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Mr. Hoban : My right hon. Friend makes some important points about the power that autonomy brings. Is he aware that the state sector schools that topped last week's value-added league tables were city technology colleges, the schools with the most freedom? The schools that came at the lower end of the table were community schools, which have the least freedom in the state sector. That demonstrates the power of autonomy to raise standards and ensure that money is spent effectively.

Mr. Maude : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember that several of the secondary schools in my previous constituency sought and obtained grant-maintained status. I remember visiting one after it had become independent, and it was the same school, with the same buildings, same staff, same parents and same pupils. I asked the staff how they felt about the new regime. They said that they were all working much harder, but they were loving it because they could make decisions and make things happen. The school had a different feel about it. Members of Parliament all know that when we go into an institution we can feel very quickly whether it has a crackle of energy, enthusiasm and drive. We can tell whether an institution is alive and thriving. Independent schools and hospitals run by people who have the power to make and implement decisions and who can take opportunities are living, thriving and dynamic institutions. The position is exactly the same in the private sector.

Finally, on tax, my right hon. and hon. Friends have made the right equation, and there is relatively modest scope for tax reductions in their proposals. That is responsible, and it betokens an honest approach to the electorate that is both welcome and essential. It is a big contrast with Labour, who said that they did not have any plans to increase tax at all, yet made 66 stealth tax increases. By and large, people want to live in a society and an economy in which taxes are fairly low, but they want public services to improve. When we take office, we will have to reform public services quite radically. Structural reforms are needed, mostly to achieve the Conservative policy of much greater autonomy for the public services.

Mr. Laws : The right hon. Gentleman has talked about the importance of being honest about taxation and being realistic about taxation plans. In that vein, is he honest enough to admit that his party's plans still involve an increase in the tax burden in the next Parliament of almost 2 per cent.?

Mr. Maude: I am tempted to tell the hon. Gentleman that we will show him ours if he will shows us theirs, as he has been remarkably recalcitrant, diffident and reticent about revealing the full extent of the Liberal Democrats' tax increases. My hon. Friends are right to be restrained, as we do not know what the public finances will look like. However, there is a black hole in them and borrowing has risen to an unsustainable level, so spending must be constrained. It is undoubtedly the case that significant structural reform of the public services in the short term costs money, and does not save it. If reform is done well, in the medium to longer term the money buys more for the community and users of public services. It is therefore right to undertake reform, but in the short term it is a constraint on the ability of any Government to reduce taxes.
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We should continue to make the case not only that we have a stronger economy and a better, more cohesive society and stronger communities when taxes are lower. I thoroughly commend the plans that my right hon. and hon. Friends introduced earlier this week. Theirs is an honest, straightforward, well thought out approach, and it deserves the support not only of the House but of the country.

3.13 pm

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): A child aged five when the Tories came to power—I shall call him little Jim rather than little George—would be 31 today. He would have had the misfortune to be educated in an overcrowded classroom, and there would have been insufficient attention to numeracy and literacy at his school. The building itself was probably falling apart, and there would not have been enough teachers. His father was probably one of the 3 million unemployed people thrown on to the scrapheap by the Conservatives, who not only told us that that was a price worth paying but crowed about it. When little Jim's mother was sick, she would have to wait in the queue, as there were about 500,000 people on NHS waiting lists.

Just when the family thought that things could not get much worse, they lost their house as a result of negative equity. The very foundations of their life were destroyed and, while all of that was happening, they lived in an area where crime was doubling and the number of police officers was reduced. That is young Jim's early life—a world of despair, desolation and desperation.

Mr. Laws: And then came 1997.

Mr. McCabe: Jim was part of an ordinary, decent, hard-working family—he was not born into the lap of luxury—like many other people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and in my own. Their lives were laid waste by the Conservatives' deliberate actions when they were in power. It is quite true that things changed for Jim in a way that he could not have envisaged after the terrible experiences of his early life. At the age of 23, he secured training and a job through the new deal and he now has another job, which is secure and much better. He and his wife have been able to take advantage of stable interest rates to buy a modest home. The combination of tax credits and the minimum wage mean that Jim and his wife can provide for their children. They can run a small car and manage a family holiday. They have been able to build a modest savings account.

Mr. Andrew Turner: What would Jim's plight be if he were in the position of many people in my constituency? Having received overpayments of tax credits last year, they have been deprived of the tax credits that they expected on the basis of the Inland Revenue's calculation and, moreover, they have had money taken away from them this year. They are therefore living on far less this year than they did last year because of the incompetence of the hon. Gentleman's Government and the Chancellor.

Mr. McCabe: I suppose that when one does not like to be reminded of one's record it is tempting to take the hon. Gentleman's approach. I simply make the point
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that tax credits are available now. Any failure in their delivery is regrettable. We all agree that anything that makes life tougher for people should be put right, but the reality is that nothing like tax credits was available when the Tory party was in power.

Not only have things improved slightly for Jim and his wife but his child is taught in a brand new classroom, and is excelling in numeracy and literacy. He is supported by one of several new teachers who were recently recruited to his school as well as by a helpful classroom assistant. Jim's mother still suffers periodic bouts of ill health, but she is treated at a brand new health centre, which is far removed from the Dickensian workhouse that she used to attend.

Mr. Hoban: If life is so good, can the hon. Gentleman explain why a hard-working mother in my constituency cannot find an NHS dentist to treat her children when they need dental care?

Mr. McCabe: Like the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), the hon. Gentleman would like to forget the record that I am describing. No one denies that there are problems with dentistry in some parts of the country, but we all know who created the original problem by cutting training opportunities for dentists.

Jim's mother receives better medical treatment. His father is now a pensioner, and benefits from free eye tests, the winter fuel allowance, a free TV licence and pension credit. That is the lesson that people like the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), who has conveniently forgotten the excesses of the last Tory Government, need to learn.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The hon. Gentleman paints a rosy picture of a utopian society in which I wish I lived myself—but I do not. He will remember that his Government promised to solve the crisis in the NHS dental service 2001 and I can certainly back up what the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) said. Many people cannot obtain dental provision in my area, Montgomeryshire, at all. Can the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) tell us how he thinks this serious problem can be resolved? It is a long way from utopia for those who suffer serious dental problems as a result of the Government's failure to solve the crisis.

Mr. McCabe: I am not a Liberal so I do not tend to have utopian fantasies. I am trying to depict a straightforward contrast between the situation during the last Conservative Government and the reality of what has happened since Labour came to power. That is all I am doing; I am simply pointing out what the life possibilities were and how they have changed. I would be the first to concede that we need to do more in the NHS across the board, and that we certainly need to do more to increase the availability of dentists. My view is that that will be best achieved by investment rather than cuts. Any programme designed to cut out the chance of increasing the number of dentists will not help the situation. That seems painfully obvious.

The reality is that nowadays we are living with the lowest inflation since the 1960s. Interest rates are at their lowest for 40 years and we are living through the longest
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period of economic growth that anyone can recall—[Hon. Members: "Since when?"] The figure varies, but I am told that it is at least 200 years.

What is certainly not in dispute is the fact that our public services are expanding; our schools are improving, crime is falling and employment is at record levels, yet at such a time we are told by the Opposition that they want to turn the clock back. They want to go back to cuts. They want to scrap the new deal so that they can restore unemployment to the levels we saw when the Leader of the Opposition was last in government. They want to axe key business support programmes, despite the protestations of the CBI and Stephen Alambritis of the Federation of Small Businesses. The party of BSE wants to halve the budget of the Food Standard Agency, damaging public health and doing untold damage to national and international confidence in the standards of our food. They want to abolish key NHS targets so that there will be lower standards and waiting lists will rise once more, and of course they want to cut Ofsted and LEA budgets covering things such as special educational needs, about which they say they are so concerned, as well as music classes and truancy programmes.

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