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5.21 pm

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): I am grateful to be able to take part in this important debate. We should welcome the gracious comments of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) at the beginning of his speech. It was nice to hear such words from a Conservative Member.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on a superb Budget that will be of major benefit to all the people of the United Kingdom. It is worth noting the impact that it will have on Scotland, where it is good news as it will provide an extra £2.7 billion for public services over the next three years. That is equivalent to £528 per man, woman and child in Scotland. A further £5.5 billion will be provided in years four and five.

The 2002 Budget will go down in history as the one in which the Labour Government began to reverse decades of under-investment in the national health service and returned it to the type of health service that people want and deserve. The development of modern techniques and the fact that people are living much longer create an even greater burden. I believe that the vast majority of people understand that massive investment is required to make the health service, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor,

I refer those Members who argue that the public will not understand our policy and will not continue to support the Labour party to the words of the taxi driver who brought me to Westminster this morning. His comments will certainly reassure Labour Members as we all know that London taxi drivers are a great barometer of public opinion. He said, "We want a good health service and we know we have to pay for it." His views reflect what the vast majority of people think. They want an NHS that is free at the point of need and that is not based on anyone's ability to pay.

The reforms demanded are crucial. We need an audit commission, and I welcome the creation of such an independent body. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made it clear just how independent the process will be. There must be an explanation for why some areas of the country are so much better served than others. I hope that the commission will provide such an explanation, as well as the accountability that has been sadly lacking in the health service for a long time.

I also welcome the improvements in the help given to working families through tax credits, which will further help people into work. I wholeheartedly support the efforts to get people into jobs because that is the only way to begin to lead people out of poverty. That is the principal way in which we can achieve our target of eradicating the scourge of child poverty. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg)—she put it so well—that helping even one child out of poverty is worth celebrating. It is appalling that, in 2002, so many children are denied the prosperity of the majority.

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I will continue to work with others in my constituency to improve take-up. I assure the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) that Labour Members continue to remind the Secretary of State about that very important issue.

I was appalled at the attitude of the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) and the scare tactics that he used. I was a housing convenor in the mid-80s and one of the things that worried me most was having to give young, pregnant, vulnerable girls the keys to flats because we were putting them into such a dangerous position. To have to look after a young baby in isolation and without support is probably one of the most frightening experiences in the world. As a mother of four, I completely understand what that is like. Fortunately, I was never left alone, but it must be absolutely terrifying. That is why we should welcome the proposals in the Budget statement.

Supported living accommodation is needed. In my constituency, we have the first foyer project in Scotland, and it grew from a council initiative. Way back in the late 1980s, together with the YMCA, we set up supported accommodation not just for girls, but for young vulnerable people, and that has grown.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): We welcome that initiative only if it is voluntary.

Rosemary McKenna: Believe you me, those young people welcome it, and it is not appropriate in this day and age to put young pregnant girls—some are 14 years of age and all are under 18—who cannot be supported by their parents into a situation that would make their lives worse. They are vulnerable financially and sexually. What happens to some of those young girls is just unbelievable, and we want to ensure that they become responsible citizens and better parents. Surely that is the aim of all hon. Members.

My constituency has benefited greatly from the Budget and certainly since the Labour Government were elected in 1997. We have an unemployment statistic of 3.5 per cent.—a reduction of 43.3 per cent. since 1997. That is an amazing figure in anyone's book. I also congratulate our local jobcentres on developing their own initiatives. They have not waited for instructions to be handed down from on high. They have encouraged people into work, and they have done some superb work.

The people of Cumbernauld and Kilsyth will benefit hugely from the child tax credit, and even more families are benefiting from the working families tax credit—more than my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) says benefit from it in his constituency. More than 1,700 families benefit from it in my constituency.

Mr. Connarty: May I correct my hon. Friend? In fact, I said that it was 1,881.

Rosemary McKenna: I am sorry; I misheard. The number in my hon. Friend's constituency just beats mine. My aim is to get even more people to benefit from that credit and to continue the work on its take-up. Helping people to stay in work is very important. That is why we have to make work pay.

The additional assistance for child care is also greatly welcomed. In my constituency, that is particularly welcome for those who need to have their children looked

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after at home. A great many of those in the work force in my constituency work shift patterns. Many of the jobs are in distribution, with a 24-hour working day. Having child care in the home will make a huge difference to those people; indeed, it will be a good reason for more individuals to get into work. At the moment, a lot of women are prevented from working and cannot take up much-needed jobs.

I welcome the guarantees for pensioners, especially those on state pensions or small occupational pensions. People who were able to provide for their retirement often found themselves in a poverty trap; the Budget will make a tremendous difference to them. Many pensioners in my constituency have asked me to thank the Chancellor because they are better off than they have been for many years; we should not be afraid to express such sentiments. Eight hundred and fifty businesses in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth will benefit from the cuts in the starting rate for corporation tax and the small business rate, as well as other measures to encourage enterprise and new business. New businesses are crucial to future employment prospects, and the Chancellor has provided genuine incentives to improve the business rate.

I am delighted that the Budget will benefit everyone, but I have one concern. How are areas like Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, where people are not highly paid but where there is low unemployment, to help adjoining communities with unacceptably high unemployment? Areas of deep deprivation and poverty, which often adjoin successful constituencies are one of the biggest challenges facing the Government. A significant target for us is to find a way to help them out of poverty.

Cumbernauld and Kilsyth give a sincere welcome to the Budget. We are a hard-working community; most people are in employment, but are not on high incomes. We hoped that the average income would rise in the near future; a well-known Scottish footballer, Henrik Larson, suggested that he would move to the constituency but, sadly, he has changed his mind, disappointing 50 per cent. of my constituency; I do not know what the other 50 per cent. are saying.

It is a great honour to be a member of a Government who have made a commitment to improving our public services. The Budget will ensure that resources will be available to both the Government and the Scottish Executive to deliver improved public services. I believe in our public services, and I want them to be the best in the world.

5.32 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): I draw attention to a registered interest: I am non-executive director of a hotel or catering conference company that is relatively labour-intensive, so I anticipate that it will be adversely affected by some of the provisions in the Budget.

I originally intended to make just two points. Bearing in mind the edict of the Chairman of Ways and Means, I shall restrict myself to one point which, however, I shall extend a little by regretting the fact that the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) is no longer in the Chamber. I appreciate that he has legitimate business elsewhere, but I was genuinely interested in his contribution to our debate. There appear to be affinities

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between Barnsley and Basingstoke. My constituency is situated in a relatively affluent part of the country, but has pockets of deprivation. I therefore identified with the hon. Gentleman's observations about Barnsley. In particular, our health authority has incurred a recurring deficit. Both today and yesterday, I listened carefully to all the Government's statements and observations; I have yet to hear, but look forward to doing so, clarification of the way in which the Government's increased expenditure plans will bear on health authorities with a historic recurring deficit.

I shall confine my further comments to just one point: the impact of the Budget on industry and commerce. Earlier in the debate the Secretary of State referred to the unprecedented strength and stability of the economy—I believe that I quote him accurately. It would be churlish to deny that that is the case in many respects, and I give credit to the Government for that. However, it is not the whole story.

During the previous Parliament, according to the Confederation of British Industry, business was burdened with an extra £6 billion a year in tax and some £5 billion in the estimated cost of red tape. Even before yesterday's Budget, those burdens have been impeding companies' ability to win orders and create jobs.

There is a further down side to the current generally healthy situation. The Government have so far only paid lip service to another important matter—the burden of bureaucracy on UK businesses, which increases remorselessly. Opposition Members have grown accustomed to pointing out that there has been the equivalent of one new regulation every 26 minutes of every working day during the lifetime of the Government. Whether or not that figure is disputed, it is irrefutable that UK businesses are spending more and more time filling in forms and less time chasing orders and creating jobs. Consequently, the UK is becoming a less attractive place to do business.

That is potentially very serious for a constituency such as Basingstoke—there are many similar constituencies, especially in the south-east of England—where a great deal of the locally based economic activity flows from inward investment. Over the past five years the UK has fallen from ninth to 19th in the league of world competitiveness, according to my figures. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer) had slightly different figures, but we are making essentially the same point.

The Government inherited a legacy of low taxation, a mobile work force and low non-wage costs for employers, but that legacy has largely been eroded. We have lost and are losing much of our advantage. That is important to towns with a high-tech industry component, such as Basingstoke. The Minister may recall the table that appeared earlier this week or perhaps last week in The Times, which showed that in towns such as Newbury, Basingstoke, Woking and Bracknell, the rate of unemployment has increased relatively dramatically over the past year or so, admittedly from a very low base. Our productivity growth used to be faster than that of the United States, but under the present Government productivity growth is slowing.

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