Economy: Government Policies — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:02 pm on 24th March 2011.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat 12:02 pm, 24th March 2011

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, on getting such a timely debate on the Budget and economic policy-we normally debate these issues weeks after the event, so it is a pleasant change to be able to do it contemporaneously-and, like him, I look forward to hearing the maiden speeches in today's debate.

The big political and economic question is whether there should have been a plan B at this point: should the Government have changed their broad macroeconomic policy? It seems to me that the only circumstances in which such a change would have been justified would have been if there had been a major change in the outturn or the outlook for the British economy. The OBR report published yesterday makes it clear that although there has been a short-term downward revision in growth, and therefore a slight rise in borrowing in the short term, its assessment is that, over the medium term, the Government's plans are broadly in line to meet the targets set for the lifetime of the Parliament. Therefore, in my view, if the Government changed course, they would simple lose all credibility in economic policy-making.

Many commentators are asking, "Can't we just ease the pain? Can't we just spend a bit more?", as if it would be costless. There has been a lot of argument about whether, if the Government had taken a soft approach last summer, there would have been major problems with the credibility of sterling and the cost of government borrowing. The Opposition have said, "We are not like Greece, therefore the fact that Greece has to spend 12.5 per cent on borrowing is irrelevant". No, we are not like Greece, but we are not miles away from Spain's current position. It currently has to pay 5 per cent on government borrowing compared with our 3.5 per cent. That is a big difference. If this Government, or any Government, were seen not to be taking their fiscal responsibilities seriously, you could bet your bottom dollar that those rates would zoom up. That cannot be in the long-term interests of the British economy.

I am looking forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, explain the Opposition's view on how they would meet their commitments under the Fiscal Responsibility Act. So far, we have heard not one word from the Opposition about how they would approach the circumstances in which we now find ourselves.

Before turning to the growth agenda, the main subject of today's debate, I should like to say something about two issues. The first is tax avoidance. Broadly speaking, the Government's measures here are extremely welcome, from the big-ticket items down to the reduction in low-value consignment relief on VAT, a subject that we debated in your Lordships' House a couple of weeks ago. Less welcome, however, is the rather supine approach to non-doms. The Government's approach-basically to kick the issue into the long grass, as the predecessor Government did-is poor. A stronger approach should have been taken.

I should also like to probe slightly the Government's intention regarding high-value housing. We know that many people avoid paying stamp duty on their houses by putting them into an offshore trust. There is a rather ambiguous sentence in the Budget speech about making sure that people with high-value housing pay their fair share. Can the Minister say whether the Government intend to do something about the stamp duty loophole; and if they do not, will they give the issue further consideration?

As for growth, much will depend on the extent to which people in the private sector, particularly the manufacturing sector, feel confident about the environment in which they seek to do business. The mood among manufacturers-and I have just come from a conference of small businesses in the manufacturing sector-is much more buoyant than one might think from reading most of the commentary. The Budget contains a range of provisions-on, for example, the planning rules, business rate relief and the business angels plan-that will help the sector. I am particularly pleased to see the additional support for apprenticeships which will cover 40,000 unemployed young people, and the 100,000 work experience placements that the Government have announced, with highly credible large companies taking the lead in making them available.

There are two issues on which I can give only two cheers. The first is the green investment bank. It has taken a long time to get the bank up and running, but I welcome the fact that it now is, and that it will have £3 billion available for lending to this sector. It is a pity, however, that it will not be able to borrow for the lifetime of this Parliament. I know all about the accounting rules but, frankly, there are times when you have to bite the bullet and decide what really matters. I would not have thought it beyond the wit of the Treasury to explain in its various documents the extent to which the liabilities of the green investment bank are separate from other government liabilities, and therefore to make it perfectly clear that a green investment bank that is able to borrow is not incompatible with reducing the overall budget deficit.

Enterprise zones are the second issue on which I can give only two cheers. Ever since they were introduced their track record has been mixed. One can only hope the fact that the zone boundaries will be determined by the LEPs-and therefore likely to cover the parts of the region with very good growth prospects, given the location-will make them more cost-effective than they have been in the past.

The key constraint facing many businesses remains their ability to borrow. The banks claim that there is no demand. I know that many manufacturers can get working capital from the banks for neither love nor money, so I just hope that the Government will keep the banks' feet to the fire on the commitments that they have made but have yet to deliver on.

Finally, the challenge now is for the Government to implement this raft of measures and to keep listening to manufacturers in particular about further things to be done. The noble Lord, Lord Sugar, will be surprised to learn that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills agrees with him to the extent that he understands that the Government cannot themselves generate growth, they can only create a climate in which entrepreneurs are encouraged to flourish. In my view, the Budget contains many positive steps in this direction, but there is much more to be done.