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National Health Service (Investment)

4. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on plans for public investment in the NHS over the next four years. [145795]

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown): Following discussions with colleagues, I announced in the spending review the average annual real-terms growth in cash of 6.1 per cent. a year, over the four years to 2003-04--the biggest sustained growth of any four-year period in the NHS.

Mr. Chaytor: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. May I tell him how much my constituents already benefit from the Government's new investment in the NHS in Bury, especially because of the establishment of the health action zone and NHS Direct, the modernisation of GPs and dentists surgeries, and the multimillion pound improvements at Fairfield hospital? Can he tell the House what would be the impact on the NHS in Bury of the Conservative party's plans to cut £16 billion from public services? [Interruption.]

Mr. Brown: Conservative Members do not want to hear this fact, but, in addition to meeting our election commitment on waiting lists, there are more doctors and nurses--and more are in training; 38 new hospital developments; more in-patients receiving treatment; more admissions being met; and more out-patient attendances than when we came into power. The whole country shares my hon. Friend's concern that the Conservatives' proposals for partial privatisation of the NHS would damage the very fabric of a service that is valued by every citizen.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he was being disingenuous

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when he said in his Budget statement that the extra yield from an increase in tobacco tax would go to help the national health service? We know that this year, because of his ludicrous policies, the yield from tobacco tax is £900 million less than it was in the Government's first year of office.

Mr. Brown: If the hon. Gentleman had looked at what I said in the Budget, he would have seen that I set aside the money, which has been paid into the national health service--[Interruption.] This is another example of the Conservatives' attitude. They refused to vote for the rise in tobacco duty and, had they been successful, that money would not have gone to the national health service and would, in effect, have been cut from its budget. We have put in the money over the course of the year.

As for the impact of that money, in 1996-97 there were 4,780,000 routine admissions; under Labour, because of new investment, there were 5.4 million routine admissions in the last year for which figures were available. That shows that the national health service is able to do more as a result of having more. The hon. Gentleman has just given an example of where the Conservatives would cut money from the NHS budget.

Angela Smith (Basildon): My right hon. Friend will be aware that investment in the health service in the past four years has been very welcome, and improvements have been made. Nevertheless, does he accept that the extra investment that he has announced for the next four years is essential if we are to have the improvements that we need in hospitals such as Basildon and Orsett in my constituency? Does he recognise that those Labour Members who regularly approach him want him to ensure that we have extra resources for our hospitals and local health services? What representations has he received from Conservative Members to spend less in their constituencies?

Mr. Brown: I agree with my hon. Friend. The extra investment will allow us to improve the national health service in the next few years. Additional hospitals are being built, accident and emergency units are being modernised in every part of the country, 50 new magnetic resonance imaging cancer scanners have been put into many hospitals, and many extra investments have been made. There are 7,500 more consultants, 2,000 more GPs, and we plan for 20,000 extra nurses. Conservative Members complain about what is happening in their constituencies, but they will not face up to the fact that their policies would cut the NHS budget and that the shadow Chancellor has announced a policy for privatisation in the health service. They should go back to their constituents this weekend and ask them what they think, because they want the new investment and do not want the cuts or privatisation.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): Is it any wonder that Labour Members are asking about investment in the NHS for the next four years when investment in the NHS during this Parliament has been less than it was under the previous Government? Does the Chancellor regret that the three years of delays in providing funding for the NHS has led to a shortage of doctors and nurses, a breakdown in the NHS and a lengthening of waiting lists?

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Mr. Brown: The hon. Lady is wrong: she is wrong on her first point and wrong on her second point. The share of national income we are spending on health is rising, as was announced in the public spending review. As regards the Liberal Democrat party, its election manifesto said that it would spend £500 million more a year. We are spending £5,000 million more a year--10 times as much.

Credit Unions

5. Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): What plans the Government have to support and promote credit unions. [145796]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Andrew Smith): The Government strongly support credit unions' ethos of self-help and their important work in tackling financial exclusion by offering savings and affordable loans, especially to the least well-off. The Government have been involved with a number of initiatives to help the growth of the sector, and Conservative Members would do well to take note of the fact that membership of credit unions has increased by no less than 30 per cent. since the Government came to power.

Mr. Thomas: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply, but will he support measures to allow credit unions to offer variable dividends on some of their accounts, and to borrow from sources other than banks and other credit unions? Does he recognise that such measures, along with the early establishment of a central services organisation, are essential if credit unions are to continue to grow and to develop further?

Mr. Smith: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his well-known hard work, energy and advocacy for the credit union movement. I agree that a central services organisation is important. The Association of British Credit Unions is finalising its business plan, following which it will put forward its proposals. We certainly support the early instigation of that important support, which is a result of the taskforce work which the Government have backed.

On the deregulatory proposals that my hon. Friend advocates, we already have measures in the pipeline to extend the maximum repayment limits and to abolish the maximum membership limit. Yes, I support my hon. Friend when he says that we should allow credit unions to pay dividends more frequently and that they should be able to borrow from bodies other than other credit unions.

Children's Tax Credit

7. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): How many families will be entitled to the children's tax credit. [145799]

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): It is estimated that about 5 million families will benefit from the introduction of the new children's tax credit.

Mrs. Williams: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is it correct that up to 250,000 families in Wales will be eligible for a £10 a week tax cut when the children's tax credit comes into effect in April? Is she further aware that 1,600 families in my constituency of Conwy are eligible

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for the working families tax credit, which is worth, on average, an extra £30 a week? Will she, therefore, explain for the benefit of Conservative Members what would happen to the living standards of those hard-working families if those tax credits were scrapped?

Dawn Primarolo: I do not think my hon. Friend will be surprised to hear that I agree with her comments.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): You wrote the question.

Dawn Primarolo: I did not. The children's tax credit will benefit in particular lower and middle-income families, who desperately need that money to help with support for their children.

Given your previous ruling, Mr. Speaker, I will refrain from answering on behalf of the Opposition, but it is plain to everyone that, if they were ever in a position to abolish the children's and the working families tax credits, and again to freeze child benefit, which was their policy in government, families with children would be considerably worse off--some of them by as much as £50 a week.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): When the Paymaster General and the Chancellor and his friends were popping champagne corks at their celebratory party last night, did it occur to the hon. Lady that the Government's policy will mean that 5 million married couples will no longer qualify for tax credits? They will be worse off under this Government. Is it not wrong for the Government to discriminate against married couples with children while they claim to be helping them?

Dawn Primarolo: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Government also introduced the 10p starting rate and cut the basic rate of tax, which benefited the very taxpayers whom he now identifies. He will, I am sure, accept that the growth of the number of children living in poverty under his Government was a national scandal; that it is the responsibility of this Government to lift those children out of poverty; and that families need the most help when they have children and when those children are small. The hon. Gentleman should turn his mind to his alternatives: would he choose to force more children into poverty or to support this Government's policy?

Gillian Merron (Lincoln): Can my hon. Friend confirm that the children's tax credit is just one of a number of measures designed to lift children out of poverty? Can she also confirm the importance of continuing to fund initiatives by this Government such as the £2 million Birchwood sure start scheme in my constituency, designed to give under-fours the very best start in life? That scheme is clearly very much at risk from the Conservative party, which is pledged to cuts worth millions of pounds across each constituency, including my own.

Dawn Primarolo: I agree with my hon. Friend. The contribution of sure start to families, and particularly to ensuring that their children have the very best start in life, is something that I think the whole House would want to support. We want to ensure that children are not being born into poverty, growing up in poverty and suffering

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from poverty all their adult life. The changes that this Government have made, both with the children's tax credit and the introduction of the working families tax credit, and with the rise in child benefit, mean that many families will be up to £50 better off, compared with their experience of poverty under the previous Government.

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