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Mr. Swayne: That is an important point. My concern about the Government's determination to retain a monopoly in respect of health care arose from what the Economic Secretary said about the need to increase productivity. She said that she intended to increase productivity, and to do so in the public sector in particular. That prompted my intervention, but she did not answer my question, as it concerned the role of competition. She drew attention to the fact that we needed more competition to achieve greater productivity. However, my question is this: how does that fit in with monopoly supply in the public sector? If Labour Members believe that monopoly supply is the way to produce greater productivity and a better public service, they belong in a mausoleum in Red square, rather than in a modern economy. That is what the Soviets believed, but such a system did not work or deliver.
Let me move from that particular measure to the general rationale for the debate. The decision to publish information to be supplied to the European Union as a measure of our economic performance is not made in a vacuum. It has an aim that stems from the Maastricht treaty, whose overwhelming purpose was to secure economic and monetary union. The purpose of publishing the information and supplying it to the European Union is to provide a measure of our performance in reaching the objective of economic and monetary union.
It was on that score that the Economic Secretary's speech was entirely lacking. She made not the slightest mention of such measurement, but it is especially important, as the Government will at some stage publish their estimate of how the United Kingdom economy is converging. It would have been interesting to have been given in this debate at least some measure of how that process is proceeding, but such information was entirely absent from her speech, which was the feast without Banquo's ghost in that respect.
If the purpose of the Government's policy is, as we must assume, to secure an increase in economic growth over time that is steady rather than variablein other words, to try to iron out some of the variances in the trade cycle by providing a stimulus in the trough when unemployment is increasing and a restraint at the top when full employment is approachedthe issue of convergence is vital. For that policy to continue if we have the same interest rate as our Union partners, as would happen if we were to achieve the objective of economic and monetary union, it would be vital for those economies to move in the same economic cycle, so that the troughs and peaks coincided. It would be necessary to ensure not only that the stimulus of a reduced interest rate arrived at the right moment and did not exacerbate inflation, but that the reduction in the interest rate did not arrive at the wrong moment and so exacerbate unemployment.
Ruth Kelly: I thank the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) for his kind words about my appointment and for introducing a lighthearted note into the debate. I am glad that he had sufficient time in the election campaign to consider the state of the world economy. Perhaps he had slightly more time than he anticipated.
Before considering the detailed points, many of which were interesting, it may be helpful to remind hon. Members of the motion, which asks the House to approve the Government's assessment in the Budget report of the medium-term economic and budgetary position. Passing the motion will enable the United Kingdom to make an effective contribution to multilateral surveillance in the European Union.
I shall consider some of the detailed points that were raised during the debate, and begin with those of the hon. Member for West Dorset. He was right to point out that world growth has slowed. Indeed, as we projected in the Budget, the growth rate of the world's major economies is expected to halve this year. No country can insulate itself from world economic events, but the UK policy remains well placed to respond to economic developments. We have a framework that means that we are better able to cope with any downturn in the world economy. Nearly all commentators expect continued growth with low inflation in the UK. The assessments of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development are all in the range of 2.5 per cent. to 2.7 per cent. this year.
First, he mentioned the trade deficit. Perhaps he agrees that some increase is to be expected during an international slowdown. As he said, the trade deficit can readily be financed. The forecast in the Budget for the current account deficit is 2.25 per cent. of GDP this year, compared with a trade deficit of 4.25 per cent. under the previous Government in 1989. That did not prove difficult to finance. Total goods export volumes will be 5.5 per cent. higher this year than last year.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman referred to the regional imbalance. The Government are taking action to improve regional economic growth with the new regional development agencies, which will play a key strategic role in driving economic development forward. In the 1980s, the Conservative Government stood back from promoting regional economic development. If they had a policy on the regions, it was to run down already disadvantaged areas so that they were in an even more desperate position.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the two-speed economy. Record employment growth clearly increased household wealth, and high consumer confidence is increasing consumer demand. As I said earlier, we cannot insulate ourselves from a downturn in the world economy, but the answer is not to massage the exchange rate down artificially, but to steer a course of stability through the economic slowdown.
The hon. Gentleman made no suggestions for promoting a better economic policy. I was looking forward to hearing him spell out the way in which he would initiate £20 billion of spending cuts. However, he made no proposals.
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents).
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): Sat shri kal, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is a Punjabi greeting to commence the debate on the Punjabi community in Britain. I shall start by explaining the genesis of the debate. For some years in the late 1980s and the l990s, thanks to the hard work of my hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), now the Minister for Transport, a number of MPs came together under the auspices of the all-party group on human rights in the Punjab. The group took up the concerns of the Punjabi community in Britain about the abuse of human rights in the Punjab resulting from the period of troubles in that region during the 1980s and early 1990s.
In the last Parliament, in consultation with representatives of the Punjabi community, my colleagues and I widened the scope of the all-party group to enable it to represent in Parliament the Punjabi community on the full range of issues of concern to Punjabis in Britain. In March last year, members of the all-party group secured the first debate on the Punjabi community in Britain in thehistory of the British Parliament. Our aim as a group is to secure regular debates on the issues of concern to that community. Tonight's debate provides us with an opportunity to gauge progress on the issues that we raised in our debate last year and to draw attention to the agenda of issues and the programme of work that the all-party group has set itself for the forthcoming Session of Parliament.
That agenda of issues has been drawn together on the basis of extensive consultation with organisations representing the Punjabi community in Britain. On all those issues we need the continuing attention and support of the Government. The agenda of issues to be addressed in the coming Session is therefore a direct reflection of the concerns of the Punjabi community in Britain and the debates of the all-party group.
A prime issue of concern to the Punjabis in Britain, which we identified in last year's debate, is the operation of the visitor visa system. The whole community has welcomed the Government's reinstatement of the visa appeals process. In last year's debate, Members expressed anxiety about the possible introduction of a bond system, and the level of charges to be levied for appeals. It was greatly appreciated, therefore, when the Government dropped the proposals for bonds and subsequently reduced the charges for appeals.
None the less, many of our constituents continue to experience considerable problems with the visa process. Time after time, visas are refused for family members, often grandparents travelling for weddings, funerals and the birthday celebrations of grandchildren. The system still works to divide families, often in the most heart-rending way. In many instances, the appeal process serves only to rubber stamp the initial decision of the entry clearance officer, and letters of support from MPs appear to count for very little.
In addition to visitor visas, constituents report continuing problems when seeking employment permits and visas for staff recruited in the Punjab. These problems have been experienced by priests and specialist teachers; even one of my local restaurants, the Saffron, which serves some of the best Indian cuisine in London, had a problem with securing the entry of a renowned Indian chef. We are aware that the Government have embarked on a debate about the future of work permits and employment quota systems, and this issue could possibly be addressed within the ambit of that discussion.
In response to Members' requests, the Government have undertaken two further reforms in relation to visas and immigration, which were also highlighted in last year's debate. The first is the commencement this year of the scheme to register all immigration advisers. The scheme provides the opportunity not only to monitor and raise the standards of advice on visa and immigration procedures, but to drive out of existence the despicable crooks who prey on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The all-party group wholeheartedly endorses the new scheme.
Another reform is the Government's proposal to establish a visa office in Jalandhar in Punjab where advice and assistance can be given to visa applicants. That measure responds to our plea in last year's debate, which was made on behalf of members of our constituents' families who have to undertake the long and expensive journey to Delhi in person. Sometimes up to 16 hours' travel is involved. However, in our meeting with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last week it was sad to learn that the proposal for the new visa office, which was submitted to the Indian Government some time ago, remains on Indian ministerial desks. I want to use tonight's debate to urge the Indian Government, in the friendliest terms possible, to expedite that important initiative. It would greatly assist all our constituents.
Another focus of the all-party group's attention is support for Punjabi culture in this country. Our view is that its maintenance and promotion in Britain represents not an argument for separatism or preference, but a means whereby people who are confident in the understanding and knowledge of their own culture can better integrate and live harmoniously with those from different backgrounds and other cultures.
In practice, we have interpreted that commitment as support in education for the first Sikh school in the history of this country. Guru Nanak school is in my constituency, and with the award of voluntary-aided status and associated funding from the Government, it is flourishing and securing some of the best educational results in Londonand in the rest of the country. However, demand for places vastly outstrips the number available, so we hope that the Government will give a sympathetic hearing to a bid for the much-needed expansion of the school in September. The catchment area goes beyond my constituency, covering Hounslow, Ealing and Slough.
The Punjabi language is a key issue, which we addressed in last year's debate. Securing one's culture involves maintaining the ability to speak one's mother tongue, and ensuring that others have access to an