I have heard a few Budgets in my time. The first was delivered by Sir Geoffrey Howe, who was a thoroughly decent man. Denis Healey unkindly said that Sir Geoffrey had been round the country stirring up apathy, but he was a decent man and I remember his Budget.
This Budget is deeply, deeply disappointing. In the context of the miserable votes last night, with this country heading headlong into a hard Brexit, I expected an imaginative Budget that prepares the country for what Harold Macmillan called, “Events, dear boy, events.” Well, we have already seen one such event from the First Minister of Scotland, and there will be many more from left field and right field. This country is going to be rocked by events over the coming years, and this Budget does not help anyone—nationally or regionally.
I represent Huddersfield, which is almost the average town in Britain, and it is in a dreadful state. They are going to close the accident and emergency services at our local hospital, and they are going to close the whole hospital. There is chaos across our country, not just in Huddersfield. Two thirds of the health services in our country are in dreadful trouble.
Most of the local authorities I know, especially the ones with indecent levels of deprivation and poverty—the ones in the average, real parts of our urban communities in Britain, not the ones in the leafy suburbs that some Conservative Members represent—are in deep trouble and are unable to bear the cost of social care and health. I was expecting something imaginative from the Budget, and we did not get it.
We also got very little indeed on education. Some earlier speakers asked where we could get alternative funding. Sir Edward Leigh and I used to sit together on the Liaison Committee, and I used to call him, very unkindly, a member of the “barmy army,” but he actually thinks a lot. He has always been quite provocative, and he always has something to say. The fact of the matter is that we need imagination and passion to solve our country’s problems, but I heard little passion from the Government Front Bench today. I feel passion because I believe that every little child in this country has a spark of potential. If we, as politicians, cannot create a system that liberates that spark, we are not doing our job.
As Sir Michael Wilshaw said, the disaster of our education system is that we find bright little kids in our primary schools and we lose them after the age of 11. What sort of country and what sort of school system is that? All parties have underachieved, but we have seen some real change. There are signs of improvement, and I shall briefly give the test that most primary school teachers use to assess a young person’s work. They use “two stars and a wish,” and these are my two stars. First, I give a star for the good fundamental policy approach to skills in this Budget. We have been languishing on skills policy for so long, but there is now some imagination there. Who would have thought it? They used to say that John Prescott was a crazy man of the left who wanted a levy for training. Conservative Members used to say that was an absolutely disgraceful left-wing horror. Well, we now have an apprenticeship levy, as we should. It comes in in April and I hope it will succeed.
The Government actually went about policy making in a sensible way. They took evidence and consulted. They put Lord Sainsbury in charge, along with the former Minister Nick Boles, who actually got to know something about skills and training. He has gone now, but some of us will miss him, because he listened. He introduced Lord Sainsbury to the skills commission that I chair, and I gave evidence to them both about what I wanted to see in skills policy. Some of that stuff is in the policy that came through in the Budget. I welcome such evidence-based policy. When I was Chair of the Education Committee, we used to applaud evidence-based policies, along with policies that seemed to work in countries like ours. So, there is something in the Budget in terms of skills, Alison Wolf’s recommendations to the Select Committee, and the work done by the Sainsbury review to talk to businesses, employers and practitioners on a cross-party basis. That is the way to make policy.