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Mr. Brown: I shall do my best to ensure that the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary questions are answered both rapidly and accurately, although it is not always as easy as it might appear to achieve both those aims. I shall check with my officials, and if I can give him the assurance that he seeks, I shall write to him within the next day.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): May I urge the Minister to establish an MPs' hotline? As the recess begins tomorrow, it is essential that it should be operating and properly staffed. How many extra staff has he taken on in his office, as that has been one of the few routes by which MPs have been able to raise serious issues on behalf of constituents? The Intervention Board is clearly in crisis. Mr. John Barnett, of Mickley hall, in Broomhall near Nantwich in Cheshire, now has more than 1,000 pigs waiting to be accepted for the animal welfare slaughter scheme, even though he applied on 23 February. As of today, he has still received no response, despite many assurances in the meantime.
Mr. Brown: I have already explained the pressures that the scheme is under. A hotline has been established for Members of Parliament, and I shall give the hon. Gentleman the number when this exchange comes to an end. The strengthening of private offices has been undertaken in the Ministry. Two extra people in my office are dealing with incoming inquiries, of which there have been about 120 from Members of Parliament alone.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): What advice and assistance have been given to the National Trust and other owners of deer parks, such as Dunham Massey in my constituency, on the steps that
Mr. Brown: I understand from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that advice has been issued on the management of deer. The most recent veterinary advice that I saw was that there was not a case for culling wild deer, on the ground that it would do more to spread the disease than to eliminate it. There are continuing discussions with those who have responsibility for managing substantial tracts of land on how to handle wildlife during this disease outbreak.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Wiltshire is one of the areas approaching, we hope and pray, clean status, the last outbreak having been something like a month ago. Will the Minister give careful consideration to raising the restrictions there, as well as in the areas in the east of England that he mentioned earlier? Will he also give some thought to three issues that have been raised with me that could put that status in jeopardy?
First, we accept the need to bury, and Wiltshire is prepared to play its part in taking carcases from elsewhere for burial--that is a reasonable thing for a county such as ours to do--but will the Minister give farmers and the tourism industry an absolute assurance that lorries travelling through the constituency are 100 per cent. disinfected and totally safe? I am sure that they are, but farmers seek reassurance on the point.
Secondly, those farmers who have been granted licences have to take their lorries into Gloucestershire in order to go to disinfection centres, because there are so few centres around. Will the Minister consider opening new disinfection centres in Army, RAF or local authority sites, so that lorries need not go into infected areas before returning to Wiltshire?
Thirdly, when it comes to lifting the restrictions, which we all hope will be soon, will the Minister consider doing that progressively, following the same pattern as the outbreak, so that abattoirs and other parts of the infrastructure are not suddenly heaped with a huge burden that they cannot handle?
Mr. Brown: All three points are good and fair. We are considering lifting the restrictions in the hon. Gentleman's area, but I cannot give him a timetable. We are also considering whether it can be done in phases, rather than in one single move. We are further considering whether it will be possible to establish new disinfection centres, for exactly the reasons that he outlined. He accurately described the regime that is supposed to apply to the movement of vehicles. The vehicles are inspected to ensure that they conform to the standards that we have set out. The disease spread risk is absolutely minimal.
Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you had any requests on behalf of the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement to the House? There are reports that a British forces' helicopter containing a number of personnel has crashed in Kosovo. Has a Minister from the Ministry of Defence sought your leave to make a statement to the House about that matter?
Notwithstanding the gravity of the foot and mouth situation, it is good to move Second Reading at a time when the fundamentals of our economy are stronger than they have been for a generation. Because of our reformed monetary framework, tough fiscal rules and prudent choices, we now have the lowest inflation for 30 years, and it is the lowest in the European Union; the lowest long-term interest rates for 35 years; the highest business investment for 40 years, at over 14 per cent. of gross domestic product; the lowest unemployment since 1975, with more people in work than ever before--more than 1.1 million more than in 1997; and sound public finances, cutting free of the millstone of debt run up by the Opposition when they were in government.
The Government inherited a £28 billion deficit and debt at an unsustainable 44 per cent. of national income, but we have made the biggest net cash debt repayment in one year by any British Government at £34 billion, and have reduced net debt to below 32 per cent. of national income. Because we have cut debt and unemployment and achieved higher growth and earnings, we are freeing up resources for priority areas in a sustainable way.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): Over the past four years, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has made much about reduction in debt. Does he agree that debt reduction varies over the business cycle? Are the Government prepared to publish their cyclically adjusted estimate of debt reduction over the past 20 years?
Mr. Smith: I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that information. However, if one looks at the projections of fiscal balances in the Red Book, one can see that cyclically adjusted, as well as unadjusted, we are well within our fiscal rules. Indeed, because we put those rules in place and stuck to them, we have reduced the debt to GDP ratio and, as I explained, released resources for priority services. The fall in debt charges alone has freed £7 billion compared with four years ago. The fall in spending on unemployment has freed about another £4 billion.
On that basis, we can plan ahead and invest for the long term in the nation's priorities: education, health, fighting crime, transport and science. Those are the priorities on which our future prosperity depends. The Bill builds on that strength and continues to deliver on our promises. The Budget of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor makes a clear choice about Britain's future and sets out a platform on which to build opportunity and prosperity for all. Like the Budget, the Bill takes a balanced approach, with stability as its foundation. Our hard-won economic stability enables us to deal with decades of underinvestment in public services, skills and
Maintaining and locking in that stability for the long term is at the heart of the Bill. We are taking a balanced approach, built around fairness, with support for children, hard-working families and pensioners; investment in our schools, hospitals and transport system; a sustainable environment; and higher productivity and enterprise, with employment opportunities and skills for all.
Following that balanced approach, this is a Bill for families and children and one that tackles poverty. We have made a clear choice to take account of the costs of children through the tax and benefits system and to help every child make the best start in life. It is a matter of choice that we have increased child benefit to £15.50, a rise in real terms of no less than 26 per cent.
Clause 52 proposes the children's tax credit at £10 a week, equivalent to a 2.5p cut in income tax for those families. From next year, it will be £20 a week for families in the year of a child's birth. A family who received just £11.05 per week under the last Government will receive £25.50 a week under this one. We are increasing maternity pay to £100 by 2003 and we will increase the payment period from 18 to 26 weeks, as well as introducing two weeks' paternity leave for new fathers.
The Bill takes further steps to make work pay. Twenty-five million taxpayers will gain from the widening of the lower 10p tax rate in clause 51, at a cost of £1 billion. Now, more of their income will be taxed at that lower rate, rather than at 22p. We have put up the working families tax credit by £5 and increased the minimum wage. Those two together mean that the guaranteed minimum income for families with children and with someone in full-time work will rise to £225 a week. That will make a real difference to families on modest incomes.
To ensure that pensioners share in the nation's rising prosperity, we are increasing pensions above inflation and above earnings by £5 a week for single pensioners and £8 a week for couples, with further rises of £3 and £4.80 next year. Because of the measures that we are taking this year alone, households will be, on average, £240 a year better off and families with children will be, on average, £420 a year better off. Two million of the poorest pensioners will be at least £800 a year better off.
Living standards for a typical family have risen by 10 per cent. since the last general election, with particular help going to the poorest and those who need it most. That is the measure of our commitment to building not only a strong economy, but a strong society--one that is making people better off.
Of course there is more to do. We must build the best possible environment for business to flourish and productivity to rise. Our ambition is to achieve a faster rise in productivity than our main competitors over the next decade. We want successful companies in all sectors to invest and expand. We have already created a more favourable company tax environment, with the lowest corporation tax rate ever in Britain and, overall, the lowest rate of any major industrialised country. We have reduced the long-term capital gains tax rate on business assets to 10 per cent.
In January, Arthur Andersen and the Brussels-based GrowthPlus organisation released their pan-European benchmarking study on the environment for entrepreneurship and concluded that the United Kingdom, ahead of Europe and the United States, is the country that provides the environment that is most friendly to entrepreneurship.
We still have some way to go and we have proposed further reforms to promote competition, investment, innovation and enterprise. To promote long-term investment and to protect investors, we will take forward Paul Myner's recommendations in the review of institutional investment; we will abolish the minimum funding requirement and, through tax and regulatory reform, we will make it easier for institutions to invest in venture capital. We are building a competitive and modern tax system for large firms, with changes to double taxation relief in clause 79 and the abolition of tax on most payments between companies within the UK tax jurisdiction in clauses 83 to 85.