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Economy: Growth — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:50 pm on 29th January 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat 7:50 pm, 29th January 2013

My Lords, the Minister is going to be tired of being welcomed to his new role, but let me join with others there. I also want to congratulate him on sponsoring what is not an easy debate so early in his ministerial career. It speaks of leadership and this House, on all sides, likes and appreciates leadership. I also want to thank the House for its indulgence. After the first four speeches, I had to join the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards or it would not have been quorate. I think we can all agree that getting the banks into a stable financial situation is a priority. Everything else that we may do for growth in the economy will all be reasonably for naught if we cannot sort our banking structure out, so again I thank the House for that.

I was able to hear the first four speeches and was then in plenty of time to hear the noble Lord, Lord Desai. Those speeches were all a sort of tour de force with the combat of different schools of economic thought. I dare not trespass into that territory-that is not where my intellectual capacities are-but I found it fascinating and I suspect, like many people, that I concluded that is very hard to listen to abstract theory and come away with conclusions. I hope that the House will not mind if I try to be simpler and perhaps a little more practical.

I do not think you have to have a grasp of economic theory to recognise that the previous Labour Government hideously overspent from about 2004, ramping up public spending so that when the financial crisis hit in 2008, because of our spending and debt levels we had no resilience and no cushion to deal with that crisis. I do not think you have to come with a background in economic theory to recognise that the very laissez-faire attitude towards the banks essentially led to the booking of absolutely false profits by those institutions and ephemeral tax revenues, which were taken as a permanent tax stream by the Labour Government.

I do not think you have to have an economics background to recognise that over a longer time than the Labour period-over a generation-we allowed our economy to become unbalanced. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, described that exceedingly well. We became overly dependent on the financial services sector. We failed to make sure that vigour extended beyond the south-east and covered the rest of the country. In perhaps the cruellest rub of all, we neglected providing the kind of skills to our young people who were not going to take the academic route but needed vocational training and apprenticeships. They could have generated the kind of jobs and economic strength that would come from those skills. We chose to neglect all those things; that whole series of imbalances is now being tackled by this coalition. Taking that long-term view and taking on the challenge of dealing with these absolutely fundamental weaknesses in our economy strike me as being some of the most important measures that this coalition has taken.

I want to name check in some sense Vince Cable-he has not been mentioned, at least while I have been here-for bringing forward, fostering and pushing an industrial strategy, something which we have seriously neglected. He has finally provided sector-specific support to industries that can lead us into growth, whether they are pharmaceuticals, green industries or aviation, and the development of the domestic supply chain-an area that really had no focus in the past. There has been investment in innovation and R&D and there is now an absolute sea-change in capital allowances, to encourage investment in new technologies by business. There is action on finance to deal with absolute market failure, which even those changes that we are making will not address. That is, in the Green Investment Bank, the British business bank and very substantial increases in export guarantees.

When the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, spoke, what excited me the most about his extraordinary speech was his focus on doing and delivering. In that context, I would like to add something slightly different to this debate, because as a doer and deliverer I am going to ask him if he might be willing to think small. We have such a bent in this country for looking at the large-the large business, the grands projets and the big bank-while we neglect the heartland of our economy. SMEs as a sector, not just in the UK but overall in the EU, account for all of our new job creation. That is not just in tough times such as these; it has also been true in the years of prosperity. New start-ups and small businesses are absolutely key to our growth and we have an enviable range of SMEs in the UK. Some 20% of all the SMEs in the EU are in this country. I do not think that registers on the general consciousness.

I recognise that this Government have taken steps to strengthen small businesses, from tax breaks to investors through the EIS, regulatory preferences, new support through UKTI and Funding for Lending. However, let me suggest that it is not enough and not brought into a coherent strategy and programme. The problems of SMEs are incredibly granular. I listened yesterday to Xavier Rolet of the LSE talking about the problems of raising equity for SMEs, in large part because all the rules are a scaled-down version of those written for blue-chip companies, rather than being designed for the small players.

I am on the SME Select Committee on exports, where I hear about the problems of protecting intellectual property for small exporters, especially for SMEs that decide to try to export to the BRICs. Again and again, this House has heard the complaint that small companies and microcompanies cannot access credit from the traditional banks. We lack those networks that supply such credit in successful countries, such as the community development finance institutions in the USA and the Sparkassen in Germany. This list could go on for several pages; I suspect that in today's debate many more issues concerning SMEs will have been raised.

There is no point in trying to tackle this as a piecemeal add-on to various different policies in different departments. I wish that the Government would consider having a dedicated team working across departments, going through obstacle by obstacle with the single mandate of releasing growth in our SME sector. Frankly, the big guys can take over themselves; this is where we can make change and with small companies, small changes make an immediate impact. We all know what the impact on jobs would be if SMEs which were planning to expand, perhaps to hire just one more person, did it six months earlier than they had originally planned. The gain that we can get, with its impact on growth, could be tremendous if we agree to focus.

I move into the area of the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, by referring to small infrastructure. I am very supportive of the big infrastructure projects such as HS2. There is a whole range of them. We have neglected infrastructure in this country; I would not argue with that. However, as many people have said, large infrastructure has a long lead time and I want to make a plea for small infrastructure projects. In the Local Government Finance Act 2012, the Government put in place the legal framework for tax increment financing though a structure known as TIF1. This would allow local authorities to receive part of the uplift in business rates resulting from new infrastructure and, on that promise, to obtain the financing to enable those projects to go ahead in the first place. A perfect arrangement, your Lordships might think, for transport links to enable a new industrial park or for an opportunity to finance key housing.

This is not the time to go through the details of the legislation but, in effect, what the Government did was to give with the one hand, by creating the framework for TIF1. They then took away all the potential by severely limiting the period during which local authorities could capture those business rate increases. The argument is about general accounting and the relationship with the Treasury, and whatever else, but given that we need growth this is absolute madness. Just about every local authority in the country will have a few good, but small, infrastructure projects that would stimulate economic development locally. We need those to be breaking ground and I urge the Government to go back and capture that low-hanging fruit of small, local infrastructure projects which could feed quickly into growth.

Lastly, on small lending, this House is well aware that we are quite unique in the developed world in having so much of our banking service dominated by five huge players, all of them so like each other that few individuals or businesses ever bother to move their accounts, despite high levels of dissatisfaction. Everyone recognises that competition for these banks is one of the best ways to challenge what became a tainted culture and a lack of focus on the customer. But while new, big players may have a role, I want to argue for change to include a network of small players. This means community banks, specialist small business banks, crowd funders, peer-to-peer lenders and credit unions-in other words, to have real variety and choice capable of meeting much wider needs than our banks currently meet.

A lot of the enabling legislation is now in place, but to take it from a possibility and a theory to reality, recognition, action and support from our Government and our regulators are needed. It makes for a messier world but, I would argue, a more stable, capable and honest one. That is the argument that I would like to put to the Minister. Of course he must act on large projects and, with infrastructure, they would be a large part of his plate. Will he look at the small and the quick? We need economic growth now, not in 10 or 15 years' time. It seems to me that we have many quick wins of which we are not taking advantage.