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8.38 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I appreciate the points that have been made, particularly those which certain Labour Members raised in respect of specific health issues. Some folk criticise the fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland have received more funding per capita than England. From another point of view, some also point out that the standard of health care that we would like is not being delivered. I share in that criticism, but I do not agree with those who think that funding can be reduced. We cannot think simply in per capita terms, because we have to deal with isolated communities and a high percentage of particular types of illnesses. We might blame some people for inflicting certain illnesses on themselves, but the given environment can also be a factor, and in my view the funding for Scotland and Northern Ireland is necessary. I welcome the fact that the Budget statement made no mention of a reduction in such funding, and I look forward to its full implementation. We should remember the Treasury's sleight of hand over the years; additionality comes into play, and it tries to get back such money in other ways.

I am equally aware, however, that fault can be found with the way that the money has been used. Amazingly, when we were crying out for front-line funding in Northern Ireland, the Executive discovered £10 million in the health budget, which they had reallocated to other areas of government. I appreciate that that was their decision, but why was it not spent earlier where it was needed—on front-line health care?

On disability, I share completely the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), and I underscore the view—recently expressed in various places—that there is a tendency to ignore those with learning difficulties and argue instead that the funds are needed for others in mainstream education. I should like to think that we as a Parliament and as a country will never forget the need to look after the underprivileged, who need extra help to enable them to take their place in our society.

The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) made an interesting point about apprentices and business. We are apt to blame one another, but it is interesting to note that trade unions had a part to play in the running down of the apprentice scheme. A tendency developed some years ago towards job protection, because it was felt that, if there were too many apprentices, sufficient jobs might not exist for other people. We must be careful to develop a long-term plan with some degree of understanding.

In that context, I turn to the failure of care homes to meet the required standards, to which reference has been made. I have visited small, family-type care homes in Northern Ireland which, because of the standard of care that they offered, went out of business when the new regulations came in. In private homes, fire precautions such as external escape routes are required. According to those standards, even in a home such as ours—in which we cared for a father, a mother and other family members—we should have had an external fire escape.

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It is ridiculous to roll out a list of standards without considering the implications for those who prefer to be cared for in a smaller home as ordinary people. Larger homes may have many facilities, but they may not provide the care that some of these people really require.

I was interested to hear the Secretary of State for Health refer to less bureaucracy in the health service in defending the setting up of an independent audit body. However, as I listened I realised that, in fact, three bodies are being turned into one. In my years inside and outside Parliament, I have never discovered bureaucracy lessening; rather, it increases. Although I would like to believe those who say that a wonderful wand will be waved and bureaucracy will decrease, I do not. I discovered that, in one good hospital where a great deal of care is dispensed, it takes 24 days to get a message from one department to another. That is worse than Consignia and the Royal Mail. We must tighten up communication within the health service. Often, GPs do not get the speedy responses from hospitals that would enable them to treat their patients outwith. I would raise that issue especially when we talk of recruitment.

How long does it take to train a consultant? The Secretary of State for Health said that it takes at least 15 years, so the Government were right when they said that the Budget will not cure the health service, because we will not have all the staff that the health service requires during this Parliament or the next unless we import a high percentage of overseas health personnel into our country. Two things arise from that. First, there will be fewer job opportunities for those young people who want to serve in health care in future. Secondly, developing countries will be denuded of health personnel, even though regulations exist to stop people coming from the most under-developed countries. The policy will rob Peter to pay Paul, without serving our health service properly.

Finally, reference has been made to pensions. Age Concern has pleaded for simpler guidelines so that people can know what their pension entitlement might be. It has been suggested that businesses are doing the Government's work, but they have been doing the Government's work for decades. I want to tell the House about one of my constituents, Mr. McAuley, who has argued with the tax authorities and the Chancellor himself since the beginning of 2000, and he has found, as hon. Members do, that it takes a long time to get an answer. In his attempt to follow the Government's guidelines to provide for his retirement, he put most of his money into long-term savings in his wife's name because her income was too low to be taxable.

Mr. McAuley took the precaution of trying to get a fair return in the long term on his wife's investments, but the bank and investment bodies have taken £500 to £800 a year more in direct taxation than she was required to pay. The law says that if someone's income is £1 over the allowance, the whole sum is taxable. That tax can be reclaimed in due course, but I am not too sure how many hon. Members would like to pay out £500 or £800 before getting it back the next year. More importantly, the money was invested in high-yield stock and the income was reinvested in that stock, so that sum could not be reinvested ordinarily because it was already taken out of the investment. David McAuley is an individual, but perhaps his case represents others. Why should individuals suffer because it suits the tax man to allow business to do his work by taking money from people?

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8.48 pm

David Wright (Telford): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). The key themes of this year's Budget were rights and responsibilities. One of the alarming things that I have noted throughout this debate has been the attitude of Conservative Members, because the Budget is about rights and responsibilities not only for individuals and families but for businesses. We do not live in a world where each of those categories stands alone—we act together, as a society. Conservative Members think that business stands alone, outside society, and that it does not need to take any responsibility for what happens in society, but they are fundamentally wrong. That is the dividing line between us. As we focus on the Budget today, we have heard about the growing divide between the parties, and I shall return to that theme in a few moments.

It is difficult to make a speech after the Budget has already been debated for several hours. I shall focus on three key themes: first, the economic background against which the Budget is set; secondly, its impact on enterprise and investment in the UK economy; and, thirdly, the debate it prompts about the type of society in which we all want to live. Before tackling those themes, I shall comment on the way in which the Budget has altered the political debate in the UK, in my view, for the better.

The House will be reassured to learn that over the weekend I took a look at the Red Book—very exciting it is, too. I managed to get through the overview to concentrate, over my cocoa, on the introduction, which states:

That is motherhood and apple pie, and until I heard this afternoon's debate, I thought that we could all sign up to it, but we have heard little of inclusivity from the Conservatives today; all we have heard is a lot of complaint. Labour Members can sign up to the political philosophy set out in the Red Book introduction, and I welcome the Budget that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor delivered last week.

Over the weekend, I was struck by the maturity of the debate on the Budget, and I pay a measure of tribute to the Opposition parties. Perhaps because of the Budget, our debates have reflected less of the hyperbole of British politics. We have exited the silly season, because this is the most serious Budget that has been presented to the country in 20 years of politics.

The nature of political debate in this country has changed radically in the past five years. For the first time, we are able to debate the structure of our public services and our collective responsibility to pay for them and modernise them. That was not the case 10 years ago. In the 1992 general election, Labour made a case for investing in public services, but the public rejected it. It has taken us 10 years to turn around the political environment to the point where the focus is now on how to improve our public services. I welcome that change.

My first core theme is the background to the Budget. The Budget is built on a platform of economic stability—there is no denying that—and the programme targets child poverty and tackles much-needed investment in health.

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All that was made possible by the approach we adopted during our first term in government. During that first term, we heard a lot of complaints from the Liberal Democrats about how we were not investing heavily; that complaint has been heard again this afternoon. However, we have laid the foundation for long-term investment and we will now build on that.

Last year, Britain's was the fastest-growing economy in the G7, and growth forecasts remain extremely good. Long-term interest rates are low, inflation is low and unemployment is at its lowest since 1975. In Telford, unemployment has fallen by 21 per cent. since 1997, and youth unemployment has collapsed because of the new deal. The Opposition should take care not to talk Britain down. We have heard constant talking down of our country this afternoon, and we heard it from the shadow Chancellor at the last Conservative party conference. If they want investment in this country, if they want UK businesses to be successful, if they want more companies like the Japanese companies that come to invest in Telford because of the strength of our economy to come to this country, the Opposition should talk Britain up, not run it down at every opportunity.

This country's borrowing and debt are under control, and I am proud of that. It is a reflection of the success of Labour's first term. No wonder the Tories are envious of our economic record, given how appalling theirs was. When people look at the overall tax burden—the amount that they have to pay out—they do not forget the mortgage interest rates that they had to suffer under the Conservative Government. When people assemble their household budget and see how much they are paying in tax and how much they spend in other areas, most know that they are paying out less than they were under the Conservatives. That is due to the platform of stability that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has created.

My second core theme is the topic of today's debate: enterprise and investment. Some of the proposals command consensus between the CBI and the TUC, for example, the research and development tax credit, which will give a real boost to the economy. I want to comment briefly on the Investors in People scheme. We have put in £30 million of additional funding to help small firms to attain Investors in People status. Over the past 12 months, I have visited several companies in my constituency that have secured that status, which is a way of ensuring that their organisation is dynamic and effective and makes the best use of its people-based assets. I welcome that expenditure.

In total, more than 1,500 businesses in Telford will benefit from measures contained in the Budget, especially the changes to VAT for small businesses.

I shall now join my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who is no longer in his seat, in ensuring that I do not get a Christmas card from Digby Jones of the CBI. I read his comments in yesterday's edition of The Observer with interest. He said that by increasing national insurance contributions we are placing a tax on jobs. He should focus a little more on the impact of sickness at work. I asked the Library to dig me out a copy of the CBI's report, "Pulling Together", its

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2001 absence and labour turnover survey. The report reveals that in 2000 an average of 7.8 days per employee were lost through sickness. It states:

Yet we heard nothing from Conservative Members about the impact of sickness absence. They should bear that in mind.

Investment in the NHS will have a direct impact on the performance of the economy, because it keeps people at work and boosts productivity. Digby Jones suggested that the only economic advantage that we now possess over our European neighbours is a low tax regime for business. I do not believe that that is true. Our main advantage is the innovative and energetic nature of the British people, who work extremely hard. The healthier they are, the stronger and more productive our economy will be. They will perform best if they are well cared for by a high-quality national health service.

The investment in the health service will prompt demand for goods in the economy. It is not very trendy these days to talk about Keynesian economics, but for as long as I am here hon. Members will hear about it. Spending on public assets in the health service will lead to growing demand in the economy, and I welcome that.

My final point concerns the type of society in which we want to live. The Budget has the capacity to strengthen the institution that epitomises all that is best in our country and in delivery by a Labour Government: the national health service. That strengthening involves the investment outlined by the Chancellor coupled with reform. Opposition Members claim that health service reforms will not be effective, but the Government have proposed a platform of investment and reform that is spelt out in great detail. I welcome it and hope that it will be implemented as quickly as possible.

Effective change will take time, but it never took place under the Tories.

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