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Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman, who I know has been present for most of the debate, will have heard several hon. Members recording their constituency experiences of the very high morale in schools throughout the country, which reflects the huge improvement in investment in our schools in recent years. He will have heard also about the substantial increase in the number of people applying for teacher training and about the measures that we will take over the next 18 months before those people go into employment in schools.
As the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) said in his winding-up speech, the debate has been marked by--possibly--the last speeches of three distinguished former Conservative Cabinet Ministers, all of them, as it happens, former Treasury Ministers, and by that of a very distinguished Conservative Back Bencher as well. I want to run through the points made by all who spoke and say something about their remarks.
In a thoughtful and commendably succinct speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) drew attention to and welcomed in particular, among other features of the Budget, the special grant for museums, to repay their VAT and to help them offer free admission, which we very much welcome.
The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), in a dignified speech which he said might well be his last in the House of Commons, spoke with great feeling of the privilege of being a Member of the mother of Parliaments. He described my right hon. Friend as "this most prudent of Chancellors", paying him a number of compliments as well as levelling some criticism. The right hon. Gentleman commented on tax as a proportion of gross domestic product. It is worth making the point that it is less than it would have been on the previous Government's projections when the right hon. Gentleman was Prime Minister.
As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) rightly said, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon struck a very different tone from the current leader of the Conservative party in Harrogate. The right hon. Gentleman explained that he would be unable to be present for the close of the debate, but he will take with him when he leaves the House the good wishes of all hon. Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) raised his interest in further education. The Minister responsible, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), was on the Government Front Bench when he spoke and heard his remarks with particular interest. My hon. Friend also welcomed the support for research and development announced in the Budget, and the consultation on the new tax credit for large firms. That will be of particular interest to firms such as Rolls-Royce in his area.
The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), another former Conservative Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in what he said would be his last speech in a Budget debate, paid some slightly back-handed compliments to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's stewardship of the economy. He said that the fuel escalator was abolished in response to the fuel protests in September. Of course, that was not so. The abolition of the fuel escalator was announced in the pre-Budget report in 1999, well before those protests.
My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Burgon) was one of those who passed on to the House the welcome of head teachers in his constituency for the additional sums that are being provided directly to their schools following the announcements last week. That is one of the factors that has improved morale in schools up and down the country.
The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Sir D. Madel), in what I think he said would be his last speech after 31 years in the House--he is the longest-serving of those who spoke in this debate before retirement--said that, although he welcomed the research and development tax credit for large firms, he was concerned about small and medium-sized enterprises. I can tell him that we introduced in last year's Budget precisely what he wanted--a tax credit for small and medium-sized enterprises which has been widely welcomed and in place for the past year. He also asked about support for the cost of child care at home. I refer him to paragraph 4.17 in the Red Book, where that point is directly picked up.
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Davies), in a highly economical, perceptive and well-informed speech, said that the key to the Government's success was the 1.1 million extra jobs that have been created. He made the telling point that the proportion of tax as a percentage of gross domestic product needs to be considered alongside the unsustainable borrowing that was taking place in 1997.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) showed his strong commitment to improving education in Norfolk. He welcomed the impact of the Green Paper. My hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) spoke effectively of the repercussions of foot and mouth disease through the local economy in the area she represents, and welcomed the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.
I regret that I do not have time to comment on some other interesting speeches, including that made by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis). There was also the--possibly--retirement speech of the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), another former distinguished Treasury Minister.
What do the Tories offer us? They long to make cuts, but they know that the country has had enough of under-investment and crumbling services. They long to wield the axe, but they know that only a minority would support them. Instead of a frank commitment to cuts in services, we have an extraordinary list of fudges, exaggerations and naiveties, to which the hon. Member for Croydon, South referred, and which they claim would amount to £8 billion in savings.
Let us be charitable and pretend that £8 billion in two years would be enough to make the Conservatives' Budget arithmetic add up. It would not, of course, but let that pass. Let us consider the list on its own terms. Even on the most charitable interpretation, the list crumbles into dust when it is exposed even to cursory examination. It simply does not stack up.
It is well known, for example, that there are no regional assemblies in England, yet the Tory list claims that £205 million will be saved by abolishing them. They are not there to abolish. We have been told this evening that the Conservatives would use the £34 billion debt repayment this year--it has already been made, but presumably they would borrow it again--to establish an endowment for universities. That opens up an additional hole of £2 billion that needs to be plugged by other measures that have not been specified. At point after point, the entries on the list cannot sustain even more than the most cursory scrutiny.
I am particularly interested by the claim that housing benefit reorganisation would yield nearly £450 million in savings. The Conservative party has experience of housing benefit reorganisation. The Conservative Government reorganised it twice in the 1980s, and made a hash of it on both occasions. The figure that the Conservatives have come up with is completely fictitious. They count savings from taking away housing benefit from some local authorities, but forget to add in the extra costs that the Benefits Agency would incur in taking on the additional work. It is all like that.
It is a curious fact that in the 1985 public spending White Paper, the Tories spelled out how much they thought they would save by housing benefit reorganisation. Yes, the sum was £450 million, but the saving never materialised. It was groundless then, and it is completely bogus now. As I have said, the numbers do not stack up.
Our numbers do stack up. We said before the election that stability was the key to success in managing the economy, and stability is what we have delivered. It presents us with our best economic opportunity in a generation, and all of us should wish to seize it.
It is being recognised increasingly that the United Kingdom is an attractive place for setting up a business. A few weeks ago, Arthur Andersen and Growthplus released their first annual pan-European benchmarking study on--