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My hon. Friend rightly upbraids methey are important facts. The public sector in this country is
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fast expandingthere have been some 583,000 new jobs in the past seven years, according to the Office for National Statistics. I confess that I do not believe everything that I hear from the Office for National Statisticsmy local authority in Westminster has fought an ongoing battle, which it has almost won, about that body's census figuresbut there is little doubt that the large-scale explosion in public sector jobs has led to an increased tax take that cannot be the right way forward. That growth of the public sector appears incompatible with the goals that the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out.
In my capacity as shadow London spokesman, I want to refer to transport, which is one of the set subjects of today's debate. Although I have always supported the notion of Crossrail through the capital, there remains no indication about the source of the funding for it. That is all the more depressing because Second Reading of the Crossrail Bill is likely to take place before an election is called. Although I have some concerns about aspects of the route that have a constituency relevance, I have supported the idea, and it is therefore depressing that, when London is the most important economic base in the country and a global capital of which we can rightly be proud, we are starved of important investment when we desperately need it.
I appreciate that we are running out of time and that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) wants to say a few words, but I want briefly to mention the African economy. I know that we will expand on the subject in the months and years ahead. The Chancellor seems partly to have taken over the international development portfolio on top of all his other responsibilities. As well as emphasising the importance of aid to Africa, we need to encourage trade. We need to persuade both the United States and our partners in the European Union of the key importance of opening up our agricultural markets, among others.
Debates here make this clear, but there is a growing public consciousness, which is almost at fever pitch, that our blithe failure to put action where our will is cannot be tolerated much longer. We talk about trying to help developing countries, and about debt cancellation and aid, but we really need to build up trading links. That will be an important part of the Treasury's function in the years ahead.
I welcome some aspects of the Budget, but I agree that it is a stand-still Budget. Debt has been mentioned by several of my hon. Friends, and I think there are worrying times ahead. Growth has been on target in recent years but revenues have not, which suggests that difficult decisions will have to be made immediately after the general election, whatever the result.
I approve of the positive and international outlook that was at the heart of some of what the Chancellor said, but we must set right the direction of our own economy if that is to be more than a mere aspiration. We must look beyond the shores of not just this country but the European Union. The European debate may or may not rage on the stump over the next seven weeks, but in my book the real worry is not that there are too many little Englanders in this country but that there may be too many little Europeaners. We live in a global world, in which we should be proud to play our part as a traditional trading nation.
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Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate. I have been on two statutory instrument Committees. The Whips clearly want to keep me busy, on the basis that the devil makes work for idle hands.
I have heard some thoughtful speeches. As usual, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) made a very thoughtful contribution, which did not deal with the issues in this Budget alone. I agreed entirely with what he said about some of the broader issues relating to the global economy. Unfortunately, we sometimes see the British economy as a goldfish bowl with the rest of the world outside. I should like to hear more thoughtful speeches like the hon. Gentleman's from other Conservative Members.
I also listened carefully to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), who described what I can only term the Tory Valhalla that existed in the 1980s. I must disabuse him of that view: in my constituency and many other northern constituencies it was no Valhalla, but a nightmare. The local economy was ripped out of the region by a Government who were hellbent on revengecertainly in the case of the Durham coalfield, because of the defeats that it had inflicted on them in the 1970s. That had a dramatic effect not just on the economies of northern constituencies such as mine, but on daily life. The fabric and the basic structure of many villages and communities were ripped out overnight as their main employment base disappeared, with no prospect of anything to replace it.
Not content with the insecurity suffered by people who were losing their jobs, the Government were ensuring that people lost their homes as well. Interest rates were sky-high in the 1980s and 1990s. In my constituency, unemploymentespecially youth unemploymentrose to unacceptable levels. I intend to remind peoplealthough those in North Durham will not need much remindingof the effects that the last Tory Government had on many former mining communities.
Investment is now making a real difference in constituencies like mine. When I was elected in 2001, Chester-le-Street hospital was located in the old workhouse. It was a damned disgrace that in 2001 the health service was provided from an old workhouse. It was a sad fact that when the nurses had to move into temporary accommodation, it was better than that at the existing hospital. We now have a £9 million brand-new community hospital, of which we can be proud. It is not just providing excellent care using modern facilities but leading to a reduction in waiting lists. In the County Durham and Darlington Acute Hospitals NHS Trust area, waiting times were running at between 18 months and two years for orthopaedic operations. They are now down to less than six months. I am told that if people are prepared to go on an emergency list, they can get their operations done even more quickly, so the investment is making a difference in communities such as mine.
Reference was made earlier to the new deal. I know that it was opposed by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democratswe should remind the electorate of thatbut in my constituency long-term youth unemployment has gone down 85 per cent.a real change. The other day, I looked up how many people in my constituency
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have been unemployed for more than 12 months. The figure has gone down 84 per cent. in the past five years. Those are not just boring statistics. People's lives are being changed.
In the Durham coalfield in my constituency, people were losing their jobs and were being put on incapacity benefit and written off by the system. The investment that we have now put into the new deal for young people and into encouraging people back into work is making a real difference. It is giving people a sense of purpose again. They can be proud of their communities.
I pick up on the point that was made eloquently by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster about access to higher education. I agree that it should be everyone's aspiration to get into higher education but, in parts of my constituencyfor example, South Stanley, the social fabric of which was destroyed in the 1980sstaying-on rates are still appallingly low and persuading people to go on to higher education is difficult. That will take time, but we should not shy away from the fact that it needs to be done. Those people are very intelligent but the aspiration is not there. To open up the world of opportunities that the hon. Gentleman has described must be an aim. I will certainly pursue it to ensure that people seize the opportunities that lie in higher education.
I have described my constituency on many occasions as a rural one with urban problems. It has some deprived areas but also some wealthy areas. When I talk to people in the more affluent parts of my constituency, they too are content with what has happened in the past eight years. A stable economy and low interest rates have made a real difference to them. They trust the Labour party to manage the economy. I remember the 1980s pamphlet that was written by the Fabian Society entitled, "Will Labour ever win again?" We can perhaps change that now to "Will the Conservatives ever win again?" I am sure that they will make some recovery in the next few weeks but, importantly, the argument was that the Labour party was not trusted with the economy. If there is one thing that the Chancellor has done, working with the Prime Minister, it is to ensure that the Labour party is seen as economically competent. The electorate realise that.
That is one thing that we need to remind people of in the next few weeks. We also need to remind them of what went on before. For my constituency, going back to those bad old days would be a complete disaster not just for people living in poorer parts of it, but for hard-working families who are benefiting from the prosperity and the stable economy that we have created, with low interest rates, low unemployment, and job security.
All that has meant that people can invest in purchasing a new home, but I now have a problem in my constituency: house prices are rising. We must do something to allow people to get on to the housing ladder. The announcement in yesterday's Budget on stamp duty will certainly help. Likewise, the announcement a few years ago that certain parts of my constituency were exempt from stamp duty allowed people to get on the housing ladder. We should not forget those facts.
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For pensioners, the Budget's proposals on free bus transport will be welcome in my rural constituency, although, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire said, there are problems with accessing bus services. That is a bit rich coming from the Conservatives who deregulated the system in the first place. Perhaps we need to look at re-regulating certain parts of the service in areas such as mine to guarantee bus services. If one lives in a rural village in my constituency and has no car, a bus service is not a luxury; it is a necessity to get to work.
The free bus service will be welcomed by many of my constituents. An old lady called Annie Bell from Waldridge Fell comes to my surgeries. She is in her 80s and has asked for years when she would get a free bus pass. I am sure that she will be in my next surgery welcoming the announcement.
The measures for pensioners need to be viewed in context. There are many complaints about what the Government have done for pensioners, and I make no excuses for what we have done to tackle the poverty that many poorer pensioners faced. If one talks to those pensioners, some will say that they have never had so much money in their lives. Our policies have changed their lives, particularly those of women with no works pension who have had to rely on the state pension. The Government can be proud of that, and many constituents remind me of that.
Pension credit has helped a lot of people with a small occupational pension, which was welcome, but we must recognise that council tax is a problem in some areas for those on a fixed income. I welcome the announcement of the £200 assistance, which is a far better option than what is being proposed by the Liberal Democrats in terms of a local income tax. In my constituency, two people on average earnings will certainly pay more under a local income tax than under the present system, but the system needs radical change. We must look at options, but the thought of giving my local authority access to people's wage packets horrifies me. Once the electorate know about the proposal, they will reject it.
Let us consider the support that the Government have given to young families and working parents. During the last summer recess, I was proud to open the Stanley Sure Start centre, whose aim is getting the basics right and giving support to parents when they need it. It is a fantastic facility. It may seem like the nanny state to some people, but in my constituency the social fabric was wiped out in the 1980s when industry went. Giving support to parents and making sure they can get training, access to benefits and the support they need is vital.
I was knocking on doors on Saturday in a village in my constituency called Quaking Houses, and I want to tell the Minister how a woman's life has changed. She is a single parent who now works in the local Asda. She gets £70 a week in tax credits, which she said has given her her dignity back. The fact that she is not claiming benefits and is going out to work to support her children has ensured that she now has opportunities that were not on offer before. She told me that she thought that the Tories would take it all away, and I told her that they certainly would. She is one person who will vote Labour in the next few weeks, as will many others like her who have benefited from what the Government have done.
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We need to remind people that the minimum wage was opposed by the Opposition parties on the grounds that it would cripple local industry and cripple jobs. Over the next few weeks, I shall be reminding the Liberal Democrats that they opposed a measure that has made a real difference in my constituency and in the north-east where, thanks to the minimum wage, some 111,000 people have had a pay increase.
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