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My Lords, I join with other Members of the House in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, on his maiden speech from the Front Bench. Like other noble Lords on this side, I am delighted to find that he is not entirely still under the spell of his former distinguished teacher.
Growth ought to be the natural state of an economy. Most economies tend to grow over time. Financial crises, bad harvests and various other factors can, of course, delay or obstruct that growth. But growth is the natural order over time, because human beings have a natural instinct to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before and a natural instinct to innovate. Growth, it is worth remembering, does not come from Governments; it comes from individuals.
What, then, should our reaction be to the figures which were released last week and showed a 0.3% drop in GDP in the final quarter? The figures can always be sliced in many different ways. One can portray them, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, did, as saying that four out of the last five quarters have been negative; that the economy was flat all last year; and that the economy is still below the 2008 peak. On the other hand, you can formulate them a slightly different way: the economy grew by 0.3% in the last six months; although the economy is below the peak of 2008, if you exclude North Sea oil production it is only a whisker below that peak, and North Sea oil has been in dramatic decline with interruptions to production. The fact that there has been no growth last year is the same as in France, while the 0.3% drop in GDP in the last quarter compares with a drop of 0.5% in Germany; and, collectively, the whole of the eurozone is currently in recession. What I draw from all that is that when the dust settles and this is all in the history books, I suspect we will find that almost all the countries in this part of the world had a broadly similar experience, whichever way one tends to look at the figures at any particular moment.
We heard a lot about the views of the IMF, but we have not actually had the views of the IMF; we have had the views of Mr Blanchard. Christine Lagarde, the director-general of the IMF, has been extremely supportive of the Government's strategy and we will only officially hear the views of the IMF in May, when we hear the results of the article 4 consultation. The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, talked a lot about the multiplier effects. Interestingly, there was a report in the press at the weekend that the IMF has concluded that the multiplier effects, both of austerity or of any deficit spending, are extremely slight in the case of the UK. No doubt we will hear more about that when the article 4 consultation takes place.
There is no doubt that the figures for the last quarter were extremely disappointing, but the idea that some extreme excess of austerity is holding back the British economy seems to me very much open to question. The Government have shown that they are prepared to be flexible in their deficit reduction programme. They have relaxed the programme twice and put back the date at which they expect, and are aiming for, a fall in the total debt-to-GDP ratio. As my noble friend Lord Forsyth said, the difference between the Government and the Opposition is much exaggerated by both sides for the purposes of both sides. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, is right in saying that the capital expenditure planned under the last Government was higher than that of this Government; in fact, the cuts that Alistair Darling put forward were bigger than those of this Government, some of which have been reversed. Can the Minister comment on that precise point?
Despite the small differences between the planned reductions in expenditure, it is true that if you compare the outcome of expenditure with the original Darling plan for reductions in expenditure, the latter was much tighter and more austere than what the Government have implemented. If you compare our austerity programme to that in other EU countries, it is difficult to argue that these cuts are savage or that this fiscal consolidation is sudden and dramatic. At the beginning of this crisis we had a deficit to GDP of around 12%. That was almost exactly the same as Greece's. I am sorry to say that today Greece has a considerably lower deficit than the UK's. Italy, France, Ireland, Portugal, and Greece all have lower deficits than we do. These have not been caused by growth-a solution somehow magicked out of the air by the party opposite. That is not how they have reduced their deficits. They have done so by making more savage cuts and far severer fiscal consolidations than we have made.
With a debt-to-GDP ratio of around 70% to 80%, which is where it is expected to peak out, if we go on adding to that overall stock of debt at the rate of 12%, as it was when we started off, or 7% or 8%, because the annual deficit is the amount that we add to it each year, we would soon get to a situation in which a debt-to-GDP ratio would be 100%. As economists such as Reinhart and Rogoff have argued, that is the level at which the overall stock of debt becomes dangerous for the long-term growth of an economy. They would argue that that is why Japan has had such a bad time for such a long period. If deficits really solved long-term economic growth, Japan would not have been stranded in the situation in which it has been for such a long time.
If deficits of 7% to 8% per annum have left the country not growing, is it credible that one of 10% or 12% will suddenly cause the economy to leap into life? We hear about the multiplier effects, but never about what is going to happen when these so-called stimuli are withdrawn. Anyone who thinks that this would be the real world experience of deficits ought to read the diaries of Mr Morgenthau, President Roosevelt's treasury secretary, who expressed his disillusionment with the deficits being run in America in the 1930s. He wrote that all the United States had to show for it was unemployment at much the same level and no increase in production. In the UK today we are running deficits that are considerably higher than those run by the Roosevelt administration.