Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): It is a great honour, indeed a privilege, to follow the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). He represents the acceptable face of conservatism in this House, particularly on issues of local government. He has proved one of Parliament's most effective speakers, and he will be greatly missed. Like him and colleagues who have preceded me in this debate, I, too, will be leaving at the general election. This is my 25th Budget, and my last speech in a major debate in the House of Commons.
I spoke to some of my constituents over the weekend about the Budget, and although they did not feel that it was the most exciting one they had ever seen, they accepted it as sensible and right in the circumstances. It is a Budget for the economic times in which we live. It is responsible and designed to aid the recovery.
It will also be the last Budget before the general election, and the 14th Budget of a Labour Government. There have been many memorable Budgets from this Government, including those that heralded the winter fuel allowance, family and pensioner tax credits, and free bus travel-Budgets that have helped my constituency of Tyne Bridge, and the good people who live there: unemployment has tumbled since 1997; health services have improved; new schools and colleges have been built; educational standards and opportunities have improved for our young people; and housing has been modernised, and new houses provided. Although much more needs to be done, the Government have shown what can be done, given the opportunity, and what they will do in future.
Only last Friday I attended the launch of the redevelopment of Newcastle's west end, the scene of street riots in the early 1980s, where hundreds of new homes and community facilities will be provided thanks to a Labour Government. The redevelopment of Gateshead quays has seen an influx of new jobs and opportunities -a cultural revolution that has seen a town once described as
"a dirty back lane leading to Newcastle"
rise to become internationally renowned for sport and recreation, and its arts and cultural development. All that has taken place under a Labour council and a Labour Government. With the Government's help, hundreds of new homes will be provided on the site of a former freight yard near Gateshead town centre, which itself is being cleared to make way for new shops and housing. Indeed, the only famous-perhaps, infamous-building left to view is the "Get Carter" car park, which still stands, but not for much longer.
That story can be repeated right across the North-East, where the decline of heavy engineering and coal mining under the previous Conservative Government is being replaced with new opportunities. There are new industries, such as that of Nissan in Sunderland, which will soon develop the first generation of mass-produced electric cars. The production of offshore wind generators will, I hope, soon be boosted by Siemens, which plans a new manufacturing facility that would provide hundreds of new jobs. There is also the potential for clean coal technology and other innovative ideas, such as solid-state lighting systems, green technologies and so on, which are emerging in the region.
One NorthEast, our regional development agency, is at the centre of that, working with our businesses to develop the North-East's economy. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) confirmed that a Conservative Government would abolish One NorthEast, but Conservative candidates on the ground in the North-East do not take that attitude, because they know about the RDA's popularity and tell us that, if the region wants it to remain, it will remain. They have not said how they decide on that, or whether they would have a referendum, but from candidates in the constituencies we hear a different story from that told by Opposition Front Benchers.
There is still a lot more to do, and all that needs to be added to that is the candid recognition that there is always a lot more to do. Indeed, if there is one thing that we can rely on Governments to do, it is not enough. However, economic recovery and future progress will rely on the public and private sectors working together. That is what Labour has promoted and, to a large degree, achieved: public and private sectors working in harmony and, sometimes, in partnership to provide the services and the prosperity that we all want. First, however, we have to tackle the deficit that has built up during the crisis that we have come through, and it is right that the banks, which sparked the crisis, should now do more to help the recovery by ensuring that small businesses can survive and grow. It is right also that important public services are protected, and that the public sector is not expected to pay for the mistakes of the private sector.
In the North-East, where the public sector accounts for 53 per cent. of GDP, we know only too well that threats of early and deep cuts in public spending would spell very bad news and threaten the recovery. Although it is true that much has been achieved and improved since 1997, the disparities between the north and south of our country stubbornly remain, much to the frustration of those of us who live in the north. Life in some parts of the south is becoming uncomfortable, with growing congestion and over-population; at the same time, life in parts of the north is made more difficult because the emerging industries and employment opportunities in the south are inaccessible to people, unless they move there and add to its congestion.
Attempts over the years to attract more business to the north have been frustrated by the concentration in London and the south-east of economic and political power, which is a magnet for development. One way to tackle the problem is to bring the north and south closer together by reducing the time it takes to travel between the two. The Labour Government's proposals to develop a high-speed rail network are a welcome contribution to that process. The development of high-speed rail on the continent has shown that cities that the high-speed network directly serves benefit financially and are advantaged in comparison with those that are not. So if high-speed rail is to contribute to efforts to tackle the north-south divide, surely the areas that are most in need and farthest from the centre of national economic and political influence should be included on the network. It is vital to the North-East of England that the proposed high-speed rail network, not just the proposed spur line, serves the region.
It is disappointing, however, that otherwise forward-thinking and relatively young Transport Ministers find it so difficult to see beyond conventional rail systems. Surely we cannot be contemplating that, by the end of the 21st century, high-speed rail will still consist of hundreds of tonnes of metal trundling along on steel rails. Our continental competitors are ahead of us in the development of high-speed rail, so instead of taking one small step to catch up, why can our Ministers not take one huge leap, boldly go where none has gone before and develop a real high-speed network that is fit for the 21st century? I refer to Maglev: a train carried on magnetic levitation-a British invention, by the way-at speeds of up to 300mph. It makes a mockery of current proposals and would really put Britain ahead of the game for once. Indeed, I recommend that Ministers examine UK Ultraspeed's response to the High Speed 2 report, which makes enlightening reading.
Other measures in the Budget are a little less headline-grabbing but important to the social life of many constituents. I note that the Prime Minister recently announced the appointment of a pubs Minister, in recognition of the demise of too many local pubs. I had to point out to the new Minister that working men's and other private non-profit-making members' clubs are also going through bad times, and that legislation such as the Licensing Act 2003, Gambling Act 2005 and the smoking ban, however well-meaning, have had a negative and often damaging effect. As a consequence, clubs are struggling and many have either closed or are under the threat of closure.
Those clubs are more often than not right in the centre and at the heart of our communities. They provide a venue for wedding receptions, funeral receptions, christenings, birthdays and so on, and it is disappointing that the Budget does not give any relief to such valuable community assets. Indeed, increases in duties will aggravate the problem. I am pleased that the pubs Minister has announced that clubs will be included in his deliberations, and that a new inquiry, chaired by my very good friend, the noble Lord Bilston, will look at how clubs can be helped to survive and thrive. I look forward to its conclusions; it could not have a better or more knowledgeable chairman.
As I said at the beginning of my contribution, this is probably my last speech in a major debate in this House, and I, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), came here after serving 23 years on the shop floor in heavy engineering. My election to Parliament was a source of pride to my parents, who lived through the war years and the years of austerity. My father was a political animal. He took such a close interest in politics, particularly Labour politics, that he was nicknamed Clem, after Clem Attlee-a name that he liked so much he adopted it for the rest of his life. But he never aspired to political office. My parents were proud not just of me but of our country, where people of modest backgrounds as well as professionals and the wealthy can make it to Parliament. It is vital that we retain that characteristic in the years ahead. Too often these days, people become career politicians after leaving university, and they have little or no knowledge of the real world outside this House.
I have had the privilege of representing the heart of Tyneside-the people I grew up with. When I go, owing to boundary changes, Tyne Bridge goes also, so it is probably an appropriate time for me to leave. I hope that I have been able to make my mark, however slight, on this place, and that those who arrive after the election not only find the job as fulfilling as I have, but are able to contribute effectively and passionately on behalf of their constituents. I thank my wife and family for their support over the years. It would not have been possible without that. Finally, I wish my successor and the new Parliament well. Being an MP has been a great privilege. I thank my constituents, my party and my union for giving me that opportunity. I hope that I have lived up to it.
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