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Mr. Cox: Well, we will let the people of the country decide who is living in the real world and who is not, but I tell you what, Mr. Deputy Speaker: I represent a shire county, and the people whom I represent know that they are not living in a Labour area. They know that
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they do not have new hospitals and new roads; they know that they do not experience the same investment. They know that there are two Englands—the England represented by the Labour party, and the England represented by Conservatives and even—God help us!—by Liberal Democrats. People there do not get that type of investment. The south-west has suffered again and again from neglect, indifference and failure to represent communities in the areas that I represent.

I do not want to go on for long, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I do have a constructive suggestion. Why does the Minister not say now to the people and communities whom I represent that the Government will not introduce their proposed 2p a litre fuel price rise at all? That would at least cause a sigh of relief to break out in all the areas of the south-west of which I speak. Why do the Government not abandon the vehicle excise duty proposals, which will fall harshly on those whom I represent? Why do they not stop the post office closure programme, so that people will not have to travel 15, 20 miles and more to the nearest market town?

Mr. Jeremy Browne: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cox: No.

Why do the Government not speak to the GP surgeries, from whose patients I am receiving hundreds of letters expressing worry about the removal of their dispensary, because that is where they need to go and it saves them money to do so? If the Government were seen to be consistent, rather than contradictory—if they were seen to be uniform in their approach to these problems, thinking them through in a coherent fashion—the people whom I represent might be less disenchanted, less cynical, less sceptical and, frankly, less disbelieving in this Labour Government’s credentials to govern. But since the Government seem committed to proceeding upon their current damaging and destructive course—since it seems, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South demonstrated with enormous clarity, that they are about as removed from this planet as the current NASA lander on Mars—I suspect that the people will wait, biding their time for another 18 months or so, until they have the chance to eject this Government and bring in something new. Let us hope that that happens as soon as possible.

6.9 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): My favourite expression in politics is that business is the workhorse that pulls the social welfare cart, and I feel desperately passionate about that. A lot of my politics is geared toward thinking about how we can create a good environment for business—be it large or small—to thrive in this country, to compete in a global world and to produce the prosperity that we all desire for our country, which can then be shared with the public services and the public sector. The problem we have is that over the past 10 years the Labour Government have not constructed the ideal environment for those companies. Many Shropshire business people say to me, “We are still here only because we think with our hearts, we are proud Salopians and we have a duty to our workers. If we were thinking with our minds, we would have shut up shop and started our business somewhere
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else in the world where it is more economically viable to allow a business to thrive.” Such a situation is very damaging.

It was Ronald Reagan, when he was standing for election against President Carter, who asked the American people:

They clearly were not better off, which is why Ronald Reagan beat President Carter. The same thing will happen when Britain has a general election in 2009 or 2010, because we will ask the British people whether they think they are in a better position than they were in 2005. It is commonly accepted that things are going in the wrong direction.

Many people have spoken about the cost of fuel increasing, and that is the biggest threat faced by rural communities such as Shropshire. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) has mentioned the problems that rural communities face in respect of petrol price increases. I met a delegation of 50 Shropshire haulage industry operators the other day, and they are appalled about what is happening to their industry. They are on their knees and they do not see how they can see out the year if petrol prices remain at current levels. One thing that would cost very little would be for Ministers to impose a tax on foreign hauliers using our transport system. That would be a relatively cheap measure for them to introduce, but if we are to save Shropshire’s and England’s haulage industry, it is pivotal that the Government undertake it.

I do not mind saying that, again, the Labour Government are pouring money into certain inner-city areas at the expense of the rural community, and I have every sympathy with the comments made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon. The Government’s grants to Shropshire county council are so minute that volunteers who undertake extremely important work, be it providing meals on wheels or another type of important voluntary activity, come to my surgery to tell me that the mileage allowance that they are paid by the council does not even cover the cost of operating their motor cars to undertake those vital services on which people in remote rural areas and villages depend. That is an absolute disgrace, and I hope to hear from the Minister on that issue.

In last week’s European debate, I called on the Prime Minister to go to Saudi Arabia, and as chair of the all-party group on Saudi Arabia, I am glad that he heeded my advice. He tried to say that the ball is in the court of the Saudis and the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries and that they must start increasing production in order to lower the cost of petrol. However, as has been said on many occasions throughout this debate, he is responsible for massively ramping up taxation on petrol in this country. We might want to convince the Saudi Arabians and others to increase production, but friends of mine in Saudi Arabia say, “Your Government have to start by cutting their taxation on petrol before he will convince us to take the issue seriously.”

As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon aptly said, the Government are exacerbating the problem. He mentioned the post offices in his constituency that are threatened with closure.

Mr. Jeremy Browne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Daniel Kawczynski: Certainly not to the hon. Gentleman, because he has been a total apologist for the socialists throughout the entire debate, and this is all about scrutinising the Government.

I would like to talk about the post office closures in my constituency. As my hon. and learned Friend mentioned, many rural villages totally depend on post offices.

Mr. Browne rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I think the House gets quite irritated when Members have indicated clearly that they have no intention of giving way, yet Members constantly seek to intervene; there is a point when that is possible, but there is also a point when it is really not a good idea.

Daniel Kawczynski: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The post office closures will just exacerbate the problem that I have been describing. In addition, my county council does not receive enough money for providing bus services. Bus service 557 in my constituency is being discontinued simply because not enough subsidies are being given to my council. Not only are the post offices being closed, but the vital bus routes that take people from rural villages to the county town of Shropshire are being cut.

Mr. Donohoe: If the hon. Gentleman had been present at this afternoon’s meeting of the all-party group on light rail, he would have heard Brian Souter, the chief executive of Stagecoach, saying that, after doing a survey across the whole country, he has never known a time when the bus industry has been on such an upward trend as it is today—the same is true of the railways. Indeed, that applies not just in the city centres and town centres, but in the rural areas. Would the hon. Gentleman not accede to the fact that the way forward when petrol prices are high is for people to transfer from their cars to the buses?

Daniel Kawczynski: I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the experience in Devon and Shropshire is very different. I am only sharing with the House what constituents are saying to me. A delegation of pensioners from Pontesbury who came to see me in my surgery were incandescent about the fact that these rural bus services are going to be cut.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon mentioned the cost of heating oil, which is also an important point in Shropshire. Rural villagers depend on heating oil to heat their homes. I, too, undertook some investigation into this matter. On 18 February 2007, heating oil cost 39.9p a litre, whereas today it costs 58.75p a litre, which is an increase, in Shropshire, of 147 per cent. Everybody will be paying an extra £340 for a tank load of 1,800 litres, and as certain families normally use up to two tanks, we are talking about an additional cost of £680 for heating oil. Those figures were provided by Oakley’s Fuel, a company in my constituency. The Minister should, of course, be providing grants for individuals to have microgeneration and heating pumps in their homes, rather than have people being dependent on heating fuel. I saw such things being used in Sweden in early 1980s, so they are relatively old technologies, and we should be using them.

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Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a very valuable point about fuel poverty, on which the Government have been completely missing their targets. It affects many constituencies, including mine, and the Government have been sorely lacking in terms of giving lots of ways to tackle fuel poverty. I am thinking of not only financial means, but advice and helping people to insulate their homes.

Daniel Kawczynski: Yes, I have many problems with the Warm Front scheme, which is not operating properly in my constituency. The largest organisation in my constituency is the Shrewsbury senior citizens forum, which has more than 5,000 members, many of whom are extremely upset about the lack of help from Government on heating allowances.

The reason why the Government will not be providing individuals with grants for heating pumps and other technologies to heat people’s homes is because of the financial mess into which they have got our country. There is no doubt about that. We are now more than £700 billion in debt. That is the figure I always use, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) suggested that the real figure could be up to £1.5 trillion. The levels of debt are extraordinary. This year alone, the socialists have borrowed more than £40 billion just to keep the economy afloat.

Mr. Jeremy Browne: You are in favour of the same level of tax.

Daniel Kawczynski: I have said that I will not take interventions. If the hon. Gentleman seeks to intervene, I shall say no, so I do not know why he is making any points.

The problem we face is that there is absolutely nothing in the kitty to kick-start the economy as we are going into leaner times and our constituents are finding it difficult to make ends meet. One can always think what one likes about the American Government, but they have injected massive liquidity into the economy and given huge tax rebates to their constituents. They see the inherent danger of the coming recession and they want to help individuals to start spending again so that the economy picks up. That cannot happen here, because the Labour Government have borrowed and borrowed. They even had to borrow to sort out the 10p fiasco.

I shall give the Minister the example of a lovely couple who came to see me; they are happy for me to share their details. He is 84 and she is 83, and they live in the village of Dorrington, where they have to run a bed and breakfast to make ends meet. They cannot afford to live on their pensions, so they have turned their home into a B and B. That is astounding in what is allegedly the fourth largest economy in the world.

One reason our economy is not growing as quickly as it should is that hardly anyone in the Labour Government has any experience of business. The whole debate has involved criticising what the Conservatives did in the 1980s or 1990s, without even a flicker of thought as to how the Government could improve their management of the economy, or what they could learn for the future. It has been very disheartening, especially the speech by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths). I have never heard anything like it. For the people who are watching this debate on their televisions—

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Mr. Mark Field: Three of them.

Daniel Kawczynski: There are only three of them because they are so disheartened by the appallingly low quality of the debate, especially from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South, whose speech was very arrogant.

I jumped at the chance to speak in this debate. The cost of living is very important to my constituents, be they young families or senior citizens, as it relates to how much they pay at the pump, or for their food and everything else they need to keep their households going. This debate is far more important than so many other debates that we have, and for the Labour Benches to be so bereft shows how out of touch the socialists have become. They do not see living standards as being of any importance.

6.22 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Having so recently heard the sermon from the heart of Devon, I almost feel a little guilty, as an urban Member, for saying a few words. I appreciate that the Minister’s constituency contains both rural and urban areas, and I hope that she has taken on board the strength of feeling about fuel duty and the cost of living for many rural constituents.

The issue of the cost of living has not just come to the fore in the past few months. It has made the front pages of newspapers and been the lead headline in many news bulletins in only the past six to nine months, but the increasing cost of living has been a fact of life in London for some time. It was one of the main reasons why we had the largest swing in the country at the last general election.

I share the alarm of many of my hon. Friends at the complacency of the Government, as shown in the speeches by the Minister and by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths). This Government were happy to take undue credit when things were going well for the economy, but over the past 12 months they have argued that the problems are due to global causes. There are some global issues, and it would be wrong to deny that entirely, but the public have been so hostile because the Government sought to claim that the days of boom and bust were gone and to take credit for the economy being in such an apparently strong position.

I confess that I used to sigh with depression whenever the then Chancellor of the Exchequer—now Prime Minister—and other members of the Treasury team would compare our economic performance with that of France, Germany or other G7 countries. The reality of the global world is that the competition we face is from India and China, those two economic superpowers of the 21st century. With 2.5 billion people, they will make far more important competitors than many European countries, and if we do not learn how to adapt our economy—as we evidently have not learned over the past decade—we will all suffer.

One of the biggest issues connected with the cost of living is the high levels of income tax paid by the poorest in our communities. The very fact that people start paying income tax when they earn barely £105 a week is a nightmare. It is an especial problem in London and the south-east, where even people doing the worst-paid, part-time jobs pay income tax. The Government will no
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doubt point out that tax credits make a difference, but the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) was very complacent. She gave undue credit to the implementation of the minimum wage. It has made a difference to many of the less well-off in our society, but there is a price to pay for that, and we are beginning to pay for it as the economy slows down.

In London, there is a thriving—indeed, an over-thriving—black economy. We rely on many thousands of immigrants being willing to earn relatively small amounts of money, often paid in cash. One of the biggest indictments of some of the broader aspects of this Government’s policy is that London now has the highest level of unemployment—a total inversion of the position in decades gone by. That is in part because too many Londoners lack the aptitude or the skills to hold down even the most basic jobs. They often live in social housing, which is very scarce, and that has the makings of some serious social unrest in the years ahead.

It is very rare in any bar or restaurant in my constituency—or, I suspect, any of the other 73 London constituencies—to be served by a British national. The servers will be Lithuanians or Poles, or from some other far-flung country, doing some of the relatively unskilled but important jobs in the hospitality sector. That has the makings of a disaster in the future, as unemployment rises. It will not be those who come here short term, to earn some money and learn the language, but our indigenous British who end up unemployed without the skills or aptitude to hold down a job.

The motion refers to the Government’s “excessively loose” fiscal policy, and some fair points were made by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) when he said that we would have to ensure that public spending fell or taxes would rise. The state of the public finances is dire, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) rightly pointed out, with some trepidation, that he had said that the overall burden was £1.5 trillion, but he had had so little negative comment on that that he suspected that the situation was even worse.

Only last year, the Government made it clear that they reckon that this year we will be in hock to the tune of £43 billion. Add to that the £2.7 billion for the Prime Minister’s get-out-of-jail-free card for the 10p tax band, and the other £1 billion or so that will be paid for Manchester’s Metrolink, and I suspect that the outturn will be significantly worse, not least because the figure of £43 billion was put forward at a time when the economic clouds had not darkened in the way that they have over the past few months. There are some problematic times ahead.

Above all, I have had the opportunity to speak in this House on many occasions about the long-term problems, as I see them, in relation to private finance initiatives, public-private partnerships and all the off-balance sheet financing. They are a disaster in the making and the complacency of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South was breathtaking. He can talk about the new hospitals and schools, but where is the money coming from? It has not been paid by this generation. It is effectively jam today to be paid for by generations to come. Our children and our grandchildren will foot the bill.

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