Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the latest of 10I think it was 10maiden speeches in today's debate. The speeches have given me renewed faith in the vibrancy of our political culture, because of the obvious talents of the people who have spoken todayI will not list them alland have given me a few holiday ideas for those weekend breaks to which we all aspire, even if we do not manage to take them. I shall go to my map of Great Britain and plan to visit many constituencies after listening to their Members of Parliament waxing lyrical about them. Of course, I am still of the opinion that Wallasey is the centre of the universe.
For all Labour MPs who served in opposition as well as in government in this place, there can be no greater thrill than to speak in a Queen's Speech debate from this sided of the Chamber. To be doing so at the beginning of an unprecedented third term in office for a Labour Government is even more gratifying. In the depths of the Thatcherite wilderness years, when I began my own personal political odyssey, that would have been utterly unthinkablebut here we are.
Labour's achievement is mighty and, some would say, very long overdue. After a tough election, in which we have lost some good and talented colleagues, we find ourselves in a position that none of our predecessors enjoyednot Attlee, not Bevan, not Bevin, not Wilson, not Healey and not Callaghan: we find ourselves in government for a third term.
We have a precious opportunity that we must not waste. We have earned the chance to embed the changes that we have begun to implement in the very fabric of
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our society for the long term. We have earned the opportunity to transform our society profoundly for the better and we have earned the chance to lay solid foundations that will make this century in Britain a Labour century.
I also believe that in the 21st century, the problems that the world will faceclimate change, instability and poverty, terrorismcan be solved only by multilateral collective international action and not by market fundamentalism, laissez-faire economic dogma or by retreating from the European Union into isolationism. We must build on the economic stability that has been such a feature of our success to date. This is necessary if we are to make more progress towards our goal of greater social justice. The current Chancellor's achievement here is as unprecedented as our third term in office. He has made a massive contribution to our continued political success and to our real and lasting achievements.
We must build on our progress on poverty elimination, both at home and abroad, if we are to tackle the shameful legacy that we inherited from the Tory years. This condemned millions in our own country to the stunted life chances and narrowed opportunities and unfairness that come with poverty. It did nothing to tackle the scandal of billions of our fellow human beings dying in a world of plenty for want of the basics required to sustain human life.
Finally, we must build on our progress on fairness and equality. No society that hopes to thrive in our increasingly competitive world can afford to tolerate bigotry and discrimination in its ranks. We have made some progress here, but much remains to be done.
This Queen's Speech contains many good and worthy pieces of legislation that will improve our country when they make their way on to the statute book, and I wish to highlight a few. The Consumer Credit Bill makes a welcome, fast return to Labour's programme after it was shamefully blocked by Opposition parties in the dying days of the last Parliament. I had the honour of serving on the Treasury Select Committee in the last Parliament, and aspire to do so again in this one. The House will be aware of the work done by the Treasury Committee on credit cards and the financial services industry generally.
Some consistent themes emerged from our inquiries and the Bill addresses some of the most important. The first is extortionate credit agreements; many Members will remember the court case of London North Securities v. Meadows, in which an original debt of £5,000 had ballooned into an astonishing £384,000all legal under the old legislation, but unfair now. The Bill will also deal with transparency in costs and credit terms, including penalty fees, which are often levied on those least able to pay, at levels disproportionate to the debt that they have taken on. It will also deal with financial exclusion and access to dispute resolution.
Currently, 2 million households in Britain have no real access to financial services and pay much more to get access to credit in a much more vulnerable position than many of us would tolerate. The extra protection from loan sharks and charlatans who prey on the desperate is long overdue, as is a crackdown on the more dubious practices of some of our mainstream companies. The time when people with low borrowing
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limits can be forced into spiralling debt by hidden and unavoidable penalty charges and then menaced by constant harassment to pay what they cannot pay is, I hope, drawing to a close.
On poverty in the UK, great strides have been made by this Government. The 60 per cent. fall in unemployment in my constituency has helped, as have tax credits and the provision of child care costs. That has given many women with children their first real practical opportunity to go to work. My time on the doorstep in the recent election brought home to me how much these policies are appreciated by women, and it is no coincidence that proportionately more women than men voted Labour in the 2005 election. Indeed, MORI has calculated that if all voters had voted as women did, the Labour majority would be not 66 but 90. I believe that we need to build on the progress that we have made there.
In the past eight years, Labour has raised 1.9 million pensioners out of the absolute poverty in which the Tories left them. At the same time, we have helped 1 million children out of absolute poverty in our own country. If we are to achieve our aim of eliminating child and pensioner poverty, we need an intensification of our drive in these areas.
Abroad, Britain is leading the battle to reshape the agenda on poverty elimination and to strive to achieve the United Nations millennium development goals. The European Union agreement reached yesterday is a tribute to the work of both our Chancellor and Prime Minister, and to the success that they have achieved in shaping the G8 and EU agenda during our presidencies this year. I hope that the Prime Minister's 40,000-mile trek will deliver the engagement of the United States of America, despite some kicking and screaming, in this campaign, and perhaps even ensure that it joins the "Make poverty history" campaign, alongside everybody else.
I welcome the quick reintroduction of the Equality Bill in the Queen's Speech. This is a worthy measure that consolidates some of the good work under way to reinforce the protections that we give our citizens against discrimination. I hope that it speeds its way on to the statute book, but I believe that it needs to be followed equally swiftly by a single equalities measure that will simplify, harmonise and extend the law and protections in this area.
With the gender and race pay gaps still persisting, and even growing in some sectors, we need to do more. We need to do more because there is no general positive duty to promote equality. We need to do more to extend protection from discrimination in the provision of goods and services to our citizens on the grounds of age, belief and sexual orientation. This is not special treatment; it is legislating for respect and fairness, which are the definition of what a Labour Government do.
Respect has been much in the news lately, but I believe that it is a two-way process. Proper respect empowers. It does not humiliate or degrade, or stigmatise or caricature entire generations. Real respect means the creation of a good society that respects people's rights and dignity at work, incorporates fairness and opportunity for all our people, and ensures that everyone is respected as they are and that we hear every voice in our political democracy. I believe that we need
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a more sophisticated debate about respect and about what is happening in the commercialised, media-driven and advertising-dominated culture that is destroying it.
We have a third term in Government. We even have a little Red Book to guide us on our way. It is rather less declamatory than another one of which I have had experience, but it is just as exciting. This will be a challenging and exciting period for Labour Members, and we are looking forward to it with determination and commitment.
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): I congratulate hon. Members who have made maiden speeches today, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) and for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley). In their eloquence and passion, they demonstrated that they will be doughty champions of their constituencies in this Parliament.
The Chancellor's speech today was characteristic of his speeches on all these occasions. It was full of facts and figures that supported his case, but it carefully ignored those that did not do so. He refused to stand by the forecasts that he made during this year's Budget. At times, he seemed to be preparing the way for breaking the golden rule, but above all, he struck a note of complacency and self-satisfaction. There can be no room for complacency in the running of the economy. No one can afford to take risks with it at the moment. I recently heard an economist say that current economic growth is built on the twin pillars of Government debt and personal debt. We can see from the Red Book that debt is helping to finance higher Government expenditure. For example, the 2002 Red Book forecast what would happen in the current fiscal year. It predicted a surplus of £9 billion and Government expenditure of £444 billion. This year's Red Book shows that public finances have deteriorated over the past three years, and have swung from a surplus of £9 billion to a deficit of £6 billion, with £15 billion used to fund half the increase in spending.
That increase in spending and the Government's problems in meeting their forecast tax revenues have led economists to predict that the Chancellor will have to fill a £10 billion black hole in his next Budget. He can only do so by increasing borrowing, which will take him towards the top of the golden rule, or by raising taxes on hard-pressed businesses and consumers. Strong consumer demand is partly financed by the increase in personal debt. If anyone doubts that relationship, they should look at the headlines that greeted the announcement at the end of the last week that, for the first time in several years, consumers have paid off more on their credit cards than they have put on. Many commentators link the fall in credit card borrowing with the downturn in the high street and the poor results announced last week by some of our major retailers.
We must be careful, however, as it would be wrong to forecast that the end of the world is nigh. People will continue to borrow if they believe that they can afford to service their debt. That will depend on the level of interest rates and their employment prospects, as well as
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incentives not to spend or borrow but to save. The incentives to save in the present economy are not sufficiently strong, and do not encourage people to put money away for a rainy day in case their employment prospects deteriorate or to save for their pensions. The reform of the pensions system on which the Government are seeking cross-party consensus should look at ways of strengthening incentives to save and providing greater stability for the economy.
In his maiden speech, the hon. Member for Normanton (Ed Balls) referred to the stop-go economy of the post-war period. The Government should consider the way in which they tackle tax changes in the Budget. Too often, the changes that they propose are ill-conceived, ill-considered and ill-thought-through. They distort underlying economic activity and send signals to businesses to embark on projects from which they later have to retreat. Just as the stop-go economic policy of the post-war period sought to fine-tune the economy by reducing taxes or increasing them and introducing credit restrictions when the economy was out of control, so tax changes stimulate activity but then lead the Government to row back when they recognise that they are damaging. Let me cite three examples.
The Government were proud to introduce tax reliefs to stimulate film production in the UK. They were later forced to restrict those reliefs, however, because of the way in which taxpayers had taken advantage of them. If only the Government had thought through that change earlier they might have been able to stop other taxpayers having to subsidise those reliefs through the higher taxes that they had to pay instead.
A couple of years ago, the Government introduced a zero rate of corporation tax. I remember the Paymaster General saying in Committee that that would stimulate enterprise and have a tremendous effect. It also, however, encouraged unincorporated businesses, such as sole traders and partnerships, to incorporate to take advantage of those tax reliefs, not to stimulate economic activity. The Government have therefore had to restrict that tax relief, realising that in trying to drive the economy forward they have made a mistake, as it sends out the wrong signals and encourages the wrong type of activity in our economy.
Not that long ago, the Chancellor announced with a great flourish that he wanted to abolish stamp duty on commercial property transactions in disadvantaged areas, and that that would be a great reform to stimulate property transactions in those areas. The Government sought state aid exemption from the EU, which runs out at the end of 2006. That relief was forecast to cost £50 million. When the Chancellor announced its withdrawal in the Budget, however, the tax saving from which taxpayers would benefit was £350 million. Yet again, a measure that the Government introduced had been ill-thought-through and was costing taxpayers far more than the Government had suggested. As a consequence, people working on property schemes in the areas concerned stopped suddenly, as the relief was withdrawn overnight, and scrambled to complete deals that were in the pipeline.
Such ill-conceived, ill-considered measures harm the stability of the economy. They do not give businesses a secure framework in which to plan their activities, or a stable tax regime in which they can develop long-term projects for the future. Too much of this micro-fiddling
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in the economy, with small reliefs and measures that are suddenly taken advantage of and become much more expensive than the Government predicted, ends up distorting business priorities and taking business's eye of the ball.
I spent several years working for a firm of chartered accountants, and I understand some of the issues that businesses consider in relation to long-term projects and some of the taxation issues. The Government need to think carefully about this activism in the economy. In the same way as targets imposed by Government on our health, education and other public services distort the priorities of GPs, teachers in our schools, and nurses and doctors in our hospitals, such activism distorts the priorities of businesses and gets in the way of businesses being run in a way that is right for the economy, their employees and customers.
Let me give this advice to the Treasury Bench at the start of this Parliament: Ministers should look for a more simple, straightforward and above all more stable and predictable tax regime, so that business can continue to flourish and thrive.