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7.59 pm

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): I shall begin by asking a question that Opposition Members have not answered tonight: do they propose to make £16 billion of

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cuts if they come to power? Perhaps the key to the answer lies in the fact that they have performed a U-turn. Proposals for cuts were certainly being touted some time ago, but the suggested figure was £8 billion. Now they say that they will make Whitehall so efficient that they will save all that money without making cuts in services. The Opposition should not be ducking and weaving because it is not only the House but the country that is entitled to an answer.

The point has been made that the Chancellor is not interested in business. If that is so, why has he made allowances on VAT for small businesses and cut corporation tax? Those are not the acts of a Chancellor who is not interested in business. According to the Opposition, the Budget is not interesting, perhaps because interest rates and inflation are low. It might be more exciting for them if interest rates and inflation were high, and perhaps that is what they would like. Low interest rates and inflation help to foster competition and to create jobs. Low interest rates affect people who under the previous Government would have suffered negative equity--a little thing that the Opposition forget.

I welcomed the introduction of the minimum wage and I welcome also the increase in the basic rate. The Government should be proud of that, and both the introduction of the minimum wage and the increase should excite some Members. I welcome, too, the reduction in youth and adult unemployment because under the previous Government there were between 3 million and 4 million in unemployment, and it was the scourge of young and middle-aged people throughout the country. Ageism was dragged into the argument as a form of selectivity for jobs. People have never really understood what that was all about.

I understand why my hon. Friend the Paymaster- General introduced the IR35 rules, but I also accept the point made by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor). There have been abuses of the rules, as I am sure he agrees, but my hon. Friend should do everything in her power to reach agreement on the matter. Several constituents have approached me about it, and we must consider the definition because I am concerned about the possibility of individuals losing their jobs or contracts. I have raised the matter a number of times with my hon. Friend. I agree with the hon. Member for Esher and Walton that everything must be done to encourage both sides at least to get talking to try to resolve the issue.

In Coventry, we have had bad news today that Marconi will shed jobs, but I do not know the exact figure yet. We know that Marconi will also increase the number of jobs in Coventry, but I do not know whether that will be a restructuring exercise or something else, because the company has said that it is considering restructuring worldwide. I do not want to be alarmist, but we must be vigilant. I must once more highlight the fact that several months ago, Rolls-Royce said that it was to restructure, with jobs in Coventry going to Canada. However, through the good offices of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, discussions are taking place between the trade unions and Rolls-Royce's management to try to save as many jobs as possible. Although we feel reasonably confident that things are going well, it is worth while now and again pointing out blips that affect us as constituency MPs, and I have highlighted two in particular.

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I welcome the cuts in fuel duty, which demonstrate that at least the Government listen to the public on that matter, as they always have. The question was whether they should introduce a mini-Budget and erode confidence or wait for the proper time to make changes. I welcome, too, the help given to hauliers and the environmental rebate scheme that has been introduced to the tune of £35 million. I welcome the tax help given to companies such as Rolls-Royce for research and development.

Under the previous Government, 47p in the pound was going to pay off interest on Government debt. We have got that figure down to 16p in the pound, and the money saved is being ploughed into services. I hope that the Opposition are listening because they could avoid the charge that they will make £16 billion of cuts by being creative.

I welcome the financial measures to help disabled people, which have not had much mention today or in earlier Budget debates. The disabled person's tax credit must be welcomed because over the years we have had many debates about how we should help people with disabilities. I welcome also the guaranteed minimum income of £250 a week for families with a provider or other adult who is disabled. That should be applauded, but it has not been highlighted.

The charge that the Chancellor does not do much for business can be answered by the fact that many small businesses with a turnover of more than £100,000 per annum will not pay VAT. If that is not a measure that helps small businesses, I do not know what is. Recently, however, my attention has been drawn to retention payments. I would not claim to have great Treasury experience, but I know that the issue affects small businesses who employ only a few people as well as larger businesses. Of course, it may take them years to get retention payments back, and many have a small cash flow, which can present major problems. I hope that Ministers will consider whether something can be done to help small businesses on that matter.

We must welcome the Government's news that over the next five years there will be a 50 per cent. increase in NHS funding. I have not heard the Opposition say very much about that tonight. One of the big problems facing the NHS, as we all know, is recruitment. The Government have made available £135 million for that, and we must applaud it.

I want to draw the Government's attention to a matter that has been raised with me by pensioners and groups representing the elderly--the worry about how they will finance community care for themselves. We know about the cost of caring for elderly people in residential homes. I hope that my hon. Friend the Paymaster General will say something about that because in some areas people who run such homes are going out of business. I do not expect any ready-made answers tonight, but the matter should be considered.

Another area that concerns me personally, because I have experience of it, is the need to restore dignity to public services. We could do a lot more about that. I have said that before, but it is always worth saying it again. I refer in particular to local government, because in the past it has spent its fair share of time being the whipping boy on which we blame every ill in society, from cuts to legislation that affects the delivery of services. I do not need to go through every aspect of that legislation because most hon. Members will know what I am referring to.

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I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has started to take action to improve education by reducing class sizes. We must review teachers' salaries and do more to encourage more people into the profession, as Ministers are doing. We must ensure that teachers feel that they are doing a full-time job and that--to return to the dignity of public service--the public once again respect their teachers.

I have two universities in my constituency, so it would be remiss of me not to raise issues affecting students. The House must consider the Cubie report and how soon its recommendations can be implemented, although that will obviously not be during this Parliament. My hon. Friends should consider other ways of ensuring that students do not end up with massive debts when they leave university, which remain a millstone round their neck when they get a job.

Universities are looking at various devices to raise resources. Laptops have been an issue recently in Coventry--anyone who did not have a laptop might not get a place at a certain university there. There has also been the suggestion of top-up fees, although I know that my right hon. Friend has set his face against that. We must be vigilant about such matters in the next Parliament.

A further matter of concern is the plight of mature students who want to go into the medical profession and take night school courses, but find those difficult to sustain because of their lack of income. I hope that Ministers, especially my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, will look into that.

The Government have done much that we should welcome. We welcome the £200 winter fuel allowance, which was a major step. We welcome pension increases, although some pensioners are still pressing for a link with earnings. No doubt we shall return to that debate in future. The Government have done much, and we want to do more, in relation to concessions for pensioners on public transport.

An issue that concerns me in Coventry is the amalgamation of schools that is currently taking place. To some extent, that can result in school closures. The formula is under review, and I hope that the review will be speeded up. More flexibility in the formula is needed so that schools in my constituency can be kept open, and the buildings can be used for other community or medical purposes. There is much to welcome in what the Government have done for the national health service, the education service and small businesses. The Opposition may find the Budget dull, but it gives people confidence to know that inflation is low and that interest rates are low, which helps investments and avoids negative equity.

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