Balanced Budget Rule — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 23rd January 2019.

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Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Conservative, North East Derbyshire 2:30 pm, 23rd January 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the balanced budget rule.

It is a pleasure to serve under you chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am extremely pleased to have secured this debate to consider an issue that has slipped down the agenda in recent years, namely that of fiscal responsibility and the actions the state can take in order to uphold and, in some cases, guarantee it.

I am delighted to see so many right hon. Members and hon. Members here today. It is packed to the rafters and standing room only, which demonstrates the level of interest in the subject. I hope that, by holding such debates in Westminster Hall, and by dragging so many hon. Members to them to volunteer contributions, we can slowly raise this important issue back up the agenda and draw attention to it.

The particular issue I want to discuss is the principle of the United Kingdom adopting a balanced budget rule as a way to improve its finances, and the underlying responsibility of Members in this place to ensure that the country pays its way in the future. The idea, which though simple is not universally liked, is that over an appointed period, within an agreed timeline, Governments should follow the novel concept of living within their means and not spend more than they can afford. Crucially, that commitment goes beyond words and there should be consequences if there is a failure to adhere to it.

To some, that is dramatic news; to others, such as myself, it just makes sense that Governments should not seek to balance the books on the back of the nation’s children and grandchildren. The principle of the never-never is, with appropriate structuring, just as apt for the Exchequer as it is for the average household in towns such as Dronfield, Eckington, Clay Cross and Killamarsh in my North East Derbyshire consistency.

It was James Madison, one of the US founding fathers, who said in 1790 that he went

“on the principle that a Public Debt is a Public curse.”

We would do well to take heed of such sentiments.

I have prepared a long speech, because I did not think that so many Members would be here. Before I begin, I will frame the discussion to ensure that the next few minutes can be constructive and useful. The debate could easily, quickly and seamlessly descend into the usual tit-for-tat and back-and-forth on the current state of our national finances, who got us to where we are and why we are there. I am sure that that may happen during the debate. I will say a few words about that in a moment, but I hope we will not dwell on it too much. The idea is to take a broader and longer-term look at where we are, and how we ensure that we leave our country safer, more secure and more resilient than we found it. That resilience should stretch to the nation’s finances as much as it does to its borders and national security.

I declare this debate, in so far as I am able, a Brexit-free zone. That is not because Brexit will not have repercussions or implications for the issue at hand, because it blatantly will, given that the Government’s deficit elimination target has been revised in recent years. I hope my hon. Friend Damien Moore will still have a speech to make after those comments. This debate is about a time beyond Brexit, if we can possibly imagine such a nirvana, and about the day when headlines talk about police, health and education again, rather than backstops, Juncker and tariffs. I have been in this place less than two years, and I would say that at least 90% of what we talk about is Brexit. It sucks the oxygen out of the room, and I say that as committed Brexiteer. It also looks likely to continue to do so for much of the next year, so I hope that for the next few minutes we can try to avoid it.

My proposition is simple: that the United Kingdom considers over the long term the adoption of the balanced budget rule, set in statute, which requires Government to spend only as much as they raise, over a set agreed period, and that there will be consequences if they fail to do that. That would not be an aim or an ambition, but a hard rule, which would be flexible only inasmuch as anything can be flexible when it is set down in law. To be provocative, if we were so minded we might even consider tying any attempt to change future legislation—presumably by a spendthrift Government eager to give out sweeties or goodies to buy votes—to a referendum of the people themselves, given that we have become so adept at referendums in recent years. That would certainly focus minds.

What is the point of legislating on this issue? First, we should all have a moral problem with excessive Government debt. The United Kingdom’s general Government gross debt in September 2018 was, according to the Office for National Statistics, about £1.8 trillion, which is equivalent to about 85% of our country’s GDP. Last year we borrowed, and therefore added, about £40 billion to that figure. In the last couple of decades, our debt as a proportion of GDP has risen from approximately 40% to more than 80%. Those may be just numbers, but they have real-life and real-world implications.

I acknowledge the challenges that the Government have had in trying to get the country’s deficit under control. My party remains resolutely of the view that the Administration prior to 2010 both mismanaged the country’s finances and failed to prepare for the inevitable recession, which could not be avoided given that mere mortals cannot abolish the cycle of boom and bust, and given the well-recited failure to mend the roof when the sun was shining. I support the Government’s deficit strategy and the work they continue to do to manage it down. It has proved a difficult issue to resolve, but we should acknowledge the important milestone that we hit this year, which is that debt as a proportion of GDP is falling for the first time in many years.

Even with the acknowledgement of the good work that has been and continues to be done, the reality is that we are going to run a deficit for a good number of years to come. Even when we eliminate that deficit, which I hope will be as soon as possible, we are merely returning to a place that stops us piling on any more problems for our children and grandchildren, without really having a way to cut down the problem that has already been created in absolute terms. What is the long-term strategy for cutting that debt pile in absolute rather than relative terms? How do we avoid the current position becoming the baseline and the place we start from when the next recession comes? That place would, by default, reduce our firepower to deal with those hard times.

It is worth dwelling on the moral case for not running a deficit and for keeping debt low. The debt that we run up, for whatever good or bad reason, needs to be paid back, and if we cannot pay it back, we need to service it or pay for it. That limits the headroom of future generations to make decisions about what they spend their taxes on, because some of their taxes will go on servicing the debt. It mandates that spending that benefits one generation will be dealt with by another, which is an intergenerational unfairness that we should reflect on much more deeply than we do today, as ever-eager politicians dream up another opportunity to spend.

Reducing our firepower or fiscal space in the event of a recession is the worst kind of lack of planning, and one that will hamstring our ability to pull ourselves out of those recessions, when they inevitably come. As Ryan Bourne of the Cato Institute pointed out in his excellent recent paper on the subject, at least some of the literature that has reviewed the issue highlights that when Government debt gets too high for too long, it tends to reduce growth rates overall, meaning less economic activity, less growth and less prosperity in the long run. [Interruption.]