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Economy: Growth — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:01 pm on 29th January 2013.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Shadow Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 8:01 pm, 29th January 2013

My Lords, this has been a most fascinating debate, which has covered a wide range of issues and it is therefore a testing ground for the new Minister, whom of course I welcome to his place. I am sure that he will enjoy these debates, as we all do, while recognising that replying to a debate with nearly 30 contributions, all of which merit real thought and response, is challenging. This is not least because the Minister is also replying to the debate about the most fundamental issue before the country, which is the present state of the economy.

The Minister will have noted that from the beginning the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, from the Cross Benches, wasted no time in emphasising two things. We should not be deluded by false claims on infrastructure, or the way in which the Government are recovering the economy. Mention of HS2 and HS3, which are more than a decade, or certainly several years away, before any work on them is done, scarcely fits into the pattern of the urgency of our need for recovery in the economy. My noble friend Lord Barnett buttressed that position by identifying how little has been done in the specific area of infrastructure investment, on which he had challenged the Government.

The Minister might have thought at that stage that least we were on home ground in talking about infrastructure. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, raised the very real and significant issue about regulation of the banking sector. The Minister will appreciate that behind these issues that we are discussing is the financial collapse a few years ago. This has thrust the financial sector into considerable turmoil. For the Government, it has presented a very real challenge in how we seek successfully to regulate the banks, so that nothing like the disaster of the past decade can occur again.

There were other issues in this debate that I hope the Minister will find time to address. In an interesting contribution from the business perspective, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, appeared to indicate that one of the best infrastructure projects in which we could get involved was building roads. Behind it he raised, as regards finance for the roads, the possibility of some system of road pricing. I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, has already been warned about going where others have feared to tread in the past, but he would be wise not to be too enthusiastic about the concept of road pricing in anticipation of where the Government might go in due course.

The issue of quantitative easing came up. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, raised the matter first. He was supported from my Benches by my noble friend Lord Desai. Both of them were really asking what happens when quantitative easing ceases, and we seek to establish a more framework for our economy and currency. This is an interesting question, which I hope the noble Lord will recognise as germane and important to this debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Birt, stressed the issue of the development of the right kind of skills in an economy. This is a long-term process. We all recognise that, but we have heard too much analysis of what is wrong with our skills sector without effectively producing the strategy to cope with it. There is no doubt that for the long-term health of our economy we need to ensure that our people are readily skilled for a world in which technical change occurs so quickly. If that was not enough the noble Lord, Lord Lang, brought up pensions and the challenge that they present to the Government, and in this significant issue he was supported by my noble friend Lord Monks. The agenda is moving up, without the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, not failing, as he usually does, to give us an overview of the issues that are at stake and how they affect business. He was full of a somewhat doleful message. Of the Chancellor's targets, which he set two and a half years ago against which his achievements must be measured, only the tattered banner of credit rating 3A remained, and one was not too sure how long that banner would last before it was shredded.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, picked up on this debate as have a certain dismal quality. It is certainly one that has raised fundamental issues. The noble Lord introduced a dismal element because he thinks that some of the solutions are difficult to achieve in the time that we need to achieve them. The Opposition agree with him. Meanwhile, my noble friends Lord Hanworth and Lord Hollick emphasised the failings of the Government in relation to the policy that has been pursued so far. I am not sure that the suggestion that the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, had produced a document to which the Government should give their fullest attention was quite the response that they have so far given. While we know that that document is to be taken seriously, "seriously" is different from "being acted upon". We await the Government's indication that they are actually prepared to implement some of the suggested reforms of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine.

The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, suggested that the Prime Minister has committed himself to every government department having a growth objective. I do not know all government departments intimately, but I can think of one or two that would resist that concept. There is another challenge for the noble Lord as he beds himself down into Treasury matters. As he will be only too well aware, the Treasury is at the centre of all these issues, and the responsibility that he has taken on needs to measure up to that.

Those are the issues that have been raised in debate, but the fundamental point is the charge that is being made from this side of the House, buttressed by a number of contributions from elsewhere in the Chamber. That charge is straightforward-that we are quite possibly on the brink of a triple-dip return to recession. We are taking longer to emerge from recession than at any time in the past. The objectives and measures that the Chancellor put forward for success in his handling of the economy are all representations of failure.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, found a glimmer of optimism in opportunities for improving exports. No one doubts the necessity for that, but when the pound is slumping to the extent it is, if we do not capitalise on that to develop our export potential, we are in a very serious position indeed. However, although the noble Lord, Lord Howell, is certainly better informed on these matters than I am, I do not think that exports are based too much on sentiment. I understand the markets that may obtain within the Commonwealth, but I am not sure that we get any favourable treatment as far as those sovereign countries are concerned.

This debate has laid bare the weaknesses of the Government's present policy. We are at a crossroads because it will not be long before the Government recognise that they cannot pursue these policies for much longer without pushing the country into total despair. One speech was quite enlightening on these things. It was made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on child welfare. I appreciated his contribution. At last we got to the costs which are being born of failure. The cutbacks that are occurring affect our people so grievously, and we have not seen anything yet. The vast bulk of the cuts in welfare are still to be enforced and implemented upon our people. The noble Lord must recognise that this leads to the parlous state which the economy is in. I hope that he will recognise serious authorities, such as the chief economist to the IMF, the chairman of the bank to which he had some connection, who indicated that he thought that the Chancellor is on the wrong path, or Boris Johnson, who takes a rather different view on the policies that are being pursued at present. We are at a crossroads, and the Government had better start making the right choice of route to follow, otherwise the Minister's role will be less happy than he would wish it to be.