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Commons Chamber

Volume 457: debated on Thursday 1 March 2007

House of Commons

Thursday 1 March 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Tax Credits

What proportion of appeals against overpayment of tax credits have been refused since April 2006; and if he will make a statement. (124161)

Over the period April 2006 to the end of January 2007, there have been around 303,000 disputed overpayments. Over the same period, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has written off 8,600.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but the National Audit Office report states that, during 2005:

“The recovery of overpayments has caused hardship to some families and HMRC has struggled to manage disputes about recovery.”

That is causing huge distress and unmanageable levels of debt to dozens of already disadvantaged families in my constituency. It is obviously a mess. What will the Government do about it?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, in his constituency, some 7,700 families are benefiting from tax credits, including 12,500 children. He himself has written to me in the past six months on six cases to do with overpayments. I agree that those matters need to be settled, but I ask him to keep the matter in proportion and to recognise the fact that hundreds of thousands of families across his region, and millions across the country, are benefiting. The latest figures on take-up show that the very poorest—those on £10,000 or less a year—now have a take-up rate of 97 per cent.

Of course thousands of my constituents have benefited from the scheme and I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend has done on the matter, but the fact remains that, after a judgment has been made, many of my constituents are extremely anxious about having to repay immediately. What guidelines exist from her Department that will allow those in difficulties time to pay? Does she accept that there is a fundamental difference between a mistake in law and a mistake in fact?

I can confirm to my right hon. Friend that in his constituency, in the small number of cases—compared with the number of people who are benefiting—where people have to repay as a result of an overpayment, the Department offers time to pay and a graduated system of repayment, ranging from 10 per cent., 25 per cent. or 100 per cent of the sum required. In extreme circumstances of hardship, it will write off the overpayment. I am happy to send him details of that.

Revenue and Customs bases its assessments on code of practice 26. Members who refer cases to the adjudicator find the adjudicator saying that the Revenue and Customs was right because it has adhered to code of practice 26. When they then refer the adjudicator’s findings to the ombudsman, the ombudsman says that the adjudicator was right because she adhered to, as Revenue and Customs adhered to, code of practice 26. That code is set down by the Treasury. It is the Treasury’s own guidelines. Fundamentally, it says, “We may have made a mistake, but you should have known we made a mistake so you are wrong.” When will we get some justice?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, COP 26 uses the reasonableness test—exactly the same test that has been applied within the tax system for a considerable time. It requires that the claimants ensure that the information that they have given is correct. When it is sent back to them on their award notice, they are expected to check that information and to confirm that it is correct. Where the error is made by the Department and it is clearly demonstrated that that is the case, the reasonableness test requires the overpayment to be written off.

Here we are on St. David's day, the final month of the first financial year in which major changes were made, particularly to income variations, with increases of 1,000 per cent.—the disregard is now £25,000. Can the Paymaster General assure the House that, as far as the figures that are available show at this stage, the level of overpayments will fall by at least a third, as was indicated when the changes were introduced quite some time ago?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the introduction of the changes that are now operational this year will have an impact on overpayments, as will the shortening of the period for renewal of tax credits, which was completed last year; it will be shortened again this year. I am sure that he would want to welcome the fact that, because of the tax credits, a family with two children do not start paying tax until they are earning £12,800 a year, or £420 a week. That has made an enormous contribution to reducing poverty, helping people into work and reducing the tax burden on the poorest families.

The Paymaster General was asked what proportion of appeals against the overpayment of tax credits had been refused and she has not managed to answer that question yet. It would be helpful to the House if she did so, so we could see how well the system is working. She talks about the numbers being less and says that most people are benefiting, but individuals who are suffering a stressful experience deserve a better service. The Government must understand the system and not make mistakes, instead of individuals policing the Government to ensure that they get the system right.

The question of overpayments is linked to a number of factors—the increase in income in the year, an over-estimation of income by the claimant and provisional payments at the beginning of the payment year. Those are being addressed. I thought that it was helpful of me to tell the House that 303,000 overpayments were disputed, 8,600 of which were written off.

The House should note that, yet again, the Chancellor declines to defend at the Dispatch Box his over-complicated tax credit system. If everything is going so well with tax credits, will the Paymaster General tell me why almost 100 Labour Back Benchers signed an early-day motion protesting at the current method of adjudicating overpayments? Is not this over-complicated clunking mess crying out for wholesale reform?

I look forward to the hon. Gentleman explaining to the 6,300 families in his constituency, including 10,700 children, why he wants to take tax credits away from them. I also look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman explain how he will ensure that children are lifted out of poverty and people helped into work by making work pay, and how the tax burden on the lowest income will be reduced by tax credits. The hon. Gentleman wants to dodge those questions and instead try to complain about issues that are being addressed.

G7 Finance Ministers

2. If he will make a statement on the priorities identified by his Department for the forthcoming G7 meeting of Finance Ministers. (124162)

7. If he will make a statement on the discussions he had with G7 Finance Ministers on his education for all initiative for Africa. (124167)

Our international development priorities for the G7 are to support universal education for all children, including holding an international summit on the subject on 2 May, and to extend our new vaccination facility to malaria to prevent 1 million unnecessary deaths each year. Our domestic priorities as G7 members are to ensure low inflation and I can tell the House that we have today accepted the public sector pay review body reports to be implemented in two stages, and the armed forces in full, from 1 April. The overall awards come within the inflation target, at 1.9 per cent., demonstrating our total determination to maintain discipline and stability and to continue with an 11th year of sustained economic growth.

I know that my right hon. Friend will try to ensure that G7 Finance Ministers live up to the promises they made in 2005 at Gleneagles on the issue of funding international development. Does he agree that the G8 leaders should be looking at a variety of new social protection programmes that are being used in the least-developed countries to provide child benefit and pensions, which in many cases are the key to the world’s poorest people obtaining proper food and getting access to education and to proper health care?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a major lead in international development in Scotland and elsewhere. There has never been a year when international development payments by member Governments committed to overseas development have been higher but we must maintain that over the next few years. I agree that we have to deal with issues of child labour and child protection and that we have to build capacity in health care systems. Over the next two months, our two priorities at the G8 will be, first, to move forward with our plan for school education so that 80 million children who do not go to school get the chance to do so and, secondly, to build on what we have achieved by creating vaccination facilities to prevent, first, pneumoconiosis, and then tuberculosis, diphtheria and, in future, malaria. We are prepared to make substantial investments as a Government—with, I believe, the support of the whole House—to ensure that we can eradicate some of the worst diseases in the world.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the 80 million children who are currently not receiving primary education. I am sure that he is aware that around half of those are in war-torn states. If we do not get those children into education, we have no hope of reaching the millennium development goal. Will he support the work of Save the Children on this and will he try to make sure that this is on the agenda at the education for all donor conference on 2 May?

I assure my hon. Friend that that will be the case. There are about 40 million children in conflict zones or zones where failed states are unable to deliver the capacity to create education, far less train teachers, build schools and provide educational facilities for the future. We are discussing the idea that, behind frontiers, an international organisation similar to the Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières could offer education, with the protection of international law, to children in conflict zones. That new idea must be properly developed, but I believe that there will be international support for it, and I hope that there will be all-party support in this country. If we were able to ensure that children in failed states and in areas of conflict received education, we could meet the international development target that every child has primary education by 2015.

At the Chancellor’s meeting with the G7 Finance Ministers, will he advise that the International Monetary Fund, which is said to be close to insolvency, should, as recommended in the Andrew Crockett report dealing with the subject, sell part of its gold—its ultimate core of value—so that it can continue to pay its staff wages? If not, what will he recommend?

I am grateful for that question because it allows me to say that the International Monetary Fund is not going bankrupt, and that its role is changing from conflict resolution to the prevention of crises. I believe that, given that new role to perform, the IMF will need less money to do its job. Its emphasis will be on publicising, transparency, surveillance and making sure that the world knows the state of individual economies and of individual continents. In future, it will be engaged in fewer of the large lending operations in which it used to be involved. However, as chairman of the IMF committee, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, far from being bankrupt, the IMF is extending its role into new areas.

Do not worry, Mr. Speaker, I will not be suggesting that we go back on to the gold standard any time soon. [Interruption.] It is only a matter of time, of course.

No one would deny that the Chancellor has a strong commitment to African matters. However, will he ensure that, at their meeting, the G7 Finance Ministers hold that commitment close to their hearts so that we can try to ensure that we have free and open trade at the earliest possible opportunity, particularly in relation to agricultural produce, which offers a way out of poverty for many African nations?

There is absolutely no doubt about what we could achieve this year with an international trade deal. It would make it possible for large numbers of people in Africa to trade with the rest of the world, and it would enable them to escape from poverty. That is why we are working with other countries, and why we put so much emphasis on achieving an international trade deal over the next few months. As the hon. Gentleman might know, trade talks have started again on a formal basis, after the informal discussions that took place at Davos, and I believe that if Europe and America can make some of the concessions that are necessary, Brazil, India and other countries, which also have concessions to make, will come on board. The hon. Gentleman must also recognise that to make it possible for countries in Africa to trade, they need support to build up capacity to trade; they need support in infrastructure, transport and telecommunications. That is why, as part of a trade deal, we are prepared to lead the way with other countries with an aid-for-trade package that would enable African countries in particular to build up their resources for the future.

I am pleased, by the way, that the hon. Gentleman has announced that the Conservative party will not go back to the gold standard. That is about the only specific policy announcement that we have had from it.

Can the Chancellor confirm that of all the G7 countries Britain comes out top on jobs, stable growth and Government debt? If we were a football team, we would have done the treble nine years in a row.

And it will be 10 years in a row.

I should tell the House that, as my hon. Friend said, when we came to power in 1997, Britain was seventh out of the seven G7 countries in terms of per capita income. Japan, Germany, the United States, France, Italy and Canada were ahead of us, and we were No. 7. Last year, the gross domestic product per capita income figures were as follows: the United States, £22,000; the UK, £19,000; France, £17,000; Germany, £17,000; Japan, £17,000; and Italy, £15,000. Far from being at the bottom of the G7 league, we are now near the top, and that is due to the policies of stability and employment pursued by this Government. It is unfortunate to note that a party that has proposals to increase spending, while cutting taxes and borrowing, and a fiscal rule to cut spending by £18 billion, would lead us back into the old problems of unemployment, recession and public spending cuts.

Given that the Germans have asked the G7 Finance Ministers to look at the issue of highly leveraged private companies, what are the Chancellor’s views on private equity? Does he share the enthusiasm of his Conservative shadow and the Prime Minister, or the serious reservations of the CBI, the TUC, his two declared leadership opponents and, I think, the Economic Secretary, who believe that there is a serious problem of lack of transparency, as well as a drain on Treasury funds in terms of tax relief?

I am sorry if the Liberal party is going down the road of doubting whether a whole category of business finance is capable of serving the nation. As is usual in many areas, there are companies that are short-termist and those that are long-termist. We want a British economy in which there is long-term investment in the future of our industry that will create jobs and opportunities for people. Where companies are too short-termist, we will speak out. Where private equity companies and others are operating in a long-termist way, we will congratulate them on what they do. The evidence is that private equity has created more jobs at a faster rate than some other institutional investments in the economy. It is about time that the Liberal party was prepared to have a balanced debate on this, as on other issues.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that giving education to 80 million young people is not the only priority for the G7? I agree that the Government have done much work in this area, but can he push the G7 to ensure that the money and resources get to the children, and do not bypass them and get into the hands of corrupt Governments and officials—that they reach bodies such as non-governmental organisations that deliver on the ground?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a long-term interest in education issues throughout the world, for that question. Britain’s proposal—that individual countries sign education plans that will build capacity, particularly teacher training—will be monitored by the World Bank’s fast-track education initiative and is the right way forward. I hosted a conference in Nigeria at which 20 African countries agreed to submit education plans. This is a major breakthrough, in that they are now proposing how they will spend their resources, as well as the international resources that are provided. We have support from a number of G7 Governments for the pledging conference that we will hold on 2 May. In advance of the G8 meeting in Germany, we can make very considerable progress, with a number of countries signing up to our initiative. However, our initiative alone—£1 billion a year for education—means that in the next few years, we alone will be educating 15 million additional children in some of the world’s poorest countries. That is thanks to the international support that has been given to this education initiative.

One of the most important issues that the G7 Finance Ministers will be dealing with is of course climate change. Carbon emissions in Britain have risen in the past 10 years and continue to rise. We have discovered that this week, the Chancellor’s Smith Institute trustee, Deborah Mattinson, told a private Labour meeting that there is public

“dissatisfaction with the government’s performance”

on the environment. Why does he think that is?

We introduced the climate change levy, which the Opposition opposed. We extended the aggregates levy, which the Opposition opposed. We extended the landfill tax, which the Opposition opposed. Every time that we tried to deal with the problems of the car industry, the Opposition opposed us. If anybody was taking an objective view of who had done more for the environment, I do not think that they would come down in favour of the Conservative party.

Of course, one reason why we can do better on the environment is co-operation within the European Union. [Interruption.] Oh yes. That is why we are signing agreements with other European countries to reduce carbon emissions. The hon. Gentleman spoke at the Centre for European Reform yesterday. At the beginning of his speech, he said “I’m a pro-European”, but within 12 minutes he said:

“I would call myself a Eurosceptic.”

Of course the European Union can do things to tackle climate change: it does not mean that we have to give up all our sovereignty to let it do them—[Interruption.] Now listen, I am asking the Chancellor about the views of Deborah Mattinson. I am surprised that he cannot agree, because she is his personal pollster and the event at which she was speaking was called “Brown’s first 100 days”—[Interruption.]

And only newly promoted as well.

Now look, that is not the only such event this week. What does the Chancellor say to the former Home Secretary, who served with him in the Cabinet, who said yesterday that thanks to the Chancellor, the Labour Government were sleepwalking to disaster? Does Mrs. Rochester agree?

I repeat what the shadow Chancellor says to every meeting that he addresses in the City:

“The Labour party has become in the public’s minds the party of economic competence. Establishing economic credibility allowed them to persuade the public that they then could deliver on their promises of social justice.”

He also talks about

“Labour’s success on macroeconomic policy”.

That is very different from the interview that I heard him give this morning. The Leader of the Opposition said that he had an absolute commitment to introducing a married couple’s allowance, but the shadow Chancellor said on the radio this morning that he could say only that they were thinking about it. So in the Conservative party, Front Benchers make public spending commitments, Front Benchers say that they will cut taxes and Front Benchers say that they will cut borrowing and achieve stability. None of it ever adds up, as it never did in any previous election. As a result of the hon. Gentleman’s policies, we would be back to where we were in 1992, when the Leader of the Opposition had to stand with the then Chancellor and pronounce about 15 per cent. interest rates, 3 million unemployed, public spending cuts and the worst economic record of any Government since the war.

Housing Market

New house building reached 160,000 last year, the highest level since 1990. When I met Shelter and other housing organisations this week, they welcomed what they described as outstanding progress since 1997 on investment in existing social housing and in creating more homes for people on low income. But they also called for further progress in the comprehensive spending review and supported Kate Barker’s conclusions that supply is not yet fully meeting Britain’s long-term housing needs.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Despite Kate Barker’s view, is the Minister aware that in Cornwall the housing stock has more than doubled in the last 40 years? It has grown faster than almost anywhere else in the country, but the housing problems of local people have got significantly worse. Indeed, in my constituency last year, five times as many properties were sold to second-home buyers as to first-time buyers. Does the Minister accept that simply heaping tens of thousands more homes into a supposedly homogenous and uniform market does not work in places such as Cornwall, and that much more sophisticated mechanisms are needed? Market equilibrium does not result in affordable homes for local people.

We certainly do need to be smart about how we take this issue forward. We need more homes, and we set the objective in the pre-Budget report in 2005 of increasing the number of net additions to 200,000 a year within 10 years. That is important. We also need help for first-time buyers, and that is why we raised the threshold for stamp duty. We also need to go further on social housing. By next year, we will have increased the number of new social homes by 50 per cent. over three years, from 20,000 up to 30,000 a year. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has said that going further in that particular area, which will be important for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, will be a priority for the comprehensive spending review.

The number of people registered for rehousing in the city of Newcastle is five times as high as it was six years ago. Low-income families on tax credits—the very thing that we were discussing earlier—simply cannot afford either to rent or to buy. That affordability gap, rather than housing supply, is the central problem. People are being priced out of their neighbourhoods because they cannot afford to rent or to buy.

My hon. Friend will recognise that there is a link between the number of homes available and the price that people need to pay for them. I agree entirely that people in a number of parts of the UK face some very big and difficult problems in gaining access to the housing market. Further progress in that regard will be a priority in the comprehensive spending review, but it is also worth noting that total household-sector interest payments are currently 9 per cent. of disposable income, compared with 15 per cent. in 1990. That shows that some good progress has been made.

I am sure that the Chief Secretary shares my concern about the problems that first-time buyers face in getting a foot on the housing ladder. In my constituency of Basingstoke, the difficulties are significant. Last year, just 36 per cent. of new loans—that is, one in three—were made to first-time buyers, a significant reduction from the 1990s. What assessment has he made of the other up-front charges in addition to stamp duty that first-time buyers have to pay before they can buy their first home? Those charges place an enormous barrier in the path of people who, like my constituents, are finding it very difficult to get a foot on the ladder.

We need to do more to address the challenges facing first-time buyers, and I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome the increase in the stamp duty threshold, as that will be particularly useful and helpful. In addition, I remind her of the work that has been done on shared equity: we now expect 160,000 households to be helped into home ownership by 2010 through shared equity in various forms, and that is double the original estimate. We are making progress, although there is no doubt that more must be done. I am confident that, in the CSR, we will be able to announce steps that will help further.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that investment in housing and social housing is important to helping people get on to the housing ladder? That is especially important in my constituency, where average earnings are around £20,000. What would be the effect on the social housing budget if overall public expenditure were to be reduced by the implementation of a third fiscal rule?

I am afraid that the effect would be catastrophic. Great progress in social housing has been achieved through the investment in the existing social housing stock about which Shelter and other organisations spoke to me earlier this week. Another factor has been the 50 per cent. increase over the past few years in the number of social houses being built. We need to maintain the investment and go further. I am confident that that will happen, but I am afraid that a third fiscal rule would take us very sharply backwards.

Childhood Well-being

4. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK’s macro-economic performance on childhood well-being. (124164)

Since 1997, the Government’s commitment to macro-economic stability, to providing work for those who can do it and to giving financial support to families has reduced the number of children in workless households by 440,000, and helped lift 700,000 children out of poverty.

I am surprised that the Chancellor is not wearing a daffodil to show his sense of Britishness, given that today is St. David’s day. Does the Economic Secretary share UNICEF’s assessment that economic poverty alone is not the sole indicator of childhood well-being? What does he think needs to be done to tackle the broader social problems that affect childhood well-being in Britain today?

I agree that having strong families and sound public services are part of making sure that children get the best possible start in life. However, macro-economic instability and rising poverty make it much harder to give children that. The number of children in poverty has fallen by 700,000 since 1997. That number rose by 500,000 in the 1980-81 recession, and by 1.1 million in the recession of 1990-92. With that sort of instability, it is no wonder that child poverty doubled in the period up to 1997.

Both the minimum wage and the tax credits system have made an enormous contribution to reducing poverty across the country, yet 41 per cent. of London’s children remain in poverty. Does the Minister agree that London needs specific, comprehensive and complex cross-Government issues, measures—[Hon. Members: “Action.”]—action to meet the 2020 child poverty target? [Hon. Members: “Reading.”] Oh, you are pathetic. Will he meet me to discuss the matter and how the major regeneration initiatives in the east of the capital can help to reduce the number of children in poverty? [Interruption.]

Order. I am not singling out any hon. Member—I know that it can be daunting sometimes to ask questions on the Floor of the House—but I urge hon. Members not to read questions. Just stand and speak and ask a supplementary; it is a lot easier, believe me.

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend makes a serious point. The reality is that we have seen rising employment and falling child poverty in London, as across the rest of the country, but while London has benefited substantially, unemployment and child poverty in London are higher than in the rest of the country. It is campaigning work by her and other London MPs that can help to get child poverty rates down. One important way in which we can do that is by making sure that the Olympics bring genuine regeneration and job creation to constituencies such as West Ham. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to help take forward these issues.

Does the Minister agree that good fiscal education in schools is essential for the future well-being of our children and the avoidance of personal debt? Will he undertake to discuss this with his Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Education and Skills?

Good physical education and good financial education are both important. [Hon. Members: “Fiscal”.] Fiscal or physical? I am happy to answer the question whether the hon. Lady is talking about physical education, fiscal education or financial education. Whichever way, we have been improving the situation since 1997 from a low base. I am happy to talk to Ministers to ensure that we redouble our efforts.

Will my hon. Friend share with the House what the likely effect on childhood well-being would be of reintroducing the married tax allowances? It would take money away from poor children.

That relates to a more general point, which is that taking us back to instability would be bad for child poverty. We heard today that the commitment to a transferable tax allowance is not a policy; it is a value. We are also told that a commitment to border police is not a policy; it is a value. Presumably, the commitment to the abolition of inheritance tax is also a value.

No. 11 Downing Street

5. Which charities held events at No. 11 Downing Street during the past 12 months; and if he will make a statement. (124165)

No. 11 Downing street is used for official meetings, engagements with external representatives and for charity events. Charities play a critical role in contributing to Government objectives. That is why the Government have backed them so strongly over the past 10 years. A list of the 67 charities that have used No. 11 since 1997 is on the Treasury website.

Will the Minister confirm that one of the so-called charities is the Smith Institute, that it meets monthly there and that often the lights are burning deep into the hours of midnight and beyond as it ponders hard how to brighten up the image of the rather dour Chancellor? Does that not make the Smith Institute a little more of a think-tank and a little less of a charitable institution?

That, of course, is a matter for the Charity Commission. One of the 67 charities is indeed the Smith Institute, but Conservative Members voted last night against legislation extending the role of charities in work with offenders. I hope that they will not compound that mistake by giving the impression today that they oppose charity use of No. 11.

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Therefore, I have made a complaint to the Charity Commission about the Policy Exchange reform—

Ministers are reluctant to answer questions about the Smith Institute. The Financial Secretary took 10 weeks to reply to a question about how many events the Smith Institute held at No. 11 Downing street in one year, and he still will not reveal how many events it has held there since 1997. Is it not time to drop the pretence and recognise that the Smith Institute is nothing more than a cover for the political activities of the Chancellor and his political allies?

No, I do not agree. The questions have been answered and, as I said, the status of the institute is a matter for the Charity Commission. As we have made clear, 10 years ago the Smith Institute said that it would like to use No. 11 Downing street on a monthly basis, and sometimes more frequently, but many other charities have used it as well, so I hope that the Conservatives recognise—

Sixty-seven charities are listed on the Treasury website. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman would support the use of No. 11 Downing street in that way.

Employment (Warrington)

6. What assessment he has made of the economic impact of likely changes of employment in Warrington over the next 10 years. (124166)

Over the past 10 years, unemployment has been cut by almost half and employment is up by 16,000 in Warrington. For the future, continuing growth, stability and near-record employment mean that we remain fully committed to full employment opportunities for all those in Warrington and across the UK.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Now that we have moved from serious unemployment to full employment in Warrington, our next challenge is to produce more highly skilled, well paid jobs, particularly through development of the Omega project. Can my hon. Friend assure me that as that comes on stream we will continue the investment in training and further education that will ensure that people from the deprived areas of my constituency are able to take advantage of those jobs and improve their skills and prospects in the future?

I can indeed, and I welcome the fact that phase 1 of the Omega project was given planning go-ahead just before Christmas. As a member of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, my hon. Friend knows that the huge investment over the past 10 years means that skills in the UK are improving—more than 1.4 million people have improved their basic skills and levels of qualification in the work force are increasing. However, she knows, too, that international challenges and competition and demand from employers mean that for the future our task will be even greater. I assure her that we accept the scale of the challenge set out by the Leitch report and Lord Leitch’s approach for tackling it, and we are working on ways to implement his recommendations.

Are not the Government concerned that the recent childhood well-being report showed that 30 per cent. of young people—presumably in Warrington, as elsewhere—do not aspire to anything other than low-skilled jobs? Bearing in mind the fact that over the next few decades the UK economy is unlikely to generate as many low-skilled jobs as at present, is not the Financial Secretary concerned about the impact that that is likely to have on the economy in Warrington and elsewhere, including on the well-being of those young people as adults?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady missed the question about the childhood well-being report that was answered by my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary a moment ago. However, she is right to note the strong requirement for a more skilled work force in the future. She is right, too—although she did not quite say this—that 70 per cent. of the work force in 2020 will already have left full-time education. She is also right that we need to do yet more for young people who are looking for vocational options, in particular for modern apprenticeships. The fact that the number of those on apprenticeships has almost trebled over the past 10 years is a good base on which to build and I hope she welcomes that.

Terrorist Assets

The Government yesterday set before the House new measures to deal with terrorist and criminal finance, including a new licensing system for money services business, additional funding of £1 million for the Charity Commission and the creation of a dedicated Treasury asset-freezing unit. Today, the Treasury is publishing its first quarterly report to Parliament on the operation of the UK’s asset-freezing regime, which shows that, in the quarter to December 2006, the Treasury made seven domestic designations under terrorism and al-Qaeda orders.

The Minister announced yesterday in his statement

“new safeguards on the payment of state benefits to the households of terror suspects”.—[Official Report, 28 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 85WS.]

He will be aware that I wrote last week to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to call for an urgent investigation into Abu Hamza and his household, and their benefit claims. They have been drawing income support while seemingly receiving rental income from a house and also paying private school fees to the King Fahd academy. Given the Minister’s pledge yesterday, will he speak to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to ensure that the investigation finally takes place?

I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman had written to the Department for Work and Pensions. I was aware of the fact that we had a meeting a few months ago and then an Adjournment debate, in which he promised to write to me. I am still waiting for the letter.

I was wondering whether my hon. Friend could say, given the many steps taken by the Government and those he has outlined today, whether he anticipates all-party support across the House for these sorts of measures.

Why was the report 12 months late? Why does it fail to close the loophole that allowed Abu Hamza to transfer a £200,000 property to his son? Can the House have any confidence that the new asset-freezing unit that was announced will be any more effective than the dismally unsuccessful Assets Recovery Agency, which was shut down after it cost £60 million to set up and collected only £8 million in assets from criminals?

I fear that a cross-party consensus on tackling the financing of international terrorism is still some way away. I have answered these questions before in Treasury questions, and also in a letter to the hon. Lady, in a meeting and in an Adjournment debate with the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands). Every time I have pointed out that the actions that we took were consistent with UN, EU and UK law and were taken on the advice of the police and the security services. She may not think that it is important to act on the advice of the police and the security services, but I do and so do the Government. The document has been drawn up with close co-operation between the Home Office, the police, the agencies and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. It is a state-of-the-art document that shows that we are acting in the national interest to tackle these issues. I wish that we could have a bit more maturity in this debate and a bit more of a cross-party consensus.

Full Employment

There are 2.6 million more people in work than in 1997. There is higher employment in every region. Employment is at record levels and our pay announcements today will help to continue to increase employment in the economy.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that in January 2000 the unemployment rate in the Cleethorpes constituency was running at 5.8 per cent., but that this January it was down to 3.4 per cent.? That is excellent news, although obviously more needs to be done to reduce that rate further. What effect does he think scrapping the new deal would have on maintaining full employment?

To scrap the new deal would be to go against the advice of not only the Government—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Yes, but it would also be to go against the advice of the Conservative Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who said:

“The programme has been effective in reducing long-term youth unemployment”,

and that

“Clearly many young people have been helped by this programme and it has led to a fall in the overall level of long-term youth unemployment.”

My hon. Friend cited figures for her constituency. If Conservative Front Benchers looked at the figures for their constituencies, they would see that, since 1997, unemployment is down by 48 per cent. in the constituency of the shadow Chancellor and by 33 per cent. in the constituency of the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In the other constituencies, the figures vary from 27 to 40 to 58 per cent. In each of their constituencies, unemployment is down. That is why they should support the new deal.

Despite the progress on employment that the Chancellor describes, does he agree that income inequality is still a key issue to be addressed? Does he accept the findings of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which points to growth in the top incomes as a driver of continued income inequality? Does he agree that that should be resolved through the taxation system, or does he think that it should be tackled through enforced charitable donations as one of his Cabinet colleagues has suggested?

I wish that the hon. Lady’s party would support the tax credit system, which is helping people in work to get higher incomes. The minimum wage is effectively a minimum income when translated through the working tax credit to something like £7 an hour for work. Unfortunately, the Liberal party has failed to support the tax credit system. The hon. Lady talks about helping low-income workers, but if I remember rightly her party also opposed the minimum wage. Is it not time that the Liberal party think again—[Interruption.] The Liberals wanted a regionally varied minimum wage; they did not want the national minimum wage. They should go back to the drawing board on this as on other issues.

Following on from that, does my right hon. Friend agree that although one major reason why unemployment has fallen in recent years is his successful management of the economy, another factor is Labour’s tax credits, which mean that work pays for families who, under the Conservatives, were better off on benefits?

I agree, and I can only quote the Conservative social justice policy group’s mid-term report, which says:

“For the past 10 years, inflation has been low, the stop-go cycle has given way to continued economic growth and there has been full employment.”

This has been

“a period of unprecedented prosperity.”

I hope that the shadow Chancellor can at least endorse his own party’s report.

Will the Chancellor acknowledge the important role that private equity plays in creating employment in this country? Will he press that point home to the GMB?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not been following Treasury questions. I said at the beginning that there is much evidence that the rate of job creation through private equity has been high. We have to distinguish between good companies which are long-termist and some companies that are too short-termist. I hope that he agrees that the measures that we are taking to try to increase long-term investment in the economy, based first of all on stability, are ones that he should support. That is why it is rather strange that Conservative Front Benchers want to change the macro-economic settlement that was agreed in 1997 and has given us the longest period of unprecedented growth in our history.

We know that access to affordable child care is often an issue if parents are to find employment. Although the number of registered child care places doubled by the end of 2006, some people in some parts of the country still find it an issue. What priority does my right hon. Friend attach to continuing, and increasing, funding for that affordable child care?

I accept that this is a priority, particularly for single parents going back into work. The rate of single parent employment has risen from 43 to 57 per cent. over the past few years and will continue to rise as a result of policies that we will roll out to all areas of the country. My hon. Friend mentioned support for child care. In 1997, when we came into power, child care help was given to only 50,000 families in this country. As a result of the tax credits that the Conservative party opposed, 300,000 families now have child care support—six times as many as previously. I do not believe that there are people who receive that child tax credit who will support Conservative plans to take it away.

Given that the mother of a disabled child is seven times less likely to be in work than mothers of other children, and that half of all disabled children are growing up in or at the margins of poverty, what specific measures will the Chancellor introduce to end the poverty and benefits trap that makes it impossible for so many disabled people and their families to look for work?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has asked that question, because I can tell him that a review is taking place of what help we can give to families with disabled children. Only last week I visited a carer who has been caring for 18 years for her disabled child and now wants to work. I was talking to her about how we could help to make it possible for her to do so. When the hon. Gentleman puts his question, he should acknowledge what is already being done. In his constituency there are 4,400 families benefiting from tax credits, including 8,000 children. I hope that he will make representations to the shadow Chancellor to keep child tax credits, and I hope that he will acknowledge that unemployment has fallen by 43 per cent. in his constituency since Labour came to power.

Central to my right hon. Friend’s economic success was giving independence to the Bank of England. Can the Bank of England set interest rates for foreign countries?

I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the proposals from the Scottish National party, but he should recognise that the party is fighting the Scottish Parliament elections on three separate proposals. One is to keep the British pound; one is to have a completely separate Scottish pound; and the other is to do what the Conservatives did with the exchange rate mechanism, and have a special relationship between a Scottish pound and an English pound. Each of those proposals—[Interruption.] We did not support the mechanism when it led to 15 per cent. interest rates under the Conservative Government through the total mismanagement of the economy. On the day we left the ERM, the present Leader of the Opposition was standing next to Lord Lamont, having to accept that the country had 15 per cent. interest rates for a whole year. We are certainly not going back to the failed policies of the Conservative Government.

Tax Credits

10. What proportion of appeals against repayments of tax credits have been refused since April 2006; and if he will make a statement. (124171)

As the hon. Gentleman will have heard me say in my answer to the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), recovery of the tax credit overpayment can be disputed. However, if the process has been settled and the dispute has not been upheld, the money is recovered. The only situation in which the money would not be recovered is when the claimant shows that recovery would cause severe hardship.

What a shambles of a Government! We all know who is responsible for this particular fiasco: the next Prime Minister. I wonder whether the right hon. Lady has any appreciation of the distress felt by the thousands of constituents who present themselves at our surgeries because they are worried about making the repayments. Will she apologise to the House for that mistake, admit that the system is over-complicated, and simplify it?

Perhaps, Mr. Speaker, it is because there are 5,800 families and some 9,400 children benefiting from tax credits in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. In the past six months, he has written to me just five times about the issue of overpayment, so his rhetoric does not match the reality in his constituency, where thousands of families are getting the money that they need, when they need it, and they welcome it. They fear that if his party were in government, it would take that away from them.

In both of the past two years there have been more than a third of a million disputed tax credit overpayments. In 2005, in 46 per cent. of cases, the claims of overpayment were overturned and written off on appeal, versus 4 per cent. last year. Why is the appeals system getting tougher, when it ought to be getting fairer?

The hon. Gentleman draws completely the wrong conclusion, as normal. Perhaps he will understand that the overpayments should not be blamed on the Department, as he seeks to do, or on individual claimants; he should recognise that as we have a responsive system, the claimant has to make sure that the information given is correct. Under the Liberals’ proposals for a fixed system that he is peddling around the country, more than 700,000 families who benefit from tax credits would be worse off.

Childhood Well-being

11. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of UK macro-economic performance on childhood well-being. (124172)

Macro-economic stability has allowed the Government to achieve growth with fairness. Since 1997, average incomes have risen by 2.9 per cent., but the greatest growth has been for the poorest 40 per cent. of families, whose incomes have grown by an average of 3.4 per cent. a year. We should compare that to the period of 1979 to 1997, when incomes grew by an annual rate of just 0.1 per cent.

Given UNICEF’s assessment that relationships have a significant impact on childhood well-being, would Britain perform better if we followed the advice of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, supported today by the Economic Secretary, not to give tax breaks to married couples? Or should we take the view of the Work and Pensions Secretary, which is that there should be support for couples who look after children? Will the Economic Secretary confirm that he agrees with the response given to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), and that the Government do not support marriage as a means of promoting childhood well-being?

I could not work out from that whether the hon. Gentleman supported the shadow Chancellor’s policy or that of the Leader of the Opposition. The UNICEF report was based on data that went up to 2000. Since then, there has been a substantial fall in child poverty. The House does not have to take my word for it, as an esteemed newspaper columnist told the BBC:

“I’m mildly sceptical about the Unicef report…some of its facts are mildly out of date…I think it was actually unfair to the Government.”

That commentator was the shadow Housing Minister, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove).

Household Budgets

12. What assessment he has made of the impact of his policies on the household budgets of mortgage holders over the past 10 years; and if he will make a statement. (124173)

The Government’s macro-economic framework in the past 10 years has delivered unprecedented stability and rising prosperity, which means that households benefit from rising employment, strong income growth and low and stable interest rates.

I know that householders will be grateful for low interest rates under this Government. Even the present, slightly increased interest rates are lower than those that prevailed for all but seven months of the years up to 1997. Has my hon. Friend noticed that our Government’s record is significantly better than that in the 18 preceding years, in which interest rates were in double digits for 11 and a half years?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is tough to make household finances meet at the best of times, particularly if one has to make mortgage payments on top of other expenses. Clearly, it is very much tougher if interest rates are not at 5.25 per cent., as they are now, but at 10.5 per cent., which they averaged for the entire period in which the Conservative Government were in office.

Business of the House

Before I announce business for the next two weeks, may I wish all my Welsh colleagues and the people of Wales a happy St. David’s day?

The provisional business for the week commencing 5 March will be:

Monday 5 March—Second Reading of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 6 March—Debate on House of Lords reform.

Wednesday 7 March—Conclusion of debate on House of Lords reform.

Thursday 8 March—To mark international women’s day, 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.

The provisional business for the week commencing 12 March will be:

Monday 12 March—Estimates [2nd Allotted Day]. Subject to be confirmed by the Liaison Committee.

Tuesday 13 March—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill.

Wednesday 14 March—A debate on Trident on a Government motion.

Thursday 15 March—A debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Subject to be announced.

Friday 16 March—The House will not be sitting.

I should like to say a brief word about proceedings for the debate on House of Lords reform on Tuesday and Wednesday next week. It is a two-day debate which, under the terms of a business motion agreed by the House earlier this week, will come to a conclusion earlier than the usual finishing time on a Wednesday, ending at 5.30 pm, to allow more time for the number of Divisions that may be required. A total of nine motions have been tabled in my name. In accordance with the precedent set in 2003, and as permitted by the business motion that has already been agreed, the Government intend to move all nine motions, to allow the House to express its view on each proposition, even if one option has already received a majority, or appears to be inconsistent with the next option to be put.

The House will be aware that as part of the review of House services Members will receive a survey in their pigeonholes next week, and I encourage all of them to complete it. There are sometimes complaints about services provided by different departments, so if Members wish to contribute constructively to improvements, it is important that they fill in the survey.

I join the Leader of the House in his best wishes to all Welsh colleagues, and thank him for acceding to our request for a debate on Welsh affairs today. I also thank him for giving us all the future business.

The Government’s consultation on post office closures is due to end next week. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the results will be announced to the House in a statement before they are given to the media?

It was good to see the Chancellor make a rare visit to the House for Treasury questions just before the business question. On Tuesday he gave yet another leadership campaign speech, and said that immigrants should do community work before they become British citizens—but this policy was blocked by the Chancellor himself four years ago, on the grounds of cost. On Wednesday the Minister for Children and Families announced that the Chancellor’s youth opportunity card would be abandoned, again on the grounds of cost. It seems that the prudent Chancellor is not so prudent when it comes to his own leadership ambitions. May we have a debate on the Chancellor’s policy proposals?

The Chancellor seems to be talking about all sorts of issues these days—perhaps that is why his colleagues are so ready to be open about what they think of him—but on the many issues for which he is responsible, he is surprisingly reticent. The Leader of the House will, as Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on the Olympic games, be aware of the budget for 2012. First, we were told that the games would cost £2.35 billion; then we were told they would cost £3.3 billion. Now we are told that the cost could run to £9 billion. Will the Chancellor come to the House to make a statement? He likes talking about hosting the football World cup. Why is he so shy about the Olympics?

Another matter that the Chancellor is not keen to talk about is the soaring deficits in NHS trusts. Three quarters of primary care trusts are restricting access to treatment, half are delaying operations and 60 per cent. of acute hospital trusts are already closing wards. All we have had from the Government is a guide on how to spin the news to the media. May we have a debate on the Chancellor’s NHS cuts?

Next week we will debate reform of the House of Lords. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for setting out the procedure that will be followed for the voting. House of Lords reform is another issue in which the Chancellor does not seem to be interested. Since he was elected on a manifesto promising

“to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative”,

there have been 21 separate votes on that. How many times has the Chancellor voted? Not once. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on what will happen to Lords reform when the Chancellor completes his smooth transition? You never know—perhaps next week we will see him voting for an entirely elected House. After all, that is about the only way he can avoid giving the Prime Minister a peerage.

We have a Prime Minister who is in office and not in power. We have a Chancellor in the office next door longing for power. People want to see Cabinet Ministers running the country, not running political campaigns. Everyone is sick of “waiting for Gordo”, but if the Prime Minister will not go now, should not the Chancellor just get on with his job?

She did not read it; she made it up—it was entirely spontaneous. That is the problem.

The right hon. Lady must have a crush on my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. She kept obsessing about him in every other sentence, and she has just had an hour of ogling him. It is curious. Apparently he never comes to the House—but he has just been here, answering questions in his normal robust style.

The right hon. Lady wants a debate on spending. We can have a debate on tax and spending any time. There will be four whole days of opportunity to debate tax and spending in the Budget debate. That will be a great opportunity for us to debate the latest shift in approach by the Conservative shadow Chancellor. According to The Daily Telegraph, which, as we know, is accurate when it comes to the Conservative party, members of the shadow Cabinet have been “read the Riot Act” by the shadow Chancellor and told to stop making spending pledges without checking with him first. I am not surprised, because last week Grant Thornton said that the increase in spending promised by the Conservatives was £8.9 billion. [Hon. Members: “Is this business questions?”] They ask whether this is business questions, but this is the question that I was asked. I was asked about spending, and I have given the answer.

On the costs of the Olympics, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will make a statement—[Hon. Members: “When?”]. As soon as we have settled the issue. The Conservatives backed the Olympic bid, and now they are trying to back away from it. The simple fact of the matter is that the Stratford site is one of the most complex anywhere, and the costs are bound to be revised in the light of experience. There will be a statement as soon as we have pinned those costs down.

The right hon. Lady asked about deficits in the national health service. She will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health recently made a statement saying that, allowing for the use of contingency, it looks as though there will be a small surplus this year of £13 million, so I do not know where the right hon. Lady got her point from.

The right hon. Lady then made some spurious comments about debate taking place in the Labour party. There is a debate in the Labour party about its future—[Interruption.] She talks about leadership campaigns, but I have to tell her that that debate is comradely in the extreme compared to what I read on the blog of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) about what is going on—[Interruption.] No, this week, too. [Interruption.]

Indeed, Mr. Speaker. Part of my duty, however, is pastoral care for all Members, so they ought to be aware that I take a close interest in all Members’ blogs. What we are told is that inside the Tory party, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)

“swims in shark infested waters”,

and also that

“David knows who the creeps are, you can see it in his eyes.”

And that is about his own side. I look forward to next week’s business.

Can we have a debate on party finance? Some concerns have been expressed on this side of the House recently that our party’s links with the trade unions have been underemphasised. Earlier this week, the Scottish National party claimed that the Short money that it receives from the state was actually raised by the party itself as part of its campaign fund. Surely a debate would allow us to cover those issues and ensure that our voice is heard early in the process.

I would be delighted to have a debate on the funding of political parties. I would be very happy indeed for the relationship between the Labour party and the trade unions to be scrutinised. The Neill committee pointed out in 1998 that the system was working well, and there is no evidence of any impropriety since then. As for the Scottish National party, I am not surprised if it makes claims that do not turn out to be entirely accurate. That, after all, is how it has always operated.

The Leader of the House said that he was not sure where the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) had got her details on the health service. I suggest that one possible source that might be the basis for a debate is the survey of NHS trust chief executives published today in the Health Service Journal. It corroborates the right hon. Lady’s points and goes on to reveal that 47 per cent. of trusts are making redundancies and that 69 per cent. of chiefs think that patient care will suffer as a result of short-term financial decisions. When asked about the Government’s handling of the national health service, the chief executives—the people running the health service—said decisions were “knee-jerk” and Ministers “consistently dishonest and disingenuous”. One said:

“It is hard to imagine greater incompetence”.

We need a debate on what is happening in the health service.

While we are talking about incompetence, let us move on to the consultation on post office closures. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will actually answer the question about whether we are to have a statement. As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead said, consultation is to close on 8 March. Is it not extraordinary that neither the Government nor the Post Office thought it appropriate to send the consultation document to the people most affected—the men and women who run sub-post offices around this country, none of whom has received the consultation document unless they have applied for it themselves? If they have received the document, it will have come from a Member of Parliament such as me, who has sent them a copy. Is that not extraordinary incompetence on the part of the Government?

May we have an urgent debate on water charges? I live in a village that is not on mains water, and sometimes has no water at all, but those who do have a water company will be alarmed to see that water bills are going up yet again, by up to 10 per cent. Indeed, South West Water bills will soar by an average of £44, to £483, the highest in the country. Is it acceptable that we can have hosepipe bans and leakage at the same time as rocketing water bills, on top of higher council tax bills and winter fuel payments?

Lastly, may we have a debate on agricultural education? I do not know whether the Leader of the House saw the survey carried out by Dairy Farmers of Britain this week, which revealed that one in 10 eight-year-olds do not know that pork chops come from pigs. A similar number do not know where bacon comes from, and suspect that it may come from sheep. Astonishingly, 2 per cent. think that cows lay eggs. Is it not important that people understand where their food comes from, and the importance of the agriculture industry? Perhaps that is a lesson that would be well learned by Ministers as well.

We are delighted to debate the national health service on any occasion. As the hon. Gentleman is quoting the survey, he may like to note that, on reform, 90 per cent. of those surveyed apparently think that the Government need to hold their nerve on difficult reconfigurations. If we are debating the health service, what we need to debate is the very significant improvements in the quality and amount of care provided for our constituents. In his constituency—[Interruption.] I said this last week because he does not say it often enough, and I am having to do his job as a constituency Member for Frome. Thanks to somebody—but obviously not him—£100 million is now going into a new hospital configuration in his constituency.

I am astonished by the hon. Gentleman’s indolence; he has just admitted that there is sometimes no water at all in the village where he lives. What is the local MP doing about that? On a serious point, I am not here to defend the water companies. They are private companies that need to be strictly regulated. There is great concern across the country about the level of water charges and the need for Ofwat to be vigorous in regulating the companies. I look forward to his making strong representations to the water companies, as I do in my area. On a matter of fact, winter fuel costs have gone down this winter because the price of fuel has fallen—but I do not expect that the facts would be of great concern to him.

On post offices, I apologise to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead for omitting to answer her question. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who has been assiduous in coming to the House on this and other matters, will of course make a statement. I cannot guarantee at this stage whether it will be an oral or a written statement, but I say to everybody who is concerned about the formation of the number and distribution of post offices that there needs to be a slightly higher level of debate. Recognition is needed that the reason why the Post Office is facing this shrinkage is the internet, and people’s changing habits. We have put an astonishing amount of money into rural post offices, and we will continue to do so, but there has to be some change.

The last thing that the hon. Gentleman asked for is a debate on agricultural education. I agree, as I remember having a discussion some years ago with a child who told me that he was vegetarian. I said that in that case he would not be eating the sausages, and he said, “No, that’s different; they come from somewhere else.” The level of appreciation is rather limited, and I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills about what we can do about that.

Yet again, throughout my constituency residents are receiving bullying letters from ground rent and chief rent companies asking for information, and sometimes for substantial amounts of money to which they are not entitled. Can we have an urgent debate on this important issue, which is causing a great deal of anxiety to many local residents, particularly pensioners?

I am aware of that problem, which is particularly serious in the north-west. There are clear legal rights for people who are in that position to commute the ground rent for a relatively small fee. I encourage my hon. Friend to make use of an opportunity to debate this in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment of the House.

The Leader of the House has confirmed that next Wednesday we will vote on Lords reform—again, and at some length. He has often said that the best should not be the enemy of the good, so can he confirm that he will not only support the 50 per cent. option in his White Paper but vote for the higher elected options as well, and encourage his right hon. and hon. Friends to do the same?

Yes, I can. I will not vote for a wholly elected Chamber, because I am against that, but I will certainly vote for 50 per cent. and the higher options.

Can my right hon. Friend find Government time for a debate in this Chamber on the use of privilege? We all know that privilege is used to stop rich individuals out there using the threat of legal action to prevent Members from raising issues here, but it cannot be right for Members to make allegations against ordinary working people in this country. That cowardly use of privilege only detracts from the status of every Member of this House.

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, and I am aware of the background. There are opportunities to debate this matter. I would advise my hon. Friend, if he has not already done so, to talk to the Clerk of the House and, through him, to the Speaker, about whether it could be referred to the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege.

Like all other Members, I am very much looking forward to the debate on Trident. Does the Leader of the House believe that Members who say something publicly on Trident should follow that through in the way that they vote in the Division following the debate? Eighty per cent. of the Scottish people oppose Trident and 45 per cent. say that they will switch their vote away from parties that support it. The majority of Scottish Members of Parliament oppose Trident. Would not the public therefore be right to punish those who say one thing and vote another way?

The people who say one thing and do another are Scottish National party Members and their allies; they are the experts on this. I hope that when we come to the day for the debate on Trident there will be a very serious discussion about what is in the United Kingdom’s long-term defence interests. It is not a trivial matter; it is about the future defence of this country, and, indeed, the security of the world. That applies as much to people who are resident in Scotland as it does to other parts of the United Kingdom.

In September, the all-party group on anti-Semitism produced a report that the Government will respond to in the next few weeks. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this issue would be an appropriate subject for proper and thorough debate in this House? If so, will he consult his ministerial colleagues on how best to achieve that?

I certainly accept the very great importance of this matter. Although I cannot make a promise about the use of time, I will look to see what we can do, whether in Government time or not, on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.

Three years ago the Government announced that the House’s scrutiny of European legislation was inadequate and secretive, and had lost the confidence of the public. Two years ago the Modernisation Committee, which is always chaired by the Leader of the House, recommended sweeping changes. Why have the Government done absolutely nothing to implement those proposals? It is said that this has been blocked by the Labour Whips. Could the Leader of the House account for Government inaction, and for back-pedalling on previous proposals?

It is correct to say that we have not yet put forward proposals for change. That is a matter of frustration to my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, to the Minister for Europe and to myself, as well as to others. It is not true, however, that we are just sitting on this. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the deputy Chief Whip will confirm that he and I, and the new Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, had a discussion about the way forward within the past week or so. The issue for everybody is how best to change the system so that the new system is more effective than the current one, and how to ensure that the changes are not only supported in principle but backed in practice by sufficient Members on both sides of the House who are willing to turn up and do the work. That is the only obstacle in the way of reform.

The chief executive of Royal Mail recently expressed concern that the universal service obligation could be at risk if Royal Mail continues to lose lucrative business contracts. That happens because of unfair competition, in that its competitors can offer discounts, whereas Postcomm does not allow Royal Mail to do that. An early-day motion that I tabled in January expressing similar sentiments received more than 85 signatures from Members. Is it not time that we had a debate on the future of Royal Mail, and on the impact of the regulator?

I note my hon. Friend’s concerns and applaud the interest that she shows in the issue. There are opportunities to raise it in debate. This is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, not for me, but I think that with a certain amount of ingenuity she may be able to make some remarks that are in order during the Budget debates.

A debate on integration and cohesion would give the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) a chance to raise the important issue of anti-Semitism. It would also give the House a chance to discuss relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain. When I asked the Leader of the House about this a fortnight ago, he said that business was tight but that it was an idea that we should actively consider. How is that active consideration getting on?

The active consideration goes on. I am not being facetious; there is a limited amount of time, but I am aware of the importance of the issue, along with that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann).

When can we have a debate on early-day motion 997?

[That this House congratulates the Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen for his work Queen and Country, which depicts photographs of 98 British soldiers killed in Iraq printed in a stamp format; and calls on the Royal Mail to respect the wish of the artist and the loved ones of the fallen soldiers and produce a commemorative issue of stamps displaying this powerful and moving work of art.]

It is the wish of the artist and many of the relatives of the soldiers who died that a commemorative stamp should be issued using this work of art. That would be appropriate, not only because it is a strong and powerful work of art but because it would be reminder to us all of the true cost of war.

I have the early-day motion in front of me. Of course it is correct that we should honour those 98 and the others who have tragically fallen since, as well as all those who have been injured in Iraq and other theatres. My hon. Friend is aware that there is quite a lot of consideration before any particular image is used on Royal Mail stamps, but there is no argument about the need to honour, and to continue to honour, those who have fallen in Iraq.

In Birmingham perhaps £1 million a year, and in my constituency perhaps £100,000 a year, is spent on clearing up graffiti tagging, yet it seems to be the Government’s policy that unless someone does more than £5,000-worth of damage, no more than a caution is necessary. Can we have a debate about how we can deter youths from tagging, perhaps by making them clear up the mess that they create?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman what we will have a debate about as soon as possible—Liberal Democrats saying one thing here and a very different thing in their constituencies. Time and again they criticise us for tough sentences and for introducing more offences, and now this hon. Gentleman stands up to say that we should be doing more, not less. I hope that he will talk to his leader and to those who speak on home affairs for the Liberal Democrat party, and explain to his constituents how time and again he votes for soft policies here, and then parades himself in Birmingham as being in favour of harder policies.

Next week’s Northern Ireland elections are important not only to the people of Northern Ireland but to each and every one of us. Why, therefore, did nobody in my right hon. Friend’s department or in the Northern Ireland Office tap him on the shoulder and say that it is inappropriate to have those important votes on Lords reform on the same day as those elections, in which some hon. Members are candidates? Moreover, from three of the Northern Ireland Members we solicit support for this Government. It seems unfair and unreasonable that that happened, and I want to know why it happened.

No, but there is a problem. Of course we are aware of that clash. When business is discussed by Government business managers, and then with Opposition business managers, we always look at what else is coming up, but there is never a correct date for some debates. We had to ensure that we could get those debates in at an appropriate time within the programme, taking account of legislation such as the Budget, well before Easter. That was the difficulty. I have already spoken to two of my hon. Friends from Northern Ireland and apologised to them for the fact that there is that clash, which is inconvenient.

Can we have an oral statement on the ongoing investigation into the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko? We had an oral statement in November shortly after the assassination, but an awful lot has happened since. There have been various comings and goings of British and Russian police officers between the two capitals. Serious implications were raised by the incident in terms of both our relations with Russia and the safety and security of dissidents and other prominent persons in this country. We need to take another look at that.

It is not usual for statements to be made by Ministers while investigations are continuing, but I will pass on to the Home and Foreign Secretaries the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman and invite them to make a statement, probably a written one, at an appropriate moment.

In the sayonara period of the Prime Minister's term of office, can the Leader of the House tempt him to come to the House for the debate just before the European Council? Can he tempt him to lead the debate himself, on a Government motion and on a vote, to explain the advantages of being in the European Union and the disastrous consequences of the relentless hostility of the Conservative party even to its sister Conservative parties in Europe, which is deeply damaging to the national interest?

I would be delighted to do so. Of course, the Prime Minister, even if he cannot be tempted into that debate, will be making a statement straight after the European Council. One of the central issues there will be whether we act on climate change through co-operation in Europe, which is fundamental to our approach, or whether we take the approach of the Conservative party, which is to act unilaterally and to eschew any co-operation with mainstream centre-right parties in Europe. The result of that will be greatly to weaken our ability to make progress on climate change and on many other issues.

May I make a sincere plea to the Leader of the House for a debate on Zimbabwe? Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate of 1,594 per cent., which is putting even basic foodstuffs beyond the reach of many families. More than 1 million people, mainly orphans and schoolchildren, are in receipt of food aid. Hospitals are on strike; doctors and nurses are refusing to work. University lecturers are on strike, supported by their students, and the Government have banned any form of public meeting. Zimbabwe is deteriorating into complete chaos and anarchy. Is not it time that the House had a debate in Government time to show the people of Zimbabwe that we care for their plight? It is a wonderful country with a wonderful people and they deserve more from the civilised world.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his consistent concern about Zimbabwe. I agree with him both about the terrible plight of Zimbabwe and the need for a debate in Government time. The only bit of slightly better news relatively is that the European Union recently agreed for the fifth year running to roll over the sanctions against Zimbabwe. I have to say, as the Foreign Secretary who got those sanctions under orders to begin with, that that was quite difficult because of resistance from some of our continental colleagues. This morning, I was talking about a date to the Chief Whip and the Minister in the Foreign Office who would handle the debate. Frankly, the issue is to ensure that we have a debate when he is in the country. However, we are actively considering the matter.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that we are in the middle of fair trade fortnight. Can we have a debate in order that we can promote even further the benefits of fair trade not just to the British consumer, but to those less fortunate than ourselves? That would also give us the opportunity to congratulate the local authorities, volunteers and retailers who work all year round promoting fair trade products.

I commend the work of my hon. Friend on that matter. I hope very much that it will be possible to find time in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment to raise that important issue.

Did not Monday's statement by the Defence Secretary deploying further troops to Afghanistan underline how important it is that we have a debate in Government time on Afghanistan? It cannot be right for us to put at risk the lives of so many young men and women in our armed forces without the House properly debating what is going on in Afghanistan. Can we have an urgent debate?

I do not deny for a second the importance of that issue. There has been one occasion this year when the matter has been debated—in the defence and the world debate. I accept the need for that matter to continue to be debated. I cannot promise a debate before Easter, but I will look at opportunities after that.

Can my right hon. Friend, or the appropriate Minister, investigate the recent actions of American troops in Iraq, who, on three occasions in the past two weeks, have raided trade union offices, destroyed equipment, confiscated computers and fax machines and arrested some of the employees?

I will certainly pass on to the Foreign Secretary the concerns raised by my hon. Friend for the trade union movement in Iraq. Although I know nothing about that particular incident, I know a lot about the bravery and commitment of the trade union officials and movement in Iraq.

In welcoming the 14 March debate on Trident on behalf of the shadow Defence Ministers, may I ask the Leader of the House whether he will guarantee that there will be no intrusion by statements on the time for that debate? Will there be protected time—six and a half hours—for that debate? Does he agree that it would send the wrong signal about the importance of this as a defence issue for the Defence Secretary to be relegated, as appears to be the case, to winding up the debate, rather than presenting the case, which he is perfectly capable of doing?

I accept the hon. Gentleman's first point. Unless there is some emergency, we will do everything we can to avoid any statement before the debate begins. Frankly, I think that the second point is rather trivial. The responsibility for that kind of major issue has always been shared between the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary. If I were still Foreign Secretary, it is quite likely that I would open the debate on the issue.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his best wishes on St. David's day. He will be aware that on 3 May there are elections to the Welsh Assembly. Two of the candidates are members of a party called Forward Wales. However, they are standing in that election as independents. Can we have a debate on whether that deceitful practice is in breach of electoral law?

I thank my hon. Friend on the first point. I hope that he is successful in securing a debate on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall on that issue. He may also wish to consider making complaints to the Electoral Commission and to the returning officer because the accurate description of candidates is fundamental to the operation of our democracy.

The Leader of the House may be aware of the Light Bulb (Regulation) Bill that would allow for the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs. If he would like to feel the hand of history on his shoulder, will he find time in this House to debate that important issue?

The hon. Gentleman is trying to garner some green credentials, but I gather that his green credentials are rather tarnished by the Liberal Democrats’ opposition to other serious environmental plans, including the congestion charge in Edinburgh and wind farms in various areas in Scotland.

My right hon. Friend will know that on 25 March we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. This morning, a group of walkers have left Hull in chains to walk to Westminster to celebrate this important anniversary. Will there be an opportunity to have a debate on the Floor of the House about the anniversary and the modern context of slavery?

I commend my hon. Friend’s constituents and I can tell her that there will be a debate in Government time about slavery.

The Leader of the House will be aware of early-day motion 964:

[That this House views with concern the plans to cut the number of employees of HM Revenue and Customs in Leicestershire; notes that this will result in the loss of more than 300 jobs; believes that there are already problems with the level of service in this area which would only worsen with a significant cut in staff numbers and budget; and calls on the Paymaster General to reconsider the decision.]

It was tabled by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who is in his place, and relates to the review of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the impact that that is having on the abolition of jobs, particularly front-line jobs. Will it be possible to have a debate on that? Will the right hon. Gentleman have a friendly word with the Paymaster General about the criteria used in identifying the job losses across the country, which are causing concern to Members on both sides of the House?

There are plenty of opportunities to question my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, including Treasury questions, which has just finished. Apparently the Conservative party, as from yesterday, is supporting a fairly tight public spending regime. All Governments will be faced with the need to reconfigure operations such as Revenue and Customs in light of the fact that the operations have merged and as improved technology is reducing the need for some jobs in some areas. The difference between any Government led by the hon. Gentleman’s party and ours is that under this Government we have a buoyant economy and good investment in retraining to provide alternative opportunities for any people who are displaced.

As my friend knows, the consultation ended yesterday on the setting up and regulation of marketing departments in NHS hospitals. Can we have an early statement from the Secretary of State for Health on that matter, and perhaps a debate afterwards on how the emerging market in health will be policed?

I am happy that my hon. Friend raises that, because getting to a period of stability in the NHS will enable primary care trusts to identify the medical care needs of people in their area and the most appropriate provision. There will be a certain amount of creative competition between different providers. That has always been the case, but it has always been sub rosa and I think that it is better if it is explicit. As a result, we will be able to change the culture of some NHS establishments to ensure that they are absolutely focused on their overwhelming priority—the patient.

My right hon. Friend may not be aware that last week, I had a phone call from Mrs Anne Parker, a constituent from Basegreen in Sheffield. She was extremely distraught at a story in the Daily Mirror to the effect that, as a result of the Hills report, all council tenants and arm's-length management organisation tenants faced the possibility of losing their security of tenure. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on that very important report into social housing by John Hills, so that Ministers can make it absolutely clear that, under this Government, there is no possibility of council, ALMO or housing association tenants losing their security of tenure?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has already made the Government’s position clear, but I will pass on to her my hon. Friend’s concerns and ensure that she writes to him.

May I ask the Leader of the House for a statement on discrimination in the workplace? The head of the new Equality Commission, Sir Trevor Phillips, has demanded that rules forbidding discrimination on the grounds of race or sex be scrapped. Are the Government happy that the head of the equality body believes that people should not be given jobs on merit and should be given jobs based on their race and their sex? Do the Government intend to abide by his demands?

That is a complete parody of what Sir Trevor Phillips had to say. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman spelled out whether he was in favour of efforts to improve the equality of opportunities for women, ethnic minorities and the disabled.

Will my right hon. Friend explain briefly what he anticipates happening after next Wednesday’s votes and, in particular, what is likely to happen in the other place? Will he affirm that the votes in this place will always take primacy over the votes in the other place?

I wish that I could tell my hon. Friend exactly what is going to happen, but that would require clairvoyant facilities greater than mine.

Even greater.

After our debate, there will be a debate in the other place. I thought it important to ensure that these debates did not occur on the same day, so that this House could assert its primacy—something that has been agreed by all parties in this House and in the other place, regardless of shifts in composition. Of course we will take account of the views of the other place but, ultimately, this is a matter of law and this House must decide.

May we have an urgent debate on surface coal mining in Shropshire? Is the Leader of the House aware of a proposal by UK Coal to mine 900,000 tonnes of coal in new works in my constituency? Will he comment on what impact he thinks that will have on local wildlife, residents and roads and, most of all, on the area of outstanding natural beauty that will be affected?

The hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not accept his invitation because I assume, although I am not certain, that that is subject to a planning application—and, if that is turned down, an inquiry, subject to the outcome of which a decision may have to be made personally by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I invite the hon. Gentleman to make strong representations, as he is doing here, at every stage of the process.

May we have an urgent statement or a debate on the very serious allegations in today’s edition of The Times by Chief Superintendent Dizaei, who states that he was subjected to a campaign of harassment by his fellow officers in the Met, that his phone was bugged and that there was an investigation by 44 officers that cost millions of pounds? He also states that the Mayor of London’s race adviser, Lee Jasper, was also the subject of bugging. These are very serious matters because the chief superintendent is the borough commander of Hounslow. I know that the Leader of the House was committed to diversity when he was Home Secretary. This matter creates real problems for the image of the Met, so could we please have a statement?

It was not only me who was committed to diversity—and the Government actually did something about it—so, too, were Sir Paul Condon and Sir John Stevens, former Commissioners of the Metropolitan police. On the very specific allegations, my right hon. Friend will be aware that those who feel that the intelligence and security services have acted inappropriately or unlawfully have a right to make strong representations, and have those investigated, to the intelligence services commissioner or the interception commissioner.

In common, I suspect, with many other hon. Members, I am receiving strong representations from people who are studying English as a second language, and who are worried that the Government plan to cut funding for those courses. Given the Chancellor’s professed support for Britishness and citizenship, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) alluded, and the recommendations in the Leitch report about the importance of language as a preparation for work, is there any possibility of having a debate on this important issue?

We are all aware of the pressures on the English as a second language service, not least my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. The hon. Gentleman may be fortunate in gaining an Adjournment debate on the matter, but I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on holding a St. David’s day debate today, and I ask him to consider allowing a similar debate on St. George’s day, so that all Members who believe in the Union can celebrate the patron saint of England. Does he agree that that would send the important message to the racist parties, such as the British National party, that we will never allow them to hijack St. George’s day for their own brand of narrow-minded extremism?

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. My two Scottish colleagues who are currently sitting on the Front Bench—the Defence Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), who is the longest-serving Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence ever in the history of the world, as he himself told me not long ago—have both endorsed that as a good idea. As an Englishman, I think that it is a good idea. In reply to the question, I cannot make an absolute promise, but we will look into that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) spoke movingly about the situation in Zimbabwe. However, given that the numbers of people dead, dying and destitute in Darfur are increasing exponentially on a daily basis, and given that no fewer than 14 United Nations agencies have warned that malnutrition rates there are

“edging perilously close to the emergency threshold”,

can we please also have next week a statement—or, better still, a full-day debate—on Darfur to seek to establish how the international community will secure a properly equipped United Nations or African Union presence in that region before the genocide has been completed?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise his concerns, which are shared by all Members and all parties. We continually look for opportunities to debate such matters. I simply say—although I know that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting this—that there is not a competition between Zimbabwe and Darfur. We must debate both matters, but there are special responsibilities on the United Kingdom in respect of Zimbabwe, and we have been in the lead in the European Union in getting sanctions. There is great frustration about Darfur, but the hon. Gentleman might wish to know that the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is today asking judges to consider summonses in respect of two individuals. He might also wish to know that as a result of very strong representations that I made—I claim credit for this—the United States lifted its potential veto on a Security Council resolution that effectively brought the ICC into play in respect of Darfur.

As is traditional, the Leader of the House has announced the business for the next two weeks, but he has announced only the main business; he has not announced any statements that there might be. Of course, many statements are responses to emergencies and nobody would expect there to be foreknowledge of those, but I suspect that there might be a Minister or two who already knows, or is almost certain, that they will make a statement within the next two weeks. Might it be possible for the Leader of the House to start to make announcements in advance in respect of statements that he knows will definitely be given, for the better forewarning of the House and so that we do not get up in the morning and, by listening to the “Today” programme or watching the television news, hear that a Minister will make an announcement later in the day when no Members of this House have been informed of that? Might it be possible to send an e-mail? Instead of having a piece of paper stuck up outside the Chamber saying that there will be a statement later in the day, my right hon. Friend could arrange for e-mails to be sent to all Members.

I am aware of that issue. There are two aspects to it. One of them is that sometimes information that should first be given to this House is instead made available outside it, sometimes as a result of Ministers’ decisions— of which I do not approve—and at other times because of leaks. I deprecate that, and all Ministers seek to avoid it. The second aspect is to do with advance notice of statements. I am actively looking into that with my Cabinet colleagues and the Clerk of the House. On occasions when everyone knows that a statement is to be made, such as the Budget—everyone knows the date when that will be delivered—notice of statements might be put on the Order Paper at least on the morning when the statement is to be made, and in some cases well before that.

Can we have a debate on the robustness of the British crime survey? It is an annual survey that the Government put great store by in judging whether crime is rising or falling, yet it does not cover a variety of offences, ranging from commercial offences, murder—because the victims of that cannot be interviewed—and offences that it calls victimless, including drugs offences. Crucially, it also does not cover offences against people who are aged 16 and under because they are not interviewed as part of the survey. Can we have a debate on that matter, to try to discover how we can make the British crime survey relate to crime in today’s Britain, rather than crime in the Britain of 1981 when it was established?

If the hon. Lady has concerns about the crime survey, she needs to raise them with the Office for National Statistics, which we are now making independent of Government. One of the reasons why we are doing that is so that there is complete integrity in terms of the data that are used. It has never been suggested that the British crime survey is a substitute for the recorded crime figures; what the BCS shows, in respect of those groups surveyed and the offences concerned—it shows this in a robust, statistical way—is whether the numbers of offences have increased or fallen. It is able to knock out of consideration some offences which are not notified to the police. As the hon. Lady is aware, the truth is that some offences, such as burglary and thefts of vehicles, traditionally have high and consistent levels of notification whereas others have relatively low levels of notification, including some robberies—so-called minor robberies, although I think that they are all major—and thefts from vehicles. I accept that there is an issue to be addressed, but it is time that the hon. Lady acknowledged that the BCS none the less shows that since 1997, in respect of bulk offences that affect everybody including families and kids under 16, there has been a very significant decline in crime in her constituency, as well as elsewhere. One of the reasons for that might be that there has been an increase in the number of police officers in her area—up from 563 in March 2001 to 589 in January 2007.

Can we have a statement from the Minister with responsibility for prisons on the closure of Her Majesty’s Prison Service office at Crown house in Corby and its relocation to Leicester? Many of my constituents who serve as part of the almost 90-strong work force—many of whom are female and young mums with children who work part-time—will not be able to join in the relocation, and they are aghast to hear from the Prison Service that one of the reasons for the relocation of the office is that the population of Corby is 94 per cent white British whereas the population in Leicester is less than 60 per cent. white British. Is it not appalling that such decisions are made on racial grounds?

I do not believe for a second that the hon. Gentleman’s final point is correct. I have looked into this matter, as I rightly guessed that the hon. Gentleman would raise it, and it is my understanding that this transfer was triggered by a decision to sell the property in Corby that is currently occupied by the National Offender Management Service because there was an approach—presumably by developers, as I am told that the building sits within the phase 2 area of the Corby regeneration programme. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman endorses that from a sedentary position. That is why the building is being closed for the current purposes, and it is then up to the Prison Service to make decisions on where to relocate the staff.

As we have recently had a debate on buses, can we now have a debate on trains? Perhaps that would enable us to get to the bottom of why the Government seem to misunderstand, or misrepresent, why so few Virgin trains—in fact none—now stop at Milton Keynes during peak hours. Bizarrely, one train does stop, but only to set down passengers—it will not allow anybody on. When I asked the Secretary of State about that, he said that the issue was the platform length at Milton Keynes, but in a written answer last week he said that there is nothing wrong with the platform length there. Reading between the lines, it is pretty clear that the Government’s priority is those travelling from the north, but why should local people in Milton Keynes be discriminated against in that way?

I am sorry that although I have used the inter-city west coast main line for 30 years, I do not have the full details of the timetable in my head. However, I have been on plenty of trains that have stopped at Milton Keynes, both at peak hours and at off-peak hours, and both to pick up and to set down passengers. The hon. Gentleman should also be aware that as a result of our investment in the railway service, the inter-city west coast main line is more efficient, more punctual and far better patronised. I am surprised that he did not commend what I understand to be an almost definite plan to expand Milton Keynes railway station through the addition of a further platform—is that not correct?—in order to increase its capacity.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Before I make my formal statement on the UK military commitment in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I want to pay tribute to Rifleman Coffey, who died in Iraq on Tuesday. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.

The UK first deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, as part of UNPROFOR, in response to inter-ethnic violence resulting from the collapse of the former Republic of Yugoslavia. We are all sadly familiar with the atrocities committed during the Bosnian war, which resulted in an estimated 100,000 people being killed and the forcible displacement of some 1.8 million people. After three years of conflict and following a NATO air and land campaign, a ceasefire in Bosnia-Herzegovina was agreed in 1995. This was followed by the brokering of the general framework agreement for peace—more commonly known as the Dayton agreement—underpinned by the deployment of NATO forces.

The international community has retained a military presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina since then, initially through NATO and, since 2004, through a European Union force. At its peak, the international community presence under NATO amounted to some 60,000 troops, including approximately 12,000 UK personnel. Today, there are approximately 6,000 international troops in EUFOR, some 600 of whom are from the UK. This significant reduction over the years is testimony to the continually improving security situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Through the UK’s involvement in the United Nations, NATO and now EU forces, we have been operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina for some 15 years, contributing to the maintenance of a safe and secure environment. Indeed, we led EUFOR for its first year of operations and have been the lead nation in Task Force (North West). Over the years, UK troops have been engaged in many operations to recover illegally held weapons and ammunition and explosives, as well as assisting local authorities in combating organised crime. I want to set out the detail of some of our successes.

There are still dangerously high levels of small arms and light weapons in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and while a number of international organisations are implementing initiatives in this field, they are all dependent on donors. Last November, I had the pleasure of opening an explosive waste incinerator designed to destroy surplus small arms ammunition. The UK funding for this project amounts to some £500,000. In addition, the UK continues to fund the training of junior officers from all the three main ethnic backgrounds, thereby contributing to the building of the state. In this financial year, UK support for this project is in the region of £1 million. The UK is also assisting in the development of the NATO trust fund mechanism to facilitate the resettlement into civilian life of up to 6,000 personnel made redundant through defence reform processes. The project will aim to provide training and advice to former soldiers returning to civilian life.

It is clear that Bosnia-Herzegovina is becoming increasingly safe. In recent years, there have been growing indications of a security situation approaching normality. Parliamentary and presidential elections took place last year and were judged to be free and fair. Significant steps in defence reform have been taken, resulting in the establishment of a single, multi-ethnic military force compatible with NATO. As a result, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been able to contribute a small number of troops to operations in Iraq.

Perhaps most importantly, the majority of people displaced from their homes during the war have chosen to return—many of them to areas where they do not belong to the majority ethnic group. In recognition of progress in these areas, Bosnia-Herzegovina was invited to join NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” programme last autumn, on the condition that there will continue to be full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. NATO will closely monitor these efforts.

The time is right, therefore, to reassess the role of the international military presence. In December, EU Ministers agreed in principle to transition EUFOR from a large dispersed force structure to a smaller, centralised one. At a meeting of the Political and Security Committee on Tuesday, EU member states gave the final approval, in light of the continually improving security situation, to this change. The resulting reduction in force levels—from approximately 6,000 troops to 2,500—will allow Bosnia-Herzegovina to take more control of its own affairs.

The EU decision to move to transition is in accordance with clear military advice that the security situation is stable, and that the local authorities are able to cope with all but the most serious incidents. The Welsh Guards, who are currently deployed, will therefore not need to be replaced by any further manoeuvre troops. More than 600 troops, principally from the Welsh Guards, will return to the UK. That means that the UK’s future in-theatre commitment for the next phase of EUFOR will be a small number of staff officers in the Sarajevo headquarters, although we will continue to contribute to the pan-Balkans operational reserve force. A small number of troops will also be needed to ensure a smooth transition to the new EUFOR structure, and to dismantle the base at Banja Luka.

As we come to the end of UK military operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we can look back and see the contribution that our armed forces have made to the rebuilding of a country destroyed by conflict. As with other theatres of operation, they have been central in establishing a secure environment in which political solutions and reconstruction can be pursued. However, while the UK has achieved much, our efforts have not been without significant losses. We must remember those UK servicemen and women who were injured, or who laid down their lives trying to protect the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I pay tribute to them. A series of commemorative events, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the UK, is being planned in order to honour the 55 personnel who lost their lives and the many thousands who were deployed. I will provide further detail of these events in due course.

We must look forward as well as back. There is still progress to be made, particularly in pushing forward key political reforms, ensuring less nationalism in political discourse, and developing state-level institutions. The UK must, and will, remain engaged as Bosnia-Herzegovina strengthens her position within Europe and beyond.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it. May I fully associate the Conservative party with his remarks about the death of Rifleman Coffey? The whole House applauds his courage and sends condolences to his family and friends.

Fifteen years after the initial deployment of our troops in Bosnia, British troops are being withdrawn. Bosnia is indeed a different place today and the Balkans are calmer, although not calm. I pay tribute to the contribution of our armed forces. However, I have two reservations. The first concerns the foreign policy assumptions underpinning this statement, and the second is the specific military impact.

Those who have hoped to see a smooth transition for Kosovo and the end of the international community’s governor-like role in Bosnia in 2007 may yet be disappointed. On all fronts, 2007 will be extremely challenging for the region. Serbia remains an unstable country. The most popular political party, the Serbian Radical party, is led by a man—Vojislav Seselj—who is in The Hague facing charges of genocide. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica presides over a fractious coalition and rejects any notion of independence for Kosovo. The recent unrest in Kosovo and Belgrade’s unwillingness constructively to engage in the final status talks have cast a shadow over President Ahtisaari’s proposals for supervised independence for Kosovo. In Bosnia itself, separatist forces in the entity of Republika Srpska continue to hamper Bosnia’s progress. Given all these problems, how can the Minister talk about the “normality” of the security situation? Where is the normality?

In June 2006, the international community declared that it wanted a transition from an Office of the High Representative-led presence to a European Union-led presence headed by an EU special representative. However, the uncertainties in the region have caused the peace implementation council to reverse its earlier decision. The Office of the High Representative mandate has been extended for another year. On several fronts, it believes that Bosnia is failing to make progress. Mostar remains un-unified and the governance of the canton of Brcko remains un-regularised. At the same time, the decision has been made to cut EUFOR numbers from 7,500 to 2,500. Where is the consistency? Perhaps most importantly, the alleged war criminals, General Mladic and Radovan Karadzic remain at large. What role, if any, will the remaining British contingent play in trying to bring those individuals to justice?

As I said, the High Representative’s mandate has been extended for another year, as announced only yesterday, but the current representative, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, has accused Bosnian politicians of squandering the opportunity to make progress. The politicians are failing to make progress, but the troop numbers are being cut. Can the Minister clarify the discrepancy between those two different assessments of Bosnia’s stability? If Bosnians are incapable of taking more control of their own affairs at the political level, how can he be confident that they can do that at a military level?

Unfortunately, there are still some Serbs who believe that all the Serbs should live in a Greater Serbia. That kind of regressive force, which was so destructive for Yugoslavia, cannot be allowed to return to the region. Is the Minister satisfied that those who harbour such ambitions will not find themselves emboldened by the lack of an international military presence in Banja Luka, which has so far served as a deterrent to those aspirations?

No part of Europe has such a complex ethnic patchwork, such a recent history of instability, or such a strategic importance in the “Great Power” politics of all eras. Can the Minister give his commitment that the withdrawals do not represent a change in policy towards the wider region?

Let me turn to the military implications. British troops make the primary contribution to mine clearance operations. How will those be conducted in the future, and by whom? What are the implications for the safety of the civilian population?

More than anything else, there is widespread suspicion that this decision is predicated on the need to free up more troops for the mission in Afghanistan. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister talked about our troops coming home from Iraq with no mention of future deployments to Afghanistan. But within 48 hours, we learned, through a series of leaks, that 1,400 more troops were being sent. On Monday, I specifically asked the Secretary of State for Defence for a commitment that this represented the peak number of British troops to be deployed there. I received no such assurance. I ask the Minister to answer that question specifically today.

We all want peace in the Balkans, but our faith in the competence of the Government’s foreign and defence policy is being sorely tested. We need much better assurances than we have had to date. Yet again, the assessments are too rosy and the assumptions too optimistic, as they have been so often in recent years.

I would have thought that we would hear at least some recognition of the success that has been achieved, but I was seriously disappointed by the hon. Gentleman. Let us go back 15 years to when the deployment was first agreed. The commitment given by the then Secretary of State for Defence—the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)—was for 12 months. As we know when we enter areas of conflict, we may have to attend to situations that deteriorate, but sometimes they make progress. That is exactly what we have been doing.

I have been dealing with this issue and hoping to get to this point for almost three years. The assessment in terms of the political dimension must be that a time has to be determined when we have confidence that progress has been made. If I understand the hon. Gentleman’s message correctly, he suggests that we need a continuing commitment in Bosnia. At the same time, he says that we should cut commitments elsewhere. We repeatedly ask him which commitments we should not fulfil, and he repeatedly fails to answer the question. Now he is saying that we should continue our commitment when the full international community that has responsibility for that country says that we can move to a new military and security posture to encourage normality to develop.

I have visited the country and the region on several occasions and I have seen the marked progress. I mentioned the opening of the destruction facility that I attended in November and it is clear that change is happening. There are still issues to be attended to in collecting the ammunition and other equipment that needs to be destroyed, and efforts are being made to achieve that.

I do not understand what the hon. Gentleman seeks from us. We have made a major military contribution. We have measures of success and an international community that is now supportive of those efforts. All countries involved are making reductions. The hon. Gentleman asks about bringing the war criminals Mladic and Karadzic to justice, and that remains the determined intent of the international community. Pressure will continue to be applied to countries in the region to deliver that intent, and it is one of the preconditions for EU membership and full scale NATO membership.

The hon. Gentleman also asked how we ensure a response if the situation descends into some form of violence. There will still be 2,500 troops there and we will still have the pan-Balkans operational reserve force ready to act, as we did in 2004 and 2005 in Kosovo, which is a much more volatile environment in many ways. We responded to and dealt with the civil unrest on the streets.

The hon. Gentleman asked about military implications and future effort. One of the things that we are doing in the country is building the capacity of their defence forces to deal with their own needs. That is why we will keep 50 or so military personnel in the country, several of whom are engaged in training the trainers. We make a tremendous contribution in mine clearance training, and many other areas of training, in countries that are moving from periods of conflict into stability.

The hon. Gentleman’s charge that the withdrawal is just an attempt to free up troops for Afghanistan does not add up. Every country has come to this conclusion. If the conclusion of the international community had been that we should remain there—because his scenario was prevailing—we would have maintained our presence. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wherever else we serve, we will not cut and run: we will continue until the job is done.

Contrary to the more than grudging comments from the Opposition, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a tremendous success. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are the ones who say that, not simply foreign politicians. In particular, the people are grateful that the British commitment over the years has meant that the area has moved from active war—not simply insecurity—to a point at which it is possible to say that Bosnia is secure in military terms, whatever the political challenges that undoubtedly still remain.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in applauding the actions of our troops over the years? It was the British troops at Prijedor who were the first to arrest war crime indictees, and the British arrested more than did all the other troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina put together. Our contribution has been really significant in changing the face of Bosnia and Herzegovina and we should be proud of what the British troops have done.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has a great deal of knowledge of the issue. He makes a substantial point—we have a proud record of achievement and we can hold our head up high. We have led the way in so many ways, in that area and elsewhere, in trying to establish the right standards for countries coming out of conflict into a new future. The whole issue of war criminals is one that still has to be addressed. We have made a contribution in the past, and if we have to make a contribution to achieve that objective in the future, we will do so. I thank my hon. Friend for his comments.

I thank the Minister for his statement and join him in paying tribute to those who have made a contribution over the past 15 years in Bosnia. In particular, I pay tribute to those who paid with their lives or came back injured.

Should not the House be celebrating the statement today as a sign of success and a job well done, and congratulating the Minister on being able to make a statement in these terms? He made the point in his statement that at different points in that time UK forces have been part of a UN mission, a NATO mission and, in the last few years, an EU mission. While NATO remains our key strategic alliance, will the Minister join me in noting the success of the EU mission in recent years, and in celebrating the fact that EU nations can act successfully when they see eye to eye on things? If the situation in Kosovo deteriorates, will he reassure the House that there will be a similar readiness among EU countries to work together?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has hit the right note. There is no question but that we should celebrate the success of the EU mission, and we should never forget the work done by its members. Some of them paid the ultimate sacrifice or were injured in their efforts to create the increasingly peaceful environment in the country. The mission started out as a NATO enterprise, then transformed into an EU mission—the first of its kind. I am sure that it will prove to be a model for the future. It demonstrates that the EU nations are increasingly able to deliver in such circumstances, although what the approach to Kosovo will be in the longer term remains to be seen. I hope that we can finish the work with NATO and that we do not have to undertake another extended mission, and I know that the hon. Gentleman shares that objective. Much remains to be done in some parts of the Balkans. We have made a contribution and, when asked, will do so again.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. The news is very welcome, especially for the families of the brave men and women serving in Bosnia. What lessons for other conflict zones can be learned from the reconstruction effort in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Does he agree that success will be measured in terms of what happens over years and decades, rather than weeks and months?

Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and he makes a very important point about the lessons to be learned. There is a continuum about the way that conflict zones move into reconstruction, but he will know that each area and country has its own key and individual characteristics. In all the regions where British forces are deployed, our aim is to ensure that the momentum of the security profile is maintained, and that efforts to improve governance are begun as early as possible. In that way, confidence is given to the people who take over the instruments of civil power and who drive change forward. The civil community must have the confidence to take on defence and security reform, and to move on from the prevailing hostilities.

None of that is easy. We must remember that we have been in Northern Ireland for nearly 40 years and that, although we are very close, we still have not quite reached the final stage of the process. All the lessons that we learn from our experiences in such situations make our armed forces personnel even better at dealing with troubles around the world.

That is an interesting question. I have met Ministers in a variety of countries, one of whom said, “As long as you’re here, people see you as an occupying force. We don’t see you that way, but you deny us the opportunity to take on the governance of the country, even though we have the instruments to do so.”

That remark struck home. Today’s announcement will receive a mixed response, because some people in Bosnia and Herzegovina depend on our presence: the statistics show that our forces are very much part of the local economy. If people there fear that they might lose out, we must use our EU connections to offer assistance and create a strong economy to fill the gap.

Earlier, I described how we are working with the 6,000 or so soldiers moving into civilian life. We have a major commitment to making sure that they have jobs and a future, and that they understand that their society has changed. That is a big contribution on our part. Will some local politicians oppose our withdrawal? Yes: we have heard today that not all good news is welcome.

Is this not an appropriate time to remind ourselves of the terrible massacre of Muslim men at Srebrenica in July 1995, which happened while the international community looked on? Should we not be pleased at least that the present Government acted in respect of Kosovo—something that their predecessors did not do in response to what occurred in Bosnia, Srebrenica and elsewhere? However, I am not alone in being deeply disappointed that the two notorious mass murderers responsible for what happened at Srebrenica have not been apprehended. It is absolutely vital that those arch-criminals should be brought to justice.

I agree entirely with that final point, and that is why so much effort is still being made in that regard. It is also why conditions are placed on the country’s progression towards full EU and NATO membership. We are talking about brutal war criminals who must be brought to justice. In recent weeks, NATO has attempted to apply more pressure to achieve that objective, although I do not suppose that that was much reported in the media here.

My hon. Friend is also right about the timely action that we took in Kosovo. Some hon. Members criticised it, but it has proved to be the right thing to do. It is a matter for regret that this country did not act earlier in the 1990s. We paid a price for that, but more importantly, the people of Srebrenica and elsewhere paid a much heavier one.

May I echo the Minister’s concluding remarks? I was sometimes a lone voice on the then Government Benches when I argued for intervention—something that the official Opposition of the day did not support. I welcome much of what the Minister has said, and want to record my thanks to the brave troops who have done so much to help to restore a degree of normality. However, will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge the force of some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), and by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who has been consistent on this matter? We do not know where in the Balkans those two arch-criminals may be hiding, but until they have been brought to justice, we cannot begin to consider writing the final chapter.