The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Andrew Smith): The Debt Management Office supports the Government's policies of minimising debt financing costs over the long term, taking account of risk and managing the cash needs of the Exchequer in the most cost-effective way.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I thank the Minister for that answer. The management of the Debt Management Office is a vital part of managing the economy. Now that the Institute of Fiscal Studies has identified a massive gap of £5 billion a year by 2004, will the Labour party cut its disastrously unsustainable expenditure plans, will it disastrously increase taxation or will it unsustainably increase debt? To fill the gap, should the British people mind the gap and vote Conservative at the election?
Mr. Smith: That was an extraordinary question for the hon. Gentleman to ask. In the year before the last general election, the Conservatives ran up borrowing of £28 billion. In the year before the impending election, we have a net repayment of £15 billion. The DMO is operating within a very different environment, in which the Government have sound public finances and sound money, as opposed to the spendthrift millstone of debt that the Conservatives put round our necks, and would do so again if they had the chance.
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Are not the general public entitled to one more statistic? How many thousands of millions of pounds of Government debt that we inherited from the previous Tory Government have the Labour Government paid off since 1997?
Mr. Smith: First, I thank my hon. Friend for his distinguished service and contribution to the House--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]--which he will notice is applauded on both sides of the Chamber. I thank him also for the principled, energetic, good-natured, friendly and supportive way in which he goes about his work, which was reflected in his question. The answer is that we are reducing debt from the 44 per cent. of gross domestic product under the Conservative Government to 31 per cent., and a sustainable 30 per cent. for the years ahead.
Those are not merely statistics. The numbers reflect the money that is taken from working people's pockets. It was taken in the past to pay for the boom-and-bust instability of a Conservative Government, who ran up debts because they could not manage the economy effectively. In the coming weeks, our case will be built on the tough decisions that we have taken and the platform of stability
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): By October 2001, as a result of the personal tax and benefit measures introduced over the Parliament, families with children in the least well-off fifth of the population will, on average, be £1,700 a year better off in real terms.
Mr. St. Aubyn: According to the Government's own figures, since they came to office the poorest fifth of households have had their tax burden increased by 12 per cent. Do the Government recognise that running a car is a necessity for many of even the poorest families, particularly in rural areas? They have introduced a regressive tax--there has been a massive increase in car taxation. Will the Minister join the Conservative party in cutting tax on petrol by 28p a gallon?
Mr. Timms: No, less well-off families are much better off, as independent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows. Of course, the data to which the hon. Gentleman referred include only about a quarter of a year's worth of working families tax credit data and do not include subsequent increases in income support child credits and other improvements. He needs to explain to his constituents the fact that our measures will have taken 1.2 million children out of poverty during the course of this Parliament. There have been huge improvements, particularly for the least well-off families.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. First, I hope that you enjoy the Dissolution, as I suspect that there will not be a candidate fighting against you. I was wondering whether the Health Secretary has said that he will come and make a statement about the future of the Victoria hospital in Lichfield, which faces closure; or, failing that, whether the Home Secretary has decided to come along and make a statement about the fact that we have lost 240 or more patrol police officers in Staffordshire since 1997; or, failing that, whether there has been a statement from other Secretaries of State, including the Chancellor--
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether an opportunity can be found today or tomorrow for the Paymaster General to return to the House to correct a misleading impression that she may have given inadvertently during Treasury questions. When I asked about the Government's proposal to impose VAT on service charges in care homes and sheltered accommodation--a matter raised earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)--she claimed that there was no such proposal. In fact, Customs and Excise propose to change the interpretation of Government rules, the effect of which will be to impose a new stealth tax on pensioners. At least the Chancellor was too ashamed to answer my right hon. Friend's question.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am still waiting for answers to written questions that I tabled some time ago. I am waiting for two answers to questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that I tabled on 20 April, and I am waiting for one answer to a question to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that I tabled on 6 April. We are now in the dying hours of this Parliament. What action can you take, Mr. Speaker, to ensure that I get responses to those questions before Dissolution on Monday?
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. A number of colleagues are in a similar position to my hon. Friend. Would you be kind enough, to contact Government Departments and ask for all ministerial replies to be given before Dissolution? That is something that you could do on behalf of Back Benchers, that would be appreciated by Members on both sides of the House.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If possible, will you extend that help? As you may know, there have been many complaints from both sides of the House about the great slowness in dealing with parliamentary correspondence, some Departments being much worse than others. Is it within your remit, to direct from the Chair that you expect Members of Parliament to receive, before Parliament is dissolved or shortly thereafter, the backlog of replies that are due on behalf of many of our constituents?
Mr. Speaker: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have a constituency, just as he does. Constituents write to me and I write to Ministers, and there are times when I am frustrated by the lack of replies and the time that it takes them to reply. I take on board what he says, and I hope that Ministers take note.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Your replies to the points of order have been extremely helpful. May I take the matter one stage further? You rightly pointed out that Departments can no longer reply to questions once the House has dissolved, but that does not mean that Departments of State cannot deal with questions by way of correspondence to let hon. Members have a reply, albeit in a different way. Could you ensure that Departments of State reply by letter to questions that cannot be dealt with before the Dissolution?