Damian Collins – 2020 Speech in Response to the Budget

Below is the text of the speech made by Damian Collins, the Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe, in the House of Commons on 16 March 2020.

Following the statement that we just heard from my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary, I would like to start my remarks on the resumption of the Budget debate by expressing my gratitude to the Chancellor for making it clear last week that the Government will make available whatever resources are needed to meet the coronavirus threat to our country. It was mostly addressed in terms of making funds available for the health service to ensure that it has the staff and equipment that it needs.

In response to the statement, I am among a number of Members who are concerned about the impact on businesses in our constituencies. I represent a coastal constituency. As we move into the Easter and early summer season, the ability of a visitor economy to make money from hotel trade, hospitality and events—let alone bars, restaurants and cafés—is incredibly important. The Folkestone Harbour Arm is a major seasonal visitor attraction. If the official public health advice is that these centres of social interaction should be avoided for the foreseeable future, there is a legitimate question about how those businesses will be compensated for their loss of earnings, otherwise we may see a great number of those businesses close, with no option to remain open. I understand that the Secretary of State has just made an important statement, and there are many further questions to be asked, but I echo the questions raised by a number of Members.

Some Members referenced the airline industry. I would also reference other key industries. Saga is a major business in my constituency—I see the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), nodding; as an old boy of the Harvey Grammar School in Folkestone, he knows well the importance of Saga to the local economy. Saga has many strings to its bow as a business, but cruises and servicing the over-50s economy are a major part of its business. If areas of the economy such as this will effectively be closed down for an indefinite period, businesses need to ensure that they can communicate with their staff and make plans effectively. As the Chancellor set out in his statement last week, we want to ensure that viable businesses can ride through this extraordinary event; that is so important.

As I said in my question to the Secretary of State, we should look at the information that the public have access to. They need clear, accurate and reliable information, and people who seek to use social media to spread malicious disinformation with the particular purpose of undermining public health should be in a position where they have committed an offence. Under the emergency powers in the Bill that the Government will publish later this week, we should make it an offence to spread misinformation about coronavirus with the intention of undermining public health. In Australia, similar laws were introduced in response to the Christchurch terrorist attack last year. Spain has looked at a similar response to disinformation and misinformation about coronavirus, and we should do the same.

I want to briefly touch on a couple of other important aspects of the Budget that are not directly related to coronavirus. I particularly want to mention ​the Government’s commitment to support affordable housing, both to rent and buy. In my constituency, we have a major new garden town scheme, which is being driven forward by Folkestone and Hythe District Council and supported by Homes England. The council owns much of the land that has been put into the scheme. This garden town proposal could deliver 8,000 new homes for my constituency over the next 30 years. Folkestone College is a centre of excellence for construction industry skills, so local people can be trained in the jobs that will be made available as a consequence of building those homes.

I welcome the money that the Government have pledged to support the construction and provision of more affordable homes through Homes England. I ask the Government to do all they can to work with local authorities that are supporting and taking forward garden town proposals. My district council tells me that the planning process is still very long, even when there is an early indication of support for the scheme from the local authority. There is an urgent need to get these homes built as quickly as possible and to support whatever infrastructure is needed to make these communities viable and attractive to developers, so that they get involved in the schemes. I appreciate that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is not on the Treasury Bench, but I ask him to look at what extra housing infrastructure support and investment could be made available, in particular for the Otterpool Park scheme in Kent at junction 11 of the M20.

I welcome the additional money the Chancellor has made available to support rough sleeping initiatives. We have already seen some of that money on the frontline in Folkestone, supporting charities that work with homeless people. I would like to see more support for the Housing First scheme that is being piloted by various local authorities in Kent, which looks to get the most vulnerable people into accommodation first and then to identify and resolve the other needs they may have. That has proved a more effective strategy, but it does require more upfront investment. I hope the extra money the Government have brought forward can provide that.

I also welcome the additional money the Government have committed to creating 5G equivalent broadband for the UK. This is an essential technology for the future. When we look back at the support over the last decade for Broadband Delivery UK’s roll-out of superfast broadband, we see that it was a good initiative and got more homes connected quickly, but it was also probably the wrong technology. Fibre-based technology will be future-proof. Few of us could have predicted in 2010 what would be the ordinary data requirements of people using information technology and the internet in their homes today and to run their businesses. Therefore, we should back a technology that is similarly future-proof, and fibre equivalent and fibre to homes is that. It gives us the opportunity to roll out at speed 5G equivalent broadband, particularly in rural areas. It is right that the Government prioritise areas of delivery that are the hardest to reach and where the market is least likely to deliver. As was discussed in the House last week, it is particularly important that we look at alternative providers to Huawei and at companies that are not considered to ​be high-risk providers of future technology infrastructure, which is going to be so important for running all our economy.