Economy: Government Policies — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:40 pm on 24th March 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat 1:40 pm, 24th March 2011

My Lords, I suspect that when we look back on this Budget in a few years' time, two measures will stand out: the Chancellor's commitment to raising the tax threshold, a commitment to fairness even at a time of tackling a major deficit and a significant economic crisis; and the green investment bank. The bank will start slowly, but in 20 years' time when we look back it will be seen as key to achieving a response to climate change, which, as I think almost everyone in the House is aware, is an absolute imperative.

I am very supportive of yesterday's Budget, but in my speech I will raise some of the issues that were not tackled and ask the Government to look at them seriously. As the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, who is not in his place, said earlier, we have a challenge to rebound to trend growth and then to sustain trend growth. For any developed country, growth at that pace is a significant challenge. We do not have the potential that countries such as India or China have, with relatively low GDP per capita, to accelerate growth beyond trend, and it requires many things being done correctly.

One of the issues that was not addressed in the Budget is capital accumulation. Without that in place, it is very hard to see how we achieve sustained growth. In plain English, capital accumulation is essentially savings. I think that the savings rate in this country-others will correct me-runs at about 2 per cent of GDP, and most economists would say that it needs to be about 10 per cent of GDP for there to be sustained trend growth. I know that that is difficult. People have wrestled with the issue of how to persuade people to focus less on immediate consumption and more on long-term savings. Without that in place, achieving successful growth in the economy over the long term will be a challenge and, rather than duck that, we have to address it head on.

My second issue is about infrastructure, which was hardly tackled in the Budget. There were some measures to invest in various rail improvements and I know that elsewhere transport investments are going ahead. Essentially, one pillar of economic growth that the Government can provide is infrastructure and, traditionally, we have spectacularly failed to do that in this country. We have allowed much of our infrastructure to fall into decay. I raise the possibility that we keep continuing at that pace partly because of the way in which we measure growth. We constantly use GDP, which, as this House will know, has no depreciation in it. Any depletion of resources is not reflected in GDP and gives us a distorted sense of what, in many ways, is happening to our infrastructure.

I have a very quick example, but I am not an economist so others may correct me. If you look at growth between the two troughs of the Thatcher period, you will see that growth was averaging about 1.7 per cent, but I am told by economists that, if you remove from that number the depletion of oil and gas in the North Sea-a non-renewable resource-growth would have looked pretty flat at zero. In other words, we were achieving that by what looked like fundamental growth but it was in fact usage of a depleting resource. We have not included that in the way in which we tackle our thinking. Surely now is the time to make that change.

Gordon Brown attempted to do it in many senses by the golden rule, but that became abused politically. The privatisation of utilities was a mechanism to get around some of that, and PFI, under the last Government, was probably the most expensive way to carry out investment into projects and infrastructure. Again, it circumvented some of the issues. I ask that we consider tackling this issue head on.

The noble Lord, Lord Sugar, raised the issue of credit and said that you cannot ask banks to lend to inappropriate companies and inappropriate projects. I do not think anyone in the House would expect them to do that. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, that when he began his business and went to British banks and was turned away, I suspect that if he had gone to a bank in Germany or in the United States he would have had a very different response. The high street banks in this country have lost the people, the skill base or the willingness of the institutions to carry out risk assessment, to look at a proposal or a project, to begin to understand a would-be entrepreneur and to recognise whether there is a business there for which they can provide financial support and in which they can participate.

All that has largely been discarded for a much more mechanistic and inexpensive way of assessing any request for a loan from a small business, especially from a micro or a new business, that ticks a number of boxes in a fairly superficial way and does not carry out the kind of skilled risk assessment that there used to be in the past. We have lost our Captain Mainwarings and, to be straightforward about it, it seems to be very difficult to spark the new ventures that everyone here sees as essential to underpin growth in the economy again. Banks will be required to lend 15 per cent more, but we cannot let them get away with lending just to medium-sized well established companies to meet their quota; we have to get them to do the work with the micro and new businesses or make them finance someone else to do it.

As my time is running out, I have one last comment-on localism. It seems to me that one of the best things that the enterprise zones can say to local authorities is, "Ease up on planning regulations and in return any growth in the business rate will go directly to you". This seems to be the first time that we are reconnecting local authorities with business development within their own communities. The fact that the business rate goes to central government has removed every incentive. In the past, we had local authorities engaging with local businesses and local people who drove forward development, particularly of new and small businesses. We need that re-engagement. I ask again that the Government look at that issue.