Orders of the Day — Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:48 pm on 7th July 1997.

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Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby 8:48 pm, 7th July 1997

By way of a maiden speech, I have four very modest boasts to make and a couple of observations to pass on last week's people's Budget. My initial and proudest boast is that I am the first non-Tory ever to speak in this historic Chamber on behalf of the citizens of the ancient market towns of Selby and Tadcaster and the surrounding villages.

The country as a whole has had to put up with the Tories for the past 18 years, but in Selby we are talking centuries. Indeed, reputedly, Oliver Cromwell was the last non-Tory to get a look in locally. True enough, in October 1905, there was a brief electoral experiment in pluralism when a Liberal by the name of Joseph Andrews was elected in a by-election. Unfortunately for him, he lost his seat three months later in the general election of January 1906. Even more unfortunately for him, the House did not sit in the three months he was a Member, so he never got the chance even to say a few words. I am doubly grateful, therefore, to have got this far tonight.

Selby, in many ways, is classic middle England with lots of understated English virtues and a touch of Yorkshire sangfroid thrown in for good measure. Local people take the changes that life brings—wars, industrial change, revolutions or mere general elections—in their stride. My result was declared at 4.35 am on 2 May. My supporters and I spilt out on to the streets of Selby at about the same time as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was joining the festivities on the south bank, amid wild scenes of excitement and celebration. As dawn broke in Selby, the excitement reached us, too. Two early shift workers crossed the road and shook my hand—well, one of them crossed the road and the other thought about it and waved from the other side. By 10 am, I am glad to report to the House, Selby had put behind it all that early morning exuberance and I was able to walk through the streets unrecognised.

Three Tory Members of Parliament have followed Joseph Andrews in Selby since 1906. The first two were colonels. Michael Alison, my predecessor, was not a colonel, but he is a gentleman. He served the area with distinction. During his time in the House, he was instrumental in achieving the abolition of tolls on the bridge over the River Ouse in Selby. He promised to do that in his maiden speech in 1964, and that is a lesson for us all in keeping our promises. He leaves to me the task of securing the much-needed Selby bypass. One phrase in his maiden speech strikes me. Discussing the Atlantic alliance, he said: Our tie-up should be with the Europeans, not only in defence but in economic development."—[Official Report, 17 December 1964; Vol. 704, c. 638.] Those are wise words and it is a shame that so many who agree with his sentiments are now so isolated in the modern-day Tory party he leaves behind.

In his later years as a Member of Parliament, Michael was known simply and affectionately as the Minister for God, given his distinguished role as the representative of the Church Commissioners. That brings me to my second modest boast. I can exclusively reveal to the House tonight that I was sounded out for a job within three days of arriving here. I was in the Lobby, trying to look confident but inconspicuous, when a Government Whip approached. Panic overtook me. What had I done wrong? I had only been here three days. Instinctively, I felt for my jacket pocket. Perhaps I had inadvertently switched off my pager which, of course, links us all—rightly—with mission control. To my surprise, the Whip merely said that he had heard that I was very devout. I did not disagree, calculating that being seen as very devout was probably a plus in new Labour. The Whip then said that he understood that I went to church every week. This was pushing things a little, but it occurred to me that I was being considered for the short-list for the same post that my predecessor had held. I had to confess—that is probably the right word—to being a Roman Catholic and point out that although this did not debar me from being a Member of the House, unlike in previous centuries, it might cause some problems as the representative of the Church Commissioners. I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), who is much better qualified for the post, has now landed the job.

My third modest boast is that I was a direct contemporary at university of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). Although in recent years, it might be said that his political career has been more spectacular than mine, I at least have the compensation that I have retained just a little bit more of my hair. The right hon. Gentleman was the president of the world-famous Oxford debating union, when I was president of the less world-famous student union. In an early example of practising the politics of the many and not the few, under my leadership the student union tried to take over the debating union and throw open its doors to the student population as a whole. We went down to one of the less well-known but many heroic defeats that characterised Labour politics at the time. I learnt my political lesson about the futility of such heroic defeats, but I fear that if the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks maintains his current policy mix of anti-European and anti-devolution rhetoric, he too will have to get used to many heroic defeats in the years to come.

My final boast is that I am one of the 25 or so newly elected Labour Members who can claim a working background in business. For two years, I ran a small conference business. At times, it probably owed as much to the business techniques of Arthur Daley as to those of ICI, but I learnt the importance of cash flow, training, long-term planning and investing in people. My central contention is that last week's Budget established Labour as the party that best understands what makes the British economy tick, that is most aware of the needs of British business, and that demonstrably wants to enable more people to succeed economically.

We have heard many Opposition Members criticising the welfare-to-work programme. We have heard that employers will allegedly exploit the system and have a revolving door for subsidised labour on their books every six months. Aside from the obvious arguments about proper monitoring, Opposition Members do not realise what we are about or the seriousness of our intent. The Budget represents a new approach to economic management, which is totally different from that of Conservative Members. The way to run a successful market economy is not to adopt the philosophy of recent years, which was based on devil take the hindmost, every person for themselves, not paying bills on time, exploiting every loophole and doing down your colleagues. That economic philosophy has left us with disastrously low investment and training levels. It never was the philosophy favoured by the most successful of our companies or by the more intelligent minds in the Conservative party.

The Government want to encourage a new corporate culture based on far-sighted companies. Before the election, some eminent members of the business community produced a business agenda for Europe and hon. Members may recall that the former Deputy Prime Minister gatecrashed the press launch. The agenda referred to Companies which aim to be in business indefinitely and seek to maximise returns over a long period of time. A far sighted firm must be and remain highly competitive. That means not so much the ability to screw the last halfpenny out of any deal as the ability to engage the enthusiasm and commitment of employees and business associates, to induce them to make the investments of skills and capital that will be jointly beneficial.The importance of co-operation, against a background of competitive markets, should be clear. It is that co-operation between Government, business and employees that the Budget offers. Welfare to work will enable employers to take on some of our long-term unemployed, to help to motivate them, to train them, to harness their talent and to reap the rewards by keeping on those who succeed. A far-sighted company is one that recognises obligations beyond its shareholders and that its long-term health and prosperity depend on creating a society in which everyone has a stake.

My two remaining brief observations relate to the three dominant industries in my constituency—coal, power and beer. Selby boasts more working coal mines than any other constituency, Europe's largest coal-fired power station at Drax, and three major breweries in the market town of Tadcaster. New Labour believes in promoting vigorous, fair competition. All that these industries are crying out for is such vigorous and fair competition.

I welcome the Chancellor's review of excise duties on beer. UK beer duty is seven times that of France, resulting in the flood of duty-paid and illegal imports into the United Kingdom. I hope that the Chancellor will in future embark on a strategy of approximating duty to the French level. Some 75 brewing and pub companies have promised to pass on any reduction in duty to their customers. Paradoxically, the greater the cut in duty, the greater the benefit to the Treasury, as other tax revenues—especially from the pub trade—increase.

The coal industry wants to compete on equal terms with its principal competitors, gas and nuclear power. The sweetheart deals between the regional electricity companies and the new gas-fired power stations are anti-competitive and mean that, in many cases, the consumer has to pay a premium on his electricity bills. We still produce the cheapest deep-mined coal in Europe and, with the development of clean coal technology, coal can be clean. It would hardly be far sighted for any Government to meet the new tough carbon dioxide emissions simply by allowing what remains of the British coal industry to wither away.

I do not call for coal to be given a chance out of some romantic sentiment, but out of practical economics. A sensible energy policy is one that maintains diversity of supply and different energy sources. Economic logic surely dictates that whether through action in Brussels or Whitehall, the workings of our electricity pool—as complicated and unfair as our local government grant system—are examined and opened up to competitive pressures.

The Budget—with its emphasis on welfare to work and encouraging long-term investment, while supporting frontline services such as education and health—has established Labour's economic credentials. Like the majority of British people, I support it with some enthusiasm, but with a degree of delight that, contrary to the views of some, there is, and has always been, a radical and progressive alternative approach to the Budgets of the past 18 years.