Finance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:38 pm on 6th July 2010.

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Photo of Ben Gummer Ben Gummer Conservative, Ipswich 7:38 pm, 6th July 2010

I should first of all pay tribute to Nic Dakin, who showed in his maiden speech that he will be a robust defender of his constituents, even though-if I may say so-his grasp of accountancy as it pertains to the Finance Bill and the proposals of the coalition Government bears similarities to that of his predecessor in his seat.

This is a vital Finance Bill: it is one of the most important Bills to come before this House in decades. The reason for that-contrary to the speeches that we have heard from Labour Members so far-is that it puts right the unsustainable spending that has been the characteristic of Government in the past few years. Not only that, it takes the opportunity-which presents itself rarely to Governments-to reshape the nature of the relationships between the state, families, individuals and communities. Such opportunities are rare, and it is clear from the votes cast at the general election that that is a move that the country wishes to see, whether the votes were cast for one party in the coalition or the other.

Many Members have not yet grasped the fact that not to use this opportunity would be to condemn future generations to the poverty of opportunity that all of us in our work here wish to eradicate. I ask, therefore, that everyone support those measures in the Finance Bill-of which I, for one, believe there are a great many-that are beneficial to the economy. I am not saying that this is a new problem, nor one that has not presented itself to this country before. One of my esteemed predecessors as Member of Parliament for Ipswich was a gentleman called Nathaniel Bacon, who was elected to the 1660 restoration Parliament. At that point, the town had two Members-one a cavalier and one a roundhead, which is a good simile for the coalition now assembled on the Government Benches. In his treatise on government, which was well thumbed at the time-it is less so now, but I recommend it to all Members-he wrote that

"it befalls some Princes, as other men, to be sometimes poor in abundance, by riotous flooding treasure out in the lesser currants; and leaving the greater channels dry. This is an unsupportable evil, because it is destructive to the very being of affairs, whether for War or Peace."

That was true then, as it is true now, because the investment we need to make now to ensure that our economy, locally and nationally, grows in the years ahead is prejudiced and put at risk by precisely the irresponsible spending that we have seen. That is because by increasing the amount of money we have to put into the revenue account, we deny the money that we should put towards capital expenditure. That is what I would like to address in my first remarks to the Front-Bench team.

Ipswich and elsewhere, including other parts of the east of England, need greater investment in transport infrastructure, as my hon. Friend Stephen Barclay said. Without investment in the road and rail infrastructure serving Ipswich, the many opportunities that the town has cannot be fully realised. This is about opportunity. I am not talking about the global sums in the Budget, with which I heartily agree, but I do seek to press Ministers as far as possible to do all they can to bear down on revenue spending, so that as much as possible can be released within the budget in the years ahead for investment in infrastructure.

Both side of the House agree on opportunity-something that Ipswich has in abundance. It is a famous manufacturing town, and was the origin of many of the tools and much of the machinery that brought about the agrarian revolution. Since then it has become a significant service centre with a beautiful medieval centre that describes well the town's historical importance. Most importantly, it has a significant and important spirit to succeed. It is a quiet, East Anglian spirit, but it is a spirit none the less-and it is one that I experienced during my campaign to save the local hospital, which I conducted throughout my candidature and which I hope is about to come to fruition.

In that campaign I differed from my predecessor, Chris Mole, to whom I pay tribute for bravely giving the ground to me, as a candidate, and allowed me to debate these things robustly in public when many other opponents would have denied me that opportunity. That showed determination and an interest in the democratic process that is entirely to his credit. Neither was that his only contribution as a Member of Parliament for Ipswich. He made many such contributions to the people of that town. He was a Minister of the Crown, he served on many Select Committees and, most importantly in my mind, he sponsored the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003, which enforced the digital deposit of records in the British Library, giving the nation an endowment of which he should be justly proud.

I am proud of how, during the campaign, we both led constructive and robust campaigns in which we discussed issues openly, without ever digressing into unpleasantness. That quality is present in this coalition, which is why I support it so wholeheartedly. Frankly, the great majority of the public, who have little interest in the eccentric mechanics of politics that interest us so much, cannot understand why we are so obsessed with bickering among ourselves. Through the mere act of overcoming our differences in the coalition, we are finding common cause on the many things in which we have a far greater interest: narrowing the gap between rich and poor, the re-establishment of the free market economy and all the other things that we are doing in the coalition. We are doing those things through mature discussion, and already my constituents and others to whom I have spoken are thanking us for that.

I like to think that Ipswich gives us a considerable precedent for the sense of amity between our parties. Not only do we have a Liberal-Conservative coalition on the borough council that has achieved considerable success, but we had two of Gladstone's brothers as Members of Parliament in the 19th century. One of them, John Neilson Gladstone, was described by a biographer-I could not resist this-as follows:

"He took no strong independent line such as would anger his father but accepted his minor role in the scheme of things."

I can assure the House that on the former point it should have no fear whatsoever, and on the latter point, I believe that all of us will succeed only if we show the independence and courage of our convictions-something that the coalition must show in abundance.

We have heard much over many previous years of the tough decisions that face us, but now is the time to take them, and no issue is more important, pressing or necessary than penal reform. The Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke outlined brilliantly and bravely last week a vision for sentencing and for the prison system that I, and many on both sides of the House, would wish to endorse.

Yet to achieve that, we need to find common cause on two things: the first is on the budget for the Ministry of Justice and prisons. It goes without saying that it is clearly a gross and offensive waste of public money to be warehousing prisoners in buildings of little utility save for the security they afford the public in incarcerating criminals, which in the end produce men and women who come out with a staggeringly low possibility of finding a job, succeeding in a relationship, building a family or contributing to society, and a staggeringly high probability-the highest in Europe-of going on to reoffend and contribute once again to the crime rate.

Opponents of reform must consider carefully whether it is right to continue with a system in which half of prisoners cannot read at the level expected of an 11-year-old, 65% cannot count at that level, and 82% cannot write at that level. I do not understand how they can possibly contribute to their communities, build relationships and sustain their families with that level of underachievement. Future generations will look upon our treatment of prisoners in much the same way as we now look upon how the Victorians established workhouses-as a near barbaric mechanism to deal quietly with one of society's problems without facing up to the real issues that it presents.

We can, I hope, overcome that problem in two ways. The first is to protect in the Ministry of Justice's budget the excellent plans, which we on the Conservative Benches have had for some years, for the complete restructuring of the prison estate. Hon. Members might wish to know that 16 prisons in the prison estate predate the reign of Queen Victoria, and there are many others that were built in her reign. Those prisons are not only completely unsuitable for rehabilitation, but consume massive amounts of manpower, which reinforces my earlier point about the unnecessary waste of money that goes on revenue spending, rather than on capital expenditure, which actually produces results.

The second thing that I would ask of hon. Members-and of the media-is to accept that it would be a good thing if we were to enjoy the kind of consensus that I have praised in the coalition, on the matter of penal reform across the House. Too often the sentiments expressed by the Secretary of State for Justice last week have been uttered by Members in all parts of the House, but they have fallen prey-because they are perennially vulnerable-to cheap political point scoring of a short-termist nature, which has done us enormous damage. I hope that those who wish to oppose the reforms that are necessary understand that to do so would be to condemn families, victims, perpetrators and communities to the repeated misery that we now have a golden opportunity to prise ourselves away from.

A maiden speech is a privileged opportunity to outline some of the issues that interest a new Member. It is a greater privilege, needless to say, to represent our constituents-in my case, the people of Ipswich. Almost all new Members come to this House lauding their new constituency, professing an ardour that I would not wish to impugn. All I would say is that I cannot claim to be Ipswich born, even though it is my local town and has been all my life, but I can increasingly claim to be Ipswich bred. It is a town that I have come not only to respect but to love. It is the most profound honour to serve the people of Ipswich, who put their trust in me in the election that we have just had. I shall do all I can in the coming years to repay that trust, and help us all to realise the considerable opportunities that lie-tantalisingly-ahead of us.

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