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Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare) (LD): I, too, welcome the comments on China. There are many ways to link with it and to go forward. That is certainly the case for students, with either them coming here or our students going there. It will also be important to exchange technology. China is interested in inward investing in this country, and we should encourage that.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my Select Committee on Education and Skills has just taken evidence on the UK e-university, which, sadly, did not progress? In the course of that, we found many universities with strong partnerships in China, which they are developing with the help of the British Council. A lot is going on that is sometimes below the surface.
Sir Brian Mawhinney: That is a helpful contribution. However, that development is probably one, if not two, orders of magnitude inadequate for the challenge that this country faces over the next 10 to 15 years. I am not going to stray on to the topic of universities, except to say that we all know that they do not have the resources to drive the level of commitment and entrepreneurial activity from which they would benefit out of the new shared technology. They will need help, and that means from the Government, but unfortunately we heard nothing about that.
The Chancellor could have said something to make his comments more balanced and to give us the ability to test the truth and scope of his remarks. He could have reminded us that in his first Budget he took £5 billion out of pension funds, and he has taken £5 billion each time ever since. It is a matter of record that I chair a pension fund in the City, so I remind the House of my declared interest. He has taken £40 billion or £45 billion, which has helped to turn the extremely robust pension arrangements that he inherited in 1997 into a major crisis. He takes no responsibility for that and simply tries to sell us a bill of goods.
The Chancellor mentioned three things en passant on which he should have focused much more. The first is inheritance tax. The papers of one Government are not made available to their successors. I am happy to tell the House, however, that I was one of the voices in the last Conservative Government that argued for a much more generous inheritance tax regime than we put in place. If I believed that 10 years ago, how strongly does the House think I believe it now, after eight more years of house price inflation and after dragging more and more people into the net?
One reason for that belief was that instinctively the British people do not believe that the tax is fair. They use their after-tax income, and there is a sense of bitterness that they are taxed again, arising out of the initial income stream. My hon. Friends on the Front Bench
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have to fight an election in a few weeks. I do not. Now that we have heard where the Government have positioned themselves, my guess is that there are considerable votes to be won in middle England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by the party that says, "We will allow you to take your primary residence out of the inheritance tax calculation." I even offer my hon. Friends the election slogan, in case they are too busy to work it out. I would be very happy to go to North-West Cambridgeshire and say, "Vote for me and give your children your home, not the tax man." I was deeply disappointed that the Chancellor did not rise to the occasion on inheritance tax.
The second thing that the Chancellor talked about was his tax credit proposals. There is an element of truth in what he said. Let me make it clear that I am not trying to make a particularly partisan speech. However, as a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, one thing that irritates me more and makes me more angry on behalf of my constituents than virtually anything else is the sheer incompetence of the pension tax service, the working tax credit and, above all, the Child Support Agency.
The Government have lost the plot. They seem to think that if they stand there and unveil a policy, that is it. Well, it may be "it" in Labour constituencies, but it is not "it" in my constituency. I receive a higher proportion of letters on the tax credit arrangements and the Child Support Agency and their inability to work than I do on any other issue. It makes me angry. I always said that when I was no longer able to be righteously angry on behalf of my constituents, it was time to quit. I am quitting, but I am still righteously angry. We heard nothing about investment or holding to account those who screw up the lives of my constituents who, by definition, are among some of the most needy. That washes off Ministers like water off a duck's back.
We heard some time ago that the man who leads the Child Support Agency was going. We interpreted that as meaning that he was resigning. We were told, "Oh no, he's not resigning. He's retiring." He is still in the job. I will not believe that the Chancellor and Treasury Ministers are serious about helping the most needy until they deliver a service in an efficient and humane way. Let me offer a suggestion: fire the chief executive and deputy chief executive of the CSA "pour encourager les autres". I do not care who is put in their place. It cannot be any worse than the existing system. I was disappointed that the Chancellor said nothing about that.
The right hon. Member for Dumbarton pointed out that there was a passing reference to red tape. Come on. Hon. Members must forgive me, but after 26 years I know how this place works. I have heard the Chancellor lay red tape upon red tape upon red tape upon red tape upon red tape, yet five weeks before a general election he thinks that perhaps it is a good idea to say, "Maybe I am not totally in favour of it." The Treasury Committee has been telling the Chancellor for eight years, "Keep red tape to a minimum; reduce red tape, and then cut red tape." The Chancellor will go to that Committee on Tuesday and say nice things, yet the country's economy is being strangled. If the Chairman of the Committee looks before next Tuesday at the business surveys, he will see that all of them say that business is now more worried about regulation and red tape than anything else. I was disappointed that the Chancellor did not say anything more convincing.
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I want to return for a moment to whether the Chancellor should have said thank you for the legacy of the economy. There are two other things for which he should have said thank you in 1997. He should have said thank you to the previous Government because, for the first time in our history, we set about trying to reduce third world debt. I am proud that I was a member of the Government who did that. I pay tribute to the Chancellor because he built on those foundations; in a sense, it has been a seamless operation, as it should be. Overseas aid and trying to reduce the debt burden on the poorest of the poorest in the world ought not to be a partisan point, so it would have been nice if the right hon. Gentleman had said thank you. I say thank you to him, even though he has not said thank you to us, because he has built on that foundation. I hope that that can continue.
The other thing about which he could have said thank youbut I will say thank you to himis that we changed the fundamental socio-economic basis of Northern Ireland, about which I do know something. That enabled the peace process to start, because as a matter of Government policy we addressed some of the road blocks in the thinking and the experience. I give just one example; when I became a Northern Ireland Minister in 1986, people were two-and-a-half times more likely to be unemployed if they were Catholics than if they were Protestants. There was a range of issues that needed to be addressed, and we addressed them. We laid down the beginning of the improvement of the Northern Ireland economy, so I say thank you to the Government for building on that.
The House will not recallit is obviously more in my memory than in that of the Housethat I was the first Minister who started the peace process, and I have a vested interest in its success. Today, Northern Ireland is much better than it was; tomorrow it will be better still, and although we continue to run into troubles for the peace process in the short term, the Government should not take their eye off the economy, which needs to be strengthened further and in the strengthening will make political progress even more possible.
I have spoken for longer than I intended and certainly longer than in my maiden speech, but I have one more thing to say and then I will sit down. I have had the privilege of being in this House for four Parliaments in government and two in opposition. In that time, irrespective of which side of the House I was on, in my constituency I have spoken minimally about politics and party politics, and maximally about the issues that people tell me are important to them and about moral values. I discovered something very interesting: when I make a speech about what interests my constituents, or about moral values, there is a long queue of people who want to talk to me afterwards, but when I make a speech about politics, they say, "That was a great speech, Brian," and get off to the bar as quickly as possible. I am not as stupid as I may look to some people. I have learned through that process.
The House will not be surprised that I noted with particular interest the opinion poll conducted after the United States presidential election, when people were asked what was the single most important issue in determining their vote. We were brought up on "Keep it simple, stupid" and "It's the economy, stupid", so we
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might have guessed that the answer would be Iraq, security, 9/11, jobs or public services. But the issue that came top of that poll was moral values.
Let me be the first to say that the moral and religious framework of this country is very different from that of the United Statesmy wife is an American, I have lived in both countries and I know whereof I speakyet I have to tell the House that I suspect that underneath those differences are some significant similarities. We have similar instincts. My final words to the House are these: politicians who want to be held in higher regard by the public need to hear and respond to the beliefs and values of their constituents, as well as to their needs and aspirations. For 26 years, that is what I have sought to do. That is what I believe and I commend it to the House.
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