SPEECH IN THE DEBATE ON BUDGET RESOLUTIONS AND ECONOMIC SITUATION, 24TH MARCH

Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): The Chancellor told the House last week that his policies had been vindicated. His basic case is that austerity is working so well that we need it for two Parliaments rather than one, as was planned. Of course, it is welcome that we have economic growth after so many lean years, but the inescapable fact is that the targets in the growth and spending plans set out at the beginning of this Parliament have been missed by huge margins. The cumulative effect is that cuts will last years longer than planned, and an extra £190 billion is being borrowed, compared with the figure in the plans set out after the election. If Labour had borrowed £190 billion more than was planned, I am not sure how Government Members would describe it, but I doubt whether they would be reaching for the term “success”. The return of growth cannot hide the fact that the outcome of the strategy pursued in the past four years is that one of the Government’s fiscal targets has been missed, and the other—the five-year rolling target—continues to be pushed into the future.

The increases in investment allowances are welcome, but let us be in no doubt: this is a U-turn from the Conservative manifesto and from the 2010 post-election Budget. At that time, when the Chancellor was talking about the “march of the makers”, he cut support for investment in manufacturing by £3 billion a year, and called it getting rid of complex allowances and reliefs. Rhetoric and policy were pulling in entirely different directions. I therefore welcome the U-turn, and on this point at least, rhetoric and policy are now pulling in the same direction, although needless barriers were placed in the way of investment by the policy previously pursued.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the investment allowance was reduced, corporation tax was reduced, which did not benefit manufacturing but benefited the banks?

Mr McFadden: That is absolutely right: a cut in support for manufacturing was used for business as a whole.

Although it makes sense to support investment decisions through the tax system, we should not kid ourselves that investment allowances alone will be enough. The UK’s export performance has been routinely described as disappointing in report after report by the Office for Budget Responsibility. Speak to any manufacturer and they will most likely say that their key challenge is skills. If companies cannot get the right people with the right skills, they cannot innovate, they cannot meet orders in time and they cannot operate as efficiently as they want.

If the Government are really serious about supporting UK manufacturing, they should heed the call coming from their own Back Benches today to stop chasing UKIP and putting in place policies that stop the brightest students and workers from around the world coming to the UK. The Government’s arbitrary net immigration target is a barrier to our accessing the best talent in the world, and the exclusion of such talent is not in the interests of UK businesses or the economy; nor is the threat of withdrawal from our biggest export market, the EU. It is no good supporting investment decisions through the tax system with one hand, and threatening to pull away from our biggest market with the other. The stance the Government have adopted on this is a complete failure of leadership: it is party management first, and the interests of the country second. No amount of support through investment allowances would undo the damage that pulling out of our biggest market would do. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made the announcement he made of a couple of weeks ago, exercising leadership on this issue and rejecting the option of following the Government down this path.

Perhaps enough has been said about beer and bingo in recent days. As someone whose father was a labourer and whose mother worked in a local authority children’s home, the only thing I would add is that a more serious working-class aspiration is an education system that opens up opportunity to all; social mobility that is not based on but challenges closed elites; and a path to rising living standards that has been sadly absent in recent years. I suggest to the Government that a poster based on those things might have been truer to the heart of working-class aspiration than the one that was produced.

I echo some of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on the pension changes. There has been an attempt to reduce this proposal to the question of whether people can be trusted with their own money. Of course people can be trusted in that way, and empowering them to make their own decisions is a good thing. It is something that we should support in politics. Choice in public services empowers people. It has worked well in the area of personal payments for social care, for example. As my hon. Friend said, however, what is in question is not trusting people but trusting the financial services sector that sells people these often complex financial products. I serve on the Treasury Select Committee, and we have seen many mis-selling scandals in recent years, ranging from endowment mortgages to payment protection insurance. We should have learned the lesson that there is often a serious information mismatch between those selling those financial products and those buying them, and that customers are not well served when things go wrong.

How do the Government propose to address that issue? Simply shouting that we should trust people with their own money is not enough, given that the PPI compensation alone has had to be set at £20 billion; and nor is it the philosophy that has been pursued on a cross-party basis for auto-enrolment into the pensions systems. If customers are to be well informed, they need good advice and alternative products in which they can trust. It is perfectly reasonable—indeed, a duty—for a responsible Opposition to ask questions about how that is to be achieved, and to point out the dangers if it is not.

The recent economic growth is welcome, but if it is being funded by consumer spending, people will rightly ask how can we ensure that it has solid foundations and is not simply the froth from another unsustainable housing boom, and how we can ensure that Britain remains engaged with the world and does not turn away from the trade and exports that we need.

Hansard, 24th March 

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