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Like many Members across the House, I am passionately focused on employment. We needed the Budget to encourage business investment and help the recovery, which is gaining pace, to deliver more and higher-quality jobs. Mr Robinson made an interesting point about ensuring that those jobs deliver greater productive capacity, and I agree with him that we need to do that.
The claimant count in my constituency of Worcester is down from 2,545 immediately before the election—and from a peak of 2,700 under Labour—to around 1,900 now. Youth unemployment peaked at 800 under Labour and is now below 500. That is much better, but there is no room for complacency. In fact, we have seen some small rises in unemployment in recent months, which I abhor. I have said that we need this Budget to deliver investment in jobs.
When I talk to local businesses, especially manufacturers, about what they need if they are to invest in jobs, they tell me that they need support to invest in plant and machinery, which can raise the productive output of each job. We have seen that support in this Budget. They also want support for research and development that will anchor manufacturing jobs in this country, including the jobs at Yamazaki Mazak, which has its European research headquarters in Worcester. They need help with the cost of employment, and this Budget has introduced the implementation of the employment allowance, which will provide a huge boost to businesses large and small in regard to the number of people they can employ.
It is interesting that, at the start of this Government, we got rid of Labour’s jobs tax—an increase in the cost of national insurance for every business and employer—and that, as we come towards the end of this Government, we are taking a further step forward in the form of the employment allowance. It will provide a real incentive to take young people on, and taking people under 21 out of national insurance will help more young people to get into the businesses of the future.
Crucially, we need to drive forward the skills agenda. Many of the engineering businesses in my constituency—including Yamazaki Mazak and Worcester Bosch—are great supporters of apprenticeships. Many small and medium-sized enterprises are also beginning to take on apprentices. I am glad to see in the Budget the £85 million extension of support for SMEs to take on apprentices, and to see the £20 million increased funding for degree level apprenticeships. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, on which I am proud to serve, has challenged the Government to deliver on both quality and quantity for apprenticeships, and so far they have an excellent record on both.
I must mention some of the spending measures in the Budget that could directly benefit Worcester. The £20 million cathedral fund will be very welcome in many of our county towns, and the horse race betting levy extension will support Worcester race course. The cathedral and the race course are two vital landmarks in the city, and I am delighted that both could benefit from the Budget. The extra £140 million of flood funding is also extremely welcome, for reasons that will be all too obvious to anyone who has watched television in recent months. It is also great news that we have seen progress on the question of VAT for air ambulances. That is a huge achievement following campaigning by many Members. I would now like to see progress on the question of VAT for hospices.
The Budget did not mention the question of delivering fairer funding for schools, although the Chancellor did mention it in his autumn statement. We also had a statement on it last week, and a huge step forward has been taken on that issue for the first time in decades. This is a cross-party campaign in which many hon. Friends and hon. Members from across the House have taken part.