House of Commons
Thursday 29 March 2007
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
A single-earner household on male average earnings with two children will pay 20.5 per cent. of their gross income in tax in 2007-08. That is 0.7 per cent. lower than it was in 1997-98. As a result of the Budget, that will fall a further half a percentage point to 20 per cent. in 2009-10—far lower than in 1997.
The vast majority of people will be better off—[Interruption.] more than 20 million households will be better off as a result of the Budget. I read the hon. Gentleman’s comments in the Budget debate. He wants tax cuts of £8.4 billion per annum. At the same time he wants more police officers, more money for hospitals, more money for schools and more money for transport. Will he now tell us whether he supports our public spending plans?
A significant part of the big rise in taxation in recent years has been rises in council tax. This year, Hammersmith and Fulham residents are set to be the only people in Britain to get lower council tax bills. Does the Chancellor support the new Conservative council, which has delivered a real tax cut, rather than the tax con delivered by him?
The Labour Government’s funding of councils is what is keeping council tax lower. The hon. Gentleman is a member of the No Turning Back group and the Cornerstone group. They want £40 billion in tax cuts. Will he therefore tell us how he can meet his proposals for more schools, more youth centres and more sports facilities? Does he support our spending plans?
Average earnings in my constituency have increased because of the dramatic transformation in employment. As a former schoolteacher in my early days, I was dismayed to discover that pupils whom I had taught were still on the dole five or six years, or even longer, after they had left school. Now that that situation has been transformed, will the Chancellor ensure that opportunities are given to people so that we can be sure that they find employment, and so that average earnings in my constituency keep on going up?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He chairs the Treasury Committee, which I am looking forward to appearing before this morning. In the Budget, we announced a proposal that, linking up with the retail industry, will create 100,000 jobs over the next few years for people who are inactive or unemployed. Therefore, the incomes of people who were previously unemployed will rise. In addition to the introduction of the minimum wage and the working tax credit, we are doing more than any previous Government to help the low paid in this country—and the Opposition party should remember that it opposed the minimum wage.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should ask the following question: if the 2p cut in income tax that he announced a few days ago was such a bad idea, why did the blood drain out of the cheeks of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) when he announced it?
My hon. Friend is right. First, the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), welcomed our tax cut, and the hon. Member for Tatton, the shadow Chancellor, overruled him a few minutes later. The real problem is that the Conservatives want tax cuts, but they cannot answer this question: do they support our public spending plans? Perhaps the shadow Chancellor will tell us.
To what extent are the current squeeze in real weekly disposable earnings and the fact that the savings rate has collapsed to the lowest level since the early 1960s interlinked?
The savings ratio is rising. The lowest savings ratio that this country has had occurred under a Conservative Government in the 1980s. In terms of real disposable incomes, since 1997 the living standards of our people have improved, and they have improved for one reason: we have had economic stability, whereas the Conservatives used to have recessions.
Is it not the case that the burden of taxation on families in this country compares extremely well with the burden on families in our international counterpart countries? Is that not a true and objective test of the measure of the success of the Chancellor, and should we not continue to aim for such achievements in future?
The proportion of tax taken from national income is lower than in the euro area—lower than in France, Germany and other countries. A single earner on male average earnings with two children will pay 20 per cent. of their income in tax in 2009-10. That is a far lower percentage than when we came to power, and the reasons for that are that we have cut the basic rate of income tax twice and made people better off by pursuing policies that give us economic stability.
As the Chancellor prides himself on being socially progressive, can he explain why the biggest beneficiaries of his tax changes are extremely rich pensioners and the biggest losers are households of single men or women, or childless couples, on very low incomes? Does that suggest that as he becomes Prime Minister, he will abandon the progressive consensus in favour of the Blair-Cameron alternative?
If the Liberals had joined us in supporting the minimum wage, they might have had more things to say. According to the Institute for Fiscal Study’s response to the Budget—[Hon. Members: “Read all of it.”] I am very happy to do so. According to it, in terms of direct tax the lowest decile is 0.8 per cent. better off, the second lowest decile is 1 per cent. better off, and the richest decile is 0.5 per cent. better off, so most of the gains are going disproportionately to the poorest and bottom deciles in our community. Without any help from the Liberal party or the Conservatives, since 1997 the position of the poorest decile has improved by 12.4 per cent., and of the second lowest decile by 11.8 per cent. That shows that this Government are on the side of hard-working families.
My right hon. Friend announced in last week’s Budget an increase in tax credits worth £4 billion. The Liberal Democrats want instead to raise tax thresholds. What would the impact have been on the poorest families with children if the money had been spent in that way?
I said in my Budget statement that the same amount of money—£1 billion—spent on raising personal tax allowances would have made that low-paid worker 70p a week better off, but that as a result of what we have done, that worker is £7 a week better off. I hope that at some point the Liberals, who perhaps take a greater interest in these issues than the Conservatives, will come around to our view that the best way to help those in the lowest income groups in our society is through child and working tax credits. That is the way that we are taking people out of poverty.
Yesterday, the Chancellor’s Treasury civil servants told the Treasury Select Committee that more than 5 million people—the lowest paid in the country—will be losers as a result of his Budget. Does he agree with his civil servants? Yes or no will do.
Twenty million people are better off, unlike under Conservative Budgets in the early 1990s, when everybody was worse off. The Conservatives want more tax cuts. Is it not time that they told us whether they support the public spending plans that we announced? The shadow Chancellor said on the “Today” programme on 1 March:
“If you could tell me what Labour is going to be spending, I’ll tell you what the Conservative party’s spending plans are, as well.”
Will he tell us the truth—are they supporting our spending plans, or not?
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
This week, we discover that the disposable income of the poorest is falling, that child poverty is now rising, and that more than 5 million of the lowest paid will be hit by the Chancellor’s tax con. The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), who used to be the Chancellor’s Minister, said during the Budget debate that the Budget will be “hurting many people” and urged him to think again. We know that the Chancellor has complete contempt for all his colleagues—does that really include the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West?
Child poverty trebled under the previous Conservative Government; this Government have brought it down, and it is about time that the Conservatives acknowledged that. The shadow Chancellor said that he would tell us what his spending plans are, and if he really wants to help the poor he should be in a position to do so. He said that spending has risen to 42 per cent. of GDP, and that they will bring that share down. Does he hold to that, or not? People will conclude that he is going to cut spending on vital services.
The average earnings in my constituency would fall if Vauxhall Motors were to close. My right hon. Friend may have seen press reports today of the Trade and Industry Committee’s informative report on the future of the motor industry. Will he assure me that he will continue to do everything possible to ensure that future investment from General Motors comes to the UK?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who takes a big interest in these matters. I visited the GM plant, where the workers have made enormous advances in productivity. One of the reasons why we can say that we can help both the plant and the region is the investment that we are making in education and training. That is one reason why we will spend £674 billion in 2010 on public services. It is up to all the parties now to tell us whether they support our spending plans or not.
My right hon. Friend and I had several discussions prior to her announcement on 15 March of a fully funded budget for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. That places the games on a secure financial footing, and does so earlier than any recent Olympics. May I also draw the attention of the House to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s recent statement announcing that Her Majesty the Queen has approved his recommendations on coins to be issued in 2008, including a £2 coin to mark the 100th anniversary of the London Olympic games of 1908.
There is a degree of uncertainty about the policing costs, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made clear in her statement. At the moment, there is an allowance of £600 million for the policing costs, but—given developments—that figure will need to be reviewed. Subject to that, however, it is a firm budget and a firm basis on which the games can proceed. I hope that, like me, the hon. Lady is proud of the fact that the Olympic games are coming to east London. I am sure that her constituents are excited about it and I hope that all of us can look forward to a fantastic games in five years’ time.
The Olympics is already bringing huge benefits to my constituency, with investment in transport links, cleaning up the environment and cleaning up waterways. Much of that would have happened anyway, but it is happening faster because of the Olympics, although it is not coming directly out of the Olympics budget. Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether that investment would have been possible had he adopted a third fiscal rule?
The answer is almost certainly no. The renewal that we have seen in public services over the past decade would have been impossible if there had been a third fiscal rule in place. My hon. Friend is right that changes are happening in east London, with regeneration gains that would not have happened on the time scale that is now possible. I am pleased that she is also looking forward to the games.
In the context of a very firm budget, does the Chief Secretary accept that without a long-term regeneration legacy in the lower Lea valley, the 2012 Olympics should be considered to be a failure?
I did not entirely catch the point that the hon. Gentleman made. I certainly do not envisage any failures on any aspect of the Olympics. There will be very big, long-term regeneration gains and the games themselves will be a success. I would have thought that everybody, including the hon. Gentleman, would want to be confident about the prospects for the games and the value of the investment. I am sure that his constituents are also looking forward to fantastic celebrations over the period of the games.
What is certain and completely firm about the Olympics is the opportunities that will be offered to young people. More young people than ever have been participating in voluntary work and in positive activities. All the youth services say that positive activities are one way to get young people out of crime and off the streets. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what other opportunities this Government have afforded to young people?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am sure that it is her experience, as it is mine while visiting schools in my constituency, that young people are excited at the prospect of the Olympic games. The budget for the games that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced contains provision for further training opportunities for athletes. My hon. Friend is right, too, that the Government have done an enormous amount to improve opportunities for young people, to boost the funding and support for sport in schools and to improve youth provision more generally. We are determined that those opportunities should continue to improve because they are so important for the future. If, by contrast, a third fiscal rule were in place, I am afraid that those opportunities would shrink. Because the Tory party has signally declined—
The Minister for Sport told the House in July 2005:
“I shall never forget the person who said, ‘Do not underestimate the budget. If you go higher, it will be seen as a failure so make sure that your calculations are realistic.”—[Official Report, 21 July 2005; Vol. 436, c.1505.]
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport told the House in November that year:
“we believe that our budget is sound.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 1224.]
A month later the Chancellor confirmed that the Olympics was
“working to an agreed public sector funding package.”
Why, then, has he allowed the budget almost to treble since then?
I hope that the hon. Lady is as proud of winning the Olympics as I am. It is right that as soon as we won the bid we thoroughly reassessed the costs. Now we have a secure financial basis on which to proceed. The International Olympic Committee said of the preparations earlier this month that it was assured and impressed across the board. That is a good position to be in and I hope that the hon. Lady will acknowledge that.
The Olympics have been welcomed by everybody in the country, but there is concern that the budget will mean that projects, such as the restoration of the Newbridge Memo in my constituency, may be starved of vital lottery cash. In his discussions with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, will the Minister ensure that such projects across the country will not be put in direct competition with the Olympics for lottery funding?
A good deal of care has been taken to ensure that the voluntary sector is protected. The voluntary and community sector will continue to receive the promised £2 billion lottery funding from the Big Lottery Fund between now and 2012. Both existing programmes and future resources for the voluntary sector are protected. I hope that that reassures my right hon. Friend. The lottery contribution to the Olympics is of a similar amount and over a similar period to the lottery contribution to the millennium celebrations. That is about right for what we should expect the lottery to contribute to the games.
No. 11 Downing street is used for official meetings, engagements with external representatives and charity events. The Smith Institute applied for permission to use it on a monthly basis in 1997, and sometimes more regularly. That has been the basis of its usage since then.
We heard last month how the Smith Institute was up into the wee small hours trying to enliven the Budget and brighten up the image of the Chancellor, who is now frowning. He has forgotten how to smile. Yet, following the Budget, the population know that it was a con and the Labour party has dropped one point. Is No. 11 now going to evict it?
The basis on which the Smith Institute uses No. 11 is exactly the same as for everybody else. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will press his colleagues on the Front Bench to tell the House whether they will support the public spending projections that we published in our Red Book. That is what people will want to know. Will the Tories fund public services adequately, as we are committed to doing in future, or not? That is the critical question, and we are waiting for an answer from his Front-Bench colleagues.
Does the Chief Secretary agree that publications such as those on social enterprise, diversity in Britishness, and restorative justice produced by charities and voluntary organisations, including the Smith Institute, help to produce more intelligent government, and that we should listen to those organisations?
I agree with the Chief Secretary on that point. Would it not be a good idea to have a seminar on tax at No. 11 Downing street in the near future, so that the Government could explain more clearly why they were right to introduce a 10p tax rate in 1999, and right to abolish it in 2007?
The Chief Secretary’s first answer was extremely helpful, so let us try another question on him. How many of the monthly events to which he referred did the Chancellor attend? We do not need the details; we just want to know how many he attended.
The UK contributed £1.3 billion over 20 years to the international finance facility for immunisation. I can announce today that South Africa has become the seventh country to join the facility, which will vaccinate over 500 million children throughout the world, and will save nearly 10 million lives.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and I congratulate him on his great commitment to a global challenge. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, one in four children dies before their fifth birthday. That is a human catastrophe on an almost unimaginable scale. On the administration of the fund, do countries have to sign up, or will the money be distributed through aid budgets? When the fund is administered, will we ensure that the vulnerable children in the most conflict-ridden and fragile states receive the vaccinations that they so desperately need?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The aim is to vaccinate all those children who, at the moment, are denied the chance of vaccination. That means that the countries where least is done will be the countries where most is done in future. The fund will be distributed through the GAVI Alliance. The fund operates in every continent and it operates as a charity. Much of the money comes from the Gates Foundation and from Governments, and the fund has a record of success that is perhaps second to none in the development field. I hope that there will be all-party support for that new facility.
I spend a considerable amount of time visiting and working with churches in my constituency. They are tremendously proud of the progress made since 1998, when 70,000 people protested peacefully outside the G8 summit in Birmingham to try to put the issue of debt higher up the agenda. There has been a doubling of aid, the cancelling of debt and the front-loading of aid. Bearing in mind the link between international poverty and international security, will my right hon. Friend make sure that those items are higher up the agenda when the UK takes over presidency of the United Nations Security Council next week?
That will indeed happen, and I can also say that the subject is on the agenda of the G7 Finance Ministers meeting in Washington in April, and there will be a further meeting in June in Germany. We will do what we can to raise the issue to a higher level on the international agenda.
Next Thursday at Gleneagles, there will be a conference that has been put together by the churches to discuss the progress that has been made since Gleneagles. I hope to be able to speak at that conference, and I am pleased that the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, is to address the group. The conference will hear that international aid has grown, that the finance facility has been created, and that the facility for education for all, which will mean that every child has the chance of education, is moving forwards. That will lead to a conference that will be held in Brussels on 2 May so that we can secure proper funding for education, as well as vaccination.
If the striking success of the measles initiative is matched by the output of the immunisation facility, what estimate has the Chancellor made of how much earlier the millennium development goal to reduce child and infant mortality will be reached by comparison with what would otherwise be the case?
I wish that I could tell the hon. Gentleman, who takes an interest in these matters, that the world was on track to meet the millennium development goal on child poverty, but there is a great deal more to do. The immunisation facility will help, because one in five African children dies before the age of five, but we also need a trade deal so that there is economic development in those areas; we need action on education, so that we tackle illiteracy; and we need the infrastructure programmes that are necessary not only to bring industry to those areas, but to enable them to trade with the rest of the world. All those things must come together if we are to be able to meet all the millennium development goals, particularly those for young people.
I am sure that the Chancellor is aware that the lack of insulin availability in sub-Saharan Africa kills more people—more children—than tuberculosis, malaria or AIDS. Following the passing of the UN resolution last December, will the Chancellor seek to ensure that insulin availability in Africa is included in that important programme to reduce that killer disease globally?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that, and I will endeavour to put the issue on the agenda. One of the great problems of health care in Africa and the developing countries is not simply the absence of medicines or of doctors and nurses, but the absence of health care systems with the capacity to deliver what is available, even when it is available. I am pleased that the international facility that we have created and the GAVI Alliance are now taking seriously the next stage, which is to try to build capacity in health care systems. If the hon. Gentleman goes around Africa, he will find that the number of midwives in many countries runs only into hundreds and the number of nurses in many countries is lucky if it runs into thousands. That is an issue of health care capacity that we must address, as we address, too, the supply of particular drugs.
It used to be said that this kind of measure had very little electoral support. I joined the Labour party 36 years ago, because I believed that a Labour Government would be responsible for such initiatives and global leadership. I am delighted that it is happening, and a great many of my constituents believe that it is one of the most important things that the Government are doing.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who takes a very big interest in those matters and communicates regularly with his constituents on those and on other issues, particularly in support of the Budget, as does the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), who gave an extraordinary speech from the Conservative Benches in favour of the Budget only a few days ago. On Make Poverty History, the figures are now available, and one in three teenagers wore a Make Poverty History armband during the campaign. The idea that we were talking only to a minority—[Interruption.] Well, the Conservatives may laugh at people being involved in international development issues, but the idea that hundreds of thousands of young people took an interest fills me with hope for the future, and they will therefore reject a Conservative party that cannot even tell us whether it will match our international development spending.
The gap between the incomes of the richest 10 per cent. of our population and the poorest 10 per cent. has narrowed since 1997 from a ratio of 4.1 to 4—a measure of overall inequality that rose sharply between 1979 and 1997 from a ratio of 3 to 4.1. The measure of wealth inequality has also declined modestly.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, but he will know that the households below average income survey, which was published on Tuesday, shows that on the internationally recognised measure of income inequality—the Gini coefficient—Britain is now more unequal than it was 10 years ago. Rising taxes for the lowest earners announced in the Budget will make matters worse. Is he proud that Britain has become a more unequal society under his Government—in fact, one of the most unequal in the developed world—and what hope for greater fairness can he offer in future?
I am proud that the latest figures this week show that the gap between the richest 10 per cent. and the poorest 10 per cent. has narrowed. Indeed, the Budget took 200,000 more families out of poverty because of investment in tax credits, which the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends opposed.
My hon. Friend is right. The campaigning by him and other Labour Members was responsible for the introduction of the minimum wage, which has addressed poverty pay and created 2.5 million jobs. It is a pity that my hon. Friend’s compatriots from the Welsh nationalist party are not present to hear his proud record of campaigning.
The Chancellor just now flatly refused to answer a simple question from my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne). Will the Economic Secretary say whether Mr. Mark Neale, a senior civil servant who gave evidence to the Treasury Committee yesterday, was right or wrong when he said that 5.3 million people will be worse off as a result of the Budget—yes or no?
Will my hon. Friend accept my thanks and take credit for being a member of the first Government to break the link between old age and poverty, and for taking 2 million pensioners out of poverty? Will he consider what can be done to redouble the battle against child poverty, as we have taken 2 million children out of poverty and need to do more to reach our target of halving child poverty by 2010?
My hon. Friend is right. When we came into government, we had unacceptably high levels of pensioner poverty, which we have addressed through the winter allowance, pension credit and rises in the basic pension. We also had the highest level of child poverty of any European country. Because of the measures that we have taken, which Opposition Members opposed consistently, we have had the fastest fall in child poverty of any European country since 1997. We on the Labour Benches are proud of that record.
Such adults are substantially better off as a result of the changes that we have introduced since 1997 on tax and the working tax credit and measures to get people into work. People with and without children were much worse off under the Conservatives because there were 3 million unemployed and interest rates that were high and crippling. We have addressed that through the new deal and the working tax credit, which Conservative Members have consistently opposed. If they want to match our record, they must match our policies on tax credits, the minimum wage and public spending. Until we get an answer from the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), he has no credibility at all as a shadow Chancellor.
The family that my hon. Friend describes will be substantially better off as a result of the Budget and the 2p cut in income tax. If the Scottish National party came to power in Scotland, the family would be substantially worse off because of a 3p rise in income tax. It is a great disappointment that no Member from the SNP is in the House to take part in this discussion, which shows their contempt for democracy and for these matters.
In my constituency inequality is being worsened by the fact that, as South West Water customers, my constituents are paying the highest water bills in the country. Because regulatory change is needed to tackle the issue, and because the Government will not hit their own child poverty targets unless it is tackled, will the Minister agree to meet to discuss constructively how to deal with this very difficult issue for my constituents?
The hon. Lady’s constituents are better off because of the Budget and the measures that we have introduced for families. In a revealing comment, the Institute for Fiscal Studies makes it clear that—[Interruption.]
“the tax and benefit reforms introduced by the Labour government”—
“have been strongly redistributive, favouring lower-income families”
in the hon. Lady’s constituency—again, reforms that she has—[Interruption.]
As a result of the public spending plans announced in the Budget for the Department for Education and Skills, per pupil funding in England will rise from an average of more than £5,500 this year to more than £6,600 in 2010. Local authority allocations will be announced in due course.
All schools in my constituency are pleased to see education at the forefront of Labour’s 11th successful Budget. May I put down a marker for my hon. Friend and any of his Treasury colleagues who might be moving on to new jobs in the future? An important review of the school funding formula is taking place, so will the very generous holders of the purse strings listen carefully to the arguments of Staffordshire and the F40 group of local authorities to make sure that the huge increase in education spending is shared evenly and fairly across the country?
The settlement in the Budget continues the top priority that this Government give to investment in education and skills. My hon. Friend is right that we are currently consulting, which will continue until May, on reforming the school funding system. I urge him, his local authority in Staffordshire and the F40 group of local authorities to contribute. He is right that this is a very good settlement for education. He will be aware that an inflexible and ideological third fiscal rule would mean less funding for schools and services in Staffordshire.
The figures are very clear in the Budget. There will be a 20 per cent. rise in per pupil funding across the country, and Staffordshire, like the rest of the country, will share in that. The education settlement was part of confirming a total increase in public spending plans to £674 billion by 2010. The hon. Gentleman’s party cannot and will not match that, because of the third fiscal rule. They will have to cut spending. The question for the shadow Chancellor is—
Does my hon. Friend agree that in Newcastle-under-Lyme, as elsewhere in the education system, people will be celebrating, because this Budget has reasserted the priority of education for this Government, which is a good news story? Does he agree that we need to nail down the fact that the money will be there for the wonderful building schools for the future programme over the next 15 years?
As the distinguished Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, my hon. Friend will recognise that the Department for Education and Skills is taking a greater share of the increased cash in this spending review than it did in the last one. He is right that there is a powerful and deep commitment on this side of the House to seeing pupils in the state system get the same opportunities as those in the private system, and the investment in capital and the increase in revenue spending per pupil will help us do that. The building schools for the future programme will play an important part in many local authority areas in bringing our schools up to the 21st-century level in which children deserve to learn and teachers deserve to teach.
Budget (Small Businesses)
Treasury Ministers regularly visit all parts of the country. We are always ready to discuss with local business the beneficial impacts of reforms in the business taxation system. Having checked my diary this morning, I confirm that I currently have no plans to visit Kettering.
I am afraid that it was not the Minister who was invited, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
People in Kettering, particularly members of the East Northamptonshire branch of the Federation of Small Businesses and my constituent Mr. Steven Bellamy, who has written to me about this matter, would like the Chancellor to tell them in person about the bad effect that the rise in the small business corporation tax rate will have on their small service sector businesses over the next three years. If the Chancellor and the Minister will not come to Kettering, may I bring a small delegation of business men from Kettering to see them at Westminster to talk about this?
The hon. Gentleman’s constituent will be one of those who has benefited from the cut in the jobless rate by more than a quarter in the past 10 years, and his business might well be one of the more than 800 new businesses in Kettering since 1997. If he studies the Budget, he can tell his constituent that the revenues from increasing the small companies rate are entirely recycled to small businesses. I urge him not to make the mistake that the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) made yesterday by saying that 3.4 million of 4.3 million small businesses are not limited companies. They will benefit from the capital allowances and the new annual investment allowance, as well as from the cut in personal income tax made in the Budget.
If my hon. Friend does not have time to visit Kettering, perhaps he will go a little further north and visit Burnley to reassure small businesses in my constituency that the Government will not at any point in the future pursue a double whammy of cutting taxes while at the same time attempting to raise expenditure, thereby threatening our macroeconomic stability.
I do not think that a visit to Burnley is currently in my diary, but I dare say that I might be able to find a space for it. My hon. Friend is right. It is all very well for the Conservatives to call for more support for small businesses, but they voted against the small companies rate and against moves to take action against managed service companies. That leaves a hole of more than £1 billion a year in the finances, so the question for the hon. Member for Tatton is where he would make the cuts.
From April 2006 to February 2007 there have been 343,000 disputed overpayments.
Given the unavoidable absence of the Paymaster General, one or two of us had thought that the Chancellor of the Exchequer might have answered this question himself. It is interesting to note that the policy of leading from behind still prevails.
The Minister refers to 343,000 cases of personal misery directly caused by the failure of Revenue and Customs, which is trying to blame its errors on our constituents by saying that they should have known that they have made a mistake. When, please, may we have a wholly independent tribunal system so that these cases can be dealt with fairly and properly, not by a supine adjudicator or ombudsman?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s description. I remind him that tax credits are providing support to almost 20 million people, including thousands of families in his constituency. The current position is that Revenue and Customs sends out a one-page checklist of items to check on the tax credits award notice. If all the information about the claimant—for example, how many children they have, their bank account, and the money going into their account—is as on the notice, any overpayment will not be recoverable. That is a straightforward position. A new procedure is being piloted shortly for an independent review involving the adjudicator of disputed overpayments, and that might be helpful as well.
Families that have money reclaimed can be put in serious financial difficulty, and I ask the Chief Secretary to examine the way in which money is reclaimed from some families on low incomes. Notwithstanding that, will my right hon. Friend reflect on the success of the working tax credit system in not only taking families out of poverty but removing the block to moving from benefits to employment? Many of us remember the position that we inherited when we came into government—the Conservative party created it as a matter of policy and we have ended it.
My hon. Friend is right. He knows that restrictions have been placed on the amount of overpayment that can be taken from families on low incomes. He is right that many families have been lifted out of poverty thanks to the tax credit system. That includes 600,000 children, and another 200,000 thanks to last week’s Budget. The tax credit system has also contributed to an increase of 2.6 million jobs in the economy since 1997 because so many more people find it worth their while to be in a job.
Does the Chancellor’s human shield believe that the overpayment scandal and shambles is the cause of the relatively low take-up of tax credits, which means that the abolition of the 10 per cent. rate of tax harms so many low paid people in this country?
I do not know about low take-up: 6,900 families, including 12,000 children, in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency benefit from tax credits. For households on incomes of under £10,000 a year that are entitled to child tax credit, take-up is approximately 97 per cent. Those who benefit the most from the tax credit system receive the money that they need. They benefit greatly from it and it is now worth while for them to be in work.
Of course, I welcome the tax credit schemes. However, in some cases, fresh information is presented after the conclusion of an appeal that casts doubt on the original facts that were before the person conducting it. What is the Treasury’s approach when new facts emerge after the appeal process is over? Is the approach to a mistake of fact different from that to a mistake of law?
The approach of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is that all information should be taken into account when reaching a determination. If my right hon. Friend is aware of a specific case in which he is worried about the handling of new information, I would be happy to examine it.
If the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not answer questions on his system, at least he can listen to them. Is not it clear that the return of overpayments causes untold misery to many families, that the take-up of some categories of working tax credit is only 25 per cent. and that, in several cases, the computer cannot handle the situation? Indeed, the system is bust. Is not it time that a different person reviewed the whole system?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that 6 million families today receive tax credits. Ten million children benefit and take-up is higher than for any previous form of family income support. We have done much better. The incomes of low paid people have been substantially increased and that has helped dramatically to reduce child poverty and the tax burden on families on lower incomes. I would have thought that he welcomed those achievements.
Yet another tax credit question, yet again the Chancellor takes the vow of omerta instead of responding in person. Let me ask his Chief Secretary a question in lieu of him. As the effect of last week’s Budget, especially the abolition of the 10p starting rate is to push ever more people into a highly complex tax credit system, in which more than half the payments are incorrect, has he ruled out, under any circumstances, a return to a fixed-term system of tax credits, were it to be reformed?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the system. The system is doing a great job—[Interruption.] Yes, it is. One of the great strengths of the present system is its flexibility. It can respond very quickly when a household’s income falls and extra help is needed. That would be lost if we were to change to a system that was based on the previous year’s incomes. We will of course keep the matter under review, but the hon. Gentleman’s solution does not look attractive to me.
Comprehensive Spending Review
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his Budget speech, the comprehensive spending review will be published in the autumn.
Am I correct in thinking that last week’s Budget made it clear that the Department of Health will be £900 million worse off in the financial year 2006-07 than was predicted by the Treasury at the start of the financial year; that the figures for the NHS announced in the Budget were recycled re-announcements of the figures from the previous comprehensive spending review; and that with the NHS breaking even this year only because of fairly severe cuts in centrally held budgets, the immediate prospects for the finances of the NHS—
No, the hon. Gentleman is not correct about that. My right hon. Friend made it clear in his Budget speech that the NHS in England will receive an increase next year in excess of £8 billion, which is the largest cash increase in the history of the NHS. It will build on the large increases that have led to a transformation in the health service in recent years and to great improvements in the services received by people up and down the country. The hon. Gentleman should, however, be worried about the failure of his hon. Friend on the Front Bench—
Over the past few years, two new health centres, each costing more than £7 million, have been built in my constituency. In June this year, a new district general hospital is to be built at a cost of more than £111 million, with additional doctors and nurses to staff the facilities. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the next comprehensive spending review builds on the success of this one?
I certainly will. I can confirm that there are now 33,000 more doctors and 85,000 more nurses, and that we have undertaken the biggest hospital building programme in the history of the NHS, involving 157 major new hospital schemes since 1997. There are now 80 NHS walk-in centres, compared with none in 1997. We are absolutely determined to build on that further. I know that my hon. Friend will pass on to his constituents the fact that, if the Conservatives were able to—
Yes. At the G8, we will continue to urge progress on the Doha development round and delivery of an aid-for-trade package for the developing countries. We will push for the universal education objectives of the millennium development goals and, ahead of the meetings, we are today publishing the UK’s annual report on the International Monetary Fund.
I am grateful that the Chancellor at least feels able to answer questions on his personal diary in person.
Chancellor Merkel has said that tackling global poverty is to be a key priority of the G8 summit, and I welcome that. Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer tell us what initiatives he expects to be announced at the summit to tackle the rising level of absolute poverty in the United Kingdom?
This is absolutely typical of the Opposition parties. We will be discussing international development, trade and the general state of the world economy. I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, however. Absolute poverty in Britain has fallen as a result of the Labour Government. Poverty will continue to fall as a result of the Labour Government. What would prevent poverty from falling in the UK is the return of a Conservative Government, because they would not be able to match our spending plans, which guarantee that we are taking action to improve our public services. It is about time that the hon. Gentleman pressed his shadow Chancellor to make it clear what spending the Opposition are now committed to.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to my answer of a few moments ago.
One of the 343,000 is Mrs. Anne Dalipi, who came to see me about such a demand 12 months ago and still has not received a satisfactory explanation of why she has to repay an overpayment. She does not know which payment is covered, and the bill does not state why there is an overpayment, or why she must pay it back. Given that her experience is typical, when will the Chief Secretary come to the House and explain that, unless the reasons that a repayment is required are detailed, the repayment will not be pressed?
The rule is pretty straightforward: an overpayment will be written off if it is due to departmental error, and if it is reasonable for the recipient to think that the award is correct. There is a process by which people can query and challenge decisions, through the adjudicator and even the ombudsman. A good process is in place, and if there is a particular issue in the case of the constituent to which the hon. Gentleman refers, I would be happy to examine that.
The number of my constituents suffering hardship as a result of having to repay overpayments shows no sign of diminishing. I have been seeking meetings with HMRC to discuss and resolve a number of particularly intractable cases since August last year. I contacted it in August, September, October and November, and in desperation wrote in December to the Paymaster General, who at least acknowledged the letter, but I have heard nothing from her since. When can I expect a reply?
Home Office Restructuring
In the past few years, the world and the challenges to which the Government and the Home Office have had to respond have changed dramatically. This morning, we have refocused the Home Office towards the realities of today’s world and the priorities of today’s people. Managing migration and immigration, fighting crime and countering terrorism are now of the highest concern to people in this country.
Since the end of the cold war, we have faced a torrent of new challenges: in particular, mass migration, international crime and international terrorism. It is my responsibility as Home Secretary to ensure a response to those challenges that measures up to their extent, scale and character. That is why I have pursued challenging reform programmes across almost all aspects of the Home Office.
The House will be aware of measures introduced to improve the National Offender Management Service, to acquire 8,000 more prison places, to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, to roll out neighbourhood and community policing, to develop the Respect agenda and to tackle antisocial behaviour. In addition, I have introduced measures to ensure the fair and more effective management of immigration, and the movement of the immigration and nationality directorate towards agency status. All those reforms will continue.
In addition, however, in the wake of last August’s alleged terrorist plot, the Prime Minister asked me to conduct a review of counter-terrorism, involving the appropriate Ministers and Departments, as well as the police and security agencies. Arising out of that review, the Prime Minister has today decided to make changes to the machinery of government. The House will be aware of his written statement laid earlier today. The changes outlined there are aimed at producing a step change in our approach to managing the terrorist threat to the United Kingdom and to winning the central battle, which is the struggle for values and ideas.
Among other changes—which I will not outline in detail, as they have already been outlined in the written ministerial statement—we will create a more coherent ministerial committee system for oversight, establish strategic capacity for the longer term, integrate better our joint effort, and establish the capacity to engage in the struggle for ideas and values. We will do that partly by establishing a new unit, the office for security and counter-terrorism, in my Department.
I should make it plain that no portfolios—no responsibilities—will be taken from existing Departments. There will be no change in the lead Department responsibility for any of the agencies. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will of course continue to lead on all aspects of foreign affairs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government similarly will retain her responsibilities in the prevent strand of the CONTEST framework and community engagement. Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will lead on matters relating to the armed forces and wider defence operations.
However, the changes outlined today will add capacity to that which is already engaged in the formulation and carrying through of our security and counter-terrorism policy. It will develop a more strategic, inclusive, integrated and capable response to the current threat. Along with the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour, the Home Office will be refocused towards the challenges of today’s world and will focus on the priorities of today’s people.
As a result of those refocused and extended capabilities, and the extended attention of ministerial oversight of those exponentially growing challenges, the Home Office, as is appropriate, should shed some responsibilities. Those will be merged with the Department for Constitutional Affairs in a coherent way to form a balanced reformulation of the machinery of government by creating a ministry of justice. The Lord Chancellor will be giving more details of that in another place.
As I said, we are refocusing the Home Office, not for the first time in its history, towards the realities of today’s world and the priorities of today’s people. I commend those changes to the House.
Let me start by thanking you, Mr. Speaker, for granting this urgent question. It should not have been necessary. The breaking up of one of the great Departments of State, with massive implications for crime, immigration, justice and terrorism, should have been brought before the House for proper debate, not disgracefully smuggled out in a written statement on the last Thursday before the Easter recess.
Let me turn to the substance of the Government’s plan. On counter-terrorism—the thing on which the Home Secretary majored—some of the measures with respect to co-ordinating anti-terrorism are sensible and overdue. However, he has failed to secure a new Cabinet post for national security and will not be given control of the overall secret intelligence budget. Therefore, he will not be able to drive the counter-terrorism effort every hour of the day in the way that it clearly needs a Cabinet Minister to do.
As for the split of the Home Office, the logic presumably is that the job is too difficult for this Home Secretary to do. It has been well run in the past by Home Secretaries of all parties when it was much bigger and faced equally sizeable responsibilities. Indeed, it still had responsibility for licensing, gambling, broadcasting, fire, civil defence, human rights, equal opportunities and charities. Breaking it up will solve none of the Home Office’s problems; it may well just create a whole new raft of problems.
After all, the Home Secretary got his job as a direct result of the scandal of foreign prisoners being released on to our streets because of poor communication between the prisons department and the immigration department. How will that poor communication be improved by splitting the prisons and immigration departments into separate Departments of State?
At the moment, this country faces the threat of terrorism—the Home Secretary made that point—a criminal justice system that is in disarray, prisons that are overflowing and immigration that is out of control. Now he proposes to distract the senior staff of the Home Office by a massive reorganisation. Where are the resources going to come from to carry that out? Out of the frozen Home Office budget, at the expense of criminal justice, policing and immigration control? How much will it cost and where will it come from?
As for the new department of justice—an extremely important Department according to the Home Secretary’s new definition—it already has massive problems, second only to those of the Home Office. Are we to have a Cabinet-rank Minister for this Department in this House, or is the House of Commons only to have second best in terms of criminal justice policy and critical issues of criminal justice?
This proposal has been described as “batty” by one of the Home Secretary’s predecessors and as “balkanisation” by the one before that, and was dismissed by this Home Secretary only last year in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. Because of the way in which it has been carried out, this ill-thought-through exercise to create a department of justice and a department of security will actually leave public security undermined and a justice system overwhelmed.
Normally I would begin by welcoming the right hon. Gentleman’s positive contribution. I think I can save time today by missing that out.
I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is mistaken. I was intending in any event to invite him, and will still invite him—along with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), his Liberal Democrat opposite number—to go through the details of the proposal with me. I believe that he is making a dreadfully wrong strategic judgment, for reasons to which I will return, as indeed he is on identity management. I believe that he is on the side of the past rather than on that of the future. I believe that his mistake is strategic, and I am happy to discuss it with him, because I believe that wherever possible national security should be a matter of national consensus. However, I will deal with his points about process in some detail, because they are legitimate.
It was not and has never been the normal practice of Administrations to make oral statements on the machinery of government. It certainly was not the practice of the last Conservative Government. Indeed, proposals were often announced by way of press release from Downing street. Examples of major changes that were not announced by means of oral statements include the formation of the Employment Service in 1987, the splitting of the Department of Health and Social Security into the Department of Health and the Department of Social Security in 1988, the formation of the Central Statistical Office in 1989—during a recess, incidentally—the formation of the Department of Energy in 1992—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman asked about process; I am answering his question.
Further examples are the formation of the Department of National Heritage in 1992 and, in 1995, the merging of the Departments of Employment and Education to become the Department for Education and Skills. And then there is the daddy of them all. In 1995, the Financial Times reported
“The decision to scrap the Department of Employment came as a shock to its ministers and officials, none of whom were consulted.”
So I do not think that we need take lessons in process from the right hon. Gentleman.
The illogicalities and non sequiturs in the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution leap out at me. On the one hand he speaks of a great office of state abandoning its responsibilities; on the other, he refers to all the responsibilities that have been abandoned over the years precisely to enable the Home Office to refocus on today’s challenges: constitutional affairs, the fire service, royal matters, rape, faith and cohesion, communities, and the voluntary and charitable sector—and that is only since 2001. There were many before that. Indeed, originally there were only two Departments apart from the Exchequer, those responsible for foreign affairs and for home affairs. While I stand in admiration of Conservatives who wish to retain the status quo however the world has changed, it is not very useful to refuse to change one’s opinions and institutions even though the world has changed.
Let me now deal with co-ordination. This is of course a matter of judgment, but there was another great non sequitur in the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution. He cited foreign-national prisoners as an example of the way in which co-ordination is improved by matters being dealt with by the same Department. It was, in fact, a classic example of why that does not, of itself, ensure co-ordination.
The one thing that does ensure good co-ordination is the National Criminal Justice Board, which runs like a weld under elements of the present Home Office and elements of the present Department for Constitutional Affairs. It will remain. It is chaired jointly by the Lord Chancellor and myself, and that will continue. It involves the police, the judges, the agencies and the probation and other services, as well as Ministers. That will continue as well. The co-ordinating elements are there. Of course it is a matter of judgment, but it is not self-evident that being in the same department helps or ensures co ordination.
Will the ministry of justice always remain the responsibility of the House of Lords? I do not think so. During the transitional period up to 8 May, and perhaps for some time beyond it, my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, who presides over the Department of Constitutional Affairs, will be the best repository and the best person to develop the ministry. But it is perfectly possible, and perhaps perfectly appropriate, that after the transitional period, we could move responsibility for a ministry of justice to the House of Commons, allowing it to hold the Minister accountable.
Finally, on a homeland security Minister, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden does not seem to realise that we already have a counter-terrorism Minister, the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty). He already exists. The sum total—[Interruption.] I wish that hon. Members who are interested in national security would listen to their policy to counter today’s threats; it is to take the same Minister who, at present, is in the chain of command from the Prime Minister through the Secretary of State to the terrorism Minister and to put him into the Cabinet. It will not add one iota of capacity to the fight against terrorism. It will do nothing to integrate or to give strategic capacity. It will build nothing in terms of numbers or character. It will do nothing at all to meet the seamless challenge with a seamless response.
All the proposal would do is to make two Cabinet Ministers responsible for the same subject to the same Cabinet and the same Prime Minister. In other words, it would create the elementary fault that anyone who knows anything about security would avoid; total confusion of command, control and communication. That is what the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden is offering us. No wonder that after four weeks of not having a shadow homeland security Minister, he still has not appointed one.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that this irresponsible decision further delays the reforms that are critically necessary throughout the criminal justice system? Does he further accept that, particularly in relation to prisons, probation and the National Offender Management Service, where reform is desperately needed, the shift in responsibility will delay the changes that need to take place? Finally, does he accept that the coherence and co-ordination of the criminal justice system that is so important to its success will be damaged seriously by these proposals?
I disagree with my right hon. Friend on every point. I respect his judgments. I do not think they have always been right in the past—[Interruption.] But I have no doubt that I will make mistakes as well. There are differences in judgment on that and we just have to differ.
If the manner in which the announcement has been made is any guide to the manner in which it will be implemented, we are headed for further organisational chaos at the heart of government. On 21 June last year, the Prime Minister told my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) that he saw no case whatever for the creation of a ministry of justice. A few weeks or months later, we were told through leaks to the press that, after all, that is on the agenda. Last night, we were told that the Home Secretary would make an announcement to this House. We were told a few hours later that it might be the Prime Minister, and then that there would be a written statement. We now see the Home Secretary on his feet, but only in response to an urgent question from the Opposition. This is a shoddy, shambolic and cynical way of treating this House and the British public on an issue of such grave importance.
How would the Home Secretary feel if he were a civil servant in the Home Office—vilified month in, month out by his political masters—and he learned about such an uncertain future through such contradictory leaks and counter-leaks in the press?
When the Home Secretary responded to my suggestion that there should be a public inquiry into the events surrounding the 7 July bombings, he claimed that my request was out of order, inappropriate and not possible because of the demands that it would make on official resources. How can he maintain that view when this change alone will consume far more official resources—certainly if it is to be implemented at the breakneck speed that he proposes—than a public inquiry?
Can the Home Secretary explain what role will be left for the Cabinet Office? The Cabinet Office plays a crucial role in co-ordinating information concerning our anti-terror strategy. The British public rightly expect the Prime Minister, not an aggrandised Home Secretary, to take the lead in setting our anti-terror strategy. Can he explain why the Cabinet Office appears at least to have been marginalised in the approach that he has set out this morning?
Can the Home Secretary explain how we can have any other interpretation but a political one of the timetable for changes, which will fall neatly on 9 May, the date on which, we are all led to believe, there will be a transition of power from one Prime Minister to the next? Does not he accept that, as long as that timetable is considered to be politically determined—
I notice that the hon. Gentleman managed to avoid saying that this is something for which he has been asking for some considerable time. I heard him this morning make an extraordinary statement, saying, “It is the right thing to do, but we do not like his reasons for doing it. This is the way to fight terrorism, but it is all to do with personal ambition.” I will leave the psychoanalyst role to him.
Let me give the hon. Gentleman a few facts. I do not think that he could have been more profoundly wrong on every single particular that he mentioned. First, on the civil servants, his constant running down of certain aspects—I do not mind acknowledging faults—and his refusal to accord any credit where improvements are made, is what depresses people. For several months, civil servants have been involved in discussing the matter, from the permanent secretary down.
Secondly, during that time, there have not been any leaks from the Home Office. There has been one newspaper article, which I wrote and briefed around. There have been 10 other leaks. None has come from the Home Office and all have criticised and misrepresented the plans. Thirdly, unfortunately, it is those misrepresentations on which he has based his analysis. Not for the first time, an hon. Gentleman has spent a lot of time decrying those who apparently chase headlines, and spent the rest of his time chasing the headlines, making the headlines or basing his story on the headlines. The Prime Minister will still oversee the strategic national security elements. He will chair the new integrated committee. The Cabinet Office will service that committee. He will still have a national security adviser. It will not be the Home Secretary who chairs that.
It is simple facts such as those that are the first step towards a rational discussion. If the hon. Gentleman wants to learn the facts, I will invite him in, but I ask him please not to base his arguments on spurious and misrepresentative reports in the press.
Finally, if the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is a good idea to have a ministry of justice, by definition, that would leave the Home Office refocused on those elements that are not part of the ministry of justice. That is precisely the position that I have arrived at. I know he finds it difficult, but there is an old rule: do not ask for something unless you consider the fact that you might get it. He has just got it. He might welcome it.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about co-ordination of terrorism policy. Does he accept that today’s decision leaves criminal justice spread across two Government Departments? I hope that he will come to the Select Committee at an early opportunity to discuss how that will work in practice, but for today can he tell the House which Department—the Home Office or the ministry of justice—will take responsibility for introducing criminal justice Acts? Which Department will take responsibility for the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984? How will we ensure that organisations such as the police know who it is they have to deal with and do not have to run around Whitehall trying to find the right civil servant to lobby?
I agree entirely with the points made by my right hon. Friend. It is important that we co-ordinate. I have said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), the former Secretary of State, that we have different judgments on the matter. I do not regard all my judgments to be right, or all his to be wrong. It is perfectly possible for those of us who have the responsibility of government—[Interruption.] Of course, if one does not have the responsibility of government, it is possible always to be right because all one has to do is criticise everyone else. For those of us who are interested in actually governing the country, it is possible for two men of equal weight and sincerity to make different judgments on a set of facts. Those are important judgments.
I do bear the burden of the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) is making, which is that there has to be an understanding that the Home Office will be responsible not just for counter-terrorism and security. There will also be the responsibility for antisocial behaviour. We intend that neighbourhood policing and the British style of policing will stay the British style of policing. Immigration will also be a responsibility. Those responsiblities will be co-ordinated throughout that Department. In response to his second point, the National Criminal Justice Board will also act on co-ordination across the criminal justice system.
In answer to my right hon. Friend’s third point, of course I will come and explain these matters to his Select Committee at the earliest date. He asked about who will bring forward legislation in relation to the operations of the executive agencies inside the Home Office, the answer to that is the Home Office.
I have now answered all my right hon. Friend’s points. All the legislation relating to the executive functions of those agencies, including the police, that operate inside the Home Office will be brought forward by the Home Office. The Bill teams will act out of the Home Office.
We know that we will still have all the problems there, but we are not confident from what the Home Secretary has said that we will have the proper solutions. Does not he remember how, on one busy afternoon, the Prime Minister created the Department for Constitutional Affairs on the back of an envelope and sought to get rid of the Lord Chancellor? He then found that what he was proposing was entirely unworkable and unrealistic. What confidence can we now have that the new ministry of justice, created without proper consultation with Parliament, is going to be up to the job? Why on earth did not the Prime Minister have the respect for Parliament to come here today and explain in detail what he has in mind?
On the process point, I have already explained the matter. In fact, at the risk of boring the hon. Gentleman, there were 10 occasions on which the previous Administration did not even deign to come to Parliament with an oral statement. On some occasions they did not even issue a written ministerial statement. They changed the machinery of government by a press release from Downing street.
The Prime Minister made a written ministerial statement this morning. I have come here in response to the urgent question. I am more than happy to go through all the elements with hon. Members in a search for consensus. Of course with any of these things there are judgments to be made. Of course there is controversy, but the idea that, by preserving the present structure, we have some benign recipe for perfect co-ordination and operations within the Home Office does not strike me as self-evidently true on the basis of history. It may have been true, but as I have said, each of the units of the Home Office already has a plan for reform. I have introduced three of them, and several were introduced by my predecessor. They are being worked through, including the National Offender Management System. All those elements will continue. This reconfiguration is not a substitute for improving the quality of each of the constituent elements. It will not involve the expense that the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), expects. It will be accomplished within the existing budgets of the Home Office and the DCA. The change will not require the expenditure of time, energy or resources that is anticipated. If hon. Gentlemen will give us time to go through that, I am more than open to discussing that continually with them.
Splitting the Home Office may make sense, but as a former police Minister I am worried about the message to the police of some of the detail in my right hon. Friend's reply today. Will not the changes appear to downgrade the Government's successful focus on cutting crime and disorder and antisocial behaviour, on police community support work and on crime reduction partnerships? Having a department of homeland security may make sense, but it appears to downgrade the emphasis on local policing. Can he reassure us on that?
On the first point, let me offer a correction: it will not be a Department for homeland security. That, by definition, would fragment our counter-terrorist and security effort because of the misapprehension that we can neatly segregate the current threat into foreign affairs, defence affairs and domestic affairs. One of the reasons why we need not only a longer term strategic response but a better integrated one is that the threat is now seamless. It is a seamless threat that runs through foreign and defence affairs and affairs at home. That is another reason why the Opposition’s recommendation does nothing to address the current threat.
I can give an assurance that neighbourhood policing—the British style of policing, which has been rolled out through the country—will not only remain in the Home Office but will be a very high priority, as will antisocial behaviour. While some elements of legislation—such as police and criminal evidence legislation—will remain with the Home Office, other elements, such as criminal justice Bills, will pass to the ministry for justice. Therefore there will be a partnership approach.
I worked in the Home Office for three years, and I say to the Secretary of State that there was nothing inherently dysfunctional about it at that time, and that splitting Departments will not address the problems that exist, which are essentially ones of leadership.
Let me also say that having Ministers with responsibility for justice in the other place rather than in this House is profoundly unacceptable. It is not right that the two Ministers of justice—the Attorney-General and the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs—will be in the other place. That must be rectified.
As a former shadow Home Secretary—I was also shadow almost everything else without achieving the substance, as the current shadow Home Secretary will find out over long years of opposition—may I make the point to my right hon. Friend that the effectiveness of the machinery of Government depends on whether it works? It has been found in the past—for example, when the Conservative Government took broadcasting away from the Home Office—that the machinery of Government must work. Also, as a former Conservative Home Secretary found, prisons policy can be a mess if it is not properly administered. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that the key issue is not the boundaries of Government, but whether the structure works?
I agree 100 per cent. One of the reasons why I have come to the conclusion that I have is that it seems to me that although we can improve the constituent elements of work within the Home Office, because of the magnitude of the challenge of three or four elements, the work on them cannot be carried out properly unless we concentrate and refocus on them and shift the other elements to a different dimension or Department. This change is being made because of practical reasons to do with responding to the current challenges of mass immigration, international crime and counter-terrorism, as well as to the policing and antisocial behaviour problems that we have. I say that with sincerity as both the current Secretary of State at the Home Office and in the past as Secretary of State for almost everything else.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) asked the Home Secretary what the cost of the restructuring was, and the Home Secretary failed to answer. He must know the figure. Will he share it with the House?
No, what I was asked about was the additional cost of this change. I said that that cost will be met from within the existing budgets of the Home Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs. That is possible because the magnitude of the change is hugely exaggerated. All that is happening is that the National Offender Management Service element and criminal justice system element of the Home Office will now be the responsibility of another Minister.
Is not the truth of the matter that the Home Office has caused endless embarrassment to successive Governments—I can recall Henry Brooke’s career being destroyed when he was Home Secretary in the 1960s—and that the Department is currently far too large to be properly organised and maintained either by the permanent secretary or, even more importantly, by the Home Secretary of the moment? Therefore the reforms and changes are welcome.
I am glad that the reforms are welcomed by my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to the permanent secretary and all the staff who have been working on this proposal and on the improvement and reform plans of each of the constituent elements. I am the last person in the world to deny that we have had the odd problem in the Home Office; I have probably been more open in acknowledging problems to do with my own Department than any other Cabinet Minister. However, I assure Members that that is not the driving force behind these changes. The driving force behind them is the magnitude of the challenges of mass migration, international crime and countering international terrorism. That is why this has been done. It has been done not to avoid embarrassment, nor as a job creation scheme for a Cabinet Minister, nor for elongating anyone’s career. It has been done in the national interest, not in any departmental or person interest.
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Scottish Ministers and relevant agencies and bodies in Scotland about how their key functions will fit in with this new structure? Can he assure me that crucial work in Scotland on immigration, counter-terrorism and international crime will not be compromised by what is proposed?
Most of the material and the structures and functions that will be affected are reserved areas. Obviously, the Scots have control over their policing and legal system through the Scottish Executive, but the other areas—counter-terrorism, mass migration, immigration—are dealt with on a reserved basis. We will consult, of course; I will consult Cathy Jamieson on this, as I do on other issues, to make sure that our response in all the areas involved is as seamless and integrated as possible, given the autonomy in many areas of the Scottish Executive.
In the 200th anniversary year of the abolition of slavery, will the Home Secretary confirm that the restructuring of the Home Office will allow for there to be centrally prepared data on, for example, the number of children trafficked into the United Kingdom? Also, what will happen to the children who are not granted asylum, and what will happen to children who disappear while in the care of a local authority?
Before I answer those questions, let me say in response to the previous one that I would have thought that prostitution as a policy area will come under the ministry of justice, although the policing of any such matters will of course come under the Home Office.
The co-ordination and partnership that will apply to any areas, including the compilation of statistics, will not change in functional terms from what is the current position. Statistics will be compiled by the Home Office or the ministry of justice as appropriate, and the relationship or partnership with local government will continue. Obligations that we have signed up to—such as the European convention on human trafficking—will be carried forward by the Government.
It is regrettable that there will be no detailed parliamentary scrutiny of the changes to the machinery of Government. Those changes have, according to my friend, gone off at half-cock, and that was the case when the Conservative Government were in power as well as under this Government. We have had four transport Departments since 1997, and we had a Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry which lasted five minutes.
May I take my friend back to the central issue of costs? The Cabinet Secretary told me three or four weeks ago in an evidence session to the Public Administration Committee that the costs of the change would be met from within the departmental budget. My question is simple: can we have the figures here and now?
I have already made it absolutely plain that the costs will be borne from inside the budget, alongside other ongoing efficiency savings. The cost will be small. There is no need to build new buildings, and no need for a massive reallocation, for a massive restructuring of departmental organisations, or for consultancy fees. This is a merger of an existing, coherent unit—NOMS and the criminal justice section—with the Department for Constitutional Affairs, so the costs are in no way prohibitive and will be met inside our budgets as a normal, routine managerial expense.
The Home Secretary will recognise the importance of effective border controls. Will today’s changes enable his Department to close the Brussels-Lille loophole whereby, if a Eurostar passenger at Brussels buys a ticket only for Lille, they are not subject to juxtaposed and other controls and merely stay on the train at Lille, arriving at Waterloo without any documents?
I am not going to respond here to the question of the detailed travel arrangements of this hypothetical passenger, but I will look into this issue and write to the hon. Gentleman. He will know that this week, the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), proposed yet another step change in our immigration and enforcement policy. Through exporting our borders, by the end of next year the people of more than 100 countries will require visas to come here; and the introduction of biometrics, fingerprint and identity management will enable us to track people in and out of the country. I ask Opposition Members to reconsider their opposition to identity management. Without it, we will never be able to counter fraud and terrorism or to track immigration. The hon. Gentleman is on the wrong side of this argument.
I welcome the long overdue proposal to create a new ministry of justice, and I commend the Home Secretary on dealing with what must have been very difficult negotiations. However, what are the implications for the role of the Attorney-General, who is the third part of the criminal justice system? It is important that a statement be made to the House about this matter—especially as the Select Committee is looking at the Attorney-General’s role—and that a Minister from that department also be on the Front Bench. Could we please have an urgent debate on this issue?
The short answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is that there is no significant change to the Attorney-General’s role that I am aware of. The trilateral arrangements will still pertain, and the Attorney-General will certainly still be on the National Criminal Justice Board, on which we all sit in an attempt to co-ordinate matters across the criminal justice system. So I think that there is no significant change.
What the hon. Gentleman does not seem to realise is that a massive efficiency, improvement and reform plan is under way in almost every area. For instance, a staff reduction of 1,600 in NOMS alone is envisaged over the coming period, so compared with the reductions, improvements and efficiency measures taking place, the cost of this change is, as I said, very small. There will be no cuts, but a reallocation and a refocus toward immigration, international crime and international terrorism. The British people’s three priorities, according to every single opinion poll of the last three years, are fair and effective control of immigration, countering crime and countering terrorism. These are responses not only to changes in the world, but to what people in our communities want us to focus on.
The Home Secretary said today that the Prime Minister decided only today on the change, yet BBC television reported it last night, saying that there would be a statement today. Why are the Government briefing the BBC before Members of this House?
The hon. Gentleman is talking about leaks and reports. The Financial Times reported it 10 weeks ago; it was a misreport and misrepresentation. The Evening Standard reported that one of my Cabinet colleagues was opposed to this; it was not true. There have been constant leaks, as happens in government; that does not mean that we are doing these things. This issue has been discussed for a considerable time across government, and the civil servants and officials working on it have done so with huge discretion and integrity. It is in some ways amazing that the accurate details did not come out until two or three hours ago, when the written ministerial statement was issued; other details have been placed in the Library of the House. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that all the reports of the past 10 weeks have not been at all authoritative; indeed, for the most part, they have been misleading and wrong.
My constituents want to know that, as a result of this reorganisation, the roll-out of the safer community teams in Kettering and the surrounding area will not be affected. They would also like to know the answer to this question: when does the Home Secretary expect to update the House on progress?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that visible, accessible and responsive neighbourhood policing, which is obviously one of their priorities, is one of our high priorities, too. If he asks them, he will find that managing fair and effective immigration, reducing crime, and countering fraud, international crime and terrorism are their three highest priorities, as they are for the rest of the British people. That is what the evidence constantly tells us, and they are precisely the areas on which we have refocused this great Department of state.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 16 April will be:
Monday 16 April—Second Reading of the Mental Health Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 17 April—Opposition day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate or debates on an Opposition motion, subjects to be announced.
Wednesday 18 April—Remaining stages of the Pensions Bill.
Thursday 19 April—Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied—details will be given in the Official Report—followed by a debate on marine environment on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 20 April—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 23 April will include:
Monday 23 April—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.
Tuesday 24 April—Opposition day [9th allotted day]. There will be a debate or debates on an Opposition motion, subjects to be announced.
Wednesday 25 April—A motion relating to the Crossrail Bill, followed by opposed private business that the Chairman of Ways and Means has named for consideration.
Thursday 26 April—A debate on defence in the UK on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. To be confirmed.
Friday 27 April—Private Members’ Bills.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business, and for working with the Foreign Secretary to ensure that we had yesterday’s statement on Iran. Since then, of course, the Iranian Government have—quite disgracefully—paraded the captured British sailors on television. Given that the House rises today, what consideration has the Leader of the House given to ways of informing it of further developments?
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee says that the Rural Payments Agency fiasco will cost the taxpayer £500 million, including a fine of £305 million payable to Brussels for incompetence. The Committee said:
“A culture where ministers and senior officials can preside over failure of this magnitude and not be held personally accountable creates a serious risk of further failures.”
Will the Environment Secretary come to the House to make a further statement on the Rural Payments Agency?
We have just had the Home Secretary’s response to an urgent question on the restructuring of the Home Office. Sadly, the Home Secretary had to be forced to come to the House to give those details. He said that details of changes to the Department for Constitutional Affairs would be given by the Lord Chancellor in the other place. When will a statement on those changes be made in this House? Many of the replies that the Home Secretary gave were completely unsatisfactory. It appeared that he simply did not know the answers to many of the questions that were correctly put to him. Indeed, at one stage, the Leader of the House had to brief the Home Secretary on the answer. Perhaps the Leader of the House, as the Chancellor’s campaign manager, knows more about the future than the Home Secretary does. May we have a debate therefore on the restructuring of the Home Office, because that debate would give hon. Members —including the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)—an opportunity to express their clear concerns about the proposals?
I was talking of the Home Office, and the Leader of the House once said that he hoped that the Home Secretary would run for the Labour leadership. Now, of course, the Leader of the House is running the Chancellor’s campaign and he has written to Labour MPs saying:
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Gordon is the right person”.
That is some U-turn. May we have a debate on junk mail?
In last week’s Budget, the Chancellor did not mention his Lyons review once. But under him, money raised from council tax has doubled, from £11 billion to £23.5 billion. That is the equivalent of putting 4p on income tax. The Lyons review now proposes taxes on bins, taxes on home improvement, and even taxes on beds. At least the Chancellor did mention the NHS in his Budget—once—but he did not tell us about the health service’s soaring deficits, now £2.7 billion. The Health Committee says that the Chancellor has brought “boom and bust” to the NHS. Last week, the Leader of the House said that he
“would be delighted to have…a debate”
on the NHS
“any time.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 950.]
So when may we have that debate?
It is revealing that the Chancellor stays quiet when it suits him. He once promised that
“a Labour Treasury will be open rather than secretive”.
But last week he refused to answer when I asked how many meetings he had had with trade unions. When I asked the Leader of the House the same question, he gave an honest answer. The Chancellor also refused to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) when he asked about his other appointments. When my hon. Friend asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he gave an honest answer. Clearly Labour Members face a choice between a secretive Chancellor and a more open Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Can the Leader of the House impress upon all his colleagues the importance of being as open with Parliament as he is? The public know that this Government have a record of stealth, secrets and spin, and they are sick of it. The problem is that when the Chancellor becomes Prime Minister, it will just get worse and worse—more stealth, more secrets and more spin.
Indeed. When the right hon. Lady described an excellent letter that I have sent out as junk mail, the Patronage Secretary, ever loyal, described it as spam. Incidentally, one should never believe anything that Mr. Piers Morgan writes, including stuff about me.
I have been remiss and I apologise, because I failed to read out some of the business for Westminster Hall. On Thursday 19 April, there will be a debate on the report from the Trade and Industry Committee on “New Nuclear? Examining the Issues”, and on Thursday 26 April, a debate on a report from the Transport Committee on “How Fair are the Fares? Train Fares and Ticketing”. Those titles may be elocution tests as well—[Interruption.] These were not my ideas, Mr. Speaker. If it had been left to the Patronage Secretary, the debates would have at least been clear in their subjects.
On a very serious note, I thank the right hon. Lady for what she said about my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary coming to the House yesterday in respect of Iran. It is a serious situation and we are all concerned. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister and our diplomats, both here and there, are working extremely hard on that matter. Given that the House will not sit again until 16 April, the only way in which we can in practice inform Members about developments is through the media, but of course we shall do so. If there is detailed information that we need to transmit to Members, it can be done by a “dear colleague” letter.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee this morning and asked when it can be debated. There are plenty of opportunities for the House to debate issues if it wishes. The subjects for debate on estimates days are determined by the Liaison Committee, and if the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is concerned, it may raise the issue then. Given the synthetic fury to which we are sometimes subjected in business questions, I am surprised that the Opposition do not take the opportunity—if they really think that criticism of Ministers is significant—to raise such matters on Opposition days. They used to do so, when they were a slightly better Opposition. I remember, time and again, between 1974 and 1979, motions for the reduction of Ministers’ salaries—
No, but he has the joy of working in the Leader’s team.
On the restructuring and the ministry of justice, if the right hon. Lady were to read the written statement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister issued earlier today, she would see details laid out both on the arrangements for Home Office and on the new ministry.
On the health service, I frankly do not recognise the figures that the right hon. Lady mentions. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary announced about a month ago that, taking account of the use of some contingency money, there would be a £13 million surplus for this year; and there have been substantial extra funds for the health service for the new year starting on 1 April. Time and again, I listen with bated breath for the right hon. Lady to mention the huge increases in resources in her constituency, but yet again she has failed to do so. Allow me to mention the extra £39 million on top of all the additional funds that her area has had.
May we have a debate on international whaling, which is a big issue in my constituency? It was first raised by a constituent of mine. Iceland has recently resumed commercial whaling of fin whales. Those magnificent creatures can be seen in the Firth of Forth from my constituency, and it is surely outrageous that we cannot do anything to protect them.
I agree. It is not often that I can, as it were, satisfy an hon. Member immediately, but I draw to my hon. Friend’s attention the fact that we will have a debate on the marine environment on the Thursday after the recess, in which she will be able to raise those issues. I hope that she catches your eye, Mr. Speaker.
To pick up on the sedentary comment by the Patronage Secretary, it is obvious that we are in the process of transition from Camelot to Spamalot. [Laughter.]
To return to the serious issue of the changes in the machinery of government, and as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, there is a statement on the Department for Constitutional Affairs in the other place. It is not acceptable for a statement to be made about a Government Department in the non-elected House and not made to this House. I shall leave that thought with the Leader of the House.
Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the proposed changes, is not the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) right that when we have machinery of government changes that affect Departments, costings and organisation it is sensible for them to be put forward in costed form in a consultation paper that sets out the advantages and disadvantages and allows the House to have scrutiny of such changes before implementation? It is not back-of-the-envelope stuff just before a change of Administration. We ought to be able to set a precedent for this.
May we have a debate on ethical leadership? Given the Select Committee on Public Administration comments this week and those of Sir Alistair Graham, and in the context of Ministers being accused of leaning on officials for political purposes and an ex-Cabinet Minister one day being the advocate of a new policy on ID cards and two years later turning up as an employee of an ID card company, is it not time for a civil service Act and a strengthened ministerial code of conduct? Should not this House have an opportunity to debate that?
May we have a debate on rural housing? The establishment of a new rural housing advisory group has been announced, but we have not yet had a Government response to the affordable rural housing commission that reported only last year. That is a serious issue for many people in rural areas.
Finally, last week the Leader of the House showed that he is adept at studying rail timetables for Milton Keynes and I applaud him for that. I have to repeat my request, however, for a debate on rail services. To quote one of my favourite books:
“Man is born free and everywhere is in trains.”
TravelWatch South West said:
“The Government does not seem to care about public transport in the South West”,
and points to drastic timetable cuts, plummeting reliability and chronic overcrowding. This is a serious issue for the south-west, as it is in many other places, and it is time that we had a debate not only on the narrow issue of rail fares, which the Leader of the House has announced, but also on the wider issue of what is happening to our rail services.
When the hon. Gentleman asked about today’s announcement on splitting the Home Office, he included the words,
“Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the case”.
That is classic Lib Demory. They have two views, one in favour and one against, and they cannot make up their mind which, so they leave aside the merits. I take seriously some of the points raised by the Opposition because they have a view about the merits of the case, but, although I listened with great care to what the shadow, shadow Lib Dem home affairs spokesman had to say, I was none the wiser at the end of it, nor was I any better informed of the Lib Dem’s position. The matter has been the subject of detailed consideration and of a detailed written ministerial statement. Although there may be a debate about whether some time in future such matters should be handled differently, the truth is that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister handled it more openly today than was ever the case in the past. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, in 18 years of Labour Opposition there were repeated examples of changes to machinery of government without any announcement to the House.
I am always very happy, if time allows, to have a debate inside or outside the Chamber on ethical leadership. However, it does not do the reputation of politics any good for the hon. Gentleman week after week to come to the House and in one way or another try to denigrate the standards of public life. I accept that there are falls from grace, but our standards are higher and better than in almost every other country in the world, and that is shown from independent monitoring. If any of my former Cabinet colleagues are taking business appointments, they will be doing so only in circumstances where they have been vetted and approved by the Appointments Commission.
We all accept that rural housing is a serious matter. I happened to listen to a radio programme the other day about ways in which planning controls are being used more effectively now to ensure a parallel market for local people. That is an important issue and I shall certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
I made myself expert on the train services to and from Milton Keynes only because I had to, not because of any affection for that timetable. We recognise that there are problems with train services as a result of overcrowding. The timetable changes introduced by First Great Western, a private company, and its failure to ensure sufficient rolling stock inconvenienced a great many Members of this House, including the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and me. Spending on track support has increased by 55 per cent. in the last 10 years, rail passenger journeys are up by 35 per cent. and, to combat overcrowding, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport recently announced that an extra 1,000 rail carriages are to be purchased.
As chair of the all-party group on smoking and health, I welcome the recent anniversary of smoke-free Scotland and I look forward in four days’ time to smoke-free Wales and in four weeks and four days’ time to smoke-free Northern Ireland, and on 1 July to smoke-free legislation in England. May I draw attention to my early-day motion 1233?
[That this House looks forward to the introduction of smokefree legislation in England on 1st July this year, following Wales on 2nd April and Northern Ireland on 30th April; applauds the protection from proven health risks of secondhand smoke which this will afford to smokers and non-smokers alike in the vast majority of workplaces and public places; notes the successful passing of the first anniversary of smokefree Scotland; further applauds the 46,000 Scots who used NHS Scotland to support their attempt to stop smoking; recognises that a huge surge in demand is expected for Stop Smoking Services in England, running up to, on and following 1st July; welcomes the £10 million additional funding for 2006-07 and 2007-08 provided by the Department of Health to primary care trusts (PCTs) for increased provision of Stop Smoking Services; regrets that there is evidence that many frontline services are being cut at this vital time despite the additional Government funding; and urges the Government to ring-fence the funding to PCTs for the provision of Stop Smoking Services in 2007-08 to ensure that the unique opportunity presented by Smokefree England to make a dramatic cut in smoking prevalence is not wasted.]
It draws attention to the fact that the Government have allocated a fair amount of money to boost stop-smoking services, which is what some people are doing at the implementation of this legislation. May we have a debate on how we can protect such funding? Research shows that that extra funding is being used—snaffled, even—by primary care trusts for other services and that smoke-free services are being reduced in scale. May we have a debate on public health and how we can protect finances and give high priority to that aspect of our health policy?
Given that the Home Office continues to remove to Khartoum failed asylum seekers from Darfur, even though the safety of such an approach is being contested in the Court of Appeal, can we please debate the matter urgently in Government time on the Floor of the House, because many of us believe that the Government are breaking their international commitments and putting opponents of the Sudanese Government at risk of imprisonment, torture, death or a grisly combination of all three?
I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I know of no case and I do not believe that there has ever been a case of someone being sent back as a failed asylum seeker unless and until all the avenues of appeal have been exhausted, including appeals before independent immigration judges and possibly even the immigration appeal tribunal. It is well established case law in this country and internationally that it may well be safe to send an individual back to a part of a country although it may be dangerous in another part of that country. That is particularly true of Sudan, which is twice the size of France.
Would my right hon. Friend agree that many of the great campaigns in this House start from an injustice to a constituent? Would he think of an early debate on the behaviour of Swiss banks operating in London outside of European Union regulation? Constituents of mine have lost £2 million through fraud. The fraudster used Pictet and Cie—a French bank—and Pictet Asset Management to back the fraud being perpetrated. My constituents can get no justice because Swiss banks operating in London are outside the normal parameters of European Union protection. Can we have a debate about what is going on with regard to Swiss financial services operating in this capital city of financial services?
I take note of the seriousness of my hon. Friend’s point. I will draw his profound concern to the attention of my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and the chairman of the Financial Services Authority. I hope that he can raise the matter in debate here.
The Government must be alarmed by the criticism in the report of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and by the level of fines. Will the Leader of the House make time, as soon as possible after the House’s return from the Easter recess, for a debate to consider two particular aspects of the criticisms? The first is the fact that the level of the fines means that the farm budget has been raided. In addition, the rural development fund, which would otherwise have been used for flood alleviation schemes, is no longer at the level that it would have been without the fines. Secondly, as the Government are so keen to look into restructuring Departments and to consider the level of ministerial responsibility, will he please ensure that the Minister with responsibility for farms is a House of Commons man or woman, and is in this House to answer questions and receive correspondence? If that had been the case, the Government would have been aware of the difficulties much earlier.
I take note of the hon. Lady’s last point about ministerial responsibility. I would just say that my noble Friend, Lord Rooker, has very much made himself available to this House. I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but he has done what he can to make himself available. On the hon. Lady’s wider point, of course we always take seriously any Select Committee report. My right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary has apologised to farmers for the debacle in the Rural Payments Agency, and I have done so to the House. There have been changes at the head of the agency, and everybody is seeking to learn the lessons from that very unfortunate episode.
Congressional committees in the United States ordinarily take evidence on oath, and my friend the Leader of the House told me yesterday in a written answer that it is open to Select Committees to require witnesses to give evidence on oath. Given the controversy over the remarks of the previous Cabinet Secretary, and the fact that my friend is now campaign manager for someone who has been described as a Stalinist, I am interested in my friend’s views; would he encourage Select Committees to take evidence on oath on appropriate occasions?
I have no particular view about that, because even if evidence is not given on oath, there is a high expectation that those giving evidence will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I think that I am right in saying that even if the evidence is not given on oath, if it transpires that the witnesses have given false evidence, they can be brought before the House.
Sadly, far too many small shops are falling victim to crime. A survey by the British Retail Consortium showed that shop theft was up 70 per cent. in 2005, and theft costs shops some £2 billion a year. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on shop theft, either in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment of the House, and will he support my call for such a debate?
I appreciate that although, overall, crime has come down, one crime is one crime too many, and the statistics are no comfort to the victims of the crimes that continue to occur, so I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s concern. We are doing everything that we can to cut shop crime and we will look for an opportunity for him to raise the subject on the Adjournment, or in Westminster Hall.