Budget Debate 2014 – it was the banking crisis that caused debt to rocket, the deficit to rise and borrowing to rise

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I agree with the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) over Tata, but the one thing that cannot be said about the economy under this Chancellor is that it has recovered quickly from the shock of the global financial crisis. Total output still has not reached pre-crisis 2008 levels, quite unlike in the USA and Germany both of which passed their 2008 peak back in 2011. What took them three years to achieve is taking the British economy under this Chancellor six years, and the reason is the savage cuts since 2010, a far tighter squeeze than in the USA or the eurozone. Under Labour, recovery was already well under way in the first half of 2010 when the Chancellor came into office. It was his policies that choked it off and the British people have been paying a heavy price ever since.

Today we have an unsustainable, out-of-balance recovery. The Chancellor acknowledged that neither investment nor exports are high enough. We already knew that higher consumer spending has come out of reduced savings, not out of higher incomes, because real incomes have been stagnating for years. It is a short-term recovery that cannot last. The ex-chair of the Financial Services Authority and ex-director general of the CBI Adair Turner said so in January at Davos when he warned:

“We have spent the last few years talking about the need to rebalance the economy away from a focus on property and financial services and towards investment and exports. We are now back to growth without any rebalancing at all…If you chuck enough monetary stimulus at an economy something happens. It is as if we have had a cracking great hangover, had a stiff drink and off we go again.”

A second factor making the situation unsustainable is that UK productivity has been flat for years. This pushes up unit costs and keeps our export prices higher. Our export predicament is dire. On top of that, we are witnessing a housing bubble again, with property prices rocketing in London in particular. In short, nothing fundamental has changed to avoid a rerun of a financial crisis brought on by a debt-financed consumer boom and a Government-backed housing bubble that sooner or later will burst, because bubbles always do burst.

Yes, the economy is recovering faster than forecast last year, but growth is forecast to be slower next year than this. The Chancellor expects the economy to run out of steam almost as soon as it starts to grow again, yet there is plenty of scope for much faster growth, and faster growth would mean less need for spending cuts and a quicker reduction in the Budget deficit.

The austerity programme, which this Budget continues to drive forward is based upon what I call the big deceit of British politics: that Labour “overspending” left the country with the mountainous levels of debt and borrowing which the Tory-Lib Dem Government inherited after the 2010 election. [Interruption.] The idea that the global credit crunch was caused by Labour’s public investment in Britain is risible. [Interruption.] The proposition that by building new hospitals and new schools, and by recruiting tens of thousands of extra nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers in Britain, Labour caused the sub-prime mortgage defaults in the US that ricocheted throughout the world’s financial institutions is preposterous. [Interruption.]

Robert Flello: It is amazing to hear the laughter from the Government Benches. Does my right hon. Friend recall, as I do, Conservatives standing up time and again saying there was far too much regulation of the banks and that they needed to reduce it?

Mr Hain: Absolutely.

It was not Labour’s public spending that triggered Britain’s or the world’s economic crisis; it was the global inter-dependency of reckless banking that the Conservatives wanted to be less regulated that in 2008 triggered an economic meltdown in Britain and right across the globe. [Interruption.] Labour responded by boosting public spending and borrowing to offset the catastrophic collapse in private sector spending, and the £90 billion spent on bank bail-outs plunged the public sector into record annual deficits, but these were deficits that stopped a shocking slide into a fatal slump and laid the basis for recovery from the biggest shock to hit the world economy in peacetime since the 1930s great depression. [Hon. Members: “Give way.”] If I have time at the end, I will.

Contrary to right-wing free market mantras and Tory-Lib Dem history rewrites, it was the banking crisis that caused debt to rocket, the deficit to rise and borrowing to rise as well. The low yields on UK Government bonds before, during and after the credit crunch under Labour bore eloquent testimony to the fact that the international markets had full confidence in its policies, and that they were not clamouring for the right-wing dogma subsequently visited upon Britain. Indeed, so desperate was the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) to identify with Labour’s success on spending, investment, jobs and growth that he pledged to match Labour’s spending plans for three further years in September 2007 up to 2010. [Interruption.] Members on the Government Benches shake their heads, but that is what he did. If we had spent too much—if all the charges made by the Conservatives were true—why on earth would the current Prime Minister have backed our spending plans for three years ahead? It would help the quality of this debate and the quality of assessment of the Chancellor’s Budget if the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had the decency to acknowledge that essential fact, including this Prime Minister’s support for our spending programmes, instead of ploughing on regardless, with no end to austerity in sight.

Mr Redwood: Why did the new and very expensive and complicated regulators the Labour Government introduced fail to control the banks when people like me were telling them they did not have enough cash for capital?

Mr Hain: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman to this extent: we did not regulate the banks well enough or carefully enough, but his party—not necessarily him, but his leadership—was saying that there should be less regulation of the banks at that time, yet now they have the temerity to attack our spending plans when we brought borrowing down. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. All other speakers have been heard in silence. The right hon. Gentleman has livened up the debate, but he also ought to be heard.

Mr Hain: It is interesting how those on the Government Benches do not like to hear the truth, Madam Deputy Speaker. The level of debt under the Labour Government before the banking crisis was lower than we inherited from the Conservatives in 1997. We brought borrowing down and we brought the deficit down compared with what we inherited, and yes we invested in repairing the desperate state of our public services—people dying on trolleys in hospitals, schools crumbling, the railways decaying. We repaired all of that and then the banking crisis came along and blew it out of the water, and there was a failure by every Government right across the world to recognise the seeds of that banking crisis, but it was not caused by Labour overspending, and not caused by Labour high borrowing or high debt, because none of those things was going on prior to the banking crisis, and if we had not dealt with the banking crisis in the way that we did, the whole of the economic and banking system in Britain would have collapsed. We need the decency and honesty from the Government Benches to acknowledge that central fact.