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Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: No. I have given way on several occasions and I shall not do so again.

We shall set schools free. Unfortunately, the Government and the Secretary of State cannot and will not see the need to do that. That is why they have failed to deliver. It is why we have teacher shortages, why children are being sent home early and why children are being taught by non-specialist and unqualified staff. It is why the Government will continue to fail.

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We need a vision for education, and a Government with that vision. As long as we have a Labour Government who think that education is merely a tool for achieving politically set numerical targets or for meeting politically correct slogans, and as long as the Secretary of State agrees that teachers are learning managers, equipping children with "learnacy" skills, children's education will suffer.

Parents, children and teachers need a Government who value education in its own right, recognise the importance of instilling knowledge and encouraging creativity as well as teaching skills, and above all recognise the importance of inspiring children and young people to achieve. We will be that Government. We will set schools free, let heads manage and let teachers teach. We will raise standards in the classroom. Our children cannot afford another four years of Labour.

4.57 pm

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): After that strange rant about what goes on in our schools, I want to move on, but I have a comment about the speech of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). When I visit schools in my constituency, I find that teachers and head teachers do not want every penny of spending devolved to them. They appreciate much of what the local education authority does for them and want it to continue to have a role.

I welcome yet another triumph of economic mastery by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I welcome also the money that will be given directly to schools. The move has been welcomed by schools in Lewisham in the past, and it will be welcomed again. However, I hope that the money will be used not only for the bread-and-butter issues of the day but more imaginatively to expand pupils' aspirations through creative projects that will further develop and enhance their future life styles beyond the classroom and after their lives in school.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's announcement about funding to increase the number of teachers. As he knows, teacher numbers have been a problem in Lewisham, and continue to be. We have a peculiar problem that stems from the inadequacies of the Conservative Government, both in 1989 and 1993, when they did not deal properly with the recruitment and retention of staff in schools.

I shall take an overall view of the Budget. Anthony Crosland, writing in the 1950s at a time of growing prosperity, talked about

and the need for a greater emphasis on personal freedom, choice, happiness and culture in future. Commenting on the values of those pioneers of the Labour movement, the Webbs, he wrote:

Almost half a century later, we are again living through a period of growing prosperity. I hope that Tony--Crosland, that is--may yet be proved right. We have in our Chancellor of the Exchequer a true stakhanovite--a man who wears more hair shirts than anyone since Thomas More. We have a Chancellor who has given us economic stability and whose values are work and thrift.

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In the Budget, he is continuing to make work pay and to make savings pay out more. People will benefit from the Budget if they contribute to the economic prosperity through work.

I do not deny that there are traditional battles that still need to be fought and won. It is an indictment of 18 years of Conservative rule that when we came to power, one in three children were living in poverty. There was hopelessness and despair in some of our inner-city housing estates, including those in my Lewisham constituency. We inherited a Britain in which our NHS, schools and other public services had been run down to the brink of disaster. That is changing, sometimes frustratingly slowly, but the comprehensive spending review and the Budget measures are together building us a better Britain.

We must aspire to do more. Although we are acting to end child poverty--more than 1 million children will be taken out of poverty thanks to the Labour Government's policies--to eliminate sink estates and to provide an education system and an NHS that are second to none, we should not lose sight of the fact that, for many people, the important issues of the future are more leisure time, happiness, the arts, architecture and the environment.

Of course Budgets are important. They can have a real impact on the economy. Over the years, Budgets have become major spectator events, closely watched and extensively commented on by the media. However, for those doing nicely or who are quite well-off--in other words, large swathes of middle England--the Budget is only a sideshow. More important to them are the preservation of the green belt, the quality of local restaurants and the performance of their favourite football team, and rightly so.

Budgets need to strike a balance between helping those in need and rewarding those who contribute to making society a better place. They should expand people's aspirations and creativity and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, liberate the talents of individuals. That is why the changes in funding for churches and renovation have been particularly welcome in my constituency. Only yesterday, I visited St. Margaret's church in Lee to celebrate in choral evensong the magnificent renovations there. During the evening, many of my constituents commented on and welcomed that aspect of the Budget.

Budgets should expand horizons. People in Lewisham, like those elsewhere, want to be able to use their leisure time purposefully. They want their environment to be both preserved and protected. They are concerned about the built environment. They want to ensure that proper respect is given to our heritage, preserving all that is good from the past while also being interested in developing new ideas and constructs for the future. Budgets should aim to create an environment that allows for creative expression in the arts or sport. That is why the changes for museums in the Budget are so important.

The Government are committed to social inclusion. That involves not only work to alleviate poverty, raise standards in schools and reduce crime, all of which collectively improve the well-being of our citizens, but giving them the opportunity to enjoy the arts as both spectators and producers. As we create more wealth, we

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need to create an environment where more people can enjoy that wealth. Thanks to the Chancellor's successful economic management over the past four years, we can do that. As a modern democratic socialist, I believe that economic policy must be about helping those at the bottom of the pile and creating a good-time society. For that reason, I very much welcome the Budget.

5.5 pm

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon): "Education, education, education" was originally a cry from Lenin, who did not mean it. I suspect that the Secretary of State, who has just left, does mean it. He is sincere and, in his unavoidable absence, I should like to congratulate him on graciously adopting some of the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who is shadow Secretary of State. That behaviour is as welcome as it is unusual, and I hope that future Governments of both complexions will be inclined to follow that particularly good example.

Turning to the Budget as a whole, I am pleased that the Chancellor has cut taxes and given back to taxpayers a small proportion of the money that he has extracted from them in the past four years. His generosity is not surprising: notwithstanding the problems of foot and mouth, a general election is pending and the public accounts show ample scope for tax reductions and, perhaps, modest expenditure increases. Yet, only a few weeks ago, when the Opposition said that, they were condemned as "irresponsible" by spokesmen from the Treasury and elsewhere. We now see how shallow those attacks were, for if the Opposition were irresponsible, why has the most prudent of Chancellors done what they recommended? In truth, my right hon. and hon. Friends were right to identify the scope for tax reduction. Not only were they right but, if the economy stays on course, there may be scope for even more tax cuts in future.

A principal reason for that remarkable leeway is the sheer size of tax increases over the past four years. We must disentangle fact from fiction. Prior to the Budget, there had been 26 increases in personal taxation and 19 increases in taxes on business in this Parliament. That number has risen slightly although, given the Chancellor's remarkable gift for sleight of hand, one must study the small print carefully to find out precisely how many tax increases there are. However, their sum total is enormous. The abolition of tax credits on dividends alone will cost shareholders about £6 billion in the current tax year. The reorganisation of advance corporation tax at the beginning of this Parliament has affected the quality of pension funds for millions of elderly people and cost those funds more than £5 billion during the course of this Parliament; it will do continuing damage until it is changed.

Even after offsetting tax reductions--of which there have been some, mostly minor, examples--the Inland Revenue's overall tax yield has risen by an astonishing one third during this Parliament. No wonder the savings ratio has fallen so badly. That is not a wicked Tory calculation; an independent survey shows the average family to be worse off than it was in 1996. The old tax-until-the-pips-squeak bruiser Lord Healey must be salivating enviously at the extent of the tax rises forced through by the Chancellor.

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More people have been dragged into tax. An extra 2 million now pay tax; 28 million pay it, compared with 26 million three years ago.

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