Financial Implications for the Next Generation

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:53 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury 5:53 pm, 4th December 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend Richard Drax and acknowledge the assiduous way in which he has communicated with the Treasury over recent years, sharing the correspondence of his constituent. I welcome this opportunity to address, in as detailed fashion as possible, the points he has raised in his eloquent speech. I pass on my sincere thanks to his constituent for raising his concerns with the Government. I respect those concerns, and it is rare and gratifying to have a member of the public who takes quite such an assiduous interest in the public finances as to spend 5,000 hours studying them. I also thank the hon. Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and for Glasgow East (David Linden) for their contributions to the wide-ranging discussion this afternoon.

The Government share the concerns expressed today about the level of debt and recognise the importance of reducing it so as not to pass on an unfair burden to the next generation. I am anxious to reassure the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset that the Government are taking this matter seriously and are committed to getting debt down.

It may be helpful if I start with a few points of clarification. My hon. Friend observed a number of statistics relating to general Government gross debt. The Government’s chosen metric for debt is public sector net debt, which is a more complete and transparent measure of debt, incorporating a wider range of public institutions than general Government gross debt. Looking at net debt rather than gross debt also provides a more accurate picture of the health of the public finances, as it nets off our liquid assets.

My hon. Friend also stated in his opening remarks that the Government had reduced the deficit so that we now borrow £1 in £16, compared with £1 in £5 in 2009-10. He may be pleased to know that the figure is actually better than that: the Government now borrow only £1 in every £20 we spend.

An important point has been raised about how we measure debt, which I would like to address. The observation is that debt has increased in cash terms since 1973 and that that relates to us joining the European Union. I reiterate that looking at debt as a percentage of our national income—that is, GDP—is a more helpful way of assessing the public finances as it recognises our ability to afford debt as a nation. Looking at debt as a percentage of GDP adjusts for inflation and our ability to service that debt. It also paints a different picture from the nominal figures and shows that our debt level fluctuated between 20% and 50% from 1973, before significantly increasing at the time of the financial crisis. The fall in debt that we are now seeing as a percentage of GDP, rather than in cash terms, is an important distinction as it recognises that GDP is growing faster than debt. As my hon. Friend says, that is a movement in the right direction.

My hon. Friend also observed that, although we have significantly reduced the deficit since 2010, debt rose as a share of GDP over the same period before it peaked in 2016-17. That increase to debt in cash terms and as a percentage of GDP is principally due to the high levels of borrowing that we inherited from the last Administration—a post-war high of 9.9% of GDP, to be exact—which added to our overall debt burden. That could not be fixed overnight. As it was, there was significant resistance to the measures we took to reduce that deficit in the early years in government. We have now reached a crucial turning point, and the deficit has been reduced by four-fifths, from 9.9% when we came in to 1.9% of GDP at the end of the last financial year in April.

Thanks to the work of the British people to reduce the deficit, debt peaked at 85.2% of GDP in 2016-17 and has now begun its first sustained fall in a generation. It will reach—or, it is anticipated to, given the inherent difficulties of forecast—74.1% of GDP in 2023-24. That progress means that we are in a much stronger position with the public finances than we were in 2010.

While it is correct that debt rose after 2010, without the Government successfully reducing the deficit to the extent we have, debt would have been even higher and would still be rising. As my hon. Friend observed, there is a keen contrast between the Government’s balanced approach to paying down the deficit and paying down debt and the Opposition’s proposals to spend £1,000 billion if they assume office.

My hon. Friend also mentioned debt figures in cash terms for 2010, which his constituent Mr Stewkesbury rightly points out have changed. That change is due to a large number of reclassifications, the largest of which was adopting the European system of accounts 2010, which increased debt by around £100 billion due to the inclusion of Network Rail’s debt and the asset purchase facility and the treatment of public sector bank shares as illiquid. Reclassifications are necessary in the course of following international standards, which are themselves in constant evaluation.

The Government’s commitment to responsible management of the public finances was shown this summer, as we published our response to the OBR’s fiscal risks report, providing a detail account of the actions that the Government are taking to address risks to fiscal sustainability. That report provides a mechanism for Parliament and the public to assess the Government’s strategies for managing the risks, and to hold us to account for their implementation.

The report’s publication reaffirms the UK’s place at the international frontier of fiscal transparency and accountability, and supports the Government’s long-term fiscal strategy. The report set out a range of reforms that we are pursuing to reduce risks to the fiscal outlook, including actions to reduce our inflation exposure and tighter controls over the issuance of government loans and guarantees. Such reforms will enhance the UK’s resilience to future economic shocks and aid in helping to keep debt falling.

It is right that actions taken by the Government today do not unjustly impact the next generation. In 2010, the Government inherited a very difficult position in the public finances, with debt having nearly doubled in two years and the budget deficit at its largest since the second world war. We have made significant progress. The deficit has been reduced by four-fifths and debt has begun its first sustained fall in a generation. However, the Government recognise that the job is not yet done, and share the concerns raised today.

We must continue to reduce debt to reduce the burden placed on the next generation. The OBR’s October forecast confirmed that the Government are on course to do that, and that we have met our near-term fiscal rules three years early. We will continue with our balanced approach, keeping debt falling while supporting public services, investing in the economy and keeping taxes low.

My hon. Friend raised a specific point about the sale of the Channel tunnel. The Government’s approach to such matters is that we sell public assets where there is no public policy reason for retaining them, but all asset sales must meet the value-for-money tests set out in the Green Book at the time.

It has been difficult to respond fully to today’s debate, given the range of speeches. My hon. Friend made essentially a macroeconomic critique of the Government, while the Opposition Front-Bench Members made a different set of observations, which are perhaps best left to another time. I sincerely acknowledge the need for the Government to come to terms with the fact that in 2019-20 we will still spend £43 billion on net debt interest, which is more than the amount spent on our armed forces. We need to be clear about the imperative to bear down on the challenge of getting our public finances into a position where we do not add to that debt burden, so that the next generation is in a better situation than when we came into Government.