House of Commons
Tuesday 7 November 2006
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and I also meet representatives from the broadcasting sector from time to time. In addition, on Friday 27 October, I gave the keynote address at a major conference on digital switchover in Scotland.
I have supported the BBC all through my life and I still support it and the licence fee system. However, in my constituency, which is a semi-rural area, the biggest single town in Midlothian, which has some 20,000 people, still cannot get digital transfer. It is not good enough to be told that they will get it in 2010, with whatever problems come at that time. Does my hon. Friend agree that the BBC should be looking at the possibility of a rebate for people who cannot get digital transfer? They are getting a bit fed up with the advertisements, when digital is not available to them.
I well understand the frustrations of my hon. Friend’s constituents. As he knows, a number of people in my constituency cannot even get an analogue signal, let alone a digital one, and it is frustrating for them. I well understand how they feel. At the moment, more than 80 per cent. of Scottish homes are able to receive a digital signal through their aerial. That figure will rise to about 98.5 per cent. at the time of digital switchover. We need to switch off the analogue transmitters in order for that number to rise to 98.5 per cent. I am afraid that I am not able to offer him the comfort that he seeks. Having raised this issue with the BBC on a number of occasions, I know that it feels that it has a duty to get to about 98.5 per cent. I hope that when coverage increases from 80 per cent. to 98.5 per cent., many of his constituents will be able to get that signal.
Although it is good news that all those people will be able to get digital coverage, my hon. Friend will be aware that there is grave concern about the ability of people to understand the system—particularly our elderly population. Does he agree that, come digital switchover, voluntary sector organisations, such as CACE—Cumbernauld action for care of the elderly—which works closely with the elderly, will be key in assisting the elderly population to operate and receive the system properly?
Yes, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I know that she has raised it during the deliberations of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. It is important that we provide a package of help for vulnerable people and older people. It will not just be older people who might need some support and technical assistance in switching over, but, particularly for those people, we need a help package that will give the assistance that they need. Digital UK is taking the lead on that. I know that it will want to work closely with the voluntary sector to ensure that those who are used to visiting older people in their homes, and have their trust and confidence, will be able to take the message on digital switchover to those vulnerable groups.
My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) makes an important point about the condition of analogue systems at the moment. For example, people in a large part of the city of Aberdeen cannot get Channel 5. I was one of them. I recently bought a digital television. I have 20-odd other channels, but I still have not got Channel 5. If the Minister is going to make it worth while for people to invest in digital technology, we need to think about how we are going to get an improved service.
I am sure that, as long as my hon. Friend’s constituents can access the Parliament Channel, they will sleep safely in their beds. He makes an important and valid point: people have chosen to switch to digital because of the opportunities that it gives them, the multi-channel service, and the availability of interactivity on the services. He will know from his time on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that there is a major engineering exercise involved in turning off all the various transmitters that need to be fixed and so on. We need to make sure that that is done in a way that does not disadvantage people, that helps them to make the change over to the digital future, and that allows them to get rather more channels, including Channel 5, than he currently gets.
The Minister is, of course, aware that parts of Scotland will be the first in the United Kingdom to be part of the digital switchover. Will he make it clear to Digital UK that awareness of the switchover is, in itself, not sufficient and that the work with voluntary groups and community groups is vital? For many of those groups, face-to-face contact will be the only way to ensure that there is understanding and, more importantly, no fear of the changeover.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Awareness is key. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and I, he will have seen a lot of the adverts that are running to make people aware of the switchover. Awareness has risen from about 66 per cent. to 70 per cent. in just the last few months, as a result of the campaign. However, it is vital—particularly in borders, which will be the first region of the UK to switch over entirely at the end of 2008—that there is as high a level of awareness as possible. That is why Digital UK has taken a special interest in what is happening in borders. It is also paying close attention to what is happening in Scotland. It has dedicated staff working in Scotlandto raise awareness and achieve the result that he is looking for.
I attended the conference that the Minister addressed and I pay tribute to the fact that he is taking a close personal interest in the subject. He will be aware that huge numbers of people in rural areas depend for their television signal on relay transmitters, rather than main transmitters. Under the current plans, many of them thus stand to get a second-tier service after switchover because they will receive only a fraction of the available channels. Does the Minister think that that is unfair? Will he ensure that Ofcom rethinks the proposals so that everyone can get an equal and fair service?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the borders digital forum that he has set up to help to raise awareness. He was fortunate enough to hear my keynote speech at the major conference on digital switchover a week or two ago. I accept the point that he makes. As I understand it, there is essentially an engineering constraint—this is a major engineering project. However, Ofcom will have to keep the matter under consideration as we move through the process.
Act of Union
We have already indicated our intention to mark this important anniversary. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announcedon 15 June 2006, the Royal Mint will issue a commemorative coin. The Chancellor and I will launch the coin at a special event in January. Among other commemorative activities, I am pleased to know that plans are also being made to mount an exhibition in both the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.
The Union of England and Scotland is one of the great success stories of modern European history and it has given us three centuries of stability. The £2 coin is welcome and I am pleased that there will be an exhibition. In a recent written response, the Secretary of State alluded to the fact that other events will be held. Will he elaborate on what local authorities and other institutions might be doing?
Of course, it is up to local authorities to make judgments on such matters. We are in discussion with the Scottish Executive and I discussed the Westminster Parliament’s response with the Leader of the House only yesterday. I rarely find myself in agreement with the views expressed by Conservative Members, but the Union is Scotland’s mature choice. It has brought huge benefits not only to Scotland, but to England, so I am sure that we will both join in celebrating the success of, and future prospects for,the Union.
Would not next year’s anniversary be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate our Britishness and the shared values of democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance that bind this united country together? Given that people from all parts of the United Kingdom have worked and fought together for centuries, would not the anniversary be a great opportunity to reject once and for all divisive, anti-British and unpatriotic proposals to ban some MPs from voting in the House, which would tear up the British constitution and lead—
I think that I got my hon. Friend’s point. He speaks common sense when he recognises that a United Kingdom needs a united Parliament. Notwithstanding the sentiments expressed by some Opposition Members, now is not the time to play fast and loose with the British constitution in terms of maintaining the integrity of the House of Commons. I have some sympathy with the point made by my hon. Friend. This Sunday, I will take my place at the Cenotaph to recognise the extent to which Scottish and English soldiers, together with soldiers from right across the United Kingdom, fought together to defeat fascism and then came back home and worked together to build a national health service. Those are huge achievements from the past century of the United Kingdom and I believe that we will have equally great successes in the coming century.
There will also be representatives of some 30 independent countries at the Cenotaph on Sunday.
Amid all the street parties and mass celebrations that the Secretary of State expects for the Treaty of Union, will he ensure that there is a key role for the First Minister of Scotland, who appears to have been sidelined as a mere cipher by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s taking charge of the campaign? Has the Secretary of State noticed that since the Chancellor of the Exchequer assumed control of the pro-Union campaign, support for Scottish independence has soared to an all-time high, while support for the Labour party has plummeted to an all-time low? Will the Secretary of State promise to keep on doing what he is doing?
The hon. Gentleman’s talk of street parties reminds me of the image of him with the tartan army on top of a bus in Toulouse in 1998, which was the last time he claimed that Scotland was heading towards independence. The combined force of the Labour party in the Scottish Parliament and Labour at Westminster saw off that challenge. As we look ahead to the celebration of the Union, I am confident that the question that will dominate Scottish politics in the years to come will no longer be, “What is the point of Britain?”, but, “What is the point of the Scottish National party?”
I welcome the commemorative events for such a significant milestone. Does the Secretary of State agree that, given that it took almost three centuries to re-establish a Scottish Parliament, the time is ripe for mature evolution of our constitutional arrangements, but not pulling up the plant simply to see how the roots are developing? In that respect, what is his take on the suggestion that Jim Wallace floated in his Glasgow university lecture last week, reflecting on his time as Deputy First Minister in the coalition and on occasions as First Minister, that—leaving aside the argument about reform of the House of Lords—there could be an argument for the First Minister having a guaranteed place in the Lords to strengthen the links between the two Parliaments?
I am aware of that debate and of the discussions that continue in Government and across both Houses on the reform of the House of Lords. I am sure consideration will be given to that suggestion, and to others. I place on record my admiration for the work of the right hon. Gentleman, in the constitutional convention that led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and as we move towards the 300th anniversary of the Union, and his close interest in constitutional matters. I know not whether it is to be transmitted by digital signal or analogue signal, but I understand that there will be an influential documentary on the history of the Union with which the right hon. Gentleman may have more than a passing familiarity, owing to his authorship and editorship of the programme in due course.
Does the Secretary of State accept that my constituency shipyards have huge orders as a result of Scotland being part of the United Kingdom? Will he prevail on his colleague the Chancellor to make large numbers of the £2 coin available to me to distribute to my constituents in order to demonstrate the value of the British dividend?
I fear that I must disappoint my hon. Friend by assuring him that prudence continues to have influence in the Treasury. On the substantive point that he makes about the significance of defence contracts to Scottish employment, that was of course one of the decisive arguments in Glasgow, Govan and elsewhere back in 1998. Since then, when one sees not only the frigates that have been built at Scotstoun, but the prospect of the Royal Navy securing aircraft carriers, it would be economic madness for any party to suggest that Scotland’s interests were advanced by tearing itself out of the Union, when the manifest benefits of the Union are so clear to my hon. Friend’s constituents.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union presents an excellent opportunity to look afresh at our constitutional settlement, and that a calm, considered and well informed debate is needed to set a framework for further powers to be devolvedto Holyrood and to explore greater devolution in England?
I have already acknowledged the constructive role that the Liberal Democrats played in the constitutional convention, which made proposals that the late, great John Smith described as
“the settled will of the Scottish people”—
the determination to see devolution in the United Kingdom. Echoing the sentiments of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy), given that we are only eight years into a strong Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom, there is a case for continuing the progress that devolution has made. It provides the perfect balance between stability through the United Kingdom and the flexibility to address the challenges we have heard about during these questions—for example, the highest ever level of employment secured in Scotland.
I welcome much of what the Secretary of State said, and what the Prime Minister said yesterday about the enormous benefits to Scotland of being in the Union—similar comments to those that the Leader of the Opposition made when he was in Glasgow recently. Will the Secretary of State make sure that the celebrations focus not just on 300 years of success together, but on the future of the Union in the 21st century, working together?
I sense that a sinner repents by endorsing devolution in the United Kingdom. I welcome at least the recognition by the Conservatives that devolution is now the settled will of the Scottish people, as well as the determination to take forward the debate about Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom. I have little doubt that, over the months to come, whether on the basis of the anniversary of the Union or of the historic choice that Scotland faces next May, there will be a continued and vital discussion about the important contribution that Scotland can make to the Union over the next 300 years.
Conservative Members are clear on our commitment to make the devolved settlement work. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that support for the Union remains very strong in Scotland, and that the alleged rise in support for independence has nothing to do with a desire for further constitutional change but is the result of disillusionment with the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive?
It will come as no surprise that I am not convinced by the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Polls come and go, but the truth is that at every opportunity the Scottish people have rejected the politics of grudge and grievance and of separation and have recognised that Scotland’s mature choice is to remain within the United Kingdom, which is why Scotland has sustained economic growth, high levels of employment, low interest rates and the prospect of further prosperity within the UK.
Local Income Tax
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet Treasury colleagues to discuss a range of issues as they affect Scotland. As my hon. Friend knows, however, local taxes to fund local authority expenditure are devolved to the Scottish Executive.
In his discussions with the Chancellor, will my hon. Friend stress that a large number of hard-working, two-income families in my constituency will be particularly badly hit by any move from a property-based tax to a local income tax, which is, surprisingly, the policy of the Scottish National party and of the Liberal Democrats?
I will certainly ensure that my hon. Friend’s point is made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in any discussions. The list of council tax band D figures in Scotland shows that her local authority in Aberdeen and mine in Inverclyde are well above the Scottish average; both, of course, are run by the Liberal Democrats, who have not only failed to keep the council tax under control but now want to clobber hard-working families with a huge hike in their income tax. It is no surprise that that policy is shared by the SNP, which simply would not be able to make the figures add up.
Will the Minister promise to remind the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) of her words in a few years’ time when she is complaining about the disastrous effect, especially on people of low and fixed income, of the revaluation that is inevitably coming? When he has his discussions with the Chancellor, will he discuss the effects on the Scottish housing market and, consequently, on the Scottish economy, of that revaluation when it comes?
When the hon. Gentleman got to his feet, I thought that he was going to take the opportunity to apologise for the comments made by his colleague who said:
“A fireman and a nurse are not the average family. They are a rich family that can afford to pay more.”
His party’s local income tax policy is predicated on the belief that a nurse and a fireman are a rich family who should get clobbered more. That is why we will have no truck with a local income tax, which will clobber hard-working families. I would like the SNP to distance itself from it as well.
An independent study in Edinburgh showed that the typical two-income household in my constituency would be at least £300 a year worse off through the introduction of local income tax. Does my hon. Friend agree that such a massive hike in income tax would have a damaging effect on the economic success in areas such as Edinburgh, and in the rest of the country, under this Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the economic strength in Scotland, where we have more people in work than ever before, where our employment rate is among the highest in Europe, and where we have steady growth and steady investment in schools, hospitals and other public services. Any attempt to clobber hard-working families with a local income tax, under which they would pay hundreds of pounds more, would be very damaging not only to those families but to the Scottish economy.
Although there is no room for complacency, the Scottish economy is in a strong position, with economic growth exceeding the long-term trend and a higher employment rate than the UK and almost all other countries of the European Union.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I should direct him to remarks made only yesterday by Tim Crawford, group economist at HBOS, who said:
“The pace of Scottish economic growth is set to accelerate in the final quarter of 2006 and into 2007, mainly reflecting the improvement in business optimism over the past 6 months.”
Growth is, according to that forecast, accelerating, against a backdrop of Scottish unemployment at4.8 per cent., which is the lowest ever and below the rate for the G7, the eurozone and the EU15. Frankly, the Conservatives should do better.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the excellent growth and low unemployment figures to which he refers derive from investment in both the private and public sector? Will he take this opportunity to debunk the argument that investment and more jobs in the public sector somehow crowd out the private sector?
Yes, I am happy to take that opportunity. There is absolutely no evidence from the Scottish economy of the public sector squeezing out private investment. Indeed, growth in public sector investment, along with macro-economic stability over recent years, has been one of the critical success factors, bringing low interest rates, high levels of employment and steady growth. I believe that it is the rank prejudice of Conservative Members towards doctors, teachers, nurses, home helps and other vital public services that—[Interruption.]
To what extent does the Secretary of State agree that the constitutional stability that Scotland enjoys within the United Kingdom has contributed to our excellent economic record of recent years? Does he agree that the years of constitutional turmoil that would follow any move to independence would be deeply damaging to Scotland’s economic performance?
This might be a first, but I find myself in full agreement with a Liberal Democrat. Of course, the serious point is that the UK’s macro-economic performance over the past decade has been, as the OECD described it, a paragon of stability. Why would we wish to imperil that achievement by tearing up the macro-economic framework and, presumably, by establishing a Scottish pound, a separate set of Scottish accounting standards and a separate Scottish financial services agency? That seems quite beyond belief and is an idea that could be advanced only by a party bearing grudges and grievances rather than possessing a serious critique of what the Scottish economy needs.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the shape of the Scottish economy has changed drastically over the years with financial services accounting for 8 per cent. of the whole economy and dwarfing the traditional industries of mining, shipbuilding and even whisky. Does he agree that an independent Bank of England and a single regulatory authority have served the interests of Scotland well and that the only guarantee of a prosperous Scotland is a vote for the Union?
My right hon. Friend, in the light of his work in this place, speaks with real authority on these matters. Of course the Scottish financial community has been the fastest growing sector of the Scottish economy in recent years. Anyone who has worked closely with that community recognises the extent to which it is an export-based sector of the Scottish economy that relies dramatically on the ability to sell products on the market, and the largest single market is the rest of the UK. It would make no sense to make those markets foreign markets for Scotland.
Cross-border Health Issues
My right hon. Friend regularly meets the First Minister to discuss a range of issues. Cross-border health issues are, however, primarily a matter for bilateral discussions between the Department of Health and the Scottish Executive.
I am rather disappointed with the Minister’s response. I would have thought that, with hospitals closing, nurses being sacked and thousands of people waiting longer than six months for NHS operations, health matters were a priority rather than something that is only slightly discussed.
I have a long list of statistics in front of me, which I shall not trouble the House by reading out, showing that there are more nurses, more doctors and more health workers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. They also show how the number of patients on waiting lists, which under the Conservatives ran into the thousands, are now only a few dozen. There are 300,000 more people working in the NHS today. The hon. Gentleman’s party voted against every single penny piece of that investment, so it ill becomes Conservative Members to come to the House demanding more spending on the NHS, education and crime at the same time as going outside and promising £20 billion worth of tax cuts. That did not wash at the last election and it will not wash at the next one either.
With permission, I shall answer Questions 6 and 7 together.
As I have said, Scotland continues to benefit from the economic stability delivered by the Government, which is demonstrated by the recent gross domestic product data. I welcome those figures, which show output growth of 0.6 per cent. in the past quarter and 2.2 per cent. in the past year. That is above the long-term trend rate of growth for the Scottish economy.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is no coincidence that the growth figures go together with the highest number of people in employment in Scotland? Will he confirm that the Government will continue to have full employment as one of our most important objectives?
I agree with my hon. Friend. When the late John Smith made the claim that full employment would again be at the centre of the Labour party’s economic strategy, it was perceived as a bold, innovative and radical proposal. The fact that people now regard without surprise our extraordinarily successful employment record not only in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom is testimony to his wisdom and foresight when he said, almost 50 years after the Beveridge commission, that we should again place full employment at the centre of the Labour party’s economic strategy.
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Firefighters (Insurance Cover)
The 2003 pay agreement did not contain any conditions for insurance cover for firefighters attending a terrorist incident. However, the dependants of a firefighter who dies from duty-related injury are entitled to a lump sum payment of up to seven times pensionable pay and enhancements to pensions for widows, widowers and civil partners. A firefighter injured on duty receives an ill-health pension and injury benefits of up to 85 per cent. of salary.
Personal insurance policies are a matter for individuals. Discussions took place between Departments and information on the arrangements that we have established was communicated to all fire and rescue service personnel, including all firefighters. There has been no negative feedback and there are therefore currently no plans to take the matter further.
Given that firefighters, other emergency service workers and, indeed, members of the armed forces in support of the civil power may often work side by side in the same dangerous situations caused by terrorism, what contacts has the Department had with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that there is equity in the benefits that any of those brave people get if they are injured or—heaven forbid—killed?
I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that it is a time of considerable change for firefighters. Co-responding was one change that we believed was being introduced, whereby firefighters who reach a terrorist incident or an accident first can give some emergency medical treatment before the arrival of the ambulance or paramedics. Given the recent court case in Nottinghamshire, in which the judge effectively ruled that that was not part of firefighters’ conditions of service, what are the Government doing to examine the matter, bearing in mind the importance of ensuring that the people involved in incidents receive emergency treatment from the first qualified people to arrive on the scene?
My hon. Friend highlights one specific case, but I can think of two or three authorities that are already involved in co-responding schemes. It is a matter for continuing discussion with the fire and rescue service. We perceive tremendous benefits to co-responding. Fire authorities that are currently engaged in it report back to us the benefits to the public of good engagement with other services.
I am not sure what the hon. Lady is making a special case for. My hope is that we shall never have to use the compensation arrangements that we have in place for our firefighters. We have the best trainers and equipment in the world to ensure that their safety is as great as we can possibly make it. However, in those tragic incidents when firefighters are injured or lose their lives, compensation arrangements are in place for their families.
Local Government White Paper
I have had strong and active support from Cabinet colleagues in developing the policies in the local government White Paper. Across Government, we are committed to implementing the White Paper in full so that citizens get the full benefit of a Government focus on key priorities, greater local innovation and stronger leadership.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. It is only right that she should be commended for taking these issues forward on a cross-departmental basis. With regard to local government reorganisation in the county of Cumbria, and to the borough of Copeland, there are many issues that demand unique attention and special arrangements. Copeland hosts the Sellafield nuclear facility, and it is only just and equitable that future planning issues and powers relating to all aspects of the nuclear industry should reside with the people of Copeland, and not with the people of Kendal and Penrith—
If my hon. Friend is referring to the circumstances surrounding the long-term disposal of nuclear waste, I am sure that he will be aware thatmy right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made it clear that such disposal represents a unique long-term challenge for us all, and that he would like to see voluntary arrangements in which local communities benefit as a result of agreeing the long-term disposal of the waste.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood the proposals in the local government White Paper. It sets out three new relationships: a new relationship between central and local government; a new relationship between local government and its partners; and a new relationship between local government and the citizen. The desire is to reduce the number of targets from up to 1,200, and to concentrate on about 35. If we get that right—I am sure that we will, through the comprehensive spending review—local authorities will be freed to innovate locally, to be creative in responding to local challenges, to lead their areas in relation to the services that they deliver and to speak out for all services delivered. To me, that is equivalent to devolution and deregulation that will set up a new freedom for local government.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the White Paper, a common thread of which is the wish to reduce central control and to give power to communities and citizens. In that regard, will she tell us more about the new performance framework, which strikes those of us who were previously local councillors and who are keen to ensure that local citizens have more rights than they have now as exciting and innovative?
My hon. Friend draws our attention to an important point in the White Paper. Because of the new framework, and the new relationship between central and local government, we will be able to reform the rolling system of inspection for each local government service and to replace the present comprehensive performance assessment with a proportionate, risk-based, comprehensive area assessment. The Local Government Association and other local government stakeholders have been calling for this reform for many years, and it should massively reduce the costs for local authorities and make it possible for them to lead their areas better.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in implementing the White Paper, there will be room to consider not only unitary options based on current district and county boundaries but the reinstatement of historic counties such as Westmorland and Cumberland?
Of course we will consider any such proposals on their merits. There is a case for unitary authorities that can better lead their areas, but I do not want two-tier authorities across the country to be distracted for months—or, indeed, years—by the process of reorganising boundaries. That would distract them from their main job, which is to improve the quality of local services, and to increase prosperity for local citizens and respond to their concerns. An invitation to bid was sent out at the same time as the local government White Paper, setting forth the criteria against which any bid will be made. It makes it clear that the building block of any proposal should be the district councils, which should be the units around which proposals are based.
May I tell my right hon. Friend that the White Paper has been generally well received by councillors in my constituency, but they have one genuine fear—that the White Paper will be used to reduce drastically the overall number of councillors nationally? Will she reassure me on that?
I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend on that point. I know how much he champions the cause of his constituency and local authority. Rightly, he believes that his local councillors are making a huge contribution to well-being in his area, and he wants to see a future for them. I assure him that our proposals are devolutionary, and that it will be for local areas to decide whether to move to single-member wards or, for example, to all-out elections.
The White Paper calls for parish councils in London. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that will include powers to hike council tax via a parish precept? Is she aware that the average parish levy on band D is £30, and that it is more than £100 in some parts of the country? Is not it the case that Londoners now face a triple tax whammy—a parish council tax, a looming council tax revaluation, and a soaring bill for the Olympics because the Treasury and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are at one another’s throats?
The hon. Lady is not right at all. The White Paper would allow London the freedom that everywhere else in the country has to determine neighbourhood arrangements. If local people think that they are better served through parishes rather than, for example, neighbourhood forums, it would be for local people to feed that view to the local authority. The proposals are about making services responsive to local citizens’ and community concerns. I hope that both sides of the House share the view that it is in everybody’s interests to ensure that we meet citizens’ rising expectations and tailor services to meet local needs.
The recent White Paper confirms the Government’s determination to tackle regional economic disparities. Will my right hon. Friend have discussions with the Chancellor to ensure that the upcoming comprehensive spending review will continue the movement of resources towards those areas of the country with the greatest needs?
My hon. Friend knows well that the Government have increased resources to local authorities by 39 per cent. in real terms since 1997, as against a cut of 7 per cent. in real terms when the Conservative party was in power. The Government value local services and local provision, which is why our White Paper proposes a new local settlement. Just as important as the distribution of funding, however, is the flexibility of funding. While it is right that we always keep under review the appropriate balance between different local authority areas, it is also right that we give local areas the flexibility to manage the resources channelled to them. That is what the White Paper proposes.
In the Secretary of State’s discussions with the Chancellor, apart from listening to his grave concerns about city regions, will she take the opportunity to ensure that local government is given the right level of resources to deliver on the responsibilities imposed on them, week by week, by central Government? Will she assure the House that the local government settlement and the Chancellor’s comprehensive spending review will reflect the needs of local communities for services from an independent, genuine local government?
If the hon. Gentleman is calling for greater investment in public services, this Government are delivering that investment to local authorities. Through the local area agreement, we are giving local areas much more flexibility over how they use those resources. For example, £500 million is currently funnelled through local area agreements, which could rise in future to £4.7 billion. He is right, too, that if we impose new burdens on local authorities, they should be funded from central Government for that purpose. The Government are committed to that, as will be seen through the comprehensive spending review.
My local city council, after rejecting the idea of an elected mayor, is governed by an improved committee system. The upcoming White Paper includes three alternative leadership models, all of which, sadly, are incompatible with our current system. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be enough time and consultation for local authorities to implement any upcoming legislation?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. It is only right that we talk not just to the local authorities that will have to adopt one of the three new models, but to authorities that have a different model for particular local reasons. Specific discussions will take place with Brighton and Hove to ensure that the structure we expect it to adopt is welcome locally.
The legislation on empty dwelling management orders became fully effective in July. We expect only a small number of orders to be used in the next 12 months as part of local authorities’ strategies to bring empty and abandoned homes back into use.
I think that local authorities should be able to use a range of measures to deal with the problem of long-term empty homes, and so does the hon. Gentleman’s local council. New Forest district council has said in response to our consultation that it
“welcomes the introduction of Empty Dwelling Management Orders as a tool to ensure that empty property is returned to use…Our officers will continue to encourage owners to accept our help which should prevent the need to request an Empty Dwelling Management Order. However it will be extremely useful to have this tool in reserve.”
I helped to persuade a former housing Minister—my distinguished and ever-popular right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill)—to make provision for empty dwelling management orders in the Housing Act 2004. Does my hon. Friend agree that while local authorities should not be over-hasty in seeking such orders, they should show some dispatch, not just because empty homes attract crime and antisocial behaviour and affect the value of neighbouring homes but, crucially, because the cost of refurbishing such houses and returning them to a decent condition rises very quickly, making the orders uneconomic?
My hon. Friend is right. The problem of empty homes can cause huge difficulties to local communities, particularly neighbours who may have to suffer all kinds of vandalism, crime or problems with squatters moving in when homes are empty for a long time. The councils that have done the most work in pursuing the strategies to which I referred often find that when they start proceedings, landlords introduce voluntary measures to bring homes back into use; so the strategies can be very effective.
The Minister will be aware that there are 90,000 empty properties in the public sector. A procedure that can help to ensure that such properties are occupied is the public request ordering disposal, but a written answer from the Department reveals that the Government have turned down every single PROD application since they came to office. Whenever citizens have asked for homes in the public sector to be filled, the Government have said no. Can the Minister tell us why?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the circumstances in which those particular orders can be used are very limited. Each case must be decided on its merits.
The number of public sector empty homes has fallen by 13 per cent. over the past two years, whereas the number of private sector empty homes—which account for 85 per cent. of the total—has not. That is why we have introduced powers to deal with private sector empty homes. The hon. Gentleman’s party has opposed those powers, but they could make a huge difference to vulnerable families who must suffer as a result of neighbouring empty homes, which can cause a huge amount of blight among communities.
The Minister will know of a report that I forwarded to her recently. It refers to a survey of estate agents which showed that last year five times as many properties in my constituency were sold to second-home buyers as were sold to first-time buyers. We are, I hope, due to meet shortly to discuss the issues arising from that. What reassurance can the Minister give Members who represent constituencies where large numbers of second homes remain empty for most of the year while there is still massive demand for affordable homes?
The hon. Gentleman is right. There are pressures on housing in all kinds of areas across the country. As he will know, the pressures caused by second homes are limited to certain areas where they cause significant problems. In a large range of areas, they cause no particular problems in the housing market. I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his concerns further, but we do not think it appropriate for second homes to be covered by empty dwelling management orders, which are designed to deal with very different circumstances.
Fantastic work is being done next door to my constituency by the regeneration company New East Manchester. However, many houses inside my constituency—particularly the older terraced stock—are now experiencing the same problems, with absentee private landlords and antisocial tenants. What discussions is my hon. Friend’s Department having with local authorities such as Stockport and Tameside to ensure that the problems are not merely displaced but are tackled at source?
My hon. Friend is right that addressing simply one aspect of a local housing problem will not be enough; we have to look at the local housing market as a whole, including the impact on neighbouring areas. We are working closely with local authorities across the country to support empty homes strategies and housing market renewal programmes where there are particular problems with low demand. I am happy to discuss the particular problems that my hon. Friend faces in his area.
Local Government White Paper
The local government White Paper “Strong and Prosperous Communities” will support the delivery of high-quality public services to all citizens including, of course, the elderly. The White Paper will help local authorities and their partners to provide integrated customer-focused health and social care services to the elderly.
Older people have been left off the political agenda for too long, particularly with regard to funding for care at the end of their lives. Due to poor guidance from the DCLG, formerly the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, local authorities can often interpret supporting people contracts in wildly different ways. Providers in the care home system tell me they need certainty and clarity. What will the Minister do in the future so that the Department gives clear and comprehensive guidance on this matter?
The hon. Lady answers a very important question. [Hon. Members: “Asks.”] Asks, sorry; I am answering it. Actually, she has answered it. The need for stability in funding has been recognised by the move from a two-year period to a three-year period of funding settlement from April 2008 onwards. She will be aware of the strategy document that we published in July on the supporting people framework which addresses the very point that she quite rightly raises.
May we have some basic standards laid down for local authorities to follow in their care for the elderly? Suffolk local authority’s supporting people commissioning body is currently taking away funding for community alarm systems when all the indications are that these are a good value-for-money means of supporting people to follow the body’s basic aim of preventing older and vulnerable people from getting into a bad way. I thought community alarm systems were part of the draft national strategy. Is not withdrawing them incompatible with the whole concept of supporting people?
The supporting people programme has helped some 814,000 elderly people and the provision of warden and alarm services is an important part of that. My hon. Friend will forgive me for not knowing the specific details that he raises, but there is consistent advice and guidance from my Department to local authorities.
Have not the Government been unfortunately successful in setting local authorities against local health trusts? Too often local authorities are asking elderly people to sell their homes for social care rather than for health care. There is confusion at local government level. Would the Minister like to clear up that confusion?
Yes, I would. That is precisely why the White Paper builds on the successful policy of local area agreements, on which there is consensus across local government, to allow better joining-up so that different public agencies—the council, the primary care trust and other agencies—work towards the same objectives and goals and not against each other.
The Association of Directors of Social Services puts the shortfall in funding for social care at £1.8 billion, and the Local Government Association reports that seven out of 10 councils are suffering from NHS cost-cutting pressures. Will the Minister now accept that there is a real crisis in social care and can he explain why this was completely overlooked in last week’s White Paper?
The hon. Lady’s comments sadden me, because she seems to fail to understand the difference between the need for health authorities to balance their books—which we all have to do in any walk of life—and the issue of cuts. Like local councils, the NHS has received extra funding year on year from this Government. Of course, that is not the same as the demands that are placed on councils, and I would be surprised if the Association of Directors of Social Services did not put forward demands for extra money, as it always has done. We listen to those demands carefully and work with the Local Government Association to identify cost pressures and, where possible, relieve them. The hon. Lady cannot paint a picture of reduced resources, as the opposite isthe case.
Local Government Finance
The average council tax per dwelling in 2006-07 in England is £1,056, and in Cornwall it is £1,011.
I am glad that the Minister has confirmed that council tax in Cornwall remains below the national average, but can he give some reassurance that any changes to council tax will not be made in such a way as to penalise areas such as our own, where house prices—especially because of the purchase of second homes—are way above the national average, but incomes are 25 per cent. below? It is rumoured that Ministers are considering a system that would penalise those areas that are seen as most popular or attractive. In some of those areas, incomes are very low and the local population is already penalised by the huge mortgages that they have to pay.
We are very much aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about Cornwall, which was also made earlier by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). I can reassure the hon. Gentlemen that the rumours amount to nothing more than scaremongering to try to frighten people on the basis of a misinterpretation of the Government’s policy. Of course, our policy is to limit council tax increases through our capping policy.
I am glad that my hon. Friend reminds the House of the existence of council tax benefit. Just under 15 per cent. of council tax is paid by the benefits system to ensure that those who are least well off are not punished. He raises an important point about those just above the threshold and we have askedSir Michael Lyons to make recommendations in that area. I will bear in mind the point my hon. Friend makes on behalf of the people of Bolton, with whom I have had that conversation.
Tackling Islamist extremism has a cross-departmental focus. My Department is leading the Government’s work on engaging with Muslim communities to acknowledge and tackle Islamist extremism at the grassroots. With an expanding network of Muslim partners, we are developing communities that condemn and isolate extremist activity.
That is a complete myth. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that following the attacks, the Government tried to engage with the Muslim community and set up a process called the preventing extremism together taskforce. Action has been agreed on all but three of the 27 recommendations that were addressed to Government. Indeed, the Government are taking forward action to develop forums against extremism across the country, have developed road shows for Islamic scholars in which 30,000 young people have already participated—the target is 100,000—and, together with the Muslim community, have promoted MINAB, the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Body, to regulate mosques and imams.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her thoughtful speech on 11 October and her desire to develop relationships with a wider network of Muslim organisations. Does she share the concerns of many that the Muslim Council of Britain, in its refusal to participate in holocaust memorial day and its support for extremist ideologues such as Abul Ala Mawdudi, is not helping us to confront Islamist extremism but has instead helped to nurture it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The scale of the threat that we face, both in this country and globally, has increased substantially since 9/11, 7/7 and the terror plots of earlier this summer. It is right that we ask more of our partners in the Muslim community, and more of people of other faiths and none. We face a shared problem, and we need to show real leadership as we ask people to face up to the size of the challenge. They must speak out for our shared values and challenge extremism wherever they find it. I will work with any organisation that will challenge extremism and speak out in defence of our shared values.
The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) asked about holocaust memorial day. I said recently that I found it unusual and surprising that an organisation professing to support our common humanity and to defend our shared values would choose not to support holocaust memorial day. There are signs that the Muslim Council of Britain is beginning to rethink its approach, and I welcome that.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will welcome today’s conviction of Dhiren Barot for the heinous plot that he wanted to carry out in London, and that she will wish to congratulate the police and security services. In her magnificent keynote speech on 11 October, she talked about common values—
I welcome the comments that my hon. Friend makes. The recent arrest and trial of the person to whom he refers illustrates the wider point that we in this country face a really severe threat. We must face up to the size of that threat, and continually strive to do more. We must accelerate our efforts to work with the Muslim and other communities, and we need to bring in wider partners to help us do that. We need to be clear about what are this country’s non-negotiable values. Recently, I attempted to define them, but respect—for others, for life and for the rule of law—is at the heart of what British society stands for. It is also at the heart of the mainstream faiths, and it affects everything and everyone in our society today.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should all warmly welcome the life sentence that has been passed today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) noted? The judge has made it clear that the person concerned must serve at least 40 years in prison. Should not that be a lesson and a warning to anyone who wants to bring terrorism and destruction to our country and our people?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must have the appropriate security response to the threat that Muslims and non-Muslims in this country face. However, security responses alone are not sufficient, as we must also win the battle for hearts and minds that is the heart and essence of what we stand for. As a country, we must be prepared to welcome people of all faiths, and recognise the real and rich contribution that British Muslims make to our society. We must work with those who want to show leadership to make sure that all can benefit from a safe environment in the future.
Rural Payments Agency
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the single payment scheme administered by the Rural Payments Agency. The House will recall that in my written statements of 9 May and 5 July and in my oral statement of 22 June, I said that the well-rehearsed difficulties in the administration of the 2005 SPS would create challenges for delivery of the 2006 scheme, and I promised to keep the House informed of developments. On this occasion, as on every other, I would like to reiterate the apologies that I have offered already to farmers on behalf of my Department, and my commitment to remedy the problems.
Today I can report progress with the 2005 scheme, and plans for the 2006 scheme. However, the interim chief executive of the RPA and I are clear that much more needs to be done to learn the right lessons from the National Audit Office’s recent report and to build on the helpful guidance that I am sure we will see in the forthcoming reports from the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Public Accounts Committee, the Office of Government Commerce and the Hunter review.
As I mentioned in my written statement on 5 July, the total amount to be paid by the RPA for the 2005 scheme will not be known for certain until the last claim is completely validated and necessary corrections are made. However, the latest estimate at 3 November puts the figure at £1.528 billion, of which more than £1.516 billion—in other words, 99.2 per cent.—has now been paid. Some 110,244 claimants have received a full payment and a further 4,756 have received a partial payment and are awaiting their top-up.
The combined total of 115,000 represents 98.5 per cent. of the revised estimated total claimant population entitled to a payment of 116,661. All but 50 of the claimants still awaiting any payment are currently calculated to have a claim value of less than €1,000. Those 50 are all difficult cases, involving issues such as probate or business liquidation, which would be challenging in any year. Dedicated teams are in place to deal with those cases, and the other outstanding payments, as soon as possible. Similarly, on hill farm allowance payments, some 95 per cent. of claimants have received a full or partial payment, and a dedicated team is exploring all avenues to make the outstanding payments as soon as possible.
During October the RPA moved the bulk of its processing staff to detailed validation of the 2006 claims. Initial validation of those claims has been undertaken over the summer and has gone relatively smoothly. The same can be said of the 2006 round of eligibility inspections. However, the difficulties involved in completing the 2005 claim processing have inevitably impacted on the 2006 payment timetable. I am sure that everyone in the House wants claims paid in full assoon as possible. I understand that, and the new management of the RPA are dedicated to build stability and predictability into the system so that full claims are delivered in an efficient and timely way.
However, the interim chief executive has reported to me that he cannot guarantee that the agency can deliver full payments within the payment window for the 2006 scheme. Neither he nor I believes that it is acceptable to expect farmers to wait until next June or beyond for payments. I have therefore agreed with the RPA a challenging formal performance target of paying 96.14 per cent. of valid 2006 claims by 30 June 2007, and it is determined to do all in its powers to deliver on that. However, in addition, I have also decided to pursue a partial payment plan.
Our aims can be simply stated. First, we want to maximise the number of payments to farmers that arrive on a timely and predictable basis. That means making full payments where possible and partial payments where necessary. Secondly, we want to minimise the risk of late payment penalties and disallowance. Thirdly, we want our decisions this year to help the RPA to establish a new and sound footing for the delivery of the single payment scheme in the future. I have therefore agreed with the RPA that where full payments are not possible in the early part of next year, partial payments should start in mid-February for eligible claims above €1,000. The RPA estimates that the process will take around three weeks. Payments will be made for not less than 50 per cent. of claim value. This reflects the level that EU regulations permit without diverting significant resource away from, and therefore delaying work on, validating claims for full payments.
Needless to say, I will be keeping the situation under close review, but the interim chief executive of the RPA has set out for me, and for Lord Rooker, the basis on which he is confident that partial payments can be made, and we believe, in part on the basis of the partial payments experience in May this year, that the money will be delivered.
The single payment scheme and its administration has caused distress to farmers. The only way to make good on this year's problems is to improve the management of the system so that confidence is rebuilt. I have said clearly that this will not happen overnight, but I believe that the staged approach that I have set out is the only one that is prudent and responsible, and I commend it to the House.
May I first remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests? I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for considerable prior sight of it, and for fulfilling his promise to make a statement in the autumn.
We must not underestimate the extent of the problem faced by our rural communities. Any Member of the House who has any farming constituents must have real evidence of hardship in their farming communities. There has been a 50 per cent. increase in calls to the Rural Crisis Network; farm borrowings are up by £379 million in just one year; the RPA’s extra administration costs were £46.5 million, which is more than two years’ worth of hill farm allowance; and of course the Government have set aside £131 million for EU penalties.
The statement was an opportunity for the Secretary of State to respond to the National Audit Office report, which found a huge number of errors in the calculation of entitlements. It is increasingly obvious that manyof them are human errors, such as incorrect data entry—no doubt a consequence of large numbers of temporary staff. The report found that the previous Secretary of State knew that the project was off course as long ago as June 2005, yet decided not to use the contingency plan but to plough blindly on. She eventually decided to use partial payments in April 2006, 15 months after I told her that they would be necessary.
Whatever faults the previous chief executive must have, it is clear that no one person could be responsible for that catalogue of incompetence, but it appears that no one else is prepared to be accountable. Will the Secretary of State tell us what is being done to correct all the existing overpayments and underpayments, and when that exercise will be completed? When does he expect the remaining top-ups to be paid? He boasts that 95 per cent. of hill farm payments are being made, but that still leaves 700 of the most hard-pressed farmers without the payment. When will that process be completed? Will next year’s hill farm allowance payment be delayed by the delay in the rural development programme?
Most importantly, will the Secretary of State tell the House what the errors were that caused him to set aside that £131 million? Are they connected to the changes made in April to speed up the process, including the use of an area disregard? If he was not setting that money aside, would the cuts of £200 million to his budget still have been necessary?
As for this year, any payment is better than nothing, but the admission that payments will not be completed in the window to the end of June next year is an admission of failure. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this is money to which all farmers are entitled as a result of the ending of price support—a form of compensation? Rather than claiming to have set the agency a “challenging…performance target” of 96.14 per cent., will he admit that in fact that was the target set by the EU before penalties are levied?
If farmers can be paid in full, we all welcome it, so can the Secretary of State confirm that as a result of his statement every farmer will have received a full or partial payment by mid-March? However, does he understand that what he is offering is in stark contrast to the position of farmers in Ireland or France, who are already being paid, and in Scotland and Wales, where payments will start in December? English farmers will yet again be disadvantaged by the Government. Why cannot partial payments be started in December? Why is the Secretary of State restricting the proportion to50 per cent.? What was wrong with the 80 per cent. used this year?
For the third year running, fruit, vegetable and potato growers are planning their crops without having their authorisation. Will the RPA ever be able to give them the full and accurate information that they need to make their plans?
It is easy for the Secretary of State to look at the issue dispassionately from a distance. Indeed, he constantly speaks of a “single planet”—but sometimes we think that that must be Mars. Farmers live in a real world: they have real bills to pay, and animals and families to keep. For many of them, this payment is their whole net income. Yes, of course, in time they will have to live without it, but they need time for transition. They have a Minister who sounded a lot better than his predecessor, but who, with this statement, has yet again let them down. I urge him, even now, to withdraw the statement: instead of being Scrooge, pay by Christmas day.
Let me go through the eight or nine points that the hon. Gentleman made. I am sure that we are completely united on two things. The first is that none of us underestimates the problems or hardships involved. Secondly, about a third of the way through his questions, he asked whether farmers were entitled to full payment. Of course they are entitled to full payment, and it is the Government’s job to deliver it to them in an efficient and timely way.
I fear that the hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misapprehension about the £131 million referred to in the National Audit Office report; he suggested that it was somehow responsible for, or related to, cash cuts. We are using what is referred to, in Government budgeting, as a non-cash provision, which means that the Government are making allowance for future claims on the sum. It is designed to be a prudent provision, and it precedes the normal audit work done by the European Union. There has been no such demand for £131 million, and I do not think that it is in the interests of hon. Members on either side of the House to talk up the potential for penalties further down the road. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the £131 million referred to in the NAO report is not related to the £200 million deficit with which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working.
The hon. Gentleman asked why I described the96.14 per cent. target as challenging. I did so because the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency reported to me that there was no chance at all of the RPA’s delivering full payments to all farmers by the date proposed. The hon. Gentleman is right that, as I have said on many occasions in the House, 96.14 per cent. is the minimum level below which late payment penalties are incurred. He asked about Ireland and France, and they, of course, are paying 50 per cent.
The hon. Gentleman asked why we are not paying80 per cent. I referred in my statement to the importance of the EU regulations on the subject. He will know that over the past 10 or 15 years, hon. Members on both sides of the House have thought it important that the EU should have proper regulation for the disbursement of EU moneys, especially in relation to the common agricultural policy; we have been arguing for that. I am sure that he does not want to query the provision of that level of rigour.
The reason for specifying 80 per cent. this year is that when the Agriculture Council discussed the issue in 2003, and considered the first year of the new scheme, which is 2005, the Commission said clearly that it would regard 2005 a transitional, exceptional year—a year in which it would be flexible about how partial payments were made. We used that flexibility to deal with the circumstances that arose last May, which all of us wish had not come about. The reason for the 50 per cent. target is that that reflects the EU regulations, to which I think hon. Members on both sides of the House are committed.
The hon. Gentleman asked about starting the payments in mid-February. The advice from the RPA is that it will take the agency about three weeks to deliver all the payments. He asked whether mid-February plus three weeks means payment by mid-March at the latest; that is a calculation that I and others can make, and we are happy to confirm that that is the advice from the RPA.
Finally, I assure the hon. Gentleman that nothing in my statement was meant as a “boast” about the performance of the RPA or the Department, and I would certainly be surprised if that is how it came over. The blow to farmers has, of course, been the most serious result of the failures of the RPA, but there is also the blow to the reputation of the Department, and it is very important to put things right as effectively as possible. However, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that farmers have said to me, time and again, that the most important thing about this scheme year—the 2006 scheme year—is that they are not given promises that are not delivered on. That is why I put such stress on timeliness, and on the confidence of the RPA’s chief executive; when he says that partial payments can be delivered in February, he knows that they can. I hope that farmers will recognise that it is right that we should proceed step by step, secure in the knowledge that each step is a safe step. That is better than raising their hopes only to dash them later.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of a partial payment plan for 2006. I recognise that it may be unrealistic to expect to deal with 80 per cent. of payments by Christmas, but it is clear that if only50 per cent. of payments are made by mid-February, that will be a real, continuing blow to the farming community. Will he pledge to do everything possible to ensure that the Rural Payments Agency treats the target as a minimum threshold, rather than a glass ceiling? Given that such late payments will againcause enormous cash-flow problems—they totalled£23 million last year—will the Secretary of State use his good offices with the banks to ensure that farmers’ credit needs are accommodated? Will he pledge, too, to ensure that provision for rural stress networks is more than adequate?
Will the Secretary of State assure us, in the light of his announcement that 5 per cent. of hill farmers have yet to receive this year’s hill farm allowance, that next year’s hill farm allowance claims will be processed separately from the single payment scheme, so that it is not delayed again? In his update on the 2005 scheme, the Secretary of State did not update the House on his discussions of disallowed expenditure with the EU, so will he do so now? We very much regret the formal announcement, although we are not surprised that there is no guarantee to meet the payment window in June 2007. Will he assure us that if there is any European Commission disallowance for the 2006 scheme, the cost overruns will be met from contingency funds, and will not result in cuts to the core DEFRA budget, such as crazy cuts to flood defence and animal disease prevention budgets?
Will the Secretary of State say whether Johnston McNeill, the former chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, remains on full pay, and when that extraordinary situation is likely to end? He will be aware, following the written answer from his Department to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) that appears in column 705W of Hansard today, that DEFRA has paid £4,296,268 in annual performance bonuses in the current financial year. That represents an increase of 27 per cent. on the previous year. Does he believe that his Department’s performance has improved by 27 per cent. in that period? What signal does that send the farming community? Will he reassure the House that none of that performance money has been paid to those responsible for one of the biggest bureaucratic bungles ever to afflict rural Britain?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support—perhaps “understanding” is a better word —for our decision about the 50 per cent. I can certainly confirm that 50 per cent. is the minimum threshold. As I said in my statement, the RPA will pursue full payment where possible and partial payment where necessary, with a 50 per cent. minimum payment. The relationship between the banks, farmers and the farmers’ representatives is well developed, but I will certainly check that that is the case. It has not been suggested to me that the banks need the heavy hand of Government to help them, as good systems are in place.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the investment in stress networks—£300,000, I think—is well made, and we will keep that under review. I addressed the hill farmers’ allowance in my previous statement, when I said that it would continue to be paid separately for 2006, and I addressed the issue of disallowance in reply to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). The European Commission has not suggested levels of disallowance—it has not suggested any disallowance yet, having just begun the auditing process. The Government and the Department have acted at every stage to balance interests and discharge their responsibilities to the EU as well as to farmers. As I said, it is not in anyone’s interest to suggest otherwise, for obvious reasons.
As for Johnston McNeill, the matter was addressed at length by the permanent secretary in her recent Select Committee appearance, and has been dealt with according to civil service procedures. An offer has been made to Mr. McNeill, and we await his reply. As for performance bonuses, I understand that they were given to front-line staff who were largely responsible for disbursing, for example, partial payments in May, in circumstances that none of us would have chosen. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would want those people on the front line to be tarred with the brush of incompetence, as they worked hard to deliver those payments.
I welcome thefact that things will be more certain in future, as without doubt my farmers have suffered over the past 12 months. May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the work force at Edenbridge house, where 400 of my constituents are employed by the Rural Payments Agency on the front line? They work hard, and have changed their shift patterns—it was terrible that the Lib Dems denigrated what they have done—so will my right hon. Friend put it on record that it is not their fault that the system has not worked? Will he put his appreciation on record as well?
My hon. Friend speaks with authority and experience in this area, and I am certainly happy to extend my thanks to the hard-working staff in his constituency. It is an old rule that soldiers should never be blamed for the mistakes of their generals, and I am happy to affirm that principle today.
The National Audit Office report counsels us that during 2004 and 2005 Ministers found it difficult to have objective and knowledgeable information with which to assess progress in respect of RPA performance. That was because senior officials from the Minister’s Department were, effectively, in bed with the RPA trying to run the payment scheme. What steps is the Minister now taking to ensure that he has knowledgeable and objective advice by which to assess information that comes from the RPA?
I do not know about any bedding arrangements—or arrangements in bed, as the right hon. Gentleman describes it—in previous years. We have the benefit of independent work, not least by Select Committees of this House, and we have the independent expertise of the Office of Government Commerce and the independent review by the Hunter committee. No one could say that the RPA is lacking independent scrutiny at present. We are determined to learn from all of those reviews.
I wish to ask the Secretary of State about the possibility of bailing out the RPA, so that the impact on British Waterways and the dire consequences for canals, such as the Caldon canal, in my constituency, can be minimised. Many of my constituents cannot understand why the British Waterways grants have to suffer as a result of the problems of the RPA.
I share my hon. Friend’s passion for the good work of the British Waterways Board. However, I must address two aspects of her comments. First, the idea that the £200 million of deficit that I was presented with just before the summer holidays arises solely from the RPA is quite wrong; that is responsible for about £25 million of the problem. Accounting changes are responsible for £65 million, avian influenza for £15 million, and pressures from previous years, including for flood investment, are responsible for£70 million to £80 million. So we are not talking about cutting the waterways because of the RPA.
Secondly, as my hon. Friend knows, there has been a reduction in the British Waterways budget of about £3.9 million—against a budget of, at my last count,£59 million. That is regrettable, but the budgets for British Waterways and other DEFRA delivery bodies have gone up by many times over the past nine years.
That money has been very well spent by the British Waterways Board. In fact, I think I am right in saying that its private investment is now well in excess of its public investment. Its total budget is now, I think, about £190 million. It is a successful organisation, and we are determined to support it. Of course I regret the difficulties that have arisen, but they should not obscure either the good work of British Waterways or the good work of my predecessors in investing in its good offices.
I wish to associate myself with the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), because of the Macclesfield canal, which is a very important facility in my constituency. I also have a simple question for the Secretary of State. This complete debacle with the RPA has caused irreparable damage to United Kingdom farming. Is the Secretary of State prepared to tell the House today what reparation he is prepared to give to farmers to regenerate an industry essential to this country—United Kingdom farming?
I completely share the hon. Gentleman’s passion and support for British farming. I do not have the benefit of the expertise and experience in this issue that he has gathered over many years. I listened to him use the word “irreparable” in respect of the damage. I would not describe it as that; I would describe it as damage, but I do not believe that it is irreparable.
The best way to make reparation is to have an RPA and a single farm payment scheme that work in an effective, timely and efficient way, and that is what I am determined to deliver. Farmers have a right to expect that money from the European Union will be disbursed to them in an efficient and predictable way. That is, I think, the best way in which I can give them the confidence that they need.
Will my right hon. Friend look into the case—I have already raised it with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner)—of a farmer in my constituency who has been paid a considerable sum in subsidy that he was not entitled to claim? Will he give me an assurance that action will now be taken to recover this money?
I gather from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that my hon. Friend has indeed raised this issue with him, and we are certainly looking at all such cases. I can assure the House that although final figures are not yet available, overpayments are in the single million figure. That is obviously higher than anyone would want it to be, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we will pursue all such claims very carefully and rigorously.
Yesterday in my office, I met Mr. Parry from Bleddfa, in my constituency, who has received none of his English single farm payment and only a small amount of his Welsh one. We are talking about a considerable sum, so I have difficulty in reconciling the Secretary of State’s figure of only 50 farmers who have not received payments of more than €1,000. Will he intervene with the RPA and ensure that there are still enough staff dedicated to dealing with the 2005 payments, so that cross-border farmers, those who are having difficulty with common land applications, and particularly hill farmers—5 per cent. of the latter have received none of their payments, and a number have received only partial payments—get the payments as quickly as possible?
The Government are rightly straining every sinew on behalf of the 115,000 families affected by the Farepak collapse, who have lost £300 to £400 each. Indeed, 115,000 farmers are losing an average of £13,000 to £14,000, or waiting for delayed payments. Can the Secretary of State assure me that, before I go the local branch of the National Farmers Union, which represents scores of farming families, he will do everything that he can to identify the most needy claims, and not prioritise and focus on agribusiness, which does not need the money?
My hon. Friend has spoken many times in the House about this issue. While I would say that all farmers need the money, I agree with him that it is important that there is a suitable prioritisation process. In my statement, I referred to the €1,000 limit that we will establish. That is a form of prioritisation, but I certainly take the point that my hon. Friend makes and I can reassure him that we will not deal with the biggest claims first and work our way down the system. The RPA will try to identify claims in an appropriate and sensible way.
Given that the Department cancelled the installation of software that would have given it reliable management information about what was happening at the RPA, and given the number of false dawns that we have already had, how certain is the Secretary of State that the assurances that the agency has now given him are bankable, particularly bearing in mind the huge administrative task that it now faces? A second overhang of payments has been added to the first, and it is possible that a significant number of the payments already made are not accurate.
The right hon. Gentleman asks a question of me that I have obviously asked myself before coming to the House to make this statement. The best way to answer him is to say that both the chief executive of the RPA and I will use the words “bankable” or “certainty” when the money is in farmers’ bank accounts. Equally, my judgment, the affirmation that I have given and the clear timetable that I have set out today—I referred to the middle of February and the three weeks thereafter—is based on one thing that we do know from last year, which is that, once the button is pushed to deliver partial payments, it can be done. The chief executive of the RPA has given Lord Rooker and me a clear explanation of how that can and will be done. I am impressed by the way in which he has gone about his job since his appointment in July. He is bringing a rigorous and conservative approach to the issue. He is certainly not making excessive or wild claims. He is determined to make sure that his delivery keeps up with his promises and I am impressed by his work so far.
Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the Rural Payments Agency attempted to solve its problems by hiring agency workers, who were drawn into the processing centres from all parts of England, on a mass basis? Does he acknowledge that more than half the workers at the processing centre in Newcastle were agency workers employed on a short-term basis? That happened for a long time. That is no way to go on. Many hundreds of my constituents would love to have a proper job on a proper basis providing proper service to him and to the farmers of England.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I have not got the precise figure for the distribution of employment at the Newcastle office, but his basic point is good. That is certainly one of the issues being considered by Tony Cooper, the chief executive, in his moves to get the RPA into good shape.
My understanding is that there are some 9,000 claims pending and several thousand outstanding 2005 queries that still have yet to be addressed. As the Minister said, those are impacting on the current year. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said, that is causing an overlap of yet another year. Hundreds of farmers in the south-east and their families are facing a miserable Christmas as a result. In his statement, the Minister said that payments would be made for not less than50 per cent. of claim value, but in every answer that he has given since, it has become immediately apparent that that means not more than 50 per cent. either. If farmers in my constituency, and others in the south-east, have to wait until mid-February, why cannot the figure be 80 per cent.?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has interpreted my answer to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) in that way. The hon. Member for Eastleigh asked whether 50 per cent. was the maximum or the minimum and I thought that I gave a pretty clear answer that it was the minimum. Full payments are being pursued and the final level of payment obviously depends on the second level of validation that is done. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) asked about the 80 per cent. for last year. I tried to address that earlier. The European Commission was clear that the first year of the new single payment scheme was exceptional and would be regarded as such. That was included in the discussion in the European Council in 2003. That gave us latitude that we do not have in the same sort of way this year. We have tried—I think that this would have support on both sides of the House—to work within European regulations that we have argued for long and hard, from Governments of all complexions, to try to ensure that payments under the common agricultural policy around Europe are made in a regular and appropriate way. That is the basis on which we have made the decision that we have today.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend has to say, but will he look again at the idea of de minimis payments, given that there are clearly some anomalies in who receives payment? Will he look again at who is entitled to the single farm payment? This is a farm payment and yet it goes to many people who are clearly not farmers and add little to the land. Will he accept that it would be completely wrong to make any payment to the EU until and unless it reforms its agricultural system? That is rubbing our nose in it, when we should be rubbing the EU’s nose in it.
I am not going to get into nose rubbing. The point about de minimis payments is interesting. That is not allowed under the current regulations. My hon. Friend will know that about 30,000 to 40,000 of the 120,000 or 115,000 claims are for relatively small sums. We will certainly explore that as we proceed.
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), and in the spirit of wishing to be constructive and to look forward, rather than back, will the Secretary of State be prepared to consider the point made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and thus ensure that the payments go to full-time farmers with small, family farms who receive the majority of their income from farming, but have experienced serious problems and additional marginality because of a lack of adequate cash flow? Will the Secretary of State be prepared to ensure that those farms are the first priority and make sure that there is not only a floor, but a ceiling, for the priority on which the RPA concentrates?
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the serious and constructive tone and content of his question. I know that he speaks about the matter with the interests of his constituents at heart. Since May, I have learned that it is unwise of politicians to make arbitrary judgments about levels of payments. The €1,000 minimum that I chose was based on close consultation with the chief executive of the RPA about the way to maximise resources and the impact of the work of the RPA’s staff. I do not want to set an arbitrary maximum because there will be hard cases on all sides.
I have also learned that one should proceed with great care when making changes that have an impact on the RPA’s operating procedures. I will consider what the hon. Gentleman says and discuss it with the chief executive of the RPA. However, I want the chief executive to make management judgments about the best way forward for the delivery of the scheme, and I think that that is the best way to serve the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.
The Minister appeared to link directly the chaos in the RPA with the cuts in the payments to British Waterways to the extent of £25 million. Why is that? Does it not put at risk the great work that has been done to revitalise the canal system in Britain, and especially the work done on the flight of 14 locks in Newport, which is developing into a fine tourist attraction?
I am sorry that my earlier answer was so unclear. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), I tried to explain that 10 per cent. of the financial difficulties faced by the Department was the responsibility of the RPA, not 100 per cent. My hon. Friend makes a passionate defence of the work of British Waterways—I share his sentiments—but let us not forget that there has been £40 million of investment over the past nine years to clear the backlog that was left when we came into office. There has also been£30 million of additional investment on top of that. The £3.9 million reduction that we have had to make is deeply regrettable and it means that important work by British Waterways will not go ahead. However, let us not fall for the fallacy that that means that no work will be done by British Waterways, or that all its good work will be eliminated. There are £3.9 million of cuts, but more than £50 million of Government grant a year. There is a budget of £190 million, and there has been more than £70 million of new investment over the past nine years. That record is a good one on which to build. Our responsibility in the Department is to ensure that its finances are managed in such a way that it is able to support good organisations such as British Waterways.
Given that the RPA cannot make full payments before 30 June 2007, it would clearly be churlish not to welcome the partial payments. However, may I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that it would be fairer still if he would agree to pay interest on the balance of the payments that cannot be made before 30 June, but will be paid after the window closes?
I think that I understand the right hon. and learned Gentleman correctly, but I will be happy to write to him, or he can write to me. If he is saying that the Government will have to consider next year whether to pay interest on payments that are not made during the window period, he is raising a wholly legitimate point. The Government faced that situation this year and have paid interest on the payments made outside the window. Although I cannot make a commitment today, he raises a perfectly legitimate point if he is saying that if—I underline that word—next June, there are payments that have not been made in the window, we must consider Government practice on the matter, given that there is an established precedent. However, at the moment, all my energies are focused on making sure that the payments are made.
We appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman inherited much of the present debacle from his subsequently promoted predecessor. Nevertheless, in the light of the National Audit Office report, the House was entitled to expect that the right hon. Gentleman might do more about the fundamental problems, particularly of personnel and management, that led us to where we are. Will he at least give a firm and binding assurance to the House that the methodology for establishing entitlement—that is, the mapping—is robust? Unless he can do so, farmers in Lincolnshire and elsewhere will worry that the problems will continue year on year.
I say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, there are a number of reports in preparation, including from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and we want to learn the lessons of all of them. To borrow a word from the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), it is a little churlish of him to say that I have not made a statement about the NAO report, when the priority for farmers was to know their financial position for next year. The hon. Gentleman’s second question was about mapping. Of course we want the mapping to be as robust as possible in Lincolnshire, as in the rest of the country.
From the remarks that he made in his opening statement, the right hon. Gentleman appreciates that several thousand people have still not been paid either fully or at all for 2005, and it seems that several thousand will not have been fully paid by June 2007. A number of those are in my constituency. Will he recognise, as I am sure he personally does, and will he encourage those in the RPA to recognise, that this is not just a financial or a statistical issue, but a human problem? Those are farmers with families to feed and tax bills to pay, so the matter requires his personal attention. I believe him to be a man of good will and I trust that he will be encouraged by the partial support, at least, that he has had from Opposition Members.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his support for the actions that I outlined today. I entirely understand his point that the problem is a human one, not just a problem of calculating machines or computers. If I can give him a glimmer of hope, I can say that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made it clear that it will look carefully and sympathetically at the situation to which he alluded—that people should be paying tax on money that they have not received. HMRC has been clear that it will consider that. The first meeting that I had as Secretary of State was about the RPA, for the simple reason that it is the most important thing that has to be sorted out, and I continue to have monthly meetings about it. My colleague, Lord Rooker, has weekly meetings both with the RPA and with a wide range of farming and other organisations. It is essential that we get the matter sorted out. We must not promise a false dawn. That is why I said in my statement today that it is a step by step process to rebuild confidence. I am grateful for the way in which the hon. and learned Gentleman has taken that. Let us take those steps and make sure that they are carried out competently, and ally competence to the good will of which he speaks.
In answer to an earlier question from the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), the Secretary of State feared that he might have been unclear. He was not unclear; he was unpersuasive. Why are the problems of the worst Government policy and administrative failure for many years being visited not just on the long-suffering English farmer, but on a range of other bodies which have the bad fortune to fall within the purview of his Department? Did he ever ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer for help for a contingency fund for organisations such as British Waterways?
The discussions that I have with the Chancellor should probably remain as collegial and internal discussions. [Interruption.] That is certainly the way that I would prefer it. Let me address the important point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I am a member of the Government and I support the Government’s economic strategy. Central to that economic strategy is the control of public expenditure, and central to the effective control of public expenditure is the principle that Government Departments take responsibility for the funds that are at their disposal. We have moved to three-yearly budgets, for which there is support in many parts of the House. The important thing is that, except in the most exceptional circumstances, Government Departments work hard to live within those budgets. At a time when we have a comprehensive spending review ahead, we will be able to address in the round the issues of DEFRA’s budget. My judgment is that one cannot support the Government’s economic strategy on the one hand, and on the other, go running to the Chancellor for funds every time there is a problem.It is about being a responsible Government andalso a collegiate Government who recognise our collective responsibilities, as well as our individual responsibilities.
My constituent, Mr. Colin Evans, of Bartie farm, Dudleston, farms 580 acres, half in Wales and half in Shropshire, very efficiently. The incompetence of what he has been through in not receiving a payment by the end of August is exemplified by the fact that it took two weeks to inspect one of his farms, the process not being accelerated by the inspector’s going to sleep one day in the corner of one of his fields. What measures is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that there is competent co-ordination between the Welsh authorities and the English authorities so that constituents such as mine with holdings on both sides of the border are not penalised? [Interruption.]
I did not hear what the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said from a sedentary position, but it involved the word “exhaustion”. I do not know whether he was referring to me or to the RPA inspectors.
The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) raises an important point. Farmers’ land plots do not recognise some of the geographical lines that exist in our United Kingdom. I will find out for him the nature of the discussions that take place between the RPA and the Welsh authorities. The Welsh authorities are taking an historical approach based on early-1990s payments. For reasons that we can go over another time, the English authorities are not taking that approach. I will drop the hon. Gentleman a line, if I may, about how the English and Welsh authorities are co-ordinating their activities.
The Minister said that he does not believe that the damage being done to farming is irreparable, but it is certainly recurring, and there are only so many punches that British farming can take before it is completely knocked out of business. I was delighted that he told my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that he will consider interest payments for those farmers who get themselves further into financial difficulties, through no fault of their own, because they have not been given full payment. Will he also consider actual costs to farmers, particularly if they have to pay arrangement fees and commercial rates of interest? Finally, can he reassure us that this will be the last time that he will feel it necessary to come to the House to make such a statement?
On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, it would not be appropriate for me to say that I will not keep the House informed. I have made two written statements and two oral statements. When I first joined the Cabinet, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House gave me this advice: “If you’ve got difficulties or problems in your Department, make sure that you’re open and honest with the House of Commons about it.” I think that it is right to come to the Floor of the House to report on progress, notwithstanding, Mr. Speaker, your right to say that you are tiring of my voice and my appearances here.
The hon. Gentleman speaks in a dedicated way for the farmers in his constituency and elsewhere. He is right that there are difficulties in British farming—or in English farming, which is my responsibility—but I hope that he will reflect on the following point. When the Bank of England published last week its latest figures on the finances of the farming industry, the National Farmers Union put out a press release saying, “Let’s recognise the strong financial performance of many parts of British farming shown in this report.” It did not say, “Let’s thank the Government for the strong performance of many parts of British farming”, but “Farmers deserve credit for the way they are innovating and working and winning market share both at home and abroad.” I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is in none of our interests to cover over the problems that exist, but equally we must not talk down the many successes in British farming.
Surely we should start from the premise that this is not the Government’s money but farmers’ money, and it is the Government’s duty to get as much of it as possible to them as quickly as possible. The Minister has said that there is nothing in the regulation that prevents more than 50 per cent. from being awarded as an interim payment. Can he tell the House what will be the target amount for farmers’ interim payments and what criteria will affect the decision on their quantum?
It is obviously taxpayers’ money that is paid to farmers on the basis of their historic payment and their acreage. I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with further details of the EU rules. I have said that a minimum of 50 per cent. should be paid and that the EU rules require a high level of validation before partial payments can be made. There are then specific limits on what proportion of the payment claim can be made. I have been clear in stating that we will not pay less than 50 per cent. and that every partial payment must, in accord with the EU rules, be at least that. As I said, I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with more detailed information about the precise way in which those rules operate.
I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. No doubt the Secretary of State is a reader of the Yorkshire Post and is aware of its campaign for interim payments to be made by the end of the year, rather than February, as announced today. Farmers in the Republic of Ireland have not only received interim payments already, but expect full payment by the end of the year. Does not the Secretary of State realise that farmers, particularly hill farmers in north Yorkshire, also have to buy Christmas presents for their kids?
Of course I recognise that. I said in my statement that we sought to balance a variety of factors: first, getting timely and efficient payments to farmers; secondly, minimising the risk of late payment or disallowance; and, thirdly, getting the Rural Payments Agency on to a stable footing. I would have thought that those three factors would be acknowledged throughout the House. Frankly, a December payment cannot be justified on that basis, and February—three months earlier than this year’s payments—strikes the right balance. I have tried to explain clearly the basis on which that date was chosen.
Farmers in the Kettering constituency and across Northamptonshire will be bitterly disappointed at the ongoing problems with the Rural Payments Agency. Can the Secretary of State offer any assurance that minor changes in applications will not lead to disproportionate delays in receipt of payments?
The best commitment that I can give the hon. Gentleman and the House is thatthe RPA wants to pay validated payments in the appropriate way with the minimum of fuss and the minimum of disproportionate or other difficulties. That is the best that I can say: it wants to get on with its job and to carry it out as effectively as possible.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to return to the matter of outstanding answers to Home Office questions, which I raised with you last Thursday. You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that I had tabled a parliamentary question asking how many questions tabled before the summer recess remained unanswered when we returned on 9 October. At that time, I had not received a response, but I have now done so. The answer was that 86 questions fell into that category. Given that you, Mr. Speaker, had intervened and raised your concerns with the Home Secretary, I have two further anxieties. First, 86 questions took at least two months to answer. Secondly, a question that would reveal the Home Office’s failure to comply with the Home Secretary’s commitment has taken the best part of month. The House was thus unaware of that failure until now, so I would be grateful for your continued involvement in this matter, Mr. Speaker, and your advice on how best to take it forward.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point of order. My first bit of good advice is that he should be the first Member in the new Session to visit the Table Office to put down a question or several questions if he wishes. I must also be fair to the Department and the Home Secretary. It has come to my attention that some hon. Members have tabled as many as, or even in excess of, 100 questions to be answered. That is unfair to any Department, because it puts a terrible pressure on officials who are already working hard to clear a backlog. I understand that that is not the hon. Gentleman’s problem, but I appeal to hon. Members who are tabling large and substantial amounts of questions to Departments to bear in mind the fact that dedicated staff have to sift through all those questions, which have to be answered and which add further to the backlog. I will continue to keep an eye on the matter.
Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill [Ways and Means]
I beg to move,
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, it is expedient to authorise the making of provision under the Act in relation to income tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax, stamp duty or stamp duty reserve tax in connection with a transfer of property, rights or liabilities by or under an order under Part 1 of the Act.
When transferring regulatory functions from one regulator to another, it may be necessary to provide in an order to transfer assets and liabilities from the old to the new regulator. Without further provision, a transfer could, in some circumstances, result in inappropriate tax consequences for the transferor or transferee that would arise solely because of the transfer. Clause 6 tackles those unwanted consequences. It allows the Treasury to make tax provision by regulations in relation to a transfer of property rights and liabilities under an order in part 1. That will ensure that the transfer does not give rise to a tax charge or confer a tax advantage on the transferor or transferee. The resolution authorises the relevant provision.
Why was not the resolution presented earlier? It is extraordinarily odd to introduce it before consideration of Lords amendments when nothing has changed.Part 1 has existed throughout our deliberations and always intended to create the circumstances for transfer. The tax provisions would therefore always have been necessary.
When we reach the debates on the amendments, we can discuss the changes that have been made to tax provision. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will find that amendments were proposed to make some changes to the tax provisions in the Bill after it left this House. I hope that that clarifies matters.
Question agreed to.
LEGISLATIVE AND REGULATORY REFORM BILL (PROGRAMME) (NO. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6) (Programme motions),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 9th February 2006 and 15th May 2006 (Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (Programme) and Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (Programme) (No.2)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after their commencement at this day’s sitting.
2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
3. The proceedings on any further Message from theLords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be broughtto a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—[Liz Blackman.]
Question agreed to.
Orders of the Day
Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill
Lords amendments considered.
I inform the House that privilege is involved in Lords amendment No. 19. If the House agrees to the amendment, I shall arrange for the necessary entry to be made in the Journal.
Power to remove or reduce burdens
Lords amendment: No. 1.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
The amendment makes explicit what was implicit in the draft of the Bill that left this House. The ability to remove sanctions for doing or not doing something in the course of an activity does not permit the removal of sanctions from unlawful and criminal activities such as drug dealing or people trafficking. In other words, the amendment makes it clear that only lawful activities would be affected by orders carried through for better regulation purposes. It is therefore a safeguard against inappropriate use of the order-making power. It would ensure that any change to sanctions for unlawful activity could not be delivered by an order under the Bill, but must be made through an alternative route.
It is possible by order to repeal offences, or to reduce or remove sanctions for offences, which affect the carrying on of any lawful activity. This is not new; it was possible under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 as well. It has been shown to be a useful power in delivering better regulation and the provision will ensure that offences can be repealed and that sanctions can be reduced or removed when they are considered no longer to be targeted or appropriate. The Bill also carries over the ability under the present Act by order to replace sanctions with new sanctions, or to create a new offence that is punishable on indictment up to a limit of two years’ imprisonment.
My hon. Friend says that it is not, but it is. It is a genuine pleasure. He described the Bill in its earlier stages as the abolition of Parliament Bill,but now it is not. It has been filleted, dissected, deconstructed and reconstructed. It is now a better Bill because some of the lame-brained arguments that we had to sit through in Committee—and, to a lesser extent, on Report—have been abandoned by the Government, who have accepted what we have been saying all along, namely, that the Bill was capable of redemption, but not in its original form. At that time, it was a thoroughly bad Bill that did things that were way beyond its stated scope. Now, it has been brought back under control.
Lords amendment No. 1 may be viewed in that context. One of the points that we made earlier is that it should be no part of a deregulation Bill to allow by order the removal of criminal sanction. That should be a matter for primary legislation. We said that in Committee, but the Minister did not accept it. We said it again on Report, but the Minister still did not accept it. Now, however, it appears that wiser heads have prevailed. Someone has taken a grip on the Bill while it has been in the other place. It is a significant improvement that it now states what we knew it should have stated in the first place. I welcome the Lords amendment and I hope that the House will welcomeit too.
I welcome the Lords amendment. The Bill began as a sledgehammer to miss the nuts of over-regulation. That sledgehammer has now had some of its power removed by the Lords amendment. The problem is that, throughout the process, Ministers have refused to give us examples of how the very real powers under clause 1 would be used. They still seem to have no idea what they wish to deregulate. If they had spent the time that we have spent trying to water down the Bill’s less desirable facets by putting through a proper deregulation Bill, we could have spent all that debating time repealing a whole lot of unnecessary regulation. That would have been much more productive and encouraging to people outside the House.
In the spirit of amity on this particular proposal, however, I am happy that we shall not be able to use this mechanism for repealing criminal law. It is still proper that criminal law should be repealed by proper and open debate and the normal legislative scrutiny of the House. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain which of the sanctions he would like to remove under the power that remains, as that is surely the whole purpose of the legislation.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not want to detain the House on a Lords amendment that appears to have the agreement of the Opposition parties. It makes explicit what was previously implicit in the Bill, and that will be true of a number of the Lords amendments before us today. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) asked me to provide examples. The Bill is not the sole means of achieving our better regulation effort. He will know that, alongside it, intensive efforts have been made by the Departments to look at their burdens and to come up with simplification plans. Those plans will be published shortly.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendment: No. 2
This group of amendments concerns the type of provision that can be made by orders under clauses 1 and 2, and particularly the extent to which functions can be conferred by order. The amendments have several effects.
Amendments Nos. 14 to 17 concern the power to confer legislative functions by orders. Specifically, they restrict the categories of persons to whom legislative functions can be conferred. They respond to concerns that functions of legislating should be conferred only on appropriate bodies or persons. Amendments Nos. 2, 4, 5 and 6 clarify the purposes for which functions can be conferred and make drafting changes to relevant parts of clauses 1 and 2 to do so. Amendments Nos. 3, 16, 17, 26, 27 and 29 are similarly technical or consequential.
In earlier parliamentary stages there was some discussion of this area of the Bill. I hope that the amendments will clarify the situation. We have also sought to listen and respond to the conclusions of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in another place. That Committee stated that including a power to confer legislative functions by order in the Bill, while not inappropriate, should be limited. In the light of the Committee’s concerns and wider discussions on the issue, the amendments restrict the persons or bodies eligible to be given such powers to three categories.
The first category of persons who are most likely to be given powers to legislate as part of future orders is Ministers. The second category is persons or bodies who have had functions conferred on them or transferred to them by an enactment. That will ensure that powers to legislate can only be conferred on persons or bodies already recognised by Parliament as suitable. The third category is the body or holder of an office created by the order itself. That power will be useful, for example, in the case of a merger, where a successful transfer of functions might necessitate the creation of a new body, when that is for the purposes set out in either clause 1 or clause 2. The Government consider that ability essential if the Bill is to provide a workable and effective vehicle for delivering reforms, such as the types of merger proposed by Philip Hampton.
I hope that the amendment will deal with someof the off-stage characters who have occasionally appeared in our deliberations. There were accusations that it was possible that President Bush, former Prime Minister Berlusconi or various other characters might end up legislating through the Bill. As discussed previously, while I do not believe that that was ever the case, the amendments now make it pretty clear whom we are talking about in relation to delegation.
The Government have also sought to respond to concerns surrounding the ability of bodies or holders of offices, who have been given legislative powers by an order, further to delegate those powers to others. I remember an exchange on that issue in earlier Commons stages. Reference was made to “Halsbury’s Laws”, which I am happy to quote again:
“In accordance with the maxim delegatus non potest delegare, a statutory power must be exercised only by the body or officer on whom it has been conferred, unless sub-delegation of the power is authorised by express words or necessary implication. There is a strong presumption against construing a grant of legislative power as impliedly authorising sub-delegation”.
There was some disagreement about that during our earlier deliberations.
The report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee stated:
“We agree with the conclusion…of the memorandum”
—from the Cabinet Office—
“that a person to whom power to legislate was given by the order could not delegate that function to someone else and that the order could not enable that to be done.”
My briefing uses the phrase “the better legal view”. It may be contested, but the “better legal view” was that such passing on of delegated legislative powers could not happen. The amendments, however, remove the necessity to go over the ground again in arguing about who has the better legal view by making clear precisely to whom legislative powers could be delegated and on what basis that would happen. They also deal withthe passing on of such powers. I hope that that clarifies the position and that the House will feel able to accept the amendments.
Or, indeed, “The West Wing”.
As an outsider, I feel that I should first welcome the amendments introduced by the Minister—and, indeed, other amendments which he proposes to introduce later. The Bill is designed to make tackling regulation easier and to help establish a more risk-based approach to it. I hope that the amendments will contribute to that, but the Bill has not been dealt with as clearly as it should have been. There has been a great deal of debate in the House, but it would appear that the Government started with what was, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) observed, a thoroughly bad Bill. It has been described, not least by my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), as a Bill to abolish Parliament. It has undergone considerable metamorphoses, particularly in the other place, but the Government’s habit of introducing late amendments in this place has not made scrutiny of it any more effective.
While my hon. Friend’s point about the big changes that have been made to the Bill is accurate, should not the fact that the Minister has been willing to make those changes be a matter for praise rather than criticism? Might it not help us all if he circulated a paper to his ministerial colleagues explaining that they should listen to Parliament in future?
I am sure that it would. The Minister did say that other Departments were drawing up lists of amendments and deregulatory measures that they intended to introduce, and I look forward to hearing about those in more detail in the forthcoming Session.
The Bill was designed to solve what the Government saw as a problem with the Regulatory ReformAct 2001, namely, that it was not deregulating enough. Only 27 regulations were scrapped under the 2001 Act. That is a poor performance by any measure, but I am sorry to say that I think that it is a sign more of the Government’s failure than of the failure of the Act. The Government were good on rhetoric and poor on delivery. Now, it appears that the Minister is belatedly becoming slightly better at delivery and is hoping that his ministerial colleagues in other Departments will become better at it as well.
In their impatience, the Government decided thatthe best way to get rid of red tape was to abolish parliamentary scrutiny. I do not think that that was right, and I warmly welcome the amendments made to the Bill in another place.
I welcome the clarification in the amendments. The extract from “Halsbury’s Laws” and the maxim that my hon. Friend the Minister read out today, as he did on Report, were entirely clear. However, Lords amendment No. 29 says:
“In subsection (2)(e) ‘function of legislating’ has the same meaning as in section 5.”
Clause 5—it will become section 5 on enactment—has no definition of “function of legislating.” However, clause 5 places conditions upon “function of legislating.” Will my hon. Friend explain why Lords amendment No. 29—not that he can speak for the Lords—does not talk about the “function of legislating” being subject to the same conditions as in section 5? That is the direction that the other place wishes to go and the direction in which we should be going. There is a risk that the Bill as amended would be unclear, and I do not think that a Minister, or anyone with delegated power under the Bill, could change the working of clause 5.
The notion that the Minister cannot speak to amendments in the Lords that were tabled by a Minister in another place is a curious one; presumably they will have had some communication before this stage in the Bill.
I welcome the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) to the Bill. It was immediately obvious that he had not taken part in previous exchanges on the Bill because he does not have the pachycephalus look that so many of us have; the thickening of the brow caused by banging our heads against the brick wall of the previous Minister’s inscrutability. This Minister, I hasten to add, has been a breath of fresh air in our proceedings. We were quite incapable of getting over the simplest point in Committee but, following more careful consideration, this Minister and his colleague in another place have tabled amendments that are almost identical to those we requested. Let us not look a gift horse in the mouth; let us accept that the Minister has been persuaded.
The Minister said that the view expressed previously was the “better legal view.” I have to say that the “better legal view” is one that has been tested in the courts and found to be the correct legal view, other than which it is simply an alternative legal view. I am glad that the Minister has now accepted our view that there was an obvious ambiguity in the previous wording of the clause. It was wrong even to give the impression that it was possible to allow secondary delegation of legislative powers. That was our concern.
As the Minister has said, we have now removed the off-stage hordes and characters such as President Bush and ex-Prime Minister Berlusconi. Would that it were that simple to remove them in real life; at least they are no longer in consideration under the Bill. I thank the Minister for agreeing to the change. It was important to specify how the delegated legislation-making powers were to be affected, to whom those powers could be delegated and, more importantly, to whom they could not be delegated. I simply wish that when we raised the issue before, we did not have to strike our foreheads against a brick wall so often. At least now it has been demolished.
What worries me about the amendment is that it requires us to trust Ministers. I suspect that we can do nothing but trust Ministers, given the structure of the legislation, but I feel as though I am being offered a lucky dip present, of the sort one gets during the season of goodwill. The packaging looks very nice, and I am told that it will really thrill me, but I have the awful feeling that when I get it home I will discover something completely inappropriate and not commensurate with the investment made in it.
My confidence in Ministers has not been increased by the deliberations on the Bill that I have witnessed. We will legislate, in all probability, with no knowledge of what Departments will propose by way of deregulation. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will tell us a little more about how Ministers will use the powers in the amendment, which makes it clear that it is Ministers and their creatures who will have the power. Why should we trust Ministers to deregulate under this power, when this team of Ministers has introduced 4,000 new statutory instruments every year? Why should we trust Ministers when they have given in in countless negotiations in the European Union and then brought the results before this House? How can Ministers use their powers to abate that flow if they are not dealing with the prime source—the legislative machines in Brussels and Whitehall?
I am sure that the Queen’s Speech will be full of Bills, which will lead to many more statutory instruments and regulations. Will the Minister have any chance to use the powers in the amendment to arrest that tide or will we see more of the same? We heard that 27 items were removed under the previous legislation. Over a five-year period, that is a small fraction of 1 per cent. of the 4,000 new SIs every year. That shows that the Government are not serious about deregulation.
I think that that would stray rather far from the amendment. However, my party advanced a policy package, including 63 items for deregulation, before the last general election. It is in the Minister’s office and we would be happy to provide support to deregulate any or all of those items, some of which could be done under this legislation.