I well recall the speculation that heralded today's Budget and, as I look across at Opposition Members, I see them knee-deep in shot foxes. I ask them to remember what we are going to do for pensioners by means of income support and what we will do for people on lower incomes by introducing a 20 per cent. band for the first £2,000 of taxable income. That is a significant move on the Conservatives' part: the party is recognising the poorer members of society, and giving them some help in a particularly difficult time. [Interruption.] I used to represent Workington, one of the tougher parts of the country. I have observed the improvements that have been made there and, over the past 12 years, I have observed a general increase in standards of living throughout the country.
One of the attractions of speaking on the first day of the Budget debate is the ability to make comments that are unsullied by any outside views or pressures—in particular, to make comments before the combined wit and wisdom of the press have been brought to bear. Many people outside the House do not realise that the press operates as a series of wolf packs: the Sundays prowl the corridors, desperately trying to keep stories from the dailies in case they are filched from them before their publication date, while the dailies compete with each other, exchanging titbits of news and information. Thus, when the papers hit the stand, we see an underlying similarity between them.
Bereft of the combined wit and wisdom of the scribes of Fleet street, I am nevertheless convinced that their judgments on the Budget will prove that it is to be deemed one of the most ingenious, caring and clever Budgets produced for many a long year.
I shall not develop any of the points that have been made about help for pensioners and for those who will benefit from the 20 per cent. tax band. Those points have already been made and I am convinced that, as the days go by, other hon. Members will trawl over the same ground. Let me simply make one brief comment: even if we had knocked one penny from the basic rate of income tax, we could have acted with integrity and honesty. That would not have been an election bribe. Over 12 years, we have consistently lowered the basic rate: from 33p in the pound to 25p, and we aim to bring it down to 20p. That is a committed aim and, if the Chancellor had felt that that was the way in which to act, it could have been done with integrity.
Let us suppose that the roles had been reversed, and that Opposition Members had been involved, with their commitment to higher taxation and increased centralisation. In that event, such action would have been deemed to be an electoral bribe, but that does not apply to the Conservatives, because we are committed to bringing down the tax rates. I hope that that will be a continual programme, followed over the next four to five years of Conservative government.
Last year, I talked about small businesses. Then, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor devoted a substantial part of his Budget to helping them and I am delighted that he has listened further to the calls of those interested in small businesses and has brought together a series of measures that will give them even more help and support.
Let us consider in particular what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has done with the uniform business rate. For me to be able to tell the small businesses in my constituency that the increase will be limited to the rate of inflation will be an enormous benefit to them. There is no doubt that in the south we have suffered an increase in the UBR to subsidise businesses in the north. I do not object to that because I want to see an equal spread of wealth across the country, but it has been a blow in a time of difficulty, and the fact that any increase is to be held to the rate of inflation is to be commended.
Last year, I was especially fulsome about the move to raise the value added tax threshold to £35,000. As I understand it, it is now to be raised to £36,600 which is a significant improvement. It must make sense for VAT inspectors not to have to rush around to small companies, picking up tiny sums of money. It must also make sense to allow the businesses—the one-man bands—that are getting started to do so without the aggravation of filling in VAT forms and the difficulty that that brings until they are established, until their turnover increases and until they are able to launch out and participate in the normal run of tax collections as they get bigger. I appreciate the raising of the threshold, but we should consider whether it could be even further improved in the years to come.
One issue mentioned in the Budget was the declaration—and it was a declaration—that larger companies must pay smaller companies on time. It is absolutely disgusting that some large companies have bled small companies white by using their power and muscle and by not paying bills on time. It would be invidious to name those larger companies, but they are household names. I go out of my way to avoid buying their products if I have an alternative. The comments by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about small businesses being paid on time were necessary. I know a small business man who is in desperate trouble because a large company is refusing to pay a very large outstanding bill. All I can say to the larger company is, "Shame on you".
The consideration in the Budget of the cost of appeals to the special commissioners is another move in the right direction. Too often when small businesses have made claims they have met intransigence and it has cost a fortune to fight a case. At the end of the day, the costs have not been recoverable, but now a step has been made in the right direction, and that can only be beneficial.