Baroness Jay visited a local nursery in my constituency. We saw--it was fantastic--an independent nursery sharing premises with a state primary school, and providing the wrap-around care that the public sector is not able to provide yet. The nursery has a full waiting list for babies--for the smallest children--until spring 2002. That is a measure of the demand for quality child care.
The increase in the child care tax credit will be important in ensuring that women can afford quality child care, which is expensive. It will be important also in giving women the chance to go to work. Given the national child care strategy, the new deal, the working families tax credit and the child care tax credit, and because of the improvements that have been announced this afternoon, many more women will have the chance of working and achieving economic independence. The Conservative party will have no chance in future if it thinks that it will take these opportunities away from women.
I welcome, as I am sure will my constituents, the increase in the children's tax credit, which will be up to £520 a year. There has been discussion of whether the tax credit has been claimed; criticism has appeared in newspapers relating to confusion. I can say from constituency experience that it is a greatly appreciated tax credit. I am sure that the improvements will be welcomed and equally appreciated.
When the tax credit was first being advertised on the radio, I knocked on doors in my constituency to ascertain whether the advertising was effective. I found that people had heard the radio advertisements, had obtained the application pack from the Inland Revenue, had completed the forms and had returned the pack. They were quick off the starting blocks. They were quick as well to understand the benefits that the tax credit would offer them. I am sure that the improvement of the child credit system, along with improved child benefit, will be much appreciated by many families in my constituency.
I welcome the improvements in maternity leave and maternity pay. They seem to have come remarkably soon after the ending of consultation on these matters, which was only yesterday. I sent a response from my constituency. I can hope only that it had some influence on today's announcement.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): I agree with my hon. Friend's acclamation for increases in the children's tax credit and other tax credits. However, does she agree that the problem with trying to alleviate child poverty through a system of tax credits is that it leads to relatively deeper poverty for the children of women who are unable to go to work, either because they believe that their children are too young to leave or for other reasons? Although the tax credit does well by women who are able to return to work, I believe--I hope that my hon. Friend does--that women with children under five should have a choice. If it is good for middle-class women to stay at home with their toddlers, working-class women should be offered a genuine choice as well.
In my constituency, the benefits of the new deal for lone parents are particularly important. It as an area of high employment and, because there are jobs, it is possible to get women into work. A lot of my support for the new deal for lone parents in an affluent area comes from my experience of chairing a jobs and industry committee for a council in an inner-London borough, when I supported training courses with child care for women in the inner city. When I was in that position, and later as leader of the council, I found it a bitter experience to close those courses because of cuts in local government spending made by the Conservatives. They had no commitment to deal with unemployment and were not prepared to put money in on the same scale as this Government have. They were not prepared to look at the care offered by people such as personal advisers in the Employment Service, who deal with the particular difficulties that women have and the barriers that stop them getting into work.
My bitter experiences--shared, I am sure, by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) in her local government experience then and now--have made me supportive of the Government's measures. I recognise that there are clear differences between the inner cities and seats like mine, and I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that that is a genuine sentiment.
Support for two weeks' paternity pay is strong in my constituency. There is a feeling that times are changing and that men want to get involved in the care of their children as much as women do. Parents are not always married, which is their choice. The Opposition do not approve of supporting unmarried couples, but it is right that we should support mothers and fathers in the arrangements that they make for their children. That is also important throughout the schooling system. When I went round schools in my constituency, the main reasons
Last year, the Chancellor had small items in his Budget that he did not mention. One was the cut in VAT on sanitary protection. This year, I believe, he did not mention the cut in VAT on children's car seats. That is a small thing but, for many families, it will be a welcome tax relief on something that they regard as essential for their children's well-being.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I am listening closely to the hon. Lady's oration. Given the importance of preparing for the future, how is the objective of prudence compatible with the reality of a halved savings ratio?
Ms Keeble: That is a great issue, which the Opposition always bring up, so I always check the figures beforehand. It is true that, in the first years of the Government, the savings ratio declined. It was then projected to stabilise and start to improve again.
The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) should consider two additional factors. In his speech, the Chancellor gave the figures for the number of people who have taken out individual savings accounts. I have certainly heard people in the industry say that ISAs are another of the Government's success stories.
Ms Keeble: We have many. ISAs have succeeded in attracting people to save, over and above those who had previously saved in TESSAs and PEPs. I have not studied the Institute for Public Policy Research publication in detail, but it refers to the number of families who have no assets. It is right that the Government should take account of that end of the market as well, and encourage saving among people who have not done so previously. I welcome the Government's emphasis on that, and not just on the earnings:savings ratio.
Pensioners are a group who have been strongly encouraged to save. The consultation in my constituency on the pensioners tax credit was extremely successful. The only question from pensioners concerned why it would take so long to introduce the tax credit. Because many people in my constituency have had the good fortune to be in work for most of their adult lives, they have access to private or occupational savings schemes, and some derive their income from savings. They welcome the fact that their prudence and thrift will be rewarded by 60p in every pound of their savings above the level of the state pension.
People might say that that applies to all pensioners, which is right, but women tend to live longer than men, and any measure that helps pensioners will particularly help women. For women who have experienced considerable difficulties in retirement, the introduction of the pensioners tax credit will provide substantial help. I hope that, after the announcement today, the measure will be unfolded quickly, with all the necessary publicity and simplification of the application forms, so that pensioners in Northampton, North will soon feel the benefit.
In summary, the Budget has huge benefits to offer to families, and will be welcomed wholeheartedly by many families in my constituency. The Budget contains particular benefits for women, and by providing extra money for hospitals and schools, it will address some of the priority services that are highly valued by the whole community, but especially by women voters, as research has shown. I commend the Budget to the House.
Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) seemed to be saying in the last part of her speech, in answer to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), "Don't confuse me with the figures." I feel some sympathy for the hon. Lady. Like the rest of us, she had to wait for the real figures on personal savings to come out in the Red Book. No doubt she had been told by her researcher or her Whip that she should include in her speech a picture that personal savings were going up from a very low level, but as we discovered today, they have gone down from a very low level. She cannot get around that.