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He went on to say that that was

It is certainly the case that the Opposition will have a field day with regard to the time lag, but trying to invest several billion pounds in an economy takes time. The Conservatives might make hay while the sun shines—to use another metaphor—but in the long term, the proposals will work.

I want to refer to the north-east again. Figures from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors show that house sales in that region have increased for the third consecutive month, and new inquiries have increased for the fifth consecutive month. I must contradict my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire, who talked about the demise of the Royal Bank of Scotland. It has 170,000 workers, and data provided by
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the bank for studies in the north-east show that following a reduction in private sector business in March, the level of the reduction has eased markedly. Things are moving in our area.

Much has been made of the public deficit amounting to 11.9 per cent. of national income, and of the need to reduce it over the medium and long term, but nations that have paid for wars—and world wars, at that—will not have any difficulty in easing their deficits when the time is right, when recovery is well established and there are no sudden lurches. That is, I believe, the essence of the Budget. When President Clinton came to office, he had to deal with the mighty deficit left to him by President Bush senior, but his Administration overcame that. To please my hon. colleagues on the Conservative Benches, I will also mention Lady Thatcher. We fought the election in 1983 with 3 million unemployed. She brought public spending down from 48.1 per cent. of national income in 1982-83 to 41.6 per cent. in 1987-88. As I said earlier, I fought that election with 3 million people unemployed.

To come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton, the idea of an election seems to haunt this Chamber. Every Opposition Member seems to be obsessed with a general election, but whenever it comes and whatever the outcome, it is not relevant to this debate. What is important is that the Government of the day take the measures that they must, to see the country through the recession.

The right hon. Member for Fylde mentioned the need for a debate on what kind of country we are economically, and I would welcome that. If one ever wanted to know what the Conservative philosophy was, it could be heard from the right hon. Member for Wokingham. If he has his way, our public sector and our banks will disappear, the EU will descend under the North sea and we will all be happy citizens of the realm.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I agree that the Conservative approach seems to be entirely dominated by the general election, no matter what the costs may be for the economy—but is it not also a problem that today’s Budget, too, was short-termist and failed to provide for the long-term changes necessary to see this country through a very difficult economic time?

Sir Stuart Bell: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention, but I think the Budget did go as far as making projections up to 2015—a fact that was picked up by the Leader of the Opposition. As I have indicated, and as is clear, we are steering our way through the first global recession in history, and much depends on the framework and measures of the G20 group of countries that other nation states use. I am talking about the economies of Germany, France and the United States; as they pick up, we will pick up.

The Chancellor referred to green shoots of recovery, which means that at the end of this year and into the next we will move from zero growth into growth—even if only at 0.3 per cent. The Chancellor said that that could happen at the end of this year; my personal view is that it may not be until next year, but there will be a turning point—a prospect that this Budget has to deal with. The Chancellor’s point was that we must not have sudden lurches bringing recovery to a juddering halt on
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account of the free-market principles of the right hon. Member for Wokingham, other Conservative Members or even, if I may say so, the leader writers of the Financial Times.

I was surprised to read in a Financial Times editorial this week—perhaps the one mentioned by the right hon. Member for Fylde—that we were picking winners and losers in our economy. We are doing no such thing; we are guiding the economy in areas where it should be guided. We are not choosing one particular industry or firm against another. We are not in the ’70s; we are not in Tony Benn’s industrial regeneration programme of 1975-76. We have a new programme; we are going to guide the economy and be active in it.

Let me close where the Chancellor began and ended his speech. We should be looking to a confident and successful Britain. The word “Britain” is important because we all have to pull together. It is not a matter of one section against another or St. Albans against Wokingham. It is not a question of what the Budget is going to do for me; rather, it is about how the people of Middlesbrough may relate to the people of St. Albans as we all work together and all plough this particular furrow together.

At the end of the day, when the election comes, we will go forward, able to say that we did the best for our country. We will say that we saw it turn a corner, moving from negative to positive growth. We will say that we handled the banks so that people did not lose their money. That is the way forward. At that time, the people will have to decide between a Labour party that believes in growth to get us out of a recession and a Conservative party that believes in cuts. We will then have to ask the Opposition what cuts they want and what cuts they propose. ID cards may be one area for cuts and Trident missiles might be another.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Yes, please.

Sir Stuart Bell: I hear an important sedentary intervention. Are the Tories going to get rid of tax credits, benefits for young people and the Sure Start schemes that are working well on my housing estates? Which section of the community is going to be afflicted to pay for what happens in St. Albans and Wokingham? I hope it will not be Middlesbrough. I will be asking those questions, but I have no doubt that when the economy turns and people see the alternatives, we will have a proper vote, the reality will meet the perception and we will have a proper result. It will be based on what the Government are doing today, what they have done since the beginning of the crisis and what they will do into the future, when we are re-elected.

4 pm

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell). At the end of his speech, he said, “We will ask the Opposition which section of the community will be afflicted by any cuts they may make in the future.” It is not for me to attempt to answer that 12 months before an election; no doubt my right hon. and hon. Friends will set out our plans in detail. I simply say that today’s denial Budget has afflicted every single section of the community—every single man, woman and child—with borrowing and
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debt that will last for generation after generation. That is my only criticism of the hon. Gentleman, who made an excellent job of trying to defend, in the best possible way—he is an expert at it—a Budget with which I think he is slightly uncomfortable. Despite his partial praise and partial criticism of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), I detected a deep unease in the hon. Gentleman’s views on the amount of borrowing that this country will undertake.

The hon. Gentleman said at the start of his speech, “We are in a global recession, we are not in this alone and we can’t judge the measures that the Government are taking in this country without looking at what is happening in China, Brazil, India and other far east countries.” I agree, but are any of those countries seriously going to go on a massive Government spending spree in the hope that Government can buy their way out of bankruptcy? Those countries will be freeing up their private enterprise and their economies, not adding to paternity pay or health and safety regulations. They will use private enterprise to get them out of the hole. I will return to that subject later in my speech.

I also agree with the hon. Gentleman—and the Prime Minister, if he said it this week—that a time of crisis is a time of opportunity. However, it is not an opportunity to borrow £175 billion next year, then £173 billion, then £140 billion, and it is not an opportunity to put us deeper into debt than at any time in our history, and it is not an opportunity to have more debts than every other Government since this country’s history began. It is a time of opportunity to cut regulation and red tape—something my hon. Friends and I have wanted to do over the past 10 years.

I suspect that it is more difficult to cut some of the nonsense in a booming economy: why cut health and safety regulations and the plethora of red tape when we can afford them—as well as lots more civil servants, local government and health and safety inspectors—and when industry is making a fortune and paying its taxes? When we are in a hole, it is time to stop digging and to stop strangling ourselves with red tape and regulation.

As I listened to the Budget statement, I was reminded of a film. Many years ago, there was a “Carry On” film called “Carry On Regardless”. That is what we had in the Budget. In some ways, it reminded me of the Prime Minister’s Budgets in 1998 and 1999, when he could carry on the expenditure levels that are now no longer sustainable because of the golden economic legacy that he had been left by the outgoing Conservative Government.

We have had no sense at all today that the Government understand the urgency of making cuts in non-essential Government expenditure. I do not think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham was suggesting in the slightest that any front-line services should be cut—none of us is suggesting that—but as I go round my constituency I get the same message from everybody from every side. They say exactly the same thing: “When can we get rid of this Government? Goodness me, I don’t envy you lot the job you will have to do. The mess you will have to sort out is terrible and there will be pain.”

The people out there—our electorate—know that there will have to be cuts in some services. They are doing that themselves. They cannot go to their bank
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manager and say, “I’m absolutely broke, but can I borrow more money to spend my way out of bankruptcy?” Every little business in my constituency is pulling in its belt. Yes, those businesses would like to invest and they are saving every penny they can for proper investment. They are not squandering a single penny.

When I open the pages of my local newspaper, I may see a little advert as Eddie Stobart wants a driver. I may see an advertisement saying that a hotel wants a chef. I see columns of advertisements placed by the district council, the county council and the health service, which is still recruiting like nobody’s business. I am not talking about front-line staff. Five-a-day managers are being recruited. These people will not be managing anything; they will be paid about £23,000 a year to go around exhorting the rest of us to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. No doubt eating five portions of fruit and vegetables is jolly good for us, and I try to do it myself occasionally, but the idea that it is essential to recruit people to carry out these exhortations is bananas. [Laughter.] Yes—and apples, broccoli and leeks as well. That was an inadvertent one, although I sometimes throw them in to check that the House is alert.

The idea that we can afford, at the present time, to continue that sort of extravagance is absolute nonsense. I was about to say “pie in the sky”, but that would have been the second portion. We cannot afford to do that in the current circumstances. We could not afford to do it in the past, but Government and local government could get away with it because we seemed to be earning, we seemed to be paying our way, and we were in a boom period. Now the bust is here with a vengeance—and when the bust is here with a vengeance, we all have to pull in our horns. We invest in what will actually help us to escape from our problems, which is growth. That means that we must cut the red tape and all the things that slow down our industry.

The Chancellor says that in a couple of years’ time we will have 3.25 per cent. growth. No one in the House believes that. Labour Members have made a good fist of defending the Budget—no doubt they received their briefing and found all the good things that it is possible to defend—but no one seriously believes that we will move from negative growth of 3 per cent. to positive growth of 3.25 per cent. in a couple of years’ time.

If that were to happen—if we were to achieve that 3.25 per cent. growth—where would it come from? Would it come from Government expenditure, Government investment in infrastructure, or Government investment in so-called front-line services? Of course not. Government are not going to create that growth. If we end up with 3.25 per cent. growth in two years’ time, it will be because private industry has created it. The investment that private industry will put into its business is infinitely greater than anything that Government can spend by borrowing hundreds of billions of pounds. If those hundreds of billions were to go into capital investment and increasing productivity, it could be justified, but much of it is going into shoring up the current account and continuing the profligate expenditure policies that got us into this hole.

This is my main criticism today. As elections approach, Governments are often accused of promising jam tomorrow. Well, this Government are promising pain in a couple of years’ time rather than inflicting it now. I am quite pleased about that for political reasons, because I know
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that my constituents—and, I suspect, those of most other Members—will see through this Budget and say “Ah yes, a tax cut. The huge tax increases will come in two years’ time.” The Government might have gained more political mileage today by giving us some of the pain now: by being absolutely honest, and saying, “We must rein back on excessive Government expenditure, and we must rein back on it now.” Delaying the pain for a couple of years fools none of the electorate. Indeed, I suspect that it will mean a few more seats for my party at the next election.

I believe that there are areas of expenditure that can safely be cut. I am not going to come up with a full shopping list, and this is not a Conservative party shopping list; it is just a list of some of my pet fetishes. We are going to waste £12 billion on identity cards, which are absolutely unnecessary. We have wasted £36 billion, I am told, on NHS computer systems which do not work. Thank God they do not work, because I do not trust this Government with my medical records—particularly if they introduce a euthanasia Bill shortly, given my current state of health. We do not need that particular investment. In fact, it is not investment. Buying £36 billion-worth of computers for the NHS so that, theoretically, all the medical records can be in a central system and, theoretically, everyone in Whitehall can access them is not investment, but an absolute nosey parker’s charter and a waste of money.

Let me also suggest that the Government cut the £300 million that has been spent, either at Cheltenham or somewhere else, on monitoring all our trips abroad. I am quite happy for MI5 and MI6 to recruit a few thousand more workers to gather intelligence to find out who the real terrorists are, but not for £300 million to be spent so that every time every single citizen of this country goes abroad full details of their passport, where they are going, the hotel they are staying in and, no doubt, what they have had for breakfast is logged on a central computer on the off-chance that we pick up some guy going to Pakistan for terrorist training. Let us put the money and investment into more Security Service foot soldiers on the ground infiltrating these communities, and into hearts-and-minds operations in those communities and gathering intelligence on the half a dozen guys who may be going to Pakistan to learn to be terrorists, rather than into monitoring the other 56 million of us and intercepting every e-mail we produce.

We have got to start unscrambling the tax credit system and put in place a better system. I wonder how many of us as Members of Parliament could lay off half a secretary—not that I am suggesting we want to do so—if we did not have to deal with the absolute mess of the tax credit system and the child tax credit system. We must tackle the burden of public sector pensions as well, including our own—I suspect it will be the next Government who will have to tackle that.

We have had a lot of measures on jobs today. They are well intentioned and well meaning, but the people in my constituency who have lost their jobs are not all waiting to be retrained into a new industry. The 30 or 40 men who have lost their jobs in a plasterboard factory get laid off every recession; they are waiting for that work to pick up again, and then they will be back doing the same job in the plasterboard factory. The HGV drivers who are laid off at the moment are not going to retrain for the new green economy and start
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driving green cars; they are waiting to start driving their lorries again, carting goods around the country. What is needed to help them is not some of the gimmicks we have had today on new training, but a cut in national insurance. If we cut national insurance, I can guarantee that within weeks more people in my constituency will be back in employment, because it is a burden on employers which encourages them to lay off labour and does not encourage them to take on new employees.

I agree with the Prime Minister that a time of crisis is a time of opportunity: when the Conservatives come into government, there will be an opportunity for my Front-Bench colleagues to take an axe to some of the regulations that have been passed in the past 10 years. That opportunity will come because the people of this country realise that we cannot have more and more red tape strangling private industry as it is only private industry that will get us out of this crisis.

I seldom watch television, but I caught a bit of a programme the other night. I believe one of our esteemed Gallery correspondents was responsible for it: Mr. Quentin Letts. The programme was certainly infinitely better than anything he writes, and it was all about training for using ladders. Mr. Letts had discovered that everyone in this country who may have to go up a step-ladder now has to get a certificate on handling ladders and using them safely. I understand from Mr. Letts’s programme that the European Union regulations are about two pages long, whereas the British Government ones are about 30 pages long. That is typical of the gold-plating of every regulation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham may have a view on which regulations may be scrapped. I take the view that while we are in the European Community, and we are—and rightly so—trading and working with our partners, we must obey European law. If we have British regulations duplicating those from Europe, we cannot get rid of the European ones; therefore, we should scrap all those duplicating regulations that we in this country pass in gold-plating the European standard regulations. We have such a problem with the working at height regulations, and in this place we are doing it with the fire regulations: we as a House and a British Government are gold-plating them, and nowhere else in the European Community is that being done.

Before this is misconstrued as Maclean suggesting that we should go back to the bad old days before the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and scrap all the vital safety regulations that protect workers, let me say that I am not suggesting that in the slightest. If we look at the statistics, however, we will see that we are putting a lot of effort into targeting some areas where there are very few accidents or deaths, while ignoring other areas, such as the construction industry, which are still high up the accident league. Whatever we do, we must take the burdens off private industry, where one finds the only ones who will create the magical 3.25 per cent. growth that we seek.

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