House of Commons
Thursday 17 January 2008
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
The Secretary of State was asked—
A strong enterprise culture is vital to the UK’s long-term economic prosperity and can help us meet some of our important social objectives.
Thanks to measures taken by the Government, there is a record number of small businesses in the UK and young people are increasingly looking to set up businesses as their chosen career path. More than 180,000 new businesses have been created each year since 1997 and new VAT registrations have exceeded de-registrations in each of those 10 years. We are working on strengthening our enterprise strategy and will publish a White Paper in the spring.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his reply. I welcome everything that the Government are doing to increase enterprise. We in Stoke-on-Trent, which is not traditionally renowned for the number of its small enterprises, are very proud that it was the winner of the Enterprising Britain award. I have been in touch with the “Make Your Mark” campaign and we have great hopes that, from now on, the Government will make Stoke-on-Trent a city of enterprise as valuable as Liverpool is as a city of culture, so that we can make progress on everything that they want to do for enterprise and encourage investors to come to Stoke-on-Trent because we are proud of our award.
I am happy to endorse my hon. Friend’s comments about the North Staffordshire regeneration zone, which did a brilliant job in winning the national awards in 2007 and was a runner-up in the European competition. We will continue to do all we can to support enterprise in her constituency, which several initiatives can benefit. I am happy to say that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Competitiveness hopes to visit Port Vale soon to open some new enterprise units. As I said, we will continue to do all we can to support my hon. Friend’s excellent work.
Enterprise relies on new business, as the Secretary of State mentioned. What is he doing to help enterprising people who start up new businesses, given the credit squeeze, which is having such an impact on their cash flow? Will he ask the banks to be sensitive at this difficult time?
I accept much of what the hon. Gentleman says. We are in constant communication with the banks and others to monitor the impact of the financial upheaval in the markets that has taken place since the summer. So far, there has been little impact on banks’ borrowing practices in respect of small businesses, but we are keeping the situation under the closest supervision.
In areas of deprivation, social and community enterprises are an excellent way in which communities can take control and get themselves out of deprivation. What assurance can the Secretary of State give that people in those communities will receive assistance to give them the capacity to start their own businesses and social and community enterprises?
In our work on the new White Paper, we are closely considering the issue that my hon. Friend raises. In my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley), I said that enterprise is not only an economic issue, although it is a powerful one, but an important social tool that helps us reach into areas of disadvantage throughout the country. I am sure that a reinvigorated enterprise strategy can help areas in Britain that are under-represented in business start-ups to do better, and especially groups of people—for example, women—among whom the number of business start-ups is much lower than among other groups.
We are examining a range of measures—I shall not announce the detail of the White Paper today—but I assure my hon. Friend that we acknowledge her points and are tackling them directly in our work on the White Paper.
Does not the Secretary of State realise that most small businesses would laugh at his claim of championing enterprise? With Labour proposals to double capital taxes on business and abolish income sharing on dividends between spouses, with enterprise groaning under the weight of some 3,000 new regulations a year, with growing instability in the banking sector and now the high street, and with energy costs and inflation rising, how can he say that enterprise is being promoted?
Because we use facts and evidence, not the hon. Gentleman’s empty huff-and-puff rhetoric. Policy should always be based on evidence, not ideology. He has made his party political point, which is all well and good, but I wonder what view business would take of a party that wants to cut research and development tax credits and business support schemes and introduce a new bureaucratic trading scheme for, for example, chocolate and fatty foods. That is evidence of a party that has totally lost touch with business reality in this country.
Following on from the question about social enterprise, I applaud the work that my right hon. Friend, the Department and the Office of the Third Sector in the Cabinet Office are doing to promote social enterprise. However, will he look closely at whether sufficient support is being given through Business Link branches, many of which are reformed? The support available is sporadic; in Luton, for example, we are under-resourced in terms of support and capacity building for social enterprise. That particularly affects those in black and minority ethnic communities who want to go into social enterprise, but do not have the advice and financial support to do so.
In relation to Business Link, we are again considering all such issues in the context of our work on the White Paper. On social enterprise, I shall draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, because he is overseeing a lot of the Government’s work on social enterprise. It is important in all parts of the country that there should be an efficient, modern and private sector-led business support service that can provide bespoke and tailored business advice to businesses that are just getting going. That is very much our ambition for Business Link.
The UK continues to perform well on a wide variety of measures of competitiveness, including the best measure, which is productivity. The comprehensive spending review set out a number of measures to raise long-term productivity further.
In an increasingly competitive world, with an explosion in globalisation and fierce competition from India and China, was the Minister as dismayed as I was to read the report by the institute of management and performance showing that the UK had slipped from ninth to 20th place in the competitiveness league? He is an intelligent Minister, so what assessment has he made of the Government policies that have contributed most to that downfall?
The hon. Gentleman is certainly right about the ferocity of the worldwide competition that UK companies face. There are a number of different indices, but some are rather volatile, partly because the methodology that is used changes from one year to the next. However, I refer him to the World Bank, which last year and the year before assessed the UK as sixth in the world for ease of doing business, and to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which says that we have the lowest barriers to entrepreneurship of all the OECD countries. However, the best measure is productivity, on which we have closed the gap with Germany, as well as having been the only G7 country to keep pace with US productivity growth since 1995. We have done well on competitiveness, and the new stability in the economy over the past 10 years has been the key.
One sector that is competing well in the north-east is the biotechnology sector. Indeed, it is flourishing, with 50 start-ups being established in the past five years. I recently met members of the sector, who told me that they are facing difficulties, in that they need another 1,000 biotechnicians in the next few years. We need to address that issue as far as competitiveness is concerned. What are the Government going to do about it?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that important subject, because we are establishing a new innovation and growth team to focus on the biotech sector. He is absolutely right about the importance of the sector for the UK economy, particularly as addressing climate change is an increasingly important priority. The Sainsbury review last year made the point that the UK is well placed to do well globally in industries such as biotechnology. That is why we have committed extra resources to science, to train exactly the kind of people that that sector and others need. Given the ferocity of international competition in the biotech and other sectors, we will continue to ensure that the UK does well. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is leaving immediately after questions to board a plane for India, and we will continue to battle for UK business.
Competitiveness lies at the heart of many of our problems in Dundee over the past 12 months, with 1,600 job losses, including 1,000 in manufacturing, and the work directly transferred almost exclusively to more competitive economies in China and Hungary. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State are aware of the difficulties in Dundee, so will they meet me and others who are concerned about the Dundee and wider Tayside economy with specific regard to the loss of manufacturing jobs? Will they also meet the local business community, if a request comes from the chamber of commerce to explore what the Government might be able to do in conjunction with the Scottish Executive?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the fierce international competition that we have been discussing applies nowhere more than in manufacturing. I would urge him to look at how the manufacturing sector as a whole has been performing over recent months. It has been doing well; I draw his attention to the fact that, for example, we made almost twice as many cars in Britain last year than we did 25 years ago. We want to take a fresh look at our manufacturing strategy. We introduced a strategy in 2002 that made a big contribution, not least through the manufacturing advisory service. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in November, we will review our strategy between now and the summer. I would welcome the opportunity to meet the hon. Gentleman and representatives of the business community in his area to discuss such issues.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of the main elements in competition is the price of energy. He will also be aware that, last week, The Sunday Times reported that six energy companies were meeting to conspire to ensure high energy prices. What action will he take to ensure that British competitiveness is protected from the profiteering of the energy companies?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of energy prices for competitiveness in the UK. He will be aware of the initiative taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, and he will also know that Ofgem is looking closely at this issue. It is the case that the competitive market framework for energy in the UK has delivered energy prices that are among the lowest in Europe.
The Minister talks about the importance of improving competitiveness, not least among small companies. While he has been talking, however, the Chancellor has raised those companies’ corporation tax rates and increased their business rates, and he is now planning a £900 million tax hike on their capital gains. How can small firms remain competitive when the Chancellor is taxing them to death? Is the Minister’s Department going to stand up for those firms or simply let the Chancellor walk all over them?
I simply draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that we have more small businesses in the UK today than we have ever had before. There are now 4.5 million of them, and there has been a 20 per cent. increase in the number of companies registered for VAT. I believe that the Chancellor is absolutely right to seek the simplification of capital gains tax. The combination of indexation and tapered relief had created a complex system, and he has proposed changes to address that. He is also listening to representations from small business organisations and he plans to make additional announcements.
The Office of Gas and Electricity Markets—Ofgem—is responsible for regulating gas and electricity supply, including supply to the business sector. Termination arrangements are a contractual matter between the supplier and the customer.
My constituent, Mr. Mark Middleton of Coppicemoor Farm, Pytchley, near Kettering, has an electricity supply contract with npower. npower wrote to him 30 days before the end of the contract to ask him whether he would like to renew it. He said that he would not, but npower said, “Tough. You should have given us 90 days’ notice.” So Mr. Middleton is now tied into his contract with npower for another 12 months, after which he will seek an alternative supplier. Will the Minister look into the notice periods that companies impose on their customers? This inability to switch easily between suppliers is creating a brake on business efficiency.
The general principle has to be that business customers can protect their own interests, and that includes monitoring the terms of their contracts and the expiry dates involved. We recognise, as was noted in an earlier question, that high energy costs are affecting businesses as well as domestic customers. For those reasons, I would be happy to bring the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to the attention of the chairman of Ofgem, with a request that he consider whether any changes to the rules governing business supply are required.
Will the Minister give us his assessment of why energy prices have gone up so dramatically in the past few months? Is it simply to do with the price of oil? Does he have any evidence of the anti-competitive behaviour that was mentioned in a previous question? Or is it the failure of the EU energy markets to be properly competitive?
There are a range of factors. The major background factor has to be the huge global demand for energy in the emerging economies of India, China and many other countries, as well as the demand in the western economies. We have seen increases in the wholesale price of fossil fuels of between 50 and 80 per cent., and that has to be the major factor. The Chancellor is in discussions with Ofgem and the Secretary of State is also involved to make sure that the relationship between wholesale price increases and retail price increases is appropriate. We have a competitive energy market here; there is an issue in Europe, where we continue to press for the liberalisation of energy markets. The hon. Lady is right that that is another important factor.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Energy has met the chief executives of all the energy supply companies with a view to improving support to those at risk of fuel poverty. The level of support that companies are providing this winter has increased from £40 million to £56 million. The Minister for Energy and I will meet chief executives again shortly to discuss the best way to ensure continued support. Overall, the Government have provided £20 billion in support for the fuel poor since 2000, with 2 million households helped by our fuel poverty schemes and close to 12 million receiving winter fuel payments each year.
That is a good record, but more needs to be done. Some householders face price increases of 27 per cent., which has clear implications for the Government’s fuel poverty targets. In his discussions with companies, will my right hon. Friend commend those that offer good social tariffs and reprimand those that do not, reminding them of the possibility of compulsion?
I strongly support what my hon. Friend says. A number of electricity supply companies have done exemplary work in trying to address some of these issues, particularly with regard to those who rely on pre-payment meters. There is an issue there that is now being addressed. We have decided not to legislate in the Energy Bill to introduce mandatory social tariffs at this point, given the extra investment by companies and their commitment to continue it, but we will keep the matter under careful review.
Is it not the case that the amount of money that these companies spend on social tariffs is a pittance in comparison with their huge profits? Are not all these cosy conversations with the companies achieving practically nothing? With fuel poverty doubling over the last couple of years, is it not time to legislate to make poor people protected instead of hoping that companies will do what should be the Government’s job?
We should intervene in the most effective way possible. I know that the hon. Gentleman’s instinct is always to regulate and to legislate, irrespective of the ability of other mechanisms to deliver. That is not our approach. We are making progress on fuel poverty. There is obviously a growing issue with rising energy prices, which is why in our talks with energy companies we will be redoubling our efforts to find a sensible way to proceed, particularly for elderly consumers of gas and electricity, for whom I accept there is a particular hazard.
One of the problems with social tariffs is that there is not just a difference, but a vast disparity, between the tariffs offered by different companies, which confuses consumers and others. That highlights the fact that some companies are doing a lot more than others, so I urge my right hon. Friend carefully to consider how to achieve not just an incremental increase in the amount of money going into the industry’s support for consumers, but a substantial increase right now, at a time when customers really need any extra support that they can get from a proper social tariffs programme.
As I said, we are in discussions with the energy companies, and those discussions are continuing. They have all promised to maintain the support that they are providing over the next three years. We will discuss with them what more, if anything, can be done. From the Government’s point of view, I have already pointed out some of the areas where we are investing directly in this issue. It is important to keep the overall picture clearly in mind. We are providing direct financial help with energy costs for households and we are also investing more over the next spending review period on energy efficiency for domestic households. We must continue to wage this war on a number of fronts, but I can assure my hon. Friend and all hon. Members who are rightly concerned about this issue that the Government are very seized of the significance of these matters and are doing all they reasonably can to address the concerns that are being expressed.
Last week, we witnessed what can only be described as a rather crude stunt in which the Chancellor reprimanded Ofgem as if it were somehow responsible for higher energy prices and fuel poverty. Is it not the case that, in addition to world commodity prices, the main component of our energy bills’ increase is the higher price of carbon? Is it not also the case that the main culprit here is not markets, but the Government’s failure to adjust their policy on addressing fuel poverty in a way that actually keeps pace with harsher global conditions? Does the Secretary of State agree with the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) that companies are, as he put it, conspiring to keep prices high?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has an obvious and perfectly legitimate interest in inflation, and given the significance of energy prices to overall inflation levels, I think that his intervention was entirely proper and appropriate. As he and my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy have said, we need to understand the interaction between wholesale and retail prices, and I think that it was perfectly fair and proper to initiate such an inquiry.
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has said, the regulatory arrangement for our energy market is one of the most effective anywhere in the European Union, and the result has been, on average, significantly lower energy prices in the United Kingdom. It is up to the competition authorities, which oversee unfair trading practices, to examine any evidence of criminal or illegal behaviour, and if there is any such behaviour, people should draw attention to it so that proper inquiries can be made.
Many economists might say that there is a difference between inflation and just higher prices, but we will not give the Secretary of State a tutorial on that today.
One of the most effective solutions to fuel poverty is to reduce households’ fuel bills by helping them to consume less in the first place. Should the Secretary of State not feel ashamed—indeed, he referred to this in his earlier answer—that the Energy Bill, which was published last week, contains nothing whatever to promote consumer and household energy efficiency, and will therefore continue and even exacerbate people’s exposure to rising fuel prices in the months and years ahead?
I have a great regard for the hon. Gentleman, but I have never seen him as my tutorial adviser when it comes to energy matters—or, indeed, to any other matter that I could possibly think of. However, I am grateful to him for at least the offer of some sort of support in the future.
I doubt that very much indeed, but it might be nice to have a chat with the hon. Gentleman socially, at least.
As to the wider issue of energy efficiency, the measures that we have taken have benefited more than 2 million households in the United Kingdom. We are doing more than previous Governments to tackle the issue of demand for electricity through energy efficiency measures, and we are seeking to make significant improvements in the work that we are doing.
The hon. Gentleman, along with others, seems to have been affected by the contagion that the only response to the issue is to legislate. That is, perhaps, a lesson with which I can help him out in this two-way exchange of ideas that we are to have. Legislation is not necessarily the right answer. The Government have the power and the means, and are using them, to help more households to become more energy efficient, and we can do that without any more regulation or legislation.
We are running a new national campaign to raise awareness of the minimum wage. The campaign includes national and regional advertising and an online campaign for young workers, in addition to our targeted enforcement campaigns aimed at the hotel sector. The Government are absolutely determined to ensure full, effective enforcement of the national minimum wage legislation that the House has passed.
I support the Government’s campaign, which I have seen on television and in the press. However, as my right hon. Friend knows, thousands of workers, mostly part-time and female, are still being caught in the middle. Will the campaign include explaining to employers the penalties that they will incur if they are found to be underpaying their workers?
Yes, the campaign will deal with all those issues. It will not just provide information, education and advice, but explain how to make and proceed with a complaint. As my hon. Friend will know, we have acted to increase the penalties for violation of the minimum wage legislation, but although we can and should always seek to improve enforcement, I trust that those of us who have always supported the concept of a national minimum wage will draw some comfort from the fact that this year it will be 20 per cent. higher in real terms than it was at the time of its introduction in 1999, without the negative impact on jobs that all Conservative Members confidently predicted.
No, I am not, and addressing that issue will be part of our campaign. Anyone who is working legally in the United Kingdom is entitled to the full and proper protection of UK legislation, and that should and will apply irrespective of a worker’s nationality.
I welcome the campaign, and in particular the minimum wage campaign bus, which I believe will come to the west midlands tomorrow. However, does the Secretary of State agree that advertising the minimum wage is one thing, but enforcing it is another? Will he outline just how this bus will help some of the most vulnerable workers get their rights in terms of wages and conditions?
As a former bus driver myself, I am keen to see buses employed in this helpful way, and the point of the bus campaign and service is to make sure that, as my hon. Friend says, we reach parts of the country where we know there are potential problems. The bus can do that; it will tour across the United Kingdom with expert advice available on board to help those who want and need it.
Post Office Closures
Decisions on six area plan proposals have so far been announced by Post Office Ltd. As a result of information received during the local public consultations, it has to date decided not to proceed with 15 post office closure proposals. Also, a number of changes have been made to initial plans in the pre-consultation phase, which involves Postwatch, sub-postmasters and local authorities.
My constituents are awaiting with trepidation the results of the consultation exercise, which threatens seven of my sub-post offices—half the sub-post offices in my constituency. The Post Office claims that a lot of research went into this exercise, yet it turns out that Postwatch is in the dark and has used out-of-date deprivation figures and erroneous distance figures, and one sub-post office was even put in the wrong county. Given that a very small number of sub-post offices have so far been reprieved out of now more than 230 which have been targeted for closure, what assurances can the Minister give my constituents that this is a genuine listening and consultation exercise, and not another cynical, bulldozing and box-ticking exercise?
The hon. Gentleman has campaigned very vocally for the post offices in his constituency. He will be aware that there is a review process, which involves Postwatch, as to whether Post Office Ltd has not abided by the criteria it has set out. That operates at several levels, and his ultimate course of appeal is to Allan Leighton, chairman of Royal Mail Group, should Postwatch believe that the process has not been carried out properly in his constituency.
In addition to issues to do with out-of-date data, some of my constituents are concerned by rumours about the sums involved in redundancy and compensation payments to the people who own the businesses. Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that redundancy or compensation payments for loss of business will not be a factor in decisions on closing post offices, and that the consultation will not be prejudiced by such considerations?
The compensation arrangements in the current post office closure programme are based on those that applied in the urban reinvention programme of several years ago. The Government took the view that it was right to recognise the long-standing commitment made by sub-postmasters and mistresses in local communities, which is why provision has been made in the package of financial support to the Post Office over the next few years to compensate those who are leaving the network as a result of the programme.
Given that the Government tried to manipulate the timing of the consultation to avoid the local elections, does the Minister think that residents who are concerned about the future of their local post office should consider the forthcoming local and London elections as referendums on post office closures?
May I tell the Minister that two post offices in my constituency, those at Rodmersham and East street, are closing? The process has been a complete sham. I raised this issue in a Westminster Hall debate, when I also mentioned franchising. It is possible to bid for and own a franchise of McDonald’s, Starbucks or Kentucky Fried Chicken; is it too late for us to put together local initiatives to bid for profitable post offices that the Post Office wants to close?
The issue of third-party involvement in taking over branches scheduled for closure has been raised in debates. I have encouraged Post Office Ltd to engage properly and seriously with local authorities or others who may be in a position to do so. I must also say to my hon. Friend that if such involvement is to happen, it is fair that Post Office Ltd is able to cover all its costs. Such costs include those relating directly to the branch, central infrastructure costs in support of that branch and what it calculates it can save by closing the branch and, in doing so, supporting a smaller network. One would also have to expect that if local authorities or others were in this position, the Post Office would ask them to commit to take over the branch for a reasonable amount of time—several years—rather than do this and be in the same position in a short time in the future.
Under the consultation process in my constituency, which ends on 31 January, 10 post offices are threatened with closure, which is some 33 per cent. of the total. Post Office Ltd indicated in a recent meeting with me that we could perhaps save one or two if we found some factual error in the consultation process, but I was told, “If you save one post office, we will have to close another one because the Government have required us to close a total of 2,500. Therefore, if one is saved, another has to be chopped.” Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm to Post Office Ltd that the requirement is not to close 2,500 post offices, but to close up to 2,500 post offices? In other words, it is possible that some of my 10 post offices might yet be saved.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the figure is up to 2,500 post offices. I must tell him that Post Office Ltd also has to bear in mind the fact that the average amount it is saving from closing a branch that has been scheduled for closure is £18,000 per annum per branch, although the figure will vary depending on the individual circumstances of the branch. That is why replacements have been announced where decisions have been made not to proceed with closures. It is possible that Post Office Ltd might not take this approach in every instance, but there is a cost involved in making such a decision. That is why things have happened in the way that the hon. Gentleman set out.
It is nevertheless hard to understand why the consultation in Derbyshire produced no changes in the plans and included the continued closure of the profitable post office in Church Gresley. Its business will now be transferred to another post office, which has no adjacent parking and where people queue in the street at busy times. It does not seem that rational decision making is taking place.
I understand the points that my hon. Friend makes, but I would counsel caution on his description of post offices as “profitable”. In order to make such a judgment, one has to consider not only the payment to the agent in the branch, but the central infrastructure costs to the Post Office. Such costs include support for the IT system in the post office, for the cash handling and cash holding in the post office, for the provision of forms to access Government business and, possibly, for security. A number of factors must be taken into account, not all of which are included in the payment to the sub-postmaster, so I counsel caution in asserting that his local post office is profitable when all those factors are taken into account.
As the question put by the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) has perfectly illustrated this, it will probably come as no surprise to the Minister to learn that concerns about the adequacy of the consultation process and about the accessibility of sub-post offices and, indeed, Crown offices have been pre-eminent among the concerns expressed by hon. Members in response to the request by the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which I chair, for information and feedback on the consultation and the closure process. The Minister will come before the Committee on 5 February to deal with this issue. The Committee might subsequently make urgent recommendations—we are only halfway through the process, so there is time to adjust it. Will he commit to respond rather more rapidly to my Committee about any such recommendations than Governments are obliged to do, to ensure that these concerns are properly addressed?
Of course we take the views of the Select Committee very seriously on this. It has published two reports, or two iterations, on the issue so far. If I may paraphrase their overall view, it is that this is a regrettable but necessary process to reduce the size of the network, as—I am sure—the Chairman of the Committee will confirm. I can assure him that any points made in future Select Committee examinations of the process will be taken seriously by me and by the Secretary of State.
My hon. Friend is fully aware that footfall plays a vital role in determining whether a post office is busy. The vast majority of that footfall arises from benefits and pensions. Keeping in mind the fact that the Post Office card account is to be replaced, will he say whether he has yet had, or is in a position to have, discussions with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about the replacement for that account?
The current Post Office card account contract comes to an end in 2010. The Government have committed to a successor product to it, and legally that has to be put out to tender. A decision will be made later this year. I am sure that the Post Office will bid strongly for that, but the process has to be legal and proper. A decision will be announced later this year.
As I said earlier, the Government have abided by Cabinet Office guidelines on this. This programme is taking place over a 15-month period, roughly speaking, and the local election campaign will take three to four weeks. It will not have a massive impact on a programme lasting 15 months.
Does the Minister not yet understand why the public feel so disillusioned by this consultation process? The Government have halved the 12-week consultation period recommended by the Cabinet Office; they are using access criteria that result in post offices being closed because of their geography rather than their viability; they are making it difficult for local communities to find other ways to provide funding to keep post offices open; they are setting communities against communities; and people feel that the campaigns that they have mounted have been ignored. Is it not time that the Minister accepted that his process is flawed and is neither taking account of local views and concerns nor delivering the right post office network for the future?
I certainly understand the public concern about the closure of post offices which are valued organisations, but let us remember why it is happening. It is because the number of people using the post office has declined by 4 million a week in recent years. The network is losing several million pounds a week and the difficult decision was taken to reduce the size of the network and to support the remaining network with a subsidy of £150 million a year. I have to point out to the hon. Gentleman that the subsidy committed by his Government was zero.
A single medium-sized nuclear power station of 1.2 GW would provide around 2 per cent. of the UK’s electricity needs. This would be equivalent to about 0.8 per cent. of our total energy supplies. The White Paper on nuclear power published last week sets out why nuclear is the cheapest low-carbon option for electricity generation.
What the Minister’s response actually demonstrates is how deeply flawed the policy is. The reality is that nuclear power is hopelessly uneconomic and, even on the Minister’s own figures, one station will meet only 0.8 per cent. of our energy needs. Is not the reality that it would be much better to invest in energy efficiency and renewables, which would have a much better response in terms of energy policy, and is not what he proposes a white elephant and a red herring?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, what my reply demonstrated was that I was answering his question. I invite him to read the nuclear White Paper before forming a judgment. Yes, energy efficiency is crucial to energy strategy for climate change and, yes, renewables play a vital part—and will play a bigger part in the future. That is our policy, but we need other energy supply, too. If one day, heaven forbid, the Liberal Democrats were in power, it would be a dark, cold and gloomy place, with their Members huddled around, burning Nick Clegg leadership manifestos to keep warm.
It is possible that zero-carbon nuclear energy might one day save the world from climate change; hot air from the Liberal Democrats certainly never will. After the proposals in the excellent energy White Paper are passed, nuclear power will have to internalise the cost of decommissioning power stations and waste, as it should. However, as I understand it, those rules will not apply to energy producers that produce energy using fossil fuels. Why not?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the entire costs for the management and disposal of radioactive waste and spent fuel from any new nuclear power stations will have to be paid by the power companies. In terms of a wider strategy to reduce carbon emissions, we need to do many things. The EU emissions trading scheme is vital. Much will depend on a high price for carbon through the development of that scheme and we are pressing for that. Our Secretary of State has also announced a major demonstration project for carbon capture and storage, which surely also shows the way ahead.
Trade Liberalisation (Developing Countries)
All relevant Ministers discuss trade and development regularly, including in meetings of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on trade, during Cabinet and in the normal course of business. Recent discussions have focused, in particular, on the current round of world trade talks, economic partnership agreements and regional trade agreements.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. When next he and his colleagues meet to discuss international trade matters, will they agree that the time has come to break the logjam in the Doha round and the economic partnership agreement negotiations by urging our partners in Europe and in other rich countries to take the unilateral step of opening our markets to all low-income countries as defined by the World Bank? If they do that, I am sure that they will have the support of those on these Benches and a great number of non-governmental organisations and other experts in the field. It could be a great measure that would unify the nation and help the world.
With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, the least developed countries already have access to the EU market, including the UK market, under the “Everything but Arms” initiative. I agree that we need to see progress in the Doha development round. We expect to see revised negotiating drafts of documents, which could potentially lead to ministerial discussions to close the round towards the end of January, or perhaps at the beginning of February. All sides will need to give ground and to show additional flexibility. I hope that the key players—the G4 members and others—will help to ensure that progress is made.
The purpose of my Department is to help to ensure UK business success in an increasingly competitive world. We promote business growth and a strong enterprise economy, lead the better regulation agenda and champion free and fair markets. We are the shareholder in a number of Government-owned assets, such as Royal Mail Group, and we work to secure clean and competitively priced energy supplies.
It is now 100 days since the Government announced changes to capital taxation for business and individuals—plans described yesterday by the president of the CBI as being in “complete confusion”. We now have only 54 working days until the 5 April tax deadline. Yesterday, the Government were accused by a respected trade association of creating the conditions for a false market in stocks because of their indecision. When will Ministers stop dithering, accept that this shambles is damaging British business and make a decision at long last?
The hon. Gentleman will know that tax matters are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor who, along with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, myself and other Ministers, has been listening to the concerns articulated by business. He will bring forward his proposals shortly, but it is not right for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the fundamentals of the British economy do not remain strong. They certainly do.
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that he needs to do his homework a little more thoroughly. The Government have made no such proposals.
With great respect to my hon. Friend, I made the Government’s position clear a little earlier, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). We have not ruled out the action that he has described, but we have not brought forward proposals at this time because the energy companies are working hard to address the concerns that my hon. Friend and others have raised. My basic sense is that we should work with the energy companies to reach a voluntary agreement about the best way forward. However, if we do not achieve that, and if proper and adequate measures are not put in place, we have not ruled out introducing further legislation at some point.
No, we do not. There is no easy way to undertake the process. The consultation schedule was set out last July, and the hon. Gentleman would have been informed about it. The overall process takes significantly longer than six weeks, as prior consultation is held with the relevant sub-postmasters. Post Office Ltd does its best to take all relevant factors into account in what is a difficult, and often locally unpopular, process.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Manufacturing is a very important part of the UK economy, and it is changing into a high-value, technology-driven sector. New investment has been put in, and the manufacturing strategy has done a good job for us over the past five years. We need to make sure that it continues to do so and to provide manufacturing jobs in constituencies such as his. I am confident that the strategy, and the funding to which he referred, will continue to deliver for our constituents.
Petrol prices have now hit £5 a gallon. When the current round of 2,500 post office closures is complete, how much extra in transport costs do Ministers estimate that vulnerable people, people in rural communities and businesses will have to pay as they travel to their increasingly distant and remote post offices?
Even after the closure programme is over, the post office network will still be by far the largest retail network in the country—bigger than all the banks put together, and more than three times the size of all the major supermarket chains put together. It will have an unequalled footprint across the country in both urban and rural areas.
I understand what my hon. Friend says about the length of the consultation process. We have received representations about that. We are, however, mindful of the uncertainty that has been hanging over the network for some time. From beginning to end, the whole process will take some 15 months. On his question whether I will meet him, I will of course be happy to meet him and to listen to any proposals that he makes.
As the hon. Lady will be aware, that is a matter for my right hon. Friends in the Treasury, but I accept that those are genuine and proper concerns and I shall ensure that they are addressed to the appropriate Minister.
I think the right hon. Gentleman is referring to regulatory reform orders, which are only one part of our approach to regulatory reform. If he looks in detail at the further plans that were published before Christmas—I am happy to send that very large volume to him—he will see examples of further measures that we are taking across the whole of government to reduce the administrative costs of red tape and bureaucracy. In that respect, we are beginning to make significant and promising progress.
In his statement last week on energy, my right hon. Friend said:
“the Government will need to be satisfied that effective arrangements exist, or will exist, to manage and dispose of the waste”.—[Official Report, 10 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 519.]
I can understand how a Government can be assured that effective arrangements do exist, but it is hard to see how they could be sure that a future Government can be satisfied that, at some indefinite stage in future, such arrangements will exist. Will he comment on that?
I think my hon. Friend is referring to a section of my statement that dealt with the subsequent granting of planning permission for new nuclear plant, should any proposals be made. My remarks were framed in the context of the time scale, particularly in relation to long-term geological disposal. As he will know, because he studies these matters carefully, there is now, I think, no dispute about the arrangements for disposal: interim storage coupled with long-term disposal is the right way forward. In that context, I hope that he will reflect further on my remarks and understand the point that I was trying to make.
As I said in response to an earlier question, I counsel the hon. Gentleman to be cautious about describing his local post office as “profitable” when both central support costs and payments to the agent running the sub-post office are taken into account. On his question about discussions with the local authorities, if they are serious about covering all the relevant costs for several years—if that is how they want to commit local council tax payers’ money—I would certainly encourage Post Office Ltd to talk to them.
Women-owned businesses comprise only 14 per cent. of UK businesses and, shamefully, only 8 per cent. of businesses in my own area, the west midlands, whereas the figure is 30 per cent. in America. Will the Government look seriously at the issue of supply-side diversity, which has become a cultural norm in America and which UK companies can and should be encouraged to promote for good business reasons?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. It is interesting to compare rates of entrepreneurship in the UK and US. Men in the UK are as likely as men in the US to start up a business; women in the UK are much less likely to do so than women in the US. That reflects a long-term policy focus over two or three decades in the United States on encouraging women’s entrepreneurship in the way that she described and in other ways. We will consider the matter carefully before the enterprise White Paper that we plan to publish in the spring.
I am going with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, my plane leaves in about 20 minutes, so I had better keep my answer short. My right hon. Friend and I are going to China to make the case aggressively for open markets and free trade between the UK and China. We want significantly to support British companies to increase their share of business with China. I do not want to give a figure, for obvious reasons. I think that we should be as ambitious as we possibly can be. There is a very strong case now, as we have good relations with China economically, for building on that and looking forward to more business for British companies in that extraordinarily dynamic economy.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 21 January will be as follows:
Monday 21 January—Second Reading of the European Union (Amendment) Bill.
Tuesday 22 January—Second Reading of the Energy Bill.
Wednesday 23 January—Motion relating to the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General, followed by remaining stages of the Student Loans Bill.
Thursday 24 January—Motions relating to the Senior Salaries Review Body report.
Friday 25 January—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 28 January will include:
Monday 28 January—Consideration of a procedure motion relating to the European Union (Amendment) Bill.
Tuesday 29 January—Consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill.
Wednesday 30 January—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill.
Thursday 31 January—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by remaining stages of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.
Friday 1 February—Private Members’ Bills.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business, although I ask her also to give us the business in Westminster Hall.
This week, the whole country has been appalled by the news that one of Garry Newlove’s murderers had been released on bail. I suggest youth crime as the subject for next week’s topical debate.
The Prime Minister has told The Sun that he wants to change the law on organ donations so that consent is assumed, even though his organ donation taskforce has yet to report and he voted against a measure to change the law four years ago. Will he or the Health Secretary come to the House to make a statement on exactly what is Government policy?
Yesterday, the Government finally published the Senior Salaries Review Body report. They have sat on the report since July and spun it to the media for the past month, and they gave it to Members only late yesterday afternoon. Will the Leader of the House ensure that that absurd situation never reoccurs?
One way in which Ministers show disrespect for the House is in their failure to answer written questions properly. Departments are refusing to answer any questions about data security, including factual questions about the past. Instead, they hide behind the ongoing Cabinet Office review. However, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Ministry of Justice have answered questions about past data security. If they can answer the questions, why cannot the other Government Departments do so? Will the Leader of the House remind her ministerial colleagues of the importance of written questions? Every week she tells us that she puts Parliament first; every week her colleagues treat Parliament with disdain.
In November the Chancellor announced that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs had lost the personal data of 25 million people. It has now been reported that at least 20 more data security breaches have been discovered—that is two incidents each week since the Government said that they would sort it out. May we have a debate on the Government’s chronic mismanagement of people’s data?
Yesterday the Prime Minister evaded specific questions about the cost of the Northern Rock crisis to the taxpayer. Given the supposed commitment of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House to put Parliament first, and given how serious the crisis is, when will the Chancellor make a statement on how much that is costing the British taxpayer?
Finally, I understand that Tony Blair has written to the Prime Minister with a progress report on the Prime Minister’s first six months. In the interests of transparency, would the right hon. and learned Lady place a copy of the letter in the Library?
Talking of Tony Blair, it has been reported that President Sarkozy supports the nomination of Mr. Blair for the EU presidency. I am sure that the Foreign Secretary supports Mr. Blair’s nomination, but may we have a statement from the Prime Minister on whether Mr. Blair is his preferred candidate? In six months, the Prime Minister has abandoned the national interest, ignored the British people and left us on the sidelines in Europe. Having waited so long for the top job, is the Prime Minister going to find that, yet again, he is dancing to Tony Blair’s tune?
The right hon. Lady raised a number of points. I would like to express what I am sure is the feeling of the whole House, and send our sincere condolences to the widow of Mr. Newlove. We all want to learn the lessons of that terrible crime and we continue to determine to take action against serious violent crime.
The right hon. Lady asked about organ donation and about Government policy on organ donation. The policy is clear. We set up a taskforce, which has reported. We want to increase the amount of organs available for donation. That is important to save lives, because all too often at present people die while they are on the waiting list for organ transplant. The proposals arising from the work of the taskforce will be implemented by the Government. As for presumed consent and whether we should move to an opt-out system, that is not Government policy, but a subject on which the Government are keen to see further and wider debate. It is not a party political issue. We all need to think about how policy can ensure that organs are available for donation.
The right hon. Lady made some points about the SSRB and complained that, as she put it, we had “sat” on the report since July. There is a particular context of public sector pay this time around in which we are considering the question of MPs’ pay. We want to be sure that we do what should have been done many years ago: end the system whereby we vote on our own pay. At the same time as we published the SSRB report we issued a written ministerial statement, which states that we will propose that we do not award ourselves more than 2 per cent., and which also proposes a mechanism for ending the system whereby we vote on our own pay. The right hon. Lady mentioned timing in relation to the tabling of the motions. We tabled the motions yesterday and they are to be debated next Thursday. That will ensure that, should they want to, Members have enough time to table amendments to the motions. A number of Members have already done so.
In her usual way, the right hon. Lady went on to allege that the Prime Minister treats Parliament with contempt. I say to her that in his first six months this Prime Minister has come to the House to give oral statements more times than the last two Prime Ministers did during their whole terms of office. That is about accounting for things. [Interruption.]As I said, in his first six months he has made more oral statements than the last two Prime Ministers did during their whole terms of office. That is treating the House with respect and bringing issues before it.
I will look into the right hon. Lady’s point about the consistency of answers between different Departments on the question of data protection in Departments.
This is the 15th time that the right hon. Lady and I have done business questions together. I see that she is a creature of habit. The pattern is clear: if there is a bandwagon, she will jump on it and if there is a myth, she will peddle it. She has carried on in that vein today.
Further to what my right hon. and learned Friend said about the murder of my constituent Mr. Garry Newlove, is she aware that one of the people who murdered him had previously been let out on bail despite having had a history of previous offences and of ignoring court orders? Can we have a debate on how the bail system operates in this country, and on how we strengthen it to protect ordinary citizens from such violent offenders?
I know that my hon. Friend has raised the issue with the Home Secretary and asked for an inquiry into the case so that lessons—if there are any—can be learned, particularly on the question of the granting of bail. I shall bring the fact that my hon. Friend has raised the matter again in the House today to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
I join the expressions of condolence to the Newlove family. On a basis of consensus, I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and support the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). I suggest that we have an early debate, without any motion for substantive decision, on how bail applies to those charged with murder, rape and the other most serious offences—particularly in respect of under-18s or juveniles. Such a debate would be timely and the country would appreciate it.
On the business that the Leader of the House has announced for the next fortnight, I should say that obviously we are about to begin the long march towards the implementation of the European Union (Amendment) Bill, and that is welcome. On Monday week we are to debate a procedure motion. Will the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that the Government manage that, so that people know in good time when we will debate each substantive part of the Bill? There are environmental issues, constitutional issues and issues to do with home affairs and justice. In that way, people—not only us here, but those outside who have an interest—can see what is coming in good time, inform us and participate in the process.
As one who has always supported the presumption that organs should be given, I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement on that and suggest that we now seek to do something about deciding the matter again here; I realise that legislation is required. I suggest that we have an initial debate, to test the mood of the House and pick up the issues, and go on to implement, or discuss implementing, the change. That would be welcome and I hope that it could be done relatively easily and speedily.
I have two last things to raise. A local government announcement is about to be implemented by a decision on the settlement for the coming year. Before that, may we have a debate on whether local councils will have the resources to implement equal pay for women and men who are local government staff?
On Members’ pay, I welcome the Leader of the House’s motions on the Order Paper in relation to an independent mechanism for determining pay. Can she give an assurance to colleagues that this is not an excuse for putting stuff into the long grass but that we will have decisions not only about the mechanism but about the conclusions by the summer of this year?
Perhaps I could just say, in case I gave the wrong figures last time, that what the Prime Minister has actually done in his first six months is given more oral statements to the House than the other two did in their terms of office. [Interruption.] Sorry—their first six months. We are comparing the first six months.
On the subject of bail for those who have been charged with committing offences, I suggest that we could consider that for a topical debate. A number of cases have just been concluded in the courts that raise the question of criminal offences that have been committed by people who are free because they are out on bail.
On the European Union (Amendment) Bill, I have told the House that on Monday week we will discuss the procedure for conducting the Committee stage. All of that day’s business will be an opportunity to discuss the process by which we debate the Bill in Committee on the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As well as scrutinising the structure of the Bill, which has only seven clauses and one schedule, we want to enable the House to discuss the importance of Europe in relation to our economy, the global environment, tackling cross-border crime, and the Europe-wide contribution to international development. As I say, the Bill has only seven clauses and one schedule, and the House will have ample time to discuss it.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of transplant policy, as did the shadow Leader of the House. The taskforce has proposed further action, which the Government have committed to take. It has looked particularly at how the transplant rate—the availability of organs for transplant—has been improved in other countries. The country that has made most improvement is Spain, but the taskforce says that the reason for that is not necessarily presumed consent but the other measures that the taskforce is proposing to ensure that organs are made available. This issue concerns both sides of the House, we need a debate, and it needs to come to a conclusion. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman propose it for a Westminster Hall debate. Incidentally, I announced the Westminster Hall business for the following weeks last time, so I have not sought to re-announce it to the House today.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) asked for an opportunity for the House to debate equal pay in local government. We are firmly committed to equal pay. It is important that all women are entitled to fair pay, including those who do important work in public services in local government. That is why we have increased the capitalisation available to £500 million to enable back pay. However, there is clearly more work to be done to ensure that we have not only strong public services but fair pay between men and women.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the SSRB and ensuring that we do not set our own pay in future but have a mechanism whereby there is a proper comparison and a way of deciding independently from our having a vote. He asked whether this has been kicked into the long grass. He will see in the written ministerial statement that we issued yesterday that we have asked Sir John Baker—we are very grateful that he has agreed to the Prime Minister’s request to lead this review—to produce his report so that we can come back to the House before the summer recess to resolve the issue.
Would my right hon. and learned Friend take an early opportunity to look at the clamping regulations in force at the moment, to prevent people such as Nicola Platts in Great Barr, Birmingham from suffering at the hands of the sort of unscrupulous people who blocked her in? They made sure that she paid £150 cash there and then. If she had refused to pay that, she would have had to pay an additional £100 clamping charge. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look into this matter urgently, and bring legislation to the House so that we can do what the Scottish Parliament has done, and abolish the practice?
My hon. Friend makes an important point on behalf of his constituent. He might take the opportunity to raise it next Tuesday, during Transport questions. We all want good traffic circulation and effective clamping, but we do not want extortion by cowboys, which is what he is concerned about.
May we have a debate on the desirability of an equitable tax system? Has the Leader of the House seen the report by Professor David Newbery of Cambridge university, which states that if motorists were required to pay the true cost of the damage they cause to the environment, they would pay tax at the rate of 20p per litre of fuel? Is she aware that the current tax rate on fuel runs at 60p per litre? We have the highest petrol prices in the European Union. If we cannot have a debate on this matter, will she, at the very least, see her right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and tell him that in his next Budget he should lay off the long-suffering British motorist?
I am not clear from the right hon. Gentleman’s point whether he wants higher or lower taxes on motoring—possibly both at the same time. This is obviously something he can raise with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in questions. I take it that the right hon. Gentleman therefore supports the Mayor of London’s proposals for a differential rate for gas-guzzling cars in the congestion charge.
May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to early-day motion 648 on holocaust memorial day?
[That this House notes Holocaust Memorial Day is 27th January, the day the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated; recognises the significance of this day and the importance of remembering and learning from the past especially when there are those who seek to denigrate and deny its significance; observes that the lessons of the Holocaust have not been learnt and racism, anti-semitism and intolerance continue in the UK and abroad; further observes that the international community has failed to prevent the occurrence of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq and now Darfur; thanks the City of Liverpool for hosting the national event and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for organising the day; supports 2008's theme, Imagine, remember, reflect and react; applauds organisations like the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) for their work and in particular recognises the impact the acclaimed HET visits to Auschwitz have had in shaping young minds; further notes that a Book of Commitment will be placed in the corridor between the hon. Members' Cloakroom and hon. Members' Staircase between 1430 and 1630, Monday 21st to Wednesday 23rd January; and encourages all hon. Members to sign it and mark a day that helps to ensure the memory of the Holocaust is kept alive to serve as a warning now and in the future.]
Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in congratulating the Holocaust Educational Trust on its excellent work with young people? I suggest, either next week or the week after, a topical debate in which the House can express its view that such dreadful events should never happen again.
I agree with the point that my right hon. Friend makes through his question. It is very important that we have, as we do, a statutory requirement to teach children in our schools about the holocaust as part of the curriculum. The year before last, the Chancellor announced that the Government were providing a further £1 million to support the Holocaust Educational Trust’s “Lessons from Auschwitz” course, which takes sixth-form students to Auschwitz. The trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust have made a big impact on educating and informing people of all ages and from all walks of life, to make sure that the holocaust is never forgotten.
On Members’ pay, does the Leader of the House agree that if the proposed Lisbon treaty is ratified more powers would be transferred away from this House, and it would therefore be right for our pay to be reduced? Will she ask the Senior Salaries Review Body to recalculate its proposals in view of that reduction of powers? It would obviously be wrong for us to be paid more when our control over legislation and policy is reduced. The same thing should apply to ministerial salaries, particularly those of the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister.
The right hon. Gentleman will have a chance to raise those points in debate either on Monday, on Second Reading of the European Union (Amendment) Bill, or on Thursday, when we debate the SSRB’s recommendations, or he can again synthesise the two points on Monday or Thursday.
One hundred and nine Members have now signed early-day motion 512 on police pay, and next Wednesday thousands of police officers will be marching through Westminster in support of their claim.
[That this House is disappointed by the failure of the Government to accept in full the recommendations of the Police Arbitration Tribunal police pay award; believes that the pay settlement should be backdated to 1st September; notes that the police are the front line in the fight against organised crime, terrorism and anti-social behaviour; recognises that their work puts them at great personal risk; further believes that this dispute over 0.6 per cent. difference is petty and needless; and calls upon the Government to reconsider its decision.]
Given that the Leader of the House says that this is a listening Government, should not Parliament vote on this issue? Instead of a topical debate, may we have a topical vote on police pay?
The situation in law is that it is for the Home Secretary to determine the pay of police officers, having considered any recommendations from the police officers’ negotiating machinery, which is what she has done. I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the work that the police have done, which we all support. However, we also recognise that we are in a difficult situation as regards the question of public sector pay. We have to ensure that inflation is low so that the cost of living remains low, and so that interest rates can be low, allowing the economy to remain strong, and allowing us to continue to invest in important public services, such as the police. That includes the provision of higher numbers of police and ensuring that higher pay rates can be sustained, year by year.
Oh! Thank you, Mr. Speaker; I was on another planet, too.
Given the full answer given by the Prime Minister to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on the question of Darfur, may we have a debate in Government time on the plight of those people?
On the subject of pay, I would like to raise the issue of the national minimum wage, and the fact that employers are able to abuse it, particularly in the case of the lowest paid workers who work in restaurants and hotels. If they are given a tip when someone pays by credit card, that is used to supplement the national minimum wage. Could we have a debate to rectify that ridiculous anomaly?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know that before this House introduced the national minimum wage by statute, she was a champion in her union for its implementation. She has now come to this House and said that it is important that we do more to enforce it. I will bring her points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, because he is presiding over a taskforce at the moment to ensure that we have tougher enforcement of that important law.
May we please have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on special educational needs? Given the immense power of local authorities as the bodies that assess, decide on, pay for and, more often than not—through their in-house services—provide for children’s special needs, but that the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families has considered the question of assessment and funding and argued for a number of mechanisms by which that link could be broken, is it not now timely that the House should have an opportunity to consider the issue? There are very large numbers of vulnerable children who are not getting what they need, for whom we have to cater.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the children’s plan, which was announced to the House by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, places great importance on the provision for children with special educational needs. Indeed, it is drawing on the work of the hon. Gentleman in taking the matter forward. He raises an important point. It is not just a question of getting the right policy but of ensuring that it is implemented throughout every part of the country. There should not be a postcode lottery, but every family in which there is a child with special needs should have the right services and support, for both the child and the family.
I welcome yesterday’s statement by the Leader of the House on the SSRB report, particularly the intention to end once and for all the invidious practice of allowing MPs to vote on their own salaries. Will she clarify for the House the exact timetable for implementing the future framework for MPs salaries, and for the ending of our ability to vote ourselves a pay rise? It is important.
I shall set out the procedure and the timetable. Next Thursday, the House will be able to debate our proposals for the pay rate that will apply to us as Members of Parliament from April 2007 to April 2008. The House will also have before it a motion that the Government have tabled to establish the process of the review by Sir John Baker. It expresses the intent to come back to the House before it rises for the summer recess with the mechanics and procedure whereby we will never again have to do what is unacceptable both to Members and to members of the public—vote for our own pay increases.
May we have a short debate or statement on applying the EU emission trading scheme to lifeline flights to remote and peripheral communities? Everyone appears to agree that different rules should apply to lifeline flights, but the Government and the Commission do not seem able to agree about how that should be done. The matter is of great concern to my constituents, and it is becoming time-critical. May we have it discussed properly, in the open?
May I suggest that the topical debate on 31 January should be about prosecuting rape cases? Successful prosecution for rape is scandalously low, and women are frightened by rape, especially when they see the sort of articles that appear in the newspapers today. May the House debate the matter? I believe that we can introduce proposals to increase the successful prosecution of rape cases.
My hon. Friend raises an issue on which she has campaigned. It is a matter of concern for hon. Members of all parties. We have had a debate on rape in the past month or so, but of course we will consider it again as a topic for a future debate. Too many men still evade justice. However, we have made progress in the past 10 years. Since 1997, the number of convictions of men for rape has increased by 30 per cent. That has happened because we have toughened the law, improved protection for victims and witnesses and have a special team of prosecutors now backing the important work, especially of the Metropolitan police, on rape. However, I take my hon. Friend’s point, and we will consider this as a subject for a future topical debate.
I apologise if I sound like a cracked record when I ask the Leader of the House yet again whether we can have a debate on post office closures—but that would allow me to raise the behaviour of Post Office Ltd, which has told a village shop owner in my constituency who is due to lose a post office in the shop, and wishes to replace it with a paypoint, that they will lose their compensation under the post office closure scheme.
Post offices have been debated recently in Westminster Hall, and the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity only half an hour ago to raise the subject in oral questions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the way in which she dealt with my previous question about 25 per cent. cuts in physics departments in our universities and the implications for the Daresbury laboratory in the north-west. This week, documents were published under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which suggest that Ministers have been told by the Science and Technology Facilities Research Council about the implications of their financial allocation. May we have a statement on the true position, and on how the current problem will be rectified?
My hon. Friend is a real champion of important science research facilities in Liverpool, and she has raised this matter several times in the House. I have been in touch with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills about the point that she made previously in business questions—and I know that she raised it with the Prime Minister, too. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills has written to her. If any further points arise from the extensive letter that he sent her, I know that she will have the opportunity to raise them directly with him again.
Would it be possible to have a debate on the Floor of the House about Departments’ interaction with local football clubs? Many of the supporters of Luton Town football club, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), have put together a bid, called 2020 Ltd, to save the club. Unfortunately, the bid may fail because of requirements by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and I know that other football clubs, such as Leeds, have suffered similar problems in the past. So will the right hon. and learned Lady consider a debate on football and Departments’ interaction with local football clubs?
Will my right hon. and learned Friend make a statement on proposals to deny future Members of Parliament the same pension entitlement as the rest of us? Will she resist those oppositional—or opportunistic—proposals, and perhaps remind colleagues, especially those who are registered millionaires, that there is no compulsion to accept the pension entitlement, or, indeed, the salary?
My hon. Friend has raised a point that will not be lost on Opposition Members—[Interruption.] The statements that the Leader of the Opposition makes for the sake of a quick headline grab might not necessarily get the support of Conservative Members. We shall see.
The European Union (Amendment) Bill is of huge constitutional importance to the country. Why has the Leader of the House not permitted two days’ debate on Second Reading, so that more Back Benchers can be called?
On topical debates, when will the Leader of the House allow a meaningful contribution from all parties so that there is more transparency about the choice of subjects for topical debate?
I think that the House can rest assured: my response to the question about the business for the following week will look pretty repetitive in the next few weeks, because we will have many hours of debating the European Union (Amendment) Bill on the Floor of the House. A whole day’s debate for Second Reading of a Bill that has seven clauses and one schedule is perfectly adequate. We then have a day’s debate on the procedure, followed by many days of discussion and clause-by-clause examination in Committee of the whole House. I assure hon. Members that we have ample time for debating the Bill.
On the choice of topical debates, the hon. Gentleman knows that the process is new and we will review it in due course to ascertain how it has worked. The review will include the way in which we choose the subject. In the meantime, I encourage hon. Members to make more proposals for topical debates by e-mail or letter.
My right hon. and learned Friend knows that Lebanon has been without a president since 23 November—nearly two months. During that time, there have been 12 postponements of a parliamentary vote for the president. The recent Arab League initiative has failed once again, so we are left with an unstable and dangerous position, which could easily spill over into the rest of the middle east. It is a critical issue. Will my right hon. and learned Friend make time for a debate so that we can ask Ministers not only what they are doing but—perhaps more important—what more they will do to bring the matter to a swift conclusion?
Instability in Lebanon and the wider middle east, which my hon. Friend raises, is of concern to the whole House. There will be a debate on the middle east next Thursday in Westminster Hall, and Ministers will be answering. That debate will be important, but it is by no means the last occasion on which we expect to discuss the matter in the House.
Could the Leader of the House provide for a debate in Government time in the near future about the Government’s policy on the creation of new towns? There is a proposal for the siting of 10 large new towns—a figure that has been reduced from 57 candidate spots—and one of those sites is in my constituency, where it is proposed that a town of some 50,000 people should be plonked down. There has been no local input, and the issue is not one that can be decided upon by the local planning authority, still less the county council. It is a matter for the Government. It would be useful to have a debate in the House before February, when the decision will be made, at least so that my constituents could feel that they had had some democratic input into the decision.
On the specific issue in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, perhaps he will consider applying for an Adjournment debate. It is very important that we have more housing in this country, so that people’s wish for a better home—a home that they can afford or that their children can move into when they grow up—can be fulfilled. Very many local authorities have applied for new towns, and for eco-towns in particular, to be developed in their areas. There is no question of a top-down approach having been taken, and of course there is widespread consultation. However, we must ensure that we have that extra housing, which is needed not by those who are already comfortably housed and well off, but by those who seek to improve their housing situation.
My right hon. and learned Friend will have read today’s Hansard report of yesterday’s excellent debate in Westminster Hall on children with disabilities. The debate highlighted the fact that the £34 million allocated to Scotland as its share of the UK-wide allocation seems to have disappeared without trace into the Scottish Executive’s coffers, presumably to fund some of the Scottish National party’s pet policies, rather than being used for the purposes for which it was intended. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ask one of her colleagues to raise the issue with the First Minister and to report back to the House on what has happened to the money?
I shall raise that issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. We all want to ensure—I have already adverted to this—that there is proper support for every child with a disability and for their family, wherever the child lives. National resources should be available in all parts of the United Kingdom, and I shall ask my right hon. Friend to look into the issue.
Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on early-day motion 690, on the collapse of the trial against Derek Pasquill?
[That this House notes the collapse of the case against Derek Pasquill; believes that the law about official secrets should be based on preventing damage to the public interest rather than preventing embarrassment for the leading party; and calls for an enquiry into the case of Derek Pasquill and for a review of the Official Secrets Act 1989.]
In particular, will she make time for a debate on the proposal for an inquiry into how the Foreign Office pursued Mr. Pasquill under the Official Secrets Act 1989, while all along holding documents that exonerated him? Does that not show the need for a thoroughgoing review of the official secrets legislation?
With regard to any individual case under the Official Secrets Act, the question whether a prosecution should be brought is initially for the Attorney-General to determine in the public interest. Thereafter, the prosecution is conducted independently by the Crown Prosecution Service. Whether to proceed with the prosecution is a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service or the court to decide—[Interruption.] As for whether there should be a debate in the House on the case that the hon. Gentleman raised, I understand that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office still has to consider whether disciplinary proceedings are necessary. It would therefore not be appropriate to discuss it in the House now.
When can we have a debate on lowering the voting age? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of my private Member’s Bill, which aims to bring the voting age down to 16? Does she not agree that if we can engage young people at an earlier age, when they are still in schools and youth clubs, there is more likelihood that they will engage with politics—an engagement that will remain throughout their lives?
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. We cannot have a situation in which our democracy has dwindling legitimacy because voting is increasingly the preoccupation only of older people, with younger people having turned their backs on our democratic process. Too many young people are not registered to vote, and too many do not go out to vote even though they are registered to do so. The issue is of major concern to my ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, who I know will consider the proposals that my hon. Friend has put forward in her Bill.
The right hon. and learned Lady was the midwife of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which makes provision for a one-stop registration of MPs’ interests. That provision can be activated only when the Government lay the relevant order. When do they plan to do so?
Last week Milton Keynes council voted to support proposals for a wind farm. Conservative councillors voted en bloc against the proposals, Labour councillors voted for them and, unsurprisingly, the Liberal Democrats split. Given the recent national report by the Socialist Environment and Resources Association—SERA—that found that Tory-controlled councils have an 82 per cent. rejection rate on wind farms, that Liberal Democrat authorities have a rate of 75 per cent. and that Labour authorities have a rate of just 36 per cent., will the Leader of the House consider making time for a debate specifically on wind power, so that the country can see who really supports renewable energy and who is just full of hot air?
That is a good suggestion for a topical debate. It is important that more of our energy be provided by renewable resources. We shall of course be considering the Energy Bill next week, although the question is not just what the words are, but what the actions are. I have noticed another habit developing, which is that the Leader of the Opposition says one thing, but his party in local councils does something completely different. The environment is a classic case in point.
Next week, Mr. Speaker, you have selected a one and a half hour debate in Westminster Hall on the highly contentious issue of the regional spatial strategy for the south-west. Can the Leader of the House say what role she envisages the Minister for the South West playing in that debate next Tuesday, and what other opportunities there will be for a debate in Government time about that contentious document?
The Minister for the South West is my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw). We are developing the role of the regional Ministers—[Laughter.] Regional Ministers are a recent innovation. I think that they are doing a very good job on behalf of their regions and that we can build on that role. What we need to do next—we are looking at this in the Modernisation Committee—is to consider how to develop a system for regional accountability to the House. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will contribute to that inquiry.
This week a company based in Thanet called Grupo Antolin has closed its doors, with a significant loss of jobs. Since 1997 we have more than halved unemployment in Thanet, which is an incredible achievement. However, unemployment in Thanet stubbornly remains much higher than the national average. It is clear from yesterday’s figures that there are about two dozen hot spots in the country where unemployment is a significantly worse problem than in other areas. Can we have a debate about how we can improve our ability to attract jobs to those unemployment hot spots?
My hon. Friend has made an important point about the pockets of deprivation that can stubbornly remain, even in areas where the economy is going from strength to strength. He has also identified the fact that unemployment is often connected with a lack of skills. I know that he supports the work that the Government are doing both to bring more opportunities for training and apprenticeships into his region, and to raise the educational attainment of all children, by ensuring that no young person leaves school at 16, having already experienced the last moment when they will ever receive any education or training. I know that that is why my hon. Friend supports raising the education leaving age to 18.
May I bring to the attention of the Leader of the House early-day motions 702 and 707, regarding Arts Council funding? Early-day motion 702 states:
[That this House condemns plans by the Arts Council to cut funding to Queer Up North; recognises the excellent work that organisation has done, including tackling homophobic bullying through performances of F.I.T. at local schools; notes with concern that funding cuts will lead to the cancellation of the 2008 festival in Manchester and all future touring plans, end its unique programme of work for young people and result in the immediate closure of the organisation; and therefore calls on the Arts Council to overturn its decision.]
Will the Leader of the House bring forward a debate on the funding cuts by the Arts Council to a large number of organisations throughout the country, including LipService and Queer Up North in Manchester, which threaten the existence of those organisations?
I shall bring those points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. With regard to the Arts Council, the arts budget under this Government has increased consistently year on year and is set to increase again. In the latest Arts Council announcement, 80 new projects are to be funded. We cannot have a situation in which once something has been funded by the Arts Council, it is funded in perpetuity at the expense of any new projects. It is always difficult for projects that lose their funding, but that is happening not because of cuts in funding to the Arts Council but because of a determination to fund new projects. However, I will raise the points that the hon. Gentleman has made with the Secretary of State.
I associate myself with those who have called for a debate on Darfur.
My right hon. and learned Friend will know that much of my constituency is again under water or threatened by floods. May we have a debate to consider whether the planning system could be changed so that planning permissions could be rescinded where there was a considerable threat of flooding? The Planning Bill is now going through the House. Will the Government take note of the fact—of which we need to take notice—that we are now facing very difficult circumstances, and living in a different world?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be answering the questions of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee next Wednesday. I am sure that all those points will be under consideration, including those that my hon. Friend has just raised on behalf of his constituents, and those raised by other hon. Members whose constituents have suffered from floods and are still recovering from them, and want to ensure that they are protected from flooding in the future.
On 15 November last year, the Public Accounts Committee published a highly critical report on the handling by the Department for Communities and Local Government of the Thames Gateway project. To date, there has been no oral or written statement by the Government in response—and in early December, the Minister for Housing sacked the chief executive of the Thames Gateway, whom she herself had appointed barely a year before. May we have a debate on the mishandling of the Thames Gateway project by the DCLG—and can that debate also cover the shameful scapegoating of a public servant by the Minister responsible?
The most successful Government policy for pensioners has been the free bus pass for local travel. My right hon. and learned Friend will know that millions of pensioners are eagerly anticipating the fact that that scheme will go nationwide in April. Will she find time for a debate on free bus travel for young people? In the context of the extension of the education participation age, and the increasing number of young people who will need to travel as a result, does she agree that we need to review the very variable arrangements for concessionary travel that apply around the country? In London, it is free, but in Manchester—
That is well worth consideration. The trail has been blazed by the Mayor of London, who is about to extend to pensioners free travel passes that are valid not only for off-peak times but throughout the day, having already extended that facility to young people. It is a pity that when the opportunity for such arrangements exists, some councils drag their feet. It is important for older people to get out and socialise, but it is also important for younger people to get out and extend their training opportunities. I will raise my hon. Friend’s point with the Secretary of State for Transport.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for, at the very least, a written statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the reappointment, or otherwise, of the official verderer of the New Forest, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and I fear that there has been some skulduggery?
Will my right hon. and learned Friend take this opportunity to join me and the long-suffering fans of Luton Town football club in supporting the successful bid by a fans-based company to get the club out of administration? There is, however, a continuing threat to the club, largely as a result of the rules of the football league in respect of the repayment of debts. The matter has been referred to the Minister for Sport, but may I press my right hon. Friend for a debate on behalf of those of us who have the long-term interests of Luton Town football club at heart, and on behalf of the many other ailing clubs in this situation—
The Leader of the House failed—inadvertently, I am sure—to answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about Northern Rock. May I give her the opportunity to do so now? I am sure that she will agree that the House has an obligation to taxpayers, and that when billions of pounds of their money are floating around, we need to have figures and answers. May we have a statement next week from the Chancellor—or better still, from the Prime Minister, who evaded these questions yesterday?
The Prime Minister answered questions in the House yesterday on Northern Rock—[Hon. Members: “No!”] He answered questions yesterday on Northern Rock. But there is one question that remains unanswered. Our position remains absolutely clear—[Interruption.] I have stated this in business questions before. We have to make sure that we have a stable economy, and that the instability that came out of the American sub-prime market did not, through Northern Rock, infect the rest of the financial services industry in this country. So far, that has certainly not happened. We have said what we are doing about this—but what the Opposition have done is to say that they approve of what we are doing one day, and that they disapprove of it the next.
May we have a debate on the plight of NEETs—young people not in education, employment or training? Their number has soared since 1997 to more than 1 million. Such a debate would give Members the opportunity to decide whether the principal reason for that increase is unrestricted immigration, which means that more than half of all new jobs go to foreigners, or the difficulties in the apprenticeship system, illustrated by figures published in December which show that the number of apprentices at levels 2 and 3 has gone down.
There are 600,000 vacancies in the economy. The problem for young people who are not in education, employment or training is usually that they do not have the right training and skills to get into those jobs. We want to continue our programme of expansion for apprenticeships and for further and higher education, but we also recognise that we need to start early. That is why we launched the Sure Start and pre-school programmes, so that entrenched intergenerational deprivation can be tackled.
Further to the Minister’s response about a one-stop shop for Members’ declarable interests, would it be possible to have a statement on the workings of the declaration of Members’ interests, with particular regard to whether there would be any benefit in trying to resolve the contradictions that Members are sometimes told, or in having a system of pro forma forms that would make it easier for Members and their staff to ensure that Members submit their declarations in good time?
The registrar and officials who work on the Register of Members’ Interests do all they can when their advice is sought to explain to Members how they should go about registration. There is a question about the overlapping rules relating to the Register of Members’ Interests, electoral administration and, indeed, the ministerial code, which is under consideration by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.
When the Government insisted on setting up a national park authority for the New Forest, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and I articulated the concern of many locally that the authority of the court of verderers as protectors of the forest would be undermined. The fact that that has not yet happened has been largely due to the fine performance of the official verderer, Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre. May we have a statement by the appropriate Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the reappointment of the official verderer, who is willing to be reappointed but whom we gather may not be reappointed for reasons not unconnected with the existence of the national park authority?
I want to take the Leader of the House back to the question and answer about organ donation and putting the House first. Given that the Government published the first report of the organ donation taskforce this week, would it not have been better if the Health Secretary or the Prime Minister had made an oral statement to the House, in which they could have set out their views about presumed consent, rather than brief a newspaper earlier in the week?
As I said in my answer to the earlier question, the Government have not changed their policy about presumed consent, although Ministers and I agree that there should be further debate on the issue. We have set up the taskforce and informed the House about it. We have also made it clear that we accept the taskforce’s recommendations, particularly those relating to organisational change to ensure that consent for organ donation is put sensitively to relatives so that those who want their relatives’ organs to be donated have the opportunity to say so. We have not changed our policy on presumed consent, but we all agree that there should be a debate on the way forward.
British Council (Russia)
With permission, I should like to make a statement on the Russian Government’s actions against the British Council in Russia. The House will recall that in October 2007 the Russian Government threatened to close the British Council’s operations outside Moscow from 1 January 2008. That was confirmed on 12 December and again last week with the threat of a series of administrative measures against the British Council, including tax measures in St Petersburg and visa restrictions against British Council staff in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. The Russians also threatened to take measures against the British Council in Moscow, up to and including the removal of accreditation of British Council staff working in Russia.
On Tuesday this week, the Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser held what we believed were productive talks in Moscow about a range of international and bilateral issues, including the British Council. Yet on the same day, the Russian Government exerted further pressure on the British Council. The Russian security services summoned more than 20 locally engaged members of British Council staff in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg one by one for interviews. Ten members of staff were interviewed late at night in their homes after calls by the Russian tax police. Questioning ranged from the institutional status of the British Council to personal questions about the health and welfare of family pets. These Russian citizens have chosen to offer their skills and hard work to promote cultural contact between the people of Russia and the UK. As a result, they have been the subject of blatant intimidation from their own Government.
I think that the whole House will agree that such actions are reprehensible, not worthy of a great country and contrary to the letter and spirit of the legal framework under which the British Council operates—notably international law, including the Vienna conventions and the UK-Russia 1994 bilateral agreement on cultural co-operation, which Russia has ratified.
Russia has failed to show any legal reasons under Russian or international law why the British Council should not continue to operate. It has also failed to substantiate its claims that the British Council is avoiding paying tax. The British Council is in fact registered for tax in Russia and has complied with all requests of the tax authorities in respect of its activities. Instead of taking legal action against the British Council, the Russian Government have resorted to intimidation of its staff. I am confident that the whole House will share the anger and dismay felt by this Government at the actions of the Russian Government. We saw similar actions during the cold war but thought, frankly, they had been put behind us.
The British Council’s first priority is, rightly, the safety of its own staff, yet the actions of the Russian Government have made it impossible for staff to go about their work in a normal way. British Council offices in Yekaterinburg and St Petersburg have been prevented from operating, so the British Council has, with great regret, taken the decision to suspend its operations in those two cities. The council is making an announcement to this effect as I speak. The staff concerned will continue to be supported while the council considers its next steps.
There has already been strong international condemnation of Russia’s actions. Following my conversation last night with the Slovenian Foreign Minister in his capacity as presidency of the EU, an EU presidency statement has just been issued on behalf of all European Governments. The statement makes it clear that the EU is
“very concerned at Russia’s demand to close British Council regional offices”
“deeply regrets the harassment of British Council staff”
and other measures taken. It calls on Russia to
“allow the British Council to operate freely and effectively in Russia”.
The Government of the United States have issued a statement of support, calling for the British Council to be able to continue its good work in Russia, and the Canadian Government are also expressing their concerns in Moscow about these developments. I am grateful for the many expressions of support that the British Council has received from Russians who have benefited from working with it.
The Russian Foreign Minister stated publicly on 14 December what the Russian Government had been saying to us in private—that their attacks on the British Council were linked to the Litvinenko affair. I announced to the House on 16 July a list of measures that the Government had decided to adopt in response to Russia’s failure to co-operate with our efforts to secure justice for Alexander Litvinenko. These included introducing visa restrictions for Russian officials travelling to the UK and suspending our visa consultations. The House can rest assured, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that those measures will continue to be administered rigorously.
We regard as entirely separate the issues surrounding Mr. Litvinenko’s murder and the activities of the British Council to build links between British and Russian schools and universities, to support English language teaching in Russia and Russian studies in the UK and to promote the best of British drama, writing, music and art. Nor do we believe that cultural activities should become a political football. In fact, educational and cultural activities are important ways of bringing people together. That is why I have decided not to take similar action against Russia’s cultural activities in the UK—for example, by sending back Russian masterpieces scheduled for show at the Royal Academy or by taking measures against the two Russian diplomats at the Russian embassy who are dedicated to cultural work. We have nothing to fear from these contacts; we welcome and encourage them.
The immediate cost to the Russian people of the Russian Government’s actions is their lack of access to the benefits of British Council activity. The longer-term cost is their country’s standing in the world as a responsible international player. The British Council will continue its work in Moscow, meeting the demand from as many as possible of the 1.25 million Russian citizens who used the council’s services last year.
The British Council’s experience in Russia is not repeated in any of the more than 100 British Council operations elsewhere in the world. Russia’s actions therefore raise serious questions about her observance of international law, as well as about the standards of behaviour she is prepared to adopt towards her own citizens. That can only make the international community more cautious in its dealings with Russia in international negotiations and more doubtful about its existing international commitments.
Russia remains an important international player in addressing key global issues and challenges, including climate change and energy security, as well as others such as Iran and Kosovo, but I hope the whole House will agree with me that Russia’s actions against the British Council are a stain on Russia’s reputation and standing that will have been noted by countries all around the world. I will continue to keep the House informed of developments.
(Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Let me say at the outset that, across the House, we join him in deploring the Soviet-era tactics employed against legitimate cultural contact—tactics that we trust will be counter-productive from the Russian point of view and are deeply offensive from the British point of view.
I think the whole House will agree that the work of the British Council is invaluable in building mutually beneficial relationships between people in the United Kingdom and those in other countries. The work of the British Council in Russia has been undertaken in that spirit, involving in the last year—I think—almost half a million Russians in British Council projects visiting exhibitions, plays and films organised by the British Council, and the setting up recently of 40 new joint degree programmes between Russian and United Kingdom universities. As the Foreign Secretary said, the harassment and intimidation of the staff doing that work is not acceptable to the Government, and I think it true to say that it is not acceptable to any of us in the House.
We wholly support the Government’s decision not to retaliate against other cultural exchanges. We trust, however, that the Foreign Secretary will convey to the Russian Government the united view in the House that while we are open in the future to a better relationship with Russia, such actions, and Moscow’s wider response to the Litvinenko murder, will not produce such a relationship. In an interview with the BBC, to which the Foreign Secretary referred, the Russian Foreign Minister linked the order to close the British Council offices with the United Kingdom’s expulsion of four Russian diplomats last summer, but an attack on an institution that is valuable to Russia and valuable to the United Kingdom serves no worthwhile objective whatsoever.
Let me now ask the Foreign Secretary some specific questions. What is the number of Russian staff currently employed by the British Council in the three offices in Russia, and have the whereabouts and safety of all of them been established? Have any documents or items of equipment been seized from the employees of the British Council? The Government in Moscow have accused the British Council of operating illegally. Will the Foreign Secretary clarify what constitutes the legal basis of the British Council’s presence in Russia? Is the 1994 UK-Russia agreement on co-operation in education, science and culture still legally binding?
Russian Foreign Ministry officials have made much of the fact that cultural organisations from other countries, including France and Germany, are, they say, complying with Russian law as non-governmental organisations, and operate without difficulties. Under what arrangements are they operating, and how do they differ from the arrangements of the British Council?
Russian officials have been quoted as saying that the British Council’s Moscow offices could be targeted next if no agreement on the status of cultural organisations and the availability of British visas for Russian diplomats is reached. Can the Foreign Secretary say whether Russia has sought an agreement on the status of cultural organisations, and have any other British institutions been subjected to similar pressures?
The British Council is a founding member of the European Union National Institutes for Culture. Recently a cluster of national institutes has been established in Russia, chaired by the British Council. Has the work in that cluster been affected by these events?
What assessment—this is important—has the Foreign Secretary made of the effect that the dispute has had on co-operation between our two countries in other areas? There are vital issues, such as Iran and the future status of Kosovo, which we want to see resolved, preferably in agreement with Russia. Has the issue of the British Council affected British-Russian discussion of those vital subjects?
The Foreign Secretary said that at the same time as the holding of productive talks in Russia earlier this week between the Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser and Russian counterparts, the pressure on the British Council was intensified. Does he think that that indicates a division of opinion within the Russian Government, and does he think that the good intentions expressed by Russia’s foreign policy spokesman are being frustrated by its security services or by others?
Ironically, the basis for close co-operation between Russia and the United Kingdom is very strong. Our trade and investment links are growing, United Kingdom investment in Russia is huge, there remains considerable common ground on foreign policy, and there is a good basis for long-term co-operation. At the same time, however, harassment, intimidation and bullying of people including our ambassador, as well as the British Council, are unacceptable. They harm Russia’s standing in the world, unnecessarily weaken the links between our countries, and will make opinion in this country not more emollient towards the Russian authorities, but more resolved not to be bullied by them.
I welcome the shadow Foreign Secretary’s strong support for the Government’s actions. He said at the outset that he believed the Russian actions were counter-productive, and at the end of his remarks emphasised the wide areas in which we can co-operate with the Russian authorities. He is absolutely right about the counter-productive nature of the actions that have been taken. The only losers are Russian citizens, and the reputation of the Russian Government. It is important to stress that there has not been a contagion from our disagreement about the British Council to areas of common concern in respect of Iran and Kosovo—although, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, we do not hold the same position on Kosovo as the Russian authorities.
There was only one item in the right hon. Gentleman’s observations in respect of which there may be some room for confusion. I believe that the 500,000 Russians to whom he referred are those who use the offices outside Moscow. The 1.25 million figure that I gave related to Russian citizens using all the British Council offices, including those in Moscow.
Let me run through some of the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. I referred to the 20 members of British Council staff outside Moscow as the number called in for questioning. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with the number of British Council staff who operate in the Moscow office. No documents have been taken, to our knowledge. As for the legality of the British Council’s operations, yes, the UK-Russia agreement of 1994 remains in force. The UK Government have been keen for some years to update it and move it forward, but we have not encountered a willing response from the Russian authorities. That is the bilateral basis, but there is also the international basis. The Vienna conventions, for instance, provide an important basis in international law.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about other countries. As the Russian Government have never made clear to us what is illegal or improper about the British Council’s activities outside Moscow, it is very hard to draw a comparison with the activities of other Governments, although I think the European Union’s statement and the alacrity and keenness of Governments to sign it show that there is widespread concern around Europe that this constitutes a threat to all Europe’s cultural institutions. EUNIC, the body to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, brings together European countries on that basis. It will meet in Vienna this afternoon, and our delegate there will certainly make strong representations. I hope that the organisation will be able to follow up the strong statement that it made last year on the basis of what has happened today.
There have been threats, veiled and otherwise, about the Moscow operation. As of now it is operating normally, and obviously we want that to continue. I would report back to the House if it did not.
At the end of his remarks, the right hon. Gentleman raised a tantalising question that deserves further discussion: the question whether there is unanimity within the Russian Government about the wisdom of their operations, or whether the actions of the FSB outside Moscow are in the best interests of Russia and its people. I think it important to say that, at this stage, we have not found any part of the Russian Government to be yielding in its defence of the Government’s current actions, but I believe that there are many sensible people in that Government who will come to realise that, far from being a demonstration of strength, the actions that they have taken are today a demonstration of weakness.
(Rotherham) (Lab): I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s robust statement. We must stand up to this bullying by the bear. It is not just the British Council and our fine ambassador Tony Brenton who have experienced harassment that is unacceptable, and it is not just the Vienna conventions that are threatened. Russia is not respecting its international convention obligations on the energy charter, or the reduction provisions in the conventional forces in Europe treaty. It is gutting the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe of its main business. It is even seeking to take control of the Council of Europe, with the help, sadly, of some Conservative Members, who are now fellow travellers of the Kremlin.
It is not just the unity of the House that matters. It is the unity of Europe that is important. Will the Foreign Secretary continue to work with our European partners, and does he agree that it would be helpful if everyone in the House supported the unity of Europe on this matter?
I certainly agree with the latter part of my right hon. Friend’s contribution. The united European response is important in this regard, as is the united international response. My right hon. Friend was right to say that there is a range of concerns about Russian activities internationally, and he was also right to mention the harassment of the ambassador, which is obviously unacceptable as well.
The one part of our relationship that has not been interfered with—perhaps I should have mentioned this in response to the questions of the shadow Foreign Secretary—is trade and economic links. We have had no reports of interventions on, or interruptions of, such ties. Obviously, that is important, but my right hon. Friend makes a significant point about the number of fronts on which the Russian Government are currently arguing and are at variance with the international community, and I know that Foreign Ministers, Prime Ministers and Presidents are actively discussing that.
It is clear from the Foreign Secretary’s tone that he very much regrets having to make this statement, but I thank him for keeping the House informed and for his efforts to keep Opposition parties informed.
The Foreign Secretary will not be surprised to learn that we strongly support the Government’s actions, particularly in securing the safety and well-being of the British Council staff. Does he agree that the Russian authorities’ bully-boy tactics are making them look increasingly ridiculous in the eyes of the international community? When the British Council is successfully continuing its excellent work in places such as Zimbabwe and Myanmar, is it not utterly self-defeating and shameful for the Russian authorities to be acting in this way over educational and cultural links?
It is understandable that the Government do not wish this situation to escalate, but will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what the British Council intends to do in respect of the information and logistical support it has previously been able to provide to Russian students applying to UK universities, not least as they often come from the families of high-ranking Russians? More broadly, is it not now even more vital and urgent that we build stronger common positions with our EU partners on a range of issues relating to Russia? In an uncertain world of terrorist threats and failed states, it is particularly irresponsible of the Russian Government to sour our relations, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary can assure the House that we will redouble our efforts to dissuade the Russians from their cold war-like tendencies.
I welcome both aspects of the hon. Gentleman’s comments—his determination that we emphasise our common interests with Russia, and our determination to stand up for the values we believe in. I associate myself wholly with that. I know that his concern for British Council staff will be valued, and I thank him for that; cross-party concern for their welfare is important.
The hon. Gentleman said that the Russian Government had made themselves look ridiculous in their attacks on the British Council, and he made the point about the British Council’s activities in Zimbabwe and Burma. In my question and answer session with the Foreign Affairs Committee in December, I suggested that the Russian Government’s activities put them on a par, at least in their treatment of the British Council, with what was going on in Burma. I now regrettably inform the House that the situation in Russia is unique: it is worse than in Burma in respect of the British Council. The hon. Gentleman is right that in many capitals around the world there is incomprehension at the Russian authorities’ actions. When I attended the European Council in December, just after the Russian authorities’ first announcement, there was incomprehension—and, I am sorry to say, a fair degree of ridicule, to use the hon. Gentleman’s word, because the British Council operates well in all such countries.
On UK logistical and other support for university entrants, the Moscow office will continue to be a base for such work, and that will continue without fear or favour. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the development of an EU common policy on Russia across a range of areas, notably energy, must preoccupy the EU. As I was able to report to the House in the autumn, a significant section of the September meeting of European Foreign Ministers was devoted to taking a more strategic view of our relationship with Russia.
If there were a Nobel prize for soft diplomacy, the British Council should win it every year, and I say as chairman of the all-party group on the British Council that what has gone on in Russia is shameful and shocking. Will the Secretary of State consider taking legal action in the courts in St. Petersburg and Moscow to make sure that we set the standard, because we should say, “This is legal; let’s prove it’s legal and embarrass them further”?
We are in a Catch-22, because although the Russian authorities keep on denouncing what they call the “illegal activities” of the British Council they never say what the illegal activities are, and it is very difficult for someone to prove that they are not doing something illegal if they are not charged with doing something illegal. Therefore, although I associate myself wholeheartedly with the spirit of my hon. Friend’s question, he will understand if I am a bit cautious about pledging to take what he proposes forward.
The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to say that the intimidation of British Council staff, whether diplomatic or locally engaged, is completely unacceptable, and I welcome the statement from our European partners. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there is a great deal of difference between strong leadership and aggressive leadership in Russia, and that the latter is doing Russia’s international reputation huge damage?
We would all expect every country to stand up for its interests, but what we cannot understand is a country doing damage to its interests, which is what is happening. That is not evidence of the sort of strong leadership that I—and, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman—believe in.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the first overseas visits in which I took part as a Member of this House was to the Soviet Union in the early ’80s, in a delegation led by the late Lord Whitelaw and Denis Healey? We had the opportunity of meeting with Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Gromyko, from which three lessons emerged: that we wanted improved diplomatic relations; that cultural exchanges were important; and that transparency was in our mutual interests. Given the standing of the British Council and the support it has not only in this House but throughout Great Britain and elsewhere, can we encourage those who currently speak for Russia to accept the wisdom of Mr. Gromyko, and agree that mistakes have been made and that what they have done in the past week, particularly in harassing staff, is a big mistake, but that they can correct it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that suggestion, but I think that I had just about left school at that stage.
I am sure that the whole House will want to know more about that visit in due course. I hope that the reaction in this country and around the world, and the ongoing reaction that will continue as people come to terms with what has happened, will bring home to the Russian authorities that this is doing them no good. That is the fundamental point: we are arguing that this is against Russian interests.
In the end, the British Council cannot operate in a country where the host Government is not willing to consent to its presence in particular places. The British Council operates all around the world because all sorts of Governments of all sorts of stripes consent to the presence of British Council offices in their cities. I am confident that the Russians’ actions will not send a signal that others should take on the British Council; in fact, I think that many others will come to realise the value of what the British Council does.