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8.27 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I have been listening to an extraordinary debate. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) complained about the marketplace and demanded intervention on the price of housing and the shortage of public sector workers. He seemed to have forgotten that the Government have successfully reduced unemployment in his constituency to such an extent that there is a problem, which has been acknowledged, but that is what markets do. I would have thought that he, more than anyone, would have recognised that.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) claimed to have fathered Prudence, and the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) waltzed us through the past and rewrote history. He failed to acknowledge that we have gone through the little gate--"portillo" is the only Spanish word I know; it means little gate--and entered a large room. In that room, which is a bit like the Tardis, we have discovered the truth of Conservative policies: massive under-investment, bigger debts, mass unemployment and national despair. He seemed to have forgotten that.

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I do not want to approach matters in the same way. Instead, I want to look at the reality in my constituency. The principal actions of the Government have created economic stability by giving the Bank of England independence and implementing tough fiscal rules. In some respects, the first two years of this Administration were painful in my constituency, but we are now beginning to see real benefits as a result of falling unemployment and massive reductions in mortgage rates, and those benefits will be sustained. Employment for all is becoming a reality.

Ironically, as I said during the statement on the Vauxhall problem in Luton, it is not more than a handful of years ago that parts of my constituency suffered from mass unemployment. The figures in some wards were immoral and were in excess of 20 per cent. As a result of a partnership between local government, central Government and the private sector, we have seen significant investment that has brought about an economic revival. There are still some problems to which I will refer, and I should be grateful if those on the Treasury Bench would take note of some of my suggestions.

We have seen public service investment and, quite rightly, it has been focused on areas of great need such as health, education and law and order. However, for many of those projects, investment takes a long time to come through. It is not possible to build overnight the mental health hospital that has been so desperately needed in my constituency. We cannot refurbish overnight the accident and emergency unit at the Countess of Chester hospital, but it has now been done. We cannot re-establish overnight--and not at all under the previous Administration--the primary care surgery in the Westminster ward of my constituency. Under the previous Administration it was regarded as a no-hope area, a small backwater that did not really matter. That, coupled with the fact that it was a one-doctor practice, meant that it did not matter. That surgery is now working and is properly equipped to a high standard, but it has taken time.

We are now seeing significant reductions in child and pensioner poverty. Contrary to what was said by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea, pensioners in my constituency positively welcomed the Chancellor's statement about pension changes. Many of my pensioners are on small occupational pensions. Many of those from the blue-collar sector only joined their schemes in the mid-1970s when the actions of a Labour Government made that possible. Consequently, they are retiring on the occupational pension of half a working life, so the amounts are fairly low. When they have that and their state benefits, it is positively to their advantage to receive additional payments such as the £200 winter fuel allowance, free television licences and free eye tests, all outside the tax regime. It more than compensates them for some of the rather silly ideas that we have heard from the Opposition this week.

I want to consider the attitude of pensioners. I have been talking to pensioners and they have said that they do not trust the Conservative party. I would be the first to admit that in my constituency, there was uproar at the impact of the first two years of inherited Tory spending plans and the figures that emerged as a result of relatively

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low inflation, but pensioners have said unequivocally that they do not want to go back to what they had in the 1980s under the previous Government.

My town is dominated by the petrochemical industry and, as is the pattern in virtually every petrochemical town throughout the western world, small pockets of housing were built in close proximity to the industry where the chemical workers originally lived. As the industry has become more prosperous, and as a function of technology there are fewer people, those pockets of housing are now areas of quite severe poverty. My constituency has five wards in the poorest 10 per cent. of household income category in the country. Some of the Government's programmes have helped to raise the base level for those families. The application of various phases of the single regeneration budget, under both this Government and the previous Administration, have been helpful. Neighbourhood renewal has been helpful, too. Recently, we have had some fantastic help as a result of the introduction of the education action zone in the constituency and a massive public-private partnership to redevelop five derelict schools. The development of sure start and other programmes has also been helpful.

I urge the Government to look at those programmes in a holistic manner, so that the formulae by which they are applied keep pushing up the levels in a particular community. It is difficult to attract new high-tech industries to move close to such areas. Realistically, they will go not there, but will go to locations a little further away. However, we have been able to bring up employment opportunities from a very low base. We are beginning to get closer to full employment than anyone ever envisaged, but we must keep pushing because simply leaving the market to run riot will not solve the problem.

I was therefore a little disappointed when SRB6 was refused, when the neighbourhood renewal fund formula was announced last fortnight and when a relatively low settlement was announced under the local government finance formula. When they consider such pockets of deprivation, I urge the Government to look at the problem in a holistic way, to ensure that projects that have been supported through the SRB and the neighbourhood renewal fund are not damaged, and that the progress that has been made over the years is not wasted. That is an important observation in the context of communities such as mine.

The other point that I want to make arose as a result of the earlier discussion on Vauxhall. We need some significant infrastructure investment. It is absurd that all the major chemical and vehicle manufacturing plants within the constituency are almost at the most congested part of the M6, with traffic going southwards to where the major markets are. As a result of the years of under- investment in rail freight by the previous Administration, none of the plants in that area has any resource to move goods and services by rail. That is crazy.

Vauxhall, Kemira, Shell and Associated Octel all have railway sidings leading into their plants, but as a result of under-investment in rail freight, more and more products have gradually shifted to the road. The effect is to create a bottleneck on the M6, which in turn blocks access to the market for many other businesses in the region. Again, a holistic approach is needed. I have made that point to my hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and through the regional

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development agency. We need to ensure that programmes in communities such as mine are supported from all angles. The Government can have an impact.

Fantastic progress has been made over the past few years. I did not believe that we would hit those unemployment figures as quickly as we have. I did not believe that we would see young single mothers reaching out for the new opportunities that have emerged as a result of investment by the private sector in partnership with the benefits that can be obtained through the working families tax credit.

We have had some exciting changes. There is some huge investment in training; work is done with colleges in the community and with local industry. Those changes need continued support so that pockets of poverty such as those I have described are not given money periodically and then ignored. There must be a sustained effort to support them until they can support themselves within the vibrant new economy that is developing as a result of the Government's efforts.

8.40 pm

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood): I begin by declaring an interest as a director and shareholder of a manufacturing business which has been the subject of some discussion during the debate. However, I shall not focus on that this evening.

I begin by reflecting on the fact that, as someone who has been in this place for more than 20 years, I find it slightly bizarre to see the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer parading not just around this country but around international meetings too, as though they were long-standing, experienced advocates of the merits of an open free enterprise economy.

I listened with respect, as I always do, and almost always in agreement to my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) who remarked on the irony of the fact that the Prime Minister now regularly reminds us of the benefits of a low-tax economy and a flexible labour market. The Chancellor of the Exchequer rarely loses an opportunity to lecture us on the benefits of monetary stability and his old friend fiscal prudence. Like my right hon. Friend, every time I hear that in this place and on television I wonder what those two estimable people were doing when those important ideas for the development of an open, competitive, liberal market economy were being fought through in the teeth of vehement opposition from Labour Members, including some who have attended today's debate.


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