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24 Jun 2010 : Column 446

I would merely remind the right hon. Gentleman of another dictum from a rather great economist-also something of a hero of mine; I should probably be looking towards the Liberal Democrats here-J. K. Galbraith. He served a number of American Presidents, including J. F. Kennedy, and I should point out to the right hon. Gentleman that it was J. K. Galbraith who said that the essence of leadership was for a leader to confront the greatest dangers of the people they aspire to lead. The right hon. Gentleman is not doing that.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I can fully understand why the Secretary of State feels the need to justify his change of position; he has a lot of voters to try to explain himself away to. I can also understand why he makes the argument that some elements of the economic situation in Europe have changed over the past few months. [Interruption.] No, I can see why he might make that argument, but I do not see why that means he has got to change his principles, because I thought one of his principles was that progressive taxation was better than regressive taxation, and that that was why he had a great big poster about a VAT tax bombshell. It is his principles that we are worried about.

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but I would merely commend to him the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis published today, which looks in particular at the distributional consequences of value added tax. From the tables the IFS has usefully produced-at this point I rather agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that it would be helpful if we had a PowerPoint presentation pack in the Chamber for the edification of those who seem to be unaware of the evidence-and in particular from the analysis of the impact by decile of expenditure, it is very clear that VAT is not in fact the regressive tax that the Opposition have said. [Interruption.] Please, just look at the IFS distributional impact analysis, as it is made clear there. The reason for that-

Chris Bryant: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. "Erskine May" makes it very clear that hon. Members should be able to explain themselves without requiring documents that they then want to present to the House. The right hon. Gentleman has just said that Members should look at some document that he is referring to, but we are not able to do so. Should we not get back to the facts?

Mr Speaker: It is true that the use of visual aids in the Chamber is disorderly. I am going to be charitable and generous, and interpret the Secretary of State as suggesting that these are matters that people might like to take forward at another time outside the Chamber, but they clearly do not aid the debate in the Chamber now.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Speaker: I fear that we are going to have a flurry of points of order. [Interruption.] No, they are not points of order. I therefore call the Secretary of State.

Chris Huhne: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Let me merely assert, until the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has had the opportunity to check this for
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himself, that the distributional analysis of changing the main VAT rate produced by the IFS today shows that there is not a regressive pattern to that when looked at by decile of expenditure.

I am very happy to defend this Budget, not least on the basis that, astonishingly, it is the first Budget in which we have a serious distributional analysis of the impact of its measures. We had 13 years of a Labour Government producing Budget after Budget, and on not one occasion in one Red Book was there a section devoted in this way to distributional analysis.

Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab): Why did the leader of the Liberal Democrats, now the Deputy Prime Minister, say on 7 April 2010 that we should remember that VAT is a regressive tax? How does the Secretary of State square that with the fact that he is seeking to claim from the Dispatch Box today that it is not a regressive tax?

Chris Huhne: If VAT is raised right across without the exemptions that we have for food, children's clothes and books, for example, and without the lower rate on fuel, then it is a regressive tax. It is a standard feature of basic micro-economics that indirect taxes are more regressive than direct taxes, but I ask that Members please look at the IFS analysis, because it seems to me to undermine directly the case that the Opposition are attempting to make.

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman talks about the IFS numbers on the distributional impact. Does he agree with the following numbers from the IFS? The impact of the measures announced on Tuesday on the incomes of the poorest-the bottom-decile will be minus 2.6%, whereas it will be minus 1.5% for the next two deciles, then minus 1.4%, minus 1.3%, minus 1.1%, minus 0.9%, minus 0.6%, minus 0.6% and minus 0.7%. So the bottom decile will see a reduction in their income of minus 2.6% and the top decile will see a reduction in their income of minus 0.7%. Is that regressive or progressive?

Chris Huhne: The hon. Lady clearly did not listen to my earlier answer. When looking at the distributional impact, it is very important, particularly with indirect tax measures, to look at the expenditure effects, not the income effects. The IFS report shows very clearly the enormous distinction between the conventional answer on the distributional impact on income and the answer when we look at the expenditure effects.

The choice for this Government has been clear: either we manage the transition to lower borrowing to sustain the recovery, or we will have those choices yanked from our hands by the markets and we will face force majeure. It is far better to design a fair package, as we have done, than to have an unfair package imposed on us that no one has had the time or thought or energy to design.

No fiscal package responding to a market emergency that I have ever seen has been fair, whatever Opposition Members may say. I spent five years of my pre-political life analysing sovereign risk and sovereign crisis. I was in Seoul before Christmas 1997, in Djakarta at the time of the food riots, and in Bangkok when the authorities
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struggled with the collapse of the Thai baht, and I never want to see a British Government have to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund as those countries did, as Greece is now doing and as the friends of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North had to do in 1976.

Had we run the risk of contagion-of a sharp spike in Government and probably short-term policy interest rates too-the impact on growth would have been severe. The truth is that the course of action that the right hon. Gentleman and his friends recommend-the Micawberish course of hoping that something will turn up-would have put the British economy and British jobs in the international firing line, and no responsible Government would have done that. Frankly, I have enough respect for the intelligence and judgment of the right hon. Gentleman to believe that he would not have adopted that stance if he and his friends had been re-elected.

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): Does my right hon. Friend agree that regressive taxes are those that stay the same regardless of people's income, such as council tax, whereas progressive taxes are those that increase with income, such as value added tax, under which the rich will pay more because they will spend more? [Interruption.] I say that as one of the qualified accountants in this House. [Interruption.]

Chris Huhne: Before Opposition Members start chortling away, let me say that my hon. Friend makes a very good point. I would merely remind Opposition Members which Government raised council tax so steeply-the most regressive tax in the entire toolkit. Year after year under a Labour Government it was pushed up and up and up.

Let me now turn to the issue of growth and jobs. At this stage in every business cycle that I have followed, going all the way back to the recovery from the bust that followed the Barber boom in the early '70s, the cry always goes up, "But where will the jobs come from?" That cry is particularly urgent whenever, as has too frequently happened, Governments are trying to deal with the legacy of past fiscal misdeeds. However, the forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility is a reasonable central assessment and is similar to independent forecasts. It shows that the biggest impetus to growth this year comes, as is usual at this point in the cycle, from the inventory cycle. Recessions inevitably put businesses under enormous financial pressure. Businesses try to raise cash by cutting output and by meeting the demand for their goods from stocks, but that process has to exhaust itself as those stocks of finished goods run down. More of the demand for those goods then has to be met from output, and businesses once again gear up production. That is where we are today. The inventory cycle is a powerful stimulus. The OBR forecast has it contributing 1.2% of gross domestic product this year.

Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): Let me take the right hon. Gentleman back to his defence of his party's volte-face on VAT. He explained that VAT was not a regressive tax because of the range of exemptions from it. Will he tell us what exemptions there are now under the coalition Government that were not there before that make it less regressive than it was before?

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Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman knows that the exemptions are exactly the same. I merely make a standard point that is made by the IFS every year when analysing the distributional consequences of any financial measures. We can always take individual measures-the hon. Gentleman refers to VAT, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) has mentioned, the distributional consequences of what the Labour Government did with council tax were appalling because it is such an unfair tax-but we must look at the package as a whole. If one looks at the section of the document that describes what the distributional consequences are, one sees that the package as a whole is a fair one.

An important part of the answer regarding where jobs will come from is, of course, from existing businesses as they recover, as I have described. That will in turn feed confidence, consumer spending and investment. However, there is also a deeper answer.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Huhne: Let me make a bit of progress with the argument. The deeper answer is the profound change that must take place in our economy over the next 10 years, which will also be a great source of growth, jobs and profit. I am talking about the transition of our economy-the third, or green, revolution-to being powered from low-carbon sources. That is potentially as great a shift as some of the biggest changes in our economic history-from water to coal, from coal to oil and from gas to electricity. With each of those fundamental changes of technology, there was a wave of new investment that powered the recovery of a new and very different economy. We can look at the legacy of the rapid recovery in the 1930s from the point of maximum downturn in 1931. That was one of the fastest periods of British economic growth, with the development of new electrical appliances, other light industries and the suburbs around our major cities.

Let me cite some numbers to give a feel for the scale of the potential transformation that we face as a result of the green revolution. Thanks to the ageing of our energy infrastructure, my Department estimates that we will need £200 billion-worth of new investment in the next 10 years. That scale of investment will have substantial macro-economic consequences for businesses in the supply chain and for all those who work in them. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the emergency Budget, even though the focus was inevitably on averting a fiscal crisis, two measures that will support that investment. The first was our coalition commitment to remodelling the climate change levy and providing a carbon price floor to encourage low-carbon sources of energy, renewables and others. We will consult on that in the autumn. The second was, of course, the commitment to the green investment bank. We will be looking at the scope of the bank through the autumn and we hope to bring forward proposals on that.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): A lot of environmentalists were deeply disappointed that there were not more green taxes. Is that just another example of how little influence Liberal Democrat policy has had on what was a classic Tory Budget?

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Chris Huhne: I honestly think that the hon. Gentleman is misreading the situation dramatically. We had three announcements; I have mentioned two of them already and I am going to expand on the green deal. It was an emergency Budget, and I would not have expected a substantial programme of reform on green taxes in an emergency Budget that was designed to take us out of the firing line. We have a clear coalition commitment, going forward, to a rise in revenue from green taxes as a proportion of total revenue. That is in the coalition agreement and I have absolutely no doubt that that is what we will see when the full Budget is brought forward in the normal way after the processes of consultation throughout Government.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Even if we accept what the right hon. Gentleman says about the emergency Budget, there was a very carefully costed proposal on air passenger duty in the Lib Dem manifesto-at least my Liberal opponents said that it was carefully costed-which seems to have gone missing. Why has that proposal been replaced by some future discussion in some future commission? Why has it become something that only might happen, if it could, apparently, have added £3 billion a year to the Budget now, at a time when that money is clearly needed by the Government?

Chris Huhne: I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that there will be a consultation on that proposal in the autumn. I have no reason to believe that it will not be brought forward in the normal course of events with ordinary Government announcements. It is part of the coalition agreement and is widely welcomed. I believe that it was in both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat manifestos, but not everything can be announced on day one. The overwhelming priority for this Budget has been to ensure that we can sustain growth and jobs by removing ourselves from the substantial and real risk of contagion from the financial crisis in southern Europe. That has been the overwhelming priority.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Given my right hon. Friend's comments on the need to invest in the infrastructure needed for a low-carbon energy future, will he assure me that his Department's investments in the south-west wave hub will endure and survive the current turbulence associated with the machinery of government of its sponsor body?

Chris Huhne: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Obviously, he knows that we will go through the comprehensive spending review in the autumn, and the normal process is to make announcements when we have been through that, but I have no reason to doubt that the Government's commitment to the support of infant wave, tidal stream and wind technologies will continue and I am confident that there will be announcements reflecting that priority, which is in the coalition agreement.

Mark Lazarowicz: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Chris Huhne: I shall give way a bit more, but let me make a little progress. I have been making the argument that the need to replace our ageing energy infrastructure
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will give enormous impetus to growth in coming years. The other part of the argument has to be about looking at the centrepiece of the Bill that my Department will bring forward later in the year and at what we are proposing on the green deal. That, too, is an enormously significant package that will have genuine macro-economic consequences for the transformation of the economy and the creation of a whole new industry.

Edward Miliband: That was not mentioned in the Budget speech.

Chris Huhne: The right hon. Gentleman mutters from a sedentary position that that was not mentioned in the Budget speech, but the Budget documents contain a clear commitment in that regard. It is very clearly something that we are proceeding with rather dramatically.

The point that I want to make is that this will be the first genuinely comprehensive attempt to make sure that all of our housing stock is retrofitted. We know that most of the homes that we will be using in 2050 have been built already, so we need a comprehensive way to get carbon emissions from our residential housing sector way down if we are to meet our 80% overall reduction targets.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab) rose-

Barry Gardiner rose-

Mark Lazarowicz rose-

Chris Huhne: Before I give way, let me make a couple of points about the economic significance of that approach. First, the potential increase in demand as a result of the creation of new industry will be absolutely enormous if we can get the Bill, the framework and the pay-as-you-save measures right. By way of indication, we would be talking, in practical terms, of 14 million homes that could be insulated with the support of the green deal. Purely arithmetically, if the average cost were £6,500, for example, we would be talking about a market worth literally tens of billions of pounds-£90 billion over a substantial period.

We are talking about creating a new industry that would be genuinely jobs-rich, as it would use skills already present in the construction sector and need unskilled labour as well.

Dr Whitehead: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Huhne: I will happily give way to my neighbour in Hampshire.

Dr Whitehead: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He envisages that his green deal will involve insulating and raising the energy rating of 14 million homes in the UK. The previous low-carbon transition plan envisaged that that would be done through the provision of subsidised loft, cavity-wall and other forms of insulation. Has he succeeded in defending the money set aside in his Department for subsidising that, or will he rely on Tesco to do the job instead?

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