John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con):
I support the main measures in the Budget, and the thrust of the Budget statement. I strongly welcome the tax reductions. I am very pleased that the Chancellor is making progress in implementing our promises to take more people out of income tax altogether, and to take people out of 40% tax when they are on relatively modest incomes in comparison with the costs of housing and living in many parts of the country. The more progress we can make in that regard, the better.
I am delighted that I, and others, made representations on behalf of the North Sea oil industry, that those representations have been well heard, and that substantial changes have been made. It is important for us to do all that we can to give that industry, which has been hit by the very low oil price, some momentum and some hope for the future. I am also very pleased about the capital gains tax changes, because I have campaigned for them for some time. I think we will find that they bring in more revenue, not less.
It is interesting to read the forecast in the Red Book that, by 2019-20, there will be a substantial increase in revenues from CGT at the lower rate, but there will be a period of no increases for two or three years. I find that a surprising profile, and I think it draws attention to an underlying problem. I do not think that the economic models and the tax forecasting system used by the Office for Budget Responsibility are fit for purpose. The OBR was obviously very wrong about the impact of the reduction in the 50p rate to 45p: there was a big surge in revenues which was not in the original forecast figures.
This is the background against which we meet today. Many of the changes that the Chancellor has had to make are simply a result of the OBR changing its mind over the very short period between the autumn statement and today, and deciding that the economic outlook is not as good as it thought it was at the end of last year. We have to ask why it has reached that conclusion.
John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the OBR has been any better at predicting the economy than the Treasury was before?
John Redwood: I do not think that there is very much difference. All economic forecasters experience difficulties in getting their forecasts right, but some of us are more humble about our expectations than these official forecasters. I think that the danger of having an official forecast is that too much credibility is given to it, and big decisions are then made on the back of it. When official forecasters are zinging the forecasts around every three or four months, it becomes difficult for any Chancellor to run a stable medium-term policy involving, for example, important spending items that matter a great deal to our constituents.
I urge the Chancellor to be a little more sceptical about the wisdom and virtue of the OBR forecasts. The one thing of which we can be sure is that, over the period during which we have had the OBR, it has always been wrong, but what is stunning is the degree of the error. The OBR itself kindly points that out to us on page 234 of its very readable book, saying that, on average, it has revised the underlying borrowing forecast by £46 billion for the review period in question on each occasion. Given that the figure is an average, it is clear that the forecast revision has been considerably higher. The OBR tends to make its biggest revisions in autumn statements, but it has given us quite a whopper on this occasion. When a Chancellor must face a £46 billion revision every time he has to do the sums, it makes the task of stable economic management much more difficult. This is one of those instances in which an idea that was intended to produce more stability has proved to be destabilising.
The same can be said, I am afraid, of the current Governor of the Bank of England. The Governor of the Bank of England is meant to provide stability and wisdom, but we have now heard four different mantras from this Governor about when interest rates are going to rise. That is a very important statistic, which informs the forecasts of the OBR.
First of all, the Governor said that interest rates would probably go up when unemployment fell below 7%. When it tumbled rapidly below 7%, the Governor changed his mind. I am glad that he did, but the fact remains that he changed his mind. He then said that when real wages started to go up, interest rates would probably go up as well, and I am pleased to say that almost as soon as he had said it, they started to go up. Then he changed his mind, in that he had apparently not meant what he said.
The Governor then said that the turn of the year, 2015-16, would be a witching hour, when interest rates might have to go up. Well, we roared through the end of the year and the beginning of the new year, and they did not go up. Again, I was pleased about that, because I think it might have been unhelpful if they had. However, that shows that people and institutions who should be good at providing stability can be very destabilising and very misleading, and it is all noise that the Chancellor has to deal with.
The one good thing about all this is that when these ridiculous forecasts are made by the OBR and the Governor of the Bank of England that we would be worse off if we left the European Union, we can completely ignore them. We know that those people are always wrong about the things in which they are meant to specialise, so why should we believe what they say about something that is more important?
Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman illuminate us on the section of the Chancellor’s speech that dealt with the European Union? Will he share his thoughts with us?
John Redwood: I think that I am doing that now. The Chancellor quoted the OBR, and the one thing that I disagreed with profoundly in a very good Budget was the OBR’s forecast on what would happen with Brexit. [Laughter.] It is not funny. Labour Members might learn something if they listened. They have obviously closed their ears to any idea that an independent Britain could be rich, prosperous and free, but many of us think that we will be more rich, prosperous and free if we leave the EU.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
John Redwood: I want to develop the argument a little more. As has already been pointed out, the forecast contains very worrying figures about the balance of payments deficit. And of course, were we to leave the EU, we would immediately have £10 billion at our disposal that we would no longer have to send abroad to be spent in rich countries on the continent. That is the net amount that goes to the continent. So our balance of payments would immediately improve by £10 billion a year if we did not have to make those contributions.
To cheer up Opposition Members even more, and to get them to change their vote, I can tell them that we and they would have the pleasure of spending £10 billion a year more in our own country—[Laughter.] Why is that funny? Why should not British taxpayers who have to pay £10 billion not have the advantage of spending it on things that they want instead of it being spent on new roads in France or Spain? I think my taxpayers want it to be spent here. That £10 billion a year could more than banish the austerity that Opposition Members claim has done some damage to our country. Looking at the figures, we can see that real public spending has gone up all the time under the coalition and the Conservative Government, but not by as much as it went up under previous Governments. If we had that £10 billion back to spend in the United Kingdom, we would have a better profile on public spending and on tax reductions.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Can my right hon. Friend be sure that any figure he quotes is accurate, given that he has just rubbished the OBR and the Bank of England? Presumably he has a list of other British institutions to which he would give the same treatment.
John Redwood: But of course. I have checked the Government’s very own net contribution figures, and it is very likely that they have got those figures right, because even the Government can count how much they have spent and how much they have had to give away to the rest of the European Union. That is the damage that is being done.
On the balance of payments, I would urge my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench to do more work on getting the balance of payments deficit down. Obviously, they will not all agree with me about taking the quick easy hit of getting our £10 billion back to make a big reduction in the deficit, but we need to understand that that deficit is entirely the result of an adverse goods trade with the rest of the European Union. We are in profit with the rest of the world and we are in profit in services, but we have a colossal manufacturing deficit with the rest of the EU. Some of that relates to the way in which France and Germany get round the EU rules to make sure that they can buy French or German product, whereas we in Britain apply the EU rules extremely fairly and end up buying a lot of foreign product from the continent.
It is also the case that the very dear energy that European policies require and enforce is doing a lot of damage to our steel industry, our ceramics industry and other high energy-using industries. It is a great tragedy that, despite higher domestic demand for steel, we are still unable always to use British steel in British public sector contracts. Surely we ought to have a fix to create more demand for our own domestic industries.
We also import massive amounts of timber, despite having a big state sector involvement in the timber industry in this country. Why cannot more be done to cut more of the timber we already have as a state resource to meet our domestic demand, along with replanting and extending the planting, given that many people would like more forests? Why cannot we have more managed timber, with the state having an influence over it? We could also do more with the tax system to encourage more private forestry. We have rather good growing conditions here, compared with some of the colder Nordic climates from which we import timber at the moment.
We also import energy, but we have no need to do so. We are an island of coal, oil and gas set in a sea of coal, oil and gas. We also have lots of natural renewables, particularly lots of potential water power. Why cannot we create an energy policy in which we do not need to rely on importing timber from Canada, electricity from France and energy from Norway?
I am pleased that the Budget is starting to tackle the issue of the oil industry offshore through tax changes. We need to do other work on that, and we also need to get on with gas extraction onshore. We will probably find further oil resources when we are prospecting for shale gas in the shale sands. We need to start bridging the gap on energy before it becomes even more damaging to our balance of payments.
Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): On encouraging greater exports, would my right hon. Friend acknowledge that one of the challenges that small and medium-sized firms face is the availability and pricing of mid-sized capital to enable them to pursue longer-term export plans?
John Redwood: I am not sure that the cost of capital is a problem. The Government have already done certain things to try to deal with that through the investment bank and so forth. It is often the case that medium-sized companies probably need equity investment but are reluctant to give away control. That is a cultural issue that we have to deal with. Certainly for bigger companies there is nothing wrong with the long-term cost of borrowing if they have access to the bond market, because we have exceptionally low interest rates at the moment.
I am all in favour of the Government pressing on with large infrastructure projects if they make economic sense. The main ones that we need to reinforce are broadband and extra energy capacity. We are short not only of affordable energy but of energy of any kind. We do not want our economic recovery—which we have rightly been told is the fastest in the advanced world, on the historical and prospective figures—suddenly to come up against the constraint that there is not enough energy available to fuel the recovery.