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Mr. Newton: I think the hon. Gentleman knows that I share his general view about the importance of animal welfare matters. Enforcement of the slaughter rules in Paris is clearly a matter for the French authorities, but I assure him that we are in touch with them about it.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham): My right hon. Friend will be aware that parents at eight out of nine secondary schools in Gravesham and at a further three schools in the borough have voted for those schools to become grant-maintained. May we have a debate next week on grant-maintained schools? I wish to express the growing concern of those parents that Labour would overrule their decision and claw back 15 per cent. of education funds from the schools, to the central bureaucracy of the local education authority.

Mr. Newton: My hon. Friend's best bet is probably the return to this place of the Education Bill from another place.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South): The Leader of the House may be aware that Imperial Metals

6 Mar 1997 : Column 1045

is to close Yorkshire Alloys Ltd., which provides more than 400 jobs in my constituency and more than 200 jobs in Smethwick. Will he note the fact that the company exports to the tune of £25 million a year, which would be a serious loss to the British economy, and is also an important contributor to defence sales in this country? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that Ministers are made aware of the situation so that, when I seek an opportunity to raise the matter again in the House, they will be able to provide some answers concerning the reaction of Government Departments--particularly that of the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Trade and Industry--to that important occurrence?

Mr. Newton: I certainly take note of such matters myself. I have hastily scanned the rather large number of ministerial colleagues on the Front Bench, who are clearly fascinated by today's business questions, and I am glad to say that a Department of Trade and Industry Minister is present to take direct delivery of that point.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South): When will my right hon. Friend make time for the annual summer economic debate? Could summer come early this year, so that we may reiterate the statement of the noble Lord Barnett that the economy is doing well, and so that I, as the father of two teenagers, might welcome the fact that job opportunities for school leavers in this country are much better than those in Germany, France, Spain and Italy, where they have been decimated by the minimum wage?

Mr. Newton: I am not in a position to pre-empt or predict the speech that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will make in a few moments, but I should be surprised if my hon. Friend did not hear a little reiteration of Lord Barnett's comments.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) rose--

Madam Speaker: Was the hon. Gentleman in the Chamber when the Leader of the House made his statement?

Mr. Winterton: I was indeed.

Madam Speaker: I am sorry; I did not see the hon. Gentleman. I shall accept his word.

Mr. Winterton: My constituency of Macclesfield has one of lowest levels of unemployment in the country under a prudent Conservative borough council. The United Kingdom has a prudent Conservative Government and what is cited by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission as the strongest economy in Europe. In support of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), could we debate the economy and taxation before the Dissolution of Parliament, so that the House can give mature consideration to those issues and compare the Government's record with what is on offer from the Opposition parties?

Mr. Newton: If I may say so, Madam Speaker, I think that such an opportunity will arise as soon as hon. Members stop asking me questions.

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Point of Order

4.55 pm

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have notified the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) of my intention to refer to him this afternoon in relation to his allegation against me last night, which appears at column 960 of Hansard, that I had invited the IRA to the House. As you will recall, Madam Speaker, the allegation was made in connection with admissions by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) regarding references to Ms Roisin McAliskey. I regard the allegation as extremely serious and totally unfounded. I have written to you about the matter, Madam Speaker, and I should be grateful to know what action you intend to take, as I regard the withdrawal of the allegation by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone as most important.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman knows that I was in the Chair for much of the debate last night, when I heard all the exchanges and the points of order that were raised. I thought that he made his position very clear at the time by way of a point of order. I read the debate this morning, and I am still of that opinion.

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Public Expenditure

[Relevant document: Minutes of evidence taken before the Treasury Committee on 5 March (HC355).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Brandreth.]

4.56 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Michael Heseltine): No serious commentator can doubt the Government's commitment to containing the levels of public expenditure, while a glance at the Labour Benches shows clearly the total absence of any Opposition interest in the subject. In 1975-76, public expenditure absorbed more than 47 per cent. of our gross domestic product, which included massive subsidies to the nationalised industries. That figure was broadly in line with other European economies, and it went hand in hand with high levels of taxation. We had punitive levels of direct taxation--a basic rate of 34p in the pound, rising to 98p for high earners--and, as one would expect, a level of inflation significantly worse than that of our principal international competitors. The average for the period 1974 to 1979 of 15.5 per cent. sounds like an incredible figure today.

The Government's consistent prime objective has been to lower the level of public expenditure and to provide incentives through the tax system to encourage a faster-growing economy. In the next financial year, we are set to meet our target of reducing public expenditure below 40 per cent. of GDP. On the continent, the figures remain conspicuously higher: 49 per cent. in Germany, 52 per cent. in Italy, and 53 per cent. in France. That contrast has led to a quite different performance in this country from that of earlier decades.

In the 1960s and 1970s, we outpaced only Switzerland and New Zealand of the 25 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in the growth of GDP per head. Since 1979, the United Kingdom has grown at a faster rate than Switzerland, France, Canada, the United States and another eight OECD countries. Since 1992, we have enjoyed the longest, strongest and steadiest recovery of any major European economy. Furthermore, according to the OECD, this country is set to be the fastest-growing major European economy not only in the year just ended, but in the next two years as well.

The other hallmark of that period is that, while the Conservatives in government have battled determinedly to achieve those successes, every significant reform that has led to such a desirable product has been resisted by the Labour party. Labour resisted our tax cuts, trade union reform, and each and every privatisation of the loss-making, or, indeed profit-making, nationalised industries. It resisted every change until we have proved that it works.

One can judge the quality of Tory initiatives by the vociferousness of Labour's opposition. If we get a bad headline in the Daily Mirror, that means that we are on a right track. If we get a yah-boo reaction from a Labour spokesman, that initiative becomes tomorrow's policy. Best of all, if we get downright opposition from the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) to an initiative, it is halfway to being in the Labour party's manifesto.

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If I needed any final commendation of the brilliant initiative announced yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, it was Labour's knee-jerk reaction to it. We proposed to reduce public expenditure by £40 billion a year. We showed how we could increase significantly the funding available for investment, and as a product of that, offer an old-age pension of £175 a week, in a major, far-sighted reform of state pension funding. What do we get? New Labour, old Labour--every variety of Labour--on the airwaves searching for fat cats under the bed. It was a classic and typical response, and the louder they shouted, the more convinced I became.

Contrast our initiative with Labour's exploded initiative for pension reform. The leader of the Labour party lands in Singapore to proclaim that he has found the ultimate stakeholder pension scheme--whizz-bang, all-singing, all-dancing, and, above all else, run by the state. There is a small snag: the rate of return since 1980 on the state-run Singapore compulsory scheme is 2 per cent. above inflation. The rate of return on the British pension funds over the same period is almost 10 per cent. above inflation--collapse of stakeholder pension proposals.

Since the previous election, bruised by the humiliation of one electoral reverse after another, the Labour party has sought to recreate its popular support on the basis of expenditure pledges. So far, by our calculation, there have been £30 billion-worth of them. Not one has been renounced by the Labour party. Hardly any have ever been clearly shown as being funded in any coherent way, with the exception of one or two to which I shall come.

Nobody listening to what Labour has had to say should have the slightest doubt--those are not small commitments lightly given, or Conservative central office trying to misinterpret the words--that those are categoric, black and white statements.

The Leader of the Opposition said:

There is no hesitancy, no doubt, no qualification there.

We calculate the cost of restoring the railways to public ownership at £920 million a year. What figure do Labour provide? Or does it now admit that the privatisation of the railways is proving as successful and as irreversible as all the other privatisation measures?

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