Balanced Budget Rule — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:33 pm on 23rd January 2019.

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Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade) 3:33 pm, 23rd January 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to take part in this debate. I congratulate Lee Rowley on securing this debate, not least because we all want the debt, deficit and borrowing to come down to sustainable levels—there is no disagreement about that objective. At the end of his speech, he spoke about flexibility and not harking back to the debates of 10 years ago. We supported the New Zealand model that allows for maximum flexibility for a shock, while trying to reduce the debt and deficit, and we still think it has considerable merit.

While not wishing to be at all partisan, I must take issue with the hon. Gentleman in one regard, which is that one generation’s spending paid for by the next is not a characteristic of much of our investment. Roads, rails, bridges, water, sewerage, long-term health improvement, education and even paying the state pension to those who have already contributed are intergenerational investments, and I would not characterise them as being a burden on, rather than an investment for, the next generation. The hon. Gentleman and Alex Chalk spoke about morality, but there is nothing inherently immoral about borrowing if it is to fund that intergenerational investment.

I wish, rhetorically, to ask a series of questions. How do we do this? How do we run a balanced budget? What would the mechanism be? It strikes me that there are three ways that one could begin to do it. First, we could set hard targets, but if the downturn comes unexpectedly, if the revenue yield is lower than anticipated or if the money runs out, there are a number of options. We could simply stop spending, leaving a half-built bridge, road or railway, with unpaid pensions and cuts to welfare, but that would be socially, economically and politically undesirable. We could ignore the failure and carry on spending, or we could have a hybrid rule akin to the welfare cap, and the poor Minister would have to report to Parliament on why they are going to make those cuts or ignore the rule and keep on spending.

In any event, there are likely to be in-year budget changes. In-year budget cuts in Westminster had an immediate impact and drove a coach and horses through the already set, voted on and agreed Scottish Parliament budget. If that is multiplied across the Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland, and every local authority and other public body, an in-year change has a sudden and profound cascading effect on every recipient of public cash in the country—again, that is politically, economically and socially damaging.

As we have seen, the setting of a hard budget creates a perverse disincentive to hoard cash. No politician has not struggled to get cash from one public body or another in June, July, August or September, but then found a huge splurge of cash towards the end of the financial year. I bet my bottom dollar that if money is spent in that way it results in—how can I put this gently?—not quite optimum value for money.

To get round that, we currently budget against future forecasts, but if GDP is lower—for whatever reason—or if the tax yield is lower, or if the public finances and fiscal numbers are not what they might be, we are left again with a number of options. We can stop spending, which is bad. We can have in-year changes, which are undesirable. We can also allow automatic stabilisers to take their course. That normally happens for a good reason, but the budget rule is then breached. We could introduce a corollary to the Bank of England failing to meet the inflation target, with some kind of letter or report to the House of Commons. If that happened too often, it would become rather meaningless; even worse, it could become a fiscal event in its own right. Watch how the markets would respond to that, rather than a sensible automatic implementation of the automatic stabilisers.

To avoid such difficulties—as the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire said, we have seen this in the past—we can have a balanced budget over the economic cycle. I am long enough in the tooth to remember my friends in the British Labour party changing the start and end dates of the economic cycle to make the numbers fit. It was not very credible, so I would rule that out, however superficially appealing.

All those mechanisms—all of them—depend on accurate forecasts. If there is optimism bias, our fiscal numbers and tax yield will be lower than anticipated on day one. We have seen, year after year, and even with substantial depreciation of sterling, that the contribution of trade to GDP growth was far lower than expected, or even zero or negative.

Secondly, it requires those doing the forecast to have comprehensive access to all of the information. The Office for Budget Responsibility has told us that it did not have access to some Government policy changes before it produced its report in advance of the Budget, and even the most recent Red Books make precisely no consideration of the impact of Brexit on the fiscal numbers —zero—or of the impact of a reduction in immigration, which could have a profound impact on GDP growth and tax yield.

We then have the issue of having to identify in advance—although it is impossible to do so, particularly in the case of certain sorts of external shocks—the precise implications for the fiscal numbers and revenue yield of both cyclical and structural flaws in the economy.

I say to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire that we all want to see the debt come down, the deficit come down and borrowing come down—all of us want to see that. However, in addition we all want to maintain investment and to ensure that we do not punish those with least, who are dependent on public expenditure.

I also say to the hon. Gentleman, keep pushing. Let us see if we can get an answer from the Minister, and let us see if a flash of inspiration comes over all our heads at some point. If he can identify solutions to those problems—the optimism bias, the lack of information from the forecasters or to the forecasters, and information in advance about the precise impact of both a cyclical and a structural change to the economy—I suspect that I will be the first one to put him up for a Nobel prize for economics. However, in the absence of answers to those questions, I suspect that this issue will remain something that we will have to work at and something that is unlikely to be implemented, or at least implemented quickly.