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Edward Miliband (Doncaster, North) (Lab): On a point of fact, does the hon. Gentleman accept that annual average productivity growth in this cycle has been 2.3 per cent., against 2 per cent. in the last cycle[Interruption.] I see that the shadow Chancellor is trying to give the hon. Gentleman the answer, but perhaps he could respond to my question.
The extraordinary certainty with which he asserts those figures is distressing enough, but not all parts of Government share in his enthusiasm for science-based skills. It was staggering to be given a letter that an Ofsted inspector wrote to the children of a primary school in my constituency after an Ofsted inspectiona practice that I do not think is appropriate, particularly when it includes the sentence:
[Interruption.] I will repeat it for the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband), if he really thinks that he approves of such a letter. An Ofsted inspector has written to primary school children suggesting that they ought to spend less time on mathematics, science and English. How are we going to reach the required standards in our primary schools if that is the attitude of Ofsted inspectors?
"In our schools, some of the key, science-based subjects are in decline. The number of sixth-formers taking A-level physics, for example, has fallen 30 per cent. over the past 15 years. More generally, there has been a decline in science and maths as a proportion of A-level passes.
At university level our students are increasingly failing to find engineering-based subjects attractivethe number of electronic and electrical-engineering students has fallen by more that 30 per cent. in the past two years alone. More than half of all engineering doctorates awarded in Britain are gained by overseas students."
As if the skills problem were not bad enough on its own, we have the added burden of regulations. Every single year, the EU alone issues 100 to 150 directives and 3,500 regulations.
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Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I am sure that my hon. Friend will share my disgust at some of the daft regulations that come out of Europe. Speaking as the Member for the home of the international organ festival, does he share my slight glimmer of hope that there may be an exemption for the pipe industry, and will he urge the Government to press forward with making sure that that industry is exempt from this daft regulation, which may threaten our liturgical music?
Mr. Duncan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The hazardous waste directive banning the use of lead in new electrical products appears to threaten the restoration and building of church organs. We were partly heartened by the response of the Minister for Industry and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), in Trade and Industry questions last week. He said that restoration would not be subject to the directive, but he was ambiguous and ambivalent about whether newly built organ pipes would be exempt and said that they would have to apply for an exemption. Will the Secretary of State apply for a general exemption on the industry's behalf, or will each company have to apply for an exemption individually?
Mr. Duncan: The right hon. Gentleman declines to tell the House. He should be on top of the issue and able to tell us. The Budget is about the prosperity and success of business, many of them small businesses such as those that make and restore organs. If the Secretary of State is not prepared to tell us whether they are going to be able to survive the regulatory regime that we are discussing, he is not doing his job properly.
I have found no end of examples of directives, many of which would suffice as a paragraph but are, when they come to us, seven, eight or nine pages long. We have the Food (Jelly Confectionery) (Emergency Control) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2004, which runs to six pages, and the Food (Jelly Mini-Cups) (Emergency Control) (Scotland) Regulations 2004. When I wrote my election address, little did I appreciate that we were so severely at risk from an imminent invasion of jelly cups. Those who show enough enterprise to start or run a business quickly find themselves swimming in treacle. They immediately get an enormous book. We need a "Treacle Swimming Emergency (Britain) Order" to rescue their prospects. Any business person faces an enormous burden and uncertainty under the Government.
The operating and financial review was a sad and sorry tale. Was the Secretary of State told about it before the Chancellor abolished it? [Interruption.] One Minister claims that he was while the Secretary of State shakes his head. The Chancellor abolished the operating and financial review. Companies subsequently said that they would prefer to have it because they had spent all the money preparing for it. The Chancellor then said that we would have it back. A statutory instrument was passed to get rid of it but it remains in the Company Law Reform Bill. That is a mess. Businesses need certainty and consistency so that they can decide how to invest and know how they spend their money.
Does the hon. Gentleman know whether the Department realised that the Chancellor would
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abolish the home computer initiative? He probably knows that Department officials were being given computers but will now be charged £200 a year because of the Chancellor's decision.
"One of the most effective ways of realising the potential of the workforce and the organisation is for employers to make computers for home use available to as many employees as possible. Basic computer and technology skills are now regarded as essential for the majority of jobs . . . Home Computing Initiatives . . . are an extremely powerful catalyst for any organisation that wants to exploit the clear and indisputable link between individual learning, workplace productivity and overall competitiveness."
There have also been some strange announcements about corporation tax. Two changes were announced. First, the 0 per cent. rate has been abolishedthe Institute for Fiscal Studies described that as an "unfortunate experience". The Chancellor made the bizarre claim in the Budget that that "simplification" would save business £9 million. Secondly, thresholds remain unchanged and have not even been uprated with inflation. We now have more corporation tax than Sweden.
Eight years into the Government's tenure, there are 3,000 business support schemes. Every time the Chancellor opens his mouth, he seeks a headline and launches a scheme. Eight years on, there are so many that they are out of control and lack any coherent structure. It is no wonder that the Government have set a new target. They said:
Business likes a stable framework in which it can invest. It does not like erratic public policy. We have had the saga of the operating and financial review and, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) pointed out, we now have the saga of laptops.
During this Parliament, Qinetiq and Westinghouse have been sold. However, we have not had any clear statement of the Government's policy on privatisation and the sale of assets. At leastone might also say, "at last"the Chancellor has said something in the Budget about his future intentions. If he is to dispose of £30 billion of assets before 2010, I hope that he will at least make some shares available to the general public and not treat them, as his special adviser does, as old grannies in blouses to be contemptuously dismissed as irrelevant to wider share ownership.
The Secretary of State referred to the energy review. Almost all the Government's existing policy objectives have not been fulfilled. Today, we have had the climate change programme review, which shows that we are missing our emissions targets. A second objective was to seek reliability in energy supplies, yet we have recently experienced a gas balancing alert and punitive gas prices. A third objective was to eliminate fuel poverty,
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but the Government estimate that the number of vulnerable households in fuel poverty is due to rise by 1 million. The climate change levy is a tax on energy, but we need to bear down on emissions. We are taking the energy review seriously, but it seems as though the Prime Minister is semi-detached from his own.
The Chancellor hardly dared to mention pensioners in the Budget. That was hardly surprising, given that what he has not already destroyed, he cannot now afford. At a time when the hard-pressed private sector is carrying an ever-growing public sector, this Secretary of State did a deal. He caved in to the unions over central Government pensions and has thereby enraged those who work in local government. Those in the private sector are working longer and have less pension security, and today we have seen the biggest strike since 1926. One estimate puts the total liabilities in unfunded public sector pensions at nearly £1 trillion. Is the Secretary of State still prepared to claim that he is the Minister responsible for public pensions?
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