I congratulate the former Chancellor, Mr Darling, on his speech. I always admired his Olympian calm when he was under great pressure in the past few years. I know that the House will miss him very much indeed. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
I warmly welcome the Budget, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on a truly formidable achievement in accomplishing a huge turnaround in the financial fortunes of our country and our people after the catastrophic failures of the last Labour Government left our economy in such a very bad place. The United Kingdom now has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. The extraordinary rate of the growth in new jobs is truly exceptional. In my constituency of Mid Sussex, we have the fourth lowest unemployment of any constituency in the land. In Yorkshire, business and enterprise have created more jobs in a year than were created in the whole of France. That is indeed a superb record.
Mid Sussex has a vibrant economy with many small and medium-sized businesses, all of which will warmly welcome the Chancellor’s review of business rates, which are clearly in need of far-reaching reform. It would be good, for example, to see increased help for the independent shops in East Grinstead, Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath and in the villages so that they can compete with the enormous challenge of online business.
Many of my constituents will welcome the new arrangement for ISAs which will enable first-time buyers to have a tax-free way of saving for their first homes. This is a hugely significant and very welcome step. There is also a warm welcome for the Chancellor’s help for hard-working people and their families by raising tax allowances and increasing the amount that people can earn without paying income tax. As my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke said, an enormous number of people will feel significant advantages as a result of this Budget, with 27 million people having their taxes cut and another 4 million people on low wages being taken out of the income tax system altogether—and so they should be. Also, the freezing of fuel duty has made an enormous difference to people’s disposable income. All these steps are most welcome in the south-east of England and particularly in my constituency.
I note that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has now left the Chamber, but there are still Treasury Ministers on the Front Bench. May I enter a special plea to them? The rail services on the Brighton line and to East Grinstead are of immeasurable importance to commuters in my constituency, but they have been truly appalling since the works at London Bridge started. Given the extraordinarily high price of tickets, these inconveniences are wholly unacceptable and have gone on for too long. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Claire Perry has been very helpful in working with Network Rail and with Southern, for both of which the concept of a rail passenger service appears still to be in a formative state. I ask my right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench urgently to consider the question of compensation for my constituents, who have been terribly mucked about over the last few months as they have struggled to get to work and to get back on time to see their families.
May I enter one more piece of special pleading, which endorses a point made by the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West? My constituency is part of the powerhouse of the south-east but I must tell my right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench that it is constantly held back by the lack of good infrastructure. I am of course pleased with the plans for the A27, but the pressure of housing and growth is leaving towns such as East Grinstead and Haywards Heath without the proper infrastructure to enable them to cope. As the right hon. Gentleman said, money is cheap at the moment, and this is the time for the Government to borrow and to spread some largesse among the towns that never see any infrastructure spending. The housing situation in my constituency cannot improve without better infrastructure, and of course, if Gatwick were to get a second runway, the position locally would be truly catastrophic.
Thanks to the determination of the Chancellor and the Government to stick with their long-term economic plan, this country is in a position in which our businesses can invest and our people can benefit from the extraordinary global flow of ideas, innovation and new market opportunities. I hope that these improvements will lead to major increases in productivity, which is increasingly the fundamental key to growth and, above all, to a higher-wage economy.
I continue to remain anxious about the level of skills required as our economy responds to changes in technology and globalisation. I am disappointed to see that we are not producing nearly enough engineers, and I welcome the steps the Government are taking to support vital skills training. I share the Chancellor’s view about the huge potential for our country and about the opportunities that exist for our young people, but it remains the case that, in this astonishingly networked world in which our country now has to make her way, we continue to be unprepared for these challenges. I applaud the Government’s determination to put that right.