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Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of Comprehensive Spending Review – in the House of Lords at 9:11 pm on 1st November 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Conservative 9:11 pm, 1st November 2010

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. I apologise to my noble friend the Minister; I very much regret that I arrived just after he had sat down. However, I was here for the opening speech from the Labour Benches and am pleased to say that I heard it in full.

It was a great pleasure to listen to the maiden speeches today from my noble friend Lord Allan of Hallam and the noble Baroness, Lady Nye. I am looking forward to hearing the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Healy of Primrose Hill, in due course. This is the first speech that I have made since my introduction and maiden speech to your Lordships' House.

The CSR is extremely radical and wide-reaching. We all appreciate that. I expected there to be challenges and criticism of it on all sides of the House; indeed, I alert my noble friend the Minister to the fact that I have one or two criticisms myself, on disability, which I will come to in a moment. None the less, I have been surprised by the collective amnesia on the Labour Benches. It is almost as though, after 6 May, the mists of Brigadoon descended over the Labour Party, not just in this House but in another place. I have observed some of its debates on the inheritance-the state of the economy and the state of the country generally as it was left by the outgoing Labour Government. I was in another place for many years. I understand what a bitter pill it is to swallow when you lose office. It takes a little adjustment. Sometimes I think that a period of quiet reflection is not too harmful. However, I have been surprised tonight by the total collective denial that there is a problem of the scale that has required the sort of actions that the coalition Government have needed to make in this CSR.

The thrust of the CSR is absolutely right and the scale of the problem is as outlined. It is not political shenanigans. We have a serious problem. In his opening speech, the noble Lord, Lord Myners, said that the problem with the national economy was sometimes likened to a domestic situation, which he did not feel was appropriate. That may well be the case, but every household in this country understands that, if you borrow and borrow on your credit cards to the extent that you have to take out new credit cards to service the debt on the existing ones, there is a problem that must be addressed. We now need to borrow to service debt that we have already incurred.

The questions-your Lordships have addressed them in this debate-are of the scale, the timing, the measures and the choices. All of them are quite legitimately subject to a debate on how the coalition Government have brought forward their proposals. The main thrust is right, but I will draw to the House's attention some issues about how they are put into practice.

The Government have certain options. They can look at taxation and at cutting expenditure, which, of course, they have done. It is much easier to cancel projects that are already in the pipeline, many of which did not carry a purse of money to fund them, but nationally it is not popular to cut something that has already been announced or of which people have an expectation. However, these are perhaps some of the easier ways to bring down expenditure.

I wish to draw to your Lordships' attention and that of my noble friend the fact that in another place I spent several years on the Public Accounts Committee, where, twice a week, we received well researched and well presented reports from the National Audit Office on matters right across government. The reputation of the National Audit Office, across the parties, was that it was reliable. You paid attention to its findings. I want to talk about the reports on procurement that we received. There is a systemic problem with procurement on larger projects across government departments. It is not just a matter of cutting expenditure, because the Government will still be spending money, as we know; it is a matter of addressing these problems. They go right down to basics. They involve how procurement works, how contracts are issued, how the specifications are drawn up prior to contract, how the project is managed-sometimes the project management goes on for many years-and how a project is delivered on time and on budget.

In some departments-I have to name the Ministry of Defence as being the worst-there has been the most outrageous waste of public money. We are not just talking about a few beans; we are talking about big sums of money. If we can address this problem, I believe that it will make a huge contribution to the need for the Government to bear down on waste, on the way in which public money is spent and getting value for money. The House will be relieved to hear that I shall not go into all the issues, but that is something that needs to be addressed.

People who come into politics from a business background, whether to your Lordships' House or another place, often find the legislative process frustrating. There is no doubt that what happens in the two Houses is very different from what happens in the business world. I came from a manufacturing background, having worked for a market leader, after which I ran my own business for 10 years. I found it very frustrating. Often people make comparisons with business, saying, "Business does things this way and we need to be more businesslike". We have not even scratched the surface as regards the way in which the Government do business and procurement. Businesses out there would have gone bust years ago if they had followed the procedures that government departments follow in procurement. Everyone has heard of the classics, such as the big IT project. I am glad to have my noble friend here, who I am sure will point us in the right direction. However, it is not just about expenditure, although we are concentrating on that in this take-note debate; it is about the consequences for those who are the end users of those policies and procurements. I urge my noble friend to take some specialised advice to ensure that, in the future, the Government address these problems and get them right.

Taxation is another arrow in the quiver. As someone who believes that tax should be used as much as an incentive as a penalty, I hope that in the next few years the Minister will bear in mind, in the interests of fairness, the need to ensure that taxation and bureaucracy do not overburden particularly the small business sector, on which I believe he will rely quite considerably for the growth that is being talked about in today's debate. This is where the jobs and growth will come from. One of the big problems that we face in this country is with the growth of small businesses into medium-sized enterprises. Other countries have been much better than us in the past at making that leap from small business to medium-sized business. Again, I ask my noble friend to take a look at the microbusinesses that employ fewer than five people. I particularly draw attention to the requirements on them in providing pensions for staff, but there will be other areas as well. If we really want those businesses to grow, we need to ensure that we recognise that point.

My final point is about disability. I thought that the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, was very well made. It is a fact that there is no like-for-like comparison between people who are in residential care and people who are hospitalised. When we talk of residential care, all too often we think of very elderly, infirm people who cannot move and whom it would be difficult to take out. However, there are many people who are able get out to lead lives at some level of independence and maintain family contacts.

In that spirit, on disability, I say to my noble friend that one group of 250,000 people are still on severe disablement allowance, a benefit that was stopped in 2001. They were allocated that benefit at the time because they were deemed to have lifelong disabilities. Many of them-most of them, I would suggest-have never been in work. I declare an interest as a carer for one such adult. When we talk about getting people back into work, it is very worrying to me, as a carer. I am not saying that all of them could not be helped into some sort of work, but the nature of their lifelong disabilities-I am speaking particularly about conditions such as autism and people on the autistic spectrum-means that these are not people to whom we will be doing any service if we suddenly turn up one day and say, "It's time for you to go to work after 38 years". I hope that my noble friend will take that into account.