Budget Statement - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:51 pm on 14th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Razzall Lord Razzall Liberal Democrat 5:51 pm, 14th March 2017

My Lords, in our experience, the world is divided between people who see the glass as half full or who by temperament see the glass as half empty, and in some cases totally empty. I have always regarded myself as in the first category, which noble Lords may say is not surprising for a Liberal Democrat. But notwithstanding the valiant attempt by the Minister to talk up the Budget, when I contemplate the future of the economy, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Hain, I fear that I have moved to the half empty, almost totally empty category.

Recent reports from the Institute for Government and the Rowntree Foundation demonstrate that the financial position of what Labour used to call ordinary working people and what the Prime Minister now calls the just about managing is deteriorating and is likely to deteriorate faster. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, did, let us look at the numbers. Real incomes for the bulk of people have barely grown since the 2008 financial crash. On many calculations, this means that average income will be 18% lower by 2020-21 than if life had continued as before. Rather surprisingly for a Tory Government, home ownership is falling for the first time in 50 years, and the worst-hit group are those in the middle-income category, who now have little prospect of home ownership.

We are seeing now real pressure on public services. In hospitals where delays in cancer services and A&E are rising, clinical standards have been maintained only by running record deficits. Bed-blocking cases rose 40% from 2014 to 2016 because no social care was available. In prisons, assaults against staff are up 60% in two years. As the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, indicated, inevitably, local authority cuts imposed by central Government have meant the elimination of many services which are so necessary to make our society civilised. I do not need to remind noble Lords of the crisis in social care for the elderly. If I may bastardise the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, in the 1992 election campaign, “Be very afraid if you are ill or elderly in Britain today”. As Jenni Russell memorably put it in the Times last week:

“A rolling austerity programme with bursts of emergency spending is no way to run a country”.

Of course, as many noble Lords have indicated and as all economists know, the only real solution to our problem is for our existing workforce to become more productive so that we can increase the value of what we produce in every hour worked, which will feed through to increased wages, taxes and profits. To achieve the productivity gains that we need, we must have a vibrant and growing manufacturing sector. As my noble friend Lord Shipley and other noble Lords have indicated, unless the Government negotiate a soft Brexit, irrevocable damage will be done to our manufacturing industry.

First, as 52% of manufacturing experts go to European Union, it is essential that access to the European Union for goods and services be maintained, even, contrary to the desire of the serious Eurosceptics, if some continued financial contribution is required. Secondly, it is not just potential tariff barriers that are of concern: non-tariff barriers must be removed that deal, for example, with regulatory issues, technical barriers, standards and measurements. Harmonisation of standards has worked well in recent years, so there is real nervousness in the manufacturing community that following our exit, we will revert to the bad old days of Germany setting rules that suit its manufacturers. It is also essential that lengthy customs checks are not introduced that would be damaging, particularly in industries where there is a significant flow of components to and from the European Union.

Thirdly, British manufacturing requires significant skilled immigration from Europe. There are many examples of a likely skills shortage. I pick just one: the need of some engineering companies for analogue design engineers. British universities now teach only digital electronic engineering, but skilled analogue design engineers can still be found from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria and must be given the right to work in the United Kingdom. There is considerable scepticism among most manufacturers about whether the skills shortage can be made up by UK employees once we have left the European Union, as David Davis rather confirmed in his speech in Estonia a few weeks ago. If the Government get this wrong, the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s fighting fund to deal with the financial fallout from Brexit will be small beer in comparison with the damage the Government will have caused the British economy.