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I do not think that the plans for regulating bonuses will work. I do not think that we can regulate bonuses. I suppose that we could try to do it through the tax
system. We could have a windfall tax on banks' profits. We could have special taxes on the bonuses awarded to bankers. I sincerely hope, however, that we do not reach that stage, because I do not think that that is what is needed.
I urge the banks please to exercise some emotional intelligence in the years ahead and recognise that many decent people will suffer as a result of their-the banks'- excesses over the past decade. That is my plea and my warning to banks. I never want to be in this place debating legislation to impose a windfall tax, which goes against almost everything that I believe in, but the ball is very much in the banks' court. They need to give this matter some very sober reflection.
Let me deal with a couple of other issues that have not been much touched on. I believe in equality and in a flexible labour market, but I also believe in innovation. I want to see many more women in senior jobs feeling that they can have a family. What we know-it is a fact-is that many companies, despite equality legislation being in place, are put off hiring women of child-bearing age. I think that that is a great mistake, but it is a reality. We in this place need to come up with an innovative solution to help companies to make the right decision.
I believe that we should look at having national insurance holidays, so that when a company hires a temporary worker to replace a female worker on maternity leave, the company will get a national insurance holiday. I think that that would be an incentive- it may not be a game-breaking incentive, but it may be an innovative way of ensuring that more companies make the right decision when it comes to hiring women, and do not penalise those women who want to have children.
I conclude my very short post-recess, post-hibernation speech with a quick critique of the welfare system. I am very proud of this country's welfare system, which I think marks us out as a civilised country, but I am very concerned that at times it may not be fair. Many Members-in fact all Members-will have been visited at their constituency surgeries by constituents who might have paid national insurance for 20 or 30 years, but when they are made redundant, the benefit system barely reflects it. Their benefits may compare not too favourably with those of someone who has chosen a life on benefits as a career option. I make this plea to all political parties: let us take a look at this issue. When people have a track record of paying national insurance contributions-not indefinitely, but certainly for a few months, perhaps a year-let us reflect that track record of contribution and responsibility in the payments we make to them. Being unemployed should not be a punishment or a cause for shame. We owe it to these people to be more innovative in the way we approach welfare and how we look after those people who are in between jobs, but desperate to work.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con):
We are all delighted to see that some Ministers have finally found the time to come back to discuss the shambolic state of the economy, which their Government have helped to cause. The Minister talked about déjà vu and gave us a
little history lesson. I study history a little, so I know that every Labour Government have failed this country's economy-whether it be Ramsay MacDonald, who had to walk away from his own Government; Clement Attlee, who built his new Jerusalem on the back of American war loans; Harold Wilson, who told us that the pound in our pocket was going to be the same, even if he devalued it by about 15 per cent.; or Jim "Crisis, what crisis?" Callaghan, who left the place in a state of industrial anarchy. Every time it is the same, but this time Gordon Brown, who will no doubt be remembered for ever as the man who told us that he had eradicated boom and bust-
David T.C. Davies: I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I get carried away as I think about the chaos that has been wrought upon us. When we come to remember the Prime Minister for his comment that he had eradicated boom and bust, we should also remember that this was the Prime Minister who could not keep the books straight and was unable to spend just what he earned in taxation since the year 2000. All of us on this side of the House know that a nation or a company, a family or an individual, spending more than is being earned will sooner or later come to grief.
What did the Government do when they realised that they were spending more than they earned? They began selling off what assets they could. They made a bit of money-not very much at all-when they sold gold. They made a little more when they sold off the licences for the use of mobile phones and privatised air space. But, ultimately, they went back to doing what all Labour Governments do. Labour Governments tax and they spend and they borrow and they spend, and when all that fails-as, of course, it finally has-they print money, and spend it in the fashion of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
The people of this country will not be fooled, and they will not be fooled by excuses that it is all the fault of United States bankers. They can see for themselves what this Labour Government have actually done, and now they are looking for leadership. They are looking for a Government who can actually do something to support businesses and to get the economy back on its feet.
We could do a lot worse than listen to what Sir Terry Leahy said the other day about people leaving school. We are not discussing education here today, but let me put it in a nutshell. A large number of people-one in five or so-leave school completely illiterate and completely innumerate, despite the money that the Government have poured into education. Meanwhile, another slice of people pass every single exam, emerge with degrees in golf studies management, and are still unable to obtain jobs. What has happened to the apprenticeships? What has happened to the pride that we used to take in our manufacturing industry, in science and in technology? What has happened to the pride that we took in decent vocational jobs? Nowadays, our plumbers and electricians must come from eastern Europe.
I have done plenty of manual vocational jobs. I was once a long-distance lorry driver working for Lucas Girling. That is a productive job, and nothing at all to
be ashamed of. After that I was a manager in my family's small haulage company, another productive job that was nothing to be ashamed of-and then I was elected to the Welsh Assembly. Well, we will say nothing more about that; but one of the things that I learned when I was running that small business is that there is no respect for the private sector in Government. The Government impose all sorts of rules and regulations on businesses which are not applied to companies in other countries, and those countries then happily export their goods to this country.
We have had to put up with the burden of legislation to deal with, for example, dismissal. It is a fact of life that some people are not very good at their jobs. Some people are lazy and do not turn up for work on time, some people are inefficient, and some people are dishonest. I had cause to suspend a person for dishonesty in my own office, someone who was stealing money, and do you know what? It was absolutely impossible for me to dismiss that person. I tried everything. I went to see the solicitor and said, "This person has been filmed stealing my money," and I was still not able to sack her. It is no laughing matter: it is virtually impossible. In the end I just about managed to get away with paying her off and having to give her holiday pay. That hurts me, and I know plenty of people in a similar position.
John Mason: The hon. Gentleman suggests that it could be easier to get rid of people in this country, but I understood that in France and some other countries there was more protection for employees, and that therefore employees here could be sacked more easily.
David T.C. Davies: The point I am making is that people cannot be sacked easily enough. If someone does not turn up for work- [Interruption.] Oh yes, and it needs to be said. If people fail to turn up for work on time-as someone did in my office, day after day, week after week-it is impossible to get rid of them. If people start stealing money from the table in our offices, we find it hard to get rid of them. It is too difficult to sack people. They usually get paid off in the private sector, and in the public sector they usually get promoted. It is about time we did something to help small business people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), in his usual tactful and diplomatic fashion, mentioned the fact that many people are afraid to employ young women of child-bearing age in the private sector. Of course they are, and who can blame them? It is not because people are sexist. Those in the private sector cannot afford sexism, racism or any other kind of ism: the best person for the job is the one who gets the job. Those who do not apply that rule will go out of business pretty quickly.
I always wanted the best people working for me. I did not give two hoots about the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, or whether they were male or female. But I must admit that I was not the only one who worried that if I employed someone of child-bearing age, I would end up footing the bill for it. I know other people who will say quietly-not openly-that they worry about employing women, or even people who are black or Asian, not because they are racist but because
they are afraid that if things do not work out, they will be taken to a tribunal. I condemn that attitude, but it is now the attitude of an increasing number of people in the private sector, and we all need to grow up a little bit and realise it.
The Government have wrought chaos on the economy of this country, but there is still one group of people in the British public sector who can be sacked: Members of Parliament. I look forward to seeing large numbers of Labour Members of Parliament being sacked at the next general election and being replaced by people who care about the economy, business and getting value for money for the taxpayer.
I want to pick up on a comment made by the Ernst and Young ITEM Club: growth depends critically on recovery in exports. Despite the weakness of sterling, I have yet to be convinced that we are making the most of the opportunity that it offers. Indeed, 46 per cent. of manufacturing firms have said that export orders are lower than normal. Part of that can perhaps be explained by the state of markets overseas, but not all of it can be. In the 1990s and the early years of the current decade, I was greatly involved with UK Trade & Investment and its predecessor organisations as one of those international business men who were called in from time to time to help steer them and to provide advice. From that experience, I know of the huge potential for the UK in export markets. We should not underestimate the role of small and medium-sized enterprises in export. My personal experience in that regard is of being involved with an SME that managed each year to ensure that 50 per cent. of its turnover came from outside the UK.
We are missing out, and we need to ensure that the balance is right between promoting inward investment to the UK and encouraging trade promotion. Over the past few years, that balance has swung towards promoting inward investment. We need to ensure that that effort is effective. The problem with current activity is that it is not focused and has introduced an artificial competitive situation between the English regions. Why on earth do we need four-and-a-bit offices from different English regions in China? The level of that competition is illustrated by an anecdote told to me by somebody returning from China to the west midlands following a trade mission. He said, "The whole thing was an utter disaster." I asked why, and he said, "We couldn't get the Chinese to understand the difference between the east midlands and the west midlands." If we are in that sort of situation in our trade activity, we have an awfully long way to go. There is much need to target UKTI support on countries, sectors and companies where there is a real return on investment. It is about time that the Government stepped up their game.
The Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills danced around the topic of whether we were in a recovery-whether we were nearly in a recovery or how far we had to go. No one would be more delighted than me if we were now in a recovery, as that would clearly be in all our interests. The true picture is obscured, however,
by the dust created by the whirlwind of Ministers rushing to gain credit for anything that looks remotely green and leafy. We do not know whether we are in recovery yet. We see statistics that go one way and others that go the other. More importantly, we do not really have a clear picture as to what is the "normal" that the Government are striving to achieve in trying to bring us back to normal. In fact, anyone who has listened to the debate would be forgiven for thinking that it might consist either of the normal that existed before the whole crisis started or-to some hon. Members at least-the normal that probably existed only in the myths of Labour party history.
Most of the good news that there is comes from surveys and anecdotal evidence. I accept that surveys can be a leading indicator, but they are difficult to judge and the attitudes expressed in them are volatile. That was brought home to me at a recent meeting of businesses in my constituency. Those present complained that there had been no real positive change in their companies despite their efforts to get into more selling and to get into e-business and improve their websites. In my constituency, at least, the situation is absolutely terrible for the Government, because not even Lord Mandelson's press releases are beginning to strike home. Awareness of business support schemes-such as they are-is extremely low, and businesses have taken to offering mutual support by providing each other with expertise and assistance in selling skills, rather than relying on Government schemes that simply do not deliver. The recovery that we are about to go into is anaemic at best; the hope of recovery is clearly running ahead of reality.
Let us contrast the Government's approach, consisting of a rag-bag of short-term measures with little thinking for the future, with the integrated plan for business, skills and welfare set out by my party's Front Benchers. I particularly welcome the emphasis on encouraging entrepreneurs and our Work for Yourself initiative. I am aware of the huge talent that exists, and of the huge help that such people need. Mentoring is useful because being a sole trader or entrepreneur is a lonely experience. I have great admiration for organisations such as the Prince's Trust, which provide mentoring. However, access to loans is also paramount for such businesses. There is certainly much lacking in that regard, and we will have great difficulty in taking matters forward unless that problem is sorted out.
There has been too much emphasis in the past few years on the difficulties associated with self-employment, which also brings enormous advantages. Such people are their own boss and have control over their daily workload, and their sense of achievement and personal fulfilment is enormously high. Their level of achievement cannot be controlled by anyone else-except perhaps by their customers-and there is complete recognition of their achievements and successes. I am pleased that that is part of the initiative for getting people back into work, and I look forward to seeing it develop over the coming months.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con):
I am pleased to reply to this important debate, which was so ably opened by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). He showed in his speech and in his responses to the many interventions that he
took that he understands the nature and depth of the crisis facing this country, and the response required from Government, rather better than any of the Ministers do.
As I have said, this was an important debate and a number of Members welcomed the opportunity to discuss matters relating to the economy; however, it is striking that once again, a debate on the economy and specifically unemployment and welfare has been brought to this House not by the Government, but by the Opposition. It has been left to us to raise these important issues, which affect our constituents and matter not only to them individually but to the future of our country. It is shameful how few Labour Members were willing to contribute to this important debate or, indeed, even to come in and listen to it, striking as it does at the heart of the debts and jobs crisis that this Government have brought us to.
As my right hon. and learned Friend said, we live in terrible times, presided over by a Government of the living dead whose response is a plethora of packages and accompanying press releases, most of which have had little impact in the real world, but all of which are designed with one aim only in mind: to provide publicity for the Government and to try to improve their image. This was illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who referred to the complexity of the advice given to young people who are not going to university, and how confusing they find it to discover which Government schemes are real and which are merely press releases.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) got it spot on when he said that the problem is that the Government are following an election strategy, not a recovery strategy. As he said with his customary force and passion, Conservative Members are here talking about this today because we want to see more opportunity for all and we want to do the best for our country.
There was real passion in a mixture of contributions from my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) spoke with real passion about the problems of small businesses, as he does on many occasions in this Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) showed a real understanding of the needs of rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) spoke, as is his wont, with real concern about job losses in his constituency. I know, as will the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills from the correspondence that I have had with him about the redundancies at Nortel in my constituency, how devastating redundancy can be for many people, particularly when insolvency practitioners choose not to abide by the consultation rules set down in relation to redundancies. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) has just spoken from real experience about promoting inward investment and about how this country needs to have a rather more strategic approach than that which is perhaps encouraged by regional structures.
At times, this has been an amusing debate, with a distinct flavour of déjà vu. That was notable in the contribution from the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), who was ably assisted by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and
Royton (Mr. Meacher). They not only showed that old Labour is alive and kicking, but exemplified in their speeches one of the key reasons why this Government constantly get it wrong: they still believe that government always knows best and that it has the answer to every problem.
Indeed, the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, in his opening speech, attacked my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) for what the Minister characterised as an attack at our party conference on big government. When will this Government understand that the relentless expansion of the public sector, fuelled by borrowing and sucking resources from the private sector, does not encourage economic growth, but stifles growth and wealth creation in the private sector? The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) said that businesses create jobs, not government, but of course this Government have been creating jobs in the public sector. One of the problems in recent years has been the imbalance of job creation between the public and private sectors. In the long term, that imbalance and disparity is simply not sustainable.
The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) made an interesting contribution, in which she referred to the use of flexible working to keep people in jobs. Like her, I hope that we will see a different approach to flexible working in the future, and I welcome the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) in relation to his ideas on how to improve the employability of women of child-bearing age.
References were made to the impact of the recession on families by, among others, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff). In a well-informed contribution that drew on his role as the Chair of the Select Committee and the work of that Committee, he reminded us that the problem with the Prime Minister's claim to have ended boom and bust was that it was not just a political mantra; it led people to make decisions about their family finances that many have come to regret. The Prime Minister may have used it as a party political weapon, but it was deeply damaging and totally irresponsible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) referred specifically to the problems faced in Wales. He said that the Government are in denial, which was illustrated by the Minister's opening speech. That speech contained denial about the Government's role in getting the country into this mess. Did the Minister open his speech by talking about the 2.47 million unemployed people, the 2.6 million people on incapacity benefit or the fact that this country has the highest level of youth unemployment in Europe? No, he did not. Less than a minute into his speech, he was talking about the Conservative party and its policies. By the way, he misrepresented our policies, by suggesting that we would withdraw help from unemployed people. In fact, our work programme and overall plans to get Britain working would help more unemployed people than the Government are helping, would help most of them at an earlier stage than the Government and would ensure that those people are helped into sustainable jobs.
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