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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 12-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches.

3.2 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests.

It is appropriate that I have an opportunity to speak in today's debate. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not mind if, while she is still here, I deal briefly with a local issue—that of Peugeot. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) is present as well, and the Secretary of State will understand why we in Coventry are particularly concerned about the issue. It comes hard on the heels of Ford's decision to close Browns Lane, the historic centre of activities for Jaguar worldwide. We are happy to note that the job losses were small, and we are grateful for the handling of the operation in that respect. Nevertheless, as the Secretary of State will appreciate, this was a hard and bitter blow to the morale of the city itself.

Neither my hon. Friend nor I make any apology for viewing the Peugeot issue from a constituency point of view. Ryton is clearly our last manufacturing plant—albeit an assembly plant—for the motor industry. As the Secretary of State will know, 700 jobs went last year and 850 job losses have now been announced. That means that there will be fewer than 2,000 Peugeot employees at Ryton.

The Secretary of State spoke of her own disappointment, after all the work that she had done and, indeed, all the work that her Department had done. The Department deserves credit for that, notwithstanding the rubbish and denigration that we have heard from the Conservatives. I do not know how we would fight such things through without a good, committed, effective Department—but that is a separate issue. Anyway, the Secretary of State said how disappointing it was that, after all those efforts, the company had turned around and said "No thank you, we are not going to build the 207 in the UK; we are going to build it somewhere else, and we do not need the grant." Worse, the company now tells me—the Secretary of State may wish to confirm this now or later—that if it wanted the new grant for new investment that we still hope will be provided for the next few years, it would no longer be applicable and the whole process would have to start over again. As the Secretary of State can imagine, that is very disappointing. I regret to say that we are all reaching the conclusion that Peugeot has no plans for the plant's future, and will probably let it go in due course. I do not think we can let it go by default.

Mr. Jim Cunningham : My hon. Friend has raised an important point: the transferability of the grant from one project to another. I hope the Secretary of State will clear that up. I acknowledge that she worked wonders to save Jaguar's Whitley plant, and we appreciate that, but companies are making people redundant without proper consultation—without a by-your-leave. I am sure the Secretary of State knows that for the past
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18 months we have been trying to get answers out of the company. Does she not think it is about time we introduced some form of legislation, perhaps tougher legislation, requiring consultation?

Mr. Robinson: I take my hon. Friend's point. He will be pleased to know that the company has agreed to consultation, but the redundancy notices have been issued and the decision to reduce the Peugeot staff by 850 has already been made. It is a funny sort of consultation when a company decides first and consults afterwards.

The Secretary of State will recall the last time we were in her office. She agreed to a meeting to discuss Peugeot some months ago, before we had the answer from Europe on the grant. One of her officials said that the Department was pushing for an appointment with the chief executive or the company president. I subsequently wrote to him myself, in French, and received a reply from the local director of communications in Coventry. It seems to be very difficult to get through to the company to find out what its intentions are. I think that that is the minimum that we are entitled to ask of it.

The chief executive officer is quoted as saying—at, I believe, the Geneva motor show—"Do not worry, the 206 will go on until 2010 at least." I do not think that statements of that kind are of any value in this context. The reason given for the present reduction of staff by 850, to less than 2,000—a 30 per cent. reduction, almost exactly—is that last month sales of the 206, marvellous car though it is, were down by 5 per cent. in Europe. If that is the case now, with the 207 coming in, I think we shall see a fairly rapid decline in sales over the next few years. I feel that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should take the matter up and have a discussion with Peugeot. If it became involved in a meaningful discussion, it might change what seems to be its current mindset—that there can be no future for Ryton. The Secretary of State will be pleased to know that we have a meeting arranged with the Minister for Industry and the Regions, on, I think, 5 April. We will bring up those points then, and she may be able to tell us what steps she can take.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I have listened to what my hon. Friend is saying with deep regret. There may, alas, be no future for Peugeot in his constituency. Does that mean there is no future for the employees, and how does their future under this Government compare with their future under past Administrations?

Mr. Robinson: Fortunately everyone is a good deal better off than they were under past Administrations—if not in my constituency, in the general area of Coventry city.

What struck me about the Budget as soon as the numbers came through was how remarkably restrained the Chancellor had been. I do not want to provoke the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who is a former Chancellor himself, but I have a sneaking suspicion that had he found himself on the presumable eve of a general election, he might have found it in himself to give more away. Perhaps I should not have made that remark; I do not wish to provoke an intervention.
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This is a mildly restrictive Budget. Some £250 million has been taken out of the economy. If the idea is to take £800 million from the super-rich oil companies with one hand, by advancing their tax payments, and giving it to pensioners with the other, I do not see how any Member could object to that.

Mr. Dorrell : For the record, the hon. Gentleman does not have to look into a crystal ball to inquire what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) would do in the run-up to a general election. He was in exactly that position and subject to the temptations that the hon. Gentleman refers to, but did not do what the hon. Gentleman suggests he would have done.

Mr. Robinson: I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what his right hon. and learned Friend did: despite the imprecations of the then Governor of the Bank of England, he refused to increase interest rates, and we had to put them up the day we came to power. However, I do not want to get into that debate. We are talking about a Chancellor whose record, nine Budgets later, is well known to the House, and he basks in a glow of approval.

There were four targets in the Budget, which I thought were carefully selected. The first was lower-income families, and children. A remarkable statistic to pick out is that a family with two children on an average income of £25,000 is now, once credits are taken into account, paying an effective rate of 6 per cent. income tax. That is the extent to which the Chancellor and Government have been successful in targeting credits and relief and in making those on lower incomes with children much better off. I take great pride in that figure, which as with other aspects of the Budget, should be endorsed by both sides of the House.

I also believe that the targeting of senior citizens was right. Half of the increase that we have made has gone to the one third of pensioners who are less well off, and I believe that the £400 will be extremely welcome to them this year. The third target was first-time buyers, with the increase in the threshold for stamp duty, which was doubled. Many of us would have liked to see that threshold increase even further. However, if there is an element of regional redistribution—perhaps involving the midlands, east and south-east—given that effective regional policy is endorsed, we could all welcome that.

The final target was individual savings accounts, of which I suppose I have to claim to be the author. I am pleased to see that the savings under the new ISA provisions have been extended for a further five years. All those provisions were welcome, and I believe that the priorities were all well chosen.

I turn now to what I believe are two or three of the biggest challenges, beyond the Budget, that will face whoever is in government in the next five years—I am sure that that will be the present Government. The first was referred to with some effect by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), and I say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that red tape and the size of the public sector are a real issue.

I have only a little time, but I remember that when I was in the Treasury there was a Better Regulation Task Force. It sent me one paper on regulation in
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particular—it did not send me any more after that—that I could not understand. I sent it back and told the taskforce to rewrite it. It sent it back to me, but I could understand it even less the second time. I decided that I would not sign it, so I sent it back to the Cabinet Office, where I suppose the taskforce is still located, saying that I would not sign the paper as I did not understand it. I never saw the document again, but I imagine that it went out. At that time, the unit had 29 people sending that stuff out, so I say to my right hon. Friend that red tape is a problem.

We do not always need initiatives. My right hon. Friend announced another important one today, but as we have more initiatives and more people administering them, the system becomes more unwieldy and difficult to reduce in size. There is only one way to deal with the problem, which is to cap the numbers in many areas of government. I stress from the start that we should work in meaningful consultation with the trade unions and tell them that we would continue with natural wastage, redeployment and retraining. If we as a Government were serious about that, we could bring down the numbers within a few years.

Gold-plating has been referred to. We were meant to be reducing that back in 1997–98, and I am sure that we are. [Interruption.] I am sure that we are. The number of regulations coming out of Brussels is a different matter altogether, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Eddisbury will know that I am not the greatest fan of them, although the former Chancellor is.

There are two or three huge challenges facing us.

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