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Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The Chief Secretary is painting a rosy picture of the economy. Can he tell my constituents and others who are very concerned about their pension deficits why, if everything is so wonderful, many pension schemes are in such serious trouble?

Mr. Boateng: The hon. Gentleman knows well why pensions inevitably cannot be immune from downturns in equities. He also knows, however, that in the long term, equities represent an important part of any pension portfolio, as he will be the first person to recognise.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth): May I remind my right hon. Friend to tell Conservative Members that more than 3,000 pensioners in my constituency will welcome the extra £100 a year that they will all receive? In addition, many miners who were retired and pensioned off as a result of political malice by the Conservative party will very much welcome the new pension credit—as they have so far had to pay tax on their well-earned income—and other things that the Government have done for pensioners.

Mr. Boateng: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the pension credit, nor least because all Members will want to play their part in ensuring maximum take-up. I know that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, working with the Inland Revenue,

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has made sure that a range of material is available to ensure that that is the case. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will want to make sure that they take up the cause of the pension credit, as that can only benefit pensioners in all our constituencies.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): I agree with the need to encourage take-up, as I did in relation to the minimum income guarantee campaign. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House, however, that if we encourage people to take up tax credits, this time, the computer system will be able to cope with the influx of applications that may be generated from such a campaign, and that people will not be left waiting for the payments should they decide to take them up?

Mr. Boateng: My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General has that situation well in hand, and the computer systems are currently coping with the demand. To be fair, the hon. Gentleman will recall his party's predictions of doom and gloom in terms of take-up, and I welcome his commitment to increasing it. I hope that he will have the grace to admit, however, that the predictions of the Liberal Democrats that take-up for these credits would be low have proved to be lamentably wrong.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): Before we leave the subject of pensions, will the Chief Secretary accept that the imposition by this Government of a £5 billion a year tax on pensions, coupled with the increased regulations that have surrounded pensions, the introduction of disincentives to pension saving, and the failure to deal with all those disincentives, means that pensions in this country are now thoroughly discredited in the view of most of the population?

Mr. Boateng: I accept no such thing. The hon. Gentleman has sufficient experience of the House and more than sufficient experience of this subject to know that his party first put up advance corporation tax. He knows as well as I do that the pension system in this country bears examination and comparison with that of the rest of Europe, where the pension system is putting those countries' economies into some considerable difficulty. I hope that he will give us credit for that, and for the measures that we have taken to preserve it.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): Before my right hon. Friend moves off the issue of pensions altogether, will he assure me that, should the Government change pensions regulations, they will inform people of the effects of the changes, unlike what happened under the previous Conservative Government when a change was made to inherited SERPS but they did not tell the people who would suffer from it? That was another mess that this Government had to sort out on coming to power.

Mr. Boateng: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point that out, and he is charitable in not pointing out, too, the mis-selling that occurred when the Conservative party had stewardship of these matters.

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The fact is that, with additional jobs, we now have lower unemployment than Europe, Japan and America simultaneously, and our hard-won economic stability has been the key to sustainable growth and to promoting employment and opportunity for all. Since early 1997, 1.5 million more jobs have been created, over half of which are in the private sector and almost 70 per cent. of which are full-time. In the past year alone, as I have indicated, 250,000 more jobs were created, almost half of which were in the private sector. It is important to get the balance between public and private sectors right.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way on that point, because he said earlier that we had experienced 43 quarters without recession—virtually 11 years. Does he accept that Governments do not add to recession and do not bring us out of it, and that we should pay tribute to the manufacturing sector and the workers of our country?

Mr. Boateng: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the importance of both manufacturing and wealth creation. From my frequent visits to Northern Ireland, I know of people's concerns to ensure that they retain their competitiveness and that jobs are created there, too. Northern Ireland Members of all parties play an active part in ensuring that that is the case.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): The Chief Secretary is quite right to talk about wealth creation and manufacturing, and I am grateful for the support that he has given to small businesses over the years. Will he give the House the cost of the small business package in the Budget? Does he know the global total of the cost to small businesses—companies employing fewer than 50 people—of the national insurance increases that kicked in on 1 April?

Mr. Boateng: I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman about the cost because I do not want to give him figures that might be misleading. He will know that tens of thousands of firms have been taken outside the scope of value added tax as a result of measures in the Budget. Many more firms will pay less tax and will benefit from our measures to reduce the burden of regulation on small businesses. He is right to point out that there is never any room for complacency about regulation and its impact on small businesses—that applies to successive Governments. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) pointed out the problems faced by the past Conservative Administration as a result of that, which is why we are determined that the Better Regulation Task Force and the measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget should maintain our momentum to reduce the burden on business.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Does my right hon. Friend accept that investment in health from national insurance contributions is reducing the average time that a small business must wait before employees come back to work? At the same time, the tax credit system means that the average salary paid by many small businesses is a lot lower. In a sense, the working

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families tax credit was a subsidy for small businesses, and if the measures are taken together they provide one explanation for the rapid growth of the success of small businesses throughout Britain.

Mr. Boateng: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the cost incurred by business due to sickness, and I shall talk about that in some detail later in my speech.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): My right hon. Friend will know that seaside communities such as Scarborough and Whitby have probably experienced the most dramatic improvement to their employment potential since 1997. More than 40 per cent. more of my constituents—1,400 people—are now in work than was the case before. What further help will he give to encourage small businesses, especially in areas such as mine and around the coast, to ensure that we build on the solid foundations laid during the past six years?

Mr. Boateng: The consultation document on equity finance that we published should assist small businesses in my hon. Friend's constituency, as should the development of enterprise areas and the advantages accrued by small businesses that start up and purchase commercial properties in such areas. It is important to recognise and understand clearly the problems faced in seaside and coastal towns. My hon. Friend has been a champion of that cause. It is largely as a result of work carried out by him and other Labour Members who represent seaside constituencies—

Mr. Bellingham: And Conservative Members.

Mr. Boateng: I hear the hon. Gentleman. There is no doubt that his constituency has a coast, but I do not think of it as a seaside town constituency—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Gross discourtesy.

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