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9.48 pm

Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne) (Con): I have been privileged to hear maiden speeches by my hon. Friends the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who illustrated very well the nature of the threats that we face. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet talked about carers, and about the particular character and fortitude of the people of her constituency.

The House could have a no more important debate than this, and it is disappointing to see it so poorly attended by Labour Members. The nature of this country's relationship with the wider world and how we can hold our own position in it, not only in terms of economics and culture, is the fundamental issue that will determine the next 10 or 20 years-a long time in which I hope that many Members present will sit in this House, obviously provided that their constituencies return them. It was revealing to hear the shadow Minister speaking on the subject. He said that Argentina was the 10th richest country in the world in 1913, but seemed to suggest that it had then fallen back because of its politics. He failed to analyse the political position and consider what sort of political regime operated in Argentina. He will remember that Juan Perón ruled for a long time after the second world war and was perhaps that country's most disastrous ruler. He openly espoused a socialist programme. There was vast confiscation of wealth and manipulation of the unions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) pointed out, Argentina defaulted in 1999 because of its huge debt. Yet the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) elided all those facts.

Chris Bryant: Juan Domingo Perón was more of a syndicalist, closer to Mussolini than to the socialism of the Labour party.

Kwasi Kwarteng: May I retort that Mussolini was originally a socialist? He was a left-wing journalist. It is no accident that those people had many shared ideas. However, whether Perón was a socialist or a syndicalist is neither here nor there.

The hon. Member for Rhondda alluded to our problem as a country. He suggested that we had problems with education. He rightly mentioned that many people in this country are not learning foreign languages. Indeed, the number has declined since 2001. However, who was in government at the time when, as he pointed out, the figures were declining?

We must also confront a decline in educational standards. It is an open secret that we have had grade inflation. In China or other parts of the world, the education systems are highly competitive and rigorous. If we are seriously to compete with the emerging nations, we must sort out our education system and return some rigour to the process.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the number of pupils passing GCSEs and A-levels reached a record high under the previous Labour Government?

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Kwasi Kwarteng: That is the whole point-that happened because of grade inflation. The results reached a high every year for 13 years. One must conclude that either students are getting much cleverer or exams are getting easier. You take your choice. [Interruption.]

Mr Ellwood: I feel an intervention coming on.

Kwasi Kwarteng: I am happy to take them.

Mr Iain Wright: The hon. Gentleman is right about ensuring that more people take foreign languages such as Mandarin and Spanish. However, does he not think it is counter-productive to end the fourth phase of the diploma programme, particularly for languages, which would encourage enthusiasm for modern languages in emerging markets?

Kwasi Kwarteng: I was making a broad point about 13 years of Labour failure, which is central to the debate. If we are serious about competing with China and India, we must have much more rigour and a little more discipline and focus in our education system. Those are obvious facts, but Labour Members seem to ignore them completely.

Chris Bryant: Answer the question!

Kwasi Kwarteng: With respect, I am talking about the emerging economies, and the point about education is central to the debate. If the country is to improve and compete with other countries, we need much more rigour and discipline. That was palpably lacking in the Labour Government's actions in the past 13 years.

We must approach the problem much more broadly. Britain was so successful in the past because we had a thriving economy. The industrial revolution powered Britain's ascent to world dominance in many ways. Leaving a country economically crippled is the worst thing that we can do to our standing abroad. We must tackle our domestic economic situation before we can even begin to try to compete with emerging economies. I just wanted to put those broad points on the record, and to say that Labour failure has once again damaged-

Mr Speaker: Order. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman. With the leave of the House, I call the Minister, Mr Henry Bellingham.

9.55 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham): I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this excellent, albeit very short, debate. As the Foreign Office Minister responsible not only for Africa but for relations with business, I am keen to meet as many parliamentarians as possible who have an interest in emerging markets, and the debate has revealed a lot expertise.

We have heard a number of superb maiden speeches, and I turn first of all to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys), who made a charming, eloquent and very personal speech. She comes from a line of distinguished parliamentarians. Her father, to whom she referred in her moving remarks on carers, would have been incredibly proud of her this evening. I wish her well for the future and I am sure she will go a very long way indeed.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) gave us another splendid tour de force. He spoke with passion about his constituency and made a number of good points about emerging markets, saying that we should treat them as equals and not be afraid of offshoring. He talked about the great opportunities that such markets present to us, and I agree with him 100%. The business world's loss is the House's gain, and I wish him well for the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) produced one of the best Mark Twain quotes I have ever heard. One of the great treats of listening to maiden speeches is that one learns a lot about our beautiful and interesting kingdom. He spoke with a great deal of passion about his constituency, but his speech was also erudite and intellectual. He spoke of flexibility, resilience and entrepreneurship, which need to be applied to our drive to create and generate export-led growth. I congratulate him on his excellent speech.

The Foreign Secretary made it clear that he will pursue a dynamic foreign policy that will be ingenious and energetic. As my hon. Friend the Minister-my coalition partner-made clear, the Foreign Secretary's plan is to intensify bilateral relations, particularly with many of the emerging economies. With our economy in crisis, we are facing a mammoth challenge to reduce the deficit. I congratulate the former Minister, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), on his work at the Foreign Office-he obviously relied heavily this evening on the expert knowledge he gained in his time there-but it is complete nonsense to say that the Government have no strategy for growth. My hon. Friend the Minister talked about an export-led growth strategy. Furthermore, not tackling the deficit would be the biggest barrier of all to growth, because that would drive inflation and interest rates. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that he was talking total and complete nonsense. If we do not improve our economy and reduce the deficit, our standing in the world will be diminished, as my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) pointed out so eloquently, and we will not be able to improve those bilateral relations or drive that export-led growth.

UK Trade & Investment operates in 17 key, high-growth markets. Of course, the Foreign Office must consider efficiencies in all its operations, but the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that our national interest and our international role in the world will not be undermined or put at risk in any way. The Foreign Office places a lot of emphasis on low-carbon, green technologies. Its low-carbon, high-growth strategic programme fund-£17 million in total-will not, as I understand it, come under any financial pressure.

We treasure students who come to this country from around the world and rely on them to a very great extent when it comes to building our influence in the world. Obviously, we will look at a number of aspects of the budget, but Chevening scholarships, which the former Minister mentioned, are currently frozen as part of the Government's review of all programme spending. We expect to make decisions in July, but of course there is uncertainty. The coalition Government have taken over an appalling economic crisis. It is a little rich for the shadow Minister to complain about various matters that were entirely the fault of the Government of whom he was a member.

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The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of human rights, among others. If I have not answered his questions, I will write to him. This has been an important debate-

10 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Business without Debate

Business of the House

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

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Water Bills (South-West)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(James Duddridge.)

10 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to be the first to raise this issue in the new Parliament on behalf of water bill payers in Plymouth and the wider south-west. The problem we face is simple: water rates in the south-west are 25% higher than the UK average, placing an unfair burden on the budgets of my constituents and all residents across the south-west of England. This is an issue that dates back to the botched privatisation of water utility companies in the late 1980s, and it is to the shame of all parties that the problem remains unresolved after so many years, despite the constant efforts of right hon. and hon. Members from the south-west to keep the matter high on the agenda of the Minister's Department.

I am pleased to welcome the new Minister, and I am pleased to see so many Members from other parties in their places tonight, including the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who is the new joint chair of the all-party water group, and the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), who is carrying on the active interest in water pricing shown by her predecessor. I hope that by the end of this debate we will have been able to put on record some of the options for consideration, including a levy proposal.

It would be remiss of me not to place on record the thanks due for the unstinting efforts and enthusiasm of my former colleague, Linda Gilroy, who not only chaired a very active all-party water group, but individually campaigned for many years on behalf of water bill payers.

Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is right to pay tribute to Linda Gilroy, but other former colleagues from Devon and Cornwall played their part, including the former Members for Truro, for Falmouth and Camborne and for Teignbridge. I may have forgotten others, but they all stood up for the south-west on this issue.

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Gentleman is right and the valuable contributions of those former Members will be missed.

Linda Gilroy was instrumental in organising the many meetings and briefings that we had with Ministers and others, and with the all-party group she produced a very thorough paper on the pressures felt by customers and water companies-and not just South West Water-which in turn fed into Anna Walker's considerations in her review. In 1989, the privatised utilities were given responsibility not only for the provision of water and the disposal of waste but also for the maintenance of the coastline. The Minister will be well aware that in the south-west we are blessed with some of the most beautiful coastline in the country. Our beaches, bays and coves are famed, and rightly so, but they are an expensive luxury and one that is enjoyed not only by the people of the south-west, but by people from across the country and around the world. They are a common good and to the benefit of the whole public.

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South West Water deserves credit for the work it has done to clean up the beaches. It has invested more than £1.5 billion through its clean sweep programme, which has modernised sewage treatment all around the peninsula, removing almost 250 crude outfalls and transforming the bathing waters of the region.

Those improvements are not paid for by the whole public. When the water utilities were privatised, the public in each area became responsible for paying for the maintenance of the coastline in their region. For the people of the west midlands, that was not a problem because they do not have a coastline, but in the south-west we have 30% of England's coast, and the burden of cost is placed on just 3% of the population. The Prime Minister himself acknowledged the problem when he said, while holidaying in the region:

Indeed, the number of tourists to the region continues to grow, with the latest figures showing 21 million visits, the vast majority of which are by people coming from outside the south-west.

The water industry faces many challenges in the years ahead, and none of the solutions comes without a cost. It will have to deal with pollution concerns; better manage surface water and flooding; continue to try to provide an affordable supply of water; reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and adapt the service to make it more resilient to climate change.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for what she is saying, all of which I endorse. When she refers to cleaning up the coastline, she is talking about a national asset being paid for by local water rate payers-a point that the Anna Walker review made clear. That is clearly not the case with national galleries or national museums, which are paid for by all taxpayers. We should all reflect on that.

Alison Seabeck: Yes, indeed, and I shall return to that point.

It is welcome that all water companies are now expected to produce water resources plans for the Environment Agency and strategic direction statements for Ofwat, both of which are useful indicators to assist in the long-term planning for the sector, but also help in assessing the likely impact of such works on bill payers.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): I very much support this debate. I would like to reinforce the point that although many people feel that we in the south-west live in a land of plenty-a land of flowing milk and honey-there are areas of great deprivation. For many people in our constituencies, the cost of living is high compared with the national income, and they are therefore hit particularly hard.

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I concur with that view. Again, however, I will deal with that issue in more depth a little later.

Bills in the south-west are 25% higher than the national average, which over the course of a year equates to £100 more, while for unmetered customers the figure is
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considerably higher, at almost £300. For people on low or fixed incomes, that can mean a substantial amount of their income. Indeed, for those on the lowest incomes, water bills can take 10% of their incomes. For elderly individuals living alone on a basic pension-we in the south-west have a larger-than-average older demographic- or for lone parents with young children or single people in rented accommodation, water bills present a struggle.

The Minister will know that the area covered by South West Water is large and diverse, ranging from Cornwall in the far west through to Devon, and taking in parts of Dorset and Somerset. We also have some of the poorest areas of the country. Cornwall is the only area of the country to be in receipt of EU convergence funding-previously known as objective 1 funding-and poverty remains an issue, despite big moves in the right direction over the past 13 years. The Consumer Council for Water has actively campaigned to try to influence price levels in the south-west, and has carried out further, detailed research to try to discover what the bill payers themselves feel should be done to remedy the problem.

The bill payers whom I have spoken to-I am sure that other hon. Members have had similar conversations-feel that it is unfair and indefensible to expect some of the nation's least well-off families to shoulder the burden of the cost of a system that requires them to pay for the upkeep of beaches that are largely used by wealthier holidaymakers from outside the region who do not pay for the coastline in the south-west. A solution to that long-standing injustice must be found. Many of my constituents have already lost patience with the process. A recent letter from one elderly constituent from St Budeaux expressed utter exasperation at the lack of transparency in how the costs are apportioned.

In acknowledgement of the problem, the previous Government set up the Walker review to examine the case surrounding water charges. Anna Walker was asked, among other things, to examine the current system of charging households for water and sewerage, and to assess both the effectiveness and fairness of the current and alternative methods of charging, and the link to affordability. Anna Walker delivered her extremely thorough report last year, having toured the country and visited the south-west and Plymouth on more than one occasion. The report acknowledged for the first time what most of us knew: that the long-standing high charges in the south-west were a direct result of the privatisation in 1989.

Anna Walker also suggested that the options for tackling the root causes should include a specific one-off adjustment, estimated at around £650 million, to pay off South West Water's debt, or annual transfers either from the Government-I suspect that this is unlikely in the current economic climate-or from other water customers around England and Wales. That would not be popular either, because Thames Water customers are financing the Thames tideway project around the city, and water shortage issues have a significant future cost in a number of other areas.

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