Budget Resolutions - Income Tax (Charge)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:59 pm on 1st November 2018.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Father of the House of Commons 12:59 pm, 1st November 2018

I have listened to many Budget speeches but when I listened to this year’s I was taken by surprise, in a rather cheering way. I came here expecting that we were going to hear how the Chancellor had solved the problem of raising some taxation to help pay for the very welcome £200 billion given to the NHS. I sat there listening to him deliver an excellent speech, cutting taxation and increasing public expenditure. It was an open and expansive Budget based on a courageous Budget judgment that I had not seen coming—I welcome that and wish it every success. It was of course based on spending all the unexpected surprise of the extra tax revenues that the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts had produced—or had already delivered—and on spending everything anticipated in the forecasts in order to keep us on track to eliminate debt.

I welcome bold decisions, and I hope this one succeeds, but I am afraid I am going to express a little caution, as someone needs to, even in the Chamber of the House of Commons. I have seen many Budgets and the reaction is quite predictable: all my right hon. and hon. Friends have joined in welcoming every piece of good news, as I do. The money for health and social care was very much needed, and I welcome what has been done for small businesses and city centres—I could go on, but my seven minutes does not allow me to cover all the good news in the Budget. But somebody has to express caution, but I do not do so as a party pooper; I am not going in for all the gloom and foreboding of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Standard & Poor’s, the rating agency. But as the Labour Opposition are in my personal opinion so completely useless on an occasion like this—all they do is greet an expansive and popular Budget by saying, “Oh, it’s nothing compared with the vast sums we would spend in future”—it is probably as well that we do express some caution.

All I would like is for my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary, who I believe is going to wind up the debate, to reassure me that we are proceeding with some care. Many political judgments involve taking risks. Very few political judgments and policy judgments give an obvious answer, which is fine. A courageous Minister takes some of those risks, but they do have to be aware of them and to anticipate what they would do if they started to materialise, and I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to do that.

The reasons for my reservations are, simply expressed, that the very welcome news about the tax revenues recently may not last. We have had windfall revenues in the past, and nobody quite understands why we have these windfalls now, so I think a little caution is called for before we start anticipating that they are going to carry on in that way.

As for forecasts, I never spent the money in forecasts, because all economic forecasting, at any time, is extremely fallible and extremely difficult. I do not think I know of a time when it has been more impossible than now. I have only seven minutes, so I am not going to be able to dilate about Mr Trump’s trade wars, problems of Chinese debt, the emerging problems in many emerging markets, the reckless nature of the Italian Government they have elected and, above all, the uncertainty of Brexit, which dominates us. All this makes the task of economic forecasting almost impossible, so we should not spend the money it looks as though we might be getting without having at the back of our minds some idea of what we are going to do if it does not work out.