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Commons Chamber

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 15 May 2003

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House Of Commons

Thursday 15 May 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

Prayers

Private Business

LONDON LOCAL AUTHORITIES BILL [Lords]

(By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers To Questions

Environment, Food And Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked

Turkey Meat

1.

What steps she is taking to restrict turkey meat imports from Brazil which (a) are mis-described and (b) fail to comply with EU vaccine rules. [113298]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

Imports are not allowed unless controls on vaccination against major poultry diseases are the same as those in the EU. With the assistance of Customs and Excise and the European Commission, we are looking at the levels of certain turkey products imported from outside the EU during the run-up to Christmas 2002, and whether they comply with EU rules.

I welcome the brief answer that the Minister has given. My concern relates to the use of nitrofurans as antibiotics in turkey meat from Brazil, and the mis-description of imports into this country from Brazil, where products that appear to be marginally treated are dealt with in a different tariff fashion. This has had a major impact on Brandon's Poultry in Scropton, in my constituency. I hope that the Minister can take action to remove this unfair competition.

I know that my hon. Friend has been very active on behalf of his local company and his constituents in respect of this issue. I can reassure him that there are strict controls and regulations on imports from countries such as Brazil. They must come from a slaughterhouse that meets the EU standard, and they must go through border inspection posts, at which there is 100 per cent, inspection of documentation and 50 per cent, physical inspection of the product.

I understand my hon. Friend's point about the use of illegal vaccinations. Tests are being carried out on poultry meat to ensure that such products are not receiving vaccinations that are banned in the EU. We are taking seriously the concerns that have been expressed, and we are currently carrying out a full investigation with the support of Customs and Excise.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) about nitrofurans in meat, and the Minister is aware of my concern about illegal meat imports generally, including turkey meat. What does he have to say in response to the comment made by the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, Dr. Jon Bell, to the Public Accounts Committee yesterday? He said that a ministerial interdepartmental committee on illegal meat imports "is being set up". What does that say about the urgency with which the Government are addressing the question of illegal meat imports, despite all the pressure that we have put on the Minister in the past two years in the wake of foot and mouth and classical swine fever? Is this committee still going to be set up, and why has it not been set up already?

The House will know that a great deal of action has been taken in relation to illegal meat imports. On risk analysis, it is important to stress that there are a range of risks associated with importing disease and disease control, and we must address them all. Illegal imports is one of them and we take it seriously, which is why more finance has been provided, Customs and Excise has been given a stronger role, we have improved the range of publicity and information for people entering this country, and we have obtained agreement from the EU to end the derogations that allowed the importation of person al meat products.

Common Agricultural Policy

If she will make a statement on the mid-term common agricultural policy review and its implications for British farmers. [113299]

Although we would have preferred the Commission proposals to be more radical, they do represent a considerable improvement and we will be working hard to secure a positive outcome to the negotiations this summer. Our analysis of the proposals concludes that overall, they would have a positive impact on UK farmers and farm incomes.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that reply. Her Department is aware of the closure of Brandon's turkey factory in Dalton, near Thirsk, in the Vale of York, because of the impact of substandard imported turkeys from Brazil. Her Department is hiding behind the fact that currently, no EU action is being taken to prevent these sub-standard imports into this country. Can she give us an assurance today that in terms of sub-standard turkey imports and cheap sugar imports from Brazil, this House will be consulted before the final agreement is reached in the mid-term review, possibly before the end of June, in Greece?

Well entirely, but apart from the issue of the mid-term review and the decisions being taken, it is currently against the law for people to import material from elsewhere that does not meet EU standards. So although I understand and recognise the hon. Lady's concern, the position that she describes needs to be addressed by means of enforcement of the current rules.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear it in mind in the negotiations that many of us do not want the current system, through which farmers are subsidised for production, to be replaced by one which subsidises them simply because they own a piece of farmland or—even worse—because they once happened to be farmer. I know that she has been pushing hard for fundamental reform at European level, but I hope that she will bear in mind those concerns and press for as much funding as possible to be transferred to true rural development, rather than continuing with the current subsidy culture in another form.

I understand that entirely, and well recall the Select Committee expressing anxiety that we would be in danger of simply transferring money from one area in which we subsidise to another. I share my hon. Friend's view that it is very important that we make the best possible use of public funds, and that the purpose is to provide public benefit. It is desirable to support the wider rural economy as well as agri-environment measures.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is an urgent need to establish what happens to the right of entitlement to the single farm payment in cases where the land has changed hands or tenancy during the reference period? If the decision is to devolve the matter to member states, will she ensure that the Government's intentions are clarified as soon as possible, and that a detailed consultation is held?

I can certainly assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government are very conscious of some of the serious and genuine practical problems that existing proposals raise. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the answer that he seeks at present, but we believe that the talks and negotiations remain on course for basic decisions by the end of June. Once we see the shape of those decisions, we will know what impact they will have. However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we have received many representations about the points that he makes, and that we take them very seriously.

The mid-term review proposals to decouple payments do not sit easily with the Curry commission's recommendations on modulation—10 per cent., and then 20 per cent. Is my right hon. Friend confident that, in the light of that, the broad and shallow entry scheme can be funded?

My hon. Friend is entirely right that the Curry commission proposals go further than the generality of the mid-term review reform proposals would suggest. That lends a particular importance and urgency to our efforts to have that position recognised and taken account of in the negotiations. I assure both my hon. Friend and the House that there is nothing that the Government want less than to abandon the steps that we have already taken or the plans that the Curry commission rightly put forward for further steps in the UK.

Although much of the language is impenetrable to members of the public, the Secretary of State is aware that momentous decisions need to be made very shortly. What will she do to secure a deal and face down the German and French pack to protect the viability of small family farms, ensure that the nation state is able to distribute the top-sliced modulated rural development funds and, above all, significantly reduce the overall common agricultural policy budget?

I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's final point first. He will know that there is already broad agreement about the nature of the financial framework for the future use and structure of the CAP. I share his view entirely that much of the language is impenetrable, but the numbers at least are not. In addition, we have been, and will continue to be, engaged in extensive talks, bilaterally and in small groups, with other member states and the Commission. The course of action that the Commission is pursuing is that the proposals put into the public domain by Commissioner Fischler remain on the table. It is engaged in extensive dialogue with individual member states about the concerns raised by the proposals. We anticipate that there will be further extensive discussions at the next Agriculture Council, which I think is to be held next week. However, the proposals that remain on the table are the proposals with which the House and the farming community are familiar.

What estimates has my right hon. Friend made of the effect of CAP reform on the sectors that are currently unsupported, such as fruit and vegetables? Is there not a danger that some farmers will take single-farm payments, move into those sectors with a competitive advantage, and distort markets that are currently very finely balanced?

My hon. Friend raises another serious and valid point, which has been raised with this Government, with the Governments of many other member states, and with the Commission. I can assure him that we are mindful of the danger. We do not believe that it is as serious as some of those engaged in the sector believe, but we accept that we have to examine the position and take it into account as the final proposals begin to emerge.

Does the right hon. Lady believe that a national scheme for modulation is necessary, in addition to the European modulation scheme proposed by the Commission?

As the hon. Gentleman will know from what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) a few moments ago, we are mindful indeed of the fact that our voluntary modulation—some other member states are also pursuing one—goes further than the Commission's initial proposals. We are discussing with the Commission how best to handle that in terms of the transitional scheme, which is particularly relevant to the United Kingdom.

But does the right hon. Lady not accept that the Commission's current proposals already discriminate harshly against British agriculture, which will be expected to shoulder a much greater share of the costs of common agricultural policy reform than would be borne by farmers in France or Italy, for example? Imposing a domestic scheme on top of a European scheme would weight the scales still further against the competitive interests of British farmers. What they want is a fair deal out of Europe. Can the right hon. Lady guarantee that she will be able to deliver that in June?

I can certainly guarantee to fight tooth and nail to secure a fair deal for British farmers. We have no wish to see British farmers placed at a competitive disadvantage. However, the hon. Gentleman will have observed that even the Commission's current proposals on the criteria of modulation funding—we are pressing to remedy some of the unfairness that has been Britain's lot in some of the negotiations in the past—would benefit the UK by 9 to 10 per cent. That compares with 3.5 per cent, now, but I accept that aspects of the proposals are unfair and we are making that plain to the Commission.

National Air Quality Targets

3.

What progress has been made on meeting the national air quality strategy targets. [113300]

We have met, or are on course to meet, air quality objectives for five of the nine pollutants in England—namely benzene, 1,3-butadiene, carbon monoxide, lead and sulphur dioxide. Significant progress has been made towards meeting air quality objectives for nitrogen dioxide, particles, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and ozone. That is a result of the measures that have been implemented to reduce emissions of these pollutants, and their precursors, particularly from road transport and industry.

I thank the Minister for his answer and I commend the Government for the work that they have done. However, conditions such as asthma are greatly exacerbated by pollution. Pollution may not cause it, but, as I know from my experience, it certainly makes it worse. The number of asthma sufferers now totals 5 million. Has the Minister examined the research on the effects of long-term air pollution carried out by the air pollution unit of the Department of Health? When will the measures that he has announced have a significant effect on air pollution, so that conditions such as asthma can be significantly ameliorated?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is now greater sensitivity towards pollutants and a greater understanding of their impact. We do not believe that the battle is yet won: pointing to indicators of progress does not mean that we are satisfied with the position that we have reached. Although the emissions of most pollutants are falling, concentration levels of some are not falling as fast as we would like. I can reassure my hon. Friend that we shall remain focused on the targets and work with our colleagues in the Department of Health to remain fully sensitive to the points that he makes.

Does the Minister accept that the good work done in tackling air pollution will be undermined if the airline industry is not brought under control? Is he aware that Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports alone emit more than 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 13,000 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide each year? The industry's CO2 emissions are set to double between 1990 and 2010. Will his Department support the impositicn of a European Union aviation fuel tax, and also tell the Department for Transport that it must resist the discredited predict-and-provide policy for more runways in the south-east?

The hon. Gentleman addresses transport policy and tax in his question, which confirms the important fact that many Departments make a contribution to these policy issues. We are conscious of the impact of air transport and the situation around airports, which is clear from our statement on the consultation documents on the future of air transport in the south-east.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that air pollution is not simply an urban problem? It has a worrying effect in rural areas, especially given the amount of ozone from motorways. Is it right to put special effort into monitoring that, and does he agree that that should be part of a properly constituted overall policy, instead of one that just concentrates on urban areas?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Ozone levels in rural areas are a problem, and we are not satisfied with the progress that has been made. It should be remembered that ozone is a highly trans-boundary pollutant and we are taking measures nationally to control ozone precursors, such as nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds. Internationally agreed measures are the most effective ways to tackle that pollutant, as ground-level ozone concentrations in southern England are influenced largely by trans-boundary pollution. The UK will play a key role in seeking agreements on those issues, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight them as an area for concern.

Surprisingly, many local air quality management areas exist in small market towns, and some of those are set to deteriorate further as a result of unsympathetic planning. What discussions has the Minister had with his local government colleagues to ensure that planning guidance is tightened up to prevent that from happening?

The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that air pollution problems arise in areas such as market towns, where one would not expect them, and he has raised the issue in the House in the past. I can assure him that air quality issues are considered across government by this Department and our colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Transport.

Sustainable Development

4.

If she will make a statement on the outcomes of the 11th meeting of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development. [113301]

The 11th session of the Commission concluded last week, having agreed a reform package and a new work programme that focuses on results and actions rather than textual negotiations. The outcome holds some promise that the CSD will be able to effectively fulfil its task of following up implementation of the Johannesburg world summit on sustainable development.

Given the lack of binding targets on renewable energy set at Johannesburg and the fact that the follow-up on energy will not begin until 2006, what strategies are the Government developing on expanding the use of renewable energy globally, and will a British Minister attend the Bonn conference on that subject next month?

We are mindful of the importance of the Bonn conference and we shall certainly be represented at a senior level. Unfortunately, we have not had much notice of those dates and Ministers' diaries are under considerable pressure. We are trying to find out who might be able to attend, but I cannot tell my hon. Friend at this point. I can tell her that we are involved in the renewable energy and energy efficiency partnership. We are taking that forward with great vigour and there is great interest in it from many companies and organisations across the world. We hope that it will be a fruitful vehicle. We are also working with other states that are pursuing similar partnerships internationally. I can assure my hon. Friend that the coalition of people who wish to pursue the advance of renewable energy is alive and well.

On the issue of sustainable development and road fuels, the Secretary of State will be aware of the contribution that is being made by the development of biodiesel, especially from the use of oilseed rape as a feedstock. However, the 20p duty derogation is not considered sufficient to pump-prime the industry in the UK. What representations could her Department make, even at this late stage in the passage of the Finance Bill, to try to increase the derogation from 20p to 28p, thus triggering an important development in sustainability?

We have had many discussions with our Treasury colleagues and I can, in all honesty, tell the right hon. Gentleman that there is no unwillingness in the Treasury team to look at those issues. There have already been, and there will continue to be, extensive discussions. The industry is very aware of the position: so far, it has not been able to make its case with sufficient force to convince the Treasury about the further steps that would make the dramatic difference that has been suggested. Treasury Ministers are open to those discussions—

We are talking about substantial sums of money. The Treasury has already made a substantial potential concession in revenue terms and is willing to consider discussions, but the case must be made.

My right hon. Friend will know that there is a growing network of eco-schools, where children of all ages learn about sustainable development in practical ways. That is a good way of embedding in future generations knowledge of, and responsibility for, sustainable development. Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether the Department already disseminates information on sustainable development to the network of eco-schools? If not, does she not think that it is a really good idea and is a way of improving people's understanding of sustainable development?

I share my hon. Friend's view that it is a good way of improving the understanding of sustainable development. DEFRA and the Department for Education and Skills make substantial information available to schools. Offhand, I am not aware whether special information is devoted to the network of eco-schools, but I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of the relevant staff.

Cormorants (Inland Fisheries)

5.

How much public money has been spent by her Department over the last seven years on research into predation of inland fisheries by cormorants; and what conclusions have been reached. [113303]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

The Department has spent £1.4 million on research into predation of inland fisheries by piscivorous birds over the past eight years.The research programme significantly improved our understanding of the behaviour of fish-eating birds, their numbers and distribution and the extent of the problems they cause to fisheries, and helped towards the development of effective management strategies. The results of the early research have been published.

Does the Minister agree that it will come as no surprise to either anglers or the taxpayers who funded the research to learn that cormorants eat fish? The point is what will the Minister do to make it easier for fishery owners and angling clubs to protect their stocks and their livelihoods, especially in the light of the news this week that at Walthamstow reservoir, fish stocks worth £50,000 were predated in a single year?

I know of my hon. Friend's interest in this matter. Indeed, he took me to Walthamstow reservoir to see the problem. Unfortunately, on that particular morning there was a thick fog so I can only say that I could see no problem. However, I know that there is a problem and that my hon. Friend is serious about it. As he knows, we have spent a great deal of money on looking into ways of dealing with the matter; for example, research is currently under way on fish refuges, which may be helpful in dealing with the problem. My hon. Friend will also know that in the worst-case scenario we can issue licences for control, but people have to demonstrate an economic loss and that other ways of deterring cormorants have been tried and have failed. We are willing to work with the angling world to find out how we can deter cormorants from eating its fish.

May I declare an interest? I have a pond on my farm in County Antrim—[Interruption.]—I will invite the Minister there.

At this time of year, I go to Movanagher fish farm to buy brown trout to stock the pond. All year round, I never see a cormorant, but within 24 hours cormorants come in and eat every one of those trout—[Interruption.] This is a serious point. At Movanagher fish farm, at fish farms throughout the United Kingdom and in commercial and sporting fishing, it is a disaster. The only way to deal with the problem is not to waste money on civil servants but to designate a number of days when cormorant stocks throughout the UK can be culled.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. Of course there is an issue regarding still-water fisheries and the trend towards inland cormorant breeding, but his suggested solution may not work, and non-lethal deterrents may be equally effective. We do take the problem seriously; we must identify the most effective way of deterring such predation, and to do so we must examine the whole range of options.

We have been talking about fish-eating birds; may we discuss the situation with regard to a fish-eating animal—the otter? Only this week there has been a report that the otters are coming back in great numbers.

Abattoirs

7.

How many small to medium sized abattoirs there are in England. [113305]

On 1 May, there were in England 116 licensed low throughput and 172 licensed full throughput red-meat abattoirs; and 43 licensed low throughput and 68 licensed full throughput white-meat abattoirs.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that answer, which I think shows the dramatic reduction in the number of abattoirs in England and the United Kingdom as a whole. Will he share my concern that the last abattoir in my constituency, the family firm JJJ Heathcote & Son, which has been in operation for six generations, has closed because of the huge additional costs imposed upon abbatoirs by the animal by-products regulations—particularly those relating to biological testing and the disposal of blood, which will add costs to the company, which went out of active trading on 1 May, of £525 a week? The Minister can see that that is a huge additional sum. What is the Minister going to do to safeguard animal welfare and reduce the inconvenience and costs to farmers, by ensuring that in future small abattoirs remain in business?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern because he referred to the closure of an abattoir in his constituency. I understand that the decision to close that abattoir was a commercial one, not attributable directly to the introduction of the animal by-products regulations, although they may be a factor.

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is precisely what I understand, and I do not think that it helps to try to nail commercial decisions on to the introduction of regulations. It should be remembered that there is over-production in the abattoir industry in this country. To try to help, in view of the importance of the local and regional economy, we have refocused our policy on the abattoir sector, which means that abattoirs are eligible to apply for processing and marketing grants and to make use of rural enterprise schemes, in order to gain assistance from those elements in the England rural development programme.

Should not we be doing more not only to protect existing abattoirs but to encourage the re-establishment of local abattoirs? Will not that minimise stress to animals, reduce the risk and scale of any disease outbreaks and—as important as anything—encourage the availability of locally produced meat, which many consumers say that they are looking for and would support? Cannot we do much more than we are doing?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the need to ensure the availability of abattoir capacity in order to help local and regional products, and we are doing so in conjunction with the Government offices and the regional development agencies. However, one has to remember that we are talking about commercial activities, and the Meat and Livestock Commission has estimated that in 1999, comparing peak-week activity with average activity, the overcapacity amounted to 49 per cent, for cattle, 55 per cent, for sheep and 27 per cent, for pigs. I came across problems in the abattoir industry when I was first elected to a local authority in 1973, so many of these issues are not new. We should bear in mind, in trying to assist local and regional provision of facilities, that these are commercial activities and that there is still an element of over-provision.

Would the right hon. Gentleman keep in mind the fact that the closure of abattoirs has very serious implications for animal welfare, as of course animals have to be transported very considerable distances if local abattoirs close?

I entirely accept what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, and I can assure him that we keep that in mind, and the fact that, in no small measure, the way we try to assist the regional and local economies is associated with that issue.

I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the Countryside Agency report on local food, in which it says:

"the erosion of the infrastructure that used to support local food markets was identified as a key barrier. In particular, the closure of local abattoirs, due to increasing legislation".
Under the heading "Legislation", it says:
"Regulations were felt to have a disproportionately high impact on businesses in the local food sector, which tend to be small/micro businesses. Much legislation is felt to be impractical, inappropriate, and unduly expensive to implement, particularly in the meat sector."
What response has the Department made to that very important Countryside Agency report?

Our response has to be proportionate because, on the one hand, yes, testing places burdens on industry, but many of those tests are either national or international requirements and, on the other, people want food safety to be enhanced, and they will find that encouraging. Wherever possible, we have to ensure that the burdens that we impose are proportionate and reasonable, that they are not excessive and that we do not go in for gold plating, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would accept that food safety is of great importance. The Countryside Agency focused on the economics of the local food industry, which of course is another important aspect and something that we are very keen to develop and promote.

The Minister has tried to gloss over the very worrying closure of small abattoirs and, in some strange way, to attribute that to commercial reasons. Of course he is quite right: those commercial decisions are taken because of the huge increase in costs to small abattoirs and the huge increase in regulation. Those commercial decisions are directly attributable to the Government. Will he now tell the House how he perceives the additional costs that result from the animal by-products regulations, which are about to come into effect? How many small abattoirs need to have their incinerators upgraded? How much extra will that cost; and what approaches has he made to the European Commission about allowing small abattoirs grants for the capital costs that will be incurred because of the animal by-products regulations?

The hon. Gentleman should be more reasonable in his approach. I have not tried to gloss over anything—I have made it very clear that very difficult issues face those in this industry—but it is equally unreasonable and unhelpful to try to suggest that closures are always associated with a particular set of regulations.

Because they are losing money in advance of the introduction of the regulations. That would be and is a reason in specific cases. I thought that the hon. Gentleman and his party were in favour of competition and believed in the effectiveness of the market. As for seeking to use grant schemes, I have already indicated that we have made available processing and marketing grants and rural enterprise scheme opportunities, as well as working with the regional development agencies and Government offices in the regions to consider the need for such provision in the regions. The regional and local provision of food and local sourcing are extremely important and something that we seek to support.

Food Exports

8.

What the value was of food exported from the UK to member states of the European Union in the last year for which figures are available. [113306]

During 2002, the value of food, feed and drink exported from the UK to member states of the European Union was £5.6 billion.

I note that reply and I thank my right hon. Friend for it very much. It indicates the enormous value to this country of our many excellent producers, who produce a wide range of food commodities that sell well in EU countries. As the EU will very shortly have 10 new member states, many of which produce food, many of us feel that we are under very unfair conditions. Can she assure the House that British producers, who have worked so hard to establish those markets in the EU, will not be squeezed out by unfair competition from new member states?

I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that even at present the existing member states of the European Union export more to new members joining the European Union than vice versa. That is particularly the case with regard to high-value-added products and quality products. I certainly agree that this country has many excellent producers of food and drink of very high quality, which clearly gives us the market edge in the new member states. I anticipate that that will continue and I look forward to it doing so.

What proportion does meat on the hoof rather than on the hook represent of the food exported from this country? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that when that product is branded and sold overseas it is sold as British products, and that British lamb, for example, is not sold in France as French lamb?

I do not have with me figures for the proportion on the hoof rather than on the hook, although the hon. Gentleman will know that, in common with most Members, we would prefer all such exports to be on the hook. I am not aware of such exports being rebranded. If he has cause for concern in that respect, I would be grateful if he would let us know, as we will look into it.

Farm Regulation

9.

What measures she will take to relieve regulatory burdens on farmers. [113308]

My Department is firmly committed to ensuring that the regulatory burden on farmers is proportionate and that any regulation is applied in a way that causes as little inconvenience to farmers as possible. Our strategy for sustainable food and farming sets out proposals for a whole farm approach that will bring together regulatory requirements affecting farmers in a single coherent framework.

I am grateful for that answer. Does the Secretary of State agree that when there is a single regime, British farmers should have parity of treatment with others? If I may exemplify the point, my farmers are concerned that under the common agricultural policy review, agri-environment schemes may be enforced more rigidly in this country than in Europe. Secondly, my horticulturists are concerned that they must obtain licences for trickle irrigation while massive housing developments are allowed without regard to the need to extract more water to provide for those developments.

I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that agri-environment schemes are enforced more rigidly here than elsewhere in the European Union. Certainly, however, we believe that there should be parity, and that there should be proper enforcement, with the relevant requisite disciplines, right across the EU. Indeed, that is part of having a common agricultural policy. Equally, I am not conscious of a particular problem with regard to water whereby horticulturists are treated differently and worse than others. I will certainly look into the point that the hon. Gentleman raises, however, as I assure him that it is no part of our approach to want to see UK producers disadvantaged.

In discussion with farmers in my constituency last week, although they were not over-delighted by the number of regulations, they recognised that many of them are necessary. What they really felt needed to be addressed, however, was better co-ordination by the Department of the information provided, instead of having to fill in the same information on several different forms at a time. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, while recognising that regulations are necessary, she will look at improving the technology to ensure that farmers do not have to do as much paperwork?

I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that this is a matter of some considerable importance. Indeed, we are investigating now, in consultation with stakeholders, what kind of information would be most helpful to them and in what way we can best make it available. We would, of course, have to make the business case for the requisite systems to provide such information. I wholeheartedly assure him, however, that we are very mindful of how infuriating it is to be asked repeatedly by different groups of people for precisely the same information. That is exactly the kind of practice that we are trying to reduce.

The Secretary of State will be aware that a regulation that is disadvantageous not only to British farmers but to European farmers is the temporary ban on the use of fish-meal in animal feed, which sets us against imports from outside the European Union. The reason for that ban was bovine spongiform encephalopathy and testing. Is she aware that there is now a proven test, using microscopic analysis, that has been submitted to the EU and which can distinguish between fish meal and mammalian protein, which means that the temporary ban should no longer exist? Will she make representations to the EU to get the ban lifted as soon as possible so that our producers may use that excellent protein?

The hon. Gentleman will know, I am sure, that the Government share his concern to an extent, and we did indeed make representations on that issue. I also agree that it is important to press the Commission to examine that potential further step speedily. However, the first step is to ensure that the test is evaluated as quickly as possible. If it is successfully evaluated and it works in the way that is suggested, we can press for it to be taken into account, and I assure him that we shall do that.

On the animal byproducts regulations, will the right hon. Lady confirm that we are now in the absurd situation in which the European ban on burying fallen stock came into force at the beginning at the month, but no implementing legislation has been introduced in the House to give effect to the ban or to provide for penalties for breaching it? Ministers are whispering behind their hands that everything will be enforced with a light touch for three months or so, but several local councils have already announced a strict enforcement policy. Farmers and councils alike deserve to know exactly where they stand, so surely the right policy would be for the right hon. Lady to announce a delay on enforcing the ban until the new national collection scheme is in place and operating.

I think that there is a misunderstanding. The new national collection scheme is not a necessary prerequisite of the regulations' implementation. We urge farmers to sign up to the new national collection scheme because its purpose and effect is to lower the costs of implementation. We anticipate and hope—although we must always be cautious about making assumptions about how the House operates—that the regulations will be in place by the end of the month. Most farmers are clear about where they stand, although they may or may not like it.

Recycling

10.

If she will make a statement on her Department's strategy for promoting recycling. [113309]

The Government's "Waste Strategy 2000" set national targets for the recycling or composting of at least 25 per cent, of household waste by 2005 and 30 per cent, by 2010. To underpin these national targets we have set challenging statutory recycling and composting targets for all local authorities.

I welcome the Minister's support for recycling but I would like to test what it actually means in practice. The Government attempted to remove all meaningful targets from the Home Energy Conservation Bill during its passage, although they were defeated in Committee by Conservative and Labour Members. They consequently destroyed the Bill on the Floor of the House. The current Municipal Waste Recycling Bill proposes recycling targets to be achieved by 2010 that would require, in the Minister's words,

"an increase in the level of kerbside collection in the order of 45 to 50 per cent.".—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 10 April 2003; c. 238.]
Do the Government intend to support those targets or will there be yet another example of when new Labour talks dirty—[Laughter.] Sorry. Will there be yet another example of when new Labour talks green but acts dirty?

At least we do not act dirty, which the previous Government sometimes did.

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands. I made it perfectly clear that the reason why we could not support the Home Energy Conservation Bill, although we certainly supported the overall targets, was that under the modernisation procedures through which we will finance the further burdens that we require of local authorities, which we have rightly instituted, the cost of the Bill would have been about £400 million. Following the spending review, such expenditure was not available. However, it is true that home energy conservation targets are increasing steadily and gradually.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point about kerbside recycling, I remind him that the current level is about 51 per cent, according to the latest information available to me. We believe that if we get to a national recycling rate of 25 per cent, by 2005–06, and we have every intention of ensuring that that happens, the level of kerbside recycling will have to be increased substantially by local authorities. If we were to require them to do it, we would again have to pay substantial sums of money—perhaps as much as £200 million—which is simply not available in the spending review.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the House authorities for doing their bit to promote recycling by providing Members with a separate bin for recycling waste paper? Does he agree that that promotion could be taken a step further, perhaps by having central collection points for used plastic bottles or tin cans? That might be a logical way forward.

I think that is a helpful suggestion. In terms of national targets and national performance, what happens in the House is infinitesimal by comparison, but it sends an important message. If we are asking other people in all households to increase recycling and recovery markedly—not just of paper, but also of plastics, aluminium steel cans, bottles and so on—it is important that we do it ourselves. I shall certainly take the matter up with the House authorities.

The Minister is proud of his targets, but he must be aware that the Environmental Audit Committee described them as "depressingly unambitious". Does he agree with most hon. Members that bottle banks and the like will never achieve reasonable recycling targets? That can only be done by kerbside recycling, something that the Prime Minister acknowledged when he memorably said:

"I want to see every local authority offering doorstep recycling".
Does the Minister agree with his right hon. Friend? Does he, too, want to see every local authority offering kerbside recycling? If so, can he prove that by supporting the private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), which will shortly be in Committee?

It is a bit of a cheek for the hon. Gentleman to make a case for recycling levels when we inherited a recycling level of 6 per cent, in 1997. That has been doubled to 13 per cent, and we intend to double it again to 25 per cent, within the next two years.

It is also unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman prepared his supplementary question without realising that I had answered it in my full response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), which he would have known had he been listening. Since he obviously did not catch it, I said that we are in favour of a big increase in kerbside recycling. It is already 51 per cent. We believe that achieving 25 per cent, overall national recycling by 2005 will increase that substantially. If we are to require local authorities to do that, however, we have to finance it from central sources, and we simply do not have the capacity in our budget to do that.

Sewerage Provision

11.

What plans she has to change the law to make it easier for water companies to provide mains sewerage to rural villages. [113310]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

While there are costs and technical issues, we consider water companies already have sufficient powers under section 94 of the Water Industry Act 199l to provide, improve and extend the system of public sewers.

May I take issue with my hon. Friend, because they simply do not? The only way for water companies to provide mains sewerage to those rural villages in my constituency that need it is to use section 101 A of 1991 Act, which requires them to prove the case on environmental grounds, not regeneration and economic grounds. The Water Bill is just up the Corridor at the moment and it amends section 101A. Will my hon. Friend please look at it and consider the minor amendments needed to make the changes so that we can give a real boost to those rural communities that need mains drainage?

I understand my hon. Friend's point. He has been active on the matter and recently wrote to us on a number of suggestions. However, if properly maintained, cesspits and cesspit tanks are perfectly environmentally acceptable. I appreciate that there is a cost attached to that and that there is also an issue of rural development. We are happy to explore ways of dealing with the issue if there is a case to do so on cost benefit grounds as well as environmental grounds. One way to do that might be to consider the facility in the English rural development programme in relation to support for rural communities and infrastructure. I shall write to my hon. Friend in more detail on that and am happy to explore the options. We accept that he raises important points.

Packaging Waste Regulation

12.

If she will make a statement on the packaging waste regulation and wood products. [113311]

In view of allegations of inappropriate packaging waste recovery note issue by some reprocessors, I have asked my officials to conduct an investigation.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the price of packaging recovery notes for wood products slumped towards the end of last year and is quite low. There are another two issues facing wood recyclers: first, the subsidy offered by power generators for biofuels to use in power stations, where they can offer higher prices than board and wood products users. Secondly, there is the proposed removal of a packaging waste recovery target for wood products. We have heard today about the exploitation of forests in the far east. Is it not time that we did more to encourage wood products recycling, rather than allowing barriers to occur?

The latest figures show a very substantial increase in the recovery and recycling of wood packaging waste. It was reported at a rate of 57 per cent, in 2001. The latest figures for 2002 are 84 per cent. That shows a substantial uplift, so large that there have been suspicions of an inappropriate allocation and use of packaging waste recovery notes. That is what I have asked my Department to investigate. I accept my hon. Friend's point about the slump in PRN prices. I have told the industry that under the EU packaging waste regulations, there will be a considerable increase in those targets, probably of the order of 60 to 65 per cent, by 2006–08. In the light of that, further investment needs to be made now in readiness to meet those higher targets. On that basis, I hope that PRN prices will begin to recover.

Fisheries Council

13.

If she will make a statement on the Government's aims at the next Fisheries Council meeting. [113312]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

Agendas vary. Our aim at the May Council will be to support the development of effective measures for the future management of fishing effort in western waters.

With regard to the cod recovery programme, which I presume would be an essential part of that, does the Minister agree that it will be meaningless as long as we allow the industrial fishing fleet to remove an important part of the food chain? Will he use the next Fisheries Council to instil some urgency in the EU Commission with regard to the setting up of regional advisory councils?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are strong supporters of regional advisory councils. There is a great deal of activity going on in fishermen's organisations in relation to existing structures. We believe that for those councils to be effective, they should be driven from the bottom, rather than being imposed from the top. They must genuinely engage and involve the fishing industry. On industrial fishing, the hon. Gentleman knows my views. We are speaking to the Danes and to the Commission about the potential impact of industrial fishing. We have made £1 million available for scientific involvement with the English fishing industry. One of the topics that we are discussing with the industry is how we can use some of that money to fund proper examination of the by-catch and the ecological impact of industrial fishing, to strengthen the argument about its impact and to consider taking action on it.

Accepting that my hon. Friend always puts up a good fight, and a very cunning fight, on behalf of the British fishing industry, and does his best to voice the demands of the industry in the Council, I hope that he will attempt at the next Council and succeeding Councils to put more muscle into the regional advisory councils. National management of the waters has been a longstanding demand of the industry, and the present framework is purely advisory and has no real influence and role. It needs to have a defined role in management of the waters that it covers, so that they can be removed from the general considerations of management from Brussels.

I understand my hon. Friend's point. He has been entirely consistent and made a powerful argument on these issues. We had to fight hard for the regional advisory councils to be part of the reformed common fisheries policy. There were people in this country who said that we would never succeed and never get that. We did get it, and as far as we concerned, we see it as a framework for development. It is inevitable that we will have to progress step by step in the beginning to build up confidence and establish the influence of the councils. In the UK, we want them to have real power and a proper decision-making process, and to give fishermen a voice and an involvement in the management of their own fisheries.

Business Of The House

12.30 pm

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 19 MAY—Progress on remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Bill (Day 2).

TUESDAY 20 MAY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Bill (Day 3).

WEDNESDAY 21 MAY—Second Reading of the European Union (Accessions) Bill.

THURSDAY 22 MAY—Motion on General Synod Measure, followed by motion to approve a money resolution on the Municipal Waste Recycling Bill, followed by a motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week following the Whitsun recess will include:

MONDAY 2 JUNE—The House will not be sitting

TUESDAY 3 JUNE—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Fire Services Bill.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business.

Yesterday in PMPs, the Prime Minister finally lost his marbles. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said in column 305 ofHansard that

"referendums on the European constitution are proposed in up to 10 European member states"
and very reasonably asked the Prime Minister:

"Why cannot the British people have one, too?"
My right hon. Friend may have been inspired by the fact that a Minister of State in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), no less, had said a few minutes earlier in the slightly different context of regional assemblies:
"It will … be for the people of each region to decide whether they want an elected regional assembly. That is democracy and choice, and we think that it is a good idea."
So the Minister of State thinks that it is a good idea to consult the people and ask them what they think about regional assemblies, but the Prime Minister was, by this time, off on another flight of fancy. In column 305, he said:
"the reason why the right hon. Gentleman"—
the Leader of the Opposition—
"wants a referendum is to vote no to enlargement".
In column 306, he went on to say:
"he wants people to say no to European enlargement"
and
"the Conservative party is … against the enlargement of the European Union".
Finally, the Prime Minister said:
"the European Convention … is necessary to make … accession work."—[Official Report, 14 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 301–6.]
Of course, Mr. Speaker, as you and the rest of the House know, there is absolutely no connection between the European Convention and constitution and enlargement of the European Union. Alarmingly, the Prime Minister of this country does not appear to understand the nature of this ghastly constitution that he now seems to want to inflict on the British people without even giving them a chance to say what they want.

I remind you, Mr. Speaker, the House and the Leader of the House that on 17 October 2001 at column 1184 of Hansard, my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary, no less, said of the Conservatives:
"We are the long-standing and very committed supporters of enlargement. We were pursuing enlargement in 1990–11 years ago … we remain strong supporters of enlargement".—[Official Report, 17 October 2001; Vol. 372, c. 1184.]
What I am therefore asking is: please can the Prime Minister come to the House, beg our forgiveness, apologise for not understanding what is going in his own Government and in the European Union and set the record straight? That is a very simple request and I hope that the Leader of the House will instruct the Prime Minister to sort himself out, get his act together and tell us what is really going on.

On Monday this week, the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) contradicted each other completely on the vital matter of the advice that the Attorney General had given the Government about the post-war Iraq settlement. What we really need to know—this is a very important constitutional matter, if nothing else—is which of them was right.

The Foreign Secretary said:
"I do not agree with my right hon. Friend's"—
that is, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood—
"view about the position of the Government."
He went on to say:
"all the actions that we have taken have been taken strictly in accordance with legal advice."
But a few minutes later the right hon. Lady said:
"I believe that the UK could and should have respected the Attorney-General's advice".
She went on to say that she was
"ashamed that the UK Government have agreed the resolution that has been tabled in New York"
and that it
"undermines all the commitments I have made in the House and elsewhere."—[Official Report, 12 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 26, 37.]

This is a serious matter. A current member of the Cabinet and a former member of the Cabinet are saying completely contradictory things about exactly the same issue. Surely it is in everybody's interests that we get it straightened out. At the very least, the Foreign Secretary or the right hon. Lady should apologise to the House, but ideally the attorney-General's advice should be published, because that would put the matter beyond doubt. Will the Leader of the House make arrangements for a member of the Government to come to the House as early as possible to tell us who was right—the Foreign Secretary or the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood?

This morning on the radio we heard an announcement about the latest pensions cock-up. The Pensions issue is now spiralling downwards into complete disarray, yet we still have no Minister for Pensions in the Government. So who is going to tell us what is going on? Who is going to come to the House to explain this latest insult to pensioners? Who is going to tell us the reason for this ghastly error, which will cost nearly everybody in this country a lot of money? Why have the pensioners have been sidelined by the Government? Are they so careless and casual about pensioners that they cannot even get round to appointing a representative for them in the Government? Can the Leader of the House tell us when we will get a Minister for Pensions here in this House to deal with pensions issues and to explain the latest disgrace?

A moment ago, I mentioned the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood. It is worth reflecting on what she said on 12 May when she made her personal statement to the House. She said, among other things, that we are now getting
"diktats in favour of increasingly badly thought through policy initiatives that come from on high."
She then said:
"We do not need … endless new initiatives, layers of bureaucratic accountability and diktats from the centre."
She rounded it all off by saying—this is an issue directly for the Leader of the House—that
"increasingly poor policy initiatives"—
are being—
"rammed through Parliament".—[Official Report", 12 May 2003;
Vol. 405, c. 38.]Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what he proposes to do as Leader of the House—the representative of this House of Commons at the highest level of Government—to prevent that? We have seen all too much of it this week with the Finance Bill, the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill, and many other measures. Will the Leader of the House tell us in terms, and in detail, how he will prevent poor policy initiatives being rammed through Parliament and allow this House of Commons to do its proper job?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his normal stentorian contribution, to which I look forward every Thursday, and for his request that I instruct the Prime Minister to come to this House to beg forgiveness. He is that type of guy, is he not? I will consider that request, but I will particularly consider whether I can find anything for which he should seek forgiveness. Given the number of occasions on which the Prime Minister has come to this House to make statements and to answer questions——far more, incidentally, than has any other Prime Minister—it is not obvious to me what we should ask him to beg forgiveness for.

The hon. Gentleman—

I beg pardon. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Convention. First, there is a difference between a referendum on a national issue and on the sort of issues that he and his colleagues mentioned in the past week. They range from Iraq, which does not have the sort of established parliamentary democracy that we have, to the elections in Hartlepool, which may be interesting but are not comparable with the powers of Parliament. I am surprised because the right hon. Gentleman is normally the arch defender of the rights of Parliament rather than the arch exponent of passing major decisions out of Parliament.

Secondly, in Britain, Parliament ratifies treaties. We do not hold referendums on them, although that happens in Ireland and several other countries. [Interruption.] Well, the Tories did not hold a referendum on the Maastricht treaty or the single European issues that came before the House when they were in government.

Thirdly, the new constitutional treaty will not fundamentally alter the position of the member states of the European Union. Powers are given by member states to the Union to achieve goals that they could not attain alone. The fundamental building blocks of the European Union will remain the individual states. The right hon. Gentleman's normal position of defending Parliament's rights has been undermined by the expediency and opportunism that Conservative Members apply to everything that appears to relate to Europe, which, individually and collectively, they hate more by the day. It is another element of their extreme position.

The right hon. Gentleman does not need to take my word about the Attorney-General, who made it clear before we went into action in Iraq and subsequently that the Government have acted in accordance with international law. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong; that should be good enough. There will be a dozen different opinions internationally on any legal issue. That is the nature of domestic and international legal debate. Again, I hope that the Conservatives would tend to accept the opinion of this country's chief legal adviser rather than that of some critics abroad who take a different position.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of pensions. This morning's report was not entirely accurate. No computer breakdown has occurred. The annual notification service to people who have gaps in their contribution records was suspended in 1998 because priority was given to processing current benefit and pension claims. That was the right thing to do because it meant that those who had immediate needs were dealt with first.

As with any Government position, Ministers will be replaced in due course. Any insinuation that we have not given due attention to pensioners is wrong: the Government introduced the minimum guaranteed pension, the winter fuel allowance, the pension credit, free television licences for those over 70 and the extra £100 for those over 80. Any suggestion from Conservative Members that the Government have not paid sufficient attention to pensioners stretches the imagination.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the scrutiny of debates in the House. Programming has brought many benefits as part of a wider package, although I accept that it is appropriate to review its workings to ascertain whether they can be improved. In the past few days, I have been discussing the matter in the Modernisation Committee and we will consider a review of programming.

It is not justifiable to judge programming on this week's experience of Northern Ireland, which tends to produce the unique need for rapid legislation under all Governments. I accept that there were problems, not least because a personal statement and a statement by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary further reduced the limited time available to hon. Members, especially those from Northern Ireland. I am not for a minute disregarding that fact, but Northern Ireland tends to be a unique case. Nevertheless, a review of the workings of programming is something that we ought to, and indeed will, look at.

Does the Leader of the House recall that, this time last week, we were congratulating him on his birthday? He is therefore now one year nearer to his retirement and his pension. Surely he must take more seriously the incredible cock-up at the Inland Revenue, as well as the cover-up—because that is what it is. There was no announcement about it on the radio, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) suggested. It was only the sharp eyes of a representative of The Daily Telegraph and my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) that discovered the fact that the Inland Revenue had failed in this respect. Is it not extraordinary that, for five years, there was no announcement, no admission and no apology about this extraordinary change of attitude? Is it not also extraordinary that 10 million people have been badly let down? Now, of course, the Inland Revenue is admitting the mistake by trying to put something in place to mitigate its failure. Surely, given the well-known humility of the Chancellor, we should have a statement from the head of the Department responsible about what has gone wrong and what is now going to be done to put it right.

I hope that the Leader of the House has had the opportunity this week to read "Parliament's Last Chance", produced by the Parliament First group, whose authors include some very distinguished members of his own party as well as of all the other parties. I am modest enough to admit to having made a small contribution to it. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that that report reflects the all-party concern about the way in which the House holds the Government to account. To cite a particular example to which reference has been made this afternoon, the Treasury is responsible for the Inland Revenue, and the Inland Revenue has clearly made a huge mistake, which it is now admitting. That matter should come to the Floor of the House and we should be given an explanation.

Finally, I believe that, on the "Today" programme this morning, the Leader of the House referred to Mr. Ronnie Biggs as a bank robber. Should we assume that the right hon. Gentleman's other answers this morning were equally inaccurate?

I do apologise if I said "bank robber" rather than "train robber". That no doubt means that Ronnie Biggs is utterly innocent and should never have been pursued in the first place. I think that we should deal with the substance of that issue, which was that the original charges, or action taken on the basis of a decision made on evidence, should not necessarily fall merely because we do not find all the evidence after the event. A decision in the case of Ronnie Biggs, or any other matter decided in the courts, is not contingent on full discovery later.

I have already referred to pensions. When the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred to pensions and the radio programme this morning, I thought that he was referring to the point that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has just raised. 1 have pointed out that there has not been a computer breakdown, as was apparently alleged. The annual notification service to people with gaps in their contribution records was suspended in 1998 because priority was being given to processing current benefit and pensions claims. That was the right thing to do because it meant that people with immediate needs were being dealt with first. The Inland Revenue will start writing to people later this year to let them know of any gaps in their records since the last time the notices were issued. People will not have to respond immediately; indeed, they will have until April 2008 to make payments if they wish to do so.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned Parliament First. I welcome any contribution to the debate on the modernisation of the House of Commons, but I hope that hon. Members will recognise that we have just completed a series of fairly substantial and extensive changes. I would like some time—and I think the House would be wise to take some time—to reflect on the many proposals that have already been put in place and to see how they are working. One that was introduced some time ago was programming, to which the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred. I think that, in principle, that will no doubt remain, but we will want to look at the workings of the provision.

Both the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and the hon. Gentleman mentioned general scrutiny of the House. We have tried to ensure that that takes place wherever possible. During the war with Iraq we arranged debates in the House in an unprecedented fashion. An unprecedented number of statements have been made to the House by Ministers, including the Prime Minister. Today we have announced an extensive period of consultation and discussion between Cabinet members on the euro, culminating in the announcement of a decision to the House on 9 June. We will ensure that there is adequate parliamentary scrutiny of that important issue, along with many others.

May I return to my right hon. Friend's point about Ronnie Biggs, and about not discovering all the evidence after the event? Does he agree that there is continuing public concern about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Is it not the case that just a few weeks ago the UN weapons inspectors were working with some success there, but we were then told that there must be a war because they could not find the weapons, and were subsequently told that only American inspectors could find the weapons because they were concealed so well—and then learnt that the American inspectors were being withdrawn? This week we have been told that the weapons are so small and so well concealed that we may never find them anyway. Do we not need a full parliamentary debate, so that we can consider all the evidence?

Actually, the evidence is starting to emerge. Coalition forces have discovered two vehicles which appear to be mobile biological weapons facilities. Testing and analysis of the vehicles is continuing. I have no doubt that if they prove to be what they appear to be, someone will say "But there are no bacterial media in them at present".

For seven years the inspectors were finding thousands of litres and tonnes of evidence, but the fact that we have not found further evidence does not mean that the intervention to reduce the threat from Saddam Hussein was either illegal or improper. That is why I drew a comparison with a bank robber whose stolen money has not been found. As I have said, I am convinced, as I was when we went into Iraq, that there was a threat from weapons of mass destruction—

That is not a very constructive contribution. Moreover, it represents my hon. Friend's view against that of the united world community. The entire United Nations accepted that there was a threat from weapons of mass destruction. The only argument was about how we should deal with the threat; it was not about whether a threat existed. That is as true today as it was six months ago, and 12 years ago.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on local government which the Prime Minister might be able to attend? On two occasions I have raised the issue of local government funding and Derbyshire Dales. Yesterday I asked

"Can the Prime Minister explain why the average increase for Derbyshire districts this year was some £570,000, yet for Conservative-controlled Dales district council it was an increase of £33,000?"
The Prime Minister replied that there had been
"a substantial increase in the investment going into education."
He went on
"That is true. We are working on school funding problems in the way that we have explained."—[Official Report, 14 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 308.]
The fact is that district councils have no responsibility whatever for education. Should the Prime Minister not understand the functions of local government before giving us answers? That answer was inaccurate.

Let us discuss the financing rather than the function of local government. Let me put two simple facts to the hon. Gentleman. I am afraid I do not know the details relating to the council that he mentioned, but I do know two things. First, since this Government came to power there has been a 7 per cent, real-terms increase in local authority funding, whereas there was a 25 per cent, cut during the final four years of the last Government. Secondly, for the first time in the country's history, every council in England has received an increase above the rate of inflation.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the restrictions placed on postal services in the House recently? Some of us who work late into the night would like to have that service. Could my right hon. Friend use his good offices to improve matters?

Members on both sides of the House have mentioned the revised collection times. Having discussed the matter with Royal Mail and Postcomm, I can confirm that there has been a positive response, at least initially. Royal Mail will now discuss future arrangements for later collections with the authorities, and I will ensure that all Members are informed of the outcome. I cannot promise a substantial change, but I can prove that we are on track to secure some form of change, which I know will benefit everyone.

It was unfortunate in the extreme that during last week's business questions the Leader of the House failed to respond to my request for a statement from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the arrest of Liam Clarke, the Sunday Times journalist, by a large number of armed policemen in the middle of the night. The matter is not sub judice, and it does not involve the wider issues that the Leader of the House was trying to avoid.

This will not go away. This is not Iraq under Saddam Hussein; it is a civilised democracy, and we want a proper answer.

I will not respond to the last comment. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was not drawing any comparison between the way in which we conduct business and the way in which Saddam Hussein conducted business. [Interruption.] I think that the currency of debate is slightly demeaned if we draw such comparisons.

The right hon. Gentleman says that the case is not sub judice, but it does impinge on intelligence matters. I know that this will be disappointing and frustrating for the right hon. Gentleman, but I must repeat what I said last week: a comment has been made by the Prime Minister, and I do not want to add to it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problems involving reminders to people to top up their national insurance contributions began before this Government were elected? I seem to remember that I received reminders in 1995 and 1996, but not in 1997. We were not elected until the summer of 1997, and I think that some of the responsibility for the choice and installation of computers must lie with the Conservative party.

I am not going to question my hon. Friend's memory. If it is accurate, I am sure that, as on all these occasions, the Conservative party will be only too willing to bear its share of the responsibility.

What will the right hon. Gentleman do to ensure that there is no repeat of the nonsense that occurred throughout the Committee stage of the Finance Bill? Owing to what appeared to be an extremely unseemly and childish squabble between the two Front Benches, we found ourselves discussing inconsequential clauses and amendments, and we did not reach the Scottish National party's reasoned and considered amendment on the oil industry. Does the right hon. Gentleman not believe that when the public see the House indulging in such behaviour they rightly hold it in contempt?

I think that many important issues were discussed during the Finance Bill debates, as they always are. I think that people in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom want the Finance Bill, which affects their incomes, their outgoings and their quality of life, to be discussed as fully as possible. I very much regret that we did not manage to reach an amendment that was of particular interest to the SNP, but I do not think it right to diminish everything else that was discussed because of that.

In the light of this week's decision by the European Court of Justice to effectively strike down this Parliament's right to decide whether the Government should have golden shares in publicly owned companies such as Royal Mail, may we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry? Many people will fear that the new forms of public ownership created by the Government may suffer the same fate.

I will draw that matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—I assume that she is the appropriate Secretary of State—not least because I am not entirely au fait with all the facts of the subject that my hon. Friend raises.

Does the Leader of the House accept that simply because there is not yet any clear and irrefutable evidence that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Ministers are squabbling like ferrets in a sack about the single European currency, that does not mean that it is not happening? Does he therefore accept that it is time for the House of Commons to have a full debate on this issue, so that we can find out the truth?

That is very topical, if I might say so. We have stated publicly all along the criteria on which such judgments will be made, and that the decision will be a collective one. This weekend, 18 technical documents on the Treasury's assessment will be sent to every Cabinet Minister. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor will have bilateral meetings with Cabinet members next week to discuss those documents, and an initial discussion will take place at next week's Cabinet. We will of course continue to discuss them profoundly, and on 26 May we will circulate the assessment arising from the initial documents, which will be read by every member of the Cabinet during the Whitsun break. There will be further bilateral meetings between Cabinet members and the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to look at the assessment, and there will be a special Cabinet on 5 or 6 June for a final discussion. An announcement will be made on 9 June, and I can confirm that a statement will be made in this House on that day. That is a fairly full, profound and collective approach to these matters.

On local government settlements, does my right hon. Friend accept that this year's local government debate was severely truncated, and that as a result many of us who wanted to make representations were unable to do so? I accept his earlier comment that the level of settlement was above the rate of inflation—at the time the rate was 2 per cent., yet Hertfordshire got 3.6 per cent,—but the reality is that inflation in the education sector is acknowledged to have been running at 10.6 per cent. As a result, the further education college in my local area, which depends for funding on the Learning and Skills Council, has not implemented any increase in lecturers' wages since 2002, is making 10 per cent, of its staff redundant and is axing many of its courses. Does my right hon. Friend accept that, overall, the local government settlement and miscalculations have in some ways done a great deal to diminish the quality of life, compared with the wonderful things that the Government have done in many other areas?

It is correct that in contrast with the overall settlement—my hon. Friend mentioned a figure of some 3.7 per cent, for his area—the rate of inflation in education was higher, but it is also true that within the overall settlement there was a higher percentage increase for education than for other areas. The burdens that were put on education through increased pensions, and so on, amounted to some 11.5 per cent., but the average increase in education provision totalled some 12.5 per cent. In all, some £2.7 billion was put into education, while the inflation constraints that he mentions constituted about £2.45 billion. So the Government made adequate provision for the pressures that he describes.

I should like to take this opportunity to correct some figures that I mixed up earlier. In fact, in terms of local authority expenditure this Government have provided a 25 per cent, increase over the past few years, while during the last few years of the previous Conservative Government there was a 6 per cent, cut.

Now that the Leader of the House's constituents are set to benefit from free eye tests and dental checks, will he find time to debate extending these provisions to the rest of the country?

In terms of general expenditure on the national health service and medical provision, there is no doubt that the entire country has benefited enormously from this Government. How that money is applied in any given part of the country will, through devolution, be tailored to the demands in a particular part. However, it is a question of swings and roundabouts: if money is spent one aspect of medical provision, it cannot be spent on another. The point of devolution is that such suggestions can be made in each area, and we can tailor provision in each to the particular demands.

Will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate on the professional duty of journalists to protect their sources? In an alarming number of cases, the courts are ordering journalists to betray confidential information given to them in the public interest. They include the case of Mr. Robin Ackroyd, on whom judgement will be made in the Court of Appeal tomorrow.

I obviously cannot comment on a specific case. A difficult balance is involved, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will have heard what my hon. Friend said.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Government's response to the Victoria Climbié inquiry, in the form of a Green Paper, is eagerly awaited. It was originally suggested that we might expect that response before the end of this month, but that now seems unlikely, given the right hon. Gentleman's exposition of business. Can he give us any idea of when we might expect the Green Paper?

I am afraid that I cannot do so from the Dispatch Box today, but I undertake to write to the right hon. Lady as expeditiously as I can with whatever details we can find out.

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to look at the recent Commission for Health Improvement report, "Getting Better", which discusses how increased investment in health in the UK and better national standards are leading to significant improvements? May we have a debate in the House on that matter?

I am eager that this report be debated in every conceivable forum because, as my hon. Friend says, it is the clearly stated conclusion of this independent inspection body that the national health service as a whole is getting better. There are of course areas that we want to improve, but I note that the chairman, Dame Deirdre Hine, has said:

"The bottom line is that the NHS as a whole is getting better."
The report concludes that waiting times are falling, that the NHS has made significant progress in respecting a person's right to be fully involved in decisions in the health service—that is very important—and that the service people receive from the NHS is different, and better, today than the service they would have received even a few years ago. I hope that we can deliberate on some of those findings at every conceivable opportunity.

May we have a ministerial statement and a debate on the seemingly becalmed regional airport consultation, given the recent BAA proposals and, more importantly, that some of my constituents are having difficulty in obtaining copies of the questionnaire from the advertised distribution centre? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could get me a thousand copies or so, and I will distribute them myself.

The consultation is ongoing, but I will do what I can to look into the specific problem that the hon. Gentleman mentions if it is inconveniencing or in any way prohibiting his constituents from participating fully in any consultation.

Will the Leader of the House reconsider that part of his answer to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), that related to the Parliament First document, "Parliament's Last Chance"? In particular, will he recognise that there is an important distinction between modernising the procedures of this House and reforming its politics? Will he also give consideration to the several recommendations in that pamphlet about strengthening the role of Parliament in scrutinising and monitoring the Executive? They are very much in line with the Liaison Committee's report of a couple of years ago, entitled "Shifting the Balance". If put into practice, they would greatly strengthen the role of this House in relation to government—to the benefit both of government and of Parliament as a whole.

As I said, I welcome any contribution to this debate; we want a lively democracy and a lively debate about the means of it. I cannot say that I welcome a particular aspect, because I have not read the pamphlet. Obviously, scrutinising the Executive is a very important role for the legislature in this country, but we are all aware that arrangements here are not like those in the US. It is not as simple as having a legislature and an Executive: we have an Executive who are embodied in the legislature, and it is the Executive by virtue of the fact that it is part of the legislature. The relationship between Parliament and Government is very important, and I welcome all contributions as to how the relationship can be conducted to the benefit of our democracy and of the people of this country in the future.

We anticipate that announcements will be made later today that billions of pounds are to be invested so that the Olympic games can be held in the UK in the near future, yet we in Northern Ireland do not even have a national stadium. When planning our business, will the Leader of the House try to arrange for a debate on the matter? It could be held in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, which is still to meet in Northern Ireland. Will he undertake to consider the matter and, I hope, arrange such a debate before too long?

I would not wish to pre-empt anything that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who has just taken her place on the Front Bench, is due to say. However, during my period as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I gained some understanding of and sympathy with the point of view expressed by the hon. Gentleman. Anything that brings people in Northern Ireland together in recognition of what they have in common is to be supported and encouraged. Although I think that it is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to decide when and if such a debate should take place, I shall, of course, draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to his attention.

On the European Convention, my right hon. Friend is right to remind the House that the country is governed by Parliament and not by plebiscite, and that the right place for such debates is this House. However, does he share my concern that there is a widening gulf between the people and the political elites—the ones who make the decisions—about the future of Europe? If he does share my view, will he ensure that adequate time is found for discussion on the Floor of the House of any constitutional implications of the European Convention? That would also allow Labour Members to have the pleasure of seeing the continuing civil war among Opposition Members.

Yes, any time spent with the dual objective and purpose of clarifying the Government's position on the matter, and of magnifying the deep divisions among Opposition Members, is time very well spent.

Further to the reply that the Leader of the House has just given, will he now answer the question posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the Prime Minister? Yesterday, the Prime Minister said in terms that, if there were to be a referendum on the new European constitution and the country were to vote no, that would block enlargement. Was the Prime Minister right, or wrong?

I am not sure that the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] I am trying to reflect on the words used by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). I am not sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister used the words attributed to him. The case that I set out earlier was quite simple—that, in this country, Parliament ratifies treaties. That is what happened with the Maastricht treaty, when the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Cabinet that supported the decision that Parliament should determine whether that treaty should be ratified. Moreover, as I pointed out, the basis for the Convention and constitutional changes is mainly consolidation, and not the introduction of new elements.

Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to make a statement next week on the discussions that he is having with the Israeli Foreign Minister today? Such a statement should cover the position of foreign nationals working for aid agencies in the Gaza strip and other occupied territories. My right hon. Friend will know that it was reported last week that foreign nationals were being asked to sign a waiver authorising the Israeli military to shoot them. He will be aware also that many Governments, including our own, have received a letter this week from the aid agencies, which states that visa restrictions and other restrictions make it almost impossible for them to enter the Gaza strip, or continue their vital aid work there. Does he agree that that is against the spirit of the road map? Given that levels of poverty in the area are equivalent to those in sub-Saharan Africa, is not it time for the international community to act?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will have heard the specific comments that my hon. Friend makes. With regard to the general issue of the middle east peace process, I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that the House has spent some time discussing the matter, despite considerable time pressures, and that the Government, from the Prime Minister down, have done all that they can to bring the parties involved together, and to ensure publication of the road map so that there can be a viable state for the Palestinian people and a secure future for the state of Israel. Eventually, both sides will need to talk, and to reduce the tension in the area. Presumably, that means that they will have to deal with some of the matters raised by my hon. Friend.

Point Of Order

1.16 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I rise to ask what you can do to force Government Departments to follow the normal convention in the House that statements are given to Opposition spokesmen a reasonable time before they are made by a Secretary of State in this House. The statement that is about to be made was faxed through a mere 15 minutes ago. That is not the fault of the usual channels or of the Leader of the House's office. I believe that staff there were in despair that another Government Department had not given reasonable notice to the House authorities that an important statement was coming.

The statement has been in the pipeline since January. We all saw on the news last night that a huge press conference was planned for today; journalists are en route there at this moment. We were told that this statement was going to be made, and in those circumstances there is no justification for giving the text to Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen a mere 15 minutes beforehand.

Finally, Sir, I must warn the Government that if they persist with this behaviour, as Opposition Chief Whip I will have no option but to find what measures Standing Orders allow me to take to buy some time for Opposition spokesmen to read a statement. I may have to disrupt procedures accordingly.

I would not want the right hon. Gentleman to disrupt procedures but, if what he says is true, I am very disappointed indeed. I was informed that a statement would be made this morning before my conference at 10.30 am. Therefore, I would have expected Opposition parties to be given at least an hour to examine the statement, so that they are able to put a decent case from the Dispatch Box. I shall have to investigate the matter but, if the circumstances are as described, I hope that it does not happen again.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Of course we will take your strictures to heart on this matter. However, I hope that you will understand that it is possible to give notice of a statement days or months in advance, but not to decide its exact terms until the Cabinet has discussed the issue. We have collective Cabinet discussions of issues, in the course of which—[Interruption.]

Order. The House must allow the right hon. Gentleman to state his case.

This is an important point about how we govern the country. Opposition Front Benchers are the first to declare at every opportunity that there is no collective Cabinet discussion. There is such discussion, and it results in decisions. Even when such a decision is known to have been reached some time in advance, its terms can still alter. The Cabinet meeting finished two hours ago. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has been finishing the final version of the statement that she is to make in that period.

Finally, I do not know on what evidence the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) based his statement that I was despairing this morning. First, I am not the type to despair and, secondly, that certainly did not happen this morning.

I do not wish to prolong the argument. I can well understand that the Cabinet has to take a decision and that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport then has to prepare a statement to the House. However, the statement does not need to come before the House until circumstances allow the Opposition to be given at least an hour's notice, so that they have time to examine the statement. That is what I am saying today, and I would be very disappointed indeed if what I have heard were true. I remind the House that, less than a week ago, I used my discretion to allow a Minister to make a statement to the House at a rather strange hour. By all means allow the Cabinet to take a collective decision, but Opposition parties—I am not referring to the Conservative party alone—must be allowed an hour to examine a statement.

I am sure that the House is grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for your response. Quite apart from the startling revelation that this morning's Cabinet meeting lasted all of 20 minutes, the key point for the House—and for you, Mr. Speaker—is that the problem is partly due to the ridiculous new hours that we are forced to sit. The fact that there is now a conflict—

Olympic Games

1.21 pm

May I begin by saying how seriously I take the remarks that you, Mr. Speaker, have just made? I apologise to you and I want to assure the House that no discourtesy was intended. As the Opposition spokesman will make clear, as a matter of courtesy I took the trouble to ring him at 8 o'clock this morning and, about an hour ago, I spent some time taking him through what I was going to say. I similarly informed the Liberal Democrat spokesman.

That said and placed on the record, the purpose of my statement is to inform the House that, following discussion in the Cabinet today, the Government have decided to give their wholehearted backing to a bid to host the Olympic games and the Paralympics in London in 2012. This morning, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister telephoned Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, to inform him of our decision. He has told Mr. Rogge that the Government will back to the hilt the efforts of the British Olympic Association, to which I wish to pay tribute, alongside the Greater London Authority, the London development agency and others—[Interruption.]—and, of course, the Mayor as part of the apparatus of the Greater London Authority.

The bid will be a huge stimulus for elite sport. Lottery investment in our athletes helped us to our best medal haul for decades at Sydney. A London bid will allow us to build on that and to raise standards and aspirations even higher. But our Olympic bid will also rest on our growing commitment to grassroots sport. It will be central to our efforts to increase physical activity, and identify, nurture and develop talent in our young and up-and-coming athletes.

We want to harness the power of sport to inspire people and to address some of the key issues that our nation faces—health, social inclusion, educational motivation and fighting crime. We want to spread the benefits all around the country—promoting tourism and business for the whole of the UK, staging a four-year cultural festival, investing in community sports facilities to offer to the visiting teams to prepare and train here, holding football competitions as part of the games, and staging some other events outside London.

I warmly welcome the pledge from all parties to support the bid. Such cross-party support is important, because it gives us the best chance of winning and of making the games a resounding success. I have previously set out for the House four tests, that an Olympic bid would have to meet before the Government could give it their backing. The tests were: can we afford it? Can we win? Can we deliver a strong bid and high quality games? What legacy would the games leave behind? We have spent the last few months applying those tests rigorously.

I believe, on the basis of rigorous scrutiny, that a London bid passes those tests on every count. I would like to take the House briefly through each one. First, the cost. We estimate the cost of bidding will be about £17 million. Business, the London development agency and the Government will bear that cost. If we win the bid, the cost of the Olympics should be borne, at least in part, by those who will benefit most. I have therefore agreed with the Mayor of London a funding package of £2.375 billion, which includes a 50 per cent. contingency. Of that, £875 million will be borne by London through a £20 increase in council tax for band D properties and a contribution of £250 million from the London development agency. But the biggest contribution comes from the lottery. Contributions from the existing sport lottery and a new Olympic lottery game would raise an estimated £1.5 billion. We will review the package in 2005 in the light of what by then will be firmer and more detailed estimates of the costs of staging the games.

The next test is whether we can win. Other confirmed bidders to date include New York, Leipzig, Madrid and Havana. No doubt others will emerge in the coming weeks. It is a strong field, but London has many advantages over the other cities, and our bid will be the equal of any. The third test is whether a bid could really be delivered. As the jointly commissioned Arup report shows, we can deliver a high quality and competitive bid based around an Olympic zone in the Lea valley.

The last test is the legacy. The games will bring great benefits to London. The economy and tourism will benefit. The lower Lea valley will benefit from new facilities and regeneration. So the work starts now. I am perfectly realistic about the work involved and the risks that lie ahead. I know that public opinion will ebb and flow in favour of the project. We will set up a dedicated organisation to develop and market the bid, with the very best people from both the public and private sectors, and with strong leadership. The bid team will act at arm's length from the Government, but we will pull out all the stops to bring the Olympic games to London.

Staging the Olympic games in 2012 is a prize well worth the fight, and 2012 is also the diamond jubilee year of Her Majesty the Queen. We are bidding because we believe that it will be good for sport, but it will also be good for London, and good for the whole of the United Kingdom. It is a declaration that we are proud of our country and confident of our ability.

London is bidding for the Olympic games. We believe that it should host the greatest games on earth. We now have two years to prove to the world that we deserve to be given that chance.

I do not wish to dwell on the previous exchange, but I can confirm that the Secretary of State rang me at 12 o'clock and I thank her for that courtesy. She will also recall that I did at that time ask for a copy of the statement.

I wish to move on to the content of the statement. First, I wish to make it clear that we welcome the Government's decision to support a London bid for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Indeed, we have been calling for it for a long time. We strongly believe that a London Olympic games will bring incalculable benefits to this country in terms of investment, tourism, regeneration and, most of all, to British sport.

The Secretary of State will be aware that we were originally promised a decision by the end of last year, but that it has been repeatedly postponed. Of course, we understand why that was necessary, but does she agree that, to avoid any impression that the Government are half-hearted in their intent, every member of the Government, starting at the very top, needs to give the bid full and enthusiastic backing from now until the day that the decision is made?

Does the right hon. Lady also agree that one lesson of our failure to win a World cup bid is that we need a high-profile figure to lead the bid and tour the world to make the case for London? When does she expect to announce that appointment? Why does she appear to have rejected the strong recommendation of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport that a Minister, located at the heart of Government, should have overall responsibility for co-ordinating the bid? Has not the absence of such a Minister plagued other projects and will it not make it harder to achieve the cross-departmental co-ordination and agreement that will be vital for a successful games?

Does the Secretary of State accept that, if the bid is to be credible and command public support, it must be seen to have been fully costed and that, as far as possible, a thorough risk assessment has been made? So far, even the original Arup report has not been published in full. Instead, we have merely seen what the Select Committee described as an anaemic 12-page summary. Will she undertake to make available the full costings for the bid, including a breakdown both of the necessary expenditure and of the income that a successful games is likely to generate?

We shall want to study in detail the proposals for how the costs of the games will be met, but we support the principle of using the national lottery to meet at least a part of those costs. The Secretary of State will be aware, however, that the lottery is badly tarnished and its income is falling. It thus becomes all the more important that she act quickly to restore public trust. Will she tell us what estimate she has made of how much of the money from the lottery will be taken from the amount that would otherwise have gone to the original good causes? Will the Government consider reducing that impact by giving up the share of the proceeds from a special Olympics game that they would otherwise take in tax?

Does the Secretary of State agree that not only London but the whole UK will benefit from the Olympic games being held in the city? The burden should not, therefore, fall exclusively on Londoners. We shall want to study carefully the detail of her proposal for a council tax precept and how that figure was arrived at, but will she immediately tell us how long the £20 council tax increase will last? Does she accept that it is only fair that those who have the most to gain from a London Olympics should make the greatest contribution to the cost? Will she tell us how she expects to justify a council tax supplement for those living in boroughs on the other side of London from the Lea valley, who will receive nothing like the same benefit? Does she agree that it would be unacceptable for the Olympics to be used as an excuse for further tax increases for either London's hard-pressed businesses or its residents, and that any additional liability must rest with the Treasury?

Does the Secretary of State agree that if a bid is to be successful, we must demonstrate that the necessary improvements in the transport infrastructure will be in place? Does she think that that should include the upgrade of the London underground, a new Thames crossing and, above all, Crossrail? If so, can she explain why, only two days ago, the Secretary of State for Transport was still unable to give a decision on whether Crossrail will go ahead? Will he make it his first priority to take a decision on those vital questions so that we can put an end to the uncertainty?

Will the right hon. Lady say more about what the Government intend should be the legacy of the games? By then, London will already have a brand new stadium at Wembley. Is it the intention that, after the games, there will be two major stadiums in London, one of which will be exclusively for athletics, or will another purpose be found for it?

If our bid is successful, the games will come to London in nine years' time. By then, we could be in the second term of the next Conservative Government. The Secretary of State has accepted that the attitude of the Opposition is an important factor for the credibility of a bid. Earlier this year, she said that she would consider our suggestion for a cross-party ministerial group. Is she willing to establish such a body or, if not, what mechanism does she propose to set up to ensure that all parties can participate fully in the preparations for a bid?

It has taken a long time for us to get off the starting blocks, but the Conservatives are delighted that the Government have finally committed to a bid. We look forward to working with them and the British Olympic Association over the coming months to maximise the chances of its success.

Having listened carefully to the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) saying that he is in favour of the bid and supports it, I wonder what his questions would have been if he had been against it. I have never heard 12 such sceptical questions. He even finds it difficult to take himself seriously when he talks about the prospect of a Conservative Government.

I shall deal first with the question about timing. The hon. Gentleman shows some ignorance of the Olympic process. It is clear that Paris took longer than London to decide whether to announce its bid. When the president of the International Olympic Committee spoke to the Prime Minister this morning, he commended the Government on the rigour of our approach and said that he could not fault it. We have made a decision based on all the necessary and available evidence.

The hon. Gentleman asked when we would appoint the bid chair. There is urgency about that. He and the House should be reassured that work continued to proceed during the period when we were considering the case for a bid, and I hope that it will be possible to make an announcement about the key appointment of the bid chair in the next few weeks, and certainly before the end of June.

It is important to remind the hon. Gentleman that, first, the proposal has been fully costed and, secondly, that it has been subject to preliminary analysis by the Office of Government Commerce to assess risk. He received a briefing on the Arup costs from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport.

Instead of carping and talking down the national lottery, I wish that the Opposition would talk up the lottery as the Government do. There is a difference between public money and the public's money. The public's money is lottery money, which will come from people living all over the country, inspired by the prospect of the Olympic dream.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the impact on good causes. We have taken that analysis very seriously indeed. The figures show that between now and 2009, there is likely to be an attrition of 4 per cent. to other good causes through the introduction of a new dedicated lottery game. That impact is validated by the National Lottery Commission. For the three years between 2009 until the games, the impact could be greater—up to 11 or 12 per cent. All the decisions are subject to review, depending on the performance of the lottery and so forth, because all the assessments have been made at the prudent end. The council tax precept will run for 25 years, on the basis that borrowing extends to £625 million.

On transport, we have always made it clear that a decision to bid for and host the Olympics is not dependent on Crossrail. As the Secretary of State for Transport would say, if he were in the Chamber, even if Crossrail got the go-ahead tomorrow it would not be ready in time for 2012.

On the legacy, we are absolutely determined that an Olympic stadium will not become a white elephant, as other Olympic stadiums have. That is why, as the hon. Gentleman must be aware, we have already begun discussions about a potential anchor tenant.

I hope that I have done justice to the hon. Gentleman's questions and that we can count on the unequivocal, unswerving support of his party, because that will substantially reinforce and strengthen the chances of our winning in 2005.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on an excellent statement and pay tribute to her thoroughness in the promotion of a bid. I believe that our bid will be stronger for the time that we have taken to prepare for the statement today.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that among the issues that must be at the heart of the bid team's work from now on is how an Olympic bid can be used to drive up participation in sport; to improve our sports facilities, many of which, especially in London, need renewal and refurbishment; and to develop our most talented athletes to be medal winners in 2012? If an all-party group of Back-Bench Members were formed to explore those and the other challenges facing the bid team, would she be willing to work with it?

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution and pay tribute to his advocacy and that of other hon. Friends in continuing to make the case for a London bid. It is an essential justification of a London bid that bidding for the Olympics is part of, not apart from, the Government's wider strategy for engaging more people in sport and identifying talent at an earlier stage. Earlier this week, I announced our new programme of talent scholarships, which will make financial support available to thousands of our most talented young athletes, who, without that extra money and support, would be denied the opportunity to reach their real potential. I would be delighted to work closely with an all-party group to support the Olympics and discuss with Opposition parties how to maintain understanding, consensus and a sense of working together to drive forward to deliver the bid.

I wholeheartedly welcome the statement and the Government's decision to back an Olympic bid. A London Olympics will be good for British sport at every level, good for London, putting it at the centre of the world stage, and good for the whole country.

The Secretary of State says that the bid team will operate at arm's length from Government, but may we be reassured that there will not be too much distance between the two? The success of the Manchester games has shown that we can put on a very good show, but there is a credibility gap to be filled following the world athletics championships saga. Does she accept that, although the Prime Minister's involvement in the 2006 World cup bid was entirely positive, it transpired at the voting stage that other Heads of State had been massively more involved? We should learn a lesson from that.

On funding, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on the other lottery good causes if there is a new game for the Olympics? May we be reassured that, if the lottery does not yield the anticipated sums or if the costs overrun, the Government will be fully behind the bid in a financial sense as well?

The Secretary of State says that the bid is not contingent on Crossrail being completed. Can she explain how, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has been asking, we shall get the spectators out to the new facilities without Crossrail?

Finally, on the legacy, does the Secretary of State accept that some of the most successful games have had some of the least advantageous legacies, and that Government will need to be involved completely, from the word go, to ensure a legacy for London and the country of the best possible quality?

I thank the hon. Gentleman and his party for their support for the London bid. We intend to implement a very clear structure for running the bid, at arm's length from Government but with accountability to what will be described as a public funders panel, on which I, the BOA and the Mayor will sit. I am the responsible Minister in Government and in Cabinet and I will report personally on progress to the Prime Minister.

We have been very mindful of the problems that have arisen for large events in the past. We have learned the lessons of the Commonwealth games, not only about what went wrong at an early stage but also about why they were such a success and did so much for Manchester. The focus on social inclusion, the nearly 10,000 volunteers and the participation of people throughout the north-west are a real inspiration for London to try to emulate.

The hon. Gentleman raised the concern about transport. It is important for hon. Members to know that a detailed transport plan is being developed with the Department for Transport. Money has been allocated. Substantial money is already going into the improvement in London's transport, but those who have signed off the transport proposals are confident that they are sufficient to move people around London during the games, and there is not now and never has been any suggestion at all that transport capacity for London during the period of the games is contingent on Crossrail. Stratford station will be expanded to enable it to handle 60,000 people an hour, Bromley-by-Bow station will be substantially rebuilt, and a range of specific improvements will be made to ensure proper management of transport.

Finally, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point—it is a serious lesson—that we must address the legacy now, which is why we have emphasised the importance of ensuring that the stadium that will be the centre of the world during the Olympic games also has a useful life afterwards and that we do not have a stadium that, as Sydney has found, is a constant drain on the public finances.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the fairness with which she and colleagues in her Department have approached the bid. Does she agree that, although the immediate benefits of hosting the games in London may be for the people of London, in fact it is the children who are now in years 7 and 8 in schools in Aberdeen, South, in Glasgow, Pollok and in Cardiff, Central who will be winning Britain the gold medals at those games, and that if those games are truly to have a legacy that is spread throughout the country, we must press ahead with the programme for school sports co-ordinators, and with getting coaching into schools, to get those young people the expertise that they need to become our gold medallists in 2012?

I could not agree more. This morning, I spoke to two of our Olympic athletes, Matthew Pinsent and Paula Radcliffe, whose personal advocacy for the games has been incredibly persuasive. Of course they, as role models and great icons for our young athletes, understand precisely the importance of my hon. Friend's point.

I give my unequivocal and unswerving support, and congratulate the Secretary of State on piloting the whole process this far. I welcome her reference to the Paralympics, whose United Kingdom branch is based in Croydon, and which is often forgotten in such circumstances.

May I probe on the question of cost overrun? The right hon. Lady said that the precept will last for 25 years in London. If there is a cost overrun, will that precept be extended or will the overrun be underwritten by other sources?

The funding package that I have announced today, to which the Mayor is also a signatory, includes within it, based on the Arup figures, a contingency of at least £1.1 billion, so there is a very substantial contingency. In 2005, when we know whether we have won, we will obviously take stock of the costs in the light of what will by then be greater certainty about the figures. At that point, we will judge whether further contingency provisions need to be made and whether further provision that will go back to the original funders will be needed to protect the taxpayer's position, but at this stage, beyond saying that we have recognised the need for that further examination, it is not particularly constructive or useful to go into more detail because the figures may change in the interim.

I am delighted by my right hon. Friend's statement today; it shows confidence and pride in London that we should all appreciate and share. The whole country should appreciate the benefits that will come to London in terms of not just sport but tourism and regeneration. Will she perhaps expand on her statement to reassure people elsewhere in the country that they, too, will benefit whether from events during the games, or in economic and other terms thereafter?

I thank my hon. Friend, who has been a constant advocate for the games and recognises the economic and other benefits that will come to her constituency as a result of our decision today. We made as careful an assessment as we could at this stage of the wider benefits, and it is worth noting that all the regional development agencies have expressed their support on the ground of the benefits to their regions of the games hosted in London produced by inward investment driven by tourism. It is essential that we see that as one of the important measures by which we judge the success of the games. Of course the way in which we spread the benefit is by our continued investment in grassroots sport and in sport for children in school, to build the opportunities for the champions of tomorrow. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) remarked, we hope that children from Inverness to Truro will have the opportunity to compete when the time comes.

Like all other hon. Members who have spoken today, I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Government on having the courage and the vision to take forward the Olympic bid in what could be a fantastic year to celebrate Her Majesty's jubilee if we were to be successful. The Secretary of State will face scepticism from some of the public, not least in regions such as mine, where people still do not quite understand why the bid has to be based on London. I understand that it needs to be London, but will she tell the House why it needs to be London and spell out the prospective benefits for people in the other regions, who will feel disappointed?

I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Lady's view. Of course, we did not rush to take a decision that London should be the bidding city without looking at the case for the alternative, but the simple fact is that the British Olympic Association advised us that the only way that we would stand a chance of winning would be to bid for London. That is why we are bidding for London—we are absolutely determined to do everything that we can to win.

I welcome the statement and the exciting prospect of the Olympics coming to London. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to win the wholehearted support of Londoners—and, indeed, of people across the country—for the bid, we must create as many opportunities as possible for people to engage with the bid's preparation, advance their own ideas and contribute their experience both to improve the bid and to identify how they could benefit if it is successful? With that in mind, may I remind my right hon. Friend that, although we no longer have football in south-west London, at least not in my constituency, we have experience of tennis and other sports? We in south London as a whole will consider—this has sometimes not been the case in the Mayor's considerations—how we can benefit, in particular, by improving the transport infrastructure if the bid is successful.

I thank my hon. Friend, and hope that when the bid team is appointed and gets under way, precisely the imagination that he describes will be applied to ensuring that the Olympics means something to people throughout the country, not just in London, and to people of all ages as well.

I too unequivocally welcome the announcement that the Secretary of State has made today. She knows that I have been a passionate advocate for an Olympic bid. Does she recognise that there will be particular pleasure in my constituency because, as she will know, there is only one venue in the UK that was used for the 1948 Olympics that will be used in 2012? That venue is Bisley, for shooting, which straddles the boundary between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins). Will she be happy to work with all members of the all-party sports group, of which I have the honour to be deputy chairman? Of course our chairman, Lord Pendry, sits in the upper House, so he is not with us today. Does she agree that all hon. Members from whichever party have to recognise that far more of our constituents care about sport than about politics and that the bid should be a unifying force? I passionately hope that we win it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I certainly agree that in any vote sport would have it over politics with all our constituents. Bisley was an extremely successful location for shooting during the Commonwealth games. Clearly, his constituents will look forward with excitement to the possibility of being part of the Olympic facilities.

May I enter a more sceptical note than seems to have been the case so far? May I tell the Secretary of State that I am persuadable on the matter, but at the moment, I am not sure that this is a wise move, and many of my constituents share that view? Given that Greater London Authority ratepayers have experienced a 30 per cent. increase this year alone, may I ask her about the £20, 25-year fund? Can she clarify whether it will start at £20 and remain like that over the 25 years, or whether it will start at £20 and end up with a much higher figure? Can she confirm that the total exposure if the bid is unsuccessful will be £17 million, which she identified, and will she say how that figure will be broken down and who will pay for it? What proportion of that £17 million will be allocated to the entertainment, wining and dining, inducements and downright bribery that have been the hallmark of Olympic bids?

My hon. Friend is consistent in his scepticism, and I hope very much that we will prove him wrong during the months and years ahead. I think that he will take heart from the fact that there has been overwhelming support not just from people in London, but from people throughout the country. The results of the opinion polling that my Department undertook as part of the preparation for the bid were extraordinarily consistent. He refers to the costs of bidding. Those costs will be shared between the public sector and the private sector. The cost identified is up to £30 million, half of which we expect to come from the private sector and half of which will come from apportionment between the London Development Agency and my Department. There will be some acceleration in the built facilities, and we expect that work will start on an Olympic pool at Stratford ahead of a decision on whether we have won. That is an important legacy point because that part of London needs an Olympic-sized pool. I hope that that is one bit of evidence to show how the principle of ensuring a good legacy informs decisions even at this early stage.

Ministers know that I am 100 per cent. enthusiastic and committed to the bid, and if I have the privilege of being elected Mayor of London next year, I will give the Government my full support and co-operation, and make sure that we do not just win the bid, but go on to have a brilliant Olympics. In addition to the funding proposals that the Secretary of State has set out, which work out at £500 per band D household in London—not an excessive amount over 20 years—can she tell us whether, if we win the bid, the Government will reconsider whether they should put something into the kitty? At the moment, there is money in the kitty only for the bid, not for the Olympics. What is the legacy for transport, housing and jobs? As a London Member of Parliament, she knows that improvements to those will be to the benefit of London for a generation or more, and to the benefit of the country for a generation or more, too.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Clearly, the support for the Olympic bid will be a rare moment of consensus in the forthcoming mayoral campaign. Let me address his specific points about transport, housing and jobs. On transport, I have already identified the way in which transport infrastructure will be improved: specifically, the extension of Stratford station and the rebuilding of Bromley-by-Bow station, to ensure that they have the necessary capacity. There will be more improvements: the upgrading of certain rail links, the upgrading of motorway links and so forth. A programme has therefore been identified and costed.

On housing, the Olympic village will have accommodation for 4,000 people. After the Olympics, that will become housing for people moving into the regenerated Thames gateway. On jobs, the estimate is that the Olympics will generate in the region of 10,000 jobs between now and 2012–13. Not all of them will be permanent long-term jobs, but that is a huge boost for employment in east London.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that given the corruption in the Olympic movement, the problems of drugs in some of the sports involved, and the overheating of much of the London economy, many people are not very pleased with her announcements today? Will she give a guarantee to the House that it will be paid for by the people of London, and will not be paid for at the expense of transport links, regeneration links and sport facilities in the English regions?

In relation to my hon. Friend's point about the International Olympic Committee and its past reputation, we must recognise that that is in the past. Its reputation suffered seriously, and Jacques Rogge, the new president of the IOC, has taken vigorous and rigorous steps in rewriting the rules to ensure that corruption, wherever it is identified, is not part of the Olympic system. Tight rules are being drawn up, and it is important that we recognise that progress. On his second point, yes, London will pay a major part of the cost of the Olympics, but the lottery will do so too. That is important because of our ambition and aim that the Olympics should belong to the whole United Kingdom and not just to London.

Despite my natural disappointment that the west midlands has not been chosen, the right hon. Lady is right to choose London. The experience of the Manchester bid showed that, unfortunately, the bids have to be based on cities that other delegates, from other parts of the world, recognise. That is unfortunate but true. She was wrong, however, to chastise my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) for asking about the details of costing, because the devil is in the detail. We know from the dome that while it was a good idea, costs spiralled out of control. We would therefore welcome more detail in the near future. In that respect, as the right hon. Lady recognises that the legacy is important, when will the detailed transport plan be published? That is important, given the transport difficulties in Atlanta and Sydney.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is so in touch with reality that he realises that the choice must be London not Lichfield. In relation to the steps that we have taken on costings, even at this stage—let us remember that we are talking about costings that will be realised in nine years' time—my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and I have visited six previous or prospective Olympic capitals precisely to make a proper assessment of what running an Olympics costs. Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, has commended the exemplary approach of the Government in preparing to make this decision.

I was lucky to have been taken to see the 1948 Olympic games, when Herne Hill was the site for the cycle track events and Windsor Great Park for the road race. It inspired me to pursue a lifetime of active sport. Although I do not usually mention politics and sport in the same sentence, I was so inspired this morning by the shadow Secretary of State's optimism that he would be in the second term of a Tory Government in 2012 that I am going straight home to get my bike out. Whatever important position he holds in 2012, I hope that he will present me with a gold medal for the 1,000 m sprint. Let us hope that this is the last time that we mix sport and politics. Let us all work together to make sure that we win the bid and host a wonderful games.

I thank my hon. Friend for that characteristically generous contribution.

Opposition Day

[6TH ALLOTTED DAY—FIRST PART]

School Funding

I should say to the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. A 15-minute limit has been placed on Back-Bench speeches during this debate.

2.6 pm

I beg to move,

That this House condemns the Government's handling of the school funding crisis; regrets that the jobs of teachers, teaching assistants and other support staff have been put at risk; further regrets that these teacher redundancies, together with other cut backs imposed by the funding crisis, will have a negative impact on the education of school children; notes that Labour councils have been as badly affected as Conservative councils by the funding crisis; condemns the Government for seeking to blame local authorities for this crisis; further notes the statements of head teachers and governors across England who no longer trust the Government's ability to administer school funding; recognises the impact of the funding crisis on the Government's teacher workload agreement; believes that the Government's flawed reforms of school funding are to blame for the crisis; and calls on the Government to simplify the school funding system, giving more money direct to schools and giving head teachers more control over how to spend that money.
I am delighted that the House and its proceedings are impinging on this Government for once. We called for this debate because the crisis in our schools is serious and wide-ranging, and the Government were forced into a response this morning in an attempt to provide themselves, prior to the debate, with a fig leaf. I welcome the fact that the House can still have an effect.

Sadly, however, what we have seen today is a panicky short-term response that takes money out of one pocket in a school's budget and inserts into another pocket. What we should he hearing from Ministers today is an apology to heads, teachers, local authorities and parents for the spectacular cock-up that they have made of this year's education budget. Instead, they seem determined to lay the blame anywhere else.

Since the Secretary of State has been forced into rushing out the announcement of the various pieces of sticking plaster that he is trying to put over this wound, can he answer some specific questions when he addresses the House? He is telling schools to raid their capital budgets and reserves to try to avoid teachers and teaching assistants being sacked. Can he tell the House what happens to a school facing a huge budget deficit that it cannot cover from reserves or capital, that has a central heating boiler that has just failed or a roof that is leaking directly into the classroom, and that does not therefore have capital available to try to pay salaries?

I am sorry to intervene on my hon. Friend so early. On the point of capital expenditure, however, is he aware that a school in my constituency, Reffley county primary, which is a beacon school and one of the best and biggest primaries in Norfolk, will be short of £93,000 just by standing still? It has no money in its capital budget, and no surplus funds, and it will have to get rid of five teaching support staff. What kind of signal does that send to hard-pressed teachers and parents in Norfolk?

My hon. Friend raises a serious point. All over the country, in his constituency and elsewhere, schools will be looking at the detail of what the Secretary of State announced this morning, just as they looked at the detail of the spending announcements that he made some months ago, and they will realise that whatever hype comes from the Government, they will be worse off. If the measures that he announced this morning actually work in the schools facing the worst problems, the effect will be random.

If we assume that the hon. Gentleman does not want to see any resource removed from any local education authority, how much more money does he think that he would need to commit, as a representative of the Opposition, to make it all the better?

I would commit that when the next Conservative Government spend money on education, we will spend it in schools rather than on bureaucracy.

I will make some progress. I know that the hon. Gentlemen will have many problems in their constituencies, from which their schools are suffering, which I am sure that they will wish to draw to the House's attention.

In the meantime, perhaps the hon. Gentlemen would like to listen to the very sensible comments of the National Association of Head Teachers on the Secretary of State's announcement this morning:

"Converting capital into revenue and licensing deficit budgets could help some schools but these measures, that are akin to `rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic', will not provide the relief that all schools in trouble desperately need now."
In addition to the fact that raiding capital budgets is not really a solution, it will cause immediate problems. I am especially worried about the effect on special needs provision. If the Secretary of State tells schools to spend their capital on teachers' salaries, what will happen to schools that need to rebuild classrooms to provide proper access for pupils with disabilities? That is now a legal requirement, as he knows, so I hope that the Government have thought through all the implications of today's announcement, especially the way in which they will affect some of the most disadvantaged children in Britain today.

I am astonished to hear the hon. Gentleman speak in such terms because the previous Conservative Government's term in office was characterised by crumbling schools. Is he aware that under John Major's Government, schools in my constituency lost money every single year? Since 1997, Cambridgeshire has received a 16 per cent. increase in cash funding for schools.

If the hon. Lady is worried about crumbling schools, does she support her Secretary of State who has today proposed to raid the capital budgets of schools throughout the country? Her logic escapes me.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because rather than being given history lessons, most people in education want to know what will happen this year and what the effect will be on their jobs. I received a letter from Turnditch primary school, which is a small primary school, commenting on the changes that the Secretary of State has made to the standards funds, among other things. It says:

"In other words, our total budget has gone from"
£179,000 to £180,000, or
"an increase of … 0.62 per cent."
The school does not know where the extra money that the Secretary of State talks about has gone.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I shall address directly the point about the capital budget The Secretary of State knows that when we approve of things that he does, we do not indulge in knee-jerk opposition. Before today, such approval was given to the way in which he took seriously the need for steady flows of capital to keep the fabric of our schools up to date. The fact that that sensible part of the Government's education strategy has been ditched is a sign of the level of panic in the Department for Education and Skills. Schools will suffer in the long term.

I shall make some progress.

The Secretary of State rightly sets great stall by the development of specialist schools. He knows that schools in deficit cannot apply for specialist status, yet he has today encouraged schools to go into deficit. He is firing an accurate torpedo into his plans for a rapid expansion of the specialist school network.

The written statement that the Secretary of State put before the House today fascinatingly says:
"2003–04 is a unique year, because of both the extent of changes in the system for funding schools, and one-off pressures relating to teachers' pensions and National Insurance."
He knows that announcements on taxes are a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Is he committing the Chancellor not to impose further national insurance increases for the rest of the Parliament and if he is, has he told the Chancellor? If he is not saying that, his reassuring written statement has no value at all. I know that relations around the Cabinet table are worse than ever but if spending Ministers start pre-empting future Budgets, we ain't seen nothing yet.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Does he agree that the absurdity of rip-off government is shown by the fact that many of the taxes wrongly imposed on the British people have been a boomerang on the public sector and have made it impossible for schools to spend what they want? Schools are not receiving the money that they should because so much is wasted, while money that they do get is used to pay taxes.

There is a circular flow of money from taxpayers' pockets into the Chancellor's pocket, but it never seems to reach the public services on which the British public want the money to be spent. That is one of the Government's central failures.

How does the hon. Gentleman envisage the future of local education authorities, and would he abolish them? They have been successful and Kent local education authority, which has secured £60 million of private finance initiative credits, has been especially successful. One of the five schools affected by that is the North school in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. What would be the future of LEAs under the Tories?

I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Kent LEA, which is run by an extremely good and successful Conservative council.

It is worth analysing how on earth the Government found themselves in this predicament. They have introduced more than 60 tax rises since 1997 and they spend more than £50 million every hour. Even in my most oppositional mood, I would not have expected our schools to be plunged into what the head teacher Michael Chapman, who was speaking on behalf of head teachers in east Yorkshire, said was

"far and away the worst budget settlement I have had to manage as a head teacher".
What a contrast there is between the problems faced by schools and colleges throughout the country and the jubilant words that surrounded last summer's spending announcement. Let us remember the incredible hubris displayed by Ministers at the time of the spending review. The Chancellor had raised taxes a few months earlier and the record £12.8 billion increase promised for the next three years would, according to the then Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris),
"deliver higher standards, better behaviour and more choice".
She promised:
"investment will be matched by radical reform".
The edifice that the Government lauded at the time has fallen apart so spectacularly and quickly that it should embarrass even the Minister for School Standards, who bears direct responsibility for the relevant part of the Department for Education and Skills' budget.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he appreciate the concerns of people in schools such as Collingwood college in my constituency, which was a flagship grant-maintained school under the Conservative Government? Its chairman of governors, with all-party support, is writing to me to protest not only that Surrey local education authority has effectively received almost no funding increase, but that any increase that it passports to schools is more than wiped out by the increased cost of national insurance payments. Collingwood college and other schools in my constituency and south-east constituencies have experienced a net loss. Unless the Secretary of State does something about the situation, redundancies will be made next Wednesday morning. Surely that reinforces the urgency of the matter.

It does reinforce the urgency of the matter and it is a shame that Labour Members do not seem to take that seriously.

We need to know why the situation occurred. The school funding system has foundered on the three vices that the Labour Government cannot resist: hype, centralisation and a refusal to accept responsibility when things go wrong. The promises of investment and reform have proved to be as empty as they were grandiose. There is no doubt that the Government are taxing and spending more than ever but what they give with one hand, they take away with the other.

The £2.7 billion extra for schools to which the Prime Minister still referred yesterday has proved to be an incredible shrinking pot of money. By last December, it had been scaled down to £1.4 billion. Two months ago, the increase—classed as "missing"—was just over £500 million. According to the Minister for Schools Standards, it then became £250 million. Today's announcement means that we can assume that the Government are finally and belatedly admitting that the trumpeted increase was in fact a cut and that schools are being encouraged to raid other budgets to fund their basic spending.