It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to follow some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, particularly my right hon. Friend Mr Heath. It is a shame to see another bearded gentleman and rugby fan leave the House—I hope that we will see some more bearded people returned in the next Parliament.
However, I hope that this will not be my final contribution in this House, because I have changed my mind and have an important announcement to make: I have now decided to try to speak in some debates next week. There are a couple of other contributions that I would like to make before taking that Metropolitan line train back to Uxbridge for one last time as an MP. In the words of Betjeman:
“Out into the outskirts’ edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium—rural Middlesex again.”
Some of my earliest memories of politics revolve around Budgets and Budget day. I remember the bitter disappointment I felt as a young boy when children’s TV was taken off so that the Budget could be discussed by elderly gentlemen talking about things I did not understand. Well, nothing much changes, except that most of the people discussing the things that I do not really understand are now a lot younger than me. I probably understand the facts a little more, but not much.
I have a particularly long-lasting memory of one Budget. I remember that we were sitting in the family car on a wind-blown, rain-spattered promenade somewhere in north Wales for our spring holiday. My brother Philip was keeping very quiet because my father was getting more and more agitated as he heard the Budget announcements. It was from a Labour Government, of course, and I think they were introducing the selective employment tax. I do not know exactly what it was designed to do, but I should explain for those younger Members that basically it taxed businesses on the number of people they employed. It did not seem to me to be a particularly good way of getting people back into employment. However, I am sure they had a reason.
I think that the fundamental principle behind all these things was best expressed by Mr Micawber in Charles Dickens’s “David Copperfield”: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds, nineteen shillings and sixpence, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six, result misery.”
I am lucky enough to live in the London borough of Hillingdon. It has many delights, but one of the reasons we are so fortunate is that over the past four years we have been run by an excellent, Conservative-led local authority, under the guidance of Councillor Ray Puddifoot. It inherited a dire financial situation. Indeed, I remember that the headline on the Uxbridge Gazette simply read, “Bankrupt”, which the council effectively was. It has managed to turn the situation around, with prudent financial sense, because Ray Puddifoot is an accountant by background—despite what my right hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome said, I think that good accountants have a lot to offer.
Our council tax has been frozen for the past seven years, or the past nine years for pensioners—obviously that interests me greatly. We have had 17 libraries refurbished, and they now have longer opening hours, three new youth centres and brand new sports facilities, including the first Olympic-sized swimming pool since the war, and all that while having to endure tough settlements from central Government, both Labour and Conservative. I mention that in order to demonstrate that once we balance the books we can really start to provide exactly what our residents, constituents and the people of this country want. That is why I applaud the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.
Every Budget has a mass of detail hidden away in the Red Book, which is only provided after the statement. I was interested to read the details about the money that is to be provided to monitor seagulls and the disruption they cause in Bath. I do not know whether that will provide any job opportunities, but if it does I would like to get my application in, as I take a keen interest in gulls.
I also want to mention something that I think is very important—I think that it has been mentioned already—the designation of the Pitcairn marine reserve. It will be the world’s largest marine reserve, encompassing over 830,000 sq km, which is about three times the size of the UK. That is a tribute to many non-governmental organisations and right hon. and hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) and for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and my right hon. Friend Gregory Barker, who have worked tirelessly to ensure that the various Departments got that together so that it could be included in the Red Book. I just hope that similar reserves for Ascension Island and the South Sandwich Islands will follow.
I noticed in the Red Book £7.4 million for getting wi-fi into public libraries. These things are not mentioned while we talk about the big issues. There is £3.5 million for protecting vulnerable people from nuisance calls. That will probably not be in time for the telephone canvassing for the coming election, but I hope that at some stage it will save people a lot of inconvenience.
On “talking buses”, I saw that:
“The government will continue to work with the Transport Systems Catapult and industry to develop a solution to ensure bus travel remains accessible to blind and deaf users.”
Disability issues on transport must be tackled. John McDonnell and I have been discussing step-free access into various of our stations and so forth in the London borough of Hillingdon, but also in London. The Government should look at that. If I were a curmudgeonly old soul, which thank goodness I am not, I would say that perhaps some of the money going into HS2 could have gone there instead. But I will not go down that line, as I think there is an opportunity to discuss it in Westminster Hall next week.
If we can get the economy into good shape—and we are going the right way—we can achieve so much as a country. There can be only one solution in the coming weeks, and that is to make sure that the current economic policy is continued. I do not think I need to spell out what is the best way to achieve that.