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Budget Resolutions - Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:33 pm on 13th March 2017.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 9:33 pm, 13th March 2017

I do not want to accuse the Chancellor of any dodgy activity, but I would love to know where he has hidden his stash—his cash stash to help us make our way in the world as we ride out the storm of a low pound, rising prices, and uncertainty as we leave the EU. Everywhere we look, we see our companies working harder than ever to sustain their business and to persuade their often overseas-based bosses to invest in the UK rather than somewhere else. I am particularly worried about the future potential of our energy-intensive industries, such as steel, chemicals, and ceramics. Nothing that I have seen from the Chancellor does anything for any of them.

The North East England chamber of commerce was disappointed last week and said:

“What we needed to hear were optimistic and supportive policies which would help existing and potential exporters access new markets.”

It said that small and medium-sized businesses will be particularly affected by the fluctuation of the pound and will be hit the hardest by increased import costs.

The Chancellor also announced £90 million of roads cash for “the north”, but what did the area covered by the new Tees valley mayor get? It looks like it will be a set of traffic lights and some minor improvements to a junction on the A19—this is worth less than a million pounds. That is not a serious commitment to infrastructure in the north-east of England. What a great day it would be if we could just have 1% of all the money invested in London and the south-east, and HS2.

Other areas in which we could establish a place in the world and lead are in carbon capture and storage, and the decommissioning of North sea oil and gas infrastructure. The Chancellor did refer to a discussion document about maximising the extraction of oil and gas from wells that are nearly depleted. That is welcome, but he missed a trick by not extending that to plans to create thousands of jobs in areas such as Teesside from the decommissioning of oil and gas rigs. The Government have invested money in Decom North Sea, but no work and no jobs appear to have followed other than in the organisation itself. Teesside is ideally placed for this, with the right riverside facilities, furnaces to receive the metal and many people who are qualified for the jobs that would result from this decommissioning.

I am sure Ministers will be aware of the Teesside Collective, a cluster of leading industries with a shared vision to establish Teesside as the go-to location for future clean industrial development by creating the UK’s first carbon capture and storage-equipped industrial zone. Labour’s mayoral candidate for the Tees valley, Sue Jeffrey, joined me in a direct plea to the Minister to back the Teesside Collective, and although we received kind, warm words, they were simply that: just kind, warm words. I think we can expect a strategy some day from the Government, but I just wonder when that will be and whether it will be backed by funding in the autumn Budget.

Seven years ago, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition axed the new hospital in my area, and the North Tees and Hartlepool Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has been forced to make do in an area where health inequalities are a major issue. Don’t get me wrong, the trust does a good job but in very difficult circumstances. The capital spending cuts across the Parliament and the £5 billion shortfall in NHS maintenance means there is no hope of our Teesside people being provided with the same facilities enjoyed elsewhere. Our people need to be healthy if we are to make our way confidently in the world, and that includes being mentally healthy. But we know people are not getting the support they need, and I illustrated that when I raised a constituent’s case at Prime Minister’s questions. The Prime Minister said she would “take up” the case, but she passed the buck to the Health Secretary and I am still waiting for a reply.

The Chancellor did mention social care, and I remember the Tory cheers when he announced £2 billion extra—and then the rather pale faces opposite when they realised they had been had and it was not per year, but spread over several years. They have also been had on the whopping great tax increases on self-employed people, 2,600 of whom live in my constituency. I wonder how many more will put up with this manifesto betrayal. Another tax is to be increased, with probate fees set to rise from a flat rate charge of as little as £155 to a minimum of £300 and as much as £20,000—that is a nice little earner from the Tories’ very own and very real death tax.

There was some good news with the announcement of £500 million for further education, but we should not forget that it replaces less than a third of the money taken away since 2010. The scheme to merge colleges across the country is in tatters and, after a year of talks, in the Tees area the proposals are falling apart and one of the colleges in Redcar is going bust. Now that mergers are collapsing, not just in the north-east, but across the country, what will happen to that cash? Will it be invested in our young people or will it just be swallowed up by the Treasury?

Finally, the Chancellor gave us half a smile when he talked about wage growth, but he chose to ignore the public sector workers who have actually faced a real-terms loss of about 10% in wages since 2010. I am talking about the nurses and doctors that look after us when we get ill, the care assistants who look after the elderly and vulnerable day in and day out, and the teachers who are educating the minds of the future. Clearly this Government have no plans at all to help those who put everything into public service in this country, while their wealthy friends face more tax breaks.

If Britain is to maintain its place in the world, rather than end up as some kind of low-wage, backwater economy, we need to invest in our people, our industries and our public services, and keep our people happy and healthy.