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5.33 pm

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby): In the last sections of her speech, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) made a great deal of promise, pledge and fulfilment in successive elections. I hope that she recognises the real measure of internal contradiction in the Labour party's approach to the national health service, which was what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health emphasised most. The right hon. Lady and the Labour party are probably right to say that health is the overriding concern of most electors at a general election, but she combines that proposition with the view that only the Labour party can be trusted to deliver on the national health service.

That was the twin proposition put forward in 1979. In that general election, the electorate gave the Conservative party the benefit of the doubt, so the Labour party

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repeated the proposition in 1983--that health was the issue that people cared most about at a general election and that, guess what, only the Labour party could be trusted to deliver on health care. By that time, however, we had had a Parliament run by the Conservatives, so the proposition was rejected. After a Parliament of health care under Conservatism, the Conservative party was massively returned in 1983.

The Labour party did the same again in 1987--it had become almost a Freudian tic. By this time, the argument was wearing thin. In 1987, there was a massive return for the Conservative party on the basis that health was the most important topic, but people were beginning to think that the Conservative party could be trusted on health. By 1992, the Labour party was getting desperate. It was still convinced that health care was the most important issue in politics, but could hardly go on saying that only the Labour party could be trusted to deliver on it, so it produced a lot of hare-brained, sad cases of things that had gone wrong in hospital or in surgery. We remember the case of the child whose operation on her ear had gone sadly wrong. That is what Labour turned to in an effort to show that the Conservative party could not be trusted to run the national health service. The result in that election was the biggest popular vote for a political party in post-war history.

So, the thesis has run a bit thin. It is rather like trying to persuade people, after a headline about a bad aircraft crash, that it is not safe to fly. One cannot persuade people that it is not safe to fly and one cannot now persuade people that the national health service is not safe in the hands of the Conservative party. That is undemonstrable after four elections and there is to be a fifth election in which that manifest and self-evident truth is to be demonstrated yet again.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State vividly demonstrated the case--in the figures that he gave for the next tranche of investment in health care--that the public believe that the national health service is safe in the Conservative party's hands. They have no reason to believe that the same argument applies as applied in 1979 when this circus started.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East): The right hon. Gentleman says that the national health service is safe in the Government's hands. What does he have to say to my constituents, who find that only two dentists in my constituency now provide national health treatment, while all the others provide some sort of insurance plan? Is that the sort of success that he is trumpeting?

Mr. Alison: The hon. Lady will find that in any period in which the Conservative party has been in power since 1979 she or her colleagues could have pointed out some deficiency or defect in the national health service that we would all have liked to have put right. To return to the flying analogy, occasionally something goes wrong, but one cannot persuade people that it is not safe to fly and by producing that sort of individual example, one cannot persuade people that the national health service is not massively efficient and effective. It is appreciated by between 80 per cent. and 90 per cent. of all those who go into a surgery or hospital. They know that it is an admirable service and that has been demonstrated in four successive elections.

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Without testing the patience of my colleagues too far, I should like to dwell on one particular aspect of the Budget that is not directly related to health care, although that comes into it. I want to press the Government to push open even further a door that I am extremely glad to say they have opened ajar. The topic I refer to is the married couple's allowance. That allowance is manifestly a recognition in our taxation system that the married state is uniquely significant and calls for some unique efforts and features to support it.

I believe that that special recognition is well founded because marriage is after all society's established and recognised customary framework for providing a stable, enduring and committed environment for raising children. Recent research has confirmed that children whose parents separate are more likely to have problems relating to education, health and behaviour than those in families where the parents stay together. There is also evidence that children in lone-parent families do less well educationally. In response to the claim that cohabitation can deliver the claimed special advantages of marriage just as effectively, research as well as common sense show that a good deal more is involved in the commitment of marriage than in cohabitation. Marriage involves public vows of lifelong commitment and entails a legal change in the status of the partners.

Evidence from the British household panel study shows that married couples are far more likely to stay together than cohabiting ones, even when children are part of the latter relationship. The further perceived advantages of marriage include public expenditure, when a child or children are brought up within, for example, a single-earner family, where mum stays at home to look after the children--judged in a context in which support for lone parents, without the normal family environment, cost about £10 billion last year. The Chancellor had to find that money.

Another spin-off from marriage is extended family care, especially of elderly relatives, parents or some other dependant. Marriage also seems to improve a couple's health.

Against that background, it is not surprising that some powerful voices have spoken up in favour of marriage. Cardinal Hume has said:

The Leader of the Opposition said recently:

    "it should be the job of any government to strengthen and nurture families, and to include in the assessment of any policies the impact they will have upon the family."

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said:

    "The Government believe that married couples should receive recognition through the tax system."

John Habgood, who used to be a constituent of mine and who lately retired as Archbishop of York, has said:

    "If we are to signal the importance of marriage, especially as a stable environment to raise children, society needs to recognise this through the tax system."

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    Last but not least I am happy to say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his Budget speech:

    "The tax system does recognise marriage, contrary to popular belief."--[Official Report, 26 November 1996; Vol. 286, c. 171.]

This year's Budget gave expression to that, and I want to pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend not only for uttering those words about marriage but for putting his money, modestly, where his mouth is. He has further improved the married couple's allowance for the second year running and it has risen from £1,790 to £1,840 for the tax year 1997-98, although its value is, sadly, restricted to 15 per cent. only of that new figure.

It would certainly be churlish, indeed impolitic, not to recognise the significance of the trend that my right hon. and learned Friend has now clearly established to pay more than lip service to the married couple's allowance and to begin its revalorisation--or to continue it as he did last year. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend and the Economic Secretary, who is listening to the debate in his absence, recognise what a long distance they have to travel to make the married couple's allowance something of significance and weight in our taxation system.

The married couple's allowance had been frozen for five years since it was introduced in 1990 at £1,720. It has now gone up to £1,840. The £1,720 was given in 1990 at the taxpayers' marginal rate, then either 25 per cent. or 40 per cent. From then until 1995 the amount of the married couple's allowance remained unchanged and the rate at which it was given was reduced, first to 20 per cent. and then to 15 per cent., its current level, even though other tax allowances were increased in real terms and the 20 per cent. lower rate band was introduced. As a result there was a marked switch in the tax burden--continuing a trend that has gone on for between 20 and 30 years under the administration of all parties--away from single people without children on to married couples with or without children. Married couples were paying more than £2 billion a year more in tax, an average of £3.30 a week each, than they would have been paying if those earlier changes since 1990 to which I have referred had not been introduced. There has been a decisive shift in the burden of taxation from single people on to the shoulders of married couples.

I should like to cite an example supplied by Mr. Charles Colchester, chief executive of the charity CARE--Christian Action Research and Education. Let us consider a couple, who this year, under the new regime introduced by the Chancellor, are earning £15,000 a year. A cohabiting couple without children will benefit by £288 in total. Meanwhile a married couple, where one partner stays at home to look after the children or an elderly or dependent relative, will benefit by just £150. Similarly, a lone parent will also benefit by just £150.

It is sad to note that despite the revalorisation of the married couple's allowance which my right hon. and learned Friend has tackled in the past two years, one is still better off as a cohabiting couple under our present arrangements than one is as a married couple, especially where there is a single earner and the other partner looks after the children at home.

I hope very much that my right hon. and learned Friend and the Economic Secretary will focus on that anomalous undermining, almost betrayal, of the approbation and support that everybody gives to marriage. Somehow that support is not properly validated and endorsed by the tax figures.

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This year my right hon. and learned Friend has once again reduced the basic rate of income tax--from 24 to 23 per cent. Perhaps next year he will seek to reduce it from 23 to 22 per cent., on track for the 20 per cent. rate. If he is tempted next year to reduce the basic rate to 22 per cent., he should remember that if the married couple's allowance was raised to £2,000--instead of the £1,840 to which it has been raised this year--it would be worth significantly more to a married couple. It would be worth much more to a married couple--a single-earning unit--with or without children at home than a reduction in the basic rate by another 1p in the pound.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury will convey to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor the desirability and necessity of extending yet further the help that we seek to give to married couples. It is one of the options that my right hon. and learned Friend should consider next year alongside a further reduction in the standard rate. The married couple's allowance delivers more help and support where it is most needed than any other instrument that we can devise within the limits and constraints of this year's, and probably next year's, Budget.

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