Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Des Browne): We have had four days of comprehensive and informative debate—at least until the last 20 minutes. It is a pleasure to respond to the debate, and I shall endeavour to deal with as many points raised by hon. Members as I can in the time left to me.

Last Wednesday, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor stood here and spoke for an hour or more on the specific policy implications of the Budget. He was responded to by the Leader of the Opposition, who shouted from the Dispatch Box for all of eight minutes. As I sat here—

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): This is the punch line.

Mr. Browne: Perhaps I should—[Hon. Members: "More, more!"] It appears that both Chief Whips and shadow Chief Whips sometimes do not know when to keep quiet—[Interruption.] Perhaps the shadow Chief Whip could moderate his tone.

The Budget debate will be remembered by many as the one in which the contributions from Back Benchers, even when limited to 10 or 12 minutes were longer than the total contribution by the Leader of the Opposition. So there was to be no more Punch and Judy politics. As we have learned over the last few days, old Tory traits have not gone away. Disappointingly, we have had more of that today from the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne). But perhaps I
28 Mar 2006 : Column 782
should not have been disappointed by the lack of substance from him. Over the weekend I took the opportunity to read his diary in The Observer. I learned that in the week of the Budget he did several things. He spent considerable time with his children, for which I commend him. He was also reminded that he spent his teenage years watching sumptuous E.M. Forster adaptations, among other things. However, I scanned his contribution in The Observer carefully for the day of the Budget and found nothing, apart from the fact that he sat beside the Leader of the Opposition, who was assailed by a wall of sound.

This has been a revealing debate and I especially welcome the shadow Chief Secretary, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) to her place. I feared last week that she had done a Letwin—I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I mean I feared that she had done a right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr.   Letwin)—by exposing Tory cuts and then disappearing into the ether. Despite her absence, she certainly made a contribution to the debate, not least on the matter of our investment in education. As she has been reminded more than once, when asked on "Sky News" last Wednesday whether her reaction to the Government's spending meant that the Tories would be spending less, she replied, "It would, certainly." Later that day, when challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Ed Balls) to match our Budget commitment on education spending, the shadow Chief Secretary refused and replied, "That's not the answer."

The Opposition were on a roll, because the shadow Chancellor, in interviews, then refused to support her announcements on capital spending and on state school spending. Later that evening, on "Newsnight", he could not mention any measure in the Budget that he supported. The next day, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), the shadow Minister for child care, said:

Better yet, the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills said yesterday

It is flip-flops all round. First, they want cuts, then they are confused, then they do not want cuts and finally they support our spending plans. What does the shadow Chancellor say now, when offered the opportunity to support our plans? He is unable to answer the question—[Interruption.]

Let us look at climate change. For the past six years the Opposition have refused to support the climate change levy, which has cut carbon emissions by 28 million tonnes—[Interruption.] Today, they announce—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The House must listen to the Minister who is responding to the debate.

Mr. Browne: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Today, they announce that they will not vote against the Budget measures on the climate change levy—they have changed their mind and are flip-flopping again.
28 Mar 2006 : Column 783

However, I wish to be fair. The Opposition have one economic policy that we know of, and that is their third fiscal rule. It is that over the economic cycle, and regardless of the needs of the economy or the country, public spending and investment must, as a matter of   principle, always rise slower than growth. Indeed, today the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) described our rejection of the third fiscal rule as the dividing line between us. He is correct about that, because it would mean public spending £17 billion lower in the coming year and £16 billion lower in the year after. It would mean cutting spending in schools, cutting it in hospitals for doctors and nurses, cutting it in our transport system, and cutting our ability to invest in science and innovation. On the day after the Budget, the shadow Chancellor even said—on GMTV, no less:

We know what that means—cuts.

Daniel Kawczynski: Some of us who actually participated in the debate raised serious issues to do with our constituents, particularly farmers in Shrewsbury and senior citizens. Will the Minister talk about the problems that our constituents are going to face instead of just criticising Tory shadow Ministers?

Mr. Browne: Of course, the hon. Gentleman, like many of his hon. Friends, made a bid for more money. I have to say that those bids for more investment were completely ignored by his Front Benchers. Of course they were, because how can they offer him more investment for his farmers or anybody else when they are planning cuts in public spending? That is the important point. They are planning cuts in public spending while every other Conservative Member, for one reason or another, calls for increases in spending.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Browne: Let the House have no doubt that this Budget sets out how we on the Government Benches will equip Britain for the future. It sets out how, building on a platform of stability and growth, we can invest in the skills and services—

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Hon. Members must not keep standing if the Minister is not going to give way. It is for him to decide whether he is going to do so, and it would be helpful if he would indicate that.

Mr. Browne: I am not going to give way at the moment, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We can invest in the skills and services that we need to face the challenges and to grasp the opportunities of our global economy. This Budget is not about the past—it is about the future and long-term British success. It is about our clear ambition for Britain for success built on economic stability and growth. We have had 54 quarters of consecutive growth. I might remind the House that we have had the longest expansion in British history, with inflation at a 2 per cent. target, interest rates at a
28 Mar 2006 : Column 784
sustained low, and stable growth enabling British business to expand, leading to record employment, with some 2.3 million more jobs since 1997.

This Budget equips our country for the future, investing in education, science and enterprise, and facing up to the global challenge of climate change. It is our approach, based on economic stability, with the proper balance between spending and borrowing, that is the right way to go. The Budget takes the right decisions to equip Britain for the future.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con) rose—

Mr. Browne: After I have taken an intervention from the hon. Gentleman, I will come to some of the individual points made during the debate.

Mr. Jenkin: Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why it is possible for countries such as Ireland and Denmark to reduce public spending as a proportion of national income and to continue increasing public spending in gross terms, whereas it is impossible for that to be achieved in this country?

Next Section IndexHome Page