9 Baroness Meacher debates involving HM Treasury

Autumn Statement 2023

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Wednesday 29th November 2023

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I, too, welcome the Minister to her new role on the Front Bench. I will speak briefly to express my concern about the regressive impact of the Autumn Statement on working households. I like and respect Jeremy Hunt and fear that the Autumn Statement reflects the undue influence of the right wing of the Conservative Party at present.

The OBR considered the tax changes of this Government, including those in the Autumn Statement, and concluded that tax as a share of the economy will rise every year to a post-war high of 37.7% of GDP by 2028-29, most of it driven by tax threshold freezes and strong nominal earnings growth, which together hit hard-pressed working families particularly hard. The Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that the national insurance contribution reductions announced in the Autumn Statement will largely benefit the best-off households. For every £100 spent on these cuts, £46 will benefit the richest fifth of households and only £3 of every £100 will go to the worst-off families.

Paul Johnson points out that the tax cuts in the Autumn Statement are funded by the promise of years of very low real-terms increases in public service spending. Of course, these services benefit the poor disproportionately. The Lib Dem Treasury spokesperson described the public services as on their knees after 13 years of Conservative Government. Clearly things are not going to improve.

A very small but highly regressive tax change is that on tobacco products. For me, this small tax change epitomises the unfairness of the Autumn Statement. In general, tobacco taxes will increase by RPI plus 2%. However, duties on hand-rolling tobacco products will increase by RPI plus 12%. These products are overwhelmingly used by low-paid people. Again, they are being penalised.

Finally, as the Minister mentioned, the national living wage will increase by 9.8% to £11.44 an hour from 1 April 2024. This will not compensate for the price inflation and tax changes in recent years. Again, those on low incomes will suffer.

Bank of England: Interest Rate Policy

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Wednesday 12th July 2023

(11 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, if the Government feel unable to comment on Bank of England policy, to whom is the Bank of England accountable?

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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The Bank of England is accountable to both the Government and Parliament. The noble Baroness referred to a report being done by the Economic Affairs Committee in this House. I am sure we will pay close attention to the outcomes of that.

Baroness Altmann Portrait Baroness Altmann (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on her Amendment 4. I am sure that it is very well-intentioned, and it meets some of the concerns that were clearly expressed in Committee. I welcome the update that will be coming from her on the green taxonomy; I believe that there will be a consultation on that. There is also the new green finance strategy, which has been published. They are all welcome.

Amendment 4 is welcome, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, explained, although it will ensure that the Treasury produces guidance or requirements for sustainable investing by pension schemes and others, it would appear that the FCA and the PRA may not have the powers to issue that guidance. So, once the Treasury has produced its recommendations, we will still need to legislate. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that that is the case, and that we will need further legislation if we want to implement the impacts of Amendment 4 through to pension schemes?

I have added my name to Amendments 93 and 113 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. Amendment 93 deals with the investment duties of pension providers and investment managers, and Amendment 113 deals with the investment duties of occupational pension trustees and managers. Clearly, if we are to make progress in line with the Government’s laudable objectives—and I congratulate them on all the work they have been doing, including some of their world-leading work on trying to ensure that pension schemes invest more in line with green objectives and sustainable investments for the long term—the amendments will ensure that the FCA and the PRA can make those rules. The amendments are very reasonably drafted; the FCA and the PRA may make these rules, but they do not require them at this stage to do so. The trustees and investment managers must then have regard to the rules, but, as the noble Baroness explained, they can explain why they are not going to implement the rules. However, at least we can set up a system where the trillions of pounds of long-term investment money in pension schemes can assuredly do more to protect the planet and provide investment opportunities that will help with social objectives for this country.

I do not have a problem with the concept of government directing pension schemes to invest a certain proportion of their assets, if necessary, in green, sustainable and socially desirable projects, including infrastructure, forestation, nature preservation and so on. At least 25% of all pension schemes—we are talking about hundreds of billions of pounds—has come from the taxpayer in the first place in the form of tax relief. Given that 25% of everyone’s pension is tax free, that is money that was spent by taxpayers. Given the budget circumstances that the country faces, and as taxpayers would otherwise be funding these projects outside pension schemes, I do not think that it is impossible to justify the idea that, should the private sector not be forthcoming with its investments in these vital elements for future growth and for a sustainable future for us all, the Government might themselves decide to require it.

These amendments will at least pave the way to ensure that there is more chance of these huge amounts of money, which are put aside for millions of people’s retirement income later in life, being invested in a way that will benefit them and the economy, as well as ensuring that there is much more and better protection for the planet, which I know that the Government wish to achieve. So I support Amendments 93 and 113, and I have added my name to Amendment 114, so excellently explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, again facilitating rules that it will be necessary for schemes to follow, should the Government desire that—which is the indication that I have had from my noble friend the Minister and which is implied in the Government’s Amendment 4.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 91—this is a somewhat variegated group. The amendment was very ably introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and I am privileged to be asked to speak to it—it has widespread support across the political parties and within the public, as well as from key figures such as Sir Ian Cheshire and financial institutions representing no less than £1.18 trillion in assets under management and advice.

The UK is in the invidious position of being a leading financier of global deforestation and linked human rights abuses. This country provided an estimated $16.6 billion to businesses implicated in deforestation over five years to 2020. How many of us have money in pension funds contributing to the £300 billion of UK pension fund money supporting high deforestation risk companies and financial institutions? The Government claim that the answer to this problem—if you like—is the Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures. However, the Government’s own expert Global Resource Initiative task force has already explicitly rejected the TNFD’s disclosure-based model as a solution. It has told the Government that new due diligence laws are needed to stop UK finance flowing to deforestation —and that is precisely what this amendment does.

I am aware of the noble Lord, Lord Field’s rather wonderful Cool Earth charity, which finances indigenous tribes in the great forests to retain the trees and live within them. Amendment 91 is vital to prevent all Cool Earth’s good work being undermined by UK financial institutions investing in high deforestation risk companies. The UK led the Glasgow leaders’ declaration on forests and land use at COP 26, making a commitment to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030, including by realigning financial flows. This amendment begins to meet that commitment; surely, this should not be neglected. My only regret is that the amendment allows for a 24-month delay before due diligence obligations come into force to allow the sector to prepare—and, of course, I understand that sectors need to prepare. But this issue has been debated in Parliament for some months. I wonder how far the sector has reached in its preparations and whether it would support a reduced delay. How does such a delay fit with the view of experts that commodity-driven deforestation must end by 2025 at the latest to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade? A 24-month delay takes us right into 2025. I understand that agricultural expansion drives more than 90% of tropical deforestation. Again, the amendment is business friendly and widely supported, and I hope that the Government will support it and accept it.

Lord Vaux of Harrowden Portrait Lord Vaux of Harrowden (CB)
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My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 15, tabbed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. It aims to ensure that the conservation and enhancement of the natural environment are included in the regulatory principles of the regulators. Like the noble Baroness, I would have preferred another secondary—what is the word?

Financial Services and Markets Bill

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Debate on Amendment 168 resumed.
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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I think we had got on to Amendment 199. Is that correct?

Baroness Fookes Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Fookes) (Con)
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Amendment 168 is the lead amendment; the other amendments are grouped with it. People can debate any amendment within the group.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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Amendment 168 is the lead amendment; that is absolutely right. I think we had got on to Amendment 199. Is that correct, Minister? Are you happy with that?

Baroness Penn Portrait The Parliamentary Secretary, HM Treasury (Baroness Penn) (Con)
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Noble Lords can speak to any amendment in the group once the lead amendment has been put, I believe.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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One or two people had talked to Amendment 199 and I was just about to do the same. Is that okay?

Baroness Fookes Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Fookes) (Con)
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It is in order to speak to any amendments in the group.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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I apologise; I am completely confused.

The due diligence system reintroduced for companies under Schedule 17 to the Environment Act is world-leading in its intentions. However, we have to finish the job to end our financing of deforestation. The GRI Taskforce has been unequivocal in its advice that financial actors should conduct deforestation due diligence too for their own sake as well as for everyone else’s. In the meantime, as somebody mentioned last time, Britain’s financial institutions are contributing $16.6 billion to businesses implicated in deforestation.

This is a huge global issue. Experts say that we must end commodity-driven deforestation by 2025 if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade. At present, as a result of those investments, climate-critical tropical forests are shrinking. This is absolutely appalling. The UN’s high-level climate champions have begun to refer to deforestation as the new coal in investors’ portfolios. There should be no investment in companies involved in deforestation. It is quite simple.

The amendment responds powerfully to the GRI Taskforce’s advice. It has significant cross-party backing in the House of Commons. The Government are inclined to go for a weaker policy against the advice of their own expert task force on deforestation. I hope that the Minister will do all she can to persuade her colleagues in the other place to support Amendment 199 before Report. Rishi Sunak has promised that the UK

“will be the world’s first net zero financial centre”.

His support for Amendment 199 is an obvious step on the way. I thank the WWF, Greenpeace, Global Witness and Mighty Earth for their excellent joint briefing. I call on all noble Lords to support Amendment 199.

Baroness Drake Portrait Baroness Drake (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 168 and 201. I refer to my interests as a trustee of defined benefit and master trust pension schemes.

The loss of financial stability can occur quickly. History shows us that risks that crystallised and caused that instability were often insufficiently captured by regulators and that actions to mitigate their impact were not taken in good time. It would be extraordinary for any Government to believe that financial regulators could deliver the objectives of competitiveness and sustainable growth without embedding in that delivery the finance sector’s response to climate risk.

Climate change brings immense risk, but it is not specifically factored into either the regulatory capital risk requirement for banks or the solvency requirements for insurers. We already see the weaknesses: banks and insurers still retain exposure to fossil fuel investments and a significant number of the largest UK banks do not have interim targets to cut funded emissions. I could quote many other statistics to confirm that weakness.

As the Bank of England stated in the executive summary of the Results of the 2021 Climate Biennial Exploratory Scenario, its assessment is that UK banks and insurers still need to do much more to understand and manage their exposure to climate risks. The Bank admits that there is a lack not only of managing that exposure but of understanding it. That makes Amendment 168 important in calling for a PRA review of capital adequacy and solvency capital requirements, having regard to the full implications of climate change physical, transitional and liability risks and for financial stability.

Failing effectively to factor climate risks into regulatory requirements tolerates the failure of firms that make unwise bets on the continuation of “business as usual”. Inevitably, it necessitates government intervention, socialising of losses and consequences for taxpayers. When a similar amendment was sought previously, the Government argued that the CBES work that I have just referred to would assess the implications of climate change risks for investment, stranded assets and financial stability. However, we have heard from speakers in this debate, including my noble friend Lady Worthington, and read from informed commentators worrying concerns with the work, reinforcing the need for the PRA to review its risk assessment approach and modelling. In a Policy Exchange publication, the former chief economist of ING Group put those concerns succinctly when he concluded that

“central bank scenarios have been based on assumptions and models which ignore or downplay crucial elements of climate risk and critical triggers, tipping points and interdependencies between climate, economy, politics, finance and technology”.

As has just been referred to, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, promised that the UK would create the world’s first net-zero financial centre. However, London recently lost its position as Europe’s most valuable stock market to Paris. The London market is more heavily exposed to unpredictable sectors such as mining and oils and we now see the issue of listings emerging as a problem.

Achieving a net-zero financial sector requires regulators having the necessary mandate and accountability. The finance sector’s practices, as a major investor in companies and as an insurance underwriter, have a vital role to play in the transition towards zero carbon. In an area with which I am familiar, the closure of private defined benefit pension schemes has been followed by an accelerating trend for trustees to enter buy-out financial agreements with insurance companies, paying premiums in return for individual annuity policies covering members, with assets and liabilities transferring to insurers.

Buy-in is also occurring, such as the record-breaking £6.5 billion buy-in recently by the RSA pension scheme. That market saw a £30 billion transfer in 2022 of pension liability to insurers. It could exceed £40 billion in 2023. There were many billions that preceded 2022 and the trend means that there will be many more in 2024. Auto-enrolment means that billions of pounds of defined contributions are being invested each year. The market is consolidating into fewer master trusts, some set up by vertically integrated finance companies that also manage the assets in those trusts, and individual pensioners. Tomorrow’s pensioners will be much more dependent on insurer stability. That clearly reinforces the need for the PRA review and for raising the bar on the investment duties of asset managers, as Amendment 201 seeks, by requiring the FCA to publish guidance on the consideration by investment managers of the long-term consequences of decisions, the societal and environmental impact of investments, standards of conduct in governance and transparency of reporting.

The UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association reports that it continues to see a common lack of understanding within financial services on the extent to which ESG factors form a core component of investors’ fiduciary duties. The Principles for Responsible Investment Association similarly identified that lack of understanding and recommended further regulator guidance. As a jobbing trustee, for want of a better phrase, there is a part of me that wonders to what extent there is such a lack of understanding, rather than a reluctance to understand, but there is a problem. The investment association found that only 14% of members incorporated ESG across their entire portfolio in 2019, while 44% said that it accounted for less than 25% of their portfolio.

The Government want to see more productive investment by the financial sector. For government to direct how citizens’ private assets are invested would displace fiduciary duties which rest with trustees, providers and asset managers and raise issues of state liability, political expediency trumping best interest and litigation. Amendment 201 could assist regulators, providers and asset managers in considering decisions on productive investment consistent with fiduciary duties and identifying the barriers to aligning these. We can perhaps address some of those barriers on another amendment later in the Bill.

However, the ability of trustees to discharge their ESG and climate risk duties to greatest effect has a clear dependency on how regulators expect asset managers to discharge their duties. We cannot do ours well unless asset managers do theirs well, too. It also depends on central bank scenarios and the regulation of the finance sector’s response to climate risk, because it will influence attitudes and the value of different assets. The whole eco- system needs improvement in both transparency and due diligence. The two amendments that I speak to, on the PRA reviewing its whole approach to modelling, regulating and embedding climate risk, and the contribution that asset managers are required to make to mitigating climate risk, both have merit and are badly needed.

Baroness Wheatcroft Portrait Baroness Wheatcroft (CB)
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My Lords, this group of amendments has already been spoken to by several eloquent speakers. I support the amendments in this group, but I shall speak particularly to Amendments 233 and 235 to 237, to which I put my name. The common thread in them is encouraging financial institutions to be serious about their intention of helping the country meet its net-zero target. If the Government are serious about that target, they will surely see the merit in these amendments.

Financial institutions may understand that the long-term health of countries, their economies and their businesses requires a focus on net zero, but short-term considerations such as this year’s profit all too often influence their decisions. Hence, in 2021, the 44 largest members of the Net-Zero Banking Alliance, a group that includes Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds, Nationwide and NatWest, provided $143.6 billion in lending and underwriting for the 75 companies doing the most to expand oil and gas. Principles sometimes come too expensive for these institutions to follow. If those organisations are to be discouraged from such behaviour, in their own long-term interests as well as ours, it will be by forcing them to make firm environmental commitments and to publicly report on them.

It seems that the Government have shared this view. According to a report in the Financial Times last May:

“Ministers made a last-minute decision to withdraw plans to force big UK companies and asset managers to disclose their environmental impact”.


They decided to drop that from the Queen’s Speech at the last moment. The sustainability disclosure requirements were apparently seen as being at odds with the Government’s deregulatory strategy. There is plenty of deregulation rhetoric around at the moment, but those of us who were in the Chamber yesterday for the agonising discussion of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill might feel that the strategy was far from evident.

These amendments are intended to provide help to the Government as they seek to implement their net-zero strategy. Amendment 233 would do for financial organisations what the Government have been planning for business generally. It would require the financial regulators—the FCA and the PRA—and Ministers to make regulations by the end of this year requiring sustainability disclosures for listed firms, fund managers, personal pension providers, banks, insurers and pension schemes.

In addressing this amendment, perhaps the Minister will confirm that this complies with the Government’s thinking in the wake of COP 26, when the transition plan task force was set to work to look at how large companies and financial firms should be required to report on how they are managing the transition to net zero. If the Minister accepts that, will she explain why this Bill should not contain this amendment?

Amendment 236 further details requirements. Amendment 237 complements Amendment 201. It refers to pension schemes and requires trustees to have regard to the long-term effects of their investment decisions. Pensions are all about the long term, so they should have regard to the long-term effects of their decisions, not the short-term effect on the bottom line for the fund manager who is interested in his bonus that year. A little legislation to help them on their way to doing the right thing seems a good idea.

The aim of Amendment 235 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is, essentially, to provide that help to institutions in making these crucial decisions. A green taxonomy—long discussed—needs measurable criteria and this amendment would require the Treasury to provide a framework for that. As the Minister said, the Government are—apparently—committed to implementing the green taxonomy. This amendment, like the others in the group, seeks only to encourage the Government to demonstrate their commitment with the sense of urgency that is now required.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I wish to speak extremely briefly to support my noble friend Lady Boycott—I am sorry, I did not see the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan.

Baroness Sheehan Portrait Baroness Sheehan (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft. I am sorry that I kept bobbing up and down while she was speaking.

This is an essential group of amendments, several of which I have added my name to. They are important because billions to trillions of pounds will be invested over the near to medium term into an economy that is transforming with increasing rapidity into a low-carbon one. It is clear that climate risk is financial risk: returns on investments and the ability to pay back loans are exposed to the risks of rising temperatures, as evidenced by recent catastrophic climatic events, and action taken by policymakers to transition to a low-carbon economy, such as the US Inflation Reduction Act.

Businesses, big and small alike, are poised to pull the start trigger on investments but are held back in the UK by lack of clarity about the Government’s intentions. The Government have made the right noises but not followed through, leaving doubt and uncertainty in their wake. The situation is urgent. The US Inflation Reduction Act is a game-changer, and the EU will follow suit. Green investment is the future. Our businesses know that but are hesitating to commit, waiting for a clear signal from the Government that they are 100% behind the green revolution. Currently, the messages are rather mixed. 

For the sake of the debate’s flow, I will address the amendments to which I have added my name before addressing my Amendment 232. I start with Amendment 168, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington. Climate risk is not specifically factored into either the regulatory capital risk requirements for banks or the solvency requirements for insurers. I support Amendment 168 and have added my name to it. I have pursued the theme of stranded assets for several years. I am concerned that the taxpayer is not left to pick up the cost, for example, of decommissioning oil and gas platforms in the North Sea abandoned after profits have been creamed off. How much better it would be if the Government clearly laid out a framework, via their regulator, that the risks in financing fossil fuel exploration, exploitation and production, as well as other climate risk-exposed sectors, must be taken into account prior to investment decisions being made.

I move on swiftly to Amendment 199 on deforestation. After fossil fuels, deforestation is—as the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, pointed out—the second-largest contributor to global warming. It is responsible for 12% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists tell us that, to stand any chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees centigrade, commodity-driven deforestation must be ended by 2025.

What happens to rainforests matters to us all. In fact, although thousands of miles away, the UK has a large deforestation footprint. It is for this reason that, in July 2021, I and noble Peers from across the House tabled amendments on the issue to the Environment Bill, now the Environment Act 2021. I was pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, poised to add her contribution to this. I commend the Government for the action that they have already taken on this issue. Schedule 17 to the Environment Act was the first time that forest risk commodities have been addressed in legislation.

As already mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, Sir Ian Cheshire, the former chair of Barclays and head of the Government’s own Global Resource Initiative task force, tells us in an open letter dated 23 January and addressed to the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Penn; Andrew Griffith, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury; and all Members of the House of Lords:

“Under forthcoming secondary regulations, large companies will be required to establish a due diligence system to assess and mitigate the risk of importing commodities grown on illegally deforested land, reporting annually on their progress”.


When the Minister comes to reply, can she tell us when we may expect to see these regulations?

Sir Ian goes on to say that

“while this is an important step, regulating supply chains alone is not enough”.

It is therefore recommended that

“the Government should make it illegal for financial institutions to invest in or lend to supply chain companies that are unable to demonstrate forest risk commodities have been produced in compliance with ‘local laws’ (i.e. legally)”.

Farmers and Landowners: Tax Consequences

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Monday 28th November 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

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Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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As I said, the tax rules should not have a bearing on many environmental activities under the ELM schemes. We are cognisant, particularly where there may be a change of land use, that this could invoke questions of tax treatments—although, even if the land may not be used for agriculture any more, it may often still qualify for business property relief, for example, as an alternative inheritance tax relief.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, following up the question from the Labour Front Bench, could the Minister indicate the timing? When will the Government be able to clarify these issues in relation to the many parts the Minister referred to?

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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As I understand it—I am working hard to make sure that I fully understand the tax implications of these schemes, but I am not yet as well versed in these things as my noble friend Lord Benyon—we are still designing the landscape recovery scheme and piloting different approaches. Those schemes are not expected to be rolled out in full until 2024, so that work is ongoing. On other schemes that are already in place, we do not expect the larger-scale schemes for farmers, such as the sustainable farming initiative, to have significant tax implications for farmers.

Budget Statement

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Thursday 27th March 2014

(10 years, 2 months ago)

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Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I rise to address a widespread concern about a single sector of our economy, the NHS, and to pursue the statement from the chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Dr Maureen Baker, who described the Chancellor’s Budget as,

“yet another blow for patients and for general practice”.

I should declare my interest in the NHS.

General practice provides about 90% of all NHS patient contacts and yet its funding now stands at an all-time low of 8.39% of the NHS budget. People justify the squeeze on GPs because they had a good pay rise in the 2004 contract. We need to remember why that increase occurred. At the time there was a recruitment crisis in general practice and GPs’ incomes had fallen behind those of comparable professional groups. This was a catch-up settlement. Since then GPs’ pay has fallen by 11% in the four years 2008 to 2012, and we are now back in the situation we had in 2004—a recruitment and retention crisis. Advertisements for GPs which five years ago would have generated 40 to 50 responses now generate none or possibly one. Young doctors who would have become GPs four or five years ago are now looking for jobs abroad. Indeed, they are looking for careers abroad; they are not going to come back. At the other end of their careers many GPs are retiring—far too many—at the age of 50. The inevitable results are delayed hospital admissions and more expensive and prolonged hospital treatments due to delayed interventions. These unnecessary hospital expenditures absorb excessive funds and lead to further cuts to primary care, and so the downward spiral continues.

A recent King’s Fund report points to the growing consensus that if we are ever to sort out the demands of an increasing and ageing population at a time of financial constraint, the NHS must deliver services closer to people’s homes and focus more on prevention rather than simply treating people in hospital down the line. The funding crisis is undermining this objective and indeed threatening the capacity of the NHS as a whole to meet the challenges ahead.

Some may argue that this is a matter for the Department of Health and the distribution of funds within the NHS. That is only partly true. My concern is that the overall funding of the NHS is the problem. The demand for the NHS to find £20 billion of so-called productivity improvements by 2015 has, in fact, led to swingeing cuts alongside efficiency savings.

The NHS chief executive, Sir David Nicholson, recently pointed out that although politicians say that the NHS has been protected financially, this is only relative to the extraordinary level of real cuts in other public services, and crucially, neglects the growth in the demand for healthcare—which, of course, always rises due to demographic changes and other factors. Also in 2015-16, around £3.8 billion, or 3.3% of the entire NHS budget, will be transferred from the NHS to local government as part of the ring-fenced “integration transformation fund”. There will in fact be a 2% real-terms cut in the healthcare budget in 2015-16; and we will have had a real-terms cut of 1.4% for the period from 2009-10 to 2015-16. The NHS is therefore expected to meet the demands of more and more people with less and less money. By international standards, the NHS is, as we know, a low-cost service.

The only way that such huge cuts could be achieved while improving or at least maintaining the quality of service to patients would be through major reconfigurations of services. However, progress with these essential changes is hampered by the activities of the competition authorities and the tendency of politicians to fight to preserve local services even when these are not viable.

To add to the pressures on GPs, £104 million of this year’s savings by local authorities is coming from the direct withdrawal of services. The number of district nurses has plummeted by 40% in the past decade—and as always when these things happen, the buck seems to stop with the GP. Some 87% of councils now respond only to needs classified as “substantial” or “critical” under the fair access to care criteria. As a result, the number of older people receiving publicly funded services has fallen by 26% since 2009-10. The decline has been 21% for working age adults. What this does to the economy as more and more people are sick and not obtaining treatment does not bear thinking about.

As a result of all this, GPs are experiencing ballooning workloads. It is apparently quite normal for a GP not only to work 11 to 12 hours a day—as many of us do—but to deal with 60 patients per day, some over the phone but most of them face to face. GPs regularly do this, day after day. I regard it as unacceptable to expect any human being to make complex and responsible decisions in relation to so many people each day. Any of those 60 people might be facing a life or death situation and the wrong decision could, in fact, cause them to die. The reality is that errors will be made. Patients will suffer as a direct result of the financial pressure on the NHS and therefore upon general practice. Some 49% of GPs say they feel they can no longer guarantee safe care for their patients. If our health service collapses the Government will find it incredibly difficult to achieve any of the objectives that the Minister set out today.

Any opinion poll will tell the Chancellor that rectifying the problem and reducing the risks to patients is a top priority for voters, and yet there was nothing in the Budget to alleviate these problems. I appeal to the Minister to draw these concerns to the attention of the Chancellor.

National Infrastructure Plan

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Wednesday 4th December 2013

(10 years, 6 months ago)

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Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I speak as somebody who studied a bit of economics a very long time ago. All Ministers understand as well as I do that what happened in 2008 was, in fact, a banking crisis that began in the United States and affected the western world. We happen to have some big banks here and it therefore caused us some difficulties. It is not fair to neglect, over and over again, where this all started.

Lord Deighton Portrait Lord Deighton
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I thank the noble Baroness for broadening the perspective of the debate. While I accept that the banking crisis was an important contributor, it is clear to me, from my time in the Treasury, that the spending planned through those last few years created significant problems for this country.

Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Monday 25th February 2013

(11 years, 3 months ago)

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Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Portrait Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town
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My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 1 in the name of my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher
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My Lords, I support Amendment 1, which seeks to ensure that the Government have flexibility to increase benefits in 2014-15 and 2015-16 taking account of the level of inflation at the time. The amendment does not seek to impose a particular percentage increase in benefits in any year. It simply seeks to avoid the straitjacket imposed by the Bill as it stands.

Amendment 1 covers all the benefits and claimant groups referred to in Schedule 1. It would therefore leave open the possibility of a Government deciding to protect a particular group, perhaps disabled people or children. This amendment has become particularly pertinent in the light of the downgrading of the British economy by the ratings agency Moody’s at the end of last week, along with the anticipation of yet more quantitative easing and the expectation that in these circumstances we will have more inflation year by year. That inflation comes on top of a level of inflation which is already above 1%, which is vital to this set of amendments and, indeed, to the Bill.

This Bill has to be considered in context. As noble Lords know very well, last year’s Welfare Reform Act has already capped benefits and imposed the bedroom tax so that an increasing percentage of everyone’s rent will be paid out of their personal allowance, leaving them with the most pathetically small amount of money to cover food, heating, clothing and other necessities. Also, the Government have already changed the basis of annual welfare benefit increases from the RPI to the CPI. This is absolutely crucial because that measure alone, before this Bill, is expected to save £5.8 billion a year. Such savings can be achieved only through imposing the most incredible hardship on many of the most vulnerable people in this country. The proposed limiting of upratings to an increase of 1% will be an increase in the consumer prices index, not the retail prices index, so it is not even going to cover an inflation rate of 1%. That is how bad it is. It is the compounding of the previous Welfare Reform Act with this Bill that is so deeply shocking to many of us.

The cumulative impact of all these changes and the proposed 1% uprating limit is not yet fully understood even by the experts in the field, let alone by its victims. But it is not surprising that there is deep concern in those organisations which have to work with vulnerable people, including the CAB service. It is worried stiff about its clients and the capacity of the bureaux to cope with what is going to be an unimaginable flood of people in desperate circumstances. The Government are breaking the long-standing link between annual incremental increases in benefits and prices. Once lost, it will be very difficult to restore it. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that happening for decades. That is how serious this is. It is not just one little part of a Bill; it is actually historic because it changes the whole way we look at increases in welfare benefits.

Has the Minister undertaken an impact assessment on this Bill, including an estimate of the likely cost of increased mental breakdowns and the resulting impact on mental health services? Has the Minister assessed the costs arising from the result of increased crime rates and the impact on the criminal justice system, and from the impact of increased homelessness on local authorities? Also, I refer to the overall impact on communities of what I fear we will see in terms of increased unrest. It is very difficult to believe that we will not experience unrest in communities that are profoundly hit by the combination of all these changes—not just arising from this Bill, but from a combination of everything that is being done. I would be grateful if the Minister would reply to this question: has the impact of this Bill, combined with the previous Bill, been fully assessed in terms of services and costs? If these implications have not yet been estimated, does the Minister agree that that must be done before implementation of this Bill?

I want to challenge the Government’s rationale for this uprating Bill—that welfare benefit increases must take account of the public sector pay freeze and the low level of pay increases across the economy in recent years. Citizens Advice is right to argue that a 1% increase means something very different to somebody on an average wage from what it means to somebody on welfare benefits. A 20% increase in out-of-work benefits in the period 2007-12 resulted in an average annual increase in income of only £2.37 per week. A lower percentage increase, of 15%, in public sector pay during the same period provided an average increase in income for public sector workers more than five times greater. It was a lower percentage but a much greater increase in actual terms.

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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Portrait Lord Forsyth of Drumlean
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My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on some points made by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. I have the highest respect for the noble Lord, Lord Low, and nothing would give me greater pleasure than to vote for the amendment. There is a problem, however, in that we cannot afford to vote for the amendment. The noble Baroness who has just spoken talked about cuts. We are not talking about cuts but about not having increases. It is true that there might be cuts because of inflation, but if we go down the road proposed by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, inflation will be even higher and the cuts will be more severe. It was Lord Callaghan who pointed out, as a Labour Prime Minister in the 1970s—sometimes I feel that we have gone back to the 1970s; even the Daleks made an appearance in Westminster last week—that inflation is the father and mother of unemployment.

It is really quite extraordinary for the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, to make so much of the rating agency’s downrating of the UK from AAA status. I do not know whether he has read what the rating agency had to say about why that downrating was being made. It was because the agency believed that the Government would not be able to meet the targets that they had set, and which the Opposition are constantly urging us to abandon. The noble Lord talked about the impact of the sliding pound and of inflation, which is a consequence of not meeting these targets. On the idea that finding money out of thin air will not hurt the poorest hardest in the long term, because of the inflation that would be created and the impact it would have on the pound, the hard reality is that we simply cannot afford to do what the noble Lord, Lord Low, would ask of us.

It is the cheapest of cheap politics to keep going on about millionaires being given a subsidy. First, that assumes that the state is entitled to their money and that it can spend that money better than they can; and, secondly, that if they spend it by investing or buying goods it will not generate wealth and prosperity in the economy, while somehow a state bureaucracy involved in spending money and taking it by force through an Administration will get better value and growth. That is a delusion which we happily abandoned in the 1970s when we abandoned rates of income tax at 98% and discovered that the consequence of cutting taxes to 40% was that the rich ended up paying a higher proportion of tax than in the past. Already we are seeing that the proportion of tax paid by the very rich is falling and the proportion paid by the poorest is rising. That is not as a consequence of the recent measures made by my right honourable friend the Chancellor in his Budget but as a consequence of the politically inspired 50% tax, which the previous Government introduced as some kind of political gesture to try to create division between the parties.

We can all make speeches saying that we would like to have more money available for those who are poorest but if we were to follow the prescriptions of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and his party—in so far as we can work out what their prescriptions are—the effect would be higher inflation, higher interest rates and higher unemployment, with those who are poorest in our country being the most disadvantaged. It would not be the rich or the people in the public sector but those who are unemployed, while the prospects for new jobs would be reduced.

I say to my noble friend that she is right to press ahead and, I hope, to reject this amendment. It is not because we do not care about those who are most vulnerable in our society but precisely because we do that we want an economic policy that will deliver the wealth that is necessary to pay the bills. The truth is that we are in this mess because the previous Labour Government spent money on welfare that was based on an unsustainable bubble. That is why we now have the problem. It is very regrettable that noble Lords opposite should seek to make party politics out of this issue while not acknowledging the very heavy burden of responsibility they carry for having brought this situation about and the real courage being shown by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in bringing forward this Bill. It is trying to bring into effect a welfare system that will be within our means and will recognise the need to encourage those who have the greatest need.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher
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It is very fashionable to blame the previous Government for our predicament but does the noble Lord accept that the banks have to carry perhaps 90% of the burden of responsibility, and that the banking crisis started in the United States—not even in this country? In fact, if there was a weakness, it was in the degree of regulation. My understanding is that the previous Conservative Administration opposed even the level of regulation that this country had. This is therefore not a party political issue; it is about banking, and this country has been deeply wounded by the banking crisis.

The other question for the noble Lord is whether he accepts, as Lord Maynard Keynes argued rather powerfully, that if you are in a terrible state of recession the best way to get yourself out of it is to generate growth. That means that you should not be withdrawing demand from the economy in this incredibly irresponsible way. What the Government are doing is very worrying.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Portrait Lord Forsyth of Drumlean
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I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. I disagree with the idea that leaving money, as Gladstone would have put it, to fructify in the pockets of the people is withdrawing money from the economy, and that somehow the state would spend that money more effectively.

As to her particular question about whether I accept that all this difficulty was caused by the banking crisis, no, I do not. I think that the banking crisis was caused by the monetary policy being pursued by the previous Government by targeting inflation. The noble Baroness seems surprised by this, but the fundamental causes of the financial crisis were the huge financial surpluses that were being built up—I hesitate to stray too far from the amendment—in China and the Middle East, which kept interest rates low, and an inflation-targeting policy being pursued by the Bank of England that meant that they were very low interest rates. As a result, the banks tried to go for yield. The banks were certainly at fault in devising packages that they thought would reduce risk and give a higher return, and it is certainly true that regulators such as the FSA should have been on to this.

However, the fundamental point is that while Labour were in charge they did nothing about that; indeed, they revelled in it. We were told that they had abolished boom and bust, and that they had come up with a new paradigm. That is why that Labour Government, even at the height of the boom, with huge revenues coming in and house prices and asset prices going through the roof, did nothing except collect the tax. Instead of putting the tax away for a rainy day, what did they do? They spent it on welfare that they could not afford, and when the boom collapsed there was a sudden gap in the market that my right honourable friend is now having to deal with. So let us not rewrite history here; let the Labour Party take responsibility for what it did in government.

The fact is that under both Governments we have been living beyond our means. We have been spending about 10% more than we earn, and we have been saving nothing. We need to save 10%. The consequence of that is that our living standards will fall unless we are able to create growth, and you do not create growth with the state taking more and more from the productive part of the private sector. According to the OECD, close to 50% of our GDP is being spent by the Government. We used to define communist countries as those where more than 50% of the state’s production was spent by the Government.

I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that this is not an easy amendment to oppose—of course it is not—but she is absolutely right to do so because it is in the long-term interests of the most vulnerable people in our country that we stick to this policy and do not go further down the road that has brought us to this mess. If we travel down that road, it will mean that the hardship endured by the most vulnerable will be all the greater.

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby
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My Lords, at the risk of repeating arguments made in earlier debates, I remind the Committee of the context of the Bill. This country is still recovering from the most damaging financial crisis for generations. When this Government came to power, the state was borrowing £1 in every £4 that it spent. Even before the recession, the UK had the highest structural deficit in the G7 and between 1997 and 2010 welfare spending increased by some 60% in real terms. Welfare spending now accounts for more than a quarter of government spending: that is, more than £200 billion. The £1.9 billion of savings enabled by this Bill in 2015-16 is a necessary part of helping to reduce public spending, tackle the deficit and secure the economic recovery.

Amendments 1 and 9, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, would remove the 1% uprating figure in the Bill in Clause 1 and Clause 2. The effect of these amendments would be to give the Government discretion over benefit levels on an annual basis in much the same way as under existing legislation. As I have already explained, we believe it is vital that we set out credible plans for the longer term. The Bill is needed to enable us to set out our uprating policy over several years so that we can be sure we will deliver those £1.9 billion worth of savings.

My speaking notes at this point said that this amendment would completely undermine that core purpose of the Bill. I was relieved, but not surprised, that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, used that very word to define the effect of these amendments. He said that the amendments would undermine and, indeed, negate the core purpose of the Bill. They would, and so a vote for these amendments would be equivalent to a vote against the Bill at Second Reading. I note that the amendments, while removing the 1% figure, do not suggest an alternative uprating metric. If we assume that the noble Lord’s intention is that we operate in line with the CPI, this would obviously not deliver the savings we are talking about. I remind the Committee that the £1.9 billion worth of savings that this Bill will generate in 2015-16 are equivalent to the salaries of about 45,000 nurses and about 40,000 teachers, so these are not negligible amounts, as some noble Lords have suggested, and the savings would have to be found somewhere else.

As I say, the amendments undermine the purpose of the Bill and, frankly, demonstrate a fundamental difference of opinion between the two sides of the House on how we deal with the current economic situation. The Government believe that the main priority is to get spending under control, reduce the deficit and restore growth. The Bill helps us to achieve that. At the same time, we are implementing policies that make a real difference to people’s lives—people of the most modest means. Let me name just a few of them: universal credit; the pupil premium; reform of early years education; tackling problem debt; and lifting people out of paying income tax through raising the personal allowance. We believe that these policies are vital if we are to have a real and sustainable impact on poverty over the medium to longer term. We cannot simply focus on increasing incomes through welfare payments, lifting people just above the poverty line.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, asked me a number of questions about the impact assessment. I remind the Committee that we published a detailed impact assessment for the Bill, which includes details of the impact by family type, and have made public details of the impacts on relative child poverty. She asked whether we could delay the changes until we had a broader impact assessment that covered the impact on mental health, crime and, I think she said, social unrest. As regards the impact on crime, it seems to me that the noble Baroness is being completely unrealistic to believe that such an impact can be measured with any degree of precision. At the start of the downturn, most commentators believed that crime rates would rise substantially. If one had taken the average view of people in the know, that is what one would have put in an impact assessment. The truth is that crime rates have not risen substantially. They have fallen. I obviously welcome that. I make that point only to make the more general point that, while one can make an impact assessment that covers some things with a reasonable degree of precision, on other things—on crime, for example—it is impossible to do what the noble Baroness wants. That is why the impact assessment is couched in the terms that it is.

The noble Baroness asked about exceptions or exemptions from direct payment. We are not setting out the exemptions in the regulations because they will be based on individual needs and assessments. Individuals will work with an adviser via Jobcentre Plus. There will be personal budgeting support, which will contain two elements: money advice, to help people who cannot manage monthly payments, and alternative payment arrangements, which include rent paid direct to landlords, more frequent payments and payments split between partners. These will be undertaken on an individual basis.

I do not really want to get involved in a long macroeconomic discussion. I would like to get involved in one, but perhaps I might simply refer the noble Baroness to the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Desai, in the Financial Times last week. It seemed to explain extremely carefully and clearly why this downturn is not like the typical Keynesian downturn that we have seen in the past. I would commend that letter to all noble Lords who are looking for a primer on why the Government are following the line that they are.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher
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I thank the Minister for attempting to respond to some of my questions. Perhaps I may return to the one on the impact assessment. The Minister referred to the crime issue and I accept that we have had a long-term decline in crime. However, I am not sure that that makes it impossible to look at the increase in the amount of crime among benefit recipients; that is something precise worth looking at. Moreover, I do not think that that negates the possibility of looking at the amount of mental breakdown among benefit recipients. Again, that is one of my main concerns, having been involved in mental health services for 25 years. I fear that there will be quite a dramatic increase in mental breakdown and an incredible impact on a very tight psychiatric service. In particular, in-patient beds have been cut over many, many years. It would be helpful if he could look at that.

Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby
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I think that the difficulty—and I may be wrong—in terms of mental health is that the noble Baroness is very worried about what might happen. She may be right and she may not be right, but it is difficult to model—in the way required in an impact assessment—that kind of change which has not happened. As far as I am aware—she will know much more than I do—you cannot go back and say, “This is what happened in the past”, which would give us the kind of experience that would enable us to say in an impact assessment, which is a very specific thing, that these outcomes are predicted with any degree of certainty.

I will talk to officials about this. I realise it is a potential problem. However, I still maintain that while there are some things that can be relatively clearly enumerated in an impact assessment, some other things are very difficult to the point that the value of attempting the exercise is relatively low.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher
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I am sorry for standing up again but I want to clarify the point; otherwise we will be left with a misunderstanding. I was saying in my speech that it would be helpful to have an impact assessment of what has happened in, say, two years’ time. I agree that we cannot look at these things prospectively, so I want to clarify that. I am suggesting postponing implementation until an impact assessment can be undertaken in real terms.

Lord Howarth of Newport Portrait Lord Howarth of Newport
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Will the Minister acknowledge that there is abundant evidence that incidences of crime and mental illness are significantly higher in more unequal societies? Given that the tendency of the policies in the Bill will be to exacerbate inequality, is not the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, well justified in her anxiety, and should not the Government be taking great care to examine the potential impact of these policies?