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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:15 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 3:15 pm, 12th March 2020

It is an absolute privilege to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to be called to speak. You are the first woman to Chair a Budget statement, which is fantastic. You may have heard that, way back in the long distant past, there was another woman who spoke during a Budget statement. The last woman who did so was Margaret Thatcher, who led for the Opposition way back in the 1970s. You are in good company.

What a fantastic Budget! I welcome it enormously. This was in many ways a pragmatic Budget, with the 25 basis points offered by the Bank of England for us to refinance ourselves and ensure that the debt works for the future.

The Budget was also in many ways designed for Tonbridge and west Kent. On flooding, it will make sure that the Medway is properly protected and that we can get the money into Leigh, East Peckham, Hildenborough, and up around Penshurst and Edenbridge.

This was also a Budget that finally listened to me. I know this will surprise many in the House, but having asked three Chancellors for business rates to be reduced, third time lucky, we have got it. I am absolutely delighted that Tonbridge high street will see the benefits, as of course will Edenbridge and West Malling. For those of us who have been driving around west Kent lately, the issue of potholes keeps coming up. Tyre makers may regret the announcement, but almost everyone else will celebrate it, so I thank the Government for focusing on potholes.

On further education, in the past we have had a bit of trouble locally with some further education colleges, so I am delighted that the investment into Hadlow and west Kent will really make a difference to people’s lives. It is fantastic news and I welcome all of it.

One thing was very noticeable in the Budget: we are dealing with a global emergency that is very unpredictable. We do not know how the virus will affect us. We do not know the full effect it will have on every society and community. It is therefore absolutely right that the Chancellor has pulled together a war chest of £30 billion and not said exactly where it is going to go, because we do not know. The right thing to do is to build up reserves and to prepare to deploy them when we need them. We are in the moment of the phony war. We do not know quite how things will emerge. I hope the Minister will take the message back to other Departments that, on equipping, we need to think in terms of a wartime analogy. We need to consider what urgent operational requirements to bring forward. What shortcuts should we take in normal procedure to ensure that we are as ready as we can be in our hospitals, homes and communities? What are the experimental technologies that we perhaps would not have rolled out this early, and now have no choice but to roll out? Where are the areas of investment which, if we make them now rather than waiting until they are fully tested, will actually save lives?

This is one of those moments where we remember stories like the boy who cried wolf. We remember that it is right to prevent panic and right to make sure that people think about what we are doing. It is right to follow the ordinary advice, but it is also right to remember that in the story there was a wolf and the wolf did eventually come. What we are preparing for, as we are seeing in Italy, China and around the world, is the reality of a human threat, predominantly to the lives, sadly, of many of the older members of our community. There is also a huge economic threat. However this plays out in our community, the concern and fear will have affected investment decisions in our community, in our country and around the world, so the reserves that the Chancellor has wisely built up will be needed in some way in the months and, sadly, probably even years to come.

That means working together, and here I just want to pick up a point on globalisation that my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes touched on. Globalisation has, in many ways, been a fantastic success. It has seen us prosper and trade around the world. It has seen liberty and opportunity spread across the globe, but not all globalisation has been good. Some globalisation has brought practices, ideas and concepts that fundamentally threaten the liberties that have enabled people—these islands—to prosper and shape the world around us. Sadly, we are now seeing some of that through the competitive practices that we are enabling, allowing or tolerating some companies to bring into our markets. Here, of course, I am referring to some companies in our telecoms market.

I urge the Government, with all respect, to think again about the decisions that they are taking, when those may not actually enable competition, but close it down, and when they may not enable communication and prosperity, but in the long term, reverse it. These are really hard and expensive decisions but we must look at how we do it, because power in our community starts from the bottom. That is why the decision to invest in devolution was so important. I look forward to devo-Kent. Kent is one of the oldest kingdoms of our country—at the time when Scotland was the kingdom of Fife and others, Kent was a kingdom in her own right.

I look forward to power coming back to the people, to devolution going to the whole United Kingdom and to our Government looking hard at globalisation and the competitive practices that are being brought to these islands, remembering that there is no point in taking back control from Brussels only to hand it over to Beijing.