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Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I am grateful for the chance to speak, and particularly grateful for the chance to speak in today's debate. The Queen's Speech includes measures on the economy that are fundamental to the well-being of my constituents, and will be fundamental to what happens next year when the election comes along. They affect my constituents particularly in two ways: they illustrate the Government's continuing commitment to economic stability, and they introduce important new provisions. Economic stability has been fundamental to the security enjoyed by my constituents in their homes and in their work, and to their sense of well-being under the present Government. It has made possible sustained investment in public services, which has also greatly improved my constituents' quality of life.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) said that none of that was visible. In particular, he said that the spending was not visible and that public sector spending was ineffective. That is certainly not true in Northampton. The change in the fortunes of people there under a Labour Government are extremely visible, and continue to be so.

I well remember, in the run-up to the 1997 election, taking our then housing spokesman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr.    Raynsford)—now Minister for Local and Regional Government—to look at some repossessed houses. We thought that we would see one or two, but we saw rows and rows of them. Now repossessions are at record low levels because of low mortgage interest rates. I accept that the rates have gone up a little recently, but given higher employment and financial security, people have been able to maintain their mortgage payments. Unemployment has fallen further, by 28 per cent. in my constituency. The constituency has
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always had high employment levels, but this drop has made a substantial difference to the well-being and financial security of families who work.

As for public sector investment, one of the things that we inherited from the last Government was scandalously low pay in the public services. It is right that some of the extra money going into public services should deal with pay levels and employment conditions for the people who provide those services. But over and above that, such investment has transformed the prospects of many young people. For example, a £106 million private finance initiative scheme is rebuilding all our schools.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) spoke persuasively about the problems that businesses encounter with regulation, and all of us can understand their frustration with red tape. But when I first became an MP, the local chamber of commerce's biggest complaint was the underperformance of schools and the skills gap. The extra investment in schools, particularly in secondary schools, is key to expanding the economy and creating the long-term security that the people of Northampton want.

Mr. Prisk: The hon. Lady is right: schooling, the calibre of individuals and the skills aspect of learning in particular are important issues. Given that she recognises that the burden of regulation is an important issue for small businesses, does she think that the 53 per cent. increase in such regulation since 1997 is a good thing or a bad thing?

Ms Keeble: As the hon. Gentleman may have noticed, I am not a particularly tribal politician. Small businesses usually consist of people who are simply earning an income for their families, and for that reason many banks have virtually turned their small business financial services into personal financial services. I recognise that those who run such businesses do not like filling in forms. Of course we want to see a reduction in regulation, and I understand people's complaints in that regard. Nevertheless, if we want to expand the economy, we come back to the major issue of skills shortages.

We should remember that this Government have made available the finance to expand small businesses. The investment in early years has been key to the economic well-being of families, particularly because it has enabled women to go out to work. One of the last things that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions did before getting his current job was to visit University college Northampton, a higher education college in my constituency that will shortly get university status. The expansion of university places, and what that says about our attitude to skills, has been extremely important to the economy.

I want to highlight some of the wallet-to-purse measures that, although I previously identified such criticism with the Liberal Democrats, both Opposition parties have criticised—such as the new deal for lone parents, the pension credit and investment in child care, particularly the children's trust fund. The new deal for lone parents has been transformative, in that it has enabled some of the most excluded of unemployed people to return to work. It has allowed some of the women to whom I have spoken to get work, to provide a
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role model for their children, and eventually to buy their own homes. Similar things can be said of the investment in child care.

The pension credit has its shortcomings, but anyone who tried to persuade a female pensioner—a lot of the recipients are indeed women—that they would be better off without their £5, £10 or £20 a week would receive a blunt suggestion about what to do with their argument. As we approach the election, it will be interesting to discover what such people have to say once it becomes clear that not only are the Conservatives taking a hostile attitude to many of the measures that provide equality for women—we are well used to their doing that—but the Liberal Democrats are doing the same.

I want to move on to a couple of the measures in the Queen's Speech. There is a child benefit Bill, which will provide for an extension of the education maintenance allowance. I suspect that it will be one of those measures, little heralded and little talked about in this place that will produce lasting benefits for many people. Support is already provided for more than 1,000 people in Northamptonshire, and the feedback that I receive from single parents who are struggling to ensure that their older children stay on at school rather than go out to work has been very positive. I am rather surprised that we have heard no comments about that from either the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives. I quite understand that people may be waiting for Second Reading, but the fact remains that this provision has been piloted and is already out there, so I would have expected to hear some comments from the other two parties on the theory or practice of that support. The legislation will reach a particular section of the community and bring real benefits to my constituents. Not everyone among my constituents aspires to go to university—more's the pity, in some ways.

Mr. Willetts: I assure the hon. Lady that my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills touched on the measure in his comments on the Queen's Speech, and welcomed the child benefit measures. His concern was with the introduction of new and higher charges for adult learners in further education colleges—another matter that we can debate further in the weeks ahead.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point, and I wish that the Liberal Democrats would clarify their position, which their spokesperson today did not do.

Some of my colleagues have mentioned the consumer protection Bill, which will provide important safeguards for my constituents. People in Northampton carry high levels of credit. We all know that Christmas is coming, and this morning I was told by the housing and money advice centre, which provides an excellent service for my constituents, that on average people will spend about £800 in presents, about half of which is likely to be on credit. Consumer debt and the need for safeguards are important matters at this time. I welcome the fact that the Bill will make provision for much needed better regulation and raise the present £25,000 limit. On the subject of local debt, about half the people who had severe problems, with debts of about £9,000 or more, were not in work. In an area with relatively high levels of employment, that is quite surprising. One sure way to
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deal with debt problems is to deal with the problems of poverty and unemployment, and the Government are committed to doing so.

I greatly welcome the measures in the Queen's Speech, although there is always room for more to be done—not just in extra measures, but in speeding up those already in place. The ending of child poverty was mentioned earlier. I would greatly welcome that, as I would the speeding up of the extra safeguards for children, particularly in connection with housing. I am reminded that last Friday night I visited a constituent who lived with her five children in a single room in the basement of a bed-and-breakfast hostel, placed there by a Labour council—no, it was not a Labour council but a Conservative one. That was a Freudian slip. It used to be Labour, but is now Conservative and standards have deteriorated. For a woman with five children to live in a basement flat is not appropriate in 21st century Britain, and she was but one of three women who came to my advice surgery with that problem. I hope that we can speed up some of those measures.

I would also like to see improvements to pensions, as several of my hon. Friends have said. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is very aware of the issues around women's pensions and the problems that women face as long as basic state pensions are closely linked to national insurance contributions. The issue of first-time buyers is also important.

The main thing that will safeguard the interests of my constituents is having a Labour Government, and the main threats to their interests are the two main Opposition parties. As always happens in debates on the economy, people focus on the big picture and the macro-economy, but for many of our constituents the little picture is the big picture. The £5, £10 or £20 in pension credit is what makes a big difference to their lives. Being able to get their children into nursery schools and the investment in the child trust fund will also transform the lives of my constituents. The education maintenance allowance, too, will help single parents who are struggling to ensure that their children stay on in school and get the qualifications that they need in an expanding economy.

I very much welcome the measures in the Gracious Speech and I look forward in particular to the two Bills that I have mentioned becoming law well before the magic date of 1 May next year. When that day comes, my constituents will have had their letters about the child trust fund, which the Conservatives think that they should not have, some of them will be receiving the education maintenance allowance, and they will all continue to see the benefits of having a Labour Government.

6.2 pm

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