We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, who has often been a distinguished participant in these economic debates, even though I certainly disagree with what seemed to be the central thrust of his argument today, as so often in the past. Like other noble friends, I welcome my noble friend Lord Deighton to the Front Bench and wish him all success. I thought his opening speech was crisp and lucid with a number of very good fours to the boundary.
Before I go further I should like to declare my interests as per the register, with particular reference to Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc, which has a subsidiary by the name of Mercer. Mercer is heavily involved in pensions and I hope to say a word about pensions in the course of my remarks. However, I have had no input from Mercer over this speech and indeed, it does not know that I am making it, which may cause it some concern.
My first point is that the whole debate of austerity versus growth is completely facile and futile. It is totally misguided. The distinction is spurious because austerity is fundamentally a growth policy. It is at the core of our economic management. Unless we reduce the deficit and tackle the debt, confidence will fall, interest rates will rise and the crisis that we have inherited and are emerging from will return.
Like my noble friend Lord Howell, I will not enter into the sterile argument on which the Opposition seem to be salivating about one quarter's provisional figures on the deficit. For the past year we have been flat-lining-the figures add up to zero. They may be adjusted more favourably once the fourth quarter is studied further. However, it is perfectly normal, after a serious recession, that there is an early bounce back and then a period of flat-lining or even a further fall. It has gone on longer in this case because we inherited a bigger crisis. Our banks are constipated. The continuing euro crisis all last year affected both confidence and our markets. In passing, oil accounted for 0.2% of the deficit in the fourth quarter because production has been substantially lowered, mainly as a result of maintenance programmes which are now being completed. Therefore we may feel a compensating bounce back in the next and subsequent quarters.
I think that GDP is really only one measure of performance and not a particularly reliable one. Here I again agree with my noble friend Lord Howell. However, it is one on which there are grounds for cautious optimism. Some City forecasts expect growth of 1% this year, rising possibly to 1.5% towards the end of the year. That is slower than the United States but faster and higher than the eurozone. Employment, not much mentioned from the Benches opposite today, already gives grounds to support that theory. Indeed, even between September and November, in the fourth quarter, there was an increase of 113,000 jobs. Another indicator, the savings ratio, is now around 7.5% which is higher than at any time since 1997, so the private sector seems to support a tight fiscal policy, although ironically that may in fact slow growth a bit when coming from the private sector. However, with real disposable incomes up by more than 2%, there is now the beginning of empowerment of the housing sector and the private sector generally. The Funding for Lending scheme is widely supported by the banking sector. It is helping to reduce banks' funding costs and in the past two or three months there has generally been a sharp rise in credit availability, not least with £50 billion worth of guarantees for infrastructure projects.
Standing firm on our deficit reduction targets is absolutely vital but as progress is made-it is already being made with the deficit down from more than 11% to less than 8%-gradually some leeway will emerge and gradually new policies will be developed. That is as it should be. It does not undermine plan A. It simply builds on the progress that plan A will be delivering. I particularly welcome the way in which my right honourable friend the Chancellor has advanced his policies in reducing corporation tax. At long last we are becoming competitive there and I think that will reap dramatic and relatively early benefits to us -the Laffer curve will kick in. There has been a massive rise in the tax threshold for the low-paid, taking 24 million people out of tax. That is a very valuable growth policy because the money released back into the private sector recycles very quickly.
The focus by many commentators on our austerity programme is actually somewhat misplaced. There is a view among commentators, including those of the IMF, that the impact of tax rises and spending cuts, necessary for other obvious reasons, does not impose a major drag on growth. Other factors do come into play. I believe that lack of credit and liquidity are very serious ones. They are the real problem. Banks, to a unique degree in the United Kingdom, were massively overleveraged and underregulated for the first decade of this century. That was the distinguishing feature of the United Kingdom's crisis. As they struggle to retrench, their lending is paralysed. They have also neutralised any benefit that quantitative easing might have delivered because they hoard the resources that it has delivered to them instead of getting them out into the economy.
The World Economic Forum competitiveness table shows the United Kingdom climbing to eighth position from the 13th that it occupied under the previous Government. However, overall productivity has still not recovered fully from the decline of those years. In part, I think this is caused by the chilling effect of banks not feeling able to force the issue on their huge portfolios of exposed loans because to crystallise them would severely affect their own balance sheets, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth said. Therefore, those loans are stuck in damaged and unproductive companies instead of being directed to new, more viable growth opportunities. Lack of credit is still a huge brake on growth.
There is another serious problem that many companies face. Quantitative easing has driven down yields on gilts which company pension schemes are obliged to hold in substantial quantities. As a result, the Pension Insurance Corporation tells us that since quantitative easing began British companies have had to pump an extra £150 billion into their pension schemes, denying themselves the use of that money and, incidentally, denying the Treasury some £30 billion in lost taxes.
My noble friend spoke of the need for structural change to rebalance our economy and revive the manufacturing sector. I welcome that very much and have a suggestion to make in the field of pensions. I was glad to hear my right honourable friend the Chancellor say in the Autumn Statement that the Government are determined to ensure that defined pensions regulation does not act as a brake on investment and growth. That is a very welcome chink of light but I would like to hear what action is contemplated and when it may happen. I hope that, in winding up, my noble friend may be able to enlighten me.
While quantitative easing is one factor, and a significant one-I hope it will not be resumed-I believe that at the root of the problem was the stealth tax of 1997 that withdrew tax credits from pension schemes, estimated then at around £5 billion per annum. Just as sustained deficits lead to accumulating debt, this revenue raid has by now deprived the trustees of such schemes of some £100 billion of capital. Further imposts have resulted from the levies to the Pension Protection Fund and the introduction of more demanding projected solvency requirements in 2004. Pensions regulators have often obliged trustees against their better judgment to forgo equities in favour of bonds. This toxic cocktail was completed by the credit crunch recession, the lengthening of life expectancy and, as I have mentioned, the impact of quantitative easing on gilt yields, with all the implications for the discount factor in calculating future liabilities.
Most of the burden of meeting the funding demands has fallen on employers dealing with a legacy of departed former employees. If and when interest rates rise, part of those deficits will bounce back. However, at present, many companies, mainly SMEs in manufacturing, are being starved of working capital and the ability to invest by the overhanging shadow of inherited liabilities to their pension schemes. It is no wonder that so many defined benefit schemes have been closed to new entrants. With the dramatic decline in the manufacturing sector in past years, many firms have contracted and have often diversified into specialist sectors with smaller workforces. They have closed their pension schemes but still have the bloated burden of the past and face regulation and enforcement powers that are volatile, onerous and sometimes very damaging.
I do not have time to elaborate more fully on this problem or to list some of the possible measures needed to mitigate this blight, but blight it is. I hope that the point has registered with my noble friend, and I am sure that it has. I am sure that he is already well aware of it and of the fact that things can be done. I hope at least that he may be able to assure the House that relief is at hand.