Previous Section Index Home Page

The OECD has said that

The European Commission says that the Government's plans are "not sufficiently ambitious". The Prime Minister used to bang on about how we needed a "global early warning system"-do we all remember that one? Well, how many more warnings does he need? The lights are flashing and the alarm bells are ringing, but he is ignoring them and doing nothing for this country.

A credible plan requires action now, and all we got was delay. The risk to recovery is not in dealing with the deficit now-it is in not dealing with the deficit now. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor are having a good chat-they are probably discussing what sort of fees they can charge after the next election. They should listen. Every family knows that when your debts mount up you need to start paying them off or things only get worse, and it is time for the Government to learn the same lessons. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor-

24 Mar 2010 : Column 268

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab) rose-

Mr. Cameron: Sit down.

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor faced a choice between bold action in an election year and just playing politics, and once again they chose politics. This Prime Minister will never get a medal for courage-although it has to be said that most of his Cabinet get mentioned in "Dispatches".

A credible plan also requires some honesty; instead, we got double-dealing. All those figures they told us about debt are based on their growth forecast. So let us have a look at the growth forecast-their record of predicting growth. In 2008, they said that we would grow by 2 per cent.; in fact, the economy grew by 0.5 per cent. In 2009, they predicted a decline of 3.5 per cent.; in fact, we shrank by 5 per cent. Now they say that the economy will grow by 3.25 per cent.; the independent experts say 2.1 per cent. The Chancellor told us, standing there at the Dispatch Box, that his forecasts were the same as the Bank of England's: they are not. The Bank of England is forecasting 3.1 per cent. this year and 3 per cent. next year, compared with his forecast of 3.5 per cent. With the former Chancellor, you used to have to go through the fine print before you found out about the rubbish in the Budget; this time, the rubbish came straight from the Dispatch Box. Having given us the lowest decade for growth since the second world war, they are now predicting one of the highest. They have given us the biggest bust in British history, and now they are forecasting an almost permanent boom. Why on earth should anyone believe what they say any more? What we need is a proper independent office of Budget responsibility, which we would set up to set independent forecasts and to keep the Chancellor honest.

We need to get Britain back open for business. Again, this Budget completely fails the test. The Chancellor spent half an hour talking about helping business, but the fact is that he is raising £19 billion of extra taxes, many of them charged on business. Why? Because they flunked the difficult decisions on spending and they are raising tax after tax after tax. There are the fuel duty rise, the broadband tax, and the new taxes on small businesses. He talked about a cut, but he did not mention what happens on 5 April, when the revaluation and the end of transitional relief come in, hitting every small business in the country. Biggest of all is the rise in national insurance, which is a tax on every single job in our country. They want to tax your car, your phone, your business, and your jobs. These are the ticking tax bombshells that are timed to go off the day after the election, and that will destroy our recovery. Instead of more waste, more spending, and more taxes, what this Budget needed to do was to ease the burden on our families and businesses and let enterprise flourish. That is what a Conservative Government will bring. Let us freeze the council tax. No tax on new jobs for new businesses. Lower corporation tax rates and lower small business tax. Radical school and welfare reform. That would be real action to get our economy moving.

This Prime Minister is going around telling everyone, "Stick with me-stick with what you know." But that is the whole problem-this country is stuck with him. Our economy is stuck. Business is stuck. Nothing is moving. Then there is the arrogance of it. "Stick with me." "Why?" "Because I doubled the debt, I put up your
24 Mar 2010 : Column 269
taxes, I wrecked the economy, and I mortgaged your children's future." It is like the captain of the Titanic saying, "Let me command the lifeboats." It is like Robert Maxwell saying, "Let me reinvest your pension." It is like Richard Nixon saying, "I'm the man to clean up politics." Does the Prime Minister really expect the British people to turn round and say, "Thank you for nearly bankrupting the economy?" Find me the small business owner who would wake up to a Labour victory and say, "Thank God we've got five more years of this red tape and taxes." Find me the family who would think, "Great, national insurance is going up and we're all going to be better off." Find me the international business that would think, "Yes, now's the time to invest in Britain." No one has yet thought of a question to which the answer is five more years of this Prime Minister-and that's because there isn't one.

We need an unleashing of enterprise across this nation. We need a plan to boost employment through welfare and school reform. It is time that this country had a radical change of direction. We need a Conservative Government to clean up the mess made by this Labour Government and to stop another five years of debt, waste and taxes. Britain does not need this Prime Minister and this Chancellor-it needs new energy, leadership and values to get this country going again. That is the argument that we will take to the country the moment this man runs out of time and calls that election. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The House should also hear the response of the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. Can I say to the House, as many hon. Members seem unaware, that there is a clear convention that the responses to the Budget by the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats are not interrupted?

1.47 pm

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): This Budget has been billed as the preface to the Labour manifesto. Based on what we have seen today, it will not be a manifesto but an obituary. The Prime Minister may have wanted a "giveaway Budget", but what we got was a "given up Budget". This is not the preface to a new Government but a footnote to 13 years of failure. After 13 years, the gap between rich and poor has widened. The poorest 20 per cent. pay a higher proportion of their income in tax than the richest-so much for fairness under Labour. We have had the most prolonged recession since the 1930s, and the spectacle of state-owned banks doing deals that put British people out of work. We needed real change. We needed a Budget that gave us honesty on spending and fairness on taxation. We got neither.

The spat that we have just seen, with the Leader of the Opposition saying that cuts should come now, is a phoney war about when to make cuts to cover up the fact that he and the Chancellor are both the same. Neither has the courage to come up with the details of the cuts that we will need in the years ahead to tackle Britain's deficit. Neither is being straight with the British people about the tough times ahead.

This Budget was a Budget in denial about the scale of change needed-it was about as honest as the CV of the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers). It is built on growth figures that are unlikely to materialise.
24 Mar 2010 : Column 270
It is built on false comfort from a small drop in borrowing that does not affect the structural deficit; we are still borrowing £450 million every single day. Above all, it is a Budget in denial about the unavoidable cuts and savings ahead. The Chancellor claims to have identified billions of pounds of cuts, but there is only real detail about a tiny fraction of the total. Everything else that we have heard today is insubstantial waffle about so-called efficiency savings and a tiny saving in the relocation of civil servants to places outside London.

On the other side of the Chamber, we have heard tough talk about the need to be honest on the deficit, but the Conservatives have barely a fig leaf of detail to back up their claims. They say that we need more than £40 billion of cuts by the end of the next Parliament, but they have published details about just £2 billion. Their demands for honesty come straight from the Karl Rove school of politics: make the biggest fuss about the subject on which you have the most to hide. Labour is in denial and the Conservatives are talking tough to cover the truth-they offer more of the same.

We needed a Budget that gave us honesty in spending and fairness in tax. We got neither. We Liberal Democrats are putting our cards on the table. We have identified a first instalment of £15 billion of cuts that can be realised by 2012-13: saving £500 million a year by ending Government contributions to child trust funds; saving £1.3 billion a year by stopping means-tested benefits for the top 20 per cent. of tax credit claimants; cancelling identity cards and second-generation biometric passports, saving £2.5 billion over the next Parliament; and making longer-term savings, too, by saying no to the like-for-like replacement of Trident. Those are savings that we will need to start implementing once the economy is strong enough to take the strain. The Chancellor could have made some of those choices today, and so could the Leader of the Opposition, but what do we hear from both of them? Nothing. Lots of noise and no honesty whatever.

One of the Government's most shocking sleights of hand in recent months has been to try to duck blame for the recession. Yes, there were global forces at play, but most of the problems started right here at home-the over-dependence on the banking industry, the personal debt bubble encouraged by this Government and the over-inflated housing market that Labour did everything in its power to stoke up.

On the stamp duty reforms announced today, of course we welcome any moves to make the system more progressive, but with 1.8 million families still on a waiting list for an affordable home, it is quite astonishing that this Budget was completely silent on the urgent need for more affordable homes for all. The Chancellor has added to that by a change to housing benefit announced today that will make life impossible for low-income families in high-price areas such as London. Labour should stop trying to kid people about this recession. They got us into it, and only by being honest about how we got into this mess will we ever be able to get out.

I turn to a few details of today's Budget. The Chancellor has only slightly modified his wildly over-optimistic growth forecast, to between 3 and 3.5 per cent for 2011, against a consensus everywhere else from independent forecasters of 2 per cent. He cannot bury his head in the sand just to hide the truth about how long it will take to reduce the deficit.

24 Mar 2010 : Column 271

The Chancellor spent a good portion of his speech boasting about the £11 billion he claims to have saved on unemployment costs and through unexpected higher tax revenues. He is living in a fantasy land. This Government still came in £167 billion over budget last year. That is no record to boast of. Someone living off their credit cards and thousands of pounds in debt is not suddenly flush with cash just because their phone bill comes in slightly cheaper than he predicted. We are not better off; we are just ever-so-slightly less worse off.

Even with unemployment lower than originally forecast, we still have more than 2 million people unemployed and 8 million economically inactive. Of course it is sensible at a time of mass unemployment to direct money to help young people especially. I only wish the Chancellor had had the courage to go further and shorten the guarantee for young people from six months to three months. One in five young people are still out of work, and waiting around for six months before they get any help pushes many of them into a state of real desperation.

I welcome, of course, the way the Chancellor has more or less carbon-copied our long-standing proposals for an infrastructure bank and support for green industries to stimulate more job creation. On fuel duty, I note the Government's decision to stage future increases, but they are missing the point. There is a fundamental problem with fuel duty in rural areas where using a car is not a luxury but a necessity. The real priority should be to help rural areas, not just a staged reprieve.

One of the most shocking omissions from this Budget was the failure to address the systemic failures in our banking system. We bailed out the banks to the tune of £1 trillion, and they are hoarding money that should instead be lent to businesses, killing off sound businesses and people's jobs. The banks are even helping to support deals that put British people out of work, such as the Kraft takeover of Cadbury.

The failure to get the banks lending is the absolute centrepiece of the Government's economic mismanagement. The Chancellor today promised new bank lending targets, but why should anyone believe a word he says after what happened last time he made such promises? RBS and Lloyds were told to increase net lending by £27 billion. Instead, they have decreased it by £41 billion. Moving to gross rather than net lending targets is a con that will let the banks off the hook again.

The Government must now recognise that their heavy pressure on the banks to rebuild their capital bases is limiting bank lending and threatening the health of the economy in the longer term. The banks end up hoarding money instead of lending it. The priority for the nationalised banks in particular should be putting money into the real economy, not into their balance sheets.

Turning to bankers' bonuses, the Government raised more than £2 billion-more money than they had expected-from their tax, but that is because the banks refuse to change their behaviour. It is amazing how much the banks are willing to pay to get back to business as usual. A decent Budget would have set out a plan to ensure that they can never do that. We must ensure that the high street banks on which families and small businesses depend are never again put at risk by the casino culture of investment banking. As the Governor
24 Mar 2010 : Column 272
of the Bank of England has repeatedly recommended, we need to separate high street and investment banking for good. Until that split is introduced, all banks will remain the beneficiaries of a unique, open-ended guarantee against failure from the taxpayer-a guarantee that they should pay for. That is why last year we proposed a new levy of 10 per cent. on the profits of the banks until they can be split up.

I will give the Chancellor credit at least for some consistency. He has always opposed our plan for that, as he has today, while the Conservatives first ruled it out, then ruled it in, only for their latest proposed bank tax to fall apart in less than 24 hours. Both parties are wrong. Britain is unique in the world in the liabilities of our banking industry relative to the size of our economy. We do not have the luxury of time and we have to protect ourselves against a future collapse.

Finally, on tax, the other gross disappointment in this Budget was the failure to make our tax system fair. Under Labour, the bottom 10 per cent. pay a staggering 48 per cent. of their income in tax, while the richest pay 34 per cent. The Chancellor took pride in saying today that he would make no big announcements on tax. How can he look at a system such as that and say, "Let's have more of the same"? Indeed, his comments seemed to suggest a freeze in income tax rates, which would, if earnings rise, once again hit the poorest hardest. So much for fairness under Labour. How can he happily accept that it is okay for a banker in the City of London to pay a far lower rate of tax on their capital gains than their cleaner does on their wages? So much for fairness under Labour.

The Liberal Democrats propose the most radical tax reform in a generation, hard-wiring fairness into Britain's taxes once and for all. We will ensure that no one pays tax on the first £10,000 that they earn, paid for by closing loopholes that unfairly benefit those at the top, by a mansion tax and by higher taxes on aircraft. That would mean complete freedom from income tax for 3.6 million more low earners and pensioners, and £700 in the pockets of tens of millions more. Crucially, it would be a down-payment to the British people, who are about to take the brunt of the biggest fiscal contraction in post-war history. It would be a declaration of intent-yes, there will be change, but we guarantee it will be fair. Action on tax is the only way to ensure that we can take people with us down the difficult road of deficit reduction. Only the Liberal Democrats are prepared to make real changes in tax to help the millions of people who simply need a break.

After 13 years of Labour, Britain is ready for something different. As we stand on the brink of an election campaign in which there is everything to play for and the future of the country is at stake, my message is simple: this Budget is the old politics, and the old politics is not good enough any more. It is time for honesty in spending and fairness in taxes, and the only party that offers both is the Liberal Democrats.

1.58 pm

John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Budget and commend the Chancellor for his stewardship over the past year. Not only the leader in The Times this morning but individuals I have spoken to in the City over the past year have remarked on his stewardship of the economy.

24 Mar 2010 : Column 273

The results of the banking crisis, though, remain with us to this day. Whether it is higher unemployment or difficulties getting credit, people are still feeling the effects. We must recognise that that still has the potential to generate public anger and resentment. It is safe to say that the message that was repeated to us at the time of the pre-Budget report was that the outlook was uncertain. For instance, the Treasury Committee stated:

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I am grateful to the Chairman of the Treasury Committee for giving way. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, last year, in respect of Lloyds bank, which is partly state owned, the amount of loans outstanding fell by £50 billion, despite all the ministerial exhortations?

John McFall: The Treasury Committee has persistently focused on that issue, and this morning I was at a business breakfast with small business representatives, who outlined the problems with lending. At the time, we said to the Chancellor that the lending agreements had to be more transparent-there is a problem with them-but I welcome the additional £90 billion that the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds will provide. We really need to get that lending to small businesses, so the initiatives in the Budget are welcome.

To some extent, however, the uncertainties, whether about credit or the wider economic outlook, remain. The fear of a double-dip recession raises its head every now and again, and monthly data releases are analysed to within an inch of their lives-only to be revised in the following month. In the face of those uncertainties, the Government must act as a buffer, providing support to the economy as the private sector recovers from the banking crisis and resultant recession. That of course has a worrying effect on the public finances, but at times of crisis it is necessary for a Government to support people. The Government must ensure that hope for a better future is not lost, and that will be a theme of the general election. Yes, times are difficult, but we must offer hope and a future to people if they are to maintain their faith in the parliamentary system.

None of us can deny that the choices that we are to make on spending or taxes are difficult, and good decision making requires accurate and timely information. That is why the Treasury Committee, in its report on the pre-Budget report, urged the Government to provide more information. On one such point, we noted:

So, with the spending review process in the autumn, I look forward to those figures becoming clearer.

Next Section Index Home Page