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12 Feb 2003 : Column 906—continued

2.42 pm

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I shall be brief, to allow other hon. Members to speak.

The debate is interesting because it shows that the Conservatives' tactics are to paint a picture of gloom and doom about our public services, to run them down and say that there has been no progress or improvement, whether in the health service, schools or anything else. Clearly, one of their prime activities between now and the next election will be continually to run down our public services.

It is important to acknowledge that we face challenges and difficulties, and that improvements are needed in some respects; but if all that we do in this Chamber is deny the improvement in public investment and progress that we see in my constituency, we shall not serve our constituents particularly well. I shall highlight some of the improvements that have taken place in public services, in the economy and in employment prospects, without failing to recognise that there are challenges in our public services that we need to meet.

Mr. Howard: I should like to remind the hon. Gentleman of one of the statistics to which I referred, which is that over the past two years spending on the national health service has increased by 22 per cent., but hospital treatment has increased by only 1.6 per cent. Does the hon. Gentleman deny those figures? I do not see how he can, because they come from the Government. Does he think that, in those circumstances, we should remain silent about them?

Vernon Coaker: I do not think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should remain silent. What I am saying is that the Conservative party has clearly decided that in the run-up to the next election it will denigrate and run down our public services. The difference between us is that we are saying that we shall invest in and reform our public services, while recognising progress where there is progress and challenges where challenges remain. What we shall not do is say that the picture is of a complete mess and of failure.

On the number of people out of work, to which my right Friend the Chancellor referred, it is too easily forgotten that a few years ago people like me and many others used to go on marches for jobs. We carried banners at huge demonstrations, where we said that there could be no dignity for any family, no self-respect for any individual and no proper attack on poverty in society if we did not move towards full employment.

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We too readily say that, whereas 3 million people were out of work, now the figure is less than 1 million. That reduction is a staggering achievement. It means that people have prospects in their lives. They have the possibility of inclusion, self-respect and dignity, which were denied them before. The reduction in unemployment in my constituency is a phenomenal achievement. In their welfare to work programme, the Government tried to tackle the problems encountered by people moving off benefit and into work caused by the benefits trap. Tax credits, the new deal and other measures introduced to deal with some of the difficulties have been a tremendous success.

I am proud of our record on employment and the fact that a Labour Government have delivered huge rises in the number of people in work and huge decreases in the number of unemployed. That is one of the greatest social steps that can be taken to tackle poverty and give people dignity.

In my local area, too, the increases in public spending have brought real benefits. It is clear from this debate that it is possible to take the Opposition's position. They can say that there is considerable waste, and considerable spending that should not be made, and that their policy is to reduce that spending by 20 per cent. because they think that it will deliver a better result. However, I must tell them that I shall not argue for a reduction in public spending when most people in my constituency are banging on my door calling for increased public spending. They want increases in the amount the Government are doing for their schools, hospitals, roads and transport. They believe not that there is over-investment in those services, but that the decades of under-investment in them led to the current problems.

We all accept that it is not possible simply to plough money in and expect services to improve. Reform is needed alongside the investment. Equally, it cannot be said that reform on its own will deliver improvements. Investment must be coupled with reform if we are to see improvements.

Mr. Bercow: It is a question not of denigrating the services, but of holding the Government to account for their policy failures, which make them worse than they would otherwise be. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House, in response to the question that I posed to the Chancellor and that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) has just posed to him, why NHS activity rates are rising at a rate of only one-fourteenth of the increase in NHS expenditure? That is the question; what is the hon. Gentleman's answer?

Vernon Coaker: We are investing in capacity to deal with some of the problems. As I understand it, the shadow Chancellor said that public services have been denigrated. He painted a picture of complete failure in which no progress or advance had been made, but we are making progress—although I accept that real challenges remain. The hon. Member for Buckingham

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(Mr. Bercow) identifies the problem of capacity, but we cannot address that without investment. We certainly cannot do it by inflicting cuts.

Kali Mountford: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Vernon Coaker: If my hon. Friend allows me to finish, one or two of our colleagues will also be able to speak.

My constituency of Gedling in Nottingham has new schools. Parkdale primary school has been rebuilt; millions of pounds of capital investment have gone into Arnold Hill school, Carlton-le-Willows school and Redhill school; and Arnold View school is to be rebuilt. There are new buildings at Arno Vale school; new classrooms at Burton Joyce; and a new hall at Seely church school. There are more nurseries, a sure start scheme and more teachers and teaching assistants. Colleges are expanding, and the Clifton campus of Nottingham Trent university is like a building site. Those improvements do not arrive out of thin air. They are possible only because of Government investment, and I am proud of that.

Building is going on at hospitals, too. The Queen's medical centre has a new accident and emergency unit; a new breast cancer unit is being built at City hospital, which I visited last Friday; a new urology unit and a new haematology unit are planned; and a cardiac unit is on its way, as are new wards for the elderly. There are more doctors and nurses, and the Gedling primary care trust is working to do something about substandard health centres. Just for the record, Nottinghamshire now has more police officers than ever before.

My central point is that the Government have invested huge sums in public services and we can see improvements at a local and national level. Of course it is necessary to have reform alongside that and to deal with some of the problems that investment brings, but there is a clear divide between those who believe that we can improve public services by making cuts and those who believe that we can do it by investment and reform. Another way would be to praise our teachers, doctors, nurses and police officers. We need to tell those people who work in our public services that we admire their work and understand the difficulties that they face. They need to know that we are proud of the progress that has been made.

2.52 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): It is a curious experience to follow the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who represents the constituency that I represented for 10 years between 1987 and 1997. Although I recognise his sincerity, he has not answered the Opposition's case. Before I go further, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests.

I hope to build on the outstanding speeches by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood).

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mitchell: No, I have barely started.

12 Feb 2003 : Column 909

I do not have a list of 10, but will comment on one or two of the points raised. Whatever else comes out of the debate, it must surely be the stunning complacency with which the Chancellor of the Exchequer accounted for the state of the British economy. Things started so well. I remember him saying, probably in song, that things could only get better. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) bequeathed a brilliant economic platform on which to build. The Chancellor did the right thing with the Bank of England and stuck to Tory expenditure plans. He also accurately read the Asian crisis, for which he was rightly praised in the House and the City, when so many commentators got it wrong. I have said a number of times—I like to be fair—that he has been a successful and good Chancellor. However, like so many before him, he sadly believes his own propaganda, and hubris and nemesis are setting in. It will not be many months before he is reviled by every hardworking taxpaying family for presiding over what is about to come.

As the shadow Chancellor made clear, there are serious imbalances in our economy. Even the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), made the dangers in the economy clear. A housing boom led to a £12 billion withdrawal of equity in the last quarter of last year. A consumer boom has taken place. The Confederation of British Industry has issued dire warnings not only about the massive increase in taxation, but about the massive amounts of regulation that are being ushered in every hour of every day. We also have Labour's tax on jobs, which starts in April. Those events are taking place when the stock market in Britain has fallen by nearly 50 per cent. from its height and our economy is in a dangerous state.

I call on the Chancellor to announce that he will suspend the £5 billion a year tax on pensions. I do not expect him to abolish it, but it is doing a great deal of damage. Almost everyone agrees that it is vital to put more money into our pensions, but he is taking £5 billion every year. He should announce, at the latest in the Budget, that he will suspend that forthwith while the current economic circumstances prevail.

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