Budget Statement Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Budget Statement

Lord O'Neill of Gatley Excerpts
Wednesday 18th March 2020

(4 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord O'Neill of Gatley Portrait Lord O’Neill of Gatley (CB)
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My Lords, I welcomed the broad spirit and nature of the Chancellor’s Budget, much of which was, of course, designed before the realities of Covid-19. It was focused on a policy to significantly boost investment spending, so-called levelling up and giving proper attention to the northern powerhouse, all of which I hugely welcome. However, there have been events. The rest of my speech will be a brief, adapted form of an article I posted on Monday on the website of Chatham House, which I currently chair.

Linked to the call that Robin Niblett and Creon Butler of Chatham House and I made the day before—Sunday—for a global response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the case for a specific dramatic economic policy gesture from many policymakers across the world is prescient. This should involve most, if not all, G20 nations and should certainly have the same force as that led by Gordon Brown in 2008. We need some sort of income support for all our citizens, whether employees or employers, for the next two months. Perhaps one might call it, as I have done, truly a people’s QE— quantitative easing.

Both so-called modern monetary theory, MMT, and universal basic income, UBI, essentially owe their roots to the judgment that conventional economic policies have not been working, especially since 2008, in the way we are all trained to believe. At the core of these views is the notion of giving money to people, especially those on lower incomes, directly paid for by our central banks printing money. Until recently, I found myself having many doubts about, or not much sympathy with, these views, but, as a result of Covid-19, I have changed my mind.

This crisis is extraordinary in so far as it is both a colossal demand shock and perhaps an even bigger colossal supply shock. The crisis epicentre has apparently shifted from China, and perhaps much of the rest of Asia, to Europe and the United States. We cannot expect policies, however unconventional by pre-2008 standards, including the dramatic monetary steps announced by the Federal Reserve Board and other central banks, to put a floor under this crisis. We are consciously asking our people to stop going out, stop travelling and not go to their offices—in essence, curtailing most forms of normal economic life. The only ones not impacted are those who spend their entirety in cyberspace but even they have to buy some form of consumer goods, such as food, and, even if they order online, someone has to deliver it.

To give a flavour of the kind of challenge that we are now in, data published at the weekend shows that on most measures the Chinese economy probably fell by about 20% year on year in February alone. That equates to taking off something close to $3 trillion worth of GDP in a month. We in the UK, and much of the rest of the Western world, are adopting or have adopted some version of that same policy in March. It would be not at all surprising if we did not do something bolder, and the economic consequences will not be so far different from those in China.

As a result, markets are correctly worrying about a complete collapse of economic activity and with it a collapse of companies, not just their earnings. In my view, an expansion of central banks’ balance sheets in the way that has been done since 2008 is not going to do anything to help to arrest this, especially unless we go beyond just trying to underline the security of our banks, although that is still important. What is needed in the current circumstances are steps to make us believe with high confidence that if we take the advice of our medical experts, especially if we self-isolate and deliberately restrict our incomes or have them deliberately restricted for us, then this will be made good by our Governments. As I have said, in essence we need smart, persuasive people’s QE and quickly.

Having discussed this idea with a couple of economic experts I know, I realise that there are of course some challenges in the implementation of such an idea. For example, I gather that in the US it is probably currently illegal for the Federal Reserve Board to directly transfer cash to individuals or companies, and that could be true here and elsewhere. In my view, though, that is easily surmounted by our fiscal authorities by issuing a special bond, the proceeds of which could be transferred in the manner that I have suggested to both individuals and business owners, and our central banks could easily finance such bonds. It is also the case that such a step may encourage both the perception and the actuality of central bank independence, but I now find myself among those who argue that central banks can operate such independence only if done wisely and when needed.

Others may argue, in the spirit of the equality debate, that any income support should be targeted primarily if not entirely at those on very low incomes, while higher earners or large businesses should be given none or very little. I can sympathise with such spirits, but in my view that ignores the centrality and scale of this particular economic shock. All our cafes, pubs, restaurants, airlines—where do you stop?—indeed, all our businesses are currently at accelerating genuine risk of not being able to survive, and of course all these organisations are enormous employers of people on any kind of income.

As I have tried to say, it is also the case that time is of the essence. We need our policymakers to act on something like this as soon as possible—ideally in the next 24 hours—otherwise many of the transmission mechanisms that we have become accustomed to for the whole of our lives are going to be challenged. We need some kind of smart people’s QE now.

Lord Davies of Stamford Portrait Lord Davies of Stamford (Lab)
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Is it not the case that what is really alarming here is that the collapse of consumer demand is likely to last for a very long time and that there is going to be a substantial negative-wealth effect, given that people will have been out of jobs while their businesses and indeed the stock market has collapsed? People will require years to build up their savings again to where they were before. That means that for a very long time there is going to be a substantial shortage of demand from the consumer sector.

Lord O'Neill of Gatley Portrait Lord O’Neill of Gatley
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My Lords, my frank answer is that I do not know, but the longer that we delay an imaginative and forceful response, the risk of what the noble Lord has just described will rise. The whole reason why I am suggesting such a very unconventional and dramatic policy approach now is to stop exactly the kind of things that he is suggesting. If we give all our people confidence that they can essentially have something close to an eight-week paid holiday, and there is no reason for any employer to lay any of them off permanently or for those employers to worry about their income, that should give the confidence for us to allow what has been done so well in Asia to be fully done here, and get this virus behind us.

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Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait Lord Agnew of Oulton
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My Lords, we have had an insightful debate today and I am most grateful for the many contributions that have been made. I draw some comfort that, in these difficult times, our great democracy shows itself at its best, with some innovative ideas. I hope to tease out some of those in my response.

I will come to the points raised in turn. Many of course related to the coronavirus, so it is right to quickly restate our response. Coronavirus will, in the short term, have a profound impact on this country and, as the Chancellor said yesterday, it is an economic emergency as much as a medical and health emergency. Inevitably, workers will have to leave work to recover, businesses will struggle to access some goods, and consumer spending will slow. Supply and demand will both take a hit. This is an enormous economic shock and it sets a challenge that we must all rise to.

In the Budget, the Chancellor laid down an initial £30 billion package, and this week, in response to the fast-moving situation, he went further, supplementing that package with a range of extraordinary measures, including £330 billion of loans to help firms cope with their cash-flow problems. The Budget we have debated will likely for ever be remembered as the coronavirus Budget. But it was a Budget of more besides: one that laid down a blueprint for a new decade of infrastructure and scientific investment. This will lead to an improvement in productivity, which is the soundest way to improve living standards in the long term.

I turn to some of the points raised by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and several other noble Lords asked whether we are going far enough. Can we go further, and should we? They included the noble Lords, Lord Northbrook, Lord Stevenson and Lord Oates, and my noble friends Lord Lamont and Lady Finn. I thought it might be useful to quote some of the comments made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last night, because I hope they will give some reassurance. He said:

“I want to reassure every British citizen, this government will give you all the tools you need to get through this. We will support jobs, we will support incomes, we will support businesses, and we will help you protect your loved ones. We will do whatever it takes.”

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, asked about grants for small businesses—only those that were already paying rates. Matters like this will be put under urgent consideration. It is my understanding that they will not be restricted, but I will certainly write to him to confirm that, and put a copy in the record.

The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury raised a number of issues. Perhaps the most important and relevant one, given the announcement that has come during this debate, was that of school closures. I do not have any more detail on that, other than on the one area of free school meals. I have been given a statement, which says simply that we will give schools the flexibility to provide meals or vouchers to children eligible for free school meals. Some schools already doing this, and we will reimburse the costs. I hope that that will provide some reassurance.

On the most reverend Primate’s comments regarding small towns and the decline of retail there, they have been hit particularly hard.

I think we all understand that retail has gone through the most extraordinary revolution over the last 15 years. Part of the levelling-up programme and the commitments in our Budget were to try to get out to some of these poor communities and to inject some more energy and infrastructure into them. One of the initiatives which I am personally involved in is encouraging civil servants to move out of London over the next seven to 10 years. This is an enormous opportunity, because we have a staff turnover rate of about 10% to 12%, and indeed it is higher in London, so there is a real opportunity to do this. I am also the Minister for the Government Property estate, so one of the things I have done is to ensure that break clauses are activated on London leases so that we do not have foot-drag by some departments that do not really want to move out of London. However, I can assure your Lordships that this is an important personal commitment because it is a win for everybody, and it will help some of these towns. For example, I live near Yarmouth, which is a classic example of an area of deprivation.

The noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, brought forward the most dramatic proposals today, supported by the noble Lords, Lord Razzall, Lord Bruce, Lord Adonis, and Lord Desai, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett—whether you call it “people’s QE” or “minimum basic income”. These are all dramatic ideas, and I am sure that we will hear a lot more about them over the next days and weeks. We have to acknowledge that already in this country we have moved quite a long way towards a minimum basic income, when you think of the minimum wage and what it was even 10 years ago. Indeed, I would say, to the discredit of my own party, that we objected to the introduction of the minimum wage back in 1997, but I believe it was one of the best things that the Labour Government of the day ever did. We have accelerated the increase of the minimum wage over the last few years. In particular, there will be a 6% increase in April. Therefore, that is the start of the journey towards a minimum basic income. We already have working tax credits and, while I know that universal credit is not loved in this Chamber, it is trying to give that kind of opportunity and safety net to those on lower incomes.

However, we also have to remember that all this has to be paid for, as the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said. We already have the top 1% of earners paying something like 29% of all income tax, and we just have to square the circle. Therefore, while I very much recommend and encourage the debate that the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, suggests, we have to work out how it will work. Maybe, as he suggests, it will be for a few weeks, so that people have that certainty—but, again, one of my other concerns is the hoarding of the cash.

Lord O'Neill of Gatley Portrait Lord O’Neill of Gatley
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I apologise—I am not sure of the appropriate convention. We do not have weeks to have this debate; we need to act now.

Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait Lord Agnew of Oulton
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It is worth reassuring the noble Lord that we have acted pretty quickly. When you think where we have come over the last six or seven days, I do not believe there is any example in the history of modern government where a Government have reacted as quickly as we have. However, I take on board the challenge, and the noble Lord knows his way around the Treasury better than I do, so I am sure he will use his influence.

My noble friend Lord Lamont quite rightly makes the point that our borrowing costs are again at a 300-year low and that this provides opportunities. Indeed, with the current rate of inflation, we are borrowing at a cost below inflation, which provides some palliative to the very difficult situation that we face. That has partly reassured the Chancellor in his recent announcements. What will happen? The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, thinks that we could end up—