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14 Apr 2003 : Column 714—continued

9.39 pm

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Paul Boateng): Over-egged, over-long and vaguely unpleasant; the only truth that was missing was the fact

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that the British economy has grown, is growing and will continue to grow—something that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) strangely failed to mention. The reality is that, in the main, this has been a very good debate in which right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have made some important and worthwhile contributions, and I will just refer to a number of them.

My hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington), for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) stressed the importance of the enterprise culture and our work to promote innovation and science, which is absolutely essential if we are to address the productivity issues that have concerned all hon. Members.

My hon. Friends the Members for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) and for Peterborough (Mrs. Clark) stressed the importance of ensuring that we build on the growth that is occurring in the private and the public sectors, that we recognise the importance of productivity in the public and the private sectors and that the challenges of both those sectors need to be addressed. The Government would be the first to admit that we still have a way to go, but the Budget lays out the challenge, establishes very clearly the basis of macro-economic stability on which we have proceeded and stresses the importance of working together to bridge the productivity gap and to narrow the gap that undoubtedly exists between ourselves and the United States.

Two important contributions were made by Opposition Members. The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) talked importantly about the need to ensure that we maintain the course that we have started on in relation to environmental taxation and do not miss the opportunities that exist. That is undoubtedly the case, and, with bioethanol, we have begun the process of recognising what alternative fuels can produce for the agricultural economy and the environment generally.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said that we must address the needs of the armed forces. We have done that, and I am sure that he will recognise the fact that the last settlement for the armed forces was, as the chiefs of staff have recognised, perhaps the most generous for 20 years. In relation to the contingency reserve that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made to ensure that we meet the challenges of the conflict in Iraq, I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks: that £3 billion is new money, over and above the allocations that have been made already.

I wish to end my review of the speeches that have been made with reference to the contribution made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies), because I wholeheartedly agree with the shadow Chancellor that he made an important contribution, in which he very rightly focused on the changes of managing globalisation. Indeed, the backdrop to the Budget has been a global economic slowdown and a hesitant global recovery.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise the picture that my right hon. Friend painted of a complex and challenging global economy, and the Budget seeks to address precisely that. The world

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economy has been stalled by continuing uncertainties about the conflict in Iraq. That has affected the world economy, world trade growth having slowed to zero and our oldest and strongest competitors—the USA, Germany and Japan—having been in recession in the past two years.

The Budget confirmed that no country can remain immune to the effects of that global uncertainty, but as a result of the economic framework that the Government have put in place over the past six years Britain is better placed than many of our competitors and better placed than in the past to withstand the difficulties and to ensure that we are not diverted from our priorities. Our priorities are investing in our public services, encouraging enterprises, achieving full employment and tackling child and pensioner poverty to build a Britain of economic strength and social justice. Unlike Opposition Members, we do not believe that the two are inconsistent. We believe that the two can be achieved by working together.

Mr. Bercow : Will the Chief Secretary give way?

Mr. Boateng: In due course.

What we know, however, is that we have had a range of opinions from the Opposition recently on the economy. I want to tease out a number of those before allowing the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who is so keen to contribute, to have his say. He represents one opinion that has been dismissed from the Front Bench, so we ought to give him an opportunity to make the point that he was denied the opportunity to make from the Front Bench.

Before we do so, however, it is our duty to draw the attention of the wider world to a particular absence from the Front Bench debate throughout our discussions on the Budget—the absence of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight)—[Hon. Members: "He's there!"] I know that he is there; I gave him a wave as he came in, because I feel that we need to make him more welcome. He is not so much the shadow Chief Secretary as the phantom Chief Secretary or the spectral Chief Secretary, as he is not allowed to say anything. It was his economic judgment that Britain's economy today is akin to that during the depression of the 1930s. That was what he shared with us when he was last allowed to speak. So embarrassed was Conservative central office by that contribution that it described it as the contribution of a City expert rather than that of a Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson.

That does not bode well for his future on that Front Bench, because he was the shadow Chief Secretary who promised 20 per cent. cuts across the board. That is what the Conservatives told us they were studying—[Hon. Members: "Never."] That is what they have in store for us should they ever be given the opportunity again to govern. They say, "Never", but that is not what the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) said. He confirmed that the cuts were "across the board." The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said:

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They went on to confirm that it was indeed 20 per cent. that was to be cut, with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green referring to

How many consultants are they going to sack? How many nurses would they not employ if they were allowed to introduce their 20 per cent. cuts? I shall give way to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs. I hear not a word. The reality—

Mr. Bercow: Will the Chief Secretary give way?

Mr. Boateng: No, not yet. Should I give him his chance? [Hon. Members: "Give way!"] All right, I am all heart.

Mr. Bercow: I am very grateful, because I think that the words "down market" were invented to describe the Chief Secretary. Given that the big rise in expenditure on and employment in the national health service has not yet been matched by a commensurate increase in clinical activity, thereby necessitating structural reforms, can he identify among all the reforms that the Government are introducing just three?

Mr. Boateng: That is simply not true. There have been 730,000 additional admissions to hospitals and more than 200,000 additional treatments. All that has been achieved in the modern NHS; all that has been achieved by primary care trusts; all that has been achieved by new methods of inspection and regulation; and all that has been achieved by a new focus and a new emphasis.

Mr. Bercow: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: I do not think that it will be a point of order, but I will listen to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Bercow: I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker. I would be very sorry if the quality of this debate were to deteriorate because the Chief Secretary had misheard me. I asked simply for the identification of three reforms.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman's sorrow has nothing to do with the Chair.

Mr. Boateng: We still have not heard—we are still waiting to hear—from those on the Opposition Front Bench as to how many nurses and consultants would be cut? What is it that they have in store for the NHS by virtue of charges? What is it that they have in store for the NHS in terms of private insurance? All those things were promised by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs.

Let us move on. The truth of the matter is that today, when 20 other countries have been in recession, Britain has experienced the longest period—

Mr. Howard: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boateng: Not at the moment. [Hon. Members: "Give way."] Let me finish my point.

Mr. Howard rose—

Mr. Boateng: Do not worry. You will have your chance. The right hon. and learned Gentleman gave way

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only once to Labour Members, so why should I give way? [Hon. Members: "Twice."] All right—twice. I will give way.

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