Shadow Chancellor’s response to the Autumn Statement

Mr Speaker, like me, you have witnessed many autumn statements and other statements by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. You will know that there is the iron law of Chancellor’s statements: the louder the cheers for the statement on the day, the greater the disappointment by the weekend when the analysis has been done. From what we have heard today, we do not need to wait until the weekend for the statement to fall apart.  

Over the past five years, the Chancellor has barely set a target that he has not missed or ignored.

Five years ago, the newly elected Chancellor and Prime Minister came to the House and warned us that the dire economic situation that our country faced meant that a five-year programme of austerity measures was needed: job cuts, wage freezes and cuts in public services. But we were promised, specifically by this Chancellor, that, by today, the deficit would be eliminated and debt would be under control and falling dramatically. People put their trust in that commitment. 

The Prime Minister also assured us that although it was going to be hard and sacrifices had to be made, we were all in it together. Today, five years on, the Chancellor must have some front to come to the House and lecture us about deficit reduction. Today is the day when he was supposed to announce that austerity was over and the deficit was under control. Given what people have heard today, I think that they will feel absolutely betrayed. The reality is that, after five years, the deficit has not been eliminated, and this year it is predicted to be over £70 billion. Instead of taking five years to eliminate the deficit as the Chancellor promised, it is going to take 10. Furthermore, debt-to-GDP will not be the 69% that he promised five years ago. As he said today, it will be 82.5%.

We are now potentially to bequeath to our children a debt of £1.5 trillion. That will be their debt.  

After five years as Chancellor, with that level of debt, there is no one else for him to blame. Past Governments can be blamed for only so long; there are no more excuses for this Chancellor after five years.

We were also promised that if sacrifices had to be made to tackle the deficit, we were not to worry, because we were all in this together. No, we are not. Eight-five per cent. of the money saved from tax and benefit cuts in the last Parliament came directly out of women’s pockets. Disabled people were hit 18 times harder than anyone else. Moreover, 4.1 million children now live in absolute poverty, an increase of 500,000 since 2009-10. 

The fiasco over tax credits demonstrated once and for all that we were not in this together. At the same time as the Chancellor was planning to cut tax credits for working families, he cut inheritance taxes for some of the wealthiest families in the country.

When the Chancellor and the Prime Minister were first elected to their current positions, they were attacked for being “posh boys”. I disagreed with that strongly. People do not choose the class that they are born into, or the wealth that they inherit. Nevertheless, if people are fortunate enough to have wealth or good incomes, like all Members of Parliament, the onus is on them—on us—to take particular care when making decisions about the lives of those who are less fortunate than themselves.

What shocked and, indeed, angered many, not just in the House but throughout the country, was the fact that the Chancellor made no attempt to understand the effects of the decision to cut tax credits. For many families, it would have meant a choice between the children being able to go on that school trip like the other children, and having a decent Christmas or a winter coat. Today the Chancellor has been forced into a U-turn on his tax credit cuts, and I congratulate the Members on both sides of the House who have made that happen. I congratulate the Members in the other House as well. I am glad that the Chancellor has listened to Labour, and has seen sense.

As ever with this Chancellor, however, we await further clarification of the details, particularly if the limit to two children remains, and we are aware of the impact on universal credit. It appears that the 14,000 families who are already on universal credit will still suffer the full cut, and that all families who would newly qualify for tax credits in 2018 will suffer the full cut under universal credit; so this is not the full and fair reversal that we pleaded for. Moreover, the Chancellor remains committed to £12 billion of welfare cuts over the course of this Parliament. We know that they will fall on the most vulnerable, the poorest, and those who are just struggling to survive.

Some believe that the Chancellor is using the deficit and austerity to reshape the role of the British state, and that this is some well-thought-through Machiavellian scheme. Well, I do not think that any more. I am convinced that it is sheer economic illiteracy, built on incompetence and poor judgment. Only four weeks ago, the Chancellor brought his charter for fiscal responsibility to the House. An essential part of it was adherence to his welfare cap, which we supported. Today he has broken his own welfare cap, although he said himself when he introduced it last year that breaking it would be a “failure of public expenditure control”.—[Official Report, 26 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 380.]

He is condemned on his own terms, in his own language.

The Government are cutting today, and not investing in the future. The Chancellor is putting us all at future risk. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) on his campaign against policing cuts, which has forced a U-turn, but we do not forget that we face the highest level of risk from terrorist attack in a generation. We have already lost 17,000 police officers as a result of the cuts that have been made under this Government. We know that the first line of intelligence collection, prevention and response consists of the local police officers in the community, so we claim today another Labour gain and victory. However, there are now concerns about the impact of the local council cuts and freezes in expenditure on other emergency services. We fear for the people’s safety as more firefighters’ jobs are cut and fire stations close as a result of today’s settlement.

The Chancellor has announced that he is front-loading part of the additional £8 billion of funding for health. In reality, that will plug only some of the gap in the huge deficits that health trusts are reporting, but the Government are also relying on the finding of £22 billion of unrealistic savings. The extra money seems to be coming from nurses’ training, the public health budget, and other aspects of local authority support for care. That will be a false economy, which will simply cause more burdens to fall on the NHS. All the signs are that we are facing a massive winter crisis in our NHS, and that, yet again, we will have to rely on the professional dedication of its staff. The Health Secretary’s refusal to go to ACAS to settle the junior doctors’ dispute is no way to maintain morale among our NHS professionals.

One of the greatest scandals under this Chancellor has been the attack on social care. Three thousand beds have been lost already and according to the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, the 2% care precept announced by the Chancellor is not nearly enough to fill the funding gap this Government have created. The result is that some of the most vulnerable people in our society will be at risk and more people will be forced to resort to their local hospital for their care.

We also know much more about the scale of people suffering from mental health problems. We welcome the additional funding today devoted to mental health, but it is no use funding mental health support through the health service when local authority support is being cut as a result of this settlement. More people will be left vulnerable.

In education, the Government claim that schools budgets will be protected, but we fear that the Government will use the new funding formula to take funding away from the pupils who need it most—the most deprived. We will monitor the funding formula carefully to ensure equity.

In today’s statement, the Chancellor has announced that for further education there will be a settlement that restricts it to cash protection. In effect, that means that around the country sixth forms and FE colleges will be under threat and at risk of closure. At a time when the economy is crying out for a skilled, educated workforce, the Government are denying young people access to the local courses they need. On today’s announcements on childcare, we note there is a delay yet again—for another two years. That is another delay following a commitment given.

The Chancellor’s much vaunted pledge on house building is cobbled together from reheated promises from the past. The vast majority have already been announced. The Tories should be judged by their actions, not their words.

The Chancellor’s first act in office was to slash housing investment by 60%. His plans today could still mean 40% less to build the homes we need, compared with the investment programme he inherited from Labour. As a result, house building remains at its lowest peacetime level since the 1920s. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said this morning,

“if hot air built homes, then conservative ministers would have our housing crisis sorted.”

I worry that the vast majority of young people hoping for a new home will be disappointed by the Chancellor’s failure to deliver. His record on building anything so far does not inspire confidence at all. Over the past year, he has forced himself on to building sites throughout the country to secure a photo with a high-vis jacket. When he did his Bob the Builder speech at the Tory party conference, what he did not tell delegates was that his investment record is abysmal. Only 9% of the projects have started under his infrastructure pipeline in two years. In 2012, he announced a £40 billion guarantees scheme. Three years on, only 9% of that sum has been signed up. In 2011, he announced a £20 billion pensions infrastructure platform but four years on only £1 billion of commitments have been secured. The construction industry is actually shrinking this year and going into recession.

The Chancellor has also failed to invest in skills. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has said that the UK’s biggest infrastructure programmes could grind to a halt unless the Government adopt new measures to tackle the skills and funding issues. The most ironic cut of all must be the virtual closure of large sections of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. There are 146,000 unfilled vacancies due to the lack of skilled workers, so naturally the Government’s solution is to move to effectively close the very Department tasked with improving skill levels.

On the environment, the Government have announced today various measures but let us be clear. Ministers can go to the Paris summit on climate change with the proud record of nearly killing off the UK’s once flourishing solar renewable energy sector. On international aid, let me caution that the international aid budget was supposedly protected, but now it is to be raided for defence spending.

On defence, the Government commissioned an aircraft carrier last year. A few years ago, they at least woke up to the fact that it needed aircraft as well. But the funding for the defence review is to come from £1l billion-worth of cuts, with the inevitable loss of thousands of defence workers’ jobs, whose specialist skills will be lost forever.

Alongside those cuts and many more to help dig himself out of the financial hole he has got himself into, the Chancellor is selling off whatever public assets he can. It is no longer the family silver up for sale—the furniture, fixtures and fittings are now being sold. We know who is the first in line to buy. I never envisaged that when it came to nationalising I would be outdone by a Conservative Chancellor. The only difference between us is that I would like to bring services such as rail back into the ownership of the British people. The Chancellor wants to sell them to the People’s Republic of China. Nationalisation is okay for him as long as it is by any other state but ours.

To assist Comrade Osborne in his dealings with his new found comrades, I have brought along Mao’s little red book. Let me quote—

“We must learn to do economic work from all who know how, no matter who they are. We must esteem them as teachers, learning from them respectfully and conscientiously. We must not pretend to know when we do not know.”

I thought it would come in handy for the Chancellor in his new relationship.

I am sure that Tory Back Benchers will be under instruction to shoehorn into their speeches at every opportunity references to the mythical long-term economic plan. What we have been presented with today is not an economic plan but a political fix. It is not a plan when you ridiculously commit yourself to unachievable policies and leave yourself no room for manoeuvre. It is not a plan when you sell off every long-term asset you have for short-term gain. It is not a plan when you leave important industries to go to the wall—as we have seen with steel—and it is not a plan when you cut the support for those in work, leaving working families to rely on food banks. It is not a plan when you force councils up and down the land to close the very services that people depend upon, and it is not a plan when you invest so little in skills and infrastructure that our future is put at risk.

Instead what we have seen today is the launch of a manifesto for the Conservative leadership election. Our long-term economic security is being sacrificed for the benefit of one man’s career. I want to tell both the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), my neighbour, who has now left the Chamber, not to worry. The economic reality that is emerging in our economy will mean that this will be seen as the apex of the Chancellor’s career.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip exudes classical references in his speeches. He will recognise in the Chancellor, Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun and burned and crashed. I fear that for the Chancellor it is all downhill from here. Labour Members will do all we can to ensure that he does not take this economy and our country down with him.

In the end this debate is about what sort of society we want to live in. The Government are systematically dismantling all those aspects of our society that make our community worth living in and celebrating. The Chancellor is not just cutting our services today—he is selling off our future.

But there is an alternative. Our alternative is that we will eliminate the deficit but we will do it fairly and effectively. We will do it by ensuring that we end the tax cuts to the rich, that we tackle tax evasion and avoidance, and that we invest to grow. We will grow our economy on the basis of investment in skills and infrastructure. In addition to becoming the financial centre of Europe, under a Labour Government research in science and technology will enable us to become the technology centre of Europe. That means high skills, high investment and high wages. That is what Labour Members are committed to, and that is what we will secure when we return to office.


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