Economy: Government Policies — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:09 pm on 24th March 2011.

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Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 2:09 pm, 24th March 2011

My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, particularly given the contribution that he has just delivered. I should like to offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, and a fellow Lutonian, the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, on their excellent maiden speeches.

A short while back, when our rail infrastructure stalled and ground to a halt, it was because we had the wrong type of snow. Now it seems that our economy is stalling, not only because the snow is back but because we have had the wrong type of inflation-increasing spending on benefits but not having a commensurate increase in tax revenues. It is particularly timely that we are having this debate today and we should congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, on giving us this opportunity. I remember well his 1988 Budget and the Finance Bill that followed. I was tucked away in a garret in Norman Shaw North scribbling amendments for the Labour Front Bench, all of which, sadly, were defeated.

However, in comparison to the autumn forecast, growth is down in 2010, and in 2011 and 2012. Unemployment is up in every year and spending on social security benefits is up by some £12 billion over the Parliament. The OBR expects the economy to be 0.7 per cent smaller in 2015 than it did in November, just a few months ago. Borrowing is up by £43 billion over the forecast period-£11 billion a year extra in 2015-16. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, talked about this being a slight rise in borrowing, which I find interesting terminology.

So what is happening? Last year, when we left office, the economy was growing strongly again. Inflation was lower and unemployment was falling. Everyone knows that the deficit has to be addressed but we continue to hold to the view that the Government's approach is cutting too deep and too fast. In doing so, they are fuelling unemployment, thus making it more difficult for growth to take hold.

There can be a plan B. We could quite credibly halve the deficit steadily over four years, and not try to cut it further and faster than any other major economy in the world. That is not being faint-hearted. There would have to be tough choices to get the deficit down, including spending cuts and tax rises. But the most important thing in getting the deficit down is what happens to jobs and growth in the economy, which is why last year, as the economy started growing again and unemployment was falling, the deficit came in £20 billion lower than was expected. All that changed as the economy stopped growing at the end of last year, and unemployment is now rising again. As the Financial Times today reports, all the Chancellor's tinkering yesterday, and all the lollipops with enterprise boosting, red tape cutting and planning regulations, has had no effect on the OBR's assessment of long-term growth assumptions.

While yesterday may have made little change, we should remember what has gone before and the pain that is still to come. By 2015-16, the CPI switch will mean change for those claiming benefits, tax credits and public service pensions. There will be a hit of £10.5 billion annually. We know that the VAT cost is £13.5 billion annually. There are changes in restrictions to the employment and support allowance that will hit to the tune of £1.1 billion, cuts in child benefit of £2.5 billion and there are more.

Yesterday's efforts by the Chancellor can reasonably be described as fiscally neutral and some of them nifty. He held true to the Lib Dem aspiration of increases in the income tax personal allowance but by the end of the forecast period equivalent amounts will be clawed back by changing the default indexation assumptions from RPI to CPI. This will apply to national insurance thresholds-until those far-off days should national insurance ever be merged with income tax. I think that we would be wise to listen to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, on that matter. But it means that capital gains tax annual exempt amounts and ISA limits will be less favourable and generous in the future. The reduction in the national insurance contracting out rate is a further hit on business and on individuals.

We also heard from the Chancellor that his vision for growth encompasses the ambition that we should have the most competitive tax system in the G20 and that the system should be simple to understand and easy to comply with. In order to have the most competitive system in the G20 depends on how things are measured. Inward investors will not just look at headline rates; they will look at effective tax rates. Yesterday's announcement of a further 1 per cent cut in the rate of corporation tax is no doubt welcome but the more substantial cuts announced in the June Budget last year were largely paid for by restrictions on capital allowances and investment allowances. We heard yesterday the simplistic line that our tax code is now the longest in the world. Frankly, that does not help. Tax law and regulations are structured differently in different countries. Try putting the US code with all its regulations and guidance end to end.

As for simplification, of course it makes sense to sweep away redundant provisions but I wonder how many additional pages of legislation will flow from yesterday's announcements. We have heard about changes to the controlled foreign companies' regime, the taxation of foreign branches, stamp duty land tax bulk purchasing and the taxation of non-doms, to mention just a few. There are a raft of anti-avoidance provisions, which we support, but these will not be dealt with by simplifying the tax system. Unless and until we have a general anti-avoidance provision, they will require specifically targeted changes to the law. That will then set new boundaries for the avoidance industry to assail.

The Government's approach to regulation seems to be that it is inevitably undesirable and should be quashed at every turn. No one would argue for unnecessary regulation but just occasionally it would be good to hear the Government speak up for regulation which has been transformational. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act was built on political consensus. It has helped to save many lives over the years and has been beneficial for business and society in saving costs and the misery of people who might have been injured or made ill by their work. We weaken all that at our peril. Dame Carol Black, in her review of the health of Britain's working age population, estimated that the annual economic cost of sickness absence and worklessness associated with working age ill health to be more than £100 billion per year.

To conclude, there was nothing in the Budget yesterday which gives comfort on growth. Let us hope that this debate will provide ammunition to the Chancellor to enable him to rethink.