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Commons Chamber

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 22 March 2007

House of Commons

Thursday 22 March 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Trade and Industry

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Policy

My Department works with a wide range of organisations in relation to energy policy. It might be helpful if I inform the House that the energy White Paper will be published in May.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. First, may I welcome the Chancellor’s statement yesterday that moves will be made to help families caught in the fuel poverty trap? From the Scottish perspective—and for me as an ex-miner—it is also welcome that we are now moving forward on carbon capture and on setting up a plant in the UK. My right hon. Friend has announced that the energy White Paper will be published in May. Would it not be prudent to consider the possibility of cutting across all the Departments that deal with energy and set up an Energy Department?

My hon. Friend’s final suggestion is a matter for the Prime Minister, but let me respond to his earlier points. He is right to say that we have done a great deal to help families on low incomes who face rising fuel bills. Among the measures we announced yesterday were those to help improve the insulation and energy efficiency of homes, which will assist people to cut their fuel bills. My hon. Friend is also right about carbon capture: if we reduce the amount of carbon emitted from gas and coal-powered fire stations, that could enable Britain to become a world leader in essential technology.

Yesterday afternoon, the Chancellor announced a £6 million boost in the budget for household renewable energy grants; that is welcome but modest. Yesterday evening, the Department of Trade and Industry issued a press release announcing a two-month suspension of the current programme. What does the Secretary of State have to say to the householders and businesses who were relying on the promised grants, and would he care to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality?

Actually, the press releases were issued at the same time, and deliberately so. As the hon. Lady knows, there have been problems with the grants, because the current arrangement is unsatisfactory: at the beginning of each month we make grants available and they run out almost immediately. We have also found that about £5 million of claimed grants have not been spent. The industry knows that there are problems, and we do too. I am glad that the hon. Lady acknowledges that additional money is being made available, and I would like us to take the necessary time to get the scheme right so that we do not repeat past mistakes. Up until yesterday evening, the industry itself had said that we needed to have discussions with it to make sure that the scheme works satisfactorily. It is important that we get the revised scheme up and running. It is also important that the scheme should be time limited to encourage people to do what they can to make their homes more energy efficient and also less dependent on carbon sources of energy generation. The scheme will be in place, but it is better to get it right than again to rush into doing something and to repeat the mistakes that were made in the past.

As part of the Government’s energy policy, my right hon. Friend is rightly looking into renewable forms of energy and, increasingly, into offshore wind farms. What liaison is he having with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so that the voice of the fishermen is heard as more wind farms are licensed, and what liaison is he having with the Department for Transport so that ferry routes are protected, because our seas are not empty and when wind farms are erected that has an impact on other industries?

That is true up to a point, but it is perfectly possible to set up offshore wind farms and at the same time meet fishermen’s concerns and make sure that those wind farms are not put in sea lanes. We have been doing that satisfactorily across the piece. Let me say, however, that especially at a time when we are concerned to get greener sources of energy, we need more renewables. It is all very well for people to say, “Yes, we agree with that,” but not if they then come along and object to every planning consent that is sought whether onshore or offshore—in other words, if they are in favour of measures, but not in their backyard. We cannot proceed on that basis. If we do so, we will not get more renewable forms of energy. It is also worth bearing in mind another point, in respect of which I am sorry that not a single Scottish National party Member is present. The fact that yesterday’s Budget revealed that the projected revenues from North sea oil have fallen dramatically means that—

Interestingly, investment has gone up following last year’s tax change. The oil industry knows that it is a mature field with limited available reserves, which is why the SNP’s policy, under which Scotland would be totally dependant on one very unpredictable source of revenue, would be absolute folly. As I have said, I am sorry that not a single Scottish National Member could be bothered to come along to today’s Question Time.

The Secretary of State has had eight months since the energy review in which to prepare the White Paper. He tells us today that it will be published in May with the same certainty that he told us on an earlier occasion that it would be published in March. If he carries on like this, his Department will have been abolished before it gets to be published. Does he not understand that those postponements are delaying vital investment decisions in future generating capacity while investors wait for details about a cap-and-trade system, the future of renewable obligation certificates or ROCs, feed-in tariffs, the role of Ofgem and the whole future of the planning system? He cannot just blame that on the judicial decision to require better consultation, as there are many other outstanding issues. Does he not understand that our energy security requires that we have a Government who are prepared to act and lead rather than a Government who put off the difficult decisions?

That is a bit rich coming from a party that does not have a coherent energy policy. The hon. Gentleman will recall that following the judicial review I said that it was likely that the White Paper would be published in May, but that if I could publish it before Easter, I would. As there is precisely one week between now and the Easter recess, it is perhaps a statement of the obvious that it will not be possible to publish it next week, so I thought it helpful to tell the House that it will definitely be published in May.

On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive points, yes, I know that the industry wants a degree of certainty, but it is not possible to publish an energy White Paper without the consultation paper on nuclear alongside it, because nuclear is an important part of that consideration. I want to make sure that we get the nuclear consultation right, and I do not have the slightest doubt that there are those who will want a judicial review whatever we decide; some people are implacably against nuclear, come what may. However, I want to get these things right, and the overwhelming view in the industry is that it is important that we publish the two papers together, which I will certainly do.

Productivity Rates

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very helpful question. The Chancellor’s excellent Budget statement yesterday spelled out our very successful record in delivering sustainable macro-economic stability and our equally successful performance in making effective micro-economic interventions to remove the barriers that prevent markets from functioning efficiently. That has enabled us to raise productivity rates and to enhance UK competitiveness. Since 1997, we have halved the previous gap in UK output per worker compared with France, and closed the gap in output per worker compared with Germany. The Department of Trade and Industry has played its part in stimulating competition and enterprise, enhancing flexibility, and promoting science, innovation and skills. We have provided the first-class stewardship of the economy that has helped to raise productivity rates, and that is something that only a Labour Government can do.

In order to boost our productivity to French and German levels and to provide the skills that our businesses are crying out for, will the Minister become the champion across Whitehall of the lost generation of 5 million adults who cannot read properly and the 7 million who cannot do basic maths? This is a vital issue on which a cross-departmental lead needs to be taken. May I ask that the DTI do some serious work on it?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is an important issue, which is why we have done something about. We have reduced the figure that we inherited—6 million adults with no basic skills—to the still far too high figure of 5 million. I agree entirely that we must continue to work to provide the basic skills, because it is high skills that will enhance our productivity rates. We in the DTI play our role across government in ensuring that we have the proper structures, programmes and interventions in place to do just that.

Last year, a DTI report stated that low business investment “hinders” productivity and growth. Yesterday, the Chancellor increased taxation on the small business sector. What are the Government doing to encourage investment in that sector across the United Kingdom?

If the hon. Gentleman looks closely at yesterday’s Budget statement, he will find that we introduced a new annual investment allowance of £50,000 that will benefit small businesses in particular. He will also notice that we will increase the tax credit rates for research and development, particularly those for small businesses, so he has got it wrong in suggesting that yesterday’s Budget did not enhance our competitiveness and encourage investment in the small business sector.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the top productivity levels of the German economy still lag behind those of this country?

I entirely agree that we are doing especially well in our management of the economy. The advantages that we have over the German economy are our flexible labour markets, our high investment in research and a strong academic base. The latter means that we have good innovations and we are getting better and better at translating those into products and services. The fact is that we have closed the productivity gap with Germany through our management of the macro-economy and other interventions to support productivity and we are being extremely successful.

I am sure that the Minister recognises that one aspect of productivity growth is skills investment in staff. Does she agree that at a time when we have 1 million people on jobseeker’s allowance, 1.5 million people saying that they want work and 2.7 million on incapacity benefit, the vast majority of whom also say that they want to work—a huge stock of people who would like jobs—it is ironic that we have invested nothing in skills, so that British industry has had to go across the world to pull in economic migrants to do jobs in this country? Does she agree that that is a real indictment of the Government’s policy?

I have to say that people are living in two parallel worlds. There is the real world, of the real UK economy, with real performance and 2.6 million extra jobs; a massive investment in skills and education; a huge investment in our science base and research activity; and with an enormous investment in enterprise. Then there is another little world of Conservatives who promise either unaffordable spending commitments or unachievable tax cuts. I know whom the British people believe.

I welcome the Minister to planet earth. It is nice of her to join us this morning. I agree with her that improving our productivity is vital, but after 10 years and 11 Budgets filled with complex schemes and political tinkering, the truth is that our labour productivity, as we have heard, is still behind France and Germany and way behind the US. Is not the real issue the quality of business management and, as my hon. Friends have rightly said, poor labour skills? When will the Government focus on that rather than on cooking up over-complex short-term schemes? What does planet Minister say?

The planet Opposition spokesperson has not seen or understood the impact of all the investment that we have made in skills over the past 10 years. I do not know which planet the hon. Gentleman lives on, but were he to look at the statistics—which are not produced in a party political way, but by the Office for National Statistics and others—he would see that the productivity gap between ourselves and France and Germany is closing. He would also see that we are the only country that is maintaining the same level of productivity in relation to the US as we had 10 years ago, although productivity in other European countries has declined. Were he to go around his own constituency, he would also notice that the investment in skills and education is raising standards and ensuring that British companies can perform effectively with the skills that we need.

Does the Minister agree that our unemployment levels are far below those in France and Germany? Will she also agree that the massive amount of enterprise that was a result of the coalfield plan that we introduced in 1997 has meant that unemployment in Barnsley, where every single pit was shut, is 2.8 per cent. or half the national average? In nearly every coalfield in south Yorkshire, north Derbyshire and other parts of the British coalfield area, the unemployment rate is below the national average. The result is that we have jobs in every pit yard in my constituency, even though every one of those pits was shut by the Tories when there were 4 million people out of work.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unemployment is at the lowest level for a very long time, while the employment rate is higher than it has ever been and much higher than the rate in all our competitor countries. Most importantly, it is this Government who have made the appropriate interventions to ensure that the benefits of stability and growth are enjoyed by all areas of the country and not just the richer ones. That is why employment rates are high in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Steel Industry

Despite significant restructuring over the past 30 years, the UK steel industry remains a significant employer and an intensive research and development contributor to the UK economy. We believe that the investments, strategies and measures implemented in the sector provide a solid platform for the future prosperity of UK steel operations in a rapidly changing global landscape.

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the recent news that Tata Steel will take over the Corus iron and steel making company? What help and support will be given to Tata Steel to ensure that we have a strong manufacturing base on Teesside? Manufacturing is our bread and butter, as 3,000 jobs depend on it directly, and 30,000 indirectly.

My hon. Friend brings much professional expertise to this subject, and is a steely champion of that important industry. We are pleased that Tata has chosen to invest in the UK steel industry through its acquisition of Corus, and believe that that will lead to a fruitful and productive partnership. The Tata deal will provide access to low-cost raw materials, and to high-growth markets for products in which Corus has a particular strength. That will enable the company to compete on a global scale and thereby help secure the future of plant located in the UK. I look forward to having an early meeting with the leadership of Tata Steel.

While I accept that we are in a global trading situation, I do not share the views of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar). It is extremely dangerous that our strategic industries are being acquired by overseas interests. Corus is not the only one: more industries in this country have been acquired by overseas interests than is the case with virtually any other country in the EU or elsewhere in the world. Does the Minister accept that the remittances and profits are sent overseas and so do not benefit the UK Exchequer or taxpayer? Does he also agree that jobs can be transferred abroad extremely easily?

That was a passionate onslaught on the reality of globalisation. We have had enough banter—some of it not very good—about real worlds this morning, but globalisation is here to stay. The important thing is that British industry should regard it as a challenge and not a crisis. We welcome inward investment and, just as British companies will take over companies in India and elsewhere, some of that business will go the other way. I am confident that the deal is a good one for the UK steel industry, and for jobs.

In an era of globalisation, the ability to innovate is essential for the long-term sustainability of the UK steel industry. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that Hartlepool’s steel pipe mills are a good example of that innovation, as he opened one last year. However, price is also important, and sterling is nudging $2 this morning. I know that the problem is extraordinarily difficult, but what can my hon. Friend do to ensure that the UK steel industry remains competitive in the global economy?

I certainly remember opening that plant. I learned a great deal, and was very impressed by the R and D work going on there and by the sheer skill of the work force. Corus has invested a great deal in the steel industry, and I have no doubt that Tata will do the same. The general message is that we need to compete by adding value to the excellence of the goods and services produced in this country. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) spoke of challenges in the global markets, but the inward investment by Tata augurs very well for the British steel industry and its highly skilled work force.

Businesses (Taxation)

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effects of taxation on businesses. (128950)

I am grateful for that answer. Most enterprises in my constituency, and in Wales as a whole, are small businesses, primarily in the non-capital intensive service sector. Could the Secretary of State explain how such small companies are expected to develop and grow when they are to be subjected to an additional tax burden of 3p in the pound, and indeed will be taxed at a higher rate than when Labour to power in 1997?

First, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman found my answer so helpful. On his second point, about small companies, one of the problems that became apparent was that an increasing number of people were incorporating and becoming small companies to avoid paying tax and national insurance. Any Chancellor must have regard to a pattern of behaviour that leads to people avoiding payment of tax when it is not right that they should do so. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s friends is, first, that incorporated businesses will benefit from the reduction in corporation and, secondly, that unincorporated businesses will benefit from the reduction in the basic rate of income tax. Firms that invest will benefit from the allowance of up to £50,000 that the Chancellor announced yesterday. All in all, I believe that the changes are welcome and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not welcome them, especially as the shadow Chancellor gave the distinct impression earlier in the week that he wanted to see those changes, too.

Unless I am very much mistaken the Scottish National party Whip is sitting next to me and has been there for 10 minutes. Incidentally, there is not one Scottish Labour Back Bencher in the Chamber—people in glasshouses.

To reinforce the point that has already been made, 90 per cent. of employment in Wales is in the small business sector. All the baloney about R and D is absolute nonsense, because only one in five ever have an interest in taking it up.

But should we not be encouraging more companies to invest in research and development? The hon. Gentleman must know that our future lies in our ability to innovate and to undertake research and development, yet we have it officially from Plaid Cymru that it is all baloney. Surely, that is no way to build a successful Wales or a successful Britain. The changes we announced yesterday in relation to reducing the rate of both corporation tax and basic income tax will help businesses. On top of that, the fact that we are simplifying allowances, making sure that there is relief and help for companies that invest up to £50,000, demonstrates the differences between Labour and the hon. Gentleman’s party: we want to encourage enterprise and innovation.

In the bipartisan spirit that is appropriate for the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, may I urge the Secretary of State to reflect with more care on the answers he has just given? I am deeply concerned that the service sector—small businesses in particular—can take no advantage of the reliefs that are offered in the Budget and face massive increases in their basic corporation tax bill. Indeed, the one relief they might have been able to claim—for cars, which are very important for getting around and meeting suppliers and customers—is specifically excluded from the new annual investment allowance, so I have deep concern that the Budget is actually rather bad news for the vast majority of small businesses in this country.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The changes that we announced yesterday will be beneficial both for large companies—those paying corporation tax will see their rate reduced—and for small companies, which are taxed on their income, because the basic rate of income tax will come down. It is absolutely right that we have a more up to date system of allowances; at the moment, it is nonsense that people can claim allowances for investing in foreign plantations yet not for investing in a science park, for example. I would have thought—again in the bipartisan spirit in which the hon. Gentleman approaches these things—that we should have an up to date system of allowances rather than relying on a system that was largely put in place after the second world war when we were more interested in reconstruction than in dealing with the problems we face at the beginning of the 21st century.

The Budget delivered by the Chancellor yesterday had the net effect of piling an extra £1 billion in tax on to UK business next year. Is that bad news for business the result of the Secretary of State having no influence at all around the Cabinet table or, now that he no longer expects to be Chancellor himself, is it the result of him choosing not to use what little influence he seems to have?

The reduction in corporation tax is a tremendous help. Indeed, businesses and companies have for a long time called for a reduction in that tax. Interestingly, on Monday the shadow Chancellor—he had clearly thought up his new corporation tax policy at the weekend—said that he wanted to reduce corporation tax. He said:

“There will be some people who make particular use of capital reliefs. The judgment I’ve made is that even they would end up being beneficiaries of a much simpler and more competitive tax system.”

Yet he reached the judgment that it was worth getting rid of those reliefs—we are introducing new capital reliefs, while the Tories are not proposing any.

We welcome the fact that the Chancellor has been listening to our advice by reducing the headline rate of corporation tax, but will he not accept that, behind his headline rate, tax on business will still increase by £1 billion and that small businesses will be hit most severely by his 3p in the pound increase in tax rates?

As I said to the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) earlier, we are making changes to the taxation of small businesses because we need to deal with the growing problem of people who are incorporating to avoid paying tax. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that that is all right by the Tories, I do not agree with him. It is far better to move to a simpler system with two rates of allowances running at the same time so that we can encourage businesses to invest. Increased allowances of up to £50,000 are being made available, but the lower rates of corporation tax and income tax will help businesses. That is exactly what is needed to meet the long-term challenges that we face in the future.

Surface Mining

My noble Friend the Minister for Energy met Gerry Spindler, the chief executive of UK Coal, on 22 February and the future of surface mining in the UK was among the topics discussed. The issue has also been discussed in the Coal Forum, of which they are both members.

Where does the Minister think surface coal mining fits within the so-called renewable energy policy of the Government? Given that research and development into clean-coal technology is at a very early stage, does he share my concern about UK Coal’s plans to extract 900,000 tonnes of coal from an area of outstanding natural beauty in Huntington and New Works in my constituency? Would he like to elaborate on his conversation with the chief executive, specifically on that point?

The hon. Gentleman will know that, quite properly, I cannot comment on a particular project that is going through the planning process. That would not be the right thing to do. All these matters are, of course, considered very carefully on environmental grounds. We hope that UK coal production has a significant future in Britain—an issue discussed in the Coal Forum. UK production amounted to some 9.4 million tonnes of deep-mined coal and 8.6 million tonnes of surface-mined coal. The hon. Gentleman will understand that that makes a not insignificant contribution to energy supplies. Given the difficulties in world markets, we need to produce more of own energy in Great Britain. We need a balanced and rational approach to the issue, but none of my comments relates to the particular project in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

After last week’s appalling decision to allow UK Coal to ruin the beautiful countryside at the Lodge House site in my constituency and a recent similar decision at Longmoor in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), will the Minister urgently discuss with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government how to stop planning inspectors totally misinterpreting the original intention of the revised MPG3—mineral planning guidance—guidelines and how to reassert the presumption against open-casting? As stated in those guidelines, local authorities know best about the balance of local factors and it is not environmentally acceptable to state that immediate appalling damage can conceivably be put right by dubious assertions about the long-term restoration of a site. Will the Minister also have urgent discussions with—

I do understand the question. Although I gave the figures for across our countries, in fact less than 1 million tonnes was produced through surface mining in England. There are tight planning controls—

We have talked about skills, and I am happy to educate the shadow Secretary of State on this matter. There is a presumption against development if the proposal is not environmentally acceptable or cannot be made so by conditions or obligations attached to a consent, or does not offer local or community benefits to offset the adverse impact. I will not ask the hon. Gentleman to repeat that, but that is the situation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) will forgive me, but it would be inappropriate for me to comment on a particular planning decision.

Marine Renewables Deployment Fund

The Department’s £50 million marine renewables deployment fund was established to assist the continued development of wave and tidal-stream energy technologies.

I am surprised that the Secretary of State did not also tell us that since the fund was opened for applications in February last year, it has received only two applications, both of which were rejected. Does he share my concern that the fund might not be as effective as we would both wish in retaining the world lead in the development of marine renewables? Now that a year has passed, will he review the access criteria for funding applications, with a view to introducing more flexibility in the fund in order to allow more companies to get more devices into the water?

I suspected that the hon. Gentleman would raise that point—and I am worried that there have been only two applications. The difficulty is that in order to qualify for the grant a project has to have been operating in the sea for three months. In other words, the idea was to help projects that had significantly proved themselves to be a real possibility for development. There are other grants around, however, to help with development at a far earlier stage. I am reluctant to reopen this matter, because it is important that we encourage projects that have a real chance of success. If it appears that no projects have reached that stage, however, perhaps we ought to look at some other form of assistance. The hon. Gentleman and I both agree that marine generation of electricity is important, and there are good examples of such work being carried out in his own constituency. The reason why this grant is difficult to get is that it sets quite high criteria for eligibility.

Citizens Advice Bureaux

7. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues in the Treasury on the future funding of front-line services provided by citizens advice bureaux; and if he will make a statement. (128954)

I have had no recent discussions with ministerial colleagues on the future funding of front-line services provided by citizens advice bureaux. However, the DTI and the Treasury work closely together on the administration of the £47.5m face-to-face debt advice project that is funded from the Treasury’s financial inclusion fund.

DTI backing for face-to-face advice is most welcome. The Minister will know that Citizens Advice annually provides a vital, trusted, value-for-money lifeline to about 2.5 million people, with 6 million problems, nationwide. It also helps to deliver the Government’s agenda of eliminating poverty, preventing homelessness, improving health and well-being and reducing reoffending. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that there is still a significant unmet need for telephone, weekend and online services, and that continued support for—and strategic Government investment in—Citizens Advice will lead to major social and economic benefits?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, and I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members admire and respect the work that the citizens advice bureaux undertake. I can advise my hon. Friend that, last week, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury announced a new financial inclusion fund for the next spending period. The DTI will be part of a cross-departmental ministerial working group that will determine fund priorities and publish a detailed action plan after the comprehensive spending review. I am sure that my hon. Friend will supply details of the difficulties that he has outlined, and that the working party will look at them so that they can be resolved in due course.

Postwatch

8. What progress has been made in discussions on the role of Postwatch in scrutiny of the post office closure process. (128955)

The Government’s consultation on the post office network ended on 8 March. We have received more than 2,500 representations, and are grateful to those who took time to participate in the process. We are giving full consideration to the comments received and hope to be able to announce our final decisions in May. Discussions are in progress between Post Office Ltd and Postwatch, and we expect to set out Postwatch’s role in developing local area closure proposals in our decision.

Does the Minister agree that when the Government are about to embark on a huge post office closure programme, which he has acknowledged will have a massive impact on consumers throughout the country who rely on that important service, the idea of simultaneously abolishing the Post Office watchdog is madness?

We have included specific provisions in the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill, which had its Second Reading this week, to ensure that the new national consumer council has a role, as Postwatch does now, in advising on the number and location of post offices and their accessibility to users. We are also involved in ongoing discussions between Post Office Ltd and Postwatch to make sure that the arrangements are as robust as they need to be.

I am glad to hear how many organisations and individuals took the trouble to take part in the consultation; I hope that their contributions will be read carefully and listened to. However, does my hon. Friend agree that one simple way of making sure that communities have a voice and are able to retain their services is to accept the Sustainable Communities Bill, which is going through the House? What it provides would be much better than any regulator, because communities would have their own voice and their own means of retaining their services.

I am sure that the Sustainable Communities Bill will provide adequate opportunities to enable communities best to defend themselves. As my hon. Friend knows, we have just completed Second Reading of the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill, which we believe offers the appropriate place to integrate the Postwatch service, and which will provide consumer protection for those who use any of the services of Royal Mail Group.

The Secretary of State has said that 2,500 post offices will be closed with compensation, but the national access criteria will allow thousands more post offices to close. How does the Under-Secretary reconcile those two facts?

The hon. Gentleman has participated in many of our debates on the future of Post Office Ltd. There is clear recognition that the estimated £4 million a week that the Post Office loses is unsustainable, and there is consensus across the board that something must be done to put the post office service on a more sustainable footing for the future. That is agreed by the National Federation of SubPostmasters and by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, and we are doing our best to ensure that that happens. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make his announcement in due course—in May—and we hope that as a result of that, the future of Post Office Ltd will be more secure.

Science Funding (York)

The Department’s primary support for science is through grant in aid to the eight UK research councils. Colleagues will have noted the very good settlement for UK science announced in the Budget yesterday. In 2006, UK research councils funded £17.8 million in research grants to York university. In addition, £35.9 million has been invested jointly with the Department for Education and Skills under the two rounds of the science research investment fund to update and renew university research infrastructure, and £7.8 million has been invested under the higher education innovation fund and its predecessors to facilitate knowledge transfer from science research.

I warmly welcome yesterday’s Budget announcement that funding for science will increase by 25 per cent. by 2010—an additional £1,300 million pounds. My hon. Friend will be aware that Science City York and the other five English science cities have put proposals to the Treasury on promoting science and technology as a driver of economic development. Will those proposals benefit from some of the additional funding for science, and will the Government consider the proposals and respond?

I am sure that there will be a response. I am encouraged by the way in which science cities are flourishing. I had an opportunity at a recent conference, up the road in Newcastle, to meet colleagues from Science City York and others, and I am encouraged by the development and the way in which a range of bodies, such as the learning and skills councils and the regional development agencies—Yorkshire Forward, in my hon. Friend’s case—are coming together to make sure that science cities flourish in the future.

Renewable Energy

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on initiatives to promote renewable energy. (128958)

As was discussed earlier, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had regular discussions with the Chancellor on a range of issues, including the promotion of renewable energy.

The Chancellor’s flagship stop-start scheme to promote the domestic renewable energy industry, the low carbon buildings programme, received 10,000 online applications at 9 am on 1 March. Only 186 were approved. Does the Minister expect that the 50 per cent. increase in funding announced yesterday in the Budget will give rise to a 50 per cent. increase in successful applications—from under 2 per cent. to under 3 per cent?

We had some discussion about that earlier this morning. I am proud of the record of this Labour Government and I would be pleased on another occasion to compare it with the lamentable record of previous Administrations on climate change and renewables. The Government are reforming the renewables obligation, have targets for renewable energy, and have introduced the low carbon buildings programme—with £80 million of funds—not only for householders, but for voluntary organisations and public sector buildings. That is important. There has been a huge demand for householder grants. That is why yesterday it was announced that an additional £6 million for householder capital grants will be available from the Budget, bringing the total funds for householders up to £18 million. We are now having a quick look at that, so that we can announce a new programme. That is why there is a brief suspension of grants during the April period. It is sensible—I think that the industry expects this—to look at that before we announce the way forward.

Will the Minister confirm that according to the Treasury, the microgeneration measures announced in the Budget yesterday will produce carbon savings that, because they are so timid, are too small to measure, and that if one adds up all the energy measures announced in the Budget yesterday, they account for less than 2 per cent. of carbon emissions? That amount will be wiped out by the increase in carbon emissions now taking place.

There are a wide range of measures and a number of areas of the economy, including the houses in which we all live, that will contribute to getting on the right side of the climate change argument. The Government have set what I would contend is the most ambitious target ever for a democracy: to reduce carbon emissions by 60 per cent. from what they were in 1990, by the middle of this century—2050. A range of programmes and changes of behaviour will enable us to hit that target. Microgeneration and, more generally, renewables have an important role to play, but not the only role.

Women Entrepreneurs

We have 1 million women entrepreneurs, who contribute £60 billion GVA—gross value added—per annum to the UK economy. If we had the same rate of women’s entrepreneurship in the UK as there is in the USA, we would have 700,000 more businesses adding to the wealth and well-being of the UK economy. I am actively tackling the barriers that prevent women from setting up their own businesses. For instance, I am addressing the gender penalty that women face when borrowing from banks, whereby they pay 1 per cent. more than men over the base rate. That is over £80 a week more in interest payments each month on a £100,000 loan, just for being a woman. It should make no difference whether a man or a woman walks into a bank; each should walk out with the same deal. I am meeting the British Bankers Association later today to discuss and address that issue.

There is a welcome growth in the number of women entrepreneurs right across the UK, but it is interesting to note that recent studies show that the growth is larger in the service sector. What more can we do to encourage women entrepreneurs in the manufacturing sector of our economy? That is extremely important, especially in the west midlands.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That must be achieved through both our work on education and skills training and our efforts to encourage entrepreneurship among women, especially as they take the decision to set up their own businesses at a different time from me—perhaps after they have had their first child, or when their children have left home. Such work to encourage women into entrepreneurship in manufacturing will be an important aspect of righting the situation.

Women and equality

The Minister was asked—

State Second Pension

18. How many more women will receive entitlements to the second state pension as a result of the Government’s pension proposals. (128967)

As a result of our pension reform proposals outlined in the Pensions Bill, which include extending credits to those caring for children up to the age of 12 and the new carers credits, about 1 million extra people will accrue state second pension entitlement, of whom approximately 90 per cent. will be women.

That is indeed welcome news, but does the Minister agree that women are overwhelmingly the poorest pensioners because of their caring responsibilities, so it is absolutely imperative that the Government act quickly? Will she reassure me that that will happen, and that her proposals will make a big difference? Will she consider including in the proposals women who retire before 2010?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the attention of the House to the impact of caring on women’s ability to build up pension entitlements for the future. One of the key aspects of the Pensions Bill that is going through Parliament is the fact that it puts as much emphasis on caring as it does on paid work. By 2010, as a result of that Bill, about 70 per cent. of all women will be able to build up a full basic state pension, compared with 30 per cent. now. Of course, more will be able to save as well, through the new personal accounts. Although I am, of course, attracted by her proposal of introducing this earlier—I hesitate, perhaps, to say—I think that we have a package that is both affordable and sustainable in the long term. We will bring in the proposals as soon as is practically possible.

Order. May I say that Ministers seem to have the habit today of courteously turning round to speak to their colleagues on the Back Benches, but they then go off microphone, which is a great disadvantage to those who are trying to record our proceedings?

Will the right hon. Lady explain what the Government are doing about the cohort of women who might have paid too much in pension contributions? Will the matter be resolved in this tax year?

The hon. Lady makes the important point that it is right that we try to resolve and address these issues. The matter is under discussion in the Department for Work and Pensions, and as soon as it is possible to make progress, we will, of course, do so.

At the moment, about 2 million carers, 90 per cent. of whom are women, are accruing entitlement to state second pension. Will the Minister tell us what effect the proposals to extend pension credits to carers will have on that group?

My hon. Friend rightly draws our attention to the impact of the reforms that are going through Parliament on not only the basic state pension, but the state second pension. As a result of the new carers credit, about another 80,000 women will be drawn into the system. They will thus be able to build up state second pension rights, as well as their basic state pension entitlement. It is right that as we do that and reduce from 39 to 30 the number of years’ contributions for women, we provide a system that is fair and, most importantly, that values care not only for young children up to the age of 12, but for the severely disabled, because many of such people’s carers do not have the opportunity to work and pay the national insurance contributions that others do.

I very much welcome what the Minister has said so far about help for women pensioners under the new proposals. However, is she aware that some 600,000 women in the UK today are low-paid, part-time workers, often with more than one job, who will not benefit because they fall below the threshold in each of their jobs? The Government say that that cannot be tackled because it is administratively difficult. Does the Minister agree that that, like so many of the hidden messages in the Chancellor’s Budget yesterday, is simply unfair? In the end, because of that administrative difficulty, it is the poorest, lowest-paid workers in our society who suffer the most under the Chancellor’s policies.

Of course the House will realise that it is the poorest, lowest-paid pensioners who gain the most from the Budget proposals announced in the House yesterday, and from the successive measures that we Labour Members have taken to boost pensioners’ incomes, to tackle pensioner poverty and to make sure that women who care and who have dependent relatives are able to build up pension entitlements. The hon. Lady draws attention to an important point: what about those women who earn less than the lower earnings limit? It is right that we think about them, too, but our pension proposals are a package, and many of those women will benefit from other reforms in the system. For example, if they are spending only a short time outside the labour market on a low income, and have perhaps one or two jobs that leave them below the earnings limit, they will benefit significantly from the reduction in the number of years that they have to contribute. They will also benefit from other measures that take them out of having to pay tax in retirement. Overall, the pension deal clearly benefits women, particularly low-paid women.

Human Trafficking

After consideration, we do not believe that the creation of the office of commissioner on human trafficking is necessary or appropriate at this time. The inter-ministerial group, of which I am a member, effectively leads and monitors cross-Government work on human trafficking, which includes the soon-to-be-launched action plan and implementation of the Council of Europe convention.

Naturally, I am disappointed by the Minister’s reply. The only country in Europe that has such a commissioner is the Netherlands. I am always keen to learn from good things in Europe, and as a result of the Netherlands experiment and the commissioner there, we have learned much more about human trafficking and the evils going on in that country. If we only had such a commissioner in this country, we could start to tackle the problem.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members on both sides of the House for their interest in and concern about the issue. I am sure that he, like me, wants effective action. Of course, we Labour Members are always happy to learn from our European partners about what measures are working, but it is important to consider what progress we can make in this country. The inter-ministerial group that looks into such issues has been in place for some time. It enables us to bring together the work being done in many Departments across Government. There is now a United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, which is the first centre of its kind in Europe, and we are bringing together all the work on the issue. We continue to make progress, but we will of course continue to look at what works elsewhere.

My hon. Friend will be aware that earlier this week there was an excellent debate on the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. She attended the entire debate, and will have heard the comparisons that were drawn between modern-day slavery—human trafficking—and slavery 200 years ago. In the light of that, will she let us know what progress has been made in ratifying the Council of Europe treaty to which she referred earlier?

My hon. Friend says that we had an extremely interesting debate, and indeed we did; it was possibly the most interesting and informative debate that I have attended in this House. He rightly draws a parallel, and I am pleased to say that the Council of Europe convention will be signed tomorrow. We will set out the action that we will take to move towards ratification. The Government take signing such conventions seriously, and have not wanted to do so until we were in a position to make rapid progress towards ratifying it. The UK human trafficking action plan will be published at the same time, and that will give hon. Members a great deal more detail on the subject.

Equal Opportunities (Ethnicity)

20. What guidance she issues to other Government Departments on the use of ethnicity as a factor in decision making. (128969)

The Commission for Racial Equality, on behalf of the Government, issues guidance to public authorities on meeting their obligations under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. The commission issued a statutory code of practice in 2002 on the steps that public authorities can and should take to meet those obligations.

My constituents who work at Her Majesty’s Prison Service office at Crown house in Corby are disgusted that the Prison Service should cite as one of the key influencing factors for trying to relocate the office to Leicester the perceived ability to recruit a more diverse work force there. In other words, my constituents are being told that they are too white and too British. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the Commission for Racial Equality issues guidelines to the Home Office and its quangos to say that the Home Office should recruit people on the basis of their ability to do the job, and not the colour of their skin?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue before with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is here on the Front Bench now. The issue, as I understand it, is that there was no alternative to relocation. The building in which the current staff worked was being sold, so there was a need to look at other locations. There was a comprehensive consultation of staff to consider a range of issues that had to be addressed, and the hon. Gentleman’s portrayal is not accurate or true, so he should reconsider his position.

May I confirm that there are lots of white British people in Leicester, and say that we welcome the relocation of those jobs to the city? On the wider point, the Minister is abolishing the Commission for Racial Equality. What discussions has she had with the Lord Chancellor about the Carter proposals, which will have a huge impact on the number of ethnic minority firms doing legal aid work?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments about the city of Leicester, and I pay tribute to his representation of all his constituents, whatever their ethnic background. Issues relating to the employment and representation of people from ethnic minorities will be taken over by the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, and guidance will continue to be available on a range of issues, including that raised by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). It is a factor to be taken into consideration, but the notion that it is the only factor in any relocation or change is nonsense.

I was surprised that the Minister did not mention the report by the Equal Opportunities Commission entitled “Moving on up? Ethnic minority women at work”, which paints a dismal picture of the situation facing black and Asian women. What specific advice has she given the Department of Trade and Industry so that it can support firms that want to break down the barriers and employ more black and Asian women, but find it difficult to do so?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am sure that if I tried to mention everything, you would have words to say about the length of my answer, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to that report, which identifies the fact that ethnic minority women, many of whom do better than their counterparts, still have great difficulty finding employment. I am pleased to say that this is not just a matter of my giving advice to the Department of Trade and Industry, as it has long had a committee that looks into such issues and seeks to ensure that exactly what he described takes place. We are beginning to see progress, although it is not fast enough, and we want to see more.

Business of the House

The business for the next week will be:

Monday 26 March—Continuation of the Budget debate. Just before that, there will be an oral statement on Zimbabwe.

Tuesday 27 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate. Just before that, there will be an oral statement on Northern Ireland.

Wednesday 28 March—Motions relating to communications allowance, notices of questions during September, Select Committee reports and parliamentary contributory pension fund, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument on casinos.

Thursday 29 March—Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the beginning of the week commencing 16 April, when we return after the Easter recess, is:

Monday 16 April—Second Reading of the Mental Health Bill [Lords].

May I remind right hon. and hon. Members that tomorrow is the closing date for submitting responses to the survey of Members’ services, which provides an important opportunity for all Members to tell the House authorities, including the House of Commons Commission, on which the shadow Leader of the House and I sit, what they think about the services provided for Members and their staff? If they wish to improve services or simply celebrate the excellence of the services that are already provided, including IT services, it is extremely important that they complete and submit the survey.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business. In particular, I welcome the statement on Zimbabwe promised for Monday. We are indeed witnessing a tragedy in that country. A failing regime is brutally repressing Zimbabwe’s future, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for listening to the House. I also welcome the announcement of a statement on Northern Ireland, and I am sure the whole House will be hopeful that a settlement can be reached and devolution restored.

Last weekend, Sir Alistair Graham told the truth about the Government’s attitude to ministerial accountability. He said that the Prime Minister

“has helped to undermine trust in politicians through the way he has handled alleged breaches of the ministerial code.”

Last week the Leader of the House said that Sir Alistair

“served his five years and we are grateful to him.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 442.]

Is he still grateful to him? On the same day as Sir Alistair’s interview, two Ministers were accused of helping a lobbying company by giving it sensitive information. May we have a debate on Ministers’ adherence to the ministerial code?

This week the Treasury’s ex-permanent secretary said that the Chancellor has a

“very cynical view of mankind and his colleagues”.

That is not just name-calling; it has serious consequences for Government policy.

Perhaps it was the Chancellor’s cynical view of mankind that made him think that he would get away with presenting yesterday’s tax con as a tax cut. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 3.5 million families will be worse off. It is a con because when the Chancellor says that he is cutting income tax, people opening their pay packets will realise that his so-called tax cut is cancelled out by stealth taxes elsewhere; it is a con because when he says he is cutting business taxes, small businesses will know that their corporation tax is going up; and it is a con because the changes to income tax will not even come into effect for another year. Will the Leader of the House confirm that when we vote next Tuesday, we will be voting for the existing income tax system—a 10p starting rate and a 22p basic rate?

Given his smoke and mirrors performance, it is perhaps no wonder that the Chancellor went quiet on the Lyons review—another tax bombshell waiting to hit hard-working families. Given his reluctance to talk about council tax, may we have a debate on the Lyons review?

When he is hitting hard-working families, the Chancellor likes to talk about his tax credits, but Sarah Walker, his director of benefits and credits, says that officials do not expect claimants to understand their tax credit

“because it can be quite complicated”.

It is no wonder that four in 10 of those eligible do not claim it, but how typical of the Chancellor that he takes people’s money with one hand and gives it back with the other, but only if they have filled in a form first. May we have a debate about the chaos of the tax credit system?

Before the Budget, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister gave keynote speeches on increasing choice in the NHS, but it is the Chancellor’s Stalinist desire for central state control that has caused the cuts in NHS services. Last weekend, 12,000 doctors turned out on the streets of London to protest against the Government. On Monday, the Secretary of State for Health refused to apologise to them. Yesterday in his Budget speech, the Chancellor referred to himself 96 times, yet he mentioned the NHS just once, and that was to re-announce what he said three years ago. May we have a debate on the crisis in the NHS?

I am sure that, like Macavity, the Chancellor and the Leader of the House will have an alibi or two to spare, but to describe yesterday’s Budget as a tax-cutting Budget was worthy of propaganda from Stalin’s Politburo. Was not yesterday’s tax cut yet another tax con for Britain’s hard-working families?

Those are tired old lines that should have been used yesterday.

On Zimbabwe, I am glad that the right hon. Lady welcomes the proposed statement. She is absolutely right in what she says about the way in which that once wonderful country has collapsed as a result of the mismanagement, and much worse, of President Mugabe. One figure tells it all: life expectancy has shifted in recent years from the age of 60 to 34.

I am glad that the right hon. Lady welcomes the statement on Northern Ireland, too. Let me make it clear again, as I did last Thursday, that the choice for the Northern Ireland parties on 26 March—next Monday—is either devolution or dissolution. There can and will be no legislation to alter that date. Her Majesty’s Government believe that the people of Northern Ireland want to see the institutions restored and very much hope that the parties will seize the opportunity of restoration on 26 March.

On Alistair Graham, I pointed out last week that it was perfectly normal for the term of office of the Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to end after one term, and that has indeed been the consistent practice. In respect of trust in politics, I will send the right hon. Lady interesting opinion survey material which shows that in recent years trust in politicians has actually increased. It is particularly high where people know and appreciate the work of their own politicians. That may have something to do with the fact that we have been returned to office in three successive general elections.

The right hon. Lady then wittered on about the Chancellor and a tax-adding Budget. She has obviously not read the Red Book, or the National Audit Office endorsement of the figures in it, because if she looks down the figures in table 1.2, to take one of the many tables, she will see that hard-working families have in fact benefited significantly as a result of my right hon. Friend’s Budget. She talks about 3.5 million families. Since she raises the issue of tax credits, let me tell her that their introduction has transformed the lives of millions of hard-working families. Moreover, it has ended the genuine and serious evil under the Conservatives whereby people were trapped in unemployment and unable to get out of that trap because it would cost them more to go back to work than to stay on benefit.

I also say to the right hon. Lady that what we have had from the Chancellor—who has been a brilliant Chancellor over the past 10 years, setting this country on a course, from bottom among the G7 countries to second only to the United States—is sensible prudence in being able to balance moderate increases in public spending against what the country can afford. I contrast that with the utter failure of the shadow Chancellor in recent months. He says that he is going to read the riot act to his shadow Cabinet colleagues to avoid their making further spending plans. The shadow Transport Secretary evidently did not hear that, because he went on to announce just recently that he was going to spend an extra £14 billion on building a new rail link from Scotland to London.

Conservative Members do not like my mentioning this, but if one adds up Conservative spending plans and then takes account of their pledges to cut taxes, one sees that Conservative economic policies simply do not add up one little jot, whereas Labour’s economic policies for the past 10 years, and going forward, not only added up but produced unparalleled prosperity, investment in public services and jobs.

Finally, the right hon. Lady asked me about a debate on the national health service. I would be delighted to have such a debate any time. Part of that debate can be about the huge improvement in East Berkshire primary care trust in the right hon. Lady’s constituency. She forgot to welcome the fact that yesterday there was a £38 million increase in spending for her PCT, announced as part of the £8 billion increase for the health service.

May I also thank the Leader of the House for the innovation of announcing statements in advance?

In the Budget statement, the Chancellor said:

“Nearly 2 million people will see their income tax bills cut in half, and take home 90p of every pound they earn.”—[Official Report, 9 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 188.]

Of course, that was when he introduced the 10p rate in 1999. He has now removed it by sleight of hand. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) did not notice, but we did. The effect is to increase higher marginal tax rates for the low paid, discourage work and increase in-work poverty. Following the Budget, can we have a debate on inequality, because inequality is increasing in this country, as the Young Foundation report on rural poverty—often hidden in this country—pointed out yet again? It is time that we had a debate on the effects of what the Chancellor is doing.

May we also have a debate on the position of small businesses? The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) mentioned small businesses, but did not refer to the fact that small businesses are facing a £900 million hike in corporation tax. Earlier, we heard the extraordinary, preposterous argument from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that that would somehow benefit small businesses, who would be delighted to pay £900 million more, because they might be able to claim some of it back in allowances. The increase will hurt small businesses, and we should have a debate.

Last week, I asked whether we could have a statement on the Lyons report. The Leader of the House said that that would be encapsulated in the Budget debate. However, the Budget statement did not mention council tax once. It mentioned the Lyons report, but only in respect of industrial property. Council tax is the tax that has the biggest impact on pensioners and those on fixed incomes. After long cogitation, the Lyons report says that the answer to reforming council tax is to carry on with council tax. The only answer to council tax, however, is to scrap it. Can we have a debate on that?

Lastly, can we have a debate on surveillance? The Leader of the House may have noticed the innovative plans by the Conservative-run Ealing borough council to put spy cameras in tin cans to catch people putting out wheelie bins early. Obviously, for Ealing borough council, beans means fines. May we have a debate on whether Big Brother is getting out of hand?

I award the hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House’s prize for a very good line: far better than the ones that we get from the Conservative Front Bench.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, is about to announce an inquiry into issues of surveillance. I hope that he will ensure that the activities of Conservative-controlled Ealing borough council and its spy cameras in tin cans are given a wider audience in evidence to his Select Committee.

On the more serious matters of the Budget, the hon. Gentleman needs to look not only at what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor spelled out in great detail in his excellent Budget statement yesterday but at what is in the Red Book and the National Audit Office endorsement of the Red Book figures. He will see that small businesses, and business overall, have benefited, as have the majority of working people, as has become clear from the individual examples given by many newspapers, not necessarily Labour-supporting, in their Budget analysis today.

The hon. Gentleman has every opportunity to debate the issue of the Lyons report and the effect on small businesses in the next three days of debate on the Budget. As I am sure that you will confirm, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that is absolutely in order. I am interested that the Liberals have decided to lead with their chin on their demand to abolish the council tax. We all accept that it is not a particularly popular tax, but the one thing that can be said about it is that it is infinitely better than the alternative so often trumpeted by the Liberal Democrats—a local income tax.

The hon. Gentleman has failed to read what Lyons says about the local income tax on page 272 of his report. For the sake of greater accuracy, let me read an extract. The report states that a local income tax

“might mean substantial increases in tax for the working population.”

The hon. Gentleman sheds crocodile tears for small businesses. The report says:

“Particular attention should be given to the likely costs to employers, and particularly small business, of administering locally-variable income tax rates.”

If ever we had a local income tax, a Liberal Democrat Government would not last a week.

Order. It seems to have become the custom for Front-Bench exchanges during business questions to be somewhat amply padded. I hope that questions hereafter, if I am to fit them in before the resumption of the Budget debate, will be leaner and fitter.

I will do my best, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My right hon. Friend will have read the very serious stories about the stabbing to death of a young boy in the streets of London. He may also be aware that three people were killed in Greater Manchester in entirely separate incidents involving the use of knives. It is a fact that in our society the knife is probably the most dangerous weapon of choice when it comes to serious injury or death. May we have a serious debate about how we can begin to roll back this menace in our society, and how we can change the culture that dictates that the knife and the gun are acceptable and tell our young people that it is necessary to carry knives to be safe and secure in our streets at night?

The whole House will share my right hon. Friend’s concern, and we will of course seek an opportunity to ensure that the issue can be debated properly in the House.

In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) yesterday in Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister said that tomorrow the Government would

“sign the convention on human trafficking.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 809.]

Apart from the fact that it has taken months for that to happen, for no apparent good reason the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) said this morning that measures would be taken and that the treaty would then be ratified. It is, of course, the measures and the ratification that matter, not the signing of the convention. May we have a debate on human trafficking in Government time, so that we can hear from a Minister what measures will be taken and when ratification will take place?

The hon. Gentleman knows that a standard process has always been followed in respect of international treaties and conventions: a signature is followed by a pause to ensure that the necessary measures can be taken to ensure that it is ratified and comes into force. That is what has happened with this convention. As for opportunities for debate, if the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the issue he has an opportunity to raise it on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that yesterday the Home Office’s Advisory Board on Naturalisation and Integration held a seminar at the British Museum on the introduction of the new tests in English language and life in the United Kingdom for applicants for indefinite leave to remain? Many Members have anxieties about the implementation of the regulations. Might time be found for a debate along the lines of the seminar, so that Members can be better informed about the regulations?

I will certainly consider the issue sympathetically. My hon. Friend and I share a particular interest in ensuring that adequate resources are available for the teaching of English as a second language. The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), recently announced improvements in the system, and, as my hon. Friend will know, we have trebled the resources for English as a second language in recent years.

I am sure that the whole House shares my sense of shock at the loss of two Royal Navy submariners on HMS Tireless.

Although the Leader of the House did not refer to an upcoming statement on what we hope will be happy news about the ordering, at long last, of the two aircraft carriers, if and when such a statement is forthcoming will he seek to ensure that it is in sufficiently broad terms to allow us to consider also the future size of the Type 45 frigate force and the Astute submarine force, which will be part and parcel of any fleet package centred on the new aircraft carriers?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole House in expressing his condolences for the loss of those two brave sailors who were killed. We send our sympathy to their families and colleagues. Those of us who have been on board submarines know what a potentially dangerous environment it is, and the safety record of the Royal Navy overall is second to none.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that Defence questions will take place on Monday, and also that we are planning a day’s debate on defence towards the end of April.

Does the Leader of the House welcome early-day motion 1137, in support of Anti-Fascist Fortnight?

[That this House warmly welcomes the Anti-Fascist Fortnight being organised by Searchlight between 24th March and 7th April 2007; commends the trades unions and other organisations who are supporting this initiative; believes that the British National Party promotes the politics of hate and bigotry and stands opposed to the creation of a harmonious and cohesive society; and believes that the Anti-Fascist Fortnight will be a chance for all decent people, particularly at a community level, to celebrate the positive diversity of British society.]

A campaign by Searchlight, the Daily Mirror, trade unions and many other organisations has organised the “Hope not Hate” tour to oppose the message of poison and bigotry peddled by the British National party and other far-right groups.

Yes, I greatly welcome that. I also welcome an article in today’s Daily Mirror which contains information about two men from my constituency, Khadim Hussain and Ali Akbar Khan, who gave years of brave service for the British forces in the last world war, as their fathers had in the first world war. Hundreds of thousands of people whom the BNP and their allies now wish to denigrate gave their lives to save this country from fascism. We all need to remember that.

May we have a debate on the workings of the Electoral Commission, which seems to be seriously overstretching itself at taxpayers’ expense? To encourage the Leader of the House, may I refer to a document entitled “Guidance for candidates and agents” and subtitled “Local government elections in England, 3 May 2007”? It stretches to 115 glossy pages, and is being sent to every candidate and every agent. It is a total waste of taxpayers’ money. We need to get the commission back under control, or scrap it.

I met the chairman and deputy chief executive of the Electoral Commission just two days ago to discuss the commission’s plans to ensure, as I think is the will of the House—it is certainly in recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Phillips committee and the Constitutional Affairs Committee—that the operations of the Electoral Commission should be slimmed down and focused on the core work of regulation. That is, I think, now accepted by the chairman.

The Leader of the House will recall that on 1 February I raised with him the case of my constituent Rafiq Gorgi, whose wife was killed in Saudi Arabia. He promised to raise it with the Foreign Secretary. Despite numerous attempts, the Saudi Arabian Government refuse to give Mr. Gorgi a copy of the police report on his wife’s death. I think that that is appalling, in view of our very close relationship with Saudi Arabia and the work done by the Leader of the House in setting up the haj committee when he was Foreign Secretary. May we please have an urgent debate on our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the way in which it treats our citizens?

It is plain from what my right hon. Friend says that the Gorgi family have not received the service that they are entitled to expect, notwithstanding the great assistance that they have had from consular officials of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I will certainly raise the matter again with the Foreign Secretary. In the meantime, I hope very much that my right hon. Friend will find an opportunity to raise the matter either in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment.

There is growing concern, both in this country and abroad, about Japan’s efforts to use aid to countries to encourage them to vote in favour of resuming commercial whaling. Given that the International Whaling Commission meets at the beginning of May, can we have a debate about international whaling before then?

The British Government have taken a resolute approach on whaling. I will certainly ensure that the hon. Lady’s comments are conveyed to my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I will seek—although I cannot promise—an opportunity for a debate.

I congratulate the Leader of the House on his innovation of announcing statements in advance, not least because I called for it four weeks ago. While I am on a roll, may I suggest to my right hon. Friend that when debating statutory instruments the House sometimes covers itself in glory because it debates them properly, but sometimes an hour and a half simply is not enough time without the opportunity to amend a statutory instrument? This week the House of Commons has not covered itself in glory, although I entirely support the statutory instrument that was carried yesterday.

I always listen to constructive suggestions made from all parts of the House and try to implement them as quickly as possible. However, I am not sure that I can respond as positively on this occasion to my hon. Friend’s request as I have done in the past. As I said last week, the key difficulty is in scheduling the many demands on time, especially in respect of statutory instruments. I should also point out that when there was a discussion in Committee the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said that he had notified the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) of his desire for it to be debated on the Floor of the House and that she had replied after reflection that

“the official Opposition would make no such request.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee 12 DL, 15 March 2007; c. 18.]

It was also made clear that there was a desire for that matter to be raised Upstairs.

May we have a debate on the support that is given to the armed forces and their families? My constituent, Karen Webster, has set up an organisation called “Support our Soldiers”. One of its requests is for a comprehensive free postal system for armed forces on active service and their families back home. I am sure that the Leader of the House understands that if post were constantly to-ing and fro-ing that would provide a good boost to soldiers’ morale and reassure family members back home. This issue is of great importance to our soldiers, who risk their lives each day in the service of this country, and to their families, so may we have a debate on it?

All of us who have family or friends serving in the armed forces are well aware of the pressures on the families, especially when their loved ones are abroad on active service. I cannot give a precise answer to the question asked, but Defence questions will be held on Monday and there will be a defence debate before the end of April, at which I hope the hon. Gentleman will raise that constructive suggestion with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

In the name of efficiency targets, Tory-controlled Leicestershire county council plans to levy charges for travel to denominational schools, which is a major blow to the parents of the 1,600 children affected, not least the Catholic families in North-West Leicestershire whose children attend the excellent and good-value De Lisle secondary school in Loughborough. May we have a debate on school transport to examine how best to protect and finance the right of children to attend Catholic schools without that being dependent on the means of their families?

I hope that my hon. Friend has the good fortune to secure an Adjournment debate on that—perhaps in Westminster Hall. The problem he raises is a consequence of Conservative Administrations, both national and local. The Conservatives say one thing but we know what the old Tories always do—they cut, and they cut, and they cut. That was what they did when they were in power for 18 years. We have increased the sums put into education so much that the amount per head has almost doubled in the past 10 years.

To follow on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), may we have an urgent debate on welfare services for Her Majesty’s armed forces, especially telephone services for troops in theatre? Does the Leader of the House share my concern about the fact that Iraqi detainees are allowed to use a phone card for an hour-plus each week to call their families while incarcerated, yet our own troops—brave men and women—are given only 30 minutes a week in which to call home?

I do not think that what the hon. Gentleman says is necessarily correct, but in any event I refer to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is anxious to do everything that he can to ensure that there is the maximum welfare, particularly for troops serving abroad.

The Mental Health Bill has completed its passage through the Lords, and that passage has not been uncontentious. It is due to come to the Commons for Second Reading. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Bill is referred to a special Standing Committee so that written and oral evidence can be given to Committee members on the issues that were of concern to the Lords before the Bill passes on to the full Committee?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we have replaced special Standing Committees with Public Bill Committees. We have agreed that it will not be the practice for Bills that were “Lords starters” to have the equivalent of a Select Committee hearing at the beginning. However, I will think about my hon. Friend’s suggestion and discuss it with Ministers and my business-manager colleagues.

May I ask again for a debate on trains, principally so that I can highlight the concerns of Milton Keynes commuters who can no longer get on a Virgin train during peak hours? The last time I asked for such a debate, the Leader of the House said that he had been on many trains that had stopped at Milton Keynes during peak hours. Now that he has seen the timetables that I sent him and has realised that no such trains exist, will he reconsider?

Following the break-up of the railways—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] The hon. Gentleman forgot to send me the timetable for Silverlink trains as well. When I went through it, I discovered that there is a train about every 15 or 20 minutes from Milton Keynes to London. As on the economy, education and health, commuters in Milton Keynes now have a better service than they had 10 years ago.

I have raised previously with my right hon. Friend the case of Gareth Myatt. The inquest into his death opened and adjourned again pending an appeal to the High Court for judicial review. Gareth’s mother says that as yet no official regret has been expressed at her son’s death. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that she gets a letter expressing real regret at the loss of that very young boy?

We all share my hon. Friend’s concern and distress, and I will do my best to ensure that what she seeks is achieved.

As many people know, the North sea plays a vital role in our energy supplies of oil and gas and many jobs in north-east Scotland are linked to it, yet it is facing great difficulty in attracting investment because of rising costs and increasing difficulties in production. Will the Leader of the House ensure that during the debate on the Budget the Government explain why they have denied to the North sea the cut in corporation tax that large business on the mainland will receive, and why they have therefore not made the North sea more attractive to investors?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the overall tax regime for oil exploration and lifting is a different one from that for corporations generally. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it clear yesterday that he had no plans to change the oil tax regime. The hon. Gentleman is right that to say that there has been a decline in production from the North sea, which has been unexpectedly sharp, but there was buoyant revenue and production in recent years under the same tax regime, so he cannot suggest that the tax regime has been the cause of the decline.

May we have a debate on the need to educate the British public on the dangers of exposure to asbestos? May I also draw to the attention of the Leader of the House early-day motion 1179?

[That this House welcomes the Mesothelioma Framework, launched on Action Mesothelioma Day, 27th February 2007, and urges the NHS to implement the guidelines in the Framework as soon as possible; regrets that 37 per cent. of the British public are unaware that exposure to asbestos can cause cancer and that 65 per cent. have never heard of mesothelioma; further regrets that bereaved families report that legal procedures followed by the coroner constitute a distressing chain of events at an extremely difficult time; and welcomes the recommendations contained in the British Lung Foundation's report An Unnatural Death for making this process more sympathetic to the relatives left behind.]

It highlights the facts that 37 per cent. of the British public are unaware that exposure to asbestos can cause cancer and that 65 per cent. have never heard of mesothelioma. We need a debate on the dangers of being exposed to asbestos, not only for workers but for their families, too. Anything that my right hon. Friend can do to educate the British public to stay away from asbestos unless they have protective equipment would be extremely welcome.

I commend my hon. Friend for his efforts in that regard and for his early-day motion. He is right to draw attention to the alarming lack of information that many members of the public have about the often lethal dangers of asbestos and the diseases associated with it. We will certainly look for an opportunity to debate the matter.

The Leader of the House is a distinguished and experienced parliamentarian, but may I request that he devote more of his time at business questions to replying about the business for the following week than to political rhetoric?

He assured me on a number of occasions in the past that there would be a debate on Zimbabwe, and while I welcome that there will be a statement next Monday will he assure me again that there will be a full debate? We are partially responsible for the chaos and brutality in Zimbabwe. I believe that we should have a full day’s debate in Government time on the subject to enable those who are experienced in Rhodesian affairs to contribute fully to a debate to influence Government.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his flattery. I wondered what was coming next, and I was not disappointed.

Ditto.

We could not fit in a debate on Zimbabwe before the recess, for reasons that I am happy to explain to the hon. Gentleman in more detail outside the House, but the Foreign Secretary and I both thought that a statement by a Foreign Office Minister on Monday was the least we could do for the House. I promise the hon. Gentleman that we continue to try to identify a day—it will now have to be after the recess—in Government time for a debate on Zimbabwe.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming Thames Water’s announcement of the investment of £2 billion to clean up the Rivers Thames and Lea in my constituency? Some 52 million cu m of waste, which destroys the environment of our rivers and kills our marine life, will thereby be diverted. Will my right hon. Friend make Government time for a debate on the environmental quality of our rivers?

I, too, am glad to welcome this investment. I know extremely well the area that my hon. Friend represents, and there will be a good opportunity to express his interest in this issue during Monday’s Budget debate—after all, it is about the investment of public money—which will be opened by our right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary.

The right hon. Gentleman is a strong and highly respected Leader of the House. Will he reflect on the answer that he gave earlier to the House concerning the draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007, which were not debated by a single Back Bencher? They were taken in a small Committee Room with no television cameras; moreover, there were not enough seats for Members, and officials had to sit on the floor. Will the Leader of the House consider making a written statement on this issue next week, or perhaps meeting me to discuss it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, too, for the compliments that he has paid to me today and yesterday, when he gave evidence to the Modernisation Committee. As I have said, there are far more demands for debates on the Floor of the House than there is time available, and that has always been the case. Ultimately, the Government are responsible for such business and where it transpires, but I point out to him that the decision to take that business Upstairs was agreed across the Benches by the official Opposition.

I was very proud to be elected to this House in 2005, particularly given that I joined a 98-strong group of Labour women MPs. Does my right hon. Friend think it time for a debate on how to increase the number of female MPs in this House, and does he share my disappointment at the fact that so far this year the Conservative party has selected 17 men and no women?

A debate on this issue would be very important. I note that more people called Mark have been selected as Conservative candidates than have women.

This week has been the tale of two anniversaries. It is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, and we had a debate on slavery in this House, and there was a prime ministerial apology. It is also the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, but there was no prime ministerial apology and no debate in this House. When are we going to have such a debate in this House, led by the Prime Minister, in which he comes to the Dispatch Box and says the three words that everybody wants to hear him say on the war in Iraq: “I am sorry?”

We had a debate just a few weeks ago on Iraq, which was led, as is normal, by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. We also had a very full statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Iraq just a couple of weeks ago.

As well as the unfolding tragedy in Zimbabwe, there is a second crisis in Africa, in Darfur. The Government in Khartoum have had weeks in which to agree to the introduction of the joint UN-AU force, but, sadly, it appears that no progress is being made. Will the Leader of the House agree to an early debate on this issue, so that the people of this country, through their representatives, can make known their views on the need to get that force into place as soon as possible, so that the crisis can at least be abated?

I note my hon. Friend’s concern and I commend him for it. I cannot promise a debate in the very near future, but International Development questions will take place next Wednesday, and I very much hope that he can raise this crucial issue with my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary then.

May we have a debate on the performance of the local government ombudsman? The ombudsman who covers the East Riding of Yorkshire, of which my constituency is part, is overwhelmed with complaints and is unable to deal with them properly. A three-person team has been set up to deal with the backlog, but at the rate currently being applied in these extreme circumstances it will take more than a year even to start processing many of the complaints. Without proper coverage, we are letting down people with genuine complaints.

If the hon. Gentleman is lucky, he might get an Adjournment debate. However, it is very important that he say who controls that council, because it is certainly not an excellent Labour group.

May we have a debate on flexible working and job sharing, both of which have been hugely successful for thousands of workers throughout the UK, particularly single parents and carers? A debate on job sharing would also allow us to discuss the position of those Members of the House who believe it possible to combine holding down a job in this place with running a country of more than 5 million people—a view that I regard as a gross insult to the people of Scotland.

I commend my hon. Friend on his ingenuity. I would be very happy to see a debate on job sharing; indeed, there is every opportunity for him to raise these points during the Budget debate, bearing it in mind that we have made flexible working such an important aspect of our economic success.

May we have a debate on the state of the youth justice system? This House has talked briefly about the tragic consequences of youth-on-youth crime in recent weeks, but the reality is that the youth justice system is creaking and unable to cope with the current number of young offenders. The secure estate for young offenders is full and contingency measures are being looked at. The community orders given to young offenders—two thirds of them will get such orders—are being routinely breached. Two thirds of drug rehab orders were breached last year, and 50 per cent. of intensive supervision and surveillance orders were breached. So may we have a serious debate in this House on the youth justice system, which is increasingly the gateway into the justice system for many offenders? I am convinced that, as it stands, it is not set up to succeed.

We all share concerns about young people who drift into crime and disorder. As the Minister who was responsible for setting up the major reforms to youth justice, I can say that, although they have not worked perfectly, they are infinitely better than the utter shambles revealed by the Audit Commission in a 1996 report. That report formed the basis of the very important reforms that we introduced, including significant expansion of secure accommodation for young people and much-improved and enhanced orders. These are difficult youngsters to deal with, and there is no question but that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has further improvements in mind; but my God, compared with where we were a dozen years ago, the situation is infinitely better.

On Tuesday, between 60 and 80 youths from two rival gangs rampaged down Lordship lane, in my constituency, and the result was four knife stabbings. Members in all parts of the House doubtless want to debate gang culture. Will the Leader of the House make time for that important debate? Stiff sentences are important, but all good heads need to get together to make a sustained, not just a short-term, effort to solve the gang culture problem.

We all share the great concern that the hon. Lady has highlighted about these gangs. For our part, the Government, along with local authorities, are doing everything that we can. I hope that she is fortunate in gaining an opportunity to debate that constituency issue on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall. I cannot promise anything, but we will also look for other opportunities to debate the matter more widely in the House.

Order. May I now please appeal for extreme brevity? I am sure that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) will set a good example.

May we please have a statement from the Chancellor next week explaining his fetish for giving to the working poor with one hand and taking away with the other, so that those of us who wish to do so can argue that people on the minimum wage earning less than £10,000 a year should pay no tax at all?

The hon. Gentleman is a real radical. I am sometimes tempted to send him an application form to join a much better party that would suit his principles—the Labour party. If he looks at the Government’s record, he will see that we have been implementing the policies that he seeks.

This week we learned that in the 12 months to April 2006 Cambridgeshire constabulary had to pay £800,000 of taxpayers’ money for interpretation and translation services, which is having a huge impact on policing and the burden on Cambridgeshire taxpayers. When may we have a debate in Government time on the impact across the country of the cost—I believe it is £21 million—of interpretation and translation services and the fact that that money is not therefore going into front-line policing?

There has been a significant increase in funding for the police, including extra grant for Cambridgeshire constabulary. Many police forces face those costs and there was every opportunity to debate the police grant when it was put before the House about three weeks ago.

Further to the question put by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), the overwhelming majority of small enterprises are innovative and entrepreneurial, but as they do not have heavy plant and equipment they will not benefit from the increase in capital allowances. Instead, they will be clobbered by the increase in small business corporation tax. What does the Leader of the House say to those small business organisations that all predict that wealth will be destroyed by those measures?

I simply do not accept that for a second and I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at the record over the past 10 years of small business formation, the increase in jobs generated by small businesses and the prospects for small businesses in the future.

When the Leader of the House was asked about the Lyons report, he had some entirely justifiable fun with the Liberal Democrats’ proposals. However, many pensioners in my constituency and many others on fixed incomes want to know what the Government’s reaction will be to the Lyons report. When may we have a statement or a debate on that?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government issued a statement when the Lyons report was published yesterday and, in the intervening period before the matter is debated, I hope that everybody has an opportunity to read that thorough report. The hon. Gentleman is of the party of the poll tax and he should reflect on the fact that the council tax may be unpopular, but most of the alternatives to it, including the Liberals’ local income tax, would be infinitely worse. What Lyons has proposed for consideration includes, on the face of it, some sensible suggestions for improvements in the long term in the way in which the system operates.

I suspect that you are drawing business questions to a close, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I wish to tell the House by way of a point of order, as it were, that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer very much regrets that he will not be able to make the opening of the Budget debate in a moment because he is in a meeting involving representatives from Northern Ireland political parties in the hope—as I expressed, and I know that it met with the approbation of all Members of this House—that agreement can be reached by Monday 26 May and that the new arrangements may come into force.

Orders of the Day

WAYS AND MEANS

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [21 March].

AMENDMENT OF THE LAW

That it is expedient to amend the law with respect to the National Debt and the public revenue and to make further provision in connection with finance; but this Resolution does not extend to the making of any amendment with respect to value added tax so as to provide—

(a) for zero-rating or exempting any supply, acquisition or importation otherwise than by—

(i) zero-rating or exempting supplies of goods which are, or are to be, subjected to a fiscal or other warehousing regime; or

(ii) zero-rating or exempting supplies of services on or in relation to such goods;

(b) for refunding any amount of tax otherwise than to persons constructing or converting buildings in cases where the construction or conversion is not in the course or furtherance of a business;

(c) for varying any rate at which that tax is at any time chargeable; or

(d) for relief other than relief applying to goods or whatever description or services of whatever description—[Mr. Gordon Brown.]

Question again proposed.

Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

I of course accept what the Leader of the House has just said about the absence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. What is slightly more surprising is the absence of any Labour Members in large numbers to defend the Budget—[Interruption.] Well, I suppose that there are some here, but not really the quality.

It does not take long for this Chancellor’s Budgets to unravel, but even by his standards, this one was a record. It was presented to this House 24 hours ago as a tax-cutting Budget, but it took less than 24 minutes to work out that everything that he was giving with one hand he was taking back with the other. It is here in the Red Book—£8 billion given away by cutting the standard rate, and then £7 billion clawed back by abolishing the 10p rate, which he introduced, and £1 billion clawed back by the national insurance hike. This was not a tax cut: it was a con trick. The public have seen straight through it.

The Chancellor said in his speech that he wanted

“to ensure working families are better off”.—[Official Report, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 828.]

But when the Institute for Fiscal Studies looked last night at the small print, it was clear that 3.5 million working families mainly the lowest paid, will be worse off as a result of this Budget. Pretty much anyone earning below £18,000 a year will see their income tax bills rise because of the abolition of the 10p rate, which more than cancels out the cut in the basic rate. That is a tax rise on the lowest paid and that lot over there cheered it.

The Chancellor says, of course, “Don’t worry, they get the money back in tax credits.” Leave aside the sense of taking money in taxes from the wages of low-income families and then asking them to fill a form so that they can get it back, and leave aside the fact that only 60 per cent. of those eligible take up the working tax credit, because it is so complicated and poorly administered—there are still millions of low-income families who lose out. For a start, there are the ones without any children. For example, take a young couple who have not had kids yet, but are wondering how they will ever get on the housing ladder on their salaries. If they are each earning £13,000 a year, their income tax bill just got £224 higher. Then take two-earner couples on lower incomes with kids. Say one earns £7,500 part-time and the other earns £18,000 and they have one child. Even after tax credits, they will be £234 worse off—[Interruption.] Well, Labour MPs will have to put that on their leaflets at the next general election.

I may take that opportunity. Can the hon. Gentleman set the tone for his contribution today—I will be more than happy to put it in my leaflet if he does—by confirming to the House and the wider British public that he will at least match the commitments of this Government?

There is no tax cut, sadly, and that is the whole point. If one looks in the Red Book, it is not there. If there is a vote on the reduction in the standard rate of tax, which will not take place until after the next Budget, we would be happy to support it. By the way, for those who are wondering how we will vote next week on the second resolution on income tax, which states that for next year the starting rate will be 10 per cent., the basic rate will be 22 per cent. and the higher rate will be 40 per cent., I can confirm that we will vote for it. I wish to put that on the record—[Interruption.] That is the present structure of income tax. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) laughs: he probably does not realise what the present structure of income tax is.

To clarify the situation, will the hon. Gentleman give a commitment today to the House that the Tories will at least match the spending commitments outlined in the Budget?

I am happy to match the spending commitments on education because the Chancellor is sharing the proceeds of growth. That is the extraordinary overnight story of this stealthy Budget. The Chancellor taxed the low paid to fund his con trick on middle England. He is, in effect, the sheriff of Nottingham.

Did my hon. Friend notice the subtle adjustment in the withdrawal rate of tax credit in respect of increases in income—a fact that the Chancellor failed to draw to the House’s attention yesterday?

My right hon. Friend, who was of course a Treasury Minister, has been eagle-eyed and he is right. The increase in the tax credit withdrawal rate will raise £600 million for the Exchequer. Like him, I missed that in the Chancellor’s speech.

As I was saying, the Chancellor taxed the low paid to fund his con trick on middle England. That is how desperate he has become. We can see why. He is attacked by those who have worked closest with him. He is less popular even than this Prime Minister. His tax and spend experiment is now deemed a total failure. If people want to know what this Chancellor would be like in No. 10, they should look no further than yesterday’s Budget—stealthy, sneaky and unable to tell the truth. He is not the man who can restore public trust in Government, because he is the reason why people do not believe a word that they say any more.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of my status and his. When commenting on the Chancellor, will my hon. Friend remind the House that the Chancellor failed to mention the phasing out of the 10p band, which is just the sort of omission that gave us the dodgy dossier on Iraq?

My right hon. and learned Friend returns to the familiar theme of Iraq, and perhaps we should save it for a later debate. However, he is right to say that people at home listening to the Chancellor must have assumed that they would be better off as a result of a tax-cutting Budget. What the Chancellor did not tell them was that it was a con trick—that the cut in the standard rate of income tax would be more than paid for by the removal of the 10p starting rate and the increase in the national insurance band. It was a classic stealthy trick.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), who has one of the seats that we shall take at the next election.

The hon. Gentleman will be lucky! This Budget will help me keep my seat. The Chancellor made important changes to the child care element of tax credits, and women will be able to claim probably up to £10 more a week for child care. That will help them go out to work, and it is one of the good proposals that the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned.

If the people involved earn less than £18,000, their income tax bill will go up when they return to work. Perhaps the hon. Lady will make that point to her constituents at the next general election, because we certainly will.

On Tuesday, Andrew Turnbull, the man who has worked more closely with the Chancellor than anyone else—

Well, there is no point in the hon. Gentleman sneering at the man who was Cabinet Secretary in the Government whom he has supported for the past 10 years. The former Cabinet Secretary said of the Chancellor that

“he has a very cynical view of mankind”.

On Wednesday, we got the proof. No wonder the thinking half of the Labour party is searching for someone—anyone!—who can stop the Chancellor.

Whom are their hopes pinned on? Sadly, they are no longer pinned on the Education Secretary. He had his moment in the sun at the time of the last party conference, but now he has retired to the calmer waters of the Deputy Leader contest. The party’s hopes are, of course, pinned on the young Environment Secretary, who speaks to us on Monday. From the very top of the party, they want him to run.

The Environment Secretary admitted recently in a newspaper interview that his friends call him “Brains” after the character in “Thunderbirds”. Let me just say that, as he sits on Tracy island, he is leaving it a little late to launch his international rescue of the Labour party.

I represent one of the poorest constituencies in the country, where 22 per cent. of the population is under the age of 16. My constituents are benefiting enormously from this Labour Government. Unlike members of the Conservative party, they are not interested in beauty contests for the leadership of any party, or of the country. They want a Labour Government delivering tax credits and benefits for children and families.

Perhaps the hon. Lady will explain to her constituents that the Budget announced yesterday increases the income tax on the lowest paid people in this country. In a tax-neutral Budget, the Chancellor has redistributed income from the lowest paid to those on middle incomes. That is a con trick, but it is not the impression that people will have got when they listened to the right hon. Gentleman yesterday.

The hon. Gentleman has given a commitment today that he will match the Government’s planned public expenditure. His colleagues are going round the country talking incessantly about cuts in taxes of £21.5 billion—[Interruption.]

To be honest, I did not fully understand that intervention. The hon. Gentleman appeared to be saying that the Opposition have a policy of sharing the proceeds of economic growth.

If the hon. Gentleman looked at the spending plans announced by the Chancellor yesterday, he will see that the growth rate of spending has been dropped below the growth rate of the economy. That is something that those of us who turn up for Treasury questions know that the Chancellor has been saying for a year could not be done. However, he did it on Budget day, and I shall deal with his spending plans later.

I turn now to the section of the Budget that talked about the environment.

I will give way in a little while, but I want to make progress.

It is clear that the Chancellor did not speak to the Environment Secretary when he was putting together the environment part of the Budget, but perhaps that is not surprising. Andrew Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, gave us a bit of an insight into the Chancellor’s attitude—

I am sorry? I thought that we just heard from the Labour Front Bench that we should not talk about the environment. Is that right? I thought that this was the new green Labour party.

The former Cabinet Secretary described the Chancellor’s attitude as follows: