Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): It seems just yesterday that I was walking around Plymouth, Sutton when it was a city down at heel, down at the bottom of far too many league tables and down at heart. That was the city that I inherited from my Tory predecessor. At that time, it included what was judged as the poorest ward in England on the index of multiple deprivation. However, that was not yesterday, but in 1997—and what a difference there is in Plymouth 2005. It is now a city buzzing with energy, full of ambition and confident in its future, as anyone who saw the exhibition, "Urban renaissance: a vision for Plymouth", in the Upper Waiting Room at the beginning of January could see for themselves. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury also saw it when he visited Plymouth last May.

With stability providing the foundation, investment and not cuts, and every child having the best start in life—the watchwords of the Chancellor's Budget speech—this was a Budget for Plymouth's hard-working families. There are 6,000 in Plymouth, Sutton with 10,000 children, all of whom will benefit from the commitment to uprate the child tax credit in line with earnings.

The vast majority of Plymouth, Sutton's 11,000 pensioners will welcome free bus travel in off-peak periods. I am pleased to say that it is already available in Plymouth to the over-80s. While only one in four—five out of 20—pensioners who are responsible for paying council tax will receive help under the Tory proposals, 19 out of 20 will benefit from the Chancellor's proposals. The Budget provides a platform to move forward on our policy to provide a fair deal for older people. We are committed to eliminating pensioner poverty, as well as recognising that all older people deserve our attention.
22 Mar 2005 : Column 784

Older people are as different as any other group. In 1997, 3 million to 4 million of 11 million pensioners were living in abject poverty on £69 a week. We should have been much angrier about that. Many women who did not have a chance to build up a pension were among their number, yet 1 million of the 11 million pensioners were among those who saw their incomes rise most in the 1980s and 1990s—with an 80 per cent. real-terms increase in their income.

I make no apology to anyone either in my movement or outside it for supporting the Government's efforts to close the income gap rather than widen it. There is no way that increasing the basic pension across the board could have achieved that in the years up to the present. All that we can do to achieve that is based on having a strong and stable economy, low inflation, low interest rates and low unemployment. They provide the basis of security for pensioners, and are also good for home owners, business and our public services.

Public services need stability, predictability and steady investment rather than cuts. Steady investment also means that some 6,000 people in Plymouth, Sutton are now in work, thanks to the new deal—3,390 through the new deal for young people, 660 through new deal 25-plus and 1,900 through the new deal for lone parents, which the Opposition are intending to axe, should they get into office. That steady investment and high employment level mean that Plymouth now has below-average unemployment for the first time in 25 years.

Instead of the fear that unemployment means months and years on the dole, there is now confidence that, if major job losses arise, the support is there. For instance, a little over a year ago we had 1,400 job losses at the ITV digital call centre, all within a few months, but that hardly made a blip on unemployment in Plymouth because of the active employment policies that swung into action. Instead of feeling that the Government and their Member of Parliament believed that unemployment was a price worth paying for some crazy mirage that the economy prospers under the Conservatives, they had active support. In the weeks and months ahead, I will take any and every opportunity to remind people of the real track record: one of 10 per cent. interest rates, on average, across the time of the last Conservative Government—15 per cent. at times—which was bad for house owners.

The real track record included the price of economic failure and of servicing the national debt and the totally unnecessary sky-high levels of unemployment that meant that we were paying more on the economics of those failures than on schools. In Plymouth city alone, we were spending £100 million a year on keeping people unemployed. People were trapped in a low-skill, no-skill and no-hope economy, with £1 an hour for cleaning jobs not uncommon in and around Plymouth and Plymouth, Sutton.

In 2005, 140,000 people in Plymouth and the south-west have benefited from a minimum wage that we were told would put 1 million people out of work; instead, we have 2 million more jobs. In 2005, stability means year-on-year increases in school buildings, books, equipment and teachers—150 more than in 1997 in Plymouth alone. We have 2,320 more nurses as well as 696 doctors and 258 consultants in the South West Peninsula health authority area.
22 Mar 2005 : Column 785

As well as more new people, there are more new buildings, including the new Peninsula medical school of which we are proud, where some 200 out of the 2,000 extra doctors now in training in Britain are in their third year.

The Budget paves the way for continuing sustained and stable investment. I have mentioned some of the challenges, including the dockyard, globalisation and call centres—we have 10,000 jobs dependent on call centres—and foreign-owned companies will be looking at our competitive position. We have too many people with low skills and businesses are finding that skills are scarce. We have made significant progress and have more confidence and ambition, but we still need a recognition of our comparatively weak position and we need the son or daughter of objective 2 regional aid funding support.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, through funding for the city growth strategy programme, helped us to identify where our strengths lie. The strategy envisages continuing to support the science park developments, such as the successful Tamar science park, and a new marine science park that we hope to develop in the Millbay regeneration area. We aim to build up our marine science industry and our medical and health sciences, including the growing reputation for stem cell research and the spin-off businesses from it. We have advanced engineering, including a very good department of robotics at Plymouth university.

The creative and cultural industries are playing an important part. The TR2 in Plymouth—the Theatre Royal 2—is a rehearsal theatre that production companies from London have used for making their scenery and rehearsing their productions. Following a recent meeting with my right hon. and noble friend Lord Sainsbury, we have opened up discussions. From this list, my right hon. and hon. Friends will be aware that we will soon be beating a path to the door of the Treasury to discuss the ambitious and aspirational agenda that we have in Plymouth.

Our region has the greatest disparities of any and we need science city status. I am pleased that Bristol has such status but, given the need for us to act as the engine driver for the Devon and Cornwall sub-region, we will need the sort of support that we have had through objective 2 for another round. We would want that to act with the themes that I have identified in a way that would lift us out of the need for such support. We are right on the edge of the objective 1 area, where my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) is beavering away to make sure that there is a son or daughter of objective 1.

Plymouth is a city with a great past and a great future. This country has a great past, and Plymouth is building on that. The Government and their Budgets have a great track record of delivering a basis for the sort of growth that we have experienced and want. The country will shortly face a choice between a sustainable economy that is in good shape to take us forward fairly or an Opposition party that is still stuck in the past, apparently unable to understand the need for an active Government to play their part in helping us all to realise
22 Mar 2005 : Column 786
our full potential as individuals and in the public, private and voluntary sectors in which we work. I commend the Budget to the House.

3.46 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk) (Con): It is with some sadness that I rise to make what is almost certainly my last speech in this House. Eighteen years is a long time in politics and I am conscious of the privilege that my constituents accorded to me by returning me four times to play my part in this House and, in the past, in the Government of our country.

However, I am not entirely sure how effective my representations have been over the years. Throughout my time in the House, I have reminded Labour and Conservative Governments that rural people matter too. In my maiden speech in October 1987, I said that in future I would

Watford, as well as to its north and south

That is certainly life-enhancing prose now that I read it again. I also pointed out that the delivery of services in rural areas is more costly and complex than in urban areas and I pledged to fight for better infrastructure in Norfolk, not least because Norwich is

Not much has changed there.

During the whole of my time in this place I set out to test the fairness of Government policy by examining the effectiveness of its application in rural as well as urban situations. My Government did not always pass that test with flying colours and an episode that is strongly etched in my memory occurred during my first ministerial job in the then Department of Social Security when I argued that an overflowing septic tank was a real emergency for people on benefit and that if they were faced with that unpleasant situation, they should have access to the social fund. A civil servant said, "What is a septic tank, Minister?" At least Ministers knew that rural areas have many different and sometimes more complex concerns than urban areas. However, sadly, this Government still seem to have very little concept of how life works in rural areas and I shall illustrate that with two examples from the Budget.

The first is the Chancellor's much-vaunted offer of free bus passes for pensioners. Last week, he announced that the over-60s and disabled people would be entitled to free bus travel from April next year. Welcome as that news will have been in towns and cities and perhaps in some rural areas, it was treated with hollow laughter in many other rural areas. "What buses?" people said, as well they might. A constituent recently wrote from Rockland St. Peter, a village some six miles from the nearest market town, Attleborough. She said:

She added:

22 Mar 2005 : Column 787

I know that the Minister has a relative in that part of the world—I hope that he does not mind me saying so—and he will therefore be able to imagine how much use a bus pass would be for residents of that village. It certainly will not cost the Government very much if they can use the bus pass only once a month. He might even be able to picture the residents' reaction as the Chancellor pulled that particular rabbit out of his not very well filled hat. Since I raised this question, the county council has agreed to provide a taxi link once a week from the village. I wonder whether free bus passes will apply, but I shall not hold my breath for a reply.

There is more to that issue. According to the Eastern Daily Press, Norfolk's excellent regional newspaper, by Friday last week the Department for Transport had been forced to admit—only hours after the triumphant Budget—that local authorities were waiting to hear if the Government cash provided would cover the costs of the scheme, or if pensioners and the disabled in rural areas would have to pay for the Government handout through their council tax payments. Even more significantly, Department for Transport officials had to admit that only journeys that start and finish within a district council's boundary will be covered. How do Ministers think that rural people's lives work? Do they not understand that services, jobs and education are found in larger towns, and that in order to reach them people have to travel outside their own areas and that that, more often than not, means crossing a council boundary? I fear that that is a rhetorical question because those measures would not have been announced in the form that they have had Ministers realised that people in rural areas would be disqualified—at least, I assume that that is the case. The Norfolk Age Concern spokesman was quoted as saying:

Quite so.

My second example is more serious, and I make no apology for returning yet again to the question of biofuels. Obviously, a developed UK biofuels industry would have multiple benefits for this country, environmentally and economically. There would be particular benefits for rural areas, since the production of feedstocks would provide alternative markets for agriculture and help to ensure the continuation of farmed rather than merely conserved land in our countryside. The House does not need to take my word for that, because it could take the Government's. Only last summer, the Government agreed to amendments to the Energy Bill, which placed responsibility on the Secretary of State

of energy supplies, specifically mentioning energy derived from biomass and biofuels.

The Government have signed up to the Kyoto protocol and they have adopted a national goal to move towards a 20 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010. They have signed up to the EU biofuels directive, which requires them to set targets for the substitution of petrol and diesel with biofuels by this July, and higher targets by 2010. Their energy White Paper, which I assume they support, states:

22 Mar 2005 : Column 788

Nor do Ministers lack all-party support, as illustrated by the number of early-day motions, debates, questions and delegations from both sides of the House to encourage further support for biofuels. Outside Parliament, unprecedented support includes the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, Friends of the Earth, the academic world, the National Farmers Union, development agencies and local chambers of commerce—all recommending that the Government should reduce duty on biofuels or provide other encouragement.

The Government say that they support the development of biofuels, and they have signed up to a number of environmental obligations. They enjoy extensive cross-party support, and huge support from outside the House. However, little has been done. Observation obliges me to point out that Ministers have paraded their environmental credentials for some time, most recently at an international meeting held the day before the Budget. However, they do not go into detail about why successive domestic Budgets have done little more to encourage environmentally friendly fuel produced in the UK than to propose a concessionary rate of 20p. Lord Whitty has said that that concession will not stimulate the investment needed to deliver the required outcomes in this country. Ministers cannot afford to be complacent, as they know that CO 2 emissions from transport have risen in the time that they have been looking after the economy.

Like its predecessors, this Budget will have disappointed Lord Whitty and the biofuels lobby. It is big on working parties and feasibility studies, and it extends an already inadequate and ineffective duty derogation. Above all, it is big on words, but action is not forthcoming. The biofuels industry will remain a tiny cottage industry that produces biodiesel from used cooking oil, and no bioethanol will be produced in this country. The only result of the Government's fine words will be massive imports of biodiesel from Germany, which is made from exported UK rapeseed, and of bioethanol made in Brazil, whose cost in terms of employment rights and the environment we can only guess.

That brings me back to where I started. One other side benefit of the development of the biofuels industry would be the provision of a secure and sustainable future for many aspects of agriculture, to the benefit of our rural areas. Eighteen years ago, I stated my intention to work in Parliament to ensure that specifically rural problems gained recognition. Under this Government, council grant has been switched away from the shire counties, and there has been a failure to recognise that a sparse population is more costly to police and to provide with services. Fuel tax has been hiked, and the Government have refused to contemplate a strategy for the development of agriculture. They have displayed equanimity about the fact that the countryside faces a managed rather than a working future.

Given all that, this Budget shows that the Government understand nothing of the countryside, or rural people. It is time for a new Government who do understand those things—and we will.

3.57 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page