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Mr. Barker rose

Fiona Mactaggart: I will not take any interventions. I have sat here all day and am the first woman to speak, but I have only eight minutes.

No one likes paying tax. We all think—usually correctly—that we are the best judges of how to spend our money, but there are some things, such as public transport, that we cannot provide for ourselves. Other provision, such as health care, is much cheaper and better when provided collectively.

I know that because I remember vividly when my mother required a kidney transplant. The private health insurance company, on which she had depended for half a century, abandoned her. Because of her growing ill health, it put her premiums up to thousands of pounds a year. When my uncle lay dying in a British hospital, his daughter told me that, despite the pile of empty cardboard boxes by the lift and the lack of a carpet on the floor, the quality of nursing care that her dad received was fantastic. It was much better than the care that her mum received in a very posh private hospital in Florida.

We must not doubt that the quality of care that NHS patients receive is unmatched. Because we can hold the institution of the NHS accountable, we can deliver a better service. That will always be hard for an individual to achieve.

Another sign of the growing maturity of politics is a willingness to invest in the long game, when results will not be seen before the next general election. Research

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shows that that long-term investment is worth it when it comes to children: every pound spent on a child under seven results in savings of £7 later in that child's life. The investments that have been made in the child tax credit or in innovations such as sure start will not show a return for 10 or 15 years, but other beneficial effects will be evident—women will continue to participate in the labour market, children will have a better start in life and be able to achieve better skills, and so on.

The Budget's emphasis on directing resources towards mothers is really important. Women have done better than men out of Budgets under this Government since 1997. That is sensible politics, as it recognises who is the responsible person in a family. The mother is the one who invests in the children and protects the needs of the family.

Fear and despair are the greatest destroyers of real politics. People are afraid for their children's futures and for their own health. A third great fear that destroys politics locally is the fear of crime. I was glad to hear that the Budget will devote some extra investment to the criminal justice system. More will have to be done, however: people can buy their way out of the consequences of crime by acquiring gates and security guards, but the criminal justice system cannot be privatised.

Am I right in thinking that the Budget could deliver a new integrity in politics? For politics to work, people have to engage in debate. They have to respect each other, and I admired what the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) said—I rarely do that, but the hon. Gentleman said that the Opposition should not be treated as scoundrels. He suggested that we should accept that Opposition Members want to do their best for people, and that their proposals are worthy of examination.

I was terribly disappointed that, when he responded to the Budget statement, the Leader of the Opposition did not rise to the challenge laid down by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to create a national consensus on the health service. Instead, the right hon. Gentleman asked what we had to show for the extra investment in education. Well, I shall tell the House what my constituency has to show for that extra investment.

When I was selected to stand for the Slough constituency, half of all children leaving the primary schools there were unable to reach a basic standard in reading. That proportion is now 25 per cent. It is still too high, but the number of pupils leaving our primary schools who are unable to read properly has been halved. That is the difference that the extra investment has made.

We should not just consider British standards, however. We should make international comparisons, as we have with the health service. During the same period, Britain has moved from the bottom quartile to eighth in international comparator tests relating to literacy and numeracy.

If we invest well and base our investment on good research, we can improve standards. The Budget gives us the chance to do that if we build a national consensus, but we cannot do it if we adopt the approach of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He was right to say that it is not the amount spent but what it delivers that counts, but he went on to justify everyone's cynicism about politics by observing that if it did deliver in the health service he might say "Well done", but he would

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say it the day after a general election rather than the day before. If we engage in politics like that, we let down the British people. We betray them, and we betray the duty that we bring to this House of Commons.

I urge the Chancellor, however, to make it easier for people to understand the set of processes involved. I have two degrees, but I do not understand my tax return. I do not think I am alone in that, although I may be alone in admitting it. We must make it easier for people to see where the money comes from, as well as where it goes. A number of suggestions have been made today—the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), for instance, made precisely this point in terms of scrutiny of the Budget—but we certainly need to ensure that the context of people's tax take is much clearer to them.

I welcome the simplification of small businesses' VAT, and I feel we should keep working to make the operation of tax credits more comprehensible. I understand why the Chancellor rejected the idea of a hypothecated tax for the NHS, but I think he should continue the investment in a way that enables people to see where the money comes from.

The Chancellor should invest in a way that will deliver change. He should ignore the counsels of despair from Opposition Members who say that that is not possible with public investment, and ensure that public investment delivers the reform and the improvement that we require.

9.52 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), and I thank her for allowing me time to speak. I agree with her about the need to make the whole tax system simpler. Since the present Chancellor took office, Tolley's tax guide has got bigger and bigger. I do not think this was the Chancellor's intention, but the system has become more complicated and less easy to understand. As the hon. Lady said, roll on the day when we can deal with our own tax returns again.

I found parts of the Budget very encouraging. There were a number of plus points. The Chancellor spoke of a ladder of opportunity for businesses and said that the Government were on the side of business. I welcome the research and development tax credit, which he said would be worth £400 million a year, and the reduction in small companies' corporation tax by 1 per cent. to 19 per cent. However, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), many small businesses do not make a profit at all. I wonder how many of them will benefit.

On the plus side, I welcome the changes in capital gains tax and the VAT regime. On the minus side, the increase in national insurance contributions—as the Leader of the Opposition said—is equivalent to a 3 per cent. increase in corporation tax. It will lead to a tax take of £6.1 billion. Furthermore, as well as hitting companies and largely undoing the good done by the corporation tax reduction, it will hit the pockets of senior nurses, police officers, hospital radiographers and senior post office sorting staff. Many of them do not have a large income, yet they will be about £29 a month worse off. They—the people on the front line of public services—are exactly the sort of people we need to deliver better public services, but if their morale is damaged they will not be in a position to do so.

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There is nothing in the Budget about reducing the burden on small businesses. Last Friday in my constituency I attended a chamber of commerce lunch at which every business man I spoke to mentioned the increasing burden on small businesses. A recent survey of 600 members of the Institute of Directors reveals that 84 per cent. feel that excessive bureaucracy is worsening. The British Chambers of Commerce estimates that the costs faced by business have increased by £15 billion.

Some of the burdens are home grown—the current Employment Bill has been mentioned—but there are various European directives as well. The end of life vehicles directive will oblige car makers to assume financial responsibility for scrapping old cars from this year onwards. If it is strictly enforced, that directive could wreak havoc on this country's car industry. There are 26.5 million cars on our roads: if it costs £300 to deal with each car under the directive, the overall cost will be £7.95 billion.

The problem is not only red tape but the growing tax burden on businesses. The CBI estimated that the Labour Government had increased business taxes by £5.8 billion. Business taxation as a whole in this country was moving in the right direction in terms of the supply side of our economy vis-à-vis that of other countries. That movement has now been arrested, and it might even go into reverse as companies have to pay more tax. That will mean that Britain's competitive position will continue to slip—we were ninth in the world, now we are nineteenth—and our productivity, which was better than America's, will continue to fall. I am concerned that there is not more in the Budget to help small businesses and to reduce the burden of bureaucratic red tape.

Much of the Chancellor's speech was devoted to the national health service. There have been large increases in NHS expenditure, but I can see no real evidence of improvement. I spent four years out of Parliament. When I was last a Member of Parliament, I received about one letter a week from constituents complaining about NHS matters. I should say that they were not complaining about the staff, the management or the nurses, who we all know are entirely dedicated and do a superb job. Now, however, I get five or six letters a day from constituents complaining about, for example, cancellations of operations or long waits. Two days ago I received a letter from a constituent who has had a serious stroke: he must wait 14 weeks for an MRI scan, even though his consultant believes that there is blood on the back of his brain and he needs a scan immediately.

My local hospital in King's Lynn, the Queen Elizabeth hospital, has a severe shortage of consultants in key disciplines, including radiology, pathology, histology and dermatology. The hospital recently recruited 80 Filipino nurses; they are extremely caring and hard working, but that is not a long-term solution. There has been a large increase in emergency admissions, but our number of acute beds per head of population is less than the average. The number of beds in the hospital has fallen from 602 eight years ago to 504 last year.

That is not all the fault of the last Conservative Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West pointed out, the bed-blocking problem is entirely the fault of the Labour Government. The Opposition will support increased funding for the NHS, but only in a framework of structural changes to the NHS. In every other European country that is spending more on

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health than we do, there is a mature mix of private and public health provision. The only way to bring our expenditure on health up to the European average is to secure a bigger role for the private sector. Yes, we need more public expenditure on the NHS, but we also need a genuine partnership between the public and private sectors.

Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Caplin.]

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

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