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Budget Statement - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:51 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Conservative 5:51 pm, 18th March 2020

My Lords, I first declare my interests as set out in the register. As many have observed, this debate is taking place during the greatest crisis our nation has faced since the Second World War. Our principal concern must be the health of our people, but the state of the economy will be critical too. I gladly join the many tributes paid to our heroic staff in the National Health Service, but there are many other heroes too—in pharmacies, supermarkets and right through all those vital supply chains, ensuring that life can go on at all.

The measures announced by the Chancellor yesterday were very welcome, but more will surely be needed and many colleagues have already put forward some persuasive proposals in this debate. Even as the latest measures were being immediately digested, it became clear—as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, just pointed out—that millions of our fellow citizens are still trapped in potentially untenable situations, such as people living in rented accommodation, whose sources of income in many thousands of cases have suddenly dried up. I think, too, of those who work in bars, restaurants and theatres—sectors that usually provide and enable so much of the joy of life, all suddenly come to a standstill. Of course, much of their work is casual, short-term, fixed-contract or zero-hours in nature and it has suddenly vanished, literally overnight. Think of those actors who rely on bar work, restaurant shifts and front-of-house work between times, or supply teachers contemplating imminent school closures.

Of course our great nation will survive this shattering blow, but we must ameliorate urgently now, as well as rethinking things for the future. As noble Lords will know, I believe we shall succeed only if we come together as one nation.

When we debate economic matters in what we might think of as normal times—and that normality may never fully return—we tend to emphasise the need to innovate, to compete, to outrun and outshine the competition. As we strive to build social and economic resilience in the face of this terrible pandemic, it is only natural that our focus should shift towards notions of solidarity, co-operation and social cohesion.

I know this is ancient history, but when I made my maiden speech from the green Benches in the other place in April 1976, the great fear of the land was the inexorable decline of our great industries and consequent unemployment and social disenchantment. The unemployment rate was around 5%, above where we were last month, but I fear somewhere below where we will shortly find ourselves. I said in that speech:

“It is very worrying to contemplate the amount of social and economic damage done by such widespread unemployment. To be without the opportunity of work is an affront to human dignity.”—[Official Report, Commons, 12/4/1976; cols. 969-70.]

Just a few short weeks ago, both the employment rate and the number of people in full-time work were at record highs. Wages have been rising ahead of prices month after month after month. How quickly a situation like that can crumble.

The One Nation group of MPs came into being in 1950 after the Conservative resurgence in that year’s general election swept in one of the most talented intakes in history. To most economists and politicians back then, full employment was generally seen as something that could and should be achieved through government intervention, job creation schemes, state enterprises and so forth. Since the 1970s, that outlook has seemed old-fashioned and discredited. In this situation, however, the current replacement of ideology with pragmatism is not only welcome but, I believe, essential for our survival. It is said that in times of national crisis no one claims to be small-government Conservative, so I warmly applaud the swift and decisive action taken by the Chancellor to underpin small businesses in particular. He deserves all our support, and I believe that he is the right man at the right time.

I mentioned theatres and actors. Just last week, although it seems a lifetime ago now, my wife and I attended the first anniversary performance of the West End show “Come from Away”. The show tells the true story of how the population of Gander, a small town in Newfoundland, welcomed thousands of unexpected visitors when 38 passenger planes were grounded at their local airport in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The people of Gander famously came together and showed us the best of humanity. That powerful, timeless message of social solidarity and generosity of spirit must infuse not only our social policies but our economic policy too.

As one nation we shall survive this crisis, but only as one nation shall we then successfully rebuild our economy and our society.