Nicky Morgan – 2017 Speech on Budget

Below is the text of the speech made by Nicky Morgan, the Conservative MP for Loughborough, in the House of Commons on 22 November 2017.

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to take part in a Budget debate for my first time as Chair of the Treasury Committee. If media reports are to be believed, I am not the only former Education Secretary who is using “long, economicky words” at the moment. At this point in the debate, my predecessor as Chair of the Committee would always congratulate the Leader of the Opposition on making the most difficult speech of the parliamentary year. I am happy to continue that tradition, although much of the Leader of the Opposition’s speech appeared to have been written in advance, and I suspect he will want to look at more of the detail of the Budget and to find more to welcome in the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

Today, it was perhaps the Chancellor who had the hardest task. Beset by demands for more public spending, rising economic uncertainty and downgrades in forecasts, he has taken a common-sense approach that will no doubt displease many on both sides of the Chamber. We have to remember, however, that it is only thanks to seven years of common sense and concerted efforts by Conservative-led Governments to reduce the deficit and restore credibility to the public finances that the UK has the resilience necessary to face the challenges ahead.

The reclassification of housing associations might have given the Chancellor some timely room for manoeuvre, but it does not alter the underlying picture or the risks in the outlook, and those risks could grow. Although the OBR has made a more negative assessment of productivity, it still forecasts a relatively benign Brexit—a smooth adjustment to the new trade arrangement, with no cliff-edge in March 2019. But that cannot be guaranteed, and even though a transitional arrangement that would allow for such a smooth adjustment is manifestly in the interests of both the UK and the EU, it might, of course, not happen. The Treasury Committee will be looking closely at the consequences of failing to reach a deal on transition and expects to make a report to the House in the coming weeks.

Beyond the public finances, household balance sheets are also under pressure. Rising interest rates, high inflation, lower wage growth and a working-age benefits freeze all stand to put pressure on ordinary households. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out two important principles for Conservative-led Governments: first, work should always pay; and, secondly, people should keep more of the money that they earn. I am happy, as I think all Conservative Members are, to support him on those two principles.

The pressures on household finances—the Committee is looking at them as part of our inquiry into household finances—will be exacerbated, particularly for the younger generation, if action is not taken to tackle long-standing problems in the housing market, as my right hon. Friend said. I therefore welcome the measures on housing. He has announced a comprehensive package on skills, land availability and financial incentives to get Britain building. I also welcome the review that will be chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin). We always know there is a problem when my right hon. Friend is sent for to solve it. He will look at the gap between permissions granted and houses built, and why it exists.

I also hugely welcome, as I think all Conservative Members will, the stamp duty cut for first-time buyers. As the Chancellor said, it will make home ownership a reality for more young people. The Committee intends to hear from housing experts as part of our Budget scrutiny, and we will investigate whether the rousing wartime rhetoric of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government matches the reality of what has been announced today.

Of course, pressures on the public finances and on household balance sheets can be alleviated in the long term only if, as the Chancellor said, productivity growth improves. I welcome very much his further investment in the national productivity investment fund, and he was right to emphasise the challenge regarding productivity in the UK, which is now the weakest in the G7. The average UK worker has to slog from 9 until 5 to produce the same value of output that a worker in Germany produces between the hours of 9 and 3. The regional disparities in the UK are even greater, so I welcome what the Chancellor said about more devolution. I do not know where the Leader of the Opposition got the idea that Conservative Members do not take seriously the northern powerhouse and the midlands engine. I can tell him, as a midlands Member of Parliament, that we take them very seriously. We believe in devolution.

There are no easy solutions to the UK’s weak productivity, but we can do two things to help with the productivity puzzle. The first is better infrastructure, including digital infrastructure. The chair of the National Infrastructure Commission told the Treasury Committee recently that the big political divide in infrastructure policy is not between the parties, but between action and inaction. The Chancellor must act on the commission’s recommendations when they are published, and I welcome his commitment today to implement its recommendations on the Oxford-Milton Keynes Corridor. I also welcome the proposal for discounted lending to local authorities so that they can invest in infrastructure.

The second response on productivity is to retain the UK’s historical commitment to openness to trade, investment and migration. Global Britain must be a reality, not just a slogan. The economic case for leaving the EU has always rested—and continues to rest—on openness, and we must not allow the Brexit process to mark the start of a descent into economic nationalism. It is only through productivity growth that households can be weaned off consumer credit without cutting their consumption and reducing their living standards. It is only through productivity growth that the Chancellor has any hope of meeting demands for additional spending—on welfare, social care, prisons, the NHS, public sector pay and Brexit contingency measures—without damaging the Government’s hard-won reputation for fiscal credibility.

For the avoidance of doubt, let us for the thousandth time dismiss the idea that a Brexit-induced fiscal windfall will relieve the pressures on our health service. There are no easy choices and there is no pot of gold under the Brexit rainbow. Those who persist with this myth may win short-term approval from certain quarters of the media, but only at the cost of long-term damage to trust in politics.

On the industrial strategy, the Chancellor is absolutely right to have identified the technology revolution and to say that Britain is at the forefront of it. He is right to identify the need for more young people to learn maths and computer science to a higher level. We have to find a way of exciting everyone in this country—the next generation, and their parents and grandparents—about the technology revolution. We need them to be confident that they have the skills that will meet the demands of the future labour market, rather than frightened by change in the 21st century. This key part of our plan for a fairer Britain will unlock prosperity.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)

May I pick up the point about education funding? The Government proposed £3 billion of cuts, which was reduced to just under £2 billion, but that means that there is still a £2 billion gap in our education funding system, and the Chancellor said nothing about how schools will cope with that. Does the right hon. Lady agree that there ought to have been some thinking about investment in our schools to prevent the reversal of the progress that has been made?

Nicky Morgan

First, I can say to the hon. Lady—I am pleased to serve with her on the Treasury Committee—that educational standards have actually improved dramatically in this country during the past seven years. I do not recognise her figures. The Secretary of State for Education announced an extra £1.3 billion for schools in July, and this Government are spending more on schools than any previous Government. If the hon. Lady is really concerned, she will want to deal with the debt that this Government are still paying off, given that we spend almost as much as our schools budget on paying debt interest.

The Chancellor announced a number of new tax measures. I was pleased that he said that our tax system can help to protect our environment. That is an important signal to send to those who are particularly concerned about the environment and to the next generation.

Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)

I welcome the exemption on the vehicle excise duty supplement for new zero-emission-capable taxis, so I thank the Chancellor for listening to representations. Through the right hon. Lady, may I urge the Chancellor to bring forward that measure so that it will kick in earlier than April 2019, because many such vehicles will be on the road from next month and we will want drivers to be able to take advantage of these new zero-emission-capable and environmentally friendly taxis?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)

Order. May I just say, because the hon. Gentleman will want to make a separate speech, that if Members make interventions, they should please make them short?

Nicky Morgan

It is also a pleasure to serve with the hon. Gentleman on the Treasury Committee. I am sure that the Chancellor will have has heard what he said. I am also sure that the Chancellor is looking forward to appearing in front of the Committee on 6 December, when we will be able to ask him such questions directly.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Nicky Morgan

I will give way briefly, but then I will make some progress.

Caroline Lucas

Hidden in the Budget book is the really terrible news that no new money is available for renewables until 2025, but at the same time the Chancellor is giving away yet more tax breaks to oil and gas. How on earth is that compatible with a forward-looking country that is serious about climate change?

Nicky Morgan

This Government have done incredibly well in supporting the renewables industry. The renewable energy industry in the midlands is thriving. Again, however, the Committee may well want to take that up with the Chancellor.

I welcome the move on business rates—the change from RPI to CPI is very welcome—and I particularly welcome the move on the staircase tax, about which the Chancellor was asked when he appeared before the Committee recently. The approach builds on the evidence he gave, and I hope he is right about the cross-party support that the measure will be able to receive.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the changes to business rates will be particularly valuable for shops, restaurants and office premises in outer London, which are squeezed between the bright lights of central London and large out-of-town shopping centres, and for which the fixed cost of business rates is particularly heavy?

Nicky Morgan

That is an excellent point. Of course I agree with my hon. Friend.

I was just coming on to the Chancellor’s measures on taxing digital businesses, which is also very important for bricks-and-mortar retail businesses. Although the change is perhaps modest, an important principle has been established about the taxation of digital businesses that do business in this country. I welcome what the Chancellor has said about tax avoidance and evasion measures. I think he said that we will spend £155 million on HMRC’s revenue-collecting ability in order to collect £2.3 billion. That sounds very encouraging, but the Committee will of course probe those estimates.

I commend my right hon. Friend for continuing the practice of publishing a distributional analysis showing how the Budget affects households in different parts of the income distribution. That analysis, which provides an unprecedented level of transparency about the consequences of the Budget for ordinary people, emerged only as a result of pressure by the Treasury Committee over the previous two Parliaments, and there might be more work for the Committee to do in this one. What is not yet included in the Treasury’s analysis is an assessment of the gender impact of the Budget—an analysis of how much men and women stand to gain or lose from the Chancellor’s decisions. It will not surprise Members to hear the first female Chair of the Treasury Committee saying that my Committee will take written evidence, including from the Women’s Budget Group, on the merits of such an analysis.

Before I conclude, I want to remind the House about the Treasury Committee’s role in scrutinising the OBR and upholding its independence. There is widespread agreement across the House that the creation of the OBR vastly improved the credibility and quality of economic and fiscal forecasting, and empowered Members of Parliament to hold the Government to account on their fiscal policy. However, in this febrile political atmosphere, we must remember that the OBR is still young, so its hard-won reputation could be fatally undermined if the motives and good faith of its leadership are impugned by those who disagree with its findings. The OBR has a powerful line of accountability to Parliament, thanks to the Committee’s statutory veto on the appointment and dismissal of its senior leadership. We will seek assurances that the OBR has done its work without political interference, we will subject its forecasts to critical scrutiny and, if necessary, we will defend its integrity. As I have said, the Committee looks forward to hearing from the Chancellor on the Budget measures, and the economic and fiscal outlook, when he appears before us in two weeks’ time.

The UK faces many challenges. Brexit hangs over this place and the UK like a cloud. Some people think there is a silver lining; others think there will be more rain and fog. It was therefore important that today’s Budget showed that the Government are determined to do more than just negotiate our path out of the EU. I believe the Chancellor has more than achieved that with everything he announced today.