John Redwood’s contribution to the budget debate, 22 June

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I remind the House that, in the declaration of Members’ interests, I have revealed that I offer business advice to a global industrial company and an investment company.

In her response to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s Budget, the Leader of the Opposition gave one of the worst speeches I have ever heard in the House. It was intemperate and ill judged, and did not seem to be based at all on the Budget presented to us today. It is a great pity that she and her party still do not understand their culpability for the financial mess in which we find ourselves, show a little humility over the inheritance they have passed on-the worst financial and economic inheritance any Government have received since the second world war-and show a little willingness to work with us on getting out of this hole.

Many Labour Members, having been Ministers or ministerial advisers until just a few weeks ago, have a lot of information. They told us during the election, in general terms, that they would unleash substantial public spending cuts after the election, and it would be good to know from them where those cuts would have been made. They might be preferable to some of the ones we are thinking about, and it would be most useful if they would share them with us. If they are not prepared to share them with us or the country, the country is entitled to say, “These people got us into this mess, are totally unconstructive and still have not learned anything.” As other Members have said, it might be better if they got on with their leadership election, and let us get on with the serious task of debating the state of the country.

Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): If the public finances are in such a mess, why did the Conservative party want to adopt Labour’s spending targets in 2008, and did it oppose the huge amounts of money put into the banks to save the banking system, which was responsible for much of the borrowing?

Mr Redwood: I was clear throughout the previous Parliament that I thought Labour’s spending targets were unaffordable, and I said so in the economic policy review that I wrote for the Conservative party at the time. I was strongly opposed to the indiscriminate subsidies and moneys flung at the banks on a scale that defied belief and which I felt was totally unnecessary. I offered an alternative way of saving what needed saving in those banks, for the sake of the general economy and at a much lower cost, so I think that the hon. Gentleman has challenged the wrong person on that issue.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell). He gave an elegant, traditional and classical maiden speech that bodes well for his representation of the people of Dewsbury. It was funny and detailed; showed a great love of the territory and people he now represents; and showed that he will be a campaigning politician. I also detected just a little Conservatism in his attitudes, so I was entirely happy with it and wish him a long and successful stay with us in the House.

The Budget has been little understood by some of the people who have commented on it so far-perhaps that is not surprising because those who speak early do not necessarily manage to read the Red Book quickly enough. I praise my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for producing a Red Book half the length of the Labour Red Book-and, therefore, a lot cheaper and economical-but containing much more useful information. With a short read one can understand exactly what he is trying to do in the measures he is proposing, whereas I used to find it took more than a day to winnow out the truths from the great weight of paper that the previous Chancellors of the Exchequer used to present, because they were always trying to disguise the negatives and highlight and exaggerate the positives.

My right hon. Friend is right to say in his Budget that we can get out of this mess only with a strong and vigorous private sector-led recovery. We need to preside over the creation of a very large number of new private sector jobs, because we need to absorb many of the people languishing on benefits as a result of past policies-almost 6 million people of working age without a job, many of whom would like and need a job. We need to create a much more vibrant private sector that can take them into employment, so that the benefit costs come off the public accounts and those people can start to make a contribution through taxes.

We also need to create many more jobs because the 6 million people currently employed in the public sector are too many. I do not wish to see compulsory redundancies, but I am glad that my right hon. Friends in ministerial office are now imposing freezes on recruitment and allowing recruitment from outside only where it is really necessary. We need to reduce the number of people across the public sector, and I am pleased that we will be showing the way here as well, so that nobody can say that MPs are exempt from the process.

Chris Leslie: The right hon. Gentleman is talking about the number of people in public service employment. What sort of reduction does he feel would be acceptable? How many people should no longer be employed in the public sector?

Mr Redwood: That has to be judged case by case. I will not play the hon. Gentleman’s silly political game so that he can create a sensational press release immediately after I have given him a suitably large number, and I am not going to give him a suitably small number so that he can say it would not have the necessary impact. Suffice it to say that proper management could deliver more for less across many parts of the public sector, and we can do that without compulsory redundancies; we can do it by sensible management.

My first test for my right hon. Friend’s Budget is: how does it promote private sector-led recovery? I am pleased that he has said that he wishes to cut, through a steady process, the headline rate of corporation tax by rather more, I think, than under the plans when he was in opposition. The receipts pages-pages 40 and 41 of the Red Book-on “Budget policy decisions” show that he will be reducing the tax burden for most of business, and that not all of it will be given back in the form of reduced capital allowances in the way that Labour feared. However, if we add in the banks tax, the corporate sector as a whole will be making a bigger contribution. So the thrust of the Budget is that non-banking businesses will get a modest benefit from the changes and that overall business will have to help to pay for the large amounts of public spending still going on. However, a clear message will be sent to the outside world that we want lower taxes and that we believe in lower tax rates. The lower headline rate is the most beneficial thing that we can do to get people abroad interested in coming here with their companies, investments and new ventures, which is what we need.

I am pleased that the Chancellor has done more for small business. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] All the evidence shows that small businesses are not only politically popular with my colleagues, as we have just heard, but the main generators of new jobs during an economic recovery. They are more creative and need to take on more people. He has targeted them favourably with both the small business profits tax rate reduction and, for those outside London and the south-east, the generous national insurance reduction-as a Member for a south-east constituency, I would like him to extend that to the rest of the country as well, but I understand his argument that he wishes to concentrate the help on those parts of the country with the most unemployment and the biggest public sector problem.

Overall, the Budget judgment is not to ensure that 80% of the strain is taken by public spending reductions. The idea is that next year 57% of the strain is taken by public spending changes and 43% by tax increases. That is quite high on the tax increase side, which is a little worrying, but it reflects how my right hon. Friend is very reluctant to cut public spending in a damaging way and his understandable wish to get on with Budget deficit reduction.

Tom Blenkinsop: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that he would like to see extra advantages for his constituents in the south-east. The Financial Times recently calculated that cuts to benefits and key Departments will have twice the detrimental impact on family incomes in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and other constituencies in the north-east as they will in the home counties. Given that, how can the Government talk about us all sharing the burden, and about all of us being in this together?

Mr Redwood: I was coming on to talk about the impact on incomes. The Red Book is quite explicit about that, and has some very helpful tables. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman gets a copy for his greater interests, as those tables make it very clear that the more one earns, the bigger will be the negative impact on earnings. As the Chancellor himself said, in that sense this is a very progressive Budget: he has shielded people on low incomes from part of the impact, and made those on higher incomes carry more of it. Although the hon. Gentleman represents a place with more people on lower incomes, they will be relatively protected.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The right hon. Gentleman listed a number of measures that the Chancellor is taking to promote the private sector. I am sure that he will agree that one of the most welcome proposals is to reduce the volume and complexity of regulation. However, does he accept-I am sure that he will-that a lot of regulations come from the EU? How can we grapple with the extent and complexity of regulation if a lot of it emanates from somewhere other than Whitehall?

Mr Redwood: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have much less power to reduce or improve regulation from Brussels than we do with what is homespun. However, so much crass and foolish regulation has been put on British businesses over the past decade by the home legislators-the then Labour Government-that we can get quite a long way by removing, amending or changing that. In the meantime, we need to summon up a bit of courage and tell those in Brussels that they, too, should join in the process, as that would benefit their businesses as much as ours.

I have often said in this House that, from the point of view of running a business, reducing regulatory cost is a good way of offering something that is just like a tax cut without reducing the public revenue. Indeed, it is even better: not only is there no revenue loss, but public sector costs can be reduced, as the enforcement and monitoring costs of needless or over-the-top regulation can themselves be reduced. That means that businesses get a cash flow benefit, and that there is a reduction in the costs of Government.

The previous Government regulated too many things, and they did so too much and too often. They often regulated in a way that made things worse rather than better. We often found ourselves opposing them, even though we did not disagree with their aims. Like them, we wanted people to have nice lives and decent jobs, and to be free from risk in the workplace and so forth, but we often found that the regulation that the former Government proposed was very expensive and did not achieve the required result.

A tick-box culture means that people get very good at ticking boxes and writing memos, but that they do not manage in the proper way. A factory can be made less safe if the process is merely bureaucratic. Instead, the notion that safety comes first, second and third must be inculcated in all the senior people in that factory. They must manage safety intuitively, as ensuring that a workplace is safe cannot be achieved by tick boxes, inspectors or regulators.
Safety must be inherent in every workplace, and what we can do is to set a tone by saying that it matters above all else. We can have laws at a high level on safety but we need not go into as much detail as the previous Government did. Their approach often made things worse, and much more expensive.

The most important table in the Red Book can be found on page 45. It is one that we must discuss and understand, as it sets out the expenditure patterns for the forthcoming period of Government. The information in the table will come as a pleasant surprise to many neutral people outside the House, although it may worry Labour Members, who seem to be in denial about it. The table shows that total expenditure in the last year of the Labour Government reached £669 billion, and that expenditure will rise steadily to £737 billion by 2014-15.
Stewart Hosie: The right hon. Gentleman is accusing Labour over this cash-terms expenditure increase, but I am sure that he will remember that the Chancellor explained early in his speech that ever-increasing debt repayment costs were included. I have no doubt that, for the sake of completeness, he will want to remind the House of the gross domestic product deflators of 3.2%, 2.1%, 2.1% and 2.6% over the next four years.

Mr Redwood: I was going on to say that we are talking about a big increase in cash. If all of us in the public sector can get better at managing that cash, we should be able to do a good job for people because the amount of spending is going up. What could go wrong? Well, the hon. Gentleman has mentioned two things that could go wrong. If public sector inflation is as high as, or higher than, forecast general inflation, that will eat away at the value of the money that we are spending and make it more difficult to sustain good public services. However, Ministers tell us that they will be very tough on wage increases. That will help, as it will share the work and mean that we can keep more people doing more worthwhile things for our constituents, without all the money being eaten away by wage increases.

After all, that is what the private sector had to experience for two or three years, during the worst of the recession. In that regard, I pay tribute to the many work forces and unions in this country that did not merely accept that there would be no pay increases; instead, they often accepted pay reductions and very tough work-sharing schemes. They did so because they understood how dire the position of their industries and companies were, and they helped their managements to see their companies through.

We do not have to go that far in the public sector, but there is something that we need to tell all our public sector employees, and I think that this is a task for Opposition MPs as well as Government MPs. We need to say, “Things will be less painful and better for all of us if we can keep costs down and wages and salaries under control. More jobs will be preserved and a better service delivered to the people whom we serve, because more of that cash increase is going to go into helpful spending.”

As the hon. Gentleman says, the rising interest charges are also a worry, albeit one that makes the coalition Government’s case rather well. If we do not tackle the rising deficit now, more and more of the money will go on paying interest bills for past spending, rather than being available for paying teachers’ or nurses’ wages, which is what we would rather be doing with it. His point therefore makes the case strongly that the more action that is taken at the beginning, the better, because then more of the quite large sums of extra money that will be available will go on buying real improvements or maintaining a decent quality of public service, instead of going on the rising interest bill.

The Government have had just one piece of good fortune with their rather bleak inheritance, as well as quite a lot of bad news from outside the United Kingdom. The one piece of good fortune is that over the weekend the Chinese Government announced that they were going to allow their currency to start to move upwards against the dollar. We have had quite a long period of the yuan/renminbi being pegged to the dollar. That has meant that China has been super-competitive. China works hard, she is developing much better technology and she produces good products. With the managed exchange rate that we were experiencing, with the pound sticking around with the dollar in recent months, we discovered that China was getting more and more competitive. Indeed, there has been another huge surge in Chinese exports in recent months.

Let us hope that the Chinese will now allow their crawling peg to crawl up quite a bit. The last time they had a crawling peg, it started a bit slowly, but then there was a 20% revaluation of the currency, which was quite helpful. We need all the help that we can get, because Britain has to export more and earn more money in overseas markets. The world’s No. 1 colossus-the dominant, most competitive exporter-is China, and any currency revaluation would be helpful. We still have to work hard-we have to get smarter and control our costs-but that revaluation might take some of the pressure off.

However, the bad news is that the European market is getting worse. We had hoped that European countries would have a normal, cyclical recovery, such as that which the United States is enjoying. However, it now looks as if their recovery will be slow, with quite a number of countries going backwards this year and early next year, because of their deficit problems and difficulties with the euro. Indeed, those countries’ economies might continue to fall or start to fall again. That is difficult for Britain, because euroland is an important marketplace for our physical goods-it is not nearly so important for services or inward and outward investment, but it is important for physical goods. It is therefore in our interests that euroland starts to mend itself as soon as possible. I therefore hope that the Chancellor will continue his negotiations and work with his European partners, because it is important that we allow them to take the actions that they need to take to start mending the euro.

The euro is a single currency in search of a single country, and that has been its tragedy ever since it was first created. Those of us who warned that we could not have a single currency without a single economy, a single budget and a single Government were told that we were quite wrong and that we had misunderstood things. Apparently all that history that we had read was a waste of time. However, all the history of currency unions that I have ever read shows that they work only if there is control of the borrowing and spending levels through a central power, which is what we are now told our friends and colleagues in euroland are learning. They have discovered that they cannot allow Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain to free-ride at the expense of the rather more prudent core. Those in euroland are learning that, if they allow those countries to borrow and borrow at the lower common interest rate that Germany has granted them, there comes a point when the markets no longer believe in those countries and they start to blow their debt markets apart.

Sammy Wilson: Is the right hon. Gentleman not a bit concerned that the Government now accept that the European Union perhaps has the right to scrutinise the budgets of euro countries before those budgets are implemented? Does he not believe that that could be the thin end of the wedge, and that such scrutiny might eventually extend to all members of the European Union?

Mr Redwood: I am very strongly of the view that countries have to do that, and more, in euroland. As Members might guess, I am passionately of the view that that has nothing to do with Britain. The deal I want my right hon. Friends to offer our European partners is that we will accept more or less any kind of treaty change to give them proper control over the budgets of euroland as long as we get some powers back and it is made very clear that we are not part of this new machine to try to create an economic Government of Europe.

There need to be changes. The system is not at all stable, and I do not think that the much advertised trillion dollar package of loans and guarantees, and possible facilities, is necessarily going to see all these countries through the future threats to their stability. Given the rather damaged states of their private sector economies in many cases, there is a danger that, if all they do in response to the financial market pressures is to cut public spending to try to get their borrowing down, they will not succeed. If they are cutting their public spending, but there is no growth coming through in the private sector to take up the slack, or if they are cutting their public spending while their tax revenues are falling, the gloomy pundits will be right and the medicine will not work. Just cutting expenditure does not create a strong economy.

It is important to cut spending sufficiently to allow the private sector to grow and it is important to cut spending sufficiently so that the deficit does not get out of control and produce too much pressure on interest rates, but that needs to be done against the background of the beginning of a recovery-as we have in the United Kingdom. For a country in turmoil with a deeply damaged economy, as some of the southern states seem to have, simply cutting expenditure might make the problem worse, not better, without taking other action to try to get the economy’s private sector going.

The proof of the Budget will be in what happens to the private sector recovery over the next year or so. I hope that the Office for Budget Responsibility will turn out to have been too gloomy. It says that the impact of the Budget in the first two years will be to lower the growth rate slightly; it says the growth rate will be better in the following years when the full benefits of deficit reduction and private enterprise promotion kick in.

It need not be like that; we could do better than that. If the Chancellor wishes to do better than that, as I trust he does, he needs to turn his attention urgently to the state of the British banking industry and the capability of British banks to finance the private sector-led recovery that we clearly need. I do not believe that the current regulators of the British banks have got it right, and although I fully support centralising the regulation of money markets and banks in the Bank of England-I advocated it myself and I am happy that that is going to be done-that in itself is not enough. That is a structural change, but what we also need is an attitude change.

The sad truth of life is that we have just lived through the worst five years I have ever seen in terms of mismanagement of money and banking in this country. Labour Members will want to blame just the private sector banks, and I agree that some directors of those banks got it horribly wrong and they deserve to be dealt with in the appropriate way by their shareholders and by others. However, I hope that sensible Opposition Members would agree with me that it does not speak well of the monetary control system and the regulatory system that that happened. Why do we have financial regulators? We have them to stop that kind of thing happening. They are meant to stop runs on banks, even if banks have directors who are likely to produce a run. They are meant to stop systemic collapse, even if directors get a bit carried away.

Mr Binley: Is it not right to point out to the Opposition that the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), asked the Financial Services Authority to apply a light touch in order to sustain his myth that he had done away with bust? Is that not one of the reasons that Labour Members should apologise?

Mr Redwood: If one interprets light touch as meaning regulating the wrong things, I would agree with my hon. Friend. There was a huge increase in the amount of regulation during the Labour years, as one would expect, as Labour Members believe in regulation, but I think that they have demonstrated that it does not work. Our old friend the box ticker is relevant. There were many more box tickers in the City at the end of the Labour period than at the beginning: lots of nice, neat forms were duly filed; and people got into trouble if they put the wrong figure in the wrong box, which was apparently a great crime.
Meanwhile, the regulators simply ignored the phenomenal explosion of the banks’ balance sheets. I do not mean just hedge funds or off-balance-sheet items; the actual balance sheets ballooned in a crazy and unreal way. As I recall, the main banks went from 20 times to 34 times leverage, and not once did the regulators ask, “What is going on here? Is this not a bit excessive?” Why did the banks have only 20 times leverage in Lady Thatcher’s day? She was not known for being too shy about promoting private sector recovery. Perhaps there was a reason why banks were only allowed to gear that much in those days, and perhaps we should think again about the degree of gearing.

We then lurched from that to the opposite position. At the depth of the recession the regulators said, “We have now decided that the banks must get rid of all this leverage. They must have huge amounts of cash and capital pumped into them so that they cannot lend anything to anyone.” That made the recession 10 times worse.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): My right hon. Friend has just made the very point that I was going to make. The regulators compounded their failure to regulate at a time when they should have reduced the lending of banks by, during the bust, doing the precise opposite, and compressing lending when the economy desperately needed the banks to lend more. That was a double whammy for the British economy, it was entirely due to the behaviour of the Labour party, and it has left a terrible economic legacy which the Chancellor today set out bravely to put right.

Mr Redwood: I think that we now need to be positive, and I want to try to engage the Labour party in the process. I understand that the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) used to work at the Bank of England, and we may have learnt from her speech why it is a good thing that her advice is no longer available to the Bank; I do not think that she would have helped to get us out of the mess. From now on, however, we need to ask ourselves what we should do about banking regulations, because I do not believe that the current system is right. It is all very well for us to say that it was wrong under the previous Government, as it clearly was, but it is our duty now to try to ensure that we do a better job. Unless we change the system, it will not be much better under the present Government.

I believe, and I think Treasury Ministers believe, that we should now have counter-cyclical rather than pro-cyclical regulation. What does that mean? It means that when times are tough and we are in recession, we should allow banks to lend more money on easier terms, and when times are really good-as in 2006-07-we should rein in the banks and say, “You cannot go on lending like this.” In the immortal words of the Governor of the Bank of England, we should remove the punchbowl before the party has everyone blind drunk. It is a pity that we did not do that in 2007.

Some of my critics say to me, “That is all very well, but how do we know where we are in the cycle?” We can never be sure where we are in the cycle, but I should have thought that it was fairly easy at the moment to agree that we are somewhere near the bottom of it. Heaven help us if this is not the bottom of it. I do not believe that all the figures in the Red Book about growth from this point are wrong, and I do not believe that all the independent forecasters are wrong. I think it quite likely that there will be some growth, but not as much as I would like and not as much as we will need.

The main reason that there will not be enough growth is that we do not have easy enough money for the private sector to refuel the recovery. The overall money supply figures are pretty dire, and we should bear in mind how much of the money is circulated around the system from the Bank of England to the Treasury to the spending Departments. Labour left a perfectly good money machine to put relatively low-cost money into the public sector, but at the cost of the private sector, which-particularly small and medium-sized enterprises-is still shivering in a world in which there is not enough sensible credit.

I do not want to stoke a new unsustainable boom, but there must be a judgment about whether the recovery is too fast or too slow, too hot or too cold. At present, it is most people’s judgment that in the private sector is too cold. It is not going quickly enough, and it is not easy enough. We need to make it easier for ordinary, run-of-the-mill entrepreneurs to succeed. It should not be necessary to be a complete genius who is prepared to take on all the odds in order to establish a company. We want people to be able to do that who have reasonable skills and do not want to have to fight the jungle all the time.

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I agree with my right hon. Friend. He has heard me speak passionately about start-ups, and I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor provided some incentives for them today, but given the reality of where we are today in the economy, the recovery will be fuelled less by start-ups than by medium-sized businesses that are already exporting to countries such as China and Brazil, where our record is currently abysmal. We export more to Ireland than to those countries. It is those type of companies that have a more mature business that are not investing at present. They are not retrenching, but they are not investing. Banks need to send a message to them that there is money available to them to make that investment and to grow their business from medium to large.

Mr Redwood: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree exactly with what he said.

My conclusion on this is that to promote a proper recovery the Government need to have words with their financial regulators to say that at this stage of the cycle they should not be demanding more cash and capital from here. The banks are now perfectly solvent. They are perfectly liquid; they are lending huge sums of money to the Government, and that counts as liquid resources because they hold it in the form of Government bonds and Treasury bills. Job done, therefore, but by all means start to tighten things again in a year or two if we have a really good recovery going on and if credit is beginning to build up.

The economy is still anaemic, however; it is still short of credit. It does not have the oomph behind it that we need, and the answer lies in the banks. So my plea to the Chancellor is that in order to make his strategy successful he needs to do something about the way we approach banks, credit and money supply in this country.

The overall Budget strategy takes the risk of doing rather more by tax and rather less by public spending reductions than the Chancellor himself was suggesting when he first looked at this problem, but I wish it well. It is very important for all of us that it works. Every Member in this House wants their constituents to have more chance of a decent job, more chance of getting off benefit if they are unemployed, and more chance of keeping good-quality schools and hospitals.

We have seen what happens in extreme situations in countries that did not take their deficit seriously. They not only end up with a worse economy; they end up with much bigger slashes in public services because they literally run out of money. The previous Government very helpfully advised us that all the money had gone. We know where it went and who took it. The Red Book today gives a pathway to get back from that, so I hope that we will get behind it and try to make it work.


    June 23, 2010

    Thanks. That HAS helped us get our heads around the budget.

    We have a computer folder of your major speeches that we have put into a printed reference file for our ESSEX KIDS studying economics!

  2. Kevin Peat
    June 23, 2010

    Ms Harman screeched her disbelief at the Lib Dems' support for the austerity budget. Well Clegg. Cable et al are privy to the books and appear as horrified as any Tory at what Labour have bequeathed the new government – that's why they support the austerity budget. What better endorsement for George Osbourne ? What better indictment of New Labour ?

    The Coalition really was the worst election result for New Labour and I am warming to it (will it last ???) The plan to shift blame on to the Tories and poison wells is totally exposed and it is no wonder that Gordon Brown has disappeared. He deserves his reputation to be dragged through the mud for decades to come.

    Harriet Harman is the politician leading Labour in the wake of the election who was smart enough to do the job and yet dumb enough to take it.

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