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Economic Environment: Growth and Jobs - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:07 pm on 11th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy) 1:07 pm, 11th July 2019

My Lords, I begin by picking up the issues raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, who made it clear that we cannot talk about anything to do with the economy without a real awareness of Brexit. It sets the framework; I know we do not want to focus on it today, but it is worth a comment or two here. Many people are acting as though uncertainty is something that exists until we decide to leave, and at that point uncertainty ends. As the noble Viscount said, we are then locked into five to seven years of future uncertainty. It becomes the fundamental of the British economy, and all we can be sure of in leaving is that British businesses will have less access to EU markets; the complex supply networks that are the foundation of the British economy will gradually erode, because that is the logic of the disengagement and separation; and British businesses will have to build their future from economies of scale in a domestic market of 65 million people, not 500 million. I could go on, but that is the context.

The noble Lord, Lord Popat, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, and others said that we are looking at a robust and healthy economy. Public services in this country are desperately underfunded. Many, particularly at local government level, are in crisis. This is repeated in almost every sector, including the police, prisons, schools, the health service and social care.

There are more than 14 million people still in poverty, with inequality at its widest since the 1980s. We talk about full employment, but real wages are still 3% below those in 2008. We have now normalised in-work poverty, a serious feature that we have to tackle. For many people, their employment feels precarious as they know that their employers are trying to work out what the future of their business will be.

Growth is geographically unbalanced. In recent years, foreign direct investment in the UK has plummeted. In 2018 it was one-third of what it was in 2016. When people talk about us receiving more foreign investment than any other area, I wonder whether they have looked at the value of the pound. Assets in the UK are at fire-sale value and, even with that, there is a decline in foreign investment.

I share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, about productivity. Our recent growth numbers are, frankly, awful. It is a not a situation in which we can be complacent because we risk being ineffective in driving the economy forward.

The issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, goes to the heart of economic growth for the future. Times have changed. Big businesses, good businesses and the smaller entrepreneurial businesses no longer take a traditional view of their role in society. Many recognise that it is now time for a new social contract between business and society; that social justice matters; that their relationship with their customers, workforce and communities must be a positive and different one; and the necessity of tackling climate change. We are entering a different and new world, which has to be redefined and can no longer be classified in terms of profitability. This will lead to a different notion of what is a successful business and how it grows. Fairness becomes a fundamental and underlying principle. I use the word “fairness” because I am shall move on to address some of the issues raised.

Before I do so, however, I must step back and say that businesses also recognise both the opportunities and dangers of the fourth industrial revolution. The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, referred to this. If we are to continue with research and development and science, and if we are to develop the skilled workforce we need, it will mean a revolution in how our businesses operate.

We have in place many of the right things to drive the economy forward, but we have them in miniature. I join others in praising the British Business Bank—it is perfect, but so small when compared with the challenge it is trying to deal with that it cannot make material change. It will take a change in thinking in this country to put into the British Business Bank the scale of resource and finance it will need for the future, especially as it will have to replace both the European Investment Bank and the European Investment Fund if we decide to leave.

Again, the industrial strategy has good policies, but in limited areas and on a limited scale. We are not undertaking the infrastructure challenge; we are not delivering the broadband we need; and we are not making the necessary changes in the rail and transport infrastructures. These are massive projects and will need substantial amounts of money behind them and a real drive to make them effective. It is the same with skills. Surely we all recognise now that life-long learning will be essential but comes with a heavy bill attached.

When I hear people talking about tax cutting as the key mechanism for driving the economy forward, I realise that we have to put a cross through virtually all the measures that we need to sustain and take forward our economy. I can think of nothing worse than tax cutting at this point in time. I ask those who think that cutting taxes will lead to a huge increase in the tax yield to go back and look in detail at the past few years. The rise in the tax yield has come because business has rebounded from a severe financial crash in 2007-08, not because taxes have been cut.

Unfortunately, part of the money has come in because business has been holding back on investment, as we have discussed. The work done by the IFS in looking at Jeremy Hunt’s proposal that we should cut corporation tax to 12.5% makes a nonsense of any suggestion that that kind of tax cut repays itself. If we are to repair public services and drive the economy forward, we certainly cannot afford to do any of that.

I have listened to many noble Lords who talk regularly to businesses. I do not find businesses asking for tax cuts. They ask for all kinds of long-term support, but I have never heard a request for tax cuts from any major business.