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9.16 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Like the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), I represent many small businesses. Any help for small businesses is to be welcomed at the moment.

In the midst of all the benefits that have been announced for pensioners, I must make a plea for a group that has consistently been overlooked. I received a telephone call recently from someone who is not a constituent of mine--his elected representative stood for Parliament but will not sit in Parliament on the same terms as the rest of us. His name is Jim Steele and he is 83. He phoned me to say that, when he became 80, he received an increase of 25p a week in his pension. Despite all the other increases that have been announced, nothing has happened to that 25p a week. It is an insult to continue to pay only 25p a week to a person over 80, so many years after that increase was made to help those in old age.

I welcome the proposals concerning climate change that will allow the expansion of the gas industry in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, I believe that that will help the nation

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as a whole to reach the Kyoto targets. I welcome, on behalf of my colleagues, the news on the additional spending on health, staffing, equipment and renovation. We also approve of the increased long-termism in many of the spending announcements. However, like others in the House and throughout the nation, we do not take it for granted that those announcements are intended only to help us now. The Government might also have another aim in view: that of winning an election in five years' time, as well as in the immediate future.

When one reads the seemingly impressive figures published in the Budget--such as the total of £1 billion for the NHS over three years, including a cash handout of up to £1 million for each of the 200 or so acute care hospitals, and £135 million for the new recruiting drive--one must be cautious. We ask for consideration to be given to the impact of such increases. What impact will the additional funding, coupled with the other spending increases due to take place next month, have on the day-to-day problems experienced by the health service?

There is a staff shortage in the health service. Last year, the Secretary of State announced plans to recruit 20,000 nurses and 2,000 general practitioners by 2005. Naturally, they were roundly welcomed. That is true of the Chancellor's plans for a new £135 million fund to recruit front-line staff, but it must be ensured that additional resources effectively target and eliminate the sources of staff shortage, which I touched on in Question Time.

Retaining staff is just as important, if not more so, than attracting young people to the health service. The value of work experience must never be underestimated, nor must it be forgotten that we do not have enough training places for prospective nurses or GPs. There is a restriction in place and we must re-examine it.

To retain nurses, fairer salaries must be paid. In Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom, people are asking why police officers start on £17,000 a year whereas nurses get much less. Many do not earn the overtime that some police officers receive, which is why they take on agency employment outside normal working hours. Nurses must be paid fair wages commensurate with those paid to workers of equivalent skill.

I reserve judgment on the establishment of the capital renewal fund, which will be paid directly to GPs, although I welcome any plans to address the shortage of family doctors. Additional funding for acute care hospitals over the next three years must be welcome, although I have residual concerns about how effectively hospital trusts will transfer such funding to improved equipment and improved hospital buildings.

Departing from the domestic health service for a moment, let me put on record my pleasure that the Government have introduced a new tax credit to encourage British companies to play a fuller role in global disease relief. The measure will promote the development of new drugs and facilitate their widespread distribution. We should enhance both in acknowledgement of the damaging effect of disease on the third world.

I want to mention health funding in regions in which responsibility is devolved. I was not altogether amused to discover last week that the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales would be making announcements in the next few weeks. Northern Ireland seems to have been put into semi-orbit and, as the regionalisation of the nation increases, we must be careful not to allow any part

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to become semi-detached. I hope that the Northern Ireland Assembly puts health at the top of its agenda by allocating a large proportion of the additional resources resulting from the Budget to hospitals to ensure that the standard of health care in Northern Ireland matches, if not betters, that in the rest of the United Kingdom.

When funds were reallocated recently, £10 million that had not been used was discovered in the health pot, even though people throughout Northern Ireland were crying out for better surgery and better equipment and operations were not being carried out. What is going on with the management of our health resources? I believe that sometimes we waste them.

We need not just greater funding, but more prudent funding and more prudent spending of financial resources. Health service morale is at an all-time low. The additional funding may halt the fall in morale, if it has not already hit rock bottom, but it will take further funding to rebuild both morale and public confidence in the health service.

In that context, the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) kept referring to percentages, but they are not a good guide. If I understand my maths, 10 per cent. of 1 million is 100,000 and 50 per cent. of 100,000 is 50,000. We need hard figures so that we can make comparisons and draw valid conclusions.

9.25 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): Today's debate takes place against the sombre background of foot and mouth disease, as was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery). As he and others pointed out, however, there is nothing in the Budget about it. I am especially surprised--given that the Budget will have been prepared somewhat in advance--that we have heard nothing from Ministers about the reallocation of some of the £1 billion underspend that they pushed into the subsequent year to fund compensation payments.

Mr. Gordon Brown: More public spending.

Mr. Letwin: Not more public spending; reallocated public spending. The Chancellor could not spend that money last year: try as he might, he could not get Whitehall to spend it. Now he is pushing it into the next year, and not looking at the emergency that faces the country.

Mr. Brown: More spending.

Mr. Letwin: No, it does not mean more spending this year. It means the same amount of spending this year, reallocated. It would be good if the Chancellor were able to do what I believe he is fond of accusing us of not being able to do, and could do his sums.

As usual, we are confronted by a Budget which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) pointed out, contains a good deal more spin than substance. The hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell)--who, alas, has had to leave the Chamber, but was courteous enough to let us know in advance--made an interesting speech, but fell into a huge heffalump trap. I am in the fortunate position of being able to reveal the results of a little further investigation. After all, such discoveries are made 24 hours by 24 hours as we disinter the astonishing palimpsest of the Red Book.

13 Mar 2001 : Column 910

We now find that the extra money for education, which we already knew had been reduced from £1 billion to £400 million, is a conjuring trick in itself, as it is based on a comparison with the pre-Budget report. If we refer to the Red Book relating to the last Budget, we find that the amount turns out to be £200 million. I agree that the Chancellor is a magician, but making £200 million into £1 billion is certainly a magic trick even by his standards.

Then there are the dogs that did not bark. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) rightly made another impassioned plea for a change in the annuity rule. There was nothing about that in the Budget, although the Chancellor prided himself hugely on having vastly worsened the annuities situation by repaying a huge amount of the national debt.

Although the Chancellor made no announcement of a rise in corporation tax, it will rise by £5.7 billion next year after four years of failure to index the various thresholds. I could go on, referring to the national insurance changes, the company car tax changes and all sorts of other things that we never heard about--as is, I think, widely acknowledged now.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea and, in a brilliant analysis, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) made clear just how much what is claimed in the Budget--and, indeed, in his previous Budgets, and in all his preenings about his great success--depends on the inheritance that he received. It goes back to 1992 and 1993; it was not suddenly invented in new Labour Downing street. That was the burden of another brilliant analysis yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). In fact, this Budget debate has been more distinguished by ex-Chancellors making clear what is going on in the present Chancellor's Budget than any other such debate in the current Parliament. I admit that that is only a minor compensation for the deficiencies of the Budget itself.

Much more seriously, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea and, again, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe made clear just how far the Budget continues the process of undermining British competitiveness by increasing taxes and regulation. My right hon. and learned Friend described--accurately, I believe--the Chancellor's programme of deceleration and acceleration of public spending as an eccentricity. I shall explain in a moment why I think he slightly understated the case.

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