Finance (No. 2) Bill Debate

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Department: HM Treasury
Baroness Kramer Portrait Baroness Kramer (LD)
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My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Hazarika—talk about getting in under the wire in this Parliament. It was a brilliant maiden speech, in both tone and content, and it seemed to me that it reflected someone intending to challenge, but with respect, and that surely is the very best of this House. I very much look forward to hearing her in the next Session. One of the great joys for all of us here is that we know we will be back.

I will also use this opportunity to pay my respects to the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Vere. She has served with real vigour in her role and mastered an incredibly complex portfolio. If anyone doubts that, they should listen to today’s speech from the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton. She has always treated all of us on our Benches with courtesy, even in the rough and tumble of politics. We do not know what will happen in the coming election, but I thought it was important to mark our appreciation of the service that she has given on this portfolio.

I will turn to the topic of the day. This is definitely a No. 2 Finance Bill, and it is mostly a tidying up exercise. I am so glad that I do not have to pursue the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Davies—I leave that to the Minister to cope with—but, knowing the noble Lord, it is a significant point, and it is worth a follow-up.

I am particularly pleased with the support in the Bill for the creative industries. Most of the measures that are being dealt with in a wash-up process are relatively minor. We dealt with the key elements of the last Budget in numerous debates on many pieces of previous legislation and Statements, so I have decided that my comments will be fairly brief because we have behind us a whole queue of legislation, and people will be anxious to move forward.

The Government keep using phrases, as they talk about the economy, such as “turning the corner” and “returning to normal”. If the Government think that the economy has returned to normal, they really have absolutely no understanding of normal people’s lives. People are facing relentless cost of living pressures and, when I am on the doorstep, I find there is a general horror at the collapse of so many public services. I will not detail those, but I say to the Minister: if this is the new normal, my sense on the doorstep is that people do not want it.

The freezing of tax thresholds has squeezed people on low and modest incomes in some of the harshest times, while oil companies really got away with it thanks to loopholes in the windfall levy; and today in this Bill, they were handed some additional goodies. Again, when I am out on that doorstep, the anxiety about the state of the NHS and social care is dominating so many people’s minds, and we have come to a terrible pass when the police are told not to arrest criminals because we cannot provide prison places. We heard today about the new energy cap—that is, obviously, good news. But people will still pay on average £400 more for their energy in a year than they did before the pandemic—and, frankly, any benefits on that side look as though they will be stripped away by the behaviour of the water companies. I looked at the applications that they made to Ofwat; it looks like my personal bill will go up by something like £350 a year. Today, I read the assessment of bonuses going to senior managers within the water companies—they amount to £54 billion for this year. The Government are completely hapless in trying to deal with these issues, and I hope that we will get some real change following the election.

In the corporate sphere, which underpins our economy, we have low and stagnant business investment and productivity. We face worker shortages and a shortage of skills. Trade has diminished significantly. We have ongoing trade weakness—for a country that lives or dies by trade. The emergency summit this week on the Stock Exchange is just one example of the worsening scarring of Brexit. We hear that our problems are caused by the pandemic and Ukraine—that is true—but the biggest and most persistent scarring is coming from Brexit and that is worsening, not easing.

My party will fight for a fair tax strategy, a proper industrial strategy and an apprenticeship scheme that actually works. We will rebuild exports, including to our former markets in Europe. I say to the Minister that, as we come to the end of this Session, there is hope for our economy. We are right to try to take an optimistic and positive line, but we cannot rebuild our economy until her party leaves office.