Peter Aldous welcomes the Chancellor’s policies to reduce inflation, cut Government debt and initiatives to help people back into work and £4.3 million for the Lowestoft Seafront Parade, but calls for more to be done to support people and businesses impacted by Covid and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, to help businesses thrive and to support levelling-up in the east of England.
Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins). My right hon. Friend the Chancellor was bequeathed a difficult immediate inheritance last October, and in his autumn statement delivered on 17 November he took the first steps towards putting the nation’s finances back on a secure footing, laying the foundations for sustainable long-term economic growth. He is to be commended for what he has done in the past four months with policies that will significantly reduce inflation and cut Government spending on debt interest. His initiatives announced today on childcare, the abolition of the lifetime allowance, universal credit reform and supporting the disabled into work are to be welcomed, as are his announcements on investment allowances and tax breaks. However, in the aftermath of covid, there are ingredients to economic growth that are missing and it is important that this Budget is not the endgame but instead the first instalment of a plan for growth, with parts 2 and 3 being delivered in the autumn and this time next year.
I shall highlight three themes that I believe it is important to keep firmly in mind as we hopefully move on from the seismic shock that covid delivered and the devastating and heartbreaking ongoing impact of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. First, it is important to continue to support—albeit hopefully on a reducing scale—those people and businesses who have been most impacted by that cruel double whammy. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is right to extend the energy price guarantee scheme for three months and to introduce the energy bills discount scheme for businesses. He is also right to support local councils with their leisure centre costs, and I welcome the support for the charitable and the third sectors.
My right hon. Friend needs to keep the situation under review, however, and I suggest that he needs to pay particular regard to the following groups. The first is the disabled, and I am thinking particularly of those with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease, who have been seriously impacted by the dramatic increases in energy costs. We must not forget the ongoing challenges that they face. In the longer term, it may well be appropriate to introduce a social tariff to support such vulnerable groups, and I would urge the Government to look closely at how that might work. I am also conscious of the needs of businesses that face particular challenges. I have in mind such sectors as metal finishing, which use large amounts of electricity. They are losing work overseas and are not as yet included in the Government’s support for energy-intensive industries. I urge the Chancellor to keep that under review.
Secondly, it is important to put in place measures that enable businesses to thrive. The tax breaks and offsetting arrangements that my right hon. Friend has announced today are welcome, but they are only a start. In the autumn statement, he announced major reforms to business rates, but this work needs to be continued. In the short term, the Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) Bill must be introduced as quickly as possible, and in the longer term, work should continue so that business rates return to being a much smaller component part of a business’s operating costs.
The energy sector is a vital part of the UK economy. From a local perspective in East Anglia, there are significant opportunities for generating prosperity and jobs, ensuring our energy security and driving forward on the road to net zero. There is enormous potential in offshore wind, nuclear at Sizewell and the oil and gas sector, through the North sea transition deal, which also paves the way for hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, on which we did get some good news earlier.
If we are to realise the potential of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it is vital that we reform our fiscal and regulatory regime, so that investment does not go overseas, whether to the US, Europe or beyond. The Chancellor has made a start in meeting that challenge and I look forward to the Government’s clean energy reset, which must enable the UK to retain its position as a global leader in the energy sector.
To achieve long-term economic growth and to enable people to realise their full potential, we need a skills revolution. There remains a great deal of work to do on that. It is right that the Chancellor is looking closely at it and has asked Sir Michael Barber to carry out a full review, but in the short term further education colleges, such as East Coast College in Lowestoft, are doing their great work with one arm behind their back. In the immediate future, there is an urgent need for more revenue funding to get through an incredibly challenging period. I highlight the need in the longer term to reform the apprenticeship levy.
Thirdly, let me turn to levelling up. Along with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), I co-chair the all-party group on the east of England. In December, along with the Local Government Association, we published the “Levelling up the East of England” report, which concludes that, on five of the levelling-up missions, there was very low confidence of their being achieved. One of those missions is infrastructure, so the lack of Government support for the Ely and Haughley junction rail improvements, from which the whole UK would benefit, is very disappointing. I urge the Government to continue to work with those in the region promoting this project.
On a positive note, I welcome the announcement of funding for the Lowestoft seafront jubilee parade project, which is an important part of the regeneration work taking place in Lowestoft and will help to revitalise the town, making it a compelling place to live, work and visit. However, I cannot hide my disappointment that none of the 12 proposed investment zones is in the east of England. In Lowestoft, we have a successful enterprise zone that is in need of refreshing. We had a false start last September, when Suffolk County Council and East Suffolk Council put forward exciting proposals for investment zones. It now appears that nowhere in the east of England will have an opportunity to even be on the starting grid. In that context, the mantra of “Enterprise, employment and everywhere” does ring slightly hollow.
In conclusion, this Budget is not the endgame. There is a lot of unfinished business. Last November, the Chancellor delivered his prologue. Today, he has provided act one of his strategy for growth. Acts two and three come in the autumn and next spring. I have highlighted the work that I believe remains to be done and, in the coming months, I look forward to working with him and his colleagues in the Treasury to meet those challenges.