[Lords] (By Order)
[Lords] (By Order)
[Lords](By Order) Orders for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time on Thursday 13 May.
(No. 4) Bill-- (By Order) Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [8 February], That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Debate to be resumed on Thursday 13 May.
Orders for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time on Thursday 13 May.
1. Mr. Robert Hughes : To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on the effect on tax revenues of changes in the level of unemployment in the United Kingdom over the last year.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Michael Portillo) : There are no reliable estimates of these effects. Estimates would require assumptions about, for example, the reasons for the change in unemployment and its wider economic effects--in particular, its effects on incomes and spending. So many uncertainties are involved that the final estimate would be neither accurate nor informative.
Mr. Hughes : Is it not the case that reliable estimates can be made? It is estimated that the cost this year will be £11.5 billion, which is £2.4 billion more than last year. Is not that an enormous price to pay for the Chancellor's mistakes? Would it not be better if the Government spent that kind of money on stimulating manufacturing investment, instead of perpetuating misery on the unemployed?
Mr. Portillo : No. I cannot, for the reasons that I gave, accept that there are such reliable estimates. The variation that would be achieved would critically depend on the reason unemployment was falling. If it was because average earnings were lower or had been held in check or because exports were higher, each would produce different results. As to manufacturing industry, the hon. Gentleman should note that manufacturing productivity is currently at an all-time high and that unit wage costs have been falling in this country while they have been rising in others. Manufacturing exports have never been higher than they are today, and the hon. Gentleman should welcome that.
Mr. Alan Howarth : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to defeat unemployment is to keep inflation down, to give clear-cut encouragement to firms to get on and create wealth--not to encumber employers with red tape and extra nonsense from Brussels, such as the social chapter?
Mr. Portillo : Yes. I believe that there could be no recovery if we had not succeeded bravely and consistently in bringing down inflation. That was the prerequisite. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the role of deregulation. It must be our continuing policy that the rest of Europe can have the social chapter and we shall have the jobs.
Mr. Gordon Brown : Is not the best response to falling tax revenues from high unemployment measures substantially to cut unemployment, not to raise value added tax? In a Market Access survey published today, 75 per cent. of Conservative Members say that they now favour even more increases in VAT--60 per cent. favour VAT increases on newspapers and 27 per cent. favour VAT increases on rail and bus fares. Will the Chief Secretary give a categorical assurance that he and his Government will not increase VAT on food, transport, newspapers and children's clothes--yes or no?
Mr. Portillo : The hon. Gentleman continues to be extremely confused and to believe that one can in some way bring down unemployment to bring about recovery. The opposite is true. One brings about recovery, and that will lead to lower unemployment. That is why we have consistently followed policies that have enabled the recovery to take place.
The hon. Gentleman knows that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor took special care in his Budget to make sure that the increase in the tax burden did not fall on those areas that affected incentives. As to further extensions of VAT, the hon. Gentleman knows exactly what my right hon. Friend and I have been saying--that is not in our minds.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Anthony Nelson) : The latest figures show that the personal sector saving ratio was 11.4 per cent. in the fourth quarter of 1992. Last year, personal saving was at its second highest level in the post-war period.
Mr. Bruce : In 1988, when I last asked that question, personal sector savings were in the region of £17 billion. Since then, they have risen three times in 1992 to more than £50 billion. It appears that while it has been raining in the recession, it has been raining pennies into people's savings accounts. Will my hon. Friend say what that means for the future of the recovery, given that people have been saving so strongly in the past few years?
Mr. Nelson : My hon. Friend is right to point to the importance of the high level of savings. We expect savings to remain high as economic recovery picks up. This is mainly because the full effects of cuts in mortgage interest rates, worth £160 per month on the average mortgage, are feeding through in the form of a significant rise in real disposable income.
Dr. Marek : Does the Minister agree that the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) ought to have asked about the indebtedness of the nation- - [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has had his turn. He ought to have asked about the indebtedness of the nation rather than about savings ratios. It is the indebtedness of the nation that is stopping the recovery that the Chancellor wants. If the Minister agrees with that, what proposals does he have to reduce indebtedness in the United Kingdom?
Mr. Nelson : It is true that the private sector is saving, but the public sector is borrowing heavily. As a result, total saving as a percentage of gross domestic product is low by historical standards. However, Government borrowing is currently high because of the recession. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor spelt out in the Budget a determined programme to tackle the deficit without hindering the recovery, and that is the right approach.
Column 270sector generally is doing better? Does not that show that the improvement in the economy is advancing on all fronts?
Mr. Nelson : It does, indeed. We are seeing not only a pick-up in retail sales of record levels but a continued high propensity to save. Both are being delivered through higher disposable incomes arising from the much lower interest rates that people are paying. This is brought out clearly in the fact that last month some 1.2 million households with annual review mortgages saw their interest payments cut by more than £60 a month. This has very important and beneficial implications for the level of spending and for savings.
Mr. Nicholas Brown : What would further increases in indirect taxation do for private sector savings? Will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will not increase the rate or broaden the scope of value added tax?
Mr. Nelson : There has been no evasion ; the position has been made absolutely clear. As to the future, the Budget proposals set out increases in the rate of VAT, which apply not this year but next year. The reason for that is to ensure that we tackle the deficit about which the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) asked.
3. Mr. Trend : To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will list the economic indicators published since the Budget for car registrations, industrial production and retail sales ; and if he will make a statement.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Norman Lamont) : Figures published since the Budget have shown further increases in car registrations, industrial production and retail sales. These, and a number of other indicators, are clear signs of a resumption of growth.
Mr. Trend : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is extremely encouraging that the upturn in economic activity is so broadly based? Is it not evident that this improvement has been under way for some time now in the face of unremitting gloom from the Opposition Front Bench?
Mr. Lamont : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is astonishing that that fact gets no recognition from the Opposition. Retail sales have been on a rising trend for about a year ; car registrations have risen each month for the past six months and in the first quarter of this year were up 11 per cent. on last year ; and manufacturing production in the first three months of this year was 1.5 per cent. up on a year ago.
This poses extraordinary difficulties for the Opposition, as is revealed in this morning's edition of that well-known Tory newspaper Tribune. It has an article by the Labour party's noble and candid spokesman in the House of Lords, who asks :
"How should Labour react to the news that unemployment has fallen for two successive months?"
The article goes on to say :
Column 271"It is much easier to be negative when the economy is in trouble, but what does one say when the economy starts bouncing back?" That is the dilemma of the Labour party. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) does not appear to want to acknowledge that newspaper, to which he himself contributed an article in the same edition. As he raised the question of VAT--and as he normally intervenes in my answers--perhaps he would care to comment on this statement by the Labour party spokesman in the House of Lords :
"I would remove zero rating for VAT on all items."
That is the proposition put forward by the Labour party spokesman in the House of Lords. I hope that the shadow Chancellor will now intervene.
Mr. Gordon Brown : Given that the Labour party is opposed to the extension of VAT to food, children's clothes and transport, will the Chancellor give exactly the same assurance? Can he tell us that there will be no extension of VAT to children's clothes, fuel, food and transport? Will he give an answer--yes or no?
Mr. Congdon : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recent economic indicators are very good news for the economy and that we must not throw this opportunity away, either by letting inflation rip or by having an uncompetitive exchange rate?
Mr. Lamont : My hon. Friend is right to say that it is important that we should see that the recovery is sustainable and is sustained. The policies that we are following will ensure exactly that. The prospects for sustained recovery are good. First, inflation is at the lowest level for 25 years. Secondly, the rate of increase in earnings is at the lowest level for 25 years. At the same time, productivity in manufacturing industry is increasing sharply. Those are all the reasons why the recovery ought to be sustainable.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East--who, of course, could not give an answer--told us that the autumn statement, which, he said, was heralded by almost everybody in November, is now seen to have failed. Since he said that, the number of car registrations has risen in each of the last six months. Manufacturing output rose in January and February by the biggest margin for more than two years. Retail sales have risen to record levels. What the hon. Gentleman says is, as it always is, complete nonsense.
Mr. Beith : Before the Chancellor of the Exchequer gets too carried away by these encouraging and welcome figures, will he reflect on the fact, which is confirmed in the Red Book, that even if we achieve growth of more than 2.5 per cent. and sustain it, we shall still in three years' time have a public sector borrowing requirement of £35 billion? Will he also bear in mind that if he wants to claim any credit for the improvement in figures that he has announced, he will have to accept full responsibility for the desperate depths to which the recession went?
Mr. Lamont : The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the public sector borrowing requirement as something to which we must devote attention. Firm control of public spending is necessary. That is not
Column 272something, alas, for which we get support from the Labour party. Although I notice that the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have been very happy to make political capital out of the extension of VAT to fuel and power, that is precisely what they proposed in their own policy document.
Mr. Spring : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that as a result of the substantial interest rate reductions in Britain since 1990, annual corporate cash flow has increased by £11 billion? Does that not provide British industry with an immense opportunity to attack markets, both at home and abroad, with renewed confidence and from a stronger financial base?
Mr. Lamont : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He would of course, highlight the fact that half the interest rate cuts, which amount to some £11 billion, occurred before September. That is having a major impact on recovery now. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says. In addition to the relaxation in monetary policy, there have been a number of other specific measures : what we did in the Budget last year, in halving the car tax, and then in the autumn statement last year, by removing the car tax altogether. That undoubtedly, in the opinion of the those involved in the motor industry, has been a major stimulus and encouragement to this industry, which is at the heart of British manufacturing. In addition, the measures that we have taken to encourage the housing market--in the last Budget, by raising the threshold on stamp duty, and in the autumn statement, by putting in a very large sum of public money to take empties off the housing market--have contributed to the recovery that we now see.
Mr. Sheldon : Yes, but when the right hon. Gentleman talks about the improvement in retail sales, is he not aware that that in itself will not lead to any recovery? We have a £17.5 billion balance of payments deficit to come. The only recovery will come from exports and investment and it is to those that he should turn.
Mr. Lamont : I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that our eyes ought to be on the long term and that the House ought to be dealing with making Britain more competitive and ensuring that our public finances are in sound order. I would stress what the right hon. Gentleman did not-- the need to bring down the public sector borrowing requirement, which is a high priority for us. Manufacturing investment, to which I think that the right hon. Gentleman referred, increased in the last three quarters of last year. There has been a large increase in our exports to non-European Community countries, which are up 12 per cent. on one year ago. There is every indication that British industry is highly competitive and that, given the right framework, sustained recovery and the right policies, it can compete and will beat the competition.
Mr. John Townend : Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of our large budget deficit, there will inevitably be upward pressure on interest rates unless that deficit is reduced, as the Government will have to sell more and more Government stock to finance it? Does he therefore agree that it is vital that public expenditure is reduced in the November Budget so that interest rates can be kept low and the recovery continued?
Mr. Lamont : I very much agree with my hon. Friend that there is a connection between the total borrowing requirement and interest rates, both at the short and the long end. It is important for us to have public expenditure under control and for the PSBR to be on a declining path. I notice that the Labour party seems to agree with that sentiment and seems to wish to get on the attack over it, but we have not heard one suggestion from the shadow Chancellor to rectify that aspect of policy.
Mr. Wigley : Does the Chancellor accept that now interest rates are down to a tolerable level, perhaps the most important thing for manufacturing industry and the jobs dependent on it is to maintain the stability of interest rates, so that there can be a foreseeable interest rate level for the investment cycle? When considering future interest rates, will the right hon. Gentleman also bear in mind pensioners who have a relatively small amount of money saved and are dependent on interest for the money on which to live?
Mr. Lamont : The hon. Gentleman refers to interest rates being at a tolerable or acceptable level ; they are at the lowest level for 15 years and are the lowest in the European Community and mortgage rates are at their lowest for 20 years. He also referred to savers and I entirely agree. During the last Question Time in which I answered questions about interest rates, I said that I thought that the postbag on interest rates was running 50 : 50 in favour of higher rates. In all honesty, it is now running at 8 : 1 in favour of higher rates.
Mr. Nelson : On the Halifax measure, house prices have risen for two months in succession. House builders and estate agents are notably more optimistic and have consistently been reporting increased activity. Those signs are very encouraging and clearly point to the level of activity rising further during the year.
Mr. Kynoch : Does my hon. Friend agree that the increasing activity in the housing market is further evidence of a rise in general economic confidence? Is not it clear that changes to stamp duty in the Budget and the buying-up of empty properties announced in the autumn statement last year have had a beneficial effect?
Mr. Nelson : My hon. Friend is right to say that there have been increasing signs of confidence in the housing market and in the economy generally. The buying-up of about 23,000 empty properties and doubling stamp duty to £60,000 have helped sentiment, but the biggest boost to confidence in the housing market has come from the significant reduction in interest rates, which has brought
Column 274mortgage rates to at or below 8 per cent. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, that is the lowest level for 25 years.
Mr. Soley : Are we to assume from the Government's Budget changes that they are continuing to phase out mortgage income tax relief? If so, may I ask them not to do what the President of the Board of Trade advised a few years ago, which was to abolish it entirely except for first-time buyers, and instead to consider some of the more sensible proposals such as giving a subsidy to low-income home owners without artificially inflating the housing market, which would also allow renting to become an economic activity again, for landlords and tenants?
Mr. Nelson : The Government have taken measures to assist and promote the rented sector, such as the deregulation of rents, the renting a room schemes and others. However, as for mortgage interest relief generally, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made the position for next year clear in his Budget statement. Every year in the Budget statement, the rate of mortgage relief is set for the following year. This is not the right time to make a Budget statement for the next financial year.
Mrs. Lait : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest problems facing companies in my constituency and throughout the United Kingdom in their return to sustained profitability is the difficulty in getting working capital from banks? When my right hon. Friend the Chancellor next meets the CBI, will he be able to say that the Treasury plans an issue of two to three-year gilts especially designed for banks to buy, as foreshadowed in the Budget? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that would be the best way to ease liquidity in the banking system, thereby helping companies to get the working capital that they so desperately need?
Mr. Portillo : I do not want to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I have nothing to add to what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said about funding in the Budget statement. Indeed, I would have anxieties about the pressure that such short-term gilts might have on inflation. The key to liquidity, about which my hon. Friend is worried, is the maintenance of low inflation and the restoration of profitability, which depend on the recovery. I think that she will be encouraged by the forecasts for company profitability.
Mr. Austin Mitchell : Given that company profitability was regenerated only when Britain was forced out of the exchange rate mechanism, why are the Government now indulging in nonsense about interest rates not coming down further and trying to talk up the pound again? Do they not realise that the only answer to the problems of a country that is in horrendous deficit and whose manufacturing base has shrunk below the levels of
Column 275viability is competitiveness, competitiveness,
competitiveness--competitiveness and competitiveness, now and for ever? Why not put Group 4 in charge of the pound?
Mr. Portillo : The hon. Gentleman was in some danger of repeating himself during that question. I agree that competitiveness is very important, which is why the fact that unit wage costs have fallen in Britain while they have continued to rise in Japan and Germany is extremely encouraging. The hon. Gentleman should note that the encouraging performance of exports and retail sales began during the first half of last year. He should not put his faith in devaluation, which has never been the way out of problems for this country. He should consider the improvements in our competitiveness, which have been achieved in the last year by company managers getting control of productivity and quality and ensuring that they keep down wage and other costs.
Ms Harman : Given the importance of levels of investment on profitability, the fact that the Red Book forecast that business investment is to fall by half a per cent. this year and the fact that CBI industrial trends show that manufacturing firms are cutting investment, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied with the present level of investment? If not, what is he going to do about it?
Mr. Portillo : The hon. Lady often repeats statistics, and I have had the privilege of hearing her make that point many times. However, she has not read the figures carefully. If she excludes investment in the North sea--investment which, because it is lumpy, rises and falls--she will find that investment has been rising. Even at the very lowest level predicted for the first half of 1994, business investment will be 14 per cent. of gross domestic product. That is historically a very high figure and is higher than that achieved for any year between 1970 and 1986. The hon. Lady will recall that her party was in power for some time during that period.
7. Mr. Milligan : To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what has been the change in the level of industrial production in the last 12 months ; and what was the equivalent change in Italy, France, Germany and Japan.
14. Mr. Merchant : To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what has been the change in the level of industrial production in the last 12 months ; and what was the equivalent change in Italy, France, Germany and Japan.
Mr. Lamont : Comparing the latest three months with the same period a year ago, industrial production has risen by 1 per cent. in the United Kingdom but fallen by 8 per cent. in Germany, 5 per cent. in Japan, 4 per cent. in Italy and 3 per cent. in France.
Mr. Milligan : Does my right hon. Friend agree that those figures show that we, and our manufacturing industry in particular, are doing much better than our competitors in Europe? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Ford Transit plant in Southampton, which employs many of my constituents, has shown a sharp increase in production and in quality, and a 20 per cent. increase in productivity, over the past two years? The plant is now
Column 276producing vans significantly more cheaply than the equivalent plant in Belgium. Does not that suggest that the prospects for manufacturing industry in this country are better than they have been for many years?
Mr. Lamont : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He gives a powerful example, about which I shall want to read more. My hon. Friend is right about the statistics. My reply to his question did not cite all the figures for the United Kingdom. From peak to trough of the recession, industrial production fell by 7 per cent. in the United Kingdom. The recession in Germany continues, and so far industrial production there has fallen by 12.3 per cent. In Japan it has fallen by 11 per cent. so far and in Sweden, where recession also continues, it has fallen by 18 per cent. so far.
The same examples and parallels can be drawn for retail sales. From peak to trough, they fell by 4 per cent. in this country, whereas so far in Germany they have fallen by 8.8 per cent. and in Japan by 6.5 per cent. In Sweden retail sales have fallen by more than 27 per cent. so far.
Opposition Members like to think that the recession that came to this country was unique to the United Kingdom. The facts demonstrate dramatically that the truth is very different.
Ms Short : Does not the Chancellor understand that if there is recession across the world, that is dangerous for Britain and he should not glory in it? Europe is in difficulty, Japan is turning down and there is every sign that the American economy might be beginning to dip again. The Chancellor is pushing up the value of the pound, but it was the devaluation of the pound alone that brought up the British economy. We might lose our recovery, so the right hon. Gentleman should not crow about conditions in other parts of the world but should seek to achieve international co- operation to improve employment in the world economy.
Mr. Lamont : I am in no way crowing. I simply mention facts that I have never heard mentioned by any Opposition Member. The hon. Lady talked about international co-operation, and I entirely agree with her. We strive for international co-operation in the European Community and in G7. The hon. Lady mentioned the exchange rate, but the pound is floating ; we have no exchange rate target. But I observe with some amusement that when the pound goes down that is thought to be a good thing, and is described as "floating", but when the pound goes up, that is thought to happen under the influence of the Government.
Mr. Thompson : I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that that is more good news for the Martyn Lewis school of broadcasters. I hope that note is taken of that. Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the latest quarterly economic survey by the Norfolk and Waveney
Column 277chamber of commerce, which shows a dramatic improvement in confidence, in orders and in deliveries on the home front and, perhaps even more important, an improvement in export performance? The survey also shows that there is recognition of the need to continue to keep inflation down and to provide stability, and also an appreciation of the measures that the Government introduced in the Budget and in the autumn statement to help the construction industry and, most important, to help exporters. That is good news. Should we not broadcast it?
Sir John Cope : Yes, it is good news for everybody, although I realise that some Opposition Members have difficulty in recognising it. I have not yet had an opportunity to see the survey about Norfolk to which my hon. Friend referred. Nevertheless, it sounds as though the report sends out the same message as that sent out by all the other surveys that I have seen recently.
Ms Eagle : Given the fact that it was the accidental almost 20 per cent. devaluation of the pound that triggered the recovery that we are seeing at the moment, what are the implications, in the Minister's opinion, of the gradual rise of the pound over the past few weeks?
Sir John Cope : The hon. Lady is quite wrong in the first part of her assertion. If she looks at the figures, she will find that the improvement started before the events to which she drew attention. It is there for all to see and many of the figures have already been referred to this afternoon.
With regard to the exchange rate, the hon. Lady will know that we do not forecast and have no target in that respect. However, of course it is important and we watch it closely.
Mr. Butcher : Does my right hon. Friend agree that business surveys show that small and medium-sized manufacturing companies are concerned about the shortage of risk capital for those unquoted companies? Does he further agree that there would be a dramatic effect in our competitive position vis-a-vis our fellow Europeans if this country were to consider the radical measure of abolishing capital taxation, thus making our country a haven for the inward location of capital, which is very scarce around the world, and perhaps learn from the lessons of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore? That would give us a serious and important competitive edge.
Sir John Cope : I certainly agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of small and medium-sized firms. The small firms part of the CBI survey, to which attention was drawn recently, shows that they are expecting to employ more people in the next few months. That is confirmed very strongly by surveys carried out by the Institute of Directors and by 3i. Chamber of commerce and Dun and Bradstreet surveys are also positive. All that emphasises the importance of small firms.
As for my hon. Friend's taxation proposals, all I would say is that we have recently presented a Budget and the Finance Bill which contain a series of taxation proposals. Those are the proposals which we are pursuing for the time being.
Mr. Darling : Have those business surveys included the subject of boardroom pay? Some boardroom members appear to have been to the Martyn Lewis school of salaries. Will the Government take the opportunity to
Column 278condemn some executives who have been taking exorbitant pay levels, such as the reputed £10 million paid to a Royal Bank of Scotland executive, when those executives and Ministers have been calling on the less-well-off to take small or no pay increases? What are the Government proposing to do to ensure that everyone is treated in the same way and that the people who already have a great deal do not continue to line their pockets at the expense of others?
Sir John Cope : I am not going to comment on individual salaries or amounts of remuneration. However, the hon. Gentleman and the House know that the Government and Ministers set an example in that respect this year which I would like to see followed much more fully by leaders in industry and commerce--as indeed it has been by Members of this House.