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The thing that baffles me is why education has been singled out in that way. Why has education not been given priority, alongside health and international development? Perhaps the shadow Business Secretary will give us some guidance, because it is very puzzling to those of us who follow education debates. Why is the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, a member of the Notting Hill set and the guy who does the role play for Prime Minister's questions, being unfairly treated in that way?

Mr. Kenneth Clarke: First, let me point out that when the Secretary of State started attributing what he thought our policies meant for the education budget, he attributed to the shadow Department things that have not been attributed to it at all out of yesterday's announcement. Secondly, he missed the point my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) made about the savings that would be made by the reduction in national insurance contributions-about 0.5 per cent. of the total pay bill. I cannot produce that figure off the cuff-my hon. Friend might be able to do so. The Secretary of State probably can, if he can sort it out from the other figures.

Ed Balls: I cannot do the detail of the shadow Education Secretary's sums for him-nor can Carol Vorderman. However, the overall gap in his budget-£1.8 billion over the course of a Parliament, £1.7 billion to find the savings cuts to contribute to the £6 billion, and, we think, £2 billion to £3 billion to pay for the pupil premium-is more than the entire amount of money from the employers' national insurance rise. The idea that just the rebate to schools would pay for those cuts is unrealistic. There is no way to fund the cuts that education would have to contribute other than by cuts in the numbers of teachers and teaching assistants, bigger class sizes, and cuts to the Sure Start budget.

If the hon. Member for Surrey Heath were here, we could ask him to answer these questions, but he is not. If he were here, we could have said to him, "Will you guarantee to match us on Sure Start, on schools and on 16 to 19-year-olds?", but he cannot do that. It is not just that he cannot do it today-at every stage in the Budget debates- [ Interruption. ] I am happy to inform the junior shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands)-I do not know whether he is the shadow Economic Secretary or Financial Secretary; I apologise-about the Budget debates. Last year's Budget debate was opened by me, as well. I think that on that occasion the shadow Education Secretary did turn up, unlike today.

Mr. Baron: The Secretary of State talks about help for poorer communities, but does he not accept that the freezing of personal allowances will hit the lowest paid the hardest?

Ed Balls: The freezing of personal allowances, which was announced in the pre-Budget report, is part of a package of tax rises to reduce the deficit, which also includes the bankers' bonus and the national insurance rise. As I said, everybody makes a contribution, but the more well-off people in our society make a bigger contribution. That has been set out very clearly. I do not hear Opposition Front Benchers saying that they are going to reverse the decision on personal allowances-perhaps they can clarify that in the debate-but they are trying to freeze the national insurance rise, which
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they would pay for by making cuts to children's centres, schools and apprenticeships while they spent £1.5 billion-plus on a cut in inheritance tax that would go only to millionaires. It is absolutely shocking.

Mr. Hayes rose-

Ed Balls: I gave way to the hon. Gentleman once before, so I will carry on.

I have been trying to work out why the education spokesperson has had such a raw deal. It could have been because of the critical comments he has made in the past about the shadow Business Secretary, although given that so many people on the Conservative Front Bench have done that, it would be unfair to single out the shadow Education Secretary. It may be because of what he wrote a few years ago in his column in The Times:

wise words from the shadow Education Secretary, one would have to say. He went on to say-and this is the problem:

That is what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath wrote a few years ago; perhaps that is why he has been singled out.

On the other hand, there may be some hope. Lord Ashcroft has already sponsored an academy in Wandsworth, so perhaps he is going to pay for the free-market schools policy as well, although we can just imagine the curriculum-not so much financial education as tax avoidance education, not school trips but extended overseas trips, not book clubs but beach clubs, not the Swedish model but the Belize model, excellence for the few paid for by cuts-

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I am quite sure that the Secretary of State is now going to concentrate on aspects of the Budget relating to public services.

Ed Balls: The reason why this is relevant to the Budget debate is that our Chancellor and our Prime Minister have set out a steady reduction in the deficit, not reckless cuts now that would put public services and jobs at risk. They have a balanced approach of fair tax rises combined with some spending restraint, and they included it in the Budget in a way that has protected schools, children's centres and 16-to-19 funding as well as the police and the NHS. To try to reverse the national insurance rise next year by cutting spending on schools and children's centres this year would be barmy economics. It would lead to fewer jobs, more unemployment and rising debt. It would be a perverse and misguided Budget strategy. That is why coming along and explaining the implications of the Budget for education, Sure Start and 16-to-19 apprenticeships and college places is well worth while.

Miss McIntosh: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Perhaps there is no reason for the Secretary of State to know this, but I am an honorary graduate of
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Anglia Ruskin university, as is my noble Friend Lord Ashcroft, who also funds a business school at the university. On a point of information, the right hon. Gentleman ought to know that fact. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am well capable of determining whether or not that is a point of order. The hon. Lady herself has indicated that it was really a point of information, so there is no need whatever for me to comment on it. Let the debate continue.

Ed Balls: Whether it was a point of order or a point of information, I am not sure that I really got the point. I am happy to take another intervention from the hon. Lady, and if she could explain her point in a little more detail, I will try to answer it.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Is he aware that the business school at Anglia Ruskin university is funded by the noble Lord to whom he referred, whose reputation I believe he was trying to besmirch?

Ed Balls: I was in no way trying to besmirch his reputation. I fear that it is the shadow Foreign Secretary's reputation that has been besmirched by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath rather than that of Lord Ashcroft. To be fair to Lord Ashcroft, he is sponsoring an academy, and he may well end up paying for the free schools policy as well. He is certainly paying for the Conservative party's election campaign-all credit to him.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Can we now get back to the debate on the Budget?

Mr. Sheerman: rose-

Ed Balls: I am happy to take an intervention from my hon. Friend.

Mr. Sheerman: I spoke last Thursday at that very business school, the Ashcroft school of business at Anglia Ruskin university, and I can tell my right hon. Friend-

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already made a ruling, and there is no need for that debate to continue. The ruling was that we must get on with the debate before us, which is the fourth day of the Budget debate.

Mr. Sheerman: I am tying that to the Budget because-

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I call the Secretary of State.

Ed Balls: I will say only that we announced today that 15 more academies are now moving forward through their funding agreements. We now have more than 55 universities sponsoring academies, and if Lord Ashcroft would like to sponsor an academy through his university, I would be very grateful indeed to receive the resources. The fact that they would now come not from non-dom money but from proper tax-paid money would be very welcome.

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Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): My point is about a very modest element of public expenditure. I met three constituents last week, Mr. Kevin Lomas, Miss Sarah Johnson and Rachel Hughes, all of whom- [Interruption.] They all- [Interruption.] They all- [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Is the hon. Gentleman making an intervention? Please continue.

Mr. MacShane: I am trying to! They all have autistic children, which Opposition Members seem to find funny, and they cannot get a statement. Is there any way we can encourage more statements and more individual support for our autistic children? I hope that that is a reasonable intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Ed Balls: My right hon. Friend is a well known campaigner on that matter. I must inform him that this morning, I did a video for TreeHouse, which has a special school in north London for children with autism, about its "talk about autism" campaign. Talking about autism is very important. If we were to start cutting the budgets beyond the £500 million that I have committed to, it would be support for children with special educational needs that was at risk, so I welcome my right hon. Friend's intervention.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The Secretary of State has been talking about 16-to-19 funding, and he may or may not be aware that in my constituency, the local authority is seeking to merge the sixth forms of the six high schools in an effort to save money. Does he have a view on the dangers of ripping out sixth forms to save money, potentially at the cost of education in those rural communities?

Ed Balls: I do not want to see anybody ripping out educational provision in a haphazard and random way; to do so, or to have a free market in schools policy whereby one rips schools from one community to give to another, is also very dangerous. The right thing to do is to ensure that we plan education provision for 14 to 19-year-olds properly across an area. I would be very happy to look at that matter in greater detail.

Let me conclude, because we have gone on for some time.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD) Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ed Balls: Okay.

Annette Brooke: On that very point-I need to declare an interest in that my daughter teaches at this school-the local Tory authority is proposing to take £8 million away from the primary capital programme for a school in a deprived area and to put it with the £1 million that the Government have generously given to provide 150 extra primary places elsewhere. Will the Secretary of State investigate that?

Ed Balls: Members of the House who are regulars at Children, Schools and Families questions will know that it is my habit to offer meetings with the Minister for Schools and Learners to discuss any difficult issues. He tells me that he was already planning such a meeting to discuss pupil place planning with the hon. Lady, and I will ensure that that is expedited to ensure that she and he do not miss their chance.

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To conclude, to be fair to him, the shadow Chief Secretary told us this last Wednesday: "Unlike Labour, we have protected the whole of the NHS budget and the overseas aid budget." When I asked, "What about schools?" he said, "We have not ring-fenced the schools budget; we have ring-fenced the NHS budget and the overseas aid budget." The fact that the schools budget is not ring-fenced means that it is a prime target now, so if the Conservatives get their way, we might see cuts in teachers and teaching assistants, larger class sizes, and fewer children's centres and apprenticeships. We will not take that drastic road of cutting front-line spending and family benefits. That would be reckless and unfair, and it would lead to higher debt, more unemployment and-if history is a guide-another Tory hike in VAT.

We will cut the deficit steadily and put growth and jobs first; we will match public spending restraint with fair tax increases; and we will protect the police, the NHS, and Sure Start, college and schools budgets so that every child can succeed, and I commend this Budget to the House.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is the final day of the Budget debate, which is usually wound up by the Chief Secretary and the shadow Chief Secretary, but the former is not in the Chamber, and he has not been here for the whole of the opening speech. Is it likely that he will not catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, come the winding-up speeches?

Mr. MacShane: Is that a point of order?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) is correct. It is certainly usual to see in the Chamber-the occupant of the Chair would expect this-the people who are making the winding-up speeches on behalf of both the Government and the Opposition. Clearly, if those Members are not present, it is entirely their responsibility as far as the House is concerned, but it would be usual to see them in their places now.

4.59 pm

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): Thank you for your ruling on that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The debate was opened by the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, who plainly came here thinking that this was a debate about education and schools policy; and it is supposed to be wound up by a Treasury Minister, who so far has not appeared. That is obviously not the main point of the debate, and I shall try to avoid it. However, I am one of the minority of senior Members who is not retiring at the coming election-if my constituents are prepared to consent-and in all my years in the House of Commons I do not remember a single debate on Government business in which the Minister who proposed to wind up failed to turn up. Perhaps the Chief Secretary intends to come after his dinner or his coffee break.

Ed Balls rose-

Mr. Clarke: I will give way in a moment, because there may be an explanation and I am prepared to listen to it. As the Government have belatedly come to pretend,
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after 13 years, that they are a reforming Government and are taking an interest in constitutional reform-and as in my experience the present Prime Minister, like the previous one, regards the House of Commons as a somewhat inconvenient press conference that Ministers would rather not attend-can the Secretary of State tell us whether this is an instance of changing custom and that the Government intend that Ministers should attend only to make their speeches and should not have to listen to or participate in the debate to which they are replying?

Ed Balls: I do not know the answer, but we will get an answer as soon as possible. It is possible that the Chief Secretary is meeting the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove).

Mr. Clarke: There may be a reasonable explanation, but I shall not take more time from the debate on the Budget to labour the point too far. However, it is a serious point. It is ridiculous if, on the last day of the Budget debate, the Treasury has decided not to send a Minister-

Several hon. Members rose -

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has not indicated that he will give way. Members must contain themselves.

Mr. Clarke: I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh).

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that in our early years in Parliament Ministers were very courteous? They always made a point of trying to respond to points made even by Opposition Members. Regrettably in recent years that custom seems to have gone out of fashion. Perhaps the Chief Secretary is not here because he has no intention of winding up in a traditional way by responding to points made in the debate.

Mr. Clarke: It could be that he is trying to think what to say, because there is not much in the Budget to talk about.

Mr. Baron: Perhaps the Chief Secretary's absence could be explained by the fact that he is preparing the cuts.

Mr. Clarke: He may be trying to prepare a rather clearer explanation of the cuts than has just been given by the Secretary of State. I welcome appearing opposite him-

Mr. Salmond: I was with the Chief Secretary on Thursday night on "Question Time", so perhaps I can give an alternative explanation. On that programme, he said that the cuts being proposed by this Government would go deeper and further than those made by Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps the Chief Secretary did not want to listen to the Secretary of State deny that point, or perhaps he is locked in a dialogue with the Chancellor to work out the position.

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