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3.3 pm

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am conscious of the time limitations, so I may find it difficult to accept any intervention.

I realise that the Department of Trade and Industry's role is somewhat marginalised and that the Liberal Democrats have already suggested abolition of that Department. Energy and employment matters require some consideration—I shall come to them in a moment—but at the heart of the Government's economic strategy is the role played by the manufacturing economy. Indeed, the prerequisite of the manufacturing strategy enunciated by the Government is macro-economic stability.

It is fair to say that the cornerstone of that stability is the performance of the Monetary Policy Committee, which has a responsibility to maintain low price inflation by adjusting interest rates. The Chancellor has sought to avoid volatility in public finances. It is also fair to say that the success in meeting those objectives has enabled us to enjoy low inflation, broad tax stability, increasing employment and, most importantly, sustained economic growth, capable of funding the much needed improvement in the quality and range of public services. That has been achieved in the United Kingdom at a time when we have seen cuts, unemployment and decreasing living standards across the industrialised world, whereas we have seen continual improvements in this country.

There is a condition among Conservative Members that could be called the year-zero syndrome: there was no history before 1 May 1997. There may be one or two people who have a vague, hazy memory of a golden period in the 1980s. It is a wee bit like the Rip van Winkles of rock and roll who cannot quite remember the drug-sodden 1960s, when they were making money and entertaining people. Many Conservative Members think that there was somehow a golden age. I have to tell them that some of us have different memories. We have memories of 3 million people out of work. We remember when unemployment fell to about 2 million, but there were never very sizeable reductions in my constituency, where whole families were continually out of work for two decades. Unemployment in some communities was beyond any level of social sustainability. Thankfully, we have not experienced that over the past six years.

When we hear people talk about anxieties over debt, the housing boom and the like, many of us remember the days of negative equity, household repossessions and evictions. Those of us who have been fortunate—if that is the right expression—to have been Members of Parliament for a number of years had dreadful surgery sessions on Fridays and Saturdays, when people came, invariably too late, to complain about how they had been treated by whichever provider of financial services had assisted them in getting into the plight in which they found themselves.

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Opposition Members choose to complain about the problems that we have at present. Frankly, if those are what they call problems, they ain't seen nothing. The degradation of people's life chances in the 1980s and 1990s was dreadful for those concerned, but Opposition Members talk flippantly about reducing public expenditure, denying young people and the elderly unemployed access to opportunities afforded by the new deal and the chances that people have for the first time in their lives to get off the unemployment registers.

The fact is that some on unemployment registers need not just the offer of employment, but virtually to be led out of bed in the morning. We hear about the people in advertising and banking who say, "I won't get out of my bed in the morning for £1,000 an hour as a consultant." In recent months, some of my constituents have had to be helped from their homes to get to jobs. Given the chance and the help, Sure Start and the new deal, after 18 months, 150 people were taken on by Tesco in Alloa in my constituency. They are all still in work, and they are a credit to their communities and to the people who took the chance with them.

If Conservative Members are talking about reducing public expenditure to 35 per cent. of gross domestic product, they must stop and think of the social consequences of what they would embark upon. We now see revived communities where we used to see communities where people stood on street corners and crossed the road when we got near them because they were ashamed to tell us that they were still out of work. Those people now have a self-confidence that they never had before because they are getting the chance to find work. They also have the self-confidence of knowing that the health care that they receive is improving and that their local hospital, which was inadequate and run-down, is being refurbished. They also know that the schools that their kids go to are better than they have been in decades—probably ever.

It is also the case that, when people get into employment, they are treated in a reasonable manner. That is one reason why I welcome the Employment Relations Bill, although it does not go as far as some of us would like on matters such as union recognition. The best way to reform employment relations legislation is incrementally, using the salami approach that the Tories applied in the opposite direction. We should improve the quality of workplace opportunities slice by slice, and the Bill contains much that can be recommended.

I have some praise for the Conservatives, because—in their own way—they started the liberalisation of many of the markets in the UK economy, including electricity and gas. The Energy Bill will make further progress and create a UK market in electricity and gas. It will also make the introduction of renewables easier for the transmission businesses. We still need to see the fine print on transmission charges and distribution network charges. The Committee—I hope that I am not a member, given the size of the Bill—will have scope to improve the Bill. There is also scope to enhance the contribution made by renewables, and that is important.

It is vital to make the necessary legislative provisions to assist the storage of gas and its transmission into this country, because the gas that we will depend on in the years ahead will require new pipelines and storage facilities, both offshore and onshore, regardless of our

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intentions for renewables and the pros and cons of the nuclear industry. The Bill will go some way to achieving that, but it should also address the nuclear decommissioning authority. It is essential that we strip out of the economics of energy the costs involved in nuclear power. Much nonsense is talked, both by nuclear enthusiasts and by the plutonophobes, about the costs of nuclear power. If the costs are reasonable, I have no objection to an expansion of that industry, but I am not prepared to throw good money after bad.

The Queen's Speech will create the correct balance between public and private contributions. It shows how we can operate a partnership in the United Kingdom and it will take us away from the dark days of low public expenditure, poor provision and divided societies. For that reason, I commend it to the House.

3.13 pm

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I declare two interests. The first is on the register, because I am the chairman of a pension fund. The second is that in recent days my wife and I have been blessed by the addition of two new granddaughters to our extended family. They will both qualify under the provisions of the Child Trust Funds Bill. As a consequence, I regard the Bill with interest and broadly support what the Government seek to do. I note that parents can add to the trust funds, and it will be interesting to see the details. However, more importantly, we should ask why such a Bill is necessary.

I had a vague recollection of a Labour party document that I had read when I held a different position from the one that I occupy today. That document, published in 1996, said:


That is an admirable aspiration for an Opposition. The reality is that the Bill is needed, in part, because when the Government came to power the savings ratio was 10 per cent. and today it is 4.8 per cent. The Government have seriously undermined the savings culture that they aspired to achieve when they were in opposition. That is why we need such legislation.

The second factor that contributes to the undermining of the savings culture was eloquently raised by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). As he pointed out, Members on both sides of the House believe in the market. I believe in the market, so I am not one of those who think that Governments should intervene intrusively. I am sorry that the Chancellor is no longer in his place, because he might have remembered that, a few weeks ago, I sent him a letter sent to me by one of my constituents, which contained six half credit cards. Those cards had been sent to my constituent, unsolicited, over a period of a few months. My constituent pointed out that he earned, I think, £9,000 a year and the combined credit limit of the six cards—which he did not ask for, did not want and did not use, because he is sensible—amounted to £35,000. The hon. Member for Twickenham made the point that we have seen a dangerous escalation in debt and in personal debt. I am not an interventionist, but there may be a case for having some conversations

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about whether boundaries should be drawn, for the common good. I invite the Government to give further thought to that possibility.

I now wish to spend slightly more time on the pension protection Bill. The Labour manifesto in 1997 promised tax reform to promote savings, but in his first Budget, the Chancellor announced the abolition of the dividend tax credits payable to pension funds. That means that each and every year under this Government the Chancellor has taken £5 billion out of pension funds and put it into the coffers. Is it any wonder that those who are entitled to receive pensions feel aggrieved at their diminished prospects? I am trying to make a sensible contribution to the debate, so I shall not pretend that the tax change is the sole reason for the pension industry being in semi-crisis, but it is a significant one. For that reason, the Government should put up their hand to at least some of the responsibility and address the pension issue with less arrogance and fewer suggestions that it is all someone else's fault.


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