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9.5 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), in his absence, on his maiden speech. I was particularly interested in and appreciated his description of his constituency. In the 1980s, it witnessed the collapse of its heavy industry, which was one of my formative political experiences. His description also reminded me of the difference between the previous Conservative Government's response to that collapse--when they turned their back on unemployed people in the west midlands--and the current Government's action to tackle unemployment and get people back to work. The Government intervened at Longbridge, and they have responded positively to events in Luton.

In many parts of the country, the Government have almost made unemployment disappear as an issue. That is down entirely to their management of the economy, and I am sure that it will probably be the single most important factor in ensuring the Government's re-election in the forthcoming general election. The Government's economic policy is the most important factor for my constituents, who have benefited from it in many ways, particularly in financial stability.

I tell the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) that protecting financial stability is not a question of resting on our laurels or ensuring that we do not meddle and intervene, but of providing positive support where improvement is needed, particularly in productivity.

Financial stability--particularly low interest rates--is desperately important for hard-working families in my constituency. Now, not only are interest rates at half the peak level reached under the Tories, but, according to a recent report in The Economist, they are at their most stable for the past 10 years. That is good news for business, and it is exceptionally good news for people in my constituency, three quarters of whom are home owners and carry substantial debt.

Low interest rates have saved the average home owner about £800 annually and made it possible to abolish the last of mortgage interest relief at source. All serious political parties realise that MIRAS abolition--which

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Conservatives Members have tried to dress up as a tax increase--was important for the long-term health of the housing market.

Low inflation has also benefited my constituents. The fact that inflation, too, has almost disappeared from the public consciousness as a financial problem is another tribute to the Government's successful management of the economy. We are in the happy situation of enjoying a consumer boom and low inflation. It is a particularly happy economic climate for those of us who like consumer booms.

In his speech, the shadow Chancellor said that the Government have no vision at all. Such a claim is extraordinary. Our Chancellor has relentlessly pursued the creation of a secure economy, which allows us to address all the pressing social issues.

The shadow Chancellor also outlined his five financial disciplines. Before coming into the Chamber, I quite carefully read, in one of his recent speeches, his description of the disciplines. I had thought that two of them were new. However, as the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) devised the committee of wise men, only one proposal is new. How can one present a vision for the future by proposing a series of old measures and U-turns? The Chancellor has offered a vision of economic stability, financial security and the tackling of social issues, which is important for the families in my constituency.

I especially welcome the children's tax credit, which comes into effect in April. It is true that some of the people who have lost their married couples allowance will not be entitled to the children's tax credit, but if we are to have a mature political debate, we must consider what the Government's priorities should be. All the evidence suggests that the financial pressures are on families with children. That is why I support the Government's policy of giving them the lion's share of the financial benefits.

I wanted to make sure that the Conservative party had nothing to say about children, so I looked up the policy section on its website. When we tapped in "Children", the message was, "Sorry, your search terms has found no matches. Please try a broader term." We tapped in "Human being", but we found nothing on that either.

I can assure my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that among my constituents, particularly among the women, there is a high level of knowledge about the children's tax credit and the income level needed to qualify. With an average income of £19,600, people in my constituency tend to know what benefits they will receive. In addition to the extra almost £5 a week in child benefit, many people in my constituency with children will get at least £10 a week extra, and there is more for people on modest incomes. About 3,000 families in Northampton get the working families tax credit.

On unemployment and the working families tax credit, one of the reasons why the old family credit would not deal with all the problems caused by unemployment is that it does not include the child care tax credit. The Conservative party has given no assurances on that. I assure the shadow Chancellor, in case he does not realise it, that lone parents can get out to work only if their child care is paid for. The child care tax credit has been essential for that, as has the availability of personal advisers on the new deal scheme, which has made it

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possible for women who have not worked for many years to get advice, help and access to child care, and to get it paid for.

In my constituency, unemployment has been mercifully low for a long time, but lone parents have always found it hard to get work. That situation is changing. I have spoken to lone parents who have not been out to work for 10 or 15 years, and who are now £60 to £65 a week better off because of the combined effect of the working families tax credit, the child care tax credit and the new deal.

I welcome the measures in the Queen's Speech that will help home buyers. I hope that there will be more legislation in future to protect home buyers from the kind of problems associated with endowment mortgages, and to make the capital invested in their home more accessible to home owners during retirement, when basic maintenance can become a problem. I assure my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that my constituents take up such concessions to home owners. Many of them have spoken to me about taking advantage of the VAT reduction to insulate their homes.

I recognise that time is short, but I shall mention a couple more points. The first concerns savings. The Opposition made much of the changes to the savings ratio, but all the projections from the Treasury suggest that it will increase. I pay tribute to the work done to develop individual savings accounts, which all the reports from the industry suggest have not merely served as a replacement for PEPs and TESSAs, but have encouraged more people to save. It is clear that in future the savings habit will become more important, especially in relation to pensions. Of course, families that have savings have some protection against the problems that people run into when they get into debt or when a cash crisis arises.

Barclays home loans division has done a huge amount of work on this subject. Family breakdown is one of the main problems that gives rise to debt. The work that the Government have done to support families, for example, by sharing family tax credits between parents and recognising the work of step-parents, is extremely important. It is helping to ensure that families can deal with some of these problems.

On debt and savings, we need to get people into the habit of saving for their pensions. The shadow Chancellor mentioned that, and said that the Conservatives intended to let young people opt out of paying national insurance. In doing so, they would ignore two difficulties. One is the loss of money to the national insurance fund, which would amount to about £2 billion, I think. The other difficulty is what will happen to people who pull out of national insurance, but then pull out of the alternative. The Financial Services Authority report suggests that, over 10 years, that will happen to about 5 per cent. of the people.

How would the Conservatives deal with those people who ended up with no provision? Would they compel people to take out alternative pensions? If people did not end up with a pension, would the Conservatives say, "Right. You won't have anything." Would they leave such people out completely, which would result in acute pensioner poverty for future generations? The industry recognises that issue. It opposes compulsion and recognises the need for a safety net.

In conclusion, I congratulate the Government on the Queen's Speech, in particular, the financial provisions. They will be extremely successful. They are part of a

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continuing trend, which is providing increased economic well-being and financial security for the many families in my constituency and throughout the country.

9.17 pm

Mr. Roger Casale (Wimbledon): I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) on his excellent maiden speech. I was reminded as he spoke of the time just before the general election when I addressed my constituents and gave them an account of why support for the Tory party there, which had historically been strong, was slipping away so quickly. What was eating away at that support in 1996-97 was the great perception among Tory voters of the social and economic costs of Tory mismanagement of the economy; Tory disdain for public services; and the failure to put in place any effective measures to enable people who had been damaged by the deep Tory recessions to rebuild their lives and reconnect themselves with the world of work.

I pointed out that the cost of the social security budget had soared from £50 billion to more than £90 billion. I could have added comments about the soaring levels of public debt, records levels of interest rates and inflation. I asked the voters of Wimbledon to trust Labour to do better. They put their trust in us in May 1997 and Labour has delivered--it has delivered in Britain and in Wimbledon.

On jobs, 325 young people in my constituency have started work thanks to the new deal. On class sizes, no five, six or seven-year-olds are taught in classes of more than 30 in Merton schools. This year, Merton local education authority was among the five most improved education authorities in Britain on educational standards thanks to the local literacy and numeracy strategies.

Hospital waiting lists at St. George's hospital and St Helier hospital are coming down. We have new accident and emergency units and we have a walk-in centre in Tooting. On crime, we have new closed circuit television in Wimbledon town centre. On transport, we have seen the refurbishment of the Northern line. On a recent visit to the magistrates courts I found out that the time between arrest and sentencing is coming down.

On the economy, interest rates and inflation are at all time lows. The economy is the key to these successes and will be the key to doing more in the future. That strong and stable economy, which acts as a platform for our investment in public services' has not come about by chance, it is the result of the economic policies put in place by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The independence of the Bank of England, new fiscal rules, prudence in public finances and borrowing only to invest are the golden rules. Some of those issues are complex and technical, but everyone in Wimbledon will understand the difference in the results. They will remember, with fear and bitterness, the Tory legacy of boom and bust, record levels of bankruptcies and the fact that no community was untouched by the scourge or effects of unemployment. They will also remember record levels of interest and mortgage rates, house repossessions, negative equity and rising crime.

That is what we mean by the Tory legacy of boom and bust. The damage to individual lives brought with it the collapse of investment in public services and the infrastructure, which has harmed all of us. In 1996-97,

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42p in every £1 was spent on servicing debt and social security payments; the corresponding figure now is 17p. Money is going into the health service. Investment in the health service fell by 0.4 per cent. in 1996-97, but it is 17 per cent. higher in real terms today, and went up by 7.5 per cent. last year.

In education, capital funding for schools has improved. In my constituency, £230 per pupil is provided for capital spending on repairing leaky roofs and windows and decrepit infrastructure, compared with £15 per pupil for capital investment in schools in Merton in 1996-97. I could go on: 16,000 pensioners have been helped by the winter fuel allowance; 500 working families have been helped by the working families tax credit; 11,500 children in Wimbledon have been helped by record increases in child benefit.

In 1996, I asked my constituents what kind of society we wanted to live in. I will be asking them that question again, nearer the election. We have a vision of a strong society, backed by a strong economy. The Tories have no positive vision of the future; Labour does. The Queen's Speech includes further measures that will become fundamental steps towards realising that vision, and I commend it to the House.

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