Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Bercow: Given that there is now only one more female Conservative Member of Parliament than there was in 1983, and that that 18-year period has too often been characterised by studied inactivity in our own ranks, does my right hon. Friend accept that his recognition of the case for positive action to translate equality of opportunity from a phrase into a fact will be widely welcomed?

Mr. Portillo: My hon. Friend is very kind. I believe that the Conservative party must have the unshakeable

25 Jun 2001 : Column 405

objective of increasing the representation by women in this House, and that that objective must be achieved between now and the next election.

On the economy, the Chancellor's mettle has not been tested in difficult circumstances. In the first half of the 1990s, 18 countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development experienced recessions, but in the second half, only five OECD countries suffered in that way. So the Chancellor of the Exchequer has steered the British economy only through calm waters. The economic conditions have been benign, and obviously we hope that they remain so. The Chancellor has been lucky, but he should ask himself whether his policies are robust enough if his luck should change. The world is more turbulent, as the Chancellor admitted during his speech.

In recent years, the United States economy has stimulated growth across the world. Last year, the United States grew by 5 per cent., but this year it is expected to grow by less than 2 per cent. United States manufacturing is in recession, retail sales have slowed and capital investment is down. Trade figures are down as well, which carries with it the threat that the United States problem may be exported and have wider effects.

Further afield, Japan's growth is unlikely to exceed 1 per cent. for the next two or three years. Germany is afraid that growth may have plunged to zero in the second quarter of this year. Growth in the eurozone in the past 12 months is down a full percentage point on the previous year, and industrial production has slowed. The European central bank has had to revise its growth forecast downwards; and European inflation, at 3 per cent., is well above the target. Iraq has suspended oil exports and withheld supplies. Crude oil now sells at $27 a barrel and the price has recently been higher. Higher oil prices mean higher costs for businesses and families.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): On growth, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the International Monetary Fund has cut in half its growth targets for the United States, from 3 per cent. to 1.5 per cent? It has also cut its growth targets for Germany by 40 per cent., but has adjusted only marginally its targets for the United Kingdom, which have moved from 2.8 per cent. to 2.7 per cent. The Treasury forecast is still 2.5 per cent. Does he accept that it is the chancellorship of the economy that is showing great strength in the global environment? While everyone else is seeing their growth cut, ours is still strong, which is a testimony to the good work of the Labour Government.

Mr. Portillo: Despite all the hon. Gentleman's good work during the previous Parliament in asking such questions, he remains on the Back Benches.

If there is to be less demand in the world economy, Britain must become more competitive just to maintain our position. We cannot be comfortable with the fact that our tax advantage, by comparison with that of our European competitors, has declined by two thirds since the mid-1990s. How can we be confident that the Chancellor will address the British competitiveness problem to which he alluded, when he refuses even to admit that the tax burden in this country has risen?

As we all know, the general election showed a dramatic drop in turnout. I believe that part of the disillusionment experienced by the public is caused by politicians failing

25 Jun 2001 : Column 406

to be straightforward. People feel insulted when the politicians who drove up their taxes pretend to them that their taxes have not risen. They find it extraordinary that the Chancellor has no scruples about raising their taxes, and has scruples only about admitting what he has done. Today, he had the opportunity to state in plain English that taxes rose under this Government during the previous Parliament and to set out his view on whether they will rise during the current Parliament--and on whether it is right that they should do so. It is a shame that he did not take the opportunity to be straightforward with the House and the British public on that matter.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies), the Government like to pretend that the economy started to grow and unemployment started to fall on 1 May 1997. In fact, the economy has been growing since 1992 and unemployment has been falling since 1993. The OECD's view of the economy before the Government came to office in 1997 was this:

That was the situation that the Government inherited. Only a Government who were conscious of their under-achievement on the economy would devote more attention to trying to rewrite history than to trying to build on it.

The Chancellor's record has been mixed. The economy has continued to grow and unemployment has continued to fall, which are good things. However, the growth of the economy and the fall in unemployment have been slower since the Chancellor of the Exchequer arrived in his office. Our relative position has also declined. In his first Parliament, Britain's growth rate was lower and our inflation was higher than those of our competitors. That is the precise reverse of the position in the Parliament up to 1997.

Inflation has remained low and stable, as it was when the Government came to office, although the latest figures show that it has risen significantly. The Chancellor was right to make the Bank of England independent. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] It is hardly new for me to say that. He was right to make the change, but he could have made better arrangements. The Monetary Policy Committee must be seen to be above political interference. That is especially the case if we are approaching a referendum on the euro. Even now, I urge him to make more transparent the selection of Monetary Policy Committee members and to limit them to a single term, albeit longer than that which they presently serve, in order to establish that they are clearly independent of the Chancellor.

Over the past few days and, again, today, the Chancellor has talked about productivity. He told us back in 1998 that productivity was

He said today, with unusual frankness, that the quest to improve productivity had eluded us. To be more precise, it has eluded him more than it eluded the previous Conservative Government. Between 1992 and 1997, productivity growth was 2.3 per cent. a year. Since he has been Chancellor, it has averaged 1.8 per cent. a year. It is only by increasing productivity that we can increase the long-term rate of growth in our economy.

If the Chancellor of the Exchequer had a genuine agenda for improving productivity, we would be the first to support it, but he does not seem to understand that it is

25 Jun 2001 : Column 407

not the Government who improve productivity; businesses and working people do that. In a wonderfully telling sentence, he said that "we" have created 170,000 new businesses. I do not believe that he has created any new businesses--certainly not if he stuck to the rules of the House. He has a misconception of how wealth is created and of the people who are responsible for it.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): First, may I thank the right hon. Gentleman for visiting my constituency during the election campaign? It was extremely helpful. Secondly, if the Conservative party is in great peril, is not the shadow Chancellor part of its problem?

Mr. Portillo: That was a stinging arrow, from which I have not fully recovered. If the hon. Gentleman is alluding to the leadership contest in the Conservative party--which I think, clumsily, he is--most of the candidates are associated either with the catastrophe of 1997 or with that of 2001. My unique contribution is that I am associated with both.

A recent survey by the Institute of Directors shows that entrepreneurs typically spend six hours a week complying with Government regulations. That is time that they cannot devote to improving their businesses--time which is taken away from the search for ways in which to be better and more productive. There was a time when Britain could feel relatively smug about how smoothly the machinery of government operated in this country compared with the bureaucratic complexities of some of our European neighbours, but we are now horrendously bureaucratic. The foot and mouth crisis was a snapshot that revealed to many of us what the country has become. We saw any number of different Government agencies tripping over each other. No one had the power of initiative or authority. Many farmers watched in dismay as officials were sometimes more concerned about protecting their own patches than dealing with the problem.

It is a similar story when we talk to constituents, as I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House do. People who apply for benefits are often sent on the most extraordinary bureaucratic treasure hunt in which they are passed from person to person and office to office. The machinery of government is increasingly unable to relate to people as people, whose complicated problems may defy bureaucratic templates. Under Labour, the cost to business of complying with regulations has risen by £5 billion a year. Last year alone, the Government introduced 3,865 new regulations, which was a record. It is true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) said, that as a consequence of the neglect of the bureaucratic burden, Britain has slipped down the competitiveness league table, from ninth position to 19th.

The Chancellor is fond of saying that Britain needs to learn from America and to become more deregulated, but Americans have dubbed the Prime Minister "red-tape Tony". [Interruption.] Labour Members obviously do not read the world's press, but they should because they would find out what the outside world thinks of the Government. The Queen's Speech contains absolutely no recognition of the problem that Britain faces.

25 Jun 2001 : Column 408

Next Section

IndexHome Page