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The debate has touched on some important issues, such as public spending, revenue and the borrowing requirement, but it has also had some of the characteristics of a parliamentary set piece and all the rituals that go with such an occasion. There were all the charges, counter-charges, froth and bubble that one usually associates with such occasions. The right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) took his full part in the ritual, as did the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), but with—I do not mean to be too damning of the right hon. Gentleman —much less skill than the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East.
I would not concur with the judgment of the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) that the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East was hypnotic. I do not think that the public will be entranced by his lack of alternative concrete policy. The test that the right hon. and learned Gentleman must pass will come later, not today.
Opposition Members should not have too many illusions about public confidence in the Labour party and the policies that it has espoused over the past 14 years. In particular, they should have no illusions about the extent to which Conservative values are now shared. Those values are now shared more widely than ever before among the electorate, particularly values concerning the delivery of high-quality public services and value for money. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) may find that remark funny, but I am sure that the people of Grimsby do not. It is an important issue throughout the country.
Opposition Members should have no illusion about the need for sound finance, which has been an important hallmark of the Government over the past 14 years, the need to constrain public expenditure as a proportion of national income and the need to aim to balance the Budget over the Budget cycle.
I concur with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) said about timing and economics and about economic judgments being somehow different from judgments that are made in everyday life. Of course that is right, but Conservative values are echoed throughout the country. That is particularly true in respect of public services. Whatever other charges can be levelled against Conservative Front-Bench Members. it cannot justly be said that over the past 14 years there has been a lack of resources in public services, and certainly not when measured in real terms. That is true in respect of education and health.
On education, it was noticeable that the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East chose to make testing the focus of his attack on the Government. It is an important subject and there is certainly an issue about the administration of such tests, but it is not the touchstone of whether adequate revenue and resources have been devoted to education.
I should have thought that there was a more accurate reflection of the increase in real terms of expenditure on education and the vastly increased proportion of young people who are now entering higher education compared with the number under the previous Labour Government. Opposition Members talk about a high-skill economy and a better trained and educated work force. They might care to reflect on the fact that nearly one in four school leavers now go into higher education, compared with one in eight under the previous Labour Government.
Whatever Opposition Members might say about health —of course they disagree with the health reforms and think that the Government are wrong—they cannot dispute that spending has increased massively by about a half in real terms over the past 14 years. Opposition Members used to talk about the proportion of gross domestic product spent on health. That proportion, too, has risen. There has been a massive increase in resources, which has been reflected in public confidence in the quality of our public services, particularly the health service and education, and that has been reflected in election results over the past 14 years.
Opposition Members have talked about public finances. I echo the sentiment that was expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern) when he talked about the state of finances and considered the timing of public finances, especially debt and debt repayment. Over the past 14 years, although public spending has increased in real terms, the Government have had success in constraining the proportion of Government expenditure as a proportion of national income.
They were able to bring the proportion beneath 40 per cent., which was a considerable achievement. They have also had considerable success in balancing the Budget. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham rightly said, repayments of debt were made until as recently as 1990. For a substantial part of the latter 1980s, repayments were made, and that reduced the absolute level of debt. We all know that things have changed since then, in large measure because of the recession.
I must now express the views that were forcefully put to me in my county of Hertfordshire. Hertfordshire is one of the areas of the south-east that have endured the recession. It had a good period in the middle of the 1980s, but it went into recession earlier than some other parts of the country. By its good standards of prosperity and growth, it has suffered during the recession. I am glad to say that the people of Hertfordshire have kept faith with the Conservative party over that period, and they look to the Conservative party to provide growth now. Certainly, there is no lack of concern about unemployment in Hertfordshire. Conservative Members feel for our constituents who have endured unemployment and for businesses that have had to struggle. There is no doubt about the struggles that many have faced.
The most important issue for the success of local economies, the national economy and the state of public finances is growth. Just as recession led us into the current state of public finances and the public sector borrowing requirement of £50 billion, so we must look to growth to put workers back into jobs and to put businesses back into profit—workers working once again and paying tax as before. We have to look to growth as the principal way of dealing with the public sector borrowing requirement.
I firmly endorse the use of the word "fragile" by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing. It was an apt description; growth is fragile. In the past few weeks, I have spoken to many business men, business men's leaders, local chambers of commerce, the Confederation of British Industry and others, and the word "fragile" has been used many times. They are delighted to see the signs of growth. Across the board, they see growth coming and a change in the atmosphere, but the word that keeps coming back is "fragile". They believe that growth is being sustained, but that it needs to be nurtured and built on.
I strongly endorse the comment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing that the overriding priority must be the nurturing of growth. All other policies must be subordinate to that, both for the sake of businesses and for the sake of the PSBR and the country's finances. Anything that disrupted that growth or that turned us back into recession would have a bad effect on public finances, as well as being undesirable from the point of view of business. I urge Ministers to make the matter a top priority. That is the test that the Government and Opposition Members will face. The real test for Opposition Members does not lie in the ritual of these set-piece occasions; it is whether their policies are more or less likely to bring about growth.