House of Commons
Thursday 14 June 2007
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
There are a record 29 million people in work—more than at any time in our history and 87,000 more than this time last year, making our growth last year 2.8 per cent. To create more jobs, we will maintain economic stability, intensify the new deal and, as we are announcing today, improve adult skills and seek excellent standards in every school in the country.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. As he knows, unemployment in my constituency is 2.4 per cent., but that will rise substantially if the Scottish National party council has its way. It has recently written to more than 5,000 staff, telling them that unless they sign a new contract, they will be dismissed by 30 September. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from bullying its staff, the SNP should withdraw the letter, apologise and get back to the negotiating table?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling me that 5,000 jobs could be at risk as a result of the Scottish National party’s policies. We have created 200,000 jobs in Scotland over the past 10 years. Any economic policy or any policy pursued by the Scottish nationalists that puts jobs in Scotland at risk would be taken very seriously by the Scottish people. I hope that the Scottish National party will think again before it puts more jobs at risk in the Scottish economy.
Given that the right hon. Gentleman has now promised to be more open and accountable and govern differently, can we have a factual answer to the question of why long-term youth unemployment has risen by 32,000 in the last quarter and why it is now back to the level he started with in 1997?
That is completely incorrect. Long-term youth unemployment is down 75 per cent. since 1997. The hon. Gentleman himself went on television just before the Budget to congratulate us on our economic stability. Perhaps he should recognise that in his and other constituencies there are 2.5 million more people in work than in 1997. Together with economic stability and the growth in our public services as a result of new investment, that is a record on which he should congratulate us, rather than condemn us.
May I tell the Chancellor that there are more people working in my constituency today than there were 10 years ago when the Conservative party was in power? One sector is very important for the economy of Teesside: steel. Has he had any discussions with Tata management since the recent takeover of Corus by Tata Steel? If he has not, I urge him to talk to Tata Steel and give it any help and support that it wants to ensure that we have a viable, strong steel sector and that we can keep and protect the 3,000 direct jobs and 30,000 indirect jobs in the economy of Teesside.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being a champion of both the steel industry and jobs in his constituency. I have talked to Tata management since they bought Corus and they have assured me that they intend to invest in the steel industry in Britain for the future. The whole country faces the issue of building modern manufacturing strength for the future. Whether we are talking about aerospace, pharmaceuticals, information technology or steel, the issue is not manufacturing versus services; the issue is building modern strength in both services and manufacturing. I am sure that that is what we can go on to do.
It is obvious that employment growth, low claimant unemployment and general economic stability are among the Chancellor’s successes. In the same spirit of generosity, and since this is his last outing as Chancellor, will he acknowledge that there have been some mistakes in the past 10 years? They include, among other things, the London Transport public-private partnership, individual learning accounts, U-turns on film tax credits, company incorporation, operating financial reviews, the Treasury’s treatment of Railtrack, dividend tax credits, tax credit overpayments, rampant inflation in the housing market, widening inequalities in—
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for his customary generosity. If there have been mistakes, it is usually when we have listened to the Liberals. Does he now agree that it was a mistake for the Liberal Democrats to urge us to join the euro immediately and to oppose the new deal and many of the measures that have reduced child and pensioner poverty in this country? I think he would agree that, over the past 10 years, not only has personal wealth increased, but we have taken more people out of poverty—unfortunately, that is not because we listened to the Liberal Democrats.
The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) mentioned youth unemployment. I am sure that the House agrees that we look forward to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor becoming Prime Minister. Will he confirm that he will support and advance the new deal that has been so successful in dealing with youth unemployment throughout the years?
Give him a job!
I am talking about jobs, and the jobs of young people in this country. It is one of the greatest misfortunes of the past 10 years that the Conservative party still insists on opposing the new deal, which has affected 2 million young people, and more than 1 million of them have got jobs. The Conservative party still opposes that opportunity, which should be available to millions of people. At some time, the Conservative party will have to make a choice: will it support opportunities for all people in the country, which requires us to have the new deal, or will it simply support opportunities for the few, as its obsession with grammar schools shows?
May I, too, join in congratulating the Chancellor on the remarkable achievement of surviving 10 years at the Treasury, even if it was twice as long as he wanted? On the question of employment and jobs, may I ask him about the biggest employer in the country, the Secretary of State for Health? This week, the Chancellor is reported to have said of her:
“I have to sit here while she loses me the next election.”
Can we take it, then, that she will soon be joining the record numbers of people who are economically inactive?
Our Government have invested more in the health service, with more results. When we came to power, there were 12 million people treated in accident and emergency; now it is 17 million. When we came to government, in-patient treatment rates were low; they are now high. When we came to government, 120 hospitals needed to be built, and we are building them. As for the shadow Chancellor, it is very difficult to listen to what he says on any one day, because he will usually have changed his mind by the next day, as he did on grammar schools. I understand that he has just given an interview to Glamour magazine. The interview has been issued with a free pair of flip-flops. He should take advice from the leader of his party, who said only a few days ago that we have a successful economy. He said:
“We’re incredibly fortunate, we’ve got the English language, we’ve got a successful economy.”
Why? Because we have a Labour Government.
At least I do not appear in glossy magazines talking about what I listen to on my iPod. My question was about the Health Secretary, and the Chancellor has just hung her out to dry. No wonder he writes books about political courage instead of appearing in them. The fact is that the NHS job losses, the ward closures and the crises are his doing, because it was his NHS plan, his Wanless report, and his money without reform. Does the anger that junior doctors feel about their employment prospects explain why one Downing street aide this week said of the Chancellor:
“I actually think…he’ll be the first prime minister to be carried out of No 10 by the men in white coats”?
Or was he getting at something else?
I have been up against seven shadow Chancellors in the past 10 years, but the hon. Gentleman is the only shadow Chancellor who never asks me about inflation, interest rates or the economy. Every time that there is a question about employment and economic activity, he wants to change the agenda. First of all, on the national health service, it is because we have invested twice as much in the NHS that we do not have the waiting times and waiting list crises that the last Conservative Government had. It is because we have managed the economy well that we are able to invest in public services. If he does not think so, why does he always say to business audiences outside the House—he knows that they have to hear the truth about it—that Labour has had great success on the macro-economy? Why does he have to admit that the Tories left the economy in a mess? [Interruption.] Oh yes. There were interest rates of 15 per cent. under the Conservatives in the 1990s. [Interruption.] Well, who was the political adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1992? It was none other than the Leader of the Opposition. The Conservative party stands and falls on its economic record; we stand and succeed on ours.
Will the Chancellor accept that in the real world, a remarkable change has taken place in many regions throughout Britain? Nowhere is that better exemplified than in the coalfields. In the last month, we started a junction on the M1 with £14.5 million that was derived from having a good economy. That means that there will be another 8,000 jobs where there used to be four pits that were closed by the Tories. As for the man from the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor should not worry too much about those who were educated at Eton, because they were all educated beyond their intelligence.
My hon. Friend does what the shadow Chancellor does not do—he asks questions about the economy. When it comes to the real economy, jobs are being created. Jobs that were lost, unfortunately, as a result of the policies pursued by the previous Government are now being replaced by new investment. My hon. Friend is one of the great sponsors of the new investment in his region and near his constituency. Now we are seeing, as he said, not only 14,000 jobs but another 8,000 jobs. We are creating more jobs, and moving the country further and faster to full employment, and that is the result of a Labour Government.
Households are benefiting from steady economic growth, and they are benefiting from low and stable interest and inflation rates. The level of household savings ratio since 1997 reflects that stability, with households having the confidence to reduce their contingency savings, unlike in the early and mid-1990s.
Will the Minister confirm that the household savings ratio is now one third of what it was in 1997, and is the lowest of any sizeable EU country? Can he explain why?
The UK is not unusual, as the savings ratio has declined in the United States, Australia, Japan and Canada, and is lower in the US than in the United Kingdom. The level of the savings ratio in the UK is broadly similar to the level in the 1960s, when there was also high employment, a stable economy and low inflation, so people had less need for the cushion of security that savings can offer.
The savings ratio for low-income householders and individuals has not moved much in the past 10 years, but a Government initiative—saving gateway phase one—has helped people, because it has provided assets for people on low incomes. The Economic Secretary will appear before the Treasury Committee next week, but will my hon. Friend have a word with him before then to extend saving gateway phase one, which is simple and has been well received, to ensure that people on low incomes increase their assets and play a more active part in the economy?
My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of savings, and his Committee has consistently examined the issue. We recently completed the second pilot on the saving gateway, which shows promising signs of success. He will know that twice as many people hold the individual savings accounts that we introduced as their predecessors, personal equity plans and tax-exempt savings accounts. He will know, too, that one in four families and people on low incomes hold ISAs, which is far better than the performance of previous schemes. The savings ratio in the UK hit its peak at the very time that repossessions and negative equity hit their peak, and I can assure him that what we will not do is introduce economic policies that will drive us back to the point in the early 1980s, when an estimated 1.5 million households suffered from negative equity.
My constituent complains to me that when he chides his grown-up children for not making any savings they laugh in his face and call him a mug, because he saved and consequently lost not one but two pensions. He blames the Chancellor. Who does the Minister blame?
Clearly, the hon. Gentleman and I share the view that savings are important, so I am disappointed that he has not got behind the pensions reforms that the Government have introduced, the child trust fund and ISAs—all schemes that we introduced to raise the level of savings, particularly for the young and those on lower incomes.
Given the changes to demography that we are all witnessing, will my hon. Friend give the Treasury’s view of the report by Sir Derek Wanless, requested by the King’s Fund, about the cost of long-term care? Does the Treasury hold talks with the financial services sector about bringing together public and private policies so that we can have a range of financial products in which it makes sense for people to invest when they are young for their care when they are old?
An article in the Eastern Daily Press yesterday states that one in 10 East Anglian families cannot afford food or medicine, or risk eviction because they are
“too poor to pay rent”.
Research shows that that is due in part to poor financial management and inadequate saving. Does the Minister accept that he needs to do much more to encourage people on low incomes in constituencies such as mine to save money and learn how to manage their finances more effectively?
We need to do a good deal more not just in constituencies such as the hon. Gentleman’s, but right across the country. I hope that he will recognise the potential of the child trust fund, particularly alongside the greater education on financial affairs that we are looking to put in place through the education system. I hope that he and his party will be prepared to weigh in and support the efforts that we are making in that regard.
According to the World Bank, full trade liberalisation could bring up to $300 billion of benefits and contribute to reducing world poverty. There must be no going back to protectionism. Reaching a Doha trade deal is a crucial step. Europe and America must urgently make progress on agriculture, and further offers on industrial goods by India and Brazil are needed. That would help both the developed world and developing countries.
Growth in world trade is manifestly crucial to the UK. The most recent statistics show that the UK has taken the lion’s share of foreign direct investment. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that regions such as the east of England continue to benefit from that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Foreign direct investment in Britain from the rest of the world has been very high indeed. Of company headquarters located in Britain over the past 10 years, about 400 have been located from the rest of the world as regional or world headquarters to Britain. In France, Germany and Ireland the figure is fewer than 100, so we have done well. Maintaining our rate of growth in exports is crucial, as is maintaining business investment at a high level. It is by these means that we will maintain and extend the industrial and services sector of the economy, and hopefully bring additional jobs to my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Can the Chancellor tell us whether UK trade has been affected at all in recent years by the payment of bribes on defence orders? Can he give us an assurance that since the legislation banned bribes in 2002, there has been no Government connivance by any Department, including his own, in the payment of such bribes?
It was our legislation that banned something that had been a practice under previous Governments, and it was our party that led the way to making that change. On trade—I know the hon. Gentleman wants to know the figures illustrating the growth in trade—exports are growing by 6½ per cent. this year. We expect them to grow by 5¼ to 5¾ per cent. next year. That shows an economy that is far more balanced than in previous years.
My right hon. Friend has already pointed out the crucial nature of achieving a positive end to the trade round in Doha, but as the American congressional mandate runs out in July, how optimistic is he that that great prize can be claimed?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken an interest in both the trade deal and in what is happening as a result of trade to developing countries. I believe that there is still a window of opportunity for a trade deal. A meeting of all the major negotiators is to be held next Wednesday, and it is incumbent on all the major parties—that is, Europe, America, India and Brazil—to see what they can do in the next few days to move matters forward. The failure to reach a world trade deal will allow protectionist forces to grow, and I hope there will be all-party support for pushing forward with moves that will make possible a trade deal in the not too distant future.
The Chancellor knows that one of the sectors in Britain that struggled most in world trade is manufacturing. When he took over, the manufacturing trade deficit was £7 billion. Last year it was £59 billion. It is hardly surprising that 1.25 million jobs in manufacturing have been lost in his 10 years at the Treasury. While he is in elegiac mode at the end of his term at the Treasury, can he explain whether that is a deliberate result of his policy, or whether it has been an accidental attack on British manufacturing, for which he would now like to apologise?
The hon. Gentleman is conveniently forgetting that in two recessions under the Conservative Government, not 1 million but 3 million manufacturing jobs were lost, and that manufacturing went down from 7 million to 4 million during the period of a Conservative Government. He also knows that in every advanced industrial country, a restructuring is taking place—in America, the rest of Europe and Japan—because there is a shift of manufacturing activity to China and Asia. He knows also that Asia is now out-producing Europe.
The question is which economies are going to adjust, modernise, reform and have modern manufacturing strength to enable them, if not to create additional jobs, to have additional wealth as a result of manufacturing industry. I believe that in aerospace and pharmaceuticals, in information and technology and the creative industries, and even in the modernisation of industries such as steel, we are showing that by high levels of investment—and now high levels of training, with apprenticeships and new people coming into these industries with skills—we can compete with the best in the world. I hope that there will be all-party support for building modern manufacturing strength.
Nearly 40 top international companies have their UK headquarters in Swindon, thus creating an economic powerhouse in our part of the south-west. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the week when it was reported by the World Bank that Russia was on track for high gross domestic product growth and China’s trade surplus with the EU was nearly £160 billion, it is absolutely vital that, as Prime Minister of this country, he continues his strong economic record and work with the global economy?
I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend does to bring new jobs and new industry to Swindon. As a result of the policies that are being pursued, the growth rate in Swindon has been higher than in the economy as a whole. I can assure her that we will not follow the failed policies of the Conservative party. We will not allow interest rates to get out of control, we will not allow inflation to get out of control, and we will not cut public investment in universities, in the new deal or in apprenticeships, as the Conservatives threaten to do. We will ensure that we have balanced economic growth in this country.
This year’s Budget Red Book estimated that net taxes and national contributions were 37.2 per cent. of GDP in 2006-07. The Red Book also showed that that will stay below the peaks of the 1980s over the period ahead and well below the average for the EU 15.
This Chancellor likes to remind the House of historical context. Will the Chief Secretary acknowledge that over the past 10 years the Chancellor has introduced more than 100 new stealth taxes, doubling the tax code, raising more than £40 billion in extra tax each year, costing every family more than £1,300 each, and making every taxpayer have to work a week longer to pay for it? Is not he the biggest tax-grabbing Chancellor in history?
I am glad to be able to refute all that. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that the ratio that I mentioned was lower in the 1970s. In the 1980s, it rocketed, and for most of the 1980s it was at a higher level than it is now. His historical comparison is therefore entirely misplaced.
Does the Chief Secretary agree that if there are 2.7 million more people in work and 700,000 new firms, all paying taxes, tax revenue will rise? Has not this Chancellor cut corporation tax and income tax to some of the lowest levels that we have seen in Britain and shown that 21st century socialism equals cutting taxes, and will he keep it up as Prime Minister?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Not only are there more people in jobs and therefore paying taxes, but their earnings are up as well. Those are the results of economic success and the policies that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been pursuing over the past decade.
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the UK remains lightly taxed by international comparison. We are determined to maintain the approach that we have taken. It would have been helpful if he and his hon. Friends had been more supportive in the Finance Bill Committee of the measures that we have been taking to tackle tax avoidance, because that would have been a valuable step. What is true is that we have taken steps to put right chronic underinvestment in public services and will continue to do so.
On the balance of taxation, does my right hon. Friend agree with Nicholas Ferguson, chairman of private equity firm SVG Capital, who recently said that highly paid private equity executives paying less tax than a cleaning lady could not be right? Has he any measures in mind to assuage Nicholas Ferguson’s conscience—possibly raising the effective 10 per cent. rate that many partners in private equity firms currently pay?
In 1997, the UK’s tax burden was lower than Germany’s by 6 per cent. of GDP. Ten years later, that competitive advantage has been lost as our tax burden overtakes Germany’s. That reflects a trend of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries cutting their tax burden while ours has increased. Given the economic challenges of the 21st century, will the Chief Secretary explain whether that helps or hinders the UK’s long-term competitiveness?
Let me begin by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench. The OECD comparison makes it clear that the UK remains a lightly taxed economy internationally. Enterprise and competitiveness in the UK have benefited hugely from the unprecedented decade of stability in the economy that we have just experienced. That is why the UK enjoyed more foreign direct investment last year than any other country in the world—certainly more than Germany. A brief examination of the economic record of this country and that of Germany in the past decade shows that ours is a great deal stronger.
My right hon. Friend referred to the Finance Bill Committee. I have served on six of the last seven Finance Bill Committees—[Interruption.] As a volunteer. Does my right hon. Friend share my experience that, in those Committees, the Conservative Opposition often made proposals to featherbed the rich and preserve their tax loopholes such as that of family trusts?
No. 11 Downing Street
Every external organisation that uses No. 11 Downing street is required to meet in full the additional costs associated with holding the event.
Given that the householder is in the Chamber, one might think that he would want to answer for himself. However, perhaps the Chief Secretary can assist the House. We know that the Smith Institute has enjoyed the Chancellor’s hospitality on no fewer than 160 occasions in the past 10 years. Of the other 66 charities that used No. 11 in that time, which used it most often and on how many occasions?
The hon. Gentleman’s question was about the extent to which organisations had met the costs. As I said in my initial answer, the organisations pay all those additional costs. The 67 to which he refers on the Treasury website contract directly for catering and equipment. It is a similar arrangement to the one that applies in the Jubilee Room, with which hon. Members are familiar. It operates without difficulty.
This is carers week, the highlight of which for carers, young carers and the seven carers organisations that support them was being invited to a reception at No. 11 Downing street, which the Chancellor hosted yesterday. Given the contribution that carers make to the health and social care of this country, does my right hon. Friend agree that, in carers week, that was a most appropriate way in which to recognise what they give to this country?
My hon. Friend is right. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor appreciated the opportunity to address the carers who attended the reception. In every community throughout the country, carers do a fantastic job. The Government should congratulate and thank their representatives, as that reception made possible.
As one of the most costly events to the taxpayer held at No. 11 during the Chancellor’s time there must undoubtedly have been that at which it was decided to sell half of Britain’s gold reserves at rock-bottom prices, will the Chief Secretary inquire of his shy right hon. Friend whether he will be taking his cross of gold with him to No. 10 or will he leave it behind as a grim relic of disaster for his successor?
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that one of the most expensive events at No. 11 Downing street in recent years was on 16 September 1992, when the then Chancellor lay in a bath singing French popular songs, with future Leaders of the Opposition dancing in attendance? Will he confirm that the cost of that event to the British taxpayer was a minimum of £4,000 million? Was an invoice ever sent to Conservative party headquarters?
Will the Chief Secretary confirm that the Treasury paid more than £11,000 for two seminars organised for its trustees by the Smith Institute, which was a donor to the Chancellor’s leadership campaign? Will he also confirm that it was only two years later, when the Charity Commission started asking questions, that the Treasury noticed that mistake? Will he now guarantee that all direct and indirect support for the Smith Institute from the Government has been properly declared and is in the public domain?
There has been no direct financial support or contribution to the Smith Institute from any Department of Government. I have one confession to make on this topic, however, which may be of interest to the hon. Gentleman. At the No. 11 children’s Christmas party this year, organised with the Booktrust charity, it paid for the invitations, the Christmas decorations and the food and drink—but it is true that the Treasury paid for the Christmas tree.
The Government’s goal is for everyone to be able to manage their money effectively and securely through a transactional bank account. Since the move to direct payment started in 2003, 98 per cent. of Department for Work and Pensions benefits are now paid into accounts, which is up from 28 per cent. in 1997. Of those paid into accounts, 79 per cent. are paid directly into a bank account, including a basic bank account and 19 per cent. into a Post Office card account—only 2 per cent. of payments are made by cheque.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I have been contacted twice by a constituent whose benefits are paid directly into his account, but they have been paid late twice and he has been penalised by the bank for going overdrawn. Will my hon. Friend work with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that benefits are paid correctly and on time all the time? Does he share my abhorrence at the banks, which make millions in profits, skimming them off from the poorest members of our society when they go overdrawn, often through no fault of their own?
I know from our conversations that that is a particularly sad case and I am happy to take up the details with my hon. Friend and make contact with my DWP colleagues. Of the 680 million payments made by the DWP in 2006, only 21,000—0.0003 per cent.—were reported as either late or missing. In the minority of cases where that does happen, the DWP, if found to be in error, refunds in full any penalty charges that may result to the individual concerned. I also agree with my hon. Friend that when the banks are presented with the facts of this sort of case, they should act in a sensitive manner with respect to those individuals.
It seems clear that the big banks are not really interested in providing basic accounts. Is it therefore time to consider an enhanced role for the credit unions, or even the creation of a community banking network similar to that in the United States and in Europe, to provide that kind of banking service?
I do not think it fair to say that the banks are not interested. Since 2004, we have reduced the number of adults without a bank account from 2.8 million to 2 million. Part of the reason that we have been able to do that is the growth in the number of basic bank accounts being offered by the banks to lower income customers. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, however, that if we are to meet our goal of getting everybody a bank account, we need to do more, and to do it in new ways. That is why we are encouraging credit unions, in particular, to move into the current account banking market. There are now nine credit unions offering current accounts, including the White Rose credit union in Wakefield, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). We want to see more of that. We are also working with the banks to ensure that they help us to spread current account banking to more credit unions. That could be an effective way of spreading the habit of banking to the 2 million people in this country who still do not have a bank account.
One of the critical needs that everyone has is the ability to gain access to the money in their bank account free of charge. Following the initiative of the Treasury Committee in proposing an extension of free access cash machines to areas that currently lack them, I have proposed two in my constituency, in Midway and Hartshorne. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made in extending the network of free access cash machines?
We are making really good progress. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (John McFall), for the personal leadership that he has shown in this area. I am hoping to be able to update the House next week on the progress that we have made. More than 400 new free ATMs in low-income areas have now been provided or are in the planning stage. That is two thirds of the way towards our goal, but there is still further to go. I urge Members on both sides of the House with low-income areas in their constituencies without a free ATM to contact either myself or my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire. We will contact the ATM organisers and the banks to try to ensure that we meet our goal of getting a free cash machine in every low-income community in the country.
In his opening response, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said that he wanted everyone to have the facility to enable them properly to manage their money. Might it not help people to do that if Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs managed its money properly, so that 300,000 people were not facing reclaims for child tax benefits?
It is important that we work with HMRC to extend the habit of financial literacy in our country. I commend to the hon. Gentleman the work that HMRC is doing on the child trust fund. There are now 2.6 million families with a child trust fund and, this September, the first tranche of schoolchildren to have such a fund will be starting school at the age of five. We are hoping to use that as an opportunity to expand financial literacy. We need to do everything that we can to help everyone who is challenged by money, including people who have difficulties with overpayments, and I am happy to work with HMRC to ensure that that can happen.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I recently met him and a group of other Welsh MPs to discuss the matter. At the moment, there are individual arrangements between credit unions and particular sub-postmasters, and we would like more of those arrangements to be established. As we discussed in our meeting, it is possible to access 25 different bank accounts at a post office, including 17 basic bank accounts, but if we can do more to get the credit unions to offer current accounts through the post office network, it would be a real step forward towards financial inclusion and genuine choice for the people in our country.
RPIX inflation averaged 3.7 per cent. in the first quarter of 2007, largely as a result of high energy prices and high food prices. It was down to 3.3 per cent. last month and independent forecasts expect inflation to be back at its target level by the end of the year. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that since the Bank of England gained its independence in 1997, the UK has had the best inflation performance for almost a century.
Alliance Trust recently reported that the poorest households in the UK face an inflation rate as much as a third higher than the average. That comes hot on the heels of Institute for Fiscal Studies research indicating a real increase in poverty in this country in the past year. Does the Minister share the concerns expressed by some of his colleagues running for the deputy leadership of the Labour party about the rising inequality under this Government?
One of the best and most important things for families, particularly those on lower incomes who aspire to be able to afford their own homes, are low and stable interest rates, which come with low and stable inflation. That is one of the reasons that this country now has 1.8 million more homeowners than in 1997, and it is the reason that we will not return to the sort of policies that we saw under the previous Government and that are advocated by the current Opposition. During the 18 years that they were last in power, average interest rates, for the entire period, were about 10 per cent.
Last year, disposable incomes rose at the slowest rate for nearly a quarter of a century, and yesterday the Office for National Statistics announced that, for the sixth month in a row, regular pay failed to keep up with inflation, so living standards fell again. The Council of Mortgage Lenders has now reported that homeowners are suffering the highest mortgage burden for 15 years. Does the Minister agree that life is getting much tougher for thousands of hard-working people after the Chancellor’s 10 years in office? People are already struggling with 101 stealth tax rises, and many of them are also hit by the chaos in the tax credit system.
The hardest burdens for many families to bear are interest rates that run out of control, which they experienced under the previous Government, and inflation running out of control, which they also experienced under the previous Government. In contrast, the consumer prices index of inflation remains low by historical standards, at 2.5 per cent.—incidentally, it fell by 0.6 per cent. last month. Consistent with the Treasury’s forecast in the Budget, and with the Bank of England’s May inflation report, independent forecasters expect inflation to return to its target level by the end of the year.
As my hon. Friend is aware from my recent visit to his constituency, the financial inclusion fund is providing money advice in outreach locations, including Sure Start and other family and children’s centres, as well as in many credit unions around the country. Early evidence shows that outreach provision has been effective in bringing information on money matters and financial services to financially excluded consumers, particularly women.
The evidence from my constituency is that families previously torn apart by unemployment and drug addiction are increasingly strengthened and empowered by the Government’s financial inclusion policies, not least tax credits. As those policies and the children’s centres—which families can now use to raise aspirations—are undoubtedly the Government’s two greatest achievements, should not we bring the two together, not only to allow families increasingly to benefit, but to expose the fact that the Conservative party would remove both of them?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. All around the country, Sure Start children’s centres are doing a great job in providing financial advice to lower-income consumers. Only a few weeks ago, in Ilkeston, I saw a credit union in a Sure Start centre that provided both debt advice and a much better way of saving for low-income families than the rip-off, Farepak-type savings schemes that we heard about last year. I agree with my hon. Friend that we should do everything that we can to defend Sure Start in our communities and to resist any attempt to cut back its budgets, which I fear would be the inevitable consequence of the third fiscal rule, which those on the Tory Front Bench continue to promote in order to pay for the tax cuts that they promised.
While the Economic Secretary is looking for outreach locations from which to promote financial inclusion, will he revise his opinion of the role of post offices in that matter? In his recent report, he described the Post Office card account as a barrier to financial inclusion, whereas it should be seen as a gateway to it. Will he work to ensure that the new contract for the Post Office card account goes to post offices, so that people in rural areas, especially, can continue to benefit from the financial inclusion that those vital public services offer?
The hon. Gentleman should know that we intend to spend £1.7 billion over the coming years to preserve the post office network and to ensure that thousands of post offices around the country continue to provide the services to which he referred. However, while we will continue with the Post Office card account after 2010, it is not a properly functioning account and does not provide the services that should be available to the lowest-income consumers. I would much rather people move on to either basic bank accounts or proper credit union accounts. However, we need to preserve the network to ensure that we can support the people in his constituency and in constituencies around the country who need to access reliable and local services.
The biggest barrier to financial inclusion is the very low level of understanding of basic financial services, yet there is very little in the way of teaching in our school system to increase that. What steps has my hon. Friend taken to discuss that matter with the Department for Education and Skills, and when can we look forward to having more pilots on developing such teaching in schools?
My hon. Friend is right that we need to ensure that we strengthen the way in which our schools curriculum can support financial education. In our report in January, we set out the steps that we will take, and I met ministerial colleagues in the DFES to take that forward. A particular opportunity for financial education will come from the child trust fund. In two years’ time, when every seven-year-old in our country gets an extra top-up into their child trust fund account of £250, or £500 for those from lower-income families, we will ensure that we take the opportunity to embed the proper teaching of financial education and financial literacy into our system, using the child trust fund as a real way to communicate that message to both young people and their parents.
Child Trust Funds
The child trust fund is available to all families in our country. So far, we have opened 2.6 million accounts, of which 75 per cent. have been opened directly by parents. We published constituency information in January and will be able to publish information on low-income families later in the year.
Given that it is more than two years since the child trust fund was launched, and that it is vital that the children of low-income families are the first to benefit from them, is it not disappointing that the Treasury still has no idea whether children from low-income families are indeed benefiting, and that the only general figures available to the Treasury indicate that one in four children do not take up that child trust fund? The Treasury should be doing more to ensure that those funds benefit low-income families.
The hon. Gentleman should know that every child is benefiting. Even in a minority of cases when an account is not opened by the parent, an account is opened by HMRC within the year to ensure that nobody loses out. We published the constituency information in January. I can tell him, as I am sure he knows, that 76 per cent. of families in his constituency actively opened the account. He is right to say that the take-up rate is higher in higher-income constituencies, and that the take-up rate is lower in lower-income constituencies. We need to redouble our efforts to increase take-up. As part of that, we have collected the information, which we will publish as soon as we can, to show exactly what the figures are. The reason we had a child trust fund week at the beginning of the year was to ensure that we raised awareness of the child trust fund among all families, including those on lower incomes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in particular, on behalf of my son-in-law and daughter, who has just given birth to a bouncing baby boy—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I thank hon. Members for that. May I point out that the 2 million people who do not have bank accounts are the same people who will not have the privileges that my grandson will have?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have said, there is a correlation between low-income families not having bank accounts and their not opening child trust funds. That is exactly why we need to ensure that low-income families can benefit from opportunities such as those that my hon. Friend’s grandchild will have. I congratulate him, on behalf of the whole House, on the very happy event that has just befallen him.
Employment (Young People)
A total of 3.6 million 18 to 24-year-olds are now in employment, 11 per cent. more than in 1997. More young people are in higher education than ever before, and the number of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance for more than six months has fallen by 70 per cent. since 1997, to just over 50,000.
Yesterday’s labour market statistics showed an increase in unemployment among 18 to 24-year-olds to 518,000, and a 20 per cent. increase in long-term unemployment among that group. Does the Chief Secretary agree that employers have a right to expect young jobseekers to be able to read and count, and that it is truly appalling that, according to the CBI, a third of employers have to teach those skills to new job entrants?
The hon. Gentleman omitted to mention that yesterday’s unemployment figures showed another sharp fall. The claimant count has been less than 1 million for six years—it was never less than 1 million under the 18 years of a Tory Government—and now it is below 900,000. Yesterday’s figures also showed that we have the highest employment rate among the G8 countries. Moreover, as I said earlier, more young people are in employment, and the proportion of 18 to 24-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training has fallen over the past 10 years.
There is more to be done on skills, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the recommendations of the Leitch report, published before Christmas. We will make further announcements about that today, and our response in the form of an implementation plan will be published in a few weeks’ time.
The trend in general unemployment in central Ayrshire dropped significantly again this month, but there is one slight problem—the deficit in public service jobs. What progress has the Chief Secretary made in the context of the Lyons report and the dispersal of civil service jobs, with a view to giving more employment prospects to 18 to 24-year-olds?
I am very pleased with the progress that is being made in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As he will know, our target for the period up to April 2008 is for 20,000 jobs to move from London and the south-east to the regions. There have now been transfers to every region and country in the United Kingdom, and we are well on track towards our target. However, if there are specific opportunities for relocations in my hon. Friend’s area and if he draws them to my attention, I will ensure that the Office of Government Commerce, which is managing the programme, is made aware of them. We want to make certain that full advantage is taken of such opportunities.
As I explained to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), inflation has fallen in the past month. The consensus among independent forecasters is that it will be back on target by the end of the year.
Outside the retail prices index, energy inflation is hitting pensioners hard, especially those in Shropshire. What discussions has the Financial Secretary has with his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry, and directly with the utility companies, about the speedy passing on of any reduction in wholesale prices so that retail customers, particularly pensioners, need not suffer?
We monitor such matters closely. We are obviously concerned about the position of pensioners, especially poorer pensioners. Pricing and price changes are the responsibility of Ofgem—the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets—the independent regulator that we established for the purpose.
Not only has inflation in the United Kingdom been lower and more stable under the present Government than under past Governments, it has been lower and more stable than inflation in other major economies during the period in question, despite difficulties caused by increases in world oil prices. This Government have an outstanding record on inflation and macro-economic management. That is why there are 1.8 million more homeowners and 2.6 million more jobs in the British economy than in 1997.
What I remember about the first quarter of 1997 is that there was no Monetary Policy Committee and the Chancellor at that time artificially held down interest rates in a desperate and fruitless attempt to win the 1997 election. Did that not distort the economy, and does it not make the comparison asked for in the question meaningless? Is not the only real comparison the fact that the Conservatives failed and we have had 10 years of success?
Business of the House
The business of the House for next week is as follows:
Monday 18 June—Remaining stages of the Mental Health Bill [Lords]—day one.
Tuesday 19 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Mental Health Bill [Lords]. It is also expected that a statement will be made on the Fulton and Hall reports into the hostage situation in Iran.
Wednesday 20 June—There will be a debate on European affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Thursday 21 June—There will be a debate on armed forces personnel on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 22 June—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 25 June will be:
Monday 25 June—Remaining stages of the Finance Bill—day one.
Tuesday 26 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill.
Wednesday 27 June—Remaining stages of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords].
Thursday 28 June—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill [Lords].
Friday 29 June—Private Members’ Bills.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business.
Today is Falkland Islands liberation day, marking the 25th anniversary of the liberation of the islands. I am sure that the Leader of the House will join me in encouraging all members to sign early-day motion 1685, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to mark the courage of Her Majesty’s armed forces and to acknowledge the sacrifice of the 255 men who fell.
[That this House notes that 14th June is Falkland Islands Liberation Day; recalls the enormous courage and determination of Her Majesty's armed forces in liberating the Islands; pays tribute to the inspirational leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, with the support of Parliament, helped restore the Islanders' democratic way of life; remains resolutely dedicated to strengthening the historic ties between Britain and the Falkland Islands; reaffirms Britain's sovereignty over the Falkland Islands and her commitment to defend their right to choose their own future; and acknowledges with deep gratitude the sacrifice of 255 men who gave their lives for this cause.]
The motion is a reminder of the debt we owe all our armed forces for the service they have given, and continue to give, to our country.
The humanitarian situation in Gaza is grave, as fighting continues between Hamas and Fatah. Reports suggest that Hamas is now in control of almost the whole Gaza strip. That obviously has serious consequences for the middle east peace process. May we, therefore, have a debate on the situation in Gaza and on the peace process?
This week, Mahmod Mahmod and Ari Mahmod were convicted of the murder of Banaz Mahmod, a 20-year-old woman who fell in love with the wrong man. The human rights lawyer, Usha Sood, says that
“honour crimes are being perpetrated in the hundreds every year”.
The police say that there are as many as 12 honour killings in the UK each year. Miss Mahmod was clearly let down by the authorities, who failed to protect her from her father, despite several warnings. May we have a debate on how we can prevent these despicable crimes?
According to a study published today, hundreds of thousands of elderly people are suffering physical and psychological abuse, neglect and theft. The care services Minister has committed to new guidelines for handling cases of abuse. With an ageing population, the fear is that this terrible problem will become increasingly prevalent, so may we have a debate on how to protect vulnerable elderly people?
Ahead of the EU intergovernmental conference, the French President says that he has agreed
“the framework for a simplified treaty”
with the Prime Minister, and the German Chancellor says that the treaty will have the same “legal substance” as the failed constitution. Surely any treaty on the transfer of powers to the EU must be put to the country in a referendum, so may we have a debate on the circumstances required for a referendum?
I reiterate my request for a debate on home information packs. This week, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Minister for Housing and Planning have got into another fine mess. Now, taxpayers’ money is being spent on subsidising the first home information packs, the Home Information Organisation is threatening to sue for billions of pounds, and the Government tell us that they have not even been able to find a legal definition of a bedroom, so may we have a debate on home information packs?
Finally, the Chancellor’s camp says that he is going to scrap the Department of Trade and Industry and create a Department for energy—but we have heard that before. Two years ago, the Government changed the DTI’s name to the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry, but they changed it back again within days—I see the Deputy Leader of the House smiling—when they realised what the initials spelled out. I am too much of a lady to mention it in this House—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] I am sure that hon. Members can work it out for themselves. The Lord Chancellor’s Department became the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and is now the Ministry of Justice. The Department for Transport became the DETR, then the DTLR, and now it is the Department for Transport again. But after all those changes, voters have seen no improvement in delivery. How much has that cost? In total, this Government have blown £2 million of taxpayers’ money on shuffling the Whitehall pack, so may we have a debate on this Government’s obsession with spin and presentation?
I endorse what the right hon. Lady says about the Falkland Islands. All of us, whether we were Members of Parliament or not, remember the dreadful events that led, in the end, to the liberation of the Falklands, and the terrible loss of life among British soldiers and personnel and, I may say, among Argentine personnel, most of whom were conscripts. As I have said before, those of us who were Members of Parliament recognise the steadfast courage and leadership shown by Margaret Thatcher. I salute that again, but above all I salute the courage and bravery of those who fell and of all who fought in that military action.
The situation in Gaza is indeed grave. Violence, whoever is causing it, provides no answer to the deep-seated problems in the occupied territories; nor does it provide any future. There is a heavy responsibility on Hamas and Fatah, and on the Government of Israel, to recognise, in their own separate ways, their responsibilities to work towards the only peaceful prospect for that area: a political process leading to negotiations and the fulfilment of United Nations resolutions. I will certainly bear in mind what the right hon. Lady says about the need for a debate and, I might add, a statement before that.
I note what the right hon. Lady says about honour killings. The term is a misnomer as there is no honour in those crimes, which are despicable, as are all murders and crimes that take place within families, regardless of the ethnic background of the people involved. It is our responsibility to ensure that the police, and the communities, do all that they can to ensure that such crimes do not take place.
The report published today on vulnerable elderly people is of profound importance. I am glad that it was sponsored by the Government, as it contains much food for thought about how we recognise the signs that vulnerable elderly people are being abused, and about what better measures we can take to detect those who abuse elderly people in the guise of family carers. The problem is very difficult to get at, but I hope that the report will generate a great deal of discussion and, in time, action too.
Unusually, the right hon. Lady is getting a bit ahead of herself with the EU treaty proposals. Nothing has yet been agreed. I am afraid that I was not privy to the discussions between President Sarkozy and the Prime Minister, but my right hon. Friend has set out his interpretation of them already. It is absolutely right for any British Prime Minister to engage in discussions with his opposite numbers in Europe. In the unlikely event—and it is becoming more and more unlikely—that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) ended up as Prime Minister, I hope that he would do the same; otherwise he would be selling this country short. By the way, he would be assisted in his attempts to persuade Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy of his point of view if he decided to keep the Conservatives in the centre-right European People’s party, instead of attaching his party to a far-right rump currently occupied only by the very far-right conservatives in the Czech Republic.
If previous experience is anything to go by, I am sure that the Conservative party will find plenty of opportunities to debate a referendum on the EU constitution, but the real question is whether there would be any significant transfer of power from the UK to Brussels as a result of any treaty. When the matter was discussed before and after the 2005 election, I spelled out endlessly that much in the constitution works to Britain’s advantage. I suggest that the whole House examine the proposals on their merits, and not anticipate decisions that have not been taken yet.
The right hon. Lady asked about HIPs. In her statement in May, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made it clear that HIPs for larger houses of four or more bedrooms will come into force on 1 August, and that they will be phased in for other properties after that. Moreover, I do not think that there will be any difficulty in determining whether a bedroom is a bedroom.
The right hon. Lady’s final question was about the changes of name of Government Departments. The Conservatives made changes to how Departments were organised—some of them perfectly sensible—but we are proud of the delivery that those Departments have been able to achieve since 1997. For example, Britain has, in many ways, enjoyed its best economic record since records began, and there are now 2 million more people in work and 760,000 fewer unemployed. Investment is at record levels, education standards are at record highs and we have had record improvements in the health service.
I am surprised that the shadow Leader of the House did not continue the leadership theme begun by the Leader of the Opposition yesterday. Perhaps the Conservatives have learned a lesson about that, because I was hoping to have an opportunity to give a wider audience to the blessed Simon Heffer of The Daily Telegraph—
I think that the jury is out on that.
I am warming very much to what Simon Heffer says. The Daily Telegraph is the official organ of the Conservative party, and only yesterday he wrote:
“Where there should be policies, there are stunts. Where competence is required, there has been blithering obtuseness. And, all too often, such open wounds extend and join up with each other.”
How does the Leader of the House intend to ensure that correspondence from MPs on behalf of their constituents is not subject to public disclosure if the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill fails to make progress in the other place?
We are taking every step, in consultation with the Ministry of Justice and with a great deal of consideration by the House of Commons Commission and the Department of Finance and Administration in this place to ensure that it is made absolutely clear to public authorities that where they receive requests for the disclosure of correspondence that involves Members of Parliament, first, in every case the Member of Parliament must be consulted and, secondly, it is probable that in almost every case such correspondence is covered either by the exemptions, which are absolute in respect of confidentiality, or by data protection or by many of the other qualified exemptions within the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Detailed guidance has been drafted. I went through it again last night. Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen are also being consulted. It should lead to a better situation than we faced before. I underline that Members of Parliament, for very good reasons, are not public authorities and therefore are not subject to freedom of information legislation. That was agreed without argument eight years ago.
That guidance will be very welcome in explaining the position to authorities that do not understand the existing law.
May we have a debate on the decision of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to restrict access to lucentis and macugen for wet age-related macular degeneration? I recognise that NICE does a very necessary and difficult job, but often the methodology it employs seems better for assessing life-prolonging therapies than for those that enhance the quality of life. As a former optician, I am only too well aware of the awful devastation that can result from AMD. I hope that the House will discuss the matter.
Last week, I asked the Leader of the House about the Ministry of Defence’s involvement in the al-Yamamah affair. It is ironic that the United States Congress is taking more interest in the matter than the House of Commons. The Attorney-General has now written to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) saying that the decision to withhold vital information from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was taken by officials rather than by accountable Ministers—decisions that were politically inept and clearly unsustainable. I renew my request for a statement on the matter.
May I ask the Leader of the House to find time for a debate and the passing into law of the Corruption Bill, which finished its remaining stages in the House of Lords yesterday and would at least enable us to rectify the law?
May we have a debate on the draft Community Drivers’ Hours and Recording Equipment Regulations 2007? There were several unanswered questions in the Delegated Legislation Committee yesterday. The regulations remove the exemptions for rural bus services with a route of more than 31.6 miles. I know that the Leader of the House not only knows the south-west well but knows public transport well. He will know that if he were to catch the 632 service from Taunton to Yeovil via Martock, he would be all right because the route would be 30.3 miles, but if he caught the 54 service from Taunton to Yeovil via Long Sutton, he would not be all right because the route would be 31.8 miles. Is this not nonsense, and should we not revisit the regulations?
In respect of the first point, the hon. Gentleman comes to this issue with a great deal of professional expertise. All of us understand that age-related macular degeneration is a distressing condition for patients and their carers. We are committed to supporting the national health service to deliver improved eye-care services for patients. All primary care trusts are funding photodynamic therapy as a treatment for what is called wet AMD. I underline that what NICE has said is not its final guidance; the guidance has been issued for consultation and the Department of Health will respond in due course. I will make sure that the chief executive of NICE is aware of the hon. Gentleman’s view from his position of expertise.
On BAE, far from the matter not being discussed, it has been discussed at every recent business question time that I can recall, and at Prime Minister’s questions. The suggestion—the insinuation—by the leader of the Liberal Democrats that my noble Friend the Attorney-General ordered investigators to withhold information from the OECD is completely wrong. Instead of wriggling, the Liberal Democrat leader should apologise for making completely unsubstantiated allegations.
Secondly, if the Liberal Democrats are serious, as I think some of them are, about ending their 90 years in opposition and going into government—as a charitable sort of fellow, I have always seen it as part of my role to assist them along that path in whatever way I can—they need to think about the considerations that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had to take into account in making his judgment. The simple fact is that security and co-operation with the Saudis, which is absolutely fundamental not just to the middle east but to our safety in this country, would not merely have been threatened; it would have been undermined had we continued with an inquiry that, on the merits of the case, many of us believe would have proved abortive. There is no point in the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) trying to pretend that it is not an issue—it is an issue for everybody in the House. The Conservatives, to their great credit, understand that, and I am just sorry that the Liberal Democrats try to avoid it altogether.
The third issue that the hon. Gentleman raised was the draft Community Drivers’ Hours and Recording Equipment Regulations 2007, which were, as he said, subject to considerable discussion in a Delegated Legislation Committee. I do not want the House to get the wrong idea; I know the south-west very well, I was just confused last week—unusually, let me say for the record. I am tempted to try the 632 and the 54, but I have always had a conscientious objection to getting on a bus with a Liberal Democrat, so I shall have to avoid that.
If indeed the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill is dead and, I hope, buried for ever, my right hon. Friend should be aware that if there is a genuine problem over the disclosure of MPs’ correspondence, I should support a measure that will deal with it. It is a pity that the problem was not dealt with at the beginning, rather than trying to exempt Parliament from freedom of information provisions. Perhaps the Data Protection Act 1998 should be considered with regard to MPs’ correspondence.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his conciliatory words. As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) knows, as soon as the issue was raised with me—by two Opposition Members who represent Kent constituencies—I took it up. I held meetings with them and the Information Commissioner, which involved the other parties, too, to try to sort through things. However, the difficulty that had arisen—not caused by the House or the then Department for Constitutional Affairs—was that public authorities were getting ready to issue correspondence without so much as a by your leave from Members of Parliament, still less any consideration of the exemptions that might apply. As there was not a word of argument about the fact that Members of Parliament, as Members of Parliament, should not be classified as public authorities for the purpose of the Act, such an action would have been very serious indeed and would have destroyed the relationship between Members and their constituents, which is fundamental to the way in which we operate on their behalf. That is the issue. If we can arrive by other means at the end that everybody sought, we shall all celebrate.
Has the Leader of the House seen the latest report from the Procedure Committee on corrections to the Official Report? Is he aware that a number of Ministers who inadvertently mislead the House still adhere to the obscure and unsatisfactory practice of putting a correction letter in the Library, which of course nobody sees? Does he know that the Procedure Committee is suggesting an innovation—that errors made in the Official Report should be corrected in the Official Report by way of a corrections page, published when necessary, for the benefit of Members, the public and the press? May we have a debate on the report next week? If not, will the right hon. Gentleman assure members of the Procedure Committee that he will take steps to implement its excellent recommendation as soon as possible?
The answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s key question is yes. I welcome the Procedure Committee’s report. He will know that I followed up the representations first made in the House about nine months ago by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and others, and indeed spoke to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) about the suggestion. It is not satisfactory for Ministers either that corrections to the record are scattered through Hansard or are to be found in the Library by those who can scurry through letters in the Library.
The Government welcome the Procedure Committee’s sensible proposals that there should be a dedicated section of Hansard for corrections by Ministers in respect of any proceedings, oral or written, in the House, cross-referenced with the original error. I shall table a motion later today to allow the House to approve the Committee’s report with a view to its coming into force at the beginning of the next Session.
I do not know whether I am on or off message, but may I join the Prime Minister in calling for a wide-ranging debate on the relationship between politics and the media? It has long concerned me that good policies, such as home condition surveys, can be abandoned or bad policies adopted simply to placate the media. There should be more straightforwardness and transparency in the way we make our policy.
For this week.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) raises a serious problem and I am glad he approves of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday. The issue is serious not only for politicians on both sides of the House but for the press. I know from many serious political journalists that they, too, share the frustration felt throughout the Chamber and by many others about the way in which serious reporting of Parliament and politics is squeezed out in the ever-competitive scurry that leads to the dumbing down of newspapers.
Will it be possible to make time for a ministerial statement on the effectiveness of the child trust fund? Today, a Treasury Minister said that information would be made available about participation in the scheme by different socio-economic groups, but a Freedom of Information Act request shows that research already carried out states that
“those who open an account are considerably more likely than those who haven’t to be older (30+) and from higher social classes”.
Given that the research has already been undertaken, will the Leader of the House ask the Treasury to make a statement as soon as possible so that we can discuss the value for money and effectiveness of the policy?
I will certainly take that up with Treasury Ministers. There is always a problem in that the more articulate are readier to take up benefits, but that does not undermine the principle behind them. We have to ensure that everybody understands they are available and makes use of them.
This is a great month for engineers and engineering in the UK. We celebrate the 100th birthday of Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine and, crucially, the Olympic Delivery Authority announced yesterday that its first construction project has been delivered on time and on budget under the stewardship of Howard Shiplee. When can we make time in the House to discuss the role of engineers and engineering and their contribution to our British economy?
I pay tribute to what the ODA has been able to do—I am chairman of the Cabinet Committee on the Olympics, and have therefore watched progress. We must make sure that progress continues, but projects could not be delivered without the fine service and great skill of British engineers. I shall certainly bear what my hon. Friend says in mind.
Although the police in our country face daily perils, for which I salute them, the tasks and hazards involved in making arrests and detentions in, say, Brixton pale in comparison with the tasks and hazards faced by our armed servicemen trying to arrest insurgents and terrorists in, say, Basra. It is desirable that there should be different legal jurisdictions for those activities, reflecting the very different circumstances. May I take it that that is still the Government’s view? If it is, what are they going to do about the House of Lords ruling that has applied the Human Rights Act 1998—on top of the tri-service discipline legislation and the International Criminal Court—to all the legal problems faced by our armed servicemen, thus putting them in an increasingly impossible position? I invite the Leader of the House to allow a debate on this subject. Is there any chance that a Minister will give a statement to the House at an early date?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and the Law Officers are studying the judgment with care. As I understand it, the judgment indicated that the Human Rights Act applied in respect of British-run detention facilities in Basra, and not elsewhere. The House of Lords did not make a judgment on the merits of the particular proceedings initiated on behalf of Baha Mousa, who died while in British custody. That has to be the subject of a separate trial. We will consider the matter very carefully.
May I ask for a debate on pricing policies at UK departure points? I bring to my right hon. Friend’s attention early-day motion 1599, which has the support of all parties in the House.
[That this House expresses its concern that the British travelling public are treated as captive audiences at the UK's ports, airports and railway stations in terms of charging for goods and services; and calls on the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the pricing policies at these departure points on behalf of British consumers.]
The motion calls on the Office of Fair Trading to investigate why the British travelling public are seen as a captive audience when they enter an airport, an aircraft, or a train. Surely the travelling public have a right to know why they are being charged inflated prices at departure points throughout the UK.
Will the Leader of the House allow a debate in the near future on the hospital conditions at Selly Oak? It was my sad privilege last Saturday to visit Corporal Nick Davis from Newark, who lost his right leg and buttock in an incident in Afghanistan. Conditions of security were curious, but the staff were absolutely first class and our wounded heroes conducted themselves wonderfully. That is curiously at odds with the words of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), who said:
“The soldiers seem to want a little empire consisting of their own designated staff and facilities, a fiefdom.”
Will the Leader of the House join me in distancing himself from those disgraceful words?
I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises, and I pay tribute to all the staff at Selly Oak hospital, as well as saluting the courage of the very brave men and women who find themselves there. There will be a debate next Thursday on defence personnel, which will be a good opportunity for him to raise his concerns.
When can we debate early-day motion 1690 about the refusal yesterday by the Government to support a proposal to have a commemorative stamp on veterans day to mark the sacrifices of those who have been lost in Iraq?
[That this House notes the Government's refusal to support the proposal to issue commemorative stamps displaying the work of war artist Stephen McQueen on Veterans' Day, because that day's events are celebratory; and believes that the work, Queen and Country, which depicts photographs of 98 British soldiers killed in Iraq, printed in a stamp format, should be used for a commemorative issue on Remembrance Day to respect the wishes of the artist and the loved ones of the fallen soldiers and to provide a powerful reminder of the true cost of war.]
The stamp would be based on the work “Queen and Country” by the war artist Steve McQueen, which shows the portraits of 98 of those who have fallen in Iraq. If that cannot be done on veterans day—for understandable reasons, because the day is designed as a celebration of the work and sacrifices of soldiers—why can we not have a commemorative stamp on Remembrance day to remind us of the true cost of war?
The Chancellor has been talking a lot recently about reforming the House and making Members of Parliament more accountable. Surely a good place to start would be by looking at the Scottish Member of Parliament and his role in the House. May I helpfully suggest that we try to resolve the issue consensually? Perhaps we could consider an all-party initiative to report to the House and make some recommendations.
I know that the hon. Gentleman, who is entitled to his view, wishes to see Scotland wholly detached from the United Kingdom. I do not think for a second that he has the support of the Scottish people for doing that. The role of Scottish Members of Parliament is the same as that of English, Welsh and Northern Ireland Members of Parliament. We are happy to have a debate with him at any stage about the nature of devolution, but he knows that this House is sovereign in respect of the whole United Kingdom, and that is why Members of Parliament, wherever they come from, deserve equal rights.
Has my right hon. Friend had any success in finding a date on which the Foreign Secretary can be here for a long-awaited debate on Zimbabwe? That is particularly important in the light of the view expressed by Chancellor Merkel last week that Mugabe should be invited to any summit between the European Union and the African Union.
As I made clear last week, we continue to seek to identify a date when the debate will take place. I have promised—and I continue to do so—that, God willing, it will take place before the summer recess. I recognise its importance and the impatience of my hon. Friend—and Opposition Members as well—when it comes to the urgent need to debate this issue.
As the right hon. Gentleman has such a proud record of ensuring that the flag of our country is flown on the parliamentary estate, may I draw his attention to early-day motion 1653, and ask him to raise the matter urgently with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that this Saturday, for trooping the colour, the flag of the Falklands Islands, and those of all Her Majesty’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies, are flown from Horseguards parade?
[That this House looks forward to the 2007 Trooping the Colour ceremony on Saturday 16th June to mark the Official Birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; notes with pride that the flags of all the nations of the Commonwealth are already displayed in and around Horse Guards Parade in preparation for this great occasion; and calls on the Government to ensure that the flags of all Her Majesty's Realms and Territories are also flown in time for the ceremony, including Her Majesty's Crown Dependencies of The Isle of Man, The Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey and Her Majesty's Overseas Territories of Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Ocno Islands, St. Helena, Ascension Island, Tristan da Cuhna, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and the Turks and Caicos Island.]
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is bizarre that the flag of a republic such as Mozambique is flown, but the flags of British territories are not?
On Saturday, the Cardiff-based Actors Workshop will be putting on extracts of a play called “The Lady of Burma” to mark the 62nd birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is in her 12th year of house arrest in Burma. When may we have a debate to discuss what more the Government can do to end that deplorable situation?
May we have an early debate in Government time on the two reports by Sir Hayden Phillips on party funding, neither of which has been debated in the House despite their importance to every hon. Member? If the right hon. Gentleman cannot promise a debate, will he give an assurance that, before his possible transfer elsewhere in Whitehall, he plans to bring to a successful conclusion the inter-party talks that he is chairing?
We did have a full discussion on the day of the publication of the Hayden Phillips report, on an oral statement that I made to the House. The right hon. Gentleman—he is normally well informed, and I am sure that he is well informed on this matter—knows very well that part of what was agreed between the parties was that Sir Hayden Phillips, not I, should chair cross-party talks on the issue, and those cross-party talks continue. I am sorry that, as I am not clairvoyant, I cannot predict when they will end.
Following the welcome statement on child sex offenders made yesterday by the Home Secretary, which has received universal support, may we have an early debate on child protection issues so that we can not just examine the excellent record of the Labour Government in the past 10 years in this area, but look seriously at the real challenges that we face in the future if we are to make our children even safer?
In response to the question asked by the shadow Leader of the House about elder abuse, the Leader of the House said that he hoped that the report published today would stimulate discussion, and perhaps lead to action later. Given that the report shows that more than 342,000 older people are the victims of neglect, theft and even sexual assault, surely it is not a question of discussion; it is time for action. May we have a statement from the Department of Health setting out that action, and assuring us that it will go beyond simply reissuing the guidance that has so far failed? We should instead place on a statutory footing the measures that are necessary to safeguard vulnerable adults.
Of course there is a serious problem, but if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health had come before the House today and said, “A report has just been published; this is what we’re going to do”, the Liberal Democrats would have been the first to complain that we had not had a chance to digest the report and come to sensible conclusions on it. They need to get serious. Of course the issue is urgent, but the report is the first objective scientific assessment of the prevalence of abuse against the elderly. The prerequisite for effective action, which is what we all want, is to consider the report carefully, although as quickly as possible.
Next week is national markets week, and the all-party markets industry group is encouraging Members of Parliament to visit their local market to show their support. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate next week on the importance of markets in providing employment, strengthening communities, promoting healthy eating, protecting the environment and regenerating town centres?
Given the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the Union, will he arrange an early debate on the size of the Scottish block vote, so that we can consider the unfairness of English taxpayers having to pay for the cost of scrapping graduate tax, even though English students will not be eligible for that relief at Scottish universities?
That issue was settled in the devolution legislation, and I would like to hear from the hon. Gentleman whether the Conservatives now propose to go back on that. He should also be told that in the House, the English block vote completely outweighs the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish block votes by a margin of about 5:1, yet the House completely controls the size of the block grant that goes to Scotland. Devolution means difference, and I celebrate that, even if he does not. The truth is that there is no evidence that differences in fee regimes encourage more English students to study in Scotland, or deter significant numbers of Scottish students from studying in England. University applications in England are up 6 per cent. to the highest rate ever, and the proportion of applicants from lower socio-economic groups is up, too.
For the third week in a row, my right hon. Friend has failed to grant the House a debate on the future of grammar schools, so I shall change tack: will he allow us a debate on the future of secondary modern schools, and does he think that the 102,160 pupils who attend secondary modern schools deserve at least an explanation from the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)?
I do. I am sorry; I usually try to help my hon. Friend, and the House, but we continue to look for an opportunity to debate grammar school policy, as it is a really important matter. What people used to forget when they celebrated grammar schools is that 20 per cent. of children went to grammar schools, and 80 per cent. were labelled failures and went to secondary moderns. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) is not here, but as I agree with her, I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will allow me to put on record what she told The House Magazine:
“The whole issue of grammar schools has been handled very badly indeed.”
I agree with that—and I say to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that she is not a “right-wing nutter” at all, but a Member of the House. I hope that there will be an opportunity for her to explain her views in more detail in the near future.
May we have a debate on the relocation of 70 Crown post offices to branches of WH Smith? In my constituency, consultation has started on proposals to move the Kirkintilloch post office, and I have no doubt that other areas face a similar situation. Given that the issue is causing a great deal of concern, is it not time that we had a debate in the House specifically on that major change to the post office network?
We have had plenty of debates on the subject, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has been assiduous in coming before the House to explain the position, which is not one that any of us wished for. May I offer a bit of helpful advice to the Liberal Democrats? They have to think about the fact that in the past 10 years there has been increased use of the internet. It is now in 55 per cent. of homes, and people now use it when they used to go to the post office. Unfortunately, that has changed the market in which the Post Office has to operate. We have put £2 billion into subsidising the Post Office and helping it to deal with transitional problems.
May we have a debate on the disproportionate effect that debt has on the poor, especially with regard to companies such as BrightHouse, which specifically targets the poor and charges them extortionate rates of interest? The price of the goods is marked up to begin with, too. The poor sometimes feel that they have nowhere else to go, but they do: there are credit unions. Wearsidefirst is one such credit union in Sunderland; it offers hope and an alternative to millions of the poorest and most vulnerable consumers in the country.
I commend my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. I had a terrible case along those lines in my constituency advice service just last Friday, in which usurious rates of interest were being demanded from a poor lady. My hon. Friend is right, but I cannot make a promise about a debate, although we will certainly look for an opportunity.
The Department for Transport’s high-level output specification for the passenger railways is due to be published in July, and it will focus on reliability, safety and capacity. Naturally, those are important issues for every Member of the House, and Ministers have rightly declined to comment on them while the report is in preparation. Next month, will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on the implementation of the document, before the recommendations can get buried in the long grass of the summer recess?
I shall certainly look for that opportunity. I might add that I have been encouraging my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to include in the high-level analysis a recognition of the case for the doubling of the track between Blackburn and Bolton.
My right hon. Friend will know that I have raised the issue of violent video games on a number of occasions. Will he join me in condemning Sony for the publication of a new video game that depicts scenes of Manchester cathedral, without the permission of the Church authorities, in a game that is very violent and bloody? Will he join the Prime Minister in stating clearly that there is a responsibility beyond profit on those who produce such games? Can we ask Sony at least to withdraw the game and pay compensation to a Church charity, and may we have a debate on that important matter?
My right hon. Friend is right about the issue, and there has been totally unacceptable practice on Sony’s part. It has a moral duty to withdraw the game and make reparation to a Church charity, but it ought also to have some enlightened self-interest about the damage that it is doing to what was a reputable brand.
I welcome the fact that we are to debate defence next Thursday; that will give the House greater opportunity to celebrate the courage, bravery and professionalism of our armed forces, especially those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Can we make sure that the Secretary of State for Defence comes before the House with evidence about why we pay only £1.51 a day to feed our soldiers in the UK, and £2.63 to feed servicemen abroad? That money is not enough to feed our soldiers in the field, which is why so many servicemen’s families are sending high-protein products out to soldiers in the field, as the Government are not feeding them correctly.
I know about the hon. Gentleman’s experience in the forces; he was a member of the Grenadier Guards for some years. The Ministry of Defence is clear that the allowance for UK-based forces is significantly above that for dogs, and so it should be. That is the information with which I have been provided—[Interruption.] Army dogs. Army dogs have to be fed, too—[Interruption]—as the hon. Member for Buckingham will understand.
Okay. That is unusual, because the hon. Gentleman normally provides a running commentary on everything I say. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) was certainly talking about Army dogs in the Daily Mail yesterday. [Interruption.] If I missed the point of what he was saying, I am sorry, but I thought that he was continuing what he said in the Daily Mail yesterday—[Interruption.] Well, I could be forgiven for thinking that he was.
We are all concerned about the fact that our troops need to be properly fed. We may have different anecdotal evidence, but I know a number of people who have served in Iraq—
In 17 days’ time, we shall see the banning of smoking in public places, which is an enormous leap forward in the prevention of smoking-related disease. However, there is still an awful lot to do. In the 48 minutes that business questions have lasted so far, 12 of our citizens have died of lung disease. Today, in the middle of “breathe easy” week, which was organised by the admirable British Lung Foundation, will the Leader of the House announce that we will have a debate in the House on lung disease? There is a shortage of respiratory specialists and community support, and death rates have remained stubbornly high for a generation, so there is an awful lot more to do. I am sure that, as a Government, we will take further steps to tackle that continuing problem.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that important issue. We have done a very great deal. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has been in the vanguard of ensuring that the ban is introduced, which has already led to change in public attitudes and to much greater consideration by those who smoke of the importance of no longer smoking. We will certainly look for an opportunity for a debate.
The Leader of the House will have noted in today’s Financial Times a report that the Chancellor’s chief fund raiser, Sir Ronnie Cohen, who is also a leading figure in the private equity world, believes that the Government should change a tax loophole by getting rid of the taper on capital gains tax. Should not the Chancellor come to the House next week to let us know what he is doing on that issue—or would it be better for us to wait until the end of the month for the Leader of the House to do so himself?
Could we have an urgent debate on the Chicago convention on international civil aviation, because the only way in which we can reconcile repeated ministerial statements that the Government have no evidence of detainees being rendered through the United Kingdom with the evidence collected by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament—the most recent instance was on 2 June at Mildenhall—of prisoners being rendered through the UK is by reference to a loophole in the convention whereby the US Government are not obliged to inform the UK Government if they are rendering prisoners through UK territory? That is a stain on us.
It is: if prisoners are rendered through UK or European airspace, that is a stain on us. I have to tell the Leader of the House that one of the things that have lost the war for the United States is Guantanamo Bay and the issue of civil rights, so can we have an early debate on the Chicago convention?
The reason why I shook my head is that I made it clear in a statement in December 2005 that Ministry of Defence records, which were examined with the greatest care, showed that there was absolutely no evidence of any cases of rendition having taken place through our airspace or our airports—none whatever. Despite extensive inquiries by the European Parliament and others, they have not been able to produce any evidence whatever. I shook my head because, uncharacteristically, the hon. Gentleman was giving force to wholly unsubstantiated allegations. It is my belief, on the basis of the most substantial examination, that apart from the two cases, of which I informed the House, and which took place in 1998 in entirely justifiable circumstances and are on the public record, there has been no rendition through the United Kingdom. If he thinks about it for a second he may realise that if there had been, there might have been a scintilla of evidence from somebody somewhere at a British airport saying that they had spotted something. There has been no such evidence, nor do I believe that the United States would have broken clear understandings with us and done this without our knowledge.
Could we please have a full-day debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the role of the Back Bencher and the use of non-legislative time, given that both those important topics fall within the scope of current inquiries by the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, so ably chaired by the Leader of the House himself, and the fact that we need to decide how to improve the means of scrutiny and the opportunities for representation? Will he take it from me that it would be cruel beyond endurance, both for him and for the House, if he were denied the opportunity to listen and respond to a full-day debate on those matters before he moves to pastures equally lush?
I know of no pasture as lush as that of Leader of the House. If anyone aspires to the position, may I tell them it is a great job? We will leave to one side what will happen, or will not happen, in future—you never know. The hon. Gentleman gave evidence to the Modernisation Committee, on which I commend him. We have concluded our report, and it should be published shortly. I hope and believe that there will indeed be a full debate, as he proposed. Improving the role of the Back Bencher and the use of non-legislative time is of profound importance to the House.
A constituent of mine was set upon by a group of thugs in a vicious assault, and ended up in hospital for more than a week. The Northamptonshire police did a very good job, and arrested the alleged culprits. The Crown Prosecution Service did its job, and the case went to the magistrates court. However, when it reached the Crown court, the defence lawyer pointed out that there was an error on a form—a court clerk had misrecorded something that the judge had said—and the case was dismissed. The Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph—a fine paper in my constituency—has taken up that case under the banner “Rough Justice”. Can we have a statement or a debate to clarify the reason why clerical errors apparently allow justice not to be done?
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not comment specifically, as I know no more about that case than what he has told us, but it sounds as if it is a serious matter. Discretion rests with courts to deal with non-material errors without having to require acquittal in certain circumstances. I will pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friends the Attorney-General and the Secretary of State for Justice. If the hon. Gentleman can provide me with more information, I will follow this up.
Can we go back to the issue of Crown post offices? We should have a full-scale debate in Government time on the closure programme. Is the Leader of the House aware of the anger and dismay in King’s Lynn about the fact that services housed in a great historic building are to be moved to a nondescript counter in WH Smith? Despite what he said the other day about the public not using those services, people use that building regularly, so what can he do to help hon. Members on both sides of the House to make the Post Office and the Department of Trade and Industry see sense?
Of course I understand the concerns that arise when those changes take place, but the Post Office and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry face a dilemma that must be shared with the House. How is it possible to maintain the viability of the Post Office when the internet has led to a significant reduction in personal mail as a result of e-mail, and in over-the-counter transactions at post offices because people can now, for example, renew their road fund tax on the internet, rather than going to a post office? That dilemma affects all of us. I understand the anxieties expressed by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents—as he knows, I am familiar with the main post office in King’s Lynn—and I shall certainly pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend.
I want to take the Leader of the House back to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) about the House of Lords judgment. It is interesting that the Ministry of Defence was quoted in today’s press as saying that the ruling changed nothing, and that it was a helpful clarification. That raises the question why the MOD appealed the matter to the House of Lords in the first place. I listened carefully to the response from the Leader of the House, who said that the Law Officers and the Secretary of State for Defence were reviewing the judgment carefully. I do not think I heard him say—it would be helpful if he could clarify this for the House—whether, once they have completed that consideration, the Law Officers, the Secretary of State or both will make an oral statement to the House to set out the current legal position of our service personnel when operating abroad.
My understanding is that it was not the Ministry of Defence, but the family, who appealed to the House of Lords. That is how the case ended up there. I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and alert my right hon. Friend to the fact that the hon. Gentleman is likely to raise the matter in the debate that takes place a week today.
May we have an urgent statement from the Minister for Industry and the Regions about the proposed closure at the end of this month of the Kettering Business Venture Trust, and the role of the East Midlands development agency in its demise? KBVT has been helping local businesses start up over the past 22 years, creating thousands of jobs in and around the Kettering constituency. When 43,000 new jobs are required in north Northamptonshire in order to comply with the Government’s sustainable communities plan, the loss of KBVT comes at entirely the wrong time. The Government should step in urgently and save this worthwhile local enterprise agency.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During business questions I named the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) without having informed her office beforehand. I have been in the House long enough now to realise that that was a mistake, and I apologise to the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his apology. I would add that he also did not take the trouble to contact me to check whether the comments attributed to me, which were taken directly from a Sunday tabloid, were accurate. I wish to inform the House that the comments attributed to me in no way reflected the lengthy conversation that I had with the reporter involved. I am just as concerned as any Member of the House to ensure that our armed forces receive excellent medical treatment, which they are receiving at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at Selly Oak. They are receiving treatment at the cutting edge of what is available, healing wounds that in the past would never have been able to receive treatment. I hope that the inquiry by the Defence Committee will reflect—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As a humble Back Bencher, may I seek your assistance and advice? With the aid of the Table Office, I have for some time been trying to find out how much the Ministry of Defence spends on feeding Ministry of Defence dogs. With the aid of the Table Office, I received an answer on 5 March which stated:
“The information requested is not held centrally and would vary depending on the breed . . . of the dog.”—[Official Report, 5 March 2007; Vol. 457, c. 1648W.]
We tried again, with the aid of the Table Office, and on 23 March I was told that I could not be given the answer as the cost would be disproportionate. Last night a very good journalist from the Daily Mail phoned the Ministry of Defence to ask the question, and 15 minutes later received an answer—an answer that we do not believe, but the journalist was given an answer. Is it not disrespectful to the House if we do not get answers to questions, but journalists do in 15 minutes?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I have some information, though not all of it. I am happy to provide him with the information that I have, and I will also follow up the point that he raises. Let me make this clear, and I am sure I speak for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence: if information can be made available to the press, it ought to be made available to the House.
DIGITAL SWITCHOVER (DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION) BILL (PROGRAMME) (NO.2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(7) (Programme motions),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 18th December 2006 (Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Amendment
1. Proceedings on consideration of the Lords Amendment shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement at this day’s sitting.
2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement. —[Liz Blackman.]
Question agreed to.
Orders of the Day
Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill
Lords amendment considered.
Lords amendment: No. 1.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
On Report the House agreed to an amendment to extend the Bill to information held by local authorities on registered blind and partially sighted people. The amendment was in response to representations made by the Digital Switchover Consumer Experts Group and to amendments tabled by Opposition Members in Committee.
The definition of “local authority” in the amendment needs further clarity to avoid ambiguity, as it could be read as excluding metropolitan district councils in England. The amendment clarifies that. It may also be helpful if I give further clarification on the progress of the scheme. On 30 April, we and the BBC reached agreement on the terms of the help scheme and—
The House will now, unfortunately, not be treated to the full-length disquisition on the merits of the Bill that I had prepared, as I shall speak only to the amendment.
As the Minister might have said if he had decided to speak at greater length about the amendment, it is an important technical drafting amendment. As the House is aware, clause 1(3) allows local authorities to give visual impairment information to the BBC or to the Secretary of State in order to allow assistance to be given to the visually impaired for digital switchover. As we understand it, in many areas it is a county council that holds this information, so it is the body covered by the definition of a local authority. In some areas, however, it is a district council that holds the information on those with visual impairment. The Bill needs to take account of that. Clause 5(1)(ii) referred to
“a district council for an area in relation to which it has the functions of a county council”.
In his opening remarks the Minister was not clear about the need for this technical change, so perhaps I could illuminate the House in case any hon. Members wish to tease out some of the technical details. The original amendment tabled by the Government would have adequately covered the definition for shire areas with two-tier systems. However, the problem arose because although some metropolitan district councils are the relevant authority, it could be argued that they do not have the functions of county councils. The definition was therefore changed to:
“a district council, other than a council for a district in a county for which there is a county council”.
That is a very important technical change. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) used the word “boring”. I disagree with him on that; I would say that it is interesting, although it could be made more so. I could discuss Roman governance systems, as I did at length in Committee, but that might make it too interesting.
This is a very important change, because there may have been confusion with metropolitan district councils—that is, virtually all unitary authorities not covered—if they were deemed not to have the functions of a county council. In order to help hon. Members to understand the technical and important nature of the amendment, the Minister could have pointed out that a similar amendment was made in the Public Bill Committee to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, and that this technical change will bring the definition of a local authority into line with the corresponding provisions of that Bill. I think that that is correct, but I would be grateful for his guidance.
You have made the important ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we cannot discuss—nor should we—the other issues to do with digital switchover, so focusing solely on this technical amendment I should like to ask the Minister a number of questions.
I understand and accept the ruling from the Chair, but we would all like to know what the Minister was about to tell us when it was decided that he would be out of order. Will my hon. Friend urge him to impart that information in another way, perhaps by placing a letter in the Library or by making a written statement to the House at a later date?
I hear what my right hon. Friend says. In Committee, we pressed the Minister to put into the Bill a mechanism whereby the Government could report back regularly to the House.
The Minister promised—I do not know whether this is in the spirit of the earlier remarks by the Leader of the House—to take me to Whitehaven to see digital switchover in action, but that promise has not been fulfilled. I await a trip to Whitehaven with him to see what is happening on the ground. Having placed in the House copies of the agreement with the BBC, it is important that he writes to the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport or places in the Library a letter bringing us up to date with digital switchover.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not just going to leave it at the shadow Secretary of State, as all Members present are clearly showing an interest in this matter. The amendment will change the range of people who will be identified for assistance through the targeted help scheme. Although the ruling by Madam Speaker means that we cannot hear about progress for all those people, does he agree that it would be helpful to hear what progress is being made in providing help to the new group of people who will be covered as a result of the new definition in the amendment?
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker.
To give credit where it is due, the hon. Member for Bath first raised the issue of local authorities when we discussed the Bill previously. As an expert on this, he rightly points out that the definition of a local authority widens the range of people to whom assistance will be given. Perhaps the Minister could elucidate on that.