It is always interesting to follow Mr. Ellwood. Although I do not agree with everything he said, he is right to say that we should do more to promote tourism.
In the few minutes that I have this evening, I want to consider how the economic downturn has affected the north-east. Like my right hon. Friend Mrs. McGuire and others, I want to drill down and look at how the economic downturn is affecting a specific area and impacting on families.
I consider the downturn to be especially tragic for the north-east, because we were just starting to experience the obvious signs of regeneration. It is very curious that the Opposition should accuse the Government of not mending the roof while the sun was shining, as many hon. Members will have experienced the impact of regeneration in their constituencies.
In Durham, we could see it happening on the ground. We have a new hospital, and new GP surgeries are coming on stream just now. A number of schools have been replaced, and there are more new schools in the pipeline. We have managed to cut NHS waiting lists massively, to the point where they are almost non-existent, and we have also improved the educational attainment of our young people.
When Labour came to power in 1997, barely 30 per cent. of young people in Durham were getting five A to C grades at GCSE. Now, we are slightly above the national average, but that change in my constituency did not happen by accident. It came about because of the investment made by this Government. It is therefore particularly tragic that we should be in an economic downturn, as I said, and my plea this evening is that the Government continue to invest in those areas for growth that have been identified in the north-east's economy, and try to turn things around sooner rather than later.
Unemployment in the north-east stands at 8.6 per cent. That is somewhat higher than the national average of 6.5 per cent. and it is very bad—but nowhere near as bad as it was in the 1980s and 1990s, when some wards in my constituency had unemployment rates of 40 per cent. That was absolutely dreadful.
I listened with some interest to Mr. Osborne to see whether he would recognise what the previous Conservative Government had done, or put forward any policies to turn the situation around now. He did neither: all we got was a really pathetic and petty rant against the Prime Minister that I think was unworthy of the Opposition at this time of economic downturn.
The difference I note between what the present Government are doing and what the Conservative Government did is that now people are not being left on their own to manage the recession, as the Government's real help packages emphasise. We have real help for pensioners, with the delivery of a one-off £60 payment to 12 million of them and an increase in pension credit by £6 to £130 a week. We have increased tax allowances to put more money into the pockets of families and, critically, the Government have brought forward an increase in child benefit and in child tax credit. We are putting more money into the pockets of hard-pressed families, not cutting child benefit in real terms, which is what happened under the Conservatives.
We are also giving real help to businesses, which is what we need now. Not only have we cut taxes for households, but we are cutting taxes for businesses and promoting policies to get credit and lending going again. We are deferring tax payments: in the north-east, 2,910 businesses have been helped by tax deferment worth £50 million. We are also, where possible, bringing forward capital projects and putting money into social housing and the building of social housing through the Homes and Communities Agency. I am not suggesting for one minute that we have done everything that we can, and I hope that the Budget will contain more measures to support businesses, but we are helping businesses. We have also put more money into training and skills development.
Business Enterprise North East—there was nothing like it in existence during the '80s and '90s—has a website that points businesses to a range of measures to help them. Specifically in the north-east, the regional development agency has pulled together European money from JEREMIE—joint European resources for micro to medium enterprises—the European regional development fund and the European Investment Bank to create a £125 million new venture capital fund, to help business development. That is aimed at those businesses that want to develop and grow during this period.
In addition, NatWest and RBS nationally have provided £3 billion of funding for new financial services. That amounts to £250 million for the north-east to support small and medium-sized enterprises. Some of the money is still being rolled out through the economy, but it is important in this debate to recognise that, slow though it has been—painfully slow—some of our banks, particularly where the Government have a say in how they operate, are now lending.
I have been holding my own summits in Durham—three business summits across a range of sectors. Businesses say that they found the information the Government have given them very helpful, but they want some other, additional things to happen. They want local authorities to be encouraged to direct their procurement to use local companies, where that is possible. They want more venture capital and more funding for companies that want to expand. They want prompt payment by the public sector and action to be taken on business rates. I am pleased that the Government have been listening to some of the points that they have been making. What is certain is that, as we plan to come out of recession, we must not go back to the same system as before. My plea to the Government is that they support development in particular sectors in the north-east.
On green energy, there are very good companies already in place with a substantial share of the market in solar, geothermal and wind energy. A lot of the technology for carbon capture and storage was developed in the north-east, but has not been applied there. My plea is that the Government help companies that are developing that technology to be able to apply it, so that they can create jobs in future. I also want to make a plea for green cars. I ask the Government to look at Nissan's schemes to produce electric cars, and to support Nissan. I hope that they will also support the health and process sectors. Lastly, I ask the Government not to take their eye off the need to develop higher-level skills and high-value jobs. I hope that they will use our universities and colleges, so that we get more knowledge transfer into our local economies.
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