27 November 2023
Aldous speaks in the last day of the debate on the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement

Peter Aldous welcomes the 110 measures to boost growth introduced by the Chancellor in his Autumn Statement and highlights three areas that he believes need further work: investment in skills, protecting the most vulnerable, and levelling up the east of England - particularly in relation to renewable energy and coastal erosion.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on his autumn statement, which was well thought through, soundly based and properly reasoned. Post covid, with war in eastern Europe and the middle east and with the ongoing cost of living crisis, his task is an incredibly difficult one. With 110 growth measures, he has rightly recognised the need to boost growth, but as he has stressed, that growth must be secured on sound foundations and must not take the form of a reckless, debt-fuelled rush for growth. There are areas of reform that I believe he should have covered, such as business rates, social care funding and special educational needs. However, this autumn statement is very much a step in the right direction, and provides a platform on which he and the Government can build in the coming weeks and months.

I will briefly cover three areas, the first of which is investment in skills. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor recognises the importance of that investment to improve productivity and secure sustainable economic growth. In that respect, the announcement of £50 million to increase the number of apprenticeships in key growth areas is to be welcomed. However, there remains a need for a long-term strategy to enhance skills. I look forward to an update on the work of Sir Michael Barber, which was announced in last year’s autumn statement; a significant uplift in revenue funding for further education colleges and training providers; and a review of the apprenticeship levy, which was a welcome initiative when it was introduced in 2017, but is in need of reform so that it can perform to its full potential.

Secondly, we need to continue to protect the most vulnerable. Covid’s tail has been harsh and long and, along with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has created the kind of cost of living crisis that we have not seen for 100 years. Last year and this year, the Government have stepped up to the plate to support people. As such, many of last week’s announcements are to be welcomed, including increasing the national living wage, increasing all working-age benefits in full by 6.7%, boosting pensions by 8.5% in line with the triple lock, and significantly increasing the local housing allowance.

There is no doubt that there is both a skills shortage and a skills mismatch in the UK at present. It is in that context that I am supportive of the back to work plan, which the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions went through earlier. However, I emphasise two notes of caution. First, the deficit in investment in skills and training that has been prevalent for most of this century means that a lot of people are a long way from the workplace. We should not underestimate the challenge of equipping those people with the skills they need to first hold down jobs, and then embark on rewarding career paths. Secondly, there are people—those with deteriorating neurological conditions, for instance—who are very worried about the forthcoming review of the work capability assessment. We must do all we can to support them through what will be a period of upheaval, and ensure that we avoid situations where those who are palpably unable to work are asked to do so under the threat of sanction. My concerns have been allayed to a large degree by what my right hon. Friend said in his opening speech, but it is important to emphasise those points.

Thirdly, in the east of England and particularly along the Suffolk and Norfolk coast, there is enormous potential for long-term, rewarding jobs in the low-carbon energy sector. In that context, last week’s various announcements to promote the renewables sector are very welcome. What I would emphasise is that to make the most of that great opportunity, it is vital that as the Government implement their levelling-up agenda, the east is not overlooked. In his speech, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced some new investment zones to follow on from those that were revealed in the autumn statement, none of which was in the east of England. We have a successful enterprise zone in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, and I hope we can look at reinvigorating it.

My final point on the need for levelling up in the east of England is that we are the lowest-lying region in the UK, and we have a long and porous coastline. That means that we are particularly vulnerable to flooding and coastal erosion, which are being accelerated by climate change. In recent days, many homes have disappeared over the cliff in Pakefield in my constituency. That has brought despair and desperation to many, and moreover creates risks from dangerous cliffs and the exposure of world war two sweeper markers, which have been detonated today. Thanks are due to the emergency services for all that they are doing, working in appalling conditions to keep people safe, but communities are at severe risk—not only Pakefield, but communities right up and down the Norfolk and Suffolk coast.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we must look very closely at the coastal protection budget and its operation. I urge my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to liaise very closely with my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay), who is getting up to speed with his new and challenging brief at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.