“Papering over the cracks” – Keir Starmer’s response to the Budget

Keir Starmer
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Below is the full text of the speech given by Labour leader Keir Starmer in response to the Budget delivered by Rishi Sunak in parliament this afternoon.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. After 11 months in this job it’s nice finally to be standing opposite the person actually making decisions in this government. The trouble is, the trouble is, it’s those decisions that have left us with the mess we find today. The worst economic crisis of any major economy in the last 12 months, unemployment at five% and as the Chancellor said, forecast to rise to 6.5%, debt at over £2tn. I’m sure this Budget will look better on Instagram. In fact, this week’s PR video cost the taxpayer so much, I was half expecting to see a line in the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast for it.

But even the Chancellor’s film crew will struggle to put a positive spin on this. After the decisions of the last year and the decade of neglect, we needed a Budget to fix the foundations of our economy, to reward our key workers, to protect the NHS and to build a more secure and prosperous economy for the future. Instead, what we got was a Budget that papered over the cracks, rather than rebuilding the foundations. A Budget that shows the government doesn’t understand what went wrong in the last decade or what’s needed in the next.

The Chancellor may think that this is the time for a victory lap but I’m afraid this Budget won’t feel so good for the millions of key workers who are having their pay frozen, for the businesses swamped by debt and the families paying more in council tax and the millions of people who are out of work or worried about losing their job. And although the Chancellor spoke for almost an hour, we heard nothing about a long-term plan to fix social care. The Chancellor might have forgotten about it, but the Labour Party never will.

The British people will rightly ask: why has Britain suffered a worse economic crisis than any major economy? The answer is staring us in the face. First, the Chancellor’s decisions in the last year. This is the Chancellor who blocked a circuit break in September, ignoring the science he told the British people to “live with coronavirus and live without fear”. A few weeks later, we were forced into an even longer and more painful lockdown. Whatever spin the Chancellor tries to put on the figures today, as a result of his decisions, we’ve suffered deeper economic damage and much worse outcomes.

And Madam Deputy Speaker, that is nothing compared with a decade of political choices that meant Britain went into this crisis with an economy built on insecurity and inequality. The Chancellor referred to the last ten years, we’ve got an economy as a result of those ten years with 3.6 million people in insecure work; where wages stagnated for a decade; over four million children living in poverty and, critically, we went into this crisis with 100,000 unfilled posts in the NHS and where social care was ignored and underfunded for a decade. Members Opposite voted for all of that. Today’s Budget doesn’t even recognise that – let alone rectify it.

It’s clear that the Chancellor is now betting on a recovery fuelled by a consumer spending blitz. In fairness, if my next door neighbour was spending tens of thousands of pounds redecorating their flat, I’d probably do the same. But the central problem in our economy is a deep-rooted insecurity and inequality and this Budget isn’t the answer to that. The Chancellor barely mentioned inequality – let alone tried to address it. So rather than the big, transformative Budget we needed this Budget simply papers over the cracks.

If this had been a Budget for the long-term it would have had a plan. A plan to protect our NHS, a plan to fix social care. But I can tell you this, a Labour Budget would have had the NHS and care homes front and centre. But this Budget is almost silent on those questions. If this had been a Budget to rebuild the foundations, it would have fixed our broken social security system. Instead, the Chancellor has been dragged – kicking and screaming – to extend the £20 uplift in Universal Credit – but only for a few months. Once again deferring the problem. As a result, insecurity and the threat of losing £1,000 a year still hang over six million families. They ask what would we do, we would keep the uplift until a new, fairer system can be put in place.

If this Budget was serious about rebuilding our shattered economy, it would have included a credible plan to tackle unemployment. The Chancellor said very little about the Kickstart scheme that’s no doubt because the Kickstart is only helping one in every 100 eligible young people. In six months it supported just 2,000 young people, yet youth unemployment is set to reach one million. Like so much of this Budget – the Chancellor’s offer is nowhere near the scale of the task.

And of course the biggest challenge to this country is the climate emergency. The Chancellor just talked up his green credentials, but his Budget stops way short of what was needed or what’s happening in other countries. This Budget should have included a major green stimulus – bringing forward billions of pounds of investment to create new jobs and new green infrastructure. Instead, the government is trying to build a new coal mine which we now learn might not even work for British steel. If anything sums up this government’s commitment to a green recovery and jobs of the future, it’s building a coal mine we can’t even use.

If the government was serious about tackling insecurity and those most at risk from Covid, this Budget would have fixed the broken system of statutory sick pay and at the very least filled the glaring holes in isolation payments. This isn’t difficult to fix – the government should just make the £500 isolation payment available to everyone who needs it. That would be money well spent. And a year into the pandemic, it’s a disgrace that it’s not.

If the government were serious about fixing the broken housing market, it would have announced plans for a new generation of genuinely affordable council houses. Instead, 230,000 council homes have been lost since 2010. Yet the Chancellor focused today on returning to subsiding 95% mortgages. Now, I know what you’re thinking, I’ve heard that somewhere before. I’ve heard that somewhere before. Maybe it was because the Prime Minister announced it five months ago in his conference speech. No, I don’t think anybody heard that. I remember now, I remember now – it’s what Osborne and Cameron came up with in 2013. And what did that do? What did that do? It fuelled a housing bubble, it pushed up prices, and made owning a home more difficult. So much for ‘generation buy’.

I’ve been saying for weeks that this budget will go back. I didn’t expect the Chancellor to lift a failed policy from eight years ago. This Budget fell far short of the transformative change we needed to turbocharge our recovery for the decades to come. There was no credible plan to ease the burden of debt hanging over so many businesses. This is estimated at £70bn. This Budget asks businesses to start paying this money back whether they’re profitable or not. That affects millions of businesses, it will hold back growth because businesses will have to pay back money they never wanted to borrow instead of being able to invest in their futures and create jobs in their local areas. It’s both unfair and economically illiterate.

This Budget also fell far short of what was needed to support the self-employed and freelancers, unless, of course, you’re one of the Chancellor’s photographers. After a year of inaction, we’ll look at the details of what the Chancellor announced, but it certainly looks like, from the figure of 600,000 that he mentioned, that millions will still be left out in the cold. The Chancellor’s one nominally long-term policy was his references to ‘levelling up’. But what does this actually look like? It’s not the transformative shift in power, wealth and resources we need to rebalance our economy. It’s not the bold, long-term plan we need to upskill our economy, to tackle educational attainment or to raise life-expectancy.

It certainly isn’t a plan to focus government’s resources on preventative services and early years. For the Chancellor “levelling up” seems to mean moving some parts of the Treasury to Darlington, creating a few freeports and re-announcing funding. That isn’t levelling up: it’s giving up. And instead of putting blind faith in freeports, the Chancellor would be better served making sure the government’s Brexit deal actually works for Britain’s manufacturers, who now face more red-tape when they were promised less. For our financial services – still waiting for the Chancellor to make good on his promises. For the small businesses and fishing communities whose goods and produce are now left unsold in warehouses. And for our artists and performers who just want to be able to tour.

Turning to other parts of the statement, we’ll wait for the detail about the so-called super-deduction, but it’s unlikely to make up for the last ten years, when the levels of private investment growth have trailed so many other countries. Of course, we welcome the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank. Something we’ve called for, for years. Although it would have been better if the government hadn’t sold off the Green Investment Bank in the first place.

We also welcome the introduction of green savings bonds. I have to say: what a good idea it is to introduce a new set of recovery bonds. The trouble is that the scale of what the Chancellor announced today is nowhere near ambitious enough. And the long-overdue commitments to extend furlough, business rate relief and the VAT cut on hospitality are welcome. But there is no excuse for holding the announcement of this support back until today – and, of course, we will look at the detail.

But Madam Deputy Speaker, there are very few silver linings in this Budget. The IMF and the OECD have said now isn’t the time for tax rises. We’re in the middle of a once in 300-year crisis. Our economy is still shut. Our businesses are on life-support. So it’s right that corporation tax isn’t rising this year or next. Of course, in the long-run corporation tax should go up. The decade long corporation tax experiment by this government has failed. But no taxes should have been raised in the teeth of this economic crisis. So it’s extraordinary that the Chancellor is ploughing ahead with the £2bn council tax rise – affecting households across the country.

So why is he doing that? Why is he doing that when every economist would tell him not to do it. Perhaps we find an answer in this weekend’s Sunday Times: “Rishi’s argument was, “let’s do all this now as far away from the election as possible”. Or the Telegraph on 27 January: “Raising taxes now means they can be reduced ahead of the next election, Sunak tells MPs.” Or The Mail in September: “Sunak to hike taxes and lower them before the election.” Let me be crystal clear. The proper basis for making tax decisions is the economic cycle, not the electoral cycle.

Madam Deputy Speaker, behind the spin, the videos and the photo ops, we all know the Chancellor doesn’t believe in an active and enterprising government. We know, we know he’s itching to get back to his free market principles and to pull away support as quickly as he can. One day these restrictions will end. One day we’ll all be able to take our masks off – and so will the Chancellor. And then you’ll see who he really is – and this Budget sets it up perfectly.

Because this is a Budget that didn’t even attempt to rebuild the foundations of our economy. Or to secure the country’s long-term prosperity. Instead it did the job the Chancellor always intended: a quick fix. Papering over the cracks. The party opposite spent a decade weakening the foundations of our economy. Now they pretend they can rebuild it. But the truth is: they won’t confront what went wrong in the past and they have no plan for the future.

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