer offices, which will increase the likelihood of tax avoidance continuing. We need stronger measures on financial wrongdoing—we have not had any—so that those doing wrong in the City go to prison; prison is the big disincentive. For example, wrongdoing in Mitie’s accounts has just been uncovered, which the Financial Reporting Council did nothing about.
We have missed the opportunity to address the whole structure—for the future, in a digital age—of taxation on businesses. We keep banging on about corporation tax, but the Chancellor should be investigating a turnover tax on business. Such a tax lessens the chance of tax avoidance. If it was done the right way, the Government could do away with business rates and corporation tax. If they wanted to be really inventive, they could even do away with employer’s national insurance contributions—a tax on job creation—and have a turnover tax, which is much fairer and taxes virtual companies, as well as bricks-and-mortar companies. It is not just me saying that from left field—I tell hon. Members that I am from left field—but the Federation of Small Businesses, which has floated the idea of a turnover tax in relation to business rates. We ought to align taxation for simplification purposes, so that instead of playing around—as the Chancellor did, with £2,500 or £5,000 on some dividend tax break—we should align the rate of tax on dividends with that on capital gains tax and income tax.
We should split up the banks that are too big to fail. The Chancellor has ducked that one; in fact, he is going into reverse and weakening financial protections for us all. The Government should have announced that they were abandoning the private finance initiative. They are still investing in these disastrous projects. These are missed opportunities for thinking big about the future, while in the context of Brexit—the whole world is going to change—the Chancellor is still looking backwards. He did not even mention Brexit because he just does not know what to do: he is a rabbit in the headlights.