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Report (3rd Day)

Part of Infrastructure Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 10th November 2014.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Shadow Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 8:45 pm, 10th November 2014

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, has joined us for this debate. I had anticipated that perhaps he would have a slightly more comfortable ride than he did earlier this afternoon in trying to justify the Government’s position on the European issue. But the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has made this debate pretty challenging as well and I hope therefore that the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, will enjoy sailing between the shoals of difficulty in this proposal.

We all enjoyed the contribution that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, made in Committee. I very much enjoyed reading his piece in the Telegraph this morning—not a journal I go to for enlightenment very often—which was an excellent explanation of the sovereign wealth fund and its benefits. But someone had to point out its problems and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has certainly done that.

I would like to add a dimension to this question. Of course, it looks attractive because it looks as if we are acting like benevolent grandparents—after all, we are the right age—trying to ensure that the future for our grandchildren is reasonably rosy. I am in favour of that. I am sure we all are. But the problem is, of which decade in the 20th century, or in the 19th century, would you have said, “The resources that that society commanded in that decade ought to have had an element of hypothecation not to be spent at that time but to be looked after for the succeeding generations”? The problem with that is if you were able to anticipate the periodic crises in the capitalist society in the 19th century and also get the 20th century right, then you could make appropriate judgments. Otherwise, what we are facing is a situation where, one decade after the next, the society gets considerably richer.

We have been used to 2.3% growth. Of course I recognise the crisis that we all face at present. In fact, I have from time to time upbraided the Government’s Front Bench for seeming to portray it as a British crisis, quite unable to recognise that the whole of Europe and the advanced world, particularly the United States, are under the same strains. But we are having a period of very significant constraint upon growth at present; in fact, of course, we have had a negative position for a number of years. That is why it is right, surely, that all the resources we have available are directed towards improving the balance of this society, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has indicated. But in previous generations, such as the one after the Second World War, when it was quite usual to have 2.3% growth a year, within a quarter of a century this country had doubled its wealth. That generation would have looked pretty silly to have hypothecated money for those 30 years down the line when the growth in society ensured that the later society was so much wealthier than it was. We have to rehabilitate—and I am glad I am not the first person to actually try to do this—the word “hypothecation”. After the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, had spoken in Committee I went and had a little chat. I probably indicated in Committee that I took issue with my colleagues at the other end who have got some responsibility for the Opposition’s position on the economy.

Hypothecation is a real problem. Once any area is hypothecated, in effect the flexibility that attends a Government is inevitably reduced and we are all operating—at this time of all times—on the tightest of margins. I think it was said by the outgoing Government at the last election that there was no money left. The incoming Government after the next election are not exactly going to be rolling in vast resources which they can allocate as they wish, hence the reason everybody is reining in the ambitions of potential Governments for the next few years.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, will address himself to what I think is a complex debate. He starts off, of course, from a very strong base because he is the Minister responsible for infrastructure and, after all, will always need to look a decade or more ahead rather than the immediate five years in order to get infrastructure that is effective and accurate at a location. I am not sure the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, can spend too many warm words on the enthusiasm that the Chancellor has shown over the weekend towards this idea. It is an idea worthy of exploration because the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has got a concept that could well capture the public mood and would encourage people to say that in fact we need to look to the longer term future in our investment plans. However, I hope that is what Governments intend to do in any case.

Therefore I have no doubt that when the Minister responds he will have warm words to say towards the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for the work that he has done and the speech that he has made this evening. However, I hope that he will explain why it is so very difficult for a Government to accept what is—in fact—a majestic argument for hypothecation.