Economy: Government Policies — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:24 pm on 24th March 2011.

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Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 3:24 pm, 24th March 2011

My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate, enhanced by excellent maiden speeches from the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott. Reflecting on what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, in his customarily elegant introductory speech and on the remarks of many noble Lords opposite, it occurred to me that the economic policies being pursued by the Government may be characterised as good-good politics, that is.

Two elements of the Government's stance bear the mark of good politics. First, it is always a good idea to have a scapegoat. We have today heard numerous references to the so-called "economic mess" inherited by the Government and to the "record deficit". With a good scapegoat, you can justify almost anything. It is good politics. Secondly, it is good politics to inflict the maximum pain on the electorate in the first years of a new Government and save up all the sweeteners for the 18 months or so before an election, when the Government can triumphantly declare deliverance from the misery that they themselves have created. All this is good politics, but it is rotten economics.

On the scapegoat point, noble Lords might have noticed that yesterday in the Budget the Chancellor admitted that the UK debt ratio will peak at 71 per cent. I wonder how many noble Lords were puzzled by that statement. How could that be when there is purportedly such an awful financial mess and so-called record deficits that our debt ratio will peak at a level lower than in every other G7 country other than Canada, and at a level lower than in Germany when it entered the crisis? However, let us not go into another debate about debt ratios, use silly expressions such as Britain being on the brink of bankruptcy, or make foolish comparisons with Greece, Ireland or Portugal.

The scapegoating approach is rotten economics, not because the Government convinced themselves of this nonsense but because they have convinced the markets and business, too. By their own politically advantageous hysteria, the Government have, as my noble friend Lord Myners noted, destroyed business and consumer confidence. It is not surprising that the OBR revealed yesterday that business investment growth is down and has locked Britain into a bond-market straitjacket from which it is now almost impossible to escape without abandoning the scapegoating slogans. It is good politics, but rotten economics.

On the timing of sweeteners and elections, unfortunately that is rotten economics, too. The problem is that you cannot be sure that the economy will have recovered in time to deliver the goodies. As the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee minutes published yesterday record, it is,

"not yet clear that the weakness in output growth seen in the latter part of 2010 would prove temporary, particularly in light of the latest indicators of a further weakening in consumer spending".

That is the Bank of England's view. This is before the savage government spending cuts hit the economy next month.

The low growth and increased unemployment that the Government's policies have produced have, as my noble friend Lord McKenzie, also pointed out, cut projected tax revenues for the next five years. I repeat; they have cut revenues for the next five years, so there will be a lot less to give away. The fall in revenues and the consequent increase in government borrowing revealed in the Budget are an indication that we may have entered a terrible downward spiral in which higher taxes and spending cuts result in low growth and unemployment that in turn result in lower revenues, higher welfare payments and a growing deficit-exactly the scenario painted in the OBR's economic report. That is what the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, should be afraid of. Instead of falling, borrowing is rising.

However, the real failure of this budget is the subject of today's debate-the failure to promote the rebalancing of the economy that is necessary to enable Britain to grow its way out of recession, and out of deficit. Consider the measures that the Chancellor claims will create growth. Research and development tax changes sound good, until you realise that these will benefit just 7,000 out of the 4.8 million small firms in this country. The entrepreneurs' relief sounds good, until you realise that the benefit will go to just a few hundred people. The new apprenticeships that will reach 12,500 young people sound good, until you realise that 60,000 young people have become unemployed in the past year alone, adding to the 1 million young people currently unemployed. The enterprise zones sound good-until one looks at all the academic evidence that demonstrates that they are the most expensive means available of creating jobs, because so many of those jobs would have been created anyway. Enterprise zones are just a neat way of avoiding taxes-perhaps in Cornwall, too.

What of the cuts in corporation tax and fuel duty? The OBR's verdict is that the effects will be "minimal". No wonder, since the cut in corporation tax has been paid for by cutting investment allowances. How stupid is it to take from companies that invest and hand out the money as a tax cut to all companies, whether they invest or not?

The OBR's verdict on this Budget for growth is that:

"We do not believe that there is sufficiently strong evidence to justify changing our trend growth assumption in light of policy measures announced in Budget 2011".

That is it: no change.

The real damage to the hope of rebalancing the economy is to be found not in the failure of the Budget but in the announcement on the day before that inflation was at 5.5 per cent, and in the Government's admission that inflation is likely to stay that high for the rest of this year, and to be higher than previously forecast for the next five years. That point was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths.

This country has one goose that can lay rebalancing golden eggs: British manufacturing, as the noble Lords, Lord Renton, Lord Empey and Lord Paul, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, noted. Over the past year, manufacturing has performed very well, with rapid export growth stimulated by the sharp fall in the value of sterling. However, the competitive advantage derived from the devaluation is being eroded by our relatively high inflation rate. Moreover, the high rate of inflation is likely to bring forward the day when the Monetary Policy Committee raises interest rates and seeks to reduce inflation by raising the exchange rate, weakening further the stimulus to exports. We have only one goose and we are in danger of killing it.

The danger derives not just from the Government's failed macroeconomic strategy, important though that failure is, but from the timidity of the growth strategy laid out in The Plan for Growthpublished yesterday. The essence of the plan is summed up under the heading: "What the Government will do now". The main headings are: "minimise regulatory burdens", "reform the planning system", "improve the corporate governance framework"-by removing the need for audits-"provide finance for new and growing businesses"-by small tax incentives-"further improve innovation in the UK"-by small but useful measures-and, "improve competition".

The clear theme is to reduce the role of government-something that surely pleases the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad-and create a slightly biased playing field relative to our major competitor countries. This is not what Britain needs, as my noble friend Lord Haskel pointed out. We do not need a biased playing field; we need a new game, as the noble Lord, Lord Bates, suggested. The rules of the new game can be learnt readily by studying the success of other economies-something that the noble Lord, Lord Risby, might care to do. What is needed is a secure, plentiful and stable flow of finance to fund industrial investment, together with a structure of corporate governance that fosters a commitment to long-term innovation and investment. Neither of these conditions is present in Britain.

Our fundamental problem is illustrated by the fact that more than 70 per cent of purchases and sales of industrial stocks and shares over the past year have been by day traders and short-term investors. British industry is owned by people to whom the long-term future of a company is irrelevant. The mantra that the duty of the board of a company is to pursue the best interests of the shareholders is vacuous when the shareholders change by the hour. Instead of secure sources of finance for industry, we have a fragile banking system that is overly dependent on short-term wholesale funding and in which a significant proportion of financial innovation is driven not by the demands of economic efficiency but by the desire to avoid taxes and/or the strictures of financial regulation.

Of course, better regulation would not be enough to secure the industrial financing that we need. That will require a fundamental reform of the UK's financial sector that goes far beyond the terms of reference of the Independent Commission on Banking. The reform should encompass not just the welcome creation of the green investment bank but the creation of an industrial investment bank, as called for by my noble friend Lord McFall, with the funding muscle to make a real difference to Britain's small and medium-sized industries-the industries from which innovation and jobs predominantly come.

Nothing so radical was evident in yesterday's Budget. Indeed, there was nothing radical at all. Whether there is fuel in the tank is debatable, but everyone can see that all the tyres are flat. That is because the other crucial component of a growth strategy is missing. The Government have chosen to throw away the ignition key. What will ignite growth is demand. Investment will take place only if there is the prospect of stable, growing demand. Without prospective demand, it does not matter how cheap or reliable funding might be, how generous the tax breaks or how innovative the technology. Without prospective demand, you simply stand to lose your money, and there lies the central failure. By consciously suppressing demand, the Government are consciously suppressing growth. That is why growth is down-not just now but for the foreseeable future. The noble Lord, Lord Lawson, described this as being least needed economically. I must say that I prefer the noble Lord of the Lawson boom rather than the one of fiscal masochism.

The OBR's forecasts show growth recovering after 2013. However, one should not be misled, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, has been. The OBR made it clear that its medium growth forecasts are based on the forecasts of potential growth-that is, on capacity and not on demand for that capacity. Only if there were some magic fairy that ensured that capacity was fully utilised would those growth rates be attained.

There is no magic fairy. This Chancellor has undermined Britain's recovery from the consequences of the international financial crisis. Worse than that, by making the wrong choices at the wrong time he has weakened the growth prospects of the British economy for years to come. The characterisation of this Budget as a "Budget for Growth" is a title worthy to stand alongside Orwell's Ministry of Truth. It was a Budget for stagnation. However worthy the micromeasures, the verdict remains that of the Office for Budget Responsibility-no impact on long-term growth. No impact at all.