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I understand that my hon. Friend was first elected to Parliament in 1970. Even though I have been in the House for only some four years, I have heard him speak several times, often about defence matters, and often specifically on the Royal Air Force, about which he clearly knows a great deal. Like some in his former service, he has sometimes been one of the few during his political career, but he has consistently stuck to the principles in which he believes. On that basis, from the Front Bench, even though I have served for far fewer years than him, I would genuinely like to wish him a happy retirement.
Peter Bottomley: My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood has also served with immense distinction and dedication in the Council of Europe and the Western European Union, where both his courtesy and his competence helped to bring together many countries, which, when he was first elected, would not have expected to be alongside United Kingdom parliamentarians in those two great organisations.
Mr. Francois: I thank my hon. Friend for placing that important point on the record. I am sure that, whenever he went to the Council of Europe or the WEU, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood gave them a lot to think about. I also wish his prospective successor, Nick Hurd, all the best in the forthcoming election.
The hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) has been in the House for some time. I hope that he takes that in the spirit in which it is meant. Being a wise old bird, it was interesting that he appeared to distance himself from his Front-Bench colleagues' claims about £35 billion of cuts in our spending plans. I listened carefully to his words and he used measured language, but he was creating a gapperhaps not clear blue water, but at least a small streambetween him and his Front Bench.
Mr. Jim Cunningham:
I do not distance myself from my Front-Bench colleagues, but we had heard so much to-ing and fro-ing about the £35 billion that I thought I would widen the debate and consider areas where one
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could save a lot of money, whether it was £35 billion or more or less. My point was that, one way or another, there would be public service cuts under a Conservative Government.
Mr. Francois: I listened very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said earlier, and people can read Hansard and make of it what they will, but it was clear to me that he was opening up a bit of a gap in that regard. Anyway, we will allow people to read the record and see what they make of it. If he still disagrees with me, we can discuss the matter over a glass in the Smoking Room at the next available opportunity.
Mr. Francois: I shall gladly give way to the hon. Gentleman, but before I do, I want to ask him which of the 66 tax rises that his party has imposed on the British people, including his constituents, since 1997 he most regrets.
Mr. Hopkins: Actually, I am asking the questions, not answering them. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. If his party were to get into powerwhich would be a tragedy for Britainit might attain the same levels of inflation that it typically had during its previous period in office. If that were to happen, the £35 billion would mean much less in real terms. Is that what he is saying?
Mr. Francois: I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman accepts the possibility that we might win the election in a few weeks' time, and I thank him for that. As he knows, the setting of the inflation target is now a matter for the Bank of England and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale ably pointed out earlier, the best way to maintain an independent Bank of England is to vote Tory. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will share that view, bearing in mind his viewpoint on European matters.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) gave Ministers some sound advice on not constantly reiterating this nonsense about £35 billion of cuts, and he made his point in a very measured way. I would humbly suggest to Ministers that, given his experience in the House, they might do well to pay heed to the advice that he was offering.
My right hon. Friend also made an interesting point about the ending of the stamp duty exemption for commercial property development in disadvantaged areas, and I would like to follow up on that if I may. On 17 March, the day after the Budget statement, Jeremy Warner wrote in The Independent:
"This was an exemption the Chancellor introduced less than two and a half years ago as a way of encouraging business to move into areas of high unemployment. We are now told that this was always intended as time-limited, though it is hard to recall anyone saying this at the time. Bizarrely, its 'expiry' is included in the Budget documents under the heading of 'meeting the productivity challenge'. Even the Chancellor would struggle to sustain the argument that more tax means higher productivity."
The Independent is not normally thought of as a Conservative-leaning newspaper, but I hope the Minister will accept that, given the nature of the Chancellor's Budget, it is perhaps beginning to change its mind.
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The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Iain Wright) spoke clearly in his first Budget debate since he entered the House at the recent by-election. It was obvious from his remarks that he knows a bit about his constituency; he clearly visits it more often than his predecessor did.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) reminded us that he had taught A-level economics for about seven years before entering the House. He engaged in an interesting discourse with Labour Back Benchers about the merits and intelligence of mathematicians versus economists. All that I would say on that is that if the mathematicians have Albert Einstein on their side, the economists are batting uphill from the opening. He also made an important point about the effect of Government borrowing, given the stage that we have reached in the economic cycle. I shall return to that point later if I may.
The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) made a thoughtfulin some respects helpful, from our point of viewspeech, and I commend him on his determination to see the Bank of England remain independent. If he wants that to become a certainty, I would encourage him to vote Tory at the forthcoming general election, because if he votes Labour, he will condemn the Bank of England to precisely the opposite fate.
We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), who made an important point about the decline in the savings ratio. He also had some helpful advice for the National Audit Office about removing the plank from its own eye, as it were, in regard to wasteful spending. I am sure that the NAO will take his remarks on board. He also chided the Chancellor and the Prime Minister for quite deliberately carrying on a conversation when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was replying to the Budget statement. Hon. Members will recall that the Labour party embarked on something called the big conversation last year. We have not heard much about it since then. It seems to have been overtaken by another conversation between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. That is a very lively conversation indeed, and it is often conducted in very short bursts.
That is not the basis for running an effective Government, so I think my hon. Friend has hit on an important point, over and above the points on which he was offering advice to the Government Chief Whip, and we thank him for that.
We then had a contribution from the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), who is back in his place and whom I would not want to disappoint. He attacked the independent forecasters for having the temerity to disagree with the Chancellor's forecastsI shall say more about that in a few minutesand also referred to our proposed savings of £35 billion arising from the James review.
May I make this absolutely clear to the hon. Gentleman and to all those who are listening? From that exercisethe £35 billion we have identifiedwe intend
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to reinvest in key public services £23 billion. That leaves £12 billion. We will devote £8 billion of that to plugging the black hole, which will leave £4 billion for measured tax cuts, of which we have deployed £1.3 billion so far in offering our discount to council tax payers over the age of 65. That is the £35 billion that we are talking about. I have explained to him in crystal clear terms what we intend to do with it.
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