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I have been engaged with Government Budgets for over two decades, either as an economics journalist, a political adviser or chief executive of the British Bankers Association, but this is my first speech in the Second Reading of a Finance Bill, and it is almost certainly the most surreal that I will ever make—not just because this debate was virtually entirely virtual, but also because many of the measures announced in the Budget, as well as the fiscal projections, have been overtaken by events.
Since the Chancellor made his Budget speech, he has announced the most comprehensive and generous package of measures to support businesses and individuals that any industrial country has made in this crisis. As someone who has in the past been involved with launching business support schemes throughout the banking sector, I have to say that I am amazed by the speed at which these packages have been launched. The Chancellor and his Treasury team, including the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend John Glen, have packed years’ worth of work into weeks. It is an extraordinary achievement, but I still share the frustrations of others that the banks have not quite stepped up to the plate; things are moving faster now, I hope.
Many of my constituents—individuals and companies—are really hurting, but many are also really appreciating the support that the Government are giving. I think we all appreciate the new announcement today of the bounce-back loans, which should really help the smallest businesses to get quick access to the financing that they desperately need.
But even with all the support, the economic damage caused by this lockdown is deep. Some forecasters are predicting the sharpest recession for a century or more. As the Chancellor has made clear, he cannot save every business and every job, but with this package of measures, most of the productive capacity of the economy should be preserved for when the economy bounces back, which it surely will. We do not know how long the lockdown will last or to what degree it will cause permanent damage, but we do know that the UK and most other developed countries will be left with vastly bigger national debts.
The Office for Budget Responsibility, in what was widely deemed an optimistic scenario, said that the national debt could rise to as much as 100% of GDP. That is why I wanted to speak tonight—to touch on our longer-term economic strategy. How do we deal with this huge public debt? What impact will it have on the Government’s other plans, such as investing in infrastructure, levelling up and becoming carbon neutral?
I have long been a believer in sound finance—that we should all strive, in the long term, to live within our means. There is an intergenerational unfairness in one generation passing on their debts to another. I believe in fixing the roof when the sun is shining, but we are in the middle of the worst hurricane for a generation and the roof has been blown off.
It is absolutely right that the Government are being so generous in support of the economy, but how do we deal with the inevitable growth in national debt? The traditional answer to that question is to raise taxes or cut expenditure, or a mixture of both, but we have just had roughly a decade of so-called austerity that was necessary to reduce the huge annual budget deficit—getting the Government to live more within their means, and starting to patch up the roof. But I think even the strongest advocates of austerity would agree that there will be very limited public appetite for another wave of it, and big question marks about the impact on growth.
When it comes to raising taxes, there are also limits. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s recent Budget forecast, taxation is already heading to its highest level for 50 years. We know from decades of economic evidence that the risk of raising it further is that that slows economic growth, and that will make the national debt less affordable.
There is another solution: go for growth. The national debt is large, but interest rates are so low that it is actually surprisingly affordable. The debt interest to revenue ratio is below 4%, and at the time of the Budget it was predicted to carry on falling. If there was ever a time for a country to reconcile itself to high debt, it is after an historic economic crisis, with historically cheap borrowing costs. The national debt is a ratio of absolute debt to GDP. We might not be able to get the national debt down that much in absolute terms, but an alternative is to focus on growing GDP. That will steadily make the national debt more affordable. If the GDP growth is higher than the budget deficit, the national debt will go down.
After the economic shock we have had, we need a determined national focus on growth. We need to fire up the engines of the national economy. That means pursuing supply-side reforms, supporting free enterprise, taking advantage of some of the opportunities we have from leaving the EU, and pursuing trade and innovation. Despite the crisis, we still have dynamic growth sectors such as fintech and biotech—as we have in South Cambridgeshire, where we are in many ways world leading. We must promote them. We are combating the coronavirus crisis now, and soon we will have to deal with the consequences. This ambitious Budget is a good place to start. I commend it to the House.