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We have had an important debate this afternoon on a vital subject, following on from yesterday’s Budget statement—a statement that, unfortunately, largely followed the course mapped out by the Tory Government, with their allies, in the announcements that they have made in the last year.
I hoped today that the long-trumpeted plan for growth, which has been so elusive as far as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is concerned, would be revealed in more detail. We have had the document, but the Secretary of State barely referred to it. In his speech he did not even mention enterprise zones, or provide any more detail or information to expand on the fairly threadbare set of initiatives in the document.
The Government inherited growth and have taken it away, they inherited falling unemployment and have caused it to rise, and they have squandered the low inflation that they inherited. The result, in constituencies up and down the country, is a profound lack of confidence in the future. The prospect of falling living standards is restricting demand, businesses are failing to invest, and as a consequence, joblessness continues to grow. The Government need to recognise the malign effects of their policies, but unfortunately the Budget offers more of the same—the same policies that have taken the country backwards, not forwards.
At least now the Government are talking of growth. They took a long time even to do that, and they have now given us a document, but that document takes us backwards again—back to a Thatcherite prescription for what is wrong with the economy, reheating policies that led to an unemployment count of 3.5 million twice under Tory Governments in the 1980s and 1990s. As we have just heard from my hon. Friend Mr Umunna, the same thing is beginning to happen again. The OBR has identified that unemployment will be higher than it predicted last year because of the Government’s policies.
Lest we forget, the legacy of those years in the ’80s and ’90s was not success but a wasted generation of young people. What is so depressing about this Budget is the realisation that the Tories have learned nothing from history and intend to repeat it instead—and it is shameful that the Liberal Democrat allies they now have are acting as their accomplices. It makes me sick to the stomach to see the Liberal Democrats being more vehement than the Tories in their defence of Government policy in the Chamber, because they stood on the hustings and told the people who were fooled into voting for them exactly the opposite when they were asking for those people’s support.
The proposals put forward by the Government offer nothing new. Even the names bring back memories of the 1980s, with enterprise zones coming back from the dead. Those of us whose politics were defined by the mistakes of the 1980s remember that enterprise zones were not a success then. As Helen Miller, a senior research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said in response to the Budget:
“Past UK experience with enterprise zones suggests that their main effect may be to cause activity to relocate rather than to create new activity.”
We must recognise that the introduction of enterprise zones follows the dismantling of machinery to deliver regional growth. Local enterprise partnerships are still nascent and the Budget does nothing either to resource them adequately or to take them forward any further. They must do their work without assets or resources, and decisions on the allocation of resources are still being made not locally but centrally by the centralised regional growth fund. Ian Swales, who is not here today, pointed out in a debate in Westminster Hall earlier this week that 97% of grants given out by One North East were for less than £1 million, which is below the threshold for securing financial assistance from the regional growth fund. Where will small businesses secure the finance that was previously available to them? We must wait to see the detail of the proposal for enterprise zones, as we did not hear any more detail about them today, but I suggest that there is a vital gap in relation to small businesses, which needs to be dealt with.
The Budget is made in the context of a crisis in the construction industry, but the Secretary of State did not mention that industry in his statement. This week, the Federation of Master Builders reported that the proportion of firms reporting higher work loads fell from 22% in the fourth quarter of 2010 to 19% in the first quarter of 2011. Even this Government have finally recognised that their rhetoric on planning change and localism has had a profoundly negative effect on the construction sector and the housing market. Their move, in the Budget, to introduce a presumption in favour of development is a tacit admission of that fact. Equally, the crisis regarding first-time buyers, which the Government have ignored until now, is real and has had a profound impact. Any move to assist first-time buyers is welcome, but the help for only 10,000 for only one year is, as the Construction Products Association has today pointed out,
“a very modest step and is unlikely to make much of a dent in the 100,000 shortfall of new build that this sector is currently facing.”
We hear a lot of rhetoric from the Government about deregulation, but the action is less convincing. We have the “one in, one out” soundbite, but what about the groundwork—the hard work—of taking forward the regulation agenda of the Better Regulation Executive and the Regulatory Policy Committee? Where is the Government’s forward regulatory programme? Will what was produced by the previous Government finally come through? I would love to see that programme, because the Government need to come clean about the regulations that are going to be introduced.