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Mr. Damian Green (Ashford) (Con):
We have debated wide-ranging aspects of the Budget today. I shall concentrate on the effect of the Budget on public services and, in a sense, to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins), who spoke about smart government. I want to talk about dumb government and those aspects
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of the public services that are not responding properly to the money that has been put into them, and which will not do so for systemic reasons.
We have heard two wise and splendid valedictory speeches today, from my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) and my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). I refer the House to the valedictory speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir Brian Mawhinney) in the debate last Wednesday. One part of his speech illustrated the theme that I shall emphasise todaythe absence of value for money in far too much of the public sector. Over-ambition leads to under-performance, and big government is too often incompetent government.
I shall take three examples from different parts of the Government machine. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire, speaking about the Child Support Agency, said that after 26 years in the House, he was still able to be righteously angry on behalf of his constituents. I share his anger. The sheer incompetence of the CSA is a stark illustration of how pouring millions of pounds of taxpayers' money into a problem is not the same as solving it.
The CSA's latest idiocya small but striking exampleis that its preferred method of communication is by telephone. Why? The CSA deals with complex financial calculations, the detail of which is extremely important, but its senior management enjoin staff not to put anything on paper. A few weeks ago, in a conversation on the helpline for MPs, I asked to be e-mailed the details of an especially complex case, only to be told, "We don't have external e-mail." The helpline is a service designed to help us to help our constituents, yet e-mailing us the details of any case affecting one of our constituents is not permitted. I can conclude only that the CSA is being run for the benefit of the CSA, not its clients.
That is a powerful example of they way in which the honest aspirations of all Governments need to be subject to a reality check. We must ask in respect of every problem, will it actually be tackled best by an extension of the public sector or by the public sector pouring in more taxpayers' money?
My second example of the underlying problem is the Department for Transport, where administrative costs have increased by 50 per cent., from £255 million in 1998 to £382 million in 200304. Passengers on all modes of transport are entitled to ask whether they are getting value for money from that colossal increase in the Department's budget. Reference has been made to the big transport policy in the Budgetfree off-peak bus passes for pensionersbut for many of my constituents and other people living in rural areas there simply are no off-peak buses on which they could use that election bribe. Many Chancellors have indulged in pre-election bribes, some effective, some ineffective and some straightforwardly cynical, but to offer free off-peak bus passes for pensioners takes the prize for sheer all-encompassing pointlessness in the large areas of the country where there will be no one to receive the bribe that the Chancellor is trying to give them.
My main example of the lack of effectiveness of too much Government spending is the railways. The Red Book shows that subsidies to the rail industry are increasing at a rate that I am sure alarms the Treasury,
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in particular the Chief Secretary, as they approach £5 billion a year. I invite the House to consider a specific example of how that colossal and fast-increasing subsidy is not working effectively. One of the next big franchises to be advertised, the integrated Kent franchise, affects my constituency. It seems to me that an obvious way to reduce the subsidy in the long term is to attract more passengers on to the railways by making it easier and more convenient to use the trains, but what does the Strategic Rail Authority propose for the integrated Kent franchise? Cuts in off-peak services to village stations such as Charing and Chilham. That is a prime illustration of how not to do it.
Those examples are a subset of the ways in which big, ambitious government can fail the people it tries to serve. One of the minor idiocies of the SRA's approach to the Kent franchise is that it ignores the fact that, at the behest of the Government, Ashford is one of the fastest-growing towns in the country. The SRA's approach merely reflects that of far too many central Government Departments. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has ordered the building of 30,000 extra houses in 30 years, but the Department of Health has not recognised that the growth has already started and has not provided enough GPs or dentists, the Department for Transport has not started to build the new motorway junction that is increasingly needed as the traffic congeals and the Department for Education and Skills says that the increasing school rolls can be covered by the usual funding, but there is no sign of that. The Chancellor probably thinks that he has been generous to the Deputy Prime Minister over the so-called sustainable communities plan. However, the fact that it is all driven and planned from the centre means that the needs and wishes of local people are ignored. When the SRA goes, the Department for Transport will plan everything. That does not inspire confidence, not because the Department will necessarily be any worse than the SRAit may be betterbut because the structure will not work, however much money is put in.
I have given examples from the benefits system and transport; my third example is education. The big idea in the Budget was more spending on buildings and computers, but standards in existing classrooms are not good enough. Of course new building will be welcome, but that is not aimed directly at what is most needed. The facts are clear: the Chancellor has heavily increased education spending, year after year, but the key aims that he wants to achieve are not being met. The Government's targets for raising primary school standards were set by the first Education Secretary, missed by the next, who resigned, moved carefully forward in time by the third Education Secretary and are now being quietly dropped by the fourth Education Secretary whom we have seen under this Government.
Some 1 million 11-year-olds are leaving primary schools unable to read, write and count properly; that is not a record of which the Government can be proud. Yet the Chancellor's response in this Budget is simply more of the same: more spending, more centralisation. That has not worked in the past, and there is no reason to believe that it will work in the future. This Budget has given us more of the policies that have expensively failed over the past eight years.
The same problems are apparent in those three disparate fields. A Government who came into officefull, I suspect, of genuine idealismpulled the levers
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enthusiastically, taxing and spending with a will, yet found too often that the levers were not connected to anything. Eight years and nine Budgets in, there are lessons to be learned. First, taxing and spending with an unreformed public sector does not work, and that applies at any level of public spending. I recognise that there are areas of public service that need continuing high levels of spending, and I am glad that my party is committed to maintaining the high levels currently seen in key areasincluding some that I have been talking about, such as education and transport. However, unless that money is spent more intelligently in the future than it has been in the past, it will not achieve its purpose.
The second lesson has already been learned by the British people: they should beware of Ministers who equate extra spending with extra virtue. The British people are entirely capable of recognising that money needs to be spent on the big, key public services, but that, at the same time, large sums of money can be wasted on those key services. They recognise that nothing like enough of the tax money that the Chancellor has taken away is being spent effectively where they want it spent. That is why the waters have already closed over this Budget, even before this House has finished debating it. It was meant to be the Government's big, pre-election boost; it has palpably failed in that, and for good reason.The new Labour experiment was reliant on a proposition that has been seen to be false: that higher public spending necessarily means better public services. Victims of the CSA, rail travellers in Kent and elsewhere, and anxious parents are only three of the groups now looking for an alternative, and finding one in the Conservative party.
This Budget has already been largely forgotten, and I hope that it is the final manifestation of a theory that has raised the amount of tax that we all pay, but has failed to raise the standards of our public services. That is why this Budget, the policy ideas that lie behind it andmost importantlythe Government who introduced it have all failed this country.
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