First Day

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 6:17 pm on 6th May 1992.

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Photo of Mr David Martin Mr David Martin , Portsmouth South 6:17 pm, 6th May 1992

At the beginning of the first Session of a new Parliament, there is an inescapable air of renewal. There is renewal in the occupancy of your chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I congratulate you sincerely on your appointment to it. There is renewal of the representation of so many seats, and we have already heard some good maiden speeches today. There is renewal of some of the legislative casualties or consequences of the previous Parliament, there is renewal of energy and ideas, and there is renewal of hope for the future.

After 13 years, the Government have been granted another glad, confident morning. The challenge will be to ensure that that gladness and confidence are carried through to evening and then, after 17 or 18 years, through to a new dawn beyond that.

We have heard a Queen's Speech in which part of the manifesto on which we fought the general election has been set out for legislative attention. I add my own personal manifesto for this Parliament for the benefit of the people of Portsmouth whom I represent.

First and above all, the revival of the economy is the most crucial ingredient for jobs and prosperity for the maximum number of people. Profitable businesses create jobs and in the south, nowhere more than in Portsmouth, the recession has been felt hard, combined as it has been with large increases under the uniform business rate system. Welcome as was the freezing of the increase for this year, I urge my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider it again for his 1993 Budget, depending on how economic prospects for businesses, especially genuinely small businesses, have improved in the meantime. In addition, a genuine resolution to screw inflation down to zero and to keep it there must be maintained this time. In this Parliament, let the Government bring back to this country the inestimable benefits of sound money, stable prices and confidence in the value of savings and investment. Such a policy will bring in its wake lower interest rates, which, combined with lower taxation, will bring to Portsmouth, as to the whole country, the expansion in jobs that is required to lick too-high unemployment and secure increases in living standards beyond those achieved in the heyday of the 1980s.

Included in that increase in living standards, I should like to see more pensioners. One of the strongest messages that we met on the doorsteps where the fight was hottest during the general election campaign—and Portsmouth was one of those places—came from pensioners with small occupational pensions in addition to their state pensions or with a modest amount of capital, who made certain remarks about Government policy. They do not readily recognise the justice of the welfare state as they compare their position with the position of pensioners who qualify for income support and all the attendant extra benefits that that eligibility unlocks. They do not see that it was worth all their savings and effort, and they frequently ask me, "Why did we do it? We can see no benefits at this stage in our lives." They cannot without reservation appreciate the advantage of owning their own home. The capital invested is unrealisable because they want to stay in their home for the rest of their lives, which is a reasonable ambition for most people, but that unrealisable capital value is held against them for the purposes of claiming benefit, even if they do not have sufficient income to carry out repairs and maintenance work.

The answer lies in a greyer area being devised at the margins, a much higher capital disregard and the creation of steps in and out of benefit rather than a sheer wall dividing those with benefit from those without, suddenly and all at once. This Parliament, and the Ministries involved, must address that as a matter of urgency. The taxation of small occupational pensions is also resented.

The Government must continue to lower income tax bands as well as income tax rates. Once the 25 per cent. band has gone in favour of a 20 per cent. band for all, let us aim for a 15 per cent. band. Let us also continue to raise thresholds. I look forward to millions more people—pensioners prominent among them—being taken out of tax altogether and to many more being taxed less than they are at present by the end of this Parliament.

I welcome the reference in the Gracious Speech to a Bill to extend choice and diversity in education. I want to see concentration on an improvement in primary education as well as education at the secondary stage. I also want to see increased opportunities for nursery schooling. What can be done in Wandsworth ought to be made possible in Portsmouth and elsewhere in the country.

In that connection, it is crucial that Portsmouth should be allowed to break free from the county structure of local government. Portsmouth should be given the opportunity in education, as in social services, planning and so much else, to enjoy unitary status and once more to run its own affairs, as it did before 1974. I urge the Government not to backslide in their commitment to restoring to cities such as Portsmouth the choice once more to govern themselves at local level. Expectations that they may be able to do so have been raised high, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Local Government and Inner Cities need only come to Portsmouth—they are welcome to do so at any time—to know how warmly welcomed such a reform would be and how eagerly it is anticipated.

I want to make a few remarks about housing. Portsmouth will soon be a university city. The number of students attending the polytechnic has expanded by thousands in a very few years. Unfortunately, student accommodation on campus has not expanded to keep pace with that development: it should, and at prices that students can afford. The Government must address that question. It is one of the factors that illustrate the topsy-turvy nature of housing-for-rent policies over so many years. Some streets in Southsea and Portsmouth are now dominated by students occupying in multi-occupation what should be family housing. In the meantime, families are accommodated in digs.

I guarantee that that is the case in great polytechnic or university cities throughout the country. The reason is the operation of the rent Acts and the fact that local authorities and housing associations will never be able to provide enough homes in the public sector to make up for the poor operation of the private market. If private landlords were allowed to, and were given incentives, they would once more provide homes for families, and the topsy-turvey character of the housing market would be corrected. But with rent Act protection barely affected by the creation of shorthold tenancies—welcome though that development is—they never will, and the curse of the irrational distribution of homes will continue to cast a blight on so much Government achievement in other directions. We must address that matter urgently in this Parliament.