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Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): Our debate this evening takes place against the backdrop of increasingly serious economic difficulty. Over the past few weeks, we have seen great turmoil in financial markets, and Members on both sides of the House share concern that it risks turning into turmoil in labour markets. Unemployment is a scourge. We have to work together across the House to confront enormous economic difficulties, which none of us can wholly understand, to try to do our best to ensure that they do not turn into the unemployment and human misery that the debate is all about.
I am afraid that by the end of tonights proceedings, we will all have painted a rather depressing picture of what might be coming down the track at us. When it comes to the problems that we want to confront, the starting point is not really one of which the Government can be proud. It is not a proud boast that after 10 or more years of economic prosperity, unemployment stands at only 1.7 million. Let us compare that with the situation in many of the years that speakers have mentioned tonight; it is triple what was seen as an absolutely unacceptable level of unemployment in the 1970s. The starting point is not a happy one, which means that what will follow may be extremely serious.
The climate for future employment is not healthy, and one reason why is that after the 10 years to which I have referred, our economy and fiscal position should be in a much better position to cope. We should now have lower taxation. Instead of Government borrowing, we should have a surplus. We should have higher savings and a massive pensions pot. Sadly, we have none of those things, and in my view, unemployment is relatively high. We have higher taxes, more regulation and the worst budget deficit in the developed world. We have squandered a decade of growth, and that will make the pain far greater when we have to face what is around the corner.
We have had a lively debate. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) began the Back-Bench speeches and spoke in his inimitable
style. I thought that he showed insufficient appreciation of the ferocity of the business cyclea ferocity that his constituents will yet have to withstand. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) spoke about jobcentre closures. He also mentioned empty property rates, which I shall come on to in a minute. I thought that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) was unduly vitriolic, and looked only to the past. Our concern tonight is about the future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) was especially convincing on the Prime Ministers view on immigrant workers, but the victor ludorum tonight is the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), who is temporarily out of the Chamberit is certainly a brave man who becomes his psychiatrist. The mistake that he made, when levelling accusations against us, was insufficiently to appreciate the fact that so many of the problems of the 80shigh tax, inflation, underinvestment, restrictive practices and loss of competitivenesswere caused by what had gone before. I am not sure whether the Secretary of State was even born then, but he can always turn to the history books.
My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) proved that Labours monopoly of concern is not safe in its hands. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)I am sorry that I missed a bit of his speechwas, once again, looking back. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) showed a rather more accurate grasp of history. The hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), once he had decomplexified everything, showed a much greater sense of realism, which he injected into our debate.
I am the Conservative spokesman for the Department for business. It is vital that the UK has a strong business sector, and that Whitehall speaks up strongly for business, if we are to counter the scourge of unemployment. I fear that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, whose Ministers I face across the Chamber, has not done as well as it could have done over the past 10 years. There have been 38 Ministers and seven Secretaries of State, and the Minister with responsibility for small firms has changed on average once every 18 months. The construction portfolio alone has changed six times since 2001. We are talking about the Department that needs to oversee all the economic activity that ultimately gives us all our wealth, which all other Departments then spend.
Unfortunately, I will not even be able to face my opposite number across the Floor of the House. For these few days, until he is duly ennobled, I can accurately call him Mr. Mandelson. It is a great pity that I will not face anyone of Cabinet rank across the Dispatch Box. When we had a Cabinet Minister in the Lords, be it Lord Carrington or Lord Young, there was always a Member of this House of Cabinet rank whose voice in Cabinet from the Commons would always be there, but we do not have that under the future Lord Mandelson.
I will be brief. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the hon. Member
for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), is a fine parliamentarian who will do a fine job speaking for the Government.
I fear that the prospects for employment are grim. We have seen institutional mayhem, and the concern is that even within a matter of weeks businesses, small, medium and large, will have their credit lines withdrawn and their overdrafts cancelled, that they will not be able to pay their bills, and that people who are paying them will take longer and longer to pay what they owe. The picture that we can therefore foresee of a credit squeeze going right to the high street, to households and into corporate Britain is potentially apocalyptic. If the bank problems that we face today are not addressed in short order, the mayhem in the business community will hit people in a way in which no one has been hit for nearly a century.
We must address the matter carefully. The problem is that almost everything that the Government have done in the corporate sector over the past decade will make things worse. It is so easy to tax and put burdens on business as the economy is rising, but when the inevitable downturn comes, those burdens are like an albatross around its neck. The danger, therefore, is that those burdens on business will convert immediately into unemployment.
People can pay £20,000 in stamp duty on housing when the market is going up. When the market is going down, that renders it immediately stagnant, driving out of work estate agents and people who do up houses, and the whole collateral of many small businesses is diminished. We have seen tax for businesses rise. Corporation tax, particularly for small businesses, was raised at just the time when it needed to go down. There has been messing around with capital gains tax. We have seen a challenge to income shifting, which is exactly the underpinning focus for families and couples who run a business.
We have seen fuel duty interrupt the clear economics of business. We have seen regulation increasing. We have seen employment tribunals making it too intimidating for an employer to take on their first employee. We have seen business rates that are particularly punishing for small businesses and high street shops. The ports sectorsome Members present may have one of the 56 ports in this country in their constituenciesis about to face national domestic rate demands backdated in an immoral way to April 2005.
Perhaps most immoral of all, taxing something that generates no revenue does enormous damage. Removing the tax relief for empty property rates is bringing to a grinding halt any kind of activity for preparing business premises or developing wrecked premises for future use. It is taking money from people who have not got it to the point where they have to take the roof off or demolish what they have just built.
If the Secretary of State and the Minister do not want to take my word for it, perhaps they will study early-day motion 2045 tabled by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan), assisted by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar). In an e-mail to all Members, the hon. Lady states:
In these difficult times, I know that we should not make things worse for employers.
She lists all the damage that the tax is doingearly demolitions, shelved regeneration projects, loss of inward and overseas investment, bankruptcies and hence, unemployment and the loss of pensions. Perhaps the Minister can tell me whether he agrees with his own Back Benchers that the tax is but one of the measures that is making the future rise in unemployment higher than it would otherwise be, which is adding to the recession that the British Chambers of Commerce says is already upon us.
We need financial stability. We need our proposed reduction in corporation tax. We need a higher threshold for stamp duty as advocated by the shadow Chancellor. We need a reduction in regulation. We need the effective implementation of the small business support fund promised at the EU meeting last week, and, yes, we need the reform of insolvency law, so that those who are on the edge of bankruptcy can be protected from their creditors.
The lesson of this is that nothing has been set aside for a rainy day. Labour Governments always run out of money, and once this crisis is behind us the best prospects for an economic recovery will come only from a change of Government.
Mr. McNulty: The jokes might be fun, but they are made at the expense of the Opposition, because at this time of all times in this place, with all that is going on in the broader country, all we have heard from the man who purports to speak for the Opposition on business is that there should be less borrowing, less taxation and less regulation. Conservative Members should run away and turn their televisions on. At this moment of all moments, borrowing and taxation equal public expenditure, the very public expenditure that we shall use here and elsewhere to lessen the impact of any slowdown. Given his contribution, the Opposition spokesman cannot be taken seriously.
Families are deeply worried about their savings, their homes and their jobs, and it is up to us to try to work together to get the country through this current crisis. I do not think that the British public would thank us if they saw happening here in this House of Commons what everyone saw happening in the American Congress. That is why we offer to look constructively at any proposals brought forward by the British Government.[ Official Report, 6 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 23.]
I fully endorse that. We have had nothing in that spirit from either the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) or the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan). They could have been consensual. They claim to be consensual on the issue of unemployment and welfare reform. [Interruption.] With the greatest respect, I thought that I might speak to the motion and our amendment rather than take a back-of-a-cigarette-packet approach. They could have recognised that
intervention is essential, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said. They could have said that a lot has been done to great effect over the past 10 years in assisting those currently and previously unemployed. They could have headlined that they will keep up the pressure on us to ensure that the pace of welfare reform is greater not lesser. They did none of that. Instead, we heard a complete dismissal from the hon. Gentleman of all that Jobcentre Plus has done for so many of our communities throughout this country over the years; work that means that whatever the severity of any forthcoming slowdown we are better placed than we have ever been to help and assist those who are unemployed for however long. For it to be so glibly dismissed by the hon. Gentlemen defies belief.
I do not claim a monopoly of concern about unemployment and I accept that there is no such monopoly among Labour Members, but it would be hard to credit Opposition spokesmen with that from their speeches, which is a shame. Among other things they could have apologised for, as so many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have so eloquently put it, was the scandalous waste of human talent in the 1980s and 1990s when the Conservatives were in charge, when there was no intervention of any substance to assist the unemployed and no conditionality, and when there was precisely the fiddling of figures that is the charge falsely laid against us at this stage. They could have apologised for putting so many of our people and communities on the proverbial scrapheap, causing heartbreak and destruction.
Mr. Flello: What would my hon. Friend say to the former miner whom I met only last Thursday? That former miner may have seen this debate in a crystal ball. He was put out of work in the 80s when the north Staffordshire coal mines were not only completely closed, but filled in with concrete day after day. What would my hon. Friend say to him? He is still embittered about it now.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell could have gone further, been honest and explained how less public expenditure, in terms of the magnitude that the Conservatives are referring to, and the whole notion of a shrinking state helps any of the unemployed people in this country. We got a sub-prime cabaret from the Little and Large of the Tory Front Bench. That is a real shame, because we are discussing a serious matter.
The Conservatives are playing the same game of smoke and mirrors with this issue as they are playing across the piece on policy, to hide the wasteland and absence of any Conservative policy. They propose either what we are already doing or what we already propose to do and claim that as their own as though it were radical. I want the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell to help me, the Government and the country with the welfare reform agenda, as he promises to. I want him to make clear exactly where he stands on every aspect of our Green Paper, subsequent White Paper and Bill. If he is serious about a consensus and in thinking that we need substantive welfare reform, which has been outlined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, we will work with him. However, given his contribution, I fear
that we will be waiting a long time. Whatever the rhetoricheightened, sub-prime or otherwisein this place, it is simply not good enough to condemn the progress made by initiatives such as Jobcentre Plus and the other significant progress on getting people back into work.
Are there problems and difficulties? Yes, there are, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in no uncertain terms. Do we have a monopoly on caring? No, of course we do not. However, we collectively have the experience of the 80s and 90s and it is important that there should be a serious and substantive debate on this matter.
It is no accident that there was a Celtic tinge to the contributions from my hon. Friends. My hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), for Livingston (Mr. Devine) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) all spoke, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), who made a point about decomplexification. They were not wallowing in the past, as was suggested by the Conservatives. They recognised that we cannot go back to the 80s and 90s and that we cannot have the non-intervention, not our fault, guv approach that the Conservative Government took in those decades. It is time that there was some consensus in this House. Whatever the depth of the current downturn, and however much harder it makes it to find work, it is not a reason for despair, as has been suggested by some Conservative Membersnot least because of what we have already put in place.
My right hon. Friend said clearly that we should treat the current downturn as a spur across the Dispatch Box to ensure that we get even more help to those who need it to overcome challengesnot by fiddling figures or consigning people to inactive benefits and still less by slackening the pace of welfare reform, but by ensuring that we have high expectations, effective support and real obligations not for the minority, but for everyone. We know and understand the lessons of history and we want to get to a stage at which this time, whatever the level of unemployment, nobody in this country will be written off or left behind. As is clearly stated in the Government amendment, we will build on the progress that we have already made to make sure that we do not return to the shameful history and experience of unemployment, perpetrated by the Conservative party in this country.
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