Marcus spoke in the final day of debate on the Queen's Speech, addressing some of the issues important to South Somerset in the coming years:
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell). It is wonderful to see her back in this place, and to follow so many great colleagues, including new Members who have given us amazing demonstrations of their pride in and passion for their areas. It is interesting to hear some of the passion from new Opposition Members as well. I think the one thing that unites everybody who comes to this House, across both sides of the Chamber, is the genuine desire to see their areas improve. We might have different ways of trying to get from A to B, but I think most of us in this place want a better life for the people who live in our areas.
On election day, I was flabbergasted and moved by just how many people in one of my toughest areas—one of the more deprived parts of south-west England—were telling me that they would vote Conservative. They backed us in the election, and we owe it to them to back ourselves to make that difference for people. We now have a huge opportunity and a mandate for radical change. I think that a lot of people wanted to see that change in their lives when we had the Brexit vote as well, and we have a duty to make that a reality for them.
I was really proud of the people of Yeovil for choosing an optimistic and forward-looking approach, rather than the backward-looking way of socialism. Capitalism is the way forward that has been proven, over many years and in many different parts of the world, to be the best deliverer of better conditions for people. It is wonderful to see that optimism is back, because capitalism depends on optimism. It depends on people believing in each other’s ability to fulfil their part of a bargain, whether that is doing a deal, knowing they can get help if they need to climb the famous Conservative ladder, or retiring knowing that their children will have the same opportunities that they had—or even better. We owe it to people to really drill down into what can improve their lives.
Competitiveness is very important in the current global environment. We are in a challenging world. We have interest rates at next to zero, or below zero in many cases. That zero-bound, as it is known, presents a lot of challenges for policy makers to make sure that investment occurs in a way that is productive, because we do not want to be using such low interest rates to be investing in unproductive things. That is something we really need to watch out for.
The UK economy is doing really well, and we should celebrate that. We heard earlier about the wonderful employment performance. We can always do better; we should not rest on our laurels at all. We should look at some of the problems that the European economy is having at the moment, including the persistent problems in the banking system. Despite the low interest rates and the quantitative easing that has been used, à l’outrance, to buy up corporate bonds, the situation is still very fragile. We should not underestimate how resilient we need to make our own economy to be able to resist the vicissitudes of economic fortune that may or may not occur. It is brilliant, in that context, that we have managed to bring Labour’s deficit down so that we are not adding to the national debt in the way that we were when we took over back in 2010.
At a granular level in our constituencies, there are big areas where we need to perform better and to improve things. I am very keen on what is in the Queen’s Speech and was in our manifesto about reform of business rates. That is particularly important because our high streets are struggling. Going back to Yeovil, we heard only earlier today that the national department store chain Beales is now in administration. It is has a big facility in Yeovil that I would like to persist there, even if it looks difficult at the moment. The company has cited business rates as one of the big factors. We need to make sure that our towns fund is well funded and gets into all areas of the country, not just the north, because many in the south-west feel left behind too. We depend on that and the future high streets fund for investment in our cattle market site and at Glovers Walk. Without help with the basic infrastructure and reconstruction of those sites, which is quite difficult, it is hard to regenerate our main town.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the increase in the business rates discount is an important measure that the Government are taking to help small businesses not only in his constituency but across the country?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point and he is absolutely right. Increasing that to 33% really is a big deal for smaller businesses. We need to reform the whole system and try to use that to devolve the ability to invest locally raised taxes in our local economies and have them compete with each other. That can create the dynamism in our economy to really grow and create jobs into the future.
We need to invest in roads in the south-west. We need to follow through on the dualling of the A303. We should be starting that this year on the Sparkford to Ilchester section, but we need to make sure that the Stonehenge tunnel is funded, because the value for money of the whole project depends on that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, while the Government are still seemingly committed to the £106 billion total cost of HS2, consideration might be given to reallocating some, if not all, of that funding to the Stonehenge tunnel and other local infrastructure improvements that would benefit my constituency and many others?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government have some interesting judgments to make. I would not want to gainsay, but there is a strong rationale for investing throughout our country that needs to be put before Ministers. I hope he will do the same for his area.
It is important that we get proper skills development into our regional areas, and I want to mention our further education colleges in Yeovil. Yeovil College is a particularly good example of a top-performing college that is able to improve the life chances of people in regional areas. Often, when there is not a university in an area, further education colleges are the only opportunity that people have to change their skill level and skill type, so that they can change jobs and take advantage of job creation.
The helicopter industry is very important to the Yeovil sub-regional area. Leonardo, based in my constituency, is a military helicopter manufacturer and the only end-to-end aerospace manufacturer left in the UK. It supports more than 10,000 jobs in the supply chain, which is incredibly important. The Government have said that they want to reform defence procurement. When we are looking at value for money, we must consider the holistic impact on a community of having such a big employer with such big projects. It makes a huge difference. We cannot just look at the headline costs; we have to look at all the consequential costs and the value throughout the community.
My hon. Friend makes the point well, and that is something I touched on in my speech. It is also about the technologies that emerge from investment in the helicopter sector, which can be reinvested in future programmes.
My hon. Friend is right. It is important that we keep these sovereign capabilities in our aerospace sector, whether it is fixed-wing aircraft, such as in his constituency, or rotary-wing. There is an interesting opportunity at the moment to review whether the AW149, which is a Leonardo product, could replace the Puma fleet, which is ageing and a little unsafe. That is a perfect opportunity to militarise a civil product that is produced in Italy and allow the factory in Yeovil to become a military centre of excellence for Leonardo worldwide. I know that the company is keen to pursue that, but we need the Government to play their part.
I want to say a bit more about trade. The helicopter industry is one of our big exporters, and it is one of the reasons why Yeovil exports more than anywhere else in the south-west apart from Swindon and Bristol, so our trading conditions are of particular importance. We owe it to people to make good on our manifesto promises on trade. We need to ensure that we take a holistic approach to our trade negotiations. We need to ensure that we are negotiating with not only the EU but the US and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership countries. It is by being able to have flexibility in our intentions for regulation and tariffs that we can do different deals around the world and get the best out of all of them.
I am a firm believer that unless we put the potential deals on the table, the EU will prove a very hard negotiator, and it is only by doing these things simultaneously that we can get the best out of all our trade opportunities. Trade—free trade—is so important not just for the opportunities it can create for more exports, but for massively reducing costs for our domestic industries. Getting goods into our economy more cheaply is how we can improve our export growth, our domestic economic performance and our job creation.
Clearly there are some challenges when it comes to trade. We need to make sure that intermediate products we import do not have tariffs put on them. Interestingly, when the Government do the review of tariff schedules that we would have in the context of any deal, it is massively important that we do not automatically think we should keep our tariffs high and then have to cut them again. We could have an agreement that we might apply a lower tariff, even if our bound tariff rate is higher, for a period of time at a zero rate, and tell our trading partners and prospective ones that if they want that situation to continue, they need to finalise a trade deal with us.
There are many other things that we need to talk about on trade. We have heard a lot about level playing field provisions and what the Government might or might not do with them in the context of the EU negotiations, but we need to make sure that we do not just give that up. These are normal provisions that would come into pretty much any trade agreement, and most of them are modelled on the existing WTO agreements on the technical barriers to trade. We should not be afraid of signing up to them, but we must not have dynamic harmonisation of our regulations. We must co-operate and look for equivalence in what we do, but we must not be a rule-taker. It is only by being independent and able to do our own thing that the people of this country will maintain their confidence in us and in our ability to pursue our own destiny. They backed us; we now need to back ourselves to do the best for our people and improve opportunities throughout the country.