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Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): I should like to start by reminding the House of my interests recorded in the Register of Members' Interests, although I cannot for the life of me think how they would be in any way relevant to what I am about to say.
I thoroughly agree with the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) about the problem of age discrimination in the job market and in the health service. I have twice introduced ten-minute Bills designed to address that problemonce under the Major Government. I think that I was the first Member to do so on either side of the House, although several people have picked up the cause since then. I once received an answer from the present Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time saying that he intended to legislate on the subject. I am afraid that that was just one more broken Labour promise, but I am glad that at least I have one ally on the other side of the House.
I want to make three points today. Two of them go to the heart of the Government's fiscal and economic policies, although the one that I shall start with is important, even though it might strike some hon. Members as a strange matter for me to talk about. However, it is a matter of public interest and something should be said about it. I want to talk about the Red Bookor the white book, as it has now become; perhaps we should refer to it as such. It has alwaysnot just in my time, but for generationsbeen the foundational document for discussions in the House on the Government's fiscal and economic policy and the relationship between fiscal policy and the rest of the economy. It is foundational not only for our discussions in the House; it is the only document that is readily available to the publicto those who send us here, who pay their taxes, who take an intelligent interest in what is going on and who want to have the relevant facts and figures to hand.
I am worried about the increasing politicisation of that document, and about the declining standard of the presentation of the facts in it. When I first came into the House, the Red Book, as it then wasit was genuinely red in those days, although that does not matterwas a document that simply set out facts in a dispassionate, even austere, fashion. That has been true for many generations under Governments of both parties. There were no gimmicks or politically loaded phrases. There was no political rhetoric of any kind.The book is now full of PR-speak, value judgments and loaded words. There is a great deal about fairness for all and high-quality public services. That is about the most politically controversial statement that can be made at presentwhether our public services really are good valueand it is quite inappropriate in a document of this kind.
More serious still, while there is a clear tendency to make historical comparisons with 199798 when they seem favourable to the Government, where the facts or the historical indices would clearly be unfavourable to the Government or would raise embarrassing questions about Government policy, no figures are providedat least not in the context of comparisons with 199798.
This is, or ought to be, of importance to the whole House. It will certainly be important to the public, and it should be important to Treasury officials who serve the public and whose interest must be in the good economic
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governance of the country, and hence in maximum credibility for our fiscal policies. They should be sure to resist any political pressures when putting this document together, and in my personal opinion the spin doctors should be locked out of the building.
Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Lab): It is easy to make general accusations about spin, corruption and so on. If the document is as full of inaccuracies as the hon. Gentleman pretends, can he give us two examples?
Mr. Davies: I was about to do so. The hon. Gentleman should exercise a little patience. I intend to be very specific. I do not need to go into all the political rhetoric, some of which I have already referred to; what is important is the presence of omissionslacunaeand one instance of quite egregious distortion of the facts, or confusion about reality, which certainly should not appear in a document of this kind. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me about that striking omission.
There is nothing about aggregate savings in the economy. It is impossible to know what portion of our gross domestic product we are collectively saving. What we can learn about is the extent of the Government's "dis-saving"their negative contributionbecause the figures for their borrowing, or fiscal deficit, are in the document. There is also something about the rate of saving as a proportion of disposable income, the so-called savings ratio, but we are not told what the level of disposable income is. There is a numerator with no denominator. Nothing in the document tells us what household savings amount to. Nor is there anything about the corporate sector: it is possible to read the whole document without knowing whether it is a net saver or a net borrower.
How is it possible to have an intelligent discussion about fiscal policy and Government borrowing without knowing what are the counterparts of that borrowing? Who are the lenders, and who are the savers? The Government are borrowingwe know thatbut who are the potential lenders? Is the private sector a lender? The savings ratio is clearly very low: the household sector is saving on a net basis. I shall say how low it is in a moment. The corporate sector we simply do not know about. If we want to find out about the fourth relevant variable, the balance of payments on the current accountthe extent to which we are importing capitalwe discover that the figures are presented in an extraordinarily confused, confusing and potentially misleading fashion.
There should be a figure for aggregate savings, and clear flow of funds charts showing the position of the household sector, the corporate sector and the Government. I hope that someone is listening, and will ensure that that is done next year.
There are no historical indices for savings. As the current savings figure is not mentioned, I suppose it is not surprising that there is nothing about past savings. Nor are there any historical comparisons relating to the savings ratio, although a figure of around 5 per cent. is given for the current household savings ratio on page 232. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard) is following the
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book conscientiously. Again, therefore, anyone reading this document will be completely unaware that less than 10 years agoseven or eight years agothe household savings ratio was double that rate at 10 per cent., which was probably the average for the previous 40 or so years. To present the current savings ratio with no sense of whether it is increasing or falling, or of how it relates to the historical trend, is an extraordinary state of affairs, and does not give a clear picture of the position to the public, for whom the document is, I imagine, designed; certainly, the public will have paid for this document.
There is also no figure for household debt. If the Paymaster General would like to intervene on me and tell me that I have missed somethingadmittedly, it is a long documentof course I will give way to her. I could not find any figure for household debt at all. On page 232, it says that the level of household debt in January this year has increased by 13 per cent., in relation to January 2003. Just giving the percentage increase without the underlying level does not help us much, however. One must wonder why the household debt figure is concealed in this fashion. Why is such a selective percentage increase figure given without the underlying aggregate being revealed? The only possible reason is that it is extremely embarrassing to the Government. That goes to the heart of the integrity of the document and the extent to which it is either a vulgar piece of political propaganda or a piece of professionally presented disinterested information, delivered by Her Majesty's Treasury to the great British public.
Another matter of great concern is business investment, which we discuss a great deal in this place, and which is always an important part of the national accounts. In any presentation of the national accounts in any other country, I am certain that we would see a figure for business investment. The only way that we can work out business investment from this document is to look at the graph on page 235. If the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford follows that graph, he can then try to read off business investment. By the way, he will see that it has fallen by about 20 per cent. over the last seven or eight years as a proportion of GDP. There is no absolute figure, but we can, if we want to take a long time, work out roughly the absolute figure, because there are GDP figures elsewhere in the document. When we work out that figure, we find something that is unfavourable to the Government, and a negative part of their record, but it has been concealed by the spin doctoring of the document, which, I repeat, is highly regrettable.
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