It is a pleasure to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Alan.
I chose to call a debate on retail for two purposes. From a parochial point of view, retail is a significant employer in Watford and a significant contributor to the economy. Also, the press that retail receives nationally, with glamorous Sky reporters standing in front of shops such as Blockbuster and HMV that are shutting down, gives a false impression of the sector’s overall prosperity and contribution to the economy.
Members of Parliament and the public at large should realise that retail is a big sector of the economy, and contributes in excess of 5% of GDP. Although the Government are trying to encourage growth in the manufacturing sector, the retail sector contributes more added value to the economy.
Retail is able to offer increasingly sophisticated employment. The old impression that people work in shops because they cannot do anything else is no longer relevant. Retail jobs are highly trained, and there are many apprentices. Many people, including me, started their business career in the retail sector. Following my law degree, I was a graduate trainee at John Lewis, which gave me ideas for developing my life both in business and more generally. It all went well until I became interested in politics.
Retail contributes employment and taxation not only through pay-as-you-earn and corporation tax but through business rates. The sector is a big contributor to urban regeneration. People do not think of retail as a factor in urban regeneration, but they only have to look at places such as Westfield on the Olympic site. When I went to work in Watford’s Harlequin centre, which is now known as Intu, in 1980, it was the poorest part of town, notwithstanding the efforts of John Lewis and other old retailers that had been there for 50 years, 100 years or more. The Harlequin centre was certainly not the sort of place people would want to go unless they had to go shopping.