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I want to remind myself of the position when I spoke at the same stage in last year's Budget debate. At a time when we faced the general election in which I made my first attempt to be re-elected to Parliament, I was able to praise the position that the Chancellor had achieved. The sound and sensible work that he had done in all his previous Budgets had put Labour into a strong position in which it could implement a Budget that would stand it in good stead for the coming election. Lo and behold, the election was successful. The result was very good for Labour and we looked like achieving something that we had never achieved before: two full consecutive terms in government. I was returned to Parliament, so who am I to complain? Indeed, I am one of the dozens of Labour Members who took seats in 1997 that Conservatives had held for decades, and I do not think that I was untypical in then improving my majority in the 2001 general election. All that is a tribute to the sound economic work that Labour did in government in those first four years.
The Chancellor has run out of stealth taxes, and has determined on taking the necessary risks in the decisions that he has made today. He is taking two particular risks. First, on the very high-profile taxation for investment in our public services, the public must see improvements in the next few years, otherwise they will object to having had to pay the higher taxes. To some extent, I am relaxed about that, as it does not matter what we say in the Chamber: it is the experiences of voters and residents in our constituencies that will determine whether they perceive those improvements. Nothing that we can say will change that. The second risk is that the public do not want to pay higher taxes. The opinion polls tell us that people are willing to pay more for better public services, and we are now going to put that to the test, as they will be paying higher taxes in a year's time to fund such services.
The Government's economic strategy has moved on. In those first four years in office, it was clearly based on stability and fairness. They have now moved on to enterprise and fairness. That is not to say that they have given up on stability, but that stability has put in place foundations on which they can be more ambitious and start to tackle some more deeply rooted problems such as the productivity gap between us and our main competitors. Again, it is a credit to what we did in those first four years that we can now move forward and deal with problems in enterprise and productivity.
The Chancellor mentioned the Enterprise Bill, which has just started its passage through the House. The Bill is a worthwhile development because it takes politics out of competition decisionsan echo of the bold decision in 1997 to take the politics out of monetary policy. I wish the Government as great a success with the current decision as they achieved with the 1997 one. The Bill
We heard in today's announcement about improved work force skills and reductions in some tax rates, especially for smaller companies. The Chancellor reminded us that only a month ago, he responded to the Competition Commission report on bank services for small businesses. I suspect that the best announcement today for small businesses was the introduction of the flat-rate VAT scheme for companies with a turnover of less than £100,000 this yearand £150,000 next yearwhich will apply to more than 500,000 companies. Large companies will of course be delighted that, like small and medium-sized enterprises, they will benefit from a research and development tax credit.
That is all to the good for the enterprise and productivity agenda, but it is worth mentioning as a footnote my attendance at last week's conference at Staffordshire university, where I spoke on the subject of starting up a new business. My message was factualin dealing with the support availablerather than party political, and after giving it, I was able to sit back and listen to the other speakers. About half the audience were undergraduates thinking about their first job, and about half were people in work and thinking about career changes. Two messages came across. First, self- employment and starting up a business is not a soft choice but a tough one that might also prove rewarding and satisfying. The economic climate in which to take such a decision has been very benign for some time, and the future also looks reasonably benign. Secondly, the Government are giving good support to people who run small businesses, and to those who want to start them up. The impression came across that things are much better than in the past, which is reassuring in terms of this Government's enterprise and productivity agenda.
On the fairness agenda, it is clear that improvement in public services is at the heart of today's Budget. Although the national health service has understandably taken centre stage, it is worth reminding ourselves that the Chancellor did not overlook other public services. He had things to say about our defence forces, law and order and the law agencies and education. Although education occupied only a small part of the speech, he said something very significant about it: the Government remain committed to increasing substantially the proportion of GDP that is spent on education services. It is important not to overlook such statements, even though our attention is on the national health service.
It is a matter of equity and fairness that strong public services are available for everybody when they are needed, without the worry of being able to pay for them. As the Chancellor and the Wanless report have stressed, with money must come reform. The same is true of the national health service. We have already witnessed national examples of reform such as NHS Direct, national call centres, walk-in centres and more nurse consultants. Consultation is also taking place on wider prescribing by nurses and pharmacists. In terms of money, such reforms are reflected locally. Improvements have been made to my local hospital's accident and emergency, medical assessment and intensive care units. Improvements have also been made to GP surgeries, all of which now have a social worker attached. More courses from nurses and therapists are available at GP surgeries, and improvements have been made to our mental health hospital services.
With the money has come reform. I witnessed a good example of that in March, when I visited the new eye centre that the local hospital trust has set up in my Stafford constituency. Back in 1997, the biggest proportion of the many complaints that I received about health services concerned waits of 15 to 18 months for cataract operations. All such services were provided under contract at a hospital outside the district. My local hospital took advantage of the Government's offer of a modernisation fund for cataract treatment by accessing that fund and setting up the local eye centre that I visited in March. It is modernit has just been builtrun in modern ways, and ophthalmists can refer patients directly. The service is fronted by nurses, and patients have a single assessment to check whether they are suitable for a cataract operation. Their operation is booked then and there. During my March visit, operations were being booked for May. Instead of waiting 15 months, patients are getting their operations within 15 weeks. That example shows how money and different working methods can be combined to improve service. I now receive glowing letters of praise from constituents about cataract services when I used to receive letters of terrible complaint. An hon. Member asked about operations to replace hip joints. To complete the picture locally, Stafford wants to establish an orthopaedic surgical unit that gives people the same service as the orthopaedic unit. We will look to the Government for help from the modernisation fund to do that.
I do not want to get carried away with how rosy everything looks because there are still dreadful problems, some of which are noticeable in my constituency. One of the three pilots for drug testing of offenders who are arrested by the police and charged with an offence is taking place in Stafford. Just under half the people tested have proved positive for drug dependency, which makes it a health problem. Most of them say that they would like help with that dependency, but when the police and the referral service turn to the health service, the support is not available to the extent that it should be.
The problem of access to NHS dentistry is not unusual in Stafford and is experienced throughout the country. For the elderly, there remain the problems of delayed discharge, lack of domiciliary care help and difficulty in adapting people's homes. More needs to be done and the way forward for the NHS is set out in the Wanless report. The money is earmarked for reform. It is not meant to pay for services when people are sick, nor to go towards private insurance schemes or even a social insurance scheme. No hon. Member would propose that employers pay more in social insurance contributions than they are going to be required to make under national insurance.
At the end of my speech last year, I made three points that are valid today. I berated Departments for underspending their budgets. It appears that a year later the situation is the same. They are letting the country down if they do not spend the money that is allocated.
My second point related to the unfair distribution of education money by central Government to local authorities. The Government have now made the commitment to change that system for next year. I just hope that this summer's comprehensive spending assessment contains enough money for education to level up the money that is paid to local authorities so that everyone gets a fair and decent amount from the Government.
My third point concerned the attempt to eradicate poverty. I am delighted that the Chancellor disclosed the rates for the child tax credit next year. Ally that with the national minimum wage, the universal child benefit and the new working tax credit and I am confident that the attack on poverty will make great advances in the next four years, never mind the next 15.