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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 24th March 2011.

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Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Substitute Member) 3:33 pm, 24th March 2011

Mr Robinson has had to leave the Chamber, but for reasons that I well appreciate he went to the heart of much of the economic debate since the general election, which has been about whether the pace and depth of the Government’s public expenditure cutting strategy is too far and too fast, and what implications it will have for other indicators. I suspect that that debate will go on for the remainder of this Parliament and for many years into the future.

The hon. Gentleman knows that, as something of an unreconstructed Keynesian myself, I have every sympathy with his side of the argument and have expressed my view on many occasions over the past year about the rapidity and depth of the public expenditure constraint and cutting strategy. None the less, whether or not it is too far and too fast, reading into it quite what he did is too much, too soon. The Government set sail so firmly last year that they and their economic policy are tightly lashed to the mast this year and will remain so in the years ahead. Their consistency of purpose has shown that. The Budget should be seen in that context.

The coalition Government’s economic fate will be sealed in the third to fourth year of the Parliament, when so many of the genuine longer-term implications of the strategy that is being pursued become clear. Despite the views that I have expressed in the Chamber and elsewhere in the past year, it must be acknowledged—I genuinely do so—that, within the severe self-constraints that the Government have imposed, there is much welcome ingenuity in the Budget.

I want to draw particular attention to the continuing pressure and policy direction on income tax personal allowances. I would like to underscore that, because the Liberal Democrats have been wedded to the principle and policy for many years. As a result of the proposals that the Chancellor outlined yesterday, in the financial year 2011-12, more than 1 million people will be lifted out of income tax altogether, and 25 million people will be better off. Women and part-time workers will be the primary beneficiaries of such a policy. I welcome that. Those figures have been verified today by our most authoritative independent source in this place—the House of Commons Library—in an excellent briefing note on the Budget, which has been circulated. It is important to place that on the record and demonstrate that, thanks to the Liberal Democrat input into the coalition Government, social conscience is continuing to be emphasised at the heart of Government policy.

I want to make two specific points from a constituency viewpoint. First, I welcome the fuel policy measures. Some 20 years ago, when Jim Wallace, a long-standing friend, was still a Member of the House, he and I embarked on a series of meetings and visits with the European Commission in Brussels. We were astounded to discover that a derogation was available to member states—it was a much smaller European Union in those days—on fuel policy. For the best part of those two decades, I and many others have hammered away at successive Governments, Conservative and Labour, to pursue such a policy, only to meet, every time, a brick wall. The Treasury hates that sort of thing, and I have no doubt that the Treasury institutionally continues to hate it and is not rubbing its hands with glee at the commitment that was given in the Budget. However, at last, the Government are applying for the scheme, which will be introduced for the most peripheral island communities as a means of lowering fuel prices. That is great.

Having argued for such a policy for nearly 20 years, it would be churlish not to welcome it. I simply make the point that the Government have to start somewhere, and self-defined island communities make sense. Equally, many more remote mainland communities have problems that are not essentially dissimilar, but for obvious reasons of definition, they cannot be included in the scheme. In my area, there are such communities around Lochalsh and Wester Ross. I hope that when the analysis of the scheme is examined, the impact on those areas will not be overlooked and that their continuing needs will be taken into account in the years ahead.

Secondly, the acceleration of the policy on the green investment bank through the Budget is welcome. An increase of £2 billion in the start-up funds that will be available to the bank was announced, and it continues to be a big priority for the Government. I say that because the Kishorn site in Wester Ross, a remote part of the western highlands, is a prime UK site to take advantage of the potential in offshore renewable technology. I have raised that issue many times, and the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Energy and Climate Change are taking a great interest, which I welcome. The impetus that the Government give to the green investment bank will be critical in that respect.

Other aspects of oil policy in the Budget are controversial, but I offer one reflection from my constituency in conclusion. A great concrete platform—a classic historical example—for the North sea was built at Kishorn. To this day it extracts oil, but it was a case of boom and bust. The opportunity from renewables would mean sustained employment in that community, and that technology harvests natural resources, which can continue, essentially, in perpetuity. It is important that the Government continue to emphasise that.

In welcoming those important developments in this week’s Budget, and their potential impact on the economy, social fairness and areas such as mine, I hope that we can look forward to continuing resolve from the Government.