I want to make a number of points and challenge some of the things that have been said by various Members on the Government Benches and by the Business Secretary.
I was underwhelmed by the Budget because it makes no real or practical difference to the lives and living standards of the people I represent in the north-east and east Durham. Various figures were bandied around, but when I checked the one I was drawn to was that over the past decade—pre-recession to current times—the richest 20% have become 64% richer than they were before the recession whereas the poorest 20% have become 57% poorer. I find it very difficult to accept Government Members’ narrative that the rich are shouldering a greater share of the burden of austerity and balancing the books, as the poor seem to be the ones who are suffering. That is certainly the case in my constituency, and the figures seem to back that up.
The Chancellor seems to have demanded more of the same, with deeper and more extreme cuts in public spending. That will certainly damage every service we value—education, policing and the NHS. No figures have been given, but I have seen suggestions that the cuts likely to fall on the police budget are of the order of 30,000 police and 6,700 community support officers. That is a colossal reduction in the number of officers, and suggesting that it will not diminish services, response times and public safety is incredible. The Chancellor’s own OBR warned that his Budget would mean
“a much sharper squeeze on real spending in 2016-17 and 2017-18 than anything seen over the past five years”.
That is a huge warning to the electorate and the general public.
My right hon. Friend Mr Howarth treated us to a further rendition of Shakespeare and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, making reference to the coalition and the partnership between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. I was thinking more of “Midsomer Murders”, because we know what a promise means from this Government. Much though I respect Government Members individually, let us not forget the promises that were made on tuition fees, on protecting the poorest—we then saw the introduction of the bedroom tax—on making work pay and on balancing the budget within a single Parliament. I have not got amnesia and I do not think the Chancellor will be able to erase the memory of the past five years. His claim was that he would make work pay, and the Prime Minister told the House and the nation that
“the best route out of poverty is work.”—[Hansard, 11 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 543.]
I suggest that those words are meaningless to the two thirds of children in poverty who live in working households.
There are more than 5 million low-paid workers in the UK earning less than the living wage, which is an increase from 3.4 million in 2009. I thought it was ironic when I put the news on early this morning and saw the Chancellor in a luminous jacket visiting the port of Tilbury and extolling the virtues of the Budget, because no mention has ever been made of the insecurity of employment and the fact that 1.8 million workers are on zero-hours contracts, 1,400 of them at the port of Tilbury. Surely the right thing to do, particularly in that location, is to offer those people, who are working, in effect, full time, proper contracts on decent rates of pay. That would be an indication that the Chancellor is serious about making work pay.
I wish to say a few words about the northern powerhouse because not only have the Government hit people directly through spending cuts and tax rises, but they are failing to deliver the investment needed to grow our economy in the north-east. After the Business Secretary’s remarks, I was drawn to the table on page 45 of the Red Book. The section on the northern powerhouse lists 12 projects that are highlighted. The northern powerhouse does not seem to extend any further north than Leeds or Manchester, so of the 12 projects only two and a bit of them are linked to the north-east. One of them that is being trumpeted concerns the publishing of an interim report about transport. Another one—point 7—has £1 million going to the Centre for Process Innovation on the north-east chemical sector. Point 9 talks about welcoming talks—I know that this is very important for stimulating jobs and investment—to reinstate the ferry from Norway to Newcastle. That seems rather thin to me for a commitment.
In fact, the whole thing is a huge disappointment. This much-vaunted northern powerhouse is just empty rhetoric for my people. Where is the definite action that we were promised? What the Government have done over the past five years is abolish our successful regional development agency and take away our voice by removing the post of Minister for the north-east.
For every £1 spent in the north-east, the Chancellor spends £24.33 in London. How can we create a northern powerhouse when the Chancellor inflicts disproportionate cuts on northern councils? Durham county council, my local authority, has had cuts of £250 million. In response, the council produced an ambitious programme to deliver jobs and growth, but it was rejected by the Government and the planning inspectorate.
Under what scenario does the Chancellor believe that the decisions announced in the Budget will rebalance the economy and promote growth in the north-east? What does the northern powerhouse mean when there is a lack major infrastructure projects of national importance in our region? High Speed 2, for example, does not include our region, as it stops at Leeds. To benefit my constituents, Network Rail has suggested a cut in journey times from Durham to London of 11 minutes by 2033, at the potential cost of direct services to London and slower journey times to major cities in Scotland.
I cannot think of a policy that costs so much, with estimates ranging from £50 billion to £80 billion, but that delivers so little to my communities. I would like priority to be given to improving our connectivity to major lines, and to increasing rail services as we continue to work towards a new rail stop at Horden, on the Seaview estate. I want the Government to show some commitment, and a sense of urgency, to my constituency and get behind these plans, which are a tiny fraction of the cost of some of the major commitments that have been made.
The Budget delivered nothing for east Durham except more of the same policies of austerity and more damaging cuts for our communities. The simple question that everyone should ask is: can they afford another five years of policies crafted in Witney and Tatton?