2017 12 – Parliamentary Notes

Parliament Notes

by Dick Barry

The Budget

On 23 November, the day after Philip Hammond’s budget statement, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell replied for Labour.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab) After a disastrous election campaign and a party conference that literally fell apart, yesterday’s Budget’s sole purpose was to revive the fortunes of the Conservative party—and maybe to fend off for a time the Tory pack that has been hounding the Chancellor, week after week. But the Budget showed just how out of touch and cut-off from the real world of the economy and from people’s real lives the Chancellor and his Government really are.

Only this morning, the Chancellor said on “Sky News” that the UK economy is “fundamentally strong”. What is strong about an economy in which economic growth has been downgraded to the lowest in the G7 countries? What is strong about an economy in which productivity growth has been revised down to the lowest since modern records began; in which business investment is, to quote the Office for Budget Responsibility,

“significantly lower than…expected in March”;

and in which real pay and living standards continue to deteriorate?

The official growth forecasts from the Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility were the worst in its history. No Government in modern times has ever presented a set of growth forecasts in which growth in every year is less than 2%. Productivity growth is forecast to have ground to a halt this year, and barely increase next year. That, too, is the worst downgrade in the OBR’s history.

The squeeze on living standards is now so great that the Resolution Foundation estimates that real pay will not return to its pre-crash levels until 2023.

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab) The shadow Chancellor is making a powerful case. The Governor of the Bank of England has said that the last time workers suffered such wage stagnation was 150 years ago, when Victoria wore the crown, Gladstone and Disraeli were in No. 10 Downing Street, Darwin was evolving the theory of evolution and trade unions were illegal. Does the shadow Chancellor agree that under a Labour Government wages go up, but under a Conservative Government—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing) Order. Before we go any further in this debate, which has only just started, I should explain to the House that a great many people have indicated that they wish to speak this afternoon. Speeches will have to be time-limited and short. It is simply not fair for people to make very long interventions and possibly not stay for the whole debate. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I am not suggesting that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) ​will not. He is an honourable gentleman and knows how to behave in the Chamber. It is perfectly in order and good debating practice for the shadow Chancellor and anyone else to take lots of interventions so that we can have a debate, but interventions must be short and Members must recognise that every minute taken up by an intervention takes a minute off the speech of someone who waits all day to speak. It is a matter of being fair and decent to each other.

John McDonnell I will take some interventions, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am cognizant of what you have said about the need to ensure that everyone can speak.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), we all knew that the election of a Tory Government would set us back; what we did not appreciate was that it would set us back a century.

Average annual pay is now projected to be £1,030 lower in 2022 than was forecast in the March 2017 Budget. It is those delivering our key services—the nurses, midwives, firefighters and teachers—who are worse off than they were a decade ago. There is nothing here that could remotely be considered strong. This is a weak economy. In terms of growth, it is now the weakest in the G7.

Let us remember that we are in this mess because for the past seven years the Government have implemented policies that have undermined and weakened our economy. The Chancellor was a key figure in all those policies. He and his colleagues were warned that austerity spending cuts would fail to bring the debt or the deficit under control, and that instead they would undermine the real economy. We were promised in 2010 by the Chancellor’s predecessor that the deficit would be cleared by 2015, yet today the debt burden is still rising. The Chancellor borrowed more in his first year in the job than any Chancellor in history.

Mr Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con) The shadow Chancellor paints a very negative picture, but can he explain why patient satisfaction in the NHS is at its highest for 20 years, why we have the lowest unemployment for 43 years, and why we have the highest employment in our history?

John McDonnell There are now waiting lists of 4 million in the NHS, predicted to rise to 5 million because of the lack of investment. We welcome the increase in those in employment, but 800,000 are zero-hour contracts, and we now have more than 2 million people in insecure work. It is no wonder that people are anxious about their futures.

As I have said, the Chancellor has borrowed £145 billion —more than £5,000 per household—which is more in his first year in the job than any other Chancellor in history. The OBR now expects the deficit in 2021 to be almost three times higher than it forecast in March. It blames this deterioration on the collapse in productivity growth, but productivity growth has collapsed because investment has fallen. Government investment is £20 billion less in real terms today than it was in the last year of the previous Labour Government.

Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con) May I ask the shadow Chancellor, or indeed his iPad, how much it would cost to service the Government debt in the event that his own spending plans came to fruition?

John McDonnell I welcome the opportunity to respond to the hon. Gentleman. What we have said very clearly is that under our fiscal rule, unlike that of this Government, we will borrow not for day-to-day expenditure but to invest. That investment will grow the economy, and, as a result of that growth, we will cover any need to borrow. That is what any sensible Government is doing right the way across the globe, right the way across Europe. It is that attitude displayed by the hon. Gentleman that has caused our economic problems. The lack of investment over seven years has affected our productivity.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab) Many of the things that have been welcomed in this Budget—and some things have been welcomed—by people outside this House are measures that we have been calling for since the downturn in 2008. If those measures are right now, they were right back then, which means that it is a consequence of austerity and the economic policies followed by the Tories that has made our economy flatline for virtually seven years.

John McDonnell The issue is that whatever was put forward in the Budget yesterday was so trivial that it will not have the effect that is required. Investment by businesses is the lowest in the G7 countries. The few measures announced yesterday just will not address that. They will not close the gap between the south and the rest of the country by investing in a rail project in the north-east that will receive just 2% of the total cost of Crossrail in London. Our economy and our people will only reach their potential when there is real new investment brought forward by Government on a scale that is needed to meet the opportunity. The right approach from 2010 would have been to target the real economy and real investments to produce growth and so bring the deficit into line. Because the investment that was needed then did not materialise, productivity growth has stagnated, and because productivity growth has fallen away, the forecast deficit has been widened by the OBR to some £30 billion by 2021. The Government know that austerity is not working. They have now been reduced to fiddling the figures to meet their own targets.

Let me just quote the OBR, because it is important. On how the Government will meet some of their targets, the OBR was damning. It said that

“the Government has ensured that net debt still falls fractionally as a share of GDP in 2018-19…It has achieved this largely by announcing fresh sales of RBS shares and by-passing regulations that ease local and central government control over housing associations in England.”

That is creative accounting on a scale that we have not seen under any Government. In other words, the Government have met their own debt target—barely—by exploiting a reclassification of housing association debt and putting in some extraordinarily optimistic forecasts for their sale of RBS shares.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)  I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am genuinely trying to find a way out of our problems that we agree exist. I accept his point that he wants to borrow more to invest. The trouble is that we are already paying in interest more than we spend on defence and the police—that is just paying interest on our debt. I understand where he is coming from, but whatever we spend this money on, the interest will still be accrued, so how will he deal with that?

John McDonnell Debt under the hon. Gentleman’s Government has gone up by nearly £800 billion, and it is debt to pay for failure rather than to pay for investment. If we borrow to invest, we grow the economy, which means that we can put more people to work with more skills and higher wages. They pay more taxes and it pays for itself. That is the lesson that the Government still have not learned.

The Government appear, as is demonstrated today, to be completely out of touch with the mess that our economy is in. They have no understanding of the consequences of their choices for the lives of our people. They do not seem to grasp the scale of what is happening to our people out there. The Chancellor has tried to claim that income inequality has fallen, but he does not seem to be aware that more than a million food parcels have been handed out in this, the sixth richest economy on the planet. Inequality is not falling. He may well be aware that London is home to more billionaires than ever before, but does he know that there are more people homeless than ever? How can he claim that inequality is falling when that stark comparison is made? This Government’s decisions will make the poorest poorer still. Buried away in an annex, at the very back of the Treasury’s own distributional analysis, is the truth on this. The poorest fifth are being made poorer by the changes this Government is implementing. Those in the poorest fifth will lose almost £250 a year.

The House of Commons Library has confirmed that the burden of cuts—86%—made in tax and benefits measures since 2010 have fallen on women. Is that what equality is under this Government—86% of cuts on the shoulders of women?

On housing, the Government’s proposed solution for the crisis is inept, and counterproductive. The stamp duty cut for first-time buyers will not bring forward the new homes that we need. No wonder the OBR expects only 3,500 additional sales to happen because of the change. It says that thanks to the price rises

“the main gainers from the policy are people who already own property.”

The problem is simple, but perhaps it needs explaining: you cannot solve a problem of housing supply by driving up housing demand. We are not the only people saying that. Conservatives Ministers reviewed a previous stamp duty reduction and said that the cut had

“not had a significant impact on improving affordability for first time buyers”.

Setting a target of 300,000 homes a year for the mid-2020s does little for a housing crisis today.

Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con) I was going to intervene on a previous point. The people of Taunton Deane have more money in their pockets, which is what they want. We have put up the national living wage, cut income tax by raising the personal allowance, and, again, frozen fuel duty. People actually have thousands more in their pockets than they had under the Labour Government.

John McDonnell I know that the hon. Lady is well intentioned, but she has displayed ignorance of what large numbers of people are experiencing. May I suggest this to her—[Interruption.] I do not wish to be patronising. [Interruption.] If that is the way it is interpreted, it is not how it is meant to be. I just say that all of us, who are on relatively high wages, need to be very careful when talking about levels of income and levels of wealth because many people, including 4 million of our children, are actually living in poverty. Two thirds of those children are living in households where someone is in work, which says something about low pay to me, as it should do to all of us.

The number of people sleeping on our streets has doubled since the Conservatives came to office in 2010. More than 3,500 people were forced to sleep on the streets last year. Some 80,000 households are living in temporary accommodation because councils simply do not have anywhere to house them. I repeat: in the sixth richest country in the world, there are more than 120,000 children without a home to call their own, living in temporary accommodation. That figure is up 60% since this Government have been in power. That means children are being brought up in places that are often not safe, having to share communal bathrooms and kitchens, and being robbed of a normal family life and childhood. We have seen this in our constituencies. Ministers do not seem to understand the strength of anger felt by many on the Labour Benches at the fact that our constituents are being forced to live in overcrowded, unsafe and inadequate housing.

The Government had the opportunity to deliver the funding that would build the homes we need. Only a third of the £44 billion announced yesterday is genuinely new, and there is no extra Government investment in new affordable homes. This Government’s record of failure on housing will continue to blight the lives of hundreds of thousands of people trapped in overpriced, inadequate housing.

Jo Churchill (Bury St Edmunds) (Con) I was working in the construction industry in 2008-09, so I watched its decimation at the tail end of the last Labour Government. Nobody sprang to our aid to keep people in work in the industry. This Government had to start from the get-go. We have built 217,000 houses this year, which is nearly double what was built in the last period of the Labour Government. The Labour party walked away from the industry at that time, so it is wrong for the right hon. Gentleman to stand there and say it supported us.

John McDonnell I ask the hon. Lady to re-examine the history of that period. I point her to the Kickstart programme, which was developed by the Labour Government to enable building to happen in the public ​and private sectors. I understand what she is saying; she is right that that time was an immensely difficult period for the economy, and that many people suffered, but her party supported the policies to deregulate the banks that brought about the speculation that resulted in the economic crisis in this country and elsewhere.

Thousands of people are trapped in poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that as many as 1 million children could be pushed into poverty as a result of cuts to universal credit. The introduction of universal credit has been a disaster that has pushed many thousands of people into despair and, in many cases, outright destitution. Food bank charities have reported that they have gathered an extra 2,000 tonnes of food to cope with demand as a result of the introduction of universal credit. The Trussell Trust reports that the use of food banks is up 30% in areas where universal credit is being rolled out. Yet the amendments offered by the Chancellor yesterday and mentioned in the statement today are so feeble as to strongly suggest that he and this Government simply do not grasp the scale of the problem.

Hon. Members need to know what this poverty means for children in our society. It means not having a winter coat this winter and being left behind when the rest of the class go on a school trip. Last year’s reports showed that thousands of children are going hungry during school holidays. The Chancellor did nothing yesterday for self-employed people, second earners, lone parents or disabled people, all of whom have seen their living standards suffer particularly acutely under universal credit. He failed to mitigate the £3 billion a year cuts that were slashed from the universal credit programme by his predecessor, and he failed to address the impact of the social security freeze in universal credit, due to push millions into poverty.

The additional funds put in place amount to £1 returned for every £10 that the Government are cutting from the system. This means that those claiming universal credit will now have to take their first payment as a loan, so they will face 12 months of reduced payments. What has the Chancellor offered to some of the most desperate people in the country—those who are already drowning in debt? More debt. The Chancellor had nothing to say for the people who are newly-registered for universal credit and who face destitution this Christmas. Not a single extra penny, however inadequate, will be available for the new year. Some 59,000 families will be left without any support over the Christmas period. Those families include 40,000 of this country’s children. The percentage of children living in relative poverty is the highest since records began in 1961—in the sixth richest country in the world.

Local councils are being starved of the funds they need to protect the most vulnerable children in society. Charities on the frontline are clear and report solidly that cuts to parenting classes, children’s centres, substance misuse prevention, teenage pregnancy support and short breaks for disabled people risk turning the current crisis into a catastrophe for the next generation of children and families. A record 70,000 children have been taken into care this year. One in 64 children in England is at risk of abuse or neglect. There are 1,200 fewer children’s ​centres than in 2010, eight in 10 schools have no funding to support children with special needs and funding for early intervention to protect children is down by 55%. There was not a single penny extra in the Budget to address this emerging crisis in our children’s services. The Chancellor and the Government are failing some of the most vulnerable children in society, and I urge the Government to look again at this emerging crisis.

It goes on. Schools are facing the first funding cuts per pupil in real terms since the 1990s. Headteachers are being forced to go begging to parents for funds to pay for basic supplies. Five thousand headteachers have written to the Government, asking just for the return of the funds that have been cut. One headteacher in the Prime Minister’s constituency is asking parents for £1 a day to help to pay for stationery.

The National Audit Office says that schools face a £1.7 billion real-terms funding cut by 2020. For younger children, there are 1,000 fewer nursery places and childminders. Eight in 10 schools have been left without the funding to provide adequately for special needs pupils. This means that our most vulnerable children are deprived of the counselling or support they need, and spend break times away from their friends, alone. Their education is being discriminated against.

Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab) I was told by a headteacher in Hull that there is not enough money for post-16 special educational needs provision, because they cannot cut the number of teaching assistants due to the ratios of staff needed to care for these children. She is looking at a situation of not being able to offer a full-time post-16 school placement for children with SEN. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is appalling?

John McDonnell It is absolutely shocking when, as a society, we are looking to integrate everybody into the mainstream as best we can. It means that those children will be deprived for the rest of their lives. More than 4,000 children with an approved education, health and social care plan are still not receiving the provision they are entitled to, which confirms what my hon. Friend reports.

The Local Government Association is now warning the Government that the cuts to local government will mean schools being forced to turn away students with special needs. Yesterday’s Budget offered £177 million for additional maths and IT teachers, supposedly to make us fit for the future, at a time when just 10% of our schools offer IT GCSEs—£177 million to compensate for £1.7 billion, or £1 pound given back for every £10 taken away. Capital spending on schools is also scheduled to be cut by £600 million over this Parliament, at a time when class sizes are rising.

On the NHS, experts and health professionals are agreed that it is approaching breaking point. The NHS needs proper funding. The chief executive of NHS England has said our national health service needs £4 billion this year to prevent it from falling over. He has warned of 5 million people being left on the waiting lists if there is not additional funding.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab) Is my right hon. Friend aware that clinical commissioning groups in the NHS are looking to introduce new taxes on patients? Kernow CCG proposes to make kidney dialysis patients pay for transport to their dialysis. This is a death tax of £120 a month. Dialysis or death—that is their option.

John McDonnell Under the figures that have been announced this week in the Budget, there will be more of this. There will be more rationing. There will be more people suffering. There will be more people’s lives put at risk.

Under this Government, 4 million people are now waiting for care—the highest level in a decade. More than 100,000 patients were left waiting more than two weeks to see a specialist after being diagnosed with cancer, and more than one in 10 did not start treatment within 62 days. Only three in 10 of the most urgent 999 calls for help are answered within the targeted time. Yet, the Government have brought forward less than half the amount that is needed and that professional, sober assessments say is needed. The claim in yesterday’s Budget that £10 million in capital funding is available is totally misleading. The Government will provide less than half of that. The remainder will come from selling off NHS estates or from the private sector.

Nor has the pay cap that has driven hard-working public-sector workers to despair been tackled. The dedication of the staff is extraordinary. There are nurses waiting behind after 12-hour shifts to give care to keep the system from imploding. These are the same NHS nurses who have seen their pay fall so much in real terms that one in four must take a second job to make ends meet. The Royal College of Nursing reports that nurses are even visiting food banks, such is their desperation. It is not possible to run a health service worthy of the name on the unpaid and underpaid dedication of its staff alone. The Chancellor is able to offer nothing for them.

The Chancellor was able to offer nothing for these staff. The cap is not being removed, because, as the Treasury briefed once the Chancellor sat down, any pay rises the pay review boards offer above 1% must be taken from existing budgets. It is a derisory offer to make after seven years of real-terms pay cuts. Worse than that, for NHS nurses, any additional pay will be linked to “Agenda for Change” modernisation, which really means threatening their working conditions—tearing up their terms and conditions of pay.

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP) Is it not also a con, because 55% of civil servants’ pay is not covered by a pay review body?

John McDonnell That is exactly it. That is how the Government, up until now, have avoided their responsibility to ensure that civil servants have a proper pay rise.

For those in social care, with the system still approaching what the Care Quality Commission calls “tipping point”, the Chancellor has not offered a single penny either.

Let me turn to the environment. The Chancellor had a few choice words about electric cars yesterday—I thought a driverless car was a wonderful metaphor. However, on the bigger picture, the Budget is potentially disastrous. The fact that there will be no new low-carbon electricity levies until 2025 could spell the end of much of the low-carbon development in the UK. There was not a single mention in the Chancellor’s speech of renewables, sustainable sources of energy or investment in domestic energy efficiency. It is quite clear that, beyond a few gimmicks, this issue is not, in any sense, a priority for the Government.

The Chancellor referred extensively to technological change, which offers huge potential for our economy and our society if we are prepared to commit to the investment needed. However, it was a Conservative-led Government, of which the Chancellor was a member, that cut research funding by £1 billion in real terms. Unlike the Chancellor and his party, Labour Members know that realising the possibilities of new technology will require a Government committed to providing the funding and long-term investment needed—not a Government, like this one, repackaging existing announcements on fibre optics and 5G in consecutive Budgets, and not one who re-allocates funds they allocated a year ago in the autumn statement, claiming it is new research funding. The Government say they aim to reach the OECD average of 2.4% of GDP spent on R and D by 2027, but after years of languishing below that level, Britain should be aiming to be above the OECD average, rather than belatedly hitting it a decade from now. Even the target displays a lack of ambition and foresight.

The Government have the same problem with Brexit. They never planned for it before the referendum, and they cannot see beyond their own slogans after it. Some 17 months after the referendum result, there is not a single agreement with the EU on any point. The Government are lurching towards the hardest possible Brexit, ripping up our existing relationship with our closest trading partners, instead of trying to work to create a new relationship.

Every major business group has begged the Government to take a different approach—from the CBI to the EEF to the British Chambers of Commerce. Already, businesses are pulling back investment for fear of what might come. So this Government do not just lack ambition: they will not listen to advice and cannot seem to see just how disastrous a cliff-edge plunge out of the EU would be for our economy.

The Chancellor trailed this Budget as making Britain “fit for the future”. What it actually demonstrated, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) North said yesterday, is that this is a Government no longer fit for office—too divided to deliver. The Budget demonstrated that this is increasingly a Government without purpose, divided and in disarray, whose confidence is sapped and whose time is up. I just say to them: it is better to go with a bit of dignity—just go with a bit of dignity!—rather than humiliating disintegration. Labour is ready and willing to form the Government that this country needs, rather than this shambles that cannot even be described as a Government.