My Lords, it is a great honour to follow my noble friend the Minister, who has so clearly set out the Budget details. This Budget reflects that the hard work of British people has created a stronger economy, with unemployment at its lowest level since 1970 and more than 3 million more people in work, which is to be welcomed.
The Government look forward to a positive future, investing in public services and supporting business across the piece. In my time, I shall look at three aspects referred to in the Budget book: first, digital infrastructure; secondly, apprenticeships and skills; and thirdly, clean growth.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to full-fibre networks, which will ensure a much faster, reliable system that is cheaper than its copper predecessor. However, it is still unacceptable that there are areas of the country where there is currently no broadband coverage and others where the speed is inadequate. To overcome this problem, the Government are allocating £200 million to pilot innovative approaches using primary schools in some of our most rural areas. This surely is to be welcomed.
Additionally, I bring to my noble friend’s attention the inadequacy of mobile phone connections and connectivity. I hope the Government will take steps to ensure that universal coverage is a realistic goal, sooner rather than later. If the Government wish to encourage more small business starts, it is crucial to have good connectivity in all areas, particularly rural ones.
My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe spoke with great passion about the importance of small and medium-sized businesses and of enterprise and business, which brings employment and taxation, and about the need to invest in new businesses. I totally agree.
I am personally delighted to hear of the Government’s proposals to reform and strengthen the programme on apprenticeships and skills. For many younger people, university study is not necessarily the most appropriate route to take. More are looking to gain skills while working on the job but they need to be confident that this brings worthwhile qualifications for future employment. The Government have committed three sums of money to strengthen the scheme: first, by providing £240 million to halve the co-investment rate for apprentice training to 5%; secondly, with a figure of £450 million to enable levy-paying employers to transfer up to 25% of their funds to pay for apprenticeship training in their supply chains; and, thirdly, with a further £5 million in 2019-20 to identify gaps in the training provider market.
I have a question for the Minister. The third bullet point in paragraph 4.48 of the Red Book refers to this £5 million, saying that it is,
“to identify gaps in the training provider market and increase the number of employer-designed apprenticeship standards available to employers”.
It goes on to say:
“All new apprentices will start on these new, higher-quality courses from September 2020”.
Does that therefore mean that if the current courses being offered are not up to that standard, employers will no longer be able to continue giving help on the skills and retraining?
The world of work is going through an industrial revolution, with modern technologies opening up all sorts of new possibilities every day. Digital, computer, cyber, technology, robotics and precision engineering all have a direct impact on businesses. Who would have thought that, for example, a field of barley could be prepared, planted, grown and harvested by machinery without a human hand working on the machinery in that field? In future we will need a workforce who are skilled. No doubt they will hold many different jobs during their lifetime, so retraining will be essential. I welcome the Government’s commitment to that end, and am glad to see that £100 million has been allocated for the first phase of the national retraining scheme and an additional £20 million allocated to skills pilot schemes. I reiterate the comment made by my noble friend Lady Altmann about the need for older employees to be able to access that facility as well.
I turn to clean growth. The Budget Statement identifies areas in which improvements can be made to air quality, flood-risk management, plastic and waste reduction, tree funding and food waste, to name a few—there were more in there. It is a total disgrace that our country and cities are blighted by people failing to take responsibility for creating and then abandoning their own waste on other people’s doorsteps. The Government are kindly making £10 million available to the Environment Agency to clear up the worst abandoned waste sites. It is surely wrong that waste abandoned on farms or private holdings has to be cleared at a cost to the individual landowner. This illegal dumping of waste is becoming an increasing problem, particularly in rural areas, and I suggest to the Minister that a review of the current non-payment for clearance might well be undertaken.
The Government have committed £20 million to tackle plastic recycling, with additional money being available for plastic research and development projects, and are pioneering innovative approaches to boost recycling. It is dreadful that in this day and age so much is thrown away and a great deal dumped in our seas, when we could take a much more individualistic approach and take responsibility not to add to that.
Lastly, I welcome the Government’s commitment to provide some £15 million to charities and others who distribute surplus food. However, I challenge all of us to reflect on the way in which we use food. It is a precious commodity, yet we waste one-third of the food that we produce in this country. With an ever-growing population to feed, we need to be growing more food from less available land.
I have highlighted but three aspects of this Budget. Overall I believe it is a good Budget, and one that gives hope and opportunity for all.