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I wish to deliver a few remarks on the two broad themes that have been outlined for today’s Budget debate—families and communities.
May I add my condolences to those expressed to Hilary Benn? I first met his late father when I was at Glasgow university and on a train going to Bristol. He was with the late Eric Heffer. We were debating in the final of a debating tournament at Bristol, with Eric Heffer as the guest
speaker on our side which was against proportional representation—and we won. David Steel, who was on the other side of the argument with the Bristol team, was none too happy about that. The right hon. Gentleman’s father was always very kind to me throughout the following 35 years of respect and, indeed, friendship that we enjoyed.
I have been critical of the welfare cap in the past, and I remain anxious about it. I have opposed the bedroom tax. I share the concerns expressed by Mr Denham about student finance issues, and voted against such provisions earlier in this Parliament. Nevertheless, it would be churlish not to welcome the progress indicated in this Budget as regards families. Looking at the figures from my own constituency, this Budget represents an £800 tax cut for some 27,390 people—a significant achievement. The pensions overhaul is leaving pensioners £650 better off. Alongside the tax-free child care initiatives, that means that both ends of the age spectrum are being addressed. That is the mark of a society heading in the right direction. I think we would all agree that the emblem of a decent society is that it gives a sense of opportunity to people in their youth and a sense of security, dignity and comfort to people at the other end of their lifespan. All those measures are welcome.
I also welcome the measures on fuel duty, which are particularly important in my area of the highlands and islands of Scotland, which, geographically, represents the largest constituency in the UK. The cost of fuel permeates everything in an area where the motor vehicle is not a luxury but an absolute necessity, and where, in days gone by, we have seen punitive increases. Fuel prices remain pitched at punitive levels in many parts of the highlands, particularly in the more remote—and therefore, by definition, more vulnerable—communities for whom access to fuel and transport is absolutely fundamental. The fuel duty freeze confirmed by the Chancellor is welcome, although, as he would expect, many of us would argue instead for a real-terms cut, which we would see as social fairness on a UK-wide basis.
When I first started out 31 years ago, the state of the Scotch whisky industry was dire. Distilleries were being mothballed and people were being made unemployed. The industry did not have a long-term, viable global future; it was losing out to the white spirits industry, in particular. An amazing turnaround has taken place, to the extent that there are now plans in progress, in my constituency alone, for the building of two new distilleries —one on the Isle of Skye and one on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. That is a remarkable development. The freezing of the duty on whisky is welcome for this industry, which is vitally important for the well-being of the whole UK economy.
My next point is about start-up support for regional airports. Transport links, and the communications arising from them, are vital to an area such as the highlands and islands. Dalcross, Inverness’s airport, is located in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, but it serves as the hub for us all. He has worked hard on achieving the start-up support that has been announced, which removes red tape on new routes and develops the social and commercial arteries that regional airports represent. That must be welcomed, although I would go one step further and give Treasury Ministers a nudge about the developments afoot to reopen the airstrip at Broadford on the Isle of Skye, as we have gone backwards in one respect. Thirty-plus years ago, I could leave central London on a Friday morning, take the British Airways shuttle, as it then was, to Glasgow, connect to a Loganair flight, and be in Portree on the Isle of Skye ready to hold a surgery by Friday lunchtime. Thirty years later, I can no longer do that. Things have gone back in that respect, so if the Government are thinking imaginatively about our airports, I hope they will not just look at existing airports, but consider revitalising some of the airstrips and airports that previously existed and served such a good purpose.
In general I welcome the Budget. Scotland should welcome the Budget. That is a message that those of us who want to keep the United Kingdom better together will convey not just in the House, but across the whole country.