Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I remind the House that I offer industrial business advice to a Swedish, quoted international industrial group and investment advice to a British investment company.
Some Opposition Members have expressed displeasure that Government Members should have mentioned the circumstances in Greece and Portugal. The Opposition rightly remind us that we have a much bigger economy than those of Greece and Portugal and I am pleased to say that ours is also currently better managed. Those points are important because our public deficit was larger even than theirs, as a proportion of national income, when the big deficit reduction programme started. I praise my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for seeing that his single, central task, day in, day out, month in, month out, year in, year out-indeed, the five-year burden for all of us in the House-is to get that deficit down before it kills our public finances and our economy.
If anyone thinks there is no risk, I invite them to visit Greece, Portugal or Ireland and see what happens when a country ignores a deficit for the best of reasons and says, “I do want to spend a little more on a good public cause so I will borrow it to spend it.” Of course, we all have great causes on which we would like to spend more money. Borrowing is so often the easy option, but when a country gets to the point at which it is borrowing too much, it does not just destroy the general economy and place too big a burden on those who have to pay the taxes and interest charges-in the end, it brings down the public sector as well, with far bigger cuts and far less favourable choices than we have when we take matters into our own hands by planning a steady deficit reduction.
We are debating, in a relatively civilised atmosphere and in a relatively sane and sensible way, an economic position about which there are strong disagreements. However, there is no overall disagreement about the imperative to avoid big rises in bond rates and interest rates and to get on with some kind of deficit reduction. It is particularly poignant that we are having this debate on the same day that the Portuguese Parliament is meeting to discuss not its first, second or third, but fourth package of emergency, deep, damaging public spending cuts and unaffordable tax increases. Such is the plight that its economy has been driven into by reckless overspending and too much borrowing and, of course, by being in the euro area.
Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that to answer the question of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), who asked when the rating agencies took over, one need go no further back than 1949, 1969, and 1976 to 1979, when there were runs on the foreign exchange markets under Labour Governments?
Mr Redwood: My hon. Friend is quite right, but the Labour party could point to one or two examples under Conservative Governments, so I do not want to be drawn too far down that historical path. We can see what we need to see by looking at the modern reality. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said, fortunately, British bond rates-the rate that we have to pay to borrow money for public purposes-are much closer to those in Germany than those in many other countries in Europe. They are under half the level of those in troubled Portugal. The Portuguese 10-year rates went above 8% today. I stress to beleaguered Portuguese parliamentarians, who are battling over whether a general election is the answer to their problems, that if they do not take dire and immediate action, their country simply will not be able to borrow at an affordable rate of interest. They cannot go on spending the extra 10% of national income that we are spending, which is borrowed, to tide us through and get us to better-managed times.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor, having set out a pathway for tackling the deficit, was right to turn to the question of how he can accelerate growth. The truth of the five-year deficit programme is simple: we need well-above-average growth in the last three or four years of the programme to deliver the numbers in the Red Book, which are similar to those in the Chancellor’s first edition of the Red Book last summer.
To remind the House of the scale of the task, the Government plan to spend £70 billion a year more, in cash terms, in the fifth year of the plan-2014-15-than in the last Labour year; that is not a big increase, but there will be pressures because of it. They plan to get the deficit down by increasing the tax revenue collected in the last year of the plan to an eye-watering £175 billion more than in the last Labour year. We believe that we have seen all the important tax rate rises that the Chancellor thinks are needed to do that; the rest depends on the above-average growth that is still in the official forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab): As I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman is laying out why we need a credible reduction in our deficit in the light of the likely market reaction, but is he not concerned about the impact that any austerity programme might have? Although there has been only a limited impact so far in the United Kingdom, as in Greece and as is likely in Ireland, it may be too much, too soon.
Mr Redwood: That is absolutely right. The policies that Ireland, Greece and Portugal are being driven to may well not work because they are excessive, but that is the result of going into the euro and following the market pressures that that inevitably produces. I see some Labour Members trying to pretend that that is nothing to do with them, or looking the other way. I remember being a pretty lonely figure in the ’90s when I said that we should never join the euro. I am pleased that my party now seems to be very broadly of that view, and I believe that the other two principal parties in the House have come round to the view that we certainly should not join the euro any time yet, but we have still to receive apologies from them. Surely they must now accept that if Britain had been driven into the euro, as they wanted, we would have broken the euro and broken ourselves. The euro could scarcely contain small economies the size of Greece, Portugal and Ireland, with their amount of debt; it certainly could not have contained Britain comfortably with the level of debt that the previous Government started to incur. It would have found the British banks over-mighty subjects, just as it is finding the Spanish banks rather difficult to tackle.
Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman added the words “any time yet” to his remarks about joining the euro, because it is inevitable that, over many years, we will join the euro. Tomorrow and the day after, 17 euro states will get together and put forward a proper plan for competitiveness within the euro. For the first time in our history, the United Kingdom is excluded.
Mr Redwood: If those countries come up with good ideas, we can adopt them, and if they come up with bad ideas, we would be wise to sidestep them; that is exactly the freedom that I and others have argued for passionately over many years, and that the Government wish to enjoy if all goes well.
The hon. Gentleman also said that the reductions could prove difficult. Believe it or not, I did not become a Member of Parliament to have teachers sacked from my schools or doctors sacked from my surgeries; I want them to be well paid and well funded, and I want sensible growth in numbers where there is extra demand. We are all of that view-it is quite misleading of the Opposition to suggest that some of us do not appreciate that and do not want that for our constituents-but it has to be affordable. It has to be within the power of the free enterprise part of the economy to pay for that out of reasonable taxation in a way that does not damage our growth; that is so important.
The Government have managed to find an extra £70 billion of cash spending for the fifth year of the plan, compared with in the start year. It is crucial that we keep public sector costs down, so that the maximum amount possible can go to improving service and quality, and, in some cases, to improving the amount of service, and the minimum goes on extra costs and extra inefficiencies. All parties will say in office that they want more efficiently run public services, but they have to will not only the end but the means. That is why the reforms on which the Government are embarking are so important. It is crucial that the Government listen, and that sensible criticisms be taken on board, but public services have to be reformed so that we can say to people in five years’ time, “You are getting more for that £70 billion. We haven’t had to cut things that really matter, because we have managed things better and have found a bit of extra money.”
Jesse Norman: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the enormous interest in the private finance initiative community in reform of the PFI? A succession of chief executives of PFI companies have asked me, “Why can we not be allowed to save money?” The reason is the enormously expensive procurement process. Not a single school has been built recently that does not have an atrium, and that is because it has been decided that schools, which have nothing to do with corporations, must have corporate atriums. Nothing could be sillier or more resistant to good Government spending.
Mr Redwood: My hon. Friend is quite right. Improving the quality and cost-effectiveness of our purchasing is crucial in Government. There are many opportunities; PFI and public-private partnerships provide some good examples, but so does general purchase. It would speed up the deficit reduction if there were a stronger moratorium on purchasing items and supplies where there are already stocks. Any company undertaking the kind of radical turnaround that the country is trying to achieve would immediately freeze all unnecessary purchases and make people run stocks down to save money.
Where I have had answers to my questions on this subject, I have found that the current rate of natural wastage of staff in core Departments is running at about 6% per annum; it was about 4% in the first eight months. Quite a number of those posts have been filled by taking on new people from outside. I urge my friends on the Front Bench to get more of a grip on that, because the easiest way of reducing the administrative overhead on the scale that they want-the least painful way for their staff, who need their morale to be up-is to not replace people who leave and not to make others redundant. We cannot afford the redundancies. If we make greater use of natural wastage, Ministers can say to their staff that it means better opportunities for promotion and a change of job. If the post vacated is not essential, it should be removed; if it is essential, we should appoint someone from inside and remove some other, less important, post. That surely is the civilised, sensible way to tackle the necessary task of cutting the administrative overhead. If the Government can cut their administrative overhead by the very large 30% that they are talking about, it takes the pressure off cuts in the areas where none of us wish to see them-in the schools and hospitals, the front-line services that matter so much.
The question that I was about to ask before the interventions was about the international context. How easy is it going to be for the Government to have the three or four years of above-average growth which are so crucial to the strategy? I must warn those on the Front Bench that I fear that the world background will get more difficult going into 2012 and 2013 than it is at present. There has been a prolonged boom in the emerging market world, and we now see China, India and Brazil lifting their interest rates to very high levels. They are desperately trying to squeeze inflation out of their system, so in a year or so we must anticipate some fall-off in demand and spending power growth rates in those big emerging market economies.
The United States economy will have a good year this year, by the looks of it, on the back of a lot of money printing, low interest rates and other matters. That comes to an end in the middle of this year, so by next year we will see a slower rate of growth in the United States of America as well. Were the situation in the middle east to get worse, and the damage from politics to spread into oilfields outside Libya, we could have another unpleasant external shock on the oil price, which would also serve to impede the growth of the world economy.
The conclusion that I take from this is that the world economy does not look as though it is going to go back into another deep recession-we are not going to have that kind of impossible situation-but the world economy is not going to provide the impetus that it is currently providing. It may not feel that great, but it is providing quite a bit of impetus at the moment. It will provide less impetus next year and beyond. That means that the Chancellor must intensify his pursuit of measures that make the UK that much more competitive and that much more successful.
Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend comment on the importance of improving our export position vis-à-vis the BRIC countries in particular-Brazil, Russia, India and China-and how important a part that could play in our recovery?
Mr Redwood: It is a good point. We have heard figures from the Government indicating that we export less to the BRIC countries combined than we do to Ireland, but we have a close relationship with Ireland and we are close neighbours. It is understandable that we export a lot to Ireland and it to us. That figure conceals one important point, which is that British business has probably been a little more active than it suggests, but for various reasons the larger British companies tend to go into India, Brazil and China and set up joint ventures or factories of their own there to service the local market. It is easier to service those markets in that way, for reasons that we need not go into in detail today, but I agree that it would be good if we exported more, and it would be good if we helped small and medium-sized enterprises that do not have the capability to set up factories on the other side of the world to export in their turn.
The devaluation that happened more than a year ago has given us one nasty result, which is a much higher inflation rate than comparable economies, but it has given us one pleasant result, which is that it is very easy to export out of a British base now because British industry is so much more competitive at the current level of the pound. We should have that on our side. Paradoxically, quite a bit of British business in the manufacturing sector is close to capacity, and those businesses are tending to put the prices up a bit to collect a little more revenue and improve their balance sheets because it is not that easy to expand turnover. That is where the things that the Chancellor is talking about are vital and need to be done speedily.
Britain needs to be able to put up factories more quickly and get them into use more quickly. It needs to define the skilled engineers and the other skilled individuals who want to work in an industrial setting rather than in an advisory or City setting, and then expand the capability of their companies as a result. Modern manufacturing requires a very high degree of skills input, talented people and good management. It does not require so many people to operate machines because really good manufacturing now is highly automated. It needs the precision of expensive machinery. Indeed, the easiest way to compete out of a German or a British base is to have highly automated plant, so labour costs are a rather unimportant part of the total cost. The intellectual property content, the skill content and the plant and equipment content are much higher, but they are affordable with a quality product.
Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Further to my right hon. Friend’s points, a director from JCB gave evidence to the Select Committee on Education yesterday and said that he had 57 vacancies for engineers that he cannot fill order to ensure that JCB’s products remain globally competitive, reduce energy usage and so on. That, unfortunately, is a legacy of too many years in which we have not delivered the technical, vocational, practical education that is required. Is my right hon. Friend, like me, enthusiastic about the Government taking forward the programme from the Wolf review and supporting Lord Baker with his university technical colleges?
Mr Redwood: I am happy with those proposals. The Government are clearly on the right lines and I hope there will be cross-party agreement that we need to raise our game at skills, training and education, particularly in engineering, pharmaceuticals, chemistry and so forth, where we have an advantage and can have a much bigger advantage if we do more. Yes, we need to review how easy it is to buy or build a factory and how easy it is to equip it. Anything that can be done to lower the effect of tax rate on business will make Britain a much more attractive place to be.
As hon. Members know, I take the view that if we set lower rates, we normally collect a lot more revenue. If we want that kind of growth rate, the lower the realistic rate that we can set, the more revenue growth and the more overall growth we will have. It would be a great tragedy to abort the recovery in certain sectors because the tax rate was too high. I am pleased to see the progress on corporation tax. We need to see the details of some of the individual tax schemes and how the carbon tax rebate would work. If we went ahead as trailblazers in Britain and set a high carbon price, we would price our energy-intensive business out of Britain into a less clean or less acceptable venue. It is important that the rebates and discounts are properly thought through, so that at a time when the Government are trying to promote more industry, they are not taxing it too heavily.
Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): On the competitiveness of British industry, my right hon. Friend has in the past talked of a cut in regulation being equivalent to a free tax cut. Does he welcome the measures in the Budget to have a low level of regulation for new start-up companies and small companies? Does he share my hope that Europe will become more competitive by reducing the regulatory burden that it seeks to impose on British business and business in other member states?
Mr Redwood: Of course I welcome that. One of the big barriers to entry and to more effective competition for the large companies in Britain is the weight of regulation, which hits anyone who tries to start up a new business. I have done it in the past and I know what it feels like. One has to raise a lot more extra money because for six months to a year one is just trying to comply in many areas before one can trade. Yes, of course we want sensible regulation. We do not believe in an unregulated world. We believe in the law of contract. We believe that people should have a duty of care towards their staff and their customers, but if there are too many and too detailed competing types of prescriptive regulation, it puts people off and they say, “It’s too expensive. I can’t be bothered.”
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): But does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the issue for small business today is not so much regulation as liquidity and lending to SMEs by the banks? A constituent of mine, Alun Richards, is on hunger strike. He had a business with net assets and a limited amount of debt, and Lloyds bank came along and withdrew the debt. Now he is going bankrupt because he has no working capital. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is disgraceful, particularly from a bank that is owned by the taxpayer? Poor old Alun Richards wants to run his business, not to be undermined by the banks. What are the Government doing about that?
Mr Redwood: Of course I agree that if there is a solvent and enterprising business and it is not getting proper banking facilities, that is very bad indeed. It is particularly bad if it is a state-owned or state-influenced bank that is responsible.
My final points are about banking, as time presses and many others want to speak. Of equal importance to the weighty matters covered by the Chancellor today will be the Vickers report and the Government’s response to it. I believe that we will have interim conclusions from Sir John Vickers on 11 April. We are not going to have fast, sustained, above-average growth in this country unless we sort out the banks a little more than we have done so far. All colleagues in the House are united in having individual cases where they feel a company could have been saved or could have grown more rapidly if only there had been more sympathetic or understanding bank managers and facilities. There is a problem with British banking serving the SME sector town by town, county by county. There is a lot of talent in the banks, concentrated at the national level and in the big national accounts. Many hon. Members like to knock those people, but they made an important contribution to the growth rate under the previous Government and to our economy.
Andrea Leadsom: In the last quarter of 2010, lending to the SME sector dropped by 38% from the last quarter of 2008. One of my big concerns is that this reflects the incredible concentration of SME lending among the four or five largest banks, which are responsible for around 90% of all SME lending. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the work of the Vickers commission and the Treasury Committee should focus on breaking up the oligopolistic positions of some of those big banks?
Mr Redwood: I certainly hope that when we see the Vickers report and have a proper debate on it we will be able to find sensible ways of promoting much more competition in the domestic banking market. We need more competition on the high street for individuals and families and more competition in town centres for SMEs, which in previous generations probably had better and more direct relationships with local bank managers, who had a bit more authority to grant loans and make money available on judgment than is currently the case through the box-ticking, centralised computer systems.
Geraint Davies: In that case, and given the last intervention, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that perhaps the Budget should have introduced tax relief or tax credits for individuals wanting to invest in SMEs, because venture capitalists want too high a return and the banks are failing the small business sector? We want an inclusive economy. Surely there should have been some support for SMEs so that we could all invest in small businesses more effectively.
Mr Redwood: That is exactly what the Budget contained. I think there was a revamped and revised enterprise investment scheme and an improvement in the capital gains treatment for successful entrepreneurs. It is always nice for new people setting up small businesses to be able to dream, and why should those of them who are successful not keep the proceeds if they have created jobs and done so much?
The outcome of the Budget will depend on two important considerations: whether we can put enough measures in place along the lines that the Chancellor has laid out for promoting growth; and whether there is a happy and sensible resolution to the banking problems as they affect SMEs and the wider public in Britain. There has been much discussion of the big banks, the investment banks and all those sorts of issues, but we now need to laser in on how the banks serve local communities and the SME sector. We need a more pro-competitive answer. I have some thoughts on how we could do that, but will not detain the House with them because today is not the day for that. However, without such measures the Budget will find it difficult to deliver the very large figures for increased revenue on which the whole plan rests.