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Mr. George Osborne: Will the Paymaster General give way?

Dawn Primarolo: I am happy to, but I am sure that you would like me to speak about clause 130, Mr. Gale. I was being polite to Members.

Mr. Osborne: Will the Paymaster General reflect on the fact that the difference between the 1992 election and subsequent general elections is that in 1992 the Labour party told the public in advance that it would increase taxes and they rejected it, whereas in 1997 and 2001 it did not tell them and then proceeded to increase taxes?

Dawn Primarolo: The huge difference between the election in 1992 in Bristol, South, as in the country—

The Temporary Chairman: Order. This is an interesting exchange, but it is totally irrelevant to the clause.

Dawn Primarolo: I was enjoying myself, Mr. Gale, as no doubt were Opposition Members, but you are right to return me to clause 130.

The clause imposes income tax for 2003–04. The starting rate of 10p that we introduced in 1999 means that around 3 million lower earners continue to pay about half the marginal tax rates that they would otherwise pay. We have kept our promise not to increase the basic or top rates of tax, which remain at 22p and 40p.

Norman Lamb: Will the Paymaster General give way?

Dawn Primarolo: Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to make a little more progress? I want to reply to a couple of points that he made. The right hon. Member for Wokingham was right—the figures do not add up—and I should like, in a spirit of friendship and generosity, to explain why that is. I shall be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman later.

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At 22p, the basic rate is at its lowest for 70 years. As Opposition Members said, the tax rates are complemented by measures designed to make work pay and to eliminate poverty. With effect from April, the Government have introduced child tax credit and working tax credit. Those new credits represent the biggest-ever investment in families, with some £13 billion to be spent on child tax credit alone. Child tax credit is paid not through the wage packet, but directly to the main carer, normally the mother.

As the hon. Member for Buckingham said, the income tax rates are also part of our commitment not just to macro-economic stability but to sound public finances. That applies particularly to policies enabling us to make a sustained investment in public services. Prudent management of the economy has allowed us to increase public services without raising income tax rates.

We have already outlined our ambitious plans to increase investment in the national health service, matched by reform, by 7.2 per cent. a year after inflation for the next five years. That will be financed by the increased national insurance contributions to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which is entirely in line with the Beveridge tradition.

Mr. Bercow: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Dawn Primarolo: Before the hon. Gentleman asks me to give an example, I shall give it now and then give way to him. Compared with 1997, by 2008 there will be 66,500 more nurses, 20,000 more doctors, 44,000 new therapists and about 100 new hospitals. To return to the example of Bristol, South, the difference between 1992 and now is that unemployment is down from some 15 to 17 per cent. to under 3 per cent.; people can also see real improvements in a health service that was so badly starved of money for such a long time.

Mr. Flight rose—

Dawn Primarolo: I did say that I would give way to the hon. Member for Buckingham.

Mr. Bercow: I am extraordinarily grateful to the Paymaster General. I shall be candid: I had hoped to tip her into the proverbial pit, but for her to do that herself before I had the chance to do so is generosity on a truly grand scale. Does she not realise that what she has done is to commit precisely the sin—regurgitating statistics about inputs—of which I was accusing her a few moments ago? Why does she not answer the very straightforward and practical question that the Chief Secretary has twice refused to answer in the past four weeks: why does the increase in clinical activity in the national health service represent only a tiny fraction of the increase in expenditure on it?

Dawn Primarolo: Without wishing to try your patience, Mr. Gale, by entering into a discussion on the national health service, I should point out that the hon. Gentleman well knows that given the resources put into

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the NHS to date, there has been a significant increase in activity. I will not try your patience by listing them all now—

Mr. Bercow: Oh go on.

Dawn Primarolo: No, I shall stay in order despite the hon. Gentleman's invitation. Through the increase in national insurance over the next five years, there will be substantial continuing investment in the NHS.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): Will the Paymaster General give way?

Dawn Primarolo: I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I should point out that clause 130 is only about the actual rates of tax. I shall let him make his point, and then I shall return to being in order.

Mr. Baron: I thank the Paymaster General for giving way—I shall be brief. How can she square her comments about the NHS with Government statistics that clearly show that during the past three years, expenditure on it has risen by £9 billion—an increase of approximately 24 per cent.—yet hospital treatments have risen by only 1.5 per cent. and hospital admissions have actually fallen by 0.5 per cent.?

The Temporary Chairman: Order. I will allow the right hon. Lady to respond, but I should be grateful if the Committee would return fairly swiftly to tax rates.

Dawn Primarolo: I will do exactly as you ask, Mr. Gale. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman knows, when the national health service has been starved of resources and does not have enough beds, doctors, nurses, therapists and other support workers, it takes time to put those people in place to provide treatment. We are now reaching a critical point, whereby such staff are in place and the NHS is going from strength to strength.

I turn to the specific issues raised by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) referred to the indexation of personal allowances. The freezing of them came into effect in April 2003, and cost the basic rate taxpayer 36p a week. As I said, that will help to fund annual real growth in national health service spending—something that the electorate desperately wanted and supported when this Government announced it; and of course, most pensioners over 65 are protected. Those aged 65 to 74 benefit from above-inflation increases in personal allowances, as do the over-75s. The Conservatives repeatedly froze income tax allowances when in power, but they did not use the money to invest in public services; they used it to pay for their economic failure.

Norman Lamb: None the less, the freezing of personal allowances is a tax increase on low-paid workers. Will the Paymaster General give a commitment that it will not be repeated during this Parliament?

Dawn Primarolo: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall first respond to a few more of the points that I need to deal with. I will deal later with his completely

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incorrect assertion about the position of the lowest 20 per cent. of earners vis-à-vis tax, as he is indeed very wrong.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs and other Conservative Members referred to the increased number of higher rate taxpayers. To use again the example of Bristol, South, one excellent thing for the constituents whom I represent is that they now have jobs and can contribute to public services through national insurance and the tax system—something that the very high level of unemployment under the previous Administration denied them. We have increased the basic rate limit by inflation to maintain its value. As I said, that is in contrast with the previous Government, who froze the basic rate limit.

I would have expected Conservative Members to applaud the increase in the number of taxpayers, because it is a sign of a healthy economy—of more people getting into work and getting paid more. For the period 1997–98 to 2002–03, mean male average earnings increased by 25 per cent., and average full-time earnings for men and women increased by 26 per cent. Full-time earnings for the top 10 per cent. of men and women increased by 27 per cent., but prices went up by 13 per cent. Employment has increased by nearly 1.5 million since the spring of 1997. The number of people in work is at record levels—something that the previous Administration never achieved.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham and some of his colleagues referred to the use of national insurance. The reason why they keep on referring to the increase as a stealth tax escapes me. We announced that we would increase national insurance by 1 per cent., and we said that all the money would be spent on the national health service, which it is. If Conservative Members are saying that they would cancel that rise as well making, according to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, a 20 per cent. cut across the whole public expenditure sector, they need to concentrate not on what this Government are doing but on how to explain to the electorate that there would be fewer teachers, fewer nurses and fewer doctors.

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