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Mr. Beard: The Conservative party.

Mr. Woodward: It does not behove the hon. Gentleman to say that. It shows ruthless disregard for the evidence. It is not our evidence, but that of every commentator. Labour Back Benchers fail seriously to address what people who have worked in business say. Most Labour Members have pursued honourable professions, but few have worked in or run a business. That lack of experience is beginning to tell in the way that they run the economy.

Tomorrow, Britain will face real problems. Inflation is at its highest level in six years. On 9 July, interest rates may rise again. The Government continue to be complacent. The Chancellor goes elsewhere and pursues his interest in Europe. That is fine, but the problem is that Britain still needs to be run by its national Parliament here. His absence is serious and shows utter contempt for running the economy in a responsible, proper way.

While Rome burns, the senators of this Government are at play, spending here and there and clocking up their new plans for the future. It is totally irresponsible, given the condition of the economy. Ultimately, Britain will pay, and pay heavily. The next rise in interest rates will force all those who have to borrow to pay even more dearly.

Next year, two futures lie ahead. Either the Chancellor will be here telling us about his package of cuts and postponements or he will not be here at all. To save his own skin, the Prime Minister, a man who likes to be characterised as tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, will find the villain of this crime. The Chancellor may find that he has different responsibilities.

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6.7 pm

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): I am glad to follow a speech so full of bonhomie, wit and joviality. It was interesting to hear an attack on the Government, because attacks have been conspicuous by their absence so far.

I have listened carefully to the debate. The shadow Chancellor, who is not in his place, did not get to grips with what is going on. His main beef seemed to be the absence of the Chancellor. As we are debating a motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, perhaps it is important that he is not here. Where is he? That is equally pertinent. What a flagrant abuse of democracy. What contempt for the House of Commons.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: On reflection, the hon. Gentleman may want to apologise for what he has just said--or perhaps he is embarrassing himself by not knowing that the Leader of the Opposition is in hospital.

Mr. Leslie: I did not realise that. Of course I apologise if the right hon. Gentleman is indeed incapacitated, but the deputy leader of the Conservative party has also signed the motion and he is not here either. Lots of people who signed motions today are not here, so it is a little hypocritical to start criticising others for their absence.

This idea of a golden legacy is a wonderful piece of revisionism--the rewriting of history. Some golden legacy it was: interest rates at 15 per cent., inflation at 10 per cent., public sector borrowing and national debt costing, because they doubled in six years, £25 billion in interest payments--[Interruption.] The Tories do not like to hear about that--which is intriguing--but the public know it.

The Conservatives seem not to realise that they lost the election because of their abysmal failure to manage the economy. People looked at their claim to a golden economic legacy and laughed at it.

Mr. Gibb: The hon. Gentleman mentioned revisionism. What did the leader of the Labour party mean when he said, in 1996 during the lead-up to the election, Labour had no plans to raise taxes?

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the Labour manifesto set out my party's plans and policies on taxation and spending in black and white, whereupon we were elected by an overwhelming majority. We are keeping every single one of our pledges--a concept with which the hon. Gentleman is unfamiliar. That is why his party lost the election: it could not keep its promises, meagre though they were.

It has been interesting to see, in the Standing Committee scrutinising the Finance Bill, the amendments the Conservatives have tabled. As we have heard, they do not deny that they were going to abolish mortgage interest tax relief--earlier, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary hammered that point home. We have also seen in Committee the Tories committing themselves to reducing public sector income by astronomical amounts. Where would they find the savings? From putting up taxes--even income tax? From cutting vital public services? Or from adding to the national debt?

Taken together, Conservative amendments proposed in the Standing Committee amount to a staggering £5.8 billion in reduced spending. With their proposed

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amendment to the social security bill of £1.5 billion and their commitment to abolish capital gains tax, at a cost of £1.3 billion, they would leave an £8.5 billion black hole in the national finances and wipe out the public sector debt repayment that the Chancellor has proposed for1999-2000.

Mr. Borrow: Does my hon. Friend agree that if we followed the advice of the Conservative party and increased the public sector borrowing requirement by as much as £8 billion, we would only repeat the mistake made by the Chancellor of 10 years ago--a mistake that led to the boom of the late 1980s and the bust of the early 1990s?

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend is correct. It is clear that the Conservative party has learnt nothing from its defeat as it continues to table profligate amendments to the Finance Bill, espousing reductions in tobacco tax and bingo tax, for instance. The Tories have not as yet proposed any reductions in income tax--it will be interesting to see whether they do. We want to know where all the money will come from.

Mr. Gibb: There is a limit to how much one can stand of this nonsense. It is the Labour Government who have raised taxes although they said before the election that they could fund all their spending programmes by reducing spending on social security. The fact is that they are spending a mammoth amount more on social security, not cutting it. When will the hon. Gentleman apologise for misleading the public during the election about how Labour would fund its spending pledges?

Mr. Leslie: That was a brave attempt by a stalwart member of the Finance Bill Standing Committee to defend ill-thought-out Conservative amendments. He deserves full marks for trying. The hon. Gentleman should know that the Government are reducing the welfare sector's consumption of public money over the lifetime of this Parliament by means of initiatives such as the working families tax credit and welfare to work, which will take people off benefit and into work, thereby reducing social security expenditure. It is that sort of fiscal prudence which will ensure sound long-term public sector finances.

Mr. Woodward: Does the hon. Gentleman think that all the reports being written about Britain heading for a probable recession are wrong?

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman's reading glasses are obviously tinted a certain shade of blue. Not all the reports predict such doom and gloom. The Chancellor has done a remarkable job of striking the right balance between the sort of depression and recession being experienced by Singapore, Indonesia and Korea--in the space of one year their economies have shrunk by between 8 and 20 per cent.--and the enormous rates of growth, perhaps unsustainably high, in America.

Mr. Loughton: Why is a booming economy in America not a problem for inflation there, whereas in this country, uniquely, inflation is rising and has hit 4.2 per cent; indeed, the underlying rate is well above the Chancellor's target? How does the hon. Gentleman explain that dichotomy?

Mr. Leslie: Perhaps it has something to do with the national minimum wage in America. Perhaps we need to

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look into how the Americans operate it in such a way that their inflation stays low. It proves, at any rate, that it is not impossible to combine a minimum wage and low inflation.

I want to reiterate a point I made earlier about the Liberal Democrats' spending commitments. The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) did not deny the Liberals' commitment, made in the Finance Bill Standing Committee, to a policy of, effectively, an extra 8p on income tax. That derives from the £17.5 billion involved in equalising the personal income tax and capital gains tax allowances.

Mr. Edward Davey: The hon. Gentleman pulls his fantasy claims out of the air, but fails to explain his party's policies or what they would cost. For example, the Chancellor is on record as proposing a 10p income tax rate. If that were introduced tomorrow, it would cost billions.

Mr. Leslie: I am sure that any proposals the Chancellor introduces will be fully funded and costed, just like all the other Government proposals so far. The hon. Gentleman said:


We await that announcement with bated breath. I look forward to hearing how the Liberal Democrats propose to fund their commitments--it always appears easy for them to spend, spend, spend in a way that the Conservative party is learning to do, but they never say where the money will come from and that is what we need to hear. A bit more responsibility from Opposition Members would not go amiss.

On fiscal policy, it is important to highlight the way in which the Government have been working towards reducing the national debt and the public sector borrowing requirement, so ensuring that that burden around the necks of taxpayers is reduced. The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir P. Tapsell) claims to be a Keynesian; I wonder what Keynes would have to say about the astronomic levels of national debt created by the Conservative Government. I was interested to hear Opposition Members' rather contradictory arguments on that point.


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