A serious speech for serious times
David Miliband made a short speech in the House of Commons yesterday, during an Opposition debate on living standards. I thought it worth reproducing in full:
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This is a time of some gravity for our economy and our society. I shall address two aspects of today’s debate: first, the past 18 months and whether, if the Chancellor had made different decisions, we would be in a different position now; and secondly, the future — the prospects for growth and jobs for our constituents and, above all, whether we can avoid successive further downgrades, after the four that have already occurred, to the economic forecasts published since the general election.
The Prime Minister has introduced a bazooka test for the eurozone countries. My shorthand reading is that in Britain the bazooka marked “austerity” has been far too big and the bazooka marked “growth for the future” far too small. I shall explain that view in my speech today.
The Chancellor’s claim is very specific: that his plan of fiscal austerity is the best route to economic expansion. He uses four arguments to support his case. First, he says that the evidence of Canada in the 1990s shows that the seemingly impossible, a “contractionary expansion”, is proved possible by the Canadian experience. In fact, the Canadian squeeze took place at the same time as the Clinton boom in the United States—Canada’s primary export market. Yet the export of which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are the most proud is the export of their austerity message to the rest of Europe—our primary trading partners. That was seen at the Busan summit, within a few weeks of this Government coming to office. In the process, they are killing the markets on which we depend.
Secondly, the Chancellor has said that private sector growth was previously crowded out by the public sector, but in his speech yesterday he accepted that Government needed to support private enterprise, including through fiscal policy, although admittedly using the off-balance-sheet tactics that he denounced so forcefully during the last Parliament. Retrenchment in the public sector is no guarantee of renaissance in the private sector.
Thirdly — this, I think, is particularly important — the Chancellor says that international markets have voted with their feet in buying UK gilts and driving down yields over the last 18 months. However, the biggest buyer of gilts in recent years has been not the international markets but the Bank of England. I will not dwell on the fact that the Chancellor denounced quantitative easing when he was shadow Chancellor, but he surely knows that for this financial year the Bank of England will have bought no less than 42% of gilt issuance. The Bank now owns more than 30% of the total gilt stock, compared with zero in 2008, while the proportion of international market ownership has barely changed. Interest rates are low in this country because of Bank purchasing policy, not because of Government fiscal policy.
Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): I am no expert, but is my right hon. Friend saying that the Chancellor’s economic plan is a catastrophic failure?
David Miliband: My hon. Friend has demonstrated that it is harder to make a short speech than a long one, but she has summed up very well in a few words what I am trying not to say in rather more.
Fourthly, the Chancellor says that without austerity we would be in the same position as Greece, but the maturity of British bonds is closer to 14 years than to the 14 weeks or 14 days that seem to afflict the Greeks; much more of our borrowing is covered by domestic savings; and above all — unlike countries including Italy, which the Secretary of State mentioned — we have our monetary sovereignty. Far from the Government’s having instilled confidence and stirred entrepreneurial spirits for the future, confidence has dropped further and faster in Britain than anywhere else in the last 18 months, and had done so well before the euro crisis. Moreover, the level of confidence is lower than it was when the Government came to office.
Claire Perry: It is so refreshing to hear a grown-up make a speech from the Opposition Benches. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree, however, that quantitative easing took place originally in 2009 — so the money was effectively already in the Bank of England’s coffers at the time of the election — that since then interest rates in Britain have dropped by more than one percentage point, and that we are now borrowing money more cheaply than Germany?
David Miliband: The hon. Lady is right, in that the zero stock held by the Bank of England in 2007-08 meant that quantitative easing had not yet started. When it did start, the stock went up. However, as she will know, since the general election there have been three further rounds of quantitative easing, including the most recent injection of £75 billion. That does much to explain why, although yields have fallen, international market ownership of the stock has not changed. I hope that she will engage with the issue that I am raising in all seriousness, because it is a serious problem for the Government’s argument.
In respect of the future, I want to concentrate on an aspect of the debate that relates directly to the Secretary of State’s responsibilities: youth unemployment. Let me repeat something that I said on television last week, half of which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have enjoyed quoting. The current Government did not invent the problem of youth unemployment, but my goodness, they have made it worse. That is the charge against them. As the Secretary of State will know, it is a fact that structural unemployment among 16-to-25 year olds stubbornly refused to fall below 10% even in the good years, when the economy was cantering along, and it is true that unemployment rose in 2005-06.
It is also true, however, that between the start of the Labour Government and the financial crisis, long-term unemployment fell by 78%. It fell again, by 38%, between January and December 2010, before the Government’s first Budget decisions were implemented. In January, 150 people aged 16 to 25 in my constituency were claiming jobseeker’s allowance for more than six months. Today the figure is 420, and the figure in the north-east has doubled to nearly 9,000. Youth unemployment across Britain is now at record levels. Severe long-term youth unemployment—the number of people who have been out of work for at least 12 months—stands at 260,000, up by over 100,000 in 18 months, and the number of NEETs, those not in employment, education or training, has risen to 1.2 million. The Secretary of State agrees with me that those figures are a disgrace for any Government or any country. The question is what we do about it. I hope that the Government will take the following points into consideration as they think about the roll-out of their work contract.
First, the Work programme is fine in good times, in a growing economy, but it is not enough to give people job interview preparation when not enough jobs are being created in the economy as a whole. Secondly, the wage subsidy that is being introduced is designed to help 53,000 of the 260,000 long-term youth unemployed. When in 1995 the then Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced a similar scheme, however, it helped 2,300 people. The Secretary of State needs to look at those figures and understand why. Thirdly, the growth in apprenticeships is welcome, but it has got to be for the under-25s. Finally, young people who need help with transport costs, disabled young people and young people with carers need extra help. He knows it as well as I do.
It is bad enough to be young and stuck on the dole. It is double the agony to be promised a job and then find that you will not get it.
Let me finish with this thought. The Chancellor’s
“latest economic commentary shows just how out of his depth he is when it comes to important economic issues. Slashing spending now could push the economy back into recession and inflict further structural damage on the UK”.
Those are not my words, but those of the current Business Secretary in February 2010. How right he was. It is time for a change of course, and it is time for a change of course now.
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