Economy: Growth — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:46 pm on 29th January 2013.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 4:46 pm, 29th January 2013

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell. I just wonder whether he is a little overenthusiastic in his belief in the Government's ability to pick winners, especially in the IT sector. As I recall, billions were lost in the health service and elsewhere through IT projects that were not properly sourced and not subject to the disciplines of the marketplace-projects that arise from people spending other people's money. It is also a great pleasure to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, to the Front Bench.

I have been surprised that, so far in the debate, people have concentrated on the deficit rather than the debt. The noble Lord's predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon-whom we miss so much-was subject to regular questioning from me, asking why we continue to refer to reducing the deficit and not the debt, when, of course, the deficit is simply the rate at which the debt is increasing. I never got a satisfactory answer to that. Therefore I ask the noble Lord, in briefing himself into his department, to look at the ComRes ITV poll that was carried out just before Christmas-which may have got lost in the tinsel and bright lights of the Christmas period-where people were asked whether they thought that over the course of this Parliament the Government were going to increase the debt by £600 billion, reduce it by £600 billion, or leave it much as it is. Only 6% got the right answer, which is that the debt will increase by £600 billion. I regard that as a really serious problem, because if you are asking people in the country to make sacrifices and to realise that Governments face difficult choices, first you have to make them aware of the extent of the problem. I really do not think it helps for politicians-from whichever party-to shy away from explaining just how serious a problem we have.

The problem, in short, is that the state is growing and the economy is shrinking. The latest OECD figures show that state spending has now gone up to 49% of our GDP. That is an extraordinary amount. I used to define communist or socialist states as states where the Government spent 50% of the GDP. In the year 2000, when Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Government spent 37% of GDP. I am sorry that the noble Lord who said that it is ridiculous to talk about a massive Keynesian boom is not in his place, because I must point out that there has been an astronomical increase in the share of our GDP that is being spent by the Government. Out there in the country, real wages and living standards are falling. The first thing that we have to explain is that we have been living beyond our means. We have been spending about 10% more than we earn and we have been saving nothing. We need to save about 10%. Now 10 plus 10 is 20%, so to put that right, living standards are going to fall by 20% unless we can get growth. It should come as no surprise that this has come about.

The national debt is now 70% and rising. It rose by £15 billion last month alone. I know that we are all supposed to take the line that the Chancellor has cut the deficit by 25%, but the truth is that he met the target last year only by putting in Billy Bunter's postal order, which is the £3.5 billion that will come from the 4G spectrum sale-money that we do not have now and will come around only once-and by throwing in the proceeds from the interest on the bonds that have been purchased by the Bank of England printing money.

We are engaged in a completely new scheme of quantitative easing, which has been done on a stupendous scale. We are now relying on the interest on that money that we have created to say that we are closing the debt cycle. I am profoundly concerned by that. Every time I ask an economist or someone I respect about this, I find it very difficult to get the kind of reassurance to which the country is entitled.

On the Government's policy, if you ask a Minister what they think will happen to the growth in the economy in the next 12 months, they will say, "We are not responsible for that. We have an independent body called the OBR". But the OBR has been consistently wrong in all its forecasts. My noble friend Lord Lamont said quite rightly that all forecasters are consistently wrong. But it is worrying to say the least that this independent body that Ministers now rely on has been so far off the mark.

The truth is that the Government are stuck in a Bermuda Triangle. We have low growth, which means that the Government cannot make cuts in spending, and we have high spending, which is preventing us from getting the growth that we need. People may have forgotten this, but much is due to the efforts that were made by my noble friends Lord Lamont and Lord Baker, my noble and learned friend Lord Howe and others in the 1980s in making supply-side reforms and changes to the trade union law; the changes to our labour market policies. That is why employment has not gone up in this dreadful recession. Workers are now able to make arrangements with their employers to be flexible in the teeth of economic adversity.

The Government have made some mistakes, and we should admit to those mistakes. The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, sent me a note to say that he had to leave the Chamber so I know that he will read this in Hansard, but it was sheer bare-faced cheek for him to argue for capital expenditure, which is right, and against the Government's capital expenditure cuts, when the mistake that the Government made was to implement Alistair Darling's cuts in capital expenditure but actually reduce what was planned by Alistair Darling. The point is well made. Capital spending is required and we need further supply-side changes.

My noble friend Lord Wolfson made the key point in this debate. You have to look at the return on the money, and, on the whole, Governments are not very good at picking winners. Therefore, to choose a well-known liberal's favourite phrase, if you leave the money in the pockets of he people to fructify, you will get far more growth and far more for your money than if it is decided by committees in Whitehall with one eye to the next election. An example of that is this high-speed train. The high-speed train is the ideal political project. It is absolutely fantastic. It enables a Government to say that they are spending a large amount on infrastructure. It has a visionary appeal about it. And, of course, the planning, the implementation and the execution are so far ahead, you do not have to spend a single penny on it. In doing so, it creates all kinds of difficulties for the local economy and the blighting of property and so on. I would rather see the money being spent now on improving our transport structure and looking, as my noble friend Lord Wolfson said, at issues like road pricing and others that will help to make the changes necessary to get our economy to grow.

Again and again we hear complaints from both sides of this House about the banks not lending money to small businesses. I want to ask my noble friend, who I know has a background in banking and will be turning a fresh eye to this matter: how are the banks supposed to lend money to small businesses when at the same time they are being asked to increase the amount of capital that they have in order to support the lending that they have got? How are the banks supposed to find the money to lend to new businesses when they are being asked at the same time not to foreclose on mortgages and to try and keep businesses going? How are the banks supposed to find the money when there are companies-many of them now-substantial public companies, zombie companies, that are simply kept alive by low interest rates and by the banks not wishing to consolidate the loans on their balance sheets.

Of course, we are very conscious of the banking crisis and the impact that it had on our economy, but are we now not in danger of fighting the last war? Should we not be adopting a counter-cyclical approach to the capital requirements on banks in order to solve the problem? Frankly, producing lots of government schemes is not the answer. Better to have banks making commercial decisions with the balance sheet flexibility to be able to lend to these small businesses. This was a point that my noble friend Lord Lamont touched upon in his excellent speech.

How are the banks supposed to operate when the regulators, as a regulatory requirement, are requiring them to take Government gilts? We all know what is going to happen to Government gilts as the interest rates go up and quantitative easing unwinds. What is going to happen then to the losses being made as a result?

The reason that we are becalmed as a country is because the tax burden has become unbearably high. I am not here making a plea on behalf of people who pay high marginal rates of tax. If you earn between £8,105 and £42,475, taking the income tax and the national insurance payments that you and your employer has to pay, it is no less than 40.25% of earnings. Is it any wonder that we see so many part-time jobs, not full-time jobs? The costs of labour are unbearably high because of the burden of taxation.

For those on the other side who say it is all about tax dodgers and finding rich people, the top 1% of taxpayers now provide 24% of all the income tax but only 10.8% of the income. That is why the tax burden is now hitting people on low incomes and hitting them hard.

Indeed, I had the pleasure of chairing the tax commission for the Chancellor while we were in opposition. I remember that we agreed that we needed lower, fairer, flatter, simpler taxes. What are we doing? According to the TaxPayers' Alliance-an excellent body-we have created 299 separate tax increases and 119 reductions. Whatever happened to that great crusade to have a simpler, flatter, fairer tax system? I tell you this: if we do that, the revenues will go up and the deficit will go down.

I welcome the rise in thresholds. The Liberals claim the credit as their policy. I see my noble friend is nodding with enthusiasm. I refer him to the speeches made while we were on the Benches opposite by the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi. It was also one of our recommendations in the tax commission report in 2006. My cautious right honourable friend the Chancellor felt that our programme of tax changes, which would have amounted to £25 billion, was more than could possibly be afforded in a Parliament where borrowing now goes up by £15 billion every month.

On quantitative easing, I would like my noble friend to explain exactly how it will be unwound. The Bank of England made gains on the gilts which have been bought through this process of about £60 billion a year ago. What is the value today? What will happen when interest rates go up? How will that gap be closed?

My noble friend Lord Wolfson is a grand and successful retailer and I echo what he said about planning. Perhaps the House will allow me one indulgence. My eldest daughter has just started her own business and opened a shop on the King's Road in the worst possible circumstances of recession. Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory council but it took eight weeks to give her planning permission to put her name above the door-eight weeks while she was unable to trade and while it charged her rates for the privilege of waiting on it to give planning permission. It should be utterly impossible to operate in this way in the difficult circumstances that we have in the market place now. We have heard from my noble friend Lord Wolfson of the experiences of big businesses. At least he will have some clever people in his department who will be able to take on the planners. If you are setting up your own business, there is only you. In all the speeches we make about deregulation and supply side reforms, let us get down to the detail that is preventing businesses expanding and growing.

I have said that the economy appears to be becalmed. If you are becalmed, you need a wind of change, and that will come from reducing costs to businesses and reducing costly regulation. I have some sympathy with what the noble Lord said about reducing the cost of national insurance. We should stop thinking of new schemes that make life more difficult for business, such as changing the rules on paternity leave or introducing 1% pension schemes. I read in today's Times that all businesses are to be asked to produce information on the ethnicity of their employees when they want to be out there selling to customers and winning exports.

What is going on in this country when, since 2008, our currency has been depreciating and our exports have gone up by 1% while exports in Germany, France and Holland have gone up by 9%? What is going on? Why are we not more successful in our export efforts?

On energy costs, what are we thinking of? By adding to the cost of energy on business, all we are doing is importing carbon from China, and China is lending the money to enable us to run a deficit while our businesses are disadvantaged as a result.