Shadow Secretary of State, yes. I do not think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State requires any help in recovery. He is a formidable champion for business, as I know, sometimes to my cost, from my old job. He has been a brilliant exponent and driver of the enabling of the modernisation of the British industrial estate. I wish to pick up on one point made by the hon. Lady. She talked about the treatment of employees, the so-called “gig economy” and so on. My right hon. Friend was the one who brought us the Matthew Taylor report, with all of its innovative ideas to improve the protection of employees in our country and at the same time not destroy the jobs that they enjoy. That is pretty formidable in its own right, so I commend my right hon. Friend for that, although I do not intend to take us down that route today.
I have only three quick points to make. I shall be brisk and I probably will not take any interventions. Traditionally, the Budget is dominated by the technical metrics of growth rates, inflation rates, taxation, deficits, debt levels and spending. All those things are incredibly important issues. Indeed, one reason why it would be a disaster to have a Labour Government is that they would ignore all those things and deliver us into national bankruptcy, with the economic crisis and the social crisis that would follow. What is important is to understand that a Conservative Government do take all those things seriously, as they are the box in which we deliver the Budget. The Budget is about improving people’s lives and delivering the best outcome for our nation. As Conservatives, we believe in a narrative of a property owning democracy encompassing opportunity, personal responsibility, economic freedom, fairness and social mobility. For most of my colleagues, our view of the right sort of society for us is one where there is no limit to which anyone might rise and a limit beneath which no person may fall.
With that, I want to measure this Budget against the aspirations of our citizens: does it meet their aspirations to have a good university education; to get a job and build a meaningful career; to buy a home and raise a family? Those are aspirations that everyone shares, across the House and across the nation—we share them with all our constituents. Everyone should have the opportunity to pursue them.
All political parties talk a good story when they are trying to persuade people that they are on their side, but it is what Governments do, not what they say, that matters to the people. Nowhere is that more true than in the Budget; the language of public finance is the language of priorities, which is why this is so important. Starting with the definition of a decent society, both the ladder of opportunity and the social safety net are determined for the least well-off by the benefits system—by the welfare system. That is the key that underpins the opportunities and security for all the least well-off.
For decades, the British welfare system has been a nightmare of complexity in which hard work was in effect penalised, sometimes to the point of it being not worth while at all from an economic point of view, albeit that work is always worth while from a moral point of view. The coalition Government started the necessary reform by introducing the universal credit system. Much has been said about it—it has been controversial—but the whole system is a significant step in the right direction.
The tax credits and benefits system introduced by Gordon Brown all too often trapped people in a cycle of dependency, which was not unforeseeable. I was the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee when he introduced that system, which he copied from a system in America that was already failing, and it was clear what was going to happen. Many people who made the effort to go out and find work faced an effective tax and withdrawal rate of up to 95%.
A benefit system should seek to aid people’s return to work, not to trap them in unemployment. Universal credit seeks to correct that problem by helping more people into work and enabling them to keep more of what they earn, but it absolutely has to be properly funded. I therefore welcome the most important part of the Chancellor’s Budget: his announcement on universal credit. We must make sure that those in most need, including single parents—those who know me will know that single parents are of particular importance to me—couples without children, and those who should not be economically dependent on their partners, are not left wanting by subsequent changes. Universal credit will need further funding beyond what is promised in the Budget, and I shall certainly watch out for that. Nevertheless, the Chancellor has taken excellent action, for which I commend him.
The next most important way to help people make the most of their lives is through education and training, which the Secretary of State has been a great exponent of in his role. However, today, the cost of getting a university education, plus the confusion around financing, act as a disincentive to getting one. I am afraid the policy on student loans has failed. Almost half the loans will never be repaid. They are a falsehood in the national accounts. Crucially, the loans system has failed to deliver a market in university education—[Interruption.] Jonathan Reynolds should not be smiling: Labour basically invented the system and created the problems that I am about to talk about.
The loans system has failed to deliver a market in university education, with the least valuable courses at the worst universities costing precisely the same as the most valuable course at the most prestigious university. That is not a market. At least some of the money has gone not into world-class research but into overpaying some pretty second-rate vice-chancellors. The whole system needs to be revamped and turned into a proper graduate-contribution system with honest accounting, clear rules and no retrospective changes to the interest rates or other terms. In the long run, we should move away from loans all together; that would have a liberating psychological impact on young people.