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Harriett Baldwin responds to debate on the economy

18th November 2015

Harriett Baldwin responds on behalf of the Government to an Opposition Day debate on the economy.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): I start by associating myself with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about the French atrocities and the importance of our security forces. I and other Treasury Ministers yesterday signed the book of condolence at the French embassy.

The economic policy of Her Majesty’s Opposition is now represented by a man who wants to overthrow capitalism, nationalise businesses without compensation, and who answers to Len McCluskey. He is a man who thinks that printing money, and triggering the inflation that hurts the poor and the elderly the most, is a good thing. He thinks that a budget surplus is “barmy”, and that we can balance the books by avoiding “any cuts whatsoever”. He is a high-tax, high-inflation, high-unemployment socialist who draws his economic inspiration from the Venezuelan economy and Syriza in Greece. The Government will not take economic lectures from him on how to run our policies, and we will do everything in our power to keep him in opposition.

George Kerevan (East Lothian) (SNP): Will the Minister remind the House how many pound notes the Bank of England has printed through quantitative easing?

Harriett Baldwin: Monetary policy has been run by the Bank of England independently, and I am sure that the Scottish National party will continue to support the Bank’s independence against the inflationary tendencies of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I am pleased to have the opportunity to remind the House once again about how this Government’s long-term economic plan is delivering for the working people of the United Kingdom.

Mr Hanson: May I bring the Minister back to reality? Reality for my constituents is the £1,300 cut to working families tax credits which, if it goes ahead in April next year, will mean that £58 million is taken out of our local economy from the poorest people in my constituency, three quarters of whom are in work. Does she think that is right, and will she commit to review that today?

Harriett Baldwin: The right hon. Gentleman will have to wait until my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announces his autumn statement next week. Because of the difficult decisions that we have been prepared to take since 2010, the country’s economy for the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents in north Wales is going from strength to strength, and the overall UK economy is now 12% larger than it was when we took over from the Labour Government. As we reach calmer economic waters, it is worrying that some seem to have forgotten the lessons that the crash of 2008 taught us.

In recent months we have seen the resurgence of familiar but dangerous ideas. First—we heard it here today—is the idea that the deficit does not really matter, that it should not be a priority to rein in unsustainable public spending, and that it is fine to kick difficult decisions down the line. Those views were put to the British electorate in May, and the electorate rejected them overwhelmingly. People looked at the 1,000 jobs that the UK economy had created every day since 2010, and at the highest growth figure in the G7 for the last two years in a row. They looked at rising wages, rising living standards, and falling inequality, and they said, “Your long-term economic plan is working, so we want you to continue the job.” Since the election, national debt has been forecast to fall this year as a share of GDP for the first time in more than a decade.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Is the Minister pleased with the appalling level of productivity in this country under her Government?

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman knows that productivity has been a long-term issue for the British economy, and I shall be talking in more detail about our productivity plans in a moment.

Mrs Main: Does my hon. Friend have any figures associated with the cost of renationalisation that the Labour party seems to want to embark on? I have not heard any figure recently.

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend is right. The bottomless pit of money for the magic money tree has been brought into service a lot over recent days, and we should focus instead on the good news about the UK economy. The employment rate has reached a record high—

Geraint Davies rose—

Harriett Baldwin: Is the hon. Gentleman going to welcome that fact? I do not think he is. Wages have risen by more than 3% this year. Will he welcome that? For people in continuous employment, wages are up by more than 4%—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. We cannot have hon. Members freelancing, or at least not any more than they are already accustomed to doing. The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) can seek to intervene, and the Minister must decide whether to respond. However, since the hon. Gentleman claims to have a point of order, I am keen to discover whether it is a point of order or a point of frustration, so perhaps we can hear from him.

Geraint Davies: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. When the Minister exhibits such massive ambiguity by seeming to say “Yes, yes, yes,” to my intervention, so that then I am getting up and down, does that not cause great confusion in the Chamber and among the greater public? Would you like to make a ruling on that?

Mr Speaker: My ruling on that, for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and the House, is that any Member who has the Floor should indicate clearly whether he or she is giving way, and if so, to whom. Any gesticulation that obscures rather than clarifies, although not disorderly, is unhelpful.

Harriett Baldwin: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman when he starts to welcome some of the positive economic facts that I was mentioning, but if he does not know whether he is coming or going, I have a hunch that he is in the right party.

The Government absolutely reject the Opposition’s accusation that we are failing to deliver for working people. Not only have we brought greater economic security, we have also delivered more growth, more jobs, and higher wages. That is what people working across this country asked us to deliver, and that is what we are doing.

Suella Fernandes: I echo and salute the track record and results that the Minister is outlining. A former Prime Minister, who is credited with reviving a failing economy, once said:

“The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

Does my hon. Friend agree that what we are hearing from the Opposition Benches is a reheating of simple 1980s socialism where the results are only failure?

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend is right to remind us of two important facts. First, no Labour Government have ever left office with the public finances in a better state than when they came to power, and secondly, no Labour Government have left office without leaving more people unemployed than there were when they came to office.

Do we agree with the other points made by the Labour party?

Geraint Davies rose—

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Harriett Baldwin: I will not give way because I want to make a bit of progress and take each of the points in the motion in turn.

I am delighted that the Labour party has remembered to mention the deficit in the motion, although it is not the budget deficit but the current account deficit. Let me remind the House about progress on the budget deficit which, as a share of the economy, has fallen by more than half from its peak in 2009-10 to 4.9% at the end of last year. We forecast that we will be in surplus by the end of this Parliament. That is what the British people asked for, and that is what we are doing.

Jonathan Reynolds rose—

Harriett Baldwin: Will the hon. Gentleman welcome progress on the deficit and suggest further progress?

Jonathan Reynolds: I love giving way with caveats based on what I might say in my intervention. Let me ask the Minister a serious point in all this silliness. Since the end of the second world war, this country has been in surplus for only 12 financial years. Of those 12 years, 10 have had Labour Governments. Conservative Governments have hardly ever run a surplus. Is the Minister telling us that the Governments of Thatcher, Macmillan, Anthony Eden and Churchill were all spendthrift and socialist, or will she be a little more serious when addressing these issues?

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is a serious issue, and I hope that, as one of the more moderate and sensible members of his party, he will be able to convince those on the Labour Front Bench that this is an important issue to tackle.

The Opposition motion also mentions tax credits.

Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP): The Minister mentioned the fall in unemployment, but is there not a paradox? We are considering closing Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs offices and reducing the number of people who work for it, when its official figures show a £34 billion tax gap. If we collected that money, it would go a long way towards eating into the deficit. If we then scrapped Trident and the other place we would be nearly there, and we would not need to make cuts.

Harriett Baldwin: I would listen more to the advice of the SNP on the economy if it had not projected that the oil price would remain at over $100 forever and fought last year’s referendum on that basis.

Various hon. Members have mentioned tax credits. The British people want to see a lower welfare, lower tax and higher wage economy, and that is what they voted for in May. In the summer Budget, we set out a package of reforms for working people, which included the introduction of the new national living wage, continued increases in the personal allowance and the doubling of free childcare worth up to £5,000 a year for working parents. Of course, we will listen to the concerns raised about the transition period, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will set out our response to those concerns next week. But make no mistake, creating a low-welfare, low-tax, high-wage economy is one of the most progressive goals a Government can have, and one that we will continue to work towards.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): As my hon. Friend analyses the Opposition motion to decide whether she will support it—I think we are fairly clear on that—is she as surprised as I am that it does not mention the new national living wage? That is probably the most significant change in our economy over the next five years—[Interruption.] Well, there are issues with tax credits—I am not making a speech, Mr Speaker—but the fundamental point is that we will ask companies to pay our poorest paid workers what is effectively a 38% increase in their wages over five years, plus 3% on their pensions. Does she agree that that needs more attention from Members on both sides of the House?

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend is right to highlight that progressive move, and it gives me a chance to emphasise the fact that yesterday’s data on earnings showed that the lowest earning 10% in our society saw a wage increase of 3.4% over the last 12 months, and that is before these changes have even taken place.

The Opposition motion also mentions child poverty. The best route out of child poverty is for a parent or parents to work. On our watch, the number of children growing up in workless families is at a record low, down almost 500,000 from 16.2% of all children to 11.8%.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab): Is the Economic Secretary aware that since 2010 500,000 children have fallen below the poverty line? What does she intend to do about that?

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Lady is wrong about that. Since 2010, in terms of relative poverty, some 300,000 fewer children are living in poverty. The Government losing control of public finances and not being able to do anything about that would be the worst thing that could possibly happen for the opportunities for those children. The people who suffer when the country loses control of its public finances are the low-paid, and the people who get turned out of work are the ones who suffer the most—

Geraint Davies rose—

Lucy Frazer rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. May I say gently to the House that it is reasonable for the Economic Secretary to be given the opportunity to respond to one intervention before immediately being pressed to accept another? Some level of orderliness in the conduct of this debate needs to be restored, with the help of all willing parties.

Harriett Baldwin: In that spirit, I shall try to make some progress, Mr Speaker.

The richest do not suffer most when the economy suffers. It is not the trade union barons who lose their jobs when that happens: it is the poorest in the country. We are making sure that it never happens again.

The motion also mentions the impact of our policies on women. There are now more women working than ever before, the gender pay gap is at the lowest level since records began, and 56% of the people we have taken out of income tax, by raising the personal allowance, are women. Of course, 27.5 million working men and women have had a tax cut since 2010, and 58% of those receiving a much stronger, triple-lock state pension are women. Almost two thirds of the people benefiting from the introduction of the national living wage are women. In fact, since 2010, women have moved faster into jobs in the UK than in any other G7 country, and women’s employment rate has increased more since 2010 than during the previous three Parliaments combined.

Margaret Greenwood rose—

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Lady may be about to comment on this, and we live in hope that the wish of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) that senior jobs in her party go to women will be granted soon. Does the hon. Lady welcome some of this good economic news for women?

Margaret Greenwood: Does the Economic Secretary share my real concern that 29% of women earn less that the living wage? That is not a success story for women—far from it.

Harriett Baldwin: That is exactly my point: they will be disproportionately helped by the increase in the national minimum wage through the national living wage from next year.

The motion mentions productivity, and it was also raised by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who is no longer in his place. Productivity has been a long-standing issue since well before 2010, and we accept that. But rather than grandstanding, we have set out a wide-ranging productivity plan. We are delivering the infrastructure projects we need, through our infrastructure pipeline, and we have set up the national infrastructure commission to take a long-term, depoliticised approach to major projects. We have seen a recent strengthening in productivity growth. Output per hour rose by 0.9% in the last quarter, and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that productivity will pick up by 1.7% next year, and 2.4% in the year after that.

The motion also questions our long-term commitment to science, technology and green growth.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the Minister agree that the freezing in cash terms of money spent on science and research and development has had an impact on productivity growth and the potential for increasing productivity in the UK economy?

Harriett Baldwin: We agree that maintaining the science budget is incredibly important. As part of the £100 billion of infrastructure investment that we have already committed to, £6.9 billion will be going towards research infrastructure.

Roger Mullin (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (SNP): If the Economic Secretary believes what she has just said about maintaining the science budget, why have the Government cut it in real terms by 10% in the past five years? They have made no commitment thus far to increase the science budget either, to such an extent that the UK is bottom in the G8 for investment in science.

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman will know, and has just reiterated, that we have maintained the science budget, which has been one of the choices that we have made. We have secured £7 billion of investment per year for UK-based renewable energy projects. We are investing in major research facilities such as the new Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science. Our science and innovation strategy sets out our long-term vision for the sector’s contribution to national prosperity.

Lucy Frazer: Does my hon. Friend welcome the comments by Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society, who said recently that the UK is excellent on the world stage and that, in terms of effective research, we are probably top? Most people rank us second to the United States, and we lose out merely on size.

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the effectiveness of our science spending. Earlier, she mentioned agri-tech, and my constituency has fantastic skills in cyber-security. Those are all important and we will continue to make sure that they are a Government priority.

Steve McCabe: Does the Economic Secretary accept that one of the problems is the contradictory nature of Government policy? It may well be true that they are investing in the science budget, but simultaneously—as the Coalition for a Digital Economy, or Coadec, revealed in its recent letter to the Prime Minister—they are strangling the digital industries through their immigration policy, which denies entry to tier 2 skilled workers and entrepreneurial visas to people who could boost our industries.

Harriett Baldwin: I welcome the opportunity to clarify that there is no cap on inter-company transfers at tier 2 or on people who will earn a substantial amount. I am aware that Tech City keeps very close tabs on this and informs me about its importance. The hon. Gentleman will welcome its continued success in attracting investment from around the world.

The motion also mentions the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills budget. I obviously cannot pre-empt what the Chancellor will say next week, but every single decision on spending has been based on our productivity plan to focus on world-beating productivity, to drive the next phase of our growth and to raise living standards.

People should never underestimate this Government’s commitment to helping British businesses and workers succeed in the global economy. We know that businesses drive growth and create jobs, and we work with them so that they continue to do so. In marked contrast, the Labour party could not get a single business even to host an event with its leader last week.

Is the economy perfect? No economy is ever perfect. We need to export more, work more productively and eliminate the gender pay gap altogether. It takes time for a country to recover from a significant economic crash, such as the one inflicted on us by the last Labour Government. But thanks to the hard work of the British people, the economy has recovered. We have more growth, more jobs and higher wages. We know that there is still much more to do, but there is no economic security, no national security and no opportunity when control of the public finances is lost. I urge hon. Members to reject the economic views of the Labour party, to reject the advice of the shadow Chancellor and to reject the motion.

2.21 pm

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