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It is also right that we should do more to ensure that parts, equipment and machinery for the green energy revolution are made in this country. I therefore welcome
the commitment to a green investment bank and the decision by Siemens-another company with a base in my constituency-to start producing wind turbines here. That is another important step forward for advanced manufacturing and future industries. Sheffield now has a diversified economy, so I also welcome the help for the computer games industry, which is partly based in the city. We should think more about new industries.
We do face a reduction in public expenditure, but I notice that the Conservatives have not undertaken to protect schools. I am pleased that this Government have done so. Since 1997, spending per pupil has gone up roughly 100 per cent. in secondary and primary schools in Sheffield. In 1997, we were spending £4 million on school buildings, but last year we spent £70 million. Does that make a difference to the pupils? Of course it does. Some 38 per cent. of pupils got five or more GCSEs at grades A to C in 1997, but 60 per cent. did so in 2009. That shows that the investment in education is working. Some 58 per cent. more young people in my constituency now go to university than did in 1997. Of course universities have to make efficiency savings like everyone else, but I caution Ministers to remember that it is vital to keep a thriving university sector, because it is universities and business working together that will create the advanced manufacturing industries of the future and ensure that we can sustain the cutting edge of efficiency and productivity that we need to survive.
Local government will go through a difficult period, but over the past few years it has achieved 2 per cent. efficiency savings, and we should give it credit for that. We need to protect hospitals and health services, but it would be folly to protect the health service while forcing major cuts in social services. We have to take a more joined-up view of those services. We must learn from the pilot programme on Total Place. Efficiency savings can be found in overlap and duplication, but let us look at the services in totality instead of as separate entities in different silos. The public do not see those services that way, and we should not do so either. That will be a challenge, but I am sure that local government will rise to it. We have to give it greater freedom and the ability to connect and share budgets and resources with other government activity in the local area.
I have a particular interest in housing, and I am pleased by the Government's efforts to help people through the recession, including help with mortgages to reduce the number of repossessions and the start of a council house building programme again. I welcome the housing revenue account reforms, which will guarantee 10,000 new build a year in the local authority sector, and provide 10 per cent. more money for management and maintenance to try to secure the future finances of social housing. But there is still the challenge of how to increase the number of social houses built. When the recovery comes in the housing market, housing associations will be able to do more, but we have to find a way to bring more private sector financing into arm's length management organisations and more investment in long-term private rented housing of good quality.
When it comes to cuts, it is often easy to cut long-term capital projects to protect ongoing revenue expenditure. That would be folly. The Government are right to commit to long-term investment in high speed rail and a
line from Sheffield to Leeds-rather than the ridiculous suggestion of a link from Manchester across the Pennines to Leeds. Sheffield and Leeds are united in supporting the Government's proposals. The commitment to further electrification is right, and I want the midland main line to come as soon as possible.
I also welcome developments such as tram trains. It is important to continue to invest in transport infrastructure not only because it is important for the economy directly, but because supplying the carriages, the locomotives and the infrastructure of the track should be done by British companies with a base in Britain. Those companies need certainty, not the swapping and cutting that often happens in recessions, when capital expenditure is the first to go. That causes real problems for the long-term plans of the private sector, which wants to be part of delivering those projects.
I am still not sure about the Government's answer to binge drinking, which is to put alcohol duties up regularly. The supermarkets will still sell lager at a discounted price, and pubs will continue to struggle-although I welcome the help that the Government have offered.
This is a sensible Budget. It is not dramatic, but it is a difficult Budget given in difficult circumstances. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is right to make support for business, skills and jobs his priority, because the long-term recovery will be based on those.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): It has been a great privilege tonight to listen to a series of impressive valedictory speeches, not least from the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts)-one of which was semi vale and the other complete vale. I was especially taken by the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who spoke of the stewardship of the economy-a concept that has deep-seated roots in this country in terms of the land, the environment, wealth, possessions, the creation of wealth and the administration of the economy. He has served his party and his country with great distinction down the years and he made a powerful and important speech that will bear further reading.
I also pay tribute to other hon. Gentlemen, including my great friend the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), who has been an original, high-minded and brave Member of the House. Other Members of Parliament to come could do well to follow his steps. I was also privileged to be in the House on Thursday night to hear the farewell speech of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who made a really remarkable speech. I am proud of the fact that I have served with him in the House of Commons, including alongside him on a number of occasions, which was a great privilege. He will be very much missed in the House, and to anyone wanting a rattling good read, I highly commend his book.
This was the most assive Budget that I have heard in my 27 years in the House. I am not quite sure what it is for, except as a kind of semi colon before the general election. It seems to be an empty Budget. I do not propose to deal with it in great detail, because there is no great detail to deal with. However, I want to make one particularly important point in relation to my
constituency. Before I do that, however, let me say that none of my remarks relates to the Financial Secretary, who I know is a good, straight soldier. However, he serves in a rotten Administration, and I want to say a few words about the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. I hope that they both understand-because I am not sure that they do-how angry and distressed people are in this country at the financial situation that we have been dragged into. In particular, many people are angry that the Government could have done so much more to prevent the United Kingdom from finding itself in such a parlous situation, for we have truly gone backwards.
It is to the Prime Minister that the blame for the most serious failings must attach. This is not an ad hominem attack on the Prime Minister; this is business. It was his failure to respond either to the massive inflation in house prices, despite the most earnest warnings, to personal debt spiralling out of all control, or to the grave regulatory errors in the banking system that lies at the heart of the failings of this economy. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, South said so wisely, it is difficult to see how the United Kingdom's economy can prosper when its main industry is shopping.
As well as pillaging the pensions arrangements of many of our people, the Prime Minister decimated our reserves when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer by selling 395 tonnes of gold at an average rate of $270 an ounce. The price for gold now stands at more than $1,000 an ounce. That surely must be one of the most appalling errors of judgment of any Chancellor in the history of the office. He has misspent public money excessively and wastefully, and too often to very little effect. He was responsible for running up public debt when he should have been paying it off, yet he still has the nerve to come to the House and tell us that he has abolished the cycle of boom and bust. That is such a fantasy position that one almost wonders sometimes whether the Prime Minister is in full possession of his faculties.
The House must remember that it was the Prime Minister, as Chancellor, who took all the big decisions on pensions, and who effectively wrecked one of the best financial systems of provision in the world. He destroyed the system of savings in this country and will have effectively impoverished generations of old people-past, present and to come. However, what is so worrying-and, I think, so sad-is that the legacy that this Government will leave is that of a high-tax, essentially anti-wealth, anti-aspiration and now almost anti-hard work country that lags in almost every respect that matters.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor both made highly effective speeches setting out their critique of this phony Budget, but I would like briefly to mention a matter that most profoundly affects the enterprise culture in this country, and therefore reflects the entire system of wealth creation, which pays for absolutely everything. Like many hon. Members in all parts of the House, every year I carry out a simple pre-Budget survey in my constituency among businesses and business people. There has never been a year since this Government came to power when the main complaint has not been the quite astonishing level of bureaucracy and red tape that the Chancellor and his friends, most particularly the Prime Minister, have sought to impose on enterprise and strangle it
with. The truth is that the Government now stand in the way of an enterprise economy. They are, in themselves, an obstacle to progress.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not know whether you saw an excellent article in The Daily Telegraph today by Alistair Cox, chief executive of Hays, the recruitment company, but he makes this important point about what part of the problem is:
"Many businesses would like to recruit more staff, either temporary or permanent, but often feel there are too many risks involved, too many barriers to make it worthwhile. Others are suffering chronic skill shortages in key roles. Some are even scaling back their ambitions because of the difficulties involved in employing people today... The only way of creating long-term, sustainable employment is to create the right economic, legislative and social framework to nurture new businesses and encourage existing ones to grow."
In that, this Government have been a dismal and singular failure. The cost of Government regulation to business in the United Kingdom now runs at £80 billion a year. That is the equivalent of 5.7 per cent. of the United Kingdom's entire gross domestic product. Business people in my constituency spend about 13 hours a month administering the Government's red tape alone, while people in their work forces can sometimes spend more than 70 hours a month on administration. The truth is that the valuable concept of a low-regulation, low-tax, competitive economy, which came to fruition in the later years of Lady Thatcher's Government, and subsequently under the Government of my right hon. Friend the former Member for Huntingdon, has been gravely eroded, as enterprise sinks further every day into a bog of regulation and higher taxes.
We are in the midst of an enduring financial crisis, not just here but across Europe, and it has exposed our many weaknesses in coming to grips and competing in a global economy. Those failings-in competitiveness, productivity, training and education-will all have to be fixed if Britain is to play a successful part in the world. With all the other difficulties that will fall to the next Government, in terms of public expenditure there will be the most vital job to be done in fixing our national competitiveness and productivity to prepare the British economy and all our people for the difficulties of the global challenges that we face. At the same time, we will have to defend free markets, free trade and global capitalism, all of which are bound to come under attack, as they do in times of great difficulty and hardship.
This has indeed been a profligate and disastrous Government for the economy of this country. The Government have lost all credibility-that, as you know Mr. Deputy Speaker, is a most vital asset for any Government-and, much as I regret to have to say it, we are now seen as again becoming what we were in the 1970s: a political and economic backwater. With that disintegration of our financial and economic influence naturally comes a dissipation of our ability to change things in the rest of the world, because however good is our military, economics represents real power.
The resolution of those matters will require iron resolve and huge courage-qualities that I know my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor will put to good use in a new Government to fix a broken economy, deal with a budget deficit that threatens our recovery, boost enterprise and small business, get Britain moving and build an economy that really works for everyone.
Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and, of course, it is not the first time that I have done so. I follow him in representing the fantastic constituency of Crawley, and I am sure that he will remember well the days when he did so. I was interested to hear him talk about the harm that the Government have apparently done to business. I remember that, when he represented Crawley during the recession of the early 1990s, companies were falling like ninepins and people were losing their jobs and homes day after day. They found that their homes were not worth half what they had been worth when they bought them. Nothing was done to help those people; no assistance was offered by the Government.
I support this measured, quiet Budget. It is taking us on a journey, with its support for business and families. It did not make huge promises that could not be met, but it understands that our communities need support. We are debating infrastructure and growth today, and they are at the heart of my constituency, whose many companies are demonstrating innovation and entrepreneurship and offering employment. It is important for those companies to know that the Government understand their needs.
It was interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman talk about red tape in the workplace. Many of the people I talk to feel that that red tape is about being safe at work, about having decent employment or about people having their disability recognised in the workplace so that they can give of their best. This is the argument about intervention versus leaving everything to market forces, and it is obvious from the debate that there are different views on that across the House. Most Labour Members believe that intervention is right, and that it was right, for example, to support the banks-although not the bankers. The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) was absolutely right in his assessment of those who led us into this appalling problem and who have no understanding of what they have done.
Securing the economic well-being of our communities is achieved not only by the Budget but, day in and day out, by those who are keen to see their companies grow and keen to employ people properly. Those people understand how good companies can operate in our communities. That is why I was pleased to see the proposals for the development of the green investment bank. A company in my constituency, Ceres Power, is developing a fuel cell that will reduce our reliance on carbon energy by 50 per cent. It is important to support such companies and to help them to get investment, and it would have been helpful for that company to have had the green investment bank to turn to, because its only stated aim was to produce a product that would reduce our reliance on carbon and make the planet a better place. That was therefore an excellent Budget proposal, and I hope to see the project expand and grow.
As we are focusing on investment and infrastructure, it is important to say how good it was to see the investment in the Thameslink programme reinforced. That will involve more than £5 billion of investment to improve the line between Brighton and Bedford, and all the stations in between. That is a crucial route, in that it brings work and investment to the area. It allows people
to live and work in an already overcrowded area by providing a decent means of travel and reducing their reliance on road vehicles.
Those of us who serve on the all-party group on Thameslink were upset to see that the decision to appoint a preferred bidder for the rolling stock had been delayed. Speaking as one of the signatories to the early-day motion calling for that decision to be announced before the Easter recess, I hope that we will hear about that soon, although I accept that we are cutting it fine. That would demonstrate a real commitment and let us know that the programme, which is so important to us, was safe. If we are to attract business, it is vital to invest in our major infrastructure centres such as Gatwick airport. The redevelopment of the train station there is crucial to our businesses.
That brings me to the reasons why I fully support the regional development agencies, especially the South East England Development Agency, which has done an enormous amount of good in attracting business to, and keeping business in, the south-east. There is often a tremendous pull to go elsewhere, and a business that is prospering can sometimes need help to remain in the area. SEEDA has been at the forefront of providing much of that support. I do not trust or support the notion that local authorities, alone or in partnership, will be able to do that work. I foresee all sorts of difficulties if a particular local authority were to take a leading role, to the disadvantage of others. The good thing about having a regional development agency that can take a step away from the political forum is that it can think about investment in a much more strategic way, and I hope that that will continue.
Supporting our businesses by giving them time to pay their tax has been hugely welcomed, in my constituency and elsewhere. Through my role as assistant Minister for the South East, I have discovered that other businesses throughout the region have found that support extremely helpful. Small interventions can give confidence to businesses and companies, which can make all the difference to their business decisions. We should not underestimate how much such initiatives have helped.
The use of programmes such as the mortgage rescue scheme might not always entail the buying of a home, but early intervention by the local authority is crucial. Crawley borough council, for example, has demonstrated that the system has been very helpful. It has not had to hand over vast sums of money to assist people, but it has intervened with good, early advice to mortgage owners to prevent repossession. We cannot underestimate the importance of that. We have all sorts of methods for promoting help and support in our communities.
I have listened to the argument that we have no right to sell our future, as it is only on loan to us from our children. I believe, however, that every child whose parent did not lose their job because their company was given time to pay its taxes represents an investment worth making; every child whose parents did not lose their home, thanks to the intervention of this Government, represents an intervention worth applauding; and every young person who was taken on by a company through the future jobs fund and given an opportunity in the workplace will be thanking this Government for ensuring that they have a future.
Of course, such intervention requires money. In this fragile economy, when we are gently coming out of recession and back into growth, and when companies
are feeling just enough confidence to acquire new equipment and take on new staff, we have no right to put any of that at risk. We in this House have no right to throw caution to the wind in order to pay back debt, and to throw those people into turmoil once again. I hope that, when my right hon. and hon. Friends are back in their places on the Front Bench after the general election, they will understand that this investment needs to continue. The confidence and sense of security that the business community needs to do its job are greatly valued. I did not get lots of surveys back saying that people were fed up with red tape. The people in our communities are begging for more help and support. They are not saying that they do not want that to continue; they are asking for more to be done for them.
After the general election, when I have left the House, I am going to be testing-I hope so, if any trust will have me-whether investment in the NHS has been as valuable as I always hoped it was over the last 13 years, providing us with a health service of which we can at last be immensely proud and one that we can be sure is becoming a world-class system. I have decided to get back my registration from my nursing career and I intend to test that system to ensure that all that the Government and Labour Members have done and fought for in the NHS has been worth while. For me, supporting our health service in a way that makes me feel proud and delighted to rejoin it will be the true reward of having been in this House for 13 years.
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