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Mr. Willis: Nothing has changed.

Mr. Major: The hon. Gentleman may be right.

The health of the economy in 1997 and subsequently suggests that we may have got that balance about right.

During this Parliament, the Chancellor has benefited from the supply side reforms of the 1980s and the disinflation brought about by the policies of the 1990s. When he chants his mantra of boom and bust--I lost count of the number of times that he and the Prime Minister uttered such drivel last week--he should remember that the last unsustainable boom was well over a decade ago. That has not stopped the Prime Minister depicting my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor as Mr. Boom and Mr. Bust. [Interruption.] The Financial Secretary to the Treasury sniggers, but that is the politics of sneer and jeer. Neither of my right hon. Friends were policy makers at the time of the last boom, and one of them had barely been in the House of Commons.

There is a boom and bust today: a boom in tax raising and a bust in the competitiveness of manufacturing industry. Perhaps the Chancellor and the Prime Minister should concentrate on that boom and bust.

Mr. Geraint Davies: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Major: I shall make a little progress, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is a redistributive Chancellor. He tries to hide that fact, but it is evident, and from his perspective he should not hide it. He aims to redistribute to the less well-off, but in general he redistributes to the Inland Revenue. Even his well- intentioned schemes are not wholly successful. I do not disagree with all of them. Bits of what the Chancellor has done have been good social justice, and if I had been in government with the economy that he now has, I would certainly have taken some of the measures that he has taken, and I am not remotely shy about saying so. However, some of those schemes have not been successful.

The Chancellor abolished the married couples allowance last year, and this year--after a helpful 12-month gap for the Treasury and the Inland Revenue--he has introduced a children's tax credit to replace it. However, many people will not receive that credit, because it is means-tested and millions will lose either some or all of it on the means-tested taper.

The organisation of that tax credit is a shambles. As it is based on the highest-earning member of the household, it throws up huge and unacceptable anomalies. If one parent works and earns £42,000 a year, no payment of the

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child tax credit is made, whereas if both parents are at work, with no one at home with the child, and earn £35,000 each, the full credit is payable. As a means of social justice, attacking poverty and helping low-income families with children, this scheme is nonsense on stilts. If the Chancellor were serious, he would have examined those problems and sought to correct them before introducing the tax credit in its present form.

The minimum income guarantee is the Chancellor's safety net against poverty, but it is so complex that more than one third of eligible pensioners do not claim it. The form is so complex and absurd that a large percentage of graduates might not claim it.

The 10p band extension is right in principle. I do not disapprove of minimising tax on lower income groups. However, the proposal is so niggardly and mean as to be almost pointless. The maximum gain from the Chancellor's measures in the Budget is 75p a week--that figure should strike a chord with Labour Members. Given pensioners' response to that amount previously, surely he should have done it differently.

Many of the main effects of all economic management, by every Chancellor of the Exchequer, become apparent some years after the announcement of the original tax and spending decisions. This Chancellor was lucky. He was lucky in his predecessors--lucky, notably, that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Lamont made the painful and unpopular decisions that contributed so much to the subsequent benign situation of which the present Chancellor has made such use in this Parliament. And--unless my memory is failing--I seem to recall that they made those decisions in the teeth of unrelenting opposition, not least from the present Chancellor and the Prime Minister.

I will not be in the House to see the Chancellor's legacy at first hand, but much of it is now predetermined. He inherited an economy of falling unemployment and low inflation, and he has maintained it. That was well done; but under his stewardship also, taxes have risen too much. The tax system has become far more complex. Manufacturing industry has declined further. Regulations have soared. Increases in business taxes are undermining competitiveness, and so in due course will the social charter, whose economic folly is not yet fully apparent but will become so.

It is, in truth, a mixed record--some good, some bad--for this luckiest and most fortunate of modern Chancellors of the Exchequer.

I cannot be certain, but this may well be the last occasion on which I shall speak in the House. Let me say that it has been a privilege beyond measure to be here, in this mother of Parliaments. I hope that the next generation of hon. Members, whichever of our great parties they may represent, will feel as I did when I first came to the House; I hope that they will feel that way in future, and I hope that we shall be able to end the miserable political climate of spin and counterspin that has grown up in recent years.

We need to separate fact from fiction, substance from soundbite, information from innuendo. The public--the electorate--the people who sent us here--deserve more than to be spoon-fed a cocktail of headline-grabbing feel-good stories. They deserve the truth, unvarnished sometimes, but the truth, and every Member of this House, whether Minister or Back Bencher, has the obligation--the duty--to provide it.

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5.27 pm

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): I hope that that was not the last speech that the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) will make in the Chamber. We can agree with some of what he says from time to time and disagree with other things he says, but we must all recognise that he has made interesting contributions to the House over the years--and, indeed, ended up being Prime Minister as a result. I hope that we shall hear from him one last time: he may say things that Labour Members do not like sometimes, but that is the nature of politics and the nature of debate.

I welcome some of the initiatives announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I appreciate the £8.5 billion capital investment in education, as I am sure will many local authorities, and the capital investment in the new transfer of information scheme from primary to secondary schools. If that will reduce the amount of paperwork, it must be worth while. As I said earlier, some of us--sadly--remember the years when the present Opposition were in government. They may talk of red tape, but I remember teachers showing me cupboards full of paperwork that they were expected to go through. It is not all Labour's fault; there is much for which to blame the other side. The Opposition talk of freedom, and money going directly to schools. Who introduced local management of schools--again, the forerunner of bureaucracy?

Opposition Members talk about teachers being demoralised, but who was it who took away teachers' bargaining rights? I seem to remember that it was Conservative Members--although they seem to have changed coats now. I also remember, some years ago, a Conservative Secretary of State receiving a very rough ride at a teachers' conference. Although I agree with Opposition Members that there are some cases of low teacher morale--no one would deny that--the Government are making various attempts to raise it.

I welcome some of today's announcements by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, as they should help to lift teachers' morale. Training bursaries must be welcomed, because anything that encourages more people to enter the teaching profession must be good. I also welcome the increase in teacher training places to 2,250 as part of the direct funding package for education, which should commence in June. It is a good development which should also help to lift teachers' morale.

In many ways, the teaching profession was devalued by some of the measures implemented by the previous Administration in their 18 years in office. It is therefore perhaps not difficult to see why it is so difficult to persuade the profession to trust the current Government's efforts to help it.

Opposition Members have mentioned the Government's schemes to retrain young people and to get them into work. I remember three or four of the previous Government's youth schemes, some of which only served to disillusion young people. Indeed, those schemes may be part of the reason why we have a lost generation of young people. Regardless of what caused that disillusionment, it is indisputable that, because of this Government's action, 270,000 young people now have prospects that they never had before and 1.1 million adults have been able to take up full-time employment.

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Such progress was never made under the previous Government. I remember when, under that Administration, there were between 3 million and 4 million unemployed. That is quite a contrast with the current situation. Conservative Members accuse others of cherry-picking issues, but they, too, address them selectively. They take credit for the improvements, but blame everything else on the Government.

A few weeks ago, I raised the general issue of education standard spending assessments. Often when Governments of whatever complexion say that they are providing money in the SSA, it turns out that that money is not available. I am not accusing my colleagues of doing that, but simply telling them that that means of funding is well worth examining. The sooner we do that, the better.

Reorganisations--school amalgamations and closures--are under way both in my constituency and in other parts of Coventry. I am not so sure that the way in which we are dealing with those reorganisations is always right. A consultation exercise is being conducted and the public are essentially being told that alternative proposals will be considered. However, it is not always appreciated that the public may need assistance in developing and proposing such alternatives. Some members of the public have never before dealt with public authorities such as big education departments, which have great resources, or tried to persuade them to change policy. Although drastically declining school rolls sometimes require the amalgamation or closure of schools, I believe that that policy, and SSA funding, should be revisited.

Other matters, such as further education, were not dealt with in the Budget, but we cannot have an education debate without considering them. The Government have made some progress on further education, but it is still sometimes treated like a Cinderella eduction sector, squeezed between secondary and higher education. I ask my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to think about that. Very often, people who have not had the benefit of a university education find their niche in further education. I see the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), nodding his head.

I hope that in the next Parliament the Government will not be in favour of top-up fees. Universities are looking for a variety of means by which to raise resources. Only a couple of weeks ago, one of the universities in my constituency tried to introduce a system whereby students who did not have laptop computers would find it difficult to get into that university. I hope that the Secretary of State is looking out for such schemes and gimmicks.

We cannot have disparity between north and south of the border, and it is about time that we looked at the Cubie report.

The long-term care of elderly people will not go away and I hope that Ministers will consider it after the election, if not before.

It has been said that our manufacturing base has been threatened. We have a well-known problem with Rolls- Royce in Coventry. People have heard me ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to look at that, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has agreed to do so. An important lesson has come out of discussions with Rolls-Royce.

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The decisions that resulted in the lack of money invested in research and development were made in about 1992, and earlier. I remember saying on many occasions that the money saved by people losing their jobs should be used for research and development. A colleague of mine, a prominent shop steward, once told a Minister, "You're going to have some expensive shelf-stackers at Sainsbury's." That gives an idea of what people feel about a lack of research and development and the consequences that that can have in Coventry, particularly for companies like Rolls-Royce.

We welcome the increases for pensioners. Whatever the merits or demerits of the link to earnings, we have to convince pensioners about our policy. I readily acknowledge that Ministers have some valid reasons for not going down the road to re-establish the earnings link. For example, the £200 winter fuel allowance would be taxed. Nevertheless, at many of the meetings that I attend, pensioner constituents voice a lot of concerns about their incomes and it would be remiss of me not to repeat them. I hope that the Government will take note of that.

Low interest rates mean that the economy expands, and that assists manufacturing industry, certainly in the midlands. That has to be welcomed. Interest rates are probably the lowest they have been for about 35 years, and low inflation--the lowest for about 30 years--plays a significant part in the economy. Short-term interest rates from 1997 have averaged about 6 per cent., while longer term interest rates should average about 5 per cent.

People will remember the problems of negative equity. Mortgage interest rates have dropped--they have stabilised, from an average of 11 per cent. between 1979 to 1997 to about 6 per cent. at present. That gives comfort to small businesses and to anyone buying a house, particularly young people. Low mortgage interest rates allow young people to plan ahead, which most of them want to do.

Manufacturing has started to rise--to about 1.6 per cent. That must be vitally important to the economy--especially in the west midlands. Productivity has been a subject for debate for 35 years or longer--certainly, during all my time in public life and in industry. It has grown by 4.4 per cent. That has got to be good, when we consider the years when it did not grow. I am sure that most people welcome that growth. We can all remember the days of boom and bust when exports were down and imports were up, creating balance of payments problems. Exports have risen by about 7.4 per cent. That has to be welcome--as is this year's surplus of £23 billion.

One of the things that the Conservatives lectured previous Labour Governments about was borrowing. The debt repayment is about £34 billion, so that is surely welcome.

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