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Commons Chamber

Volume 447: debated on Thursday 15 June 2006

House of Commons

Thursday 15 June 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


The Speaker having leave of absence pursuant to Order [16 May], The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Science and Innovation

1. What assessment he has made of the potential impact on the economy of Government encouragement of investment in science and innovation. (77539)

With science spending doubling since 1997 and research and development credits now worth £1.5 billion to business, Britain has seen 200 spin-off businesses created each year compared with 70 10 years ago. To support Britain as the world’s best location for science, the Minister for Science and Innovation is announcing today that he will build on our proposed new institute for energy and environmental research and the single budget for health research by inviting the Royal Society to create new international science fellowships to bring the world’s best scientists to the United Kingdom.

The House might be interested to know on the day of the national service of thanksgiving to mark Her Majesty the Queen’s 80th birthday that, in addition to a crown piece to celebrate her diamond wedding anniversary, there will be two £2 coins, one to mark the Union of 1707 and a second to mark the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his recent visit to Ellesmere Port, which was truly welcomed by the Vauxhall work force and management. What steps does he intend to take to enable UK manufacturers such as Vauxhall to position themselves so that the UK can take a leading role in future vehicles beyond the internal combustion engine?

To visit Ellesmere Port, to have confidence that the workers there can win the next model for Ellesmere Port and to know that 1.6 million cars are now being produced in Britain is to have faith in the future of British manufacturing, as long as it is modern and efficient.

In addition to all the other measures that we are taking, including the new institute to study environmental and energy technologies, there will be capital allowances available for investment in environmental technologies related to fuel. We are also working with Brazil, South Africa and Mozambique to develop bioethanol from sugar, which will contribute to our meeting our renewables obligation. We are determined to have the most environmentally efficient means of producing fuel in future.

The Northwest Development Agency has committed more than £50 million to develop Daresbury science and innovation campus. We now have a return on that investment, with 22 ultra-high-tech companies based at the centre. Will my right hon. Friend come to see world-class science in action at Daresbury and discuss further investment opportunities?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has worked hard to promote new investment for that important scientific campus. I understand that the Northwest Development Agency is investing about £50 million in that campus, which is one of two science and innovation campuses. Not only are 22 businesses operating there, but considerable new infrastructure investment is being made to attract businesses for the future. That reflects our recognition that, in modern manufacturing, we need to promote advanced science and technologies so that in future we lead the world in key technologies. The north-west is an important part of the new investment.

How does the Chancellor explain the fact that, on the one hand, 80 university science departments have closed in the past six years because of the squeeze on university research and teaching of science while, on the other, he is handing out £1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money every year to private companies, which have access to shareholders’ funds and capital markets and which have rewarded his generosity by increasing R and D not one iota? Is there not a fundamental lack of coherence in the Government’s approach to science and innovation?

The lack of coherence is in the Liberal tax and spending plans that were announced only a few days ago. There seems to be a £20 billion gap in the spending plans of the hon. Gentleman’s party.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the £1.5 billion in R and D tax credits so that Britain is a scientific leader in future. I hope that he supports our doubling of the science budget for the United Kingdom, so that instead of being behind the rest of the world as we were under the Conservatives, we are catching up and hope to lead the world. I hope that he also supports the money that we are putting into universities. It seems to me that in every part of the country the Liberals are making promises to spend on universities, science and R and D tax credits, but he must now explain his £20 billion spending gap.

Who is the Chancellor fooling when he boasts about extra investment in science, given that the permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills told the Select Committee yesterday that overall funding was going to get tighter? If total education and science spending is to increase more slowly than transport spending, is it any wonder that we end up with 15 million people who the Secretary of State for Education and Skills says would not pass maths GCSE?

We will take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman. When we came into power, spending per pupil was £2,500. It is now £5,000 per pupil. We have doubled spending per pupil. When we came into power, spending on university students had been falling under the Conservative Government. It is now rising as a result of what we are doing. We have set the ambition that we will increase spending per pupil. By 2011, capital spending per pupil will equal that in private schools. I would have thought that Opposition Members would want to support our ambitions in this area.

Will my right hon. Friend remember when he listens to Twickenham Man that Twickenham does not have a university? Huddersfield does have a university. I was with Huddersfield, Bradford and York universities only last Friday. They are enthusiastic about the innovation, the science, the technology and the investment that has been going on over the past nine years. Will my right hon. Friend remember that I was told, “You don’t look at a university campus to find an entrepreneur.”? We need new ways to bring more entrepreneurial spirit and activity on to university campuses.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who chairs the Education and Skills Select Committee. He will be aware of the fact which I set out initially in the main answer to the question. It is that 200 companies are spun off from universities every year. That is three times what was achieved under the Conservative Government before us. There are 20 companies now listed on the stock exchange—this is in the past two years—that have a combined capital of £1 billion. The idea that Britain is not moving forward, as has been suggested by the shadow Chancellor, in high technology and science-based industries is completely wrong. We are making considerable advances and we shall continue to do so, but it depends on us making the commitment to both education and science, which we have done, but which other parties seem unprepared to do.

I am sure that the Chancellor will join me in congratulating three schools in my constituency that have received prestigious awards under the young enterprise programme for innovation. There has been a difficulty with funding throughout the United Kingdom. Has that problem been rectified? Lastly, I wish the right hon. Gentleman well for his trip to the Province on Monday.

I am looking forward to visiting Northern Ireland on Monday and meeting representatives of all political parties. No doubt I shall hear some spending representations from many of them.

The enterprise insight programme in Northern Ireland has been a tremendous success. It has encouraged young people to take up business opportunities and many have started their own businesses once they have left school or college. At the same time, throughout the United Kingdom, thousands of school children are involved in enterprise programmes, particularly as part of enterprise week. We are determined to continue to fund them. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about funding for his area.

Climate Change (Taxation)

11. What his policy is on using taxation to tackle climate change; and if he will make a statement. (77552)

The climate change levy is playing a crucial role in enabling the UK to meet its Kyoto targets. An independent valuation conducted recently by Cambridge Econometrics has examined the levy. It concluded that the levy would, by 2010, deliver annual carbon savings of 3.5 million tonnes. That is far in advance of the forecast of 2 million tonnes of carbon when we introduced the levy.

This is an issue of great concern to growing numbers of my constituents, who are concerned that their children and grandchildren’s futures will be marred by global warming. Given that the climate change levy package has reduced emissions of carbon by 16.5 million tonnes and is a vital part of meeting our Kyoto commitments, how does the UK’s progress on meeting these commitments compare with our international colleagues?

My hon. Friend is right. The UK led the way with introducing the climate change levy, and now it is the sort of measure that is required throughout the European Union. We led the way in introducing an emissions trading scheme, and we led the way also in setting up and strengthening the European Commission’s scheme. We are leading as well with our commitment to Kyoto. Along with the Netherlands and Sweden, we are one of only three EU member states, of 15 countries, in being on track to meet our Kyoto targets.

On climate change, the test for all parties is whether they will back the domestic action that is needed in Britain. In addition, can they wield the international influence that is required to secure the international action that is needed even more badly?

I am sure that every Government Member accepts that the levy plays a significant role in reducing carbon emissions. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is an industry-friendly measure, given the incentives that it provides to improve energy efficiency and thus the cost-effectiveness of British business?

My hon. Friend will remember that when we introduced the climate change levy, we also introduced a 0.3 per cent. cut in employers’ national insurance contributions. She will be aware of the launch of a new campaign by the Carbon Trust, which is linked to the climate change levy. British businesses will waste more than £500 million over the summer if they fail to adopt energy efficiency failures, and the campaign demonstrates that the trust can help them by delivering an average 15 per cent. saving in energy efficiency and business costs. Clearly, the climate change levy package can help business and the environment, so I hope that it receives support from Members on both sides of the House.

How can we better use the tax system to promote microgeneration in residential properties? The technology is expensive to install initially, and the payback period is very long, so can we incentivise home owners to invest in microgeneration technology at the front end to avoid that long payback period?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we reduced VAT rates on all significant microgeneration technologies that are installed professionally in domestic or charitable buildings. That is the extent of the action that we can take under existing VAT rules, but he will know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget extra support to try to boost microgeneration technologies and build the market in Britain. Demand is still too low for the technology to take off, but we want that to change. As a Government, we are prepared to try to help, as we want the technology to spread much more widely across Britain.

The Chancellor recently claimed that one of his favourite memories is Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland in 1996, but Whelan claims that, after the goal, the Chancellor was so upset that he would not speak to him for weeks. Which of the Chancellor’s claims is more credible—his claim that people support his climate change levy, rather than a proper tax or levy on carbon, or his claim that he will support England tonight?

There are several questions at the heart of the challenge of climate change. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the climate change levy has delivered greater reductions in carbon emissions than forecast and that almost a fifth of carbon savings in our Kyoto commitment have been delivered by the climate change levy package? Does he therefore accept that his right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) was wrong when he said in the House:

“We regard the climate change levy as an aberration that should never have been brought before Parliament”?—[Official Report, 18 July 2000; Vol. 354, c. 322.]

Does the Minister consider it appropriate that revenues from green taxes as a proportion of the total tax take have fallen while emissions continue to rise?

The hon. Lady, typically for a Liberal, takes a simplistic view. I have two things to say to her. First, the point of environmental taxation is not, contrary to the Liberals’ view, taxation for taxation’s sake: it is about the change in behaviour and opinion that those taxes can achieve. It is wrong to look at taxation simply in terms of the total tax receipts, because environmental taxes can influence behaviour and lead to a reduction in receipts. Environmental taxes can be used, as can discounts for biofuels and climate change agreements, to achieve significant environmental ends without raising the environmental tax take. Secondly, as the hon. Lady looks at the big black hole in her spending and tax plans and the £8 billion of environmental taxes that she would impose on people, I urge her to take a more sophisticated view, and we look forward to her plans in future.

Science Funding (North-East)

I have received a number of representations on regional funding, including on science and innovation, and will consider them in our work on public spending over the coming year.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Durham county council and the County Durham Development Company on their NETPark project, a major science park being developed in County Durham? Does he agree that it is important that such innovation has the full backing of all Government agencies, including the regional development agency? Will he look into why £4 million of funding has been withdrawn from the new plastic electronics centre at the site for budgetary reasons?

I gladly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Durham county council and I agree that it is an important issue for the region’s productivity. That is why I welcome the decision of One NorthEast to commit £200 million over five years to building up the scientific research and innovation of the north-east. I will certainly look further into the particular case that he mentioned. Last week, I met the chief executive of AddIt North-East, whose role is to pool public sector communications demand as a lever to build a world-class infrastructure for the region. That lever is being applied with particular success in the north-east.

G8 Finance Ministers Meeting

The G8 communiqué called for an enhanced dialogue between oil producers and oil consumers to bring greater stability to the oil and energy markets, supported the education for all initiative on international development and advanced market commitments for health. The communiqué also called for an urgent agreement on world trade to thwart the dangers of protectionism.

My right hon. Friend referred to the education for all initiative and he will be aware that thousands of schools up and down the country, including Leith Walk, Trinity and Granton schools in my own constituency, supported the “My friend needs a teacher” campaign. What positive steps were Finance Ministers able to take to advance the commitments made on this matter at Gleneagles last year?

Hundreds of schools around the country are now linking up with schools in developing countries, and the Department for International Development is providing support to enable those schools to have teacher exchanges or contact between the pupils in the different countries. I applaud the initiative of the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As to progressing the education for all initiative, 110 million children are not going to school today, two thirds of whom are girls. For $10 billion a year, we could provide education for every child. As the House knows, the British Government have set aside £8 billion over the next 10 years to make possible a major education initiative that will help millions of children into school, but we will need the support of other countries and also the fast-track initiative of the World Bank to expand to achieve that. We discussed with other countries on Saturday how to secure a co-ordinated campaign to enhance the number of children going to school. That will be a subject for the G8 meeting next month, which the Prime Minister will attend, and will also feature in the September meetings of the World Bank, where we hope to reach further agreements. It is a major international initiative and I hope that, by this time next year, we will have signed up all the major countries to make it possible.

Did the G8 Ministers discuss the importance of education in preparing our children for the highly competitive global economy in which we live, or did the Chancellor tell G8 Ministers the truth about his pledge instead, which is, in the words of the permanent secretary in the Department for Education and Skills, that it is a “pipe dream” and that

“no research was being done”

on it? He said that it was designed for the next day’s headlines, not for the next generation of school children.

What the hon. Gentleman says is completely wrong. I announced in the Budget new money for capital spending on schools, so that each pupil in state schools would have exactly the same amount of capital spending invested in him or her as is the case in private schools. [Interruption.] They do not think that investment in buildings or computers or equipment is important. [Interruption.] When we came to power, the average investment per pupil in buildings and equipment was £100 a year; today it is £1,000 a year—a tenfold rise. The hon. Gentleman should look at his own party’s policies, which have consistently tried to cut expenditure on education.

Will the Chancellor continue his commitment made at Gleneagles last year to halve world poverty by 2015? If the wealthiest countries can increase their spending from £20 billion a year to £200 billion a year over the next decade, we can indeed reach that target. If his fellow Finance Ministers think that is challenging, will they look at global arms expenditure, which is £900 billion? In the comprehensive spending review that he will announce later this month, will he give a commitment that the United Kingdom will do more than its bit to ensure that the target of halving world poverty by 2015 is achieved?

International development spending in the United Kingdom increased last year and this year and will increase next year. We are on course to meet our targets for international development spending. World development aid is increasing. We have signed the agreements that make it possible to write off multilateral debt, so in total we expect up to £170 billion of debt to be written off. The condition of that is that the money will go to education, health and anti-poverty programmes in the developing countries. At next month’s meeting of the G8, we are determined to push forward so that every country agrees that the commitments that we made for the millennium development goals on poverty, education and health are met. I hope that that is the common view in all parts of the House.

Did the G8 Finance Ministers discuss the fact that in 2005 Britain recorded its slowest economic growth for 13 years? In the first quarter of this year, our growth put us 15th out of the 23 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development states that have reported so far. We are below the OECD average, below the G7 average, behind the EU 25 and no better than the poorly performing eurozone. We may be ahead of slow-growing France, Germany and Italy, but when will we start catching up with the world’s successful economies?

The Conservatives seem to be banking on a recession. They must face up to the fact that growth is strengthening this year and will be faster in the second half of the year than in the first half. Growth since 1997 is far faster than it was in the 18 years before 1997, and we are the country that has low inflation, low interest rates, high employment and sustained growth—the opposite of what happened with two major recessions in the Conservative years. The hon. Lady will also have to face up to the fact that, to maintain our levels of growth, we will need the investment in education and science and the investment in the infrastructure for the future, so her announcement at the time of the Budget that she would not support the additional public spending will have to be revisited. I hope that she will agree that she has to do that.

The Chancellor is in denial about the way everything is going in the economy. If everything is going so well, why has Derek Scott, the former economic adviser to the Prime Minister, criticised the Chancellor’s “higher taxes”, “intrusive micromanagement”, “deteriorating fiscal position” and “burdensome regulation”? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with Derek Scott, a Labour insider, that Labour’s record is “mixed”, “depressing” and “dispiriting”?

If things are going so badly, why did the shadow Chancellor praise us only a few months ago for our record of macro-economic stability? Why did he praise us for having an economic record in creating stability, which his party had never achieved? If things are going so badly on regulation, why did the Heritage Foundation, which is beloved of the right wing of the Conservative party, report that we are a more liberal and deregulated economy now than in 1997, when we took office? If things are going so badly, why are there more people in work, why are interest rates low, why are there more home owners, and why is there more prosperity in this country than ever the Conservatives could achieve?

Debt Cancellation

8. What recent assessment he has made of progress on cancellation of the debt of the world’s poorest countries. (77549)

At their spring meeting, the World Bank governors confirmed the 100 per cent. debt cancellation for heavily indebted poor countries, matching the debt relief that the International Monetary Fund has been providing since January. World Bank debt cancellation will be implemented on 1 July, the first day of its financial year. Debt relief is already making a difference in Zambia, for example, where the Government are using the proceeds of debt relief to abolish health fees for rural populations.

How will my hon. Friend ensure that the funds released to the poorest countries through debt cancellation will be used for basic services to achieve the millennium development goals, particularly reproductive health services for HIV prevention, the reduction of child and maternal mortality and gender empowerment?

My hon. Friend is right to press us on those issues. She has considerable expertise and a fine record of campaigning on those issues over many years. She has mentioned reproductive health, and she knows that unprotected sex is the most common cause of HIV/AIDS infection, which currently affects millions in developing countries, including 2 million children around the world. Worldwide, less than one in five people have access to HIV prevention services. Last year, DFID spent £242.9 million on improving maternal health services and reproductive health services, but, as I have highlighted in the case of Zambia, releasing resources for investment in preventive health care is the particular focus of discussions. We must do everything that we can to fight the scourge of AIDS around the world.

The Chancellor has highlighted the importance of trade as well as of debt cancellation as a means of lifting people out of poverty. The Government know that a good result from the Doha round will lift more people out of poverty and improve the economies of particular countries. When did the Chancellor last meet Peter Mandelson face to face to put that case?

We are in regular touch with commissioners on all those issues. The successful completion of the round is extremely important. Although we made progress at the end of last year, the situation is still disappointing. The hon. Gentleman is right to press for further action, and we will not lower our ambitions. In particular, agriculture is key—we need an ambitious outcome to the round, which means an ambitious outcome on agriculture. We will continue to press commissioners and Trade Ministers around the world to get an outcome as soon as possible.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating organisations such as Jubilee 2000 on their work over many years in highlighting the need to cancel debt in the poorest countries of the world? Does he agree that that type of people power can be incredibly effective both at home and abroad? Will he therefore update the House—

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Make Poverty History was a truly brilliant campaign—it was probably the most successful political campaign that I have ever seen in terms of mobilising, in particular, young people to support international social justice. There has also been some fine campaigning by hon. Members. In particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) is promoting a private Member’s Bill that has Government support tomorrow. The Bill will make sure that we continue to make progress on the millennium development goals, and I urge all hon. Members to be here tomorrow to support it.

Tax Credits

End of year adjustments are an integral part of the flexible system that responds to families’ circumstances as they change. Eliminating the need for adjustments would require a move to a fixed system, where eligibility would be based on the previous year’s income and circumstances, which would diminish responsiveness. The Government have introduced administrative enhancements and policy developments to improve the operation of the tax credits system, which includes measures to reduce overpayments.

I hope that that works. Last month, the Paymaster General wrote to me confirming that, after an examination of the transcripts of a constituent’s telephone calls to the Revenue, the Revenue acknowledged that it had incorrectly advised the constituent, that the constituent would not have to repay the sums involved and that the constituent would be compensated. Given the clear evidence that staff are finding it difficult to cope with the system, the lack of staff training, the evidence of fraud and the injustice to so many thousands of citizens who have claimed those credits and who have been forced to pay them back, will she acknowledge that the Revenue should always examine the transcripts and not persist in issuing denials when the mistake is usually theirs and not the constituent’s?

Improvements to the tax credit system have been discussed in detail in this House, and I am sure that those discussions will continue. I cannot comment on the specific case raised by the hon. Gentleman, but the system to determine whether an error has occurred and whether an overpayment should be written off is clearly defined and clearly followed. If he believes that that has not happened in the individual case that he has mentioned, I am happy for him to bring it to me again.

My right hon. Friend will realise the hardship that is caused to many families who have to repay tax credits, but does she recognise, as I do, that only a fool or a knave would ever pretend that we will get this 100 per cent. correct? I assure her that I would rather be struggling to defend overpayments than underpayments under this scheme.

My hon. Friend is making a very clear case. Some 6 million families are receiving tax credits, and their role in lifting 700,000 children out of poverty is making a huge contribution to all our communities. Their flexible and responsive nature is particularly important for families whose incomes fall and who therefore need more tax credits. He will know from last year’s figures that 700,000 families’ incomes fell significantly and they then received extra support from the tax credits system, which the system supported by the Opposition—the Liberals and the Tories—would have denied them.

Yet another question on tax credits; yet another occasion on which the Chancellor has failed to defend his own failed policy. In 2004-05, almost half of the 6 million tax credit payments were wrong. This week, the Institute for Public Policy Research, Labour’s favourite think-tank, produced a report that said:

“as the system currently operates, there are real doubts about whether this is an effective policy mechanism.”

When will the Chancellor accept personal responsibility for his creation of a massively over-complicated system that is causing misery to millions of families and needs to be reformed?

It does not matter how much the hon. Gentleman wriggles in trying to disguise the fact that the Conservatives want to abolish tax credits and take them away from millions of families, because he cannot deny that whenever this has been discussed in the House, including by the Treasury Committee, it has been concluded that tax credits are a significant contribution to challenging and eradicating poverty. The basic policy is correct, and the administration must follow that.

There is no doubt that tax credits have helped millions of families—thousands in North-West Leicestershire and in every other constituency—in tackling poverty. However, can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the substantial income disregard that is being implemented is the best way of tackling poverty? Is it not at least possible that it will be a significant incentive to collusion in fraud in some cases? What assessment has been made of the cost of this new initiative?

First, as my hon. Friend can see, the package of announcements, including the disregard, is in the pre-Budget report books. Secondly, tax credits have two objectives: first, to assist in the eradication of poverty; and secondly, to help people to into work. The disregard is designed specifically to help people to transfer into work and to support them in that early period. Thirdly, I can give my hon. Friend the undertaking that he seeks in that the tax credits system will continue to ensure a robust compliance strategy.

Inheritance Tax

10. What the total cost was of administering inheritance tax in each of the last five years; and what the estimated cost is for 2006-07. (77551)

The cost of collecting each pound of inheritance tax was 1.23p in 2000-01, 1.21p in 2001-02, 1.38p in 2002-03, 1.21p in 2003-04 and 1.14p in 2004-05, the most recent year for which figures are available. I do not expect a big change in the current year.

Because it is morally the right tax. Only 6 per cent. of estates paid inheritance tax last year. The zero threshold is £285,000 this year, rising to £325,000 in 2009-10. All wealth passed to spouses or civil partners is tax free. It is right to apply tax in that way and we will continue to do so. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that it should be abolished, he needs to explain where the money would come from.

Does my hon. Friend agree that any party that claims to be concerned about equal opportunities must have a fair inheritance tax regime?

I do agree; my hon. Friend is right. I expect inheritance tax to raise £3.6 billion this year. The Conservative party needs to identify the spending that would be cut or the taxes that would be raised to fill the gap.

Tax Credits

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs actively encourages claimants to report changes in circumstances promptly to reduce the likelihood of underpayment.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that answer. Will she take cognisance of the Treasury Committee’s suggestion that a complete analysis should be made of official error? Would that analysis be published?

The Treasury report on tax credit fraud and error was supposed to be released last month. I understand from the Department that it has been completed. Where is it?

Science and Innovation

13. What assessment he has made of the contribution of expenditure on science to the performance of the economy; and if he will make a statement. (77554)

A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2001 found that a 1 per cent. increase in public research and development spending leads to a productivity rise of 0.17 per cent. There is also growing evidence of a link between effective use of information and communications technology and higher productivity.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response. I believe that it is important to invest in science to help the UK economy grow and for us to compete in an ever increasing global economy. I draw his attention to the semi-conductor company, Pure Wafer, in my constituency. It is the only company outside Japan with the technology and capability to recycle 300 mm silicon wafers on a global scale. It has received grant assistance and brought jobs to Swansea, and it was recently awarded the title of Welsh company of the year. Will he ensure that the Government continue to invest in science to provide local jobs and help us to compete on a global scale?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. I congratulate the company in her constituency and pay tribute to the support that she gives it and other firms in her area. The 10-year strategy for science that we launched two years ago set out the ambition that public and private investment in research and development should reach 2.5 per cent. of GDP by 2014. Thanks to the new stability that we have achieved in the British economy plus the extra support for science, we can look forward to many more examples, such as that to which my hon. Friend drew the House’s attention.

Given the Chief Secretary’s comments about the link between science expenditure and economic development, why does Wales, with 5 per cent. of the UK population, receive only 2 per cent. of the science budget, which is about a third of what the Government spent last year on science overseas?

The science budget will reach £3.4 billion by the next financial year—more than twice the 1997 level in cash terms. Of course, many decisions about money that is committed in Wales are now for the Welsh Assembly. However, there are many outstanding examples in Wales of science-based companies thriving, thanks to what the Government have done.


We are strongly committed to supporting the development of biofuels in Britain. The Budget announced an extension of the 20p per litre discount on both biodiesel and bioethanol and that will run until at least 2008-09. The Chancellor also made a range of announcements to bring into force a renewable transport obligation.

Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of launching one of the country’s first bioethanol pumps at a filling station in Lowestoft. This is a symbol of our determination in East Anglia to lead the way on biofuels. We have new biofuel plants coming on stream, but is my hon. Friend satisfied with the present rate of progress? Does he think that the process needs more encouragement? What discussions is he having with motor manufacturers to ensure that we have vehicles that can use bioethanol and petrol in the same tank—as they have in Brazil—ready for the new bioethanol revolution?

I welcome the introduction of the new bioethanol pump in my hon. Friend’s constituency. East Anglia is taking the lead in many ways. One of the first bioethanol plants is likely to be set up in Wissington, close to my hon. Friend’s constituency. The industry is being given great support and encouragement by the package of measures that the Chancellor announced in the Budget. That will give greater certainty about the development of the market. Clearly, even to reach the level at which 5 per cent. of our road fuels are derived from renewable sources—which is the level of the obligation—will involve a huge step up. However, I am confident that we now have in place the sort of package that will lead to that sort of development. The development of engine technology and of the technical specifications for fuel will be part and parcel of our ability to push well beyond 5 per cent. after 2010-11.

In an earlier response to a question about bioethanol, the Chancellor mentioned Mozambique. Does the Minister acknowledge that there are many sugar beet farmers around this country, not least in Shropshire, which has 600, with 200 in my constituency alone? They would be more than willing, able and keen to assist the Government in meeting their climate change targets, if only there were a guaranteed market, and incentives rather than a stick. Will the Minister send out a message today to Shropshire farmers—rather than just Mozambique farmers—about how the Government will encourage them to get into the bioethanol market?

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has looked at the package of proposals put in place by my right hon. Friend in the Budget. Nor am I sure that he has looked at the reaction of the industry to those measures, or at the plans for the new bioethanol plants in this country. The purpose of our policy is to develop the biofuels market in Britain, which will provide new opportunities for British farmers. However, we are not providing a fresh form of subsidy for British production. We are interested in building the biofuels market and gaining the environmental benefits from it. The managing director of Losonoco, one of the firms due to set up two bioethanol plants in the UK, has said that, from the firm’s perspective, it was a good Budget and that the support that the Government is giving to the biofuels sector was very encouraging.

We now have in place all the right economic instruments, including the reduction in fuel duty, the capital allowances for new developments and the proposed renewable transport fuel obligation. Does my hon. Friend agree that what we need now are home-grown entrepreneurs to come forward to make the most of home-grown fuels?

My hon. Friend is right. The Government can go only so far. We have put in place the framework of incentives and support for the development of the market, but, in the end, it requires private investment and private enterprise. The signs are good, but private industry and investment must now do the heavy lifting.

Tax Credits

The information requested by the hon. Gentleman will not be available until family circumstances and incomes for 2005-06 have been finalised.

I thank the Minister for her response. She will be aware that a considerable amount of tax credits have been overpaid through no fault of the claimant and that, when they have to pay the money back, it causes considerable hardship. I recently wrote to her about a case in which the claimant had put her income down on the claim form, but not in the specific box required. She subsequently confirmed that that was her income, but was then overpaid because the Inland Revenue was unable to take account of what she had reported to them. She is now faced with a bill for £3,500, which she cannot pay back. Will the Paymaster General look into that case, and into the whole issue of overpayments that are absolutely no fault of the claimant?

I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would not want me to conduct an MP’s surgery here in Treasury Questions—[Hon. Members: “Go on.”] Perhaps I should not have said that. The hon. Gentleman should write to me on that specific case and I will look into it—a facility that I offer to all Members. I remind him that during 2003-04, the first year of the scheme’s operation, 54,000 families received tax credits. In 2004-05, that figure rose to 60,000, and some of those families, because of their income, benefited to the tune of £2,400 or more. The crucial point is that tax credits in Gloucestershire and everywhere else are contributing to lifting children out of poverty and assisting families and parents to return to work.

UK Productivity

The Budget report provided an assessment of all areas of the UK economy and UK competitiveness, including gross domestic product, productivity growth, labour market performance and economic stability.

I think that I thank the Minister for that non-answer. He was a special adviser in the Treasury when the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it one of his first priorities, back in 1997, to raise economic productivity. The Minister must know that his Government have singularly failed to do that, and that we have actually dropped down the economic competitiveness league. What is he going to do, through tax and regulation, to make the economy of this country a good deal better than it has been in the past nine years?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for being here to ask it. The fact is that since 1997, productivity has grown in every quarter under this Government, unlike under the previous Conservative Government, when it fell. This week’s edition of “Employment Outlook”, produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, tells us:

“Britain has scored the highest employment rate and the best combination of unemployment and inactivity rates in the G7 countries for the first time in 50 years.”

We have combined stability, strengthening productivity and record levels of employment. People will remember the difference between that record and the record of previous decades, when we suffered the deepest recession since the second world war and the longest recession since the second world war, when people suffered from negative equity and when we had high interest rates. People do not want to go back to those days.

One of the areas of concern for manufacturing in my constituency is the cost of energy. In the light of that, and given what has been stated about the next generation of nuclear power, what is the Treasury’s view?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the high cost of energy in recent months has been an issue for British industry, and more generally for the economy. On Monday, the Governor of the Bank of England talked about the pressures on the economy as a result of the high oil prices around the world. An energy review, which will report in a few months time, will be a Government report and will set out exactly how we can have an energy policy that meets our climate change obligations and also delivers security and diversity of supply. That report will refer to the need for a range of measures and of sources of energy, but we will need to wait for the final details before we can comment on it.

Is the Minister aware that business and industry are more heavily taxed now than ever before? In 1997, the tax take was £80 billion; this year, it is £140 billion, due to corporation tax, national insurance tax and other taxation. On top of that, there a huge amount of regulation, some of which is emanating from the European Union. Is it any wonder that companies, including headquarters in the City of London, are thinking of relocating elsewhere?

As I said in a speech yesterday, the number of listings in the UK has been rising, rather than falling, in recent years. We have cut corporation tax from 33p to 30p. We have cut small business tax. We have also cut capital gains tax from 40p to 10p since 1997. However, the hon. Lady includes in her figures one tax that we did raise: a £5 billion windfall tax on the privatised utilities. The Conservatives opposed it, but it has helped to get down unemployment—particularly youth unemployment—in constituencies across the country. I would like her to support that tax rise, but I fear that she will not do so.

Climate Change Levy

18. What recent discussions he has had on the climate change levy and its impact on carbon emissions. (77560)

We have discussions with a wide range of groups on a wide range of issues, including the climate change levy. Talking of discussions, next week we will be able to debate and vote on the climate change levy as part of the Finance Bill; indeed, we will discuss it with all parties in this House, and I hope that all will back it at that point. In particular, I hope that, for once, we will see backing from the Conservatives on the environment, instead of opposing the levy. I hope that they will support the measures that we are taking. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that response. He will know that high energy users, including the aluminium smelter sector, have reduced their CO2 emissions considerably because of incentives provided by the Government, through changes to national insurance and part-exemption from the climate change levy. That has allowed smelters, including Anglesey Aluminium in my constituency, to reduce their carbon emissions by up to 30 per cent. Will he consider that issue further when climate change is under discussion, to ensure that British manufacturing, including smelters, is more productive? Does he agree that that carrot and stick approach is just what British industry needs?

My hon. Friend is right in that the package that we introduced with the climate change levy included the important climate change agreements, giving an 80 per cent. discount from the levy for high energy, high intensive sectors, especially those facing international competition. We were able to introduce those discounts for 42 sectors and have since added five more. We are looking to legislate for those five more, building on an extra nine that we added previously. We are trying to strike an essential balance with a package of measures that gets us the environmental gains that we need, but protects the competitiveness of British industry. We have achieved that with the climate change levy package and I hope that we will receive support from both sides of the House for the Finance Bill next week, instead of the Tories—to coin a phrase—talking tough and voting soft.

Tax Credits

20. What criteria he used in deciding on his response to the request from the Institute for Fiscal Studies for information on the cost of the £25,000 income disregard for tax credits. (77562)

In responding to the freedom of information request from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and in the subsequent review of the decision, officials at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs followed the criteria set out in the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The Paymaster General knows exactly what the likely cost of the increased disregard will be, but in rejecting the freedom of information request she said that officials had to balance the public interest in disclosing the information with the public interest in withholding it. What is the public interest in preventing MPs from knowing the cost of her policy? Is it not a shameful situation for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be afraid of scrutiny of his flagship policy?

On the first question that the hon. Gentleman posed, the information has been made available to the House. On the specific point of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is a non-ministerial department. It is for officials to follow the criteria set out in the Act, and that is precisely what they did.

The Paymaster General will be aware that the Treasury Committee’s report, published recently, criticised the lack of understanding of the cost of the new package, including the disregard, as well as a failure to understand the roles of IT, fraud and official error. The report also stated that the Committee was not convinced that the Paymaster General fully realised

“the extent to which HMRC needs to re-focus its administrative structures for tax credits around the needs of claimants.”

Since that report was published, has the penny finally dropped?

The Treasury Committee said:

“We commend HMRC for the positive step it has taken towards improving the way it deals with complex cases, by setting up a specialist team for the express purpose”.

The Committee also commended HMRC for the moves it has made to improve its work.

The report said that

“we welcome the fact that the Government is seeking to improve the operation of the tax credits regime by introducing a package of reforms.”

The Treasury Committee’s report commented in detail and commended the department on the administrative changes it is making. The press release by the Committee also acknowledged that tax credits are the right policy.

Pension Reform

21. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the tax implications of pension reform; and if he will make a statement. (77563)

I am pleased, if somewhat surprised, to be able to answer question 21. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor and Treasury Ministers have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on a range of matters, including those relating to pension reform.

I am grateful for that very informative response. In evidence to the Treasury Select Committee earlier this week, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was unable to give a clear-cut assurance that increases in the basic state pension would definitely be linked to earnings, not just in 2012 but throughout the life of the next Parliament. It is increasingly unlikely that the Chancellor will be in a position of influence over the next Government, but will the Economic Secretary say whether he has any doubts about the affordability of that key plank of the Government’s pension reforms?

I know that the hon. Gentleman keeps a close eye on pension issues, as a member of the Select Committee and through his website, where he has expressed his concerns about affordability. The Government’s position was set out clearly in the White Paper. We want to introduce the earnings link by 2012, and certainly by 2015. Our aim is to reform pensions in an affordable way that is fair to future generations as well as to this one. That is what we will deliver.

Tax relief on pension contributions currently costs £18 billion a year in foregone tax revenue, and there will be further tax relief under the new pension arrangements proposed by my right hon. Friend Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. However, the evidence from the Department for Work and Pensions is that tax relief has a negligible effect on how much is saved in pension schemes. Why is there tax relief under the new scheme, when the existing relief is not doing what it was designed to do?

As my hon. Friend knows, people pay tax on their pensions when they receive them, and they receive tax relief as they contribute to their pensions. That has been the system in this country for many years, and it is the right way to ensure that we encourage people to save for retirement. We want more rather than fewer people to use the tax reliefs by saving for their pensions, and that is why the current system will continue after the White Paper has been implemented.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 19 June—Second Reading of Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 20 June—Remaining stages of the Children and Adoption Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 21 June—Opposition day [17th allotted day]. There will be a debate on the future of the BBC, followed by a debate entitled “The Failure of the Government’s Housing and Planning Policy”. Both debates arise on Opposition motions.

Thursday 22 June—A debate on defence policy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 23 June—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 26 June—Second Reading of the Charities Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 27 June—A debate on pensions on a Government motion.

Wednesday 28 June—A motion to approve the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Code of Practice C and Code of Practice H) Order 2006, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the National Lottery Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Childcare Bill.

Thursday 29 June—Remaining stages of the Commons Bill [Lords].

Friday 30 June—The House will not be sitting.

I should also let the House know that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 22 June will now be a debate on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business over the next two weeks. A few weeks ago, the Health Secretary said that it had been the “best year ever” for the health service, but the chief executive of the NHS Confederation said yesterday that the NHS was facing its “toughest year ever”. She said that trusts were facing

“a string of directives, one on top of the other, often contradictory”,

in a system that was

“long on plans and short on strategy”,

and which focused on

“what we report rather than what we deliver.”

The Leader of the House regularly tells us about what the Government have done in respect of the NHS. Can we have statement from the Health Secretary on the future of the NHS, and on how she will cut the directives and targets and let staff get on with their jobs?

The organisation Fathers Direct recently produced advice for fathers with the help of a grant from the Government. One thing that the Government can do to help fathers is to support co-parenting on separation, so will the Leader of the House urge the Education Secretary to support co-parenting in next Tuesday’s debate on the Children and Adoption Bill?

Apparently, the Prime Minister’s proposed fundamental review of Government spending has hit the buffers—I guess that they are otherwise known as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Last month, the Prime Minister described the review as a vital foundation for spending plans. When will the Chancellor allow the review to be published, and will it be debated in this House?

On financial matters, in Treasury questions Members raised yesterday’s evidence from the permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, in which he said that the Chancellor’s Budget objective to increase education spending to the current level for private schools was simply an aspiration and that no work was being done on it in the Department. May we have a statement both from the Chancellor, giving further clarification of what he meant when he set that Budget objective, and from the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, explaining why his Department is not doing what is necessary to put in place the Chancellor’s aspiration?

The Home Office’s failure to start the procurement process on time has reportedly delayed the identity card scheme—another project so important to Ministers. May we have a statement from the Home Secretary on the future timetable for that project? Indeed, given the Government’s record, may we have a debate on their handling of IT projects? For example, the Child Support Agency implemented a £465 million new computer system 18 months late and tens of thousands of cases are still stuck in the system. The new IT system for the passport agency was delayed and over budget, and led to more than 500,000 people waiting for passports. The Criminal Records Bureau’s new computer system was delivered six months late and £145 million over budget, built up a backlog of 30,000 cases, and has led to people being refused jobs because the wrong data were used, which, of course, brings me back to Home Office incompetence—a recurring theme in business questions recently.

This week, we have seen yet another example of the Home Secretary trying to blame everyone but the Government for the problems in our criminal justice system; if he is not blaming the civil servants, he is blaming the judges. Does the Leader of the House agree that what the public want is honest sentencing? They want to know that when someone is told that they will be in prison for 18 years, they will be in prison for 18 years and will not be let out halfway through or, worse still, when they have served only a third of their sentence. May we have a debate on sentencing policy? Then we can discuss why the Government’s action on sentencing means that a man who kidnapped and sexually assaulted a three-year-old girl can be let out of prison after less than six years.

Let us look at the numbers: nine years in government, three large majorities and 54 criminal justice Bills, but only one person to blame—the Prime Minister.

First, the right hon. Lady referred to comments about the NHS and said what is needed is to concentrate on what is delivered rather than what is reported. I am delighted to concentrate on what is delivered, because the facts of the improvements in the national health service speak for themselves, in terms of huge increases in the number of staff—an increase of 85,000 nurses, 30,000 doctors and 10,000 consultants. There have been improvements in staff levels in every constituency and they are paralleled by improvements in health care for every constituent across the country.

Secondly, the right hon. Lady referred to co-parenting and the proposals before the House next week. I shall certainly pass on her comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Thirdly, she asked about the report in today’s Financial Times about the comprehensive spending review—

I am talking about the same thing; there will be a report, as proposed.

Fourthly, the right hon. Lady asked for a debate because she wants to find out about education spending now—by comparison, I assume, with 1997 and the Conservative years. We do not need a debate on the improvements in education spending. All that the right hon. Lady needs to do is to look at the website or to ask in the Library for the figures, which show a dramatic improvement in spending on the service, moving education spending year by year—yes—up towards the level in private schools. That dramatic improvement in spending, along with a significant increase of 33,000 in the number of teachers and an increase of more than 250,000 in the number of teachers’ assistants, is leading to dramatic improvements in the educational attainment of pupils in every constituency. I am surprised that the right hon. Lady is not celebrating the achievement of schools and hospitals in her constituency, instead of denigrating the record of good public servants and the effectiveness of public investment.

The right hon. Lady asked about Home Office matters and said that we need debates on sentencing. We have had plenty of debates on sentencing. They have occurred in the context of many of the Bills that she is now complaining about in respect of law and order. As the Prime Minister so effectively pointed out yesterday, it is striking that, more often than not, when we bring forward proposals to strengthen sentencing and to toughen up the judicial system, Conservative Members vote against them. [Interruption.] Someone who has probably not checked the facts of even his own voting record said, “Not so,” from a sedentary position. The Conservatives voted against abolishing the double jeopardy rule to allow suspected rapists and murderers to be retried when important new evidence—for example, DNA evidence—came to light. They thought that that was a bad idea and that guilty rapists and murderers should go free. They voted against powers for the prosecution to ask for trial without jury where there was a danger of jury tampering. They voted against extending police powers to detain without charge—from 24 to 36 hours. They voted against giving the prosecution a right of appeal against terminating rulings by judges before a case is complete. They even voted against restricting the range of evidence of an offender’s bad character that could be admitted in court.

I hear the word “sentencing” being parroted. The difference is that as a result of those changes, which we had to force through against Conservative opposition, many more guilty criminals are being convicted and sentenced. There was no opportunity before for the courts to convict them because of the inadequacy of the criminal justice system that the Conservatives left. I recall—it is worth us all recalling—that when the Conservatives last had charge of the criminal justice system, police numbers were cut and crime doubled. Under this Government, police numbers have risen by 15,000, and according to the British crime survey, crime has gone down on every measure. That is also the case with recorded crime.

A cursory examination of the business for the next two weeks suggests that the Government are coming to the end of the post-election legislative programme, barring a late flurry of criminal justice Bills. That being the case, may I ask the Leader of the House not to bring forward the date of the Queen’s Speech and not to extend the already over-long summer recess, but to forswear for the rest of this Session the use of guillotine motions on Report stages of Bills, so that we can adequately scrutinise the legislation that is before us and perhaps make sure that some of it stands the test of time?

May I ask again for a debate on nuclear power? Every time the Prime Minister opens his mouth on the subject, it creates the need for a further debate. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said:

“the new generation of nuclear power stations generate around one tenth of the waste of the previous generation.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 765.]

However, we know, from the work of the Environmental Audit Committee and the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, that

“the amount of high level waste would actually increase by 400 per cent.”

It really will not do to have nonsensical statistics bandied before the House, rather than have a genuine debate on a key issue for the future of the country. May we have that debate?

May we have a debate on sport? I say that not because of events in Germany at the moment, or Wimbledon, or test matches, but on the basis of the Audit Commission report on sporting and recreation facilities in our local areas, which says:

“In England 65 per cent of council facilities are over 20 years old”

and are deteriorating badly. If we do not invest in proper sports facilities throughout the country—not just the Olympic facilities, but ordinary sports facilities for ordinary people to use—we will be doing our country a great deal of ill.

I note that on 29 June we will debate the Commons Bill [Lords]. Can the Leader of the House give us any indication of when we will discuss a Lords Bill [Commons]?

All over the place. The Liberals are so deeply committed to the House of Commons and democracy that they have a solitary representative in the Chamber.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asks about foreswearing the use of guillotine motions. I am not trying to make a casuistical point—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] Well, I might. We do not have guillotine motions these days; instead we have programme motions, which were recommended by the Modernisation Committee.

No, it is not a Foreign Office point. The Foreign Office produced remarkably little legislation.

There is a need for as much time as possible for Report stages, but the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will appreciate that there is a limit on the amount of time available to the House. However, I am concerned that quite a lot of time that is available to Opposition Members is simply not being used, and I will make that available. There has been an early collapse of sittings—[Interruption.] The Government put their business before the House. I was in opposition for 18 years, so I know that it is for Opposition parties to make use of their opportunities.

There will be a White Paper on nuclear power. However, meanwhile, if the Liberal Democrats are absolutely desperate for a debate on nuclear power, which would expose divisions in their ranks because some Liberal Democrat Members are in favour of windmills, some favour increasing carbon emissions and others who represent areas with nuclear power stations are in favour of nuclear power, I suggest that they use the Supply day that they have coming up.

Sport and recreation facilities are of course a concern. We have increased the investment for such facilities hugely. I could bore the House by talking about the investment in my constituency and, perhaps, in the hon. Gentleman’s, too.

As for the Commons and the Lords, as everyone knows, a Joint Committee is reviewing the conventions of the Lords. In due course—around the end of the year, I hope—there will be proposals on their future composition.

The Road Safety Bill, which was lost in the last Parliament, has completed all its stages in the House of Lords. It is two months since its Committee stage in the House was completed. The Bill includes many life-saving measures, but I fear that its Report and Third Reading may be delayed until after the summer. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Bill completes its passage before the summer recess?

Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate in Government time on the plight of Zimbabwean refugees? There are many engineers, doctors, teachers, nurses and other people in this country whose skills could be put to good use for our country’s benefit, which would maintain those skills for the future. There are also people—including my constituent, Ashleigh McMaster, who, outrageously, has had her application for asylum turned down—who are in limbo because they are unable to study, work or contribute. Owing to the languishing state of their skills, a group of Zimbabwean people will be unable to contribute to that benighted country when Mugabe goes.

I understand entirely the concern of Zimbabwean refugees, although I think that the hon. Gentleman is talking not about refugees, but about the different group of unsuccessful asylum seekers, some of whom I have in my constituency. His question illustrates precisely why the asylum system is complex. There are people around the country making similar representations about every single unfounded asylum application. The hon. Gentleman believes that decisions about Zimbabwe are “outrageous”, but others believe that decisions about other countries, even safe countries, are outrageous, and, like the hon. Gentleman, continue to make representation upon representation. I understand that, but it does not lie in the hon. Gentleman’s mouth or in the mouths of Front Benchers to complain about the complexity of the system, given that the complexity exists because of the force of the representations.

We have sought to streamline the system, notwithstanding the representations. We wanted to introduce a single appeal to replace the layers of appeals that existed 15 and even 10 years ago, and to secure a higher quality of judicial decision-making. The decisions made about hon. Gentleman’s constituent were made not by Ministers but by independent judges, and can be reviewed by the Court of Appeal.

As an M25 Member of Parliament, may I ask—as Surrey and Kent Members have not—for a statement about the safety aspects of the M25 when there is a major crash and people are incarcerated for eight hours? If there were a similar hiatus in aviation or on the railway, a statement would be made; but for some reason we stoically accept dangerous detentions on our motorways. One happened recently. It is extraordinarily dangerous. The House needs to be told what evacuation procedures exist, and what directions and duties are given to the police to prevent more people from adding to the hiatus on the motorway. It is time we heard a major statement about how we can minimise the trauma of people who are stuck on the M25 for eight hours in intolerable, dangerous conditions.

I know a little about the incident to which my hon. Friend has referred, and I know of the concern about people who were stuck for eight hours. My hon. Friend will be aware that the police used an emergency helicopter to distribute bottled water to stranded motorists. That was important, because it was a boiling hot day.

I will convey my hon. Friend’s concern to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I hope that he will follow it up.

Before we have any legislation on sentencing by criminal courts, may we have a full debate in the House? Many of us want an opportunity to say that the House should not be too prescriptive about the sentences imposed by judges, that judges should have as much discretion as they can properly be given, and that defendants should serve the great majority of the sentences imposed, but also that the potential life sentences imposed under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 can do serious injustice to defendants.

I am aware that that is the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s view. He has been consistent in that view since the proposals of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) in 1996, when he opposed his own Front Bench.

I have thought about the matter a great deal, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor are doing so as well. We must achieve a balance between the understandable desire of the public, and indeed the House, for a clear sentencing framework that is more predictable than it was 30 or 40 years ago and ensuring that there is proper judicial discretion. That is relatively easy to say, but more difficult to achieve. We all accept that the issue must be dealt with in a serious and measured way.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the students at Avondale school who, as part of their star project, have produced interesting and innovative ideas for encouraging people to save energy? Will he make time for a debate on the citizenship curriculum, which encourages young people throughout the country to take part in important projects of that kind?

I do indeed congratulate the pupils and staff of Avondale school. My hon. Friend has talked to me about that project outside the House. The citizenship project is profoundly important: when we meet children in our constituencies or here, we note that although they are genuinely interested in this place and how it works, they lack adequate information and understanding of citizenship and politics. We need to put that right.

In view of the Government’s decision today to approve a huge waste-to-energy incinerator in my borough of Bexley, will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate in Government time on the whole issue of waste disposal and incineration? My constituents are naturally very unhappy about the decision and its consequences for the local environment.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. We have sought to produce much better and greener methods of disposing of waste, including the landfill tax, and they are working. That said, there must be some arrangements for incineration of quite large amounts of waste. No one wants such facilities next door, but they have to go somewhere.

At a time when we are focusing so closely on performance in English football, could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate allowing us to consider the circumstances of young players such as my constituent Hannah Dale? Hannah is a star football player, who has won the player of the year award for her club on many occasions. She is an academy player and lives for football, but she turned 11 this month and can no longer play with her team because FA rules do not allow girls to play mixed football after they reach that age. Hannah wants to be a footballer, and we need to ensure that girls like her can become footballers.

I wish Hannah every success. My hon. Friend will know of the great success of the Blackburn Rovers women’s football team: I pay particular attention to women’s football for that reason.

The Government are responsible for many things and are probably to blame for even more, but happily we are not responsible for the rules of football.

Ever—and that includes the performance of the England team. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) says from a sedentary position—and I want this to be recorded—that we all wish the England team well. Some people have the mistaken impression that an England-Scotland game is taking place this afternoon, but we will pass over that lightly.

I will convey the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) to the chairman of the Football Association.

May we have a full oral statement from the Chancellor on his proposals for a £2 coin to celebrate the Act of Union? Is it true that the coin is to be called a Brownie, because it is full of brass, not very popular and soon to be devalued? Is the Leader of the House aware that it will become a collector’s item as the Union passes into history, and is it true that 6,000 million of the coins would have to be circulated in Scotland next year to be the equivalent of the £12 billion of Scottish oil revenues that are the only thing keeping the Chancellor’s head above the financial waters?

He was not here, so he missed the opportunity.

I do not make that many predictions, but I am certain that the hon. Gentleman will pass into history a long time before the Union.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to two recent shootings in Greater Manchester? A 15-year-old boy in my constituency was shot, but fortunately not killed, and a 15-year-old girl was murdered by her jilted boyfriend. Guns were used in both cases. Alas, many members of the public have become resigned to the fact that guns now circulate in our cities and, increasingly, throughout the country. May we have a statement from the Home Secretary, telling us the Government’s strategy for driving the guns out of our sight and making it clear that we do not accept that guns, like drugs earlier, can systematically become part of our national way of life?

The whole House will share my hon. Friend’s profound concern about the availability of illegal handguns on the streets of some of our cities and towns, and send condolences to the family of the schoolgirl who was killed and sympathy to the young person who was injured.

Over the past 10 years, we have taken considerable steps to strengthen the law on handguns. We banned them altogether in 1997, sentences have been increased, and the police are making greater use of tougher enforcement. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, along with the Association of Chief Police Officers and Greater Manchester police, is ever ready to consider further measures to strengthen enforcement against the use and availability of guns on our streets.

Will the Secretary of State for Health make a statement on her very popular patient choice agenda in which she explains why the Isle of Wight strategic health authority, against the wishes of the primary care trust, purchased 200,000 cataract operations at an independent treatment centre in Portsmouth, only four of which have been taken up by my constituents, who do not want to have to travel to Portsmouth for their eye operations, yet who still have to pay for them? Is it the Government’s intention to put money into the private sector, which should be treating health service patients?

I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he regards as popular one of the many proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health; I am sure that she will be pleased to hear that, too. Those policies are indeed popular. Despite the difficulties that he outlines in one respect, the facts are that in his constituency the number of nurses has increased by 27 per cent., there are 1,135 extra doctors, which is an increase of 38 per cent., and almost 400 more consultants, which is an increase of more than 50 per cent.. Those and similar increases have led to real improvements in health care in his constituency and everywhere else. I hope that the next time he stands up, it is to congratulate the doctors and nurses who are delivering improvements in health care in his constituency.

Communities such as Ravenstone, Packington, Normanton-Le-Heath and Heather welcomed the election of a Labour Government in 1997 for many reasons, not least the promise of a tighter line against greenfield open-casting, the experience and future prospects of which have blighted the lives of those Leicestershire villages for decades. The same is true of other coalfield community areas in the midlands and elsewhere. Does the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government plan to make a statement on minerals planning guidance note 3 and whether the concept of the cumulative impact of open-casting has been abandoned in determining applications; and on the reasons for the inquiry inspector’s astonishing recommendations in relation to the Long Moor site in north-west Leicestershire, sanctioning a four-year application to extract 750,000 tonnes and potentially condemning the area for decades beyond? There are also risks in relation to Lodge House in Amber Valley. The issue is extremely serious, and not only in the valley in north-west Leicestershire.

I know that that is a problem in Amber Valley as well, because our hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) was just telling me that she endorsed what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) says. I understand his concerns and I shall be in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, especially on the question of the cumulative effect of open-cast mining in his area.

May we have a statement from a Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the movement restrictions imposed on 33 fish farms in north Yorkshire as a result of viral haemorrhagic septicaemia being found in fish on only one farm some weeks ago? The matter is serious: many of the fish farmers now face ruin and fish cannot be moved to lakes and other watercourses that angling clubs and estates need for the rest of the fishing season. Compensation and aid for the farmers is desperately needed. it would be paid in any other EU member state and it would certainly be paid to the agriculture industry.

I shall let the Secretary of State know today about the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I also draw his attention to the fact that oral questions to the Department are next Thursday and he can table a question on Monday.

This week, I received my draft entry in “Who’s Who” for 2007. It contained my London address, which at a time of trouble is a bit worrying, given that in the ‘70s a terrorist organisation used “Who’s Who” to get the address of an individual whom it subsequently murdered. Will the Leader of the House consider writing to the publishers of “Who’s Who” to ensure that nobody’s address appears?

Happily, I am not responsible for “Who’s Who” entries—yet. If I were, I would tell the truth about Conservative Members. However, I am certain that the publishers will allow a House of Commons or other accommodation address in place of a private address.

May we have an urgent debate on access to telephone services in rural villages, particularly those in Shropshire? Does the Leader of the House agree that it is wrong that BT is failing in its universal access obligations and that villagers in Kynnersley in my constituency are suffering from poor telephone services and little access to internet and broadband services, despite BT’s high rhetoric?

I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. In addition, if he has not already done so, I invite him to write to the chairman of Ofcom.

When can we discuss early-day motion 2350? It states:

[That this House records its sorrow at the first death of a British soldier in the Helmand Province and salutes the courage and professionalism of British troops; and fears that the mission is an impossible one that will strengthen the Taliban, lead to more British deaths, the Columbia-isation of Central Asia and possibly deteriorate into a British Vietnam.]

Last week, there were complaints of a shortage of morphine in British hospitals and there is a chronic shortage of morphine throughout the developing world, yet our troops are engaged in what has been described as a “mission impossible” to destroy the raw material for the manufacture of morphine. Would it not be more sensible of us to license Afghani farmers to use their poppy crops for the production of morphine, rather than to try to destroy the livelihoods of 2 million people and drive them into the hands of the Taliban?

My hon. Friend has consistently opposed criminal sanctions in relation to all drugs. I understand his point of view, but I do not agree with it. Increased production of morphine for lawful use is needed, but I do not think that that is an argument for generally legalising the growing of poppies. [Interruption.] He should bear in mind that, overwhelmingly, poppy production in Afghanistan is not used for morphine production, because it can be sold for a much higher profit on the streets in the form of illicit drugs.

I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware that one of his principal responsibilities is to ensure the clarity of Government policy. There is considerable confusion following last night’s television programmes, in which the Lord Chancellor on “Question Time” appeared to condemn the Home Secretary and other politicians for interfering with the judiciary but, simultaneously, the chairman of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), was on “Newsnight” saying the opposite. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that Home Office questions on Monday is sufficient to ensure clarity, or should someone come to the Dispatch Box on behalf of the Lord Chancellor next week?

The right hon. Gentleman may raise the matter in Home Office questions, and I suspect that he will do so. In fact, there is consistency between what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said on Monday and what my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor said more recently this week. Let us be clear: on Monday, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary expressed a reservation about a specific sentence—he is entitled to do that; he was not criticising the judiciary, merely expressing a reservation—and this morning my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor gave what I thought was an eloquent exposition of the overall position on sentencing.

My right hon. Friend will know that there is to be a debate on House of Lords reform in Westminster Hall next week. Apart from the fact that I cannot be present, I regard that as wholly inadequate for debating one of the most important issues on which the House must decide. If my right hon. Friend is true to his word and wants to take the temperature of the House in that respect, and if we are to achieve the so-called “developing consensus” on the future of the House of Lords, it is critical that we have a debate in this Chamber. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that we will not wait until the Committee reports at the end of the year, but that we will have a debate in the main Chamber before the summer recess?

I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate before the summer recess. There will be a debate on Tuesday next week in Westminster Hall. I will not be able to be present, but my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will be deputising for me. There was a debate which lasted for three hours on 10 May, which was in Government time. A good debate it was, too. It was on the motion to establish the Joint Committee on Conventions. I promise my hon. Friend that, during the calendar year, there will be other opportunities to debate what I accept is an important issue and a heavy responsibility on my shoulders.

May we have a debate on adult education? The Government’s decision to cut adult education funding and divert the moneys to other areas of further education has led to a cut in the overall budget to Shipley college last year. It has led also to many people having to pay extra fees, many of whom cannot afford them. Bradford college has decided to shut Burley Grange in my constituency, which provided adult education for people in Wharfedale. I am sure that the Leader of the House understands how important adult education is to many people throughout the country. I hope that he will find time for a debate on the subject. There are issues that are causing much anguish in my constituency.

I do understand the importance of further education. I am proud to say that I have been, and remain, the governor of the further education college in Blackburn for the past 15 years. I take a real and close interest in the matter. There have been some changes in funding, not for all adult education—let us be clear about that—but of non-vocational adult education. I know the importance of that to those who are concerned. Overall, there has been investment in education at other levels—primary, secondary and higher education—as well as in further education. That is leading over time to significant improvements in skills levels and, for example, in eradicating adult illiteracy, about which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills spoke yesterday.

Mention was made a few minutes ago of handguns. My right hon. Friend will be aware also of the problem that is caused by the misuse of airguns, which affects so many of our constituents. My constituents were pleased with the Government’s proposals in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill to tighten up the law on airguns. Unfortunately, that Bill seems to have been delayed in the House of Lords for more than six months now. Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to encourage the quick completion of consideration of that Bill in the other place? When it comes back to this place, will he ensure that it has an early passage, so that my constituents and those of right hon. and hon. Members throughout the House can get the benefits of the protections that are set out in the Bill?

May we please have a debate on special educational needs? I declare an interest as the father of a two and a half year old boy who will almost certainly have such needs. Given that there are about 1.5 million children who are SEN, does the Leader of the House accept that it is most unsatisfactory that the three debates on this subject that have taken place in this Parliament have respectively had to be initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Government need to commit to finding Government time to address the concerns and needs of some vulnerable children with severe, complex and multi-faceted disorders? These children need our help and they need it now.

I agree with the substance of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, I do not agree with his conclusion. He seems to be implying that the only good debates in the House are those held in Government time. The purpose of ensuring that there is Opposition time and Back-Bench time is to enable issues of importance—matters that are also of interest to the Government—to be taken up by Back-Bench Members. Neither Back-Benchers nor the Opposition have to wait for the Government to find time; they can find it themselves. It is a credit to the House that there have already been three debates on the matter. I will bear the hon. Gentleman’s request in mind. He should not undervalue—I do not think that he was intending to do so—the importance of debates other than those that take place in Government time.

In order to continue the Government’s unique and innovative policy of giving things for free—for example, free bus travel for pensioners, free eye tests for pensioners, free television licences for those over 75 and free museum entry for all—may we have a debate on the merit of introducing free and healthy school meals for all primary school children, as is currently being piloted in Hull? It is proving hugely beneficial to the attendance and performance of such children.

I am sure that we can have a debate on the matter. I advise my hon. Friend to try to secure an Adjournment debate or a Westminster Hall debate on this important issue.

Can we have a debate on land-banking? It is an increasingly common practice now, especially in the south-east of England, where overseas companies are buying up large tracts of agricultural land, only then to split them up in plots and advertise them as speculative residential plots. In my constituency, Sinclair Deville has recently bought a four or five acre site and advertised it at the Ideal Home exhibition. It is not within the local plan, but it causes considerable unrest in local communities when these plots are advertised. Also, the practice potentially misleads investors.

I cannot promise a debate on the matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is successful in an Adjournment ballot. I understand the concerns. It seems to be an issue of consumer protection as much as anything else.

On 3 May, I asked a series of named day questions to the Home Secretary about my local prison. As of today, I have received no replies. If the answers are being delayed to save the Government embarrassment, that would be a gross abuse of power by the Executive. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to make an urgent statement on parliamentary questions absconding from the Home Office?

I talked to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about this issue this morning. He is very concerned about the delay in answering questions. The delay is not for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman implies. As I said in answer to a point of order yesterday, part of the problem is that since about April the number of written questions for answer by the Home Office has doubled. With the best will in the world, as I explained yesterday—

Whether they are named day questions or otherwise, the numbers have doubled. There is understandable concern in the House and outside it about the performance of the Home Office. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary understands that. With the best will in the world, additional pressure has been put on those who are responsible for drafting the answers. The hon. Gentleman would be pretty merciless if the answers were drafted and they turned out to be inaccurate. There is a balance between timeliness and accuracy.

Does the Leader of the House recall from his days of being Foreign Secretary the favourable reception that was given to the Government’s strategic defence review for recognising the need for a shift to an expeditionary strategy based on aircraft carriers to deal with terrorist threats as far away from home as possible? If so, can the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement soon on who is in charge of future defence policy, given the report this week that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is insisting on £1 billion being shifted from the defence budget to the homelands security budget, which will almost certainly result in at least one of the aircraft carriers not being built?

Would you like me to answer the question, Madam Deputy Speaker? We could adopt this practice all the way through for Opposition questions.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is, of course, responsible for defence policy, through the Cabinet and to the House. It is true at all times that there is pressure on defence spending. I will not embarrass the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) by reminding him of the cuts that were made in defence spending towards the end of the Major Administration. If there is any change in our current position in respect of aircraft carriers, it will be announced to the House. I am not anticipating that there should be.

I returned this morning from Afghanistan, having visited Kabul, Kandahar and the provincial reconstruction team in Lashkargah. I had meetings with President Karzai. I also travelled with General Jones, the head of NATO, and met General Richards of the international security assistance force. I put the question of poppy licensing to them. They all agreed that it is something that we need to pursue, even if it is only a pilot scheme.

I am asking for a debate on Afghanistan so that we can discuss these issues and, I am sad to report, the lack of co-ordination between international organisations, whether they be the EU, the United Nations, the Department for International Development and the embassies that are pouring in a great deal of money and good will. There is no overall co-ordination, as we have seen in Bosnia.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, when he was in Afghanistan—I am grateful that he made that journey—my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Defence and for International Development were there, and they gave a report in Cabinet this morning. Work by the British Government is knitted together, but co-ordination by other foreign organisation remains a challenge, not least to the UN, as those forces are at present under UN mandate. On the licensing of heroin production, I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s concerns on to my right hon. Friends, but I cannot promise the outcome that he seeks.

I am afraid to report that a public menace is abroad. When he was responsible for the environment, for transport and local government, he made a mess of them, and he is now damaging parliamentary questions. To make room for the Deputy Prime Minister, Transport and Work and Pensions questions have been cut to only 40 minutes. Transport and pensions affect every single citizen, so is it right to cut them to 40 minutes to give us what is admittedly an enjoyable half hour harpooning a figure of public ridicule?

I am afraid that I will treat that question with the contempt that it deserves. The hon. Gentleman would complain far more loudly if there was not an opportunity to question the Deputy Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

The Leader of the House will be aware that thousands of pensioners have sent copies of their council tax bills to the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and its successors in the past few months. Hundreds of those pensioners live in my constituency, and they kindly sent me copies, too. Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the effect of council tax rises on pensioners, many of whom are on fixed incomes and are suffering very badly, which is a cause for great concern, particularly in my constituency of Weston-super-Mare

Questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will take place shortly. It is easy to collect council tax bills and pass them on, and it is fine for the hon. Gentleman to do so as a constituency Member of Parliament. However, I hope that he has done two things. First, I hope that he has told his constituents about all the benefits received by pensioners in the past 10 years, which are very significant indeed. Secondly, I hope that he has explained to his constituents what he and his party would introduce in place of council tax. His party has rightly ruled out a completely mad Liberal Democrat proposal for local income tax, but council tax was a Conservative policy, not a Labour one, so if it does not like it now, let us hear what it would do.

My local newspaper, the Braintree and Witham Times, has fought a tremendous campaign to build a local community hospital in Braintree. My constituents were promised a community hospital that should have been built by the end of last year, but not a brick has been laid. Developers have moved on to the old site, which has only increased their concern. Can the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House and make a statement to reassure them a community hospital will indeed be built in Braintree?

I do not think that we need a debate. As an Essex boy, I know the hon. Gentleman’s Braintree constituency and I know, too, how much the area’s health services have improved in the past nine years. Indeed, I have gone there to see and hear about the changes that have taken place. He complained about the delay, but I hope that he will celebrate the fact that there are over 2,000 extra nurses in the health authority covering his area, over 700 doctors and over 200 consultants.

I am a member of the Standing Committee considering the Company Law Reform Bill, which is the largest Bill ever to proceed through the House. Given that the Government lost a vote in that Committee this morning, can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to explain why the Government talk tough but vote soft?

I doubt whether that is the largest Bill ever. The Local Government, Planning and Land Bill introduced by Mr. Michael Heseltine was, as the Conservative Whip, the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), will recall, a massive Bill. It was so awful, however, that it had to be withdrawn. If the hon. Gentleman can guarantee that there will never be the odd procedural glitch in the unlikely event that a Conservative Government are elected, I am happy to listen to him. The Committee will meet next Tuesday, so we will not lose a great deal.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In Treasury questions this morning, I asked about the likely cost of the increase in the tax credit disregard. The Paymaster General said that that “the information has been made available to the House.” I have checked with the Library and the Public Accounts Committee, but they are not aware that that information has been passed on to them. I therefore seek your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, on how we can correct that and how, if the right hon. Lady has inadvertently misinformed the House, that can be put right as soon as possible.

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The tenfold increase in the disregard is the key element of the package to put right the tax credit problems announced in the pre-Budget report last December. There has been a great deal of controversy about the cost, which the Government have consistently refused to give to the House and to the public. If it has now been made available, it is a serious matter, because it could be well over £1 billion. The Paymaster General appears to have said that it is available, but we cannot ascertain that that is definitely the case. Will you arrange for her to come to the House today, Madam Deputy Speaker, and make a statement to clear the matter up once and for all?

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I asked a question before the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), and the Paymaster General said that the information I sought which, essentially, is the same as that sought by the hon. Gentleman, was in the Budget book or the Budget document—Hansard will reveal which one. I am not saying that it is, but that is what she said.

I understand hon. Members’ concerns, but it is not appropriate to extend Question Time under the guise of points of order. The hon. Members concerned may wish to table further questions to follow up the Paymaster General’s answer.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am concerned about the timeliness of responses to written parliamentary questions, as I tabled a question to the Department for Work and Pensions on 1 December 2005, and received the answer this morning. While I am grateful for the response, Madam Deputy Speaker, is that length of time appropriate for responses to inquiries from Back Benchers?

Orders of the Day

Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill enables the National Assembly to set up an independent champion for older people. The position will be the first of its kind in the UK and, indeed, possibly in the world. It is modelled on the highly successful post of children’s commissioner—another first for Wales. The post was a key commitment in Labour’s 2003 manifesto for the last Assembly elections, and the Bill delivers that commitment.

The Bill is the latest milestone in our commitment to older people in Wales. It will provide a platform for further progress, building on what we have already achieved. When we took office in 1997, one in four pensioners were living in poverty, and pensioner inequality was wider than it had been for 30 years. That is why, for the past nine years, our No.1 priority for older people has been to tackle the scourge of pensioner poverty.

I very much welcome the Bill and the partnership between the National Assembly for Wales and this Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend envisage that the commissioner’s role should include raising awareness, as many pensioners do not apply for means-tested benefits? I accept that we are moving away from means testing, but I am concerned that when we apply the earnings link many of those poorer pensioners will be left behind. Does he believe that the commissioner should assist pensioners in those circumstances?

Indeed I do, and my hon. Friend makes a very important point, which is as applicable in his Ynys Môn constituency as it is in mine. A proportion of pensioners have not taken advantage of pension credit, which has lifted literally millions of pensioners across the UK and tens of thousands in Wales out of poverty. Yes, the commissioner for older people could have an important role in championing the opportunities that are available, perhaps putting greater pressure on the bureaucracy to deliver more.

We have also made huge strides in reversing the terrible legacy of pensioner poverty that we inherited from the Tory Government, lifting nearly 2 million pensioners out of absolute poverty and 1 million out of relative poverty. As a result of the measures that we have introduced, the average pensioner household is £1,400 a year better off than it would have been under the Conservative Government, and the poorest pensioners are £1,900 a year better off.

We are now spending on pensioners £10.5 billion more in real terms than when we took office. We are spending on the minimum income guarantee, the pension credit, the £200 winter fuel payment and increases in the basic state pension. Those are just a few of the measures that have boosted the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of older people right across Wales, with a massive 160,000 pensioner households receiving the pension credit and more than 460,000 households benefiting from the winter fuel payment.

Those figures do not take account of the huge increases in council tax that many vulnerable older people have had to pay since this Administration came to power.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there is generous council tax benefit for the lowest income pensioners, which helps them to avoid the large council tax bills that they would otherwise face. The council tax was introduced, especially in Wales, after local government reorganisation by the hon. Gentleman’s party. In my constituency, a discriminatory settlement was imposed on the borough of Neath Port Talbot in comparison with Swansea when the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) set up local government and imposed the council tax structure on Wales.

The Secretary of State fails to mention the £200 given to pensioners to mitigate council tax increases before the general election, which was withdrawn the following year.

When that was introduced, the Chancellor made it clear that it was intended to deal with the particular problem of high council tax bills at that time. It was welcomed and I think that the hon. Gentleman’s own party welcomed it. We have since kept council tax rises very low, especially in Labour-controlled areas and under Labour councils, in comparison with Conservative and, even more, with Liberal Democrat councils, so I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman raised that matter.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, not least because three years ago almost to the day I introduced a private Member’s Bill to set up an older people’s rights commissioner, which embraced similar issues. Can the Secretary of State reassure me that, in promoting and safeguarding the rights and dignity of older people and tackling poverty in Wales, some aspects of the Bill will allow investigations and enforcement to take place over the English border? Will it not create anomalies unless and until we have an older persons’ rights commissioner covering England as well?

I intend to deal with that matter later in my speech, but I can point out to my hon. Friend that the focus of the UK Government is on a Cabinet Sub-Committee on ageing policy, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. That is driving forward a UK-wide strategy, obviously including England and my hon. Friend’s own constituency. Devolution allows for, as it were, a policy laboratory to take place right across the UK and to great effect. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales was, because of its very success, subsequently copied in England. Likewise, policy on driving down waiting times was more successful in England than in Wales until similar policies were adopted in Wales. I believe that devolution has brought great benefits in that respect.

The Secretary of State forgets that Wales has been used by the Labour Government as a laboratory because Wales had the revaluation, which badly affected pensioners, and we have yet to have the revaluation in England. We will take no lessons from the Secretary of State on what the Government have done for pensioners, when those I talk to have been so badly affected by the revaluation in Wales.

In that case, why did the Welsh Conservatives, along with the Liberal Democrats, support that revaluation when the Assembly decided to conduct it? Under the new touchy-feely Conservative party, are we not entitled at least to a bit of repentance or consistency from the hon. Lady when she intervenes?

The Government have also taken action to protect people who are let down by the private pensions market—people such as the workers at Allied Steel and Wire in a scandalous case—by setting up the Pension Protection Fund and the pensions regulator and by increasing the financial assistance scheme from £400 million to £2.3 billion. At the Assembly, too, Labour has shown that it is the party best placed to improve the lives of older people in Wales. Many of the Assembly’s most ground-breaking and innovative policies have been aimed at older people, including free swimming, health promotion, the strategy for older people and the independent national partnership forum for older people.

On the ASW case, in welcoming the huge increase that has gone into the financial assistance scheme, which will increase the number of ASW pensioners who benefit, does my right hon. Friend also accept that some of my constituents, because they started their working lives young and do not fall within the 15 years before retirement criterion, will not benefit at all? Will he do all he can to extend the provision to those people?

Indeed. The former workers of ASW and their families are grateful to my hon. Friend for championing their interests so well. It is a scandalous case and one of the worst examples of how the pensions market can collapse. The abuses that followed affected some workers who had spent all their adult working lives with the company, in some cases leaving them with absolutely nothing. At least we have taken an important step along the road. The fivefold increase in available funding will mean that even more of my hon. Friend’s constituents will benefit, but I accept that some have been left high and dry by the collapse.

In the ASW case, the Government completely disregarded the conclusions and recommendations of the independent parliamentary ombudsman. What guarantee do older people in Wales have that the UK Government will not show equal disregard for the recommendations of the commissioner for older people?

We would not set up the commissioner for older people only to take no notice, would we? I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome our proposal with his characteristic generosity. I acknowledge, to be fair, that his party has supported it in principle. Indeed, as I shall argue later, there is all-party support for the Bill. I believe that the Government deserve credit for introducing the fund and for providing £2.3 billion. I agree that ASW workers were treated scandalously, but at least we are the first Government to try to provide some assistance where we can.