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Amendment of the Law

Part of Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation – in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 21st March 2000.

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Photo of Mr Gareth Thomas Mr Gareth Thomas Labour, Clwyd West 9:45 pm, 21st March 2000

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) for abbreviating his speech to allow other Members to get in. Indeed, I will confine my comments to a few remarks, so that others may speak.

The Budget will be welcomed in both my constituency and the country at large because it addresses the economic and social priorities: the need to build on the foundations of stability, sustained growth and low inflation that have been laid by the Government; the need to improve public services, which were allowed to run down under the previous Government; and the need to tackle the blight of poverty that scars society and that, again, is part of the legacy of the Conservative party.

One of the most striking features of the Budget is that the purse strings have been loosened, but prudently. It is welcome that the Budget gives a very large boost to national health service funding: there will be real growth of 6 per cent. per annum, increasing from £45 billion last year to £69 billion by 2003–04. That represents the largest spending increase for the NHS, which will be warmly welcomed by my constituents.

The £1 billion increase in education spending will also be welcomed. The figures for Wales—as I am a Welsh Member, it is pertinent to refer to the matter—have not been announced. Of course, we have a directly elected Assembly, which is charged with responsibility for allocating funds, but I would be surprised if it did not follow broadly the same pattern of spending.

The Chancellor is right to introduce measures to support families and to tackle child poverty. I am particularly gratified with the increase in child benefit to £15 for the eldest child. That represents a 26 per cent. increase over the duration of the current Parliament. The 1p cut in the basic tax rate will mean that the tax burden on working families will be at its lowest since 1972.

The Government are spending an additional £7 billion on pensioners over the Parliament. Many will share my view that more needs to be done to tackle pensioner poverty, but let us give credit where credit is due. The increase in capital limits attached to the minimum income guarantee, the increases in the winter fuel allowance, together with other measures that have been introduced during the year, will substantially improve the quality of life of many pensioners.

Great strides have been made in increasing employment opportunity and in making work pay for many millions of low-paid families. Extending the new deal to the long-term unemployed is particularly to be welcomed, as are the Chancellor's announcements on building stronger businesses and on help for small and medium enterprises. I am pleased to note the cuts in capital gains tax and corporation tax, which will create an environment that is amenable to growth and job opportunities.

In conclusion, it would be remiss of me, as a Welsh Member, not to refer to objective 1 and the need to ensure match funding, which is very much a vexed issue in Wales, where the debate has raged for the past year or so. I fully accept that the Government can make no commitments until the conclusion of the comprehensive spending review. I note that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has undertaken not to let Wales down, and I take comfort from the fact that the Red Book includes some interesting indications of the thrust of Government policy.

On page 52, the Government state that part of their economic strategy is to encourage balanced economic growth across all regions and to enable each region to make the most of its comparative advantages. My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), who is in her place, represents an objective 1 area. She will also take comfort in the commitment on page 28 of the Red Book that the CSR process is aimed at determining how departments' programmes can best contribute to the achievement of the Government's objectives … One of those objectives must be to ensure balanced development across the country.

This year's Budget is proof that the Government's sound management of the economy is allowing us to achieve our overall objectives of social justice, equality of opportunity, full employment and the eradication of poverty.