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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps it would be helpful if I offered a little guidance to the House. If the average Back-Bench speech length of 26 minutes is maintained, not everyone will be able to catch my eye. I leave it to hon. Members to use their judgment accordingly.

4.35 pm

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): I will take that message to heart, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and promise not to speak for quite so long.

After the speeches from the hon. Members for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), if we were genuinely looking for a dividing line for the general election, we would easily know where it was—between the toffs on the Conservative side of the House, who visit boardrooms in the City of London on a daily basis, and people with a bit of dirt under their fingernails on the Labour side. There is an unreality about what life consists of for ordinary people in our towns and cities and our constituencies.

Mr. Bercow: I do not lightly take offence at the gratuitous observations of the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot resist the temptation to put it on the record at the outset of his speech, first, that I am not a toff; secondly,
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so far as I can recall I have never visited a City boardroom during the time that I have been a Member of Parliament; and, thirdly, I and many of my colleagues have been preoccupied with identifying ways in which to reduce the tax burden on the poorest people in the country, because we think we ought to help most those who have least.

Mr. Purchase: There is always an exception that proves the rule.

The Office for National Statistics tries its best, given the magnitude of the figures that it now deals with—economies of £1,000 billion a year, North America, Britain, Europe—and obviously does not get it right; it never has and it never will. We have had to listen today to a tirade of figures from the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, which he appears to have plucked from nowhere. I do not know if he reads Keith Waterhouse—one of the funniest men still writing in tabloid newspapers today—in the Daily Mail. He has a name for the Office for National Statistics: he re-christened it the national guesswork authority, and if he had heard the hon. Gentleman today, he would have found a chairman for it. The hon. Gentleman was spraying figures about with gay abandon, wholly ignoring anything said by the Office for National Statistics, which tries to guide the Chancellor in how he might see the future and, indeed, recent history.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a matter of considerable national importance that the Office for National Statistics is made independent of the Government and reports directly to Parliament, because it is unreasonable that an agency of the Government that is subject to the Government should itself be judge and jury in the Government's own case?

Mr. Purchase: I find that a very serious point. It is a separate point, but it again seeks to undermine what the Chancellor has said today. It pretends that the people employed by the ONS are corruptible. That is exactly what the hon. Gentleman suggested. I reject those arguments, which now almost tend to say, "Let us see the workings, let us see the arithmetic. Can I see this paper, can I see that paper?" The fact is that the overwhelming number of people in public services—in the ONS and elsewhere—do their very best, every day of their working lives, to produce information and services which, generally speaking, the people of this country value. Attempts to undermine them by saying, "Make them independent" as though they are corruptible is unfair, and not worthy of a comment in the House.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is missing the point made by my hon. Friend. The problem is not that civil servants are corruptible—they do their job very well—but the use that is made of their work and the spin that is put on it by politicians. The Audit Commission's comments on the use made by the present Government of NHS statistics provide perfect chapter and verse for that assertion.

Mr. Purchase: The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford should thank his hon. Friend for trying to dig
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him out of a hole. Rather than pursue the point, however, I shall move on, given that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have rightly reminded us to be brief.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford asked where future growth will come from. He referred, rightly, to manufacturing and the loss of jobs in the sector. Between 1980 and 1990, when the Conservatives were in control, we lost about 350,000 jobs; during the same period, output fell and in 1990 it was still slightly less than it had been in 1980. Under the Labour Government, however, although a similar number of jobs have been lost, which is regrettable, especially in areas such as mine in the west midlands, productivity has increased massively, outstripping productivity gains in the economy as a whole, and present output is broadly similar to what it was in 1997. Although we have been overtaken in many respects, our engineering and manufacturing companies have created something of an economic miracle.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not want to confuse productivity and production. Manufacturing production may not have increased in the 1980s, but productivity increased quite substantially; that often happens when employment is falling.

Mr. Purchase: That is true. I certainly understand the distinction. My point is that output was falling in the period between 1980 and 1990; it is not doing so now. With the other two factors held constant, the Labour record and the Tory record stand in distinction from each other. I am actually complimenting the people who work in engineering and manufacturing, who have brought about a minor economic miracle.

If we are looking for engines of growth, we must look at what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has done in respect of lifelong learning. Although in the 1980s, during the period of Conservative rule, supply-side measures were at the top of the agenda, no real attention was given to upskilling, new-skilling and retraining for the people who would eventually produce the goods and services we need. Now, the great amount of funding that has gone into further education in particular is helping to bring about the kind of changes that I have been describing. A couple of weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor visited Wolverhampton to open a new city learning quarter, called Metro One. Millions of pounds have been spent to the great advantage of adults who are returning to learning and now finding jobs in our economy. That cannot be thought of as a waste of public funds.

Earlier today, the Leader of the Opposition declared that millions had been poured into a black hole and had made no difference to services, but that is not the everyday experience of ordinary people. They do better in terms of waiting lists and speed of treatment; they do better in terms of emergency ward provision and social services; they do better with their children in school. By no means is the money being wasted.

Let me pick up a couple of points from the economic data that the Chancellor mentioned. I am particularly interested in the export figures. Our island economy is
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not amazingly well blessed with natural resources, so we have to export in order to buy the other things that we want. Exports have increased by 6 per cent., which is largely due to the way in which we have been working on the supply-side factors such as education, which has brought about smarter, better working and higher productivity, which have enabled us to remain competitive in world markets. You do not get that kind of increase in your exports without acting to ensure that people can do the work and add value to our output. The Chancellor gave us that extremely important statistic today.

I also want to mention that borrowing will fall in the longer term, that investment in science will increase and that the enterprise economy will be supported. Given all the evidence that the Chancellor has presented to the House today, it seems that we will meet both the golden rule and the sustainable investment rule in both the current cycle and the next cycle. This masterful Chancellor has presented us with a golden scenario.

Some hon. Members have discussed the Chancellor's letting things get out of control, but this Chancellor stands out more than any other I can recall because of his iron grip on all the factors in the economy. Despite the enormous help that this economy has had from the worldwide pressure on inflation, which occurred for all kinds of reasons that hon. Members enunciated earlier, our Chancellor has managed our economy to provide a golden scenario.

Today's Budget is an election Budget. Why not? What is different about that?

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