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Mr. Willis: Why have the Government not considered local authority debt, especially that of hospitals and health care trusts? The local health care trust in my constituency spends about £900,000 a year on servicing debt. Why is it only Government debt that is written down? Why is there not support for local authorities and health authorities?

Mr. Lewis: The Government's responsibility is to lay foundations at a national level and to set parameters for the way in which local agencies work and for the choices that they make. The Liberal Democrats would be the first to criticise us for over-centralisation if we decided to dictate priorities for health care trusts and other local agencies in terms of the balance between debt repayment and investment in services. We have set parameters and taken a lead but, ultimately, given the massive extra moneys that are being made available by the Government to local health care trusts and LEAs, it is for those organisations to make choices and judgments on priorities locally.

We in Bury were pleased to receive my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to open the Third Millennium building at the college of further education last week. It was a successful visit, and my right hon. Friend was warmly received by all those who were fortunate enough to attend the opening. We are generally proud of our education system in Bury. We have excellent levels of performance. We have a family of schools working together in partnership with the LEA, which is recognised nationally; Ofsted acknowledges that it is one of the best in the country.

All those educational achievements--among the best performances in the country--must be set in the context of our having probably one of the worst levels of funding per pupil in England. That is why the public, and especially head teachers, teachers and governors, welcome the fact that the Government have produced a Green Paper on the reform of local government finance which for the first time identifies the distribution of education standard spending assessments as a difficulty and commits the Government to taking action to ensure that there is a far fairer distribution of education resources. I am told that a White Paper will follow after the election.

It is important that we tackle the issue of SSAs and have a more equitable system. Wherever a child is educated, a minimum sum should be agreed. No education authority should be expected to receive less than that sum.

Mr. Geraint Davies: I agree with what my hon. Friend says, but does he agree with me that we also need to

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take into account issues such as ethnicity, multicultural education, mobility and other costs that certain urban centres face and certain rural areas do not?

Mr. Lewis: Of course I agree that those factors must be taken into account in creating a new and fairer system. The Government are not seeking to justify the funding gap that exists as between some LEAs. Indeed, they are seeking in their Green Paper to redress the balance. The factors to which my hon. Friend has referred matter, but they do not in themselves explain the gap between funding per pupil that exists as between some areas. That is why we welcome the Green Paper.

There are some political parties who say that the Government should have revamped local government finance in their first three or four years--that we should have got to grips with extremely complex and difficult problems that the Conservative Government did not tackle in 18 years. The Liberal Democrats know that, realistically, they will not have the opportunity to tackle them in the near future. We all know that local government finance is amazingly complex and that it is not easy to reform. However, the Government are committed to reform. In the Green Paper, they have specifically acknowledged the inequity of education SSAs as one of the issues that must be put right. Bury regards that as an extremely important commitment.

Those who imply that, because the SSA system has not been radically reformed, massive amounts of money have not gone into schools in places such as Bury and the other LEAs, are deceiving and misleading the public. Investment in the standards fund in Bury has risen from £27 per pupil in 1997-98 to £151 in 1999-00. We have seen £240,000 allocated to school security. Access initiatives have received £133,000. To recruit additional teachers to reduce class sizes, there has been funding of £2,082,000. Various capital projects have been allocated £1,448,000. There has been spending of £1.5 million on new classrooms to reduce class sizes, and £1.9 million has been made available for the new deal for schools. Given what was happening in the education system in the lead-up to the 1997 election, there has been a massive shift.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon accuses us of scaremongering about the threat posed to communities by Tory cuts. Our argument is based on real experience. Anyone who served on a local authority during the Tory years knew what the annual cycle meant: it meant managing cuts exercises year after year to ensure that cuts did the least damage to the most vulnerable people in our communities.

The extra money that is going into schools and other local services throughout the country is making a real difference to the quality of those services and to the quality of education available in schools. It is a pretence that there has been no difference. We remember annual cuts exercises. We remember when there was inadequate money for books and equipment. We remember when class sizes in primary schools were far too large. We remember that era.

Anyone working in education at any level would acknowledge the significant amount of extra investment that is going into schools, which is making a difference to standards, to the quality of education and the physical environment and to opportunities to learn. The assertion

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that the Government are not making a difference to education is false and misleading and is not borne out by the evidence that exists in every community.

The Budget will also make a difference to schools through the teacher recruitment strategy announced today, which is backed up with resources. One subject that has not been discussed so far is the reason for the crisis that we face in recruiting people to work in the public services, part of which is the way in which the public services and public servants were devalued and run down during 18 years of Tory government. Public services were portrayed as a leech on the public purse. Young people were not encouraged to go into public services if they wanted a decent standard of living or quality of life.

The status of public services and those who worked in them was undermined and demeaned over an 18-year period, yet in four years the Government are supposed miraculously to turn that culture around. Labour is responsible, allegedly, for the fact that we have thousands too few nurses, doctors, teachers and other public service professionals. In the words of a famous tennis player, "You cannot be serious." Most of the British public accept that, it takes time to make a fundamental shift in such a complex situation.

If we have thousands too few teachers, doctors, nurses and hospital beds, what was going on during the 20 years of unbroken Conservative rule, when there were periods of great prosperity and economic opportunity for the Government of the day? Where did that dividend go? Where did our money go? It went on tax cuts for a very few at the top, and the rest of it went down black holes on Black Wednesday and on debt repayment and paying the costs of mass unemployment.

It is a bit rich for the Opposition to attack the Government for the difficulties arising from the shortage of certain public sector workers. No one out there believes that. I suspect that many Opposition Members do not believe that that is a credible position. Everyone accepts that public services had to be rebuilt from the lowest level at which they have been since the war as a result of the damage that the Conservatives did to them. That will not happen overnight. Most of the British people acknowledge that, and are fair enough to accept it and to congratulate the Government on the achievement so far, even though they want more.

It is important to mention the Government's attack on child poverty, which has a direct correlation with educational performance. It is not good enough to look in isolation at test results, exam results and the resources going into schools. It is essential that we also consider the resources going to ordinary, hard-working families to tackle the problem of poverty and people living on unacceptably low incomes. The Budget introduces the children's tax credit, which will be £520 a year for ordinary families, and £1,040 in the first year after a child's birth, in recognition of the fact that that is a particularly expensive time for families bringing up children.

There will be enhanced child care allowances, which contribute towards a stable home environment, allowing children to learn and do better educationally. There will also be long-overdue improvements to maternity pay and leave, which again contribute towards stable foundations for the average family. The increase of £5 a week in the working families tax credit will incentivise work, making it worthwhile for people to make the choice to have a job.

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The Government were the first Labour Government, after many promised it, to introduce the national minimum wage. That is to be increased from £3.70 an hour to £4.10 an hour--another policy of which the Government are proud, and which the Opposition said would cost millions or hundreds of thousands of jobs. Not a bit of it. The shadow Chancellor has accepted that if the Conservative party ever returned to power, the minimum wage would have to remain. Of course, that party would allow it to wither on the vine. That is the difference in approach between the Opposition and the Government. We will ensure that it increases according to the economic conditions that prevail, so that people on low pay benefit when the economy is doing well. Although the Opposition say that they would not eliminate the national minimum wage if they ever returned to government, they would certainly have a strategy of allowing it to wither on the vine.

All the Government's support for families, for children and for people who are working hard will make a substantial difference to those people's quality of life and standard of living, and ultimately to the quality of our education system. The Conservatives' comments about the Government's spending plans as set out in the Budget imply that they would make significant cuts in public expenditure. They have accused the Chancellor of having irresponsible spending plans, and they have identified the areas in which they believe those spending plans are irresponsible. If the Tories were ever re-elected, every community throughout the country would face tangible and massive cuts to local services that matter to local people.

It is about time that the Tories were honest and told us where the cuts in local public services would fall. How many teachers, doctors, nurses, police officers and transport schemes would be lost? How many essential services would be cut, and how quickly would we return to the culture of public service cuts? The Opposition also say that they would reduce taxes. We all know who would be the beneficiaries of that policy. The Conservatives would reduce taxes for the few at the top in our society, whereas our tax proposals are directed at reducing taxes in a targeted way for those who most need it.

Opposition Members look horrified at that proposition, but it has always been the way of the Tories, throughout history, to cut the taxes of the very people who least need it, and to do nothing about the hard-working majority of people, especially those on low incomes. It is not new and should not come as a shock to the Opposition that such accusations are levelled against them. It is entirely consistent with what they are promising in their election manifesto, and even more consistent with what they did when they were in government for all those years. It is often best to judge politicians by what they did when they had power, rather than by what they say they will do.

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