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Commons Chamber

Volume 301: debated on Thursday 27 November 1997

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House Of Commons

Thursday 27 November 1997

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Messages From The Queen

Double Taxation Relief

The VICE-CHAMBERLAIN OF THE HOUSEHOLD reported Her Majesty's Answer to the Address, as follows:

I have received your Addresses praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Malaysia) Order 1997, the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Singapore) Order 1997, the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Falkland Islands) Order 1997 and the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Lesotho) Order 1997 be made in the form of the drafts laid before your House.

I will comply with your request.

Summer Time Order

The VICE-CHAMBERLAIN OF THE HOUSEHOLD reported Her Majesty's Answer to the Address, as follows:

I have received your Address praying that the Summer Time Order 1997 be made in the form of the draft laid before your House.

I will comply with your request.

Oral Answers To Questions

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Inward Investment

1.

If he will make a statement on the impact of the Green Budget on the Government's policy on inward investment into the United Kingdom. [16585]

Our policies for stability, for sustainable public finances, for long-term investment, including our cuts in corporation tax, and for skills and employment will enhance the attractiveness of the United Kingdom as a location for inward investment.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that partnerships between the public and private sectors, such as the Kent Thames-side group, which is working for the regeneration of north-west Kent including my constituency of Dartford, are the blueprint for inward investment and stable growth that this country needs and that this Government can deliver?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I understand that this morning he launched an exhibition on the Kent Thames-side region, and I wish him well in his efforts both to form an effective public-private partnership there and to attract inward investment. What is absolutely clear is that for inward investment we need a stable monetary framework—that is why we gave the Bank of England independence—a commitment to Europe, sustainable public finances and measures such as our cuts in corporation tax for long-term investment, which are all measures that we support. We have still to hear what the Opposition think of them.

While the Chancellor will know of my deep commitment to manufacturing industry and while I commend him on some of the actions that he has taken, is he not worried that in the short term the changes that he has made to corporation tax will cause many companies to have liquidity problems, so that in the short term there will be a problem with investment? Will he perhaps give that matter serious consideration?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. He has always championed the cause of manufacturing industry. I must tell him that businesses have welcomed our proposals: they accept that it is necessary to move to the abolition of advance corporation tax and have welcomed our cut in corporation tax. It is a measure of how much the Conservative party is now out of touch with business that Conservative Members cannot welcome our proposals.

Is it not true that the one policy mentioned by the Chancellor on which we are certain where the Conservative party stands is the policy on Europe? Is it not also true that our commitment to Europe and our insistence that we will be at the heart of Europe are particularly attractive to inward investors after the uncertainties that they suffered with the previous Government's position?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, with whom I remember working for many years and who has always been a champion of inward investment for Yorkshire. I think that most people in business agree that a stable policy on Europe—one that will make people sure that this country is committed to Europe—will benefit Britain. It is therefore unfortunate that we do not have all-party support for that policy.

I congratulate the Chancellor on his well-deserved award at the Spectator"parliamentarian of the year award" lunch yesterday. Can he confirm that the combined effect of his July and November changes in corporation tax, after taking account of the changes in the rate of tax, will mean that, over the lifetime of this Parliament, British business will have to pay £20 billion more tax?

I do not accept those figures at all. The corporation tax cut will give business an extra £1.5 billion a year. The transitional costs having been met, business will be £1.8 billion a year better off. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his good wishes on The Spectator award, but if he is going to pursue this course of action, he had better explain why Adair Turner, secretary general of the Confederation of British Industry—[Laughter.] It is interesting that Conservative Members now scoff at the CBI. That is what has happened to the Conservative party.

The Conservatives now call the secretary general of the CBI "Red Adair". That is how far the Conservatives have sunk and how far they have moved away from business. One of their friends at the Institute of Directors, Mr. Richard Baron, its taxation executive, said that abolition of ACT was wonderful for companies. The Institute of Directors, the CBI, the chief executive of BP, and many others, including the Financial Times, have welcomed the proposals.

I fear for the Conservative party. It has moved so far from business that in Scotland, business people who were pro-Conservative are trying to form their own pro-business party to fight the Conservatives. I think that the Conservatives should go back to Eastbourne, hold another bonding session and think again.

Is the Chancellor then denying the figures that he himself published, which show that, over the lifetime of this Parliament, British industry will have £20 billion less to invest and to create jobs with? Does he deny that the effect of his changes will be to make investment abroad more attractive and investment at home less attractive? Those are the figures on page 19 of the document "A Modern System for Corporation Tax Payments", which the right hon. Gentleman published. The document also shows a figure of £2 billion a year extra taxation during this Parliament as a result of the changes announced in November.

Can he confirm that, in the borrowing forecasts that he issued for this Parliament on Tuesday, he did not take into account the extra revenues that he is to raise from the changes in corporation tax, and will he explain why he did not do so? Is it because he did not want Labour Members to realise that he was raising several times more than it would cost to meet recent demands to defer certain changes in benefits?

If the right hon. Gentleman is going to read out that document, perhaps he will remind the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] I am about to—[Interruption.] They must listen, Madam Speaker. I am about to quote from the very document that the shadow Chancellor mentioned. Will he not thank us for the cut in corporation tax in July, and the further cut announced on Tuesday, and will he read to the House the passage that states:

"After the transition, the annual impact is an Exchequer cost of about £2 billion a year"?
We are doing something to help long-term investment. That is the reason why it is being supported as a principle by business.

Public Expenditure

2.

If he has plans to set a target for public spending as a share of gross domestic product. [16586]

We have no plans to set a target for public spending as a share of GDP.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that the previous Government wanted permanently to reduce public spending as a share of GDP? Does he further recall that the dogma of that ambition was exceeded only by the incompetence of their attempt to achieve it? Can he tell the country that the days of dogma are gone, that spending on high-quality public services will be a first claim on a growing economy, and that, even under an iron Chancellor, fiscal prudence will never be confused with fiscal parsimony?

My hon. Friend is right in that the previous Government ended up spending almost exactly the same share of the national income at the end of their 18 years as they did at the start. He is also right in saying that, although the amount that they spent did not change, what the money was spent on did change. They had to spend more and more on mopping up the failures that their misguided policies created.

The objective of our comprehensive spending review is to examine each and every penny that the Government spend. The test for this Government is not just how much is spent but where it is spent and to what effect. I agree with my hon. Friend that public spending is extremely important for building economic prosperity—important in economic terms and important in social terms; but it is fundamental that we achieve the long-term stability and sustainable public finances that will allow the economy to grow as well ensuring that we have the wealth to provide the services that we all want.

Should we conclude that the threats to benefits for disabled people and the lengthening hospital waiting queues, alongside massive increases in taxes, rising interest rates and slowing economic growth, are somehow a price worth paying for achieving the criteria for economic and monetary union?

The hon. Gentleman is, as ever, obsessed with Europe. He sees Europe behind just about everything. The country will remember that the Conservative party systematically denigrated those on benefits and systematically undermined the benefits system without regard to the consequences. We are determined to build a stable economic platform so that we achieve growth and so that the finances of the country are put on a sustainable long-term footing so that we can provide the very services that hon. Members—certainly Labour Members—want to see in the future.

State Pensions

3.

What discussions he has had with the DSS about the level of future financial provision for state pensions. [16587]

I have regular meetings with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, at which we discuss a wide range of issues, including pensions.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he accept from my constituents and all Labour Members sincere thanks for the statement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor last Tuesday, in which he announced help for pensioners throughout the winter and over the Christmas period? That is most welcome. Will my right hon. Friend continue that good work in his talks with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security on improving pensions to a standard at which people no longer rely on handouts, but are offered a pension that sustains the quality of life that the old people of this country deserve?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support for the announcement on Tuesday. My hon. Friend has been in the forefront in campaigning for pensioners. I saw that when I visited his constituency recently. Of course, he is right. The Labour Government have delivered their promises to pensioners. We have cut VAT on fuel to 5 per cent. We have uprated pensions in line with prices, as we promised. We have cut fuel bills for pensioners by up £100 a year and there is more to come.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has announced a pensions review. We are encouraging pensioners to ensure that they receive all the entitlements that are available to them. Last week, we launched a document on stakeholder pensions which is designed to encourage people to have fully funded pensions in future. Next year we shall consult on the new citizenship pension. The Labour Government are delivering their promises to pensioners and, as a result, this winter many pensioners will no longer have to worry about whether they can heat their houses—something that never happened when the Tories were in power.

Will the Chief Secretary explain to a constituent of mine—a pensioner whom the pensions tax has hurt particularly hard because he belongs to a closed pension scheme—why he refused to extend to closed pension schemes the benefits afforded to charities when the pensions tax was introduced?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to the measures we took in respect of charities— we appreciate that degree of support. As I have said before to the House and to the hon. Gentleman, our reforms to corporation tax announced in July and the further reforms announced on Tuesday are designed to encourage profitability in this country's companies, which, in turn, will benefit pension funds. The fact is that, since July, the reforms we have implemented have been widely welcomed as the far-sighted and long-term reform that people in this country wanted.

The stock market, which has a substantial bearing on the value of one's pension at retirement, has climbed since we were elected, which shows—among other things—that there is another sector that has absolute confidence in the Government's ability to deliver long-term, sustainable economic growth that will benefit pensioners and everybody else.

May I say to my right hon. Friend that there is no such thing as the pensions tax?

Inflation

4.

What assessment he has made of the measures that will be required to control domestic inflation, with particular reference to house prices, in the event of United Kingdom interest rates converging with those prevailing in the other major economies of the EU. [16588]

Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, in pursuing convergence of interest rates so as to achieve his objective of joining a single currency, he will not find that he has to increase the tax burden on the British people in order to achieve his inflation targets?

The question was muddled—I now understand what the hon. Gentleman wanted to say. The position is simple: the Governor sets the monetary policy to achieve the inflation target set by the Chancellor.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the tough measures that he has had to take stand in marked contrast to the policies of the previous Government; and that the failure of the previous Government's policies led directly to nearly 1 million people losing their homes?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is precisely because the Conservative party did not have the political courage to give operational independence to the Bank of England that economic policy was too often dictated by political expediency. That is why we experienced the two biggest recessions and the two biggest periods of inflation during 10 years of hopelessly incompetent macro-economic policy under the Conservative party.

The Minister had a little difficulty with the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond)—I hope that he can do better this time. Can he give the House an assurance that, if this country joins a European single currency and if the interest rate across Europe is inappropriate for the control of domestic inflation, he and his Government will be willing and able to make representations against the interest rate policy of the European central bank?

The hon. Gentleman is as muddled as his hon. Friend. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it absolutely clear that five tests would have to be met, the central one of which was convergence. Central to convergence is convergence of interest rates and the question of entry does not arise until that is sustained and a sustainable period of convergence has been achieved.

Economic And Monetary Union

5.

What steps he proposes to take to help business prepare for economic and monetary union. [16589]

18.

If he will make a statement on the steps he is taking to help businesses prepare for economic and monetary union. [16602]

The Government are committed to ensuring that British business is well equipped to take advantage of the introduction of the euro in other member states from 1999. We have set up a new standing committee, the members of which include the president of the Confederation of British Industry and the president of the British Chambers of Commerce, alongside the existing business advisory group to co-ordinate and press forward the preparations agenda. I will be publishing a summary of the advisory group's findings early in the new year.

I have also arranged for the Treasury to publish a practical guide to EMU for business and 55,000 copies have already been issued to a wide range of businesses.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, especially in relation to the establishment of the standing committee. He will be aware that Marks and Spencer has announced that it will install tills to take the euro. Does not that show how British business is getting on, in a practical and pragmatic way, with dealing with the single currency, while the Conservative party is in an ideological time warp?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that what frustrated British business was the previous Government's inability to help them with preparations to cope with the introduction of the euro in other member states in 1999. Marks and Spencer has said that it will have the capacity to deal with the euro in the United Kingdom as well as Europe. Other companies such as the National Westminster bank are preparing to trade in euros and to train staff to do so. The Conservative party should wake up to the fact that this is something that is going to happen in other member states in 1999, and it should stop its ideological opposition to a single currency.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that large companies will, in future, increasingly be manufacturing and marketing their products on a pan-European basis and that, as such, they will be concerned about the predictability and stability of exchange rates when making their investment decisions? How does my right hon. Friend think British business will react to the Conservative party when it pursues a policy of saying that it will not join a common currency even if it is in the national interest to do so?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. British business is reacting: business men in Scotland are about to set up their own party even though they are Conservatives because they are so out of touch with the Conservative party. As for business preparations, I think that business understands and the Conservative party will soon understand—if it does not listen to what its Conservative Members of the European Parliament are telling it, the public will tell it—that 50 per cent. of our trade is with the European Union, more than 60 per cent. of our trade is with Europe and 30 per cent. of inward investment into Europe comes through Britain. It is important for the Conservative party to wake up to those realities.

What is the point of spending all this public money on so many publications if they are shoddily produced or even deceptive about the facts? The document that I have with me, which I think every hon. Member has received, called "UK Membership of the Single Currency", deals on page 10 with the important matter of interest rate convergence. It sets out and compares current nominal interest rates. The Chancellor knows perfectly well that it is not nominal, but real, interest rates that are important for economic behaviour.

If we compare current real interest rates—nominal interest rates minus inflationary expectations—we see that the gap is very much less than that set out in the document. Was that just a schoolboy howler, or were the document's authors, the Treasury Front-Bench team, determined for their own reasons to exaggerate, even dishonestly, the difficulties that this country will have to overcome to converge on interest rates and join a single currency?

The hon. Gentleman is advancing an interesting case: he is putting a case for entering the single currency in 1999; he is totally at odds with his colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench who want to delay entry for 10 years. I have made it clear that we shall have to meet five economic tests, not one. Some of those tests are: unemployment must come down; investment must benefit; inward investment must benefit. The hon. Gentleman should start questioning his own Front-Bench team, as they do not seem to have any answers for him.

In the committee that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced, how are the views and concerns of self-employed people and small businesses to be taken into account?

The small business community is already represented on the business advisory committee; it will be on the wider group; it will be consulted on such matters. The Federation of Small Businesses is represented on the business advisory group. The shadow Chancellor is out of touch with events, and should go back and do his homework.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, long before Marks and Spencer is using the euro, lone parents will be visiting the stores to spend money, and that some of those parents will have less money if the Government continue to implement the Tory dogma contained in the Social Security Bill? I know that my right hon. Friend is against Tory dogma, so let us get rid of the proposal that will penalise lone parents.

It is because we are against Tory dogma that we are giving lone parents new opportunities that they never had under the previous Government. We are giving them opportunities for work, opportunities for training, opportunities for child care—up to 1 million child care places as a result of our £300 million investment. When people see the range of new opportunities available as a result of a £200 million welfare-to-work programme and a £300 million child care programme, they will welcome the changes that we are making.

A written answer from the right hon. Gentleman's Department on 11 November confirms that the Government have no estimate or idea of the cost to businesses, the public or even the Government of converting to the euro. Is it not a disgrace that the Government are calling for a national debate on monetary union without having any idea of what the costs are likely to be? Since unofficial estimates of those costs range up to £19 billion for the private sector alone, will the Chancellor replace his hot air and rhetoric with some hard estimates and facts about what the likely costs of conversion will be, and will he report them to the House?

If the right hon. Gentleman is so interested in that question, why did he not bother to find out the answers when he was the Treasury Minister responsible for those issues? We are now making the preparations and looking at all the necessary detail. The previous Government failed to do that, because they are completely divided over Europe.

Inflation

6.

If he will make a statement on his policy for controlling inflation. [16590]

The Government's policy for controlling inflation is absolutely clear. We have a target of underlying inflation of 2½ per cent. We have put in place the necessary institutional reforms to ensure that the Bank of England delivers that target which has been set by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

Is the Chief Secretary aware of concern in the City about how the Government will measure inflation in the future? Will he therefore give an undertaking to the House that the Government will not change the basis of measuring inflation from RPI X to the European Union harmonised index of consumer prices?

The Conservative party is so obsessed with Europe that it cannot see anything rationally. The position is quite clear. The Government have set out their target of 2.5 per cent., and that is only likely to change if, when the circumstances are right, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor comes to the view that that target should be revised downwards. It is widely understood that the target is 2.5 per cent.

I hope that the Chief Secretary will accept that the Liberal Democrats greatly welcome the Chancellor's proposals to lock in economic stability, in particular the fiscal code, but can he explain to the House why the Chancellor is forecasting an inflation rate of 3 per cent. at the end of next year, while the Bank of England is forecasting an inflation rate of less than 2.5 per cent? Is that because the Government are concerned that there is a risk of moving to a mini boom-bust cycle, not least because they have revised downwards their growth forecasts for the same period?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman if he supports the Government's policy on fiscal stability, which is something of a change from what he has said at treasury questions in the past. The position of the Government and Bank is clear; our target is 2.5 per cent., and we are confident that all the measures that we have taken and the Bank has taken will result in us meeting it.

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman can explain to me what is meant by the term that he keeps using—"fiscal stability". Given that the Bank of England has been changing the interest rate virtually every month, will we achieve fiscal stability when it does that every week? Did the Bank get it wrong four out of five times, or is he satisfied that its policy is the right means to get inflation down? After all, inflation is going up while it is changing those rates.

As I have said before, fiscal stability means ensuring that we get stability in public spending and stability in taxation. The hon. Gentleman is referring to the Bank's monetary policy—[Interruption.] They are complementary, but they are different. As I have said on many occasions before, the Bank has had to increase interest rates because, in the six months before the election, the previous Government did absolutely nothing to deal with the inflationary pressures that were mounting in the economy.

We are determined that the necessary action will be taken in terms of monetary policy and the other measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced. They will ensure that we have stability so that we can increase the capacity of the economy, and begin to remove the inflationary pressures which would otherwise exist in the economy. Under this Government we will get long-term stability—and, unlike the previous Government, this Government are not afraid of taking the necessary tough decisions.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will have noticed that his right hon. Friend the Chancellor is not a touchy-feely kind of person, but neither of them is averse to a little bit of ear-stroking of the representatives of industry. Has the right hon. Gentleman not noticed press reports that the Post Office, which is the largest corporation remaining in state ownership, recently settled a 4 per cent. increase in wages, and will he not concede that that, combined with his own projections of the growth rate sinking to as low as 1.5 per cent. in a little over 12 months' time, inevitably means that high and rising unemployment will result?

There are two points there. If the hon. Gentleman considers public and private sector wage settlements over the course of this year, he will find that they have been very low. Most people will welcome that, because they know that we have a choice: we can blow our current prospects in higher wage increases, which lead to higher inflation and therefore higher interest rates and higher mortgage rates, or we can take the opportunity to get sustainable growth in the long term, which will mean increasing prosperity for individuals and ensure that we generate the necessary wealth to improve the public services—and we all want that.

Charities

7.

What representations he has received from charities regarding dividend tax credits; and if he will make a statement. [16591]

We have received some 500 representations, half of which have related to VAT matters, about 20 of which have been concerned with tax credits.

Is the Minister aware that Mencap has confirmed that it will have to find £750,000 to top up its employee pension fund as a direct result of the pension tax introduced in the Budget? Does he agree that that £750,000 would be better spent on Mencap's important charitable purposes than on filling the Treasury's coffers? What remedies does he have to offer the large charities in this country, which would prefer to spend their money on charitable purposes than to fill the Treasury's coffers because of the unnecessary imposition of a swingeing pensions tax in the Chancellor's Budget?

The large companies will benefit from the 10 per cent. rise in the stock market that has taken place since Labour came to office. I was at a recent Mencap meeting, hosted by George Bull, and was very supportive of that charity, which does especially good work. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that, unprecedentedly, the Labour Government—acting much more generously than the Conservative Government did when they took action on tax credits—have delayed the starting date for two years, until April 1999, and there is a further five-year transition period, at a cost of £1 billion to the Government. That is very good treatment.

Will the Minister take into account the representations that I have received from many constituents, regarding their anxieties about possible tax changes and their effects on charity shops? Will he recognise how important charity shops are, not only to the charities that they work for, but to the local community?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I can confirm to her that the position of charity shops is a fundamental part of the charities review, which is under way now and due to report in the spring.

As so many of the services that used to be public services are now rendered by charities, has the Minister made any assessment of the costs to the public purse if charities are forced to retrench on the services that they offer because of the various tax threats hanging over them?

It is a pretty poor reflection on the previous Government if their plans eventuated in charities undertaking necessary public services, but we are aware of the great work done by charities. The charities review is under way, which is considering VAT matters and other matters, and there is a seven-year transition period. Charities have time—I am sure that they will profit from it—to ensure that they can carry on the very good work that they do.

I welcome the assurances about tax credits and charity shops, but will the Minister bear in mind that many charities are suffering under the impact of the national lottery? The charity review needs to take into account not only pension funds but the impact of tax credits on charities' everyday money to help people in need.

Barnett Formula

8.

If he will make a statement on the future of the Barnett formula. [16592]

The Government have made it clear that they intend to keep the existing arrangements. The Government's position was clearly set out in the two White Papers on which the referendum campaigns in Scotland and Wales were fought and won.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree with members of his own party that there should be cuts in Scottish public expenditure?

I do not think that anyone is saying that. We are determined to ensure that all parts of the country benefit from our economic policies and our spending decisions. That has always been so, and it always will be.

After all the assurances given in and out of the House before and during the referendum, were there by any chance to be any tampering with the Barnett formula, would there not then be a moral obligation to hold yet another referendum on the question, "Do you approve of the Scotland Act 1997–98?"

I never thought I would see the day when my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) would call for another referendum on devolution. Our position was clearly set out in the White Paper; it remains our position.

I welcome the Chief Secretary's affirmation that that will be the position. I am sure that he would agree, having campaigned on a White Paper in which the Barnett formula was a key component in the funding of the Scottish Parliament, that any Government departure from that position would be a breach of faith. But if there is a need to investigate divergence, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that, under the local government distribution from central Government, Westminster gets £864 a head and Rutland gets £213 a head, which is a greater divergence than any between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

The hon. and learned Gentleman will know that the Deputy Prime Minister is to make a statement on the local government settlement for England shortly. I do not think I ought to anticipate it.

Does the Chief Secretary agree that it would be supremely self-contradictory if the Barnett formula were now to be abandoned, given that it was invented 20 years ago to cope with the then anticipated devolution of 1978–79? Would he further agree that, in the experience of all countries to have introduced it, devolution can be introduced successfully only if there is an effective resource transfer mechanism from rich to poor regions?

The principle of ensuring transfers between the regions and nations of the United Kingdom has been stuck to by successive Governments of both political colours. I repeat what I said at the outset: the Government fought and won the referendums on the basis of the White Papers; that remains our position.

Perhaps the Chief Secretary would like to count up the number of Members of Parliament who had heard of the Barnett formula outwith the past couple of weeks. More seriously, what assessment has been made of needs? What commitment is there to ensuring that these arrangements continue? We should bear in mind the point raised yesterday with Madam Speaker about the Treasury Committee's assessment of the Barnett formula. May we have an assurance that these discussions will be open and transparent?

This Government are always open. I would agree that there are many people outside and not a few inside the House who may not be aware of what the Barnett formula does. I would commend to them the evidence recently received by the Treasury Select Committee. At the risk of repeating myself, I will state that the Government's position on Barnett and needs assessment remains exactly as set out in the White Papers.

European Single Currency

9.

What representations he has received on the consequences of British entry into the European single currency after 1999. [16593]

My statement of 27 October on economic and monetary union was widely welcomed in this country. Representations are still being received.

I thank my right hon. Friend. Will he comment on the contrast between the Government's policies in Europe, which have given us a leading voice with business in Europe, and the Conservative party's policies? The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) has said that the Tories are leading the fight against British companies, and we have heard some examples of that today; does my right hon. Friend agree that their increasing isolationism in Europe is leading to increasing isolation in the opinion polls?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have declared for the principle of monetary union: we have not yet had an answer from the Conservative party. We have said that there is no constitutional bar to entry: we have not yet had an answer from the Conservatives. We have said that the economic tests will be decisive, and if entry is in the national interest, that is what we shall do: we have not yet received Conservative party policy. It is small wonder that the former Deputy Prime Minister has said that the Conservative party has fallen out with Britain's leading companies.

Has it occurred to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that by 1999 the danger of inflation may be rather less than the danger of deflation? If that should come about, the economic criteria for the establishment of a single currency laid down in the Maastricht treaty will be not only irrelevant but exceedingly damaging for the people of this country.

That was exactly the proposition that was put forward in 1987, and it led the Conservative Government to cut interest rates, cut taxes and cause boom and bust conditions, as a result of which 1.5 million people lost their jobs and businesses were destroyed. We shall have stability in our economy, and we shall not return to the stop-go days of the Conservative party in government. Even now, they should apologise to the British electorate for what they did.

Economic Growth (North-East)

10.

When he next plans to meet the north-east regional Chamber of Commerce to discuss economic growth. [16594]

I am touched by the support shown by Opposition Members.

My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary was recently in the north-east to give the Darlington economics lecture to the local employers forum. Although there are no immediate plans for a meeting with the regional chamber, Treasury Ministers regularly meet business representatives, and pay careful attention to what they have to say.

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Does she accept that we have very few fat cats in the north-east? With our colleagues in Wales and Northern Ireland, we are last in and first out of any recovery. We understand that the Government have had to make tough choices to secure stability, but does she accept that high interest rates, the strong pound and our exposure due to links with south-east Asia have given us special and particular problems? Is she willing to meet some of us involved in business and some of my hon. Friends from the north-east to work out how we could match the tough patience that we shall need with the tough choices that the Government have had to make?

Recent business surveys indicate that the north-east economy is performing well. In particular, north-east manufacturing industry is growing at a reasonable pace. My hon. Friend has made important points. The Government's policies on regional development agencies and the consultation document that will be released shortly reinforce our determination to ensure prosperity in our regions. I should be happy to discuss with him how those policies can be developed further in the north-east.

Has the Financial Secretary had the opportunity to consider the impact on the local economy in North Yorkshire of the collapse of the Samsung plant at Flaxby moor? Will the Government review the effect that the collapse of south-east Asian economies may have on job prospects and economic development in north Yorkshire generally?

The Government are vigilant on all matters, especially jobs. We need to ensure that the economic framework is sound, so that business can invest, grow and survive in our communities.

National Minimum Wage

1.

If he will estimate at what level of national minimum wage the current departmental spending limits would be breached. [16595]

The level of the minimum wage has not yet, of course, been set. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the National Minimum Wage Bill received its First Reading today. The level of the national minimum wage will not be decided until the Government have the benefit of advice from the Low Pay Commission, which has already started work.

I am grateful to the Chief Secretary for that answer. I am slightly surprised, however, that his officials have not been carrying out any studies of the impact of a minimum wage at different levels on the Government's spending targets. Will the right hon. Gentleman give a categorical assurance to the House that, if the level of a minimum wage, when it is set, has any impact on the wages bill of the national health service, patient care will not suffer and the Government will make up any shortfall?

It is a bit rich for Opposition Members to lecture us on patient care after their record for 18 years— [Interruption.]The hon. Gentleman does not like being reminded of what the Tories did to the NHS. The minimum wage will be set at a sensible level that is manageable, and we shall keep the promises to the health service that we made during the general election campaign. We are ready to be judged by that at the next election.

Are not the arguments against a minimum wage at a decent level, as put by Tories in business, exactly the same as the arguments advanced by the same people in the 1970s against equal pay for women, being based on the premise that a minimum wage will lose jobs? Just as equal pay for women did not lose jobs but did more to raise the living standards of working-class women than any other act of the Labour Government, will not the minimum wage have the same effect?

My hon. Friend is right. The Conservative party has always been against any economic or social progress. We were told that equal pay would spell the end of British industry, and the Tories say exactly the same about a national minimum wage. We believe that a national minimum wage is right in principle and that it will be good for the economy.

Is the Chief Secretary suggesting that it is possible that a minimum wage level, when set, will be at such a low level that it can have no impact on budgets or cash limits in the health service and other public services?

As I told the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), the Government will decide the level at which the national minimum wage will be set when they receive the benefit of the advice and evidence of the Low Pay Commission.

Is it not increasingly obvious that the public support the policy of a national minimum wage and oppose poverty pay, whether in the public or the private sector? They believe that the implementation of such a policy is long overdue. They obviously welcome the policy announced earlier this week by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and believe that it will prevent those who go into work from losing out as a result of the present conflict between benefits and tax. It is a good policy, and it is overwhelmingly welcomed by the people.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. He is right to say that it is the Government's strategy to ensure that as many people as possible are encouraged to go into work. To that end, we want to remove some of the barriers that face people coming off benefit and going into work. Our strategy is geared to achieve that. As for the minimum wage, many people will wonder why the previous Government put up with a situation in which some employers paid wages so low that their employees were being subsidised by decent employers and by the public purse. That is an intolerable situation and one that we are determined to end.

Eu Tax Co-Ordination

13.

If he will make a statement on his Department's policy towards the European Union paper "Towards Tax Co-ordination in the European Union". [16597]

The Government deposited an explanatory memorandum on 17 November on the Commission communication of 5 November 1997, "A Package to Tackle Harmful Tax Competition in The European Union." The issue was debated yesterday in European Standing Committee B.

This European Union proposal, which the Chancellor of the Exchequer intends to agree to at Brussels on Monday, breaches the principle that the EU does not involve itself in direct tax policies of member states. Why do the Government think that it is necessary to do this?

As I explained repeatedly to the hon. Gentleman yesterday in Committee, the code is a voluntary agreement. There are no sanctions and it is not legally binding. It specifically recognises national competence in direct tax issues. There is no giving away of sovereignty on this issue. The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong.

Does my hon. Friend agree with the Leader of the Opposition when he says that we should realise a single currency for the next Parliament, or does she think that the shadow Chancellor is right when he says that we should not bind future Parliaments?

It will not surprise my hon. Friend to hear that I agree with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and with the Government's policy on that issue.

Local Authority Expenditure

14.

What studies the Treasury has undertaken into the impact on (a) the national economy and (b) prospects for meeting the convergence criteria for economic and monetary union of the removal of local authority self-financed expenditure from the control total. [16598]

I am not aware of any specific studies of that sort, but I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question.

The Government's insistence on retaining capping and on keeping local authorities' self-financed expenditure within the control total is a major reason for many local council cuts. It is therefore an important issue. Will the Minister explain why the Government are so insistent on that policy? If a council, reflecting the democratic wishes of its voters, raises £1 million more in council tax and invests it in employing 40 or 50 more teachers, those teachers will live and spend their money locally. Much of the money—perhaps a quarter or a third—will come back to the Treasury in increased taxes. How does that have a disastrous effect on the national economy, or prevent us from signing up to something with Europe? It is nonsense and I should like some explanation.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the £1 billion extra that we have given to schools, which is £1 billion more than even his party asked for. On the narrow question of the control total, with which he seems to be obsessed, he, his local authority and other local authorities should consider what they can do in partnership with the private sector. We are introducing legislation to enable them to do that and we have set up a new energetic task force in the Treasury, run by the private sector, to get private-public partnerships going with local authorities. That is where he should put his efforts.

Will the Minister confirm that, before spending any available money on schools or social services, local authorities are under a legal obligation to put money into their pension funds to make up the cost of his July tax measures?

The hon. Gentleman knows that that question will not arise for two and a half years. It is being studied and we are in discussion with local authorities to find a proper resolution to it in due course.

Corporation Tax

16.

What plans he has to review the effectiveness of corporation tax; and if he will make a statement. [16600]

I apologise. I did not realise that question No. 15 had been passed. I apologise for the delay in locating Question No. 16.

We are satisfied with the excellent measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor took in the July Budget and announced in the pre-Budget document which we discussed this week. They put corporation tax on an excellent long-term basis. They do not distort competition and they make for investment. We are pleased with all the long-term, principled reforms that we have carried through.

Has my hon. Friend noticed that some companies do not pay their fair share of corporation tax? One thinks, for example, of the Murdoch empire, which I believe paid only about 2 per cent. of its profits in corporation tax. Does he agree that that is unfair on companies which do pay their fair share? What plans does my hon. Friend have to ensure that all companies do so?

If my hon. Friend brings the matter to the attention of the corporate division of the Inland Revenue, I am sure that it will investigate, if it is not already doing so. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government have already announced four tough anti-avoidance measures for the corporate sector, which we expect will yield £1 billion in savings.

Does the Minister understand that the changes in corporation tax announced two days ago greatly increase the amount of tax that companies will pay in the next four years? As that will inevitably reduce new investment by companies, what assessment did the Treasury make of the number of jobs that will be destroyed directly as a result of the Chancellor's statement?

The statement has been welcomed by the Confederation of British Industry and by companies throughout the country because they recognise the principled reasoning behind it. The hon. Gentleman is getting his cash flow mixed up with his profits; if he would like a lecture on the subject after Question Time I shall be happy to give it to him.

Euro (Uk Retailers)

17.

What discussions he has had with major United Kingdom retailers concerning their preparations for the introduction of the euro. [16601]

I have had many discussions with United Kingdom companies, particularly retailers, about the introduction of the euro.

Does not the decision made by Marks and Spencer and others show remarkable foresight, and does it not contrast with the immobilism of the Conservative party, whose members cannot make up their minds whether they are for or against the euro in principle? Is it not eccentric of the Conservative party to decide not even to consider joining the single currency for a decade, although to do so may be in the nation's economic interests?

I agree. I think that businesses are increasingly worried by the Conservative party's behaviour in this regard. Those who run businesses are practical people who want to get on with preparing for what will happen, but they are now faced with a Conservative party that cannot give them any answers about future policy other than ruling out the single currency for 10 years.

Of course, not only businesses are now against the Conservative party. The shadow Cabinet is being depleted week after week as its members resign as a result of the policy on Europe, and one former Conservative Member has been added to our side during the past few days. The downsizing of the Conservative party continues.

Certainly not over Christmas.

I welcome the prudent steps that the Chancellor has taken to prepare business for possible entry to monetary union. Does he accept, however, that there is a vast gulf of misunderstanding in businesses of all sizes about what monetary union actually means? In preparing the documents that he rightly intends to distribute to businesses, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that those documents are carefully tailored to fit the sector and size of the companies to which they are sent?

I am grateful that the voice of one-nation Conservatism is now being expressed in the House. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman: business has a right to know the implications of the euro, and the last Government should have made those implications known long ago. We have published a pamphlet by Professor Currie, which sets out the arguments on the euro, and we have now also published a practical guide to the euro. Literature will be available to small businesses. They have a right to know how the euro will affect them, and how British business can benefit from it. We shall take the steps that the previous Government refused to take.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified Her Royal Assent to the following Acts

  • Firearms (Amendment) (No.2) Act 1997.
  • Local Government (Contracts) Act 1997.
  • Plant Varieties Act 1997.

Youth Crime

3.32 pm

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on youth crime.

I am today publishing a White Paper entitled "No more excuses". It sets out the Government's new approach to tackling youth crime in England and Wales. It follows a period of intensive consultation, which began when we were in opposition. In May this year, I appointed a youth justice task force to advise me on the issue, and in September and October I published three consultation papers.

Reform of youth justice to make good years of mismanagement and under-performance is an urgent priority. In the past, the youth justice system has mimicked a bad parent, being indulgent one minute and harsh the next. Those are precisely the faults that foster youth crime, and they are compounded by the fact that the system suffers from endemic delays.

Many right hon. and hon. Members will have seen the problems in their constituencies. There are children whose misbehaviour goes unchecked and escalates into crime, and children who offend repeatedly, with no meaningful intervention, and come to court only for their cases to be adjourned time after time. When they are finally sentenced, many receive only a conditional discharge. There is no punishment, no chance for them to make amends for their crimes and no action to tackle the cause of their offending.

There must be no more excuses for youth crime. Before the election, we promised to halve the time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders, as part of a fundamental reform of youth justice. The White Paper sets out how we will deliver those pledges. We will make a start through the crime and disorder Bill, which is to be laid before Parliament shortly.

One of the fundamental deficiencies of the youth justice system is that different agencies work to different, even conflicting, objectives. The crime and disorder Bill will make it clear, for the first time, that the principal aim of the youth justice system is to prevent offending by young people. All youth justice practitioners will be under a duty to take account of that aim.

To tackle youth crime effectively, we must recognise that young people often start down the path of offending when they are very young. Therefore, the Bill will provide new powers to protect children under 10 from being drawn into crime. Local authorities—after consultation with the police and the community—will be able to set up local curfew schemes for the under-10s, and a new child safety order will help to stop individual children under 10 from drifting into crime.

Many factors draw young people into offending. Not attending school, through truancy or exclusion; having delinquent siblings or friends; coming from a family with multiple problems; and, for older teenagers, being unemployed—all those factors increase the risks of juvenile criminality.

The Government are taking action to tackle the causes of juvenile crime across the board, by raising school standards; by fighting truancy and under-achievement; by combating social exclusion; by helping families at risk; and by giving the young long-term unemployed a pathway from welfare to work.

We know that the single most important factor associated with youth criminality is the quality of a young person's home life—crucially, the relationship between parents and children, and the level of parental supervision. The parents of young people who offend or who are at risk of offending need particular support and guidance. They should be made to face up to their own responsibilities. A new parenting order will therefore require parents to attend guidance sessions and to comply with requirements specified by the court to help them to control the behaviour of their children.

However, families are about much more than preventing crime. Families are the fundamental unit in society, providing mutual care and support and helping to shape the values of future generations. At the Prime Minister's request, I am chairing a new ministerial group looking at wider ways of supporting families more effectively and of promoting good parenting.

Young people, too, should face up to the consequences of their offending. The present rule of doli incapax— being incapable of evil—can stand in the way of holding properly to account 10 to 13-year-olds who commit crimes, yet young people of that age know that it is wrong to steal, vandalise or commit an assault. We intend to abolish that archaic rule to ensure that such young people are answerable for their offences.

Firm action is needed when young people begin to offend, but that does not happen at present, so we will replace repeat cautions with a new reprimand and final warning scheme to provide a consistent, graduated police response to youth crime, within a clear statutory framework.

A final warning will normally trigger a tailor-made intervention programme with the offender and his or her family, to tackle the causes of the offending. Once a youngster has had a final warning, the firm presumption will be that he or she will be charged with any further offence.

The Government will give the courts a much wider range of powers to help to change offending behaviour. Reparation and apology can bring home to young offenders the harm that their offending has caused. The crime and disorder Bill will provide a reparation order and make reparation available as a requirement of a supervision order.

There will also be a new action plan order providing an intensive programme of intervention with offenders and their families, combining punishment, reparation and rehabilitation, as an alternative to custody.

Custody is, however, necessary for the most serious or persistent young offenders, and for some young people, it may be the only effective way of preventing offending while they are awaiting trial. The courts' existing powers to remand young people to secure facilities are wholly inadequate.

The crime and disorder Bill will therefore pave the way for powers for the courts to direct that 12 to 14-year-olds and 15 and 16-year-old girls who are charged with serious offences—and who have a history of absconding or offending on bail—are held on remand in secure local authority accommodation. The Bill will also enable the courts to direct that particularly vulnerable 15 and 16-year-old boys also held in local authority secure accommodation when a place is available, rather than remanded to prison.

For the minority of young offenders whose crimes require that they are sentenced to custody, public protection is best served if sentences and regimes work to change anti-social behaviour and equip those youngsters for a law-abiding life on their release. The crime and disorder Bill will establish a new detention and training order in place of the current sentences of detention in young offenders institutions and the separate sentence of a secure training order. Detention under section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 will remain available for 10 to 17-year-olds convicted of the most serious crimes.

The detention and training order will be made up of 50 per cent. custody and 50 per cent. community supervision, with provision for shortening or extending the custodial element to encourage young offenders to make good progress against agreed sentence plans. Orders will range in length from four months to two years, and young offenders will be placed in the most suitable accommodation for their circumstances.

At the moment, we do not have effective local or national structures to tackle youth crime. The crime and disorder Bill will rectify that, establishing local, multi-agency youth offending teams charged with planning and supervising community interventions. To provide better national direction, the Bill will establish a new national youth justice board for England and Wales, which will ensure consistent standards and monitor local performance. The national board will also set and oversee standards for secure accommodation.

I have spent a good deal of time over the past two years studying at first hand the operation of the youth courts. Over the summer, I visited courts across the country and discussed problems and solutions with all those involved, including young offenders. Despite the obvious commitment of the people working in the system, the unavoidable conclusion is that it is simply not operating effectively. Offenders are rarely asked to account for themselves. They are bystanders in the process, at best bemused by the obscure theatre of the occasion. Parents are not confronted with their responsibilities; victims have no role; and the public are excluded.

I am convinced of the need for fundamental change. For example, we are already encouraging magistrates to allow victims into court to see that justice is done. We will be asking youth court magistrates to use their discretion to lift reporting restrictions following a young person's conviction when that is in the public interest.

I want to go further, and integrate the best aspects of restorative justice into the youth court system. There has been a wide welcome for some remarkably successful schemes that bring young offenders face to face with the human consequences of their crimes. These schemes can bring significant reductions in reoffending. Victims, too, can benefit from this opportunity—if they want it—to tell offenders how the crime has affected them, the innocent parties.

Confronting young offenders with the damage they cause is much tougher than the present alternative. Today, young offenders are spectators in legalistic, adversarial court proceedings and frequently all they hear is lawyers making excuses for their offending. With the restorative approach, there is no way for youngsters—or their parents—to hide from their personal responsibilities in committing their crimes.

The White Paper proposes a radical new approach for young offenders coming before the youth court for the first time. First-time offenders pleading guilty would normally be referred, after conviction, to a youth panel. The panel would draw up a contract with the young offender and their parents, which could last for up to a year and would tackle the causes of the offending as well as punishing that offending. Under the contract, the offender would be obliged to make reparation. If the contract were broken, the young offender would end up back in the youth court and could be sentenced for the original offence.

Those changes would require primary legislation. The Government will introduce that at the earliest suitable opportunity once the crime and disorder Bill has been enacted and in light of comments in the House and from parties outside it regarding the details of our proposals.

Currently, there is no system of quality assurance to guarantee that legally aided lawyers in youth courts possess the right skills and experience for that work. Moreover, what those lawyers are paid depends on the length of time that they take to complete cases—which, unquestionably, can provide a perverse incentive, and so add to delay and expense.

The Government believe that a better approach might be for lawyers to provide services under block contracts. Such an approach would provide flexibility and a consistently higher quality of legal representation. Such contracts would also discourage delay. Pilot trials will be run by the Legal Aid Board.

Delays in the youth court system impede justice, frustrate victims, and only encourage more crime. A young offender who commits an offence today will have to wait, on average, until the middle of next April to be sentenced. That is wholly unacceptable. No parent and no teacher would wait that long to deal with misbehaviour by their children or by the pupils in their charge. Our first priority is to halve the time that it takes between arrest and sentence for persistent young offenders, to ensure rapid justice for individuals from whom the public most need protection.

Before we came into government, information was not even collected to show how long it took to deal with persistent young offenders. In contrast, over the past few months, we have been collecting such data. I can now tell the House that it takes, on average, 142 days—five months—from the date of first arrest to sentence, during which time the victim receives no justice, and there is neither punishment nor intervention to prevent reoffending.

With the Lord Chancellor, I took immediate action after the general election to combat some of those delays. Provisional data for last month show that the average time to complete young offender cases, once they reach court, is 60 days, compared with 68 days in October 1996. The average number of adjournments also has fallen.

I welcome those improvements, but they can be only a start. In areas that have already introduced fast-tracking schemes, the results are clear. In north Hampshire, for example, the average time between charge and sentencing for young offenders has dropped from 133 days to 89 days since last October. That dramatic change has been achieved in only one year.

The crime and disorder Bill will provide for fast tracking for all persistent young offenders. There will be mandatory time limits for all young offender cases, and stricter time limits for cases involving persistent young offenders. Time limits will be backed by demanding performance targets. The Bill will also implement many of the recommendations of the Narey review of delay in the criminal justice system, to streamline procedures, improve case management, and so expedite justice for both juveniles and adults.

One of the most depressing things about visiting this country's adult prisons is seeing and hearing how many inmates started offending as children. By nipping youth crime in the bud, we will be preventing today's young offenders graduating into tomorrow's career criminals.

Our manifesto committed us to tackle youth crime and its causes. The White Paper sets out how we will do that. The measures that I have announced should deliver a youth justice system that prevents youth crime and punishes it; deals directly with offending behaviour, rather than simply processing cases; reinforces responsibility; delivers justice for victims and for offenders; and provides value for taxpayers' money. I commend the White Paper to the House.

I start by thanking the Home Secretary for his courtesy in allowing me to have a brief prior view of both the White Paper and his statement. He knows that I have not yet had time to study the White Paper, but I was grateful for the opportunity to read it.

I know that the Home Secretary will accept that Members in all parts of the House are concerned about high levels of crime committed by young people under the age of 18. Such crime is damaging to the community, but, far more important, it is damaging to the young people themselves and to their families. Most hon. Members agree that, overwhelmingly, such young people need to focus on the difference between right and wrong and that they do know the difference but choose to ignore it in their behaviour patterns. The Home Secretary will have no difficulty with the part of the Bill that deals with doli incapax.

Like the Home Secretary, we accept the principle of parental responsibility. Indeed, he will have noted that our manifesto stated that, if we were re-elected, we would introduce parental control orders, which sound similar to the ideas that he has outlined today. We also accept the principle of partnership—the Home Secretary's youth offending teams sound similar to the child crime teams also proposed in our manifesto. Does the Home Secretary accept that there is a broad similarity of approach even if, as we will no doubt discover when we debate the Bill, there are differences of detail?

Does the Home Secretary accept that not only do parents have responsibilities but society has a responsibility, and that adults must set standards that are good templates of behaviour for young people, rather than the opposite which is too frequently the case?

We will support any and all measures in the proposed Bill that will fairly and effectively help to reduce the level of youth crime, but I have some detailed questions for the Home Secretary. What are the measures that he envisages will "break the habit", as mentioned in paragraph 3.11, of young people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs?

Will the Home Secretary consider a form of parenting order based on truancy which, as the White Paper correctly states, is an indicator of subsequent criminality? In many cases, parenting orders after the criminal conviction may be too late to be effective. Paragraph 4.11 talks about parenting orders being made against parents who have been convicted of failing to send their children to school, but this is a different matter which I hope the Home Secretary will consider.

Will the Home Secretary be cautious about encouraging the use of local authority care proceedings in the event of the failure of child safety orders, given that the local authorities' record in terms of children in care and offending is—I will be delicate—doubtful?

The White Paper and the statement contain several references to correcting or addressing the "causes of offending"—as in, for example, paragraph 5.19 of the White Paper. Does the Home Secretary accept that he has to decide whether he believes in personal responsibility, as he suggests by, for example, wanting to replace doli incapax, or whether young people who offend are somehow doing something that they cannot avoid doing because they are overwhelmed by circumstantial forces? He will have the whole House with him on the first interpretation. When we debate the Bill, I hope that he will be a little more precise about dealing with the causes of crime.

Why does the Home Secretary believe that 17-year-olds should be offered the incentive of release earlier than the courts have determined, but that 18-year-olds should not have a similar incentive? Who will assess the risk to the community in these early releases? I have asked the Home Secretary twice before, and now give him another opportunity to tell the House, whether young offenders under the age of 18 are to be included in the tagging proposals that he announced to the House a little while ago.

How many new jobs will youth offending teams they entail? How many existing jobs will they replace, in what areas, and what will be the cost? Will parenting orders be served on parents who do not have custody of the young people as they live apart?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Opposition welcome the practice of restorative justice, but will he guarantee to the House that victims of crime will have a final say on whether they wish to meet or have anything to do with those who offended against them?

What obstacles in the magistrates court rules— mentioned in paragraph 9.6 of the White Paper—does the right hon. Gentleman want to remove? Will he refute suggestions that he will fine police forces if he thinks that they are acting too slowly?

I realise that I have asked a number of detailed questions, and I should be grateful if the Home Secretary would write to me on those that he is unable to deal with today.

In government, we showed that we recognised the importance of continuing to press down on youth crime and, where practically possible, to create circumstances that reduce the temptation to offend. I assure the Home Secretary that we will bring the same constructive and responsible attitude to the consideration of the crime and disorder Bill when it appears.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his constructive response to my statement. I hope that he will take it as something of a compliment when I say that those of us who spent years in opposition debating these issues from that side of the House—the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is still in the same place, and he remembers those debates—now recognise an altogether different approach by Conservative Members. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) argued with anyone who opposed him, even about what time it was, as well as about issues such as crime and punishment. I should much prefer that the whole House was united on that issue, and I will forbear to mention the previous Government's record over 18 years.

I accept what the right hon. Gentleman said about the importance of responsibility and the fact that society—I commend him on his use of that word—has responsibilities. I look forward to many more occasions on which the word society and the idea of community that it embraces are used by Opposition Members. He asked 11 questions and I shall rattle through them as quickly as possible.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about our proposals to break the link between crime and drugs. A large part of what we are proposing in respect of youth crime is to do with the fact that perhaps 60 or 70 per cent. of the youngsters who come before the courts have some sort of drug habit, so that is woven into all our approaches. We are also proposing the drug treatment and testing order to try to break the vicious circle between drugs and crime. Much of the intervention that is involved at the final warning stage, the youth court stage and when youngsters are committed to custody, is about breaking that drugs habit.

The right hon. Gentleman asked an important question about whether the parenting order could be used as an enforcement for parents who are keeping their kids out of school. The answer is yes. We tried to cover that in paragraph 4.11 of the White Paper, but if he feels that we have not dealt with it adequately, we shall be happy to hear his representations.

It is fair to say that the majority of local authorities deal with care proceedings very sensitively. It is the abuses that we hear about, and it is important that more control is exercised there. However, the final sanction for people who do not face up to their responsibilities as parents is for the state to intervene as parent. I can think of no other final sanction. I wish that it did not have to be used, but sometimes all of us have to accept that the state, through the local authority, must step in and remove parents' rights because they are not accepting their responsibilities.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the causes of offending. The Labour party and I are committed to the notion of getting youngsters to acknowledge that, if they steal from a shop, they have committed the theft and not some extraneous forces. That has to be the only way in which we can run a justice system. Set against that, we must recognise that external factors may tempt youngsters into that condition. There is no contradiction there. Indeed, it was the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) who said that the best answer to young adults who commit crime was to provide them with jobs. He was not diminishing their responsibility for their crimes but suggesting a constructive way to get them away from crime.

The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire asked about early releases for under-17s. There is bound to be some difference in the detention regimes for under-18s and over-18s. We think that it is worth building some incentive into the detention and training order for young people subject to detention to ensure that they go straight at an earlier age. If they break their release conditions, they can be taken straight back into detention. Electronic tagging will apply to 16 and 17-year-olds in the Prison Service, which includes those in young offenders institutes.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the number of new jobs that are likely to be created, and the overall cost. The overall cost for the package is estimated at £22 million, which is relatively small for the changes that we are making. Over time, we hope that it will be offset by savings. If we can get the delays down, we can save money. I do not in any sense regard the establishment of young offender teams as an opportunity for job creation in the local authority sector. It is about making better use of existing agencies and resources, although there may have to be some expenditure changes at times.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether parenting orders should be available for parents who do not have custody. They should be available for parents with care and control. If parents have no involvement in the upbringing of the child, the idea is redundant.

Should victims have a final say on whether they are to be involved in the process? Unquestionably, it should be up to the victim to decide whether he or she wishes to be involved. The examples of restorative justice that I have seen suggest that victims want to be involved and just want the person who has committed the crime to say sorry. Often, that is enough, but getting that out of a youngster under the current system is difficult.

May I put it to the Home Secretary that the measures that he has announced will be especially welcomed by those parts of our community where law-abiding people's lives are made miserable by out-of-control youths? Will he confirm—he touched on this earlier—that the strategy is not meant to be seen in isolation, and that the best way of stopping youngsters going into anti-social activity is to provide them with a purpose in life? That requires investment in sports facilities, training and education, and, ultimately, in getting them into work. What progress has been made on setting up secure training units, a subject much announced by the previous Government but on which we have not so far seen results?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those questions. He is right about the importance of giving youngsters a purpose in life. This morning, the Prime Minister and I saw the excellent mentoring programmes run by the Dalston youth project in Hackney, which deals with young offenders. To pick up a point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire, it is about getting youngsters at risk of drifting into offending away from crime at an early stage and providing them with mentors—adults who are willing to give them advice and guidance. One of the terrific things that mentors told us was that it has not only been important to youngsters subject to it but added something to the lives of those who provide it.

I have already announced the establishment of a secure training unit at Cookham Wood. The contract for that has been let, and it should be running next year. I have agreed to have a competition for the contract for the other four, which will all go ahead.

We welcome the emphasis on prevention and the new statutory duty, but does the Home Secretary recognise that the agencies with most to offer, especially the youth service, are under the greatest threat from local government cuts?

In a paper endorsed by Sir Stephen Tumim last year, we called for the less adversarial youth justice system that brings together offenders, families and victims. We warmly welcome the steps that the right hon. Gentleman has announced in that direction. Does he accept the Audit Commission's recommendation that savings achieved by improving the youth justice system should be ploughed back into prevention projects and positive opportunities for young people?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, while it is right that the courts should have the power to ensure that young offenders can be remanded in secure local authority accommodation, 15-year-olds should never be sent to adult prisons? If they need to be detained, it should be in accommodation suitable for their age group.

Does the Home Secretary recognise that some measures, especially the curfews, in this generally useful package look a little like gimmicks, and that even the parenting orders will not work if the problem is criminality in the home background or if parents are at their wits' end, having tried everything to stop their youngsters offending? It would be a pity if gimmicks obscured the good features of the package of proposals that he has announced.

I am grateful for the two cheers from the right hon. Gentleman. Of course, it is de rigueur for a Liberal spokesman—it is always a man, by the way— to call for more spending. He never says where it is to come from.

My answer to the right hon. Gentleman is to refer to the Audit Commission report. It pointed out that more and more was being spent on dealing with fewer and fewer offenders. We are spending £1,000 million. I have accepted the need for some more spending, which should be carefully targeted, but the existing system is not only ineffective and replete with delays but inefficient. We have to get people working together. The reason why it is important to have a single statutory aim for everyone is that we must ensure that they are all focused on the common objective of reducing offending.

For example, social workers believe that their objective is the welfare of the child and that the welfare of the child is not necessarily dealt with by punishing the child. That is not a view I take, but it is their view. We have to break that view.

The right hon. Gentleman said that 15-year-olds should never be sent to prisons. I greatly regret that adult prisons have to be used for 15-year-old boys. We intend to ensure that they are not used for 15-year-old girls. My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), the Minister responsible for prisons and probation, has already announced a series of major improvements in the way in which 15 and 16-year-old boys will be dealt with within the prison system. We shall set up new regimes specifically for them in the light of the report of the chief inspector of prisons.

The right hon. Gentleman described the proposals for curfews as gimmicks. If he had been to the places that I have been to, such as Yardley in Birmingham, Redditch, and Hamilton in Scotland, and many other places where young children under the age of 10 are out at 11 or 12 o'clock at night without adult supervision, he would not think that curfews were gimmicks. He would think that they were sensible and straightforward, and would wonder why they had not been imposed before.

I welcome the proposals that my right hon. Friend has brought to the House. May I draw his attention to the work of the Burslem youth consultative panel, which has just reported on offending and what young people want? My right hon. Friend talked about how different agencies came together. Will he look at crime prevention? If the views of young people can be brought in at local level through the Burslem youth consultative panel, perhaps we can learn nationally from the work that the panel has done.

I will certainly take that on board. I do not have direct knowledge of the consultative panel to which my hon. Friend refers, but I know of some others. I know that excellent results have been achieved. Where young people are brought in and offered responsibility, they typically take it with open arms.

The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as anyone that in many cases one of the root causes of offending among young people is the fact that they have no self-esteem outside that provided by their peer group. Does he have any proposals to ensure that some of the gangs that roam the streets are directed towards more constructive purposes? It can be done. There is no doubt that the areas in which such gangs rampage suffer most from their activities. It is interesting that, almost without exception, those at a national conference of gang leaders in the United States asked for some way of getting themselves back into the legitimate system.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. On visits to young offenders institutions and adult prisons, once one has cut through the bravado, one sees young people who lack any sort of self-esteem and often lack much in the way of formal education. That is why, despite the Prison Service's best efforts, the number of suicides in prison remains at a worrying level. Youngsters who, outside, would have been cocky beyond belief get inside and realise that they have thrown their lives away.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that programmes aimed at targeting some of those youngsters and moving them away from criminality can be effective. There is a project in my constituency in exactly the sort of area he describes: it is highest crime area in the constituency, and the poorest area. It also has the highest levels of unemployment. A project called Youth Works has specifically targeted four or five known young offenders; that work has helped those young offenders, but—much more important—it has ensured that the level of property crime has dropped dramatically. The costs to one of the housing associations of repairing houses has been reduced from £400,000 to £100,000 in a year.

I welcome the Home Secretary's statement today and I am sure that my constituents will, too. However, I am sure he is aware that social services departments across the land are expressing concern about an increasing minority of young offenders being placed in expensive secure accommodation. Will he comment, if not today, on a future occasion, about the resulting increase in costs, for which social services departments cannot budget?

There is a problem with social services secure accommodation, because it costs more than £2,000 a week, whereas a place in a young offenders institution costs a quarter of that, at £500 a week. One reason for setting up the national board for youth justice is to ensure much more effective planning and management of the secure estate, and, as part of the comprehensive spending review, we are conducting an audit of such accommodation. Although we have to maintain high standards of quality in secure accommodation, there must be opportunities for savings—after all, it costs £100,000 a year to keep one youngster in such accommodation— and we hope to achieve that. We are also looking at the charging arrangements.

I also say to my hon. Friend that the problem with the current situation is the young offender who simply cannot be remanded in custody and who, for months and months, commits scores—sometimes hundreds—of offences while on bail. When that young offender finally gets put into secure accommodation, everyone breathes a sigh of relief, but, typically, by that stage the habit of crime is ingrained, so the overall cost to the public purse will be much greater. If we can get that small hard core of persistent offenders into secure accommodation earlier, we may be able far more effectively to do something for them and for their victims.

The Home Secretary is well aware of my long-standing interest in the subject of youth justice from the number of times I have raised it in the House. I welcome much of what he has announced, but will he deal specifically with a number of questions?

First, on the issue of restorative justice, does the Home Secretary intend to issue some guidance to chief constables to reinforce what he said to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) about victims being given the final say on whether to meet the perpetrators of crime? That relates particularly to elderly people, because pensioners may be unwilling to meet those who have committed crimes—indeed, to be confronted by young offenders may be the last thing they want.

Secondly, will the Home Secretary agree to publish in due course the legal advice that he and the Lord Chancellor have been given on the question whether the proposals in the White Paper—especially those relating to the abolition of doli incapax—will be acceptable in European law? I worry that the Government's proposals to import the European convention on human rights into United Kingdom law may cut across some of the things the right hon. Gentleman is trying to suggest in the White Paper.

Finally, in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire, the Home Secretary suggested that Conservative Members had changed their attitude. I should point out that many Conservative Members have been campaigning for many years for tough measures to be taken against young criminals, especially repeat offenders.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, when the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), who was in the Chamber earlier, was opposing what became the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 through 180 hours of Committee debate, the Labour party was opposing our tough measures? Does he accept that his change of attitude, which has been so brilliantly satirised on television over the past few days by Messrs. John Bird and John Fortune, shows that it is the Labour party which has been brought to agree with us?

I know that there are many more opportunities for watching television in opposition than in government and I am afraid that I missed Mr. Bird and Mr. Fortune; I shall have to get a tape out of the Library.

The Minister of State has done sterling work and no one has been more energetic in fighting crime and trying to shift the policy towards crime prevention. He has left the Chamber because he is addressing the annual general meeting of Victim Support in my place. I hope to go to the meeting after the statement and I shall tell those present that, of course, victims have to have an absolute right to determine whether they are involved in the process. The explicit answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is: yes, we shall issue guidance, as he requests.

The hon. Gentleman will know that, for good reasons, it is never the practice of Ministers to publish legal advice that they have received either from the Attorney-General or from their legal advisers. We are convinced that our proposal to remove the concept of doli incapax is fully consistent with the European convention on human rights. Interestingly, there was a period in the divisional court— when C v. the Director of Public Prosecutions set the law—when doli incapax was effectively abolished. That did not lead to injustice for young offenders, but made for a little more efficiency.

My right hon. Friend mentioned publicity in respect of certain types of juvenile crime, which causes me some concern. Perhaps he will take on board the concerns that I and many others in the profession have that such publicity can create heroes as well as portray villains. Does not any publicity have to be approached with great caution?

It does, but I also think that communities have a right to know, particularly about older young offenders such as 15, 16 and 17-year-olds. Some young offenders who are dealt with by youth courts are over 18 when they come up for sentence, and the public have a right to know the identity of offenders in that age group—as well as that of some of the younger offenders. It would go against the European convention on human rights and the United Nations convention on the rights of the child to require the names of children accused, but not convicted, of offences to be made known—and I do not support that.

In many cases, it is right for the names of the accused who have been convicted to be made known. I do not think that that will make them into heroes, but we must introduce an element of shaming people. There is nothing wrong with that—it is what kept many of us in check when we were at school; it is an important element of social control, which is what we are about.

Another problem is that the youth courts have retreated into what I have described as a secret garden and have become secret and unaccountable; too few people have known about them. That has reinforced their inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

I welcome many of the measures that my right hon. Friend has outlined, particularly the one involving working with parents and having parents at counselling sessions. Does my right hon. Friend accept that a disproportionate number of young offenders have spent a large part of their lives in care? Obviously, they are emotionally damaged; they have often been abused and feel alienated. Will my right hon. Friend work with other Departments to try to introduce special measures to help that group of vulnerable young people, and to try to divert them from crime and show them that the rest of society cares?

Yes is the answer to my hon. Friend. She has raised a very important point. The high proportion of youngsters from care who are locked up at 15, 16, 17 or 18 is depressing. It is a serious comment on the nature of residential care provisions for young people. My hon. Friend will know from the Secretary of State for Health's statement following the Utting report that we take the subject extremely seriously. We have to raise the standards of residential care for children, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

Does the Secretary of State share my view that the tradition of policing by consent is extremely important in this country and that it is a matter of great concern that many young people come into contact with the police only in a crisis when they are already committing crime? Does he have any plans to enhance the police's community role so that they have more contact with young people before those youngsters commit crimes, and, therefore, see them in more co-operative circumstances?

The police are doing a great deal in many areas to improve their connections with local communities. These days, being community police officers is no longer seen by police colleagues as a slightly eccentric task for those who have been put out to grass, but as part of police officers' core activities.

I have gathered from visits around the country that police officers are often involved in youth work. For example, in one town in Norfolk, a police constable dealt with a minor epidemic of youth crime by establishing a youth club in the area. That is one of many good examples of community policing. Let us not forget that the police run attendance centres, which are much neglected, but are often as effective as, if not much more cost-effective than, dare one say it, some activities run by social services departments.

My right hon. Friend has announced that at least 60 per cent. of young offenders are drug takers, which is a worry, particularly in my constituency where young kids on drugs have got into crime. When they are sentenced, get bail or whatever, they have to wait three, four or five months before they are detoxed. All the time that they are still on drugs, they cause havoc. Has my right hon. Friend any answers to the problem of how to get those kids through the detox treatment and back on the right road? I am aware that not all of them go back on the right road and that many of them, having been detoxed, go back on to drugs, so I know that it is not an easy task.

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he is doing in his area and more widely in respect of young drug addicts. I have visited his constituency and seen that work. We are extremely concerned about the problem, and I do not pretend that there is an easy answer, because the demand for detoxification outstrips the supply.

We believe that there could be a more efficient delivery of services and better co-ordination between some of the drug action teams. That is one reason, out of many, why we are beefing up the national drug action strategy with the appointment of Keith Hellawell, the former chief constable of West Yorkshire, as the anti-drugs supremo and Michael Trace as a deputy. He comes to the task with a different experience; Hellawell has the background of a police officer, whereas Trace has the background of someone who has dealt on the front line with drug addicts in prison. Both will be able to advise the Government on some imaginative improvements to the current system.

When the Home Office ministerial team is considering the causes of crime and being tough on crime, does it have discussions with other parts of government? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that national youth organisations have a critical part to play in tackling the problems of youth crime? If so, would he care to comment on a written answer that I received this afternoon which says that the cadet forces of this country have had their budgets cut by £2 million in the current financial year? Will that help or hinder the policies that he set out in his earlier remarks?

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question, we discuss such matters with other Departments. I chaired a ministerial group that dealt with youth justice and provided ministerial input into our proposals. In addition, my senior policy adviser, Norman Warner, a former senior official and director of social services in Kent, has been chairing a youth justice task force which has involved practitioners from everywhere.

As for the written answer that the hon. Gentleman has received, he will know that we are working within the budgets set by the previous Administration, so I suggest that he directs his question about those cuts at the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) who is sitting along the Bench from him.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that major contributions to youth crime include truancy and suspension, particularly the use of indefinite exclusions from schools? What action will he take to deal with those specific issues?

My hon. Friend is right. Unquestionably, if a child is truanting—especially if he or she is then permanently excluded from school—there is a very high risk of that child offending.

Some children have to be excluded from school, but unquestionably many schools are permanently excluding too many youngsters, and it is too convenient for them to do so. I join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment—with whom I have been discussing this crucial issue—in saying that schools must examine their internal procedures to try to reduce the number of youngsters who are excluded. In the case of the hard core of youngsters who are excluded, local authorities and schools must ensure that good arrangements are made to provide them with education and other interventions during the period when they should have been at school.

Nowhere will the Home Secretary's statement be more welcome than in my constituency, where these problems rank very highly. However, I should be grateful if the Home Secretary would be more specific about the way in which he envisages the use of local authority secure accommodation, not only because of the cost implications, which have been mentioned, but because of the scarcity of such accommodation. To the best of my knowledge, Hampshire, Sussex and Kent between them have available 14 such places, which are already being fully used under the present regime. There is a problem not only of cost but of supply.

I should be grateful if the Home Secretary would elucidate the criteria that will be used to determine how places are used, and what measures he would propose to expand them, because obviously more will be needed.

Some more local authority secure accommodation is coming on stream. In previous Parliaments, there was agreement between the parties on the principle that more was needed, and a scheme was established in 1991 to bring more on stream. It is now producing about 200 extra places, which is quite a high proportion.

The problem is partly one of supply and cost, but it is also a question of organisation. There is no effective co-ordination of the current arrangements, and the charging regime can cause local authorities not to use secure accommodation when they should do so. That is why we are establishing the national youth justice board and giving it the responsibility for carrying out an audit of accommodation and for ensuring its proper co-ordination and perhaps its management.

Computers (Century Date Change)

4.27 pm

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on how Government Departments and their agencies are tackling the millennium compliance problem—sometimes called the "millennium bomb"—within central Government Departments and their agencies.

The problem is widely understood to pose serious and potentially catastrophic hazards in all organisations, in both public and private sectors, in every country worldwide. It affects mainframe and personal computers and any device containing a microprocessor chip that manipulates dates. That includes telephone equipment, lifts, air conditioning, lighting, clocks, timers and control equipment.

Checking and, where necessary, correcting every system is a detailed, laborious process, and there is a fixed deadline for its completion. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is leading efforts to raise awareness of that urgent problem throughout the private sector.

The principal responsibility for ensuring that systems are millennium compliant rests with individual Departments. They are also responsible for ensuring that organisations in the wider public service sectors that they sponsor have the necessary guidance and information. My role is to co-ordinate activity in central Government, assess progress and provide guidance. The Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency in my Department has produced comprehensive guidance for Departments on how to deal with the problem. That is available publicly.

Immediately after taking office, I asked to receive, as soon as possible after 1 October, detailed and costed plans, showing how Departments and agencies were tackling the problem. My officials have now analysed those plans. On the basis of those plans, I am now able to confirm that all Departments and agencies have work in hand and scheduled for completion in time—many by December 1998, a majority by March 1999 and a small number later in 1999. Some Departments will in general give priority to correcting business-critical systems, and may leave systems of minor importance until later.

The total estimated cost set out in the plans is just over £370 million. Most of it will be spent in the current and next two financial years. That is less than some estimates, but is based on careful calculation by Departments and their advisers, and I have no reason to believe that it is not of the right order, but that is something that other Ministers and I shall monitor carefully.

The Government's policy is that the cost will be met from within planned allocations, and the evidence from the plans is that almost 97 per cent. is so covered. Many costs will be accommodated in maintenance and system replacement budgets. In some cases, Departments will bring forward investment plans and adjust their priorities.

Guidance published by CCTA asked Departments to consider whether staff shortages would inhibit progress. The plans as a whole do not suggest that that is a serious problem at present, but I shall keep a close watch on that and have already written to Departments asking for further clarification. I shall ensure that that will be covered specifically in subsequent reports.

Overall, my assessment is that we have established the measure of the problem and set in hand plans which are realistic and achievable, but the bulk of the actual remedial or replacement work is yet to be done, the timetable is tight and there is little margin for error. That is the challenge. The programme needs continuous monitoring, and I shall be checking progress regularly and reporting to the House on a quarterly basis, starting this spring.

It is also my intention that we should be open about the scale of the problem and our progress in dealing with it. I am therefore arranging for all the departmental reports to be placed in the Library of the House and published on the internet; and I shall ensure that progress reports are also made available on a regular basis.

Finally, I can announce today that we are reinforcing and strengthening our effort in two significant ways. First, a ministerial group is being set up, under my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, to drive forward action to tackle the year 2000 problem across the public and private sectors. I shall be a member of that group, chairing a sub-group which will co-ordinate and drive forward the action for which central Government Departments and agencies are responsible.

Secondly, we have asked Don Cruickshank, the chairman of Action 2000, to reinforce this effort across both public and private sectors by keeping in close touch with the ministerial group and advising on best practice from the private sector. I hope that that demonstrates the seriousness with which we take the problem, and the vigour of our approach to it. Those efforts will be maintained.

I start by welcoming the Chancellor's statement on millennium compliance—it is not before time. However, many listening to his statement today will have been disappointed. There remain many unanswered questions, which I hope the Minister will now cover.

The Minister has done little today to engender confidence in his handling of the matter. He appears once again to have set up yet another committee chaired by a Minister who is rarely in the Chamber; and he appears to have saved a little money.

The timetable that we set when we were in government seems already to have slipped. Our deadline for all Departments to be compliant was December 1998. The right hon. Gentleman tells us that a small number of Departments will not complete the work until later in 1999. Can he tell us when in 1999? Why is he leaving matters until the eleventhth hour? Which part of the Department of Social Security will not become compliant until the end of August 1999? What minor matters can be left until we are right up against the wire?

Will the right hon. Gentleman give us a date by which all Government systems will be compliant? That is most important. A date for all Government systems has not been given today.

The right hon. Gentleman has glossed over the problems by announcing yet another ministerial group. He has not concentrated on the shortages of staff skilled for this exercise. What estimate has he made of the number of IT specialists and workers that will be required? Is he convinced that we have enough IT-skilled personnel available in the United Kingdom? I have talked to some companies that are already finding a shortage of skills in the United Kingdom, and are contracting with companies as far afield as India. Does the right hon. Gentleman have any contingency plans to cover any shortages that he may find?

To what extent are the Government refusing to deal with non-government organisations and suppliers that are not already millennium compliant? If the Government are dealing with non-compliant organisations, will the right hon. Gentleman set a date beyond which they will cease to deal with such companies? That has been the case in the commercial world with companies such as British Telecom.

The right hon. Gentleman has been less than frank on costs. He said that the costs are less than some estimates, but we need to be convinced on the detail. In the schedule attached to the statement, he surprisingly estimates that the compliance costs for the NHS will be only £6 million, whereas the costs for social security will be £45 million and those for defence will be £200 million. The statement on the Department of Health contains the phrase "excluding embedded systems". Will he tell us the cost of bringing into account, for example, the embedded systems, because there will be problems with, among other things, defibrillators and heart monitors in the health service?

There has been no mention of local government. What steps has the right hon. Gentleman taken to ensure that local government systems will be millennium compliant? Will extra grants be available to councils, and what will be the total cost to local government?

Is the right hon. Gentleman convinced that the Government are doing enough with their awareness programme? How does he react to the Cap Gemini survey, which is detailed in early-day motion 497? The survey shows that 29 per cent. of gross domestic product will be at risk, but if the timetable slips by another three months, the figure will be 37 per cent. Does he agree with the Midland bank survey, which estimates that one in five companies could fail?

How will the right hon. Gentleman deal with the problems of the European Commission, particularly in the light of the answer from the Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry that the Commission has produced no guidelines on millennium compliance? Does he know what steps are being taken by European organisations, and how much will it cost? Surely there will be a serious problem if plans in Europe are behind even our own.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that millennium compliance is unavoidable, but as it comes at the same time as Euro-compliance, it presents our organisations and businesses with the greatest IT task ever faced by government and industry? Perhaps he will now realise that, although we cannot put off millennium compliance, we could put off joining the single currency. Should not joining the single currency be postponed?

Is the right hon. Gentleman convinced that all computers that are being sold, including those sold to Government Departments, are millennium-compliant? I do not want to put people off buying computers, but how will the Government ensure that suppliers of computer equipment have checked that their stock is millennium-compliant? Does he appreciate that this is not just a technical problem? What steps has he taken to investigate all contracts, licences, stationery and manual processes? How will he ensure that all guarantees on computer equipment are honoured?

If the Government are asking organisations to certify their millennium compliancy, as I presume they are, how will the Chancellor of the Duchy confirm their compliance? What form will that process take? Even if organisations certify, how will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that their critical systems are indeed compliant? Will he set up a testing system, and if so, what form will it take?

What contingencies does the Chancellor have in place in the event of failure in any testing process or any eventual millennium disasters? Will the right hon. Gentleman give us the details now? If not, will he give us a date by which he will have contingency plans in place?

The year 2000 and the century date change probably constitute one of the most complex and threatening problems that we shall ever face. A time bomb is ticking away inside computer systems whether they are the largest mainframe computers or software embedded in domestic appliances. The possible effect of problems may vary from something that is slightly annoying to something that is a major threat to business, people or the environment, especially in the event of failure of critical safety systems. Will the Chancellor please reassure me and the rest of the country that he has understood the magnitude of the problem and commands the detail of the solution? If he does not, I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman will last in office until the millennium.

I agreed with the hon. Lady only when she described the millennium problem as complex and complicated. I wish that she had not trivialised it. By her cavilling and dislocated series of questions, she showed that she does not begin to appreciate the nature of the problem. Before the hon. Lady jumps in and makes such outrageous statements, I advise her to go to the Library of the House to look up the departmental reports that I have deposited there, or she can read them on CD-ROM or turn to the internet.

There are 1,200 pages of reports from the Departments for the hon. Lady to analyse. My officials and I have spent considerable time analysing all those reports, and we are confident that we shall be millennium-compliant at the appropriate date.

The compliant time and date is midnight on 31 December 1999. It is as clear as that, and there can be no slippage. I am sorry that I had to spell it out to the hon. Gentleman, but I know that he is not as numerate as he could be.

We are keen that we in the public sector and those in business can work together because it is not viable for one sector to be millennium-compliant and the other not. We obviously need an interface.

The hon. Lady talked about skills. I sometimes wonder where she and her colleagues have been over the past 18 years. There is a shortage of people with computer skills, and training takes time. I remind the hon. Lady that we have been in office for only seven months and that it was her Department which failed to match up to training people in computer skills. It was her Government who set a deadline for millennium compliance, but they did nothing else. They did nothing within the Department to prepare for that.

In the same month as I took office, I looked at the books and found that practically nothing had been done. I then wrote to all my ministerial colleagues—this was in May—asking them to prepare reports. That they did, and I have placed the reports in the Library.

May I express the gratitude of the House to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for making this statement? It does not underplay the seriousness of the issue, which is beginning to assume the epoch-making significance of the switchover from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1720, or whenever it was. Indeed, if we went back to the Julian calendar, we might avoid the problem altogether. I do not know whether that is really the case.

My right hon. Friend's statement is important because it emphasises that the millennium will affect more than the banking and finance industries, along with the private computer industry. It will have an effect also on things such as life support machines in hospitals, surgical equipment and our own domestic television sets. Would my right hon. Friend welcome a report by a Select Committee—not necessarily the one in which he and I have a special interest—to reassure the House and the public that the Government, including my right hon. Friend's Department, are being kept up to the mark on that important issue?

The Government have no plans to go back to the Julian calendar—I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend.

We want to be as open as we can with information and, as I have said, we have published all the reports from Government Departments for people to see. If my hon. Friend—he happens to be a Chairman of a Select Committee—and his Committee want to look into those matters, my Department will give him any and every assistance. The House and the country need to be involved in the issue, and the more who are involved, the better.

I welcome the Chancellor's statement, which is one for which I have been asking. In opposition, the Labour party was critical of the previous Government's timetable, yet their timetable seems to have slipped behind that of their predecessors.

The right hon. Gentleman's answers seem to be inconsistent with the written answers that I have been receiving. Why, for example, did he issue a statement on 12 November stating that no deadline for tackling this serious problem had been missed, when answers to me show clearly that only three of 16 Departments could confirm that they had met the January 1997 target date?

Why did the Chancellor make a claim about receiving costed and privatised plans as soon as possible after 1 October, when the agreed date with the National Audit Office was completion by October? It is clear from parliamentary answers to me that only seven of 16 Departments could say that all their areas had met the October deadline. How can the right hon. Gentleman explain those inconsistencies?

I am puzzled by the Chancellor's claim that he has covered all aspects of Government and public body responsibility. He quotes a figure to which the Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), alluded—the £6.1 million for the national health service. Labour Members have observed that we are talking about life support systems and every trust in the land. Is the right hon. Gentleman really asking us to believe that £6.1 million will resolve the problem for the NHS? Will the cost not be hundreds of millions of pounds?

Will the Chancellor explain how he will ensure that all the public bodies outside the central Departments are complying? It is difficult to believe that £370 million is the definitive cost. Experts who have commented on those matters will find £370 million a bizarre figure. They are suggesting costs amounting to billions of pounds. The gap is huge. The right hon. Gentleman has said that, of £370 million, £200 million can be identified for the Ministry of Defence alone. Is he suggesting that that Department can absorb that cost without any consequential cuts in its budget?

It is an extraordinary statement if we are led to believe that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has everything under control and covered and that there will be delivery on time. Is the right hon. Gentleman's statement not inaccurate on deadlines? Is it not incomplete about costs and is it not insufficient on how costs will be met? In those circumstances, is the right hon. Gentleman not complacent to suggest that the Government have the matter under control? Will that phrase not come home to haunt him?

As far as we are aware, no other Government have undertaken the exercise that we have carried out and published all information for their citizens to see. The hon. Gentleman has taken a particular interest in these matters over the years and has a serious contribution to make in trying to solve the millennium problem, which is not party political but one that affects us all, public and private. It is also a global problem. I urge him not to fall into the trap of accepting the words and figures of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), who leads for the Conservatives on this. She quoted the figure of just over £6 million for the national health service. That is not the figure for the NHS, for which I have no responsibility and for which I am not speaking. I am responsible for central Government Departments, and the figure of £6 million relates to the Department of Health.

The hon. Gentleman questioned me about a general series of figures. He produced his own figures, in which he estimated that the total cost of the Government's millennium computer problem was almost £1 billion. That of course includes local government, the national health service and various other bodies. The £370 million, which I estimate is the cost of central Government's compliance, is in line with his estimate. We do not know whether his figure is right, but we think that his general ballpark figure is probably about right—that the cost for the public services will be about £1 billion.

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement. As a former information technology manager with perhaps a little expertise in this sector, I should warn him that, as the systems for which central Government are responsible are so complex, plans to complete the work in time for the end of the millennium should have been drawn up probably in 1995. I wonder whether he could remind me who was in government in 1995 and suggest why they never took responsibility? The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) said that the Conservative Government had plans for completion of all systems by early 1998, but those plans will not be completed until the end of 1999, and that slippage did not take place in the past six months. I wonder why they did not deal with the slippage at the time.

My main point is this. Will the Minister clarify his statement on auditing plans and how they progress? What plans does he have to ensure that progress is constantly audited and that there is no further slippage?

My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of the complexity of this issue and of the many factors that are unknown to the best brains worldwide. He also makes a fair point when he asks what the previous Government did on this issue over the years. On attaining office, I came to the conclusion that they did very little. That is why we are faced with the problem today.

I am aware of the need constantly to monitor and to audit the problem. That is why I have asked each Government Department to send me, every quarter, detailed plans of how they aim to meet their proposals. I have assured the House that those detailed plans will be reported to the House, so that all hon. Members can see them in detail, monitor the position and check that no Departments are slipping. I am in the game of trying not to contrast Department A with Department B, but to ensure that the governing of this country can continue normally after 2000.

The Chancellor was unnecessarily touchy about the genuinely important questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) asked. He is also slightly ill informed. I am sure that his officials did not mean to ill inform him, but the previous Government did much on this issue, often with considerable criticism from people who thought that it was all hype.

I am delighted that the figures that he has come up with—which the previous Government started in order to meet the October deadline—show that the costs and the problem are serious. Will he confirm what I think he has just said to the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), the Liberal Democrat spokesman: the £370 million figure is only for central Government services, and the likely cost for the public services will be well over £1 billion? I think that he said at least £1 billion. In my judgment, it will be well over £1 billion because of the extensive problems of the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Social Security and the national health service.

Will the Minister say what he implied in his statement about prioritisation? Does that mean that some public service functions may not be able to continue? Will he answer the important point of what the cut-off date will be for testing, because half the cost is likely to be in the testing, not in the analysis, of the problem? Will he lay down to private sector companies a date beyond which the public sector will not deal with them electronically— unless they have computer compliance that is acceptable to the Government?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question is yes. I am talking only about central Government Departments, and the estimate for them is £370 million.

No one has an accurate estimate of the ballpark figure for public services. I do not demur greatly from the figure proffered by the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) of about £1 billion.

As to our contracts with electronic and IT companies, we now have an agreement that all contracts must be for millennium-compliant machines and equipment. I have today asked the various Departments to do random tests on the equipment that they receive to ensure that those terms are adhered to.

The Minister's statement will be greatly welcomed. Until 1 May, I was working in information technology and, had the good people of Milton Keynes not elected me, I would be working on the millennium problem. One of my concerns is that the debate is mostly about computers, not embedded software. Most people seem to ignore that. Will the Minister assure me that that will be given greater priority in the publicity he issues, and that the testing programmes, which are always the things to be cut in every computer system development programme, will not be cut in this case?

My hon. Friend is right to remind us that we are talking about not only IT systems, but the embedded chip issue, although we are not sure of the extent of that problem. It involves not only mainstream and personal computers but things involving dates, such as lifts. Many digital watches may also be affected. Some Departments may not have taken it completely on board, so I have written to all Departments to ensure that they are aware of it.

I heard what my hon. Friend said about testing. Those were very wise words. We shall try to adhere to that because, to ensure that our programme works on the critical day, testing must be done in the lead-up to that period.

It is nearly two years to the week since I was the first to raise this issue on the Floor of the House, and was widely ridiculed for doing so.

I warmly welcome this overdue statement, but will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it will not be enough to ensure that the computer systems for which the Government are responsible are millennium compliant because, if those with which they are linked in the private sector are not, they will all crash together? Will he therefore acknowledge the value of my private Member's Bill, the Companies (Millennium Computer Compliance) Bill, which is listed for its Second Reading tomorrow and which will do a great deal to ensure that this country will avoid much of the chaos that is predicted for two years' time?

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's interest and expertise in this subject. For obvious reasons, I was aware of his Adjournment debate. Over the years, he has taken a sustained and real interest in this subject. His foresight at that time has been appreciated.

The House will decide on the hon. Gentleman's Bill, but he is absolutely right to say that it is no use us being compliant at the centre if other organisations—both public and private—with which we interface are not compliant. For that reason, we have asked Don Cruickshank to take this forward and to ensure that there are arrangements and co-ordination between the public and private sectors.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the openness that was involved in the publication of the reports about how Departments will proceed. It will make discussions of this kind much more fruitful.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the depth of the concern that is felt in the business community? First, there is concern about the continued sale of non-compliant equipment. I know that my right hon. Friend is not responsible for that, but I noticed that my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry was present earlier, and I hoped that my right hon. Friend would have conversations with the DTI.

Secondly, there is what could be described as a mirror image of the issue that has just been discussed. Private companies that have made progress with compliance are concerned about their relationship with Government, and feel that Government are progressing more slowly than some of them.

I spoke at a meeting of the southern region of the Confederation of British Industry, at which both those issues were raised. CBI representatives said in terms that they did not want petty bickering between parties; they wanted collaboration, seriousness and progress. That was stated at the meeting by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood).

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that the Government are prepared to make the information available, not only to Members of Parliament but to anyone who cares to use the internet to find the detailed information supplied by the Department. That process will be on-going.

I take on board the message that my hon. Friend has passed on from the regional CBI that business does not want the issue to be bogged down in inter-party bickering. I am reassured by the fact that Opposition Back Benchers did not follow the lead of their Front-Bench spokesman, and have realised the seriousness of the issue. Along with my right hon. and hon. Friends, I shall try to ensure that they have as much information as possible, so that they can help us to make the balanced judgments that will need to be made.

May I follow what was said by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)? I believe that answers are needed to the list of questions that the Minister was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). I should be grateful if he would answer those questions and publish his answers, because all the issues are relevant.

Will the Minister assure the House that the all-party European informatics market group—of which I am vice-chairman—has been considering the subject for some time? There have been a number of draft reports, and the group is now about to produce its final report. I hope that the Minister will meet officers and experts from industry so that we can discuss our findings.

The Minister may be interested to know that, in an early draft of the report, it was suggested that we could not have both the year 2000 and economic and monetary union. Clearly, having discovered that, the Chancellor decided to postpone EMU. We recommend that all new Bills should be considered in terms of their implications not just for manpower and cost but for information technology. The right hon. Gentleman has said that Departments' current budgets are sufficient to provide the £370 million that is needed. I do not agree with that, but, if we assume that it is correct, the cost of staff will rise enormously because of demand and the fact that their salaries will be increased.

Experts say that the problem will have to be cured by the end of 1998, because the year 99, put into certain codes, means something completely different from the year 1999. That is not just a millennium problem; it is also a year 99 problem.

Having participated in debates on the issue with the hon. Gentleman, I know that he takes a considerable interest in it, and knows a good deal about it. I think that, when he has time to read the detailed reports that are in the Library, he will see that Departments are aware of the problems. The various departmental budgets cover 97 per cent. of the £370 million that I mentioned earlier.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the obsolescence factor in IT is very great, and there is a very short period for the upgrading and refurbishment of equipment and of IT generally. As we advance with the refurbishment, all the equipment involved is 2000-compliant. The problem is not quite as great as it might at first appear, but I listened to what the hon. Gentleman said, and I shall write to him if there is anything that I feel I have not covered.

Order. This is a complex matter, but I appeal for concise questions and answers.

Pursuant to his last reply, does my right hon. Friend agree that the millennium presents us with an opportunity, as well as a serious challenge? In the process of ensuring that Departments purchase millennium-compliant equipment, will advice go downstream to purchasing departments at the levels of, for instance, schools and local government? Will the same advice go to the private sector, particularly the small and medium business sector, through the DTI?

I have today stated the Government's position vis-a-vis our own Departments. We have also announced that we are establishing a ministerial group, and that we are asking Don Cruickshank to ensure that the very points raised by my hon. Friend are met. Those points are indeed very serious.

May I press the Minister? I recognise that he is speaking on behalf of the central Department, and that he has also referred to other Departments, but is the Northern Ireland Office abreast of what is happening? At times, it seems to be in another orbit, and regularly behind developments.

The information that I have does not relate to the Northern Ireland Office, but we have made inquiries of the NIO. It is well aware of developments, and is in line with the other Departments.

Does my right hon. Friend understand Labour Members' irritation at the way in which the issue was addressed by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan)? When did the last Government decide not to continue buying computer equipment and computer systems that were millennium-compliant? Has my right hon. Friend that date?

I do not have the date, but I think that the whole House will share my hon. Friend's disappointment at the cavalier and cavilling way in which the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) addressed the problem.

We have had a revelation this afternoon. Whenever the Opposition are on weak ground—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I automatically think of the Labour party as being in opposition.

Whenever Labour Members are on weak ground, they suggest that party politics has somehow come into the issue. I think it right that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) should ask questions, and should receive answers from the Chancellor of the Duchy. After all, this is a serious issue.

May I bring a specific Government aspect to the right hon. Gentleman's attention? Many hon. Members would be amazed if the Ministry of Defence's compliance costs were only £200 million. I suspect that that figure will go up and up.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman understands that we are talking about a vital element of national security, ranging from our Trident nuclear deterrent to command and control systems that are now being operated by our military personnel in Bosnia and elsewhere. It has an international and a multinational dimension. In future, when we wish to question the Government, will we be able to question the right hon. Gentleman on specific departmental issues, or will we have to go from Department to Department to obtain answers?

The MOD estimate is accurate, I think. The MOD purchases about half of all the IT purchased by Government Departments. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Opposition are on weak ground, not because they are bringing in party politics, but because the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham tries to rewrite history, which I find strange.

On 13 March, I had an answer from Mrs. Angela Knight, then a Treasury Minister, which stated:

"The Treasury has work in progress to identify and test its computer systems to ensure that they will operate correctly at the turn of the century. It has not proved necessary to commission any additional research."—[Official Report, 13 March 1997; Vol. 292, c. 323.]
Has my right hon. Friend resorted to any additional research, particularly in relation to the local authorities? The matter was raised in a Standing Committee on which I served with the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson).

The CCTA and the central IT unit in my Department have conducted considerable research into the matter. On the specific narrow issue, I shall make inquiries and write to my hon. Friend.

Following on from the previous question, can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that local authority systems and police command and control systems will be millennium compliant? Can he estimate the cost of putting those right?

As I said before, I cannot put a precise figure on it. I gave the ballpark figure that I estimated was the cost for the entire public sector. We had to take the new initiative because we found that the work had not been done previously by the Conservative Government. That is why we established the Cruickshank Action 2000, so that we could address the problems that he has brought to the attention of the House.

As I have a background in information technology in a university environment, one aspect that disturbs me is that the millennium problem seems to be giving higher rewards to those with long memories than to those with recently trained skills. I suspect that, all too often, we are looking to botch and fix what should be replaced. One of the disadvantages of not starting early enough on a project is that that leads to a waste of money. Is that proving to be the case? If so, will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that he will seek to minimise it? In the interests of those in the private sector, will he ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to investigate whether we can use the millennium as an opportunity for investment in new technology, rather than trying to fix the technology of the past decade?

My hon. Friend is right to draw to our attention the temptation to botch when one is faced with a short-term problem. According to the figures that I have, between 50 and 80 per cent. of reinvestment in IT is coping with that problem. It is important that we use the millennium as an opportunity to re-equip and refurbish our industry, so that we can compete more effectively in the new millennium.

Given the right hon. Gentleman's answer to the previous question, and the comprehensive audit that has been carried out, perhaps he will answer a few specific questions—

One specific question, then. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many older turnkey systems are in use in central Government Departments? The problem is more profound with older line of business turnkey systems, rather than with office productivity systems or hardware. How many of the turnkey systems in existence in Government Departments are more than five years old? Any that are more than five years old are bound to be non-compliant.

I do not know the answer. I shall find out, if possible, and write to the hon. Gentleman.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I accept that, as he says, some of the costs associated with the problem can be met from existing IT budgets through the purchase of new equipment. What steps has he taken to ensure that all new materials, equipment and systems purchased now will be compliant and that we shall not have a problem with new equipment in a little more than two and a half years?

All the contracts that we have with companies supplying IT and similar equipment to us insist that the new equipment is millennium compliant. As from today, we are carrying out random tests of the equipment received, to make sure that that is the case.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I, my personal equipment and all my systems are entirely millennium compliant? More seriously, will he take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) in relation to the Ministry of Defence?

First, having been a Minister there, I believe that the figures being quoted are way under the actual cost. Secondly, my hon. Friend's point about security applies not only to weapons systems and command and control systems, but to intelligence systems. Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence inform the House of the representations that they have made to the former Soviet Union, in particular, and other countries holding nuclear weapons and other global weapons systems, and of whether Ministers are satisfied with the security of those systems, given the changes that are taking place in IT?

The House will be reassured to know that all the hon. Gentleman's personal equipment is millennium compliant. I am reassured that his clock chip is okay, and that his bios firmware is above the mark.

On the serious issue, the hon. Gentleman certainly has a knowledge of the Ministry of Defence, as I have. I have examined the figures carefully and I have heard what he said. We shall be able to see on a quarterly basis what the position is. He has drawn attention to a serious problem with some of the former Warsaw pact countries, which I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friends.

Business Of The House

5.15 pm

With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 1 DECEMBER—Opposition Day [5th allotted day].

Until about 7 pm, there will be a debate on Government policies on welfare, pensions and disabled people, followed by a debate entitled "The Government's new burdens on business". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

TUESDAY 2 DECEMBER—Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill [second day].

WEDNESDAY 3 DECEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be the usual debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill [third day].

THURSDAY 4 DECEMBER—Debate on the European Union on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 5 DECEMBER—Debate on special educational needs in schools on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows.

MONDAY 8 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Government of Wales Bill.

TUESDAY 9 DECEMBER—Consideration in Committee of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill.

At 10 pm, the House will be asked to agree the winter supplementary estimates, the votes on account and supplementary defence vote A.

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

WEDNESDAY 10 DECEMBER—Until 2 pm, there will be the usual debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Social Security Bill.

THURSDAY 11 DECEMBER—Remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill.

FRIDAY 12 DECEMBER—Private Members' Bills.

The House may wish to be reminded that on Tuesday2 December there will be a debate on tobacco advertising in European Standing Committee B, and on Wednesday 3. December there will be a debate on part-time work, European works councils and parental leave in European Standing Committee B.

It is also proposed that, on Tuesday 9 December, there will be a debate on Agenda 2000: structural and cohesion policy, in European Standing Committee B. On Wednesday 10 December, there will be a debate on Agenda 2000: reform of the common agricultural policy, in European Standing Committee A, and a debate on Agenda 2000: a new financial framework, in European Standing Committee B.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

It may be for the convenience of the House to know that, subject to the progress of business, it will be proposed that the House should rise for the Christmas Adjournment on Monday 22 December, and return on Monday 12 January. That means that the open three-hour Adjournment debate held before each Recess will be on the morning of Wednesday 17 December.

[ Tuesday 2 December:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: 6294/97 and unnumbered, Tobacco Advertising. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-vii (1997–98).

Wednesday 3 December:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community documents: 10230/97, Part-Time Work; 10975/97, European Works Councils; 10975/97, Parental Leave. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-vi.

Thursday 4 December:

Relevant documents: White Paper on Developments in the European Union, January—June 1997 (Cm 3802); The Commission's Work Programme for 1998. Political Priorities (COM (97) 517); The Commission's Work Programme for 1998. New Legislative Initiatives (SEC (97) 1852; European Community Document No 9984/97 on "Agenda 2000".

Tuesday 9 December:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community document: 9984/97, Agenda 2000 Structural and Cohesion Policy. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-vi (1997–98).

Wednesday 10 December:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Community document: 9984/97, Agenda 2000: Reform of the CAP. Relevant European Legislation Committee report: HC 155-vi (1997–98)

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Community document: 9984/97, Agenda 2000: New Financial Framework. Relevant European Legislation Committee Report: HC 155-vi (1997–98).]

I once again thank the Leader of the House for announcing two weeks' business. That is very helpful, and much appreciated. I thank her also for providing the dates of the Christmas recess, but I ask her to think again.

The right hon. Lady must be aware that there are many working mothers—she is one herself—within the Palace of Westminster; and I do not refer only to elected Members. Would it not be more sensible to forgo a non-sitting Friday so that the House may rise on 19 December, rather than returning for one day and causing great inconvenience to hon. Members, and to members of staff—who are often neglected and who serve us so well in this place?

Will the Leader of the House kindly assure us that there will be no Government statement—we have seen this afternoon how long they can take—on Monday, which is a Supply day? Will she do her best to ensure that, unless there is an emergency, she will never schedule statements for Supply days?

The right hon. Lady may recall that there was always at least one day's debate on autumn financial statements in the past. A major financial statement was delivered this week: can the Leader of the House promise that we shall be able to debate it for at least one day?

The House will spend a number of days debating the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. Will the right hon. Lady provide an assurance that she has no intention of imposing a guillotine on that measure? In that context, as the House has now approved the Modernisation Committee's first report, will she say when she proposes to begin implementing the report's recommendations with respect to future Government legislation?

A statement this afternoon revealed the enormous potential danger posed by the millennium time bomb. Can we please have a full debate on that issue in the fairly near future?

Finally, I have received several very disturbing accounts from hon. Members—and not just those in my party—about the length of time that Ministers are taking to reply to letters. I refer not to letters on what might be called contentious topics, but to letters that often forward requests and inquiries from constituents and organisations. It is unacceptable that Members should have to wait from 1 September until 27 November, for example, for replies. Will the right hon. Lady, in her capacity as Leader of the House, deliver an early statement about that matter?

As to the first point, about the late sitting of the House until 22 December, it is not a matter of personal choice. Like the hon. Gentleman, I could do other things on that day, in both a personal and a constituency capacity. I know that many hon. Members try to attend constituency functions, sorting offices and things of that kind. However, the House has a heavy programme. I think that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the reasons why Parliament cannot return any earlier, so we must sit on 22 December.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a guarantee that there would be no statement on Monday, or on Supply days generally. We try to avoid scheduling statements on such days. I can never say never, but we shall use our best endeavours to ensure that there are no statements on Monday. That is one reason why we had two statements today.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a debate on Tuesday's statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I was somewhat surprised that there were no requests for such a debate during the question-and-answer session on Tuesday. Perhaps hon. Members have thought about it since then. Hon. Members had a good opportunity to question the Chancellor on Tuesday, but I will not rule out a debate. Perhaps we can discuss it through the usual channels: I am happy to enter into discussions on that point.

As to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, we are allowing two days for further discussions next week, and we shall see what kind of progress is made then. We have just had a statement on the "millennium time bomb", as the hon. Gentleman called it. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that he would keep the House informed about the issue, and that he intended to place significant information in the Library. We shall monitor the situation, and, if it proves necessary, my right hon. Friend will return to the House and update hon. Members.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire referred to the delay in ministerial replies to hon. Members. I am aware of that problem, because it was raised in the House a few weeks ago. I said then that, if any hon. Member had particular difficulties, I would try to check on the situation. One or two examples were provided, but there have been few representations.

I know from my own inquiries that Ministers are receiving far more letters than their predecessors did in the previous Administration. Expectations of Ministers are higher this time, so replies sometimes take longer. I repeat that, although I offered to try to help, very few hon. Members have taken up that offer of assistance.

I welcome the fact that the Government of Wales Bill is to have a Second Reading. If the Government intend to split the Bill between the Floor of the House and Standing Committee, will hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies be fully consulted about such a split? Will my right hon. Friend give considerable thought to how the Committee stage will be dealt with? She may remember that there were many protests about the handling of Welsh legislation in the last Parliament. Will she ensure that all Welsh Members who are interested in serving on such a Committee will be able to do so?

I know that my hon. Friend has very strong views on this matter, as do other hon. Members on both sides of the House. There is no simple party divide as to how we should handle legislation of that kind.

As I said in my statement, I have announced the business for the second week on a provisional basis. Discussions have begun through the usual channels about the handling of the Government of Wales Bill—and, later, of the Scotland Bill. We want to try to agree a way forward with all parties in the House. I hope that hon. Members will make their views known and will feel able to make representations in the way that my hon. Friend has done. When we have had further discussions, I hope to be in a position to make a more definitive statement about how the Bills will be dealt with.

I reiterate the concern felt by many hon. Members about the delays in ministerial correspondence. There is equal concern about the apparent increase in the number of delayed replies to written questions.

I reinforce the concern that I think will be expressed by hon. Members and members of staff about the business on Monday 22 December. Perhaps the Leader of the House can examine carefully the business for that day to see whether she may ease the strain and stress.

I thank the Leader of the House for listening to representations about the timing of the debate on welfare to work. Many hon. Members—particularly those who serve on the Social Security Select Committee—would have been at a considerable disadvantage and would have been unable to participate in the debate as they will be on a special study tour on the day specified. Will the Leader of the House announce an exact date for the usual statement on social security benefits upgrading, which we expect at this time of year and which is of considerable importance to our constituents?

We were anticipating the arrival of several measures— both Bills and White Papers—from the Department of Health, perhaps in conjunction with other Departments. However, they seem to have been pushed into a backwater or up a branch line in Downing street—to either No. 10 or the Cabinet Office—with the intervention of yet more Ministers and consequent delays. We expected to see three Bills in the next few days, as well as a White Paper on food safety, and we now do not know when they will arrive. Will the Leader of the House assure us that that is not a sign that the position of the Secretary of State for Health is now unassailable?

I take the point that the hon. Gentleman made about delays in letters and written answers. If he has specific information on such delays, I should be happy to deal with any queries that he may wish to raise with me.

I appreciate the problems that the 22 December sitting will cause for some hon. Members, but we have a very packed legislative programme, and there are some Second Readings that we wish to progress.

In