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Paul Farrelly: Quite right. We are all committed to a stronger Europe, but we did not decide the level at which we entered the ERM, out of which we were then unceremoniously dumped. [Interruption.] I will say one thing to the hon. Gentleman. The Tories are nothing if not consistent: they learn nothing and they still regret nothing. The shadow Chancellor's promised tax cuts and massive spending cuts are the sort of fairy-tale accounting that we saw for 18 long years.
The Tories had a black Monday when their bubble burst in the 1980s. They had a black Wednesday when their reputation was ruined with the ERM fiasco in the 1990s. Some time very soon, they will have a black Thursday when the Government's economic and social achievements condemn them to a third successive defeat at the next general election.
It has been an enlightening afternoon listening to the Opposition. They said the Chancellor was ranting. I thought he said one or two interesting things. Very little has been said about how he has led the way on third world debt, which has been acknowledged internationally. He also touched on the new vaccine that will help people to combat AIDS in the third world. It was not all a rant; his speech contained some positive things. On the other hand, the shadow Chancellor never gave us any alternative. He said that we would all know what was going to happen a couple of months down the road. That was enlightening. So if anybody ranted, it was the shadow Chancellor.
The Liberal Democrats raised the issue of tax credits in terms of research and development. I do not know whether they know this, but research and development is a hefty cost in any industry. When that is linked to companies, and taking into consideration the input from universitiesmany of which are funded by research and development moneyit is clear how vital it is to British industry. If we do not put money into research and development, we will lose out in trade, exports and balance of payments and we will have problems.
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The other thing that surprised me was that the Liberal Democrats did not offer a replacement. It is not good enough to say that the money will be taken anyway because it will be on offer. In fact, I and a number of others used to go with the trade union movement to lobby the Department of Trade and Industry under the Conservative Government to get money pumped into research and development. Anyone could see that if we did not do that, the country would run into serious problems. As time has proved, the current Government are having to put money into not only research and development, but technology education to teach people how to use that technology.
When I am talking about industry, it would be remiss of me not to mention the useful demonstration in Coventry on Saturday to show the feeling about Ford's arbitrary decision to close the Browns Lane plant. Ford entered into an agreement in 1998 that if the work force increased its productivity and quality, further investment would follow for new models to be built at that plant. It was used as an example up and down the country, certainly in Ford plants, as the road the labour force should go down to secure their future. What did they get in return? A slap in the face, because the factory is closing.
In debates on the economy, successive Governments have exhorted the labour force to increase quality and productivity. The Government encourage it, the workers do it and there are relevant orders, but the plant gets closed. What signal does that send to the labour force up and down the country? We know that we have to be competitive. We have to improve quality, technology and other things. I could not let that closure go without mentioning it. The year before, it was Massey Ferguson in Coventry. Under the previous Administration, it was the Standard motor car company.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), the Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee, mentioned Peugeot, which has a grant to use on development. We are waiting to see how that money will be used. We Members of the Parliament and the Government have to keep an eye on the companies. We must not forget that Ford got about £85 million in Government grants. It has been suggested that it would probably be cheaper to keep the Browns Lane plant open than to close it, but we have all heard that sort of suggestion. The company has given us all sorts of assurances about the Whitley plant, but if it has broken the assurances it gave us four or five years ago, why should we believe the company now? Ford tells us that it has exciting plans, but why should we believe the company when it has broken an agreement?
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), I remember when we joined the ERM and the consequences of doing so. I remember when interest rates went through the roof and when they changed three times in one day; that did not stabilise the money markets, did it? The Conservatives say that we will have to borrow as a result of the Chancellor's Budgets, but they forget that they borrowed £50 billion. Of every pound paid in interest,
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50p came from the taxpayers' pocket. We should not let the Opposition get away with some of the things that they have said today.
Opposition Members have talked about old-age pensioners, but I remember coming down on a Friday morning trying to get winter chill payments passed. When the Conservatives were in Government, they blocked the measure time and again. I also remember the Conservatives increasing VAT on fuel; was that going to help pensioners? It was the Labour Government who reduced it. We have long memories. We know what the Conservatives are capable of doing in government and no matter how they try to dress it up, their past will come back to haunt them. I am sure that most of us remember negative equity; Opposition Members have talked about rising house prices today, but I am sure that most people would agree that negative equity is far worse.
The CSA has been mentioned, but I seem to remember that it was the Conservatives who introduced the Horizon project, which cost about £500 million and then cost about £90 million to put right. We should not let the Conservatives forget that they introduced some of the systems that we are suffering today. If we have problems, they are the ones who started them.
The Government have done some positive things. The introduction of the national minimum wage was a milestone in many ways and it has steadily been increased since its introduction. I do not think that employers see it as a fair rate; we can debate the proper level for the national minimum wage, but I do not think that employers use it as a benchmark. That was a red herring that someone introduced into the debate.
The Opposition failed to mention that although pensioners can now take their giro cheque to a post office and get it cashed, there is concern about bank charges. Ministers are aware of this, because we have raised it with them. Some banks are charging about £1.50 to cash a pension cheque, and I hope that my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench will look into that.
The Opposition have not set out their policies. It is all very well for them to attack, but it is no use if they do not do so constructively, which involves saying what they would do. It was interesting to note the Opposition parties' proposals on assistance for small businesses. The Liberals want to abolish the Department of Trade and Industry and the Tories want to restrict its sphere of interest, yet both say that they want to help small businesses. Their proposals are a contradiction in terms: they want to help industry but to cut the means to do it. When the proposals are analysed by others outside the House, the problems will be seen.
Mr. Taylor: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his characteristic courtesy in giving way. May I suggest that there is not quite the anomaly that he suggests? One of the best ways of helping small businesses is to leave them alone.
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