My Lords, I am delighted to see the Minister in his place making one of his more constructive speeches in the House. I will give him a chance to answer a few questions, but before I get on to that I shall put the Statement into some kind of context.
The Chancellor was obviously buoyed by, as he saw it, some successes in recent months. However, I shall ask the first obvious question: whatever happened to the long-term plan? For years we heard nothing but Conservative Members of Parliament talking about the long-term economic plan. We all know what the conclusion of that plan was meant to be: the elimination of the deficit during this year. The deficit has not been eliminated this year; in fact we are £69 billion in debt. It is quite clear that the Government have jettisoned the long-term economic plan in favour of a second version, which is that we will have a surplus of £10 billion in 2020. Even the Institute for Fiscal Studies gives the Government only a 50:50 chance of hitting that target, so we wonder what credence we should give the Chancellor following his speech in the Commons today.
There were two significant climbdowns: one was no further cuts to the police force—here, some credit is due to the Opposition, who made it clear to the Government that further cuts were quite unthinkable in the present context—and the other was a credit to this House and a direct reflection of its holding the Government to account and asking them to think again. Having thought again, they jettisoned that original totally unfair and improper policy. We very much welcome both climbdowns in the Chancellor’s Statement.
We still need to consider a range of fundamental economic failures, though, and I shall be addressing those in specific questions to the Minister. Is not the productivity gap between the UK’s performance and the rest of the G7 countries’ at its widest since 1991? That shows this country in a very poor light, and of course the Government must take responsibility for a great deal of that against a background of what is recognised as an absolutely chronic balance of payments position under this Government. That can be remedied only if we invest in the development of skills and begin to export more successfully.
Every hour worked in Germany, France or the United States is worth one-third more in terms of achievement than an hour worked in Britain. This must be because the Government have been so content over the past five years to see wages fall—we all know how dramatic and persistent that fall has been over this period—and have neglected skills development and run, essentially, a low-wage, low-skill economy, which cannot be the future of the United Kingdom.
The Government are always negative about public sector investment. In the railways, for example, even a successful public sector-run franchise, the east coast main line, was jettisoned in favour of a free and open competition—as long as no British public institution could compete. However, state railways from France and Germany were welcome to take over part of our railway system. Of course, the same is happening with our nuclear power stations—we are making ourselves dependent upon investment from the People’s Republic of China. It is interesting to see that the Conservative Party now finds itself in cahoots with a very significant state-run society.
Public sector net investment in 2009-10 was at 3.2% but is now down to 1.5%. It is therefore not surprising that certain aspects of public work and investment are at a very low level. That is shown, for instance, in the quality of our roads. Are the Government comfortable with the fact that our roads are rated below the standards of Spain, Portugal and—wait for it—little Croatia? The only areas in which the Government have shown a commitment to investment are projects they inherited: Crossrail and HS2. It will be noted that although they sustain these projects, the Department for Transport is to take its 30% cut, which will be effected by cuts in “administration”. If one believes that, one can believe most things.
Overall, investment in skills has been woeful. It is clear that the business department is being cut to the bone. The number of jobs lost there is very significant, and it is clear that training and development is to be vested solely in the enterprise of private industry, to which the state has very little to contribute. Yet industry is crying out for the skills of young people. That is particularly true in the construction industry, which of course enjoys the reputation of translating investment into jobs quickly, and can meet a need in circumstances where our housebuilding programme is at its worst peacetime level since 1920. What a record the Government have on housing our people!
Then of course there is the whole question of the National Health Service. We are delighted that the Government have indicated that they know they need to increase investment in the National Health Service. We are also pleased that they recognise that alleviating pressure on hospitals can be achieved through increasing social care places. However, 3,000 beds have been lost in recent years and there is no indication that they will be replaced quickly. Of course, the promise that local authorities can increase council tax provided that they spend the money on care homes is to be welcomed.
As for the police, I can find no reference to what the Government will in fact do about the police, except that that there are 17,000 fewer officers since they came to power. They have indicated that they will not put any further pressure on police by cuts, but there is no indication of what money will be devoted to the police force and where it will come from.
I therefore want the Minister to answer three questions. First, if the Government wish to promote infrastructure, does he accept that public sector net investment has halved as a percentage of the GDP under the Government? Can he accept such a deplorable state of affairs? Secondly, we know that we need to boost productivity. Is the Minister concerned that the gap between productivity per hour worked in this country and in the rest of the G7 is so very wide? Thirdly, the Chancellor said that he has balanced the books, yet the deficit is set to be very substantial this year.
Finally, the Government are ending their onslaught on tax credits, for which we are duly grateful, and this House takes a great deal of credit for that achievement. The House acted constitutionally and properly and caused the Government to think again. However, this spending review and Autumn Statement indicates that only a £3.385 billion saving will be rendered in respect of tax credits. In fact the Government have always maintained that £4.4 billion would be saved. Are the public to find that other billion in this next year?