Budget Statement - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:55 pm on 14th March 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy) 7:55 pm, 14th March 2017

My Lords, I have had some moments of sympathy with the Chancellor as he has been variously described as decent and tidy minded—“realistic” was more complimentary. The debate this afternoon has been anything but dull. The House has been absolutely at its best across a wide range of issues on the economy. The terrible twins, as the noble Lords, Lord Skidelsky and Lord Desai, have now been named, have tackled some of the macroeconomic issues and the deficit issues. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, focused on technical training and productivity. The noble Lord, Lord Palumbo, called for brave decisions, while the noble Lords, Lord Willetts and Lord Monks, talked about inter-generational fairness. I think that all of us on these Benches would like to see the noble Lord, Lord Porter, in the Treasury because he explicitly described our policy on council housing. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, called for an increase in road fuel duty, and I assume that by now he is being burned in effigy by the Road Haulage Association, perhaps supported by the noble Lord, Lord Porter. It has been a brave and fascinating gathering, and I am going to spend time reading many of the speeches, because there was so much content in them.

This has been the last spring Budget but in many ways we can look at it as the first Brexit Budget. We have seen a Chancellor with almost no room to manoeuvre, Brexit being added to the situation he faced with borrowing. Also, on the core economy, the Chancellor will be very well aware that in 2016, four-fifths of the growth came from consumer spending, as so many in this House have said, supported by eating into savings or, more significantly, by going into further debt. Consumer borrowing is now at levels we have not seen since 2008. It is entirely unsustainable, especially given the inflation that will surely follow from the 17% devaluation in sterling. The noble Lords, Lord Beecham, Lord Bhattacharyya, and Lord Gadhia, my noble friend Lord Wrigglesworth and many others focused on those issues. Others looked at the business context. Although the Chancellor did not call this the Brexit Budget, in today’s debate almost half the speakers focused on the impact of leaving the single market and the customs union—hard Brexit—and the consequences for our economy, with bad news for jobs, living standards and opportunities. All that is well reflected in the OBR figures.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, who said that the Chancellor did not outline the challenges, which is true. I am sure that the OBR has come up with many more scenarios than the one that ended up in our Printed Paper Office; they would have given us a far better feel for the range of options we face and the things we have to take into consideration as we try to define how to manage the economy over the coming years. I wish we had an opportunity to see those additional scenarios.

Many noble Lords have spoken tonight of the pressure on public services and focused on the NHS and social care, which are in a state of near crisis. The noble Lord, Lord Porter, said that £2 billion to support social care was really welcome. That amount in one year would have been really good, but over three years it does not meet the problem. We are going to have to bite the bullet. I am not going to get into the internal Conservative Party wranglings over the increase in national insurance contributions for the self-employed, except to say that this has not been much of a Budget for business—I will comment on that in a moment. To the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, I say that there might have been a far better reaction had the Government broken their pledge in a way that put additional levies on companies that deliberately push employees out into self-employment as a tax arbitrage, rather than focusing on people who are themselves self-employed and face the risk of unreliable income, among other challenges and burdens.

In the autumn, I called for an emergency £4 billion injection this year—half for social care and half for the NHS—to deal with this crisis. I am beginning to think that the Chancellor might wish he had heeded that call. I agree completely with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester: we have to look at a completely different way of structuring and funding the NHS and social care. Similar issues were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Lord, Lord Desai. They will be glad to know that Norman Lamb, my colleague in another place, has constructed an independent commission, which is well ahead in its work. It is made up of leading figures in the relevant fields of expertise and is looking at that exact issue. We will have something very significant to say on how this fundamental issue can be dealt with going forward. Other noble Lords have pointed out that the National Health Service and social care are far from the only public services that are feeling this wide range of pressures. My noble friends Lord Shipley and Lady Burt and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, discussed many of those issues.

This has not been much of a business Budget. The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, was the last to speak on this issue and I join with him and other noble Lords who say that the cuts in corporation tax and inheritance tax are completely inappropriate in the circumstances that we face. Cuts in corporation tax below 20%—some would say 22% was a better number—have absolutely no impact on changing the minds of companies on where they invest and what they do. If it does not have that factor, the argument for cutting makes no sense. Large businesses will have seen a benefit from those corporation tax cuts but, as we see in this Budget, it is small businesses that have been getting it in the neck. For the self-employed this is through NICs, or the changes in business rates. The transitional payments are only for one year: a small relief but nothing like sufficient. Danny Alexander, as Economic Secretary to the Treasury, put in place a review of the whole business rates system, addressing the issue of online retailers who use out-of-town premises. It makes me absolutely furious that after the last general election, when the Conservatives came into government alone, the review was gutted. Had it gone ahead, we could now make changes and small businesses would never have faced the problems they face today. I forget which noble Lord raised the issue of quarterly digital returns but I agree completely—they should be entirely voluntary for small businesses.

In conclusion, this has been a limited, low-risk, fairly minimalist Budget because the Chancellor has been painted, and has painted himself, into a corner, and that is not a particularly healthy situation to be in.