Balanced Budget Rule — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:17 pm on 23rd January 2019.

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Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Exchequer Secretary 4:17 pm, 23rd January 2019

No, I do not accept that for one minute. It is exactly as a result of this Government’s fiscal responsibility in that period that the public finances have now improved, credibility has been restored in the market and business has continued to invest. For those reasons and others, we now have continued record levels of employment, record low levels of unemployment and an economy that remains remarkably resilient. Let us not forget that public spending is £200 billion higher today than it was in the last year of the last Labour Government.

We are not complacent about the debt or the deficit. The fiscal outlook may be brighter, but the need for fiscal discipline continues, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire made very clear. The debt is still more than 80% of GDP, which is equivalent to approximately £65,000 per household, and we want to reduce that figure, for a number of reasons. We are concerned to ensure that if there is a future economic shock, the economy is resilient, and we want to improve fiscal sustainability. In the most recent Budget, the Chancellor set aside £15 billion of headroom for economic shock, out of concern for any further uncertainty that might arise as a result of Brexit.

There is a broader point, however: servicing debt is costly. If our spending on debt interest were a Ministry, it would be the third largest, after health and education. Our spending merely on servicing our debt is equivalent to what we spend on the police and the armed forces. As my hon. Friend made clear, that has an opportunity cost, because that spending has no economic or social value and reduces our ability to spend on our priorities and keep personal and corporate taxes as competitive as possible. The debt burden of interest is merely being passed to future generations.

The foundations of the Government’s approach are our fiscal rules: first, to reduce the cyclically adjusted deficit to below 2% by 2020-21, and secondly to have debt fall as a percentage of GDP in the same year. Sticking to those rules will guide the UK towards a balanced budget by the middle of the next decade. The OBR’s economic and fiscal outlook, which was published in October and was quoted from earlier, shows that the Government are forecast to have met both our near-term fiscal targets in 2017-18, three years earlier than predicted. Sensibly, given uncertainties in the fiscal outlook, the Chancellor took the view that we should retain the £15 billion of headroom against the fiscal mandate in the target year and £73 billion against the target of getting debt to fall. The forecast also shows that borrowing will fall to 0.8% of GDP by 2023-24, its lowest level since 2001.