– in the House of Commons at 12:45 pm on 31st January 2023.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on the International Monetary Fund world economic outlook.
This Government have three economic priorities; our plan for this year is to halve inflation, grow the economy and get debt falling. It is a plan that will alleviate the pressure on businesses and families today, and equip us to become one of the most prosperous countries in Europe. As the International Monetary Fund said in its press conference today, it thinks that the UK is “on the right track'”. It also said that the UK had done well in the last year, with growth revised upwards to 4.1%, which is one of the highest growth rates in Europe for 2022. Since 2010, the UK has grown faster than France, Japan and Italy. Since the European Union referendum, we have grown at about the same rate as Germany. Our cumulative growth over the 2022 to 2024 period is predicted to be higher than that of Germany and Japan, and at a similar rate to that of the United States of America. The Governor of the Bank of England has said that any UK recession this year is likely to be shallower than previously predicted.
The actions we are taking, from unleashing innovation across artificial intelligence, financial services and a host of other sectors, to improving technical education and protecting infrastructure investment, will spur and fuel economic growth in the years to come, benefiting industry and communities alike. However, the figures from the IMF confirm that we are not immune to the pressures hitting nearly all advanced economies. We agree with the IMF’s focus on the high level of inflation in our country, which is why this is our first priority. Inflation is the most insidious tax rise there is, and so the best tax cut now is reducing inflation. That will help families across the country with the cost of living. As the Chancellor has said, short-term challenges, especially ones we are focused on tackling, should not obscure our long-term forecasts. If we stick to our plan to halve inflation, the UK is still predicted to grow faster than Germany and Japan over the coming years. That will help us deliver a stronger economy, one that is growing faster and where everywhere across our country people have opportunities for better-paying, good jobs. That is what the people in this country expect and what we are working tirelessly to deliver.
Britain has huge potential, but 13 years of Tory failure has been a drag anchor on our prosperity. Today’s IMF assessment holds a mirror up to the wasted opportunities, and it is not a pretty sight: the UK is the only major economy forecast to shrink this year, with weaker growth compared with our competitors for both of the next two years. The world upgraded, but Britain downgraded, with growth even worse than sanctions-hit Russia. The IMF chief economist singles out higher mortgage rates as a reason for Britain’s poor performance. The Tory mortgage penalty is devastating family finances and holding back our economy. British businesses are paying the price for the gaping holes in the Tories’ Brexit deal. It will fall to Labour to clean up this mess.
If the Chancellor had ideas, answers or courage, he would be here today, but he is not. The question the people of our country are now asking is: are me and my family better off after 13 years of Conservative government? The answer is no and, as the IMF showed today, it does not have to be this way. I am sure the Minister will clutch at straws and say that everything is fine or that the IMF forecasts are just wrong, but can he explain why the UK is still the only G7 economy that is smaller now than it was before the pandemic? Why is the UK the only G7 economy with its growth forecast downgraded this year? Why are we at the bottom of the league table both this year and next year? Can the Minister answer this: why should anyone trust the Conservatives with the economy ever again?
The right hon. Lady talks about 13 years of failure. Let me just repeat the facts of the matter. Since 2010, the UK has grown faster than France, Japan and Italy. She talks about the next two years. As I have said, the forecast from the IMF says:
“Cumulative growth over the 2022-24 period is predicted to be higher— in the UK—
“than in Germany and Japan, and at a similar rate to the US.”
I am grateful to the shadow Chancellor for quoting the IMF, because I, too, wish to quote the IMF. Let us go to the IMF press conference at about 3am this morning, which, Mr Speaker, I am sure you were eagerly watching, and quote the economic counsellor Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas who said:
“Let’s start with the good news: the UK economy has actually done relatively well in the last year. We’ve revised”— growth—
“upwards to 4.1%...that’s one of the highest growth rates in Europe, in that region, for that year”—
The shadow Chancellor did make a passing reference to the pandemic, but it is usually Labour’s habit to airbrush out of history completely the fact that we as a Government have overseen two of the greatest challenges in the country’s history: a pandemic followed by the invasion of Ukraine. [Interruption.] I know why the shadow Chancellor does not want to talk about the pandemic. Back in December 2021, when the Labour Welsh Administration wanted to lock down in the face of omicron, we took the brave decision as a Government not to lock down in England. Let us remember what the shadow Health and Social Care Secretary said at the time. He said that plan B was “insufficient” and that there were additional measures that were “necessary”. Labour would have kept us locked down for longer. We took the decision to keep our country open. We did so because of the vaccine that we brought forward, which is something that Labour would not have done.
The crucial issue, as I said, is bearing down on inflation, which will give us the best chance of restoring sustainable growth. A key facet of dealing with inflation is fiscal discipline. We have heard from the shadow Chancellor recently that Labour is suddenly the party of sound money. Since the speech—I think it was two weeks ago—in which the leader of the Labour party promised to put away the great big Government cheque book, Labour has made £45 billion of unfunded spending commitments. We all know where that ends. Labour starts writing blank cheques, and it ends with a letter from its Chief Secretary to the Treasury to the rest of the country saying, “There’s no money left.”
I call the Chair of the Treasury Committee.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to reflect on last year when, despite the headwinds of the coronavirus, the invasion of Ukraine, huge hikes in energy costs, rising interest rates and high inflation in this country, UK businesses managed to generate more than 4.1% of economic growth—twice that of the United States, 25% higher than China, and higher than the eurozone?
The Chair of the Select Committee is spot on. Instead of talking down our economy, she makes the key point that, despite all those challenges, we had strong growth last year because of British enterprise. That is why, on Friday, the Chancellor, himself a former entrepreneur—there are not many of those on the Opposition Benches—said that we will back advanced manufacturing in the high-growth sectors to ensure that we continue to live with that level of growth in the future.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
I suppose that it is apposite that there is an urgent question on a potential recession on the third anniversary of Brexit.
The IMF has said that the economy of the UK—the only G7 country facing recession—would face a downgrade reflecting, it says, tighter fiscal and monetary policies and the still high energy retail prices weighing on household budgets. There is no getting away from it: with even sanctioned Russia forecast to grow, that is a gloomy prognosis. Given that the Government expect to meet their own new fiscal rule on public sector net debt by a paltry £9 billion in 2027-28, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Government’s own strictures mean that there is no fiscal headroom to provide more support. Is this not the time, therefore, to reduce the energy companies’ investment allowance, which allows them to reduce the tax that they pay by 91p in the pound, to start to generate a meaningful windfall tax that is required to further support households and small and medium-sized enterprises—two of the main drivers of the IMF forecast for the economy—which will otherwise see their energy costs rocket this year?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about tight fiscal monetary policy. We are faced with inflation; it is higher in the UK than in 14 countries in the EU. Inflation is a global challenge, so he is right: we do need to have that stance. Obviously, we want to get inflation down. The cost of energy bills is precisely why, this winter, a typical household in the United Kingdom will have received £1,300 of support, £1,400 in cost of living payments, and the energy price guarantee, estimated by the OBR to be worth £900 for the typical household. That support is provided to every single part of the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman’s specific suggestion—to be fair, he is making a specific fiscal proposal in relation to the allowance—will hurt one particular sector: the North sea and investment in UK energy. Does he know what the long-term answer to this is? It is not supporting families—we are doing that very generously at the moment—but energy security, investing in nuclear and in the North sea as part of our transition to net zero.
If the Minister is not able to share with the House the advice he has received from the Opposition on how they will reduce public spending and taxation if they ever form a Government, will he at least accept my advice that the message from successful enterprise economies is that we must have a credible plan to reduce corporation tax and regulation on business?
With great respect to my right hon. Friend, who is very consistent on such points, I am bound to point out that, even with the forecast increases, corporation tax will still be the lowest in the G7 headline rates, and, of course, roughly 70% of businesses do not pay that higher rate because of the small business rate that pertains. I have not received any representations from the Opposition, other than a pledge for sound money from a party, which, since promising to put away the great big Government cheque book, has announced almost £50 billion of unfunded spending commitments.
Despite the Minister’s bluster, the Government Benches are empty. Conservative Members have not come to the Chamber in large numbers to defend the Government’s economic results, because the IMF forecast is devastating, as it lays bare the economic incompetence of this Government. Sanctioned Russia is still doing better than we are. This Government are unfit to run the economy, as unfit as those on the Treasury Bench are to be in the Treasury.
I am pleased to say that there is very colourful support on our Back Benches today. I am sure that there will further pertinent and brilliant questions to come. The hon. Lady quotes the IMF, but I simply reiterate what its economic counsellor said this morning about the UK. He said:
“Let’s start with the good news: the UK economy has actually done relatively well in the last year. We’ve revised”— growth—
“upwards to 4.1%...that’s one of the highest growth rates in Europe”.
That is exactly what the IMF said.
What should the IMF make of our burgeoning £65 billion trade surplus in financial services?
The IMF always stresses the importance of sustainable growth. It is sustainable growth that matters, and, of course, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: exports are crucial to that. The City and financial services are a massive UK success story. We want to build on that, which is why we have announced the Edinburgh reforms and further measures to strengthen UK financial services. We are quite clear that the future for this country is optimistic and we will get there by backing brilliant British business.
The Minister talks about covid as if we were the only country to experience the pandemic. He talks about the Ukraine crisis as if the fuel costs are affecting only this country, but he fails to mention that the former Prime Minister and her Chancellor crashed the economy, and that that came on top of the uncertainties of the previous years, including the failure to get a decent deal after Brexit, which led to a 4% hit on UK output. That is £55 billion of fiscal consolidation because of the failure of his Government. When will he admit to that and face up to reality instead of misleading the British people?
On the contrary, the whole point of why we mention the pandemic is not to say that we are the only country affected, but to explain the global headwinds that we face as a country. The hon. Lady talks about energy costs, but the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast is that the energy price guarantee will reduce the peak of inflation in this country by 2.5%. Inflation is an issue and it is global, but we are taking strong measures to ensure we deliver the Prime Minister’s target of halving it.
Is it not right that the IMF welcomed the autumn statement and said it struck
“the right balance between fiscal responsibility and protecting growth and vulnerable households”?
Given that the IMF has also said that cumulative UK growth over 2022 to 2024 is predicted to be higher than in Germany and Japan and similar to the USA, is that not exactly why we should stick to the measures set out in the autumn statement?
My hon. Friend makes a brilliant point and reminds us that not only did the IMF talk this morning about our strong performance in 2022, but at the autumn statement it welcomed those measures and recognised that a balance must be struck between fiscal consolidation and supporting the most vulnerable. The best example I can give is that from April, far from support with high energy costs being withdrawn, there will be a new £900 payment for families on benefits. That shows we are getting the balance right between the fiscal discipline necessary to work with the Bank of England to reduce inflation and ensuring that families are supported through these challenging times.
Today the Government’s response to the IMF forecast has been simply to say that forecast is wrong. If the Government will not look at the forecast, let us look at the facts. The UK is the only G7 economy smaller now than it was at the start of the pandemic, and growth has been lower under the Conservatives than it was under the last Labour Government. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government have any respect for our international economic institutions?
I did not question the IMF forecast—that is not correct. I simply quoted what the IMF said, that cumulative growth over the 2022 to 2024 period is predicted to be higher than in Germany and Japan and at a similar rate to the US.
I remind the Minister and the shadow Chancellor that forecasts are just that. They are subject to substantial revision. I remember in 2012 the IMF downgraded the forecast, only substantially to upgrade it the following year. The key thing is to have a long-term approach. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will build on the Prime Minister’s Mais lecture and the Chancellor’s excellent speech on Friday and complement that with a clear industrial strategy so that investors can have a clear view of the Government’s business policy, as countries such as the US, Japan and South Korea are doing?
My right hon. Friend speaks with great expertise as both a former Secretary of State and a Select Committee Chair, and he is absolutely right. Whatever forecasts say, we have a clear strategy for long-term growth in this country that comes from supporting high-growth sectors. I am glad he mentioned the Chancellor’s speech on Friday, which spoke about the fact that we are only the third economy in the world with $1 trillion tech sector—I know the shadow Chancellor does not like that fact, but we are—and we should be proud of that. Of course we want to build further on that. That is how we will deliver strong, sustainable growth in every part of the United Kingdom.
The UK economy has faced a triple whammy in recent days: the IMF forecast saying that the UK is the only major economy that will slide into recession this year, an Office for National Statistics survey setting out the true horror of this winter of discontent, and insolvency figures out today showing that more companies are going bust than at any point since the 2009 crisis. Can the Minister tell me when and where the Brexit benefits will begin?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, as ever. Of course she misses out the fact that we have the lowest unemployment for the best part of 50 years. We should all be very proud of that. We know the scars caused by high unemployment and we know that when the pandemic started, unemployment was predicted to finish 2 million higher than it ended up because of the measures taken by this Government and by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor, with furlough and so on. We will continue to support households. The hon. Lady talks about a winter of discontent, but, as I said, we are providing £1,300 of support for a typical family with their energy bills this winter. That shows we are on their side, but we need to go further, and we do that by delivering on the target to halve inflation.
The shadow Chancellor mentions that our growth rate is not as great as Russia’s. What she does not mention is that the IMF said that of Germany too, because both Germany and the United Kingdom are dependent on gas. My question to my hon. Friend the Minister is this: how many times over the last 10 years has the IMF had to revise its economic forecast? If he does not know the answer, will he please write to me?
It would be a pleasure, as ever, to write to my hon. Friend. He mentions countries dependent on gas, but we should be very proud that last year more than 40% of our electricity was generated from renewables and just 1.5% from coal. We have had the fastest-falling emissions in the G7, and a recent report in The Times confirmed that we can get those lower emissions with higher growth. The report said that jobs in net zero sectors pay £10,000 more than the national average, and that south Yorkshire, north Derbyshire, Tyneside and Teesside are all hotspots for net zero jobs. That shows we can deliver on net zero and economic growth.
It is very far from a unique mess when 14 European Union countries have a higher rate of inflation than we do. That is why we are focused on reducing inflation, which, to be clear, will take some difficult decisions. It would help in that regard if Labour Members, instead of living in a parallel universe where their leadership and their shadow Chancellor talk about sound money but not a single one of them even ventures to understand it, started showing what difficult decisions they would actually take. That is how you run the country.
Getting the economy moving forward more quickly will depend on supporting investment in research and development. Will my hon. Friend look at ensuring that R&D continues to be incentivised as a means to boosting our growth?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I spoke about high-growth sectors; one of the ways those sectors drive up sustainable growth is through R&D. That is incredibly important. The Government are on track to spend £20 billion in public expenditure by 2024-25. We are also committed to a competitive regime of R&D tax credits to ensure that the private sector does its part to enable the highest possible level of R&D so that we can deliver investment and research into the industries of the future.
The forecast is concerning for every corner of the United Kingdom. However, in Northern Ireland, there is an added uncertainty owing to the protocol and the internal barriers to trade that it places within the United Kingdom. Investment to drive growth is now being stalled as we await a new agreement. Do the Government recognise the need to urgently restore the integrity of the UK’s internal market to assist economic growth in Northern Ireland, and does the Minister commit to doing that?
We must deliver growth in every part of the United Kingdom. The hon. Lady knows the work that is happening across Departments on the protocol. I have already mentioned energy support; she knows that there are specific conditions that pertain to the Northern Ireland energy market, but we have still put huge support in place, including the recent £600 payment. That shows that we are on the side of families in every part of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.
I am pleased the Minister is focusing on the facts rather than the forecasts, which have proven time and again to be incorrect. The fact of the matter is that, according to the IMF, last year we had the highest rate of growth of any nation in the G7, nearly double that of the US and higher than that of the whole eurozone—a pretty good record, would he not agree?
My hon. Friend is an absolute champion. He talks up this country and he is right: the facts back that up and show that we should be optimistic. Of course there are challenges, and we want to get on top of them, which is why we must work hard to support our independent Bank of England in getting inflation down. But, like him, I am optimistic that if we do that, we can see the sort of growth we had last year. That is what the IMF shows; its cumulative forecast is that over 2022 to 2024 we are predicted to have higher growth than Germany and Japan and at a similar rate to the US.
The Minister seems to be walking away from the question of what role Brexit has played in this economic outlook. I can understand why, since half his own constituents think Brexit was a mistake. The benefits of Brexit seem to be like a toddler’s imaginary friend—Ministers keep talking about them, but only they can see them. The Prime Minister’s spokesman today told us we are now seeing “significant benefits from Brexit.” Will the Minister set the record straight? Can he explain to the small businesses in our constituencies, which used to be able to export with ease to the European Union, a single market where they now face a better deal than they did before?
I am happy to stress, for example, the hugely important Solvency II reforms that we will undertake, which will free up enormous amounts of investment in infrastructure. Of course, infrastructure is crucial to future growth. As the Minister with responsibility for alcohol duty, I am pleased to say that we will have reform in August, meaning that we could have a duty differential between pubs and supermarkets. That is only possible because of Brexit. I think the most important thing by far is that when we faced the pandemic—the greatest challenge outside war time—this country was able to move fast with an amazing vaccine programme because of its independence, which reduced deaths, freed up our economy and allowed us to reopen and get growing again.
Today, the Bloomberg UK scorecard reports that, relative to London, life has got worse in areas that voted to leave the EU. That includes Ynys Môn, where the 2 Sisters factory has announced that it is closing in March, with 730 people losing their jobs—many of them from my Arfon constituency. There is no point in the Minister blustering with excuses about covid and Russia; that company says plainly that Brexit is partly to blame. No more excuses and apologies; what is the Minister going to do about it?
I am sorry to hear that. I do not know the specific circumstances. Obviously, we want to see strong investment and growth in this country, particularly in manufacturing. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, as he is aware, unemployment is about the lowest it has been for decades in this country—we are very proud of that fact. But where there are challenges, we want to look at them, and if he writes to me with the details of that case I will happily look into it.
Is it not time that the Minister told the truth to my constituents? The truth is that the Government have hollowed out not only our defence capacity but our economy. Will he explain to my constituents why, on the ship of shame that is the Government Benches, where there is no captain, first mate or crew, the captain’s cabin boy has been sent to answer questions on this, the most vital topic at the moment?
Order. The hon. Gentleman is an elder statesman of this House. I am sure he can be pleasant if he really tries. I do not think that kind of question does this Chamber any good.
The hon. Gentleman mentions defence, but he might want to explain to his constituents why, at the last general election, he backed Jeremy Corbyn, whose policy would have had us leave NATO and undermine the nuclear deterrent.
We have stood by the people of Ukraine in the face of a real war. We have not deployed into the theatre, but we have done everything possible short of that, including training the Ukrainian army since 2015. So yes, I will tell the hon. Gentleman’s constituents the truth: they should be proud of what this country is doing for the people of Ukraine.
I am happy, once again, to refer to what the IMF said. At this morning’s press conference, Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, the IMF’s economic counsellor, confirmed
“the good news: the UK economy has actually done relatively well in the last year. We’ve revised” growth
“upwards to 4.1%...that’s one of the highest growth rates in Europe”.
The Minister talks about other countries, but the reason why things are so bad in the UK is squarely down to the impact that Brexit is having on the economy—a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for. Can he tell me how piling austerity on top of the austerity that has already taken place over the past decade will help us out of this economic crisis that the Tories have created?
It is astonishing that the hon. Lady would say that all our problems are solely down the Brexit. We have record energy bills. In the last year, as a country, we have had to find an additional £150 billion to fund energy because of the invasion of an independent sovereign country by Russia. That was not our fault, and nor was the pandemic—[Interruption.] She talks about austerity. We put in place £400 billion of support during the pandemic, and almost £100 billion of cost of living support and help with energy bills. That is not austerity. I will tell the House what it is: the United Kingdom Treasury backing every single part of the United Kingdom.
Wages in the north-east are 3% lower than when Labour left office, and households have lost £11,000 in wage growth under the Conservatives. Now, according to the IMF forecast, we will get poorer still, as prices rise and the economy contracts because the Conservatives have crashed it. Did the Minister come into politics to make people poorer? If not, is it not time for a Labour Government to deliver prosperity for the British people?
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady was here for my maiden speech—I entirely recognise that she may not have been—but I said:
“I am a one nation Conservative,” because I believe in
“not going back to dark and divisive days of high unemployment.”—[Official Report,
And here we are, with the lowest unemployment in almost 50 years.
On regional earnings specifically, I can confirm that pay has grown faster in every region outside London since 2010. That shows that we are succeeding in our levelling-up agenda.
The IMF chief economist highlighted rising mortgage costs as a central issue facing the UK economy. I have heard from countless constituents who are fearful of losing their homes when their fixed rates come to an end, and others whose dreams of getting on the property ladder have been snatched away. What guarantees can the Minister provide that interest rates will get back to the levels seen before the disastrous mini-Budget?
The hon. Lady is an experienced colleague. She is well aware that we have an independent Bank of England, and interest rates are its responsibility. The crucial thing is that we need to work in partnership with the Bank, and we do that by ensuring that fiscal policy does everything possible to support a stable framework in which inflation falls. That is why we have set a target to halve inflation, and if we do that, interest rates will be lower than they would otherwise have been.
The news from the IMF this morning is deeply concerning. Small businesses are at the heart of the local economy in my constituency. Why does the Minister think the Federation of Small Businesses is reporting that confidence of small business is at its third lowest level since the federation started tracking it?
The hon. Lady is right to mention small businesses, which make such an important contribution to our economy. My message to small businesses is that we have put in an enormous amount of support to help them with energy costs, including the £18 billion energy bill relief scheme over the past six months, and we will continue to support them from April onwards. Of course, the best way to support them is to provide a stable platform for growth, and that means keeping inflation under control. That is the great challenge that we face, and it is why, as the Chancellor said on Friday, the greatest tax cut we can provide is reducing inflation. That is what we are committed to doing.
The UK’s economic decline, which was started by Brexit but exacerbated by the mini-Budget, is genuinely sad, and it hurts millions of ordinary, blameless people. At the moment in Northern Ireland, we have some protection through the protocol, which, although imperfect, has economic benefits, including dual market access, offering the potential to transform our traditionally sluggish economy. Many businesses are already benefiting from that, and more investment will follow if the UK Government commit to supporting the protocol and that is accompanied by a responsible devolved Government focused on skills and infrastructure.
Will the Minister commit to advocating in Cabinet for a pragmatic EU-UK deal? If not, will he acknowledge that if the protection of the protocol is removed, more and more people in the centre ground in Northern Ireland will ask, “When can we leave this Brexit madness through an agreed, dynamic and inclusive new Ireland?”
Of course, the hon. Lady knows about the work that is happening across Government in respect of the protocol. She talks about our “economic decline”, but let me be absolutely clear: since 2010, the UK has grown faster than France, Japan and Italy. She knows that, as I said earlier, 14 EU countries have higher inflation than we face at the moment. These are global challenges that we face, but we have the strengths to get through them. One example, as the Chancellor pointed out on Friday, is that there are only three economies in the world with a £1 trillion tech sector. Tech is a huge part of our future economic growth. One of those countries is China, one is the United States, and the other, I am pleased to say, is the United Kingdom.
There is a popular café not far from here on Regency Street. This morning, a sign in the window said: “Breakfast only today. Sorry, we are badly understaffed”. That seems to chime with the findings of UK in a Changing Europe that there is a shortfall of 300,000 workers as a result of Brexit and the end of freedom of movement. It seems that Brexit really does mean breakfast. Will the Government admit that their Brexit has taken the UK economy out of the frying pan and into the fire?
I do not know the specific circumstances of why the café the hon. Gentleman refers to is struggling to recruit; I have no specific knowledge of it. I am sure it offers a wonderful breakfast when it is able to do so. What I can say is, talking in aggregate, and as is our slogan, we are proud to have almost the lowest unemployment for the best part of 50 years. It does present challenges when we have a tight labour market. That is why we think the best way forward is to ensure that we have the apprenticeships, skills and training to deliver the workforce to meet our growth ambitions.
The Minister continues the Tory playbook of excuses—global headwinds, global challenges, other countries having high inflation, Putin’s illegal war and the pandemic—but the reality is that the UK is the only G7 country facing a recession this year. Is that due to Tory incompetence, or is it the Brexit dividend?
I was clear about the challenges this year in respect of inflation, which is why we need to have fiscal discipline. That is not something the Scottish National party has the slightest understanding of, because I only ever hear SNP Members ask for more spending and more tax cuts—all unfunded. Meanwhile, their fundamental policy, were they to be independent, is to have a currency without a lender of last resort. That is an extraordinary proposition for economic instability, so we take no lectures from them. We have done everything possible to support people in every part of the United Kingdom, including Scotland.
I suspect there is not much hope of significantly boosting overall productivity unless we deal with the huge geographical wealth imbalances across the UK. What consideration has been given to using the so-called Brexit freedoms? In the case of Wales, that could involve devolving VAT and corporation tax to empower the Welsh Government to get on with the job of boosting the Welsh economy. If these powers—the so-called Brexit freedoms—are not going to be used, is the Welsh economy not far better off back in the European single market and the customs union?
The hon. Gentleman knows there is enormous benefit to Wales from being part of the United Kingdom. I have set out the many ways that we are boosting this country, and I gave the example of the changes to Solvency II regulations. They will hopefully see a significant increase in infrastructure investment, which will be of massive benefit to every part of the United Kingdom, including Wales.
Often it is the retail and hospitality sectors that are hit the hardest during economic slowdown, particularly companies trading in non-essential goods and services. What specific support is being considered for such businesses to ensure that redundancies are minimised and jobs are protected?
The hon. Lady makes a very good substantive economic point, which is that when inflationary pressures are higher, as they are at the moment, it is discretionary consumption that comes under pressure—and that means, for example, demand in pubs and shops and so on. I can confirm that we have taken huge steps to support hospitality, as we did in the pandemic. We recently announced that the 50% reduction in business rates would be extended by another year and go up to 75%. I announced in December a six-month extension to the freeze in alcohol duty, but hospitality is an important sector that is creating jobs, and we want to see what more we can do to support it.
To complete the urgent question, I call Jim Shannon.
I thank the Minister for his answers to the urgent question. Being the only G7 country, according to the forecast, to have an economy set to shrink this year, will the Minister consider increasing spending power in the United Kingdom by focusing on help for SMEs, which are the backbone of our economy and the job creators, and in particular businesses in Northern Ireland, which are hit harder by the costs associated with the reprehensible Northern Ireland protocol?
As ever, the best is saved for last. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to continue to be a stalwart champion of SMEs and small businesses in his constituency and, indeed, in Northern Ireland. That is why we are focused on growth in the whole United Kingdom. Underpinning that, however, has to be fiscal stability and, ultimately, falling inflation. That is why the Prime Minister has set the target to halve inflation. To get that down would be the best thing for consumers, for small businesses and for our whole country.