Speaking in a debate on the Autumn Statement, Harriett Baldwin welcomes the accompanying Office for Budget Responsibility forecast, supports the measures to tackle inflation which is clearly the biggest economic challenge facing our country, and raises concerns at the increasing debt interest bill.
May I start by apologising to the House and to the Chief Secretary for not being here for the beginning of the debate, having failed to end our Committee session on time? I caught most of what was being said, and I very much welcome the fact that the autumn statement has been accompanied by an Office for Budget Responsibility forecast, which is something the Committee has been asking for for many months. We have the OBR appearing before our Committee tomorrow.
I recognise that any forecast in and of itself will be inaccurate—it is, at best, a best guess of what the future will hold—but it will allow us to test the assumptions. These forecasts were brought in by the Conservative-led coalition in 2010 for a very good reason: to prevent the Treasury from exclusively marking its own homework. They have become one of the guardrails of fiscal responsibility. In the last few months we have learnt that that really does matter to the markets. I very much welcome the existence of the forecasts.
I also very much welcome the fact that the measures in the autumn statement appear to go completely with the grain of what is obviously the biggest economic challenge our country faces: the hideous inflation that we are suffering. We know that about 80% of that inflation comes directly from Putin’s evil invasion of Ukraine. The Committee recognises that inflationary pressures predated that invasion, and we have taken quite a lot of evidence over the last couple of years about those incipient inflationary pressures as we came out of the pandemic. At that time, the Bank of England had the monetary foot to the floor and the Government had the fiscal foot to the floor—one could not come up with a more successful recipe for inflation. Sure enough, it has become more ingrained in our economy.
Everyone in this House can see that inflation is the most insidious tax, particularly on the poorest. It is the most terrible scourge on our economy. I very much welcome the fact that fiscal policy will be brought in line with what the Bank of England is trying to do through monetary policy, to bring inflation back to the target level.
The third thing I want to highlight, because it is a matter of deep concern to everyone, is a line in the Budget that is up dramatically—perhaps not in cash terms, but because we have more debt. That is the debt interest bill, which is over £100 billion. Since 2000 the amount of this country’s debt that is linked to inflation rates has gone from 6% index-linked to the current 22% index-linked. That means the Government are short the rate of inflation, effectively, and they are now paying the price in that line item. My question for the Minister is this: was an explicit decision taken in the Treasury in those years to issue more index-linked debt. If so, who made it and was it announced to the House? It is really coming home to bite in the fiscal accounts, so it would be nice to know what the thinking was at the time—or was it something that we sleepwalked into as a nation?
The final point of my, I hope, suitably brief remarks is to reiterate the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) about cliff edges. I fully accept that during the pandemic the Treasury was making decisions at speed and wanted to get money out to people as quickly as possible. Similarly, this year, with the energy crisis, the decision was taken to get money out as quickly and easily as possible to the lowest income households through the two payments of £325, which have been important in helping people with the cost of living this winter.
I am more concerned now—arguably, the Chancellor has not been in post that long, but Treasury officials have had the benefit of more time to think about these things—that the £900 payment next year will also be made with a big cliff edge. What kind of behavioural signals will that send through the benefits system? We have spent the better part of the last 12 years introducing universal credit precisely so that it has a linear impact, yet next year we will entrench a different way of paying the lowest income households. Hon. Members should not get me wrong; I support giving the lowest income households help, but it worries me that the £900 payment will go to people on means-tested benefit, but if someone is £1 above what is needed to get that means-tested benefit, they will not get it.
I wonder whether the Treasury could look at something that goes more with the grain of the type of work incentives that we are trying to put in through universal credit. We have heard about the withdrawal of labour in the labour market. Perhaps this aspect could be considered in the Stride review, so that we can ensure that we are not making the problem worse through the decisions in the autumn statement.