Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the Minister believe the UK is bound by the Maastricht rules that its deficit should be 3% per annum and no more, and that it should have a stock of debt of only 60% of national income?
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr Mark Hoban): We are required to endeavour to achieve the Maastricht criteria. A very different regime is in place for the UK because of the opt-out that John Major negotiated under the Maastricht treaty. We have been clear, as the economic governance package has developed in recent years, on preserving that opt-out and the different treatment for the UK as compared with other European member states. One achievement is that we are not subject, for example, to the sanctions regime to which other member states are subject.
We jealously protect our particular position in the process, as I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House would want us to do. Clearly, were we to follow the Leader of the Opposition’s policy—he wants us to join the eurozone at some point—we would have to give up those safeguards and protections. That is not a policy that this Government or the Conservative party would support.
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I have some sympathy with the Minister in this debate, which is about colossal issues, such as the future of economic prosperity throughout the European Union and its impact on our own economy, yet it is also a rather absurd debate. Successive Governments have felt that they have to table documentation and figures to the European Union, but they are embarrassed by that fact because they know that many of us feel that it is this Parliament, which answers to the British people, that should debate and settle these issues, and that what we are doing is none of the EU’s business. If we do a good job, we will stay in office; if we do a bad job, we will be thrown out of office, and the British people will rightly choose another group of people as they decided to do in 2010 as this crisis developed. We think that that is the right approach.
I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that if the Opposition had tabled a motion suggesting that the House should tell Brussels that we would no longer send it these documents, I would probably vote with the Opposition, because I would consider that a sensible way of trying to send an obvious message to Brussels. However, we are being invited to spend more time debating the crucial topic of what kind of economic policy would best promote growth and stability in our own country, and what contribution wider economic policies can make to stability and growth in the European Union as a whole.
The description of the pact that we are debating as a stability and growth pact to be a grotesque bad-taste joke at the expense of the European peoples. It is clear from the way in which it now operates in the euroland countries that it is actually an instability and recession pact. It is a pact for mutually assured deflation. It is intended to do more damage at the very point in an economic cycle when an economy is performing very badly, to withdraw spending power from both the private and the public sector in an economy with too little demand, and to take jobs away in an economy with a problem of mass youth unemployment.
Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): I accept that the policies of many euro area member states are deflationary, but it is ridiculous to deride them simply because those countries are members of the eurozone when our own Government’s policies are equally deflationary.
Mr Redwood: As I shall make clear shortly, our policies are rather different. For one thing, the coalition Government decided to increase current public spending, which is running at £64 billion a year more this year than in the last year of Labour government. The Red Book shows that real current public spending has risen in each of the two years of the coalition Government, although not by very much. The Government are clearly not trying to deflate the economy by introducing massive current spending cuts, given that overall current spending has been rising.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): The right hon. Gentleman, who knows the Red Book inside out, will recall that it makes clear that the Government’s projected discretionary consolidation by 2016-17 amounts to £155 billion a year, of which 81% will be delivered by cuts in services and the remainder by tax increases. The hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick) was right: the Government are embarking on precisely the policies for which the right hon. Gentleman is criticising others.
Mr Redwood: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has not read the Red Book intelligently. The 80:20 statistic on which Members seem to rely relates to changes compared with much bigger growth in public spending that was in inherited programmes. It is not the reality. The reality of the Government’s strategy is a massive increase in taxes over the planned five years of the present Parliament to pay for rather modest increases in current public spending over the life of the Parliament, and to get the deficit down. The 2010 strategy suggested that tax revenues would be £171 billion a year more in year 5 than they had been in the last Labour year. The Government have now had to reduce that figure a bit because—as other Members have pointed out—the expected growth has not been forthcoming, for a variety of reasons.
We need to promote growth vigorously and actively, which is common ground between the Government, coalition Back Benchers and many Opposition Members. The argument, surely, concerns what measures are most likely to bring that about. It appears that over the last four years both Governments have operated policies involving actively increasing public spending, with the exception of capital spend—certainly overall spending has risen—and actively promoting massive borrowing, while at the same time the economy has bombed very badly. I am not suggesting that that is causal, but it should lead Opposition Members to ask why that fiscal injection—massive borrowing and an increase in current public spending—has not done the job. There seems to be some disconnection between the remedy that they recommend and the reality of what is happening.
When we look at the way in which other countries have pulled out of crises of this kind, and, indeed, the way in which Britain has pulled out of similar but, perhaps, less aggressively damaging crises than the one that we inherited, we see that there is nearly always a period during which public spending must be reduced or controlled quite strongly to make room for a private sector recovery, and that a series of measures to promote that recovery will then be necessary. As I have explained at length in the past, banking reform and competitive banking are crucial. The Government’s theory favours a tight fiscal policy and a loose monetary policy. They want to allow more money to circulate through the private sector through credit and through the banking system, and they want to lower the deficit gradually in the public sector so that the fiscal policy becomes a bit tighter.
Mark Hendrick: The right hon. Gentleman makes great play of tax revenues. We all know where they come from—they come from those who can least afford to provide them—but given that only one private sector job is coming along to replace every 10 jobs that are being lost in the economy, where will they come from in future?
Mr Redwood: So far the strategy has generated quite a lot of new private sector jobs, which is very welcome, but it is obvious that it needs to generate many, many more over the next three years if it is to secure the savings on welfare benefits that I am sure all Members wish to see.
It is nonsensical for Opposition Members to say that the poor will be paying the taxes. We have just seen a big increase in thresholds which takes many people out of income tax altogether at the lower end of the income scale. Moreover, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the Red Book, he will see that there will be a sharp acceleration in self-assessment income tax—the income tax that is paid mainly by the rich—once we get the rate down. I know that Opposition Members do not like reading the figures in the Red Book, but it provides a much better case than Ministers ever provide for why we need to get back closer to Labour’s rates of income tax.
One of the things that I most admired about the former Prime Minister and last Chancellor of the Exchequer but one was his insistence that 40% was the highest rate of income tax that could be charged to optimise the amount of money obtained from the rich. He stuck to that view throughout his time as Chancellor and most of his time as Prime Minister. We all know that he only put it in as a political trap at the end of his period in office when he could see the writing on the wall, but it is obvious from the Red Book figures that he was right: 40% is about as high as we can go to optimise the revenue.
According to the forecast in the Red Book, the revenue will stream in after the rate falls to 45p. If Opposition Members look at the Red Book, they will see that last year, under the 50p regime, self-assessment income tax fell by an amazing 9%. That was because rich people who have a lot of freedom and ability to decide how much to pay themselves—I know that Opposition Members do not like that, but it happens to be the state of play—decided to pay themselves a great deal less. Both the outgoing and the incoming Governments had said that the tax was temporary, so they decided that they would hold back their income. It was obvious that they would do that.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): The right hon. Gentleman is talking like a cheerleader about the Laffer curve. Why does he think that the UK economy is not growing?
Mr Redwood: I think that the UK economy may be growing. We will know the facts tomorrow, when we see the first quarter figures, but I suspect that the economy will grow this year. I accept the Government’s forecast of a slow and modest rate of growth. Why, though, is the economy not growing more quickly? There are two main reasons.
The first reason is banking. All the cash that the Bank of England is printing is not going into circulation in the private sector. It is very helpful to keep the Government’s rate of interest down, and it is very helpful to make the increase in public spending more affordable because it controls the interest rate cost for the Government; but the money cannot enter the private sector in any real quantity because the banks are under a huge regulatory cosh to hold more cash and capital at what is, in my view, the wrong stage in the cycle, which means that we cannot secure the growth in banking credit that would finance a better recovery.
The second reason is that taxation is now very high overall in the United Kingdom, which—combined with the inflation tax that has resulted from the high inflation rate that we inherited, which has remained persistently high—means that real incomes are being badly squeezed. It is plain to us all that real incomes started the squeeze under Labour, when the recession really hit, and that that squeeze has continued. A progressive squeeze on the scale that we have experienced since 2008 hits demand and makes recovery that much more difficult.
Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): Is there not a third reason: that we are in the wrong part of the world, next to the eurozone, which has no mechanism for the poorer countries to get rid of their trade imbalances or for Germany to get rid of its trade surplus? Normally that would be done by revaluing or devaluing those currencies, but having one currency makes it impossible.
Mr Redwood: I know that you would like me to wind up quickly, Mr Deputy Speaker, because others wish to contribute, but it is such a pity, as this is a crucial issue. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is great difficulty in financing the big balance of payments deficits in the eurozone. Now that a mechanism has been found—German surplus deposits in the ECB being routed to weak member states’ banks through the ECB—the Germans are kicking up a fuss, because they suddenly realise that they have €600 billion at risk and they are not very happy. However, as the main surplus country, Germany has to finance the transfers in the union, and until she does so actively and in an encouraging way, there will be all these kinds of problems.
We have problems in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, which we know about. We now have deep problems developing in Spain, and we even have a problem in the Netherlands—which was meant to be one of the good guys—because of a falling out over the rather modest cuts needed to hit the Maastricht criteria. I agree that we need to get to 3% and 60% in due course—I have no problems with the European targets—but I feel strongly that we should do so for our own reasons, in our own time. It is nothing to do with Europe how we run this economy, and the sooner Ministers have the courage to tell Europe that, the better.