Previous SectionIndexHome Page

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is right to point to the progress that has been made. However, is it not also the case that, in terms of wealth and income, the top 20 per cent. of the British population pay less in tax than the bottom 20 per cent.? There is still a good way to go and many more objectives for a third-term Labour Chancellor to achieve.

Iain Wright: I welcome my hon. Friend's intervention and agree that more remains to be done. However, a lot has been done since 1997.

The Budget has continued the themes of previous Labour Budgets of providing an extra share of the national wealth to the vulnerable and the hard working while consolidating economic stability to enable the wealth of our country to increase.

In the Budget, the Chancellor has not played games with the long-term condition of the country's economy. The measures that he proposed last week strengthen Britain's competitiveness while redistributing our additional wealth. I commend the Chancellor for his Budget.

7.20 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): It is   a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Iain Wright). I thoroughly enjoyed my brief   sojourn in his constituency in the autumn and I   especially remember the highlight, which was attending a meeting about the local hospital. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that he got a much better hearing in the Chamber this evening than at that meeting, thus giving the lie to the notion that we all behave badly in Parliament and it is all so much better out in the country. It was the other way round.

It is an enormous pleasure to be called to speak in the Budget debate, especially on a day when the theme is education. I taught pure economics—economic
21 Mar 2005 : Column 661
theory—for the best part of seven years and my results were quite good. Indeed, I boasted to colleagues that, were I given a reasonably intelligent Labrador, I could get it a pass at A-level, if it were prepared to put in some work.

Mr. Hopkins: By coincidence, I also taught economics. When I was teaching, there were statistics that demonstrated that economists had IQs that were 15 per cent. lower than those of mathematicians.

Mr. Swayne: I find that hard to believe given that pure economics is only applied mathematics.

David Taylor: No, it is not.

Mr. Swayne: I beg to differ. It is basically applied mathematics and the notion of a differential between economists and mathematicians is therefore difficult to sustain.

However, my incredulity at the Chancellor's economics is not difficult to sustain—they mystify me completely. I am all at sea with them. He was at great pains to point out that we were in the 50th consecutive quarter of sustained economic growth—the longest such period of economic growth. He is right. If we use that measurement, it is the longest period of economic growth since the reign of Queen Anne. However, one has to count 18 quarters under a Conservative Government.

I am concerned, at a time of such sustained economic growth, about the amount of borrowing in which we indulge—it is a worrying phenomenon. If we go back to the Budget of 1992, the prediction for borrowing this year was some £17 billion, and £18 billion for next year. Yet this week, the Chancellor told us that, for this year,   the figure would be £32 billion, and £29 billion for next year. We are talking about a mind-boggling £150 billion to be borrowed in the next four years. Those figures no longer have any meaning for us; they are beyond our comprehension.

Spending is rising at a faster rate than economic growth and the deficit keeps growing. There are places in the Palace of Westminster where one can have the benefit of Sky television and I am often Downstairs in the mornings when the television is on—

Peter Bottomley : In the gym.

Mr. Swayne: I shall not say precisely where; I shall speak to my hon. Friend privately afterwards. However, one is bombarded with advertisements for loans: "Consolidate all your debt into one easy monthly payment and have that long desired holiday." It is interesting that the Griffiths commission report, which draws attention to the £1 trillion of private debt that has been accumulated and the possible consequences for economic stability, was published today. It makes our Chancellor's intention to borrow appear parsimonious. Nevertheless, there is no prudence in the proposals for Government borrowing.

Like the dream holiday that ordinary consumers are tempted to take, borrowing is sustainable and justifiable only if it will generate a greater source of revenue in
21 Mar 2005 : Column 662
future and if it is truly investment. People come to our surgeries having somehow found themselves in debt; for all sorts of purposes, they have taken on debt that they simply could not sustain. I wonder whether the Chancellor is so different in his calculations and his golden rule. Why did it take Sir Peter Gershon to identify £20 billion of Government expenditure that could be saved and much better deployed?

Since the Chancellor came to office, the public sector has grown by some 583,000 jobs. Those people are not all doctors, nurses, teachers or policemen, and it therefore poses the question what precisely they all do and what they add to the value of public services. Productivity growth in the public services has been reducing, as shown by the reports of the Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Commission. Improvement in results has not maintained the same rate of growth as it did under the previous Conservative Government. Crime detection statistics have plummeted and performance has not been impressive. The rate of improvement has been declining.

I want to end with an example, which, I appreciate, will prove controversial, as it did when I raised it in an intervention on the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). The Chancellor said that he will increase expenditure on IT in schools by a further £1 billion in addition to the £2.5 billion that he has already put in. I draw hon. Members' attention to the report that the Royal Economic Society produced today. Its conclusions state:

It goes on to suggest that the relationship is inverse: the more access one has to that sort of technology, the more those basic skills decline. I can suggest one or two reasons for that.

I have been in classrooms where I have seen children sitting, looking bored, in front of computer screens, wondering what to do next. If one cannot read what is on the screen, the technology is of no benefit. If one cannot manage the mathematical concepts, the technology is of no assistance. Some of the technology in schools reminds me of the fashion for language laboratories in the mid-1970s when I was at school. I   wonder how many of those laboratories survive. It was the fad and fashion of the time. We are the generation that did not have technology in schools but have survived quite well. Often, the argument for the necessity for such technology is, "Oh they'll need it to get a job; they'll need it in the workplace." And of course it is now commonplace for people in the work place to have to develop computer skills.

We are the generation who came through before even   the Sinclair calculator was invented. We used logarithms and slide rules, and the personal computer was a mystery to us. However, we fared pretty well. I   was once the manager in charge of risk-management systems for one of our leading banks, which was at the cutting edge of modern technology. When I took that job, I had not even seen a computer. The reality is that   things were tougher for us, because at that time, we had to address the machines in their own native language. We did not have the interface of the mouse, or the ability to click on an icon. We have been able to pick up these skills quite easily, however, because we were
21 Mar 2005 : Column 663
taught the basics of literacy and mathematics at school. That is the importance of school. In so far as technology can aid that process, it is welcome, but when it becomes a distraction from it, it reduces productivity, just like so much of the public expenditure from which we now benefit.

Peter Bottomley : I would not disagree with my hon. Friend's final point, but does he accept that what he was saying about technology was tosh? At first, people said that we should not take slide rules into exams, but then they became compulsory. That is no different from when the first electronic calculators came along when he was 10. They can be an aid to those who have also been well taught in the basics.

Next Section IndexHome Page