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Commons Chamber

Volume 454: debated on Thursday 14 December 2006

House of Commons

Thursday 14 December 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Carbon Emission Targets

1. If he will set interim targets for carbon emission reductions towards the goal of a 60 per cent. reduction by 2050. (109014)

The climate change Bill will make the Government’s long-term goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050 a statutory target, and will establish milestones or trajectories towards that. We are currently considering the appropriate interim targets, and I aim to come back to Parliament with further details on those and other elements of the climate change Bill in the new year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, but will he commit himself to reporting annually on progress in the reduction of emissions, and will he bring forward monitoring and reporting proposals? In addition, will he continue to encourage our more recalcitrant friends in the US to enact similar legislation?

On the last part of my hon. Friend’s question, I believe that it is vital that the United States put itself at the heart of a global, long-term emissions reduction deal for the period after 2012. The other part of her question was about annual reporting, which is, of course, now part of the parliamentary process, thanks to the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz). As for annual targets, I do not believe that they are the right way to proceed, and the reasons for that were spelled out well by the recently retired former head of Friends of the Earth, Mr. Charles Secrett, who said:

“I don’t believe in annual targets. They would cause chaos in the way the parliamentary system works.”

We are right to consider interim measures and targets that make sense, but I do not think that annual targets can give the sort of approach that is necessary.

Does the Secretary of State believe that encouraging the growth in air travel will help to reduce carbon emissions?

The growth in air travel is now one of the fastest growing sources of carbon dioxide and other emissions. Obviously, aviation’s net impact on the environment is affected by a combination of things: the number of people who travel, or the number of flights; technological advances in the aviation industry; and the way in which airline movements are managed, because the aviation industry would say that an important part of the issue is air traffic control and other systems. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is vital that we recognise the full environmental and economic cost of aviation in developing plans for the future.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that climate change is not just about Government targets? It is about community targets, and people’s dedication to reducing their personal impact on our planet. Will he work much harder with the private sector than he has done so far, because many of us believe that it is the private sector, by developing new technologies, that will open the gates to meeting real targets?

My hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in the subject. He is absolutely right that the Government, business and individuals cannot crack the problem acting on their own. The Government have to take a lead, not least by getting their own house in order. Business must make a contribution, and there is now cross-party support for the fact that nearly half the country’s greenhouse gas emissions are covered by the European Union emissions trading scheme, which is a positive development. Individuals can play an important part, too, and that is why I have led the debate about personal carbon allowances and so-called carbon credit cards, which could help individuals to see how they can make a contribution that will help the environment and themselves.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that climate change will not be tackled without major political will. Does he remember a request being made by all the main Opposition parties to join with the Government to reach a consensus on the way forward? Will he tell the House what action has been taken to harness that good political will of the House to resolve that critical issue?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I hope that the climate change Bill that we will introduce in the new year will provide the basis for cross-party consensus. Certainly, the leaders, at least, of all the parties, not just the three main parties, have said that they are committed to the 60 per cent. long-term target for 2050. If we can build consensus on the measures, as well as on the targets, that will be beneficial, not just on the obvious point—

Order. I put it on the record that the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty), who asked the question, has left the Chamber, although we have not completed the questioning. That is a discourtesy, and I inform the Whip that that should be pointed out to the hon. Lady. She should wait at least until the next question. I call Mr. Peter Ainsworth.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. It is a shame that the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) has left the Chamber, as she asked a rather good supplementary question, and I was disappointed by the Secretary of State’s reply. We want to be helpful to the Government in moving towards a low-carbon economy, and we want him to be ambitious. Perhaps I should clarify: we know that he is ambitious, but we want him to be ambitious about climate change. Why will he not reconsider his opposition to including annual targets for cutting carbon in the climate change Bill?

One very good reason for opposing annual targets can be seen in the alternative climate change Bill that Conservative spokesmen introduced only a month ago. Far from committing the Conservative party to annual targets, it said that they did not make sense and proposed targets for five years or longer. In that Bill, the Conservatives avoided a reference to annual targets. The hon. Gentleman says that he is a great advocate of annual targets. However, in various interviews, he has said that there should be not rigid annual targets but a rolling programme of targets, so he does not even believe it himself.

The right hon. Gentleman obviously does not understand, which is odd for a man who has acquired a reputation as a brainiac. Let me try to be helpful, and cite not the former director of Friends of the Earth but the present one:

“While there may be some years when cuts are larger, and others when cuts are smaller, it is essential that the Bill is clear what the cuts should be each year, to make it easy to assess Government performance.”

The right hon. Gentleman may not understand that, but the director of Friends of the Earth does, and so do Oxfam, Christian Aid, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the wildlife trusts, Unison, WWF, the Women’s Institute and 38 other organisations. I know that the Secretary of State is keen to play catch-up on the environment, and here is a fantastic opportunity to catch up with annual targets or be left behind and continue to be as ineffective as the Chancellor clearly wants him to be.

I do not think that I will compete on the level of understanding, but when the countries of the world looked at the issue of targets during negotiations on the Kyoto treaty in the late 1990s—

The hon. Gentleman might learn something if he listened. When the international community considered targets in the late 1990s, it specifically rejected annual targets on the grounds that five-year budgets were a far more effective way of recognising the differences that can arise year on year. I remind the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) that he had a good opportunity, when he presented his much trumpeted Bill in November, to include measures that favoured annual targets, but he refused to do so. As the Prime Minister showed during the Queen’s Speech debate, at that time there were four different Conservative positions on annual targets. Last week—

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is no technical impediment to the adjustment of data for gross domestic product to allow for the business cycle? The Government already adjust their own energy use figures for temperature and thus the weather, so will he reassure the House that, in the forthcoming Bill, he will not set NIMTO—not in my term of office—targets, but targets that allow the Government’s performance to be assessed? A five-year target would be a NIMTO target, as a Parliament usually lasts for four years. Will he allow the Government’s performance to be assessed on an ongoing basis during their term of office?

I am not sure whether it is better to be a “not in my term of office” individual or never to have a term of office, but let us not go into that. The hon. Gentleman has studied the issue carefully, and would agree that he is an expert on budgets, so I urge him to accept that budgets that last for several years are a far more effective way of achieving the balance of credibility and flexibility that is essential in this area. It is significant that the Kyoto protocol opted for five-year targets in carbon budgets, and the European emissions trading scheme, too, uses that measure. The attempt to create a division where there is none is not sensible. I was not able to finish my reply to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), but the consensus that he proposed can be achieved through a sensible approach that balances credibility and flexibility as I described.

Fisheries Bill

2. What progress he has made in bringing forward a new fisheries Bill following the review of salmon and freshwater fisheries in 2000. (109016)

We have today completed a review of salmon and freshwater fisheries policy, and I can announce to the House that we intend to meet the objectives my hon. Friend and I share through secondary legislation as quickly as possible.

Britain’s 3.5 million anglers will welcome the news that the outcome of the salmon and freshwater fisheries review will be enacted by the Government, as promised in our charter for angling several years ago. However, will the measures set out by the Minister enable tougher action to be taken against fish thefts, which are carried out either for the illegal stocking of fisheries or, more recently, by eastern European workers who simply fish for the pot? Will he increase the present derisory penalties and tidy up the ambiguous and ineffective byelaws?

I agree with my hon. Friend and pay tribute to the tireless work that he does on behalf of the United Kingdom’s 3.5 million anglers. We do think we will be able to address the concerns that I share with him about the current level of fines for fish theft, and the whole range of concerns that were raised by the independent review back in 2000.

I am worried by the Minister’s answer to the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). On 23 February 2004 the Minister stated:

“Work is proceeding towards the development of primary legislation required to implement other accepted recommendations”—[Official Report, 23 February 2004; Vol. 418, c. 137W.]

that is, of the Warren report. So the Minister has rowed back from primary legislation in the form of a fisheries Bill, and the draft Marine Bill has disappeared, though he promised that on 3 July 2006 at column 745W. Can he tell us whether there is to be a marine Bill and when, or will he row back to secondary legislation for that as well?

The question was about salmon and freshwater fisheries, but with the Speaker’s indulgence, I shall answer a question about the Marine Bill. We have made it clear that we have not abandoned our commitment to the Marine Bill. It was in our manifesto and it will be delivered before the next election.

British Waterways

12. What assessment he has made of the impact of the budget allocated to British Waterways for the 2007-08 financial year on the performance of that body against its objectives. (109026)

The Secretary of State last discussed the funding of British Waterways with its chief executive on 23 November 2006. Government have consulted closely with British Waterways on the financial pressures facing DEFRA and the impact that these will have on it. Decisions on 2007-08 financial allocations have not been finalised. Government will discuss in detail the impact of any decisions with British Waterways once these are known.

I recently visited a company in my constituency called Bayford Ltd, whose premises are adjacent to the Aire and Calder Navigation. A few years ago the company stopped carrying its freight on the motorways and put it on the canals. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the Government will take no decision likely to threaten such progress, so that no funding problems will occur to prevent that modal shift?

I am delighted to echo my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for freight going back on to the waterways. In the context of climate change, that is exactly the sort of move we should encourage. Although the exact modality and the use of the waterways is a matter for British Waterways to consider in relation to its management of the waterways, I am sure that my hon. Friend knows of the Olympics project and our desire that much of the freight traffic for the construction of that project should be on the canals and waterways in the area if the development there goes ahead.

British waterways are proving increasingly popular across the country. In my constituency local people intend to build a brand new waterways park. However, the cuts directly caused by the Department’s failure to manage the single farm payments properly will probably result in 180 job losses. Is it right that local people should suffer because of the Department’s incompetence?

The hon. Gentleman is new to these matters and I understand his desire to get up to speed on them, in light of the proposal for the construction of the new Bedford to Milton Keynes canal, but he will have to do better than that. He spoke of the funding cuts related to the Rural Payments Agency. If he had bothered to find out the facts, he would know that of the £200 million that DEFRA had to reallocate in-year within its budget, only £23 million related to that—a little over 10 per cent. If he looks at the funding for the waterways, he will find that this year it represents the fourth highest income level that British Waterways has had in its entire history. Over the past seven years, since 1999, £524 million of investment has gone in from the Government to clear the safety backlog that the previous Government had left before 1997.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that if this year’s sudden grant cuts are followed by further long-term reductions, the magnificent regeneration benefits from the Government’s investment in British Waterways will be reversed, threatening the future of smaller, vulnerable canals such as Caldon canal in my constituency, which would be a disaster for rural and urban areas alike?

I do not accept what my hon. Friend says. The cuts this year, which represent just 6.6 per cent. of the allocated budget at the beginning of this financial year, will not have the effect that she suggests. It is absolutely wrong to link—

The hon. Gentleman talks about the 180 redundancies, but he ought to know that the British Waterways restructuring programme was in train before the in-year cuts ever happened. If he seriously thinks that a 6.6 per cent. in-year reduction in budget could precipitate a restructuring on the scale that he suggests, he should look at the figures and do his arithmetic again.

Last year, there were two breaches on the Llangollen canal. Canals in my area have had huge investment—public, private and voluntary—in recent years. There is significant environmental damage and a risk to water supply. If there is a breach this year, can the Minister guarantee that it will be mended—if necessary, out of the contingency fund?

I am delighted that for once the hon. Gentleman has recognised the vast amount of investment that this Government have put in to clear the safety backlog—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says, “And our Government”, but I have the figures in front of me and that is not the case. In the last year of the Conservative Administration, the total revenue figure, on a like-for-like basis, was £98.7 million; this year, it is £189.4 million. That gives a good indication of the position.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a guarantee about his breaches. He has already received a specific, clear and accurate response on that matter from my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare in the debate that took place a couple of weeks ago, when he said that it is a matter for British Waterways to consider and prioritise as part of its managerial responsibilities. It would be completely inappropriate for any Minister to override the managerial responsibilities of British Waterways by giving guarantees of the kind that the hon. Gentleman requests.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s positive response to discussions with British Waterways. As he knows, the benefits that it delivers in terms of education, regeneration, transport and sport, among other things, are the responsibility of many Departments other than his own. In his discussions with ministerial colleagues, particularly those in the Treasury, will he redouble his efforts to ensure the delivery of a secure and sustainable funding regime for British Waterways that secures the future of these valuable national assets?

I recognise the excellent work that my hon. Friend has done over a sustained period in his representation of the waterways. He speaks with great knowledge, particularly about the regeneration effect of waterways and canals. The Government’s record on that is second to none. A maintenance safety backlog was cleared to the tune of £42 million, and there was a maintenance backlog of £280 million that we have brought back down to £119 million. That is the extent of the investment that the Government have put in. There have been impacts on other Departments’ priorities—I mentioned the Olympics earlier. That will continue. I am confident that we will resource British Waterways in future to its satisfaction and that of other Departments as well as DEFRA, for which it delivers so much.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) has less hair than me.

British Waterways is an effective and efficient organisation, which makes good use of public money, provides benefits for tourism and biodiversity, and conserves important buildings from the time of the industrial revolution. However, it is bearing the brunt of DEFRA’s catastrophic mismanagement of the budget. The Under-Secretary prays in aid Treasury changes in the rules, but they happened three years ago, so why are the effects being felt only now? Does that mean severe on-going cuts for the much valued organisation?

I must correct the hon. Gentleman again. It is not the case that British Waterways has borne the brunt of the reallocation of £200 million in the Department. The in-year cut, which is only to the grant-in-aid, not the organisation’s total income, is 6.6 per cent. If he considers that as part of the total income, he will realise that the figure is just over 1.5 per cent. of the organisation’s budget. The reallocation was felt throughout DEFRA, and other organisations that do not have the same resources and capacity to attract external funding had in-year cuts of 10 per cent. and more. To say that British Waterways bore the brunt is wrong. I understand the tremendous support that British Waterways enjoys because of its regeneration work throughout the country. We have shown that we value it through our investment. I stress again that we have invested £524 million in it since we have been in office.

Single Farm Payments

4. What progress has been made with the planned improvements to the system for making single farm payments; and if he will make a statement. (109018)

The Rural Payments Agency has made several improvements to the way in which it operates and aims to build on them, taking account of the guidance from the National Audit Office and other inquiries. More than 99 per cent. of claimants and funds have been paid for the 2005 scheme year. The first step in improving the system for the future will be the consequences of my announcement on 7 November: when full payments are not possible, partial payments for the 2006 scheme for eligible claimants with claims of over €1,000 should begin in mid-February.

I am grateful for that response, but a recent meeting between Lord Rooker and several hon. Members, the Secretary of State’s statement on 7 November and the answer that he has just given provided no details about why the scheme will be better and why we can expect an improvement. It is bad enough that the 2005 payments were paid so late—thousands of pounds are still owed to farmers in my constituency, who have made environmental improvements to qualify for the payments. If I now go back to my farmers and say that I cannot tell them what the improvements will be and that the Secretary of State does not have any confidence about improvements—[Interruption.] He should read his recent statement—there is nothing in it that gives us confidence for the future—

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman approaches the matter in that way. We have been clear about changes to the senior leadership team, changes in the corporate governance of the RPA, site heads for all the RPA’s offices throughout the country, better management information and whole-case working. The hon. Gentleman knows that Lord Rooker and the chief executive of the RPA hold a weekly meeting with the key representatives of the farming industry. I have been the first to say that the episode was damaging and that we will not get out of it in one leap. However, the statement that I made on 7 November was clear about the timetable for improvements and the way in which we would use the partial payment mechanism from mid-February for the cases that were not receiving full payments. The most important thing that he can say to his constituents is that the new chief executive of the RPA, about whom I expressed confidence in my statements in the summer, is getting a grip of the organisation, is determined to put it on track and, above all, is determined to make sure that we do not make promises that we cannot deliver. I believe that our promises will be delivered.

Would not two improvements to the RPA be to simplify its function by removing some of its marginal activities in which—although it is hard to argue that is skilled in anything much—it is even less skilled, and to consider its overall governance? The Secretary of State mentioned the governance of the RPA, so will he reflect on the proposal I made about four years ago that the organisation should be customer-led in its processing activity, as opposed to being part of a civil service function as it is now?

The Hunter review of the functions of the RPA is considering the points raised by my hon. Friend. While he is right that the organisation must be customer-focused, it is delivering within rules set by the European Union. Some of those rules have been put in place in quite a detailed way to ensure that, right around Europe, payments are only made on a satisfactory basis. There is a balance to be struck between the sort of regulations by which we want other countries to have to abide in making such payments, and our own confidence that light-touch regulation is needed here. I assure him, however, that all aspects of the issues that he raises are being considered by the Hunter review.

The Secretary of State plans to cut the single farm payment next year through voluntary modulation, despite no other country in Europe wanting to do that and the regulation being defeated in the European Parliament by nearly 10:1, which included most of the Socialist group voting against it. I am sure that the Secretary of State knows, however, that neither the Commission nor the European Parliament can stop it, so he will get his voluntary modulation. In that light, and on the assumption that he knows by now how much money he will get from the Chancellor, can he explain why he has not yet submitted his rural development plan to the Commission? At least then the system could be approved, and once the legal regulation is achieved, he could commence the scheme.

Let me answer the two parts of that question directly. First, from what the hon. Gentleman has said, the House should be clear that Conservative Members of the European Parliament, with the support of their Front Bench, are blocking the early payment of rural development programme funding around England. That is a direct consequence of their support for a blocking measure that can have no other effect than delay. That delay hits hard-pressed communities around the country, and the hon. Gentleman should consider his own record. Secondly, our plans for the rural development programme can only be submitted when there are rules within which we can do so. That is what we are waiting for, and as soon as he unblocks the system, we will submit those plans.

Domestic Carbon Emissions

5. What assessment he has made of the extent to which individual behaviour may contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions from homes. (109019)

The Department is making a detailed assessment of the actions that people can take to help the environment, including reducing their carbon emissions. We will be publishing further proposals shortly.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In his pre-Budget report, the Chancellor announced that householders’ income from installing micro-generation will not be subject to tax. In view of that statement, what further policies are the Government considering to encourage individuals to reduce carbon emissions from their homes?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that individuals take action to reduce their carbon footprint. About 40 per cent. of carbon dioxide emissions stem from actions taken by individuals. People in Britain understand the impact of climate change and want to do something about it. There is still a gap, however, between people’s values and their behaviour. Finding new and better ways to make it easier for people to reduce CO2 emissions is a high priority for the Government. My hon. Friend will be interested in the Energy Saving Trust’s “Save your 20 per cent.” campaign, which provides a number of useful tips on how people can reduce their carbon footprint.

I welcome what the Minister has to say, and he knows of my initiative to make Fylde the most energy-efficient council in the country. He will also accept the complexity of the issues involved in dealing with climate change, whether from a personal or governmental standpoint. Will he consider changing the energy White Paper that is due out in March 2007 to a climate change White Paper, enabling the whole range of issues influencing the subject, not just energy, to be dealt with in volume?

I was very pleased to meet the right hon. Gentleman recently to hear of his plans to make Fylde council the most energy-efficient in the country. As a Government, we are keen to stimulate competition between local authorities to take action to tackle climate change. Over 200 authorities have signed the Nottingham declaration on climate change and many are very advanced in terms of action plans to reduce their carbon footprints.

The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the close co-operation that exists between our Department and the Department of Trade and Industry on the energy White Paper, just as we worked closely on the energy review that we published in July. Clearly climate change and energy security were key priorities and will remain so in the energy White Paper when it is published.

Public expectations have been raised greatly by the promise of a climate change Bill, but, of necessity, that Bill is going to be about committees, frameworks and processes. May I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that the narrative that accompanies the Bill through the House involves the public and indicates ways in which they can make their contribution with, as he said, the Energy Saving Trust 10-point plan, which is so simple that I have been able to complete all stages? I trust every hon. Member would do so similarly.

I agree that engaging the public in tackling climate change is hugely important. We will pass landmark legislation for the UK and it is important that we do so, but we also want to generate a wide public debate about climate change and the actions that we can all take to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

As the Minister and others have said, the most effective agent for encouraging individuals to do their bit at home in tackling climate change has been the work of the Energy Saving Trust; indeed, its campaign to raise public awareness generally was singled out last month by the Prime Minister. So why have DEFRA Ministers appointed yet another advertising agency to run their own public awareness campaign around exactly the same issues and given the agency £5 million to spend on advertisements that duplicate the work of the Energy Saving Trust?

We are not duplicating the work of the Energy Saving Trust. We are looking at new and better ways to communicate the message on climate change and to give people some clear, practical advice on measures that they can take that will change their behaviour and help to reduce their carbon footprint. The Energy Saving Trust does extremely valuable work, but we also have the climate change communications initiative and we are looking at ways in which we can improve our websites and other mechanisms to get our message across. This is vital and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) said earlier, it is important that we have a big national debate about the actions that individuals can take. We need more communication, not less.

My hon. Friend talks about the carbon footprint, but is he aware that few people understand the term? The biggest contribution to that that families make is through heating, and nowadays no sensible household uses excess fuel or energy because of the rip-off prices that the gas and electricity industries charge them. When will we start taking this issue seriously—like we did with regard to North sea gas when we had a conversion programme that converted 13 million appliances—by telling households exactly how they can take steps, and by supporting them with capital investment if they need that? They do not understand the new factors, the insulation properties or the regulations. When are we going to get real about this issue and develop a national programme to meet every household’s needs?

Energy efficiency is extremely important for all households, and particularly for vulnerable households. This Government have spent a substantial sum on the Warm Front programme. We have also introduced warm zones, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the pre-Budget report that there will be extra funding for such zones. That will make a real difference, because it will join up action on the ground in a practical way to help people to insulate their homes and reduce their energy bills. There is an issue to do with future electricity and gas supplies. We need to address that as part of theenergy White Paper, and we are doing just that. Weare also encouraging microgeneration through the microgeneration strategy and, of course, we have the renewables obligation and the renewables targets that were set out for 2010 and 2020.

On changing personal behaviour, would the Minister like to comment on the contrast between the measly £6.5 million allocated to the low-carbon buildings programme, which will yet again lead to household grants being exhausted before the year-end with serious implications for local supplier businesses, and the £12 million allocated to the communications initiative that he has just referred to, whose latest output is as follows:

“Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the Feast of Stephen

Sunbathers lay round about

Tanned and crisp and even

Brightly shone the moon that night

With mosquitoes cruel

When a poor man came in sight

Malaria killed his mule”?

Is that really the work of a Government who are serious about climate change?

It is important that the low-carbon buildings programme takes a range of action to help to reduce CO2 emissions from buildings. As a Government we have set the target of the Government office estate becoming carbon neutral by 2012, and we have ambitious, sustainable operation targets that go much wider. We do need to communicate, and although the hon. Gentleman might have one view about the effectiveness of what he has quoted as a communication I am sure that others will have different views.

Bottom Trawling

6. What steps the UK Government are taking to end bottom trawling on the high seas; and if he will make a statement. (109020)

Thanks to UK leadership, we now have in place an agreed international framework for phasing out destructive high-seas bottom fishing over the next two years. I am only sorry that an urgent and far-reaching deal was scuppered by Iceland—which is extraordinary given the damage that it has already done to its international reputation by resuming commercial whaling.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we ought to be worried about not only the depletion of fish stocks, but the considerable damage that bottom trawlers do to habitats at the bottom of the oceans that have taken thousands of years to build up, including cold-water coral beds? Is it not time to consider having sites of special scientific interest at sea, as we have on land?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The tragedy of such destruction is that in many cases valuable and vulnerable ecosystems that have built up over thousands of years are destroyed in a matter of seconds. We face a huge challenge in international waters where governance is often weak, if not non-existent, and where enforcement can also be completely absent. He is also right to say that that we need to take action in our own waters. We have been doing so by protecting areas such as the Darwin Mounds—we are the first European Union country to do such a thing. We are committed to having exactly the network of marine protected areas that my hon. Friend—and, I am sure, all Members—would like there to be.

The Minister will not like my question. Is not the only way for the United Kingdom to preserve its marine habitat and fish stocks within its own territorial waters to restore to the United Kingdom total control of fishing within its own territorial waters?

I am sorry to have to tell the hon. Gentleman that his own Front-Bench colleagues have, rightly, abandoned that policy. Even if the common fisheries policy did not exist, we would have to invent something like it. As someone who visits and takes a great interest in the marine environment, he knows that fish do not respect national borders.

Can my hon. Friend explain how the culturally and environmentally sensitive people of Iceland can continue this barbaric practice of whaling, while at the same time promoting, as part of their tourism, whale watching? Will he tell the President of Iceland—not the ambassador—that such a practice is absolutely despicable and we are not having it?

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, and we have lost no opportunity at the highest level to tell the Icelanders of our displeasure. Their decision was inexcusable and inexplicable. There was an unprecedented condemnation at the European Environment Council, led by Austria and supported by us, and we will continue to make our views known at every opportunity.

EU Emissions Trading

7. What contribution he expects the European Union’s emissions trading scheme to make to tackling climate change. (109021)

Under phase 1 of the EU emissions trading scheme, the UK is set to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 65 million tonnes. Our proposals for phase 2 should deliver extra savings of 29.3 million tonnes a year. All EU member states are required to set emission caps that take account of their Kyoto commitments.

We can no longer be one-nation or one-generation environmentalists, and the European Commission has said that only one member state’s plans—the UK’s—are tough enough. What, therefore, can we say to the British people to convince them that the phase 2 plans—we are now in phase 2—can be sufficiently ambitious and will work, given that we have yet to convince our neighbours to produce good enough plans, and to do the right job?

I am very encouraged by the robust approach that the Commission is taking in assessing the phase 2 national allocation plans. Member states understand that they need to meet their Kyoto commitments, and that the NAPs for all member states will be sufficiently robust. The EU ETS is working. Phase 1 has been a trial period but, according to recent estimates, it is already producing significant CO2 savings. I have no doubt that phase 2, given the tighter caps that will be introduced, will be even more successful and that emissions trading will play a key part in reducing CO2 emissions in the European economy.

When does the Minister expect phase 2 of the EU’s emissions trading scheme to be fully in place, and does he agree with me that until we have a longterm and robust system under the banner of the ETS, necessary investment in the UK energy market—such as renewables but also nuclear—cannot proceed?

Very shortly, we will produce detailed figures on our national allocation plan installation-level amounts for companies to comment on. We will submit the final plan to the Commission in a few weeks’ time, which will be in plenty of time for the start of phase 2 of the scheme. The hon. Lady will be aware that the ETS is being reviewed in the first half of next year in order to assess what will happen after 2012. The UK will play a leading role in that, just as we played a leading role in the original design of the ETS.

Carbon Emission Targets

We set out significant measures to strengthen domestic and international action on climate change mitigation in the 2006 climate change programme, and through the energy policy review published last June. In addition to our proposed climate change Bill, we are considering ways to help large commercial and public sector organisations and individuals to cut their emissions.

I welcome those initiatives. My right hon. Friend has been promoting in recent speeches some very important ideas about cutting individual carbon usage through a system of carbon allowances. Both as a matter of social justice and environmental necessity, we need to introduce policies that limit the personal use of carbon according to people’s actual usage, so that those whose lifestyle produces most carbon have to make the biggest cuts. Sir Nicholas Stern’s report says that there is very little time to change policy radically. Will my right hon. Friend’s Department bring forward a Green Paper to develop those ideas further, so that we may legislate in due course?

The science and the economics tell us clearly that we have between 10 and 15 years for global carbon emissions to peak and 30 to 40 years for emissions in industrialised countries to be reduced by between 25 per cent. and 50 to 60 per cent. The ideas being developed were first trailed in the energy review and we continue to discuss them. In respect of the incentives and rewards that we can offer to those individuals who are carbon thrifty, we published this week an issues paper about the idea of personal carbon allowances and we will take forward the debate in as many ways as we can.

Of course one of the quickest ways to reduce carbon emissions is to replace fossil fuels with biofuels and bioethanol. I know that the Secretary of State will be following closely developments at Whittington where a biofuels plant is being established. Will he look to establish such a plant in the north of England, perhaps in the constituency of the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) on the site of the British Sugar plant, which is closing at great cost to local farmers in north Yorkshire?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. I know that she forms an important alliance—I shall not call it an unholy alliance—with my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) on certain issues, while maintaining a healthy competition with him on other matters. We are following the issues in York and its surroundings carefully. The most important thing that we can do is to ensure that the demand side has a clear bias towards biofuels and other such products. For example, the initiative in respect of the road transport fuel obligation—including the guarantee on 5 per cent. of forecourt sales being from biofuels by 2008, with an aim of doubling that figure—is the sort of signal that we can best give to ensure that we get the right pull through on those important new technologies.

As my hon. Friend said, we need a wide range of initiatives across Government and from individuals. He is probably aware that I have in my constituency a fantastic company called Intelligent Energy, which has produced the first hybrid fuel cell motorbike and hopes to move into cars. Will he ensure that there is sufficient funding to see those programmes through, not only from the research and development point of view—the company is probably years ahead of any other in the world—but to reach the point of production of such vehicles, so that we can reduce carbon emissions?

I am not aware of all the details of the work on the motorbike that my hon. Friend mentions, but I will look into it. I will also look into whether the Government have a funding role, but that may be more of a stretch, not least given the discussions we have had in the past 53 minutes or so about my Department’s funding position. I will look into the issues that he raises and I hope that his company is able to capitalise on the impressive advances that it has made.

Rural Proofing

Rural proofing is the responsibility of all Departments. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs plays a major role in making sure that it happens—as part of the policy-making process and in the design of delivery arrangements. We established the Commission for Rural Communities to monitor independently how policies are meeting rural needs.

Given that rural access to banks, schools, GPs and indeed post offices has significantly declined and that total farm incomes have fallen by 11 per cent. in real terms over the past year, does the Minister really think that the impact of Government policy on rural communities has been properly considered?

The hon. Gentleman made some particular challenges. Let me just say that in fact there has been a 37 per cent. increase in the number of cash points and in banking availability in rural communities since 1997. The hon. Gentleman mentioned rural transport. Bus availability in rural areas has increased from 35 to 51 per cent. between 1997 and 2006. I agree that the rural proof is in the rural pudding, but we have delivered it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that social enterprise has an important role in all forms of rural development? We need to look at a range of new services, including working with health and education. Will he make sure that other Departments are as keen as DEFRA about using models of social enterprise?

I am very pleased to endorse my hon. Friend’s remarks about the importance of social enterprise. It is one way for many village and rural communities around the country to take ownership of services, and they are beginning to be able to provide those services for themselves. I trust that I do not need to spread that message around my colleagues in other Departments, as most are well aware of the social enterprise work that is going on, through the co-ordinating work of the Cabinet Office—

Indeed, but it is the brother of my Secretary of State who has been co-ordinating the work going on in Government, to great effect.

When he looks at rural proofing, will the Minister have a word with the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who is officially in charge of Food Standards Agency regulations? An abattoir in my constituency has been closed for two weeks while the FSA dillies and dallies over investigating whether its licence should be restored. In looking at rural proofing, it is clear that one thing that has to be considered—

I understand the seriousness of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I know of the investigation to which he refers. Although it would be improper for me to comment, we want it to be concluded at the earliest possible date.

Waste Strategy

In reviewing the waste strategy, has my hon. Friend considered giving local authorities powers to introduce variable charges for waste collection, to reflect the real cost of collection and incentivise waste recycling? If so, will he consider discussing with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government whether suitable enabling clauses can be introduced into the forthcoming local government Bill?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this important matter. Evidence from other countries suggests that giving householders a rebate for recycling can incentivise recycling and reduce overall waste. In turn, that cuts the costs incurred by householders and local authorities. The Conservative-controlled Local Government Association has requested that we give local authorities that freedom, and it is being actively considered.

Local authorities have targets for household waste recycling, and I am pleased to say that Kettering borough council has one of the best recycling rates in the country. When will DEFRA introduce targets and incentives for local authorities and others to recycle waste from commercial organisations?

Targets already exist that affect the commercial sector, where the level of recycling and reuse is nearly double what is in the household sector. In the past, our priority has been to try to get household recycling up to levels similar to those achieved in the commercial and business sectors. However, we are actively considering the role of the commercial sector as part of the waste review that we intend to publish in the new year.

One element of reducing waste involves reducing the amount of material going to waste in the first place. What is DEFRA doing to reduce the amount of excess packaging that is so prevalent among many major food suppliers in the country?

My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that the latest audited figures, which I think will be published tomorrow, show that we have managed to decrease the overall amount of waste we produced over the last year by the biggest amount ever—and it is only the second time that we have managed to achieve that since the second world war. We can break the link between economic growth and waste growth, which is absolutely right. We need to do more on minimisation. Retailers have recently signed up to a voluntary agreement with our Department to end the growth of unnecessary packaging and reduce it in absolute terms overall by 2010. I very much welcome that agreement.

GMO Field Trials

There have been 185 genetically modified crop trial sites in England since 2001, including the individual fields that formed part of the farm-scale evaluations programme.

In 2003, the GM nation public debate revealed widespread mistrust of the Government and multinationals, while the biotechnology commission into co-existence urged that farmers growing GM crops must follow strict, legally enforceable protocols. So why, last week, did the Secretary of State sanction a GM potato crop trial near Long Eaton close to north-west Leicestershire, demonstrating such a weak co-existence framework? Will the Minister reassure the public that these matters will be seriously scrutinised in detail in this place?

I can certainly assure the public that our top priority remains protecting consumers and the environment. We allowed this crop trial to go ahead only after rigorous assessment. We took advice from the independent body that deals with these matters—the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment—and it confirmed that there were no issues to prevent a trial from taking place. The potatoes grown there will not go into the food chain and strict crop separation distances will be enforced, so we do not believe that there is any problem here. I would also point out that three other European countries are undertaking similar trials at the moment and no issues have been raised there.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 18 December—Second Reading of the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill.

Tuesday 19 December—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

The business for the week commencing 8 January will be:

Monday 8 January—Second Reading of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill—[Interruption.] An excellent measure!

Tuesday 9 January—Remaining stages of the Welfare Reform Bill.

Wednesday 10 January—Opposition Day [2nd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 11 January—A debate on social exclusion on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 12 January—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 15 January will include:

Monday 15 January—Second Reading of the Planning-Gain Supplement (Preparations) Bill.

I can also inform the House that Government time will be made available for a debate on foreign affairs, focusing on Iraq and the middle east, by the end of January.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 18 and 25 January and 1 February will be:

Thursday 18 January—A debate on the report from the Transport Committee on parking policy and enforcement.

Thursday 25 January—A debate on the report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on protecting and preserving our heritage.

Thursday 1 February—A debate on the report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on East Asia.

If I may, I would like to wish you, Mr. Speaker, a very happy Christmas on behalf of the Government—though I speak for the whole House. I would also like to thank, through you, all the staff of the House who work so hard. I wish all Members a happy Christmas, too.

If you will allow me a little leeway, Mr. Speaker, before I ask the Leader of the House my business questions, may I just explain the absence of my deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara)? His second son was born earlier this week, and we offer him our congratulations. Indeed, his son had the foresight to wait to be born until after the 10 o’clock vote earlier this week, so I am sure that a future in the Whips Office beckons for him.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for indicating that there will be a debate in Government time to focus on the middle east. A number of right hon. and hon. Members and I have been asking for a debate on Iraq for some time, and I am grateful to him for providing that.

I am sure that the Leader of the House has seen the report today showing that Ministers avoided answering more than 1,000 written parliamentary questions in the last Session of Parliament. I commend him for being innocent of this charge, and I am sure that he will tell me that the problem is that there are so many more written questions these days. But the unanswered questions covered issues such as the number of school leavers without any GCSE qualifications, the number of homes built on green-belt land and violent crime committed by murderers released on parole—all issues of concern to our constituents.

The report follows the information from the Department for Work and Pensions that replies to awkward questions are distorted or delayed and some are simply thrown in the bin. On 10 July, the right hon. Gentleman said:

“I attach great importance to the accuracy and timeliness of responses to parliamentary questions”—[Official Report, 10 July 2006; Vol. 448, c. 1560W.]

He is right: it is the job of Ministers to be accountable, and it is the job of Members to scrutinise the Government. So will he now investigate and make a statement to the House after the recess to set out what steps will be taken to ensure that all parliamentary questions are given full and timely replies in future?

The resolution of the House of 19 March 1997 states:

“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”—[Official Report, 19 March 1997; Vol. 292, c. 1047.]

Can the Leader of the House tell us why it took the Secretary of State for Defence from the end of October to the middle of December to correct the record on his claim that there would be no losers when the Government introduced changes to allowances for troops?

Another example of reducing parliamentary scrutiny is the handling of the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order. The order covers 304 pages, 308 articles and 13 schedules, yet it was set for only two and a half hours of debate. In July this year, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), told the House:

“if we are unable to restore devolution by 24 November, we will quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable.”

He also said:

“We will...ensure that, whenever possible, we legislate for Northern Ireland through primary legislation.”—[Official Report, 25 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 766.]

Will the Leader of the House give a commitment to the House that the Government will not in future introduce such lengthy and controversial legislation by unamendable order?

May we have a debate in Government time on financial management in the Department of Health? Ministers have been quick to point out in the past that deficits in NHS trusts were the result of poor financial management locally. Yet the Health Committee report on NHS deficits, which was issued earlier this week, makes it clear that some of the blame lies at the centre. It said:

“Poor central management has contributed to the deficits.”

We need such a debate, so that Members can hold Ministers, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to account for their responsibility for the loss of 21,000 posts in the NHS, the threat to 80 community hospitals and the closure of accident and emergency and maternity units across the country.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, may I join the Leader of the House in sending best wishes for the Christmas festivities? As we look ahead to those festivities, I am sure that if hon. Members want advice on office parties, they could always ask the Deputy Prime Minster, and that if they want to know how much to drink, they can always ask a bishop. May I join the Leader of the House in wishing you, Mr. Speaker, and all right hon. and hon. Members and, indeed, all the staff, who serve us so well throughout the year, a very merry Christmas?

If the right hon. Lady will allow me, I will pass lightly over her last comments. I join in the congratulations to the shadow deputy Leader of the House and I am sure that I am joined in that by all Members of the House. I am also delighted to note that the birth waited until after the 10 o’clock vote, because I have always been of the opinion that the old hours were family friendly and that just underlines the point. They certainly were for me.

The Chief Whip—Patronage Secretary—says that that is all right then. It is certainly one contribution to that debate.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) referred to a bit of “research” that Conservative central office issued this morning, in which it is claimed that 1,000 parliamentary questions are unanswered. She invited me to begin an investigation into that research. Among other things, she mentioned a question that she claims is unanswered about the number of school leavers without qualifications. It is an indication of the speed with which my office and I move that I have already started the investigation and I can report to the House that the research to which she referred is defective in many particulars.

The whole House just heard the right hon. Lady claim that there was an unanswered question about the qualifications of school leavers. On 1 November 2006, Hansard states:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what proportion of children left school with no GCSE qualifications in each year since the introduction of the examination.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 443W.]

The Minister for Schools goes on to answer the question. That is only one of a series of examples. Another example, which is also quoted in the press release, is a question to ask the Secretary of State how many suicides have taken place among deployed UK personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on. That answer is also given. It looks as though included in the 1,000 questions are a number of questions that were withdrawn before the due date for answer, quite a large number that were transferred to other Departments and then answered, quite a number that, consistent with the policy of all previous Governments, were grouped for answer with other questions, and quite a number of questions that were answered, but were not updated on the database.

I also notice not quite a claim, but an insinuation in the press notice that the information came from “the independent” House of Commons Library. In fact, it came from researchers in the right hon. Lady’s office trying to make use of the database of the House of Commons Library and failing lamentably in that endeavour. All that I can say is that we have been generous to a fault with the Opposition. The amount of money that we have ensured should be paid to the Opposition has gone up from £1 million or so when we were in opposition to over £6 million—and this is the result of that investment. If ever there was a part of British civic society showing a failure in terms of value for money it is the Opposition research departments and the kind of people who work for the right hon. Lady.

That leads me on directly to the right hon. Lady’s request for a debate on the health service. She asked about the important report on NHS deficits. I do not doubt that it will, in due course, be the subject of debate, either on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall. That is a matter for the Liaison Committee to determine. I will just point out that report says:

“Poor local management is also to blame. For all the added costs imposed by the Department of Health, it is undeniable that the NHS has had a lot more money to spend. Surpluses can be found in PCTs and trusts with a low per capita funding. Deficits exist in trusts with a high per capita funding.”

The right hon. Lady went on to ask me two other things. One was about corrections. Ministers are always assiduous in ensuring that corrections are made. If she wants to know why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence took time to issue a correction, as he did yesterday in a letter to you, Mr. Speaker, which has been made available to Members on both sides of the House, it is because—I know this because I have also gone into it in detail—the changeover in the separation allowance for the armed forces, which was begun three years ago and approved by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, was immensely complicated. There were, with the same pot of money, some winners and losers. The briefing was that even for those who had lost out—those who had experienced a reduction in separation allowance—the bonus payments would more than offset that. That was overwhelmingly true, but it was not the case for some examples that took a long time to come through. When my right hon. Friend made the original announcement about the bonus, he was wholly unaware—he had good reasons for this—of changes to the separation allowance.

Let me come on to the last thing, if the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) will hold himself back. None of us regards the arrangements for legislation in respect of Northern Ireland when direct rule is operating as satisfactory. However, those arrangements were introduced in the early 1970s by a Conservative Government. Given the problems of time, it is extraordinarily difficult to know what other arrangements could apply.

Will my right hon. Friend find Government time for a debate on today’s announcement in the other place about a consultation on giving prisoners the vote? I know that such a proposal would be enthusiastically supported by the Liberal Democrats, but I and other hon. Members would have strong feelings about it.

My hon. Friend is right. That proposal has been one of the few consistent aspects of Liberal Democrat policy over many years—they continue to support it. Speaking for myself and, I think, all my colleagues, we are wholly opposed to giving prisoners the right to vote. The consultation document arises from an interesting decision taken by the European Court of Human Rights.

The hon. Gentleman is correct about that. I simply say to hon. Members that when the consultation has concluded, this House will make a decision about the way forward.

I shall wait until Tuesday’s pre-recess Adjournment debate to offer Christmas wishes to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House.

I thank the Leader of the House for stating that we will finally have a debate on Iraq. I have asked only 14 times for such a debate since the start of this Parliament. We very much look forward to the Foreign Secretary actually attending the House and giving some sort of account of the policy.

A statement on post offices will be made immediately after business questions. If, as many fear, it has the effect of closing a great many post offices throughout the country, which would lead to inevitable social effects, may we not just ask for a debate, but demand one, because such closures would affect the constituency of every hon. Member and I am sure that Members would want the opportunity to express their views?

The local government White Paper opened a Pandora’s box on unitary status. However, it also had interesting and valuable things to say about first-tier authorities. May we have a debate in the near future about the role and functions of parish and town councils? I take this opportunity in the Chamber to offer my best wishes and thanks to all the volunteers who serve on town and parish councils throughout the country, whose efforts are often unsung.

May we have a debate on stationery? The Leader of the House may be aware that a National Audit Office report reveals that the Government are losing £660 million a year simply by not ordering stationery from the cheapest sources. Apparently, they pay twice as much for Post-it notes as they would at the local corner shop. That is a disgraceful waste of public money.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) drew attention to parliamentary questions. It seems that we have a continuing problem with the traffic light system in the Department for Work and Pensions because a letter from the Secretary of State says:

“In October the Department began trialling an informal system that involves colour-coding Questions depending on whether separate press briefing may be required.”

In other words, hon. Members’ questions have to wait for spin to be applied before they can be answered. Surely that cannot be satisfactory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) tabled a written question to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ask

“how many parliamentary written questions his Department received … were not answered because of disproportionate cost”.

He received the answer:

“The hon. Member’s question cannot be answered without incurring disproportionate costs.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 958W.]

Does that not say it all?

I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman will at least offer Christmas greetings on behalf of his party on Tuesday. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats are having to debate whether they recognise Christmas. The hon. Gentleman is a generous character, so for the life of me I do not understand why he cannot say “Happy Christmas” today. I have been trying to discover the source of all the politically correct nonsense; I strongly suspect that it is somewhere in the heart of the Liberal Democrat party.

To continue, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his acceptance that there will be a debate on Iraq and the middle east in January. The title will be “Foreign Policy”, because issues may have arisen in Afghanistan and it is important that the House has a timeous opportunity to discuss them. It is not correct to say that there have been no debates in Government time on the subject for three years; I am happy to give him a list of the occasions on which such debates have taken place.

On post offices, the hon. Gentleman should listen to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has to say. If there is demand for a debate, it will be considered in the normal way by the usual channels. However, I say to him and to the House that what we need in relation to change in the Post Office is a grown-up debate on the fact that there have been changes—not caused by anyone in the House or directly by anyone outside, but resulting from the internet—which have dramatically changed the use made of the Post Office. The hon. Gentleman knows that; he also knows that in the unlikely event of the Liberals being in government, they would face precisely the same issues as we do. [Interruption.] We are in government, as the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) says from a sedentary position, and we are happy to make the decisions.

Oh—that is because of the voting system.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asks me about the local government White Paper. That will be the subject of debate, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has stimulated a good debate on flexibility of arrangements. The Bill will be published and have its Second Reading early in the new year, and there will be many opportunities in this Chamber and in Committee for debate on that.

On stationery, those of us who have to run Government Departments constantly search for savings. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary will draw to wider attention the need for centralised purchasing at one level, and for people to find the bargain in the corner shop at another.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, that answer is not acceptable. I shall follow it up and ensure that he gets an answer to his question.

Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate, or perhaps a statement from the Minister for Housing and Planning, on the development of community empowerment in housing in Birmingham, in which my constituency has been a pioneer? The Minister for Housing and Planning made it a condition on the local council to be responsive to local solutions that were proposed. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that Birmingham city council has now announced that it is to wind up the community-based housing organisation in my constituency? That is a matter of great public concern and we need a debate on it. Does he agree that if the Liberal Democrats truly agree with localism, it is about time that they stood up to their coalition partners in Birmingham?

Having gone into the matter in detail, I fear that it is another example of saying one thing and doing another. As the Minister for Housing and Planning made clear, we greatly value locally based housing organisations such as the Northfield community-based housing organisation, and we in the Government expect the city council to consider those organisations in any reorganisation of housing provision. I share my hon. Friend’s concern and hope that we can find him an opportunity to raise the subject.

Can the Leader of the House make time for a debate on British waterways, to assist the education of the Prime Minister? Waterways play a crucial role in the lives of my constituents, yet the Prime Minister knew nothing yesterday about the deep cuts that are taking place. His ignorance can be seen in all its glory at column 869 in Hansard. My constituents are worried that the Prime Minister is so out of touch, especially in view of the fact that he has a “save our waterways” petition on his own website, listed at No. 9.

In fact, the Prime Minister is well informed about that subject. I have a waterway running through my constituency—the Leeds-Liverpool canal—which has been transformed as a result of fantastic extra investment by the Government in the past 10 years. We have put in huge extra sums; those sums are down a little, but the investment that we are making in the waterways is still significantly more than the investment put in by the previous Government, whom the hon. Gentleman supported.

May we have a debate on the standards expected of local councillors who have been convicted of electoral fraud? My constituents would welcome the opportunity that such a debate would provide to hear the views of all Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople, especially those of the Liberal Democrats given that it is councillors from their party in my constituency, Mozaquir Ali and Manzoor Hussein, who have not yet resigned their seats, despite the basis on which they were elected having been proved in court to be fraudulent.

I accept my hon. Friend’s concern. Because we share local newspapers, I am aware of the case. It is shameful for the Liberal Democrat party not to have required the resignation of those people.

First, may I thank the Leader of the House for his generous hospitality at Dover house on Tuesday evening? It was a most convivial occasion. [Hon. Members: “Why weren’t we invited?”]

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, with the Government Chief Whip present, whether in the new year, when dealing with Bills that are to be dealt with under the new Public Bill procedure, he will seek a more consensual and flexible approach to the programme motion, to ensure that the new method is successful and that the House, with more outside information, is able to scrutinise legislation more successfully than in the past?

I hope that I get no parliamentary questions about this, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgement of our hospitality. I should say to hon. Members on both sides of the House that it was an entirely ecumenical gathering, to which members of relevant Select Committees were invited. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] However, if it proves to be a popular event, next year I shall extend the list.

I shall make sure that that happens.

If I may lift the veil on Cabinet proceedings, my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip was an active supporter of the changes. I told the Modernisation Committee that. To be frank, without her active support and that of her colleagues in the Whips’ Office, it would not have been possible not only for us to have approved the changes, but to ensure that they have a fair wind behind them. I am in no doubt at all that my right hon. Friend will ensure that.

May we have a debate on computer error and medical prescriptions? I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has seen the reports this week about GPs in Scotland who thought that they were prescribing anti-smoking tablets, but they turned out to be Viagra.

I suspect that that will result in a large number of people who gave up smoking years ago suddenly going to the doctor and saying that they require further help to quit. I shall certainly look into the problem and report back to my hon. Friend. I regret to say that my very boring prescriptions are all too accurate.

The Leader of the House will have seen press speculation about an imminent general election. It would be convenient for English Members to know on what basis that election might be fought. Three weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked when the relevant order would be laid, and the right hon. Gentleman said that it would be as soon as possible, but it is still not on the parliamentary radar. When will the order be laid?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman because, as is my habit, I looked into the detail of the matter after it was raised by the shadow Leader of the House. As the House knows, the relevant Secretary of State received the Boundary Commission’s report on 31 October. The report must be laid before Parliament at the same time as the draft order to implement the new boundaries, and we intend the order to be laid before the House in February 2007, which, in parliamentary time, is only a few weeks away.

What action does the Leader of the House plan to take about the Conservative cash for canapés scandal revealed by my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and for Bassetlaw (John Mann)? I understand that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is investigating no fewer than 32 fundraising dinners or lunches held in the Commons to line the coffers of the Tory party. When will the House have the chance to debate—

Order. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that has nothing to do with the business for next week.

May I ask the Leader of the House about the way in which Ministers respond to written parliamentary questions? He will be aware that, during oral questions, it has been the trend in recent years for Ministers who are asked difficult questions to answer the question that they would have liked to have been asked, rather than the question actually asked. That is now extending to written questions. Will he look into why so many questions are being given holding answers, although, on the face of it, there is no reason whatever for simple, factual questions to receive a holding answer?

The reason there are delays, which in some cases are unacceptable, is the huge increase in the volume of questions. The hon. Gentleman screws up his face, but the number of questions has risen—the figures are from comparable long Sessions—from 53,000 in 1997-98, to 73,000 in 2001-02, and 95,000 in the last Session. That is an 80 per cent. increase in questions. I work very hard, as do my ministerial colleagues, to ensure that questions are answered on time and fully. Opposition Members know as well as Labour Members that I am always happy to follow up the matter when answers are not given properly, and so are my ministerial colleagues. No Minister wants a reputation for delaying answers or for giving poor quality answers. I want as many questions as possible to be answered, and that is why the Procedure Committee, under the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), is looking into the matter. The issue is fundamental to the working of our parliamentary democracy, but there must also be acceptance that hon. Members on both sides of the House have a responsibility to operate the system.

I declare my interest: I was at Dover house on Tuesday night with the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton).

May we have an urgent debate on the appointments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to the new equality and human rights commission? Only one of the people appointed has any track record in race equality issues. Speaking at the Dispatch Box, the then Secretary of State promised hon. Members—as did the Chief Whip, when she was a Minister—that the new body would be representative of the country as a whole. Please may we have a debate on that important issue?

I understand my right hon. Friend’s concerns. I have not been able to look into the matter in detail, but I will report his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and I will ensure that she writes back to him.

Following the revelations on last night’s “Channel 4 News”, I would like to ask at what stage, after police investigations and proceedings, does the Leader of the House envisage that we will have a full-scale debate on cash for peerages, or loans for lords? I hope that he does not make the same mistake as his predecessor, who thought that the matter was not in the public interest, and that it did not stimulate his political antennae.

My answer to my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary is that I am responsible for a lot, but not the “Channel 4 News”. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) make allegations that have no substance, and he knows very well that there are proper systems of scrutiny for all honours. He also knows that the issue of honours is not a matter for the House.

May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that we have a full debate on the value for money provided to the House by the threefold increase in Short money, which seems to have led to no perceptible improvement in the quality of research? Perhaps he could present the full results of his inquiries into the so-called “unanswered” questions, and perhaps he could consider claims about the national health service, such as the claim that there were 21,000 lost posts, although we all know that there has been a huge increase in the number of national health service staff.

There is a consistent record of poor quality research by overpaid researchers who dine out on the public’s money. It is one of the few cases in which expenditure of public money is not subject to any effective public audit, such as the kind of audit that applies to Government Departments. I share my hon. Friend’s view, and I am happy to proceed with that investigation.

Yesterday, I received a letter from Mrs. Dee Smith, a constituent who works for the Department for Constitutional Affairs. She has worked for the civil service for 32 years, but unfortunately she is suffering from cancer. In February this year, her brave, highly respected and much-loved 23-year-old son, Carl, was killed in Iraq while on active service. In September, the DCA introduced a flexible early retirement scheme, and given the circumstances, I would have thought that Mrs. Smith was an ideal candidate for the scheme. Unfortunately, the Department turned down her application on the ground of cost. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement on the DCA’s operation of its flexible early retirement scheme?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I do not know the details of the case, but of course I understand his concern. Rather than arranging a debate, I think it would be appropriate if I took the matter up with the Lord Chancellor, and ensured that he wrote back to the hon. Gentleman and me about the case.

Christmas is a time for families, so I was particularly pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) announce the news of a Christmas baby for her deputy, the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara). Would it not be timely to consider the Government’s family policies, too? In particular, should we not consider the way in which the Government should support families, without dictating how they should live? Should we not consider how Departments support families, and the relationship between Departments? Let us look into how policies on the working families tax credit, child care policies, Sure Start and maternity and paternity leave work together, and have a debate on that.

I shall do my best to arrange that. The simple truth is that the policies that we have pursued and implemented have made a big, positive difference to families, but I regret to say that the Conservative party has mainly voted against the changes.

With the publication today of the future of air transport progress report—in the case of Heathrow, that is a bit of an oxymoron—would it be possible to arrange a debate about aviation policy? It affects many of our constituents, and I would like the opportunity to tell Ministers exactly how the lives of my constituents and many others will be shattered by a third runway and a sixth terminal. I would also like them to explain what good such developments would do, as regards climate change.

The handling of today’s statement was, I understand, the subject of discussion, and acceptance, by the usual channels. There will be Transport questions next Tuesday, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is obviously keen to ensure that he answers questions on the subject. As for debate later on, there will be many opportunities for the hon. Gentleman to raise constituency aspects of the matter. On the wider policy, we will consider what he says.

I particularly welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement that there will be a debate on foreign affairs in Government time before the end of January. May I look to him to ensure that it gives us the opportunity properly to recognise the important job that so many servicemen and women are doing for us in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world, and to recognise the brave politicians of the young democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan? I ask him to take the opportunity, as we are also thinking of families, to—

May I complete my hon. Friend’s sentence, as we need to think about all the families of our brave service personnel? Those of us who have family connections with the services know all too well the intensity of feeling among those families, particularly when they are separated during the holidays. In many ways, the pressure on the families is even worse than the pressure on individuals, and I applaud the work that my hon. Friend does on behalf of her many constituents. When I attended Navy day in Plymouth in late summer, I was impressed by the work not just of members of the Navy, but of all the services represented in her constituency.

First, may I correct a comment by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who is no longer in the Chamber, about the localisation of housing services in Birmingham? I am reliably informed by Birmingham city council’s housing department that it was incorrect, and I wish to correct the record. Today, the Department of Health made a written statement on the review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. I very much welcome the statement, but will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on that incredibly important policy development. There will be a huge amount of media interest but, unfortunately, much of it will be skewed. Will the Leader of the House ask his hon. Friend—

It is an important issue and we will look at the opportunities for debate, either in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber.

May we have a debate on bank charges, particularly for customers who have an overdraft? Is my right hon. Friend aware of early-day motion 500, which is supported by many hon. Members?

[That this House expresses its concern at the penalty charging policies of banks and credit card companies; welcomes the news that more and more customers are applying to have these charges repaid; applauds the work of the team and supports the ongoing investigation of penalty charging practices by the Office of Fair Trading.]

Notwithstanding the costs that banks incur as a result of overdrafts, they are far less than the charges that customers pay. Will my right hon. Friend join me in supporting, which has campaigned for the charges to be refunded to customers?

I strongly applaud my hon. Friend’s campaign. Some charges, particularly for poorer people, are quite unacceptable.

May we have a debate in Government time on provision in schools, especially in areas of high deprivation, to assist children with special educational needs? In my constituency, some primary school principals have reported that it takes five to six years for an educational psychologist to assess children so that they can be statemented? That is clearly unacceptable, so may we have a debate to explore those issues?

I cannot promise a debate, but I am aware of that concern, which I shall certainly draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I invite the hon. Gentleman, too, to seek an opportunity to debate the issue on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.

May we have a debate on the profits of big banks, particularly Halifax Bank of Scotland, which announced profits this morning of more than £5.3 billion—up £0.5 billion from last year. That is £600,000 an hour or £10,000 a minute. HBOS stole Christmas from hundreds of thousands of decent, hard-working families in the Farepak collapse, as it took at least £30 million from that fund, so will my right hon. Friend join me in urging the bank—

The whole House has noted my hon. Friend’s concerns. Yet again, may I applaud the indefatigable campaign that he has waged on behalf of the Farepak victims? I hope that HBOS listens to his concerns and to those of the whole House.

In the debate on Iraq announced by the Leader of the House, will he ensure that Ministers come to the House prepared to answer for the advice given to them by Iraqi exiles and expatriates in the run-up to the war in Iraq that informed their policy of the “de-Ba’athification” of junior officials, which led to our failure to establish a credible police force and army, and to the shambles in Iraq?

No doubt, that issue will be raised. I was party to those decisions, and the situation was much more complicated than the hon. Gentleman implied. The pressure for “de-Ba’athification” came not from Washington but from the Shi’a and the Kurds, who suffered for a long time under members of the Ba’ath party.

May I echo the call made by the shadow Leader of the House for an early debate on the NHS, as 21,000 posts may be at risk and 900 jobs subject to compulsory redundancy? At the same time, we could have a discussion about the 160,000 workers who were made redundant during 18 years of Tory misrule.

We are always happy to debate the health service. There is not a single constituency in the United Kingdom that has not benefited hugely from the additional investment that we have made in the health service over the past 10 years, nor a constituency where the number of health workers of all grades has failed to increase.

I welcome the news that we can discuss the future of Iraq next month but, given that it was the Prime Minister who led us to war, and given his apparent willingness to discuss the issue with everyone else, including US politicians, will the Leader of the House ask his right hon. Friend to come to the House and lead that debate? If he will not do so, will he explain why not?

Normally, debates on foreign policy are led by the Foreign Secretary, and that is the plan. I think that that is entirely appropriate, and it was the arrangement when I was Foreign Secretary. The Prime Minister is not slow to come forward and make statements, and he has a very good record on doing so. If we wish to make a comparison of Heads of Government, British Prime Ministers, whatever their party, are subject to far more routine and intensive scrutiny by Parliament than almost any other Head of Government.

Last month, I raised with the Leader of the House my concerns about the decision by the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, to distribute its products via a single source—namely, UniChem. It appears that AstraZeneca and other pharmaceutical manufacturers are set to follow suit. Pharmacists not only in my constituency but throughout the UK have expressed concern about that, so may we have an urgent debate or ministerial statement to reassure our constituents that those monopolistic deals will not have a detrimental effect on patient care?

We will certainly consider that proposal. I believe that my hon. Friend has sought a debate in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment, and I will refer his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. Meanwhile, he may wish to consider making representations to the Office of Fair Trading.

As it is Christmas, may I ask the Leader of the House for a rerun next week of yesterday’s child maintenance statement? He and I are used to Liberal Democrats saying one thing to one voter and something else to another, but it is unusual that their spokesmen say the opposite things in Parliament. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) said that the name and shame policy

“is likely to make almost no difference and will simply be seen as a gimmick”—[Official Report, 13 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 879.]

In another place, Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay—

I would be delighted to lay on a debate about the inconsistencies of the Liberal Democrats, who say one thing and do another. I have a long list of examples, as they have done so in different streets in the same town.

May I renew my suggestion that we have a debate on passport policy? Last week, I reminded the Leader of the House that, as from 2009, all applicants for new passports, including renewals, must present themselves for a personal interview, which would mean 6.5 million interviews in 69 offices. He said that he would raise the matter with the Home Secretary, and an early debate would enable his right hon. Friend to tell the House that he will adjust the proposals thoroughly and change them.

I have indeed raised the matter with the Home Secretary. I drew his attention in detail to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, as I always do when such points are made in the House. Let us wait to see what my right hon. Friend says before deciding whether the situation is as bad as the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggested.

As the Leader of the House knows, this afternoon the House will debate fisheries on the Adjournment. The debate follows the important EU-Norway negotiations on fisheries in the North sea. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider rescheduling the debate in future years so that it takes place before such important negotiations and hon. Members can make their recommendations to the Minister and the Minister can share with them the advice that he gives to the Commission in the negotiations?

May we please have a debate on the Floor of the House on the continuing crisis in Burma, given that Burma Campaign UK will next week publish its annual dirty list of companies that, by trading with or investing in Burma, are propping up the brutal military dictatorship there, and that Britain is the second largest investor? Would not such a debate be a magnificent Christmas present to human rights campaigners in and for Burma, by allowing the Government to announce the imposition of a unilateral investment ban?

I am very happy if the hon. Gentleman is able to obtain a debate on Burma. It is an important issue, which requires international co-operation. However, I refute the suggestion that we are less active on the matter than other countries, when within the European Union, to my certain knowledge, we have been more active than almost any other country.

May we have a debate on early-day motion 361 on the replacement of Trident, tabled by the shadow Defence team in terms very similar indeed to the robust terms of the Prime Minister’s statement?

[That this House believes that the United Kingdom should continue to possess a strategic nuclear deterrent as long as other countries have nuclear weapons; and accordingly endorses the principle of preparing to replace the Trident system with a successor generation of the nuclear deterrent.]

If the answer is that we can await the debate and vote in three months’ time, will the Leader of the House at least confirm that he and his hon. Friends will sign the early-day motion, as it is so close to his own Prime Minister’s policy?

Happily, I have been spared any requirement to sign early-day motions since I entered the shadow Cabinet in 1987. We have already said that there will be a debate on Trident and it will be on a substantive motion. It will be in early March, I think. We are not signing the early-day motion—

Because we do not sign early-day motions. The hon. Gentleman knows that very well. As they are all directed at the Government, it would be eccentric if we signed them. Anyway, I am glad to have been spared the requirement. The hon. Gentleman knows what our position is.

As British dairy farms go bust every week, as family members on those that remain are being paid less then the minimum wage, and as we have an annual fisheries debate today, will the Leader of the House consider instituting an annual agriculture debate?

I will certainly consider it. The hon. Gentleman is aware that the Modernisation Committee is considering the use of non-legislative time by the House and in the House. The current arrangements are slightly eccentric, because there are some scheduled debates on issues on which I am not sure the House, on reflection, would want scheduled debates or so many of them, and there other crucial issues on which there are no scheduled debates. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to submit evidence to the Modernisation Committee, we will be pleased to hear from him.

May we have a debate in Government time about why hundreds of thousands of our own citizens do not understand English? If we are spending £100 million a year on publication translation services, how on earth will we build an integrated nation?

We do not need a debate on that. It is part of our history. Because of the Commonwealth, arrangements were made whereby Commonwealth citizens who were settled in the UK could become citizens after five years of settlement. There was no language qualification until we as a Government introduced such qualifications in 2001. Although language qualifications have been in place since then, many people who became citizens before that date have not acquired language skills. On this one, the hon. Gentleman needs to examine the beam in the eye of the Conservative party, rather than the mote in our eye.

Post Office Network

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Post Office. I am today publishing the Government’s proposals in a consultation document, copies of which will be available in the Vote Office in the usual way.

First, let me set out the background to the proposals that we make. There are 14,300 post offices in the UK, of which 480 are Crown post offices owned by the Post Office and 13,820 post offices are operated by postmasters and mistresses as private businesses. Historically, branches have been located where the sub-postmaster has chosen to set up business, rather than as a result of a strategic decision by the Post Office. The result is that in some places many branches are competing for the same customers, which is why the Post Office will take a more active role in ensuring that the right post office is in the right place—something the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters supports.

But the big problem is that people are simply not using post offices as they once did. Some 4 million fewer people are using post offices each week, compared with just two years ago. [Interruption.] The market in which the post office network operates has changed beyond recognition in the past 10 to 15 years. Traditionally, the post office was the place—[Interruption.]

Order. The best advice I can give the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) is to let the Secretary of State make his statement and let a rebuttal go from the Opposition Benches. We will then take questions. There is no point interrupting a Minister while he is making a statement.

Traditionally, the post office was the place where people went to post a letter, to pay their utility bills and to collect their benefits. Many still do, but increasingly people choose to send an e-mail or text, they pay bills by direct debit or internet banking, and they pay for their tax disc online and have pensions or benefits paid into their bank accounts. Of the 11 million pensioners in this country, 8.5 million have their pensions paid into a bank account. In fact, most people making a new state pension claim choose to do so in this way.

Inevitably, that has taken its toll on the Post Office. Last year the Post Office lost £2 million a week. This year the figure is £4 million. It is not surprising that both the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and the Select Committee on Trade and Industry have recognised that the present situation is, to use their word, “unsustainable”. So change is needed. Of the 14,300 businesses, only about 4,000 are commercially viable. Many never can be, nor should we, realistically, expect them to be.

The post office has a vital social and economic role. That is why we will continue to support a national network of post offices, and we are able to back them with the money that they need. The Government have invested more than £2 billion since 1999 to support the network. That has included £500 million for the Horizon programme, which provided computerised banking to all post office branches. I can tell the House that the Government will provide up to £1.7 billion until 2011 to support the Post Office, to support the network and to pay for restructuring to provide a firm basis for the future. The annual subsidy will remain in place.

Let me now turn to my proposals. We propose to introduce new access criteria for the postal services to ensure a national network. The access criteria will include provisions to protect customers in deprived urban areas and remoter rural areas. Details of the criteria covering rural and urban areas are set out in the consultation document, but I can tell the House that nationally, 99 per cent. of the population will be within 3 miles of a post office. This will mean the restructuring of the network of Crown and other post offices. The Post Office will consult widely before taking a decision on its proposals.

The Post Office will also provide services in different and more imaginative ways better to serve its customers’ needs. The way in which postal services are provided will also change. Government support will enable the Post Office to open at least 500 new Outreach locations to provide access to services for smaller and more remote communities, using mobile post offices and post offices within other locations such as in shops, village halls, community centres, or in travelling mobile vans. In some cases they will be able to deliver services directly to people’s homes. The Post Office is also determined to provide new services for its customers, particularly financial services. It is, for example, now the market leader in foreign exchange provision.

As a result of these changes, we expect that about 2,500 post office branches will close. However, the remaining network of around 12,000 will still have more branches than the entire UK banking network. After discussion with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, the Government have decided to provide compensation to those leaving the Post Office, based on a 28-month remuneration package.

The Government want to devolve greater responsibility for local decisions and to provide greater flexibility for local funding decisions. We will therefore consider what role local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might play in influencing how the postal services are best delivered in the future.

The Government intend to consult on these proposals, and the consultation will end in March. It is intended that the restructuring proposals will be implemented over an 18-month period starting in the summer of next year. The Post Office will ensure that it puts in place procedures to consult on restructuring proposals as widely as possible, providing people, including right hon. and hon. Members, with an opportunity to make representations and suggestions—in relation to outreach provision, for example.

The Government introduced the Post Office card account in 2003 to enable people to get their pensions and other benefits in cash at the post office. The Government remain committed to allowing people to get their pension or benefit in cash at the post office if they choose to do so, and a range of accounts available at the post office make that possible. The current Post Office card account contract ends in March 2010. I can tell the House that the Government have decided that they will continue with a new account after 2010. It will be available nationally and customers will be eligible for the account on the same basis as they are now.

European Union procurement rules leave us with no option but to tender competitively for this product, and we must ensure that best value for money for the taxpayer is achieved, but the Post Office is well placed to put in a strong bid given the size of the network and the access criteria that we are now introducing. In addition, cash will be available at the post office through some 4,000 free-to-use ATMs, which are being introduced across the network, as well as a range of interest accounts. Those will be attractive to the general public as well as those Post Office card account users who choose to build up balances on their card account.

The proposals that we make today will put the post office network on a stable footing and ensure that there is a national network across the country. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, initially in the weekend’s papers, then consistently through the media during the course of this week, and finally with the hard text this morning. I apologise to the House on behalf of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, who is unable to be here today because he has been overseas.

The statement is both disappointing and wrong. It will cause fear and anxiety to people, often the most vulnerable, in every part of the country. It will destroy many good businesses simply because the Government do not have a long-term vision for the future of the post office network. Does not the Secretary of State recognise that if the local post office closes, often the last shop in the village closes as well, and that a van visiting for a couple of hours a week is no replacement for a post office that is open full-time? Of course, the Government have form on this issue. About 4,000 post offices have already closed under this Government; taken with today’s statement, that means that in 10 years of Labour Government we will be losing more than one third of the post office network.

The Government’s decision on the Post Office card account is welcome. Indeed, it is what Conservative Members have been calling for since the Government announced their intention to scrap it. I am glad that the Government have yet again responded to ideas put forward by Conservative Members and changed their mind on this issue. It is important that the new Post Office card account scheme is genuinely available to existing customers and that the application process should not be unnecessarily complex. However, the Secretary of State said that the contract for the new account may not go to the Post Office. Can he tell the House how many more post offices will have to close if the Post Office does not win this vital contract?

We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to our sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, who provide such a fantastic service to their local communities. They tell us that they do not want to depend on subsidy but want to have the opportunity to do more business and to serve their customers—yet that is exactly what the Government are denying them in today’s statement, which is based on how many post office closures the Secretary of State thinks that he can get away with, not a real business case or an understanding of what consumers, especially the most vulnerable in our society, want and need. His vision is to have fewer post offices providing fewer services to fewer people.

The statement leaves many questions unanswered. When does the Secretary of State expect to publish a full list of the branches that are to close? Does he expect closures to be made disproportionately in rural areas? How will the process of selecting branches to be closed be carried out? Will the Post Office identify the branches to close, or will it allow sub-postmasters to volunteer for closure? How has the number of 2,500 been reached? Is it true, as reported in the press, that the Post Office wanted to close 7,000 of the 14,000 sub-post office branches? Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier are doing a remarkable job in trying to turn around the Royal Mail, but the Government appear to be determined to make them the fall guys for their own lack of vision.

The Secretary of State says that compensation will be paid where a post office closes. Can he confirm media reports that a sum of up to £70,000 is being considered? Does he anticipate continuing uncompensated closures? Will there be local consultation about possible closures? What will a local community have to prove to avert a closure? Indeed, will it have any say at all? What will the situation be if someone wants to reopen a post office that has been closed as part of this process or wants to open up a new one nearby? Would they be allowed to do so? He says that the annual subsidy will remain in place. Will that be at the same level as now for every year until 2011? Does the figure of £1.7 billion that he announced include compensation to those postmasters who close their post offices, and if not, how much extra will be made available for the compensation package?

We accept that Government and business must deliver their services in the most cost-efficient way, but the Government seem content merely to manage the decline of the post office network when they should be trying to bring new business opportunities to it. They should be announcing that they will allow post offices full access to working with carriers other than the Royal Mail. They should be announcing that they will work with local councils to encourage them to offer more council services through post offices. They should be doing more to give post offices the flexibility to offer a much wider range of business services than they envisage. They should be acting to prevent the Royal Mail from poaching businesses away from sub-post offices by undercutting the prices that they can charge for postage.

While the Government fail to come forward with policies to give post offices a better future, the Prime Minister blames it all on the customer. How can he say that, when it is his Government who have taken away £168 million of business from post offices this year?

The statement is a missed opportunity for the post office network, but worse than that, it is a tragedy for those who depend on it and the communities that will lose a vital piece of their economic and social structure. It brings us no closer to a sustainable post office network; as a result, we are destined to more years of uncertainty, decline and dissatisfaction.

If the hon. Gentleman has been reading about these matters for the past week, he seems singularly unprepared for today. I am bound to say that I am confused. He seems to be saying at one and the same time that no post offices should close and that 7,000 should close, which is what he says the Royal Mail wanted. He must be aware that post offices have been closing for years. During the time that his party was in office, 3,500 post offices closed in a completely haphazard way with no help being given to enable them to restructure.

Let me deal with one fundamental point. It is a matter of fact that, for various reasons, people’s shopping habits and banking habits have changed—for example, they are using the internet more—and that is affecting every single business in the land. It is completely irresponsible simply to ignore that and hope that it will go away. People had the option of paying their benefits or pensions into a bank account during the Tory Government years as much as they have had that option during the years that we have been in power. As more and more people get bank accounts, they are asking that their money be paid into them. It is our job to respond to that and to support the Post Office.

Let me make another point to the Tories. I said today that we are ready to put £1.7 billion into the Post Office. If the hon. Gentleman’s position is that there should be no closures, he has to tell us where he would find the additional money to go into the network, especially given that his party is committed to £20 billion-worth of tax cuts, as well as unfunded, uncosted spending commitments across the board.

The hon. Gentleman raised several specific matters, which I shall tackle. I agree that we, along with the Post Office, must do our best to get more business into the Post Office. That is why the new chief executive is doing more to get additional financial services business into the Post Office. I have already mentioned foreign exchange, which is extremely important business. I agree—and said in my statement—that we should encourage local councils to do more business through post offices if they can. Our commitment today to continue with the Post Office card account will go a long way towards encouraging people to use post offices.

The hon. Gentleman asked about consultation. There will be a consultation for three months on the principles that I set out. After that, assuming that we decide to proceed, the Post Office will determine the post offices that need to be in the network. It must be for the management of the Post Office to decide about the appropriate network.

The hon. Gentleman asked about those who volunteer to go. We believe that many postmasters and mistresses want to go. The consultation document makes it clear that the Post Office will try to match those who want to leave the service with its rationalisation of the network.

Let me emphasise to hon. Members that the Post Office has a problem and it is up to the Government of the day to try to help manage it. We are willing to do that and we have the means to do it. That is the difference between us and the Opposition.

It is a pity that the Secretary of State did not mention that the Government are taking away business from the Post Office. Will he give us a commitment today that he will work with all Departments as well as local authorities to put back some of the business that has been taken away or at least make it easier for people to use the post office? He also knows that the consultation will be perceived by the 4 million people who signed the petition—and the many millions who did not, but want to keep their post offices open—as nothing more than something that will be listened to but ignored. If many thousands of people throughout the country are prepared literally to go out on the streets to support as well as to use their post offices, will he agree that the sustainable Post Office must continue and that the Government will go back on today’s statement?

On my hon. Friend’s last point, of course the Government will listen to representations made in the consultation. However, I emphasise that nobody—well, I cannot say “nobody” because my hon. Friend disagrees—but most people, including the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, recognise that the problem needs to be tackled. Ignoring it, hoping that it will go away or that something will turn up will not do.

My hon. Friend mentioned Government business. If I said at the Dispatch Box, “From now on, people will not be allowed to have their money paid directly into their bank accounts”, people would justifiably complain. The problem that the Post Office faces is that many people who used to go to the post office to cash their giros, get their pensions and so on are choosing to do things differently. Another example is renewing tax discs on cars. People can choose to do it in the post office or online. Choice is right but the fact that the Government are making £1.7 billion to support the network shows our determination to maintain a national network, which will have 12,000 branches—more than the total of all the bank branches in the country.

May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement but tell him how angry he has made millions of people throughout the country, including pensioners, whom the Government bullied into moving their pensions into bank accounts? Does he realise that he is sounding the death knell for thousands of local shops, rural businesses and communities?

The Government are trying to blame the public for post office losses but will the Secretary of State tell us the value of Government business withdrawn by Ministers from post offices since 1997? Post offices used to get 60 per cent. of their income from Government business; soon it will be only 10 per cent. Surely that proves that post offices losses were made in Whitehall.

The Secretary of State told us how generous the Government were to keep a subsidy for the Post Office. Will he confirm the results of a Treasury study that shows that, for every pound of subsidy for post offices, the rural economy benefits from between £2 and £4? Has any new study been undertaken of the high economic and social returns from the subsidy? Will he publish those studies?

The Secretary of State waxed lyrical about his proposed innovations to keep some limited postal services in remoter places. Why are his ideas so weak? How can we be sure that the policy will bring the new services and products that the Post Office needs? Why is he keeping Post Office Ltd under the control of the Royal Mail Group? He says that there are plans for new parcel pick-up services linked to mail order companies. That is great if it happens. However, does he not realise that Royal Mail Group puts restrictions in its contracts with post offices that are designed to benefit Royal Mail at the expense of sub-postmasters? Will he stop that?

There is a huge hole in the heart of the statement—the Secretary of State’s failure to say anything about the future of Royal Mail. Will he confirm that its financial future is grim and that, on top of a massive pensions deficit, Royal Mail is losing huge amounts of business to private competitors? Will he therefore explain why he has failed yet again to make a final decision on the draft Royal Mail package that was produced more than seven months ago? Is not the truth that he will not stand up to pressure from the unions and Labour Back Benchers, and that he rejected the idea of an employee share ownership trust, which Liberal Democrats and Royal Mail management proposed, because of how it would look for the Chancellor when he needs some votes? Is not his failure to make the tough decision to sell shares in Royal Mail the genuine reason why he cannot offer the freedoms and the £2 billion investment fund for post offices that we propose, for which there is a hard-nosed economic and social case?

The statement and the Government give us the worst of all possible worlds. The Government are betraying our post offices, the Royal Mail and local communities throughout the country.

I suspect that many postmasters listening to the hon. Gentleman will despair of any coherent policies from the Liberal Democrats. His proposal appears to be to break up the Royal Mail Group. He complains about competition, yet under Liberal Democrat proposals for privatisation, there would presumably be more competition. He is completely inconsistent. His party would not have the money to support the post office network because Liberal Democrat spending commitments do not add up.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the annual subsidy to support the network. It will remain in place throughout the next spending period and it will be needed beyond that. We are prepared to maintain it, yet the hon. Gentleman reverts to the point about the Government taking away business. Most of the business that has gone stems from the decreasing number of people who get their benefits or pensions from the post office. People have been choosing not to do that for the past20 years—it has not happened recently.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the ability to use the internet to renew tax discs. Is he saying that people should not be allowed to do that? It would be astonishing if he told his constituents who use that facility that they cannot do so. Surely all hon. Members, whatever our party, must recognise that changes are taking place in society. People are doing things differently but we want to maintain a national post office network and we need to support it. That means that the Government of the day must find the money to do it. We are willing to do that and to support the Post Office to make the changes that it wants to make.

As for the Royal Mail, the hon. Gentleman must have missed a rather big statement—one of the first that I made as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—in which we announced a major package of financial support for the Royal Mail Group in May.

Order. Many hon. Members wish to catch my eye and the main business of today is still to follow. I remind hon. Members of Mr. Speaker’s ruling that Back Benchers are limited to one supplementary question.

What will be the criteria for the Post Office account card when it is retendered? Will a minimum number of outlets need to be part of the network, and will that minimum number allow more than one organisation, in addition to the Post Office, to bid for it?

I shall be brief, too, Madam Deputy Speaker, in the spirit of your remarks. It is intended that the new card account will be subject to same criteria and access arrangements as at present.

My constituency stretches over 900 square miles of the most remote part of the Pennine dales. The National Audit Office report on tackling pensioner poverty showed that pensioners’ take-up of benefits is lowest in precisely such deeply rural communities. When the Secretary of State considers which post offices will remain, and the configuration of such outreach services, will he bear in mind the crucial importance of safeguarding the interests of those most vulnerable members of the community? Will he also bear it in mind that that stable base for local services cannot be replaced by a fleeting weekly visit by a van?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that a stable network is important, especially in rural areas, and that is precisely what I want to achieve. If we did not take the action that I propose today, we would not have the stability that the Post Office itself wants. He also makes a fair point about pensioners, and we want to make sure that those who are entitled to the pension credit or to any other such help should be able to get it.

I thank my right hon. Friend for continuing the subsidy for rural post offices after 2008 and announcing the successor to the Post Office card account after 2010. Under the urban reinvention programme, residents of Doxey near Stafford found that their post office was closed because the operator was willing to take the leaving package. Will he ensure this time that the willingness of an operator to take the money will not of itself be the reason to close a post office?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I want to make sure that the Post Office has a coherent national network. While a number of postmasters and mistresses want to go, it might not always be possible to align that wish with the operational needs of the Post Office. It is therefore important that the Post Office manages the scheme. Undoubtedly, therefore, some people who want to go might not be able to do so, as it is important to have a national network.