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6.46 pm

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Paul Boateng): This has been a good debate. I fear that its tone and content plummeted with the contribution of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). I would not dream of lecturing him; it is not in my nature. I feel called on, however, to counsel him slightly, which is in my nature. The last person whom I witnessed using visual aids at the Dispatch Box, as he has just done, was one Neil Hamilton. We all know what happened to him. I would hate the hon. Member for Buckingham to end up in freak show television. He is due for another destination entirely—languishing on the Opposition Benches for many years to come.

In this Budget, we are building on the prudence of our first five years in office the principles for the next 50 years. I say that in the light of two contributions that I have heard from Opposition Members. If I may, I should like to compare and contrast them, as one was invited to do in response to exam questions of the sort set by the professor—the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on this issue—and even, I suspect, from time to time, by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), in his own mind at any rate.

The two contributions in question came from the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer). They were interesting and contrasting contributions. That of the right hon. Member for Fylde was reflective and considered. It bore all the hallmarks of someone who has been responsible for the publication of the Red Book, and it raised a number of important issues, not least about oil fraud. I am bound to say that, just as Calais was found to have been carved on the heart of Mary Tudor, so oil fraud will be found—when that unhappy day comes—to have been carved on mine. I will therefore write to the right hon. Gentleman about his detailed points in relation to oil fraud.

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A contrasting speech was made by the hon. Member for West Worcestershire. His contribution was that of an energetic Europhobe and a fanatical free marketeer, who characterised the Government's economic policy in the most grotesque way. For him to suggest, having heard yesterday's Budget speech by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the Government had a downer on competition and did not recognise the benefits of the market parodies beyond belief what the Government have stood for over the past five years.

The hon. Member for Buckingham invited the House to consider what has been said about the Budget by those responsible for industry, business and the creation of wealth in our society. I am happy to do that. I refer him to the comments of Mr. Digby Jones of the CBI, who said that the Chancellor had left businesses in no doubt that he was committed to encouraging enterprise. The tax improvements, he said, including those relating to the red tape burden, were welcome. He especially welcomed the financial help for small businesses gaining accreditation as Investors in People. Although the two sides of the House disagree about the issues and about the balance of the Budget, to characterise the Budget, as the hon. Member for West Worcestershire sought to do, as anti-competitive and anti-market does not do justice to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's statement.

Sir Michael Spicer: Will the Minister at least accept that the Government have fundamentally changed their minds about tax and spend in the past six months? Is that why the Prime Minister has been going around looking so washed out over the past few days?

Mr. Boateng: I do not accept that, or the hon. Gentleman's description of the Prime Minister, any more than I recognise his description of the state of the British economy today. We must not forget what we inherited from the Conservative party.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Will the Financial Secretary give way?

Mr. Boateng: No, not at the moment. Conservative Members do not like being reminded of their past, but they will have to hear about it for a bit.

We inherited from the Conservatives in 1996–97 a debt that was 44 per cent. of national income. Three years ago, we brought it down to 36 per cent. and, last year, it was 31 per cent. That is in stark contrast to the United States, which has a debt of 41 per cent., the euro area as a whole—this will be music to the ears of the hon. Member for West Worcestershire—which has a debt of 53 per cent., and Japan, which has a debt of 59 per cent.

The difference between us and Conservative Members is that we have the prudence and capacity to manage the economy, whereas they are incompetent and have a wanton disregard for sound public finances. That was the Conservative party's legacy. The Labour party is now the party of government—that rankles with all too many Conservative Members—and we have cut interest debt payments by £8 billion and saved almost £5 billion more on the cost of unemployment.

The hon. Member for Buckingham is concerned about waste. What about the waste of idleness and the obscene waste of unemployment? That is what Conservative

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Members were responsible for when they had stewardship of our economy. We have made the Bank of England independent, a step that the shadow Chancellor described at the time as damaging to the future of this country. Conservative Members have changed their minds. I listened to the right hon. Member for Fylde, and I could actually believe—this may stretch the imagination of some of my hon. Friends—that, somewhere deep in the bowels in the office of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, he was secretly working away at just such a plan. However he did not have the guts to implement it. It took a Labour Government and a Labour Chancellor to do that, and the economy has benefited ever since.

We have freed up the resources for public services in a sustainable and responsible way. We are delivering on our commitment to improve the public services in the Budget. That was recognised by my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Rosemary McKenna), for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) and for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell). All of them recognised in their contributions what the Government have done for the public services.

This Budget rightly places an emphasis on health—I want to deal with that in detail in a moment—but my hon. Friends have also recognised what we have done for education and law and order in their constituencies. Importantly, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln also emphasised in referring to community sports clubs what we have done for social cohesion—what we have done about the business of bringing together people and communities.

Yes, we are desperately concerned as a Government about the importance of social inclusion. Yes, we are concerned to take the practical measures necessary to bring together sections of our community, one of which has been mentioned in the debate: teenage mums—girls under the age of 18 who find themselves with child. Yes, we are determined to do all we can to bring them back into the mainstream of society, to give them the opportunities to gain an education and to make work pay for them. Yes, we are absolutely determined to use all the

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resources and measures at our disposal to ensure that they do not just allow themselves, or that they are not allowed, to languish alone, unsupported and isolated, in council estates or in unfurnished or furnished bedsits throughout the country.

Yes, there is another way: it is right to make available the resources by which those young girls can be helped in supported accommodation. For those who speak for the Liberal Democrats to characterise that as a form of compulsion is a travesty of what we seek to do. This is a matter not of compulsion, but of support and encouragement.

Mr. Willetts: Is the Financial Secretary aware that in an article headed "Why we should stop giving lone teenage mothers council homes" that appeared in the Daily Mail on 14 June 1999, the Prime Minister announced that that was the Government's policy, and that nothing has been done in the three years since then?

Mr. Boateng: My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has taken forward that cause in the Budget, as he has a range of other issues.

The Budget sets out our response to three key challenges. The challenge of enterprise involves a low-taxation environment, incentives for investment and innovation and support for small businesses. There is the challenge of child poverty and family prosperity. We are helping families to help themselves with a radical reform of the tax and benefits system. All families with an income of up to £58,000 a year will be better off. There is also the challenge of the public services, which were starved of investment under two decades of Conservative rule.

We are seeking to address decades of underinvestment in the NHS. The Opposition have failed to explain in all their wanderings, like flying Dutchmen going from place to place, how they will deliver the resources necessary for the NHS. Above all, they have failed to say how they would pay for the NHS and who would do the paying. We know who would pay—the public, through charges and private insurance. The Budget defends the NHS and takes forward our economy. I commend it to the House.

Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Caplin.]

Debate to be resumed on Monday next.

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