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Budget Statement - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:46 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 6:46 pm, 18th March 2020

My Lords, the one joy of speaking in a Budget debate in your Lordships’ House is that social distancing is not a problem. I have been sitting here, not in spitting distance of anybody. However, let me say this: rejoice! We seldom have such a beautiful crisis. This crisis is not caused by anybody’s bad behaviour. It is not caused by debtors’ behaviour or dubious mortgage equities or bankers’ bonuses. It is a purely exogenous black swan shock, and it is so big that it is totally global. Of course, whoever originated it in the backstreets of Wuhan, its spread is due to globalisation—due to the ease of movement. In one sense this is in fact a great opportunity. I am sure that right now, Greta Thunberg is the happiest person in the whole world, because all flying has stopped and people have stopped travelling—they have to sit at home and do nothing. Wow! Climate change will finally be tackled if we go on like this.

Before I go on to weightier matters, we have had in this debate one specific radical idea, which was articulated by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord O’Neill and Lord Skidelsky, and of course it is also part of the Green Party’s programme. I declare an interest: I have been going on about a citizen’s income or basic income for well-nigh 30 years. This is the opportunity for us to institute a temporary citizen’s income. In a sense, given the supply shocks and all the uncertainty, we do not know who will be deprived of income and for how long. Instead of people worrying about sick pay—there are all sorts of things they should be worried about—a citizen’s income should be given to everyone on the electoral register. It need not be a large sum of money; I am always rather thrifty, so I would say £100 per week for everybody on the electoral register until such time as the Government decide that things have returned to sort of normal. Okay, if you want to make it £200, I do not mind—it is not my money.

With something like that, the universality is important. In universal credit, which is a disgrace—I will not go into that right now—there are too many side conditions that people have to satisfy to qualify for a benefit. That by itself ruins the good of the scheme. The thing about a basic income or citizen’s income is that everybody gets it by being a citizen; it is like the right to vote. Right now, it would do a tremendous amount for a lot of people at least to have pocket money—especially, for example, women who are not part of the labour force. Anybody who is not part of the labour force will still get it.

I urge the Government, since they are in a spending mood, to let the Chancellor come tomorrow and throw another £20 billion or whatever the sum is at this. That money will go a long way and will plug a gap in the system.

Having said that, let me say that British economic politics are a battle between either 35% or 45% of GDP being spent by the state. If you look at the data for the last 50 or 60 years, it goes between 35% and 45%. The Conservatives want to be near to 35% to 40% and Labour wants to go a little further, but there is not much in it. If your income is down, then the proportion is high, but actual expenditure is not very much. People go on about austerity, and my noble friend Lord Brooke challenged me to own up to the fact that I supported austerity—and I do. I was the only person in Parliament to sign a letter to the Sunday Times on that back in February 2010. I do not want to defend myself, because it is a hopeless task, but I would say that if you look at the Budget Red Book—tables 1.2, 1.3 and so on—the proportion of GDP spend between 2010 and 2020 was higher than 40% every year, and was higher than the proportion of GDP spent in the 10 years of the Blair Government. In a sense, these are proportions, so I am slightly cheating. If you look at the employment numbers in chart 1.3, employment has grown throughout, as the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, was saying, and we are right now in full employment—in the last year of austerity. Those numbers are to be taken with a pinch of salt.

I became a balanced-budget ayatollah way back when the Conservatives were in power and the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, gave a double mortgage concession after winning the election. I thought it was ridiculous; why should anybody give tax concessions after winning an election? You do it before. Anyway, then we had a recession. I believe in balanced budgets when balanced budgets are important and in deficits when deficits are important—horses for courses. I will not resile from that.

To return to the present crisis, we are back to Butskellism—thank God—and now it is a compromise where the Conservative Government are willing to spend money when there is the necessity to spend money. I had been saying before the coronavirus problem came up that this was a very good time to borrow money, because interest rates were low—so therefore borrow as much as you can at a low rate of interest. Interestingly —I think I have spoken for too long; I will sit down—we had excess savings in the global economy, and, with coronavirus, that excess saving will be mopped up by Governments. Perhaps we may reach equilibrium faster than we otherwise would have.