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Budgets must take account of immediate circumstances, but they must also address the pattern of trends that shape our economy and fashion our society. Given what we know now, few will argue with the Chancellor’s bold action, in an attempt to stabilise an economy rocked with the uncertainty of the coronavirus. His comprehensive, generous and tailored stimulus, totalling £30 billion, will strengthen the safety net that our welfare system needs and bolster our precious health service. Businesses, too, will receive the support they need to get through these difficult times. The instability and uncertainty that fear spawns is bound to create an economic shock, and it is right that the Chancellor has responded to it.
The Chancellor’s commitment to support workers, including the self-employed and those on zero-hours contracts, is welcome and virtuous, and I want to say a bit more about that later. The creation of a hardship fund, coupled with his pledge to refund statutory sick pay for small firms, will enable ordinary businesses to prevail and flourish in the face of this uncertainty. This pragmatic, sensible and ambitious Budget should embolden us, confident that, as he said, he will take whatever steps necessary to guarantee our national interest and the common good.
This is a time, by nature, for leadership and unity, for let there be no doubt that there will be foreign powers who can—and, because they can, will—leverage instability caused by the virus to their own advantage. As the President of the United States has made clear, it is pivotal to examine further the behaviour of the Chinese state—whom the western economies are not only affected by but, to some degree, dependent upon—regarding their transparency throughout this crisis. The Chancellor is right: this Budget provides security and lays the foundations for prosperity in the future.
While it is laudable to be responsive, beyond the immediate circumstances we face, we must address some of the suffocating facts in our society. There is too much societal emphasis in our time on the immediate and the trivial—at worst, the facile and the brutal. In happy contrast, it is good to see a Budget that is holistic, measured, serious and sustainable. First and foremost, it is strategic. One of the problems in democratic polities is that Governments are, by the nature of the five-year terms they serve, often tempted to do things that deliver a short-term payback and thereby neglect those things that are strategic and infrastructural. That cannot be said of this Government and this Budget—rather, the opposite. The Government have taken a long-term strategic view, and that is certainly to be welcomed.
The investment in road and rail is, of course, welcome. It builds on the road investment strategy, which I was happy to launch when I was Minister for Transport. It is vital because the connectivity of our country is the lifeblood of local economies as the way that people get to work and the way they move goods are critical.
It is also important to note that the Chancellor is investing in skills, as Kate Green said, although there are question marks about intermediate level skills. I would simply amplify the remarks she made. There are also issues about the effect of the apprenticeship levy and its unintended consequences. However, the investment in skills, through the extra support for further education, will allow us to build a workforce fit for the future.
A lot is said about capital, but too little is said about human capital. Unless we invest in the human infrastructure necessary to deliver those ambitious plans, they will not work. We need people to engineer, to design, to project manage and to deliver those big infrastructure projects, and further education and skills lie at the heart of all that.
Research and development funding is also welcome. However, I have three words of warning about research and investment for the Financial Secretary, which I know he will address with his usual diligence when he sums up. The first is that risky development is all very well, but what we actually want is bold investment that is mindful of risk. Secondly, we need to avoid the bureaucracy that is often associated with Government funding. Finally, that kind of investment also has to be long term, because the sort of projects that innovate require people to commit to them—and, by the way, to be attracted to the relevant science and innovation—over an extended period. So, long-term funding, funding that is tailored and measured, and funding that is not bound up with bureaucracy all become critical.
Furthermore, we have to address the issue of job insecurity and the character of the employment we are creating. It is really important to grasp that societal solidarity is framed by people having a sense of self-worth that comes from having a sense of purpose. It is not enough just to have jobs; we have to have jobs that are meaningful. We have to believe again in the nobility of labour. We have to understand that people’s wellbeing is in part fuelled by their sense that they are making a difference over the long term by employing their skills in a virtuous purpose. That may sound rather like an emulation of the sentiments of William Morris, but I make no apologies for emulating that great man because I have reservations about the gig economy and some of the job insecurity to which it has given rise.
Finally, let me say a word about globalisation. A few years ago, it was heralded as a great virtue, but now the support we have given for small business could and can be the beginning of a reappraisal of what really matters in the economy. I believe it is the particular and the local—shorter supply chains and facing up to the downsides of globalisation—that lies at the heart of protecting the national interest and delivering the common good. That is precisely what this Budget begins and what the Government should do.