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10.30 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Mrs. Angela Knight): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) for raising such important issues. Is it not noticeable that no Opposition Member cares or is sufficiently interested in this matter to attend this evening--apart from some of my hon. Friends who have decided that they want to sit on the Opposition Benches, just temporarily, for the debate?

My hon. Friend is correct that the reason why home and share ownership is so important, why we believe that these matters are fundamental for the democracy of this country, is that they are important to all our constituents. He was right to remind us of how it used to be. He gave us six reasons. There are many more. If he will bear with me, I shall give another six.

The first, of course, was inflation, which was running at such a rate that it wiped out my grandfather's pension, and no doubt those of many other people of whom hon. Members know. As a country, we were producing goods

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that people did not want because the quality was not good enough, and at a price that was rising week by week. Taxation was high not only for individuals but for companies as well.

Direct-grant schools, such as the one that I went to, were abolished. Mine was abolished not because it was a bad school but because it was a school that the Labour party was philosophically against allowing in this country. If someone could afford a holiday, it was, perhaps, a week or 10 days in Spain, and only a few pounds could be taken because the currency was in such a bad state.

My hon. Friend is correct to remind us how it was.It is too easy to forget the reality of life under the Labour party. Indeed, he mentioned, in his opening remarks, British Steel, which, in some respects, is a company dear to my heart, because I was running a company whose customer was British Steel when it was a nationalised company. As a customer, it did not pay its bills. It was a poor customer. As a company, it was one of the biggest loss makers of all time in this country--when it was nationalised. As soon as it came into the private sector, we had a steel company of which we could be proud, which produced products that people wanted--an international competitor of world renown. My hon. Friend is right to remind us that that is what it is all about. That is what we stand for as a party. Those are policies that the country wants.

I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend quote some of the tremendous contradictions in what Labour Members say--indeed, what Labour Front Benchers say on behalf of the Labour party. He quoted the rubbish they speak on so many subjects. He quoted many of their predictions that have proven entirely and utterly wrong. My hon. Friend quoted another even more important feature of Labour Members, which is that they say one thing and do another on whatever subject, whether it be education, law and order or the subject he mentioned--pension funds.

It is correct to point out the tremendous advantages of the privatisation programme. It has enabled ordinary people not just to own shares but to take a personal interest in successful major industries. It has played a key role and has resulted in about 13 per cent. of the population owning shares in the privatised companies. Privatisation has meant that inefficient companies that were formerly propped up by the taxpayer are now contributing to the public purse. Companies that were formerly nationalised and poor have become world players. As my hon. Friend said, they are now serving better the home market and the people, whether they are gas, electricity or telephone customers.

Privatisation has resulted in companies becoming net substantial contributors to the public purse, rather than blotting paper that soaked up public money. It has resulted in a real share-owning democracy. British Telecom, British Gas and British Airways are but part of a long list of companies that not only provide a better service but from which, as my hon. Friend rightly said, people have made money for themselves and their families out of owning shares. Customers, companies and constituents all over Britain have prospered as a consequence.

There has been tremendous progress in wider share ownership over the past 17 years. The number of shareholders in the United Kingdom has risen dramatically. In 1979, there were about 3 million, but today there are more than 10 million. More than one in four adults own

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shares. In 1993, the last year for which there is comprehensive data, almost half of all those shareholders held shares in two or more companies. These were not one-off shareholders, because they had seen the benefits of shareholding and bought shares in more and more companies. That is important, because it encourages savings, investment and enterprise. It helps people to help themselves.

We saw the need to encourage ownership and commitment in society, and there is true participation in a variety of ways. That is a long way from the so-called stakeholding that was explained by the Leader of the Opposition. [Interruption.] Where is he? If shareholding and a property-owning democracy were important to Labour Members, at least one of them would be here, but there is no one on the Opposition Benches to listen to this important debate.

The Leader of the Opposition tripped around the country talking about stakeholding. We can be quite sure that the only stake in which he is interested is the big stake that his party wants in everybody's pocket. Those who want to know who will benefit from that stake in everybody's pocket should ask the unions and the single-issue pressure groups, the bizarre ones. But do not ask the great majority of the people, because they know that, while they will get nothing from so-called stakeholding, they will get everything from a shareholding and property-owning democracy under the policies that have been pursued by our party for so many years.

We have given people the freedom to invest in personal pensions and to take out occupational pensions and other pension plans. That enables them to provide for their independence and their future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield rightly spoke about that other most basic desire that is near to so many hearts--owning one's own home. If he will forgive me, I should like to quote a few statistics. In 1979, there were 11.5 million home owners. In 1985, there were 13.5 million. In 1996, there are more than16 million--a 40 per cent. increase since 1979.

Every opinion poll on home ownership shows that the vast majority of people still want to own their own home, so we are helping home owners by cutting tax, leaving them with more money to spend as they choose, by reducing unemployment, and by keeping interest rates, and thus mortgage costs, as low as possible. One of the ways in which we are ensuring that more people can,if they wish, own their own home is by reducing unemployment month after month after month.

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My hon. Friend is right to introduce the subject of Europe in that context. How true it is that the additional costs that so many Governments place on companies in Europe are resulting in unemployment rising, although it is falling in this country. It is no to minimum wages and to the social chapter, because it is yes to employment,to jobs, to low taxes, to interest rates as low as possible,to home ownership and to those policies that we stand for and that other parties in this country do not. Other countries in Europe have shown the way not to go.

Since the Budget, we have had three reductions in interest rates. Mortgage costs have fallen. The average outstanding mortgage costs about £160 a month. Repayments are at their lowest levels in relation to incomes for more than a decade. Interestingly, a 0.5 per cent. reduction in mortgage rates has a greater effect on the average mortgage than a 5 per cent. increase in mortgage interest relief at source. That is an interesting connection, because it shows just how important it is that we keep interest rates as low as possible.

National average house prices are starting to rise. They have risen for seven months in succession. The housing market is starting to turn around in all our constituencies. Mortgage rates are at their lowest levels since I was15 years old, and inflation has not been so low since before I was born. I might not be a spring chicken, but I am not an old hen either. If I put those two figures in that context, it shows that we have an economy and we have achieved a position of which we can be proud.

A total of 1.6 million people have bought their own homes through the right-to-buy scheme. We believe in the right to buy. The Opposition parties want to own people's homes, not let people own their own homes. Those parties believe that, if they own a home, they own the soul.We believe that people should have independence.

In the past 17 years, we have taken significant steps to help to create a society based not on soundbites, but on sound policies of ownership, commitment and participation. Our policies on home and share ownership, savings, investment and enterprise have given millions of ordinary people what they wanted for themselves and their families in the United Kingdom in the 20th and21st centuries. We will continue to do that for many years to come. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important subject on the Adjournment.

Question put and agreed to.

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