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Amendment of the Law

Part of Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 21st March 2000.

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Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham Labour, Barnsley West and Penistone 5:30 pm, 21st March 2000

If the right hon. Gentleman can hold his fire for a moment, I shall come to the moral imperative of private finance. To answer his question directly, the private finance initiative is part of the Government's overall approach to hospital building, which was so neglected by the previous Government that a radical approach was required, pulling in all partners to the hospital building programme.

The Leader of the Opposition implied that low taxes were a moral imperative for any Government. That approach is nonsense. It is totally out of touch with the majority of the public, as the global picture demonstrates. For example, low-tax Russia is a disaster, while high-tax Holland and Denmark are the fastest growing economies in the European Union.

In any society, a progressive tax system is the best way of stimulating the economy and reinforcing the social structure. The British public have shown clearly that they want high-quality public services. They also want fairness in the workplace and that is why they support the minimum wage, the social chapter and parental leave. Eventually, we should press for parental leave to be paid, so that we can match the paid parental leave provided by our European partners.

The public support the tax credit system and the largest ever increase in child benefit that will help to lift families out of poverty. They know full well that that cannot be achieved merely by financing private sources. Services are not free—schools, hospitals and roads have to be paid for out of taxation. Taxation makes it possible for those services to be available to all free of charge.

In my view, progressive taxation—and here I shall answer the point raised by the hon. Member for West Worcestershire—is a contract between citizens who contribute according to their ability and the democratic undertaking by the Government to build a better society for all. The previous Administration, in which the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) was a Minister, did not provide a better society for all; they concentrated on the few rather than the many. The present Government are doing the opposite.

The Budget makes further substantial resources available for health and education, and that will be most welcome in Barnsley. Health service reforms are already well under way in the area, but the town has a high rate of heart disease, strokes and cancer. Although the health authority received an increase in its budget of more than 7 per cent. this year, because it started at a very low level, it is still £2 million short. The extra help announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for the health service will be very welcome in Barnsley.

There is already a health action zone in South Yorkshire covering Doncaster and Rotherham. It is pulling together across the region and helping to focus resources on the problems identified in the health improvement plan for the region. The extra help that my right hon. Friend has announced will help the health action zone to focus resources where they are badly needed.

The United Kingdom has more people in employment now than at any time in the past and today's Budget will help to continue the economic dynamism that has created an extra 800,000 jobs since 1997. Referring to the point that the hon. Member for West Worcestershire made about whether the Budget assisted industry, I can tell him that in Barnsley and South Yorkshire the endeavour to regenerate the local economy is going apace. In the Dearne valley area, for example, 6,000 jobs have been created over the past two or three years. It is probable that by 2005 another 4,000 jobs will be created in the area. They will replace jobs lost in the mining industry, which was so cruelly shut down by the Conservative Administration, when very little help was given to the locality. The measures to assist business will therefore be very welcome. They will assist in the work currently being done in the locality by the local authority, and help the locality to recover from the structural blows inflicted in the 1980s and 1990s, when very little assistance was provided.

Britain is now competing in a global economy. If we are to compete successfully, we have to have a well-educated and well-trained labour force. The Chancellor's boost for education today will help regions such as South Yorkshire and particularly localities such as Barnsley.

The educational achievement of pupils in South Yorkshire, for historical reasons, has been lower than the national average. Prior to the previous general election, only 29 per cent. of pupils in Barnsley, compared with the national average of 44 per cent., were achieving five or more A-levels at grades A to C. There was little that the local education authority could do about that as it had been starved of resources. Some of our schools even had bucket monitors.

Since May 1997, the situation has gradually been reversed, assisted by the commitment of the local education authority and the Barnsley education action zone. The education action zone has played a very important part in increasing achievement in the past year or so. Achievement levels have started to increase.

Last Friday, with my two Barnsley colleagues—my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) and for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Mr. Ennis)—I met the director of the Barnsley education action zone to discuss some of the improvements that have been made and generally to see what was being done at the chalk face. We had to remind ourselves that the education action zone had been created only in September 1998. Although the project was established initially to operate for only three years—funded by a £750,000 grant from the Department for Education and Employment—it has already started to make quite important improvements. It has, for example, produced increased achievement levels in standard assessment tests and in GCSEs.

At the school that I visited on Friday, it was clear that the provision of information technology instruction is having an enormous impact in increasing pupils' commitment to getting stuck in at school and to working hard. That achievement has been made possible by the way in which the education action zone has been able to focus resources on information technology equipment.

The Budget is good for industry and it will certainly be good for Barnsley's regeneration. It is also good for local health and education. The Budget is good for pensioners, and it is good for the British public's quality of life. The Budget will help to make Britain a better place to live.