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2.15 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The Labour party's synthetic anger, and the rather pompous and patronising show that we have just seen, are perhaps a reflection of Labour Members' inability to accept their share of responsibility for the mess that the country is in. The party is in total denial. It is leaderless and rudderless, and it has not even had the courtesy to apologise to the British people for what it did. Perhaps Labour Members are also reflecting on the things that they could have done over 13 years but never got round to, such as restoring the earnings link for pensions, introducing a bank levy and raising the tax threshold. I do not think that Labour Members will find those on these Benches receptive to a party that has shown no leadership, no responsibility and no ideas, and that does not know where it is going.

We should be grateful that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out a Budget that has ideally balanced the need to deliver tough control over our finances with a fair approach that, as the Red Book shows, will mean that in tax terms 80% of people will be better off under the Budget, while the richest 20% bear the greatest share of the burden. That is a proper expression of a progressive Budget.

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman talks about balance and fairness. Will he comment on the balance between £11 billion of welfare cuts and less than £2 billion from the bankers, which is offset by the decrease in corporation tax? Will he also comment on the fairness and balance of setting an average of £35 per household from council tax against taking an extra £12 billion in VAT, which will hit the poor hardest?

Malcolm Bruce: I am sorry but that intervention also shows no recognition of the fact that we have to find the money from somewhere. Our approach to that gives the poorest the most and makes the richest pay the biggest contribution. I cannot think of anything more progressive than that, and the more the hon. Gentleman and others consider the Budget, the more they will recognise that it stands up to robust analysis.

I had the honour of being my party's Treasury spokesman between 1995 and 2000. During the 1997 election, the Liberal Democrat manifesto included an aspiration to raise the threshold at which people started to pay income tax to £10,000. That was only an aspiration because, try as we might, we were unable to find the resources at that time to pay for it. However, when the Labour Government were elected in 1997, the first thing that they did was to introduce the most generous capital gains tax relief that the richest people in this country had ever enjoyed-Mrs Thatcher never contemplated it! However, closing such tax loopholes has enabled us to start to deliver the increase in the tax threshold so that people will not have to pay tax and then apply for benefit, as the Chancellor
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said. I for one am absolutely delighted to support a Budget that fulfils a commitment set out in an aspiration on which I fought the 1997 election.

The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) suggests that Liberal Democrats should be ashamed of the Budget, but far from it. There is much in the Budget of which to be proud, and I make it clear to right hon. and hon. Friends in the Conservative party that it is not a Conservative Budget or a Liberal Democrat Budget, but a coalition Budget. I would argue that it draws on the best on both parties. Those parties command the support of the majority of the British people, and the Budget's approach will deliver benefits to the majority of the British people. I said in the election campaign, when I became aware of the seriousness of the financial situation facing the country, that the position would be much better after the election if cuts that had to be made were implemented by more than one party, as they would be forced to engage with each other and find a balance that would be more acceptable than measures adopted by one party running for a sectional interest that did not have the same strength of appeal. I honestly believe that the coalition has found a dynamic that has delivered something that is greater than the sum of its parts: a Budget that is genuinely progressive.

Simon Hughes: Does my right hon. Friend agree that another part of this package is fundamental? The discussion about the cuts and savings in public expenditure will take place with the public, the trade unions, business, communities and local government, so that decisions are not only informed by the prejudices of civil servants and Ministers but are made as a result of the widest consultation with the British public to make sure that although, yes, they may be tough, they will be absolutely fair.

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Opposition Members and the wider audience looking at the Budget should examine it in detail and recognise the extent to which it is based on a much broader consensus and approach to consultation, while being radical across the piece and balanced. That is not easy to achieve, and I am prepared to admit that I had my doubts about whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be able to achieve it. I am pleasantly surprised by the extent to which he has been able to do so.

Indeed, there is little in the Budget to which I can fundamentally take exception. It is absolutely true that an increase in VAT is a painful decision-there is no question about that. It is difficult to understand how the Opposition could balance their books without any such tax increases. Although our proposals in the self-contained Liberal Democrat budget did not require an increase in VAT, we always said that if the financial situation required it, we would not rule it out. We never did rule it out, so those attacks that suggest that somehow this is a betrayal are not true. There was careful and guarded explanation of that position.

Mr Redwood: Has the right hon. Gentleman noticed that on page 45 of the Red Book the public spending figures make it quite clear that there is not a single year in which there is a cash cut in overall public spending? Public spending goes up every year in cash terms.

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Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful, because I have not had time to look at the Red Book, only at one or two selected items. The health budget overall is protected. As the Chair of the Select Committee on International Development, I am delighted that the coalition is committed not only to protecting the aid and development budget but, over the coalition period, to delivering our promise of 0.7% of our gross domestic product in overseas aid spending.

Even in these difficult times, we can protect key areas, and the Chancellor demonstrated his recognition of the vulnerability of education and his desire to make sure that it received a degree of protection. I have been involved in working up a policy on the future of Royal Mail and the Post Office. I do not know how many times most hon. Members have debated the closure of post offices and problems in the Royal Mail. We all recognise that what we have at the moment is not fit for purpose, and has to be radically reformed and changed. I can honestly say that the Liberal Democrats have made a big contribution to producing a proposal that brings capital into Royal Mail, will help to support the post office network, and will enable Royal Mail employees to take a share in the business in which they are engaged in a way that makes it a much more co-operative venture. That is something that we have brought to the coalition, and I am delighted that it has been accepted.

A number of small details are worth acknowledging-for example, reversing the policy on furnished holiday lets, which affects some constituencies more than others, but is a serious cause of concern for people who have a single holiday cottage, and who would not have been able to maintain it. The policy would not have been good for tourism, and it was not a fair system, so I am glad that the Government have withdrawn it.

The commitment to deliver broadband support across the country is extremely important for rural areas, because if we want to encourage people to run businesses in such areas they need access to high-speed broadband. I am attracted to the proposal to provide finance for regional capital, although I want to hear the details of it. I can certainly think of projects in my constituency that I want to suggest to Ministers should bid for that fund. Indeed, I wrote to them in advance of the need, before I knew that there was a fund to tap into, but I think that it has real prospects. An important part of the Budget, which goes completely against the rant by the Leader of the Opposition, is the promotion of enterprise to create new jobs and businesses, whether through corporation tax reductions, decreases in national insurance costs for small businesses, or a regional premium for those areas where the public sector is disproportionately large.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): My right hon. Friend will know, as he represents a neighbouring constituency, how important the oil and gas industry is to our constituencies. It was refreshing not to have a tax bombshell dropped on that industry, as has happened in the past. The press notices for the Budget say that further improvements in the field allowance regime will be made to encourage exploration in the high-temperature, high-pressure world. That industry brings so much revenue into the Treasury that it must be treated in such a way as to make sure that the maximum investment is delivered.

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Malcolm Bruce: My hon. Friend and I represent neighbouring constituencies, where a high proportion of people and companies work in the oil and gas industry. Far too often-and this applies to both Labour and Conservative Governments-sudden changes in the tax regime have been deeply damaging, and I am grateful that that is something else that will be done by consultation. It is, I hope, recognition that north-east Scotland, which my hon. Friend and I represent, makes a disproportionately large contribution to the economy of Scotland and of the United Kingdom, not just in oil revenues but in the 450,000 jobs that derive from the activities that run out of Aberdeen and north-east Scotland. There is £5 billion of exports in sub-sea technology, and a burgeoning new industry in marine renewables, which uses the same technology. It is important that the Government understand how they can support that industry, so my hon. Friend's intervention is pertinent and relevant.

I declare an interest, as I have a grown-up deaf daughter who receives disability living allowance, so I certainly welcome the simplification of the process for applying for that abstruse allowance. It is not means-tested-people do not have to prove that they need the money; in fact, that is not a valid reason at all for qualifying for it-as individuals have just to prove how disabled they are to enable someone to make a judgment. That is difficult, and it goes against the grain for disabled people, who want to show how able they are, in spite of their disability. A simple medical test, if it is applied objectively and fairly, would work, and I hope that someone like my daughter, who can prove that she is profoundly deaf, would automatically qualify, as would others with a similar category of disability.

Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (Lab): I would like to take the right hon. Gentleman back a couple of steps. He said that his party, and presumably the coalition, welcome the part-privatisation of Royal Mail, but is he aware that people employed by Royal Mail definitely do not welcome it?

Malcolm Bruce: I am aware that some people employed by Royal Mail have argued that they are not in favour of that, but they include people who are involved in the downfall of Royal Mail, too. We have to undertake a consultation, and let those people make a judgment. Royal Mail needs capital, without which it cannot survive and compete. It is a good idea to give the employees a real stake in a reinvested and reinvigorated Royal Mail. I hope that when many of them see what has been proposed they will welcome it as a positive.

Mr Brian Binley (Northampton South) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the real need for Royal Mail is to get an injection of management skills, which is what the proposals will create?

Malcolm Bruce: Good management and good industrial relations are something that Royal Mail needs. Perhaps we all need to pull together a little bit to make that happen, but reinvigorating the organisation financially is part of the process.

I had some reservations and concerns about the proposal to freeze council tax, although my fears have been substantially allayed by what the Chancellor said.
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We have had a freezing of council tax in Scotland under the Scottish National party Administration, and I believe that it is a populist but extremely regressive development, because it effectively weakens local authority control and accountability and strengthens the centre.

The tone of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's explanation of the measure allayed many of my fears. He said, first, "for one year" and, secondly, "based on incentives and encouragement, rather than imposition". However, I hope that the measure will be set against a background whereby we think again-this is in the coalition agreement-about how we finance local authorities in a way that not only makes them locally controlled and accountable, but reduces the intervention of central management and control. I repeat that, although freezing council tax in Scotland is popular because people do not have to pay for an increase, people realise over time that their local council does not have the flexibility to fund some of the services that they want. People have certainly said to me, "We'd rather pay a little bit more council tax and have more investment in our schools," or roads, or whatever it may be, so it is not the right long-term way in which to operate local government finance.

Stewart Hosie: The council tax freeze is most certainly popular, but the argument that it removes flexibility is completely wrong. The Scottish Government ended ring-fencing. We trust local authorities- [ Interruption. ] Ah! I see from the sneers that the Liberals now want to bring back ring-fencing and put up the council tax. Are they at odds with the Scottish Government or their coalition partners?

Malcolm Bruce: I was not quite sure how the measure went down in Glasgow. I am very disappointed by the hon. Gentleman's intervention, because he could have defended the council tax freeze as a short-term measure in difficult circumstances-although nothing like as difficult as our current circumstances. However, he cannot possibly defend it as a long-term policy, arguing that councils have no right to determine their own precept, and that it is entirely a matter for the Scottish or UK Governments. That cannot be the right way to proceed, and I hear nothing from the Scottish National party about its ideas. Its local income tax policy was simply not viable.

Stewart Hosie: You voted against it.

Malcolm Bruce: Well, it was not viable and it did not add up, because it was not local. That was the problem. It was a central measure. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman might also want to listen to the fact that the centralisation of business rates is one reason why north-east Scotland is so underfunded. The city of Aberdeen pays £150 million a year in business rates to Edinburgh-to the SNP Government-and gets £75 million back. That is a pretty bad deal for a city that supports the economy and has severe financial difficulties, so I do not think that we need to hear any more from the SNP.

Michael Connarty: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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Malcolm Bruce: No. I want to proceed to a conclusion.

Stewart Hosie: You've become a Tory very quickly.

Malcolm Bruce: I do not really understand where these people are coming from. I believe in an open, pluralistic democracy and a reformed electoral system, and I believe that, ultimately, we should all recognise that we are all minorities. No one party in the House commands majority support, and that is why we have a coalition. That is what the electorate, effectively, voted to deliver. If we want a democratic, pluralistic system, and if government is to be delivered, we have to recognise that one way or another more than one party will have to work together, either by supply and confidence from the Opposition or in a full-blown coalition.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Malcolm Bruce: No.

Confidence and supply gives the minority Government the freedom and the party providing the confidence and supply the responsibility, and that does not seem to be a good deal. Coalition gives both parties the opportunity to be full playing partners, to inject their own ideas, policies and people and to strike sparks off each other in ways that they could not if the situation were different. Over the past seven weeks, I have been really pleasantly surprised by how many sparks have been provided and by how rigorously a flame of reform has been blown into life as a result of the coalition.

When the Leader of the Opposition reflects on the intemperate tone of her response, she will understand that the people will say, "Those in Labour are substantially responsible for the situation in which the country finds itself, they are in total denial and they have not offered an apology or an explanation of anything that they would do." Right now, they should just go away, have a leadership competition and let the rest of us get on with running the country and getting it out of the mess in which they left it.

2.34 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): First, we all must recognise that this is a very difficult Budget at a difficult time. Throughout the United Kingdom, people are talking about this Budget. They were fearful of what was going to come out, of its consequences and of the fallout from it. However, as the Chancellor said, with the announcement of the emergency Budget, at least we can now start to inject some certainty into the economic way forward, and from that point of view it must be welcome. Secondly, despite the background to the current situation, there is still immense economic uncertainty, even among those who have been professional economists, about the best way forward. I shall address that point when I discuss what we are looking for in the Budget.

Thirdly, I come from Northern Ireland, where the major party in the coalition was recently rejected by the electorate, so we do not have too much to fear from them; where the Labour party does not even stand; and where the Liberal Democrats do not have a presence, either, although they have a sister party in the Alliance party. Therefore, the political point scoring in the debate so far does not have to form part of my response. I sit
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on the Opposition Benches, but the Leader of the official Opposition's hysterical reaction does not grace this debate with the seriousness that it deserves. There was not even any recognition of the role that the previous Government played. Although there were many other responsible factors, the previous Government played a role in the situation in which we now find ourselves. Indeed, there was not even any recognition that, as today's figures point out, something similar would have had to be done if there had been a different outcome in the election. The Leader of the Opposition's reaction was disappointing, and it is right that I make that point. However, I do not make it because I have to score party political points; I make it just as a general observation on a very serious situation.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is rising above the fray in this debate, but, as a former economics lecturer, is he as concerned as I am about paragraph 2.108 of the Red Book, which refers to

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