House of Commons
Thursday 25 January 2007
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
With debt repayments as a proportion of income at 8.9 per cent., in contrast to 15 per cent. at the peak in 1990, the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England have both said that the impact on macro-economic policy is small. However, to protect the most vulnerable citizens subject to illegal money lenders, I can announce that, as part of our financial advice and inclusion programme, we will extend to every region of the country projects to improve advice, and to expose and secure higher prosecutions of people who are illegally charging exorbitant rates of interest.
I thank the Chancellor for his answer, but I find it hard to believe that this issue does not have an impact on the macro-economy. According to Credit Action, total personal debt in 2006 was a staggering £1.25 trillion—a figure that has doubled in the last 10 years. Why has the Chancellor failed over the last 10 years to address this very real personal and economic problem? Also, can he tell us why it has taken so—
The Bank of England survey on household finances says that debt problems
“are unlikely to have large implications for monetary policy because any effect they might have had on aggregate consumer spending is likely to have been relatively small”.
As for the issue of debt, there are 1.8 million more home owners in this country with mortgages, but I see that as one of the Government’s achievements, not something that we should be criticised for.
Is it not time that some balance was restored on this issue? Are not total household assets in this country worth £7 trillion, and have not real incomes increased by 65 per cent. since 1997, allowing for personal debt? The big issue is about those who are excluded from the financial community. I know that the Government are hoping to tackle the problem in their 10-year programme for financial inclusion, but can the Chancellor provide some comfort this morning that the part of the community that is excluded financially—and also socially—will be incorporated in the coming years?
I know that my right hon. Friend has taken a big interest in these matters. We must do more to help people who are either subject to illegal money lending or lack the advice and expertise that they need to help them make their personal decisions. That is where the resources are going. We are providing more resources for help with financial inclusion, more help with money advice and more support to organisations that provide such advice. The crackdown on illegal money lenders, which started in two areas of the country and was extended to another three, making five, will now be extended to every region. With the local authority working with the police for higher prosecutions, we can send out a signal that we are not going to tolerate illegal money lenders charging exorbitant rates of interest, often running into hundreds of per cent. We will continue that crackdown, but I have to say that the economy’s success over the last 10 years is such that people’s real living standards have risen, with wages going up by 48 per cent. over the last 10 years and consumer price index inflation by only 18 per cent.
Measures to tackle predatory loan sharks are obviously welcome across the political spectrum, but will the Chancellor tell the House why average levels of household indebtedness are so much higher in Britain than in almost all our European neighbours?
I have just given the House the figures. As a proportion of income, debt in this country is something in the order of 8.9 per cent. In the early 1990s, it was in the order of 15 per cent. Mortgage lending as a proportion of household incomes is around 15 per cent., whereas in the early 1990s it was something in the order of 30 per cent. The situation as a proportion of household incomes is far better now than it was, so the hon. Gentleman should be congratulating us on our economic performance.
One issue raised by both illegal money lending and certain instances of people having been given bad advice is the need for proper regulation of the financial services industry. I had hoped that there was an all-party consensus that that should happen. Unfortunately, the Conservative report on financial services and economic competitiveness says that we should
“allow people to buy and sell products that are not regulated if they have signed to do so”.
That would be a recipe for more people falling into debt, more people being exploited and more people being subject to unregulated behaviour that would lead them into being far worse off than they are now.
Has the Chancellor had the opportunity to make any assessment of the impact on personal debt of tax credit overpayments? Given that during his time in India, the right hon. Gentleman compared himself not only to Gandhi but to Lady Thatcher and Winston Churchill, could he use those great abilities, before he becomes Prime Minister and moves on from the Treasury, to resolve the outstanding problems in the tax credit system?
The hon. Gentleman will know that as a result of the rises in child benefit and child tax credit, 700,000 children have been taken out of poverty. As a result of the changes that we have made, poverty among children—which trebled under the Conservative Government—has been falling under this Government. The hon. Gentleman should be applauding us for our policy on tax credits, which is taking more and more people out of poverty, instead of criticising us.
Personal debt can be either secured or unsecured. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether there are significant differences in the overall growth of the two kinds of debt?
Consumer debt—consumer credit—is rising a lot faster than it was, and I am concerned enough about some of the arrangements that individual consumers and citizens enter into to look at what more we can do in relation to financial advice, to giving people specific help through the different agencies that are available, and to cracking down on illegal moneylenders. It is true that the overall level of personal debt has had a limited effect on the macro-economic management of the economy, but it is also true that when people fall into difficulty, they need more help. I hope that there will be consensus that we should do more to help people in that position.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said this week that the rising cost of living and stagnating real incomes are causing personal debt problems for the poorest families. Will the Chancellor confirm that inflation in Britain is now double the average of the developed world, and double the level that he inherited? A simple “yes” will do.
Inflation is 3 per cent. Average inflation under the Conservatives was 6 per cent. Inflation in the United States of America has risen as high as 4.3 per cent., and it has been above 3 per cent. in the euro area. In another G7 country, Canada, it has been above 4 per cent. Our record of keeping inflation low throughout the past 10 years is the reason why we have had lower interest rates than other countries, along with 10 years of unparalleled sustained growth. The hon. Gentleman should be congratulating us on that.
The Chancellor talks about the previous Government, then goes round telling newspaper editors how much he admires Margaret Thatcher—along with Mahatma Gandhi, who presumably taught him all about peaceful non-co-operation with the rest of the British Government. The facts are that inflation is double the level that he inherited, the real cost of living is rising even faster, personal debt is at record levels, unemployment has been rising in Britain but falling in the rest of the world, and real living standards for millions of families are now falling. The Chancellor blames the Prime Minister for everything else that is going wrong under this Government, but who is to blame for this?
We are about to enter the 40th quarter of sustained economic growth under this Government. No other Government in the industrial history of this country have achieved that. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to list facts, that should be the first one. The second is that there are now 2.5 million more people in work. The third, as far as living standards are concerned, is that wages have gone up by 48 per cent. under this Government, and inflation under the consumer price index has gone up by less than 20 per cent. As for the record of the Conservative party, the hon. Gentleman should read out his own speeches to the House, because he told the City, but has not yet told the House:
“We still lag a long way behind the Labour party when it comes to public confidence in our ability to manage the economy.”
That is the truth.
Personal Inflation Calculator
The specifications for the Office for National Statistics personal inflation calculator have been, and continue to be, matters for the national statistician, although I checked last night and there are already 23 categories of spending in the calculator, with education costs included in the “other” category.
Will the Minister confirm that even on his preferred measure of inflation—which does not reflect the reality faced by many families, whose experience is much worse—inflation is at its highest for 15 years, double the OECD average and double what it was when the Government came into office?
It is true that inflation has been going up across the world. It has been driven by energy prices, a hot summer and food prices. If the hon. Gentleman studies the economic data rather than the briefs that he has been handed, he will see that the peaks, and the instability, in inflation have been higher in other countries, and that we have had low stable inflation here. Inflation is now historically low and stable here compared with the levels under the Conservative Government, which averaged more than 6 per cent. and peaked at more than 20 per cent.
Will my hon. Friend not only include data on university fees but trumpet the success of variable fees, which have delivered to universities a new stream of income and made it possible to employ university teachers and pay them well? They have been an absolute success story, which is admired by countries all over the world.
As Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, my hon. Friend analyses such policy areas closely. Like me, he will find it interesting that Conservative Members are not raising questions about inflation and cost pressures for families in relation to the price of fuel, and they are not noting the recently falling prices of clothing, mobile phones and consumer electronics. Instead they are talking about school fees, which are paid by fewer than 1 in 100 of the population covered by the retail prices index.
Obviously, as student fees rise, student debt rises too. The Chancellor will be well aware that many students pay their way through university via part-time work. Has he estimated how many might be at risk of not being able to pay their way through university via work if growth falters in the coming months?
It is right in principle that people who benefit from the university education system should contribute to the cost of that education. More people are going through university than at any time before, and some of them choose to work to help to pay their way. That has always been the case. The proof of the policies in place is whether more people are going to university and getting the training and opportunities that increasingly they need in the modern economy and the modern world—and the short answer to that is yes.
As was confirmed yesterday, growth in 2006 was, as the Government forecast, 2.7 per cent. Exports are rising at a rate of 4.5 per cent. a year, investment by 5 per cent. a year and business investment by more than 8 per cent. I call on work forces in the public sector to recognise that discipline on pay settlements, founded on our inflation target of 2 per cent., will be central to stable and sustained growth in the future.
Do not those figures illustrate the underlying and long-term strength of the British economy, in sharp contrast to the predictions of the Conservative party? Whether they are giving us doom and gloom or boom and bust, the Conservatives have demonstrated once and for all that they cannot be trusted with the reins of government.
We would all say that the economic growth figures are positive. In large part, however, they are due to the effect of migration. Given the skills gap and increasing unemployment among the UK’s indigenous population, what does the Chancellor suggest to ensure that not just the 50 per cent. who go to university but, perhaps more importantly, the many who will never aspire to go to university, have proper skills so that they can do the jobs that are being taken by Poles, Lithuanians and the like, and get back into the workplace at the earliest opportunity?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should invest more in education and skills in the economy. We have doubled expenditure per pupil in our schools and achieved higher standards, and we have now published the Leitch report on adult skills. I think that he is really referring to vocational skills, which we can expand, first through the national employer training programme, and secondly through other measures to help people at school get apprenticeships and vocational qualifications. The dividing line between the two parties is that we are prepared to make the investment, but the Conservatives’ third fiscal rule would mean a cut in investment in education. That is the difference.
May I praise my right hon. Friend for doing a great job? He is one of the greatest Chancellors ever, and he has ensured that my region has benefited from great policies, unlike the boom and bust polices of the Conservative party. May I tell him the good news that manufacturing industry in the north-east, which accounts for 20 per cent. of employment, has increased its output by 2.5 per cent. in 2006? What policies does he have in the pipeline to ensure that that growth continues in 2007 and for many years to come?
The answer is the stable economic growth into an 11th and a 12th year that we have achieved under this Labour Government. I am glad that my hon. Friend said what he did. He was simply repeating what the Conservative higher education spokesman said only a few days ago—that young people
“have no trouble getting a job…We have almost full employment in this country, and they will go on to do fantastic things in this vibrant low-inflation economy.”
That means that those on the Front Bench of the Conservative party, as well as those on the Back Benches, disagree with the shadow Chancellor.
When the Chancellor was in India, did he notice that one thing we have in common with that country—apart from steady and respectable rates of economic growth—is an utterly abysmal infrastructure, as we were all reminded yesterday? How do the Government and the Chancellor propose to achieve the very high level of investment in British transport infrastructure that will be required, given that the debt-to-GDP ratio he has set is already very close to the 40 per cent. limit?
By the hon. Gentleman’s party acquiring a sensible economic policy that is line with ours, so that we can support sensible levels of investment in infrastructure and the economy. When we came to power in 1997, public sector net investment was 0.7 per cent. of GDP. It is now nearly 2¼ per cent. of GDP, it has risen every year, and it will continue to rise in the next few years. Investment in infrastructure and transport is running at £18 billion, investment in schools is running at £6 billion, and investment in the health service is running at more than that. It is possible to produce such figures only by achieving the right balance between tax, spending and borrowing, and by having a sensible economic policy. I urge the hon. Gentleman to go back to the drawing board with his.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the very same people who opposed the policies that have led to this economic growth now believe that the economic growth in India is a threat. Leaving aside an unhealthy interest in “Big Brother”, what opportunities does the economic growth in India give the United Kingdom?
I said in India that we wished to double our exports to the country in the next few years and quadruple them by 2020, and I believe that that is possible. We signed a number of agreements in India, including public-private partnership agreements. As my hon. Friend suggests, by investing in infrastructure India will benefit from the expertise that we have built up in the United Kingdom. Greater collaboration between India and Britain on science and technology and universities, and, I believe, the strength of the relationship that we are building with India again, will serve both economies well—but both countries realise that economic strength can only be built on a basis of stability. And my hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Conservative party opposed the independence of the Bank of England.
As the Chancellor is no doubt aware, while the Treasury is right to measure aggregate growth rates, growth is not uniform throughout the United Kingdom. It is highly likely that growth in the Dundee economy will be seriously dented by the recent announcement of more than 1,100 job losses. Is the Chancellor prepared to undertake an assessment of the impact on growth of job losses in the Dundee economy, and in other economies that are blighted in a similar way, to establish what targeted measures might be introduced in such circumstances?
If any redundancies happen, as they have at NCR, it is to be regretted, but I think the hon. Gentleman is giving us only one side of the picture. Unemployment in Dundee has more than halved under this Government, and in recent years there has been a phenomenal expansion in jobs created around the university, in life sciences and in new technology. Dundee is benefiting from winning money from United Kingdom research councils and United Kingdom research budgets. The policy that would be most damaging for Dundee is the hon. Gentleman’s policy of separating Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom, which the leader of his party now believes could happen without the need for a Scottish pound. That is completely unrealistic. I think the that hon. Gentleman, like the Liberal Democrats, should go back to the drawing board and think again.
Three hundred and ninety-five tonnes of gold were sold from the reserves between July 1999 and March 2002. The proceeds were in three tranches of $1.1 billion, $1.3 billion and $1.1—$3.5 billion in total. The purpose was a restructuring of the foreign currency and gold reserves aimed at achieving a better balanced portfolio—something that other countries are also achieving. The sterling value of the gold sold has risen to $4.2 billion, but a one-off reduction in risk of approximately 30 per cent. was achieved, as measured by value at risk, and the independent National Audit Office concluded that the sale had achieved value for money.
As the Chancellor obviously has great difficulty in admitting the scale of this fiasco, will he confirm the Treasury’s own figure that the average price obtained during those gold sales was $275 an ounce, whereas the price today is $642 an ounce? That amounts to a total loss to the Treasury of more than $4.5 billion. As the Chancellor was warned at the time about the recklessness of those sales, does he agree that the depths of incompetence reached in that fiasco rule him out of being considered for further office?
What the right hon. Gentleman fails to tell us is that we restructured the portfolio, and what causes him most grief is the fact that one of the items that we bought was euros, which have increased in value since the purchase, at greater benefit to the Treasury. I am not going to take any lectures from the right hon. Gentleman, who was a member—in fact, for a time he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Lamont—of the Government who were in office when £28 billion of our reserves were sold on Black Wednesday, a total of £40 billion of reserves were sold after that, and £3.3 billion was lost to the United Kingdom. That was the biggest fiasco in history, and the right hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that achieving the shrewd and successful management of the economy over the past 10 years has required more than looking at three years of gold reserve prices? Will he further confirm that he has absolutely no intention of introducing a third fiscal rule that will wipe £22 billion from this country’s public spending?
The most damaging thing we could do in terms of the stability of the economy would be to adopt a fiscal rule that would require us to cut public expenditure by £18 billion tomorrow. Conservative Members would have to explain to their constituents about the schools and hospitals that they were closing and the nurses and teachers whom they were laying off. We will continue with our prudent management of the economy, and that includes restructuring the reserves of the economy in such a way that we are not dependent on one volatile item.
In his last months as Chancellor, will the right hon. Gentleman have the frankness to apologise to the British people for selling, despite my warnings at the time, almost half of our gold reserves at the lowest gold price for 25 years, and just before there was a sustained rise? I warn him that I intend to do my best to haunt him throughout his premiership by repeatedly reminding him of that folly.
I look forward to continuing interventions from the hon. Gentleman while I hold the position of Chancellor. Almost every other country has done exactly what we have been doing to restructure and rebalance our reserves. It is the right thing to do; it is right not to be dependent on one volatile currency. The results were tested by the National Audit Office and it said that it was the right decision, and represented value for money. If I had taken the hon. Gentleman’s advice, which he gave me very forcefully—indeed, even more forcefully in 1997—I would not have made the Bank of England independent; he said that that would lead to deflation, unemployment and ruin for the British economy. The opposite has happened.
By borrowing only to invest and maintaining net debt at a prudent level, the Government have succeeded in delivering unprecedented economic stability and the longest period of economic expansion on record, while at the same time correcting the legacy of under-investment that we inherited 10 years ago.
The comprehensive spending review will be the next opportunity to demonstrate how increased investment and public service reform can strengthen our public services and the economy. Will the Minister meet a delegation from the black country to examine proposals for spending review investment that will boost skills, improve the transport network, reclaim brownfield sites and provide more housing, all of which support the Government’s economic priorities? Can I also ask him to confirm that—
I should be delighted to meet the delegation. We will certainly not adopt the Conservative party’s proposals, which would so badly undermine investment in exactly the priorities that my hon. Friend has highlighted—skills, transport and regeneration. We will maintain investment in those areas, which are crucial to the economy’s future, in the CSR announcements later this year.
It is undoubtedly true that the very dramatic increases in public expenditure have increased the inflationary pressures in the economy as well. Since the Chancellor has twice today reminded the House that we had reservations about the independence of the Bank of England, may I remind him that we had reservations about the proposals that he tabled in the Bank of England Bill because the Bank would not be independent enough? [Interruption.] Oh yes, it is true. We proposed longer-term limits for the Monetary Policy Committee. Is it not now time to strengthen its independence, so that it can no longer be interfered with by the Chancellor?
The hon. Gentleman has given us a very interesting rewriting of history. It sounds as though what he wants is a European central bank. We have an extremely good record on inflation, which is 3 per cent. and coming down. Of course, in 1997 our economy was the most unstable of all the developed countries regarding inflation; today, it is the most stable. That is a result of the success of this Government’s policies over the last 10 years.
Increased resources to schools in Salford in the last 10 years have resulted in an improvement in GCSE results. The number of pupils achieving good results has increased from 30 per cent. 10 years ago to 50 per cent. now. Among those schools is St. George’s, which achieved a 10 per cent. increase despite serving a disadvantaged area that is in the top 3 per cent. of the most disadvantaged areas in the country. Will my right hon. Friend underline his and the Treasury’s commitment to continuing to provide that level of resources, so that our pupils and teachers can continue to make such improvements?
I very much welcome the success in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and, indeed, across the country. Of course, that is a consequence of the fact that, whereas our education spending was among the lowest in the developed world 10 years ago, today it is among the highest. That is very good news for the future of our economy, and yes, I can confirm that we will maintain that priority in the years ahead. We will not be adopting a third fiscal rule, which would reduce spending this year by £28 billion and put all that progress at risk.
Might not different levels of public spending in different parts of the economy lead to a sense of grievance? Is the Chief Secretary aware that in the same edition of The Daily Telegraph in which the Chancellor argued the case for the Union, there also appeared an article setting out that the frail and elderly in England paid three times as much for their residential care as the frail and elderly in Scotland, on top of having to pay for the personal care that comes free in Scotland? Is this right?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is calling for more spending in that area. He may well be, and if he is, he is joining his Front-Bench colleagues in that regard, who, since I have been Chief Secretary, have called for more spending for more social workers, more nurses and twice as many school nurses—at the same time as calling for a third fiscal rule that would dramatically cut spending on all those services. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the framework that we have put in place and the economic success that that has achieved, which has allowed us to continue to invest across the board, including in social care.
In the next spending review, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the departmental public service agreements include a full analysis of how they will meet the new gender equality duty? At the moment, we are missing out on the skills, experience and potential contribution of a substantial part of the population, as identified in the Women and Work Commission report.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do need to do better in that area, and on a number of other equality issues across the economy in the future. We shall indeed address all those issues in the delivery plans that will go with the public service agreement targets.
Yesterday the Home Secretary wrote to judges asking them to jail fewer people because of prison overcrowding. Does the Chief Secretary think that the Chancellor now regrets deciding last year to freeze the Home Office’s budget in real terms over the next spending round, before he settled other Departments’ budgets? Does the Chief Secretary agree with the Home Secretary that the Home Office is not fit for purpose?
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary simply reminded judges and magistrates of the existing position. The reality is that spending on and investment in prisons has been rising, and will rise further. More places will be provided. If the hon. Gentleman is now calling for even more spending on prisons, he needs to explain to the House how that is compatible with also calling for a third fiscal rule that would dramatically reduce spending. There is a fundamental incoherence in the policy of Opposition Front Benchers that needs to be explained.
In my constituency, Thorn Lighting is developing a new technology—which will mean more jobs—through a partnership with Durham university. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is record spending on science under this Government that will secure the long-term future of the economy?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The investment that we have made in science is fundamental to our future economic success. Durham has a great record in that area, and I pay tribute to the work that she has done and the interest that she has shown in that. We need to continue that investment in order to secure our long-term economic success and to maintain the record of stability that has been so important across the economy over the past decade.
As we set out in the pre-Budget report, total net borrowing will fall from £37 billion this year to £31 billion, and then to £27 billion, £26 billion, £24 billion and £22 billion, or from 2.3 per cent. of national income next year to 1.3 per cent. by 2011-12. Along with Canada, the UK is the only G7 country with net debt below 40 per cent.
The key point is that we stick closely to the rules that we have set out. The sustainable investment rule is that net debt will be kept at a sustainable level—below 40 per cent.—and it will be. It is below that at the moment and it will stay below. It will stabilise at about 38.5 per cent. I remind the hon. Gentleman that total net borrowing reached 7.8 per cent. of GDP under the last Government and will be 2.3 per cent. next year. However one looks at it, this Government’s record has been far better.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK’s borrowing requirement is affected by the strength of the UK car manufacturing industry, and does he further agree that the tax regime underpinning the manufacture and sale of 4x4 cars has a big impact on that sector? Would he or my right hon. Friend the Chancellor care to visit the very successful Land Rover plant on Merseyside, which produces both the Freelander 2 and the Jaguar X-type vehicles on the same production line at the same time—
If borrowing has been under such wonderful control, how does the Chief Secretary account for the fact that over the last decade sterling interest rates have been so much higher than dollar rates, yen rates and euro rates, including areas that are growing much faster than Britain?
Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that the International Monetary Fund said that “macroeconomic stability remains remarkable”. I suggest that he look at what interest rates were when he was a member of the Government. They were sky high, repossessions took place on an enormous scale and unemployment was also high. The claimant count has fallen for three months in a row and growth is at a higher level than we and others were expecting. We are determined to ensure that that impressive record continues.
My right hon. Friend will realise that borrowing is driven by expenditure. Before the Government borrow any more money, will they look at their public expenditure and the waste of money spent on raising economic understanding of the issues under discussion today? I am thinking particularly of the Short money.
I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s concern—he makes a very fair point. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced at the time of the pre-Budget report that during the years of the comprehensive spending review, every Department would achieve value-for-money savings of 3 per cent. year on year, with 5 per cent. savings in spending on administration. That shows that we are continuing to improve value for money in Government spending across the board, if not in the particular area to which he referred.
What would the Minister say to my constituent Mr. Roy Taylor, whose tax credit payments were stopped in August following a typing mistake by officials? He was told about the mistake but still received a repayment demand for more that £1,000. Is the system so flawed that officials send out repayment demands even when they know that they have made a mistake? That has caused enormous distress to my constituent, and to many other people in similar circumstances.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has written to me about this case, but if he has not I shall be happy to deal with any correspondence. However, I remind the House of what I have said many times—that many thousands of families in this country, including in his constituency, benefit from tax credits. They get the right money, at the right time. If that money were taken away, thousands of his constituents would find it very difficult to balance paid work and child care. It is about time that the hon. Gentleman recognised the benefits of the system, instead of concentrating on individual cases.
Does the Minister recall that I have written to her about people in my constituency being required to repay overpayments, even though HMRC has admitted that it was at fault, not my constituents? Will she think about this matter again? Is it not inherently unfair to require people to repay overpayments for which they are not responsible, but which the HMRC has admitted were caused by its own mistake?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the operational rules that apply when an error is entirely the fault of the Department, and when the person involved could have had no knowledge of it, are the same as those in the tax system. He will know, too, that the system has always worked that way and that similar rules applied under the previous Conservative Government. When claimants give the details of their income, those details are played back to them in an award notice. They are asked to check that notice and confirm that the information is correct. The procedures that have been put in place have increased the accuracy of the notices enormously. The rules are perfectly fair, and they have worked for decades in the tax system.
In my constituency, tax credits have played a vital part in taking thousands of families out of poverty, and they have enhanced the position of children in particular. However, one or two well-publicised mistakes by officials have undermined that success. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that everything is being done to refine the processes involved, so that the enormous benefit that tax credits offer is not brought into discredit?
Yes, I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend about that. The accuracy rates for processing have risen to 97.7 per cent., which means that the vast majority of people get their tax credits on time, and at the correct amount. He is right to point out that the system has contributed to lifting 700,000 children out of poverty and to helping families to care for their children while taking part in paid employment.
In answer to an earlier question, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said that tax credits had brought a lot of children out of poverty. Of course, they have also given women a great opportunity to get into work. However, there are issues concerning the clawback of overpayments. Can my right hon. Friend give me advice that I can pass on to my constituents on how they can appeal against an overpayment decision?
I am happy to advise my hon. Friend. The obligations of his constituents are to check that the information that they have given to the Department is correct and to notify the Department if their circumstances change. Where they dispute an overpayment, they can dispute it initially with the Department, then with the adjudicator and, if they are still dissatisfied, with the ombudsman.
Like other hon. Members, many of my constituents continue to suffer because of overpayment difficulties. I wish to raise one specific area. Does the Paymaster General agree that where a couple in an overpayment situation have separated and one has paid their share of what is due, it is invidious to pursue that person for the dues owed by their ex-partner, who has often separated in difficult circumstances?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point relating to particularly difficult circumstances that can occur when there was a joint assessment of two partners and one of them continues to receive tax credits when they are not entitled to. I agree that I need to look at that and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am doing so. However, when people make an application for tax credits, they do so jointly and accept joint responsibility for what is paid.
I have to admit that I am not clear what backlog of overpayments my hon. Friend is talking about. I presume that he is referring to the arrangement made to pay out at either 10 per cent., 25 per cent. or 100 per cent. and the arrangement for the hardship test to ensure that those who would suffer serious hardship as a result receive additional payments. That is proceeding well.
I must press the Paymaster General on the point raised about couples who split up. Recently, she admitted that the Treasury was pursuing 250,000 claims for tax credit overpayment against couples who have separated since the overpayments were made. That leaves thousands of women not only holding the baby, but struggling with their ex-partner’s tax credit overpayment debt as well. Are not some of the most vulnerable people in our community paying the price for the Chancellor’s chaotic tax credit system?
No. I am not sure what message the hon. Lady wants to send out. Is it that if a couple are overpaid and do not want to pay back their tax credits, they should split up? [Hon. Members: “No.”] There is a serious question about the application for tax credits when it is made by a couple. Some circumstances warrant further attention on policy grounds. I confirmed that I was doing my best to look at that. The hon. Lady has a cheek to raise a question on joint and several liability when her party, when in government, introduced it for the poll tax. Let us remember that two signatures go on the forms, the application is jointly made and the tax credits are jointly paid. If they are overpaid, they must be recovered.
May I point out the important linkage between the tax-credit-paid child care, the higher level child trust fund and Healthy Start vouchers, which have been well received. Whatever the problems of overpayment, they are vastly outweighed by the important practical help that tax credits and their link benefits have provided to some of my most needy constituents.
I agree with my hon. Friend. What the Opposition always refuse to recognise is the fact that 20 million people—6 million families, including 10 million children—are benefiting from tax credits. Four in 10 families pay no net tax as a result of tax credits. A family with two children on a single earner salary of £21,800 would have no tax liability until their income reached £420 a week. Those are the benefits of tax credits, but the Opposition do not want to recognise them because they are not committed to eradicating child poverty.
The Prime Minister told the House that people who had been overpaid tax credits would not have to repay them. The Revenue and Customs code of practice said that people would have to repay if it was their fault—Revenue and Customs always says it is their fault. The adjudicator says that Revenue and Customs is abiding by its code of practice, so that is all right. The ombudsman says that the adjudicator is right, so that is all right. So when the Paymaster General gets to question 9, will she just say yes?
When I get to question 9, I shall answer question 9. I draw to the hon. Gentleman’s notice the parliamentary ombudsman’s press release, issued on 13 July 2006, in which she commented on the
“positive way in which HM Revenue and Customs had worked constructively with her office on the issue of tax credits”.
She noted that
“substantial changes to the administration system”
had been agreed. They are progressing, and she is happy with that progress.
Children with Disabilities
The Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills are jointly reviewing how improved services can improve the life chances of disabled children and their families. We published an interim discussion paper on 9 January. The review will report in the spring, with recommendations to inform the comprehensive spending review.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Given that in 2002 the Audit Commission identified a shortfall of specialist provision to meet low incidence needs, which tend to be severe, complex and even multi-faceted, will he make it a priority to increase specialist provision through more units attached to mainstream schools, the use of specialist regional centres and the imposition of a new duty on local education authorities and primary care trusts to work together, so that children with disabilities receive all the help that they so desperately need?
I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman the assurance for which he asks. In the review, we shall look hard at the issues he raises. Anybody who heard his speech in the debate on those issues on Tuesday will know that he speaks with authority from both his personal experience and his work as head of the all-party group on speech and language difficulties. We are working hard on the review. We shall need to improve capacity and we need more early intervention and better respite care. We need better co-ordination of services and support for parents, and we need to make sure that there is greater consistency across the country. We also need to do more to help children with multiple needs and the severest disabilities, of whom there are now more in our society. I want better working between local authorities and primary care trusts across the country. In my constituency, the process works well—but there are many examples of it not working as well as it should, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall do everything we can to meet the needs of children and families that he has raised today.
I thank my hon. Friend for his encouragement for the all-party review of the issues, which reported in October. Given the input from parents, professionals and others, will he confirm that the recommendations of the review will be fully considered before the Government reach their conclusions? As it has been said that the review was transparent, evidence-based and ground-breaking, does he agree that it could be taken as a model for further parliamentary activity?
I am happy to do that. My right hon. Friend has worked on the issues over many years, especially with our hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on the parliamentary hearings, which were innovative and pioneering and involved Members on both sides of the House, as well as parents. Some important stories were told during those hearings and they gave rise to some important policy recommendations.
I can assure my right hon. Friend that when it comes to the final publication of the review, we will set out clearly in our document every recommendation he makes and show case by case and issue by issue how we will respond. I hope that we will able to respond to a number of recommendations made in the hearings in a way that gives hope and some certainty of improved services in the future to the families of disabled children.
What can the Economic Secretary offer in terms of hope or advice to my constituent, Mrs. Liz Brunt, who was very encouraged by the Government’s document “Every Child Matters”, but who finds that now that her learning-disabled son has left school, there are no opportunities for meaningful activity or work because the services are not there to provide them?
I understand the hon. Lady’s point. I am very proud to be associated with the “every disabled child matters” campaign. It is very important that disabled children form part of the wider work of the strategy.
The hon. Lady is also right to point to what happens on the transition to adulthood. As more children with complex disabilities survive into adulthood, it becomes an issue that we need to address. Indeed, it was raised by families and parliamentarians in the hearings, and it is a priority for the review. Such children go suddenly from the comfort of a school environment at the age of 15 or 16 and into the adult world at the age of 18. For the children and their parents nothing has changed, but they find that the services provided have changed profoundly and often in a way that is destabilising. I know from my experiences of talking to parents that we need to do better and I assure the hon. Lady that this issue is a priority for the review.
Claimants can appeal to the independent tribunal if they think their entitlement was incorrect and they should have been paid more than they were awarded. HMRC’s handling of a disputed overpayment can be reviewed by the adjudicator or through the parliamentary ombudsman. HMRC is exploring with the adjudicator whether she can go further and provide a fast-track review of disputed overpayment cases. There are plans to run a pilot test, and arrangements for that are being discussed.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The tax credit system has brought huge benefits to my constituents and I support it strongly. However, does she agree that the right of appeal to an independent tribunal over the recoverability of overpaid tax credits would make the system much fairer and much more acceptable to our constituents? Does she also agree that the suggestion is supported by the recent European ruling on the adequacies of judicial review as the only recourse where the issues are simply matters of fact and the credibility of witnesses? The right of appeal would give our constituents a chance to put their case.
I have to tell my hon. Friend that tax credits fully satisfy article 6 of the European convention on human rights. The details of the specific case that she has raised are set out in my written statement of 24 January 2007. People can appeal to an independent tribunal if they disagree with HMRC’s decision on entitlement, and that has always been the case.
Is it not disgraceful that, nearly two years after the ombudsman’s report, that is one of her recommendations that has still not been implemented? Will the Paymaster General explain why she has not yet implemented that recommendation? When will she implement it and all the other recommendations that are needed to give confidence to the low-income families who are suffering because of overpayments in the tax credit system?
As I said earlier, the Department stays in very close contact with the parliamentary ombudsman. Indeed, in her press release of July 2006 she complimented the Department both on its close working with her and on the progress made on her recommendations. If the hon. Gentleman cares to look at that in the Library, he will see that the ombudsman has also commented on the cases that she will take in future.
Air Passenger Duty
The changes to air passenger duty will secure resources in the coming spending round for our priorities on the environment and on transport.
I am grateful to the Financial Secretary for those comments. Given that this morning’s Treasury Select Committee report shows that there is legal uncertainty regarding the duty, will he confirm that proper legal advice was sought and obtained? In the interests of open and transparent government, will he publish that advice?
The announcement was made on 6 December, the duty point is take-off and the charge increase will come into effect on 1 February. It is perfectly normal to announce such tax changes in advance, and the way in which we have done that is perfectly legal. From 1 February, the change will have the full force of the law.
The Treasury Committee said definitively today:
“the liability to pay Air Passenger Duty at the new higher rates will effectively be incurred before the House of Commons has authorised the increase”.
The Chancellor is evidently too busy working out whether he supports England or Scotland in the World cup to bother with the conventions of the House. Will the Minister guarantee unequivocally that the APD increase on 1 February will be lawful?
The way in which we have announced and are implementing the rise is totally in line with the conventions of the House. It is precisely what we did when we announced in the 2005 pre-Budget report an increase in the rate of the supplementary charge on North sea oil, which was introduced with effect for accounting periods from 1 January 2006. The Budget resolutions were laid alongside the Budget that followed and that was legislated for in the Finance Bill. We are following precisely the same precedent and procedure with the proposals for the increase in air passenger duty.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 29 January—Remaining stages of the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill.
Tuesday 30 January—Opposition day [4th allotted day]. There will be a debate on education provision for children with special needs, followed by a debate entitled “The Government Decision on the Sale of a Radar System to Tanzania”. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.
Wednesday 31 January—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.
Thursday 1 February—A debate on “Defence in the World” on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 2 February—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the following week will include:
Monday 5 February—Second Reading of the UK Borders Bill.
Tuesday 6 February—Remaining stages of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill.
Wednesday 7 February—Opposition day [5th allotted day]. There will be a debate—or debates—on a Liberal Democrat motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 8 February—A debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Subject to be announced.
Friday 9 February—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 8 February will be:
Thursday 8 February—A debate on world-class skills for 2020—equipping the UK to compete in the global economy.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business.
Last week, I raised with the Leader of the House the question of the arrangements for Public Bill Committees. To ensure that the new procedures run as smoothly as possible, will he confirm that responsibility for deciding evidence sessions and witnesses should rest with the Programming Sub-Committee of the Public Bill Committee, and that the Public Bill Committee can take oral evidence at any time during the Committee stage of the Bill? Also, I understand that it has been proposed that there should be two weekends between the meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee and the first meeting of the Public Bill Committee, to give time for witnesses to be called. Sadly, that is not happening with the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. Will he confirm that that two-weekend separation should be the norm?
May we have a statement on the cost overruns on the Olympics? I have raised this matter before. On 6 July 2005, in response to a question from the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), the Leader of the House, who was then Foreign Secretary, said:
“the financial systems that are being put in place will be robust, as has been the planning that has already been done.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2005; Vol. 436, c. 416.]
When he said that, did he know that the Treasury had not decided whether VAT should be paid? May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, or from the right hon. Gentleman, as Chairman of the relevant Cabinet Sub-Committee, on the real cost of the Olympics and how they got the budget so wrong?
Yesterday, when challenged about plans to split the Home Office, the Prime Minister said:
“we will make an announcement to the House in the normal way.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 1413.]
Will the Leader of the House confirm that, when a decision is taken, there will be a statement to the House on the subject, and will he say whether that statement will be made before or after the announcement to the “Today” programme?
May we have a debate on personnel management in Government Departments, following today’s revelation, based on an internal Government report, that staff at the Treasury are suffering from low morale, and that one in 10 are worried about bullying? The report shows that more people have departed from the ministerial services team, which works closely with the Chancellor, than any other section. Does that not show that there are serious problems at the Treasury under the current Chancellor of the Exchequer?
Finally, last week, the Leader of the House referred to the dossier that I issued before Christmas, showing that there were 1,000 unanswered parliamentary questions in the last Session. He claimed then, and last week, that my figures were wrong. Sadly, he has been guilty of a certain amount of spin. Rather than going into all the details now, I will write to him, but to give just a taster, he said that an unanswered question about the number of pupils in each local authority in England who left school without any GCSE qualifications, excluding equivalents, since 1997 had indeed been answered. Well, it had not; the answer did not give the number of pupils, did not give a local authority breakdown, and used a different definition of qualifications.
The right hon. Gentleman also made no apology for the “proper” use of the Prorogation system. Is it really proper use of that system for an hon. Member who tables a question in February to be told, nine months later in November, that there has not been time to answer the question? I hardly think so. Is it really an excuse to say that some answers had not been published in Hansard? Written parliamentary answers should be available to all hon. Members and the public, and not just the Member who asked the question. If answers are not being published in Hansard, the House should know, and the right hon. Gentleman should do something about it.
Let me deal with the right hon. Lady’s questions in turn. First, I confirm that under the Standing Orders, it is for the Programming Sub-Committee to determine how many evidence sessions there are, and under Standing Orders the Committee can decide to take evidence at any stage. She has raised the matter with me privately, too. I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, and I know that she, too, is committed to making the system work. As a result of negotiations between the usual channels, an agreement that I think is satisfactory has been reached on the Bill in question.
One of the points that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made was that fewer Bills than had been anticipated would operate under the system. It is worth pointing out that when I put the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee to the House, I said that they would apply to all Bills introduced to the House after 1 January. In fact, the Bill that she asks about was introduced before then. It is a measure of my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip’s commitment that we have been anxious to start with that Bill. On the two-weekend separation, it is the rule that there should be two weekends between First Reading—the Bill’s introduction—and Second Reading, but that is not the rule for Committee stage. The Whips will do their best to ensure a reasonable period, but I do not promise two weekends. I doubt that that can be provided, but it depends on the exigencies of the timetable.
The hon. Gentleman makes the first of what will, no doubt, be many sedentary interventions in business questions. In my 18 years in opposition, I spent too much of my life on the Opposition Front Bench, having to deal with the Committee stage of Bills, and I can say that there were plenty of occasions on which Bills went straight into Committee after Second Reading, and straight out of Committee into Report. That happened all the time, so I think that this Government have probably been more reasonable.
On cost overruns in respect of the Olympics, the financial systems are indeed robust. Detailed discussions are taking place about some of the uncertainties in the financing of the Olympics—uncertainties that are inherent in any project of a similar scale and with a similar time scale, including the best-run of them. I am in close touch with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on the subject. I can tell the right hon. Member for Maidenhead that we will indeed make a statement to the House when matters are more settled.
On the proposals, which have yet to be agreed, to split the Home Office, there should be a statement in the House, and I very much hope that it is the House that hears it first, rather than the editors of the “Today” programme. Such is the nature of modern politics, however, that I cannot promise that, but I entirely accept the point made by the right hon. Lady.
The right hon. Lady also referred to an apparently leaked report about morale in the Treasury. All that I can say is that the Treasury has unquestionably been one of the most successful Government Departments in the past 10 years, as shown by the Government’s highly successful ability to deliver on the economy. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has just reminded the House, particularly Conservative Members, that we are about to enter the 40th successive quarter of economic growth under the Government—a record unrivalled by any British Government and almost any western Government since 1997. [Hon. Members: “Governments—plural.”] No, it is 40 successive quarters under this Administration since 1997. It is 58 quarters if we include the previous Administration, but I am very happy indeed to look at the first 10 years of the Conservative Administration. Of those 40 quarters, I recollect that there were a good 10 quarters in which there was no growth, and a good 10 quarters in the early 1980s and again in the late 1980s in which, far from any growth at all, there was a depression.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the dossier published in early November in which she said that there were 1,000 unanswered questions. It will be embarrassing for her—and some of us remember with acute embarrassment her research into the titles of pop songs, which she tried to name in July—but the research turned out to be wrong. I deprecate the practice of leaving any question unanswered, and I particularly deprecate the failure to answer a question tabled in February until November. That is quite unacceptable, and I have always made that clear. My colleagues are told in terms if there are such problems. I do not want any unanswered questions, but may I tell the right hon. Lady—she and I have discussed the matter with the Chairman of the Procedure Committee—that Ministers and officials have to work hard to answer all questions on time? It is an issue for the whole House, and it would affect any Government with whom she served, as the number of written questions has expanded, and expanded again. It has almost doubled in the past four years, so it is a serious issue, and the House as a whole needs to tackle it.
Will the Leader of the House find time, either next week or soon after, to consider the number of regulators operating in Parliament? Is he aware that the Electoral Commission commissioned an inquiry into its work—
Of course it is. It commissioned an inquiry into its work by the standards committee, which has reported. Is it not a case of one quango so far up another quango’s backside that they are examining each other’s entrails? Is it not time that we considered a regulator for the regulator?
No, I will not do so. It was a good idea, but it needs to be improved. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was established under the previous Government by Mr. Major, has made significant criticisms of the Electoral Commission, including the need to trim down, to be more focused in its work, and to ensure that its members include people with political experience so that it understands what it is doing, which is a good thing.
I am sure the Leader of the House is familiar with the practice in restaurants of putting little symbols on the menu to show which dishes are suitable for vegetarians, for coeliacs and so on. Will he consider a similar system for the Order Paper, so that debates are clearly marked as being suitable for the Prime Minister? Before yesterday’s debate, we were told at different points by the Prime Minister’s spokesmen that he does not do Back-Bench debates—apparently, a debate in Government time opened by the Foreign Secretary is a Back-Bench debate—that he does not do foreign affairs debates, and then that he never attends such debates, whatever the topic may be. May we be assured that there are at least some debates that the Prime Minister would feel it appropriate to attend, rather than chumming up to the CBI? Perhaps one of them might be a debate on four years of war in which brave British soldiers are being killed on every day of every week.
May we have a debate on the air passenger duty, which was raised by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) in Chancellor’s questions? Not only are there questions about the implementation, but there are practical difficulties. The Leader of the House knows that we support a tax on aviation, although we support a tax on the pollution caused by planes, rather than on the passengers who travel in them. Is it not the case that because the duty is retrospective, it will cause chaos in our airports and great difficulties for both travellers and airlines, as well as huge financial disadvantage to tour operators? A tour operator in my constituency, Gerry Copsey, points out in a letter to me that the tour operator has to absorb the first 2 per cent. of any surcharge, which he has not collected because the tax did not exist. That is therefore a direct and substantial windfall tax on tour operators. It cannot be right, and the House should have the opportunity to debate it.
Last week the President of the United States gave the State of the Union address. May we have a debate on the state of the Union—in this case, the Act of Union between Scotland and England? We could explore the huge advantages to both Scotland and England of the Union, we could address those who wish to split us asunder on any basis, some explicitly and some implicitly, and we could look at the ways in which we could improve the Union to ensure that every part of the Union feels that it has a fair voice.
Lastly, on written questions—a matter which I often ask the Leader of the House to look into—my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) last week asked the Department for Culture, Media and Sport how many libraries closed in London. The reply from the Department was that it could not provide the information because
“focusing on the number of closures is less helpful as a measure of overall provision than the net number of public library service points in each year”—[Official Report, 23 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 1620W.]
In other words, Departments now want to provide not only the answers, but the questions. Will the right hon. Gentleman remind his colleagues that we ask the questions and they are supposed to answer?
I hear the second sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), but it would be sensible to take the questions in order.
On the Prime Minister’s attendance, we dealt with the matter last week. My right hon. Friend has led 23 debates since he became Prime Minister, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) knows. My right hon. Friend has also delivered more oral statements in the House than previous Prime Ministers, and has appeared before the Liaison Committee. As a result of the decision to merge the Tuesday and Thursday Prime Minister’s questions into one, he misses Prime Minister’s questions far less frequently than did previous Prime Ministers. It has been the practice in the House for as long as I can remember—over 28 years—for Foreign Secretaries to lead debates on foreign policy. I would like another debate on Iraq, not least so that the House can be informed of the views of the previous leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Lord Ashdown—it is a terrible shame that this did not come out yesterday—who writes today in The Independent excoriating the policy of the current leader of the Liberal Democrat party and his irresponsibility in proposing that we should cut and run from our responsibilities in Iraq. I commend the article to a wider readership.
We were treated to a wonderful illustration of the Liberal Democrats’ logic chopping. The hon. Gentleman agrees with the principle of air passenger duty but believes that the tax should be on the pollution rather than the passengers—[Hon. Members: “On the planes.”] The problem with a tax on planes—the hon. Gentleman may not have spotted it—is that they do not have bank accounts. I sometimes wish that they did. It is a brilliant idea and my constituents would vote for it, but only people have bank accounts.
Yes, but in the end, companies, too, depend on people for their business. The taxes go back to individuals. If the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome wants to encourage people to travel less, the individuals should be taxed. Air passenger duty is a good idea. It is common practice for the rate changes to all major duties to have immediate or near immediate effect. Previous changes to APD have always applied on the basis of when the flight takes place, irrespective of when it is booked.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether we could have a “State of the Union” speech. We have an equivalent in the Queen’s Speech debate each year, which the Prime Minister always leads. The hon. Gentleman suggests a debate on the Act of Union and three centuries of our being joined with Scotland in a Union. That is a good idea. I shall consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I hope to make an announcement in due course.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a written question. I agree with him—I do not know why a Department could not answer a question about how many libraries had closed or how many remained open. I shall follow it up.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on aviation, especially given the intense interest that The Independent has taken in Ministers’ travel? When I wrote to that newspaper to ask about travel by its journalists and its board, it displayed a singular reluctance, in spite of its proclamation of freedom of information, to reveal its activities. Indeed, the editor wrote that the paper was engaged in an audit process with the Carbon Trust, a reply of which Sir Humphrey would have been proud. May we have a debate in which such hypocrisy could be exposed, and we could discuss the transparency that journalists appear to be interested in imposing on everyone but themselves?
Apart from sketch writers, because they do not necessarily deal in information and there should be a special exemption for them. The Freedom of Information Act covers the BBC as a public body. That is a two-headed hydra because, although the BBC makes many Freedom of Information Act requests, anyone who has made such a request to the BBC finds that it is more constipated and less forthcoming than the worst Department.
Although I deplore inadequate and late replies to parliamentary questions—the Leader of the House has apologised for the inadequacy of some of them—I support the right hon. Gentleman’s appeal to the House for more responsible tabling of written questions. Just because people have got more research assistants, there is no point in their spending all their time tabling large numbers of questions as a sort of virility symbol.
Has the House forgotten the tragedy of Zimbabwe, where there is 1,000 per cent. inflation, shortage of water and electricity, and starvation? Is not it time for the House to hold a debate on that tragic country?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is a former Chairman of the Procedure Committee and a senior member of the Modernisation Committee, for his remarks about parliamentary questions. I hope that we can reach agreement, through the Procedure Committee’s recommendations, on the matter on an all-party basis. I have no interest in restricting hon. Members’ opportunities to question Ministers effectively. However, quantity is currently getting in the way of quality. If we got back to where we were even four years ago, there would be even less excuse for Departments’ failure to answer questions on time. Questions are all answered in the end, but sometimes the delay is too great.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of Zimbabwe and the way in which it has slipped from the headlines and, in some cases, from the inside pages. I shall follow up his suggestion with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.
I wish to widen the request of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and ask my right hon. Friend for a debate on environmental taxation, especially in the days before the introduction of the increased air passenger duty. In such a debate, may we consider the comments of Mr. Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair, on the airwaves, in the printed media and elsewhere about his attitude to such taxation? He appears to wish to present himself as the Robin Hood of the modern world in maintaining access for poorer people to cheaper holidays. However, in reality, is he not the Al Capone of the aviation industry, defending the indefensible, trying to create a taxation-free zone, with an arrogance and breathless contempt for politicians which he revealed in his comments—
Will the Leader of the House make time to debate the report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on Guantanamo Bay? It states that the Committee was advised by the International Committee of the Red Cross that its members could not meet detainees in Guantanamo because that contravened the Geneva convention. The ICRC strenuously denies making such a claim. Given such blatant inaccuracy, how can the House have confidence in the report? Will the right hon. Gentleman make time available for us to debate the report in full?
Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House know that the business plan for the refurbishment and renewal of the 26-year-old Tyne and Wear metro system has been submitted to the Government this week? The metro contributes to social mobility, economic development, the relief of traffic congestion and the fight against climate change. May we have an early debate on the value of light rail systems such as the metro and their contribution to our citizens’ quality of life?
I know the contribution that the metro—a great achievement of the previous Labour Government—makes to the vibrancy of the economy and society on Tyneside. I shall discuss my hon. Friend’s suggestion with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
The Leader of the House knows that one of the most important functions of the House of Commons is to vote Supply—to approve increases in taxation that the Government propose. When did the House of Commons approve the increase in airport duty that comes into effect next Thursday?
The right hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament long enough to know that some duties are subject to specific approval at the time and others are made by order, based on previous legislation.
There is a general point about the way in which the House deals with Supply, but that is a matter for consideration by the Procedure Committee and the Modernisation Committee.
First, may I declare an interest as chair of the all-party packaging manufacturing industry group? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent campaign in The Independent newspaper on domestic and commercial waste, which are of great concern to many of our constituents? A debate would help to clarify some of the relevant issues associated with waste and the Government’s strategy for dealing with them.
Speaking as a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs who visited Guantanamo Bay, I echo the call for a debate on that Committee’s report. I want to tell my right hon. Friend that the reason why members of that Committee did not visit inmates at Guantanamo had absolutely nothing to do with the International Red Cross.
The answer to my hon. Friend’s first question—[Interruption.] Well, I am not going to get involved in a private argument about what did or did not happen on that Foreign Affairs Committee trip as I was not there and I am not a member of that Committee. On packaging, I have seen The Independent’s campaign to reduce it and I commend my hon. Friend’s chairmanship of the all-party packaging manufacturing industry group. I will look for an opportunity to have this matter debated.
May we have a debate on early-day motion 663 on the amalgamation of agencies to combat crime?
[That this House notes the recent announcement by the Home Office about the merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency; and calls upon the Government to spell out the resources, commitment and determination that the new organisation will be expected to have in order that the fight against organised criminal activity, particularly in Northern Ireland, will be stepped up rather than decreased.]
There is concern about the merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, particularly in Northern Ireland where there is so much organised crime and paramilitary groups are involved in such activity. Can we have a debate to ensure that efforts to disrupt those criminal gangs and take away their assets will be stepped up? We do not want those efforts to be at all reduced.
I wonder whether we could set some time aside to debate procedures of the House. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is aware of the shambles that took place last night. At the end of the debate, an SNP Member who was not a Teller actually shouted “Aye”, then shouted “No”—
As the Leader of the House jealously guards the House’s reputation and is anxious to ensure that it is more relevant to the people of this country, does he not accept that it is absolutely essential that the Prime Minister soon attend a debate on the war in Iraq? To say that he does not normally take part in foreign affairs debates entirely misses the point. To say that he has spoken in 23 separate debates, when he has only done so twice a year, does not seem to most people a very good batting record.
I answered that question when I responded to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). The Prime Minister has already made it clear that he will come to the House and make a detailed statement once Operation Sinbad is through. That will be the case.
May we have a debate on what can only be described as the plight of children in India, where modern-day slavery is going on? I do not know whether my right hon. Friend saw Sky News last week, which showed the blatant selling of young children in India. It is going on under everybody’s nose and nothing is being done about it. I would like us to debate that. I find it ironic that we are all debating what is going on in “Big Brother” on Channel 4 rather than rising up to defend the rights of those children in India.
Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement about the use of 0844, 0845 and 0870 numbers? One of my constituents has to ring an 0844 number to contact the local GP, and I found out that 12 GP surgeries across the Bradford district are making people phone those numbers to book an appointment. I am sure that the Leader of the House knows that it is more expensive to ring those numbers than ordinary local numbers. Will the Secretary of State for Health thus make a statement about the use of those numbers across the national health service?
May we have a debate about the way in which some councils are using the threat of council tax capping as an excuse for cutting services? Wandsworth council, for example, is using an entirely bogus threat of capping as a reason for cutting funding to very popular and widely respected local facilities such as the Wandsworth museum and Battersea arts centre.
I will certainly look for an opportunity to have such a debate. I am afraid that Wandsworth Conservatives have been using bogus figures to justify cuts for at least the three decades in which I have been a Member in this House. I dare say that they will carry on doing so. The fact that they are putting at risk such highly valued community services in my hon. Friend’s constituency illustrates their distorted sense of priorities.
The Leader of the House may be aware of yesterday’s judgment of the Court of Session in Edinburgh, which ruled that it would be unlawful for the Scottish Parliament elections to go ahead in May unless the issue of voting rights for serving prisoners were addressed. Understandably, the prospect of the elections being cancelled is causing considerable concern north of the border, so will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement to the House about his plans to deal with the problem and ensure that the elections go ahead as planned?
I find it odd that of all the issues that a Liberal Democrat could raise, the hon. Lady asks about providing votes for rapists and murderers while they are serving their sentences—[Interruption.] That is the issue. The wider issue of what we do about a European Court judgment, which would not require us to give votes to rapists and murderers while they are serving their sentences, is the subject of consideration within the Government. I would have thought that the Liberal Democrats would do better to worry about the victims rather than the perpetrators of crime.
I am very grateful, Mr. Speaker.
Nearly every Member of the House and the Government have condemned the fact that many electrical appliances around the country use up the same or nearly the same amount of electricity when they are on standby as when they are switched on. If we are serious about facing up to global climate change, we have to address that problem, yet the televisions in the Palace of Westminster cannot be switched off. They are nearly all either permanently on or on standby.
Well, I have two old televisions in my room just along the corridor and if I just press a button, they go off. A problem can arise when the televisions are placed high on a wall. I will raise the issue with the House of Commons Commission and we will see what can be done.
The Magistrates Association has expressed concern about the continuing closure of magistrates courts. In my constituency, some cases cannot proceed because witnesses, victims or defendants cannot attend because of transport problems, and yet another court is threatened with closure. Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the working of the magistrates court system, which is the core of this country’s criminal justice system?
On the specific constituency issue of concern to the hon. Gentleman, there are opportunities to debate the matter on the Adjournment. On the wider issue, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor is doing a great deal to concentrate court services in some cases, but that is in the context of making those services more efficient in delivering justice for victims. The throughput of cases is better now than it has been.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the National Audit Office’s criticisms of Ofwat, the water regulator, which has supinely failed to control the water companies in respect of stopping leaks from their water systems, thereby increasing the charges to the paying customer? As has been pointed out before, it is the customer’s pocket that is hit. We are not getting value for money from our regulators: whether we are talking about the energy regulator or the water regulator, prices are going up. Can we have a debate on the role of regulation in this country and the need for regulators to serve the public interest?
May we have a debate on crime against young people? Last year, 30 per cent. of all muggings recorded in England and Wales were perpetrated on 11 to 16-year-olds, but that is the tip of the iceberg, because only 21 per cent. of muggings make it into the recorded police figures, and the British crime survey does not even interview people under 16. May we have a debate in the House to bring this issue to people’s attention and to discuss what needs to be done to combat the problem?
I would be happy to have a debate on the crime figures. Sadly, it has long been the case that young people have been the principal victims of street robbery, as well as the principal perpetrators. In that debate, I would be delighted to hear about the excellent crime figures that were announced today, which I notice that no member of the Opposition has mentioned, because they are good news. They are not the British crime survey figures but the recorded crime figures, and they show that the most feared crime, violence that causes injury, is down 7 per cent. compared with last year, that sexual offences are down 4 per cent. and that crimes involving firearms are down 14 per cent. All recorded crime is down 3 per cent., and—[Interruption.] I am sorry to have to tell the shadow Leader of the House this, but according to the British crime survey, crime is down 35 per cent. since 1997.
May we have a statement next week from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on whether he intends to ask Ofcom to undertake a public interest test of BSkyB’s acquisition of 20 per cent. of the shares in ITV? Is there not an overwhelming case for such a test, given that the Office of Fair Trading has found provisionally that there could be a relevant merger issue?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has this matter under active consideration. My hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that my right hon. Friend has to act in a quasi-judicial manner, and strictly in accordance with the relevant legal criteria. I will of course pass on my hon. Friend’s remarks to my right hon. Friend.
Mr. Speaker, may I wish you and the Leader of the House a good Burns day? In this crucial year for our nation, it is worth reminding the House that, in the words of the bard,
“Nae man can tether time nor tide”.
I am delighted that the Leader of the House has agreed to a debate on the Act of Union, given that his colleagues in Scotland are running a mile from debating the subject properly with us. Will he check his list, to see whether it would be appropriate for the Prime Minister to lead that debate? Given the Prime Minister’s overwhelming popularity in Scotland, surely he would be a massive asset to the Union’s cause.
I have always been ready to debate this matter, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. What persuaded me overnight was seeing the complete incompetence of the representatives of the Scottish National party last night. The leader of that party has been in this place for 20 years, yet he cannot even organise a minor rebellion—
Is the Leader of the House aware of this morning’s ruling in the European Court of Justice that, under the insolvency directive, the Government have failed to protect pension funds, including those of Allied Steel and Wire’s pensioners in my constituency? They took the case to court through the unions Community and Amicus, but it is up to the British courts to decide whether the Government should pay up. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this struggle for justice has gone on long enough? Will he ask the Chancellor to come to the House and make a statement, and to end this misery for the 125,000 pensioners in the United Kingdom who are affected?
I am aware of this morning’s decision by the European Court of Justice. I am also aware of the indefatigable way in which my hon. Friend has pursued this matter on behalf of her constituents who have been affected. I think that I am right in saying that the judgment by the European Court of Justice arose from a reference from the British courts for a ruling by the ECJ. The judgment will now be considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and an announcement will be made to the House in due course. I will, of course, pass on to him what my hon. Friend has said today.
Given the announcement by the Department for Education and Skills that compulsory education is to be extended to the age of 18, does the Leader of the House agree that we should have a debate in the House on the matter, so that we can expose the “common sense” of county councils that are closing schools because of a prediction of overcapacity in those schools? Should not they review their decisions in the light of the Department’s announcement?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has said that there is a strong case for this change, but it goes without saying that the matter would have to be not only debated but agreed through legislation before it could go ahead. I note the interesting point that the hon. Gentleman raised. It is not always the case that the setting of a secondary school would be appropriate for 16 to 18-year-olds, but it might be, and that should be taken into consideration.
May I return to the issue that was raised at the outset by my friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase)? It used to be the case that we always debated reports from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but that has not been the case recently. The Committee has produced a highly critical report on the Electoral Commission, and, given that its recommendations go to the heart of the way in which our democracy functions—or does not function—surely we should have a debate on it in the Chamber.
There will be a debate on this issue. We are awaiting the report from the inquiry into party funding by Sir Hayden Phillips, which is also looking at the role of the Electoral Commission. I will then make a statement on that report, and when I make that statement I will comment on the proposals in respect of the Electoral Commission. If we then proceed to legislate, which I think we need to in this respect, there will be every opportunity for debate at that stage.
Beverley high school and Beverley grammar school, which are two well-run, successful, over-subscribed comprehensive schools serving mixed areas of Beverley, are facing redundancies of key teaching staff and a worsening financial situation over the next three years. May we have an urgent debate on the allocation of education funding between authorities across the country, on the growing sense of grievance among communities that are seeing cutbacks in everything from transport to NHS beds and on the impression that money is not being allocated fairly across the country?
The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a debate next Wednesday, on 31 January, on the police grant and the local government finance reports. There will be an opportunity for him to raise those issues in that debate, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, and I wish him luck in that. I hope, however, that he will bring into the equation the huge increase in funding for schools in his area—including the allocations that he has mentioned—that has taken place since 1997.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the growing concern at the increasing number of schools that are collecting data on pupils that are derived from biometrics such as fingerprinting, for use in electronic registration and library systems. He will also be aware of the fact that legal opinion, including that of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, has stated that this practice contravenes the Data Protection Act 1998. Does he agree that it is time to debate this important subject in the House?
I am not aware of the practice, but obviously people have accepted it. There is a problem with ensuring people’s identity, and one of the ways of doing that is to use biometric data. Security in libraries is a big issue for younger and older people. If the hon. Gentleman really thinks that this is an important matter, he can raise it on the Adjournment.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give some consideration to a cross-departmental debate, in Government time, on the Government’s vision for the decades ahead, given our cultural, economic, political and military links with China and India, the great countries of the future? There is a need for joined-up thinking on this subject, and we would all like to hear about the Government’s vision in terms of those links, as well as in respect of other matters, including education and health care.
That is a good idea. The hon. Gentleman has proposed quite a number of subjects for debate on the Adjournment, but I will add it to my list. He is absolutely right to identify China and India as being among those posing the greatest challenges to this country in terms of economic and foreign policies. I know of his work in co-operation with the City of London, and of the City’s excellent work in respect of both those dossiers, and I will pursue the matter.
May we have a debate in Government time on armed forces welfare packages for our servicemen and women serving abroad on behalf of this country? Surely, in the 21st century it cannot be beyond the Government to allow packages to be sent post-free to our servicemen and women, especially when those packages often contain equipment to replace the faulty equipment with which they have been issued.
There will be an opportunity to raise that matter next Thursday in the defence in the world debate—[Interruption.] Well, that is an opportunity. Meanwhile I will alert my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to the fact that the hon. Gentleman will pose that question to him during the debate.
Is not it time for a debate on the role of religious organisations when carrying out public functions? While I hope that we all accept that religious organisations are capable of doing good work in the provision of public and welfare services, surely if the Government simply said that when in receipt of public funds or under public organisation those organisations should provide such services without discriminating against clients and employees and without proselytising, we could settle the matter once and for all and have clarity. The Government might thereby avoid the unfortunate mess from which I hope that they will extract themselves soon.
I do not mind having a debate on the issue. We had a pretty intensive debate during the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998, and I agreed to amendments to try to accommodate the position of religious organisations, particularly the Christian Churches. Without referring to the current controversy, I know that the hon. Gentleman is a secularist, and I respect his views, but his is not the position of the vast majority in this country, 70 per cent. of whom declared themselves to be Christian in the 2001 census, and there are many who subscribe to other religions. He is against faith schools; I am not. We have a long tradition of faith schools in this country. His position, which is partly the Liberal Democrat position, is not ours. I am happy, however, to debate all of that.
Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government’s proposals in respect of legal aid, and particularly their decision to impose means-testing on legal aid in magistrates courts, is causing huge concern, not just among the legal profession but among many charities that are worried about vulnerable people? On 11 January, a debate on legal aid took place in Westminster Hall, and many visitors could not get into the Gallery. Why was that debate not held in the main Chamber?
The purpose of Westminster Hall is to allow such debates to take place. Because of the pressure on time in this Chamber, we cannot hold all such debates here. Means-testing for legal aid is a good idea. Money was being wasted—I would have thought that the Conservatives would be the first to complain about that—through legal aid being given to people who did not deserve it. We are trying to ensure that legal aid goes to people who need it, but not to people who can afford to pay for their own legal representation.
Given that many of us support early, full and undiluted implementation of the sexual orientation regulations, please may we have a statement next week to confirm that the Cabinet majority has asserted itself in favour of that proposition, to be followed by the speediest possible passage of the regulations, so that gay, lesbian and bisexual people can enjoy equality before the law in the provision of goods, services and facilities, which they have been too long denied?
I wondered whether the hon. Gentleman would be able to make just a standing intervention; he cannot.
On the issue of an announcement, I cannot promise that there will be an oral statement, but I shall take full account of what the hon. Gentleman has asked for, as I always do.
In July 2006, a 92-year-old gentleman in my constituency was told that he had to have a hearing aid. In September 2006, he had the mould made for the hearing aid. Unfortunately, he has now been told that he must wait 15 months for that hearing aid because of cutbacks in Government funding. I do not believe that that was the Government’s intention in their health policy. During the next week of business, would it be possible for the Leader of the House to try and fix this problem?
I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. When the hon. Gentleman tries to make much of such individual cases, I hope that he also tells his constituents that the Northamptonshire Heartlands primary care trust, the old lead trust, had its funding increased by more than 31 per cent. between 2003 and 2006.
May we have a statement next week from the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs about the rules surrounding membership arrangements for private gyms? This is the month for new year’s resolutions, and my constituent, Mrs. Trudi Winnett, joined a ladies-only gym in Kettering. Her circumstances changed, but she has been unable to leave the gym because she has in effect signed up to a two-year financial arrangement, from which she cannot escape. Kettering citizens advice bureau is getting a growing number of complaints about such arrangements. May we have some Government action?
First, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has said to his constituent, people should read the small print carefully before entering into what sounds like an onerous contract. Secondly, I will ask my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs to consider the issue, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the Government cannot be responsible for onerous contracts that individuals enter into. Other organisations that run gyms are ethical, including that which runs the House of Commons gym.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you are aware of the recent court case that has led to yet another reversal in the attempt to limit the protest in Parliament square. Whatever one thinks about that, there can surely be no human right to fill the square with incessant amplified noise, which interferes with the ability of Members to do their work, and which is a distraction and danger to police who are in the front line of providing security for the House. Have you received any advice as to whether the latest court judgment entitles the protester in the square to recommence, as he has done, the broadcasting of amplified messages at unbearably high volume in that public place, which would not be allowed anywhere else that I can think of?
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. It is a nuisance—I have been on demonstrations throughout my working life, and it has nothing to do with the right to demonstrate. Let me say that this is a matter for the police, as excessive noise can be a breach of the peace. I have asked the Serjeant at Arms to investigate, but it is not a matter in which I can intervene.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is not exclusively a matter for the police, because one could secure a civil injunction, and the authorities of the House might be able to do so against the protester.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know that you are aware of my interest in abortion and my abhorrence of late abortions. Last week, at business questions, I brought to the attention of the Leader of the House the fact that organisations, individuals and PCTs were raising concerns with me that, as a result of NHS deficits and restrictions on finances, women were waiting up to seven or eight weeks longer than normal for terminations, some of which were even being tipped over into the next financial year.
To gain some supporting statistical evidence for those claims, I wrote to the appropriate Ministers. The Ministers of State at the Department of Health, the hon. Members for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and for Leigh (Andy Burnham) respectively advised me that the answers to my questions would be in the Library. The Library has told me that it does not have answers to those questions. In my attempt to gain the evidence, I feel that I am being given the runaround. Will you give me your advice on that?
I shall have to look into the matter to assist the hon. Lady. Let me also say that both the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and the Leader of the House mentioned the number of parliamentary questions being tabled. I am not saying that the hon. Lady is tabling too many, but I understand that at times there are tranches of