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6.53 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) for stopping short so that I have the opportunity to make a few remarks at the end of this debate.

Along with many other Members, I welcome the fact that for most of the past 10 years the Chancellor has overseen a strong economy. That has benefited people in Northern Ireland, where we have a much lower unemployment rate, where there is considerable private investment, and where there has been a change in the economy from the days of 15 to 20 years ago when we were at the height of the terrorist troubles.

However, those years of prosperity have, to a certain extent, been wasted, and the figures in the Red Book provide some evidence of that. If there is ever to be any chance of reducing the burden of taxation and keeping public finances under control, it should be during a period of growth. We will certainly not be able to do it during a period of economic stagnation or decline. Yet according to the figures in the Red Book, the burden of taxation in the economy has increased. The net public sector borrowing requirement has increased. As the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) mentioned, that is bound to make us look back from future years and say that the best of times did not result in the best use of resources.

Stephen Hesford: Which bit of public investment in Northern Ireland—or, indeed, in any part of the UK—would the hon. Gentleman have cut over the last 10 years?

Sammy Wilson: We have already had this argument across the Chamber. It is not a case of cutting a piece of public investment, but making better use of
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available resources. We know that there have been huge amounts of waste. Indeed, at Question Time every week, Members point out examples of wasteful public expenditure, which Ministers sometimes oversee.

As for the specifics of Northern Ireland, the Chancellor has said that he intends to announce an innovative fund, so we await to see what is in it tomorrow.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Sammy Wilson: I have only about three minutes and I am not taking any more interventions.

The Chancellor is going to announce tomorrow what will happen to education expenditure in Northern Ireland. Of course, there is also the whole question of the economic package that will be required if the new devolved Administration are to be sustainable.

Let me come to some of the matters that cause me concern. The philosophy of our party is that a low-tax economy is a better economy—one that will have more sustainable growth—than a high-tax economy. It is quite clear, despite the euphoria with which the Chancellor’s announcement was greeted on the Labour Benches, that as far as taxation is concerned, this Budget increases the burden. It increases the burden of personal taxation, as can be seen on page 208 of the Red Book. If we add in the taking away of the 10p income tax band and the changes to national insurance contributions, it is clear that taxpayers will be worse off.

I suppose it was a classic piece of Stalinist propaganda at the end of the Chancellor’s speech—and it was cheered to the hilt by Labour Members. I know that the Chancellor has been compared to Stalin, but perhaps it would be better to compare him to Fagin—some kind of fiscal pickpocket who has people cheering him when he picks their pockets. That is exactly what is happening here. Indeed, according to the Red Book, the overall tax burden will go up by 8 per cent., while growth is predicted to be at 2.5 per cent. So the real burden of taxation will increase, even though the Chancellor claims that this is a Budget that rewards taxpayers and lightens the burden. All that, of course, impacts on personal initiative, which will in turn impact on economic growth.

My second area of concern is the increase in corporation tax for small businesses. The Secretary of State has quite rightly said that Northern Ireland must become less reliant on the public sector and more reliant on the private sector. I agree with that, but if we are to move towards a more private sector-based economy, the initial growth will be in small businesses. Yet here we have a Chancellor who is penalising small businesses. Again, if we look at the figures we find that when the impact of the increase in corporation tax for small businesses comes through, £820 million will have been taken from such businesses. That hardly provides a basis for moving from greater reliance on the public sector to greater reliance on the private sector.

The construction and haulage industries in Northern Ireland will be affected by the 20 per cent. increase in the aggregates tax. Northern Ireland has a specific problem in that regard, in that we have a border with the Irish Republic, where similar taxation is not imposed.

Debate adjourned.— [Steve McCabe.]

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

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Chowns Mill Roundabout

7 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I would like to present a public petition to the House of Commons from the residents of Higham Ferrers, Rushden and the surrounding areas. At this precise moment, the Chowns Mill roundabout in Higham Ferrers will be gridlocked; people will not be able to move. Mrs. Julie Nacca had an accident at that roundabout a little while ago, and she was so incensed that she could get nothing done to improve the roundabout that she, on her own, compiled a petition. There are, incredibly, 1,332 signatories to it. The problem is that even though the roundabout gets gridlocked now, 167,000 new homes are to be built in Northamptonshire over the next few years, and there are no plans to improve that junction.

The petition declares:

To lie upon the Table.

Knife Crime

7.2 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I should like to present a public petition to the House of Commons in the name of my constituent, Mrs. Ann Oakes-Odger, which has been signed by 5,000 people. On 12 September 2005 her son, Westley Odger was brutally murdered at 3 pm. It was a bright sunny day. This barbaric act was witnessed by people of all ages, many of whom were traumatised by what they saw: a single fatal stab wound to the neck. Despite all attempts, people were unable to save his life. He was aged 27.

Following a trial, Mark Fredericks was sentenced to seven years for manslaughter. He was to serve half, having already spent 321 days in custody. His brother, Andrew Fredericks, was sentenced to life, but need serve only 15 years before applying for parole. Both had a history of violence and were known to carry knives.

The Petitioners declare:

To lie upon the Table.


7.4 pm

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I wish to present a petition collected by the Zacchaeus Trust 2000 and others. The trust is a registered charity of members with a strong religious conviction who are focused on the alleviation of poverty in this country. In that regard, they are particularly concerned about the behaviour of bailiffs in executing warrants on behalf of the courts and, in particular, about the rights of citizens to refuse entry to a bailiff. That right was established in about 1300 and has been upheld by the courts ever since. That common law right was abolished by the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, and the petition draws attention to the failure of the then Minister who introduced the change to refer to the importance of this long-established right, and to the fact that the change was never debated on the Floor of the House of Commons.

The Petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Rural Post Offices

7.5 pm

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I wish to present a petition from the residents of Waverley and the “Save Our Rural Post Offices” campaign.

If you visited my constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, you would see a number of villages that, on first sight, appear pretty idyllic. The fabric of those communities, however, depends very much on rural post offices, which are much more than places to buy stamps; they are places where people from the whole community can interact, particularly older people, of whom there are many in the villages. The petitioners have collected a total of 627 signatures as an indication of their concern and strength of feeling about their community’s vital lifeblood, which is seriously under threat.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

21 Mar 2007 : Column 919

York Minster

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Dan Norris.]

7.6 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): York Minster is a special place. It is a huge building, but intimate at the same time. It has played a central role in the history of Christianity in our country for 1,400 years, and yet it also draws people together—Christians and those of other denominations—as we saw just three weeks ago in the service at York Minster to commemorate the bicentenary of the vote in this House to abolish the slave trade.

The place is of enormous national and international significance. In the undercroft, one finds oneself among the remains of the Roman legionary fort, where, in 306 AD, Constantine was declared emperor. Constantine went on to reunify the Roman empire and grant religious freedom to Christians, which moulded Europe’s religion and culture, including the concepts of freedom of expression and toleration, which are such important parts of our way of life today.

The minster itself was founded in 627 by Edwin, King of Northumbria, after his conversion to Christianity. About 1,300 years ago, the minster library was founded. It is still there and contains the York gospels, an illuminated manuscript made closer to the time of Christ than to the present day. The minster building that we know today dates from the 12th century. The great east window was made and installed by John Thornton between 1405 and 1408, almost 600 years ago. It is the largest medieval work of art in the world—the size of a tennis court. From the ground, it looks almost like an abstract work of art, but up close, a wealth of detail is visible—some of the most delicate, sensitive and descriptive stained glass that has ever been made. The window is to stained glass what the Sistine chapel is to fresco. It is one of the greatest art works in the world.

Two years ago, York Minster established a development office under the direction of Dr. Richard Shepherd, to raise funds for the restoration and conservation of the east front and the great east window. The whole project will cost about £30 million. It includes not only restoration work, but work to improve access and public understanding of the minster and the window. The restoration of the window will cost about £19 million. The development campaign has raised an astonishing £5 million in just two years, which reflects the public interest in and concern for the minster, as well as the energy of Richard Shepherd and his staff. Many of the gifts have been made anonymously—people are not seeking self-aggrandisement; the gifts simply reflect the importance that the building has in their hearts.

The Heritage Lottery Fund has given great support to the development campaign. In January last year it provided a £50,000 project planning grant, and in September it provided a further grant of £390,000 to minimise the risk to the window—what it described as an immediate risk of deterioration. The grant will enable the 311 glass panels to be removed from the window and stored in the Bedern chapel, where visitors will be able to see the panes being conserved and the
21 Mar 2007 : Column 920
iconography—the pictures in the windows—explained. In December 2006, York Minster submitted its grant request for £10 million for its “York Minster Revealed” project to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Richard Shepherd has told me how beneficial the application process has been. Because the application is so large, it has undergone several iterations. It has been strengthened enormously as a result of the input and advice of staff of the fund. “York Minster Revealed” is more than just a restoration and conservation project, although that is at its heart. It will also pass on craft skills in carving stone and conserving stained glass to another generation. At present there are two stonemason apprentices in the York Minster stoneyard, and the aim is to add a further five. There is one apprentice in the York Glaziers Trust, and the trust wants another three.

The application to the lottery fund will improve physical access to the minster by facilitating public access through the main entrance in the south transept. There will be a better ramp to provide access for disabled people, and for the first time they will have access to the undercroft by means of a lift. There will also be what is described as “improved intellectual access”. That is culturespeak—a language that I do not understand myself—for interpretation of what is in the minster for the benefit of the public. It does not mean that special walkways will be established for university professors; it means that people like my hon. Friend the Minister and I will be able better to understand the history and purpose of the minster, including the meaning of the great east window and its use for teaching in mediaeval times. All that will be done through the latest technology and through publications, short courses and lectures. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has a strong personal interest in and knowledge of cathedrals in general. He was a chorister at Peterborough cathedral. I also know that he has a great interest in York Minster and the “York Minster Revealed” campaign in particular. He visited the minster in November last year, and is consequently well briefed on the state of the east front.

Two thirds of the stone in the window needs to be replaced. Some of the stone, particularly high up on the minster towers, is so loose that it could fall. That state of disrepair become apparent only when the scaffolding was erected. I thank the Heritage Lottery Fund for its “In the Beginning” funding, which allowed the scaffolding to be erected so that the window could be removed. Repairing the stonework will require 2,500 new blocks of stone to be carved, each a sculpture in its own right. The average cost of carving each block will be £600, and members of the public can sponsor a block by paying that sum. If people reading the report of the debate wish to do so, they should contact the minster to be told how they can make a contribution to this enormously important work.

The restoration is needed in heritage terms. I do not want the east front of York Minster to fall during my watch as Member of Parliament for the City of York, and I am sure that the Minister does not want to be seen to fail to protect a building of such importance on his watch. York Minster has cultural and economic importance, in addition to its supreme importance to our national heritage. It is the most important icon representing Yorkshire’s identity, and it is a symbol of
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the quality of life in the city that I represent in Parliament. That quality of life has helped the city to attract new investment and new jobs in science, financial services and information technology—and, indeed, in heritage and conservation—which have replaced the manufacturing jobs that the city has lost over the past two decades. The minster is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country. It has long been important to tourism, which brings millions of pounds to the city of York and to the region of Yorkshire. It has played that function for centuries.

I will not ask the Minister to approve the Heritage Lottery Fund grant, as I know that the fund is independent of his Department, but I appeal over his head to the trustees. I welcome the decision of the chair of the trustees, Liz Forgan, to visit York Minster in May, and I hope that she and her colleagues on the board will approve the large grant in July. I do, however, ask the Minister to ensure that the Government signal their own interest in, and support for, the restoration by discussing the project with Yorkshire Forward and by asking what contribution it can make to the restoration, and I ask the Minister to write to me after he has had such conversations.

I particularly welcome the announcement made in the Budget speech today that the Chancellor has launched a review of church funding, to be undertaken jointly by the Treasury and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and I hope that the Chancellor will meet representatives of the cathedrals to discuss what additional support the state might be able to give them. I also welcome the partnership between English Heritage and the Wolfson Foundation, which will provide grants up to the value of £250,000 to cathedrals. I understand that it is possible for cathedrals to apply for those grants from September of this year. I know that the York Minster appeal will make such an application, and I hope that the Government will support it. If the Government acknowledge the importance of the restoration with their own statements and financial support, that will encourage the HLF to give the project the support that it needs, and encourage members of the public to make private donations.

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