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6.8 pm

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): I will endeavour to take less than the 15 minutes, and I will also endeavour to help my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary by making reference to some of the comments that have already been made.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for speaking just before me, because the first two speeches in the debate were an entertaining exchange between the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and his former constituent, the Secretary of State, but the reality that we face this evening is to speak on behalf of those who do not have a voice. I therefore immediately want to take up a point that was made by the shadow Business Secretary about credit ratings in the bond market.

It goes without saying that, in a global economy, we are subject to those who make decisions through credit-rating organisations and the bond markets, and if we take no notice and are not cognisant of the consequences, we will be severely damaged. However, in a democracy we have a number of elements in addition to the rule of law and a free media. We have political, participative and representative democracy that gives a voice to those who have power, wealth and privilege in the economic democracy-in the marketplace.

This afternoon I have heard people blame this Government and our Prime Minister for a global meltdown-for what happened throughout the world-that was initiated not actually in the United States, but in the development of savings in China, because of the economic and social changes in that country. That led to the availability of credit and money in the United States, which inevitably led to the over-extension and meltdown. When I hear the Prime Minister blamed for that by a former Chancellor, I do not take it seriously. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe knows better than that. He knows perfectly well that this Government and country cannot be and are not responsible for what took place three years ago.

Some of those who were responsible for the meltdown were, incidentally, engaged with credit-rating agencies and the bond markets, and it is the cheek of the devil for those people, who have wealth, power and privilege internationally, to say that it was the fault of political democracy for not regulating them toughly enough-to turn the tables on the politicians who are saving our economy, our services, our jobs and the livelihoods of our people and our communities and to say that we are to blame for not stopping them from doing what they did in the first place. That is just nonsense.

Mr. Binley: Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise the anger out there; that the Prime Minister, then the Chancellor, said to the Financial Services Authority that he wanted a light touch on all those matters; and that that contributed massively to our problems?

Mr. Blunkett: The Opposition were the first to criticise us for being too tough on regulation. They preached year after year that this Government were too heavy-handed
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on regulation, and that business and finance wanted to be left alone. They preached what Margaret Thatcher preached, and now they intend to practise in the social arena what they preached in the economic arena-that Governments should get out of such business and leave private enterprise alone. They said that we would flourish if Governments did so, not that bankers if left alone would bring our country to its knees and then blame us for not intervening harshly enough to stop them from doing it. What nonsense is that?

Mr. Heald: Does the right hon. Gentleman not remember that in 1998, when the current Prime Minister introduced that financial system of regulation, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) said that it would lead to trouble? And lead to trouble it has.

Mr. Blunkett: Of course we introduced that system precisely because there was no financial regulation. We also made the Bank of England independent, so that it could make judgments and intervene independently-and of course the Opposition opposed that, too.

The contradictions abound. We know that it is necessary to take care and time to determine what needs to be done. We know it, because one year ago we anticipated that in 2014-15 debt would be £100 million more than we now expect it to be. Even three months ago we thought that growth was just 0.1 per cent., and it turns out that growth is 0.3 percentage points higher than that, based on the recently announced readjustment. Indeed, we know that the growth that can be achieved, the changes that can be ascertained and the way in which we need to proceed are a moveable feast.

Above all, we need to be clear about who carries the consequences for the decisions that we make. Of course, on the macro scale, we have to take into account the consequences of what is happening globally, but we, as political representatives and the only voice of most people in this country who do not have wealth and privilege, have to speak out about the consequences of too rapid a cutback, too rapid a disinvestment and too many cuts to front-line services.

I heard the shadow Business Secretary say that his 1997 Budget was wonderful and that we stuck to it. Actually, we did not. I was the shadow Education and Employment Secretary from 1994, and in market towns throughout Britain in 1995 and 1996 I spoke to parents, teachers and children whose schools were falling apart-whose roofs were leaking. Primary schools were reliant on outside toilets, the teaching profession had totally collapsed and there were four-day weeks. There was under-recruitment, so teachers with no training had to be placed in the classroom; there were no teaching assistants; books were being recycled; and parents were being asked to pay for them.

That was the reality, and in 1997 the July emergency Budget put £700 million more into the education service, and £1 billion of new deal money from the windfall levy, from which we also benefited in terms of the employment drive that got people back to work. We do not want to go back to the era that I have described: it would not be the shadow Chancellor; it would be more like John Osborne-look back in anger and see just what happened when the Conservatives put their friends before the electorate of the country's most disadvantaged constituencies, such as mine.

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Mr. Binley: Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the school improvement programme, much of which we benefited from in Northampton, was a direct result of the private finance initiative, which the then Chancellor said was the only game in town?

Mr. Blunkett: It was not the only game in town, because, as I have just spelt out, we started in 1998 with £1 billion and the new deal for schools, which turned into Building Schools for the Future. That budget-just to get the figures right-was £600 million when I became Education and Employment Secretary; it is now £9 billion and is transforming the learning opportunities and environment of our children.

The argument has been made that we should immediately start to reduce spending. However, one thing that concerns me, to which the hon. Member for Twickenham referred, is that many agencies-next steps agencies, Departments, primary care trusts and strategic health authorities-are already starting to cut in anticipation of even deeper cuts, should a Conservative Government be elected. Paradoxically, that is reducing the speed of growth by cutting back on spending that would keep people in jobs.

Let us look at what happened in the past. We cannot live in it, and I shall not compare historical debt to the reduction in the structural debt, which in any case we intend to get down to 2.5 per cent. of GDP by 2014. However, let us presume that we are in 1951, and a Conservative Government have been elected not on an austerity programme, but on a programme of lifting rationing and bringing hope and aspiration to the 1950s. That is what they were elected on. They were elected on the back of the wartime lend-lease and debt, and the debt that Maynard Keynes negotiated in Washington in 1947, but they did not enter office promising that they would wipe out that massive, historic wartime and post-war debt by 1955, 1959 or 1964. In fact, it was paid off in 2002, and the Canadian bonds were paid off in 2007.

We need a voice of reality saying that we in the political arena must take cognisance of the international financial arena and speak on behalf of the people who have no other voice. The issue is about continuity of spending; about retaining people in jobs, paying tax and national insurance; and about reducing the anticipated welfare spend-on which Margaret Thatcher did spend while cutting front-line services in my city and those throughout the country. Some of us remember it; some of us dealt with it. As the leader of Sheffield city council for seven years in the 1980s, I lived with it day after day, and none of us should want to go back to that. We do not need to; we can plan sensibly; we can be rational; and, above all, we can act as a counterweight to the voices of those who will not feel the cuts-who will be immune to what happens in education, health, transport, the environment and housing, because they can buy their way out of cuts.

We speak on behalf of those who cannot do that, and that is why we should stick to our guns. We should be rational and thoughtful and careful. Above all, we should resist the siren voices of those who know what they are about, and who will vote in this election-they will vote for their own self-interest. That is not acceptable for Britain and it is not the future for our country.

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6.20 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). We all admire his commitment, his courage and what he has contributed to our country. I hope, though, that he will forgive me if I do not follow him in his loyal defence of the Government, for which he should be roundly thanked by those on his Front Bench.

This is the last time that I will address the House of Commons, and I find it a strange experience almost exactly 40 years since I made my maiden speech. When I was talking to one of my former secretaries the other day about stepping down at the general election and about how I love this place, she said to me, "Well, it's what you are." I have to say to colleagues on both sides of the House that for the past 40 years, it has been what I have been.

I love the House of Commons in general and I love the Chamber in particular, and it always saddens me when people on either side of the House do not give it the respect that it deserves. Of course, one accepts that the apology by the Chief Secretary has been sincerely given. He is not a man who is unthinkingly impolite. In fact, he is a man who likes to make sure that all people know exactly what he wants, whether it is the strength of his coffee or the size of his seat. I would just say to him gently that he must not do this again, whether he is Chief Secretary, shadow Chief Secretary, or anything else. The primacy of the Chamber of the House of Commons when great issues are being debated must be respected by those who are winding up debates on either side of the House.

I believe that what is so important at the moment is that people outside should begin to regain their confidence in this place. I would say to the fourth estate, which sometimes seems hell-bent on destroying the other three, that the House of Commons is the ultimate defender of all our liberties. Of the people I have known in this place over the past 40 years, the overwhelming majority of men and women, in whatever part of the House they have sat, have been true public servants who have come here for what they can put into it, and not for what they can get out of it. I hope that that will be recognised when the furore of recent months dies down.

I came here with a sense of history, and I have had the great privilege of living through history. I shall never forget listening to the great orators of our time, particularly to the recently late great Michael Foot and the late great Enoch Powell, who were close personal friends-most people do not know that, but they were-and who disagreed on almost every subject but respected each other because each one was first, second and last a parliamentarian. I think that we should take an example from people like that.

I very much hope that the new House of Commons, with many new Members in it, will collectively restore faith in this place. I also hope that the new individuals who come here will regard being here, as I always have, as the greatest honour and privilege that any British man or woman can ever have. I believe that it is an honour beyond compare. I hope that, whichever party forms the next Government, those who come here and sit on the Government side of the House-I hope that my party will be over there then-will not come here
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merely hoping to be driven around in a ministerial Mondeo, or whatever, but come here because they believe that membership of this place is the most important thing of all.

When one makes a maiden speech, one is supposed to be non-controversial. I do not want to be particularly controversial today, because I have been here long enough to know that no party ever has the monopoly of wisdom, virtue, or any other quality, good or bad. I remember opposing policies of my own party, such as the poll tax-I will not go into a great list-and I know that we have made mistakes in the past. However, I say, against that background, that this is the least substantial Budget that I have ever known. It is skimpy, it is bare, and it does not address the nation's problems. At a time when interest on our debt is more than twice what total public expenditure was in 1970, it behoves us all to recognise the seriousness of our position. Incidentally, in 1970-you will remember this, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because you came here for the first time then, as well-one had dinner in the Members' Dining Room for eight and sixpence: something that would warm the cockles of Sir Ian Kennedy's heart.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Sir Patrick Cormack: I would rather not, if my hon. Friend does not mind.

I like to measure every Budget against two of my favourite political sayings. Benjamin Disraeli-I make no apology for being a devotee of the great man-once said that one of the great objects of our party was to elevate the condition of the people. Does this Budget give an opportunity to elevate the condition of the people? I fear that the answer has to be no. One of the most moving speeches that I heard in this place was made by John Nott-Sir John Nott, as he now is-in moving the Loyal Address. He said that the real poor of the 20th century are those without hope. Does this Budget bring hope? I fear that the answer, again, has to be no.

Much has been made of the Prime Minister's great contribution as Chancellor. I do not believe that he was a great Chancellor. In the middle ages, people used to search for the philosopher's stone-the material that was going to turn base metal into gold. The Chancellor discovered how to turn gold into base metal: he sold it at bargain basement prices. Perhaps that is why he has always looked rather lugubrious ever since. I hope that at the general election, in spite of the dire condition of the nation's finances, we will have some fun and some spirited debating. I hope that the Prime Minister will be able to be a bit cheerful about it. He reminds me of a character from a programme of my childhood, "ITMA"-Mona Lott, who said it was being so cheerful as kept her going. That is what the Prime Minister looks like-as though it is being so cheerful as keeps him going. Well, the British people want some hope; some true optimism.

The British people may live in a nation that is on the verge of bankruptcy, brought there largely by the feckless attitude of this Government, but they do not want a Budget that is bereft of vision, or a party that has run out of ideas to steer them through the next four or five difficult years. It will be all of that, because whichever Government come in must have the sustaining power to take us through not just the first Parliament but the second and beyond.

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There are many, many things that I shall miss about the House of Commons. There are some that I shall not miss. I shall not miss being here when people are serving on a Panel of Chairs. I am glad that your own current title will be preserved, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We could not have a Chair of Ways and Means-that would merely be a rocking chair, would it not? I will miss the camaraderie of this place and I will miss the cross-party friendships-some of the things that I have enjoyed most of all have involved Members of all parties.

I shall miss very much my Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and I am delighted to see three Members from Northern Ireland, two of whom have served on that Committee, here this afternoon. We are able to demonstrate through our Select Committee system that people can put their party political interests to one side and work together for a common cause to produce reports that are not anodyne but are hard-hitting and deal with serious subjects, but which bring people together. That is an aspect of our work that it is not sufficiently understood and appreciated outside.

The Select Committee system has developed very well, but what has declined has been the importance and centrality of this Chamber. As I prepare to leave it, I want to express the hope that those who come will not only regard being here as an enormous honour and privilege, as I said a few moments ago, but that they will want to inject some life into the Chamber. It is deeply disappointing that it is so sparsely populated this afternoon, although there are more here now than there have been on the other days of the Budget debate. It is tremendously important that they should recognise that to contribute in this Chamber, and to tread in the footsteps of those giants of old, is not only a privilege but a duty-a duty that they owe, and we all owe, to our constituents.

I say to colleagues whom I am leaving a heartfelt thanks for their comradeship and friendship over the years. I say to those who are to come after that this is an imperfect institution, as every institution composed of human beings must inevitably be, but it is the bulwark of our liberties. It is the place that ought to matter most of all at the end of the day. When they come here, they should try to recognise that and rise to the occasion. They will be very well served by the staff of the House, and they will come to an institution to which they can feel proud to belong. I say to them that every day they should try to do what I have done and spend at least a minute or two walking through Westminster Hall, the most historic part of this great Palace, where so much of our history has taken place and which should give us all a sense of pride in being British.

And so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to make these closing remarks. Ave atque vale.

6.34 pm

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