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Commons Chamber

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 16 May 2007

House of Commons

Wednesday 16 May 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Duchy of Lancaster

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Social Exclusion

1. What assessment she has made of the trends relating to social exclusion identified in the Households Below Average Income 2005-06 report. (137262)

Since 1997, the Government have lifted 600,000 children out of relative poverty. That is a major achievement and represents significant progress towards our child poverty target. We are responding to the Households Below Average Income report in part through recent announcements in the Budget, which are expected to lift a further 200,000 children out of poverty.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, but I could not tell from that whether he accepts that the number of children in severe poverty has risen, and that therefore the target looks unlikely to be met. Can he share with us what role his Department has in banging heads together across other Departments, so that the Government can get back on target and youngsters in boroughs such as mine, and also all over the country, can have the prospect of opportunities in the future, and not be held back by the poverty of the past?

We have always accepted that the target is challenging. That is why the Chancellor announced measures in the Budget to help lift more children out of poverty. Those include, for example, lifting the child element of the child tax credit by £150 above indexation from April 2008. Child benefit for the eldest child will become £20 per week by April 2010. Together with other measures, that will mean that households with children will be, on average, £200 per year better off, and households with children in the poorest fifth of the population will be £350 per year better off. In addition, the Department for Work and Pensions has announced specific measures for London, also aimed at lifting more children out of poverty.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a stark contrast between the measures announced in the Budget to lift 200,000 children out of poverty and the record of the Conservatives, under whom child benefit was frozen for three years running and we had one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe?

My hon. Friend is right. Had we continued with the package of measures in place in 1997 and simply uprated them in line with inflation, child poverty would have risen by 800,000. At that time we were around the bottom of the European league, but because of the measures we have taken we have lifted 600,000 children out of poverty and, as I said, it is hoped that the measures announced in the Budget will lift a further 200,000 children out of poverty.

The same figures show that there are 400,000 more people in severe poverty than when Labour came to office, and it has become more difficult to escape from poverty. When I went to university, someone from a poorer background was three times less likely to go to university than someone from a wealthy background. Today, such a person is five times less likely to go, so social mobility is declining. Does the Minister believe in social mobility? If so, why does he think it is falling under Labour?

I certainly believe in social mobility. A child born in this country today has far less chance of living in poverty than if the hon. Gentleman’s party had continued in power. There are 440,000 fewer children in workless households today. Absolute poverty for children has fallen by 1.8 million. The risk of absolute poverty has halved. By any measure that one cares to use, the life chances of children born under the present Government are a lot greater than they would have been if the hon. Gentleman’s party had stayed in power.

The figures show both rises in child poverty and rises in income inequality. The Minister is responsible for joined-up government in these matters, so how does he explain the fact that the joint ministerial committee on child poverty, bringing together the devolved Governments and the UK Government under the chairmanship of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has not met since 2002? Does he think that the next Prime Minister will do any better?

I believe that the next Prime Minister will continue the battle to ease relative poverty. The Chancellor has shown in his time in office that he has a deep commitment to combating child poverty. Families with children are on average £1,500 a year better off since 1997, taking all changes into account, and the poorest fifth of families with children are, on average, £3,400 a year better off. What matters is the outcome for families in those circumstances, rather than whether or not a committee has met.

Social Exclusion

2. What estimate she has made of the cost of intervening in the early years of a child's life to prevent social exclusion. (137263)

4. What assessment she has made of the balance of costs and benefits of intervening in the early years of a child's life to prevent social exclusion. (137265)

Early intervention is a guiding principle of the social exclusion action plan. The report highlighted the relative costs and benefits of the rigorously tested nurse-family partnership programme from the United States that provides intensive home visiting services by health visitors to disadvantaged mothers from pregnancy until a child is two years old. The evaluation showed that for every $1 invested in the US, $5 was saved down the line. The Government are considering what can be learned from that early intervention approach, with pilots of the programme being launched in 10 sites across England.

As the nurse-family partnerships have been tremendously successful in America and are acclaimed by midwives and nurses in this country in working-class communities such as mine, does my right hon. Friend agree with the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who has dismissed them as foetal ASBOs, or does she think that he should stick to what he knows: well-paid nannies, interior-designed home nurseries and silver spoon—

The Tory party knows that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made a mistake and it is looking at the matter again, and I hope that today it will give us its commitment to work with us on this. I met some mothers and nurses yesterday in Slough and I met David Olds with the Prime Minister this morning. It is an incredibly successful programme that is being embraced with real enthusiasm by health visitors and midwives here, and I hope that we can demonstrate that by working with the most disadvantaged we can help them to turn round their lives and the lives of their children.

As antisocial behaviour is a product of social exclusion, which is causing many problems in my constituency and throughout the country, what examples of good practice could my right hon. Friend give my local council in Swindon to help it to learn from that and so tackle antisocial behaviour through social exclusion?

The nurse-family partnership has been used in America for almost 30 years and has demonstrated that by the time children who have participated in the scheme are 15, they are between 50 and 60 per cent. less likely to be involved with the criminal justice system in any way. The programme has been well evaluated and we are working hard on the pilot schemes to see what we can learn. I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents, local authority and primary care trust will look at what we will be able to achieve and help us to mainstream the programme so that towns such as Swindon can benefit.

One way in which the Government are intervening in early years to help social exclusion is through children’s tax credits and the working family tax credit. The right hon. Lady must recognise that Members of Parliament are still receiving significant numbers of parents at their surgeries who have problems with those tax credits. May we copy those cases to the right hon. Lady, not because we expect her to solve them, but in the hope that, being a fair-minded Minister, she might start to recognise that there are some generic issues that she might take up with those of her Cabinet colleagues who are responsible for such tax credits?

I frequently have conversations with colleagues in the Treasury and I know that there is the occasional problem, but that overall the scheme massively benefits those parents who are obtaining work, many of them for the first time, and can now earn sufficient money to make work pay so that they can do the best by their children. Those programmes will help parents to obtain the confidence and skills to get back into work so that they, too, can do the best by their children.

My right hon. Friend has spoken well about the impact of the nurse-family partnership scheme, but given that Tower Hamlets, my neighbouring borough, has been lucky enough to have one of the 10 pilot schemes, when might we see an equal amount of assistance and help for my constituency?

Many hon. Members, and certainly their constituents, are asking that question. We have overwhelming interest in this pilot programme, with more than 40 per cent. of the country applying for it. We are determined that we will learn the lessons as quickly as we can about what changes are needed within our systems. The Department of Health, which is leading on the implementation of the programme, is considering health visiting and midwifery services to see how they can mainstream the important aspect of ensuring that we pick up, at the earliest stage, those parents who are vulnerable and give them the support they need.

Local Government/Third Sector

3. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the local government White Paper and its impact on the voluntary sector. (137264)

We have worked closely with the DCLG to prepare and implement the White Paper. It contains important commitments to help the voluntary sector: making key parts of the compact such as multi-year funding part of local government inspection and financial codes; encouraging the transfer of community buildings to the voluntary sector; and ensuring that local authorities involve community organisations in decision making.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In my constituency, voluntary organisations and volunteers make a huge contribution to the community life of the town, but one of the problems that they face is that they have yearly funding, which makes it difficult for them to plan. Does he agree that in order to have a real partnership between voluntary organisations and the statutory sector, those organisations need to get three-yearly grant programmes from primary care trusts and councils to provide some stability for the voluntary sector?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am looking forward to my visit to Stockport next month to see at first hand the excellent work that the voluntary sector does there. The key thing about the local government White Paper is that, for the first time, councils will be assessed on their commitment to multi-year funding under the local government inspection framework and the financial codes. That progress has been warmly welcomed in the voluntary sector, and I hope that it will make a difference not only in Stockport, but around the country.

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Climate Change

In April, I launched the British Council climate change campaign, “Opportunity through Action”, in Prague, with keynote speeches at a dinner debate and a youth conference. I engaged the Czech Prime Minister and two Deputy Prime Ministers on the subject of climate change during separate bilateral meetings. Later that week, I discussed similar issues with the Maltese Prime Minister and President.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. As he will know, not only is the UK one of the only countries to meet its Kyoto targets, but we are set to double our commitments. Unfortunately, greenhouse gas emissions and carbon dioxide do not respect national borders, so what is he doing to ensure that our European colleagues meet their Kyoto targets?

That is a good question. I am pleased to confirm that Britain is one of only two countries in the European Union to have achieved their Kyoto targets. Indeed, as my hon. Friend says, we will achieve about 23.6 per cent. below the base level—almost twice the level set for Kyoto. As she knows, the Prime Minister is talking to the EU President today about the G8 proposals for improving the situation. Indeed, the European Union will meet in the autumn to discuss further proposals so that it is on target to reach the Kyoto target by 2010-2012. The point is that the United Kingdom has already achieved it and has shown that we can have economic growth and achieve environmental targets at the same time.

As the Deputy Prime Minister has announced his retirement, perhaps I should start by genuinely thanking him for his contribution to British public life, especially on behalf of those groups who owe him a special debt of gratitude—I am thinking of the parliamentary sketchwriters, British amateur boxing, and the makers of Jaguar cars. On the contribution that cars have made to global warming and climate change, he once famously said that he would have failed if car use failed to decline. What, in retrospect, does he now feel that he could have done differently?

Our policies on climate change show that we can achieve the Kyoto targets and lead the world. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about me. He was a member of my party for a while—indeed, he has gone through more parties than Paris Hilton. Nevertheless, I am grateful for his remarks and proud to have been in a Government who, for 10 years, have realised major achievements on the environment and the Kyoto targets.

Office Budget

I hope that the hon. Members understand that the only way I can get through is by delay.

I meet my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other ministerial colleagues on a regular basis to discuss a wide range of issues.

My Department is participating in the current comprehensive spending review in the same way as all other Departments, and my Department’s annual report, which I will publish shortly, sets out the important contribution that it has made in the past 12 months.

The Government are committed to improving delivery of public services and ensuring maximum value for money for the taxpayer.

I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for that response. Will he give the House four specific achievements or successes that he attributes to his occupancy of his present office?

I am happy to say that I contributed to achieving some of the best general election results—three times. In those 10 years, I am pleased to have been in a Government who have not only produced 2.5 million jobs, but proved that there can be economic prosperity and social justice. I am pleased to have played a key part in the Kyoto negotiations, which are a major achievement. I am especially delighted to have rescued the channel tunnel rail link, which collapsed under the Tories, and will now be open in November on budget and on time. It is the first modern rail system in Britain. Those are only a few achievements, but if the hon. Gentleman has more questions, I shall answer them later.

On the subject of delay, I wonder whether we have been too hasty in assuming that the right hon. Gentleman will move on. There was a briefing in the Sunday newspapers about a new official post for him as an international diplomat, probably based on all those years of conflict resolution between No. 10 and No. 11. Has he had discussions with the Treasury about continuing to be bankrolled by £3 million a year?

I am proud of what I have done in government and of what the Department has achieved. Conservative Members will see that the annual report, which will be published shortly, justifies the work in which I have been involved in the past 12 months. It is more justified than that of Tory Deputy Prime Ministers if the records are compared. We get value for money.

As for the diplomatic point, the achievement of Kyoto—bringing 100-odd nations together to agree something—is a measure of our success. I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman could have done it.

Planning Policy

13. What recent progress he has made in the co-ordination of housing and planning policy across Government. (137239)

I have chaired a Cabinet Committee that takes forward the development of planning policy for an interdepartmental planning reform White Paper, which will be published soon.

The White Paper examines planning as a whole, including for nationally significant infrastructure projects, responsibility for which is spread across various Departments. It will build on our planning reforms since 1997 in the light of recent reports by Kate Barker and Rod Eddington and deliver a planning system ready to meet the growing challenges that we face in the 21st century.

My right hon. Friend knows that carbon emissions per dwelling in the United Kingdom are six times greater than those in, for example, Sweden. What actions are the Government taking to ensure that we improve our record on that crucial matter?

We must accept that Sweden has done well. Indeed, it is one of two countries that is on target to meet its Kyoto targets. However, we will achieve double the Kyoto targets, which is not the position in Sweden. Between 1990 and now, Sweden has reduced carbon emissions by 4 per cent, while we have reduced them by 14 per cent. If the rest of the European countries copied the example of the UK and Sweden, we would be well on target to doing something serious about climate change.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that hon. Members representing the south-west are virtually unanimous in opposing the proposals of the regional unelected government to concentrate all the new houses that the Deputy Prime Minister wants to see built in existing urban areas, putting additional strain on the infrastructure of schools, hospitals, roads, public transport and sewage? On the other hand, is he aware that they would be in favour of distributing some of that housing in more rural areas where market towns and villages are under-using the infrastructure because they have been losing population?

I would certainly like to hear what the Tory party says in those rural areas about the hon. Gentleman’s wish to transfer all the urban to them. Looking across the faces on the Tory Benches, I see them shaking their heads—I suspect that they are in a bit of a difficulty with that proposal. In reality, people want to live in houses and they want to live in cities. We have designed them in order to achieve that. Even in the south-east, sons and daughters who want to live near their parents want their demands for houses to be met, rather than being told to go north, which would be unacceptable. We can organise matters in a way that will provide houses for all.

What progress has been made in linking housing development to improved public transport? Does my right hon. Friend support a revival of the plans for light rail in Liverpool?

The light transport developments of the past few years have been highly successful in encouraging people to use public transport, not their private cars. Manchester is a particular example. I know that there is a desire to see a light railway system in Liverpool, too. We have to recognise that they are expensive and different forms of financing have to be found. There have been some difficulties with one or two of the local authorities. That is why I am particularly pleased that in the Transport Act 2000, which I brought through the House, I included the principle of congestion charges and made it clear that the money gained from it should be hypothecated to improve public transport. I was particularly pleased to hear the mayor of New York say last week that he intended to bring in an environment charter for that city that included congestion charging and hypothecation of money to the public transport system. That is a way forward, which we have shown can be successful, and other countries are following us.

Home information packs originated in the right hon. Gentleman’s office, but they have been slammed by the Consumers Association as “useless”. The Government’s Better Regulation Commission has warned that their gold plating will lead to extra red tape. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors speaks of a detrimental effect on first-time buyers with rising prices, shortage of supply and abortive cuts. Will the right hon. Gentleman end this poisoned chalice and, in his co-ordination role, slap down this stupid proposal and agree to our motion on the Order Paper later today?

No, I will not, and I think that the House will vote against that motion this evening, too. This proposal is an effective way of bringing better justice to house purchasing. People can be cheated out of housing simply because someone broke the agreement. That cannot happen in Scotland, but unfortunately it can happen here. The consumer groups have made it clear that they want this package—indeed, the hon. Gentleman well knows that they welcome it—but they feel that the agreement for the certification of the house has been taken out.

On carbon, let me just say to the hon. Gentleman that it is about getting a reduction of carbon in this country as part of our efforts to deal with climate change. We see the Tories telling us constantly that they believe in taking action against climate change on the one hand, but they then vote against any measure to improve the situation on the other.

Animal Rights Activists

I chair the Cabinet Committee that co-ordinates the Government’s strategy to tackle animal rights extremism. The Government are committed to tackling extremists who harass or threaten those involved in vital, life-saving scientific research. Our strategy is making a difference, as 25 individuals have received custodial sentences and the number of visits by extremists to private homes is down to fewer than five a month. I wrote recently to the police national co-ordinator for domestic extremism to congratulate him.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer. Given that it is both Government and Opposition policy to support well regulated animal research, does he agree that it is vital to win the battle for the hearts and minds of young people, who should be exposed to arguments that are at least balanced? Given that there is underfunding of some of the non-governmental organisations working in this area in comparison with the anti-vivisection organisations, could he look further into the co-ordination and funding of efforts in schools to put balanced arguments about animal research?

The hon. Gentleman makes a sound point and I congratulate him on the courage that he has shown in tackling animal rights extremism. His views on that issue are well known in the House. In the Cabinet Committee, we have been discussing how we can do more to continue the education in schools about such extremism. We are working to provide materials for teachers to help them to approach these topical issues in the classroom. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is leading work to provide training for teachers through a national network of science learning centres and the Government are also funding the production of a DVD of the play “Every Breath”, which addresses animal rights issues, for distribution to teachers. The forces involved in apprehending the extremists have done an excellent job and that is why I wrote to express that view on behalf of the Committee, although I am sure that I was writing on behalf of the whole House.

China

15. What steps are being taken by the UK Government to support sustainable development in China. (137241)

Last month I met State Councillor Tang and Premier Wen in Beijing. I put to them a proposal to strengthen co-operation between the United Kingdom and China on sustainability, which has been an important focus of the China taskforce which I have chaired since 2003. In China, Premier Wen has highlighted the need for a new model of sustainability, including greater efforts to save energy, reduce consumption and protect the environment. The 11th five-year plan contained ambitious targets on energy and promoting sustainable development, including energy efficiency improvements of 20 per cent. by 2010. The Chinese are keen to step up exchanges with the UK to help them to develop sustainable communities, and they see both the Thames Gateway and the UK-designed eco-city at Dongtan as key examples.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his efforts to share information about making our cities sustainable and to use that work as an example to other cities. I hope that he will continue with that work during his remaining time as Deputy Prime Minister. He will be sadly missed.

It is a lovely day—I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. The work that we are doing with China to develop new principles for sustainable cities is among the important developments that I hope we can all support. China will transfer about 15 million people from rural areas to urban areas every year, and that will require about 1,000 more cities, which will create a tremendous demand for energy. Britain’s skilled architects and planners can demonstrate the sustainable new model necessary to reduce the impact on the environment and improve the quality of our cities for the benefit of all.

PRIME MINISTER

Engagements

Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 16 May. (137247)

I have been asked to reply. As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Washington today for discussions with President Bush ahead of the G8 summit in June. Later today, the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and I will meet members of the family of Madeleine McCann, at their request. I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House will be with them at this terrible time.

I endorse the sentiments about the tragic situation in Portugal that the Deputy Prime Minister has just expressed.

May I quote two statements to the right hon. Gentleman? The first is from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister, who said:

“I think if you look back over the last 10 years, what happened over the dome was a mistake.”

The second is from the Deputy Prime Minister himself:

“If we can’t make this work, we’re not much of a Government.”

Who was right?

It was another terrible Tory mess that we inherited. I was supportive of the strategic necessity of building the Jubilee line under the previous Administration, as that was the right decision. It was also absolutely right to pay £350 million to bring back into use that poisonous bit of land in the middle of London. The target of 12 million people attending the dome was set before we came into office. I disputed that at the time, but 7 million did attend, and 98 per cent. thought it was a good exhibition. I think that they were right, and I am not apologising for that.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that on Friday 2 March more than 100 Labour Members were in the House to make sure that the Temporary and Agency Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Bill was heard? As of today, 120 colleagues have signed early-day motion 1299 to urge progress on measures to end unfair discrimination against agency workers. In his remaining weeks in office, will my right hon. Friend look at that, try to get some progress on what was a promise at Warwick before the last election, and continue his decades-long fight for ordinary working people and hard-working families?

May I begin by echoing what the Deputy Prime Minister said about Madeleine McCann, her family and their terrible worries at this time? In all parts of the House, and throughout the nation, people will be praying for the safe return of that little girl.

The Deputy Prime Minister has just been told, following the announcement of his resignation, that he will be missed on his side. He can be sure that he will be even more missed on our side. Seriously, although we have disagreed with many of his policies and exchanged many harsh words, he has so far served 37 years in the House and 10 years as Deputy Prime Minister, and by any standards that counts as an achievement. We wish him well in his retirement,

However, he is still the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer says that the Government should admit mistakes—although the Deputy Prime Minister has just disagreed with the one that the Chancellor put at the top of the list. In the spirit of admitting mistakes, does he agree that the junior doctor recruitment process has been, by the standards of any Government, a truly shocking piece of incompetence?

It is so nice, after 37 years, to know that I will be missed—but I am not leaving the House yet, and I will still play my part. I will not be whingeing on the Back Benches, as I hear some of my colleagues do from time to time. I will support this Government, who have done a wonderful job over the past 10 years. I notice that the right hon. Gentleman did not attend the first session. Was his fee for the first session too expensive, or, given his rates for speaking, is the overtime that would be charged too much money for the Tory party?

On the question asked by the right hon. Gentleman, let us make no mistake: the Secretary of State for Health has apologised for the difficulties with the technology and the system’s delivery. I understand that she will also be making a statement after Prime Minister’s questions, so the matter is best left for then.

While the right hon. Gentleman is on mistakes, let me point out what this Government have done in office, compared with what his Government did. You gave us boom and bust, and we gave an economy of economic growth. You put 3 million—[Hon. Members: “He.”] I will do it again. He gave the country boom and bust, and we delivered sustained economic growth, which we had not seen for decades. He put 3 million on the dole; we put 2.5 million people back to work. Most scandalously, he doubled the number of pensioners in poverty; we lifted 1 million out of poverty. I will swap mistakes and records with him—the House will hear more and more of that, whether I am Deputy Prime Minister or not. May I say that I am the longest-serving Deputy Prime Minister? I have seen off five Tory shadow spokesmen and four Liberal ones, and I am still here.

We are very sorry to hear that the right hon. Gentleman will not be whingeing from the Back Benches, because we hoped that he would—and indeed he may be tempted to in the coming years. However, the question was about junior doctors.

A year and a half ago, the Government knew that unprecedented numbers of doctors would require training posts on 1 August. Now, with 11 weeks to go, thousands of junior doctors either have no training posts or have no idea where in the country their jobs will be, or even in which country they will be. If the Government are going to start admitting to mistakes, should they not also start holding Ministers to account? Given the right hon. Gentleman’s long experience of sitting at the Cabinet table, which we have all just celebrated, who does he think is to be held responsible for the junior doctors fiasco? [Interruption.]

Yes, the Tories. [An Hon. Member: “Wicked Tories!”] Yes, even the wicked Tories, when we look at the record.

I have told the right hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State will come to the House to deal with the matter later, and that will be the appropriate time for it to be dealt with. Indeed, I understand that she will be answering an urgent question that has been tabled. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman tabled it, but it has been tabled and we will answer it.

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman where the fault lies. We had to increase the number of medical students when we came to office: this Government brought in 72 per cent.—13,300—more student doctors. The Opposition health spokesman, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), knows that to be true. We doubled investment in junior doctor training, and doctors’ pay increased by 17 per cent. That is not a bad record. It is the difference between us in government and the Tories in government.

It is a bad record, given that large amounts of the money are being spent on junior doctors who must then find jobs in Australia and Canada because training posts are not available in this country. It is no good blaming everyone else. Two thirds of GPs now think that general practice has become worse in the last decade, and 95 per cent. of consultants say that the Government’s performance in this regard has been miserable.

The Chancellor is keen for the Government to admit to mistakes. Is not another of those mistakes the looming fiasco over home information packs? Given that the Chancellor wants to strengthen Parliament and strengthen home ownership, will he be here in Parliament this afternoon to vote with us against home information packs, which will damage home ownership?

The issue of home information packs is a typical example of the hypocrisy of the Opposition. They say “Vote blue, get green”—I think that that was their slogan—but as soon as an opportunity comes to vote for an energy conservation measure, whether it is home information packs or the climate change levy, they always vote against it. That is the difference. It is rhetoric versus substance.

While I am on the subject of rhetoric versus substance, let me deal with the point about doctors. It is interesting to note that a Healthcare Commission survey published today shows that 90 per cent. of patients said national health service care was “excellent”, “very good” or “good”. There are 115,000 more nurses in the NHS, waiting lists are down, there are more operations, and there is massive investment in the health service. Under the Tories, waiting lists went up, beds were cut and the hospital building programme ground to a halt. Don’t tell me about your record!

The survey also shows that mixed-sex wards are still prevalent in a large number of hospitals and trusts, so don’t tell us about your record! I mean that the right hon. Gentleman should not tell us about his record, Mr. Speaker.

Let me return to the subject with which we are now dealing. Is it not the Chancellor who has cut grants for low-carbon building programmes and the use of solar power? I know that he always likes to disappear when there is trouble, but where is he today, when home information packs are to be debated? He is never around when there is bad news, although making himself invisible when he launched his leadership campaign was taking things to extremes.

The Chancellor says that he wants to see more humility in Government. Given that home information packs are opposed by almost everyone with an interest in the stability of the housing market, why does he not listen to those people?

If the right hon. Gentleman looks back at the record on home information packs he will find that consumer groups fully supported them when I introduced them after we came to office. They made the point that they wanted the costs to be switched from buyers to sellers. Buyers already have to pay those costs, and many of them bitterly complain. They enter into arrangements to purchase a house before a contract has been produced and then find that they lose thousands of pounds in paying for things that they cannot claim for. The situation I have described does not arise in Scotland because Scotland had the courage to make the change. We have faced vested interest groups that have constantly opposed improving the lot of people moving house. However, in the end there will be a debate. There is no doubt that the energy part of the process has been improved, which is welcome, although the Conservatives will vote against it. That is another classic example of the difference between their rhetoric on the environment and what they actually do in this House.

Home information packs will not deal with the point that the right hon. Gentleman has just raised. He mentioned Scotland; he will need the votes of Scottish MPs to force this measure through here in England. The Chancellor talks about admitting to mistakes, but no one is held to account on junior doctors. He talks about boosting home ownership, yet home information packs go through. He talks about humility, but refuses to listen even to the Consumers Association. Does not that show that the Chancellor cannot be the change that this country needs, and if a new Cabinet will have the same attitude as the old, collapsing Cabinet, should we not have a general election and let the people decide?

I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would be a bit careful about calling for a general election. I remember him doing that and getting horribly beaten—it was one of the worst results of any Tory party. Given those circumstances, he should not ask for that. This Chancellor has been responsible for an awful lot of Government policy. That has resulted in a record period in office, with us winning three elections despite all the calls for general elections that we have had.

The right hon. Gentleman points to difficulties to do with differences in view. May I ask him, as I have seen this today—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”] I just wish to make a point. I notice that the leader of his party is away today and that there has been a change of policy on grammar schools. When the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was leader, he promised that there would be one in every town. I do not know how popular this U-turn is within his party—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I do not know how popular this new policy is in the right hon. Gentleman’s party. Will all the Opposition Members who support it put their hands up?

We recently celebrated the 1 millionth child being helped by Sure Start. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the many parents and children in North-East Derbyshire who have been helped by this fantastic service that it will be safeguarded for the future?

Everybody agrees that Sure Start has been a very successful service. So far, about 1 million children have benefited from it and we are on course to achieve 3,000 Sure Starts within the next few years. There has been a real improvement, and we are proud of it. The next stage in the finances involves the comprehensive spending review, which is under way. We have given assurances that we are committed to this programme and they will be followed through in that future spending commitment.

May I express my colleagues’ support for the McCann family?

At the Labour party conference last year, the Chancellor said:

“David Miliband, John Prescott and I will publish proposals this autumn”—

that was last year—for the creation of 100,000 new environmental jobs. Where are they?

There are considerable advantages in such jobs and plans are under way to achieve that aim. The development of new low-carbon houses and the investment in the environment that is being made will constitute a major investment in creating jobs and will change the whole economy. The commitment to the 60 per cent. of emissions target that we have set ourselves requires many of our regions to make considerable changes to their economies and development. Such changes will bring that new type of investment and a tremendous number of jobs, and we are on the way to achieving that aim. The primary purpose of my speech at last night’s John Smith lecture was to make precisely that point. Major changes are happening, and they are coming about because of climate change. Along with any kind of industrial revolution comes jobs.

The answer to my specific question is that this was an attempt to imitate the Conservative leader’s undoubted talent for coming up with environmentally friendly but empty soundbites. Another soundbite that we heard this week was the proposal for eco new towns. Why does it make sense to provide tax breaks for developers to build on greenbelt land, when 25 million householders who want to improve energy efficiency and the quality and quantity of housing have to pay full value added tax rates?

There is no doubt that the hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but it is not a question of building on the green belt. The record of this Government since 1997 shows that we have transferred a lot of house building on to brownfield sites. The figure for such building was about 50 per cent. under the Tories when they left office; it is now 72 per cent., which is a considerable change. We are looking at the example of China and working with the Sustainable Development Commission on how to move away from the motorway cities into which Birmingham and Leeds have developed, for example, and to develop instead new types of cities and sustainable growth. That is the challenge and we are working hard on it. I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the lecture that I gave last night, which, as I said, was about precisely this issue.

I take this move on the environment as perhaps being a leadership bid. According to today’s edition of The Times, half of Lib Dem voters want a new leader. Perhaps the time has come to pass the heavy mantle of leadership on to a younger man. The hon. Gentleman might bring true youth and vitality to the role—by the way, I congratulate him on reaching 64 last week.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his expressions of sympathy and support for my constituents Kate and Gerry McCann, who are in Portugal, and their family. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that what has happened to the McCann family is every parent’s worst nightmare? Will he join me in expressing the thanks of the House and of this country for the support of the authorities and people of Portugal in their efforts to find Madeleine, and will he express the hope that their efforts will be rewarded by success as quickly as possible?

The whole House will agree with everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said. It is indeed every parent’s nightmare, and like everyone in the country, we hope and pray for the safe return of Madeleine. We are doing everything that we can to support the McCanns in Portugal. The Foreign Office has been actively involved, the Leicester police are involved and we are doing everything that we possibly can to assist Madeleine’s parents in this most difficult situation. The investigation is of course the responsibility of the Portuguese police, but our people are assisting where they feel that that is necessary. The right hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and I will meet Madeleine’s relatives at about 1.15 pm, and I will express what I know is the full feeling of this House in these difficult circumstances.

When my right hon. Friend visited Ellesmere Port last year, he saw some wonderful new school developments built under this Government. He also visited West Cheshire college, which is on the site of his old secondary school. He will be interested to know that the college is going to expand in order to increase the opportunities for young people in my constituency. During the last few weeks of his time in office, will he ensure that he does all that he can to promote the development of the college’s next phase, and to ensure that the architecture is of the standard that we have come to expect?

Thank you. Anybody else want to give the answer?

We have had a huge investment in our education system which nobody doubts. There are arguments sometimes about value for money, but an announcement was made in the last two days about the new schools that have been built in every one of our constituencies. No hon. Member can say that they have not had a new school. We have built more new schools in the last five years than were built in the previous 25 years. That is another example. I will be delighted to see extra investment going to the Grange, as I used to know it, for adult education in Ellesmere Port. It was a secondary modern school when I went to it—some hon. Members may think that that is evident. At the time, many people were dependent on free school meals. Given the recent announcement about grammar schools and the concern about free school meals, I wonder whether having a low proportion of school meals will be a threat to the Eton establishment.

Q2. On the topic of rhetoric versus reality, the Chancellor recently reannounced plans to build up to 200,000 zero carbon homes in Britain by 2016. But in yesterday’s Committee on the Finance Bill, his great guru the Economic Secretary, when pressed on exactly how many such homes had been built under Labour to date, replied, “None.” Is that admission correct or was it a load of old, well—Ed? (137248)

A number of houses have been built to a low carbon specification and we changed the rules governing building regulations. There were nine millennium sites, starting with Greenwich and the dome, where we built houses to low carbon standards and new environmental standards. We have built a number of thousands of them already. The Chancellor was referring to the importance of building many more to meet the need for affordable homes, and I fully support that.

This morning UNICEF ambassador Jemima Khan joins me in Westminster Hall to launch the breastfeeding manifesto. Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that breastfeeding brings tremendous health benefits for mothers and babies, helps tackle health inequalities and can even save the NHS money? However, breastfeeding rates in the UK are lower than in many other countries. Will he give his personal support to the manifesto, which seeks to make our society more tolerant and supportive of breastfeeding?

Q3. Given that official figures show that between 1997 and 2006 completions of council homes across the UK dropped from over 1,500 to under 250, and completions of other social housing dropped from over 28,000 to under 25,000, will the Deputy Prime Minister apologise for the appalling record of 10 years of lack of provision of social housing and promise that under his successors things can only get better? (137249)

I must tell the hon. Gentleman, as I have done from time to time, that in 1997 we made a decision that, as there had been £20 billion disinvestment in our public housing because the Tories had sold houses but done nothing about those lived in by millions of tenants, we would have a programme of £40 billion to bring 2 million homes up to standard in kitchens and central heating. A little old lady in central London told me that she was delighted with her central heating because, she said, “I can now invite my kids without worrying that they will be cold.” That is the difference that has been made for millions of people.

The hon. Gentleman is not taking full account of the social housing provision in the Housing Association programme—[Hon. Members: “We are.”] Well, the difficulty is that at the same time more and more demands have come from single parents. There is no doubt that there is a need to give the matter greater priority, as Ministers have said. That is what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been saying in his speeches, and I have no doubt that he will carry it out.

Q4. Schools without books, let alone computers—that is the reality for children in Lesotho in southern Africa. Those schools are linking with schools in Wrexham in north Wales so that children in Wales can get a real perspective on how lucky they are. Will my right hon. Friend commend the Global Schools Partnership, in which the Government invested heavily last year, and say how many schools are involved in that excellent project? Will he encourage all hon. Members to advance the cause of the partnership in their constituencies? (137250)

I very much agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. I am sorry that I cannot tell him how many schools are involved in the programme, but I shall write to him with the information. The British Council has been conducting a similar programme called “Connecting Classrooms”. I was in Ghana and Sierra Leone only a few weeks ago, and I saw the importance of twinning schools there with schools in the UK and the benefit that it brings to the children. It is our intention to use the programme—and I know that you, Mr. Speaker, are aware of this—to bring children from Ghana, Sierra Leone and the West Indies here to join children from UK schools for a debate in the Westminster Hall Chamber on slavery and modern-day trafficking. That is an example of the beneficial connection between schools that the programmes makes possible. I am delighted to say that I have been involved in a programme that unites schools from various countries with schools in my constituency, and I am sure that other hon. Members have been similarly involved.

Q6. Two weeks ago, the Minister for Europe explained in an article in The Guardian that one of the failures of the Government in 2003, when he was Defence Secretary, was that it did not influence the American Administration sufficiently, especially with regard to the disbandment of the Iraqi army and Administration. He said that the Government had failed to notice the influence of Vice-President Dick Cheney. Since the Deputy Prime Minister marks Dick Cheney in the American Administration, what explanation does he have for that failure, and its catastrophic consequences? (137252)

I did not mark Dick Cheney particularly, although I met him once or twice. I recall that we met for the first time via video screen because, after the terrible 9/11 business, he was in a cave somewhere under security control. [Interruption.] I remarked that I did not think that bin Laden would be living under the same conditions, but perhaps we should leave that aside. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Europe is entitled to his point of view. I do not know how correct it is, and I shall not make any comment as to whether I heard similar thoughts expressed in Cabinet but, as I have already made clear to the House, I am not joining that brigade.

Medical Training Application Service

Following the recommendations of the review group chaired by Professor Neil Douglas, the extended round one of recruitment to postgraduate medical training is now taking place. As the House knows, every eligible applicant for postgraduate medical training has now been guaranteed at least one interview for their first-preference post, regardless of the outcome of the earlier shortlisting process, although many, of course, will have more than one interview.

An additional 15,500 interviews have therefore been arranged for the extended round one, and they are now taking place. I am extremely grateful to the consultants who have made themselves available for those additional interviews, and to their hospitals for making the time available.

The review group agreed that offers of training places for the current round will be managed locally by individual postgraduate deaneries on the basis of published Modernising Medical Careers guidance. Subject to the outcome of the current judicial review, the first offers for hospital specialties in England will be made on or after next Monday, 21 May, with all initial offers made by early June and round one completed by late June.

Given the continuing concerns of junior doctors about MTAS, the system will not be used for matching candidates to training posts, but will continue to be used by the deaneries. As we have stressed before, not all training posts will be filled in round one, so there will be further substantial opportunities for those who are not successful initially, including the new training posts that are being agreed by the NHS, the Department of Health and the Postgraduate Medical Education and Training Board.

The review group has recommended, and we have of course accepted, that the further recruitment will be locally planned and managed by the postgraduate deaneries. Because most trainee doctors’ contracts are due to end before the further recruitment has been completed, we will be agreeing with the review group, deaneries and hospitals the necessary measures to ensure that all those trainees are properly supported and patients continue to be properly cared for.

Finally, as I told the House yesterday in relation to the recent security breaches of the online application service, a full security review of the MTAS system has now been completed and validated, and appropriate action taken to deal with the problems. The site was, therefore, reopened last week for the use of postgraduate deaneries only, to support the next steps in the recruitment process, including continued monitoring in line with MMC principles. Because the investigation has made it clear that criminal offences may have been committed, the full security analysis and report have been given to the police.

I am sorry that the Secretary of State did not volunteer a statement and I am also sorry that today, in responding to my question, she said nothing more than she said in her written ministerial statement yesterday, yet many questions require answers.

The Secretary of State has effectively abandoned MTAS. It will not be used to make offers in round one and it will not be used at all for round two. In her statement, she said that there would be “further substantial opportunities” in round two, but junior doctors need to know what that means. She has not told us—although she must know—how many training posts have become available through round one. In early April, the British Medical Association said that 18,500 training posts had been advertised and the Secretary of State must know how many eligible applicants there are. Originally, there were more than 34,000. How many are there now? That figure will give us a basis for establishing how many junior doctors are likely not to have training posts after round one.

We need to know how many additional training posts there will be. The Secretary of State has still not told us how many will be created. The House will recall that on 19 March, when she responded to our first urgent question, I called for the creation of additional training posts. The Department asked NHS trusts to bid for such posts by 27 April and we are now approaching the point where those posts need to be put into the application process, yet we do not how many there are or where they are.

It is vital that junior doctors know how many of the available posts are run-through training posts that will take them all the way to specialty status and how many are fixed-term or temporary training posts. The balance between the two matters tremendously, not least because if thousands of junior doctors do not obtain training posts this year, they need to know that there will be scope for additional run-through posts for complete specialty training starting next year. If they do not know whether those posts are available, they may choose to leave the profession or the country—a decision they may be making in weeks, not months.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House why it has proved possible for the Scottish deanery to supply all the applicants with the four interviews they were originally promised, yet a guarantee of only one interview is possible in England? Will the Secretary of State understand and acknowledge that although we talk about junior doctors, they are actually people who have gone through five years of undergraduate medical education, a year of pre-registration as house officers and, in many cases, several years of academic and clinical experience? These are the people who are quite likely to be the doctors we remember—those who treat us when we go to hospital. They are senior professionals and the way in which they are being treated is appalling.

Even at this late stage, these people do not know where they will be working on 1 August. It may be anywhere from Cromer to St. Albans in the eastern region. [Interruption.] Perhaps they would prefer to be in Cromer—I do not know. That issue is absolutely essential. These people have families to look after and careers to pursue. They have husbands, wives, or partners who have their own careers that cannot simply be picked up and dropped somewhere else in the country at five weeks’ notice. That is what the Secretary of State and the system are requiring of them. When will the Secretary of State acknowledge that these people cannot be treated as numbers on a computer system, especially when the computer system crashes? They have to be treated as individuals.

Will the Secretary of State now take responsibility for all this? In a survey published in The Lancet yesterday, 95 per cent. of doctors said that they regarded the performance of the Department of Health on this issue as miserable. As she did on Channel 4 last night, the Secretary of State takes refuge in saying that the principles of MMC were agreed with the profession, but those principles included fair and effective recruitment, flexibility, and a wider career choice. Those principles have not been delivered; they have been undermined by the implementation of the MTAS process. No wonder that Sir John Tooke in his review is having to go back to ground zero to review the principles as well as the implementation of medical education and training.

Does the Secretary of State recall the document that I have in my hand? It was an internal document from her Department last July and it looked at the communications needs of MMC-MTAS. It referred to having to communicate with chief medical officers and Ministers. How did the document describe Ministers’ status last July? It referred to:

“High awareness, low understanding of details and complexity”.

That is the position that Ministers were in when they were in the midst of preparing for this shambles. The Secretary of State cannot chuck away the responsibility for this matter. She has to take responsibility for it. Will she now understand that the only way to do that is to resign?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of points, some of which we have covered in the House before. I have already explained the position with MTAS. The online application system has not been abandoned. In the light of the security review and the improvements that were made last week, it was reopened to the postgraduate deaneries, which will continue to use it for the recruitment process.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the need for junior doctors to know how many training places will be available after round one. Of course they need to know, but we will not know how many training places have been filled in round one until round one is completed later in June. We know and have already discussed in the House how many posts there are. The overall total for the UK as a whole is about 23,500. That includes the general practitioner posts, which have been dealt with under a separate system. The remaining posts have been made available via MTAS. Of those posts, just under 12,000 are run-through training posts, 3,488 are fixed-term posts and 182 are academic posts. Those figures are for England. For the UK as a whole, the figures are just over 14,500 run-through training posts, 4,392 fixed-term posts and 185 academic posts.

Those figures are all in the public domain and have been for some time, but the number of training posts that will be filled in round one and therefore the number that will be available for the next recruitment round will depend entirely on the decisions of interviewing panels. Those decisions will be taken only as the interviews are completed for each group of posts. The interviews are still taking place this week, although we expect them to finish early next week. The interviewing panels will then decide how many job offers to make to the candidates they have rated as appointable, and the candidates will then decide which of those job offers to accept. That process for round one will be completed towards the end of June. The expectation of the postgraduate deaneries is that the majority of posts will be filled in round one, before the end of June, but that there will remain a substantial number of training posts available to enable further recruitment to take place, including the extra training posts that we will announce shortly.

The reason why we have not yet been able to announce the number of additional training posts is that it was not possible to begin to decide where those additional posts should be placed until we knew exactly how many candidates there were for different specialties. We did not know that until the candidates had exercised their right, as a result of the review group’s excellent deliberations, to change their first preference. I realise that this is complicated and that Opposition Members might not be interested in the detail, but understanding and sorting out the detail is essential, so that is precisely what we are doing.

As the candidates have now all reprioritised their applications, we know how many candidates there are for each specialty, and that information has been published. The Department, the review group, the royal colleges, the deaneries and the hospitals are now deciding where the additional training posts should be made available in such a way as to meet the needs of the service and patients. I am afraid that there is no point in creating large numbers of additional training posts if the service itself has decided that it does not need that number of jobs.

The hon. Gentleman said that Scotland has offered all candidates four interviews. It has indeed done so, and the review group examined whether that would be possible in England, where, of course, the numbers are a great deal larger. There were certainly junior doctors who were pressing for that to happen. The review group—in other words the royal colleges and the British Medical Association—decided, quite rightly, that it would be impossible to give every applicant four interviews for the simple reason that consultants would have to abandon patients completely to carry out four interviews for every candidate, regardless of whether those candidates were initially shortlisted. Every candidate is getting at least one interview, while many—probably most—will get more than that.

It is a great pity that the hon. Gentleman has made no recognition at all of the admirable work and dedication of people such as Carol Black, the chairman of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Jim Johnson, the chairman of the BMA, and their junior doctor colleagues who, through the review group, have helped us to put in place the necessary arrangements for this year—a difficult year in which problems have arisen—to ensure that this year’s system will be as fair as possible to junior doctors and will continue to meet the needs of patients. Those are our priorities, and I will continue to deliver on them.

When I wrote to my right hon. Friend a few months ago to outline the comments and concerns of the daughter of one of my constituents, who is training in the Leicester area, she gave me a helpful response. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to support my constituent’s daughter to move through the process, it is right that we persist and work through any difficulties, rather than heeding any calls to abandon the recruitment process? My constituent’s daughter and the consultant with whom she was working have put in thousands of hours on this across the piece, and it would be wrong to change and abandon the process at this point.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The BMA and the royal colleges made precisely that point at the end of last week and again yesterday. If the process was abandoned, as is being sought through the judicial review, it would mean simply throwing away the enormous amount of work that has been done by consultants in the current interview round and junior doctors themselves. That would be the wrong thing to do, which is why we are not going to do it.

Is not the real scandal that the Secretary of State has ploughed on regardless with a fatally flawed system that has caused massive strain to junior doctors and potentially compromised patient care? Does she not concede that it would have been better if she had listened to clinicians and junior doctors right at the start—when the chaos first emerged—and suspended MTAS at that point, rather than having everyone go through such a costly exercise over the past few weeks?

I have asked previously about cost. What is the cost of the MTAS system, and what is the cost of remedying and handling the crisis that has occurred? The Secretary of State previously referred to a breach of contract that she believes has taken place. Is legal action being taken, and is she considering terminating the contract with Methods, the supplier? Despite her announcement, the selection system for interviews remains unfair. Is she considering the proposal that we make the posts temporary training posts until a fairer system can be introduced? Also, the 1 August problem remains. Is she listening to the concerns raised by senior consultants, who think that there will be chaos on 1 August, as everyone will start their new job on that date?

Will the Secretary of State clarify what progress is being made on the 15,500 extra interviews? How on earth can there be sufficient time, after those interviews, for families and individuals to relocate for their new job before 1 August? She mentioned that criminal offences are alleged to have been committed. Will she give more details on what criminal offences are being investigated? Finally, is not the truth of the matter that the capitulation was simply the result of the legal action being taken by Remedy UK, or is it just a coincidence that the statement was made yesterday—just one day before the judicial review application was due to be heard in the High Court? Is it any wonder that a survey published yesterday shows that 90 per cent. of consultants have lost confidence in the Secretary of State?

The hon. Gentleman says, once again, that we should have just abandoned the whole system at the outset. That was the first possibility that we and the review group considered. Far from ignoring the views of doctors and consultants, we listened to them by working directly with the royal colleges and the British Medical Association, including its junior doctor representatives, through the review group. I remind him that on 4 April the review group said that it had looked seriously at

“all of the options available, including a full and detailed analysis of pulling out of the current selection process completely. In the end”—

I remind the hon. Gentleman that these are the words of the review group on 4 April—

“it was simply not a credible option. It would be impossible to place the best candidates in posts and fulfil the service needs in time for August using the old system of recruitment. We believe we have come up with the best available solution for England.”

The group believed that at the time. I endorsed its view and I continue to do so, and that is why we will certainly not abandon the present system. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is continuing on that track. As I just said to him, if we did abandon it, we would be throwing away the thousands of hours of work and effort that junior doctors and consultants have put into the tens of thousands of interviews that have taken place, and that are still taking place. Those interviews will lead to job offers being made from next week, and to posts being filled.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the cost. The cost in 2006-07 of the online MTAS system, including set-up costs, is £1.9 million. That is for the UK as a whole, and it was therefore funded by all four UK Health Departments in proportion. In each subsequent financial year of the contract, the costs will be less than that, although we will, of course, want to take account of any recommendations made by the review led by Sir John Tooke on the use of MTAS for future recruitment rounds. As for the costs of the changes that had to be made this year, it is not yet possible to estimate them; we will do so in due course.

The hon. Gentleman asked about temporary posts and the changeover date of 1 August. As I have said before, that changeover date of 1 August has always applied to most junior and trainee doctor rotations, so it is not a new challenge for NHS hospitals to ensure that they have the necessary staff in place, and that the care of patients is properly maintained. Perhaps I could draw his attention to what Dame Carol Black has said on the subject:

“It isn't true to say that patient care will be put at risk. Delivering patient care is a team effort and all consultants who conduct interviews will have ensured that their services are covered.”

That was said in relation to the current additional interviews. She continued:

“A much greater risk to patient safety would be not to have doctors in place on the 1st August.”

We are now working with the service, as I have said, to ensure that the doctors are in place to care for patients, and that trainees who have not accepted or been made a job offer in round one are properly supported and are not left high and dry; of course, we will not allow that. Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about details of potential criminal offences. Of course, I am not in a position to say anything more on that subject, and I am surprised that he asked.

Would the Secretary of State care to expand on her comments on proper support? That is the crux of how we take the issue forward. It is fine for the people who get a job in round one—hopefully, they will know whether they have got a job sooner, rather than later—but my concern is about the other people involved. Often, a couple of trainee doctors will live together. They may be married, or they may not, and they might have children. They may get jobs at different ends of the country, and the children would have to be uprooted from their schools. That is the human dimension of the problem. It is important that proper support measures are put in place, and that all the junior doctors who are not successful in round one know that those measures are in place, so that we can ensure that people continue to have the talent and skills to provide for the health service. Will the Secretary of State expand on the subject of proper support, and tell us how the people affected will be properly supported and provided with jobs?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, and it is precisely on those issues that the review group, the Department of Health and Ministers are currently concentrating. First, the important point to stress is that junior doctors, in making their applications and choosing their first preference, will have taken account of where they, their families and sometimes their partners will want to be, and that of course will guide not only the offers that may be made, but also the acceptance of those offers. As I have already indicated, we anticipate that those offers will start being made next week, and the round one process, in which offers are made and junior doctors accept them, should be completed before the end of June.

Of course, as I have said before, we need, value and want the skills and dedication of junior doctors in the NHS, and we want them to continue to care for patients in the way that they already do. That is why we will ensure that they get proper support, are not left high and dry, and can continue in appropriate employment while they apply for further training opportunities, which, as I have said, will be available beyond round one. We will also ensure that the service continues to have all the doctors available to it that it needs if it is to continue to care for patients in the excellent way that has led, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister just said, to more than nine out of 10 patients rating their care in hospital as good, very good or excellent in an independent survey. That is a tribute to all the doctors and other professionals in the health service, including our junior doctors.

How many of the 33,000 applicants have been judged “eligible”? Mr. Speaker, the House is grateful to you and to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) for ensuring that the question was asked today, and to the Secretary of State for giving some answers, but the matter goes deeper than that; she and her colleagues are responsible for making the best of the situation that we are now in.

When the Prime Minister returns, will he and the Secretary of State get together with Dr. Richard Marks, the London anaesthetist who thinks that a changeover for everybody on 1 August is not sensible, and Dr. Gordon Caldwell of Worthing, who since the autumn has been offering suggestions on how to make things better? Will she discuss with that group—and perhaps even with the Liberal and Tory spokesmen, too—whether it is sensible for the run-through grades to start on 1 August, given the current unfairness and lack of equality of opportunity?

Will the Secretary of State also discuss the problem in the present system—I do not mean the computer system—which means that a PhD, the result of three years of relevant work, is judged to be no more important than a 150-word essay on leadership on the application forms?

As I have previously told the House, there are 34,415 applicants UK-wide in the MTAS system, and 32,649 of them are eligible. Of that total, about 30,000 are already working in the NHS, whether in training posts or in non-training posts. That is why, as I stressed to the hon. Gentleman and the House on previous occasions, the NHS will continue to need those jobs and those doctors, even though not all, by definition, will be able to be in training posts.

On the issue of 1 August, I have already referred to Dame Carol Black, the work of the review group and the reasons why it has been generally agreed through the review group’s leadership that we need to fill as many posts as we properly can for 1 August. That is what will happen through round one, although not all the jobs will be filled.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to two doctors who had particular proposals to make in relation to 1 August. If he could pass those proposals or the doctors’ details to me, we could follow up directly with them and seek their advice on it. I will ensure that it is brought to the attention of my colleagues and the review group.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the tremendous stress caused by the process to young doctors, who have been through a long period of training at great public expense and want to contribute to the health care of the entire community. I have met groups in my constituency who are very stressed by it and worried about the future. Can she offer any assurance as to how many of those junior doctors, who have completed a long period of training and worked very hard, will be unemployed at the end of the process? To me, the idea of unemployed doctors, when there is such enormous health need, is unthinkable.

My hon. Friend is right to speak about the stress that has been caused to junior doctors and their families. I have talked to and corresponded with a large number of them, so I have seen that directly, although it is worth bearing it in mind that the old system which Modernising Medical Careers is replacing was thoroughly unsatisfactory, hugely stressful to junior doctors, and on top of that required them to go through multiple applications in different formats, with no national principles guidance and no consistency or transparency at all. We need to bear in mind the enormous problems that led people to believe that we needed a completely different approach to medical training. Of course the stress exists. That is why we are doing everything possible to ensure that round one is successfully completed and that further training opportunities are then made available and people recruited to those jobs, but supported through the recruitment process.

My hon. Friend mentioned unemployment. I come back to the point that of the 32,000 or so eligible applicants across the UK, over 30,000 are already working in the NHS in training places or, in around 8,000 or so cases, non-training jobs. All those jobs will continue to be needed. What we have to do and are doing is ensuring that applicants and other doctors are matched to the available training posts and the other jobs in a way that is fair to all those applicants, but also right for patients.

Many of us in the House as Members of Parliament and as members of the Health Committee, on which I have the honour of serving, have been contacted by doctors who are desperate for progression in their training programme. Although the Secretary of State says that the previous system was not perfect, it was not a disaster and a crisis like the one that she has brought on the NHS. I reiterate what 99.9 per cent. of those who contacted us said—actually, I have not found a single doctor who has not said—resign, resign now, take responsibility for the disaster and go.

The substantive points have all been discussed at length in the House on this and other occasions.

On responsibility, when something like this goes wrong and when there are real problems in the implementation of an agreed policy, I think there are two things that a Minister should do: apologise and take responsibility for sorting it out, and I am doing both.

It is to be hoped that the MTAS affair will cool the passionate relationship that has existed between the Department of Health and the private sector IT industry. Can the Secretary of State respond to a point that is being made by the Opposition? They say that a substantial number of doctors will disappear overseas. What proportion of the 33,000 eligible applicants are of overseas origin?

A significant number of the applicants are of overseas origin, many from the Indian sub-continent, including many in my own city, Leicester. Many of them have been working in the NHS for many, many years in non-training posts. What the new system has provided is an opportunity for those who wish to do so to apply for training posts where they will be considered, like every other applicant, on their merit. We should recognise that because the NHS in the past never trained enough doctors to meet the need of the service and of patients, something for which Conservative Members might care to take responsibility, the NHS has always depended on large numbers of doctors, nurses and other professionals from overseas to help care for patients. We should pay tribute to their dedication, along with the dedication of all the other junior doctors and professionals in the NHS.

I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that there have been more statements and urgent questions on this subject than virtually anything else in recent times. That indicates the seriousness with which the House views the subject, as do many of our constituents, many of whom are junior doctors and are writing to us expressing their concern about their future and their families, and whether they can make a positive contribution to the national health service. I am not after resignations and I do not seek to make vast political points across the House. Can the Secretary of State tell us today that the difficulties that have been encountered by junior doctors in respect of their future career have now been overcome and that the problem is solved?

We are solving the problems, but precisely because this is a matter of great concern to junior doctors and many other people, I have undertaken to keep the House up to date. That is the right thing to do and I do not think the hon. Gentleman is complaining about the number of statements that that requires. The matter has to be sorted out step by step, and the first priority was to sort out round one and ensure that every applicant gets at least one interview and is fairly considered for a post. That is drawing towards completion as the job offers start to be made, probably next week. Then we will move into further recruitment opportunities, as I explained, with proper support for junior doctors through that. Stage by stage the problems are being solved and the system will, I believe, allow junior doctors, who have made such an enormous contribution already and done so much work, to continue making that positive contribution to the NHS that they want and we want.

As the ex-chair of a hospital under both a Tory and a Labour Administration, I can honestly say that the time of junior doctor rotation is always difficult and, yes, this year it is more difficult than ever. Will my right hon. Friend please comment on the BMA’s view that to abandon the process now would be disastrous for everybody concerned? Will she also say what role the BMA and the royal colleges will play in the resolution of the problem? The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said that he wants resolution, not resignation. Most people out there want to know that junior doctors will be treated properly, that the professionals are involved and are backing the process, that we are dealing with it and that patients’ care is paramount. With that assurance, they want resolution, and that would be the end of it for most people.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. She makes an important point. The BMA and its junior doctors committee have said that the BMA does not support the judicial review that has been brought by Remedy UK, and that writing off all the tens of thousands of interviews that have already taken place would be disastrous for doctors, for patients and for the NHS. The care and safety of patients, as well as the need to ensure that junior doctors are treated fairly, must be paramount in the process. My hon. Friend also referred to the professional leadership, particularly the leadership that is being shown by the medical royal colleges and by the BMA. They must and will be closely involved in the independent review that will be led by Sir John Tooke, which will enable us to learn lessons, to review Modernising Medical Careers, and to ensure that the principles of MMC, for which there remains widespread support, are properly implemented in future, so that junior doctors and patients are looked after.

Out of the 13,000-plus applicants who will not get training posts, how many will carry on in NHS doctor jobs, and therefore, by deduction, how many will either go abroad, be unemployed or have to seek other kinds of work? That is the figure that people are interested in if they do not want to see that talent wasted for the NHS.

As I have said before, over 30,000—the overwhelming majority—of eligible applicants are already working within the NHS, some in training posts, some in non-training posts. All of those jobs will continue to be needed. Therefore, there is no reason at all why junior doctors need to abandon the NHS and their hopes and aspirations within it, because the jobs are there and the doctors are needed. Over the last 12 months the NHS has employed 3,500 more doctors than it was doing even 12 months ago, and there are about 35,000 more than we inherited from the right hon. Gentleman’s Government. So there are more doctors and there is better care for patients, and as we work through the process and the problems we will match the doctors and the trainees to the posts and the needs of the service and the patients.

The Secretary of State has said that she is keen to take responsibility for sorting out the fiasco, and I know that the junior doctors in my constituency will be relieved to hear that because without a doubt they want resolution, but they and my constituents want to know who was responsible for it. If it was not the Secretary of State, who was it?

We have talked on previous occasions about the many years of consultation and engagement that led up to the introduction of Modernising Medical Careers, the successful introduction of the foundation programme starting in 2005, to which the hon. Lady did not refer, and the real problems of implementation in what was always going to be a difficult transition year. We need to learn the lessons from that and we will do so through the Sir John Tooke review. In the meantime, I take full responsibility for sorting out the problem, and that is what we are doing.

On the issue of the availability of care in hospitals on 1, 2 and 3 August when the junior doctors begin their induction training, the right hon. Lady during a previous urgent question said that she had commissioned advice in response to questions from me. Has she had that advice, and if so, will she place it in the Library of the House?

However, I have to say to the right hon. Lady and to the Minister of State, her right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), that there are no excuses here. If I as a constituency Member of Parliament was being invited into my local hospital by the junior doctors to hear a presentation by the doctor on the BMA’s junior doctors committee about the state of this matter in October, and I then tabled parliamentary questions that were answered by Ministers in October and November, Ministers have nowhere to hide from the responsibility for this utter fiasco. Why will they not take the honourable option?

On the issue of 1 August, which we have discussed before, not all doctors in training will change jobs on the same date at the beginning of August. Therefore, arrangements for this year will to a great extent reflect current practice. As has already been said, hospitals are very used to the fact that a number of doctors do change their rotation in early August and they make appropriate arrangements to ensure that patient care, and above all patient safety, are not jeopardised as a result.

Let me say yet again, if I need to, that I take responsibility for this. I have apologised because that is the least that junior doctors deserve given the distress that they have been subjected to, and we are all now focusing on sorting out the problems and ensuring that junior doctors are treated fairly and that patients continue to receive excellent care.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I accept entirely that it is up to Members to mobilise support for or against a private Member’s Bill. That has been the long tradition in the House. But as you, like your predecessors, are the defender of Back Benchers, I want to bring to your attention the fact that it becomes very difficult to oppose, as I do, the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, which will come before the House on Friday and which will exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act 2000, when we find that the usual channels—to use a phrase—are mobilising support for that measure. I do not for one moment suggest that that in itself is unparliamentary, but it means that all the machinery of the Government and to some extent the Opposition is being mobilised in favour of a private Member’s Bill, which places those of us who are opposed to it at a grave disadvantage. I understand, for example, that Parliamentary Private Secretaries are almost on a three-line Whip, although some have opposed coming in—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been here a long time. In fact, he used to help me and give me advice on matters. I can only say that he is right to say that I am here to defend Back Benchers, and on Friday everyone will get a voice in this Chamber. I cannot get involved in what is happening behind the scenes.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been fortunate to be in the House under three Speakers: Mr. Speaker Weatherill, whose passing we mourn, Madam Speaker Boothroyd and yourself, and it has been a role of all Speakers to protect the House, and that means protecting the House from being treated discourteously by Ministers. For a number of weeks, I tabled a straightforward question to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government asking how many accredited domestic energy assessors and home inspectors there are in each local authority area, region and city in England and Wales. Every week I got the answer that it would be answered shortly. It was only following the intervention of the Leader of House after I raised the matter in business questions that I eventually got an answer that did not seek to disaggregate out home energy inspectors from domestic energy assessors, and clearly did not seek to distinguish between those who are still in training and those who had passed the necessary examinations, but concluded with the words:

“We do not expect assessors to work within local authority boundaries, as they will work largely by region—in some parts of the country, assessors will work across more than one region”.—[Official Report, 8 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 124W.]

So the Minister for Housing and Planning was seeking to suggest that she could not answer the question by way of local authority because domestic energy assessors were going to work by region.

I immediately tabled another named-day question for answer on Monday, pursuant to the answer of 8 May—

Order. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to go through his diary in relation to the tabling of written questions. Courtesy is very important—

The hon. Gentleman knows that he has to come to the main point quickly, and he did not, so I have stopped him. Ministers are responsible for their replies and hon. Members are entitled to pursue the matter by way of further questions and Adjournment debates. It sounds to me as if the hon. Gentleman has a good case for an Adjournment debate. There is certainly no shortage of words. However, I have to stop the hon. Gentleman there. I have given him some good advice.

Members of Parliament (Employment Disqualification)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the regulation of remunerated employment of Members of Parliament; and for connected purposes.

My Bill seeks to regulate the remunerated employment that Members of Parliament may undertake. In short, it would bring to an end some of the more unacceptable aspects of moonlighting by right hon. and hon. Members, something which the public deplore and which serves only to bring Parliament into disrepute.

There has been much hand-wringing by political commentators and politicians about the declining esteem in which Parliament is held. We are right to be concerned about the rising cynicism and declining trust in our political institutions. Indeed, the House itself recognised many of those problems in the 2004 report from the Modernisation Committee entitled “Connecting Parliament with the Public”. The report noted:

“The legitimacy of the House of Commons, as the principal representative body in British democracy, rests upon the support and engagement of the electorate. The decline in political participation and engagement in recent years, as well as in levels of trust in politicians, political parties and the institutions of State should be of concern to every citizen. But it should be of particular concern to the House of Commons. Politicians have always scored low on levels of trust but even so there is a noticeable downward trend, with fewer and fewer people trusting politicians. Lower levels of trust are translating into a disconnection from the institutions of democracy. The fall in election turnout from a post-war high of 84 per cent. in 1950 to 59 per cent.”—

a pitiful 59 per cent.—

“in 2001 is the most obvious indicator of this decline. Turnout at elections in the UK is now lower than most other European countries.”

The report concluded:

“It serves no-one if we make it difficult for voters to understand what their elected representatives are doing. Too often the impression is given that the House of Commons is a private club run for the benefit of its Members, where members of the public are tolerated only on sufferance.”

Given that the latest Register of Members’ Interests, published in March, reveals that a quarter of Members of this House are pursuing parallel careers as company directors, consultants or in the courts, it might have been more appropriate had the Modernisation Committee’s report been entitled, “Reconnecting MPs with Parliament”. With the possible exemption of the “cash for questions” scandal, it is difficult, in this day and age, to think of anything more likely to reduce the standing of the House of Commons than substantial numbers of MPs drawing a £60,000-a-year salary to carry out a full-time job while moonlighting in the City or elsewhere in order to line their own pockets. If hon. Members are able fully to discharge their duties to their constituents and to Parliament on a part-time basis, then surely it is only right and proper that they should draw only a part-time salary. Funnily enough, I do not see a huge queue of stars from the Register of Members’ Interests wanting to go down that particular road.

As we have heard in this Chamber before, the work of a Member of Parliament has expanded hugely over the past 50 years. Most of us struggle to do all that we have to do in this place and in our constituencies within the confines of a 70-hour week, or sometimes longer. In the 1950s, according to figures provided by the House of Commons post office, the average number of letters received by hon. Members was between 15 and 25 a week. That has exploded to between 300 and 500 individual communications thanks in part to fax, e-mail and the 24/7 media world that we all now inhabit. In order to cope with the increase in workload, there has been, quite rightly, an increase in the resources for MPs offices to enable us to provide a professional full-time service to our constituents. Given that hon. Members on both sides of the House claim the vast majority of those allowances, how then can some of our colleagues continue to treat membership of this House as a part-time occupation?

I have to admit that I was as sceptical as anyone else when I arrived in this place 10 years ago, particularly after the sleaze of the fag-end years of the last Conservative Administration, when it seemed that MPs were available for hire, but I have largely changed my mind. Like any profession with a mixed ability intake, we have the good, the bad and the indifferent. However, contrary to the view peddled in much of the media, I now have no hesitation in stating that the majority of conscientious Members of the House of Commons are the hardest-working people I have ever met in my life—and certainly a lot more diligent than the journalists who seek to portray us as lazy, indolent and self-serving.

That said, we shoot ourselves in the foot somewhat given that 25 per cent. of our number work in other jobs. That would simply not be tolerated by any other employer. In my view, the public, who pay our wages, have a right to expect a full-time commitment from their Member of Parliament. Our salary of £60,000 is more than double the average wage of my constituents, and in many parts of the country it is worth considerably more than that. We cannot expect the public to hold us and this place in any higher esteem until we adopt the same standards of a full day’s pay for a full day’s work that are expected anywhere else in the modern world. If some hon. Members think that we are underpaid and worth more, they should have the courage to argue the case openly. We should not be sneaking off to the boardrooms to top up our salaries.

It is probably worth nailing the lie that it is possible to have an extensive portfolio of directorships, consultancies and other outside interests without affecting attendance in the Commons. A quick trawl of the voting records of the top five outside earners for 2005-06 shows that between them they average less than 50 per cent. participation in all Commons Divisions. That compares badly with the average participation rate for all MPs in the same period—73 per cent.

Members may spot a remarkable similarity between my Bill and the Bill proposed by my friend and former colleague Peter Bradley in January 2002. Sadly, the Bradley Bill was lost through lack of time—and Peter Bradley lost his seat through lack of votes—but the arguments for regulating the outside employment of MPs are as strong as they were five years ago. In fact, there has been a slight increase in the number of MPs registering second jobs, largely explained by the increase in the number of Conservative MPs entering the House at the 2005 election. My research reveals that 29 per cent. of current MPs have registered paid employment, representing 55 per cent. of Conservatives, 29 per cent. of Liberal Democrats and 14 per cent. of Labour MPs. Those figures drop to 51 per cent., 24 per cent. and 9 per cent. respectively when the proposed exemptions in my Bill are taken into consideration.

As with the Bradley Bill, I have tried not to be too prescriptive. There are things we do that are compatible with our public duties. Most of us write articles, contribute to pamphlets on policy development, or undertake useful work on behalf of charities or not-for-profit organisations. We are doing this stuff as part of the day job, and it should not be subject to restriction or regulation, hence the exemptions in the Bill. What I am seeking to achieve is to end the practice of moonlighting in second or third jobs—in the case of one hon. Member, 14 other jobs—in addition to serving as a Member of Parliament. To quote Peter Bradley,

“The House of Commons has become the epicentre of the black economy.”— [Official Report, 15 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 170.]

It is time to call a halt to those practices.

In the time remaining, I would like to examine the performance of the shadow Cabinet. Of the 23 Members of this House who are in the shadow Cabinet, seven are listed as having third jobs. I say “third jobs” because of course they are constituency MPs as well. Between them, those seven have no less than 32 directorships and consultancies. What is the issue here? I would respectfully suggest that it is the fact that the taxpayer forks out £5 million in Short money to assist Her Majesty’s Opposition in discharging their duties. Is it not about time to impose a condition whereby in order to receive that great big dollop of public cash, shadow Cabinet members and Opposition Front Benchers must relinquish any remunerated employment, as is required of all Government Ministers?

In summary, the Bill offers MPs a choice, which is a choice that many of our constituents would love to be offered: be a member of the board or a Member of Parliament, but you cannot be both.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Martin Salter, Ms Karen Buck, Mrs. Joan Humble, Dr. Alan Whitehead, Dr. Phyllis Starkey, David Wright, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Martin Caton, Colin Burgon, Angela Eagle, Mr. Kevan Jones and Joan Ruddock.

Members of Parliament (employment Disqualification)

Martin Salter accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the regulation of remunerated employment of Members of Parliament; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed [Bill 105].

Housing

I beg to move.

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Home Information Pack Regulations 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 992), dated 23rd March 2007, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th March, be annulled.

The home information pack regulations, which are being brought before the House today, are a test case in how not to legislate. They will do nothing to take the strain out of home buying and add only cost and complexity to the housing market.

Not at this point. [Hon. Members: “Frit!”] All in good time.

The Labour peer who chaired the House of Lords investigation into the matter said that he could not think of proposals about which so many experts were so strongly critical. His colleague, Lord Tunnicliffe, another Labour peer who led the House of Lords investigation into the regulations, called the Government’s case for HIPs

“the most data-free I have ever seen”.

The Consumers Association, once a great supporter of the packs, now argues that, under the Government, they will be

“of little value but great expense to consumers—an expensive waste of time.”

Ministers have botched the process from beginning to end. Instead of following the advice of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and listening and learning, they have ploughed on regardless, heedless of their potential damage to the housing market at an acutely delicate time. The change to the way in which we buy and sell our houses is probably the biggest and most jarring intervention in the housing market since Nigel Lawson abolished mortgage interest tax relief. History teaches us that we play politics with people’s homes at our peril, but that is just what Ministers are doing.

All in good time. The housing market has already been hit by a double whammy under the Government. A massive increase in stamp duty and steep rises in mortgage payments have made homes more unaffordable.

I shall not at this point, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the Bank of England has written a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer pointing out that his policies are driving up interest rates and leading to higher inflation than at any other time for more than 10 years.

There are increased house prices, mortgage rates and stamp duty. At that uniquely nervous time in the market, the Government are introducing a measure that creates the risk of unnecessary turbulence. Let me make Ministers an offer: if they drop all the unnecessary bureaucracy and concentrate on delivering the one good aspect of the package—the energy performance certificate—we will help them out of their mess. If Ministers press ahead with the folly, the country will know whom to blame for the mess that follows. As Lord Rooker said in another place:

“If it is a failure, we Ministers will carry the can. That is our responsibility.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 October 2004; Vol. 665, c. 827.]

As matters stand, the Government’s approach fails three vital tests. The regulations do not command the confidence of the market. They will not speed up transactions or make the process of house buying less stressful—quite the opposite. They have not been prepared in a way in which anyone who is serious about combating climate change would consider adequate.

I recall turbulence in the housing market, especially on a morning in 1992, when, as a solicitor, I was representing a client who called on me at 9.30 am to tell me that interest rates had risen to 10 per cent. By 12.30 pm, they had increased to 15 per cent. That is the sort of turbulence that we experienced under a Conservative Government. Is it not rich of the hon. Gentleman to lecture a Labour Government, under whom interest rates are a third of what they were under the Conservatives?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his history lesson, but he only underlines my point. Given the importance of the housing market and given that interest rates are increasing, only a Minister in the grip of folly would press ahead with an alteration that will only add to potential turbulence and do nothing to restore confidence.

On market confidence, we have the benefit of expertise from all who have a responsibility for the health of the housing market, because they have let us know their view of the regulations.

Not at the moment. Instead of listening to the hon. Gentleman, let us listen to the experts—for example, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. [Interruption.] I am about to quote the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors—if the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) thinks that it does not know anything about the house buying industry, I shall be interested to hear his speech. The institution states:

“We are concerned about the detrimental impact the introduction of HIPs will have on the market and therefore the economy. We are also concerned at the Government's cavalier approach to the legislative process. We do not believe the current implementation approach will work and in particular we envisage a detrimental effect on first time buyers from rising prices, shortage of supply and abortive cost.”

If I got such a survey, I would worry about pressing ahead with the transaction, but the Government, once again, ignore expert advice.

The Government also ignore the Law Society. It argues that it does not believe that the regulations

“serve in any way the government’s aim of making the home buying process easier and more transparent. They will, in fact, make the process more difficult, much more expensive and remove existing transparency from the marketplace.”

If I were drafting a law, and the country’s leading body of lawyers told me that I had got it so badly wrong, I might be tempted to think again—but not the Government. They ignore the surveyors, the lawyers and the Council of Mortgage Lenders, which argues that the Government’s approach

“presents a significant threat to the operation of the housing market and has the potential to cause strategic damage to the wider economy”.

Not only the lawyers, surveyors, banks and building societies express concern; everyone who has commented on the proposals—from Oxford Economic Forecasting to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings—has warned the Government of the danger of pressing ahead without listening and learning.

Not at this stage—forgive me. As I said, the Consumers Association called the regulations an expensive waste of time. Local authority trading standards officers said that the process will

“add extra costs to the buying and selling of homes”

without making

“the home buying process easier and more transparent”.

What do the Government and their supporters on the Back Benches say? They claim that those groups constitute vested interests.

Does the Consumers Association have a vested interest? Do trading standards officers have vested interests? All the groups that I have mentioned were explicitly asked by the Government to consider the regulations and invited to be key stakeholders. When they disagreed with the Government, they moved from being stakeholders to those with vested interests. We know the Government’s definition of a vested interest: an expert who happens to disagree with them. Junior doctors disagree with the training programme—they have vested interests; generals say that military overstretch is a problem—they have vested interests; teachers say that they are overburdened by bureaucracy and regulation—they have vested interests. If one dares to disagree with the Government—even more important, if one dares to know what one is talking about—the only thing that the Government can say is, “vested interest.”

Surely the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that there are some practical examples of the use of HIPs. Will he point to any occasion on which the horror stories that he identified were realised in places where HIPs have operated?

Yes. I was on the radio this morning discussing the matter with a solicitor in north-east Wales who was directly responsible for implementing the dry run. He said that there were not enough assessors and that the search facilities that local authorities provided did not have enough capacity to give people HIPs in a timely fashion. He had supported HIPs but changed his mind because of the Government’s botched implementation of the scheme and was prepared to go on the radio to make that case.

The dry runs were not independent, as we were promised by Lord Rooker and the Ministers who were responsible for the policy when it had a chance of being competently executed, but run by people who had a vested interest in the process. Yet even they tell us that they failed.

No more than my hon. Friend, whom I congratulate on his stance and on the service that he has done the House in highlighting the way in which the Government have botched the matter. We warned them that it would go wrong when the Housing Act 2004 was in Committee. My hon. Friend will remember that they cited the Consumers Association at length and prayed it in aid. The reason why the Consumers Association changed its mind is that these are only, in its words, half HIPs: without the home condition report, they are meaningless. Will my hon. Friend take my advice—I say this with appropriate humility—and let the Minister for Housing and Planning off the hook, even at this late stage, by inviting her to withdraw this nonsense and do away with this half-hearted botched policy?

I could not have put it better myself; my hon. Friend makes the point for me. Just one year ago, when we were debating the matter in Committee with the Minister, she was praising the Consumers Association. It was the source of sweetness and light, wisdom and judgment, because it happened to support her proposal. Then, last July, under pressure from her right hon. Friend the newly appointed Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Minister was compelled to drop the home condition reports and execute a humiliating U-turn. At that time, the Consumers Association decided that it no longer wished to support the policy. As a result of withdrawing its support, did it remain a valuable source of wisdom and judgment? No, it was reviled and joined the ranks of the vested interests. This listening and learning Government decided to be deaf to consumers just when it mattered. This was not just a U-turn, but hypocrisy at the heart of HIPs.

We are aware that one body is supportive of the proposals. That, of course, is the Association of Home Information Pack Providers—[Laughter.] Does the Association of Home Information Pack Providers count as having a vested interest in the provision of home information packs? Perhaps in due course the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) will enlighten us on that count. One of the key things about that association is that it has been no slouch in communicating to its members. Indeed, members of the association are already salivating at the prospect of the extra cash that they are going to make out of the poor consumer. In this week’s Mortgage Strategy, one of its members was writing under the headline, “Let’s make some money out of HIPs”. As far as they are concerned, this is a lucrative opportunity to fleece the consumer—a lucrative opportunity created by the Government who have failed the consumer.

On that very point, it is not only that there will be expenses at the beginning of the process and not enough people to produce the packs. Is it not also the case that if a house or flat does not sell quickly, people will have to pay all over again to renew the information—and still with no guarantee that they will get a sale?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The whole HIP package leads to an unnecessary duplication of costs.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s stance is hypocritical? They hold themselves out as encouraging home ownership, yet HIPs will be an additional obstacle to first-time buyers in particular, because they will certainly be required to get a structural survey. A HIP will be of no value to them, because they will not have a track record with the mortgage lender. If we add in stamp duty, all that will make it harder for people—particularly people in London and the south-east such as my constituents—to get started on the housing market.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. When home information packs were originally introduced, they were sold to us as helping the first-time buyer and relieving that buyer of the obligation or requirement to have a valuation or survey. As matters stand, they do not help first-time buyers in any way at all: indeed, first-time buyers will still require a valuation and a survey and will still have to pay for the additional document, while nothing will be done to reduce the risk of gazumping.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way at last. Will he acknowledge that £1 million is lost every day by members of the public through abortive costs—survey costs, searches and other costs incurred—because one in four transactions fall through? Will he tell us what he will do to address that gross inefficiency in the present arrangements that is working against the public interest?

I am always interested to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has to say, as he is a figure of considerable expertise. However, it is a source of regret to me that he did not declare his interest in making his intervention.

I look forward to that. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman, as well as bringing expertise—[Interruption.]

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that it is not necessary to declare one’s interest in an intervention? [Interruption.]

Order. These are serious matters. I think that hon. Members can be relied upon to declare their interests at the appropriate time.

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As we know, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich is a figure not just of expertise but of dignity. He respects the rules of the House and I am sure that he will be grateful to me for reminding the House that he is the director of a firm that produces home information packs. As a right hon. Gentleman with expertise in that area, he will also know that home information packs do absolutely nothing to speed the home buying and selling process and nothing to remove the risks associated with surveys and valuations.

What home information packs do, however, is help one person: the Chancellor of the Exchequer. VAT will be levied at 17.5 per cent. on every home information pack, which will be sold at an estimated cost of anything between £500 and £1,000. That is VAT on documents either on which VAT was not levied beforehand or which were not required before this legislation. It is a significant tax take for this Government—as if the home buyer was not milked enough with stamp duty and council tax. It takes the particular devilish ingenuity of this Chancellor to come up with a new tax on the home buyer and home seller—a tax that is likely to raise millions while doing nothing to help the housing market at a vulnerable time.

I am not giving way again, as the right hon. Gentleman has signalled that he is anxious to speak later.

We know that the test of market competence has been failed. I have run through every group that takes responsibility for the health of the housing market and they are all opposed to these regulations. However, what of the secondary test? Will these regulations speed up transactions and make them less stressful? Will they end gazumping, as we were once told that they would? Every expert opinion, as we have heard, says no. Why? That is because under these regulations, before anyone can even market their property, they will need to assemble a bundle of documents, which it will be no easy business to get in place in time. Let us take the requirement to have local authority searches. We know that there is a wild variation in the cost and speed with which those documents are provided. We also know from the limited dry runs of HIPs which the Government have so far allowed that local authorities are simply not equipped to provide the searches required in the time required to allow properties to be marketed.

One of the largest companies in the business of providing search material is MDA SearchFlow. As it has explained:

“In the Dry Run areas the search market moved from 40 per cent. of the searches being personal to 100 per cent. of the searches being personal. This has caused significant delays as local authorities have struggled and ultimately failed to cope”.

The managing director goes on to warn:

“There is no way that all of the 2 million odd personal searches required can be facilitated by the local authorities… The Government’s proposals to solve this problem are wholly inept. The market will be chaotic.”

That is from a company that supports HIPs, yet it believes that the Government’s execution has been comprehensively botched. If sellers cannot get the searches done in time, properties cannot be marketed, so sellers will be frustrated and buyers will see the supply of housing even further constrained. At a time when the supply of housing is drying up and when housing supply is one of the key problems in the housing market, we will have a slower and less responsive market—not to mention a market with more costs.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that where responsibility to gain these searches is transferred to the seller, the burden on local authorities will reduce? There will be one seller rather than two, three, four or sometimes umpteen buyers doing these searches.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because it shows that he completely misunderstands what will actually happen. At the moment, as the experts have pointed out, local authorities are simply not equipped to meet the demand for personal searches, but more than that, there will be additional demand for them. As the Law Society has explained, many buyers will be advised not to accept the personal searches supplied by sellers. The law of caveat emptor applies in house purchases. In many cases, buyers will look at the document supplied and their solicitor will tell them that they cannot be certain that it is not shoddy or partial or inadequate. They might advise them to commission their own searches, so there will potentially be twice the number of searches commissioned, additional costs throughout the process and additional complications. The Law Society has told us that; when solicitors were surveyed, more than two thirds said that the process envisaged by the Government would be inadequate for their clients.

I have been following the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, and I am finding them rather contradictory. On the one hand, he is saying that the obligation to provide HIPs will result in the housing market drying up because people will refuse to put their houses on the market. On the other hand, he is saying that the overwhelming number of searches that will be needed will throttle local authority bureaucracies. How does he reconcile those two points?

I reconcile them using a process called logic, with which the hon. Gentleman might be unfamiliar. It is because it is so difficult to get searches that the number of properties on the market will dry up. That point has been made by every expert body that knows anything about the housing market. The pipeline will be narrowed, and supply will be constrained. It is a matter not only of logic but of economics, and I would be happy to go through both processes with the hon. Gentleman any time he likes.

The Government have failed not only on searches but on the most crucial test of all: seriousness about the environment and climate change. Their record on the environment is patchy at best. Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government have recently been proclaiming their green credentials. How recently? I have been reading the speeches of the Minister for Housing and Planning on her website, and very instructive and entertaining they are too. From the moment she was appointed to her present responsibilities, however, there has been scarcely a mention of the environment. There was support for more housing and for more regulation, but nothing on the environment before December 2005. I am sure that hon. Members will remember what happened at that time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) became leader of the Conservative party and put the environment at the heart of our campaigning. After December 2005, what was there on the Minister’s website? There was silence until May 2006, just two weeks after my right hon. Friend had secured 40 per cent. of the vote in the local elections. The Minister then suddenly emerged from her purdah, her self-imposed silence, to make her first speech as a Minister for five months. To whom? To the Green Alliance.

When we campaigned with the message “Vote blue, go green”, we had no idea that the Minister would take that message to heart. Now, as a new convert to Cameron conservatism, she is talking about building eco-homes. Let me remind her that, as the Economic Secretary to the Treasury pointed out in Committee yesterday, no zero carbon homes have been built so far, and the number qualifying for zero stamp duty on the basis of zero carbon in the years ahead will be—as he said in answer to a parliamentary question—“negligible”.

Ten years in office, and no progress on the environment. Yet as soon as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney was elected leader of the Conservative party, Ministers were galvanised into greenery. Just imagine what we could do for the environment if we were actually in power—[Laughter.] We would certainly take the provision of energy performance certificates seriously, unlike this Government and their Back Benchers, who seem to regard the environment as a subject for hilarity. I am glad that they are laughing at their own record. There will be plenty of opportunity for them to weep when the voters pass their verdict on it at the general election in a couple of years’ time.

If the Government were serious about energy efficiency they would have put the people in place to carry out the energy inspections that are at the heart of the provisions on energy performance certificates, but once again, the Minister and her Department have failed to listen and learn. A year ago, we said that there were not enough people in place, but the Government said that they would get the 7,500 inspectors that they needed; it would be all right on the night. A month ago, however, they revised that figure down and said that they would need only 2,500. Why the sudden reduction? We asked two weeks ago how many inspectors were fully trained and accredited, and we were given the answer at 5 o’clock on the Friday of the May bank holiday weekend: not one domestic energy assessor had passed the test and been accredited. With less than four weeks to go before the implementation of what the Minister describes as a key policy to combat climate change, not one of the 2,500—or 7,500; which is it?—qualified, accredited inspectors is ready to respond. How does the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) explain that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He must have seen me straining at the leash. I am sure that the House would appreciate hearing not only about what he and his colleagues started to say 12 months ago, but about what the Conservatives did during 18 years in office up to 1997.

The hon. Gentleman insists on giving us a history lesson. Let me remind him that the first significant international agreement on combating climate change was signed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was Environment Secretary. The first world statesman to sound a warning on global climate change was Baroness Thatcher, at the Government Dispatch Box in 1988. We will take no lessons from the Johnny-come-latelies from Staffordshire. There are many fine Members of Parliament in Staffordshire. Some of them, however, need not only a history lesson but an ecology tutorial before they open their mouths again on this subject.

The Government are now trying to rush through a few more domestic energy assessors who have passed their test and been accredited. Yesterday, however, I was talking to representatives of the largest HIP provider in Britain, Spicer Haart. It is in despair; it has given up on the Government. It said that

“we have only managed to identify sufficient assessors to cover 40 per cent. of our requirements”.

And let us remember that those are people who have not even been accredited; they have only passed their exam. Spicer Haart went on to say that

“given that we have significant managerial and capital resources at our disposal, you can begin to appreciate the scale of the difficulty the industry as a whole has”.

With less than four weeks before HIPs went live, there was not a single person qualified and accredited to give out an EPC. How can that be taking climate change seriously? With less than two weeks to go, the biggest provider of home information packs cannot identify enough people to carry out even half its requirements. How can that be taking climate change seriously?

If the Government are serious about climate change, why are they not introducing EPCs into the rental and commercial sectors on 1 June? It is because they simply have not laid the necessary foundations, and the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich knows it. This is the Government who say that they favour energy efficient homes, but only last week they were cutting grants to their low carbon building programme, slashing spending on solar energy by 80 per cent. and hacking back support for wind and other renewables by 50 per cent.

It certainly is not.

The way in which the Government are trying to use HIPs to prop up their faulty green credentials has been exposed by no less than the Cabinet Office and its Better Regulation Commission, which said that the regulations were

“ill considered regulatory responses to the climate change challenge”,

and that Ministers were

“using climate change as a justification for measures which have other motivations.”

The Government are using energy performance certificates as a fig leaf—a piece of greenery deployed to cover their massive embarrassment—but no one is convinced. Let me offer to save them further embarrassment. If they will ditch home information packs—that is the motion under debate today—we will help them to ensure that energy performance certificates work. After all, Ministers discovered greenery only after the Conservatives showed them the way. The truth is that the regulations will add cost and complexity to the housing market, when what we need is more supply and economic stability. In the interest of keeping the housing market healthy, I ask the House to throw out once and for all these botched, bungled and broken-backed regulations.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has entertained us—and, of course, himself—in his usual way this afternoon. The debate is on the HIP regulations and energy performance certificates, but hon. Members could be forgiven for thinking that it was on something else entirely, having listened to such a huge amount of nonsense and misinformation about our sensible and practical proposals.

The main document in the home information pack—the only new document that is being added to the process—is the energy performance certificate. The certificates will give people’s homes an energy rating for the first time. That is like a fridge rating for the home that they are hoping to buy. We get such information on our washing machines, our fridges and our dishwashers, and it is high time that we got it on our homes.

The threat of climate change is real and urgent, and 27 per cent. of our carbon emissions comes from our homes. How can people be expected to make the necessary improvements if they do not have proper information about what is needed to make a difference? How many of us have any idea about the lagging in the loft, when we are looking for a home to buy? How many of us have any idea whether a home has cavity walls, or even know what a cavity wall is? This year, people will get that kind of information in energy performance certificates for the first time. That will make it possible for people to think about proper energy efficiency improvements to their homes.

As for the impact of fridge ratings, if we look at all the white goods in Comet and Currys, we see that the overwhelming majority now have “A” ratings. The provision of that information has had an impact on the market and on the way in which people behave. The energy performance certificates go further: they will give people not only the rating on their home but information on what they can do about it—what their fuel bills are likely to be and how they can cut them, and how they can cut their carbon emissions.

The Minister makes an analogy with the consumer. On that basis, why has the Consumers Association described her proposals as

“a useless but very expensive waste of time”?

Does she not recognise that what was originally a half-baked idea is now barely lukewarm?

Certainly, Which? wanted us to go further and to introduce a home condition report. We agree with Which? that the home condition report could be valuable and could have a big impact on the housing market. It was not practical to introduce home condition reports this summer, but we are continuing trials so that we can support their roll-out as they are valuable. Members need to recognise that energy performance certificates are valuable. They do not exist at the moment, and it is right to include them in estate agents’ particulars. The energy ratings on homes should be displayed in estate agents’ windows, just as the energy ratings of white goods are displayed in Comet.

So why does the Better Regulation Commission point out that the EU directive on which the Minister has relied refers only to the need for a certificate at the point of sale or letting rather than marketing, and that the Government have produced no evidence to justify going beyond the requirements of the directive, adding costs to the housing market? Why do the Government seem to know better than the Better Regulation Commission?

The Better Regulation Commission wants to water down energy performance certificates. It takes the view that less information should be provided. The information should be provided, however, as part of estate agents’ particulars. Just as it is provided for people who browse around fridge shops, it should be provided for people browsing around estate agents. People ought to have such important information at a time when it will make a difference to them.

Can the Minister not understand the big difference between a fridge and some of the ancient housing stock that characterises constituencies such as mine? Such homes do not have cavity wall insulation. What will she say to my constituents who simply do not understand how the tick-box EPCs will help them?

The hon. Gentleman is right: there is a big difference between a fridge and a house. Homes are responsible for 27 per cent. of our carbon emissions. They are the biggest investment that most of us will make in our lives; their running costs are considerably higher than those of fridges; and if the information is provided for a fridge, it ought to be provided for a home. The issue is a basic one of giving proper information that will help consumers to take decisions to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, and help them cut carbon emissions and their fuel bills.

According to the Energy Saving Trust, homeowners could save up to £300 on their fuel bills every year if they act on basic recommendations about their homes. Many will also be able to get grants of £100 to £300 from their new energy supplier, linked to the measures in the energy performance certificate. Some will be able to get much larger grants through other programmes. Companies are now developing green loans and mortgages to be linked to EPCs. The measures in the EPCs could help to cut carbon emissions by nearly 1 million tonnes a year. That is why WWF, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and a series of different organisations are supporting those measures.

The remaining elements of HIPs are the legal and search documents that one already needs when buying and selling a home, but they will be gathered at the beginning rather than the end of the process, to speed things up and improve competition. For many of us, buying and selling a home is a baffling process. There can be huge delays between offer and exchange. In complex chains, that can mean that sales fall through. Most people will struggle to keep track of what services they are getting and paying for. HIPs will make the process much clearer and faster. In many other industries, competition, new technology and rising customer expectations have lowered prices, increased transparency and speeded up transactions. Importantly, however, that has not happened to the process of buying and selling a home. In fact, the move from offer to exchange takes longer even than 10 years ago, and in many areas where house prices have doubled, for example, so have estate agents’ fees.

I accept that HIPs might bring some extra upfront costs, particularly with regard to producing the energy performance certificate, but that might lead to savings and people might think it a price worth paying, given our commitments on climate change. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that the rest of the packs will result in savings through the elimination of duplication? Those savings will be shared with sellers, because most sellers are buyers, too. That point is ably made today in The Guardian, by my former colleague, Julia Finch, who presents a much more balanced opinion than the Johnny-come-later from Surrey, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who used to pontificate—and still does—for The Times.

My hon. Friend is right to say that there will be savings throughout the process. He also refers to upfront costs, and many providers are already saying that they would charge at the end of the process, not at the beginning, and that they would offer no-sale, no-fee deals. A couple have said that they would provide HIPs for free. As he is right to point out, most of us buy and sell a home at the same time, so the transfer of costs from the buyer to the seller will not make any odds to us. The people who will really gain will be first-time buyers. Currently, if a sale falls through, they might have to pay for searches on a series of different properties. In future, they will get that information for free. It is right that we should help first-time buyers in that way.

I am inundated with requests for interventions. I will give way first to the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main).

On costs and savings for sellers and buyers, does the Minister agree that the cost for sellers of part-equity in a house is disproportionate? According to the HIP providers to whom I have spoken, sellers will have to pay 100 per cent. of the HIP’s cost even though they are perhaps selling only 50 per cent. of the equity in a house.

People buying or selling shared equity properties already have to pay transaction costs, estate agents’ fees and search fees. All that we are doing is transferring the cost from the buyer to the seller in a way that introduces greater transparency and competition. That competition is already having an impact in bringing costs down. We have seen the cost of searches come down in a series of local authorities —25 local authorities have cut their costs in anticipation of HIPs because they know that, for the first time, the charges and the length of time taken will be transparent to the consumer and to HIP providers. There will be much greater pressure to provide a good service.

Does the Minister not see that if HIPs are so wonderful—if they lead to people making savings on their energy account and speed up transactions—they will take off naturally, given all this publicity? Why do we not withdraw the mandatory element, and see whether she is right to say that they are helpful? I think that they are unhelpful—the market will dry up, and they are another tax to go with the swingeing stamp duty and the penal council tax.

The right hon. Gentleman must recognise that the home buying and selling process has not changed properly for a generation. It has not reformed in response to new technology or responded effectively to competition. The Office of Fair Trading, for example, pointed out areas in which price competition was not effective. There is such a lack of transparency and so much complexity that it can be difficult for consumers to be clear about what they are paying for at which stage in the process. HIPs introduce greater transparency and new providers into the market, which is why many current providers are feeling a little anxious and threatened. We take that competition seriously. We want to monitor it and ensure that it is promoted and that it increases, and that consumers see the benefits. I will now take an intervention from the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and then I want to make progress.

When the hon. Lady debated these matters with us alongside the then Minister for Housing and Planning, the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), the plan was altogether more ambitious. Now she tells us that home buyers will not receive information on a number of salient issues. Does she not recognise that people will want to know about flood risk, a history of land contamination, electrical safety and risk of subsidence? There will no reduction in the number of extra surveys that people commission when they buy their homes, because mortgage companies will insist on them. Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that the packs will not improve the lot of buyers, but will clog up the system and will be entirely unhelpful to those who want to purchase homes?

Opposition Members keep contradicting themselves. One minute they want bigger HIPs; the next minute they want no HIPs at all. [Laughter.] Perhaps some Opposition Members are seeking bigger HIPs.

We have always said that we think home condition reports will be very valuable. We have also said that we do not think it practicable to introduce them on a mandatory basis this summer, but because we think that they will be valuable we are conducting trials. We have made amendments to HIPs in response to consultation and the results of trials, and we will continue to work on their implementation with stakeholders across the industry.

I must declare an interest. I have just sold my father’s house, because he has gone into care. He has the good fortune to live in the Bristol area, where a pilot scheme has operated for some time, and I was offered the opportunity to use a home information pack. The process was very transparent, and led to the early sale of my father’s house. I do not understand why the experiment is not more widely known about, and why the advantages that the estate agent made so clear to me have not been translated to the rest of the profession. I think that it is very sad. Can my hon. Friend elucidate?

My hon. Friend is right. Advocates of the home information packs that are currently in the market have not often been heard. Their voices have been drowned out by those of a number of organisations representing people in the industry who are anxious about and resistant to change, which is unfortunate. Another hon. Member gave me an e-mail that he was sent by one of his constituents, who has been an estate agent for many years. He wrote that, having spoken to virtually every solicitor and estate agent in Reading and Wokingham, he found they were all ready to proceed with gusto. I believe that many people in the industry expect considerable benefits.

It is true that there has been opposition from some representative bodies—the hon. Member for Surrey Heath quoted a few—and that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is launching a judicial review. However, we consider the review to be completely groundless, and in any event it concerns energy performance certificates: the institution thinks that the information in them should be provided when it is up to 10 years old. We disagree. The Council of Mortgage Lenders published a detailed report this week containing its assessment of the future of the housing market. So concerned is the council about the impact of HIPs that it does not even mention them. It is also true that other organisations, such as Which?, want to go further, but we think that these are the right measures to introduce this summer.

Opposition Members have had an opportunity to choose between backing the National Association of Estate Agents and backing Friends of the Earth. They have chosen, and we have seen which side they are really on.

Energy performance certificates are central to home information packs. We have stressed the importance of energy assessors because we take it very seriously. According to the latest estimates, 2,000 energy assessors will be needed at the beginning of June, rising to 2,500 by the end of the month. More than 2,200 have passed their examinations, and over 3,000 more are in training. Of those, around 1,100 are accredited or their accreditation is currently being processed.

As the Minister may know, the Daily Mail website claims today that the only reason we have been granted the debate is that the Minister threatened to resign over HIPs. Would she care to comment?

I would caution the hon. Lady over what she should believe in the Daily Mail. I did not read the Daily Mail today, but I can assure her that that report is not correct. However, I will go and check. Heaven forbid that I forgot to read the Daily Mail this morning!

I welcome the Minister’s comments. Will she ensure that the many people, including constituents of mine, who answered the Government’s call for people to train to become self-employed home inspectors and domestic energy assessors—at great expense to themselves, in some cases—are not driven out of the market by the dominance of a small number of large HIP providers who are working with estate agents on larger contracts?

We think that competition is very important. Part of the intention behind the reforms is to improve information and transparency and support competition. I assure my hon. Friend that we will closely monitor competition in the market, and think about whether further steps are necessary.

As for the impact on the housing market, of course it is true that some estate agents have been using the advent of HIPs as a marketing strategy to try to drum up business and increase their share in a tight housing market in May. It would not be surprising if that had an impact on the timing of listings in both May and June, and it may take time for people to get used to the new system. However, listings fluctuate substantially from month to month. A million houses are sold every year, at an average cost of £200,000. Estate agents’ fees alone can amount to an average of between £2,000 and £4,000. We do not think it plausible that people will decide not to move house because of an energy performance certificate. That is an absurd assertion by Opposition Members who simply want to cause alarm and convey misinformation that scares people.

We have not only seen such misinformation in the press—as my hon. Friend says, it has been used as a marketing ploy by some of the more unscrupulous agents—but heard it from Opposition Members. The cries that we hear about the housing market drying up are absurd. That is not constructive opposition; it is merely hysterical opportunism.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must look for the real dividing lines in the argument. The central element is the energy performance certificate, which includes additional measures to help improve the way in which the housing market operates.

The Opposition seek to overturn the HIP regulations, and they seek to stop the introduction of HIPs and energy performance certificates this summer. They say that they support EPCs and measures to improve the energy efficiency of people’s homes, but if that is the case, why did the hon. Members for Surrey Heath and for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) sign early-day motion 1264, which calls for the overturning of the Energy Performance of Buildings (Certificates and Inspections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007? Those regulations do not contain measures relating to HIPs, searches or title documents. The only measure that concerns home owners relates to energy performance certificates. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath said that he needed to table the early-day motion to secure the debate. What nonsense! The debate is not about those regulations; it is about the HIP regulations.

The hon. Lady has been in the House for 10 years. She will be familiar with the workings of the Table Office. We prayed against the Home Information Pack Regulations 2007, which meant that both sets of regulations had to be prayed against. We simply followed the advice of the Table Office to ensure that this debate took place on the Floor of the House.

The hon. Lady knows from our speeches, statements and letters that we are in favour of energy performance certificates. Will she now withdraw the entirely erroneous and misleading assertion that we are opposed to them, or is she prepared to see her credibility diminish as a consequence?

What utter nonsense. The hon. Gentleman asks for evidence of his opposition to energy performance certificates, and I must tell him that there is plenty of it. The hon. Member for Meriden rose early this morning—even earlier than I did—to make clear her hostility to energy performance certificates on GMTV. She objects to them because she does not like the fact that someone will have to carry out energy ratings of people’s homes. She said

“the new feature is having energy performance assessors come round and actually look at how your house is put together… so it’s a very intrusive measure.”

Perhaps the hon. Lady will explain how she can support energy ratings of homes if she opposes the idea of people going round to those homes to carry them out. How does she think that energy ratings on homes will be done? That provides more evidence of Conservative Members opposing energy performance certificates.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath takes a different line. His objection is that we are gold-plating EU regulations. That is true; we are going beyond the minimum requirements for energy performance certificates set out in the EU directive. However, that is not gold-plating; it is green-plating, and we make no apology for that. The European minimum that the hon. Gentleman advocates is that people should be able to use an energy performance certificate if it is up to 10 years old. Well, it is a fat lot of use to a new home buyer to have information on a home’s fuel costs and running costs that could be up to eight or nine years old. There will not be a huge impact in respect of how people respond to energy performance certificates if they know that the energy information in them is out of date.

The fact is that Opposition Members are trying to block energy performance certificates; they are trying to delay them and to water down the information. They are also telling different things to different audiences. On 1 May, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath told the Daily Express:

“If we can stop them we will”.

On 2 May, he told The Guardian that

“we shall not use our vote to impede prompt and effective EPC implementation.”

On 4 May, he told the Daily Mail:

“I hope MPs will put pressure on the Government to go back to the drawing board.”

Why is he not straight with people? The truth is that he does not like energy performance certificates at all.

The Conservative party’s leader claims to care about the environment, but time and again it will not back the practical measures needed to help to cut carbon emissions. The right hon. Member for Witney took a trip to the Arctic, organised by WWF, to demonstrate his commitment to the environment. It was his photo-opportunity to hug a husky. While he was there, he was asked for his top tips for people to go greener. He mentioned bicycling to work and growing vegetables, and he said that some of the steps that we can take to reduce our impact on the environment, such as home insulation, will save us money. He also stated that leadership means doing the right thing not just saying it. Well, the Conservatives should do the right thing now. They should back these measures to bring in environmental improvements. However, they will not back them.

What do WWF and Friends of the Earth now say about the Conservatives’ environmental policy? Let me quote from a letter from them to the Conservatives:

“Your party is currently campaigning for the local elections, under the slogan ‘Vote blue, go green’”—

That sounds familiar. The letter continues:

“However, we are concerned that by attempting to block the HIPs, you risk scuppering one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation to affect households in recent years.

We therefore urgently request that you…reassure us that under no circumstances will you allow their introduction…to become a victim of moves by your party to delay the rest of the HIP.”

The huskies have just cocked their legs on the Conservatives’ environment policy. If their environment policy were energy rated now it would get a big “G”. Perhaps that is not the only big “G” that they will have to reckon with in the next few months.

The green groups are right: this is a good measure and it should be implemented. The Conservatives should start to back it now.

I was going to start by congratulating the Minister on her measured and emollient response to the debate, but she rather spoilt that plan in the last 30 seconds of her speech.

The Minister might have acknowledged that this scheme is in a bit of a mess. Those who believed in the whole gospel of compulsory home condition reports, home information packs and energy performance certificates were taken up the aisle by the Secretary of State and have been dumped. It is unsurprising that some of those people are angry and embarrassed, and are shouting, “Betrayal.” She cannot completely dismiss the fact that Which? and the Law Society, which were supporters of the scheme in its original form, have now backed away and are feeling very despondent about the scheme as it currently stands.

Those inside the Labour big tent who are still supporters of the scheme in its full-blooded, 1997 manifesto style could at least get some reassurance from the way that things were evolving by thinking that they would have the slimmed down scheme before them with the results of the evaluation of the pilot studies also available and that in this debate they would be able to rebut the challenges and accusations from the Opposition Benches by referring to the detailed results of those studies which would show that all the bad predictions were not justified. However, the pilot studies have not been completed; there has been no proper evaluation and there is no hard evidence of success. The safeguard of those trials producing evidence on which we could take a proper and balanced decision—which was much talked about last year when the scheme was debated on several occasions in this House—is not available. The safeguard has been swept away.

I want to bring to the attention of the House some of the evidence that Mr. McDonald gave to the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee of the other place. Mr. McDonald appeared on behalf of the Department for Communities and Local Government, and he said that it cannot yet check the pilot studies to find out what savings have been made in transaction times. He said that that was because it would need at least 3,500 transactions to have been completed before it could make that assessment. I was surprised when I read that evidence; I was not surprised by the idea that 3,500 examples would be needed to reach a judgment, but I was astonished that 3,500 transactions had not been conducted so far. The Minister did not deal with the issue of the pilot studies. There was a good reason for that; to have done so would have underlined the embarrassing situation that she is in and the difficulties that the scheme faces.

The pilot studies were supposed to have started in July last year. They could not start because the regulations were not produced in time. They were supposed to restart—have their second start—in October last year. Yet the evidence that Mr. McDonald gave to the Committee was that most of the schemes had not started until January this year and that it was therefore too early to evaluate whether they were performing in accordance with the Minister’s predictions.

Does not that bear out the fact that there is a problem in that we can have pilots—it will be good to see the evaluation from them—but unless there is also the power to make things mandatory people, will not make the changes that we all want them to make in terms of being sensible and serious about facing up to their climate change responsibilities?