HC Deb 17 March 1987 vol 112 cc815-7

I start with the economic background. Nineteen eighty-six was dominated by the sudden collapse of the oil price. Our own economy was affected not only directly, as a major oil producer and exporter, but also by the pause in world growth as the world economy adjusted to what has been described as the third oil shock. Despite this dislocation, however, the economy has developed in most respects as I foreshadowed a year ago.

In 1986 as a whole output grew by a further 2½ per cent., or so, which compares well with the experience of other industrialised countries. It is worth recalling that during the 1960s, and again in the 1970s, Britain's growth rate was the lowest of all the major European economies. By contrast, during the 1980s, our growth rate has been the highest of all the major European economies.

This greatly improved growth performance has been accompanied by falling inflation, which at 3½ per cent. in 1986 reached the lowest figure for almost 20 years. Over the lifetime of this Parliament, inflation has averaged less than 5 per cent.

During the first half of last year, exports and hence output were affected by the pause in world growth to which I have already referred. But since the middle of the year exports have grown strongly. Indeed, over the last three months the volume of exports of manufactures was 6 per cent. higher than a year earlier — a better performance than that of any other major economy. This pattern was reflected in the rapid growth of manufacturing output in the second half of last year.

This resurgence of economic growth, coupled with the special measures we have taken, has brought about a welcome fall in the number of people out of work. Since July unemployment has fallen by more than 100,000, the largest six-monthly fall since 1973. Though the numbers out of work are still far too high, both youth unemployment and long-term unemployment are now lower than they were a year ago.

I announced a number of specific employment measures in my last Budget, and since then my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Employment has further extended the restart programme for the long-term unemployed. There will also be more places on the enterprise allowance scheme, and the number of jobclubs is to be quadrupled. The new job training scheme will eventually give a quarter of a million people, most of them youngsters, vocational training leading to recognised qualifications. With these and other measures, this Government have developed their employment and training programmes on a scale which no other country can match. But the best hope of all for the unemployed is in the continued vigour of the economy.

Since the early months of last year, there has been a further surge in manufacturing productivity. This continues the remarkable improvement in productivity growth achieved by British industry throughout the 1980s. During the 1960s, and again in the 1970s, growth in manufacturing productivity in the United Kingdom was the lowest of all the seven major industrial countries in the world. During the 1980s, our annual rate of growth of output per head in manufacturing has been the highest of all the seven major industrial countries.

The recorded current account of the balance of payments went into deficit in 1986 by around £1 billion. This followed a cumulative current account surplus of some £20 billion between 1979 and 1985. Some deterioration in our current account was inevitable in the face of a £4 billion loss of earnings on oil trade virtually overnight. But the significance of this should not be exaggerated. The exchange rate adjustment that followed the fall in the oil price is already contributing to an improved non-oil trade performance. And earnings from the massive stock of net overseas assets we have acquired since 1979 will provide a continuing support to the current account in the years ahead. At well over £100 billion, our net overseas assets are now greater than at any time since the war, and second only to those of Japan.

Looking ahead, I expect 1987 to be another year of balanced growth with low inflation. Total output is forecast to rise by 3 per cent., with exports and investment up by rather more than that. By then we will have registered the longest period of steady growth, at a rate approaching 3 per cent. a year, that the British economy has known since the war. Manufacturing industry, in particular, should do well in 1987. and with the non-oil economy set to grow at 3½ per cent., there is every prospect of unemployment continuing to fall throughout the year.

In last year's Budget speech I said that the outlook for jobs depended on a sustained improvement in the performance of business and industry. That sustained improvement in economic performance is now well under way.

Despite the strong growth in exports, it will inevitably take time for the full effect of the exchange rate adjustment to work through. The current account is thus likely to remain in deficit this year, by some £2½ billion, around half of 1 per cent. of GDP.

As I foreshadowed in the autumn statement, inflation may continue to edge up for a time, perhaps exceeding 4½ per cent. by the summer, before falling back to 4 per cent. by the end of the year. While short-term fluctuations are inescapable, it remains the Government's prime objective to keep inflation on an underlying downward trend.

Given the continuation of present policies in this country, the biggest risk to the excellent prospect I have outlined is that of a downturn in the world economy as a whole. There are still serious imbalances afflicting the three major economies—the United States, on the one hand, and Japan and Germany on the other—which, if not handled properly, could lead to a simultaneous downturn in all three. And this in turn could be exaggerated by renewed turmoil in the foreign exchange markets, whose tendency to overshoot is as notorious as it is damaging.

It was to address these dangers that the Finance Ministers and central bank governors of six major nations met in Paris last month, and agreed among other things to co-operate closely in fostering a period of exchange rate stability. In my Budget speech last year, I said: Provided we are not over-ambitious, I believe that the Plaza accord is something we can usefully build on."—[Official Report, 18 March 1986; Vol. 94, c. 167.] That is what we have now done, with Plaza II. But it would be idle to deny that the wider risks still remain.

Short of a world downturn, which can and must be avoided, British industry now has an outstanding opportunity, with growing markets at home and overseas, low inflation, rapidly growing productivity and greatly improved profitability. Provided it can control its costs and maintain its present competitive advantage, and assuming the continuation of present policies, we can look forward to many more years of strong growth combined with low inflation.