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Budget Statement - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:31 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 6:31 pm, 18th March 2020

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing the debate and for what he had to say about growth, about which I will say a few words. To use his phrase, he felt that the Budget had seen beyond the immediate problems that face us.

I think the Government are doing their best in difficult circumstances, and I wish to support them as best I can. There are areas either that they have overlooked or where they have made mistakes, but they seem to be moving quickly enough to speedily resolve some of those difficulties. For example, on rentals it immediately hit people that we needed some movement there, and it will be very interesting to see what they come up with.

It is important that politicians try to come together if they can. This is probably the most difficult time that any of us have experienced where the nation has been faced with such grave challenges. I know people who are virtually having meltdowns through fear and having panic attacks about what is happening. It is therefore important that we as the leadership should endeavour to speak sensibly and calmly and reassure people, rather than frightening them by constantly engaging in attack.

No one knows all the answers; the Government do not have them, nor, I suspect, do my friends in the Green Party, although I must say I agree with an overwhelming amount of what they are saying. It is important that we take our time over this issue and have a look to see just where we are. This House is particularly able to do that. We had three quite important debates last week that made us look to the future: a debate on the green economy, a debate on well-being and the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, about relationships with the younger generation, on which I think we should be spending more and more of our time. So we had that run last week and now we have this debate today.

It is important that we look at some of the fundamentals behind this issue. Why do we have it now? Are the Chinese to blame, or is this something that is happening around the earth for which we all, in different ways, have some responsibility? We are already talking about getting back to our pursuit of ever more non-stop growth as quickly as we can, but we really are at a point where we have to start questioning the nature of the growth that we have. Perhaps we need some growth but in a different direction entirely from that which we have produced in the past. I hear from friends in business that the factories in China are now back and waiting for orders, waiting to start producing the trash and rubbish, much of it, which we have been calling on them to produce at low prices and which we then discard so quickly, harming the planet in the process.

We all have to accept a degree of responsibility for where we are. What faces us at the moment is part of a piece of what we have witnessed over the last two to three years, with the famines, fires, flooding and the list gets ever longer about the pestilences that come our way. We need to start realising that we are relatively powerless. In spite of the size of our brains and intellects, we are powerless when we come up against the real power in the world—the power of nature and of the Almighty behind that. This is not the kind of thing that people talk about easily these days—it embarrasses people—but that is the reality we face at the moment. It is a very different set of circumstances to anything we have seen for a very long time. There is an opportunity for positive change within this. The important thing is that we have to work together to get that change.

I was disappointed that the Budget did not look far enough down the line. I pick up the point from the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky: this will have to be paid for in future. It is wrong that it is again the young who will have to pick up the tab rather than the older in society, who in many ways are responsible for some of the problems we currently face. I hope we can look to start now with some changes. Why did we not reimpose the regulator, the duty RPI link, on fuel? We have seen that the price of fuel has collapsed with the fight between the Saudis and Russians; it has dropped down from £1.35 to £1.26 or £1.27. It is the perfect opportunity to reintroduce the escalator, which we need. The Conservatives know that prices count and that people’s behaviour is changed and governed by pricing, so I ask the Government to look again at the decision they took last week to fail to move on it.

I will not mention what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester said about duty on alcohol; people have heard me go on about this before. We have so many ill people, and here we are reducing the price of alcohol so that they will become ill. This is the kind of living we are talking about—living longer, yes, but living unwell. We must seek to effect changes there. Underneath all that is the sugar tax, which was not even mentioned. We have major problems in our society with obesity and its costs. We should look at the sugar tax and see whether it should be extended and widened beyond what it is already operated on.

There are things we can do to make sure that in the long term we are preparing for a different, better society than the one we have. I hope the Minister will take some of those points away and maybe respond in his reply.