George Freeman speaks in Budget Debate

Speaking in the Budget debate, George Freeman welcomes support for savers and pensioners and measures to promote growth, innovation, export and investment.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi).

I suggest that today’s Budget was a significant and historic one for this country. Twelve months before a crucial general election, it gave the British people a clear choice. It showed through the Office for Budget Responsibility report the success of the last four years’ work of rebalancing and laying the foundations for long-term growth. It showed us a Chancellor and a Government committed to the long-term programme of recovery on which we had embarked. It was a Budget for resilience, responsibility and the real economy.

I particularly want to highlight three elements: first, the extent to which we have finally begun to get on top of the appalling historic legacy of debt that we inherited from the Labour party; secondly, the significant steps that we set out to support science, innovation and export-led growth; and thirdly, the historic package of support for savers and pensioners.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman add the Cambridge city deal as a fourth point? That will contribute so much to what will help his constituents, as well as mine.

George Freeman: I am delighted that the Chancellor has been able to support the Cambridge city deal, which will play a key part in our innovation economy.

We should take time to remember the mess that we inherited four years ago, and the causes of it. The truth is that between 1997 and 2010, we saw the largest increase in public spending as a percentage of national income of any industrialised country. During that period, we rose from 22nd to sixth in the world league table for public spending as a percentage of national income. Before Opposition Members try to argue that that was a result of the global crash—indeed, after they have tried to do that—I should say that if we take the date of 2007, before the crash, we see that our position on the table had risen from 22nd to 10th. That is the second largest increase in history.

That legacy was created by a wilful overspend by the Labour party. It left us, in 2010, with the biggest peacetime budget deficit in our history—a £157 billion deficit and a £1 trillion debt. If we pay off that debt at £1 million a minute, it will take us 30 years. The truth is that everybody in this country is now paying for that. We inherited a situation in which debt interest alone was set to rise to £70 billion a year. When we started, debt interest alone was, in effect, the fourth biggest Department of State, and we were borrowing £1 for every £4 spent. It was an absolute disgrace for the outgoing Labour Government’s Chief Secretary to have left a note with an exclamation mark saying that he thought it was funny that there was no money left. We should remember that. I do not think it is a joke, because we are all paying the price.

That is why I welcome the Chancellor’s announcement of the OBR’s reporting on the progress that we are making in our deficit reduction plan through the 80:20 rule—80% from spending and 20% from tax. These were tough decisions—all of which, we should remember, were opposed by Labour—and they are now beginning to lead to sustained long-term growth. Growth is up to its highest level for 30 years, and we are now the fastest growing economy in the G8. Some 1.5 million private sector jobs have been created—three for every one regrettably lost in the public sector. There has been a 24% fall in unemployment, with the fastest fall in youth unemployment for 20 years. As a result, we are now on track to eradicate the deficit by 2018 and we are paying off debt quicker than any other western economy. That is a record of which we should be proud and a record to which this Budget stands testament.

I want to highlight the important work that the Government are doing from that platform to support our innovation economy. Today’s announcements on science and technology and the knowledge economy included £42 million for a new Alan Turing institute of big data, in which Britain is leading the world; £74 million for the cell therapy manufacturing centre and the graphene innovation centre, putting Britain at the cutting edge of new technologies that will turbo-charge new industries and new business creation; and £106 million for 20 doctoral training centres across the country.

We have an enormous opportunity to trade our way out of the debt crisis by plugging into the fastest growing emerging markets around the world, particularly in the life sciences, in food, in medicine, and in energy. In 30 years, those economies will go through the same industrial and agricultural revolution that we started and went through in 300 years. They represent vast markets for our knowledge economy. That is why I particularly welcome the support for export finance. As a trade envoy and a former business man myself, I know how important it is to support our small companies. We are starting from a woefully and shamefully low base. After 13 years, Labour left us very weakly linked into those emerging markets. We still export more to Luxembourg and Belgium than we do to China. I am delighted that the Government are making such progress.

You do not need to take this from me, Mr Speaker—take it from the business community. The Institute of Directors has said:

“This is a responsible and imaginative budget which should promote growth, exports and investment. It will be widely welcomed.”

The British Chambers of Commerce said this afternoon that the Budget was

“disciplined, focused, and geared toward the creation of wealth and jobs”

and that it “passes the business test”. The CBI has said:

“The Budget will put wind in the sails of business investment, especially for manufacturers.”

I turn to the historic announcements on savings and pensions, with the pensioner bond, the new ISA, the abolition of the 10p rate on savings, the child trust fund, and the increase in the amount that can be invested in the junior ISA.

Mr MacNeil: There is often a problem with the governance of ISAs when the banks attract savers into ISAs and then change their rules and boundaries so that within a year they are no longer selling that ISA but have moved on to the next ISA pot. Sometimes savers may be ripped off by banks that have not been responsible in managing their ISAs properly in moving the vehicle that the money is in and lowering the interest rate after a year or two.

George Freeman: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. The bigger point is that in the 1980s the Conservative party launched a historic renaissance of saving and wealth creation whereby more and more people, through ISAs and PEPs, were able to own shares and save. That was wilfully destroyed by the former Labour Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), through his stealth taxes. It has long been necessary for us to restore a culture and a set of incentives for a genuine renaissance in savings, and that is key to the resilience that the Chancellor set out today. That was the most important set of measures in today’s Budget, and it will stand the test of time.

What did we hear from Labour Members? I came here genuinely wanting to hear the Opposition’s response to this package. I wanted to hear the alternative economic policy that Labour is going to put to the British people next spring. For all the noise we hear on the Government side of the House, the real test, as we know, is the silence from the Opposition Benches. What we heard today was an embarrassing descent into business bashing and class war. If that is what the Leader of the Opposition defines as his “new socialism”, I wish him luck. I will be sending a copy of his speech to all the businesses in my constituency, because it fails the business test in spades, and it is the business test that will drive the growth and investment on which the public sector always depends.

Ian Mearns: Will the hon. Gentleman also be sending them a copy of the noise that was being generated by Government Members during the speech of the Leader of the Opposition today?

George Freeman: I will have a chance to read Hansard. I am not surprised there was noise. It was a shameful performance. When, 12 months from the election, this country needs a choice, and Her Majesty’s Opposition are supposed to set out an alternative economic policy, it was woeful. It gives me no pleasure to say it. The result is that the choice is now clear: a Chancellor, a Government and a Prime Minister with a long-term plan for resilience and recovery, led by the real economy and investment, and a Leader of the Opposition who seems now committed simply to going into the election on a ticket of partisan politics and gesturing to his trade union funders. It was not a Budget response that merited his title. It did not set out a serious economic programme for recovery, and I am afraid that it deserves the response that I think it will get at next year’s general election.

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