Jeremy Lefroy MP
It is a pleasure to follow Ms Lee. The Office for Budget Responsibility, which has been referred to from time to time, is an extremely important institution that has come to be accepted by the whole House. In this case, it has provided growth figures that were perhaps not quite what we wanted but that are realistic, and the Chancellor has quite rightly used those independently evaluated figures. That shows how important it is to stick to independent advice and not make figures up when we are dealing with things as important as the future economy of the country.
Over all this hangs the prospect of our exit from the European Union. It is essential that the talks move on to the next stage in the coming weeks, to give assurance to businesses right across the country, including those in my constituency that admitted their great concern to me last week. At the same time, we need to be, as the Chancellor has said, fit for the future. I welcome the increase in UK export finance, which my right hon. Friend Sir Michael Fallon mentioned in an excellent speech earlier. It is vital that we concentrate not only on exports but on outward investment, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has made a key point of his policy. Our current account deficit, at more than 5%, is one of the largest in the developed world, and if we are to bring it down, as we must, increasing outward investment will be as critical as growing our exports.
I urge the Chancellor to look at the introduction of a UK investment bank. We will no longer be a member of the European Investment Bank, and we need something to take its place. This is an opportunity to establish a world-class UK development finance institution. Such an institution does not exist at the moment, unlike in countries such as France and Germany. I very much support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks said about small and medium-sized businesses. They are the engine of our economy and drive the creation of wealth and employment, and employee ownership is absolutely critical to that.
I now turn to some of the measures that the Chancellor mentioned. I very much welcome the changes to universal credit, particularly those relating to housing. The ability for people to transfer their direct payments to their landlord when they move on to universal credit is absolutely critical, as indeed is the extra two weeks’ provision from next April. However, I want to mention a couple of things that need to be looked at. One is the question of having fortnightly payments, at least for a period. For people on low incomes coming off weekly payments, it is extremely difficult, even if they receive an advance, to move to monthly payments. I believe that having fortnightly payments, at least for a period, should be considered in the near future. We should also look at having an emergency fund. Such a fund used to exist, but one does not now exist in most parts of the country.
The Budget introduced some excellent measures on housing, and I particularly welcome the stress on small house builders. In Stafford, there have been some great developments by small house builders, who employ local people—local craftsmen and women. I encourage the Government to look at two other areas. The first is innovation in finance, particularly for community schemes, and backing for smaller building societies and housing finance organisations, such as the Stafford Railway Building Society in my constituency, which is one of the best in the country. The second is innovation in design, such as self-build, which my hon. Friend Mr Bacon has championed so eloquently for many years. This also covers home offices and enabling people to have their elderly relatives stay with them. It is important to make it easier to obtain planning permission for expanding a home, so that people can work from home and have relatives needing care come to live with them.
Finally, I want to mention international development, in which I have a special interest. I believe that it is extremely important that we expand the flexibility of international development. It must be for the reduction of poverty, and we must not return to tied aid. We can do so much more if the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Trade and the Department for International Development work together to ensure the reduction of poverty globally.