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6.54 pm

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): I do not know whether to congratulate the generous Chancellor or the socialist Chancellor. Perhaps I should congratulate him on both counts.

Congratulations on the Budget are in order. The Government and the Chancellor should be applauded for a very good Budget, which is based on the competent management of the economy. It is worth repeating just how good the economy is and how it has been turned round. We have the lowest inflation for 30 years, which is really good news for anyone on a fixed low income. We have the lowest long-term interest rates for 35 years; that is very good news for Halifax, which has a high owner-occupier population. On average, mortgages are now £1,200 a year less than they were under the previous Government. More people are in work than ever before and we have the lowest unemployment since 1975. All those things are worth repeating again and again.

In Halifax, 3,463 people were unemployed in April 1997, but now the figure has fallen to just over 2,000--a drop of 36 per cent. Under the new deal, nearly 1,400 young people have found work or gone into training or higher education. The means-testing of pensioners has been criticised. I am not a big fan of means-testing; I support universal benefits, and always have done. However, at least 3,000 pensioners in Halifax--not a small number--have gained from the minimum income guarantee. From this April, a single pensioner will be on £92.15 and a pensioner couple on £140.55. That is not to be sneered at; it is to be welcomed.

All the 18,253 pensioners in Halifax benefit from the winter fuel payment given to households with someone over 60. The benefit is immensely popular--indeed, it is one of the most popular benefits that we have introduced. It is so popular that the Conservatives have said that they will not abolish it. It is not means-tested and it is flexible; people can use it when they need to and spend it on the

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energy that they want. In Halifax, a large number of pensioners over 75--at least 7,301--have benefited from a free television licence, saving them £104 a year. They have an extra £2 of income a week, which they can spend as they wish. As the Paymaster General is on the Front Bench, I shall repeat my bid for the free licence to be extended to everyone over 65.

From April, all the 18,253 pensioners in Halifax will get a boost in the state retirement pension, which will rise by £5 for a single pensioner and £8 for a couple. We must remind those who have listened to the Tories' promise to match that increase that the Tories had 18 years in which to do something about pensioner poverty. I have been in the House long enough to remember a 37p increase in pensions, so we should have no nonsense from the Tories about 75p--[Interruption.] Yes, there certainly was a 37p increase.

The Chancellor has worked on the pension credit, which will be introduced in 2003. He should be commended for looking ahead and examining how we increase pensioner incomes. I should like the link between earnings and pensions to be restored, but I will take whatever is on offer. Over the years, I have had experience of dealing with pensioners on low incomes, so I know that any money is welcome. I can sell the package to my constituents and am proud to do so. This is a good Budget, built on good measures that have been introduced over the years.

I turn to families, and could not disagree more with the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), who criticised the working families tax credit. More than 4,500 working families with children in Halifax are benefiting from the working families tax credit. They are guaranteed an income of nearly £220 a week, which is an enormous boost for low-paid families struggling to bring up children.

Mr. Ruffley: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I would not want her to go away with the impression that I was against more money for those families. She is well aware that the working families tax credit is no more than re-badged family credit, which was introduced by my noble Friend Lord Lawson. The issue is not that we do not want to benefit those families but the manner in which that help is delivered. The burden of my argument was that it is much too complex.

Mrs. Mahon: The hon. Gentleman will agree that the present benefit is far more generous than family credit. My hon. Friend the Paymaster General should be congratulated on the hard work that she has done to introduce the working families tax credit, which is an excellent benefit.

I congratulate the Government on child benefit, which is a very good payment. It goes to the mother, and into her purse. In 1997 child benefit was £11.05 for the first child. From April this year, it will be £15.50, which is a significant increase. The mother can rely on receiving the payment every week. I am pleased with the measures that are being introduced. The Budget contains many more measures for the family, on which the Government are to be congratulated.

The shadow Chancellor sneered at the tax cut for the lower paid. I can tell him that 12,745 families in Halifax will receive the benefit of that, on top of all the other

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measures. If the shadow Chancellor and some of his hon. Friends who sneer at the size of the tax cut had any experience of living on a low income and managing a budget, they would not have made that criticism. They do not understand poverty, and they do not care.

On education, my constituency was at the heart of a scandal concerning The Ridings school, which was dubbed the worst school in Britain. It certainly was not the worst, but there were problems at the school and the media became interested. The Government have ensured that that school is properly resourced. I am sure that everyone read in the national press about the excellent Ofsted report and about how that school is coming up. The children are learning and want to learn, and congratulations are due to Anna White, the teachers, the governors and the children, and to the Government on putting money into the school.

I was delighted when the Chancellor said that local schools will get more direct cash payments. That is a popular measure: heads and teachers like it. They know the weaknesses and the strengths of their schools, and they can spend the money accordingly. I repeat to the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) what I said in my intervention. I invite him to come to Halifax and see the new buildings.

The hon. Gentleman should come to Sowerby Bridge school, where I took a member of our Front Bench team when we were in opposition, to see a school that still had the same desks that my husband, who is over 60, had used when he was at the school. I invite the hon. Gentleman to come and see the refurbished school now, with its new computer centre and its wonderfully equipped new classrooms. On top of that, we have been promised £36 million for a brand new secondary school. I thank the Government for that very good news. This is the first time in years that we have seen such spending on education.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made some important announcements today, pursuing the national health service plan and putting in the resources necessary to implement it. The plan is excellent. It is what the NHS needs and it is long overdue. The Government have guaranteed that our health authority allocation will rise in real terms by at least 6 per cent., and by 6 per cent. for the following two years. That substantial increase in our allocation is welcome.

We have been through a difficult time, but this afternoon's announcement and some of the measures in the Budget mean that we will be able to implement the plan. I congratulate the Government on our new hospital, which will open in June. There has been a merger between Calderdale and Kirklees, and we now have a merged trust, the Calderdale and Huddersfield trust. A new chief executive was appointed today. I am disappointed by the appointment, and I intend at a future date to ask for a debate on the subject. There is a flaw in the power of the regional directors and the way in which they appoint all administrators.

The appointment will be bad news for those of us in Calderdale who have spent years trying to get a new hospital. We now have it, but we will have a hostile chief executive, who did not want the new hospital and does not want two accident and emergency services. We are getting the money in through the Budget, and we could have one such service in Huddersfield and one in Halifax. We desperately need two accident and emergency services

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because of the geography of the area, but the new chief executive is not in favour of that. I believe that she will work hard to take women's and children's services away from Calderdale, which will be a tragedy. We have been commended by all the experts for our neonatal intensive care unit, and we are getting the money now to ensure that we have excellent services in that field.

We have enough money from the Budget allocation to have the headquarters of the merged trust in Calderdale, which would be the only fair thing to do. The health authority headquarters are in Huddersfield, and in the interests of fairness, the trust headquarters should be in Calderdale. I know that that will lead to another fight locally, following the selection of Diane Whittingham.

The extra money in the Budget is needed in Calderdale, and is extremely welcome. Our state-of-the-art hospital would never have been built without a Labour Government. The merger was managed extremely well by the departing chair, Pam Warhurst, and others, who should be congratulated on trying to keep the two communities together. Following the merger, we can attract the best doctors and nurses. It is a pity that that wonderful record has been spoiled by a civil servant, Peter Garland, who put his own empire-building before the best for my constituents, but I make a pledge: I shall fight for those constituents and for Halifax. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Ms McCafferty), who cannot be present today, would say exactly the same.

This afternoon we heard the Secretary of State tell us that we are aiming for 20,000 more nurses and 7,000 more consultants. We desperately need them. I was pleased to hear that there has been a 56 per cent. increase in the number of applicants for nursing and midwifery courses. I am ecstatic about the visionary extension of child care help in the NHS, which will attract people back and ensure that their skills will not be wasted and under-used at home. I congratulate the Government on the increase in the student bursary. It is not enough yet, but it is a good start.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health, who is on the Front Bench, will forgive my little moan. It has been a good news story for health today, but I urge him to look at the flaw in the selection of chief executives, which is not democratic or fair. If we are serious about being equal opportunity employers, we should examine the civil service guidance, which gives one civil servant far too much power over everything.

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