Like other advanced economies, the UK is affected by global economic challenges, including the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine. As the Chancellor said a few weeks ago,
“A perfect storm of global supply shocks is rolling through our economy simultaneously.”
At the same time, the impact from the wind-down of the national covid testing scheme is dragging on UK GDP data. Overall, the figures for April, published by the Office for National Statistics this morning, show that output fell by 0.3% on the month, with the services sector falling by 0.2%, and production and construction declining by 0.6% and 0.4% respectively. As the ONS notes, the fall in GDP on the month is driven by the impact of the wind-down of the NHS covid testing programme. Testing volumes fell by 70% from March to April, which, alongside the impact from vaccines, detracted 0.5 percentage points from GDP growth in April. Looking through the impact of falling tests, we see that the rest of the economy actually grew by 0.1%. Importantly, GDP is still 0.9% above pre-pandemic levels, and support provided over the past two years has put the UK economy in a good position to deal with any economic headwinds, with record numbers of employees on payrolls and a strong economic recovery from the pandemic.
As the Chancellor has also said:
“The next few months will be tough. But where we can act, we will.”
The Government are taking significant action to support households this year, having announced an additional £15 billion of further support for households just over a fortnight ago, on top of the £22 billion announced at the spring statement. In the longer term, the Chancellor has set out his vision for a lower tax, higher growth, higher productivity economy based on the three pillars of capital, people and ideas. The plan for growth and the tax plan represent an ambitious strategy for boosting growth and productivity in the years ahead. The Government’s priority going forward is to put those into effect, including through significant investment in infrastructure, skills and innovation.
We will of course keep the data under close review, and that includes monitoring the economic impact of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, but our focus will continue to be on the best solution for all: a growing economy that supports high-wage, high-skilled jobs.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. GDP down 0.3% in April. A fall of 0.1% in March. Services down 0.3%. Production down 0.6%. Construction down 0.4%. Inflation at 9%. Tax promises broken. The trade deficit at £24 billion. The pound falling against the dollar. The director general of the CBI saying business leaders are “in despair”. The OECD forecasting that, next year, the UK will have the lowest growth of any G20 economy, with the sole exception of—Russia.
That is what the Government are presiding over. Britain is going backwards under the Conservatives. Our businesses, universities and people are all great, but they do not have the partner they need in this Government. The chaos is affecting more and more areas of life: passports, driving licences, GP appointments, A&E waiting times, airports and delays in court trials. Time after time what we used to take for granted is now another feature of Boris Johnson’s backlog Britain.
Those on the Government Benches had a chance to change direction last week. They had a chance to install new leadership that might have given us some hope of a greater sense of grip on all this. But what did they do? They decided that the best person to turn the economy round, to sort out the chaos and the backlogs, and to bring the qualities of focus, attention to detail and sustained delivery to these matters was the current Prime Minister. That was the judgment they made.
The question for the Minister today is simple: after making that judgment—I do not know what he did, but that was the collective judgment—and choosing to continue with the leadership that brought us here, what will the Government do now to turn matters around, and why on earth should anyone believe that the result will be different from what went before?
As ever, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I do not accept his characterisation of the situation. What I said in my response to him was that today’s data point can be explained by the specific impact of the rapid fall-off in the testing programme. Mass testing ended on
The Chancellor has been clear in his long-term plan for growth and in his Mais lecture that the Government are committed to investing in research and development, investing in infrastructure and looking at how we can adjust the fiscal burden for business, in particular, to enable that growth to happen. Of course, in subsequent fiscal events, those options remain open to him.
Why are the UK Government the only Government of an advanced country making a big increase in the tax burden this year and next, at exactly the same time as we are seeing very necessary monetary tightening to control inflation and a huge hit to net incomes from that inflation itself? Is that big tax rise not bound to make things worse and slow the economy too much?
We always listen carefully to my right hon. Friend. As he will know, we cut taxes earlier this year for hundreds of thousands of businesses though an increase in the employment allowance. We have also slashed fuel duty and halved business rates for eligible high street firms. We will continue to support growth through tax incentives, including the annual investment allowance and the super deduction—the biggest two-year business cuts in modern British history.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
It is interesting that the Minister talks about the covid testing scheme. Is it perhaps the case that the covid testing scheme is artificially inflating GDP, rather than the opposite way around? The UK is lagging behind every single OECD country apart from Russia. Manufacturing, construction and services are all suffering. That has all been made worse by a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for.
British Chambers of Commerce research shows that input inflation is running at 17%. Businesses simply cannot afford to absorb those costs when faced with increased energy prices with no additional support, employee costs through the national insurance tax hike—a tax on jobs—and wage pressures, so will he provide extra support to businesses to protect them and their consumers through this period, or will he wait until these additional costs in the supply chain are further passed on to the already struggling consumer? How does he expect people to eat when food prices are soaring, and for manufacturers to make things in factories when they cannot afford to get the goods to produce them never mind get them out into the shops and have people buy them?
Most people across the country will be very grateful to the Prime Minister for the judgments made on the vaccine roll-out and on the testing regime that followed. Quite obviously, given the scale of that intervention, it was going to have a significant impact on the economy and the growth figures overall. The Government have never been complacent about the impact of the inflation levels on the people of this country. That is why just two weeks ago the Chancellor introduced a significant package of interventions in a number of dimensions that focused on the most vulnerable—those who will not be able to earn more, particularly those on means-tested benefits, the disabled and universal additional support for pensioners. Respectfully, I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation of how the Government have handled the situation, but those are the facts, as she well knows.
The Minister will be acutely aware of the perfect storm of inflation and surging energy costs, which UKHospitality warned about just last week. Kate Nicholls warned that the sector is facing as big a crisis, if not bigger, than there was during the pandemic. One suggestion is for a temporary reduction in VAT on business energy bills from 20% to 5%. Is the Treasury is tempted by that idea to stave off what could otherwise be significant job losses in the sector?
My hon. Friend always makes constructive suggestions. He will be aware of the interventions that have already been made, including the cut on VAT on energy efficiency measures, equivalent to £240 million, as well as the £6.7 billion of investment across this Parliament in energy efficiency measures. None the less, he makes a reasonable point and I am very happy to follow it up with him and discuss it further as we construct that set of interventions in the autumn.
It is, I think, clear that, as anticipated, we are starting to see an economic penalty from the new barriers to our trade with the European Union. Does the Minister agree that we need to work hard to improve relations with the EU with a view to reducing some of the barriers that are causing problems for us?
Absolutely. We must always, with all our trading partners, seek to develop the best possible relationships. That has been my objective in conversations that I have had on visits to Berlin, Luxembourg, Madrid and the US over the past six months on financial services and as regards the work that the right hon. Gentleman is undertaking as we advance the conversation with the Swiss on the mutual recognition agreement. I was there last week to build on that. It is absolutely right that we build those trading relationships in goods and services across the globe in markets that are mature and in those that are yet to develop fully.
With the largest ever research and development budget, the Government are securing the UK’s status as a science superpower. Does my hon. Friend agree that when it comes to growth that status is vital in making sure that we attract high-skilled, high-paid jobs? Does he also agree that locating the Advanced Research and Invention Agency in the west midlands will allow the west midlands to lead the growth that the UK needs and deserves?
My hon. Friend predictably, and reasonably, makes a plea for investment to be located in his constituency, but he also draws attention to the significant investment of £20 billion in R&D by 2024-25. He is right to stress that to get a high-productivity, faster-growing economy we need to make those sorts of strategic investments and build on what we have already done. I will look constructively at his suggestion about his constituency and region.
Figures published recently by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs show that the number of UK businesses exporting goods to the European Union fell by an astonishing 33% between 2020 and 2021. Do the Government recognise that the cost, bureaucracy and paperwork that they have imposed on businesses, particularly small ones, are the principal cause of that loss of export opportunities for British firms?
No, I do not. I accept that that was a challenging period for economies everywhere. There was a period of adjustment, and the Government will be working in a co-ordinated fashion to remove any frictions and to ease the passage of trade, particularly for smaller businesses.
Much of the discussion in the House today has been about the fiscal aspects of inflation, but a huge part of the rise in inflation in this country and across the western world is the monetary system, in particular quantitative easing, which has continued long beyond the financial crisis, when it was put in place. We all know the Bank of England is independent in setting interest rates, but what is the Treasury’s view on working with the Bank of England to bring down inflation, bearing in mind the significant impact that quantitative easing has had on that? Will the Minister say a bit more about that?
As hon. Members would expect, the Treasury has a strong and frequent dialogue with different members of the Bank of England and deputy governors. However, our main inflation tools for an independent monetary policy—fiscal responsibility and supply-side activism—will remain the best weaponry for dealing with the challenges we face, and we will work in a co-ordinated fashion with an independent Bank of England to address those pressures.
Today’s figures should be a wake-up call to the Government. Instead of reciting a list of events that are affecting other countries across the world and being better dealt with by other Governments in the G7, do the Government not recognise that the time has come to change direction? They must get away from the massive tax hikes that are pulling the squeezed middle into debt and creating misery across this country—tax hikes that include the £11 billion national insurance hike, which was wiped out by the Government’s own incompetence in not insuring against the money created for quantitative easing. Will the Government recognise that they are getting it wrong and, instead of making excuses, act to change things?
The Government will always look constructively at all the options. In light of the representations made across this House and across the country for more interventions to support those facing increases in the cost of energy at home, we made those interventions. The Chancellor has made clear that we will reform and cut taxes on investment in the autumn to spur that growth and productivity, and we are working closely with industry on the best possible way to make those interventions.
Like most MPs, in my constituency I have businesses that the Government spent billions of pounds supporting through the pandemic that are now incredibly stressed by the current conditions. Most understand that the state cannot fix everything; they are looking at wider options and not expecting hand-outs. UK hospitality businesses are asking the Government to look at pausing green levies for businesses to relieve energy cost pressures, as other countries are doing or are considering. Will my hon. Friend say more about what the Treasury are looking at in that regard and whether that is something they are seriously considering?
In Gloucestershire, as across the country, we remain focused on the challenges facing both small and large businesses. As my hon. Friend mentions, during the pandemic we made a number of sector-specific interventions for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, which will continue to benefit from the business rates holidays. We are keen to ensure, however, that we achieve better productivity, with more investment in capital, in ideas and in measures that will lift us to a new level of growth. That means interventions across the whole economy.
In the past week or so I have been contacted by a number of community nurses at their wits’ end because it is costing them more to travel to see patients than they can claim back in mileage allowance, and they are not alone—taxi drivers, couriers and others, such as domiciliary care workers, are struggling because of the surge in fuel costs. The Government have already taken 5p off fuel duty, but given that they have raked in far more in increased VAT receipts since then, how much more has the Treasury recovered in VAT receipts this year?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that figure at the Dispatch Box at this point, but we have introduced timely, temporary and targeted interventions. We recognise with a real sense of empathy the fact that people will be struggling. We have been very clear from the time we made this series of announcements and over the past six months that we will not be able to ameliorate the impact of every single additional cost. The key intervention we need to make is to encourage that growth and productivity in the economy in the context of fiscal responsibility and the commitments we have made to intervene so far.
My right hon. Friend has rightly spoken about the importance of growth in bringing together people, capital and ideas, but there is a fourth element, which is regulation. What Conservatives want to see is a comprehensive Government strategy for light-touch, pro-growth deregulation. Can he tell me what he is doing in his Department to set an example to other Departments of achieving better regulation that will support growth?
Yes, I can. In a few weeks’ time I shall introduce to the House a financial services and markets Bill that will fundamentally reset the way that our financial services industry, which constitutes 10% of the economy, will be regulated into the future. That will be underpinned by strong, independent world-class regulators in the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority, but with an obligation to look at competitiveness and global growth as a secondary objective. That is absolutely imperative. We must make sure that we have an economy that takes account of what is going on elsewhere and regulates accordingly.
In the coalition years, we heard from the Government about rebalancing the economy, and under Chancellor Osborne and the northern powerhouse, we were told that we were going to see the proceeds of growth fairly shared across the country. Will the Minister say something about the flagship levelling-up agenda, how it will be implemented when we face a no-growth economy, and whether the levelling-up agenda will really mean levelling down for everybody?
No, it will not. It will involve targeted investments across the country in schemes that will give us a lift in productivity and address the fact that under previous Governments, despite all the rhetoric, there was not that reset in investment across other parts of the country and we did not see the level of growth that was anticipated.
I am grateful to the Treasury for the £77 billion package of support that will stand alongside hard-pressed families and drive the growth that we need to see. But as I drove into central London this morning I saw fuel prices cheaper than where I live in Brecon. Rural fuel costs are simply horrendous, and with next to no public transport, that is really hampering growth in rural areas. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Treasury will continue to monitor that aggressively?
Absolutely we will. It is very concerning that we are not seeing the savings passed on and we will continue to look very carefully at what is happening.
The Minister has tried to explain away today’s disastrous figures by suggesting that it is mainly to do with the winding down of mass covid testing. That stretches credulity. Today the Office for National Statistics said:
“All main sectors contributed negatively to growth in April 2022”.
Does that not show that the problem is much more widespread than the Government are prepared to accept?
No, I think there is a pretty clear consensus that the rapid wind-down of the testing had a significant effect—around 0.5% of GDP. If that had not happened, we would have seen very modest growth during this past month.
A recent report shows that Stoke-on-Trent is set to grow jobs third-fastest, so does my hon. Friend agree that the record of this Government economically should be judged by our jobs miracle and in particular our efforts to level up our whole country with better skills and better paid employment right across it?
Absolutely. It is clear we are seeing the best unemployment figures for well over a generation. It is very pleasing to see the impact that is having on constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend. It is important that we build on that and look to increase that investment to get businesses investing in new capital and more productive jobs to increase productivity in the economy as a whole.
The Minister has already conceded that the Treasury wants to reduce friction with our European trading partners—that is the right thing to do—but can he tell the House whether Treasury policy agrees that this is the right time to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol and risk a trade war with Europe?
Clearly in different markets there will be different challenges. We must make sure that we have a deep dialogue and look to find consensus. Where we cannot, we must take action.
Does the Minister accept that one of the problems in lots of sectors is that they simply have not got enough staff to employ, let alone staff with the right skills? For instance, in the construction industry, there are projects on hold because they cannot get enough construction workers. We have farmers ploughing onions back into the fields, because they do not have enough people to harvest them. Last year, 25% of British strawberries did not get picked. We have bars, hotels and restaurants failing to open full-time because they do not have enough staff. How do we make sure that we have the staff—the workers—to be able to grow the economy?
The hon. Gentleman will also know that the Government invested in a seasonal workers scheme for 30,000 across agriculture, which has made a significant impact. We will continue to work with industry to see what further interventions can be made and need to be made.
Cuts to VAT on fuel duty are now beyond urgent. Some £46 of tax is paid on the average fuel tank, as fuel prices rocket to new highs. As households and businesses struggle, the Treasury is raking in additional billions in VAT on fuel, which is driving inflation across the whole economy. Finally, can we at last have a temporary 10% reduction in VAT on fuel to assist households, businesses and consumers and to help get inflation back under some kind of control, which will help everyone?
The hon. Lady will know that just two weeks ago, the Chancellor came to this Dispatch Box and made a series of targeted interventions, in a greater way than many were calling for, to give assistance to the most vulnerable in our society—to pensioners, to those on means-tested benefits and to the disabled—with more support for pensioners on top of that. She will also know that as we approach the fiscal event, we will look at the state of the economy and the best possible interventions to assist not only that growth narrative, but the most vulnerable.
It does not shock me that the Labour party uses any opportunity it has to come in here and bash Britain and sneer at places such as Stoke-on-Trent. It is thanks to this Conservative Government and a Conservative-led council that thousands of new jobs have been created through the successful Ceramics Valley enterprise zone. We also have the 500 new Home Office jobs and up to 1,700 new jobs thanks to the Kidsgrove town deal. Does the Minister agree that it is this Government who are putting places such as Stoke-on-Trent firmly on the map?
I do not think Stoke-on-Trent could have a better advocate than my hon. Friend, with his passionate desire to highlight the successes going on in his constituency. I absolutely agree that it is that positivity, and focusing on interventions that make a real difference to people who live in his community, that people will remember as we move forward.
I thank the Minister for his answers. In Strangford, small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of our society. Some of them are crumbling at present due to high transport costs, which are heightened in Northern Ireland due to the Northern Ireland protocol. Can he confirm whether the Chancellor and the Treasury will follow other nations in substantially reducing fuel duty to aid transport costs as well as disposable incomes for families, so that money can go back into the local economy and everyone will gain?
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about the challenges facing the rural economy, of which I know that he has great personal experience and experience in his constituency. That is why, as we made clear, there will be an additional £500 million to supplement the household support fund and bring it to a total of £1.5 billion, so that local authorities can give additional money to those most affected where existing measures have not been helpful.