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Cost of Living: Energy and Housing

Part of Bills Presented — Finance Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:36 pm on 5th June 2014.

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Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton 2:36 pm, 5th June 2014

The hon. Lady is absolutely right; we share the same aspirations. Unfortunately, however, this is all about the means to achieving those ends. If we had wanted to do something about energy prices, we should not have closed down nuclear power stations, as happened under the last Government. We should be taking advantage of shale gas, as we propose in the Queen’s Speech. One area in which we can make common cause on the means as well as the ends is the need to reform the common agricultural policy, which puts £400 on the average family’s bills. The hon. Lady will recall, however, that Tony Blair rather meekly gave up on CAP reform as well as sacrificing the British rebate.

Huw Irranca-Davies mentioned regional impacts. The recovery is often described as London-centred, but this week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show that gross disposable income per person has risen 4% in the north-east, which is higher than the UK average and considerably higher than the figure for London. The shadow Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, is also a wonkish type—again, I mean that in the best possible spirit—and if he and other hon. Members on both sides of the House look at the raw data, they will see that we have done a good job in relation not only to economic stewardship but to social fairness. I might even manage to get the shadow Secretary of State to agree that Thomas Piketty would have to accept that Britain is not just economically better off but fairer under the Tories. Let us see whether the right hon. Gentleman can bring himself to do that when he winds up the debate later.

We cannot rest on our laurels, however. There are important measures in the Queen’s Speech to strengthen the economy further and to curb the practice of public sector employees claiming redundancy and subsequently taking another job in the same sector. It is important that we get the public sector pay bill down, and that should be done in a way that targets the bureaucracy, the highly paid managers and the waste while protecting front-line services.

We are going to simplify the national insurance paid by the self-employed. I would like us to go further and cut employers’ national insurance contributions, because they can deter companies from hiring people as well as from paying better wages. I was delighted to read in The Times today—I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend Sir George Young will confirm this—that the No. 10 policy unit is considering raising the threshold for employees’ national insurance contributions. I have argued for that for a long time. If we really want to do something about low pay, as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston does, raising the threshold for employees’ contributions is by far the clearest way of doing it. The Resolution Foundation, the Institute for Public Policy Research and all the left-wing think-tanks agree with me on that, and I am glad that the Government are looking seriously at that proposal.

I am delighted by the proposed reforms to speed up infrastructure projects and to allow fracking firms to run shale gas pipelines. I should like to comment on a couple of the points that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston made about shale gas. Ofgem has made it clear that our back-up energy stocks will fall to 2% by 2015. The chances of blackouts will increase from one in 47 years to one in 12 years. The previous Government allowed this stark energy crisis to creep up on us, and we must address it now. The renaissance in nuclear power will play an important role in achieving that; it will be good for meeting our energy demands and for decarbonisation.

We must also bear in mind our unique national comparative advantage in relation to shale gas. In 2013, the British Geological Survey—hardly a Thatcherite body by disposition—estimated that there were 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the Bowland-Hodder basin alone. The reserves equate to 47 years of total UK gas consumption or 90 years of the UK’s North sea gas production. Of course, not all of it will be extracted, and it will take time to develop the right regulatory regime. That is important, but the opportunities over the medium term are immense. The Institute of Directors has estimated that shale gas could meet one third of UK gas demand and support 74,000 jobs, not to mention boosting manufacturing and helping us sustainably to rejuvenate the economy of the northern region.

I understand the concerns about fracking, but the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society—again, not Thatcherite bodies by any stretch of the imagination—have looked at the risks to aquifers and the risk of earthquakes and concluded that the risks are very, very low. They have concluded that, with a decent set of regulations, the process could be properly managed and monitored. Frankly, the spectres of polluted drinking water and of earthquakes have been massively exaggerated by ideologically driven activists. We ought to get cracking with fracking, and I am delighted that this Queen’s Speech will bring that about. It will also help us to wean ourselves off energy dependence on places such as the middle east and Russia; we need to consider that given the stability in those regions.

In this Queen’s Speech we also want to reward the great economic virtues of saving and grafting, both in the short term and over the long term. That is what our reforms to annuities are about. People will not in future be required to buy an annuity with their pension savings and they will be able to draw their retirement income in one go, if they so choose. If people save hard and do the right thing, we trust them. Our tax break for child care, worth up to £2,000 a year per child, is crucial to dealing with the cost of living. Many couples in our changing society are between them—both men and women—grappling with the balance of bread-winning and child caring. I have to declare an interest in the tax break for child care at this point, because No.2 in the Raab household will be on its way by the end of the year, and we will be delighted to take advantage of this new piece of legislation.

Finally, the European elections showed the level of the corrosion of public trust in the political class, and I welcome the introduction of a right of recall in the Queen’s Speech. I am very conscious of the debate that is being had in government and with parliamentarians such as my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith about getting the right balance. We do not want something that is abusive, but we should not set up a right of recall and then torpedo it by allowing a committee of politicians to veto or vet it. I am sure we can strike the right balance to give the public greater trust in our political class, and I hope that as that Bill comes forward we can do so.

I am conscious of the time and know that others wish to speak, but I want to make one final point about immigration. It relates both to the economic pressures in this country and specifically to housing, which is the subject of today’s debate. The Government have already cut net immigration by a third; we have cracked down on bogus colleges, which sprouted up left, right and centre under the previous Government; and we have cracked down on the sham marriages and the abuse of the family route. A Bill will be going through this Parliament to strengthen immigration controls. I have argued passionately for us to strengthen some areas of that Bill, but I recognise the important steps that have already been taken. It is a bit rich if all the Labour Front-Bench team and the shadow Home Secretary can do is criticise the target of reducing net immigration to tens of thousands, given that her Government made it so difficult to accomplish that. It is a bit rich coming from the party of open-door immigration, which boasted in office that there is “no obvious” upper limit on immigration—that was said by a past Labour Home Secretary, whom I shall not name for fear of embarrassing him. It is a bit rich coming from the party that failed to impose transitional controls on immigration from the eight countries from central and eastern Europe in 2004.

I am no clearer today as to what positive agenda the Labour party is offering this country to take it forward. As Winston Churchill once said of the Soviet Union, Labour policy is a puzzle inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma; it has no clear vision, no serious policies and no credible leadership. The Government have a clear agenda, of fresh reforms cast against a Conservative vision of a more prosperous and fairer Britain grounded in sustainable public finances, and in the virtues of rewarding enterprise, hard graft and saving. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.