Ways and Means — Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation — Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:11 am on 20th March 2015.

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Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Conservative, Havant 11:11 am, 20th March 2015

Fortunately, the evidence is that the number of people applying for university is at a record level and that the proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds applying for university under the excellent stewardship of my successor, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, who I see on the Front Bench, has just hit another record. It looks as though those anxieties were misplaced, thank heavens.

Investment in higher education is part of a wider theme in the Budget. I welcome the proposals to invest in our young people in other ways. We have a fantastic record of falling youth unemployment and we have yet further investment in infrastructure. One of the best ways in which we can protect the interests of future generations is by leaving them with better kit and capital investment than we found.

As the debate was opened by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, I must say that one of my long-standing Whitehall battles was a belief that the fragmented structure of local authority pension schemes in this country is an obstacle to long-term investment in infrastructure and in venture capital. It is frustrating that we have such a substantial amount of money going into funded pension schemes but, as they are in a multiplicity of small schemes, they cannot aggregate their investment and take the risks that would allow them to invest in substantial venture capital or long-term infrastructure. That is work in progress and more needs to be done.

While I am refighting old battles, let me also say how much I welcome the reference in the Budget Red Book to investment in rural broadband including via satellite. The current situation has never ceased to baffle me. I went to see the launch of a satellite as part of a European Space Agency project from Guiana that was going to deliver broadband services to areas of Africa that could not necessarily get conventional mobile phone coverage. It would be perfectly possible for us to guarantee 100% broadband cover for all parts of Great Britain if we were willing to use satellites to supplement conventional delivery of those services.

Let me end with praise for the Chancellor’s innovations in science and technology. We have established a happy tradition of bold new announcements on science and technology in Budgets and autumn statements. I welcome the ingenuity that has enabled a further £30 million to be invested in the excellent Crick Institute.

I particularly welcome the new freedoms for research institutes, which is a response to a real competitive challenge. My hon. Friend Mr Yeo mentioned that. Let us be clear what form the competition takes. If a Nobel prize is awarded to a scientist in the UK, the Singaporeans will be absolutely clear that he or she will be able to earn a multiple of their current salary if they go to Singapore, and other competitors will make the same offer. An offer will be made to build a completely new facility of whatever sort they want. Their entire research team will be offered double their salary if they move lock, stock and barrel. It is very important that we are able to compete with such offers.

I think of our record of nuclear R and D. When major American universities recruit for expertise in nuclear R and D, they come calling in the UK. We need to be able to respond to that, and the current regime of salary and other constraints makes that harder. The new freedoms represent an excellent opportunity for us to compete globally in science.

Finally, I welcome the bold measures to support 5G communication. We had a great lead on mobile phone technologies. We lost it, I have to tell Opposition Members, because Labour’s auction of 3G licences was too successful. It extracted too much money from the industry. We have managed to catch up to some extent in 4G. We have a real opportunity to be world leaders in 5G. I support that, and it will in turn make other technological advances, such as the internet of things, possible.

All in all, this is a Budget for the future, a Budget for future generations, and it is a great pleasure for me, in one of my last speeches in this House, to be able to support it.