Bim Afolami: My right hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. Does she agree that the Government’s approach is about practically achieving the best outcomes for people, whereas Labour’s approach is ideologically driven and will lead the country into more debt and more borrowing?
Elizabeth Truss: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Rather than giving people and businesses the ability to shape their own futures, Labour Members want to put power in the hands of vested interests such as the unions and big companies. They say that they want to get rid of the state aid rules. That would prevent competition from taking place properly, and the end result would be taxpayers, including small businesses and families, picking up the tab through higher taxes. Labour’s plan would mean less money for schools and hospitals, and more money diverted to loss-making businesses.
The reality is that Labour still has not learnt the lessons of its failings in 2010. It has not learnt that a Government with no control over public finances will damage the economy and damage public services. When Labour left office, we were devoting 45% of our national income to public spending, and we have seen the longest increase in debt since the Napoleonic wars. Labour just does not understand that allowing the state to get too big cuts out individual enterprise. It cuts out people’s incentive to take on risk, try new things and do new things. State-owned companies compete for space and resources with private companies, starving them of oxygen. What is worse is that what Labour is planning would have to be funded through higher taxes.
Under the last Labour Government, we saw public services that did not improve in terms of the outcomes for patients or students, but we also saw huge amounts of money squandered. Jonathan Reynolds is laughing. Is he laughing at the fact that in the international education league tables, the UK ended up 26th in mathematics? We saw no improvement, although vast amounts of money were squandered.
Through the fiscal discipline of the last eight years, we have reduced the deficit by three quarters to 2.3%, and we have reached the turning point of debt falling as a share of the economy in the coming financial years. Our efforts, needless to say, have been opposed at every turn by the Labour party, but they have restored confidence in our economy. They have boosted investment, and they have led to more jobs and growth. The Government’s concrete plan to get debt down has given us a competitive advantage. If businesses know that we can keep our house in order, they will base themselves here in the UK, creating highly skilled and well-paid jobs.
At the same time, we have ensured that our public services are improving through public sector reforms such as the introduction of academies and free schools, and programmes that have put more people into work. We are seeing record cancer survival rates, better school results and record employment levels, because we have made the decision to reform the way in which our public services work. Because of our stewardship of the economy, we are now able to target Government spending where it is needed and where we recognise that there are issues.
Alongside our national retraining programme, we are tripling the number of fully qualified computer science teachers, so that our young people are able to succeed in the modern economy. We are increasing infrastructure spending on things like transport, which Thelma Walker mentioned, to a 40-year high, even though we are having to make difficult decisions elsewhere. Yesterday we struck a deal to give nurses and other NHS staff a 6.5% pay rise over three years in exchange for reform that will improve patient outcomes, to make sure we can continue to recruit high-quality people in the NHS. We can do that only because we have got control of the public finances and we have fixed the economy, measures that Labour opposed at every turn.
So let me be clear: if we had listened to Labour and let the public finances spin out of control, there would be no money to invest in public services, and there would be no money now for that NHS deal, so nurses would not get their well-deserved pay rise. It is Labour that put public services at risk by losing control of spending and crashing the economy. Conservatives are delivering a stronger economy, stronger public services and a pay rise for hard-working NHS staff.
We are not out of the woods yet, however. Debt and borrowing are still too high. Debt is forecast to peak at 85.6% of GDP in 2017-18, the highest it has been for 50 years. That leaves us vulnerable to economic shocks in the future that are by their nature hard to predict, but—worst of all—it places a burden on the next generation, because we are still spending £50 billion a year on interest payments, more than the combined amount we spend on the police and armed forces. So in order to ensure the UK’s economic resilience, improve sustainability and reduce the burden on future generations, we need to get our debt falling. However, even despite all these obvious facts that are all there in black and white, the Opposition continue to call for big spending announcements.
Bim Afolami: On debt interest repayments, will my right hon. Friend explain further how even a relatively modest rise in interest rates would make what is currently £50 billion of interest repayment completely unmanageable if Labour got in and we had a run on the pound?
Elizbeth Truss: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and the reality is that the Opposition are planning for a run on the pound; they have actually released documentation that suggests that this is a real risk should they get into power. I find that incredibly worrying.
As I mentioned, the Opposition have called for big spending announcements. That is fiscal fantasy land, and there are only two ways it could be achieved. First, we could borrow more and plunge ourselves further into debt, making us less resilient to any potential shocks that might happen to the economy. Secondly, we could increase taxes, which would be bad news for families, bad news for businesses and bad news for the economy.
The Opposition claim that they could just increase taxes on the highest earners. That is simply not true. The levels of taxation they are talking about for their plans for a state on steroids would lead to the highest taxes we have seen in peacetime history, and the people who would really suffer are ordinary working people struggling to get by, and struggling to get on the housing ladder. Those are the people who would be hammered by Labour’s tax increases.
Alongside our fiscal policy, we have a clear independent monetary policy and a macro prudential framework that has helped to bring inflation under control and promoted financial stability. We must remember what happens when the Government do not get this right: the banks had to be bailed out under the failure of Labour’s tripartite regimes. Our reforms, which included establishing the Financial Policy Committee in the Bank of England, have made sure we have the sound financial institutions that people can rely on. In 2017 the Bank of England tested the financial system against a scenario that was more severe than the global financial crisis, and our system had the capital to cope. Our independent monetary policy regime has also kept control of inflation, which is set to fall this year, easing pressure on living standards.
Ten years ago we were on the brink: we were teetering on the edge of a very serious crash, and public spending was out of control. Over the past eight years, and as a result of the policy decisions we have taken, we have seen a huge growth in the number of new businesses opening in this country; we have got more people, particularly the young, into employment; and we have put our public services on a sustainable footing.
We are getting our public finances back to black. This week’s economic news has been positive, but we are not complacent. We recognise that there is more work to do and we will continue to work hard to make sure our economy continues to grow, because as Britain prepares to leave the EU it is more important than ever that we unleash businesses and the people of Britain to fulfil their true potential.
Bim Afolami: I want to take the hon. Gentleman up on his point about personal debt levels. Does he agree that it is because this Government’s fiscal management has been so sensible—and recognised as such by the international markets—that interest rates have been kept low? This means that personal debt repayments are now lower on average than they were when the Labour party left office.
Peter Dowd: We lost our triple A rating under the hon. Gentleman’s Government, so I do not think he has any room to point the finger at anyone.
While stressed-out doctors and teachers go to work every day, the Government duck responsibility and parliamentary scrutiny at every opportunity. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury might call these hard-working people “blobs”, but every day they run our health service and educate our children. Rather than spending her time attacking workers and the professional classes, the blob snob Chief Secretary should instead focus her attention on lifting the public sector pay right across the board and stepping up and taking action on our schools.
Bim Afolami: To be more accurate, was not the Chief Secretary to the Treasury actually talking about a percentage of the total GDP of the state, and not the quantum amount? The heart of her argument was that if we continue to grow the economy as we are doing, we will have much more money for our public services. That was the real core of the point she was making.
Peter Dowd: Look, the reality is that the economy is not growing to the level it should be, because this Government are not investing in it. Actually, something like 50% of the growth in the economy is going to the most well-off 10%, and that is not reasonable. It is not fair. I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear those figures in mind. It is not simply a question of the growth in the economy; it is a question of where that growth goes and whether it is being shared out reasonably.
Bim Afolami: The hon. Gentleman’s speech illustrates the big dividing line between the two sides of the House. The Chief Secretary is concerned with people and consumers having access to high-quality, well-paying jobs and high-quality public services; the Opposition and the hon. Gentleman are obsessed with vested interests and the producers, many of which are not providing a good service to the British people.