House of Commons
Thursday 22 February 2007
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Trade and Industry
The Secretary of State was asked—
Trade Links (India/China)
The Government promote trade with both countries in a number of ways. I recently visited China and India to promote trade and I was accompanied by a business delegation on both occasions.
But does the Secretary of State agree that we are not doing well enough? The Minister for Trade told the House on 30 January that we sell more to Australia, which has a population of 20 million, than to either India, which has a population of 1.3 billion, or China, which has a population of 1.1 billion. Is it still the case that Belgium is managing to sell more to India than us? We should be doing better than we are. What will the Government do about that?
The answer is that we can always do better. It is worth bearing in mind that the UK is certainly the fourth largest investor in India, and may now be the biggest investor in India as a result of recent investments by Vodafone. The links between both India and China and the United Kingdom are good. We are building up trade in many areas, particularly in financial services and other service sectors. Both China and India are moving away from an interest in heavy manufacturing, in which countries such as Germany have traditionally done well in trade with them, into sectors such as services in which Britain has an outstanding reputation. Of course, in respect of both countries, we need to do better, which is why I visited them. There are good examples of additional investment. We want to encourage that two-way process.
Unlike the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), may I praise the Government for their tremendous efforts to build relations with India? In my lifetime, I have known no other Government make such an effort. But does the Secretary of State recall the joint declaration signed by our Prime Minister and Mr. Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, on 20 September 2004? The declaration refers to plans to
“establish a Ministerially-led Joint Economic and Trade Committee to further develop a strategic economic relationship between the two countries”.
Can I therefore ask what progress has been—
If I might deal with the first part of my hon. Friend’s question, praise for the Government is always welcomed and much appreciated. In relation to the second part, while people are sometimes understandably sceptical about the value of committees, especially those set up between Governments, the Indian one has actually been extremely productive. When I was in India in January, we made progress in four areas: Lloyd’s of London will now be able to write reinsurance business in India; the Indian Government are now prepared to consider legislation that would allow Britain’s big accountancy firms to set up and practise there; the Bar Association of India is now engaged in a way that will, I hope, lead to British law firms being able to practise in India; and Premier Oil has been given permission to begin production in the Ratna field. Such examples of engagement by the Government have made a difference.
In the medium and long term, the prospects for good trading relationships between India and Britain are exceptionally good, because both countries have the same outlook. The more that we foster that relationship and encourage investment into India, as well as Indian investment into this country, the better it will be for both our countries.
Given that the global business community is looking for investment wherever it is most effective, will the Secretary of State assure us that he is continuing talks with China and India about the science base and the growth of science and expertise in those two countries? If we cannot prevent companies from moving to those countries and investing in new research laboratories, we must collaborate with those countries in order to gain expertise back into this country.
The hon. Gentleman makes an exceptionally good point. A few moments ago, in reply to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), I said that I thought that both countries were reaching a stage at which they were taking a greater interest in services and in the non-traditional manufacturing industries such as pharmaceuticals, biosciences and so on. On my visit to India, I was particularly struck by the number of firms that want to work jointly with those in Britain. It is not a question of them coming here and taking over our companies; they value our science base and our ability to innovate, for which we have a worldwide reputation, and they want to ensure productive capacity in both the United Kingdom and India, to capitalise on the strength of both countries. We want to encourage that.
China, too, recognises that we have something that it currently does not have, and as huge structural changes take place in economies across the world, we can capitalise on that. That is why we will continue to invest heavily in science: this year we spent about £3.4 billion, which is double the sum invested 10 years ago.
Obviously, as a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, I recognise the importance of the joint economic trade committee agreements with both India and China. Will the Secretary of State ensure that those JETCO agreements will lift the barriers that still exist to British exports to India? I am sure that he can do that. Will he also ensure that Typhoon will be part of the programme for India’s purchases in the future?
I cannot ensure that the Indian Government will do any of those things because, at the end of the day, it is up to the Indian Government. However, they recognise they are reaching a stage at which unless they break down barriers to trade, India will lose out. That is especially important as we approach the conclusion of the world trade talks, at which India’s position is pivotal. In the discussions that I have had with the Indian Trade Minister and those that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has had with the Indian Prime Minister, we know that it is important to persuade all countries—India included—to do everything they can to break down trade barriers. They need British investment in financial services, the pharmaceutical industry and across the piece, including engineering. We want to encourage that and build on it.
Ten years ago, this country had a balance of trade surplus. Today, we are exporting 20 per cent. fewer goods to India than we were two years ago. Our balance of trade today stands at a whopping £56 billion deficit, the highest since 1697. Will the Minister tell us why that is?
If the hon. Gentleman wants to make comparisons with 10 years ago, he may recall that inflation then was in double figures, at 10 per cent. We have now had the longest period of low inflation since the 1960s. At one point, 3 million people were unemployed. Unemployment is now the lowest that it has been in the time that anyone can remember. National debt doubled under the Conservatives. Today, we have a very strong economic position.
In relation to trade, as I said, our position with India and China is strong and getting stronger. Most of that is built on the fact that we have an extremely strong British economy and, crucially, unlike the Conservatives, we are willing to put money into things like science and innovation, which is critical to our country’s future.
May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) in congratulating the Secretary of State on his very successful visit to India? May I also say that my right hon. Friend looked stunning with the garland that was placed around him on his arrival?
What practical steps will be developed as a result of the visit in terms of financial services, bearing in mind that both Mumbai and the City of London are key world financial centres?
I said that support for the Government is always welcome, and support for the Secretary of State is even more welcome, so I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his compliments, if that is what they were. [Laughter.]
My right hon. Friend highlights an important area of future co-operation between Britain and India in relation to Mumbai. The Indian Government want to develop that city as a major financial services centre, not just for India, but for the region as a whole. We want to encourage that. The City of London is now able to open an office in Mumbai, and a lot of British companies are active there. We have been urging on the Indians a more liberal approach, allowing British firms to invest in Mumbai.
Some 23 Indian companies are listed on the London stock exchange and 13 are on the alternative investment market. That shows two things: first, the growing closeness and relationship between India and Britain, and, secondly, that the London stock exchange and the City of London are pre-eminent across the world and recognised as a very good place to do business. It is important that we keep it that way.
Energy White Paper
Ministers have held numerous discussions with other parties and colleagues over the course of the energy review since it was launched in 2005. As I have set out in a written statement today, following last week’s court judgment it is now likely that the White Paper on energy and the new consultation on nuclear energy will be published in early May. If we can do it earlier than that, we will, but that time scale will enable the Government to make a decision on nuclear and on other issues arising from the White Paper in the autumn.
No, I am not convinced by Ofgem’s criticism. It has put forward an alternative means of encouraging renewable energy, but it seems to me to be broadly similar to the system that ran for many years until the late 1990s, which did not result in much in the way of renewable energy.
Two things must be said about the renewables obligation. First, and now for the first time, we are seventh in the world in terms of producing electricity from renewable sources. There are more and more applications to build wind farms as well as more investment in offshore energy generation, as well as wave and tidal power generation. Secondly, the industry needs some certainty. If we keep chopping and changing how we support renewable energies, we will run the risk that the whole thing will fall apart.
At the moment, we are discussing nuclear power generation and there are people who argue that renewables can fill the gap that may be left by a lower number of nuclear power stations. We need more renewable energy, not less, so I am yet to be persuaded by Ofgem’s submission. Of course I will listen to what it has to say, but it is important that we continue to provide some stability to energy policy.
Following last week's High Court ruling that the energy review consultation was “seriously flawed”, the Prime Minister said
“This won't affect the policy at all”.
Today, the Secretary of State has announced a new consultation, but in light of the Prime Minister's pre-emptive comments, surely that consultation is set to be as seriously flawed as the previous one.
Well, the hon. Lady might do worse than to read the judgment. It is perfectly possible—indeed it is highly desirable—that Government take a lead in promoting policy. The Government have to have a view on nuclear. I appreciate that, being a Liberal Democrat, the hon. Lady has never had that problem, because the Lib Dems do not have to have a view on anything. I see that her hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) is not here, but, as she knows, his view is different from hers.
In relation to nuclear, the Government's position is that, especially at a time when the amount of electricity generated by nuclear will fall from about 20 per cent. to about 7 per cent. of the total market over the next 15 to 20 years, there is a case for replacing that amount of energy generation with new nuclear generation. What the judge found was that the process of consultation was flawed, and I fully accept that. I therefore intend that we will carry out a full and proper consultation, so that people can have their say. One thing is clear: the issue will not go away. We need to have greener sources of electricity generation and to ensure security of supply. That is something that the Liberal Democrats are constitutionally incapable of doing.
I note the Secretary of State's comments and welcome the fact that the White Paper will be published in May, if not before. Conservative Members are obviously disappointed that it has taken so long. Is the Minister aware of my constituents’ concerns about the Government's apparent lack of a coherent and credible energy policy, and their scepticism about the consultation in the light of the decision to approve the waste incinerator in Belvedere, where the consultation with local people and experts was not taken into account? Will this be a real consultation or just another sham?
It is important that there is a full and proper consultation. I used to be deeply sceptical about nuclear power. I changed my mind because the facts changed in two respects. First, the science on climate change is now very clear. Unless we get ourselves into a position where we can produce more electricity from low-carbon sources, we will continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere, and that cannot be justified. Secondly, the amount of oil and gas in the North sea is slowly but surely declining. That means that, if we do not do anything about it, we will import more oil and gas from other parts of the world. That is an especially serious prospect when we consider that that oil and gas will, in many cases, be coming from areas that have huge political problems. I therefore think that nuclear needs to be part of the mix.
That is my view and it is the Government's view, but I have given an undertaking that we will consult on that because people need to engage with the argument. As I said earlier, that argument will not go away and it is essential that we engage with it. If people have better solutions, let us hear them, but for goodness’ sake do not think that, by putting off the decision, we will not be faced with the difficult choices that any Government worth their name have to make.
In the Secretary of State’s discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the energy White Paper, will he pay specific attention to the needs of industry? There is a fashionable London view that only services count and that every product with metal or steel in it can be imported into this country, and that that is the future. I am not sure that that is the case, and our steel, glass and other industries need a coherent energy-pricing policy, which they have not had in recent years. I know that the Secretary of States has made good efforts in that respect, but please will he, with the Chancellor, focus hard on sending out the right signals for our industry electricity users?
My right hon. Friend is right. Last winter, there was a shock to the system in that we did not get the expected gas supplies. The result was that wholesale prices went up and the prices being paid by steelmakers and other heavy industrial users were far higher than they should have been. This year, because we now have additional gas coming from Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, and because we now have greater capability in terms of bringing in liquefied natural gas, and have taken other new measures too, wholesales prices have come down by about 60 per cent. and, thankfully, those prices are about to be passed on to domestic consumers as well as industrial consumers. However, my right hon. Friend is right: if we do nothing—if we ignore the problems that we can see arising in the next 10 to 15 years—we will have very severe energy problems. I am prepared to put up with a six or seven-week delay because, frankly, it is better to get right how we deal with the big problems over the next 20 to 30 years.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the many practical examples of renewable energy measures that have been introduced into the UK, with or without an energy White Paper, over the past 10 years. Will he join me in congratulating npower in Swindon on its plans for a wind turbine on Windmill hill, and will he further tell me what steps he is taking to encourage local councils—
My hon. Friend is right that wind power is very important. I am just sorry that so many applications are now blocked. [Interruption.] Before the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) stands up to berate me, as a I fully expect him to do, he might like to tell me what steps he will take to persuade Conservative councils not to block applications, as we know we need such renewable energy.
Businesses in my constituency also raise the issue of the fluctuation in energy prices and the effect that that has on their trade and competitiveness. Given that, what is my right hon. Friend doing to bring the energy companies along with him in respect of the energy White Paper and other long-term measures, to ensure that such fluctuations in costs are minimised in order to give local companies more stability to plan ahead?
Again, my hon. Friend is right. What is needed more than anything else is stability, which is why energy companies—everybody, really—ought to be concerned that we have a stable policy framework that will allow generators to choose what form of generation is most appropriate. The two matters that should be concentrating our minds are, first, how to get cleaner, greener sources of energy, and, secondly, how to ensure that we have security of supply in the future. There ought to be cross-party consensus on that at least—although we can, perhaps, argue about how we actually achieve that. Those are the two big issues that face this country, and countries around the world, and I intend to address them fully during the forthcoming consultation period. As I have said, I intend to reach conclusions by the autumn.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the following two recent conclusions of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry: first, that nuclear power is generally a very low-carbon source of electricity, and secondly, that although local energy generation has interesting potential, it is not a short-term panacea for the real problems we face? If he does agree, does he also share my fear that the uncertainty created by the further delay that he has been forced to announce today risks there being investment in new gas-fired power stations—with all the implications of that for climate change and security of supply—rather than in nuclear power stations, which I agree with him are necessary?
I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Nuclear is, without doubt, a lower carbon form of producing energy—it is not carbon free, but it is much lower. I also believe that although distributed energy—small-scale energy—is an important part of the mix, it can never be an answer despite what Greenpeace and others have suggested from time to time. We could not possibly end up depending on thousands of different producers to make sure that we have enough electricity, for example, to provide for our needs across the entire country. Distributed energy does, however, have a part to play.
On the delay, my soundings are that industry would prefer that we got the consultation right—that we put up with a six or seven-week delay before we publish the White Paper and the associated consultations—as long as we reach decisions in a reasonable time. I think that we will do so before the end of this year—in the autumn. If we can get that right, there is no reason to believe that we cannot make sure that we have an energy policy that is back on track and that can provide for us in the way that I have described.
Yes, I do, which is why the Government have spent a great deal of time and effort persuading other European countries that the EU emissions trading scheme ought to be strengthened. If there is no carbon price, it will be very difficult to persuade people to go for the low-carbon options. That issue is very important; indeed, it is equally as important as clean coal—coal was mentioned earlier—and carbon capture. All those things should be part of an approach that will get us secure and greener supplies.
The whole energy review is clearly in a complete mess. It began back in November 2005, and it was two months before the consultation document was published. Six months later, the report came out and said virtually nothing. The High Court now says that the process was flawed. The Government are delaying the White Paper yet again, and we will have no decision on anything until the autumn, which means that this supposedly urgent policy will have taken more than two years. I suspect, Mr. Speaker—
I was tempted to ask the hon. Gentleman, if he is so well prepared, whether he has a policy on nuclear yet. As I understand it, his policy is to wait to see whether anything else works and to come to a decision at the last moment. On his general point—if there was one—most people can see the thrust of what the Government are proposing in a broad range of measures. We need to ensure that we have the right sources of electricity and other energy generation, and to concentrate on reducing our demand for energy, which is a key part of any approach. We need to make sure that industry and households have incentives to use less gas and electricity, but we also need to ensure that we get the generation capacity that we will need. We should remember that a third of all our power stations will come out of commission in the next 20 years, so decisions need to be made. However, having spoken to many people in the industry over the past nine months since becoming Secretary of State, my sense is that they are more concerned that we get the consultation process right. Frankly, given that we are establishing policies that will last 20 or 30 years, a six or seven week delay—although we would ideally do without it—is something that we can live with.
Can the Secretary of State tell us what the Chancellor’s view is on nuclear power, and can he explain how his own policy of having nuclear power only as an option to be considered by companies in any way matches the Prime Minister’s assertion that we must and will have nuclear power? How does the Secretary of State’s “it may/will happen” policy tally with the Prime Minister’s “it definitely will happen” rhetoric?
The Chancellor and I are in complete agreement on this and most other matters, so that deals with the hon. Gentleman’s first point. On his second point, the Government are saying to generators that, whereas successive Governments have been very reluctant to sanction additional nuclear capacity, nuclear—subject to consultation—ought to be part of the mix. In other words, generators need be able to consider the option of nuclear alongside others. It is not for the Government to decide that it has got to be nuclear, as opposed to oil or gas.
I welcome the Government’s decision not to appeal Mr. Justice Sullivan’s judgment, which was scathing, to put it mildly. He did not apply the term “misleading” to the economic section, but he did call it “jejune” and an “empty husk”. In the consultation that is to take place, the Secretary of State will be aware that most of the supporting documents for the economic case have not been put into the public arena or have been put in only in much reduced form. Can he give us an assurance that he will provide those documents to this consultation, or can he tell us which aspects of the economic case he is not willing to make public?
As I said to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) a few moments ago, we did make a considerable amount of economic data available. I fully accept in retrospect that it probably should have been made available when the consultation was launched back in January 2006. I want to ensure that we can have an informed debate in the House and among the wider public. All I would say to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) is that she, too, should perhaps open her mind to all the options, because it is not clear to me that she has a policy to deal with the two pressures of security of supply and achieving greener sources of energy. Until she does, I strongly advise her to reflect further before venturing into the public domain.
Sustainable Development Technologies
The DTI is working with business to encourage the development of sustainable development technologies and sustainable consumption and production practices. This support covers a wide range of activities including support of the UK science base, the technology programme and our joint work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on sustainable consumption and production.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are right to focus support increasingly on clusters of manufacturers and their supply chains by sectoral activity? If she does, and bearing in mind our ambitious target for renewable energy, does she agree that there is an urgent need to expand our base of clusters for renewable energy? If she is with me so far, could she bear in mind for the next time we meet that Stafford is an excellent location for such a cluster, because of its 100 years of experience in power and its existing experiences with solar, wind and biomass, and because we have the only factory in the whole of the UK manufacturing transformers, with worldwide experience in transmission and distribution?
I agree with my hon. Friend that clusters are an important way to provide strength and build key capacity in such areas. I congratulate him on the work that he is doing in his own constituency to try to ensure that Stafford develops such a cluster and I have no doubt that in his discussions with the regional development agency and in our considerations through the technology strategy we will bear in mind the strong case that he makes.
Following the excellent question from the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), and the Minister’s reply, with especial reference to sustainable production, I seek her advice and assistance, and that of the Government. Earlier this week, AstraZeneca, the largest employer in my constituency, announced 700 job losses at its manufacturing site in Macclesfield. I am pleased to say that the job losses will be spread over three years, but one of the reasons the company gave for that decision was the cost of energy. Can the Government give any advice or assistance on that question, because the shedding of 700 manufacturing jobs in a high technology industry such as pharmaceuticals is a very dangerous and unfortunate development?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the loss of jobs in his constituency, although I would draw his attention to the fact that we perform well in the pharmaceutical sector. The Government need to continue to provide the conditions that will enable that to continue into the future. That means providing the right business environment and ensuring that we invest in research and development so that we have the innovation necessary to keep us one step ahead.
The hon. Gentleman is also right to draw attention to the fact that energy prices last year did create difficulties for many sectors of industry. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the steps that we have taken to secure energy supply for this winter and beyond and, through the energy White Paper, to bring down energy prices so that we remain internationally competitive in manufacturing, especially in areas such as the pharmaceutical industry.
May I point out to my right hon. Friend that perhaps the most sustainable source of energy actually lies within the earth’s crust, but that historically this country has underdeveloped and under-researched geothermal energy sources? I ask my right hon. Friend to work with the construction industry and other Departments with a view to promoting that source of energy within new construction, which will help not only our carbon footprint, but companies such as Forkers in my constituency that are at the cutting edge of geothermal technology.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this important source of conserving energy and sustainable development. Indeed, I am working with the construction industry to look again into what further steps we can take around sustainability in construction to ensure that we conserve our energy resources. We support, and are in various ways investing in trying to promote, geothermal capacity.
One of the ways in which the Minister’s Department supports renewable technology is through the low carbon buildings programme, which is so successful that it runs out of money every month. As a result, people who miss the cut-off date have to apply again the next month. As that does not encourage householders to apply under the scheme and is destructive of industry, will the Minister consider providing more funds for the low carbon buildings programme, so that we do not have that arbitrary cut-off period every month?
Is the Minister aware that the director of the Renewable Energy Association has described the programme as descending into farce? At the beginning of each month when the allocations are opened, they close after shorter and shorter periods. This month, they closed within hours of opening on 1 February. The scheme was set up to encourage the development of renewable technologies in this country, but how can that possibly happen when the scheme stops and starts as it does?
In answer to the previous question, the Minister mentioned the potential for carbon capture technology. There is an exciting potential development at Peterhead, but it is apparently being put in doubt because of the delay in the Government’s announcement of financial support for this technology. Can she tell us when a decision will be made and announced on support for carbon capture?
I question the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that there has been a delay in our decision making on how we can better promote carbon capture. That is not the case. We are pursuing, with all the vigour that we can, the important issue of conserving our energy resources.
The number of company insolvencies in England and Wales in 2006 totalled 17,819, while 190,742 companies were struck off the Companies House register.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Does he acknowledge that many of those companies were small companies? Given that small companies are the driver of the British economy, does he agree that any new tax on small or medium-sized companies would be a retrograde step? What discussions has he had with his counterparts at the Treasury about the possibility of a new local business tax resulting from the Lyons review? Would he oppose any such tax?
The hon. Gentleman is asking me to anticipate the outcome of the Lyons review and to make pronouncements before it has been completed. We are in close touch with the Treasury on all business matters, and it is certainly the role of the DTI to provide business support. We do that through Business Link, which is attracting a great deal of interest and received more than 700,000 hits last year from businesses, helping them to stay in business and to develop. We have also published our better regulation simplification plan for all businesses, and the small business forum is part of the ministerial challenge panel that I chair, and helps to ensure that small businesses can survive in today’s competitive market.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the figures that he has given to the House provide only a partial picture of what is going on in UK business, because much business formation consists of sole traders and partnerships, rather than limited liability companies? To put the matter in context, will he tell the House how many limited liability companies were registered during that period, to give us an in-and-out measure?
My hon. Friend is describing the positive position of British business, and I can tell him that the three-year survival rate—a key indicator—for businesses registered in 2002 was 71 per cent., and that three-year survival rates have been increasing since 2000. The number of registrations at Companies House has exceeded the number of deregistrations each year between 1995 and 2005. That is a very positive image of British business.
With both individual and corporate insolvencies now on the increase, is it not the case, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said, that the small business man is increasingly feeling the heavy weight of this Government’s regulations and stealth taxes and, in many cases, simply closing up shop?
The hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to say a little more about the Government’s priority of better regulation. We are the first Government to quantify administrative burdens and publish the results, and we have committed ourselves to a 25 per cent. reduction by 2010. Business has always identified the administration burden as one of its top priorities. The DTI’s contribution to the £2 billion of savings that we have identified to be achieved by 2010 is £700 million a year, and we are working closely with all levels of business to ensure that we are addressing this issue. If the hon. Gentleman has any suggestions for improvements in better regulation, he can either hit the better regulation website or drop me a line. I will be very happy to hear from him.
Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive
Mr. Speaker, in 10 years of answering questions at this Dispatch Box, this is one that I did not want ever to have to answer. You will see why.
The Department of Trade and Industry has lead responsibility for the regulations that implement the majority of the provisions of the WEEE directive in the United Kingdom. These were laid before Parliament on 12 December 2006 and come fully into force on 1 July 2007. The DTI will shortly be issuing detailed guidance on the regulations and will continue to work with industry, local authorities and other parties to ensure the establishment of—wait for it—an effective WEEE system in the United Kingdom.
I thank the Minister for that response. A recent survey showed that 43 per cent. of large firms were unsure about how to implement the electrical waste directive, and that 70 per cent. of small firms did not even know that it existed. In the light of that, and of the sheer lack of recycling industries in the UK, is not an electronic waste mountain now inevitable? Do we not now need strong cost departments and urgent action?
It is true to say that this is one of the most complex pieces of legislation to come out of Europe. It is not true, however, to say that the Government and industry are not working together on it. All the proposals that have been implemented at local government level and at national and regional level have been implemented after full consultation with the British Retail Consortium. The arrangements and financial resources that have been put in place in local government and the industry itself reflect their requests about the operation of the scheme. Unless we put the scheme in place by July 2007, companies will increasingly be liable to dispose of those electrical goods themselves. That cannot be right. We have to have a comprehensive and effective system. We are taking our time over this matter to ensure that producers, distributors and local authorities are at one and that the scheme will be managed effectively.
I do not think that the Government could have got a more appropriate Minister to answer on the WEEE directive. Some of the electrical items may have been bought from Tiny in the past, but we will not go there. Will the Minister praise local authorities—including Ribble Valley—that have places in their recycling depots where people can bring their electrical waste items? In the implementation of the directive, will he ensure that enough thought is given to the unintended consequences, thinking not only of fridge mountains, which we saw in the past, but fly-tipping, which will take place in a number of areas throughout the country?
I was going to ask Mr. Speaker to stop people taking the Michael out of me on this subject. This is a serious issue. The hon. Gentleman is right in this sense: I will congratulate local authorities. Local authorities and the British Retail Consortium have taken a leadership role on the issue. That is why there is something like an additional £10 million, from the retail sector itself, for local authorities to upgrade their civil amenities sites in advance. Alongside of that, we have changed legislation to give greater powers to local authorities to deal with fly-tipping, which is a serious social problem, as it always has been. The difference between this scheme and the fridges scheme is that this scheme has been well thought out and, from the beginning, there was a buy-in from local authorities and the industry. I believe that we have an effective scheme in place to start operating from July 2007.
We are engaging with our Chinese counterparts at the highest level through our annual summits and joint economic trade commissions—JETCs—as well as the Deputy Prime Minister’s China taskforce, which has a substantial trade element. Indeed, the taskforce is meeting as we speak. During my visit to China, I established a rapport with the Chinese Government, which I have used to good effect—pressing China to further open its markets, marketing the United Kingdom’s strengths, lobbying on some of the key company issues, and assisting in the realisation of major contracts, such as the Rolls-Royce £400m engine contract with Air China and Arup’s contract to design Kunming airport.
The UK trade deficit with China in the past five years has been £3.8 billion, £5 billion, £6 billion, £7.3 billion and, finally, £9.4 billion. The Minister mentioned the China taskforce under the Deputy Prime Minister, which has as one of its four priorities the promotion of trade and investment between the UK and China. To what concrete achievements of the China taskforce in promoting trade with China can he point?
It never ceases to amaze me that when we are trying to promote the United Kingdom in one of the world’s growing market, we get no continuity of support for either British business or British investment. It is not just the taskforce that is promoting trade with China—that is also happening at prime ministerial level, between the two Prime Ministers, and at Secretary of State level across the economy. It involves business after business and the City of London. There is now a 19 per cent. increase in UK exports to China. Our exports to China are growing faster than imports from China. That never happened under the Conservative Government. In the service sector, there is a 2:1 balance in favour of trade with the UK. We have the right policies, the right programmes, the right relationship and the right businesses to do business effectively with China.
The day-to-day handling of such claims is undertaken by the solicitors Eversheds. The Department’s internal audit partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers, undertook a high level review and made a number of recommendations, but overall was complimentary about Eversheds’ handling.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, but she will be aware that many of the people who have been exposed to asbestos while working for British Shipbuilders have developed mesothelioma cancer, which means a very short lifespan. Will she therefore ensure that any delays that have been identified are removed so that claims can be settled quickly? She will also be aware that the Department for Work and Pensions has introduced a fast-track system. Will she ensure that her Department works within the framework of that fast-track system to ensure that mesothelioma sufferers are paid the money before they die?
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his consistent hard work over a long time in the House on behalf of mesothelioma victims. I will take note of his wise words, and we will ensure that claims are settled quickly. When preparing for this morning, I found that there was some slowness last year because of a lack of proper information regarding the settlement of claims. He is right to draw attention to the fact that mesothelioma victims tend to have the prospect of a short future life, so it is crucial that we act quickly. We will examine the DWP fast-tracking scheme to determine whether we can learn anything from it.
The deficit on trade in goods and services was £4.9 billion in December 2006, the most recent period for which figures are available from the Office for National Statistics. There was a robust growth in UK exports of goods and services in 2006. The value of exports of goods and services was up 12.7 per cent. on 2005. The value of UK goods exports was up 15.2 per cent. on the previous year. The stock of inward investment in the UK rose to £483 billion at the end of 2005, a rise of £119 billion over the stock at the end of 2004. The UK is the second most popular destination for inward investment in the world today.
Throughout the whole of the last Conservative Government, we used to listen to Labour Members telling us how important it was to have a surplus in goods and services, but we have not had a surplus since January 1998, and we now have the worst deficit ever. Will the Minister tell the House exactly what this wretched Labour Government are doing to promote exports?
When it comes to wretched Governments, the hon. Gentleman should know one—he was a sycophantic supporter of them before he lost his seat. Under his Government, we had inflation at 10 per cent., 3 million on the dole, 1,000 businesses going to the wall every week, national debt doubled and 350,000 young people on the dole. This is now a different country with a world-class economy and a Government who are committed to British business. We are providing 2.5 million new jobs. This is a different country—thank God—with a Labour Government.
Women and Equality
The Minister was asked—
I regularly discuss these issues with the inter-ministerial group on trafficking, and I recently wrote to Cabinet colleagues to support our signature to the Council of Europe trafficking convention. At our last meeting, we discussed the progress of the UK human trafficking centre, the first of its kind in Europe.
I thank the Minister for her response and welcome the UK finally signing up to the convention, following Conservative pressure.
The Minister will be aware of last June’s massive and authoritative report by the US State Department on human trafficking in the world. In a mixed review of the UK, it stated:
“There is no specialised immigration status available for trafficking victims, and shelter capacity for victims continues to be limited … The Government should continue and expand specialised training to include screening and referral of potential trafficking victims for all front line responders among law enforcement, immigration, medical, educational and social services.”
Will she tell us the Government’s response to the suggestions from the US State Department?
The Government are doing a great deal on trafficking, which is why cross-government work is going on. We have had successful operations in relation to people coming into this country, such as Operation Pentameter. We are leading Europe on providing for victims and ensuring that people are recognised at ports. This must be an international issue and it needs to be dealt with through international action. We are making great progress, and we are recognised as a leader in Europe.
My hon. Friend asks an enormously important question. The Home Office funding for the Poppy scheme, which is based in London, between 2003 and 2006 totalled £2 million. Last year, we entered into a £2.4 million funding agreement to provide 25 crisis places, 10 resettlement places and the first ever outreach service for UK victims of trafficking. Work is going on to develop places outside London, and we are examining the situation as part of our overall review of support for vulnerable people.
The whole House understands that it is very difficult to take effective measures against this contemporary form of slavery, given the desperate circumstances that many of the women face in their own countries and the ruthlessness of the criminal gangs, but the key point has to be to try to stop those women leaving their country and coming here. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Policing Minister with a view to sending senior police officers, perhaps even retired ones, to some of the countries that are the worst offenders to see what action they can take to try to tackle the problem at source?
The hon. Lady raises an enormously important issue, and indeed such work is ongoing. I am also pleased to say that this week the Department for International Development has produced a booklet called “Breaking the chains - eliminating slavery, ending poverty”, which is designed to recognise that it is poverty and social exclusion that make people vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of contemporary slavery. DFID’s work in supporting long-term programmes to help tackle the underlying causes of poverty, including social exclusion and conflict, are also adding to our work on the issue.
In April 2003, we introduced the right to request flexible working for parents of young and disabled children. Finding working hours to match caring responsibilities is a crucial issue for many families. Some 3.6 million parents have that right; almost 25 per cent. of them have asked to work flexibly; and about four out of five requests are accepted.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree with her colleague the Minister for Children and Families that all parents should have the right to request flexible working? Indeed, given that there are so many reasons other than caring responsibilities for people wanting to manage their work-life balance differently, does she agree that there would be benefits for all of society if the right were extended to everyone?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families was giving her personal view on how we might build on successful policies to try to make work much more flexible for millions of people. For example, the right to request flexible working has led to 47 per cent. of new mothers working flexi-time, compared with just 17 per cent. in 2002—a massive change. From this April, as the hon. Lady is, I am sure, well aware, we are extending that right to carers. I have sympathy with the view that we should go further, build on that and extend the right to other groups in due course, but we have to try to take the business community with us because the key to our success so far has been culture change and the fact that we have been able to maintain a consensus. We will of course keep the position under review.
I welcome the progress that we have made on flexible working, but would my right hon. Friend take the policy even further and consider a reduction in the number of hours that we work in this country? That would assist not only those who have requested flexible working, but those hundreds of thousands of families who struggle to maintain their work-life balance simply because of the length of working hours and the inflexibility of the working week.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. This is not just an issue for new mothers or, indeed, new fathers; it is about the number of hours that we all spend at work every week, sometimes as a result of a long hours culture in which one’s presence at one’s desk is seen as a sign of success. There is an important cultural issue there about how employers recognise the contribution that employees make, how they recruit and retain employees, which is desirable for pure business reasons, and how quality of life is valued as part of our social discourse. If we get this right, there are huge potential gains. One thing that we are doing is working with a group of exemplar employers to promote flexible working and quality of life, for sound business reasons.
I welcome what the right hon. Lady says about the extension of flexible working not only to parents but to carers and others with family responsibilities. She has shown some understanding of the business community, but will she confirm also her understanding that businesses, especially small businesses, are very apprehensive about the duties that will be imposed on them and about the problems of flexible working? Will she undertake to publish guidance for business aimed particularly at small businesses, to reassure them that flexible working, properly implemented, is likely to be not a hindrance but a benefit to families and businesses alike?
I am delighted to welcome the hon. Lady back to her place. I am sure that she had fun while incurring her injury, but I hope that she is recovering.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we have to take the needs of the business community into account. I think that there are good, sound business reasons for allowing employees to work flexibly, although of course there may in certain circumstances be very sound business reasons for turning down approaches to work flexibly. That is why we have a right to request, and in the vast majority of cases, those requests are approved. As we go forward, it is important that we maintain that consensus. The Equal Opportunities Commission has done specific work not only on the transformation of work, but on how the small business community can implement and make more possible the take-up of the right to flexible working. We in Government will work closely with the commission as we extend the right to other groups, to ensure that it is done in a sensible and proportionate way.
I will be speaking to Baroness Scotland next week to discuss women offenders and the female prison population.
I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that she is aware that there is no women’s prison in Wales, and that women offenders are placed outside Wales, with terrible consequences for them and their families, and especially their children. Would she support the development in south Wales of a centre like the Asha centre or the 218 programme, which address the punishment of women offenders for the crimes that they committed, but which also consider the factors related to women’s offending, including domestic abuse, mental illness and drug and alcohol misuse?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Women tend to be imprisoned further from home than men because there are fewer women’s prisons, and maintenance of important family links is therefore much more difficult. As she will be aware, Baroness Scotland announced in March last year that Baroness Corston had agreed to undertake a review of women in the criminal justice system with particular vulnerabilities. We are looking forward to the production of that report in the near future, when there will be an opportunity to address the issues that my hon. Friend raises, and many others.
Given that 70 per cent. of women in prison suffer from two or more mental disorders, and 37 per cent. of them attempted suicide before going to prison, will the Minister consider introducing a system of court diversion, whereby women are assessed for mental health treatment before they are sent to prison, and not afterwards, as exposure to the prison environment is likely to make their condition much worse?
The hon. Lady again raises an important issue. We know that 55 per cent. of all self-harm incidents in prison are committed by women, even though they comprise only about 6 per cent. of the total prison population, and the fact that there are underlying mental health issues for many women in prison is enormously important. As I said, the review that Baroness Corston has undertaken has looked into a range of issues, and I look forward to having more detailed discussions on the subject when we have the findings of that review.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 26 February—Opposition Day [7th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled “State of the Royal Navy”, followed by a debate entitled “Integrity of the Electoral System”. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion. That is followed by a motion to approve a money resolution on the Sustainable Communities Bill.
Tuesday 27 February—Remaining stages of the Greater London Authority Bill.
Wednesday 28 February—Remaining stages of the Offender Management Bill.
Thursday 1 March—There will be a debate on Welsh Affairs on St. David’s day, as I said there would be, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 2 March—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 5 March will be:
Monday 5 March—Second Reading of Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 6 March—First day of debate on House of Lords reform.
Wednesday 7 March—Conclusion of debate on House of Lords reform.
Thursday 8 March—A debate entitled “Women, Justice and Gender Equality in the UK” on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 9 March—Private Members’ Bills.
It may assist the House if I confirm that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer today announced that he proposes to deliver his Budget statement on Wednesday 21 March. In addition, as I told the House on Monday, it is my intention to provide as much notice as possible of the various motions in respect of House of Lords reform, and those will be in the Order Paper tomorrow.
For the convenience of the House, that will give Members on both sides an opportunity to look at the motions and decide whether they wish to table amendments. Although the motions appear on the Order Paper, they do so in draft form, and I will take account of amendments and suggestions that are made, in an attempt—hon. Members may query whether I will succeed, given my track record—to arrive at a consensus on the number of motions.
I thank the Leader of the House both for what he said about the motions on House of Lords reform and for giving us the future business. I note, however, that he did not tell us when the Prime Minister will present to the House the petition of 1.8 million signatures that he has received protesting against road user charging.
Yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs revealed that the British taxpayer will pay £305 million in fines to Brussels because the Rural Payments Agency failed to pay farmers in time under the single payment scheme for a second consecutive year. In a written statement today, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs failed to mention that fact, so may we have a debate on the incompetence displayed by both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Rural Payments Agency?
That was not the only example of ministerial incompetence yesterday. The Department of Trade and Industry announced that the science research budget would be cut by £68 million because of a departmental overspend, so may we have a general debate on ministerial incompetence?
May we have a statement on the Government’s policy on public consultation? Last week, Mr. Justice Sullivan ruled that the Government’s consultation on nuclear power was “misleading”, “seriously flawed” and “procedurally unfair”—yet more Government incompetence. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said:
“I have to accept that we got it wrong.”
The Prime Minister, however, said:
“This won’t affect the policy at all”.
I understand that the Leader of the House thinks that the Prime Minister is
“a master of ambiguity”,
but I would describe the Prime Minister’s response as unambiguous. It is, dare I say, unambiguously arrogant, so will the Leader of the House make a statement on public consultations by the Government?
The Prime Minister says that he wants the five-year mandatory sentence for carrying guns to apply to 17-year-olds. The Leader of the House used to be Home Secretary, so he knows that the Government can do that very easily, as the Criminal Justice Act 2003 allows them to amend firearms legislation by parliamentary order. Yet when the Appeal Court ruled that the five-year jail terms could not apply to anyone under 21 the Home Secretary failed to close the loophole. That ruling was made in March, almost a year ago, so may we have a debate on the gross incompetence displayed on an almost daily basis by the Home Office?
One thing at which the Government are competent, as everyone knows, is spinning and the Chancellor is spinning that he will end the spin. May we have a debate on political appointments in the civil service? The Chancellor claims that he wants to end the culture of spin, but he has just appointed yet another special adviser. The ministerial code says that Cabinet Ministers may each appoint up to two special advisers, but the Chancellor does not have two special advisers; he has 12, at a cost to the taxpayer of more than £1.1 million. The House deserves a debate on the Chancellor’s taxpayer-funded spin doctors; otherwise people will rightly ask what he has to hide.
Let me just run through those items in turn. First, on road pricing, I am discussing—the matter is being examined by the Procedure Committee, too—ways in which the House of Commons might follow the ground-breaking example of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to ensure that we, as well as Downing street, are up-to-date in encouraging petitions. It is a long-standing practice for people to deliver petitions to Downing street as well as to Parliament. Indeed, I used to do so myself in another capacity about 40 years ago.
The right hon. Lady would be well advised to read the response that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister sent to all those 1.6 million petitioners, informing them that there are now 6 million more cars on the road and that it costs £30 million per mile to build a new motorway. If the Conservatives are serious about getting into government, they will have to deal with that issue as well. I note that the Leader of the Opposition, who is a far greater master of ambiguity than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, told the Oxford Mail—probably in the hope that no one else would notice; Oxford is rather keen on measures to control motor cars—
“We should also look at road charging. There isn’t an endless pot of money”.
I am glad to see the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) nodding in approbation of what I have just said. He knows very well that the Conservative leader is currently making pledges on which he cannot possibly deliver. Indeed, Grant Thornton, a distinguished firm of chartered accountants, says that the total bill for pledges currently being made by the Conservatives amounts to £8.3 billion a year and would require an income tax increase of 4p in the pound.
We have doubled the science budget in the last 10 years. The previous budget was lamentable. The issue of the Rural Payments Agency is not a good story—the right hon. Lady and everyone else knows that, and we do not pretend that it is a good story—but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is dealing with it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry dealt with the question of nuclear power during Question Time.
As for the Chancellor’s special advisers, I think that they and his council of economic advisers are brilliant value for money. Let us consider what has been achieved in the last 10 years; we have enjoyed the longest-ever sustained period of economic growth and Britain has risen from the lowest place among the G7 countries to very near the top.
May we have a debate on the unfair charging practices of the major banks, particularly now that Barclays has recorded profits of £7 billion? My constituent Mr. Aranda, a small business man who is gravely ill with stomach cancer, is being charged £80 a month for four medical certificates to release the monthly premiums of the insurance that he has paid for years against his loans. It is bad enough that his GP—his local NHS GP—is making those charges.
I note what my hon. Friend has said and will bear her request in mind. There is widespread concern, not so much about the banks’ profits—we would all be lamenting if big British companies were making losses—as about the way in which they treat their consumers, both in overcharging and in making it difficult for them to move their accounts.
May we have a debate on youth-on-youth crime? In the last fortnight we have seen its tragic consequences in Peckham, Clapham and Streatham, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. What is not reported so much is that last year in London 14,000 11 to 16-year-olds were recorded as having been mugged, including 271 children aged 10 or under. We know that only one in five real muggings ever makes it into the police figures. May we debate the serious problem that faces the country—the fact that our current generation of teenagers simply cannot walk the streets feeling safe?
I should be delighted to arrange a debate on the matter. In fact most crime, particularly street crime, is youth-on-youth: it was ever thus. The difference between now and the time when my children were growing up on the streets of London is that the streets are very much safer than they were and the number of police officers available—including those in Lambeth and Southwark—is much greater, as not just the Mayor but the Metropolitan Police Commissioner will tell everyone.
On 9 January it was revealed that there was a backlog of 27,500 case files of offences committed by British citizens abroad that had not been added to police databases. Of those, 140 were serious offences. The Home Secretary said on 10 January that a full investigation would be completed within six weeks. Those six weeks elapsed yesterday. Will the Home Secretary be reporting back to the House on the investigation to explain the disarray and denial that characterised the response to warnings about this serious failure?
Will the Leader of the House encourage his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on the outcome of the Security Council’s deliberations on Iran’s compliance with resolution 1737? Does he still think that it is inconceivable that there will be military action against Iran?
Given that the Mayor of London has already leaked the headline figures of the revised Olympic budget, when will the Government publish the detailed revised budget for the 2012 games? Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that there will be a full parliamentary debate on it? Does he agree that the predicted huge cost increases should not fall on the shoulders of hard-pressed London council tax payers?
Finally, may we have a debate entitled “False economies in the national health service”, so that we can explore, among other things, why my local NHS trust, Epsom and St. Helier, has decided to remove one in every three light bulbs across the hospitals in the trust?
On foreign national prisoners, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his colleagues continually update the situation. I accept that six weeks from the date mentioned elapsed yesterday, but my right hon. Friend has given a great deal of information to the House and will continue to do so.
On Iran, yes, of course I will encourage my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to make a statement—it may have to be a written ministerial statement, rather than an oral one—in respect of any conclusions by the Security Council following resolution 1737. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke this morning in his interview on the “Today” programme about the issue of military action and Iran.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the 2012 Olympics and the budget. I happen to know a great deal about that, as I chair the Cabinet Committee dealing with the Olympics. We are examining very carefully and very rigorously all the possible costs that can arise, and in due course an announcement will be made. As the Liberal Democrats supported the Olympic bid as much as anybody else, this should not be a subject for cheap shots—[Hon. Members: “Expensive shots.”] The sedentary remarks make my point. The preparations for the games are more advanced and more under control than those for any previous games of which I am aware.
The hon. Gentleman’s last point was about false economies. There are many topics that the House should deal with, but a policy on the changing of light bulbs is a matter that should be dealt with at a local level, not in the House.
Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on gun crime? The media will soon move on from the subject of gun crime until the next particularly frightening occurrence, but for my constituents in Hackney, gun crime and the youth culture from which it flows are an ever-current problem. In a full debate we could discuss not just issues of educational failure and support for families and communities, but the practical problem of offering people proper witness protection. With gun crimes, it is not usually a secret who has committed the crime. The difficulty is finding people brave enough to go to court and give evidence.
I welcome the forthright position that my hon. Friend has taken on the matter. We will consider whether we can provide an opportunity for a debate. I accept entirely what she says about witness intimidation. I can tell her that convictions for witness intimidation have increased by more than 30 per cent. in the past five years, but I accept that it is still a major problem and that that is no comfort to those who are the subject of the most terrible intimidation in circumstances of which, sadly, she is all too well aware.
The Prime Minister is to leave office fairly soon, in effect driven out by his colleagues. Given that, may we have a very early debate on a motion to censure the Prime Minister in respect of his conduct of the war in Iraq? Most of us think that the war was illegal, unwise, unnecessary and profoundly dangerous, and it was justified by an assertion of facts which have proved to be inaccurate. It is surely right, therefore, that the House should have the opportunity to criticise the Prime Minister personally for the evil that he has done.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has got the wrong party. It is the Conservative party that drives out its leaders; we have never done so. I know that he disagreed with the war in Iraq, and he has been entirely consistent about that. It was not illegal or unlawful, although we can argue about its merits. As for securing a resolution against the Prime Minister, it is open to the official Opposition at any stage to table a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister or a motion to reduce his salary. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to pursue that course, I suggest that he has a conversation with his friends in the shadow Cabinet.
May I ask for a debate about the facilities in this House? Curwen school from my constituency will be visiting tomorrow, and I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that it deserves a quality experience. I understand that the House agreed that we would have a visitor centre back in 2004, and it has yet to be completed. We have all been living with the consequences of that build since I have been in this House. I wonder whether there might be a finish date.
I cannot give my hon. Friend a precise finish date. I can only say, to be frank, that what has happened in respect of the visitor centre has been quite lamentable. It was due to be finished in September, and it is a matter of great concern to you, Mr. Speaker, I know, as well to the House of Commons Commission. [Interruption.] I am told that that is a different building—this is a reception centre. Meanwhile, there are various plans for a visitor reception centre. Some of them were going to be too expensive and went way outside the House. I have been discussing informally with our hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran), who chairs the Administration Committee, whether better, quicker and much less expensive arrangements can be made either within the curtilage of the House or using buildings that are already there on the edge of our properties.
As I have this morning received a written assurance from the Prime Minister that the climate change Bill will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, which I am sure the whole House will welcome, will the Leader of the House tell us when he expects the Bill to be published and the House to have a first chance to debate it?
I am afraid that I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman offhand, but I shall certainly ensure that he and the House are told.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) is not in her place, but I should like to say how much I applaud her remarks on her blog:
“South Staffordshire Conservatives should be ashamed of themselves. I am disgusted. Sir Patrick has said that he will stand next time as an independent, and if he does, I would help him canvass for him”
against the selected Conservative candidate
“without hesitation and regardless of what ‘you will never be given a job’ threats will be thrown at me by the whips.”
May I associate myself with the comments that my right hon. Friend just made? The point that I wanted to raise—the Whips are now looking at me, as you may notice, Mr. Speaker—is that, as he will be aware, a minority of unscrupulous employers use the exemptions allowed by agency workers legislation to utilise east European migrant workers to undermine pay and conditions, particularly in my patch, in South Elmsall and South Kirkby. That is leading to disruption of community relations and the growth of extremist parties. Will he indicate what the Government’s position is in relation to the agency workers directive in Europe and, more particularly, will he ensure that enough time is made available for the moderate and reasonable proposals contained in the Temporary Agency Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Bill, a private Member’s Bill that is to be debated next Friday, 2 March?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Bill is coming up a week on Friday. We are giving consideration to the position that we take. We understand what he says about the way in which some agency workers are exploited, and there is a difficult balance between exploitation and not having the whole labour market seize up.
Returning to the matter of the Department of Trade and Industry’s £68 million cut in the research councils budget, may we have a debate specifically on that issue, albeit that I might have to declare an interest as an academic? Earlier this morning, the Minister for Industry and the Regions said that this was simply a matter of clawing back underspend, but the universities understand that it is in fact a £68 million cut across the entire spending review period, and thus an important blow to their finances.
There are plenty of opportunities to debate this matter, but I hope that although the hon. Gentleman belongs to another party, he will acknowledge that one of the finest aspects of this Government’s record in the past 10 years is the fact that we have doubled the budget devoted to science. Any downward adjustment in the budget is obviously to be regretted, but this is a very small adjustment against the totality—[Interruption.] It is. Even by Liberal Democrat standards of confetti money, there has been a significant increase. We have put almost £10 billion into the science budget for the current three-year spending period. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is doing his best to ensure that this necessary adjustment does not impact adversely on universities.
I wonder whether we could have an early debate on the ship-to-ship transfer of crude oil in the firth of Forth, now that new concerns have been reported that SPT, the marine services company involved in the bid, has admitted a previous spillage of 35,000 gallons of oil in 1995 off the gulf of Mexico. Let us just imagine the sheer devastation that a repeat of that event would cause along the coastline of my beautiful constituency.
I wonder whether we can have a statement on apprenticeships in the UK. Far from the picture of eager learners acquiring key competencies at the knee of experienced craftsmen, many apprenticeships have become virtual affairs with little or no workplace element. Indeed, in north-west England, half of apprenticeships have no employer engagement. Such fictional training was highlighted on the wireless programme “File on Four” a few days ago. Will the Leader of the House conjure up a statement so that our apprentices can receive something more than Mickey Mouse training?
I am afraid that Mickey Mouse training is what was practised by the previous Administration, whose record on training was absolutely terrible. I am very happy to have a debate about what we have done for apprenticeships, because we have done a huge amount for them, including, I think, 70,000 more apprentices in manufacturing. I am not suggesting that the situation is perfect, but if the hon. Gentleman has a constituency problem, there are plenty of opportunities to raise it, to ensure that the standards for all apprentice training are up to the best.
The all-party markets group recently sent out a survey seeking information from hon. Members about street markets in their constituencies. There has been a fantastic response, with 170 hon. and right hon. Members expressing an interest in taking part in a national “MPs and their markets” week. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that shows a very high level of support for street markets in this House, and will he make way for a debate?
The Leader of the House is, I know, a football fan, even though he supports Blackburn Rovers. Recently, the Minister for Sport criticised sky-high season ticket prices in the premiership, which are driving working class people away from football matches. Has the Leader of the House seen the campaign in The Sun and early-day motion 888, which criticises premiership clubs for the price of their season tickets?
[That this House recognises the excellent quality of football in the English Premiership and popularity it commands; wishes the growth and success of the Premiership to continue but in a sustainable way; regrets that season tickets to see top football clubs in England are the most expensive in Europe and cost four times more than in Germany, Holland and World-Cup winning Italy; further regrets that individual tickets are also beyond the reach of many fans; welcomes the comments of the Sports Minister criticising ‘sky-high ticket prices'; and urges the Premier League to use at least some of the extra £325 million it has recently obtained in overseas TV rights to reduce ticket prices.]
I wonder whether we can get a Minister here to discuss how we can keep the working class involved in football, instead of being priced out of their game.
I applaud The Sun and its campaign on this serious issue. I recently had to pay £45 to watch Blackburn Rovers being beaten at Stamford Bridge. The truth is that some clubs, of which Blackburn Rovers is one, are doing their best to ensure that more people are attracted to watch the game, while others are fleecing the ordinary spectator and pricing them out of the market, and making it increasingly difficult to fit in attendance at games with family timetables by shifting around the times of matches. All those issues should be debated.
In his deliberations about a debate on gun crime, will my right hon. Friend consider allowing the House time to debate the merits of a gun amnesty? The last amnesty in 2003 resulted in 66,000 weapons and 1 million rounds of ammunition being handed in. Amnesties are not the only answer, but they are effective in taking guns off the streets.
Surely the House deserves and requires an urgent statement on the financial train wreck that is the London Olympics. My constituents particularly want to hear why their lottery money is being diverted from good causes and grass roots sports in Scotland to pay for regeneration and housing in east London. Surely the House should consider all those issues.
Scotland supported the bid, which will greatly benefit the United Kingdom as a whole. There will be huge opportunities for athletes from Scotland and from the other three nations of the United Kingdom to participate in the Olympics. Our economic record, built by a Scottish Chancellor of the Exchequer, in ensuring that all parts of the United Kingdom—not least and particularly Scotland—have benefited from the increase in prosperity in the past 10 years is second to none.
Will my right hon. Friend say when the Coroners Bill will be introduced? Is he aware that the inquest on Gareth Myatt opened last week in what is, I think, a directors’ box overlooking the pitch at Rushden and Diamonds football ground? It is a fine place, but on the second day the team came out to train, and I could hear more of that than I could of what was going on in the room. Does he agree that we should have a proper, modern coroner service with dedicated premises?
The House is rightly concerned about the spending of taxpayers’ money. An earlier question drew the House’s attention to the fact that the European Union has fined the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs £300 million-plus because of its incompetence in handling the single farm payment. Is not it outrageous that UK taxpayers’ money should be paid to the European Union? Will not the Leader of the House arrange for a statement in which Members of the House can indicate that the money, far from being paid to the European Union, should be given to the hard-pressed British farmer?
I make no excuses for what happened in respect of the Rural Payments Agency, and neither has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is on the job, trying to secure a solution. The hon. Gentleman’s reputation on Europe goes before him, but it is a matter of fact that we have been net contributors ever since we joined the European Union. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I worked hard to reduce that as much as possible for the next period. Some people voted no in the referendum in 1975, and some voted yes.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the YouGov poll published earlier this week showing a strong majority among the British electorate for an elected element in the second Chamber. He will know that his decision not to proceed with a ballot to eliminate the various options for reform has cast into considerable doubt the ability to get reform through the House of Commons, showing once again the failures of Parliament to democratise itself. What additional steps can he take to ensure that that does not happen?
My hon. Friend knows that the option that I preferred, and the one that he preferred, was unfortunately—although it is a matter for the House—not going to gain support, and there was no point pushing it. Of the nine resolutions on the Order Paper, six will relate to a partly or wholly elected second Chamber. I say to my hon. Friend and those of us who wish to see reform that it is crucial that when people cast their votes they do not make the best the enemy of the good. We will have a motion before the House so that we can vote on the resolutions, notwithstanding that one is inconsistent with the other. That will allow us to get a clear picture at the end of the evening of exactly where the House stands. I hope that all Members recognise their responsibility to ensure that the House comes to a decision, even if the decision is for no change.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has asked for a debate about the Rural Payments Agency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) has asked for a statement. Given that the Secretary of State’s handling of the crisis has increased the amount of money—taxpayers’ money—set aside from £131 million to £305 million, does the House have a way of holding the Government to account, or are we just experiencing the legacy of Jo Moore of burying bad news?
No one could accuse my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of acting in that way. He has been forthcoming in turning up to the House to make oral statements, as he has done in respect of avian flu twice this week. A written ministerial statement on the single payment scheme is on the Order Paper today—[Interruption.] It is not about burying matters; oral statements cannot be made every day of the week. As I have said to many Conservative Members, I am very sorry about the situation. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have farmers in my constituency, and the situation is unacceptable—no one pretends otherwise. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is doing his best to put it right.
Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to see early-day motion 859 about Dreams plc, which has cut down a load of trees around its plant in my constituency?
[That this House deplores the actions of Dreams plc in cutting down trees around its site in Woolston, Warrington; condemns the company's cavalier attitude to the concerns of local residents who have raised this issue and its failure to engage in constructive discussions about its plans for re-landscaping the site, together with its dismissive comments about the area; notes that many successful companies in the United Kingdom are both profitable and environmentally responsible; and urges Dreams plc to follow their example.]
Is he aware that, following correspondence, the company has not only insulted the residents of the area, but has sent me what I can only describe as a two-page rant intended to intimidate me out of raising the issue? May we therefore have a debate on the rights and responsibilities of Members of the House, so that we can explain to the company’s chief executive that MPs have a duty to raise matters of concern to their constituents and that he ought to take that seriously?
I think that he is taking it very seriously indeed, as he accuses my hon. Friend of acting unfairly and vindictively and pressurising one of the country’s leading and fastest-growing retailers. I congratulate her on doing her duty by her constituents, and I hope that Mr. Mike Clare considers the perils of calling the privilege of Members of Parliament into question.
Will the Leader of the House please find time for a debate on the issue of the UK veterans badge, which can now be awarded to ex-servicemen and women who served in the armed forces before 1969? Does he agree that that will be helpful in assessing the impact of what the Government have done to promote the availability of the award? Does he further agree that it is the least that the House can do to ensure that service veterans are aware of their entitlement to that modest recognition of their immense contribution to our country?
I agree with much of what my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) said about a debate on gun crime. Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the Home Secretary the importation of weapons from eastern Europe and Northern Ireland? That is the real issue. Gangs have been around for a long time. We need to debate how to restrict young people’s access to those guns.
May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the reply that he gave in response to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s special advisers? The ministerial code says that he is supposed to have two; he has in fact got 12, who cost £1.1 million. The council of economic advisers is stuffed full not of senior economics professors, but of special advisers, one of whom recently served as a special adviser to the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers).
That is not a disqualification. My experience of the advisers and the members of the council of economic advisers in the Treasury is that they are of high quality. I have nothing to add to the answer that I gave earlier, which was that they have contributed their advice to the most successful period of economic activity this country has seen since the war.
I welcome yesterday’s announcement of the Government’s new deal for carers, which includes extra funding for respite care and a national helpline to provide advice and support to carers, for example. Given that the package also includes a review of the Government’s national strategy for carers, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on carers in the forthcoming weeks so that hon. Members on both sides of the House, who take carers’ issues seriously, can contribute on the needs of carers in their constituencies, who are one in 10 of the adult population?
I share my hon. Friend’s interest in that matter. I am glad that we have been able to find an extra £25 million for carers. She will know that there are opportunities to raise such issues in Westminster Hall and in Adjournment debates in the main Chamber. We will also look at what can be done.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I want to make a statement on yesterday’s judgment on the Government’s response to the ombudsman’s report concerning the security of final salary occupational pension schemes. Given the importance of the issue to many right hon. and hon. Members, I want to inform the House of the position that we have reached both in the light of that particular ruling and the decision last month of the European Court of Justice on the implementation of the insolvency directive.
The High Court yesterday made five rulings in its judgment. I want to take each in turn. Its first ruling was that the ombudsman was entitled, on the evidence available to her, to reach the conclusion that official information published on the minimum funding requirement for pension schemes was inaccurate and potentially misleading, and therefore amounted to maladministration. The Court particularly criticised the then Government’s guide to the Pensions Act 1995, which was published in 1996. This, it concluded, gave the clear impression that following enactment of the new law, scheme members could be reassured that their pensions were safe whatever happened.
The Government had, in good faith and acting on proper advice, taken a different view from that of the ombudsman, on the basis that the leaflets concerned were not a full statement of the law and were for general guidance only. However, we clearly now need to study the Court’s ruling very carefully. In particular, we need to consider the possible implications across government of the Court’s significant proposition, on which this ruling was based, that findings of fact made by the ombudsman are binding, unless they are flawed, irrational or peripheral, or unless there is fresh evidence.
The Court’s second ruling related to the important issue of causation. The ombudsman had found that maladministration was a significant contributory factor in the creation of the financial losses suffered by individuals. She went on to argue that everyone who between 1997 and 2004 suffered losses on the winding up of their pension scheme was the victim of injustice because of maladministration. The Government had argued that that was not well founded. The Court found in favour of the Government on this point, describing that aspect of the ombudsman’s report as “logically flawed and unreasonable.”
The Court’s third ruling rejected the ombudsman’s finding that the Government were guilty of maladministration when they made changes to the pension scheme funding rules in 2002. It decided that the ombudsman’s finding was not logically sound. In its fourth ruling, the Court also dismissed the claim that the Government’s refusal fully to restore the pension entitlements of all affected scheme members was in breach of the European convention on human rights. The Court’s fifth and final ruling concluded that I should reconsider the ombudsman’s recommendation that the Government should consider making arrangements to restore fully the pension losses of the people concerned when their employers became insolvent.
In a clear sign of both the complexity and, yes, the importance of these matters, both sides have sought and been granted permission to appeal. We have not yet decided the precise grounds for such an appeal, but it is absolutely right and proper that we take time to study the judgment and consider its implications in detail.
The judgment of the European Court of Justice in January on the implementation of the insolvency directive has an important bearing on the issue of financial redress for those who have lost some or all of their pension entitlement. The decision of the European Court of Justice effectively requires the Government to reconsider whether the present arrangements offer sufficient protection for people’s pensions when their employer becomes insolvent. The European Court of Justice has ruled that the system of protection that was in place before 2004 did not comply with the terms of the directive, even taking account of the subsequent introduction of the financial assistance scheme, albeit before its 2006 extension. We are already reviewing the financial assistance scheme with that finding in mind. It is now for the High Court to be asked to decide whether damages for breach of the directive should be paid, taking account of the steer apparently given by the European Court of Justice that damages may not be payable.
The Government have already acted to provide substantial financial assistance to people who lost pension rights when their employers became insolvent. The financial assistance scheme, supported by £2.3 billion of public money, has been set up precisely for that purpose. Throughout, we have always sought to ensure that those who have suffered the most should receive financial assistance to mitigate their loss. At the same time, we have sought to strike a balance with the interests of taxpayers, who cannot be asked to accept responsibility for effectively underwriting the total value of pension savings.
In considering the right way forward, we are always prepared to consider practical proposals from both sides of the House. I can confirm also that, so as not to add to their financial difficulty, we will meet the costs of the applicants in this case so far, together with the costs associated with our appeal.
People who have lost their pension rights in these circumstances have suffered a great deal. My aim will be to return to the House with our conclusions and our proposals for how we should proceed, and to do that before the conclusion of proceedings on the Pensions Bill.
We welcome the tone at least of the last part of the Secretary of State’s statement. We welcome in particular his announcement on costs. That was a great burden lifted from the shoulders of the claimants in this case and it reflects the public importance of it.
We accept that important issues of principle are involved where an ombudsman’s findings are binding, and that they have implications across government that the Government will want to consider. However, my reading of the situation is that the clear view of the House is that the ombudsman is an Officer of Parliament and that her office is of no functional value if the Government can simply dismiss her findings when they do not like them.
The Government have been criticised for their handling of the crisis by four separate bodies—the ombudsman, the Select Committee, the European Court of Justice and the High Court. From the tone of the Secretary of State’s final remarks, it seems that he might be getting the message at last.
The facts of the case are that 125,000 people who paid into occupational pensions, many of them because they were required to do so by law when they joined, have, following the failure of the schemes, lost their pensions in whole or in part, and that the schemes were not as safe and secure as Governments of both political parties suggested they would be. Therefore, people approaching retirement and, in some cases, people who retired early have found that their retirement plans are in ruins. They have been left high and dry.
The Secretary of State has said that the state cannot guarantee private pensions and he is right about that, but because of the creation of the Pension Protection Fund, the state does not have to. This situation cannot arise in future. It is a finite problem affecting a defined group of people. There is a palpable sense of an injustice being done. That sense is shared, I believe, on both sides of the House, in large sections of the media and in the country at large. The Government simply cannot ignore the view of the House of Commons and the sentiment of public opinion. I hope that I was correct in reading into the Secretary of State's final few paragraphs the indication that he is no longer intending to do that, because we as a society have to find a way forward to solve the problem. It has always been my view that the solution will not come through the courts. It has to be a political decision, based on cross-party consensus, with the Government taking a leadership role in building that consensus.
Let me make it clear that no one is suggesting that the Government should simply write a blank cheque with taxpayers' money. There are many other possibilities to be explored. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) invited the Prime Minister yesterday to set aside party politics and to seek to work together on the matter. I was pleased to hear what the Secretary of State said, and we are certainly ready to join him and all others in the House in trying to find a sustainable solution, based on the commitment of public money that has already been made through the financial assistance scheme, but also looking at whether better use may be made of the residual assets within the failed schemes, and whether we can make use of unclaimed assets within the financial sector to support a solution.
Is the Secretary of State prepared to commit his Department to doing some serious analysis of the real net costs of different levels of support to this group of victims, taking into account benefit savings and taxation, so that our debate will be properly informed?
The Government have now been told not once but four times that their response to the crisis is inadequate. There is a clear moral case for accepting a share of responsibility for the problem and for showing the leadership to broker a fair and affordable solution, but there is also a practical case. Pension saving is down and millions of people are making inadequate preparation for retirement. The Government rightly are determined to do something about that, but unless this issue is resolved, confidence in the pension system will not be restored.
We could seek to make political capital by promising that the next Conservative Government will sort the mess out, and we will do so if we have to, but many of the victims cannot afford to wait another two or three years for a change of Government, so if the Secretary of State is telling us today that he is prepared to work with us and others to find a solution that is affordable and sustainable, I welcome that and I assure him that he will find us ready, willing and able to participate in those discussions.
May I give a general welcome to what the hon. Gentleman said in response to my statement? I think that it is worth pointing out one or two things to him and to his hon. Friends.
It is true that previous Governments have rejected previous findings of ombudsmen’s reports. Anyone listening to the hon. Gentleman would probably conclude that this was the first time it had ever happened, and of course that is not true. Nor is it true to say that people have been left high and dry, which was the term that he used. I think that £2.3 billion of public investment in a financial assistance scheme certainly does not mean leaving people high and dry. We always made it clear that we were not in a position to compensate fully all the losses that people had sustained, and that remains our position.
In relation to how many people have received help, it is worth bearing in mind one important fact. We think that the financial assistance scheme will cover about 40,000 of those who have suffered a loss. Obviously, not all of them have reached retirement age yet, so it is ludicrous and fatuous to say that, because only about 1,000 people have received payment, the whole scheme is failing. That is not an accurate or fair interpretation of events.
On the hon. Gentleman’s wider points about the financial assistance scheme, let me remind him of what I said in my statement about the European Court of Justice ruling. We are already looking at the adequacy or otherwise of the financial assistance scheme as part of our consideration of the implications of that judgment. He repeated the comments of the Leader of the Opposition yesterday. I made it clear in my statement that we are prepared, of course, to discuss these issues with the other political parties in the House. That is the right and sensible way to proceed.
On the hon. Gentleman’s points about unclaimed assets, it is worth all of us keeping our feet firmly on the ground. Initial records searches by banks and building societies suggest that several hundred millions of pounds may currently lie unclaimed. There might be an annual income flow of about £10 million or £20 million, but that is not going to be an income stream on which we can rely to make the pensions commitments that he wants to make. As he must know, there is not a parallel between unclaimed pension assets and unclaimed assets in bank accounts. He must be aware of that.
Nearly five years ago I came to the House to talk about Andrew Parr, who was one of the people in court yesterday for ASW Sheerness. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have tried to have a debate about the matter. I am grateful for the statement. I think that we have accepted the moral argument, but we need to extend the money that matches the moral argument. That is what we are talking about now. Will the Secretary of State reflect on the unclaimed assets? When Ireland had the same problem, it proposed legislation to the Dail. The banks and building societies said that they had only £300 million, but I think £2 billion was found. We must have primary legislation. We will not find £300 million: I guess we will find between £5 billion and £8 billion of unclaimed assets. With the interest on that alone, we can deal with the issue. If there is to be an all-party group or some consensus, I would love to contribute creative ideas on how we can find that money.
Obviously, we will look carefully at all those issues, and we have done so already. That was acknowledged yesterday by the judge in his ruling, but it is important that we all keep our feet on the ground. I know I have made that point, and I do not want to sound like a boring broken record, but I do not believe that there is a pot of gold that we can find to solve these problems. We should bear it in mind that these unclaimed assets belong to other people and the banks and building societies are trying to match the unclaimed assets with their rightful owners. We have to tread very carefully in going down that path. We are prepared, of course—we always have been—to look at those issues, but we need to maintain a common-sense view.
I hope that the Secretary of State would acknowledge that refusing to accept the judgments of umpires is not a very attractive characteristic for sportsmen or for Ministers. Although I have never thought of him as a John McEnroe figure, he is showing a similar determination to ignore the successive decisions of the umpires in relation to pensions matters.
May I ask the Secretary of State about four issues in particular? First, I think that the position that he set out in the statement is that the Government, despite the strength of yesterday's ruling, have decided to appeal, even though they do not yet know the basis on which that appeal will be made. Is he really telling us that, despite the fact that the judge has decided that the Government acted unlawfully, and that the judge said in his ruling that no reasonable Secretary of State could rationally disagree with the view of the ombudsman on the leaflets that were issued before the Government came to power, he is proposing to appeal against that clear decision? That will distress the many people who thought that they had a clear judgment yesterday that the Government would accept.
Secondly, does the Secretary of State accept that, although he is correct to say that the judge indicated that one could not prove that every person who had lost a pension had read the forms that were referred to, we do not know the opposite? The risk is that, if we do not accept the general conclusions of the ombudsman, we will end up with each of the 100,000 individuals having to fight cases, which could take many years. Is that not totally unsatisfactory?
Thirdly, does the Secretary of State agree with the judge’s ruling that the figures that the Government have given for the cost of compensation are not particularly accurate or helpful because they do not include the benefit and tax offsets? Is he willing to ask his colleagues in the Treasury to come up with a reliable estimate of the cost of extending the PPF level of benefits to those individuals? Does he agree that that is what they want, rather than more tinkering with the financial assistance scheme?
Fourthly, the Secretary of State said that his aim—I think he said “aim”—was to return to the House with his proposals before the conclusion of proceedings on the Pensions Bill. Does he accept that what Members want is for him to return with his proposals before Report stage of the Pensions Bill in this House, so that his hon. Friends and Opposition Members have a chance to decide whether the Government have come forward with an adequate response, and if this House is not happy with the Government’s decision it will be possible to propose amendments?
Finally, does the Secretary of State agree that delivering justice sometimes has a price, and is it not high time the Government were prepared to pay that price?
I think that the hon. Gentleman prepared those comments before he had the opportunity to read my statement. I have made it clear today that we are carefully considering all aspects of the ruling in the High Court case. We have been given leave to appeal, but I have made it clear that we have not yet come to a decision on what the grounds for that appeal will be. That is in accordance with perfectly normal legal process in such cases, so the hon. Gentleman should not read anything into that. I am not in a position to give any further details today about what the grounds for the appeal might be, because they are still the subject of consultation between Ministers, and between the parties to the case.
On a more general level, we are considering every aspect of the ruling, but I get the strong sense from the hon. Gentleman that he wishes to pick and choose which aspects of the judgment he wants us to endorse, and which not. We are not in a position to do that.
I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman that I will be able to return to the House with proposals in the time scale that he mentioned. I will do my very best, but there are wider implications that I have to take into account, not least the current and ongoing litigation in relation to the European Court of Justice case.
We have been frank and open about costs. That was recognised by the judge in the Court yesterday—
It certainly was. The judge made it clear that the issue was presentational, not substantive, and that it did not affect the substance of the matter in any way, shape or form.
If the hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, he needs to go away and look at the judgment, where those points are made in terms, as I have outlined to the House today.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and particularly for his comments on legal costs; that has all been very helpful. However, will he confirm the following two points: that the insolvency directive came from the Commission in 1980, and also that the European Court of Justice judgment relates to the first financial assistance scheme and the £400 million, not the revised scheme?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his initial comments, and I can confirm that he is right in respect of the ECJ case.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for the Government’s considerations on the money, which will help in respect of the compensation and the court costs. However, in my constituency there are almost 700 Dexion workers—as the Secretary of State knows because he has met a delegation of them—and they will be deeply disappointed that there is to be more delay. They thought that after the Court ruling yesterday the matter would have been settled—that the judgment would be simple and the money would come forward. Will the Secretary of State expedite as fast as possible his thought processes and the conclusions he reaches, because those people are dying, and there are fewer of them now than there were a year ago? It is shameful that they have been left in their current position?
I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I can assure him and the House that we will certainly not kick this issue into the long grass, and that I will come back to the House with proposals as soon as is practically possible.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the approach that the Opposition spokesman has now adopted. It is very important that we take a long-term view that creates cross-party consensus on this matter. I was one of those who argued in the 1980s that the Lawson Budget, capping surpluses, would create long-term damage, and I was right. Such matters must be looked at in the round. It is great that the courts have dealt with some of the issues as they have, but Members have got to find a long-term solution that avoids our making the same kind of mistakes in the future as Nigel Lawson made in 1986.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said, and for his support. I just want to repeat to him and all other Members that we are doing our very best to find a sensible way forward in relation to these issues.
I welcome the tone of the Secretary of State’s statement, but does he agree that there is still a risk that this issue will escalate from a dispute between his Department and the occupational pensions authority into a dispute between Parliament and the Executive, because he has so far refused to accept the recommendations of the ombudsman and those of a Select Committee of this House? In order to avoid such a confrontation, will he give an undertaking that he will put whatever proposals he comes up with before the House for approval?
It is certainly likely that if, and when, proposals are brought forward, there will be an opportunity for the House to vote on them. [Interruption.] The question of when that will happen has been asked from a sedentary position. I understand that amendments to the Pensions Bill dealing with the issues that we are discussing today have already been tabled, so I am confident that the House will have an opportunity to vote on them.
I recognise the difficulties and concerns that the Government must have in respect of how public money is spent, but can I explain to my right hon. Friend one case involving a constituent of mine—although I know that there must be many such cases? My constituent was told in 2001 by the Armstrong Group pension scheme that when he retired he would receive a pension of £10,380. He is due to retire next month, and he is now due to receive just £2,529 a year. I ask my right hon. Friend to imagine what he and his wife must be feeling about having to live in poverty, as opposed to receiving the more substantial amount that they had hoped for. Let us imagine that we, as Ministers and Members of Parliament, were faced with the sort of acute problem that my constituent and many others involved in the failed Armstrong Group pension scheme are facing? How would we feel? I hope that it will be possible for the Government to look very sympathetically on such cases.
We shall certainly try to do so. I do not think that the issue is whether compensation or financial assistance should or should not be paid. We have already put in place a financial assistance scheme. Eventually, the issue that the House will have to consider is whether the scheme needs to be expanded in any way. That will be the focus of our proposals, when we bring them forward. However, the situation is as my hon. Friend has outlined: there are cases of genuine hardship and we have always tried to make sure that those in greatest need got the greatest help.
Does the Secretary of State not agree that the delay that we are now experiencing is as painful as any failure to get matters right in the beginning? Does he not also agree that the signal he is sending—for example, to those waiting for the outcome of the ombudsman’s Equitable Life inquiry—will lead to people thinking that that might be overturned too, which would mean further inordinate delay, even after the many years that they have been waiting? Does the Secretary of State not realise that it is crucial that we now have closure on this issue, on an equitable basis and as fast as we can get it?
I do, and that is what I said in my statement.
I welcome very much what my right hon. Friend has said today, and the way in which he has said it. However, does he not agree that there can no longer be any question but that the ombudsman was right to say that the information that Governments of both parties had produced was misleading, and that that was maladministration? Can we clear that question out of the way now? Secondly, my right hon. Friend said that there had sometimes been disagreements between Governments and the ombudsman in the past, and that is true. However, in every past case this House has insisted that there should be a satisfactory resolution of the difficulty. Is it not unfortunate that it has taken a judge to ensure that that will happen in this case?
I thank my hon. Friend for what he said at the beginning of his question. As I have said, because we are still considering the grounds of appeal, I am simply not in a position today to give him the clarity that he seeks on his first point—nor will I be able to do that if anyone else asks me the same question through another route. The wider issue of compensation will now be the focus in our full and proper consideration of the implications of this judgment. It is clear, however, that this case has generated issues of great legal complexity and, yes, of constitutional significance. It is right and proper in those circumstances, and given that I have been able to share the terms of the judgment with Ministers only since yesterday morning, that they collectively take a proper view of where we should take this case in future.
When I was a Department of Trade and Industry Minister, I had an adverse finding of maladministration regarding Barlow Clowes regulation, and I had no hesitation in paying compensation. How much have this Government so far spent on advice, civil service time and legal fees, how much more are they going to spend on legal fees, and should not that money go to the people who are suffering?
It might be important for the record to say that the right hon. Gentleman actually rejected the ombudsman’s findings in relation to Barlow Clowes.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to reconsidering the position of those who have lost pensions because the firm that they worked for has gone into liquidation, but will he also consider a related group of people? I and representatives of the Tinsley Bridge pension scheme recently met the Minister for Pensions Reform. That pension scheme was wound up to avoid forcing the firm into liquidation, but people lost their pensions as a result. The scheme therefore cannot join the Pension Protection Fund, but because the firm is not in liquidation as a result of the action taken by the pension trustees, those potential pensioners are not eligible for help from the financial assistance scheme. However, because of the improved conditions of that scheme, the pension trustees might be under a perverse legal obligation to put the firm into liquidation, thereby causing the loss of hundreds of jobs, in order to get that assistance. Will my right hon. Friend look at that issue when he considers those who have lost their pensions because their firm has gone into liquidation?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue, which has been raised by a number of Members in all parts of the House. These are matters of real complexity and we are trying to find a sensible way forward. The Minister for Pensions Reform, whom my hon. Friend recently met, will write to him shortly in dealing with some of the issues that he has raised.
One problem that we all face is the huge gulf in the figures quoted. Campaigners say that the cost of reimbursement is £4 billion over 60 years, peaking at £100 million a year, but the Government say that the cost is £15 billion. Has the Secretary of State considered the possibility of an independent assessment of the true cost, so that Members can at least know what they are talking about in this regard? Does he not also agree with Joe Harris of the National Pensioners Convention, who said:
“The real issue arising from this case now is the need for a bigger basic state pension to be paid to all in retirement that is guaranteed and secure.”?
Is it not time to think about a citizen’s pension?
No, it is certainly not time to look at a citizen’s pension, because the costs would be completely unsustainable. They would certainly be unsustainable if the hon. Gentleman got his way and imposed such a profligate policy on the poor innocent taxpayers of Scotland, so I would not recommend going down that route. On the figures quoted, I agree that it is important to have a common language in dealing with this issue, and we have tried to present our findings and our view of the cost of the financial assistance scheme in real and genuine terms, and on the same basis as the Government produce their financial accounts generally. It is therefore not true to say that there has been any sleight of hand. The judge makes clear the difference between the £3 billion and £15 billion figures. One figure is net present value and the other is cash—it is all cash—and that is how the Government produce their accounts. The difference is important as a matter of presentation, but it is
“not, in truth, a difference of substance”.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, particularly his concluding remarks, and I hope that there will soon be an end to the misery that so many of our constituents have experienced. I am thinking in particular of the 800 Allied Steel and Wire workers from Cardiff who lost their jobs, some of whom also lost all their pension. I hope that they can sleep soundly in their beds, confident that the Government are going to come up with something good for them. Is my right hon. Friend aware, however, that there are people in my constituency who have worked for 30 years and paid in dutifully for 30 years, as the Government advised, but who have ended up with absolutely nothing under the present financial assistance scheme arrangements? Will he take them into account when he makes his statement to the House during the passage of the Pensions Bill?
We are looking at all these issues in the context not only of yesterday’s High Court ruling but, most importantly, of last month’s ruling of the European Court of Justice.
I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State recognise earlier that some of these people now face severe financial hardship as a result of the loss of their pension savings. Sadly, a number of my own constituents lost their pension savings in the Kalamazoo and United Engineering Forgings schemes. They will of course be disappointed that today is not the end of the road, but they will be a little relieved to hear that they will not be picking up any further costs. Will the Secretary of State reflect, however, on what my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said earlier? While the high-profile issue of people having lost their private pension savings remains in the public eye, it sends a terrible signal to the many millions of our fellow citizens who are wondering whether the same thing might happen to them.
I agree that that is not good, but the hon. Lady needs to reflect a little more on, for example, the Pension Protection Fund offers for cases going forward. We have taken the right course of action in setting up the PPF, which offers a very high and proper level of protection, so people can have confidence in their pension savings going forward.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement, particularly what he said about costs, which, as he knows, is an issue that I have raised on a number of occasions; it is very good news that the Government will pay the costs. I am one of those who think that the Government had a genuine motive in introducing the financial assistance scheme to try to ameliorate the losses. However, the problem has been not just one of resourcing, because the scheme does not address the fundamental issues that have been obvious to MPs, that are dealt with in the ombudsman’s report and that underlie the logic of the Pension Protection Fund. Will my right hon. Friend introduce, with some dispatch, proposals that resolve this issue and do not create further uncertainty down the line, so that my constituents who worked for Kalamazoo and others do not have to experience hardship for much longer?
We will certainly try to do that.
The Secretary of State has rejected criticism of the FAS on the basis that a mere 900 payments have been made so far, saying that such criticism rests on unwarranted assumptions. Can he therefore put in the public domain the figures telling us exactly how many of the sample who are eligible for assistance from the FAS have reached retirement age and secured payments?