Speaking in the House of Lords on Thursday, Lord Bilimoria addressed a number of issues raised by the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement – the penultimate finance statement ahead of next May’s General Election. Lord Bilimoria criticised the slow pace of deficit reduction and missed economic targets by the coalition – whilst also speaking in favour of tax reform, increased government support for research and development and expressing concern at funding levels for the British Armed Forces.
My Lords, in his first Budget in 2010, the Chancellor said that the Government would,
“have debt falling and a balanced structural budget deficit by the end of this Parliament”.
—[ Official Report , Commons, 22/6/10; col. 168.]
Despite the Chancellor’s tough talk about austerity and cutting public expenditure, the reality is that public expenditure as a percentage of GDP has continued to increase. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, for leading this debate.
Yesterday, it was announced that the Government will spend £746 billion in 2015-16, rising to £765 billion in 2018-19, compared with £692 billion in 2010. Government spending is increasing and, as a percentage of GDP, our national debt is rising. According to the OBR, it will now peak at 81% of GDP in 2015-16. This means that the Chancellor will completely miss his target to ensure that net debt is falling relative to GDP by 2015-16.
We have a perception of austerity that has simply not been matched by reality. Yesterday, the Chancellor acknowledged that we are at least another four years away from that target. To build on what the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said, if we are borrowing £300 billion more than the Chancellor said he would in 2010, why should anyone believe him this time around? The OBR has predicted that public expenditure is going to have to fall to 35.2% of GDP by 2019-20—the lowest level since the 1930s. Let us remember that the 1930s were pre-welfare state days. Can the Minister confirm that that is really achievable?
In order to achieve those cuts, it is predicted by the OBR that the defence budget, which is already negligently too low, will have to be cut by 60%. Can the Minister confirm that that might have to happen, although it is hoped that it never will. However, I was delighted to hear that the Government will be giving money to veterans, including £2 million for the Gurkhas. I was privileged to have been brought up with the Gurkhas. My late father, Lieutenant-General Bilimoria, was commissioned to the 2nd Battalion, Fifth Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force), and was president of the Gurkha Brigade when he was commander-in-chief of the Central Indian Army. I was privileged to have been brought up with two Victoria Cross holders from birth—they were living legends. Therefore, I thank the Government for doing that.
However, it is the low level of interest rates for a prolonged period, at the level of 5% that led to the financial crisis from which we suffered. Yet today we are being propped up by interest rates that are 10 times lower—at 0.5%. Government borrowing has been increasing year on year and expenditure on debt interest has contributed to it. It is more than £1.27 trillion and is costing us £1 billion a week—more than the entire defence budget.
Does the Minister agree that interest rates might have to rise? The Governor of the Bank of England made a ridiculous statement that he would start increasing interest rates when unemployment fell below 7%. Unemployment is at 6% now and interest rates have not gone up, but they will go up at some stage, and if they do the debt interest levels will go up. The SNP made the mistake in its budgets with the oil price and its budgets are shot to tatters at the moment. Will the Minister give his views on future interest rates?
Wearing my hat as chancellor of the University of Birmingham I have seen that our higher education sector is one of the jewels in our crown. I am delighted that the Government are about to announce loans for postgraduate studies. On the other hand, we highly underinvest in higher education as a proportion of GDP compared with the OECD, the EU and America. On R&D and innovation, the patent box is all very well—it is stored—but if we invested the same proportion of GDP as countries such as America, the OECD and the EU, we would help our productivity hugely. Our current account deficit has reached 5.2% of GDP, which is worse than Italy and France. Our fiscal deficit of 5% is almost double that of the United States, let alone Germany which has just 0.2%.
As the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said, skills are so essential. I am proud to be an ambassador for Studio Schools. Last month I opened the Vision Studio School in Mansfield. That is the sort of initiative that I am glad the Government are backing. Tax breaks to apprentices are excellent but, on the other hand, the word “entrepreneurship” was completely missing from the SME Bill. Entrepreneurship should be the cornerstone of our future growth. I launched the 10th anniversary of the Cambridge University Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning this week. That is what we should be backing. The Sirius campaign, backed by UKTI, bringing young entrepreneurs to Britain to develop their businesses, is a great initiative that the Government should be doing.
The Government are doing a lot, but are they doing enough on the big things? We have a tax system that is so complicated that the tax code is now 17,000 pages long. The Office of Tax Simplification is an oxymoron. Our corporation tax rate is low but our income tax rate is too high. Capital gains tax is too high. The Indian restaurant industry which we supply and the Bangladesh Caterers Association UK are constantly complaining about VAT and asking for it to be reduced. Our hospitality and tourism industries say that VAT is far too high. We do not have a competitive tax system.
The noble Lord, Lord Rose, in his excellent speech, spoke about confidence. We need confidence, productivity, and a better educated and more entrepreneurial workforce who think globally. Government expenditure should be at a believable rate: 35% is unachievable; 40% would be a realistic rate. We could then balance our books and have an educated, productive, confident and enterprise-based economy so that, even as 1% of the world’s population—that is all we are—we can continue to punch above our weight.