It is a privilege and a pleasure to take part in this debate. May I also say that it is a pleasure to follow the preceding speaker? John McDonnell has a renowned and loud voice, and sticks up not only for his constituents but for the rights and privileges of workers in the tax collection industry.
I am speaking in this Budget debate because I believe that the United Kingdom has made encouraging progress in recovering from the decade of boom and bust that preceded May 2010. It has often been painful, but we have made many of the necessary repairs to our economy. We should reflect that back in May 2010 the country was borrowing £428 million every day of the year just to plug the gap between the income to and the expenditure from the public accounts. Five years on, we have a record number of people in employment—in skilled employment, as we were reminded yesterday. Jobs growth has been highest in the north-west, and I am happy to report that unemployment in my constituency is lower than it has been for many a long year.
We have recruited a record number of apprentices. It is worth reflecting on some of the dire predictions made at the time of the Chancellor’s first Budget about the rise in unemployment that we could expect and the damage that would be done to young people and their prospects by the coalition Government’s policies—in fact, we have a record number of apprentices. I am proud of my constituency’s record in recruiting apprentices and reducing unemployment for young people. I should add that a record number of young people—including young people from deprived backgrounds—are now going to higher education.
We have raised the state pension and put in place the triple lock to protect it for the future, and we have provided the pupil premium. I was looking back at my maiden speech, having it in mind that this might well be my final speech, and noticed that I commented then on the need to get more funding for schools in Stockport.
Now, with the pupil premium, we do see that help for those pupils who need it most in the Stockport school system.
We have raised the tax threshold and taken many low-paid people, particularly part-time women employees, out of the tax system altogether. The standard rate tax threshold is now at a level that not just reaches the Liberal Democrat manifesto promise of the last election but exceeds it. I remind the House that, in the run-up to that election, the Prime Minister said that, although it was a nice idea, it was quite unrealistic, so I am extremely proud and pleased to see that measure in place and the Chancellor taking it a little bit further in his announcement the day before yesterday. I am slightly less pleased to see the Chancellor and the Prime Minister campaigning around the country on the grounds that it was a Conservative policy in the first place, which it most emphatically was not.
I am pleased to see the rise in the minimum wage, which is to take effect in the autumn of this year. I am also pleased that, over the period of this Parliament, we have seen the wealthy pay more tax. Another step towards that is the reduction in the pension pot limit, which was announced this week. We see the wealthiest in society paying the most, which of course should be the case, but, more to the point, they are paying a bigger share than they were in 2010. We are also seeing the equality gap closing to the benefit of those who are least well off in society.
Let me comment briefly on one or two Budget announcements tucked away at the back of the Red Book on page 100. I am particularly pleased to see money being put into tackling the abuse of nuisance calls. As an active member of the all-party group on nuisance calls, ably led by my hon. Friend Mike Crockart, I was delighted to see such a measure, and I know that that will be the case for many of my constituents too.
I wish to comment on the expansion of the church roof repair fund. When the fund was initially announced, I wrote to churches and church organisations in my constituency, more in hope than expectation, and was delighted to get the response I did from them. I know that it was oversubscribed even in my own constituency, so to see that being taken further is very welcome news.
Let me focus a little on infrastructure spending, particularly housing. I wish to agree with the many speakers who have said that the volume of house building is important. I have already noted the fact that we have restored and increased the number of social and affordable homes for people, with the 4 millionth such home being opened in my constituency some 12 months ago. It is a question not just of volume but of quality. I was pleased to have been the Minister who signed off a 25% increase in energy performance standards required of new homes. I commend my successor, my hon. Friend Stephen Williams, for going a step further this year and for pushing forward towards zero-carbon homes, but there is still more to do.
I am pleased with the steps that are being taken on transport. The northern transport strategy and the proposals related to that are certainly very good news. The money being invested in the northern hub and, even more importantly, in the abolition of the dire Pacer trains is thoroughly welcome as well. We are looking forward to the outcome of the rail franchising, which is currently going on, to see further advances and improvements in rail travel in my Hazel Grove constituency.
I want to draw attention to two events that have taken place this month, which show powerfully how the coalition is delivering on its infrastructure promises. The first of those is the ceremony I attended for the turf cutting of the first phase of the A555 Hazel Grove bypass. That project was shown as a dotted line on A to Zs published in the 1960s. It is something else about which I spoke in my maiden speech and so it is a great pleasure to tell the House that we have now cut the ground, that the diggers are starting and that the road is coming.
I am also very pleased by a second event. Yesterday, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced that a grant of £350,000 has been made available for the feasibility study for the next phase of the same road. I very much hope that that will be the first step towards relieving significant pollution, congestion and health damage to my constituents.
In his Budget statement, the Chancellor described the restoration of the UK’s finances as an unfinished task. I strongly agree with that judgment and with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who told the House yesterday that the task of repair will be completed in 2018 and that we must then use the growth in our economy to support vital public services such as the NHS and the police. I also support what the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said yesterday about the importance of promoting growth in key sectors of our economy and I give credit to him for the work he has done in ensuring that those key sectors received strong coalition support as well as on promoting exports and supporting small and medium-sized enterprises.
That brings me briefly to the banking system. I am concerned that we have not yet dealt with the problem of access to finance for small businesses and I regard that as unfinished business for the future.
I guess that every Member of Parliament chalks up not just successes but one or two regrets. I shall keep most of those to myself, but I want to mention one that will, I hope, reach the ears of the House authorities, and that is the utter failure of this place to provide effective hearing loops for those of us with hearing aids. This is a long-running battle of mine and I am in contention with the Administration Committee. I have spoken to all sorts of people within the House and it seems to be beyond the wit of technology or ingenuity to find a system that is effective for those of us with a hearing disability. In particular, I want to mention that that affects my constituents when they come here. My constituency is some 180 miles away and people come perhaps once in a lifetime to a meeting in this place and for them to be stuck at the back of the room where they cannot hear a word is discourteous to them and entirely improper for this House.
Nobody can do this job without help and support from elsewhere. I have done this job with enthusiasm and energy for 18 years only because I have had the active support of my wife Gillian.