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My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Rose of Monewden, to the House and congratulate him on an exemplary maiden speech. This is the second time this year that I have followed the noble Lord, as he left the board of Blue Inc earlier this year for me to join. He brings to this House a wealth of experience at some of the country’s leading businesses, such as Argos, Arcadia, Ocado, Booker, Woolworths, Fat Face and the Burton Group. As he said, he started as a management trainee at Marks & Spencer to rise to CEO and then executive chairman. In 2006, the World Leadership Forum gave him its Business Leader of the Year Award, but he survived that accolade. I am delighted to say that, since then, on leaving M&S, he has become involved in a significant number of start-ups and SMEs. So he brings to your Lordships’ House invaluable international business expertise, and we look forward to many future contributions.
I would like to lend my support to the package of measures announced by the Chancellor in the other place yesterday as further evidence that this Government continue to strike the right balance between fiscal responsibility, on the one hand, and measures to encourage growth and investment, on the other. Indeed, with the deficit down by a half, and projected growth of 3% this year—the envy of our peers in the developed world —on both measures we are succeeding. The Opposition have long said that we are cutting too far and too fast. Indeed, in 2012, the Leader of the Opposition said somewhat opportunistically that we should be more like France. He hailed the election of President Hollande, and gave a description of their first conversation:
“We talked about growth and austerity in Europe and how we can tilt the direction of where Europe is going”.
Well, that tilt has been tried in France and, as we now know, it has led to recession, higher unemployment and, this week, protests in Paris by business men and women frustrated at the unfriendly policies to business adopted by the French President, whose current low rating in popularity is matched only in the UK by his admirer the Leader of the Opposition.
Because we ignored our critics and stuck to our long-term economic plan, Britain is now growing seven times faster than France and we have created record numbers of private sector jobs in the UK. Unlike in other parts of the world, where finance and business continue to be vilified, this Government are encouraging investment, particularly in smaller companies. For example, I welcome the one-year extension of the Funding for Lending scheme to January 2016 and the additional help for the enterprise finance guarantee scheme of some £2.9 billion to small businesses, extended by a further £500 million.
When the banks simply will not lend, we need alternative sources of finance. It is a welcome development that, within the ambit of the British Business Bank, there will be an extra £400 million to support the enterprise capital funds programme. Support for SMEs does not end there; business rates, as the noble Lord, Lord Rose, said, remain a significant impediment to all businesses, but particularly small ones. So I am very pleased to see that small business rate relief will be doubled to 2016, meaning that 385,000 small businesses will continue to have 100% relief, and a further 190,000 will benefit from taper relief, which will be a great help to them.
However, we must also make sure that, as the economy grows, large multinational corporations pay their fair share in helping to get the deficit down. There can be little doubt that globalisation has completely outpaced and outgrown our system of national taxation and, as a result, global corporations are paying less and less tax while acting within the law. So we must change the law. As my noble friend Lord Lawson has said, it is pleasing to see that the Chancellor has taken such dramatic, innovative and radical steps in many areas, but particularly in taxing multinationals. I suspect he must have been listening to the debate in this House on the excellent House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee report, entitled Tackling CorporateTax Avoidance in a Global Economy, led by my noble friend Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market. The noble Lord, Lord Rose, might be interested to know that by a happy coincidence, it was on that subject and in that debate that I gave my maiden speech.
The Prime Minister, through his leadership of the G8, has put tax evasion on the political map, and this Autumn Statement keeps it there. At a time when we have asked public sector workers to accept difficult pay freezes, it is only right that corporations and high net-worth individuals pay their fair share as well. The OECD is doing vital work in this area in trying to secure international agreement, but at some point one country has to show leadership, and I am proud to see that this is the UK.
My Lords, one phrase that, for me, leapt off the page in the Chancellor’s Statement was:
“In fact, the net contribution of the richest 20% will be larger than that of the remaining 80% put together, proving that we are all in this together”.—[Hansard, Commons, 3/12/14; col. 311.]
I thought that that took some brass neck—and then the Minister repeated it in his Statement yesterday. I assume that the Government are adopting the Boris Johnson approach to wealth and poverty: to paraphrase him, “The top 1% keep you lot in shoe leather and Sky television”. I can only hope that that strap line is played in the streets of Peckham, where I live, during the general election—and incidentally, I hope that the Lib Dems will be too ashamed to use it. To make a virtue of the country’s inequality points to a new school of PR, which I have not come across before. A report by economists at the LSE and Essex University has found that in the past four years there has been a significant transfer of income from the least well-off half of the population to the more affluent. If I had time I would deal with that in more detail.
On a different subject, why is there no mention of local government? I presume that it will suffer disproportionate cuts, similar to those in Defence and the Foreign Office. No doubt any news will slip out quietly over Christmas. Local government is important, and we should be standing up for local government and its workers, not consigning them to the ranks of the disappeared. The same applies to the Civil Service. It is the lower-paid who need and use our public services. The Government pay lip service to the national minimum wage, but fail to enforce it. A quarter of a million people are paid less than the national minimum wage, and the Government have had four and a half years to deal with that. Putting £3 million into enforcement in their very last Autumn Statement does not impress.
As we have already been told, the Chancellor’s target to see debt falling as a share of GDP by 2015-16 was abandoned two years ago. Now the structural deficit will almost certainly grow, which means that borrowing could increase by a further £2 billion. The economics editor of the Times, Philip Aldrick, said this week:
“Having softened austerity in this pre-election year, breached his golden rules, taken three years longer than expected to eliminate the structural deficit and doubled the length of the austerity programme to a decade, questions should be asked about the chancellor’s credibility”.
The measures announced to crack down on tax avoidance by such companies as Google and Amazon may be welcome, but the revenues are difficult to estimate. My question is: if the Chancellor is relying on this income to balance his books, what are his estimated odds for achieving it?
The Government have promised to deal with the banks, yet despite government sweeteners, there is no evidence that they are changing their behaviour. RBS has had to apologise for misleading the Treasury Select Committee on profiteering from winding up companies, and the scandal of mis-selling payment protection insurance still haunts the financial sector. Banks have paid out £16 billion to people after 13 million complaints in seven years. A further £23 billion has been set aside for further claims. Time and time again we hear that most of these problems are caused by rogue juniors. Even if that were true—which I doubt—what does it say about the corporate governance of the banks? How much will it take to have a system which prevents these massive scams in the first place and saves the individual or small business money, time and unnecessary stress? Claims management firms have charged
£155 million in commission in the past year to people applying for compensation. One company has made £40 million through its 39% commission on payments. Why is that not illegal?
Finally, we need to put a spotlight on the Government’s assertion that the gender gap is closing and poverty levels are falling. When the tide goes out, nearly everyone is paid less and it goes without saying that the relativities narrow. This is being touted as an example of government success. As I said earlier, the Government really do have a brass neck.
The Autumn Statement goes like this: the Chancellor stands up and says what a wonderful job he has done; the Opposition respond with a ritualistic attack. There is no sanction for the Government having missed all their targets. The “would-be Prime Minister” is not dismissed for showing basic economic illiteracy and the Prime Minister is not censured for his previous comment, “We are paying down Britain’s debts”.
Let us look at some of the promises made versus the outcomes achieved. We were promised a deficit of £35 billion this year; it is £100 billion. We were told that debt would fall to 67% of GDP next year; now the OBR tells us that it will be over 80%. At last the welfare beast was going to be slain with £19 billion of promised savings; instead spending this year will be the same in real terms as in 2010. We were promised that there would be restraint in public spending; this year it is 42.5% of GDP, higher than Alistair Darling planned in his final Budget, and next year it will be £732 billion which, accounting for inflation, is almost exactly the same as in 2010. Any one of these failures would be instantly sackable events in the private sector but bear no immediate penalty in democratic politics. As a businessman, it seems to me that in the political world there is a disconnect between words and deeds.
We can debate the Autumn Statement all we like but the reality of our country’s financial situation is this: government debt is now £1.4 trillion, double its level in 2010; unfunded pensions are double this amount; bank debt is even more; and private sector debt—mortgages, households, business—adds another layer. Then there is debt—off-balance sheet/private finance initiative—which politicians like to pretend is not debt, even though it really is. On any basis, our debts are 600% of GDP. This makes us one of the most indebted countries in the world.
Given this, it might be worth looking at the system which has produced these results. It strikes me that the skills a politician needs to succeed in a democracy are increasingly irrelevant to those required to run a country. In a media-obsessed world, voters want politicians with good personal appearance, likeability and communication skills and, of course, who promise nice things. In what way are these connected to running a country? What the country needs are skills in getting things done, managing people, finance and economics and, most of all, total honesty, the basis for solving all problems.
However, I do feel a certain sympathy for my colleagues in the other place. As we all know, in a modern democracy it is impossible to speak hard truths and get elected. For example, we all sense that the extra £2 billion which the Chancellor has promised for the NHS will not solve its long-term problems. It needs wholesale reform, but who dares say so? To say so risks the accusation of failing to support the NHS, or worse, of advocating its privatisation. This is the great hypocrisy of our times. People complain about the dishonesty of politicians, yet any politician who spoke the truth would be annihilated in the polls. “All truth is good”, goes the proverb, “but not all truth is good to say”. This is what Jean-Claude Juncker meant when he said, “We know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it”.
So our politics is stuck: benefits, votes, debt. Europe has 7% of the world’s population but 50% of its welfare spending. Is this sustainable? What happens if it is not? Over the past 50 years, voters have been given ever more benefits and public services. But here is the great paradox of our time—nobody is happy. People today loathe politicians—we can see it all around us and in other European countries—but no one questions the system in which politicians operate. People hate the practice but never question the theory. I wonder whether one day the Autumn Statement and tit-for-tat debate which follows will be held to serve no purpose, politicians will be held to account in the world of financial reality rather than that of electoral politics, it will not be possible to miss targets or spin figures, cliché and ritualistic attack will no longer be acceptable, and excellence, ability to deliver and doing things properly are held to be the greater virtues. Let us hope that, should that time come, it will not be too late.
My Lords, I enjoyed that speech. I join in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Rose, and comment, which others have not done, that Marks & Spencer has always been a very progressive capitalist organisation. Indeed, one of its founders—Lord Marks, I think—used to contribute openly to the Labour Party, so it obviously knows that that party exists.
The Government’s Autumn Statement was, as expected, an occasion to announce further planning, further cuts in public expenditure and measures to make the UK a less fair and meaner society, which the Chancellor and, indeed, some Ministers seemed to relish, as we heard this morning. One can only be worried that these policies will continue. Over the relevant period, other countries such as the United States put more money into government. If we had had a Conservative Government from 2008 to 2010, doubtless these impacts would have been greater. Over the period in question, many people’s living standards fell and we now have food banks in the UK. Perhaps the one benefit of the Chancellor’s Budget is its provision of money to the churches so their roofs are all right while the food banks operate down below.
The main omission in the Statement is that there is no mention of the greatest fundamental risk to the future of the UK’s economy—that is, the threat posed by the UK leaving the European Union. That has not been mentioned this morning either. That seems to me quite extraordinary. If you were a trader seeking a loan or investment and, while seeking that loan, you did not tell your bank or backers that you were about to deliberately tear up the existing business plan and do something quite different, you would be considered grossly dishonest. Indeed, if you were a director of a company, I believe that you could well be prosecuted for not operating correctly. Perhaps this goes back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Palumbo. For example, I know that the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, who made an excellent opening speech but is not in his place, is firmly pro-Europe, although he did not mention that.
However, I want to make one or two positive points. I am sure that we all welcome the financial help given to health workers helping with humanitarian disasters such as the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. The only mention of that by the Chancellor was in connection with inheritance tax but many of these people will have no money to hand on as they are not rich. Surely we should be talking about significant ex gratia payments for people doing this extraordinarily dangerous and important work. I would like the Minister to comment on that.
It is also welcome that the Statement announces that small businesses will benefit. However, it should be remembered that there was considerable concern that the incoming Conservative Government would withdraw the tax relief for R&D. I know this as I am a founder director of a small company in Cambridge. There were many rumours going on all the time in these businesses and we had no idea what was going to happen. For two years we had great uncertainty about this investment. Now we are told that research is terrific and should be invested in, but that is not the way you run a country, with a stop-start process. In fact, Gordon Brown said that we no longer have a stop-go policy—but, of course, that happened under a Labour Government.
The Government’s remarks on infrastructure are another example of stop-go government. When the parties opposite came to power, they immediately cut expenditure on flood protection for no good reason. As Lib Dems generally have to walk around in gum-boots in many of their wetter constituencies, it is rather surprising that they did not demur, as they did not demur on most of the big cuts made by this Government. We are surprised, of course, that it has taken so long for the Government to come round to investing in flood protection. Our colleagues in the Netherlands were astonished by the incompetence which the UK has displayed in this area. Under the Labour Government, a Foresight programme was established which mentioned the need for further investment in flood protection, so now we are learning.
My next point is, again, positive—namely, that the Autumn Statement includes references to further funding for science and technology and that this expenditure should be maintained at an approximately constant level in real terms. The Government have outlined institutions that should be supported and expanded, such as the one in Manchester. However, I was at a meeting this week of a society of which I am a member, where real concern was expressed about the low salaries and weakening job opportunities for scientists. Of course, it is a good thing that there will be loans for postgraduate work but, if at the end of that there are not enough jobs, that is serious. Why will there not be enough jobs? One of the causes, of course, is the considerable uncertainty in the UK, and on the part of our partners, about the UK’s future in Europe. I tabled a PQ and the answer came back that there was uncertainty about that, so whether it is weather forecasting, high-energy nuclear physics, fusion physics or many other areas, doubt has been cast by government policy in that regard.
Finally, this Government, the Treasury and the City of London still do not understand that it is a good thing for the UK to have companies that are owned and based in the UK. Recently, we nearly lost a big pharmaceutical company. Fortunately, it had European directors who did not want to sell it. Now we have Airbus. It is no longer regarded by many people as a significant British company; they consider that we are subcontractors. Again, this is because the Treasury and the City seem to want us not to own businesses but just to have places where the businesses operate in the UK. Surely in the long term we should change that policy.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rose, on his excellent speech. The noble Lord, Lord Palumbo, has hit the nail exactly on the head. The figures that he mentioned are completely ignored in most debates on economics and yet, in my view, they will come to haunt future generations.
We all know that the Government inherited an economic disaster caused by a previous Government who consistently, in their later years, ran a budget deficit when a surplus was appropriate, and boasted about economic growth that was partly financed by debt—the same trap that this Government are in. The last Government increased the money supply and oversaw—or did not—poor regulation. The bankers—or, should I say, gamblers?—took over the casino. They should have known better, bearing in mind the absurd salaries and bonuses they received. Sadly as we know, some of their illegal practices have continued for far too long. This must be cleaned up.
However, after four and a half years, we cannot go on blaming the last lot. Where are we now? The Government tell us that we have the fastest growth rate of any of the 28 countries in the EU. Well done for that. However, we also have the second largest budget deficit as a percentage of GDP of any country apart from Greece. We have, therefore, one of the fastest growing rates of national debt of any country in the EU, nearly doubling under this Government. How often do we hear that from the Government? If you spend £110 for every £100 you take in tax, you would expect the economy to grow. If it did not, you would really have a problem.
The Government, in my view, should have cut spending when they came to power. Instead, even on their own forecast, spending increases year on year. Spending is up this year by more than 2%. In Ireland, it is down 30% since its peak, and in Spain, Portugal and Greece by 7%, 8% and 16%. Admittedly, their debt-to-GDP ratios have increased because their economies have contracted. I am not advocating cuts on that scale but it shows that cuts, although very painful, can be achieved.
What did the Government do? They raised VAT and slashed government infrastructure spending. Surely a more effective approach would have been to cut current spending—welfare, for example, where benefits were initially linked to relatively high rates of inflation. Interest on the national debt costs £55 billion a year. The Chancellor congratulates himself on low interest rates, helped perhaps by quantitative easing; the unravelling of that is another story. What happens when rates rise, as they surely must?
However, at least we are not getting the talk of the “end of boom and bust”. There is good news—a large increase in small business start-ups and a big rise in self-employment—but only now are the Government starting to get a grip on benefits, which is not helped by vast and uncontrolled immigration, imposing huge strains on health, education and social services, holding down wages and, therefore, income tax receipts. It is a failure of this Government to control expenditure, immigration and many basic items of housekeeping which is concerning. Costs can always be cut. Only now do we have proposals to stop those receiving redundancy payments being re-employed with no redress. This is basic housekeeping. I wrote about this to the Prime Minister four years ago; where is the implementation? Then we had the proposal to pass a law on balanced budgets—presumably to embarrass the Opposition. It is just a gimmick, as we all know; one Government cannot bind the hands of another. We cut our Regular Forces when world conflicts and terrorism are on the rise. Surely the saving of just over £2 billion would be better achieved by a cut in overseas aid.
However, much has been achieved—but sadly still not enough—to simplify the tax system. Noble Lords should look at the book I have here on claiming benefits. Written by the Child Poverty Action Group, it contains nearly 2,000 pages. Where is the simplification there? Disappointing as it is incurring debt to finance growth, the Government’s Statement is better than the Labour Party’s alternative, which is spend, tax and spend.
My Lords, somewhat to my surprise, I find that I have been making speeches in Parliament on Budgets and Autumn Statements for 50 years. Over that time, things have changed quite a lot. On the one hand, the Autumn Statement has been made increasingly close to Christmas, while, on the other, it has become more like a Budget. In that context, this Autumn Statement therefore contains two elements: specific proposals and economic management.
As to the first, this is one of the most imaginative autumn “Budgets” that we have ever had. It is extraordinary to cover everything from stamp duty to international tax avoidance, and from Select Committees on apprenticeships and so on to umbrella companies.
Noble Lords may well ask what umbrella companies are. This is precisely the question that a Select Committee was set up in your Lordships’ House—for one of these rapid, six-month reviews—to deal with. It is gratifying to find that, apparently, the Chancellor is proposing to act on the problems that that Select Committee identified.
There were a great many proposals in the Statement and, as I said yesterday, I particularly welcome the VAT relief on hospices. I was wondering why I did not include that when I was steering the original VAT legislation through the House of Commons. The answer was that there were very few hospices. At that time, I had been involved in founding the second of them. That perhaps explains why that was so, but I am slightly surprised that the Chancellor thinks he can do that, because the Treasury has been assiduous in preventing the extension of VAT reliefs to anyone. Perhaps my noble friend can confirm the answer: that the relief will be given in the form of a refund, rather than zero-rating. If that is the case, it will be still be just as welcome and help hospices considerably.
I turn to the question of economic management and, of course, the deficit. We must recognise, and the Government recognise, that the Chancellor failed to hit his targets. I am not surprised by that. In the first speech I gave when the coalition came into operation, I pointed out the immense difficulties of cutting public expenditure. I have been through that set of problems myself but, none the less, we have reached a stage where it has been halved, and that is most certainly to be welcomed. However, crucially, the Chancellor has made it absolutely clear that he is going to persist with carrying through in his determination to eliminate the deficit and move us into surplus. The fact that Gordon Brown allowed himself to go on increasing the deficit, rather than running a surplus, when things were going well is much of the cause of our present problems. I therefore very much hope that the Chancellor will persist with reducing the deficit.
None the less, the economy is growing at 3%. That is nearly—in fact, I think it is—the fastest rate we have ever achieved. The difficulty now is to judge at what stage we run into the limit on productive potential. We need to ensure in the end that capacity, the productive potential and the level of demand are increasing at the same speed. The difficulty is that we do not really know how much of our productive potential was destroyed in the crisis. None the less, it is right to see how we go on that. It is crucial to increase the productive potential, and I therefore welcome the paper published the day before the Autumn Statement on the need to improve our infrastructure. A measure of how behind we have fallen on this is the road programme. As someone who has been advocating a bypass for Worthing for 33 years in the Commons and for another 17 here, what I do not understand is why now it is said that there will be some improvements to the A27 but the bypass will be at Arundel. My noble friend Lord Eden, from the south coast, may laugh but there is no main north-south route running to Arundel, whereas there is to Worthing. At all events, my noble friend the Minister who is to reply is involved in the infrastructure programme and I very much welcome what he is proposing.
My Lords, I should like to touch upon three issues in my five minutes. The first has been prompted by a splendid article in the IFS’s Fiscal Studies, written by Paul Johnson, which encouraged a glimpse of what has been happening to tax policy in the UK, from the perspective of consistency and coherence. This is a chance to take some stock.
So far as income tax is concerned, we know that the Government’s focus has been on raising the personal allowance, at a cost of some £12 billion currently. There has been less focus on reducing the marginal rates of tax, specifically the basic rate. Policy under the coalition has complicated the starting point in a number of ways. The starting point for national insurance contributions has diverged from the point at which income tax has become payable; the contributions threshold has been maintained in real terms. I am not sure that we have ever heard a good reason and justification for that from the Government, particularly because they claim to be helping hard-working families—who of course pay national insurance contributions. Marginal income tax rates have been increased because of the transferrable allowance for married couples. That is because it is withdrawn once higher-rate tax becomes payable, so an extra £1 of income at the threshold can result in a £210 tax bill. Marginal tax rates are also affected by the taxing away of child benefit at income levels above £50,000. This can reach more than 70% for larger families. Marginal rates rise again, once income reaches £100,000, to 62%, then fall away. Can the Minister explain the thinking behind this rate structure and what coherence is attached to it?
We see again short-termism and the sticking-plaster approach in the treatment of the annual investment allowance for business. It was increased to £100,000 in 2010, cut to £25,000 in 2012, increased to £250,000 in 2013 and raised again to £500,000 in 2014. Can the Minister explain how this helps business to plan for the long term? However, we should acknowledge that changes have at last been made to the structure of what has been described as the UK’s worst-designed tax, stamp duty land tax. However, it is clear that our current tax system is far from coherent and consistent in all its aspects. I would not lay this charge just at the door of this Government, but we need to find a way to build a coherent tax system on a long-term basis.
My second point concerns the tax avoidance measures referred to by others. The thrust of these should be supported. Of course, much of the avoidance and evasion can be effectively challenged only by international efforts—by a global response. There is much being done by the OECD and the G20, particularly around base erosion and profit shifting, exchange of tax information and anti-hybrids. However, these wheels grind slowly. The measures listed in the Statement for domestic action demonstrate the scale and ingenuity of those who seek to avoid their obligations.
All this heralds another bumper finance Bill to add to the more than 2,500 pages the coalition Government have brought forward so far. It is inevitable that sophisticated avoidance is met by detailed, sophisticated anti-avoidance legislation, but it raises the question of how the parliamentary process can readily cope with all this, let alone have processes for post-legislative scrutiny. The headline measure is the diverted profits tax. This principle should obviously be supported, but it raises questions about how it is to be successfully implemented. Is it intended that it will be introduced as part of the BEPS—the base erosion procedures—with the OECD initiative or otherwise? Can the Minister say what discussions have taken place with the OECD on the proposal?
My final point is a reflection on the overall impact of this Government’s tax and benefits policy, which my noble friend Lady Donaghy touched on. The Minister will doubtless be aware of last month’s report, authored by the LSE and the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex. This work examined the distributional impacts of changes to benefits, tax credits, pensions and direct taxes from an indexed May 2010 base. It is suggested that that analysis is not displaced by yesterday’s Statement. Its conclusion is that, overall, the net effect of these changes, so far as the public finances are concerned, is neutral. However, the distributional effect has certainly not been neutral. Overall, the poorest 20th of the population lost nearly 3% of their incomes and the next five-20ths nearly 2%. Apart from the top 20th, the income groups in the top half of the distribution were net gainers, as were the top 1%. This is largely because benefit reductions were greater for the bottom half than their gains from lower income tax. Remarkably, without having any net effect on the public finances, the effect of the reforms has been an income transfer from the poorer half of households to most of the richer half. How on earth does the Minister justify this? Why should the poor bear a disproportionate share? Is this truly a legacy of which the Government are proud?
My Lords, in his absence, may I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Rose on his maiden speech and welcome him to the House? I would like to put on record my congratulations to the Chancellor on what I am going to call an Autumn Budget, both in an economic and political sense. Others have said much about the surprising success of the UK economy over the last five years, particularly in comparison with continental Europe. I will focus in particular on the entrepreneurial explosion that is going on—the greatest I have known in my business lifetime and something that will be extremely good news for the future.
As well as that, the Chancellor, supported by the OBR, has set down his long-term plans for the economy, which are, amazingly, to achieve a budgetary surplus of £23 billion by 2018 and to bring public spending down to 35.2% of GDP by 2019-20. That is a commitment to a competitive, low-tax economy, which is the only way in which we are going to generate the tax revenues to finance the constantly increasing costs of the National Health Service.
I will point to one or two interesting statistics that came out of the Autumn Statement. The first are simply the revised figures, showing 8% growth of the UK economy since 2010. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, was up to date with the revised figures. Secondly, although the deficit remains too high—indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, pointed out, we have had a strong element of Keynesian support of the economy—the annual deficit is now down to 5% of GDP, a halving of its extent since 2009. Thirdly, we have all heard that business investment is far too low, yet I note that rather than being growth of 4% it is actually growing at 27%, which must be one of the highest growth rates on record.
The decline in youth unemployment is extremely good news. The whole issue of what is happening to wages is also quite interesting. The Statement points out that, for those in employment, increase in pay is currently running at 4% per annum, even though the average is far lower, largely because of all the new jobs for the young. I was interested to note some recent comments by former Chancellor Darling, to the effect that he was saddened that, while tax credits had been introduced with the intention to boost living standards, they had served largely to keep down wages: why would employers pay when the Government would top it up? That has had a material impact on wage growth and on poor productivity figures.
A key political measure has been reform of the extremely unfortunate stamp duty “slab” system, which the Labour Government brought in. Some 98% of the population will benefit from that. Moreover, the rather harsh 12% stamp duty charge on properties worth more than £1.5 million will serve to kill, one way or another, the wholly impractical mansion tax proposals.
I will highlight one small measure for which I have campaigned for a number of years, which is that the surviving spouse can now inherit her husband’s or his wife’s ISAs intact, with their tax benefits. It always struck me as unfair that, while that occurred for pension saving for retirement, a lot of self-employed people use ISA savings for retirement, so that the widow was quite often, to my mind, robbed of the tax incentives that ISAs offer. I am grateful to the Chancellor for having finally implemented that.
To comment on some of the measures to raise taxes and address things that needed addressing, I would just say that the 12% stamp duty at £1.5 million is on the high side and anti-aspirational, particularly for people living in London. Secondly, on the additional £4 billion of tax on the banks by disregarding 50% of past losses, I am pleased to note that the Government excluded new banks from that for their first five years. However, I think that there is some risk. If you want the banking system to lend more, it needs more capital, with capital requirements going up. If it is constantly being fined due to extra amounts being taxed, there is only one thing that can happen, which is that bank balance sheets contract and lending reduces. I think that that needs to be borne in mind.
While the 25% special tax on multinationals transferring profits is certainly justifiable, when put together with the big increase in non-doms taxation, we need to be careful not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. This country has benefited hugely from talented entrepreneurs—I refer to the likes of my noble friend
Lord Rose—coming to the UK and living and establishing their businesses here. If we get the reputation of being tax-unattractive, that can be nothing other than damaging. However, overall this is an excellent Statement and it demonstrates that this Government have done remarkably well with our economy in very difficult times.
My Lords, I draw attention to the contrast between the prospects for our economy, particularly on the deficit, so starkly set out in the report of the Office for Budget Responsibility, and the preposterous gloss put on it by many speakers on the Conservative Benches, who ought to know better and who ought at least to be able to read a balance sheet and understand gross national product figures. I include in that the former Chancellor, the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, whose figures were totally wrong when he referred to ours being the most successful economy in Europe. There are two points here which we have to nail as lies—if that is not an unparliamentary word; if it is, I will withdraw it. What has been said is not true. I will quote from a chart the figures that show what has happened to some economies since the peak of 2007 to 2009, followed by the trough and then a comeback.
First, on the level of economic activity, Germany is still the best part of 20% more productive than we are—over 10% per head. Secondly, Germany has never had a big trough. I shall quote some figures, which are in billions of euros, so they are all consistent. The figure for Germany’s gross domestic product for 2007 was €2,428 billion. It is now €2,737 billion—an increase of 16%. Our GDP stood at €2,086 billion in 2007, and the latest available figure, published by Eurostat, is €1,899 billion for 2013. We understand from recent Treasury announcements that we have just got back to the previous peak. Even France did not have the great trough that we had and its economy is at least at our level of prosperity.
The propaganda coming from the other side of the House is relentless. This is a highly political debate and the more I listen to it, the more I believe that what is coming from the Conservative Party is purely political propaganda. We know that the maxim in the minds of those in the Conservative Party at the moment is that you can fool some of the people for some of time and indeed that you can fool all of the people all of the time—at least until May 2015. However, I do not think that that will happen because, as we have heard, people have their own experiences of productivity, wages, living standards and cuts. My noble friend Lord McKenzie touched on this. The cuts have been not two, three, four or five times but the best part of 10 times more onerous for the bottom quarter than for the top.
I should like to ask the Minister—he has time to get advice on the Eurostat and other figures—whether he agrees that my figures are correct and that the figures from Conservative Central Office being trotted out by the previous speaker and many other speakers are preposterous and wrong.
I want to make one point on our productivity performance, which my noble friend Lord Adonis made one of his major themes. I very much welcome the recognition, finally, in this country that we have to benchmark and learn from other economies in Europe. Mr John Cridland, the director-general of the CBI, in a speech the other day said that we ought to study the Mittelstand—the medium-sized enterprises—in Germany. I hope that there will be an opportunity for the TUC and the CBI to discuss these matters together. I hope that people do not think that that would be a retrograde step; I think that it is a rather good thing to do in all successful economies. So far as the companies in this country are concerned, those economies, as well as the multinationals, need to get together to look at what happens to skills and productivity. World market share is always on the agenda for the European works councils. That is what they are for: to see whether X, Y or Z is needed to increase world market share. However, we do not have that for our companies.
I hope that at some point we can be a little more objective about the prospects for our economy and not just, as too many people on the opposite side have done, regurgitate statistics that relate to a fantasy world. On that, I think that the chickens are coming home to roost with a vengeance.
My Lords, in his first Budget in 2010, the Chancellor said that the Government would,
“have debt falling and a balanced structural”,
“by the end of this Parliament”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 22/6/10; col. 168.]
Despite the Chancellor’s tough talk about austerity and cutting public expenditure, the reality is that public expenditure as a percentage of GDP has continued to increase. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, for leading this debate.
Yesterday, it was announced that the Government will spend £746 billion in 2015-16, rising to £765 billion in 2018-19, compared with £692 billion in 2010. Government spending is increasing and, as a percentage of GDP, our national debt is rising. According to the OBR, it will now peak at 81% of GDP in 2015-16. This means that the Chancellor will completely miss his target to ensure that net debt is falling relative to GDP by 2015-16.
We have a perception of austerity that has simply not been matched by reality. Yesterday, the Chancellor acknowledged that we are at least another four years away from that target. To build on what the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said, if we are borrowing £300 billion more than the Chancellor said he would in 2010, why should anyone believe him this time around? The OBR has predicted that public expenditure is going to have to fall to 35.2% of GDP by 2019-20—the lowest level since the 1930s. Let us remember that the 1930s were pre-welfare state days. Can the Minister confirm that that is really achievable?
In order to achieve those cuts, it is predicted by the OBR that the defence budget, which is already negligently too low, will have to be cut by 60%. Can the Minister confirm that that might have to happen, although it is hoped that it never will. However, I was delighted to hear that the Government will be giving money to veterans, including £2 million for the Gurkhas. I was privileged to have been brought up with the Gurkhas. My late father, Lieutenant-General Bilimoria, was commissioned to the 2nd Battalion, Fifth Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force), and was president of the Gurkha Brigade when he was commander-in-chief of the Central Indian Army. I was privileged to have been brought up with two Victoria Cross holders from birth—they were living legends. Therefore, I thank the Government for doing that.
However, it is the low level of interest rates for a prolonged period, at the level of 5% that led to the financial crisis from which we suffered. Yet today we are being propped up by interest rates that are 10 times lower—at 0.5%. Government borrowing has been increasing year on year and expenditure on debt interest has contributed to it. It is more than £1.27 trillion and is costing us £1 billion a week—more than the entire defence budget.
Does the Minister agree that interest rates might have to rise? The Governor of the Bank of England made a ridiculous statement that he would start increasing interest rates when unemployment fell below 7%. Unemployment is at 6% now and interest rates have not gone up, but they will go up at some stage, and if they do the debt interest levels will go up. The SNP made the mistake in its budgets with the oil price and its budgets are shot to tatters at the moment. Will the Minister give his views on future interest rates?
Wearing my hat as chancellor of the University of Birmingham I have seen that our higher education sector is one of the jewels in our crown. I am delighted that the Government are about to announce loans for postgraduate studies. On the other hand, we highly underinvest in higher education as a proportion of GDP compared with the OECD, the EU and America. On R&D and innovation, the patent box is all very well—it is stored—but if we invested the same proportion of GDP as countries such as America, the OECD and the EU, we would help our productivity hugely. Our current account deficit has reached 5.2% of GDP, which is worse than Italy and France. Our fiscal deficit of 5% is almost double that of the United States, let alone Germany which has just 0.2%.
As the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said, skills are so essential. I am proud to be an ambassador for Studio Schools. Last month I opened the Vision Studio School in Mansfield. That is the sort of initiative that I am glad the Government are backing. Tax breaks to apprentices are excellent but, on the other hand, the word “entrepreneurship” was completely missing from the SME Bill. Entrepreneurship should be the cornerstone of our future growth. I launched the 10th anniversary of the Cambridge University Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning this week. That is what we should be backing. The Sirius campaign, backed by UKTI, bringing young entrepreneurs to Britain to develop their businesses, is a great initiative that the Government should be doing.
The Government are doing a lot, but are they doing enough on the big things? We have a tax system that is so complicated that the tax code is now 17,000 pages long. The Office of Tax Simplification is an oxymoron. Our corporation tax rate is low but our income tax rate is too high. Capital gains tax is too high. The Indian restaurant industry which we supply and the Bangladesh Caterers Association UK are constantly complaining about VAT and asking for it to be reduced. Our hospitality and tourism industries say that VAT is far too high. We do not have a competitive tax system.
The noble Lord, Lord Rose, in his excellent speech, spoke about confidence. We need confidence, productivity, and a better educated and more entrepreneurial workforce who think globally. Government expenditure should be at a believable rate: 35% is unachievable; 40% would be a realistic rate. We could then balance our books and have an educated, productive, confident and enterprise-based economy so that, even as 1% of the world’s population—that is all we are—we can continue to punch above our weight.
My Lords, I shall confine my remarks to the part of our country that matters most to me—Northern Ireland. The responsibility for setting corporation tax rates there could now be devolved to its power-sharing Executive and Assembly as a result of an extremely important announcement in the Autumn Statement. The announcement has been long awaited. Widespread consultations were initiated more than three and a half years ago when the Treasury published a paper to pave the way for a detailed examination of, in its words,
“the extent to which a phased reduction in the rate of corporation tax could support a rebalancing of the economy”.
The rebalancing of the economy is, of course, one of the principal objectives of this Government’s policy. Nowhere is a significant rebalancing needed more than in the Province, which has for so long been overwhelmingly and dangerously dependent on the public sector. The Treasury’s work on the issue of corporation tax devolution was completed some time ago. I pressed for an announcement as soon as possible. I am glad that it has at last been made.
Many of the Province’s politicians and economic experts believe that Northern Ireland needs rates of corporation tax significantly lower than the rest of our country, welcome though the Chancellor’s steady reductions in the tax over years have been. That is because Ulster faces severe competition for the inward investment that it needs so badly from its neighbour across its border, the Republic of Ireland, which has a 12.5% rate of corporation tax. Substantial inward investment and the new private sector jobs that it could create are vital if the rebalancing of the Northern Ireland economy is to be achieved. The Government estimate that low rates of corporation tax in the Province could lead to the creation of some 50,000 new jobs in the years ahead.
The devolution of corporation tax does not command universal assent in Ulster, but the majority of the Province’s political parties and large numbers of its business leaders favour this immensely important proposal. The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce said yesterday that,
“our politicians must grasp this opportunity”.
With the opportunity comes a severe challenge. The immediate consequence of special low rates of corporation tax would be the reduction in the revenue generated by them, which would lead in turn to the reduction in the block grant which the Northern Ireland Executive receive. So, as my noble friend Lord Empey, chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party, who cannot be in his place today, has often reminded me, careful consideration would need to be given to the manner in which low rates of corporation tax were phased in if they were devolved. A gradual introduction over several years would seem to be the right course.
The Government will be aware that yesterday’s announcement in respect of Northern Ireland will stir keen interest in Scotland and Wales. The Smith commission ruled out the devolution of corporation tax to the Scottish Parliament. Nicola Sturgeon, however, is unlikely to let the matter rest there. In Wales the Silk commission recommended that the tax should be devolved to the Welsh Assembly if Northern Ireland was given it. The Government will need to consider these repercussions, remembering always their overriding duty to preserve the unity of our country. Unfortunately, and through no fault of the Government, the corporation tax announcement does not come at a propitious moment in the political furnace of the Province. Its power-sharing Executive are in turmoil. One consequence of that turmoil has been a £100 million loan from the Treasury to cover the current deficit. The Chancellor was right to say that the Executive must demonstrate that they are,
“able to manage the financial implications”,—[ Hansard, Commons, 3/12/14; col. 314.]
of corporation tax devolution. That is a fair and proper condition to stipulate.
Cross-party talks are now taking place under the chairmanship of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I hope that the financial and other issues that are now seriously jeopardising the work of the Northern Ireland Executive will be diminished to the point where the Chancellor’s welcome announcement can be the subject of serious cross-party discussion in the Province. Those who seek to impede Northern Ireland’s search for economic progress will not be readily forgiven.
My Lords, I begin by apologising to the noble Viscount that my Select Committee duties kept me from being in the Chamber at the beginning of this debate. My thanks to the Whips for letting me in.
The problem with this economic debate is that it is defined almost entirely in terms of the deficit. Indeed, we have become obsessed with the figures for the deficit in the same way as we were obsessed in the 1970s with the trade gap, which nowadays is largely ignored. I recognise that the deficit is important both in absolute terms and in terms of the way in which we finance it. But focusing on it takes away from focusing on the two sides that create the gap—income and expenditure. I want to focus largely on one reason why both public income and expenditure are affected by the very serious reduction in real wages. I follow the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, and my noble friend Lord Desai in focusing on real wages.
Low real wages both reflect and cause one of our underlying problems: low productivity. Indeed, as others have said, low productivity is one of the main constraints on our recovery. There are many reasons for real wages having declined in recent years, some directly and some indirectly to do with the Government. They relate to the public sector wage freeze, the absence of collective bargaining in large parts of the private sector, the increase in part-time work for many people who would prefer to work much longer hours, down to those on zero-hours contracts, and so forth, and the increase in what is termed self-employment, which often is not by choice either. Indeed, the real incomes of the self-employed have fallen faster than for anybody else since the financial crisis, although the numbers of self-employed have increased.
The effects of low income have been felt on both sides of the equation. They have clearly lowered the actual receipt of taxes to below what the Chancellor expected and they have increased the level of expenditure through tax credits and housing benefit, which has been aggravated by the complete failure to deal with the underlying housing crisis. Housing costs are going up at the same time as real incomes are going down. Also, we should not ignore the fact that low real wages have toxified other aspects of the body politic. We have intergenerational conflict. As someone said, the young are most hard hit by the decline in wages. We also see it in sensitive debates around immigration, the EU and the whole future of welfare.
The Chancellor and the OBR seem to expect real wages to recover, but there is no obvious reason why they should—particularly if we reduce the role of the state to that in the 1930s. If we are going back to that, we should remember quite what the 1930s brought us in terms of both economics and politics. We need instead to introduce structural and legal changes that raise the level of incomes of the poorest in our workforce. If we do that, we will begin to increase income to the Exchequer on the one hand and to reduce expenditure on benefits on the other. We will also help to remove some of the dangerous tendencies in our society and in the body politic.
Let me be fair; there are aspects of the Statement to which I can give a qualified welcome. I agree with most of the infrastructure commitments—but, like my noble friend Lord Hunt, I regret that they also reflect those areas which the Government cut five years ago. Nevertheless, they are back, although I regret the absence of any commitment to a housebuilding programme. I welcome the more progressive moves in relation to the structure of stamp duty, although while it may help on the one hand, on the other it may aggravate the housing market in the short term. But the overall message I want to send is that unless we as a society and as a Government or alternative Government address the issue of declining real pay, we will end up remaining in this situation for many years to come.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Rose of Monewden—I hope I have pronounced that correctly—on his maiden speech. We will all be interested to hear from him on business matters. I understand that he also has experience of turning round failing hospitals. As a former health Minister I shall be very interested to hear about that as well.
As this is the last Autumn Statement before the general election, it obviously has more than a whiff of politics about it. As an economist and as a politician, I have sometimes felt torn in two by the conflicting priorities that these occasionally impose—but not on this occasion. For the first time, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has seriously hit the holy grail of economic policy, which is economic growth with low inflation. He has done that partly through his own efforts, which have been somewhat more Keynesian, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, implied, than he might perhaps have thought earlier on. He has also done it because of the enduring legacy of the Thatcher and Major years.
My noble friend Lord Lawson of Blaby referred to those years, but did not mention that he himself played a central part in the microeconomic management from which we still benefit. Ed Conway, the “Sky News” economics editor, wrote in the Times the other day:
“Europe is still awaiting its Thatcher moment”.
That is because of the regulations and problems of the labour market which are still prevalent, particularly in southern Europe. Even Germany has problems because it is still waiting for its Keynesian moment. It does not understand that there has to be some expansion from time to time in order to get the economy going. Believe you me, if you are in the eurozone and you have not had a Thatcher moment and you still have not had a Keynesian moment, you are in real trouble. That is the difficulty they face—and it will impinge on us in due course.
I welcome particularly the centrepiece of the Statement about infrastructure development. As a former transport Minister, I welcome the points about roads and railway development, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, rightly pointed out, under both Governments, far too often these have been stop-start projects. We should not forget one thing, which is that we have done particularly well on broadband. When this Government came to power, the UK was one of the worst countries in western Europe for broadband development; now we are the leader. That is a very good example of how government policy should be conducted.
Also in the context of infrastructure development, as a Lancastrian I particularly welcome the emphasis on the north of England. The HS3 project has everything going for it and makes total sense. I hope that my noble friend Lord Deighton is listening carefully: I hope that the Government will proceed with HS3 whatever happens to HS2. HS3 should take priority because it is good value for money and makes sense.
I think that we should proceed with fracking in a sensible way, while obviously taking the environmental concerns into consideration. Jim Ratcliffe, a fellow Lancastrian and the founder of Ineos in Scotland, took the right approach when he said that we should increase greatly the amount going to local communities as a benefit from fracking. He proposed that 6% of the revenue sales should go to local people, 4% to the owners of the land and 2% to the communities. That compares dramatically with the figure of 1% which the Government are proposing at present. If we are going to get going on fracking, we have to do something dramatic. Cheap energy is the new cheap labour. Now that China’s wage levels are coming up to ours, cheap energy is absolutely crucial and also has geopolitical implications in terms of the new Cold War with President Putin in Russia. This is something of vital importance which I hope the Government will focus on.
Finally, I will say something about low pay, which has rightly been mentioned by a number of noble Lords opposite. It has been reported that at the moment there are some 300,000 people in this country who have a job but are not getting even £6.50 an hour for it. That is a scandal. When Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, recently came to speak to Conservative Peers, I asked her what should be done about this issue. She said that the first thing we have to do is enforce the minimum wage provisions. That is not being done as extensively as it should be in this country. I hope that the Government will listen to what Frances O’Grady said because she is a very sensible woman.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rose, on his excellent maiden speech, and in particular I congratulate him on his work at Marks & Spencer and his Plan A campaign, based on the very important principle that there can be no Plan B when we have a single planet.
Listening to the Chancellor’s speech yesterday, one could be mistaken for thinking that all is well and he has not in fact missed his targets or had to make a U-turn on the main elements of his economic plan. We are told that the UK’s economy is growing and that the plan, if it is not quite working as expected today, will definitely do so tomorrow. Whether people feel that this is indeed the case will be a big factor in deciding the next election. My concern relating to the Statement is the extent to which the Government’s management of the economy is sustainable.
If our measure of success is based on shaky foundations, the indiscriminate slashing of public spending and tinkering with tax cuts, the plan will not work. If we tell ourselves that all is well, but in reality our measurements of growth do not reflect external realities, it will not work and cannot work. If, as it appears, we are relying on growth based on another bubble in the housing market, on household, debt-based consumption at the expense of savings, on imports rather than domestic manufacturing, on receipts from oil and gas extraction rather than from clean energy and increased efficiency, on using fines from corporate malpractice to fund essential services and on relying on increases in population to spur growth but not investing in the infrastructure that that increased population must rely on, the plan can never work.
The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, in his characteristically concise and powerful speech, used the word “delusional” to describe the Statement, and I have to say that I agree with him. This is a document about a fantasy world and it is out of touch with the modern challenges of today. The Chancellor seems to inhabit a world where he believes that we can continue to rely on the past to prop up our economy and to have an almost delusional faith in future, as yet unproven, fanciful sources of growth—anything rather than face today’s reality. Blinded by a poorly defined “small government” ideology, the Government appear unable to grasp that state investment can be a spur to growth, boosting income and helping to pay down debt faster. Instead of delivering real growth in investment, the Chancellor appears to be relying on the old trick of changing the goalposts to hide the weak fundamentals—reclassifying business investment to include R&D and reclassifying public investment to include single-use military expenditure. These may have helped the figures look better than they really are but do not signify a big change or indeed a sustainable future.
The reason real investment is not happening is because the Government are relying on a strategy of enticing the private sector to invest, where the state could do so at lower cost and with a higher degree of certainty of delivery. We see this in the Chancellor’s inadequate and implausible flood defences plan. We see it too in energy. Over half of the projects in the Infrastructure UK pipeline relate to energy but the Government’s approach to securing this investment is confused and confusing. We can be grateful at least that the Chancellor has been persuaded to drop his damaging anti-renewable energy rhetoric and false boasts about not going further or faster than Europe in tackling climate change, but the lack of a logical plan is still frighteningly clear.
Not so long ago the Government were trumpeting their successes in reigniting investment in the UK nuclear industry. Obviously this involved the destabilising of the rest of the energy market but that seemed not to matter at the time. It has been suggested that Hinckley Point C is going to be the single most expensive infrastructure project ever built in the UK, yet it warrants not a mention. Could this be because the Chancellor is learning that leaving things entirely in the hands of the private sector—even a foreign state-run company masquerading as the private sector—is not a reliable strategy? You have to overpay and overincentivise, and you have no guarantee of delivery.
On renewables, the Chancellor has at least discovered two technologies he seems happy to mention: offshore wind and now the promise of tidal lagoons. The problem is that these are currently the most expensive possible options. Onshore wind, the cheapest source of clean power—which still has much room to grow if handled sensitively—is ignored. So are solar power and renewable heat—two technologies that enable individuals and businesses to join the energy generation market. Clearly, the widening of the number of players in the energy market is still not high on the list of the Chancellor’s concerns.
The Chancellor prefers to rely on the old industries, desperately hoping that even as oil prices decline we can somehow rely on the North Sea to keep providing us with income. If there is a plan to address the falling receipts that are inevitable, it is based on a fantasy—shale gas and the much hyped creation of the sovereign wealth fund for the north on the back of the receipts. This is not credible. It is likely that revenues will not be generated for at least 10 years and any wealth fund will need to wait another decade to be able to spend any interest on the money that has accrued—if it has indeed accrued. Why the sudden interest in the north? Perhaps close family members have pointed out that the desolation there makes it ripe for oil and gas exploration.
Finally, I will say a word about stamp duty, which of course has caught the headlines and been a very popular measure. The changes announced are clearly sensible and long overdue. However, an important opportunity to boost investment in the efficiency of our housing stock by reducing fuel bills and linking this to stamp duty has been missed. This is not surprising as the Chancellor shows no understanding of the benefits of increasing efficiency to boost our economy. The Statement was, in one sense, a triumph of fantasy over reality. Thankfully, the public live in the real world and, I am sure, will vote out this Government.
I want to concentrate on the UK’s chronic skills shortage, particularly in construction, which is hampering productivity and holding back the economic recovery, according to business leaders. The situation is best summed up by Richard Steer, chairman of Gleeds Worldwide, the leading construction management company, responsible for a wide range of projects, from nuclear power stations to luxury apartments. His view on the Autumn Statement is that,
“the pre-announced news on infrastructure and housing spending is good, as is spreading investment nationwide rather than just focusing on London and Southeast. The headline grabber is the major revision in stamp duty. It will hopefully re-stimulate the housing market which appears to have frozen. This combined with the recent announcement of direct government intervention in house building … shows a commitment to trying to meet the growing national housing shortfall. But the shortage of skilled labour in our sector is still a major challenge for us all and whilst we see some help in this area in this statement it is not enough in my view”.
Kevin Green, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, paints an alarming picture. He says:
“Last year we had nine areas of skills shortages, now we have 43 areas. Every single type of engineering is in short supply, from mechanical to software, civil to electrical. In IT, coders, programmers, developers are all in short supply; there’s a shortage of doctors and nurses in the National Health Service; and we need about 20,000 more teachers in the UK”.
He adds that,
“the situation’s been getting worse month-on-month”.
Rob Wall, the CBI’s head of employment and education, concurs, as does Alan Muse, global director of the built environment at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. According to one recent report by accountants KPMG and the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, about 20% more construction managers, surveyors, electricians and other trades will be needed to meet demand over the next four years than were needed from 2010 to 2013. According to Richard Steer:
“About 400,000 people left the industry since 2008”.
He says that another 400,000 will retire over the next five years and that the industry is suffering from a severe shortage of almost all skilled people. He points out:
“Brickies are flocking to the South East leaving shortages in the regions … It takes about three or four years to become a good brickie”.
He adds that during the recession:
“Brick factories closed down so house builders have suffered a huge shortage of raw materials”.
Chris Bence of the leading building supply merchants in Gloucestershire put it starkly when he told me:
“You can set what target you like for building houses, but you can’t build them because there are not enough bricks”.
These shortfalls mean that the price of construction is going up at a time when we are trying to create more social and affordable housing.
The Government have certainly been investing in apprenticeships. Business is keen to expand the apprenticeships programme, as long as it is more involved in designing the schemes and courses. The Autumn Statement partly responds to this by abolishing national insurance contributions for employers of apprentices under 25 earning up to the higher tax level. But most organisations say that more could be done to remove the stigma attached to vocational subjects in schools, colleges and universities. Rob Wall of the CBI says:
“Vocational routes are seen as second class and that isn’t acceptable”.
Germany, South Korea and Switzerland have much more successful vocational routes to employment because they regard university degrees and apprenticeships as having equal value and worth.
Some noble Lords will have already heard my story of the young lady who told her parents and teachers that she was not going to university. They were horrified and tried bribery and blackmail to try to make her change her mind. But she was determined, because she wanted to become an electrician. She started an apprenticeship. Now, four years later, she is earning more than her elder brother, who did go to university. She has no student debt, no drink habit and can get up in the morning. Most importantly, she is happy and her parents are no longer horrified. The Construction Industry Training Board reckons that 180,000 more construction workers like that young lady will be needed over the next five years. Without those skilled people, the Government will not meet their ambitious targets for housing and infrastructure.
Finally, on a different subject, with the increased investment in the NHS, I urge the Government to encourage Gloucestershire health chiefs to reverse their decision on accident and emergency services at Cheltenham General Hospital. It is frankly ridiculous that the service is being downgraded simply because of the failure to recruit enough emergency doctors and nurses. I have received excellent A&E treatment in Cheltenham on more occasions than I care to remember, and would not be here now without its early intervention. A town the size of Cheltenham needs and deserves a full A&E service.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate and I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, on introducing it and on concentrating in his contribution on skills and productivity, which are very important for the future of our economy. I fear that it is an issue we have neglected for too long and for which we have failed to produce the necessary solutions. I have taken great pleasure in a great deal of this debate having revolved around these issues. Clearly, as my noble friend Lord Whitty emphasised, unskilled labour operating on low wages and paying negligible tax impacts on all aspects of the economy. Part of the problem is that, while the Government can congratulate themselves on increasing employment, they actually find that that employment is not resulting in the resources necessary for the Government to meet some of their obvious targets.
I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rose, on his maiden speech. We shall all benefit from his vast business experience in our economics debates. I can assure him that, on other occasions, the House will be more generous in the time it allocates to Back-Benchers. Yesterday, it was two minutes for Back-Benchers; five minutes today was an improvement, but it does not do justice to those who want to express themselves on such an important issue. I hope we can prevail on those responsible for business in the House to allow extended time on major debates such as this one in the future.
My noble friend Lord Adonis spoke very strongly about the skills agenda. A great deal of our economic problems revolve around our underskilled workforce. However, he went on, as we would have anticipated from his record in the past, to consider the issue of infrastructure. I am sure that the ears of the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, pricked and his eyes lit up when my noble friend got on to the area on which he would want to express strong views to the House. We pressed the Minister yesterday, but not with entire success: perhaps we did not ask the question with the same degree of precision as my noble friend Lord Adonis did. He emphasised that the Government had postponed anything to do with airport capacity until after the election, so that was a five-year delay on major infrastructure with regard to aviation. We were given a roads programme, but it is very difficult to identify when anything will start or be completed. My noble friend Lord Hollick said yesterday that he could identify only £100 million devoted to infrastructure over the next four years, so that did not look as though it will produce a great deal. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will be as convincing as possible about the emphasis that the Government are putting on infrastructure, where they will get the resources from, just how much money is involved and the timetable for it. There is not much point in talking about the Northern Hub and introducing better trains for the north and HS3 if we do not have a timetable, or—from what we can see—any resources being devoted to them in the near future. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will reassure the House on that.
Of course, the Government are trying to suggest that there is a success story implicit in the Autumn Statement; that the progress they have made in getting the deficit down, conveniently forgetting—as the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, emphasised—that the promise was that the deficit would be wiped out by 2015. However, it is quite clear not only that we will have a severe deficit for a time to come and that it has had a recent increase, but also that the price is going to be paid in public expenditure cuts. We know where they are going to fall: on certain key projects relating to the necessary aspect of public expenditure; on government departments, where it is even suggested that some could even be closed down; and, most frightening of all, cuts in welfare. We know how addicted Conservative Chancellors, in particular, are to an onslaught on welfare, but there are an awful lot of people in this country who, through absolutely no fault of their own, are dependent on some support in order to live a remotely civilised life. They will bear a dreadful brunt of that Budget. The Government suggested that 80% of the cuts were already through, but bodies that should know say that the cuts are only half way there at present, and we have a very grim immediate future ahead. There have been anxieties, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth emphasised that there would be certain people bearing the brunt of the Government’s failure who ill deserve to be hit in this way.
I heard what my noble friend Lord Desai said about productivity. There is sufficient gloom around regarding the difficulties with the economy without an informed, expert analysis of just how difficult it is to increase productivity and how we were doomed to have a poor future record on that. I do not agree; I think it is a question of where there is a will, there is a way. Where this is a concentration of resources in action, we can see significant improvements and we certainly need to do so. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, identified, because we are so poorly placed with regard to the workforce, the Government’s record in the past four years has been woeful in their declared objective of removing the deficit. This was also emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. How on earth can the Government expect to be believed on their future promises when their absolutely cardinal promises made in the past have led to failure?
There are two promises that have been emphasised at the highest possible level. The Prime Minister said that the deficit would be removed by 2015 and that immigration would be down in the tens of thousands, when its current figure is 200,000. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Palumbo, suggested when he said that politicians never pay the price for failure, the Prime Minister said, “If we fail, then we can be voted out”. That is a consolation devoutly to be wished on this side of the House.
In relation to that, I was grateful for the contribution made by my noble friend Lady Donaghy on the important fact that the one thing that never seems to pass government lips at any time is any recognition that the rampant increase in inequality in our society over the last two decades or so has had any impact on the welfare of our society. Serious academic treatises have established that the good society, and the greater contingent society, is when differentials are narrowed. What are we seeing here under this Administration? They are being widened continually by deliberate actions of the Government.
I, too, suffer from the constraints of time, but I am grateful to all who have contributed to this debate. The reason for my failure to refer to every single contribution is obvious: just one half-minute for each person would take me beyond my time. I hope that the House will appreciate those constraints.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Rose on his muscular magic and sparkle. He meets my noble friend Lord Palumbo’s definition of someone who can get something done as a template for the perfect politician. I was actually hired with that objective, and it is not always that easy, but we are all trying our best.
Yesterday’s Autumn Statement provides a lot of information about the UK economy and gives us the opportunity to do what we have done today, which is to evaluate the effectiveness of what the Government are doing and to discuss some of the knottier problems we face.
I think that the good news—the “success story”, as my noble friend Lord Lawson described it—is well understood. At 3% this year, we have strong growth—the fastest in the G7; it is well balanced across manufacturing, construction and services. As my noble friend Lord Younger said—my noble friend Lord Lawson commented on it, too—it is the envy of other European countries, although I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, does not agree with that. We have record numbers in employment based on significant job creation by the private sector—2 million since 2010; my noble friend Lady Bottomley described it as a 1,000 a jobs a day. Inflation has sunk below the target of 2%; energy and food prices have fallen, helped by a strong pound; and of course interest rates have stayed low.
That is the picture. We have heard today views on the key subjects of the deficit and living standards, and a range of questions around what I would lump into the “productivity” category. I shall try, coherently where I can, to go through those in order and respond—again, where I can—to noble Lords’ observations and questions as I go along, but we are somewhat constrained by time.
First, on the deficit, I am not going to enter into a Keynesian ideological argument, but I will buy front-seat tickets when my noble friend Lord Lawson and the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, duke that one out. The deficit has been halved, and we are on track to eliminate it in 2018-19. Progress is slower than we planned in 2010, but it is because the recession was deeper than we had understood and the recovery, as the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, was kind enough to point out, was stalled by the eurozone crisis and high commodity prices. The OBR has pointed out that it was not stalled by fiscal consolidation.
I do not believe that, given those circumstances, many people—possibly with the exception of my noble friend Lord Stevens—think that we should have gone faster. Since this year’s Budget, the deficit has not come down quite as quickly as expected, which is because of weaker tax revenues, both income tax and corporation tax. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, life is never easy. The forecasts are dependent on highly changeable assumptions. Even the history is hard to work out, and we have seen some statistical changes which make it even more opaque, although I would point out in response to an observation made by the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, it is not down to the Chancellor to change the accounting rules; we simply follow the external requirements.
However, the OBR expects borrowing to be a little higher than forecast in the next two years and then a little lower in the following two years, so still ending up with a small surplus in 2018-19. The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, was sceptical about our ability to achieve that. The OBR estimates the likelihood of the Government meeting their fiscal mandate at about 80%. The forecast shortfall in tax revenues, which is what is slowing us down, reaches about £23 billion in 2017-18. One reason that we are still on target is that two-thirds of this shortfall, £16 billion, is covered by lower debt interest costs, which result from both lower interest rates and inflation because of the indexed component. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, rightly pointed out that we are therefore exposed to those interest rates. I am not going to use my crystal ball, but I think that we all understand that that is a significant risk. The primary reason that we should be so focused on bringing debt down overall is our inability to absorb shocks with the level of interest that we have to support.
There has been considerable debate around the spending reductions required. We had a discussion about how appropriate ring-fencing was—my noble friends Lord Lawson and Lord Wrigglesworth raised that—but in this Parliament we have managed to accomplish £67 billion of spending cuts even with that constraint. Our position is that we can continue to cut spending in the next Parliament at the same rate that we successfully achieved in this one. My noble friend Lord Palumbo talked about grasping the financial reality; my noble friend Lord Stevens said that yes, it can be done. I must admit that I am optimistic about our ability to reduce public spending through efficiency and reform. Part of the problem in making change in the public sector is that there one does not have the discipline of the market that drives and forces change effectively in the private sector, because you cannot survive without change. Frankly, while I do not enjoy the financial austerity that we find ourselves in, forcing people who run the public sector to determine how to do it much more efficiently is an extremely healthy discipline.
We will continue with our programme of efficiency reforms. We have done about £15 billion-worth so far in this Government; there is a plan to do the same again. It means the same things that private sector companies do, with discipline on pay and head count—which has already been practised—and the use of technology, which we are right at the beginning of in the public sector. It means rationalising all the space that we have got and centralising and deploying effectively our buying power. The opportunity is enormous and the challenge is how to grasp it.
We will continue to bear down on tax avoidance, for which my right honourable friend the Chancellor set a £5 billion target yesterday, and we will continue to seek efficiencies in the welfare budget, given that it represents a significant portion of overall spending, by freezing working-age benefits for two years and reviewing the level of the benefit cap.
On living standards, it has taken longer than we would like for earnings to recover; we all accept that. It is not surprising, given the scale of the crisis that we have been through, but the Government have sought to support people during these difficult times. There has been a lot of discussion about who is disproportionately bearing the brunt of this—the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, among others, brought this up. All the objective distribution analysis that is produced by the Treasury demonstrates that during the course of this Government the weight of the burden has been much more evenly distributed than what was experienced under the previous Government. That is what the statistical analysis tells you. We can have this debate, but the objective analysis does not support the rhetoric that we hear from the other side.
What have the Government done to see us through this period of challenge to living standards? They have had a very active monetary policy to keep interest rates and mortgage rates low. They have raised personal allowances, which was welcomed by my noble friend Lord Wrigglesworth—that has taken 3.5 million people out of tax altogether and reduced tax for 24 million people. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, pointed out that that is expensive; it cost £12 billion. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth was extremely clear about the pressures that people are under. We have done things to contain the cost of living pressures, by acting on council tax, energy bills, fuel duty and rail fares and by raising the national minimum wage—we had some discussion about that and in particular its enforcement, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Horam and the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy. We are putting money into enforcement and it will make a significant difference. And, of course, we have now had a highly progressive stamp duty reform, which many noble Lords welcomed.
Earnings are now strengthening. The OBR forecasts this to continue. For those in full-time work for more than a year, as my noble friend Lord Younger noted, earnings grew 4% over the past year. Real household disposable income, which is probably the best measure of living standards, is forecast to increase by 1.6% in 2014—I should clarify for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that that is 1.6% per capita. We should note that there is a compositional effect in the labour market: because so many more people are finding work, particularly young people, it weighs down on average earnings.
Productivity has been the focus of many comments today—it was absolutely the focus of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. A number of noble Lords asked where it was in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Growth and structural reform have been and continue to be a key plank of what this Government have been doing. Many of the measures which were announced yesterday were reinforcements of the general strategy that has been in place for some time. Productivity, together with low inflation and a strong jobs market, is at the heart of our ability to give people long-term improvements in living standards. That ambition was so well articulated by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, together with his support for church roof funding.
The UK’s low productivity has been a long-term problem. We had a fascinating analysis from the noble Lord, Lord Desai, of why it might be persistent. I am by nature an optimist, and we will find ways to deal with this. Many noble Lords have addressed it. My noble friend Lord Lawson gave the best example of when we have addressed it effectively: our supply side reforms back in the 1980s. My noble friend Lord Horam referred to them as well. They had the enduring impact of the labour market flexibility which has put us in such a better position than our competitors on the continent.
My noble friend Lord Higgins asked how much of our productive capacity was destroyed during the recent financial crisis and how easy it will be to rebuild it, which is what we are going through now. Looking at some of the different aspects of the productivity challenge, on tax, having low taxes, certainty in taxes and making sure that they are paid is a key part of this economic plan. My noble friend Lord Flight reminded us that momentum in business investment, contrary to what some noble Lords said, is developing strongly; it is up 27% in this Parliament, so business investment is recovering. That says something about the current environment, and the confidence that we have talked about.
My noble friend Lord Younger talked about the patent box and how supportive it is of research and development. My noble friend Lord Leigh made the point that large multinationals must pay their fair share and referred to the leadership that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has shown globally in dealing with the issue. That is why we have introduced the diverted profits tax. Several noble Lords talked about that. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, wondered how it tied into the BEPS work. It is tied in, but we are first movers because, again, we are showing leadership. The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, asked me how high risk the revenues were. The OBR ranks the risk against each of them: it is medium to high, so not right at the top. The perfect answer to this is that it will divert revenues back into standard corporation tax, because those structures will not be put in place any more.
My noble friend Lord Lawson referred to the reforming zeal of my right honourable friend the Chancellor in both the pension changes and stamp duty. All that I can pass on to the House is that I see my right honourable friend the Chancellor up close virtually every day. I have worked with some of the best people in the private sector and believe you me, he passes my noble friend Lord Palumbo’s capability test.
The rates review has been welcomed by several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Rose. On the accelerated investment allowance, the reason that it has been a little stop-start is because it was intended to boost investment now. In that case, there is a justification for changing it. My noble friend Lord Lexden talked about Northern Ireland and competition from the Republic of Ireland. We will be introducing legislation to devolve corporation tax, subject to cross-party talks with the Northern Ireland Executive showing public spending sustainability. We have some significant measures coming through, as per the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria.
We have had a great discussion on infrastructure, housing and regional growth. I could not agree more with the consensus around the House that we need to stop stop-go. Every day in the Treasury we do things to try to change that by putting in place long-term funding and long-term plans addressing the fundamentals. That is why we put the Davies commission in place: to sort out the south-east England runway capacity question. Our focus is absolutely on making things happen. I thank my noble friend Lady Bottomley for her kind words on that. On the HS3 project plan, we will see an interim report on transport for the north from the DfT in March 2015, so that will be the next step, replying to David Higgins’s work.
The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, talked a lot about the merits of state versus private sector investment. The reality is that the right way to do this is a combination to maximise the amount of investment that we can get in. The skill is in structuring it right so that we get the appropriate outcomes. That is what we are working on. There is a big focus on access to finance for SMEs by extending FLS, which my noble friend Lord Leigh talked about. He also welcomed the introduction of another £400 million for the enterprise capital funds programme at the British Business Bank. My noble friends Lord Lawson and Lord Stevens and the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, wanted us to continue our work on cleaning up the banks. We obviously agree.
Exports are critical. My noble friend Lord Younger asked about the extra £45 million; £20 million of that will go to help first-time exporters, the other £25 million will go to help people in the emerging markets. There was lots of focus on skills, including by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and my noble friend Lord Jones. We could not agree more. Even on the infrastructure question, we have now moved beyond the pressures to deliver because the rate of delivery is such that the industry is concerned about skills. There was lots of welcome for the postgraduate scheme, including from my noble friends Lord Wrigglesworth and Lady Bottomley.
I am running out of time, so I shall not go on about our long-term commitments on science and innovation which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, talked about. We obviously welcome the entrepreneurial explosion discussed by my noble friend Lord Flight.
Finally, I thank my noble friend Lord Younger of Leckie for introducing what has been a fascinating although highly truncated debate.
My Lords, any debate on the economy and the Autumn Statement—perhaps it should be called a Budget—is necessarily wide-ranging. This debate has brought out some excellent and markedly different perspectives on yesterday’s news. I particularly enjoyed listening to the interesting arguments behind the speech of my noble friend Lord Palumbo and the speech on budgetary cuts by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky—although I was not entirely in agreement with either. We were much lifted by the maiden speech from my noble friend Lord Rose. Some key high-level messages came out from his long experience in business: first, stay close to your customers; secondly, keep your fingers on the pulse; and, thirdly, be prepared for change in a changing world. That is very wise, and I have no doubt that he will be a great asset to the House.
In the final moments, I will just draw together some of the key common themes that arose during this two and a half hours. First, skills shortages are a genuine obstacle to growth. That was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Bilimoria, and my noble friend Lord Jones. It is interesting that my noble friend Lord Palumbo said that we needed skills for getting things done. I presume that he was alluding to better management skills, which are important.
I am glad that my noble friend Lord Deighton raised the issue of productivity. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, made a very interesting point about productivity. It may well be that we get wage growth up, but the danger is that it is not matched by productivity growth, or indeed GDP per head.
Finally, some important points were made about confidence. That is often talked about, and the level of business confidence is very important. That was raised by my noble friend Lord Rose and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria.
I conclude by saying that I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Deighton on his important work in pushing through these important infrastructure projects, and I again thank all Peers for their contributions to this debate today.