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Commons Chamber

Volume 404: debated on Thursday 1 May 2003

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House Of Commons

Thursday 1 May 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Trade And Industry

The Secretary of State was asked

Trade Liberalisation


If she will make a statement on the latest developments in the Doha round of talks on trade liberalisation. [110624]

Since we launched the Doha development round in November 2001, progress has not been as fast as it should have been. In particular, we still have to conclude an agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights and access to medicines, and far more progress needs to be made on agriculture.

In other areas, however, progress has been more encouraging. The European Union submitted its general agreement on trade in services offer to liberalise trade in services earlier this week, and detailed negotiations are continuing on non-agricultural market access in the hope of reaching an agreement on the scope of negotiations by the end of May.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that honest answer. Does she agree that the Stuart Harbison Doha round proposals to phase out export subsidies would bring worldwide gains of about $100 billion a year, which would be especially helpful for third world countries? Was she therefore surprised and concerned that the French Minister. Herve Gaymard, said in a speech last month that he is

"profoundly opposed to such a course of action and … channelling all … efforts into … making this fail"?
Will she assure us that she will resist any attempt by the French to scupper such an important humanitarian proposal for trade liberalisation?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The gains to the developing world and to the world as whole—including the developed world—from a successful trade round will be enormous at this time of economic downturn. It is important to succeed in the round and to demonstrate that we have made progress by the time of the mid-term ministerial in Cancun in September. The hon. Gentleman will also be interested by President Chirac's recent proposals on preferential treatment for countries in sub-Saharan Africa. We welcome the fact that his statement recognised the enormous damage caused to farmers in developing countries by export subsidies on agricultural products.

I hope that the French Government will support the process of reforming the common agricultural policy because that will be essential if we are to make a better proposal in the Doha round.

Where is the evidence that liberalisation and privatisation benefits third world countries? Surely the examples of Rwanda and Tanzania a few years ago and the recent failed attempt to privatise water in the third world tell us something about the sins of over-enthusiastic neo-liberalism.

Nothing in World Trade Organisation rules or the general agreement on trade in services requires either developing or developed countries to privatise any of their public services, including water. Indeed, the GATS offer that the EU has just published explicitly excludes our public services and public utilities. Attempts to privatise water in developing countries had nothing whatsoever to do with GATS or the WTO.

Although I agree with my hon. Friend that it is extremely important to get the phasing of market opening in developing countries right and to accompany that with appropriate measures for governance and effective regulation, we only have to compare the experience of African countries with that of many countries in south-east Asia over the past 30 years to appreciate how trade in a more liberal world economy that can be made fair as well as free benefits poor people in poor countries.

Does the Secretary of State agree that what would have been difficult negotiations will be made more difficult by the rifts between the United States and some countries in western Europe? Does she agree that the best position for a free-trading country such as the United Kingdom to adopt is to be even-handed in criticising and condemning both the totally unacceptable protectionist interests in Europe that have prevented the EU from making a meaningful offer on agriculture and, equally, the aggressive unilateralism of the US that is manifested in its illegal action on steel and its continued refusal to put the developing world's wider interests in medical technology before the interests of its pharmaceutical companies?

The hon. Gentleman may remember that when the United States imposed tariffs last year on steel imports, including those from the United Kingdom, I condemned them roundly in the House and outside it. The steel tariffs are clearly unlawful under World Trade Organisation rules and I hope very much that the American Administration—I have said this to them privately—will not appeal against the ruling that found the tariffs contrary to WTO rules but will instead remove them at the earliest opportunity.

If I may, I shall send the hon. Gentleman a copy of my recent speech in Brussels setting out precisely the Government's views on the need to create a framework of rules for trade that is fair as well as free and tackling the highly damaging protectionism in Europe, especially in relation to agriculture, and in the United States, where it has arisen in relation to steel.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that progress on the Doha round depends on the trade rules, in particular the special and differential treatment rule and the multilateral rules framework. and that that will assist investment and competition? We cannot leave it all up to negotiations at Cancun. We must assist developing countries or we will lose the opportunity that we now have.

I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the things that we have discussed in great detail with the developing countries is the issue of special and differential treatment to ensure that the new round reflects the different stages of development that different countries have reached. The House will recognise that if we can make the necessary progress in the Doha negotiations, we will not only give a much needed boost to the world economy, but hold out hope to developing countries, which more than anything else want to earn and trade their way out of poverty rather than being trapped in dependence on aid.

Registration Officers


If she will make a statement on the employment rights of registration officers.[110626]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Nigel Griffiths)

The Government agree that all workers should have protection.

May I first declare an interest, as the honorary patron of the Society of Registration Officers in England and Wales?

Today is the sixth anniversary of the Labour Government. For most of that time, I have dealt with six different Ministers, four at the Treasury and two at the Department of Trade and Industry, attempting to win right of access to employment tribunals for registration officers. Section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 provides that that can be done by order. The registration service is about to undergo a major reorganisation and registration officers are likely to become local authority employees. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to have the measure in place before that happens? Has he any news that I can give to registration officers at their annual conference in Wales on 14 May?

The Government are studying more than 400 responses to the consultation document, considering how best to proceed, and setting deadlines. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear last month that all new employment legislation must be implemented by 6 April or 1 October. We will work with the Office for National Statistics so that those deadlines can be adhered to.

Does the Minister agree that although tremendous progress has been made in improving employment rights for British workers, it is still a national scandal that many millions of them will take this bank holiday Monday off without pay? Does he believe that employment rights need to be improved to ensure that all British workers can enjoy the same—

Inward Investment


What the total sums of manufacturing inward investment were in each year since 1999.[110627]

The total stock of manufacturing inward investment in the three years of 1999 to 2002 was £63.3 billion, £69.7 billion and £92 billion.

I thank the Secretary of State for that. Is she not concerned that the net figures show that we are losing out and that foreign investment into this country is not going ahead? Is she not also concerned that, at the same time, companies such as Dyson, Royal Doulton, Black and Decker and even Corus are downsizing, closing down or escaping abroad? Is she not worried that all that contributes to the fact that more than 500,000 people have lost their jobs in the manufacturing industry in this country? What representations is she making to the Chancellor to improve the lot of manufacturing in the United Kingdom?

Every job loss and every decision by a company to reduce its employment or to relocate outside the UK is of course a matter for great regret. However, the hon. Gentleman is ignoring the fact that the latest UN report on world investment confirms that the UK is the No. 1 destination for foreign direct investment in Europe. That investment is particularly important in manufacturing, and I am delighted to say that at the end of 2002 foreign direct investment in the UK was significantly higher than a year before.

One factor in location and investment decisions is the fact that the UK is outside the single currency. The hon. Gentleman may not welcome my saying this, but the impact of that on investment, jobs and trade is one of the issues that we will take into account in making our decision on membership of the euro.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking and congratulating the Canadian food manufacturer, McCain, which has invested heavily to make Scarborough its European base and gone on to great success? It has also been involved in innovation and development, proving not only that it richly deserves its recent Queen's award for industry but that it is a flagship company, which is telling other companies in north America just how important it is to invest in places in Britain such as Scarborough and Whitby.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am delighted to take this opportunity to congratulate the company and all those who are helping to make Scarborough an excellent location for inward investment. That underlines the fact that under the Chancellor's stewardship the UK remains one of the best places in the world in which to set up and grow a business. It is also one of the most attractive countries in the world, second only to the United States, for foreign direct investment.

Does the Secretary of State accept that her final comment to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) rather spoiled what had hitherto been a reasonable answer? Is she not aware that the high level of bureaucracy and over-regulation and the high social costs that are imposed on manufacturing, particularly through the European Union, are having a direct impact on that industry, and that many jobs are moving away from Europe and the UK for that reason? Is not the right hon. Lady somewhat concerned that our manufacturing base, for which investment is clearly very important, is shrinking because of over-regulation, high taxation and heavy on-costs, many of which are imposed because of the EU?

I am extremely concerned to ensure that this country has a strong, successful future in high-technology, high value-added manufacturing. That is why one of the first things that I did as Secretary of State was to bring together industrial leaders and trade unionists to help us to put in place the first manufacturing strategy for the UK for 30 years. As a direct result, we have established throughout all the English regions a highly successful manufacturing advisory service, which is already helping small and medium-sized manufacturers to improve their productivity and profitability. Although manufacturing jobs continue to be lost, not only in this country but in every other industrialised country, we are also growing new manufacturing industries, particularly in biosciences, which will help to create good jobs.

I also draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that every international benchmarking survey shows that our business environment is one of the best in the world, and we will continue to improve the regulatory environment to keep it that way.

What effect does the Secretary of State think that higher national insurance contributions, the climate change levy, the pensions tax and the provisions of the Employment Act 2002, which came into effect last month, will have on inward investment? Will she confirm that six years to the day since Labour was elected, the Government have produced the worst trade deficit since records began in 1697, the second worst fall in business investment since records began in 1966, a halving of the productivity growth rate achieved under the Conservative Government, the worst strike record for over a decade, and the destruction of more than 2,000 manufacturing jobs every day since this Prime Minister moved into 10 Downing street?

I know that the increase in national insurance contributions will help to secure the huge improvements in the national health service that everybody in our country, including employers, wants. I know that the climate change levy and the climate change agreements are already delivering measurable improvements in energy efficiency throughout manufacturing, thereby helping to reduce costs. I know also that the new regulations on family-friendly working that we introduced last month will give employers the benefit of access to a more flexible and highly skilled work force.

I regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman chooses to talk down the British economy and British manufacturing as he has done today. As he well knows, thanks to the decisions made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor six years ago, ours is one of the fastest-growing major economies in the world; and our manufacturing companies, despite the very tough global conditions they face, have succeeded in keeping up and, indeed, increasing the exports they send to the rest of the world. The hon. Gentleman should congratulate them on that.

Regulatory Impact Assessments


What procedures she has in place to audit regulatory impact assessments after implementation of (a) legislation and (b) regulations.[110633]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Nigel Griffiths)

The accuracy of RIAs is currently being considered by the National Audit Office, with the Government's full support. If the hon. Gentleman has an approach that would further improve the assessment without increasing the bureaucracy, the House would be delighted to hear it.

Given that the Government have imposed £20 billion worth of additional regulatory costs on business since they entered office, I hope that the Minister agrees that it is essential that the costs to business of any additional regulations or legislation be accurately assessed. The fact is that business confidence in the current system of RIAs is, rightly or wrongly, low. Does he agree that to increase business confidence in the current system and to improve the quality of policy making, there should be a system of comprehensive post-implementation audit of RIAs, to determine how accurate they are?

The facts do not bear out the hon. Gentleman's statement. He should tell that to the 373,000 businesses that started up last year or the 1.7 million businesses that have started up in the past six years, with the best survival rates for a decade. In referring to the £20 billion figure, he contradicts his own Front Benchers, because that figure includes the cost of the minimum wage, which they now support, and the cost of paid holidays and paid pensions, which people should not have had to wait until the 21st century to get. The facts are plain: we have a robust method of assessing RIAs. What he suggests is a bureaucratic and burdensome further appraisal of RIAs, which we reject.

My hon. Friend will know that the Public Accounts Committee has considered this question. Does he accept that any RIA should take into account the positive impact on profit of measures such as the working families tax credit, which reduces the real cost of wages to business, along with form filling, and legislation that gives £10,000 tax-free profit to partnerships that become incorporated? Does he accept that we should examine the impact of legislation on profit and growth in the round, not simply focus on a bit of red tape?

My hon. Friend is right. It is a vote of confidence in the handling of the economy that so many small and medium-sized enterprises—1.7 million—have started up in this country in the past six years, and so many large companies have expanded, as Honda did when it opened a second plant in Swindon in 2000–01. It is recognised across the economy that the handling of our economic affairs by the Government, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the current Secretary of State in particular, is second to none.

Given that the burden of regulation, whatever the intrinsic merits of some of that regulation, tends to be disproportionately large upon small and medium-sized enterprises, will the Minister undertake, as I previously urged the Secretary of State to undertake, a review of the merits of the Regulatory Flexibility Act 1980 and the Small Businesses Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act 1996 in the United States, for the simple and compelling reason that that country has a vastly superior record to any other in the generation of new private sector employment?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has looked closely at the United States in the respect that he requests. No one in the House would disagree with him when he asks that regulations and their impact be considered proportionately. I, as the Minister with responsibility for small businesses, accept that while larger companies have lawyers and accountants who can examine regulations in detail, smaller companies cannot afford them. I would rather the larger companies employed people who invented and developed products, not lawyers.

Renewable Energy


What further action she is taking to communicate to Ofgem the policy of her Department on renewable energy; and if she will make a statement.[110635]

My ministerial colleagues and I, and my officials, have regular meetings with Ofgem to discuss a range of issues.

Ofgem has committed itself to producing regulatory impact assessments, including environmental impact assessments for all significant new policies, and following the White Paper on energy policy, we are revising the statutory guidance that we give Ofgem on both social and environmental issues.

I welcome that answer. Given that the early days of the new electricity trading arrangements, which were introduced by Ofgem, were characterised by serious problems, especially for smaller electricity developers such as those in the renewables and combined heat and power industry, will my right hon. Friend make it a priority for the new chair and chief executive of Ofgem that they seek to understand the needs of the renewables industry, and that they make accelerating the modernisation of the grid and sorting out some of the problems facing the CHP industry key priorities?

Yes, I have already made precisely those points to Ofgem, and they will be reinforced in the new guidance to which I have referred. In addition to the work of the regulator, the renewables obligation, which by 2010 will be worth about £1 billion a year to the industry, and the new carbon emissions trading scheme, which we will bring into effect in about 2006, will both help to accelerate the development of the renewables industry that we need to deliver sustainable energy to domestic and business consumers in Britain.

One of the bolder claims set out in the energy White Paper was the stated ambition to achieve 20 per cent. of Britain's electricity sources from renewable energy by the year 2020, though it was not clear whether that was a commitment, a target or an aspiration. However, in recent weeks the Minister for Energy and Construction has indicated that if the Government do not look as though they are on target to achieve this, whatever it is, the situation will have to be reviewed. On a scale of nought to 10, how confident is the right hon. Lady that she can achieve this aspiration?

I made it clear when I published the White Paper, and in a statement to the House, that I believe that our intentions to achieve both our climate change objectives and our energy efficiency objectives are achievable, by a massive increase in energy efficiency throughout the economy and by a substantial increase in renewable energy. There is no doubt that it will be tough. That is why we are putting in place not only the renewables obligation but the new carbon emissions trading system, which will be part of the Europe-wide trading system and hugely important in securing these goals. I believe that we can do it. I do not propose to start giving odds on that, and of course we shall keep the situation under review to ascertain whether the policies that we are putting in place are working or whether they need strengthening or changing.

I agree that it s important for Ofgem to play a role and for us to continue to develop our renewable energy sources. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important also to deliver the new generation of clean coal technology, which can play a significant role in helping us to meet our Kyoto targets, and also provide many new jobs in constituencies such as Doncaster, North?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why we are supporting the cleaner coal technology programme, which is worth £25 million over three years. That will help us both to reduce carbon emissions and to ensure that there is a future for the excellent British coal industry.

Just precisely how does one communicate an aspiration as policy? Is not the truth that the right hon. Lady's renewables aspiration is unachievable? She has just terminated the future for nuclear electricity and she expects the end of coal, leaving just natural gas, thus ushering in a new dash for gas as the energy Minister rushes from Norway to Russia, Algeria, Iran and Angola to try to secure our future energy supply. No wonder he is not here—he must be dealing with the emergency that now exists over our future single source of energy, thanks to her having an aspiration instead of a policy.

I am not sure quite what the hon. Gentleman's question is. It is a great pity that he mocks the very real policy challenge facing our country as we shift from being an exporter of energy to an importer of energy which means, as we said in the White Paper, that energy policy will become an increasingly important part of our foreign policy. We must ensure both that we have the right infrastructure and the regulatory climate to get the necessary security of supply for gas from different parts of the world such as we have enjoyed for oil. However, as I have just said in response to an earlier question, by stepping up substantially our efforts on energy efficiency and securing a much larger share of our electricity from renewables, we will indeed be able to achieve both security of supply and our climate change targets.

Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that the environmental impact assessments to which she has referred will take into account whether or not wind farms are to be sited in areas of outstanding natural beauty? Will she also look at the concern of a number of people that the location of wind farms close to rivers and the seaside can harm the ecosystem? In particular, can she get her officials to look at the proposed wind farm in County Londonderry, which has united elected representatives there and in County Donegal who are concerned about the impact on the area's fragile and precious ecosystem and salmon stocks?

I am not aware of the particular application in County Londonderry, but of course I shall ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Construction looks at that. However, the issues to which my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) referred are already taken into account when considering an application for wind farms or, indeed, other developments. I would just tell him, as I have told environmental organisations, that people cannot on the one hand say that they want more renewable energy and, on the other, campaign against every specific proposal for an increase in renewable energy in different parts of the country.

Trade Balance (Eu)


What the balance of trade with the European Union was in (a) the latest 12 months for which figures are available and (b) the equivalent period 10 years previously. [110636]

In 1992, the United Kingdom's trade in goods and services with the European Union was worth £163 billion. The deficit then of £5.4 billion was worth just over 3 per cent. of the UK's total trade. In 2002, our trade with the European Union was worth nearly £300 billion. The deficit of just under £14 billion was worth 4.7 per cent. of the UK's total trade.

Is the Minister not genuinely worried about her balance of trade figures? The adverse balance of 2002 was the worst ever, particularly as it was recorded at a time when we had a positive balance with many parts of the world. As our trade with Europe used to be positive in certain years before we joined the EEC, could the right hon. Lady try to conduct an inquiry to find out what exactly has gone wrong? In particular—and I mean this very sincerely—could she try and find out whether the reason why we cannot sell as many goods to Europe is the misery and unemployment associated with membership of the single currency?

I know that the hon. Gentleman gets very excited about matters European, but I point out to him that the increase in the trade deficit over the past year or so is a result of the fact that we in Britain have enjoyed and are enjoying relatively good GDP growth. We are continuing to grow, whereas demand in the major continental economies has been disappointing.

I also point out to the hon. Gentleman that more than half our trade is with the European Union. The proportion has steadily increased over the years since we joined the Common Market, and is now about three times as much as the trade that we enjoy with the United States.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that for business in regions such as the north-east, which rely on EU countries for 78 per cent. of their exports, the nightmarish policies advocated by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) would be disastrous?

My hon. Friend is right. If we were to pull out of the European Union and join the North American Free Trade Agreement, as some of the wilder Eurosceptics propose, it would be disastrous for jobs, investment and trade, and it would hit hard not only my hon. Friend's constituents but all our constituents.

Post Office Card Account


What assessment her Department has made of the impact on the profitability of the Post Office of the current level of take-up of the Post Office card account. [110638]

The Department has made no such an assessment. The Post Office card account is one element of the Post Office's strategy to restore the network of post offices to profitability. The strategy requires the Post Office to develop new, higher value activities such as banking and other financial services, which is made possible by the Government's investment in technology in every post office in the country.

I thank the Minister for his response and encourage him to undertake such research. Does he agree that a seven-stage application process for a Post Office card account acts as a deterrent, as does the lack of information about the account? That will lead to lower take-up, which will affect the profitability of the Post Office and post offices, and could lead to further closures, such as the threatened closure of Westmead road post office in my constituency.

Many people are applying for Post Office card accounts. I do not agree about the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman believes exist. As we take advantage of the implementation of universal banking, which went live on 1 April, as planned—I recall Opposition Front Benchers expressing some scepticism about that, but it was delivered on time—people will be able to continue to collect their benefits in cash at the post office, as we always promised, through a bank account or through the Post Office card account.

The key for the Post Office is that universal banking services will allow post offices to offer services to a new generation of customers. Sub-postmasters in the hon. Gentleman's constituency should consider the new opportunities that universal banking offers them. For example, since last week, every Barclays bank current account holder can obtain cash at any post office in the country, using their existing bank card, so 10 million Barclays current account holders have a new and compelling reason to go into their local post office. The post office will, of course, receive a payment for every such transaction, and once customers are in the post office, they will buy other things there. That is the way forward for post offices in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Other banks will have a similar arrangement, and what the hon. Gentleman—

I accept what my hon. Friend says as he waxes lyrical. We must rebuild the network, but the biggest single problem is the relationship between the Department for Work and Pensions and sub-post offices. It is difficult to pretend that it is not off-putting if people have to go through the Department for Work and Pensions to get to the sub-post office. There is another bizarre twist. We know that, under the network reinvention programme, there must be some closures, but in my area we seem to be saving rural post offices, whereas those in the more urban areas are being sacrificed. That is unacceptable. People are worried about whether they will have access to the Post Office card account. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

I gather that, so far, nearly 100,000 people have requested a Post Office card account. There is a difference between rural and urban areas. Quite a few urban areas have 15 or more post offices within a one-mile radius, and, as my hon. Friend rightly says, there is no longer the business to sustain such a dense network. However, 3.5 million people in the UK do not have a bank account, many of whom would be better off with one, and the process of changing to benefit payment through automated credit transfer gives each of those people the chance to consider whether they would like to open a bank account. That is the purpose of the arrangements that we have put in place, and for that reason there is merit in them.

May I relay to the Minister the very real anger of people in Watlington in south Oxfordshire who, like many others, face the closure of their post office? A problem that has been raised with me by the manager there is that housebound pensioners do not find it easy to depute another person to pick up their pension or any other benefit for them, which used to be possible with the old pension book system. What can the Minister do to address that problem and bring people back to the post offices to do their shopping so that post offices can continue to play a part in the life of the village?

We have ensured that those who are housebound can receive a second card with a separate PIN that will be available for use by a nominee. We would be concerned if large numbers of different people were obtaining the money, as that would be a rather insecure arrangement. One of the benefits of the changes that we have made is that the new arrangements will be much more secure than the old ones were.

Is the Minister aware of the line that the Post Office takes on these matters? I have been in touch with the Post Office in an attempt to save Hilltop post office in Dronfield and, while it says that it will note and carefully consider the points that I have made, given the contents of its letter I am not hopeful. It says that

"the introduction of Direct Payment options … undoubtedly, means fewer customers using our network of Post Office branches".
That is one of the arguments used for closures. I can send the Post Office the information that the Minister has just given about the wonders of Barclays bank accounts, which might help us save post offices in future, but would it not be of assistance if the Post Office card

could be obtained in a sensible and reasonable way by simply ticking a box in the same way that one can obtain a bank account?

We have put in place arrangements with Postwatch and provided substantial funding so that it can manage the consultation process. I encourage my hon. Friend and others who might be concerned about particular post office closures to raise their concerns with Postwatch.

There are many advantages in having a bank account that are not available through a Post Office card account, which is why we want people to take the opportunity of this change to consider whether they would be better off with a bank account, which would give them access to discounts on utility bills and so on. Many people, as we are seeing, are deciding that they want a Post Office card account, and no impediment will be placed in their way, but this is an opportunity for others to consider whether a bank account would help them.

Is not the truth of the matter that the Government do not want people to continue drawing pensions and other social security benefits in cash at post offices? How else can the Minister explain the constant denigration of the Post Office card account and the obstacles that are put in the way of people who wish to open one? He has been at it again today from the Dispatch Box. He is promoting Barclays bank and commercial bank accounts and saying that the Post Office card account is the second-rate option. Does he understand that that policy will make life difficult for thousands of elderly and vulnerable people and that it will threaten the survival of post offices throughout the country whose existence is often a lifeline for the communities that they serve?

I am disappointed; I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to congratulate the Post Office on the successful implementation of universal banking on time, contrary to the fears that he expressed during Question Time a few weeks ago. I do not agree with his allegations. The Post Office card account is a very important element in the strategy, but it is only one element. In the past, the problem has been that the Post Office has locked into a declining market in which people simply want to cash giros. When people retire, more and more of them now want to carry on using the bank account that they have used throughout their lives. The £500 million investment that we have made, benefiting every post office in the country, has opened up that market to the Post Office and held out the prospect of a much more attractive commercial future for the post office network. I agree about the importance of post offices in our communities, which is why we have made such a substantial investment in their future.

Small And Medium-Sized Enterprises


What efforts her Department is making to improve productivity growth rates among small and medium-sized enterprises.[110639]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Nigel Griffiths)

Improving productivity is central to the Government's economic strategy. We have overtaken Japan and narrowed the gap with Germany to 4 per cent., our research and development tax credits are helping an estimated 3,000 firms to keep ahead of our competition and, last year, more than 1,000 of our brightest businesses were offered SMARTs—small firms merit awards for research and technology—of £47 million to help develop their products in the marketplace.

I am grateful to the Minister for those proud statements, but, despite all that, the truth is that under this Government productivity growth has halved. That has happened not least because of the fact that the Government impose 15 regulations every working day. Two years ago, as I am sure you will recall, Mr. Speaker, the Government passed the Regulatory Reform Act. We were promised that there would be 50 new regulatory reform orders immediately. Yet, two years later, only 12 orders have been enacted. What happened to the other 38? Will the Minister explain why his Department has managed to pass just one regulatory reform order in 24 months?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that that was one more order than the Conservative Government ever got to grips with in their time. Indeed, who was it who said that 28 licences, certificates and regulations were needed just to start a business? John Major made that comment at the 1992 Tory party conference. It now takes a day to set up a business, it costs less than £85 and there is no longer a need for 28 licences, so we will not take lectures about bureaucracy from the Conservatives.

We take productivity very seriously, which is why we have introduced tax credits to support innovative SMEs with cash support worth up to 24 per cent. of their research and development and why SMEs' productivity as a proportion of large firms' productivity is increasing—it is up 1 per cent. in the most recent recorded figures to 93 per cent., and some SMEs are more efficient than large firms. We have taken the measures to increase productivity, and I noticed that the hon. Gentleman admitted in his supplementary question that productivity was improving.

Is the Minister aware that the Select Committee on Regulatory Reform has dealt with a large number of reforms this year? Is it not regrettable that Conservative Members very rarely turn up at that Committee?

I am not here to get involved in party politics, but I am sure that the House and a wider audience will have noticed the excellent point made by my hon. Friend.

Surely, if productivity was really improving that much, major plants would not be leaving the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) mentioned a number of plants that were moving out of the UK, but he did not mention Vauxhall, Dr. Martens, Wilkinson Sword and Coats Viyella. That is straightforward outward investment. Surely, we need improvements in productivity. How many more UK plants need to leave for the far east before the Government recognise that there is a crisis in manufacturing? Or will they rely on the SARS epidemic to save British industry?

I know a little bit about the far east because I have just returned from a trade mission there. One of the facts that the Opposition choose to ignore is that, for instance, more than 70 per cent. of Taiwan's inward investment in Europe comes to Britain. In Japan, 43 per cent. of inward investment to Europe comes to Britain. I mentioned Honda in answering another question. What about Ford and those other big manufacturers that choose to invest in Britain? They do so because we have made Britain the preferred choice for the world for inward investment to Europe.

British Manufacturers


If she will make a statement on measures in the Budget designed to support British manufacturers.[110641]

The Budget includes a number of measures that will support British manufacturers: in particular, the research and development tax credit, from which manufacturers already benefit; deregulatory reforms to ease the regulatory burden on small businesses; and further support to improve levels of skills throughout the UK work force.

Much of manufacturing business needs to use steel somewhere in its processes. There is little in the Budget for such businesses, who are deeply concerned about what has been happening at Corus and about the fact that the Secretary of State seems to have been totally complacent in response to those events. What are the Government's proposals for the future of the UK steel industry?

We are all extremely concerned about the job losses at Corus, which have been going on for some years, and the prospect of further losses in some parts of the company. As the hon. Gentleman would expect, I have been talking to the company, to the trade unions and to hon. Members who represent steel constituencies to ensure that we support that company and its outstanding work force in securing a successful future for the steel industry. That is of huge importance not only to the workers at Corus, for whom this is a time of enormous anxiety, but to the whole of our manufacturing industry. I welcome the fact that the new leadership at Corus is putting in place a strategy that is designed to return the company to profitability and to ensure that it remains at the heart of a high-volume, strategic and successful steel industry in the United Kingdom.

Minister For Women

The Minister was asked—

Public Health


How many discussions she has had in the past year with the Secretary of State for Health regarding women's public health issues.[110644]


How many discussions she has had in the past year with the Secretary of State for Health regarding women's public health issues.[110647]

My officials have been working closely with the Department of Health and other Departments to draw together targets to tackle gender equality, including in public health. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for public health has ensured that women's needs are taken into account throughout our public health programmes, including those on breast cancer, cervical cancer and osteoporosis, and in our broader work on mental health, health inequalities and domestic violence.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Does she accept the comments that were recently made by Professor Adler of the Royal Free University medical college, who said that levels of sexual disease in England have reached crisis point, and that the Government's current levels of funding for sexual health will not even cover the costs of a chlamydial screening programme, let alone other sexually transmitted diseases? In her forthcoming discussions, will she and her officials raise the need to consider further funding for the treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases?

The increase in sexually transmitted diseases, particularly among young women, is a matter of enormous concern, and I will of course discuss it further with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

The Minister will be aware that in 2001 heart disease killed 54,000 women—it was the single biggest killer. What work is she doing with the Department of Health on that subject; and does she have a view on whether the much-publicised "eat chocolate to get fit" campaign will help to reduce heart disease among women?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to the prevalence of heart disease and the number of deaths that it causes among women. As we know, heart disease is all too often seen as a male, not a female, disease, and in some tragic cases it is simply not diagnosed in women. The need to ensure that the medical profession pays attention to heart disease among women is an important part of the programme introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to improve services and to cut the rate of preventable death from heart disease.

The Minister will probably be aware that yesterday there was an immensely successful conference in Parliament on endometriosis, which was attended by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears). It was organised by the all-party group on endometriosis, the National Endometriosis Society and the SHE Trust, and proposed a programme of work to raise the profile of that condition, which affects 2 million women in this country. Would she be willing to meet a delegation from the all-party group to discuss that programme?

I am aware of the conference and I congratulate everyone who was involved in organising it. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence is already considering how it can improve advice to GPs on an extremely painful and common condition. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health would be delighted to receive a deputation on such an important issue.

Has my right hon. Friend considered the specific problem of secondhand smoke in her discussions with the Secretary of State for Health on women's public health issues? It carries additional risks for women of increased lung cancer and heart disease. What proposals is she examining to tackle that problem? Has she considered the possibility of a ban on smoking in restaurants and cafs?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, he has a Bill on the subject. The increase in smoking among young women is especially worrying not only for their health but for that of the children they will have. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is considering my hon. Friend's proposal for a ban on smoking in all public places. Those of us who are not smokers welcome the opportunity to enjoy smoke-free environments.

The Minister recognises the importance of sex education in schools in helping to deter immature and promiscuous sexual behaviour and reducing unwanted teenage pregnancies. What discussions has she held on the subject with her colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills?

I have discussed the matter with colleagues in the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills for some years. It is clear from experience not only here but in other countries, including the Netherlands, that the best way to ensure that young people do not engage in risky and premature sexual behaviour is to enable them to have an open discussion about not only sexual activity but the emotions and relationships associated with it and the desirability of a strong and loving relationship within which sex can take place.

Equal Pay


If she will make a statement about the Government's targets for equal pay.[110645]

The Government are working to reduce the gender pay gap through a variety of measures, including equal pay reviews throughout the civil service by the end of April, working with the Equal Opportunities Commission to promote equal pay reviews by other employers, introducing an equal pay questionnaire as part of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and providing trade unions with additional funding for training representatives in equal pay issues.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. Doubtless she is aware that, despite the Equal Pay Act, which a previous Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, effected in 1976, women who work full time earn only 81p for every pound that men earn and women who work part time earn only 59p for every pound that men earn. More worryingly, within three years of graduation, women earn on average 15 per cent. less than their male counterparts.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Fawcett Society that unless the Government set firm targets, at the current snail's rate of progress, it will take 75 years before equal pay for women is truly achieved?

My hon. Friend is right about the shocking extent of the continuing pay gap. However, in order to reduce it, we need to take action, especially on the problem of low pay from which so many women suffer. The introduction of the national minimum wage on top of Barbara Castle's Equal Pay Act has already meant significant pay rises for nearly 1 million women. I am delighted that, a few weeks ago, I was able to announce further increases in the national minimum wage for this year and next year, following the Low Pay Commission's recommendations.

At the top of the labour market, far too few women have access to the best paid jobs. Tribunal cases in the City have shown that even those women who get to the top do not receive equal pay. The cases that are being brought for equal pay for work of equal value—

The Minister for Women has just commended the civil service's progress towards achieving equal pay targets. In the light of that, how does she explain that only 19 of the 93 Government Departments or agencies conducted an equal pay review by the deadline last Wednesday, despite being given a year to do it?

All Government Departments are undertaking equal pay reviews. Those that have not completed them will shortly do so and put in place action plans to ensure that the equal pay gaps revealed by the reviews are closed. With the involvement of ACAS, we have put in place the new grading structure and phased pay rises that will ensure that the women as well as the men in the Department receive fair pay.

Following that answer and the Government's initiative in trying to deal with the unacceptable gender pay gap through independent audits, can the Minister say how many corporations have agreed to conduct or have carried out independent, rigorous assessments of the type that she is seeking? How many of the rather limited number of public sector reviews passed the test of being independent and rigorous?

The Equal Opportunities Commission and the Government are monitoring the take-up of equal pay reviews in the private sector. When we have that information, we will, of course, publish it. In the civil service, we have sought independent assistance in ensuring that reviews are carried out properly. They have revealed serious problems of unequal pay and we are putting in place the action needed to put that right.

Business Of The House

12.31 pm

May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for next week?

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 5 MAY—The House will not be sitting

TUESDAY 6 MAY—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

WEDNESDAY 7 MAY—Second Reading of the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill.

THURSDAY 8 MAY—Second Reading of the Fire Services Bill.

FRIDAY 9 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 12 MAY—Opposition day [6th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Subject to be announced.

TUESDAY 13 MAY—Progress on consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

WEDNESDAY 14 MAY—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

THURSDAY 15 MAY—Opposition Day [7th Allotted Day]. [First Part]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by a debate on developing a national skills strategy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 16 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

I thank the Leader of the House for letting us have the business. The Second Reading of the foundation hospitals Bill will take place on 7 May. Will he reconsider whether one day is enough to allow his colleagues to air their views on that Bill? He said last night, in the pleasant little exchange that we had on a parliamentary matter, how grateful he was for the unusual support that he was getting from his parliamentary colleagues. Given that new confidence, perhaps he will consider having a two-day debate on the Second Reading of the foundation hospitals Bill, so that he can wallow further in the confidence of his parliamentary colleagues and demonstrate the extent of support that there is in the Labour party for foundation hospitals. That would be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

May we have a debate very early on the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy? I am told that the current Greek presidency of the European Union has indicated that it wants a final agreement as early as June on the new shape of the CAP. If that is the case, I hope that the Leader of the House will agree that it is extremely important that hon. Members, particularly those with agricultural and rural interests, have an opportunity to have their say about the CAP before the Government commit us to a position on CAP reform. I hope that he will agree that that is urgent and that he will provide Government time to debate it.

My right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Chancellor referred yesterday to an astonishing error in the explanatory notes to the Finance Bill, which wrongly stated the basic rate of tax. In fairness to the Treasury—the Chancellor beetled out of the Chamber before he could hear what the shadow Chancellor said—a correction has been issued, but my right hon. and learned Friend asked for an undertaking that the Chancellor would come to the House before next Tuesday's debate on the Finance Bill to correct any further errors in the explanatory notes. We cannot be expected to start a major debate on the Finance Bill ill and erroneously informed by the Treasury about the basic elements of the legislation. I hope that the Leader of the House will confirm that the Chancellor has done his homework, looked through the explanatory notes and satisfied himself that there are no further errors and, if there are, that he will come to the House to correct them. An apology—rare though it would be from the Chancellor—would not be out of place.

Has the Leader of the House opened his parliamentary mail this morning? I am sure that, like me, he opens his own post every morning and peruses the contents. If he has, he will have found a rather odd letter from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The letter was entitled, "Licensing Bill Surgery". I am sure that we would all like to see some—no, a lot of—surgery on the Licensing Bill, but that is not what was meant.

The letter pointed out that the Licensing Bill is currently in Committee, but went on to say:
"Certain aspects of the Bill have been contentious"—
that is a good start; the Secretary of State has at least noticed that—
"and some are still not fully understood."
It is not clear whether she meant by herself or by others. She continued:
"I believe that it is extremely important we are able to answer your fears and concerns"—
presumably including those of the Leader of the House—
"and to clarify any points of misunderstanding. I therefore propose to hold a surgery session at which you can put your points or concerns to my officials, the experts on the Bill."
I thought that that was what Standing Committees were for; to deal with contentious aspects of a Bill, to enable Members to understand it and to clear up any difficulties. The Secretary of State obviously does not believe that. Standing Committees are already being truncated and cut off—not just at the knees, but at other vital parts—and now we see a new departure. The Secretary of State is telling us to forget Committees, because they are a bore, in favour of surgeries for MPs, so that civil servants can do the heavy lifting, explain the nonsenses in a Bill and let Ministers off the hook. Will the Leader of the House explain what the hell is going on? Is he going to attend the surgery and have the Bill explained to him?

On 28 April, the Paymaster General rashly said, in the context of the child and working tax credits, that her
"aim is that … families will get their money by Friday of this week."—[Official Report, 28 April 2003; Vol. 404, c. 54.]
That is tomorrow, so will the Paymaster General make a statement next Tuesday to inform us whether the families have had all their money? That would be a welcome development.

Yesterday the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay)—I see him in his place, as ever—asked the Prime Minister a question. The hon. Gentleman first reminded the Prime Minister of a written parliamentary reply of 19 December 2001, in which he had said:
"Lord Wilson said that he had given instructions that there was to be no tapping of the telephones of Members of the House of Commons and that if there were a development which required a change of policy, he"—
the Prime Minister—
"would at such a moment as seemed compatible with the security of the country, on his own initiative, make a statement in the House about it."—[Official Report, 19 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 367W.]
This is an important matter. Yesterday and today, we have had sensational revelations about the apparent tapping of the telephones of Mo Mowlam—a former right hon. Member of this House—a member of the Prime Minister's staff and another Member of Parliament. If the revelations are true, surely the Prime Minister must keep faith with the undertaking of his predecessor, which he has confirmed, to tell the House what is going on.

All Members have an interest in this matter, Mr. Speaker, as must you. If Members of Parliament are to have their telephones tapped. we must know why and how. Most important of all—this is the key question— was it authorised by the Prime Minister? Either he knows what is going on or he does not. This matter is of the highest constitutional importance. I hope that the Leader of the House can either give us reassurances about this matter or instruct the Prime Minister to come to the House early next week to clarify the matter so that we know the truth about it.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. First, I should rectify the record by announcing the business for Westminster Hall, which I omitted to do first time round. I know that the right hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in that.

On Thursday 15 May, there will be a debate on the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the case for the Human Rights Commission. On Thursday 22 May, there will be a cross-cutting question session on tackling drugs, followed by a debate on the report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee on urban charging schemes. I am sure that the whole House will take a deep interest in all that business.

The right hon. Gentleman asked for further and greater debate on foundation hospitals. Within the constraints of parliamentary time, we are always prepared to give as much time as possible to subjects of great importance to the nation and to the future of our public services. That is certainly the case with foundation hospitals. The purpose of foundation hospitals is to give greater managerial freedom at a local level. All my colleagues and I support that purpose. The idea is to move from a top-down management system to one based on a few key rules within which organisations have much greater flexibility over managing their resources and designing services. This innovation is part of our move to devolve responsibility to the front line and improve accountability to patients and the public.

I did in fact read that, as the right hon. Gentleman said. Every word I said was taken from various speeches of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which shows our unanimity on all these issues. We will be extremely happy not only to discuss foundation hospitals, but to do so in the context of a comparison of health records. As the House will know, there are now nearly 50,000 more nurses than when we came to power, over 10,000 more doctors, 300,000 more operations and 750,000 additional elective admissions. When we compare that with what is offered as the alternative, we are more than happy to give time—

I assumed that the Chairman of the Procedure Committee would have known that.

I am precisely answering the question about whether we would be prepared to give more time to debate health and foundation hospitals, particularly the alternative policies to those that we are pursuing; policies of making patients pay more for health care when they need it and slashing by 20 per cent. the amount of money put into health care.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the common agricultural policy and the position of the Greek presidency. At this stage, I am not entirely familiar with that. However, I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will always look for opportunities to debate our support for agriculture within this country. We are investing about £500 million over three years, targeted to help farmers to add value to their products by reconnecting with customers.

On the Finance Bill, I am certain that the Chancellor will have ensured that every dot and comma of his document is accurate. If not, he will, with graciousness, accept responsibility for any mistakes and correct them, as he has done in the past.

I thought that there was a rather ungracious dismissal not only of my colleague, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but of the whole of Britain's culture and heritage in the rather swiping aside made by the shadow Leader of the House. I understood that he and his party were deeply interested in our culture and heritage and would thus have welcomed the efforts that my colleague, the Secretary of State, is making to offer even more openness and access not only to politicians but to civil servants, and to improve access to our culture and our historical heritage, as witnessed by the huge increase in the number of people in this country who are visiting museums since we abolished entry charges to so many of them.

The shadow Leader mentioned tax credits. This issue is vital; the credits will benefit millions of people. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the task is massive. My understanding is that, at present, claims are being processed in respect of about 3 million of the 4 million received and that about 700 extra staff have been taken on. If anyone who was entitled to receive money last week has not yet received it, I deeply regret that, but I can assure them that a huge amount is being made available. I am sure that the Chancellor and his colleagues will be constantly available to answer questions as things develop. They take seriously the criticisms that have been made of their efforts so far.

The shadow Leader also raised the important issue of telephone tapping. The Prime Minister commented on that yesterday. For reasons that the House will, I hope, appreciate, I do not intend to add further to the comments made by my right hon. Friend, especially as I understand that arrests have been made in connection with the newspaper reports.

I am not sure what has happened during the past few hours, since I came to the House, but I understand that arrests were made. In any case, even in normal circumstances, I should be reticent to make further comments at this stage. I hope that the shadow Leader of the House will accept that position.

I am deputising for my colleague, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who is in his constituency promoting local democracy.

First, I welcome the fact that we shall have an early opportunity to debate foundation hospitals. In order to make clear the terms of that debate, can the Leader of the House explain in a little more detail what the Chancellor of the Exchequer meant in his comments to the Treasury Select Committee yesterday? The Chancellor seemed to imply that any additional borrowing for such hospitals would have to be within national health service financial ceilings, and would thus be at the expense of other parts of the NHS, confirming many people's worst fears about that initiative. Will the Leader of the House confirm that I have correctly understood the matter?

Secondly, the Leader of the House will be aware of concern in the House, expressed at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday and during Trade and Industry Question Time today, about the future of the steel industry. An Adjournment debate on the future of the industry will be held in Westminster Hall next week, but will the right hon. Gentleman accept that this is a major issue that affects several regions—the north-east, south Yorkshire and south Wales—and raises major questions about executive pay and unfairness in that respect? Will he therefore ensure that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, after meeting industry representatives tomorrow, returns on Tuesday with a full statement to the House about the crisis in that industry, the job losses and the potential responses?

Lastly, may I welcome the fact that last week we had a gracious apology from the Paymaster General about the administrative problems in the tax credit arrangements? I suggest to the Leader of the House, however, that a potentially even bigger administrative problem arises in relation to pensioners, as a result of the enormous changeover problems associated with post office accounts. Hundreds of thousands of pensioners are now trapped in an extremely complicated bureaucratic process; many are being guided towards bank accounts that they do not want, and many have no provision at all for drawing their cash in the months ahead. Since the Deputy Prime Minister has personally assumed responsibility for banging Ministers' heads together and sorting out the administrative mess, will the Leader of the House ask him to come to the House to make a statement before another Minister has to make another gracious apology for the mix-up that has occurred?

On pensioners, the Government have paid considerable attention to ensuring that the transition in relation to pensioners' access through post offices to benefits and pensions has been done as efficiently and as caringly as possible. As the hon. Gentleman may know, a range of options are now open to pensioners that were previously not available. A range of advantages are associated with that, including, of course, the fact that it minimises the possibility of attacks on pensioners, compared with the previous arrangement. He is absolutely right that, in such a big project, difficulties have arisen. We should be thankful that the Deputy Prime Minister has devoted so much time and energy to the matter. He continues to do so, and I am sure that if there are any other major issues that must be shared with the House, he will do that.

On the steel industry, the Government, along with Back-Bench Labour Members—and, I am sure, the whole House—deeply regret the decisions that have been taken. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I understand more than anyone the effects on individuals and the community of redundancies in the steel industry. At one stage, I had in my area some 20,000 steel jobs. I now have only a few hundred, and these are just outside, and not even inside, my constituency. The Government and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will put in enormous efforts, as we always do in such circumstances, to establish a taskforce to make sure that those who have lost their job are in a position to gain jobs through training and the creation of an environment in which new jobs flourish.

On foundation hospitals, I have already made our position clear, as have all my colleagues, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who I quoted earlier. He has said that the purpose of foundation hospitals is to provide greater managerial freedom at local level, which he supports. In any project such as the reform and revitalisation of our public sector and public services, legitimate debate exists about the practical balance between the centre and front-line decisions, high-level decisions and decentralised decision-making, and the need to have prudence in fiscal controls at the centre but a degree of flexibility in borrowing to respond to the differentiated needs, choice and diversity required by modern working families who have greater ambitions than ever before. Of course, there is legitimate debate about that, and we have conducted that debate inside and outside our party in a mature and robust fashion because it is a question of people's lives and the quality of their lives.

The hon. Gentleman can be assured that the Government are totally united on this issue. We always benefit from the Liberal commitment—I think that this was what he said—to sharing and to educating the public on politics, and I hope that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who is absent today, does so with more honesty than the Liberals have shown on the subject of top-up fees. They have been pretending, in their party political broadcasts, that it is possible to provide education without paying for it. That is not the case. One must pay before one goes in or pay when one gets off at the end of the journey of education.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the US organisers of Monday's Baghdad conference failed to find a place for Dr. Besarani, who was the only woman delegate put forward by the Foreign Office? Will he arrange an urgent debate on how those preparations for the Iraqi interim authority are being conducted, and on how this Government's commitment to women's involvement in that process can be realised in practice?

Yes, I am aware of that, and I discussed it this morning with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Minister with responsibility for women's affairs. It is a matter of regret that the lady whom my hon. Friend mentions did not attend that conference, and it would be a matter of regret if women did not play a much fuller part in the future of Iraq than they have so far been allowed to do, as that is a vital component in allowing the Iraqi people to build a modern, democratic society for themselves. I cannot promise that there will be a debate here, but I assure her that this matter is at the forefront of Ministers' attention, and perhaps it is an issue that could be raised in Westminster Hall.

The Leader of the House may know that the Committee on Standards in Public Life published its ninth report a few weeks ago, making important recommendations to guarantee against misuse of the Government information service, to control the numbers and powers of special advisers, to promote the impartiality of the civil service and to revise the code of conduct for Ministers. Will he find time for a debate on this most important subject?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is an important subject. Although I cannot promise at this stage that there will definitely be a debate on it, I assure him that the Government take the matter most seriously.

Can I inform my right hon. Friend that turnout in the local elections has increased in St. Helens from 27 per cent. to 45 per cent. due to the introduction of all-out postal voting? Will he find some time in the House to discuss that important issue, to see what lessons are to be learned from those pilot schemes and to assess whether some of those measures should be made permanent?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that the measures that he mentioned increase participation in elections, and I am sure that the Electoral Commission and others will produce a report on the matter. I am sure too that there will be endless possibilities to discuss the matter. Perhaps an Adjournment debate would be an appropriate method of putting some of those issues into the public domain, including the various means used in the trial, such as text messaging and postal balloting. Even interactive television could be used, which would be completely novel as far as this country is concerned. Clearly, however, interest and participation in elections is determined not just by the technical means by which people vote but by the profile and campaigning of political parties. We all therefore have a responsibility to ensure increased participation.

Following the comments about the right to vote, the Leader of the House will be aware that elections are being held today in Scotland and Wales and that elections should have been held in Northern Ireland. Those were postponed, and legislation went through the House under which they were to be held on 29 May. Today, in Northern Ireland, it has been reported in the media that those elections have been postponed. I have just been told that a junior Minister in the Dail has confirmed that they are postponed. Surely the House, which passed the legislation, should have been informed, rather than hearing it from the media and from a Minister in another Government.

If any decision had been taken, the House would have been informed. The reality is that the date has been set—29 May—as the hon. Gentleman knows. There are no current plans to postpone those elections. We want to go into an election in which voters elect people to an Assembly with a real prospect of assuming devolved power. Time is pressing, but we remain focused on trying to bring that about. If and when any decision is made, the hon. Gentleman can be assured that, if there is any change in those arrangements, we will immediately bring such a decision to the House at the first opportunity.

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 1120, which is the last one to be published and is entitled "Solidarity with the Iraqi Independent Trade Union Movement"?

[That this House recalls that on May Day 1959 the Iraqi Labour Movement mobilised one million people out of the then population of 14 million for a massive march in Baghdad to celebrate International Workers' Day; sends its heartfelt solidarity to the Workers' Democratic Trade Union Movement in the Iraqi Republic on the occasion on 1st May 2003 of the first free labour movement march since the demise of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship; further notes that the Iraqi trade union movement is working for the creation of a unified, federal and democratic Iraq that transcends religious, ethnic and nationalist divisions and also guarantees political andtrade union rights, which were denied by the Baathist regime and its bogus trade union machine; and supports their call for the transfer of power from the occupying forces to an interim and broadly based coalition government which could remove the remnants of Saddam's dictatorship and prepare a permanent constitution which would provide the basis for free and fair elections under the direct supervision of the United Nations.]

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the workers democratic trade union movement on organising a march in Baghdad today, May day, that helps us to remember the massive demonstration of 1 million people out of a population of 14 million that took place in Baghdad in 1959? Can the early-day motion be part of a debate on the future of Iraq, in which we can discuss its democratisation and reconstruction and deal with the point about the 300 people who were drawn together in Baghdad to get democratic procedures moving? No one from a trade union was represented in that group, there was probably one person from the Labour movement, an Assyrian socialist and a few women. The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) could obviously also be dealt with, because no women trade unionists attended because no trade unionists at all were present.

I am familiar with the early-day motion entitled "Solidarity with the Iraqi Independent Trade Union Movement". Indeed, I have a great deal of sympathy for its contents. My honourable Friend draws a parallel with the participation of women in the new Iraq and their complete absence in the new formations that have been established, a point that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock).

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) will be aware that we are coming out of very difficult circumstances, including a military campaign. We are in the very early stages of allowing the formation of systems and structures whereby the Iraqi people will determine their own future, but I hope that two things will ultimately transpire. The first is an Iraq that is for the Iraqi people themselves, and secondly, I hope that the form of government there will be as democratic and as inclusive as possible and will allow the whole spectrum of the people of Iraq to participate in the decisions about the future of their country. We would all be pleased if that could be achieved.

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1090?

[That this House applauds the bravery and valour of Coalition forces, deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom; congratulates all servicemen involved on their professionalism in securing the aims of their mission so quickly; remembers those who tragically lost their lives in the service of Queen and country; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to organise a heroes parade through the streets of London, for all returning UK servicemen to mark their homecoming.]

The motion is about the need for a heroes' homecoming parade for all the brave service men and women who have served our country in the Gulf. As the war concludes, will e right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Government to make a statement on when a homecoming parade will take place through the streets of London so that the British people can rightly salute the bravery and courage of our service men and women as they return from that conflict?

I have some sympathy for the contents of that early-day motion, as the hon. Gentleman might expect given my past association with our armed forces. We fully understand the sentiment behind the motion and, once again, we congratulate our forces on the professionalism and courage that they have demonstrated in Iraq. Of course, we remember with pride, gratitude and a great deal of sadness those who have given their lives in the conflict.

An event for the armed forces personnel returning from duty in the Gulf is certainly a possibility; it is under consideration. It could take one of various forms—a memorial service, some sort of homecoming parade or whatever. However, it is too early for me to say when that might be appropriate or what exact form it might take.

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 1086 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham)?

[That this House notes that on Workers' Memorial Day on 28th April the London death watch unit, a joint initiative of the Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council and the General Municipal & Boilermakers Union, London Region, issued new figures obtained from the Health and Safety Executive listing 191 work-related deaths since 1996 in the London area alone; further notes that the vast majority of these deaths were in the construction and maintenance industries; and believes that these sad new statistics highlight the importance of the Government bringing forward, at the earliest possible opportunity, the long-awaited legislation on corporate killing and the reform of the law on involuntary manslaughter designed to improve the chances of successfully prosecuting those employers known to have flouted health and safety regulations and which have contributed to the deaths of their employees.]

The motion points out that, since 1996, there have been 191 work-related deaths in the London area alone, and most of them were in the maintenance and construction industries. It calls for legislation to make corporate killing a crime, which has been in the headlines a great deal recently because we are approaching the first anniversary of the Potters Bar train crash in which a number of people lost their lives and several were injured. Jarvis, the contractor involved, not only evaded prosecution but briefed the press to the effect that there had been sabotage when there was absolutely no evidence that that had taken place. That is a sign of the kind of people with whom we are dealing. Is it not about time that we had the crime of corporate killing on the statute book?

I note what my hon. Friend says and the contents of the early-day motion to which he draws my attention. I am sure that, like many others in the House, I have a great deal of understanding of its contents and sympathy for the sentiments that it expresses. As he probably knows, the Government are committed to reforming the law to increase corporate liability for manslaughter, and we will do that when parliamentary time allows. Our intention is to provide a clearer avenue for securing successful prosecutions against undertakings whose health and safety standards have fallen far below what could reasonably be expected and where the failure to uphold standards has, in part, been responsible for a death.

Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement about the Government's relationships with British Aerospace? I ask this because, earlier this week, Sir Michael Boyce, the retiring Chief of the Defence Staff, once again questioned the Government's commitment to purchasing all 232 Eurofighters currently under construction in my constituency. The right hon. Gentleman will also be aware that the Government have yet to give a firm commitment to buy the second tranche of those aircraft, and today British Aerospace put on notice more than 400 jobs at its Brough plant because the Government have yet to make up their mind on buying the advanced jet trainer. To remove those uncertainties from aerospace workers, particularly in the northern half of the country, will he arrange for a statement to clarify the Government's position?

I have no doubt that the Secretary of State for Defence will have heard the right hon. Gentleman's comments. However, if I were my right hon. Friend, I would immediately respond by saying it is rather bizarre to question our commitment to providing the resources necessary for our armed forces when, unlike the previous Government, instead of slashing defence expenditure we have—for the first time in a long while—increased it. The right hon. Gentleman refers to British Aerospace, but he might like to recall that not only have the Government provided the biggest naval programme that any Government have ever provided for the Royal Navy but, only recently, we announced the building of two huge aircraft carriers in which the prime contractor will be British Aerospace.

I will draw the right hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State for Defence, but my right hon. Friend may be rather less generous in accepting them than if they had carried more substance.

I am conscious of the pressure on the parliamentary programme that additional debates on Iraq may have caused, but is my right hon. Friend able to find time for a debate on the Learning and Skills Council's review of the area cost uplift? He will know that, as a result of that review, colleges such as North West London college in my constituency may face a shortfall of up to £1.4 million each year. The criteria that the Learning and Skills Council used in assessing the area cost uplift take into account two conflicting factors. The first is the high cost of living in a particular area, and the other is the possible detraction of a particularly insalubrious area. It seems that the council has been able to use those criteria to argue whatever case suits it when it arrives at the final figures for the area cost uplift.

I fully understand the importance that my hon. Friend places on the Learning and Skills Council. He will appreciate that it is not always possible, even with very important issues, to make time available because of the tremendous strain of business that we have in the House. The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) announced a Commons calendar last October that gave precise, though provisional, dates of recesses. I remind the House—[Interruption.] I shall also remind the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), if she will listen to what I was about to say, that the dates were provisional and the calendar came with a health warning that it would

"depend on the progress of business."—[Official Report, 31 October 2003; Vol. 391, c. 1001.]

Events in Iraq had a considerable impact on the business of the House. There were demands for regular updates and for unprecedented debates on whether the House would support a conflict and our troops' participation. I do not complain about such demands and the House will accept that the Government responded fully to them. However, a considerable strain has been placed on the time available for the House to consider legislation. The situation changes on a daily basis, but with the support and co-operation of all hon. Members it still might be possible to achieve the dates that were provisionally announced.

The Leader of the House said a few moments ago—encouragingly, if somewhat tendentiously—that he and the Government are always prepared to allow sufficient time to discuss important issues in the Chamber. In the light of that comment, has he reflected on comments from senior members of the other place about the amount of time that the House discussed the Communications Bill? Lord Fowler of Sutton Coldfield, who is a highly respected and senior member, pointed out earlier this week that many clauses had not been discussed in the House. I spoke on Report about the market dominance of the BBC, and the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport explained courteously to me afterwards that he would have liked to respond to my points but he did not have time in which to do that. Given that the Leader of the House has said that he intends to ensure that the House has sufficient time to consider matters, I hope that he will bear in mind the experience of our consideration of that Bill.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I am aware of several things that he mentioned. I understand that the programming of the Bill allowed adequate time to cover several of the issues that he mentioned. If Opposition Members had not spent inordinate time on other matters, those to which he refers could have been covered adequately. He will appreciate that we try to treat such matters as seriously as possible despite the huge constraints that are placed on us. We try to allow sufficient time for consideration, but if Opposition Members spend inordinate time on issues that the hon. Gentleman might consider to be less important, that has an impact on more important issues.

Can my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent statement on the appalling suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, which was apparently conducted by two British citizens—Asif Mohammed Hanif, who killed three people as well as himself and injured many more; and Omar Khan Sharif, who is wanted in Israel for that attack? The statement should examine the links between those individuals and fundamentalist extremists in Britain such as Abu Hamza and organisations such as al-Muhajiroun. A representative of its leadership, Anjam Choudhury, spoke on Radio 4 this morning and appeared to encourage and endorse suicide attacks in Britain by citizens from overseas. Is it not about time that we got to grips with the appalling problem of Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism in Britain?

First, I want to express my deep regret, and that of the whole House, about the events that led to the tragic deaths. Of course, there were more deaths among the Palestinians overnight. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his considerable work to expose the dangers posed by, and the work of, some of the extremists in this country. I was heartened that the Muslim Council of Britain, which claims to represent more than 350 Islamic organisations and mosques in the United Kingdom, condemned the words of al-Muhajiroun on the "Today" programme this morning. The secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Iqbal Sacranie, said that Mr. Choudhury's comments were inflammatory and would harm community relations in Britain. He said that it was alarming to think that young Britons could be involved in acts of such a ghastly nature. All hon. Members would agree with those words and with the words with which he finished:

"Let us be absolutely clear. The loss of innocent life is against the laws of humanity"—
irrespective, I would add, of the religion to which people adhere.

Has the Leader of the House yet had time to find out what on earth has happened to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill? I raised the matter before Easter and I had expected to hear from him. The Bill was considered in 12 short Committee sittings under a Government timetable motion meaning that most of it was not discussed at all—that practice is becoming more frequent. That happened more than three months ago, and four months will have passed before the House may consider the Bill's Report stage. Has the Bill been mislaid, will it be withdrawn, or is it on course?

The hon. Gentleman has raised that point before. The Bill is important, but I cannot give him more comfort than I did last time. We make every effort to ensure that important Bills are passed as quickly as possible. That is not possible in all cases, but we have been assisted by several elements of the modernisation of the House such as pre-legislative scrutiny and carryover. However, there is limited time even with such assistance. I hear the hon. Gentleman's comments but regret that I cannot give him a more definite answer.

My right hon. Friend will recognise the significance of the British construction industry not only to the Government's programme but to export potential. Will he grant a debate on that on the Floor of the House? If that is not possible, will he consider allowing questions about the British construction industry to be asked in one of the cross-cutting question sessions that have been so successfully held in Westminster Hall?

I entirely agree. The construction industry is regarded as rather old fashioned in some quarters, but it is anything but that. It is at the forefront of British industrial practice, and I hope that all the work done by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is widely recognised by hon. Members. The United Kingdom construction industry is experiencing the strongest growth of such an industry in Europe and, in 2001, it secured £4.7 billion-worth of new work in other countries. It does not operate only at home, but in the international sphere. I regret that some Opposition Members have attempted to decry the Government's efforts to assist the construction industry, especially with regard to Iraq. I was pleased that prominent members of the industry, such as AMEC, wrote to the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen to ask them to desist from so doing because the Government have been extremely effective at bringing what the British construction industry could offer to the attention of the relevant United States authorities, as well as making other international efforts. I hope that we can all pull together in support of cur industry rather than dividing and trying to undermine efforts that have been made.

Order. There are a few hon. Members standing. I wish to call them all but I need them to cooperate by asking brief questions of the Leader of the House.

Following the important question asked by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about the murderous bomb attack in Tel Aviv, can the Leader of the House persuade the Home Secretary to make a statement on the possibility of reintroducing exit controls on passport holders at British airports and ports to ensure that the United Kingdom does not export terrorism to friendly countries overseas?

I am sure that that matter is under discussion in the Foreign Office in the light of that regrettable event. All the implications of such an event are being considered as we speak, and have been for some time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's comments have been heard.

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1100?

[That this House notes the statement by the honourable Member for Kingston and Surbiton on behalf of the Liberal Democrats that 'War is not an issue for the local elections. Our advice to candidates has been not to campaign on it because, with British citizens fighting, it's in poor taste; further notes that in Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester and elsewhere, Liberal Democrat local election candidates have been seeking to con Muslim electors into voting for them by campaigning on an anti-Iraq war platform; and observes that such opportunistichypocrisy by Liberal Democrat local government candidates, not to mention poor taste, is entirely characteristic of every aspect of Liberal Democrat campaigning.]

I am concerned that despite assurances from those on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench that the war in Iraq would play no part in the local election campaigns, local Liberal Democrat council candidates are campaigning today on an anti-war platform while our brave service men and women serve in Iraq. Is it possible to find time to debate that subject so that ': he Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesmen can answer for their local election candidates?

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. It is perhaps too parti pris to comment that we are used to the Liberal Democrats saying one thing in the House and another thing on the doorstep. For the Liberal Democrats, it is often worse than that, however. To get elected in last year's local elections, Liberal Democrat candidates who were husband and wife managed both to oppose and to support hotly disputed issues of local parking restrictions during the same campaign. I suppose that shows us how family friendly their policies can be. Indeed, they are so expanded that they can incorporate contradictory points of view. I am sure that, like the House, the public recognise that pretending to be all things to all people is not credible. Those who promise everything to everyone rarely deliver anything to anyone.

I back the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for an early debate on reform of the common agricultural policy. The Leader of the House may not be aware, but Brandons turkey factory closed with immediate effect this week, leading to a loss of 300 jobs at Dalton near Thirsk in the Vale of York. In all probability, 60 turkey farms will go out of business and 50 suppliers and contractors will lose access to that market, all of which is on top of an ongoing farm crisis across North Yorkshire. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman is well briefed on the subject. Would it be possible to debate the matter be Fore decisions are taken in Brussels on reform of the CAP?

I referred to that matter earlier. The hon. Lady has taken a deep interest in such matters for many years. I agree with many of her comments and we are often on the same side of an argument, which I hope does not further antagonise the Conservative Front Bench towards her. I am sure that we will explore all opportunities to discuss that important issue, if not here then in other forums in the House.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Zimbabwean cricketers are about to arrive in this country. Many of us remember that during the worst excesses of the apartheid regime, the sports boycott was one of the most effective boycotts. Does he agree that this rather grubby tour gives all the wrong signals? We want a truly democratic regime in Zimbabwe that will deal with human rights abuses. With the best will in the world, it gives out the wrong signal to have their cricketers here.

I have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend's comments. What is happening in Zimbabwe is a deep disappointment to everyone who wanted a flourishing, prosperous and democratic future for its people after a long time during which they were prevented from controlling their destiny. It is one of the terrible tragic ironies of history that, after a brief interlude in historical terms, they find themselves once again denied real democratic control over their country. Perhaps it is even more tragic and ironic this time because someone who comes from the biggest ethnic group in Zimbabwe—the Shona tribe—is preventing the people from reaching their full democratic destiny.

May I first tell the Leader of the House that neither he nor the Prime Minister can or should hide behind a sub judice rule that does not exist or apply in the case of tapping MPs' telephones? No one has been charged so the sub judice rule does not apply. Secondly, in respect of the Prime Minister's final comments yesterday, the Wilson rules have been breached or varied by him and a statement should be made, as the rules provided for an exception from the normal rule under which the Prime Minister does not normally comment on security matters. Thirdly, my parliamentary questions have been blocked under the blocking rule. That simply will not do. It cannot be sustained. The sooner that clarity is provided and a statement made from the Dispatch Box, the better for the Government and the House.

On the final point, I am not aware of the details of my hon. Friend's questions. No doubt he will bring those to my attention outside the Chamber. On the allegations that appeared in a newspaper deriving from a book on telephone tapping, I have nothing to add. I note that my hon. Friend makes the distinction between arrests and charges. I also note, as he will do, that events in Northern Ireland change with amazing rapidity, almost by the minute as we now know, both on that subject and in respect of other events that take place there. What I say at one moment can be contradicted at another because circumstances change. Although he draws the distinction between investigation, arrest, charge and so on, I stand by the comments on that subject that I made about half an hour ago.

Points Of Order

1.27 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the context of the earlier exchange on telephone tapping, I found it a privilege to be called an ass because my master rode into Jerusalem on the coat of an ass. However, the whole House has been made an ass of in respect of what has just happened. The Leader of the House, a distinguished member of the Government who served in the Northern Ireland Office, told us that no decisions had been made; yet a junior Minister in Dublin confirmed to reporters that it was no secret that the elections were being postponed. That is bad enough, but the report also says:

"the Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy was due to make a statement in the House of Commons"
today and that the

"Prime Minister Tony Blair is to make a statement on Northern Ireland in 10 Downing Street at 2.30 pm, his official spokesman said".
Surely the mother of Parliaments in England should be standing by its citizens and this Parliament. This is a democratic forum which, as I understand it, passed a law stating that the elections should be held on 29 May.

Order. Let me answer the hon. Gentleman because it will assist the House.

I have been approached in the last 10 minutes and have agreed in exceptional circumstances, as the House will rise today for the long weekend, to a request from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement on the matter this afternoon. The statement will take place at a convenient moment after 2.30 pm.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to you for being so characteristically helpful, but I invite you to consider urgently what the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) just told us. If the Prime Minister intends to make a statement at No. 10 Downing street, may I suggest, Mr. Speaker, that you or your Office should urgently contact the Prime Minister and invite—I might even say instruct—him to come to the House to make a statement on this important issue? Welcome though the Secretary of State may well be in the House, surely it would be absurd and an insult to the House if the Secretary of State were to come here to make a statement while the Prime Minister was making a statement elsewhere and denying us the opportunity to question him on the issue. That cannot be right, and I ask you urgently to follow up the matter.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I cannot instruct the Prime Minister to come here.

The right hon. Gentleman put it to me that I should instruct the Prime Minister, and I am telling him that I cannot. The Northern Ireland Secretary is coming to the House to make a short statement. I further understand that there will be a fuller statement next Tuesday. That is the position, and I can say no more.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw to your attention the fact that Northern Ireland business will be discussed in Westminster Hall this afternoon? It will not have escaped anybody's attention that the core Members who are likely to be there are also likely to want to be here for the statement. Can you ensure that there is provision for a suspension of Westminster Hall, so that the great and the good and others can get here to hear this great statement? Otherwise, there will be a mass exodus from Westminster Hall and somebody will say, in parliamentary terms, "Oops, there's nobody here."

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said before, is that I am bound by the rules of the House, and it is not within those rules to suspend the proceedings in Westminster Hall while a statement is being made on the Floor of the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. At the moment, under the law of this House an election has been called. What is more, I have contacted the authorities in Northern Ireland, and they tell me that, tomorrow morning, they are bound to take nominations for that election. How quickly will the House bring into conformity with the law what we are now being told is to happen?

I had assurances from the Secretary of State, over and over again, that there would be no change to the date. It was impossible for any Northern Ireland Member of the House to get anything out of the Northern Ireland Office today; we were fobbed off every time we rang. Now we have come to the House and we are told that we will hear a statement, but that is not sufficient—the law has to be changed, or else all the candidates must, under the law, submit their nomination papers tomorrow.

The hon. Gentleman should seek an opportunity to catch my eye after the Northern Ireland Secretary has made his statement, and he can then put his questions to the Secretary of State.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could the statement not at least be delayed until after 2.30 pm because of the position of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee? Westminster Hall will meet at half-past 2 to debate its important report on terrorism. We need an opportunity at least to have some discussion about that. If there is no possibility of abandoning or holding up those proceedings, perhaps Westminster Hall could finish its business early so that Members could return to the Floor of the House. If the statement was postponed for three quarters of an hour, so that it started at 3.15 pm, it would be possible to accommodate Northern Ireland Members on the Select Committee who want to debate the report in Westminster Hall.

I must work on the basis of what is convenient to the House, and the House has always been keen to put it to me that Ministers must come here and inform the House. That is why I have made the exceptional decision to interrupt a debate to allow a Minister to come to the House to talk about a matter that is of great concern, particularly to Northern Ireland Members.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have always been most assiduous in protecting our rights and in ensuring that Ministers of the Crown, whenever possible, come first to the House to give statements on important matters. You said that the Northern Ireland Secretary thought that it would be convenient to come here this afternoon. Since his intention was known to the Government of the Republic of Ireland before business questions, would it not have been much more convenient for Members if the matter had been put on the annunciator in good time and we could have had the statement at the appropriate moment, namely, at the close of ordinary questions? We could then have had a full attendance of Members and this important matter could have been given the attention that it deserves. Can you bring to the attention of Her Majesty's Ministers the dissatisfaction of the House?

Let me explain that my decision is an exceptional one. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it would have been more convenient if due notice of the statement had been given so that it could have gone on the annunciator. However, I faced the problem that we are about to go into a long weekend, and to refuse the request would have been to deny the House the opportunity to question the Secretary of State.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Let me make my position plain. I understand some of the comments that have been made, and in view of my earlier remarks I wish to assure the House that when I entered the Chamber my information was that no decision to make any changes had been made. I would not want anyone here to think—not that anyone would—that I had in any way, inadvertently or otherwise, misled the House.

This is a difficult situation, and often things change literally by the minute. I ask for the indulgence of right hon. and hon. Members in understanding how fast flowing decisions in Northern Ireland can be when they are dependent on all sorts of discussions. I can tell the House that, in the previous 24 hours, I have discussed the matter with the Northern Ireland Secretary a couple of times, but when I entered the Chamber no decision had been made. Of course, had I any inkling that a decision was likely to be made in the three quarters of an hour during which I was here, I would have shared that with the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek to be helpful to the House, particularly to Northern Ireland Members, who will be very interested in the statement to be made by the Northern Ireland Secretary. Having said that, may I say that I had not for one moment doubted the integrity of the Leader of House? I do not think that a single Member doubted his integrity. He came here in total ignorance of what has subsequently happened.

You, Mr. Speaker, have talked about the convenience of Members, particularly those from Northern Ireland. Would not it be possible to have the statement either at half-past 5, when Westminster Hall ceases its debate, or at 2 o'clock or even a quarter to 2 today, to enable Northern Ireland Members to hear the statement and ask supplementary questions and to participate in what is, as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) said, a very important debate on terrorism in Northern Ireland?

What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that a Minister has asked to come to the House as soon as possible, and I have accepted that request. I know that it causes inconvenience in other parts of the House, but I have agreed to that request, and that is why the statement will be made at half-past 2.

Orders Of The Day


[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2002–03, on Broadband in Wales, (NC95), and the Government's response thereto, (HC 4130).]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Derek Twigg.]

1.38 pm

It is no secret that compared with a number of other countries the UK has made a slow start with broadband communications. It is equally clear, though, that we are making rapid progress, and I believe that the whole House will welcome that. However, there are major challenges on the road to our target, which is that the UK should have the most extensive and competitive broadband market in the G7, and in opening this important debate I want to concentrate on those challenges.

In our debate on rural broadband in Westminster Hall on 25 March, the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who I am pleased to see in his place, referred in generous terms to a report that I wrote on broadband, which was published in 1987. In that I forecast that there would be 600,000—[Interruption]

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but I think that he is entitled to the undivided attention of the House and I deplore other conversations—indeed, other meetings—taking place in the Chamber during a debate.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In that report, I forecast that there would be 600,000 broadband connections in the UK by 2000. In fact, it took longer than that: 600,000 was reached by the time of my appointment to my present position a year ago this month. By that time, however, thanks to the work of my predecessors and the effective competitive environment that we have established in the UK, the number was growing rapidly: from 1987 it took until last October to reach 1 million UK broadband connections, but it will have taken only about nine months to add the second million, which I expect us to achieve in the course of this month. Today, there are more than 1.9 million connections—1 million via cable modems and 900.000 via ADSL—and the number is increasing by well over 30,000 a week, which is one of the fastest rates of growth anywhere. Independent research has identified the UK as having the second-largest broadband network in Europe after Germany. More than 70 per cent. of households can access one of the mass-market broadband services.

All those data give us grounds for a good deal of satisfaction and an opportunity to congratulate all those in the service-providing organisations on what they have achieved. Those organisations include BT; the cable companies NTL and Telewest; the broadband internet service providers Pipex, AOL, Freeserve and, on some estimates, more than 300 others; wireles sproviders such as Firstnet; and committed locally based innovators such as. Rutland Online and Alston Cybermoor. I believe that the whole House will join in congratulating them on the progress made in the past 12 months.

Unfortunately, I was unable to join the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) for the Westminster Hall debate on rural broadband access. If he has an opportunity, will the Minister say when he envisages 100 per cent. accessibility to broadband being achieved? Houses, including my own, in rural constituencies such as mine and my hon. Friend's cannot get broadband, I presume because of the sparsity factor. Next. Friday, I am to open a broadband business centre, but that is in quite a big village; we in the smaller rural hamlets cannot get broadband—

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman must not anticipate my ruling, but I think he guesses that he has gone on too long.

As far as I know, nowhere in the world has 100 per cent. broadband availability, but I shall address the issues that the hon. and learned Gentleman raises soon.

I add my congratulations to all the providers my hon. Friend mentioned. In my area, that the local exchanges have been enabled is owed to a community local partnership—the FAST group—going out and persuading people. Is not that the way to broaden the broadband agenda for Britain?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I join him in paying tribute to all the community campaigns that have developed throughout the country and encouraged people to sign up for the broadband demand registration schemes that some operators have implemented. BT tells me that it has now upgraded 104 exchanges for broadband as a result of its demand registration scheme, and it plans in the next few months to announce targets that, if they are met, will take ADSL coverage to 90 per cent. of UK households. Service providers have found that the initiative of community campaigns has built demand that makes their investments in broadband worthwhile in a large number of communities around the country, and my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of the achievements of those campaigns, many of which are continuing.

I welcome the enthusiasm and resources that the regional development agencies have contributed, recognising the importance of broadband for small firms in their regions. In addition, we are witnessing the rapid roll-out of wi-fi technology, which enables public access to wireless broadband in public places such as coffee shops and business hotels, and which will become a significant element in provision.

Congratulating those who have contributed to the achievements of the past year is not to underestimate the scale of the challenge that remains Almost 30 per cent. of households are not within reach of a mass-market broadband service. Almost 5,000 small businesses in such areas use satellite broadband, which is available more or less everywhere—it may be the approach being employed in the constituency of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). However, for many that is a rather expensive solution, so we must go much further in extending the availability of the affordable services that are now having such an impact on competitiveness in the areas in which they are available. That is the reason that broadband is so important. Broadband enables companies to work better and faster, boosting competitiveness and creating new jobs and services. Increasingly, MPs—mainly those representing rural areas not served by broadband—tell me that firms in parts of their constituency are at a disadvantage, in some cases to the extent that they might consider moving elsewhere.

The experience of Sarah Smith, a specialist medical writer based in a village in north Wales, underlines the point. She uses satellite broadband and finds that the new connection saves her about two days a month in time spent waiting for large files to download. She no longer has to alert her ISP when she is expecting an especially large file. The installation was not cheap, but it has saved her money. Malvern Boilers, a manufacturer of condensing boilers that employs 20 people in Worcestershire, found that broadband allowed it an instantaneous e-mail service, resulting in much better communications with its suppliers and customers. Another result of adopting broadband is that the company uses the internet far more to aid its marketing. The company has found real competitive advantages in broadband. In the Westminster Hall debate, I mentioned the case of Quintdown Press in Cornwall, whose proprietor I met during a visit last autumn. Broadband is available in rural parts of Cornwall through the Access for Cornwall through Telecommunications for New Opportunities Worldwide, the ACT NOW partnership, funded by European Union regional development funds.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the route map—not for the middle east, but for rural broadband—recently published under the auspices of BT, which has result ed in the creation of a number of partnerships in various remote parts of the country. Does he agree that there is a need to increase their number? What role can the Government play, not only with BT, but with RDAs, county councils and other local government bodies, and small and medium-sized business, to bring those partnerships together so that they can genuinely effect the type of changes he is describing?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will spend some time exploring later in my speech. However, I agree that the partnerships now being established with RDAs as key players will be an important part of the solution.

To return to the example of Quintdown Press, by using broadband rather than a van to transfer artwork, the company has been able to reduce the turnaround on print jobs at its shop in Truro from three days to one day. The impact on the quality of its service and on the competitiveness of its customers' businesses is significant. The examples I have given show how important it is that we step up our efforts to extend the availability of broadband and that we maximise the resulting economic gains for rural communities and the UK as a whole.

Just as broadband will be key in the commercial economy, so it will be key in delivering the reforms to public services that are the Government's highest priority. The past few years have witnessed dramatic improvements in public services and a new confidence on the part of those who deliver them and the rest of us who depend on them. Taking full advantage of technological advances will be key to the next stage of reform, and broadband will be at the heart of that. That is why, between them, Ministers in education, health, the criminal justice system and local government have earmarked 1 billion from their spending settlement last summer for spending on broadband communications.

In education, every school will be provided with broadband by 2006—at least two megabits two-way in each primary school and eight megabits per second in every secondary school. So far, about a quarter of England's schools have broadband. The roll-out of broadband to every school will open up pupils' access to vast new online resources for teaching and learning.

Will not two problems relate to the issue of connection of schools, bearing in mind the huge expenditure that the Government have committed to it? Obviously we all want to see schools connected. First, there are large parts of the country where pupils may be able to use broadband at school but will not be able to do their homework on it because the areas in which they live are not connected to it. Secondly, having invested a great deal of money in connecting schools, that will be of no use to the community because the network goes through the Government network and therefore cannot be used as an access route for the rest of the community.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue on which I want to spend quite a lot of time. Essentially, I believe that there are ways of leveraging the investment that will be made in broadband for public services to extend access to those services to other users. I shall explain in a little more detail how I see that happening. The hon. Gentleman may be familiar with the Cambridgeshire schools' broadband project, which is demonstrating clear benefits in time saved and much greater use of online educational resources. That has translated into increased levels of attention—particularly from boys, and we know that underachievement on the part of boys is a key challenge for schools—and improvements in performance. That is what we want to see throughout the school system.

Every doctor's surgery will have at least a 256 kilobytes per second connection by March 2004. There will be larger facilities of 2 megabytes per second and more. Patients will have electronic records so that, wherever they are in the national health service, all the key details about their medical history will be accessible by the professionals responsible for their care. Through the new NHS university, professional development material will be delivered online via broadband to NHS staff at their place of work, with the Government investing in their skills.

The criminal justice system will be transformed from the paper-based system that is now in operation. We shall see radial changes as well in local government.

As well as delivering these important improvements to public services, the investment in broadband by the public services as a customer will provide the opportunity to extend access to broadband services into many communities where they are not available at present.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the considerable work that is done in Canada, where those involved examined the barriers that stopped communities using various networks and opened up the different networks to communities. Will my hon. Friend assure us that the efforts that were made in Canada will be replicated by Government Departments in this country, and that we will not have the mentality that prevents universal access?

I agree with my hon. Friend. There are some important lessons for us to learn from what has been achieved in Canada. I agree with him also about the direction in which we need to go. I shall explain how we see us making a reality of that. In principle, once the school or the doctor's surgery in a community has broadband, there should be the opportunity for others in that community to access the services provided by it. To make a reality of that possibility by organising the demand from public services in aggregating them and so creating a viable business case for the provision of broadband in areas where it is not yet available will be the key. That is in line with the Canadian experience and experience elsewhere, and will lead to the next phase of broadband development in the UK.

As I understand it, many public service connections are delivered down a dedicated private line. Is the Minister saying that all these private lines will be accessible to public use at some stage in the near future?

I shall explain how I see these things going forward. I can tell the House that I shall be chairing a ministerial steering group with representatives from each of the major Government Departments to drive forward the development of this project and to ensure that we make it a success. It will ensure that individual departmental programmes contribute to the greatest degree possible to broadband roll-out in the UK, while also ensuring that the Departments are provided with value-for-money services that are consistent with the targets and timetables which they have set. The regional developmental agencies will be involved as well, and a project board will direct day-to-day running. I can announce the appointment this week of a director for broadband in the Department of Trade and Industry, who will be delivering on an important recommendation that was made to us by the Broadband Stakeholder Group in its most recent report.

We have quite a short window of opportunity given the imminence of substantial public sector investments in broadband. We need to establish the balance of demand aggregation between national and regional levels, and set up structures to carry out aggregation and procurement in an efficient way. The project will play a big part in extending broadband availability for public sector use throughout the country. To answer the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) specifically, we shall be ensuring that the infrastructure investment being delivered will make broadband more widely available. That is available to small and medium-sized enterprises and others in areas where broadband has not been available until now, so giving a major boost to the economy in rural areas in particular.

Will the Minister kindly tell us who is to be the director of broadband? Will it be a career civil servant or someone from the private sector?

It will be a career civil servant from the Department of Trade and Industry.

An interesting example is provided by what has been happening in the west midlands. Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency, spotted that in its area the contracts for two broadband networks—both of them were in the education network—were up for renewal this summer. One of the networks is serving all the schools in the region and the other is serving all the universities. By bringing both networks into a single contract, it will be possible to offer all the users greater functionality for the same price. After that, the intention is to open up the infrastructure to users outside the public sector—for example, to provide the backhaul into the telecommunications network for wireless broadband initiatives serving rural areas. Final contract negotiations are taking place with a company, Synetrix, and the preferred telecommunications supplier will be the cable company Telewest. Once they have their infrastructure in place, other users outside the public sector will be able to take advantage of the system as well.

Is it not the case that the flexibility of the project that my hoa. Friend has outlined underpins the development of broadband in Britain? When his group is looking for good quality examples throughout the country, will it make particular reference to the mobile set-up that has been brought forward by the Discovery project of North Yorkshire county council, which goes out to some of the most rural and isolated parts of the county, including my constituency, and affords the linkages while debunking some of the myths about the so-called digital divide?

That sounds like a welcome initiative. There is much work to be done in communicating the benefits of the technology and ensuring that business users and other users understand them.

It is sometimes suggested that we need a generalised subsidy to make broadband happen in the UK. I do not agree with that. That is not the way to get a competitive and sustainable broadband market throughout the country. I think that we shall see, through competition between the service providers, the momentum that will drive the roll-out that we need. However, there will be cases where the market will not deliver and targeted support may well be needed. Where the lack of broadband availability is a limiting factor in economic regeneration, that can be a justification for using existing funds for regional economic development. The RDAs have £1.8 billion at their disposal in the coming year. We have seen the success of that approach in Cornwall's ACT NOW project, which I mentioned, which draws also on European Union funding.

Companies are coming forward with proposals to address these issues while recognising that we need to achieve a competitive outcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred to the work that BT has done in coming forward with five models, building on its experience with ACT NOW, which are applied to other circumstances and allowing for open tendering so that other operators can bid for contracts as well. These models have merit as a general framework for a partnership approach to developing broadband schemes that maximise the prospects for competition in the supply of broadband for areas where there is now none.

I appreciate the Minister giving way again—he has been characteristically generous with his time. Does he accept that there is a difficulty in rural areas, where community campaigns do not regard ADSL as a solution, usually on economic grounds? As he knows, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is taking evidence on this topic at the moment, and we were impressed by the campaign to bring broadband to Blewbury, which has gone for a wireless solution. If people go for a solution other than ADSL, people who join up need to be aware that ADSL is not going to come in afterwards and sweep away the investment that has been put in. I should therefore be grateful if my hon. Friend would comment on the need to guarantee that communities that are looking for innovative solutions will not have their legs cut away from under them afterwards.

I am glad to do so. Let me give my hon. Friend an example from Oakham, the county town of Rutland, where in March I visited Rutland Online, which employs 15 people. It started six years ago by hosting websites and providing e-commerce solutions for businesses in the area, but broadband has become an increasingly major part of what it is doing. There is no broadband service at all in Oakham today, but in the next few months three separate broadband services will be established. An operator called Independent Networks is taking orders and will use local loop unbundling to provide the first broadband service in the area. On 21 May, BT expects to upgrade its local exchange for ADSL, the registration trigger threshold having been reached. Later on, Rutland Online will establish a wireless broadband service with which it expects to be able to support 60 small and medium-sized enterprise users. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that the fact that by that time there will be two other broadband services in the area is not deterring Rutland Online from introducing the wireless service as well. There is therefore potential for wireless and other solutions to coexist.

The main obstacle to the provision of more affordable broadband in rural areas concerns the fact that the initial investment required to provide broadband by any technology other than satellite is expected to obtain a slower return in rural areas, where there are fewer people within a given distance and where the cost of backhaul is likely to be greater than in areas of high population density. The so-called backhaul issue—the cost of connecting a local exchange or a new wireless base station to the core network—is a major barrier to the extension of broadband to rural areas. Rutland Online, for example, told me that of the £90,000 cost of providing a service for two years backhaul will account for £50,000. However, there are ways forward, including alternative technologies which can do the job more cheaply and, in particular, realise the potential of plans for public sector broadband connectivity in the way in which I have described. In the west midlands, it is envisaged that the network that I described could be used to provide backhaul for wireless broadband services in rural areas. That is an important part of the solution for rural areas.

ADSL, of course, is not the only solution, although it will be available to a substantial proportion of the rural population in time. We have talked about satellite, and there are schemes to help small and medium-sized enterprises gain access to satellite broadband, including the remote area broadband inclusion trial or RABBIT initiative, and other satellite schemes such as those led by the south-east RDA and Yorkshire Forward. Over 1,000 small rural firms across the country have benefited from those schemes so far, with the provision of funding towards the cost of a satellite connection. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud has drawn attention to the importance of wireless, and there are already pilot projects such as those in Alston and Hawkshead in Cumbria and Tendring in Essex which use wireless technology to get broadband to residents and SMEs. I am sure that we will hear of other examples in our debate. I hope that the imminent auction of 3.4 GHz wireless licences will help to spread wireless broadband a lot further.

I should like to draw attention to an imaginative development that has taken place since the launch of the Alston Cybermoor project in Cumbria 18 months ago. With public financial support to help get the project going, it addressed issues of economic regeneration, lifelong learning and access to electronic Government services. It has been successful, and has achieved over 300 local connections and five public access points, but now faces the problem of how to keep going. Local residents have taken the initiative by adopting a social enterprise model, and have registered as a co-operative that other residents can join and help to develop. They have mutualised the public sector investment, and other communities could benefit from looking carefully at that example.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) talked about what has been happening in Canada. On a recent visit there, I met someone who was concerned about the steady economic decline of his rural community and had set up a not-for-profit organisation to roll out a fixed wireless broadband network, providing affordable broadband access to homes and businesses in the region. That service is now serving a community of 100,000 residents. A social enterprise and co-operative model may well be the way forward for areas in the UK as well.

One problem is the availability of skills so that people can provide those services. While the learning and skills councils often concentrate on people who need basic skills, there is not much support for people who need medium skills that would allow those companies to develop. Will my hon. Friend address that issue?

I know that my hon. Friend welcomed very much the launch of e-skills UK on 8 April. He is right about the need to focus on those technical skills, which is a high priority for us. When the Government publish the skills strategy on which the DTI is working with the Department for Education and Skills and other Departments, he will see that intermediate technical skills are of particular importance to it.

Another interesting possibility is the use of the electricity infrastructure for broadband, with the so-called Powerline technology for delivering broadband along ordinary electricity cables. Some of the £30 million UK broadband fund has been used on projects in Crieff and Campbeltown on trials of that technology, and other projects are planned in Stonehaven and Winchester, the results of which will be interesting.

While my hon. Friend is holding forth on the range of different technologies that can deliver broadband, will he turn his attention to the future prospects of broadband? I entirely accept that some Members are frustrated that their communities cannot even receive ADSL, but it will be important for the UK to ensure that as the widespread delivery of even higher band widths becomes increasingly economic we begin to ensure that people have the skills to deliver to the user products and services that will take advantage of 10 megabytes and higher speeds.

My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the fact that in due course we will need to do a great deal of further work on the capacity and availability of much higher speed networks. Whereas 93 per cent. of public libraries have broadband at 2 megabytes a second or more, Middlesbrough libraries are adopting a broadband capacity of 2 gigabytes a second. Undoubtedly, we will need to address that much more widely in due course.

I shall work closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of broadband. Together with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we are collecting information on current projects and best practice in rural areas. The Countryside Agency has commissioned research, due to report this month, which looks at best practice in a number of projects. Research has been carried out on evidence of the use of broadband to increase productivity of businesses in rural areas, which account for a third of UK small businesses.

The challenge of broadband is an important economic challenge for the UK. Delivering broadband will be an important step towards improving public services, raising productivity and promoting inclusion, and it is important that in due course every part of the country should be able to benefit and not just a few.

I hope that I have reassured the House today that we have made good progress, but that the Government are determined to address the significant challenges that remain, and to maintain and build on the rate of progress that we have seen over the past year, so that the rich promise of broadband Britain can be fulfilled.

2.10 pm

I was interested in the Minister's speech and in his announcement about the director of broadband. That is a positive development, although we urge the Government to go further.

If I may say so, to hold the debate today is perverse. The topic is enormously important, as the Minister rightly said. It is especially important for rural areas that cannot get access to broadband, whereas urban areas generally find it easier to get access. The Minister will know of the Country Land and Business Association's campaign on rural access to broadband. However, almost all rural Members are currently in their constituencies supporting their local candidates, so we are left with a few hon. Members present, including one or two from rural areas. I am not sure whether Milton Keynes counts as rural, but let us assume so.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young)—who led a debate on 25 March—and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), both of whom were particularly keen to be present for the debate, have had to apologise because they had to go back to their constituencies.

My area, which is England's largest rural county, North Yorkshire, is, as I said in my earlier intervention, making a considerable impact in delivering broadband to rural areas. The experiments in e-enablement of the electoral process allow hon. Members present today to vote via the internet or other mechanisms. That is reaching all parts of the country.

Yes, but I am sure local govt candidates in the hon Gentleman's Labour association would have been pleased to see him in person, rather than in e-form.[Interruption.] It is suggested that the hon. Gentleman's e-form is better than his person, but I would not dream of commenting on that. Personally, I voted by post a couple of weeks ago.

In the circumstances, the debate is a bit of a filler. I am sorry about that. It should be an important debate that is well attended, but sadly it is not. The Order Paper states that the First Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee is of particular relevance, yet I note that there is certainly not a single Conservative MP from Wales in the Chamber, nor are there any MPs from Wales from any other party. Also, I regret that the debate will be interrupted by the important statement on Northern Ireland.

The importance of broadband is that it gives us the potential to change our lives and the way that we work, and it is doing so. The information highway—the internet—has been compared to railways in the 19th century and roads in the 20th century. It is of enormous importance to communications. E-commerce has arrived and is having an impact. Politicians should be cautious about being too visionary in their claims on technical matters, or too reactionary. Business men should also avoid being reactionary. Only three years ago, the then chairman of BT, lain Vallance, said that he saw no market for residential broadband. When I heard that, it reminded me of politicians between the first and second world wars who extolled the virtues of mounted cavalry in preference to noisy and smelly tanks.

It was the business of the chairman of BT to have a little vision, and politicians can assist in that where necessary, but we should beware of technical aspects, especially if we are not qualified. The Minister is extremely well qualified. He wrote a book on broadband back in the 1980s, before most of us had even heard of it. I trust that he is using his knowledge to assist in its development. I confess that I come to the debate with an O-level in physics with chemistry from 1966, but neither we, nor our constituents, need technical qualifications or detailed knowledge to understand the concepts and benefits that the technology can bring us. It is for others to explain the technology to those of us—I see one or two others in the Chamber—who may need it explained from time to time.

I applaud the Government's stated target, which could be called a vision, of having the most extensive and competitive broadband market in the G7 by 2005. We support that, although I am not entirely sure whether it will come about. In my speech, I shall discuss the importance of broadband, what the Government and the public sector can do, what the role of competition and private enterprise should be, and possible future developments.

E-commerce is changing business, almost to the extent that the industrial revolution did 250 years ago. Laymen like my self use Amazon, Sainsbury's to you, and E-commerce is entering every nook and cranny of business, and every aspect of business can benefit from it. It can benefit plumbers to pharmaceutical giants. Businesses are using the internet, and they want to use broadband. The information society is also benefiting all public services, which can only improve as a result. It is changing the way in which people communicate with their friends and access information at home. We all accept that the rapid introduction of broadband is important for the UK, and we support the Government in that.

My access to the internet on the House of Commons network, which of course is broadband—Demon, I think—is almost instantaneous. I contrast that with my experience at home in Lutterworth in my constituency, where I spend hours waiting for it to dial up and then get cut off after about two minutes, which is rather trying.

Although we may all agree on the targets and benefits, we note that the strategy is not yet working as we would wish. The Minister touched on that. Ministers want broadband to be accessible to all parts of the country, yet terrestrial broadband is still unavailable to one third of the UK's 24 million households, including two out of five suburban households. In rural areas, as we know, access is patchy. We want diversification in the rural economy. The Minister mentioned speaking to the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life, which is important. Areas such as mine—and those of all my hon. Friends in the Chamber and some on the Government Benches—where farming is in the doldrums have many small businesses, which need fast, cheap and easy access to the information highway.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene again. Given his broad welcome for the project, can he confirm that the £30 million that the Government have allocated to regional development agencies to develop broadband access, particularly in rural areas, would be continued and developed further by his party?

Indeed. Moreover, I wonder whether the £30 million could be better spent. I shall deal with that in detail and answer the hon. Gentleman, but I should prefer to do it in my own order than in his.

I emphasise a different point that has been made by several of us. The issue is not just giving people access, but the follow-up afterwards. Whenever I speak to BT, the biggest criticism is of the amount at which it has set its trigger level, which could be seen as an unfair system, but it is the one that we have. What follows or does not follow is not taking the broadband revolution forward as quickly as it might. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that?

There is a lack of follow-up. People who get on to the trigger list do not see it through. That is galling, because it means that the process is not being taken forward.

I understand now what the hon. Gentleman means; that having registered, people do not take up their registration at a later date. I put that down to consumer choice. BT is willing to enable an exchange at what it says is half the likely return that it will receive, because it believes that that will grow. I am sure that BT is right.

Britain has little more than a quarter of the number of broadband connections per head of population of Sweden, and we lag woefully behind Japan and Germany. Measured against the Government target, we are sixth among the G7 countries, ahead only of Italy. We are also behind countries such as Iceland and Portugal. The Minister may be about to tell me that that situation has changed in the last week.

Those figures will be reassessed in the course of the next few weeks and I am confident that the new ones will tell a rather happier tale than the one that the hon. Gentleman is relating.

We will welcome that. We led the way in narrowband internet access, mobile telephony and digital television.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should follow Germany's example where the incumbent, Deutsche Telekom, put in DSL to prevent competition when it had to divest itself of its cable companies?

I did not say that or suggest it. The hon. Gentleman will know that Deutsche Telekom has its own serious commercial problems, partly caused by its investment in DSL.

I come now to the Government's role and how the public sector can assist. I was interested in what the Minister said about how public sector enablement will help us. Technical improvements are moving faster than Government legislation or regulation, or bureaucratic minds, possibly can. Nevertheless, there is a big role to be played in creating the environment in which broadband can be accessed easily throughout the UK. The situation is improving, so I do not knock the Government.

On 20 March my exchange in Lutterworth still had a few to go to reach the trigger mechanism, but in May we should be enabled, and the local Member of Parliament is expected to be asked to inaugurate—or whatever one does—the exchange. Throughout Britain more exchanges are being enabled. I understand that under the trigger mechanism, 59 have been enabled, making a total of 1,182 BT exchanges, and more than 300 rural exchanges have reached the trigger levels.

I am interested to hear about my hon. Friend's experience in Lutterworth, which is about 40 miles from my area. The Lutterworth exchange will presumably serve between 15,000 and 20,000 inhabitants, not only within the town itself but within the wider area. I am concerned about the smaller hamlets that are desperate to get on to broadband but which do not have the populations to justify the sort of registration that he has been talking about.

My hon. and learned Friend is right to be concerned about smaller hamlets and isolated farmhouses where there may have been diversification or where it is simply the farm business that requires broadband.

To be fair to BT, it is reacting well. Since Sir Iain Vallances extraordinary comments about residential broadband, BT has been pushing things forward. The Government are also committed to connecting public services, about which we have heard. Notwithstanding what the Minister has said—I hope that he will explain further when he replies to the debate—the Government have gone somewhat awry. In my constituency, schools are being enabled. For example, Sherrier primary school in my home town of Lutterworth has broadband. I thought that it had a midband speed, but the Minister tells me that it has over 1 megabyte. Why should not that school have brought broadband access to the whole of Lutterworth? That would seem the obvious way to go. Sherrier and other primary schools have obtained access through the East Midlands Broadband Consortium. Similarly, Sapcote library has a connection, but through the People's Network, which I believe the NHS uses as well. The library has broadband, but at the Sapcote exchange, which has a trigger of 350 connections, only 212 have registered so far, so it will have to wait.

BT and others tell me that aggregated public sector demand, which often uses the BT network but private dedicated lines, could pull all that broadband demand through to the private sector and to all homes. Will the Minister clarify that? I am still not entirely clear about whether those private dedicated lines can be used as a backhaul to bring broadband to every home in an area.

I shall be happy to explain further what I had in mind when I reply, but once the infrastructure has been provided to meet the public sector commitments, it is available to other users as well; for example, to provide backhaul from a local wireless broadband service, if that is a way of meeting the needs of a particular community. I should also add that the 2 megabyte per second two-way target for primary schools is for 2006. I am not saying that every primary school has that at the moment. That certainly is not yet the case.

I am grateful to the Minister for that. He has an enormous knowledge on which many of us rely.

The roll-out is fairly slow. The schools completion will not be until 2006. As the Minister has now told us, some of the connection is only midband. When Sapcote library—sitting on its midband—and perhaps Sherrier primary school are surrounded by an enabled exchange, the residential houses on either side will have 512 kilobytes whereas the library and the school will, as I understand it, still have a slower midband connection.