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Commons Chamber

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2008

House of Commons

Wednesday 23 January 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

private business

Broads Authority Bill

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

Amendments agreed to.

To be read the Third time.

Oral Answers to Questions

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Broadcasting

For decades, Border Television has successfully provided news and other regional services to thousands of communities across thousands of square miles north and south of the border. Will the Minister join MPs from different parties, north and south of the border, who oppose ITV’s plans to dismember the news and other services at Border Television? When he next gets the chance, will he impress on Ofcom that it must not be allowed to wriggle out of the very tight licence conditions originally imposed on ITV Border?

I am aware of the considerable concern about this proposal. I know that the hon. Gentleman has met Ofcom and Digital UK, and with others, including the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), directly lobbied Michael Grade. I have to say that I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. He will know that it is not, of course, for Ministers to tell private companies where they should or should not have their bases, but it is for Ofcom to do so. As the independent regulator, it has a duty to look into these issues very seriously. It is undertaking a public service review of ITV, and I am pretty certain that this will figure very prominently in it.

I fully support the comments of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) and I would like to reinforce the strength of feeling among viewers on both sides of the border and among politicians of all parties for the retention of Border news, which provides a unique and fiercely local service to this primarily rural area. Anything that the Scotland Office can do to influence Ofcom and support local campaigners who oppose Michael Grade’s ill-thought-out merger with the Tyne Tees newsroom in Newcastle would be much appreciated. Does the Minister agree that Border TV is important not just as a local news provider, but as a demonstration that people in the south of Scotland and the north of England, who have common interests and common concerns, are best served by a cross-border United Kingdom approach to broadcasting rather than the separatist broadcasting agenda promoted by the Scottish Government?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I agree with much of what he says and cannot add much to what I said to the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) about the responsibility of Ofcom, which I hope it will take seriously. On the second point, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it makes no sense to take Scottish broadcasters out of a UK market and make them foreigners in the English and Welsh media market. It makes no sense to take Scottish regulation of broadcasting, telephony and the internet away from Ofcom at a time when they are converging everywhere else. It makes no sense to embark on a course of action that would inevitably lead to the break-up of the BBC, and to the balkanisation of Channel 4, to be replaced by a Scottish broadcasting corporation that would be parochial, inward-looking and not what the people of Scotland want.

With the absorption of Grampian TV into Scottish TV, I hope that the Minister will continue to make the case to Ofcom that the two separate licences covering the old Grampian and STV areas remain separate. As with the borders, the north-east of Scotland has its own news agenda and its own identity. There are certainly some fears that the separate identity of the old Grampian service could be lost in the bigger STV.

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that Scotland is a nation of regions. What I believe the Scottish people want to see on the news is not the hoary old chestnut of the Scottish six, but more news that is truly local to where they live—whether it be in the north-east, the west or the south-west of Scotland. If there is money to be invested in news and current affairs—I sincerely hope that the BBC, and, indeed, ITV, will increase investment in news and current affairs in Scotland—it should be invested in local news gathering in the north-east, the south-west and the other regions of Scotland. That is preferable to pursuing some narrow agenda to break up British broadcasting, which would lower the quality of TV that our constituents get to watch.

Banknotes

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the acceptance of Scottish banknotes outside Scotland. (179988)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues.

May I suggest that the Secretary of State impress on the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England that it is high time Scottish banknotes were fully legally acceptable throughout the UK? They are authorised by the Bank of England and should have exactly the same status. If dollars and euros are acceptable to traders in England, surely Scottish notes can and should be, too. Will the Secretary of State endeavour to ensure that this anomaly is brought to an end?

I am delighted to have the opportunity to expand a little on the status of Scottish banknotes.

And, indeed, banknotes from Northern Ireland. One of the great successes of the very successful financial services sector in Scotland is the privilege enjoyed by commercial banks to publish banknotes when other banks, including commercial banks in England, do not. The fact is that under the law Scottish banknotes enjoy exactly the same status as all other methods of payment throughout the United Kingdom, although that is not widely known. They are perfectly legal, and people should know and respect that. I know that on occasion some of my countrymen have had their banknotes refused, but I have been in London a great deal over the past 11 years, and in connection with my ministerial responsibilities have periodically had Northern Ireland banknotes in my wallet. No one has ever refused to accept one of them.

Does the Secretary of State agree that Scottish banknotes, collected by the Treasury in the form of taxes, could be used to pay for aircraft carriers from the Clyde shipyards? Did he see the headline in Monday’s Glasgow Evening Times? It read “We’re Sunk”, and below that, “Delays set to kill off Clyde yards in 2 years”. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is simply dangerous nonsense, deliberately designed to undermine the position of the yards, and that those engaging in it are being unhelpful?

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman should engage in a letter to the Secretary of State, who can then reply to it. His supplementary is far too wide of the main question.

During his recent discussions with the Chancellor, did the Secretary of State discuss fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Parliament? Does he agree that handing over greater fiscal powers to Holyrood reeks of appeasement of the SNP, and that just one more devolutionary heave will not serve the Union or Scotland well?

The Secretary of State says it is a matter of fact that Scottish banknotes can be accepted throughout the United Kingdom, and he is right, but it is also a matter of fact that often they are not. That was highlighted in an excellent article in the Sunday Mail on 6 January. The paper conducted a random sample, and found that it was difficult to get notes accepted in Liverpool, Tadcaster, Coventry, Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne and London, where even the railway ticket vending machines would not accept them. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that although this may not be a massive problem, it is a source of embarrassment and irritation to many of our constituents every year, and will he use his office to address the problem?

I welcome the opportunity to repeat what I have already said. Scottish banknotes are legal, and enjoy exactly the same status as any other method of payment. The fundamental problem is that the law of contract throughout the United Kingdom allows people not to engage in a transaction at the point of payment if they do not wish to do so. I should be happy to join the hon. Gentleman and his party in a discussion about reforming the law of contract if that is what he wishes to do, although I suspect that we would find it difficult to obtain the necessary legislative time or the necessary support. But he is right: in the 21st century, this irritation should not exist for people who are tendering legal notes in payment. I think the best thing for us all to do is to take every opportunity to tell people that those notes are as good as anyone else’s, and should be accepted.

Post Office Network Change Programme

3. If he will make a statement on the progress of the Post Office network change programme in Scotland. (179989)

The Post Office launched the first of Scotland’s area plans in October last year, and expects to complete the consultation process by September. Let me add, for the sake of completeness, that I understand that the plan for the Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire area, in which the hon. Gentleman’s constituency falls, is due to launch a consultation next month.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, which ranged much more widely than Scotland. Is it not the case, indeed, that the consultation process in all parts of the United Kingdom, including my constituency—and, indeed, Scotland—is divisive, because it effectively pits one community against another? It has become clear that if a community saves one post office, another will have to close in its place. This is all about numbers, not about communities and their vital services.

No, I do not accept that. There are criteria laid down under which such decisions are taken, but we are not leaving this to market forces. If we were, only about 170 of the 1,200 post offices in Scotland would be left open. We are intervening with enormous amounts of taxpayer subsidy because we recognise the value of post offices in the communities they serve. However, we also recognise that people’s shopping patterns have changed: people access services over the internet, which they did not do previously. To do nothing was not an option, but we are not leaving this to market forces; we are intervening, because we recognise that the post office plays a valuable role in many communities, particularly, but not exclusively, rural communities.

Is my hon. Friend content with the performance of Royal Mail deliveries in Scotland? I understand that there are various problems—one of which is that there have been only a handful of replies to the Scottish National party’s “national conversation”. The reason for that problem might not lie with the Royal Mail, but does my hon. Friend have a view on this question?

I was shocked to see that despite spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of Scottish—or rather, UK—taxpayers’ money on its so-called national conversation, the SNP has had only a couple of dozen replies. The problem might reside in the Post Office, or it might reside in the fact that the people of Scotland repeatedly, in election after election, reject the option of breaking up Britain and the narrow nationalist approach of the SNP.

I think that people in communities the length and breadth of Scotland will note the fact that instead of standing up for post offices facing closure, the Minister engages in petty political posturing. Does he not agree that the consultation on closures is a complete sham? It offers the chimera of reprieve in one community, yet will close post offices in another. One community is pitted against another community; one village is pitted against another village. Why does the Minister not stand up for those post offices, instead of posturing?

The House will have noticed the hon. Gentleman referring to the national conversation as petty politics. I agree: it is petty, partisan, posturing politics of the worst sort. On the serious business of the Post Office, this Government have already committed £2,000 million to sustaining a post office network, and we have also committed a further £1.7 thousand million to that. That speaks of a Government who are passionately committed to seeing a post office network exist in Scotland and throughout the rest of the UK, in contrast to the hon. Gentleman’s “do nothing” option, which would see the Post Office wither on the vine.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the Post Office code of practice, particularly regarding temporary closures? There have been 12 such temporary closures in my area in the past three years, with a varying degree of outcomes; five of them are still outstanding. Does the Minister agree that it would be quite against both the spirit and the substance of the code of practice if the Post Office were to include such outstanding temporary closures in the current consultation, thereby denying local communities their say? Will he make that point in any discussions he has?

I shall be happy to make that point. It is important that there is a transparent process with objective criteria, so that local communities can see why a particular post office has been closed and why others have been kept open. I understand that in the highlands of Scotland there are 18 proposed closures out of a total of 198. If we were taking a purely commercial decision, that figure would not be anywhere near 198; it would be massively reduced. We are committed to providing the subsidy to make sure that the Post Office remains viable, but it is important that this is done in an objective way—that there is transparency, and criteria that are adhered to.

DARA (Almondbank)

4. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on preserving the skills base at the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, Almondbank. (179990)

If I may say so, I find my discussions with Ministers in the Ministry of Defence among the most fruitful discussions that I have across Government. On a more serious note, any decision about the long-term future of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency will be based on what offers best value for defence and the best chance of longevity of employment for the work force. Accordingly, preserving the skills base at both Almondbank and Fleetlands is at the forefront of Ministers’ minds in this process.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the future ownership of Almondbank has been uncertain for some time. I seek an assurance that he will take into account all appropriate considerations about the skills of Almondbank’s work force during the decision-making process, with a view to preserving those vital skills for the Scottish economy.

I do not think I can make it any clearer to the House that the shared priority focus of this decision is ensuring that the skill base is protected and preserved, and that the longevity of employment is at the heart of the decision. For very good reasons, which have been explained to my hon. Friend, the trade unions and others who are interested, it is the Ministry of Defence’s view that the prospect of investment and additional work coming in to both Almondbank and Fleetlands is in the interests of work force longevity and the retention of the skills base. I am happy to tell him that Baroness Taylor of Bolton, the Minister with responsibility for this area, will be visiting DARA on Friday, and I am sure he will be able to have further discussions with her then.

Although Almondbank is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), most of the people who work there are my constituents. They have great concern about the proposed privatisations. Will the Secretary of State take full account of the joint trade unions’ proposals to keep DARA Almondbank within the public sector and reject a further privatisation, this time of this first-class facility?

I will not accede to the hon. Gentleman’s request to make a decision on that basis. I shall make the decision on the basis of what best serves defence. That is my first priority and I am sure that it is his, particularly when young men and women from this country are risking their lives in operational theatres. That is my priority as far as public spending is concerned, and I am sure that it is his. Secondly, I shall ensure that we do our best to retain the very skilled work force at the facility, and give them an opportunity beyond what the prospective work programme offers them at the moment. I will take into account all suggestions that they make, but I will make the decision based on those two criteria. I would be happy to join the hon. Gentleman in discussions about this if he wants to have them, but he will not change my mind about those priorities.

Broadcasting

5. What recent discussions he has had on the quality of television reception in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (179991)

My hon. Friend will be aware that problems remain with television reception in parts of Ayrshire. Will he outline what steps are being taken to ensure good television reception in as many households as possible, both before and after digital switchover?

My hon. Friend is right. The whole point of digital switchover is to give people better television: better reception, more choice and more interactivity. I know her constituency well, because it borders mine, and I know that many people in north Ayrshire have difficulty accessing a decent signal. It is difficult to say with any degree of exactness what will happen before switchover, but I sincerely hope that they will see an improvement in the quality of their television reception and in the range and number of channels that they receive once we reach digital switchover.

As the Minister knows, the other advantage of digital television is that audio description will enable those with poor sight to enjoy the experience of television far more effectively. The Government have set a very low threshold for what broadcasters have to provide. What are the Government doing to encourage greater take-up of audio description and to improve ease of access to the handsets for those with disabilities?

The hon. Gentleman is right. I mentioned the interactivity that comes with digital TV, and things such as audio description are a key part of that. I have had discussions with the Royal National Institute of Blind People Scotland, which has been campaigning on this for some while. Just as there is now complete acceptance of subtitles for the hard of hearing, audio description for people with visual impairment must become standard. That will happen, to any meaningful degree, only when we switch off the analogue signal and boost the digital signal. The hon. Gentleman is right to keep campaigning on the issue, and I shall ensure that Ofcom is aware of his concerns.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, Tarbolton, in my constituency, is closely associated with Robert Burns—but none of my constituents could be called a

“Wee, sleekit, cow’rin’, tim’rous beastie”.

They are not slow at coming forward to tell me that the TV reception is appalling. What will the Minister do for the good people of Tarbolton?

In a week when we celebrate the great Ayrshire poet, Robert Burns, I am sure that the people of Tarbolton will be enjoying those celebrations. Of course, the first ever Burns supper was in Greenock, in my constituency, so we lay claim to having set the tradition. The people of Tarbolton, along with those throughout Ayrshire and the rest of Scotland and the UK, will benefit when digital switchover happens. It will provide more channels, more services, more interactivity and more choice.

Ministerial Meetings

6. If he will make it his policy to make a regular report to the House on his discussions with the First Minister of Scotland. (179992)

I regularly report to the House on matters relating to the interests of the people of Scotland, and shall continue to do so.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. It is important that those of us who are not members of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, if we have an interest in Scotland, be kept abreast of the Secretary of State’s important meetings with the important First Minister. Will he ensure that we receive those regular reports?

Perhaps the business managers and others in the hon. Gentleman’s party will consider that to be a bid to join the Scottish Affairs Committee. I know that his party has had difficulty recruiting people to that Committee in the past, so he may well shortly find himself on an elite list. He is right to say that Ministers should be accountable. I believe in that—and I know that he knows that. I have given an undertaking to the House that I will ensure that it is aware of such discussions when they take place, and I will do so.

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity, when he meets the First Minister, to explain that the Government have doubled the budget of the Scottish Executive since devolution—with a real-terms increase this year—and to remind him that it is time to start delivering for the people of Scotland?

I agree wholeheartedly. I noticed a headline in the Scottish media this morning on the subject of Budget considerations in the Scottish Parliament. It stated that the Scottish Parliament would decide how to spend a £30 billion budget. I recollect that that is exactly double the amount that Donald Dewar had to spend as First Minister when devolution first started in Scotland. That is a measure of the scale of the investment that the Government have made in Scotland and of the opportunities to build Scotland’s infrastructure. The people of Scotland will not forgive the minority Administration if they do not spend that money wisely on the priorities of the people of Scotland, rather than on what the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) called a petty bit of political posturing. [Interruption.]

When the Secretary of State next has a discussion with the First Minister, will he convey to him in the strongest terms the anger and disappointment felt in constituencies such as mine because of the SNP Government’s petty political posturing on nuclear power and their ill-thought-out approach to waste, which have already led to Scotland being written off by prospective investors in next-generation power stations? Will the Secretary of State make it clear to the First Minister that his policies will lead not only to questions about whether Scotland can be self-sufficient in meeting its fuel requirements, but to economic consequences through the loss of the skills and expertise that have been built up by the nuclear industry in Scotland over many years?

I am sure that the First Minister reads Hansard—he will certainly read Scottish questions. I shall refer him to the hon. Gentleman’s question, among other things, when I meet him on Friday. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We know that 40 per cent. of the electricity generated must come from nuclear. We know that the future of our energy and climate change policies depends on energy conservation, but it also depends on the sustainable production of energy. Those who have thought the matter through and understand that a balance is needed know that nuclear energy will have to contribute to that. We have to ensure that the people of Scotland do not rue the day that the nationalists tried to deny them the opportunity of that sustainable future.

When my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister, will he remind him that full employment is this Labour Government’s priority, and refer him to the report produced at the weekend, which was endorsed by Dr. Ewan Macdonald of Glasgow university? The report states that the impact of unemployment on a person’s health is the equivalent of smoking 200 cigarettes a day.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Decades ago, the Black report said that there was a correlation between ill health and poverty, and there is an obvious link between poverty and employment opportunities. That is why we are so proud that the Government’s economic policies and the stability that they have generated across the UK have made such a significant difference to employment, and consequently to unemployment.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Darryl Gardiner of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday. His death reaffirms our deep gratitude to those who have lost their lives in the service of our country. Our thoughts are also with Corporal Gardiner’s five colleagues who were injured in the attack.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, in addition to my duties in the House. I shall have further such meetings later today.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Darryl Gardiner.

Will the Prime Minister please tell us what exactly is happening on Britain’s streets when the Home Secretary needs an armed police escort to go and buy a kebab? [Interruption.]

I want everyone in Britain to be, and feel, safe on our streets. Crime is down 32 per cent. since 1997, and violent crime is down 31 per cent. There are more police than ever in our country, and we will do everything in our power to ensure the safety of our citizens.

Q2. My question is about flood defences. When a community has been flooded, the people there feel great fear and anxiety the next time there is heavy rainfall. That happened in Carlisle on Monday. Parts of the city have good flood defences, and extra defences will be put in place where they are needed, but what is happening nationally? The Government have massively increased funding for flood defences since last year’s tremendous downpours, but that will not be enough. [Interruption.] Will the Prime Minister assure the House that he will look to the insurance companies and local authorities for other funding sources? Will he review—[Interruption.] (180920)

I sympathise with those of my hon. Friend’s constituents who are facing floods, and with everyone around the country who has been hit by them. Sir Michael Pitt has undertaken a review of our policies since last summer’s floods, and we will implement all his recommendations. However, expenditure on flood defences was £300 million in 1997: this year, it is £600 million, and it will rise to £800 million in 2011. That means that more than £2 billion will be spent on flood defences in the next three years, and of course we will consult with local authorities to ensure that the money is spent in the best way.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Darryl Gardiner, who was killed in southern Afghanistan on Sunday. He died serving our country.

Taxpayers have the right to know what their total exposure is under the Prime Minister’s latest plan for Northern Rock. Let us be clear: the rescue package is as much for his reputation as it is for the business. If the bonds are not paid back, and if Northern Rock fails to meet its obligations, what is the total exposure? How much?

The loans and bonds are secured against the assets of Northern Rock, which, as everyone understands, has a high-quality loan book. It is our intention to get the best deal for taxpayers: they will get their money back, and make a profit.

The Prime Minister will not tell us how much the taxpayer is in for, but the figure is £55 billion. Effectively, he has lumped every household in the country with a second mortgage. Taxpayers want to know how long it will be before they are off the hook, so will he say how many years it will be before the bonds are repaid?

We would be the first to be repaid under the scheme. The loans and the bonds are secured against the assets of Northern Rock. I think that the right hon. Gentleman should think very carefully about what he has been saying about Northern Rock. In September, he said that he was wholeheartedly behind our proposals to save the company. Then, in the last few weeks, he and his shadow Chancellor have toyed with nationalisation, administration and a private sale. Is it not about time that the Opposition were consistent in their thinking about Northern Rock?

The Prime Minister talks about changing positions, but last week he was all in favour of nationalisation. Then, he gets a tough time at Prime Minister’s questions, he gets on an aeroplane with Richard Branson and he drops the whole plan. The Prime Minister will not tell us how much taxpayers are in for or how long they will have to wait to get their money back. It is like a used car salesman who will not tell someone the price, will not tell them the mileage, and will not give them a warranty. He has gone from Prudence to Del Boy without even touching the ground. This deal depends on a massive effective subsidy from the British taxpayer to Northern Rock shareholders through either lower borrowing or a guarantee. So can the Prime Minister tell us how much that taxpayer subsidy is?

The loans and the bonds are secured against the assets of Northern Rock. It is as clear as that. If I may say so, the reason why we intervened is the reason why we still are intervening: to secure the stability of the economy. I believe that all parties in the House should be in favour of ensuring that what happened at Northern Rock does not spread to the rest of the economy. I believe that all parties in the House would want to ensure that the depositors of Northern Rock and other building societies are protected, but what we are now seeing is the height of opportunism on the part of the Conservative party. One day it favours nationalisation; another day it favours a private sale; then the shadow Chancellor says that his favoured option is now administration. Let me just tell the House what administration means. It means a fire sale of the assets, it means closing down the company and it means the Government losing billions of pounds. It is the worst possible solution and the Conservatives are not only guilty of inconsistency, but guilty of putting the stability of the economy at risk.

The fact that the Prime Minister will not answer a single question just shows what a dodgy deal this is. He asks about administration. Does he not understand that administration and liquidation are different things? Let me put it this way. Administration is what the Government are in at the moment; liquidation is what is going to happen by the British people at the next election.

The more people hear about this deal, the more they realise that it is a complete con. The Prime Minister is taking a lot of debt, packaging it up and selling it off as bonds. This is a sub-prime deal from a sub-Prime Minister. Let us see whether he can just answer this one simple question. Can he at least tell us what fee is being paid to Goldman Sachs?

That is a matter of negotiation between the Treasury and Goldman Sachs, and it will be published at the right time.

Let us look at the Opposition’s policy of administration. Administration means a fire sale of the assets; it means selling off the assets at the bottom of the market and losing billions of pounds of money. The shadow Chancellor rejected administration in November but is now proposing it in January. The Opposition’s policy is the worst possible policy for dealing with the problem and they have flip-flopped between nationalisation, private sales and administration. They have no credibility on the economy and the reason why we intervened is the reason why we think that the economic record of this Government is a good one. For 10 years we have preserved the stability of the economy. The figures out today show that growth in Britain was 3.1 per cent. last year, and it is the highest growth of the G7. We have more people in employment than ever before and we have lower inflation than our major competitors. That is the recipe for moving forward, not the flip-flop policies of the Opposition.

Only this Prime Minister could talk about low inflation when families filling up at the pumps are paying £1.07 for a litre of petrol. People wonder what planet he is living on.

The Prime Minister will not tell us how much the taxpayer is liable for, he will not tell us for how long the taxpayer has got to prop up this business, he will not tell us what the subsidy is and he will not say how much he will pay to Goldman Sachs. Will he at least say this: in retrospect, does he recognise that it was a complete error of judgment to get on an aeroplane with one of the principal bidders, Richard Branson, and fly round the world?

Not at all, and just remember that the Opposition supported our policy in September and October, but for opportunistic reasons, they have moved against it. Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman about inflation in the economy. Inflation in Britain is 2 per cent. In the Euro area it is 3 per cent., and in America it is 4 per cent. We have kept inflation low because we have made the difficult decisions that the Opposition would never face up to. As for the economy, his own adviser—the arts spokesman for the Conservative party—said only yesterday:

“in the 90s…what killed people were paying 15 per cent. interest rates on their mortgages.”

That was under the Conservative Government. He continued:

“Now, there is no reason for interest rates to go up excessively…because we…still live in a low inflation economy.”

That is what a Conservative party spokesman said. The right hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that that spokesman is right and he is wrong.

What everybody knows is that taking one of the principal buyers of the business round the world was bad judgment. The deal is bad judgment, and the worst judgment of all was leaving Britain with the highest budget deficit in Europe at a time of economic difficulty. The Prime Minister is now synonymous with delay and dithering. Is not the Northern Rock deal just damaging, dodgy, extra debt from a failed Prime Minister?

It is not bad judgment to take British business men and women to win orders for British exports in China and India. I have no apology to make for that. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s policies, we get from him merely slogans, and no substance whatever. If I may say so, the record of this Government, as he will find when he goes to Davos this week, is acknowledged around the world. We have low inflation, low interest rates and high employment, and had the best growth of any industrialised country in the last year. We are determined to maintain the stability of the British economy; it would be put at risk under Conservative policies for instability. We are the party of stability, and will always remain so.

In contrast to what we have just heard from the Leader of the Opposition, given all the turbulence in global markets and the impact that that can have on people’s everyday lives, is not the most important thing to continue with the Government’s measures for economic stability, which have brought us low inflation, low interest rates and high employment? That is the best way of sustaining economic strength for the future.

Only yesterday, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, while acknowledging the difficult conditions in the world economy and the problems of the last few days, said of Britain:

“we have maintained a good level of growth last year. The level of employment in the country is quite good. Some of our businesses are extremely competitive. The level of earnings remains quite high.”

That is the record, acknowledged by a former Chancellor. Is it not about time that the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition acknowledged that we are doing the right things by the British economy? In spite of their views, we will continue to do so.

May I associate myself with the expressions of condolence and sympathy for the friends and family of Corporal Darryl Gardiner?

As we have heard, the Prime Minister this week unveiled his cunning plan to nationalise all the risks of Northern Rock, but to privatise the profits. How can he justify fleecing the taxpayer by handing a blank cheque to the private sector, when he knows, unlike the Conservatives, that temporary nationalisation is the right thing to do?

In the proposals that we put forward, we share in all the benefits as the Northern Rock company, or its successor company, does better. If he looks at the small print, the hon. Gentleman will see that we are protecting the interests of the taxpayer in the best way possible. Again, I am afraid that it is very difficult to listen to the Liberal party on economic policy. Yesterday he spent another £2 billion; a few weeks before that he said that he had £1 billion of extra spending commitments, but he could not justify them or explain how the money would be spent. None of his policies add up. Is it not time that he went back to the drawing board?

Is not the real truth that the Prime Minister will not nationalise the bank because he is running scared of the Conservative party? [Interruption.] It has no solutions—[Interruption.]

The Opposition have no solutions of their own. When will the Prime Minister stop listening to them and do what he knows to be right? Or will he continue to insist that British taxpayers pay through the nose for years to come because of his own lack of leadership?

May I just say it in this way: nationalisation is one of the options that is open to us, as the Chancellor has made clear—nationalisation, public ownership, but it would be on the road back to private ownership, as the Liberal Democrat shadow Chancellor has acknowledged. But we are right to look at every option. If commercial companies come to us and say that they have proposals to run Northern Rock in a better way in the interests of the shareholders and depositors than it is being run at present, we are right to look at those proposals. It would be a mistake for us to reject proposals coming from the private sector, as the hon. Gentleman seems to want to do. All options are on the table. We will do what is best by the shareholders and the depositors of Northern Rock, and we are determined at all times to maintain the stability of the economy. We have done that for four months after Northern Rock went into difficulties. We have maintained stability and the difficulties have not spread into other companies and other institutions. We are determined to continue to maintain stability, and all our decisions will be made on that basis.

Q3. May I ask the Prime Minister to focus on the plight of the working poor in this country? Is he aware that despite the clear intentions of the customers who leave tips to people in the hotel, restaurant and hospitality industry, the tips are not paid in addition to those people’s minimum wage, but are paid as part of the minimum wage? That must be addressed. Will he agree to meet me and other MPs who have been campaigning on the issue, to discuss how his Government can at last end that shameful practice? (180921)

Of course I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and colleagues to talk about the future of the minimum wage. Where tips are paid directly to the employee, they go to the employee. Where they are paid through Visa or through a bill, that is a matter for the employer to negotiate with the employee. The great success of the minimum wage is that it has risen by 50 per cent. since 1999, faster than wages in the economy. The Conservative party said that the minimum wage would cost us 2 million jobs. We introduced the minimum wage, we have raised it by 50 per cent. and we have created more than 2 million jobs.

The Prime Minister has just quoted with approval the reasons that I gave yesterday why this year’s sharp slowdown in the economy might yet not turn into a recession. I thank him for that. Does he also agree with my view that he handed on the public finances to his successor in a quite appalling mess, which means that fiscal policy cannot be used to help in the present situation, that his dithering and incompetence over Northern Rock have added very considerably to our existing indebtedness, and that the fiscal rules on which he used to rely when making his claims to economic stability are now quite incredible and have been shattered by his own policy?

I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to rescue himself with his own party after his unguarded comments yesterday about the success of the British economy. As someone who inherited a very difficult economic situation from him in 1997, may I tell him that we have observed all our fiscal rules. We made the Bank of England independent against his advice. We have had 10 years of growth, which the Conservatives would never have had. He predicted a recession in 1997; there was no recession. We have maintained stability, which he would not have done.

Q4. The latest economic survey for the north-east shows high levels of business confidence, and there is no doubt that the region’s economy has improved under the stewardship of my right hon. Friend, with massive reductions in unemployment and record levels of employment. Much remains to be done, however, to reduce the gap between the north-east and other regions. What does my right hon. Friend consider to be the greatest threat to continued progress— (180922)

Long-term unemployment in the north has fallen by 70 per cent. Long-term youth unemployment has fallen by more than 70 per cent. More people are working in the north of England as a result of the Government’s policies, and we are determined to maintain that. That success would be put at risk by opportunistic policies that risked the public services in favour of £10 billion of tax cuts and meant that we could not spend on health, education and the new deal in the interests of the people of the north. That is why I urge people to favour our policies against the policies of the Opposition.

Q5. The Prime Minister was obviously able to answer that question, because it was one that he wrote earlier. Last week, the Government announced that Gloucestershire would be a pilot area for short breaks for disabled children. My Conservative colleagues on the council are already working with local parents to develop that. The Prime Minister will know that in the comprehensive spending review he promised that NHS spending would match that coming from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Can he confirm that my local primary care trust will indeed get £3.6 million over the next three years to pay for those short breaks? (180923)

I can confirm that primary care trusts will get money to make it possible for there to be breaks for carers of children. I agree that we have to do more for disabled children, about whom we have had a review, and for the carers of disabled children. I had a seminar with many carers in Leeds only a few days ago. There is support for more action on respite care, more help for carers’ pensions, more for the carer’s allowance and more support for carers in all their different needs. We are determined to move that agenda forward, and I hope that there will be all-party support for that.

Given that reply, does my right hon. Friend agree that following the reviews conducted for this House on disabled children and their families, the £34 million allocated to Scotland should be spent on the relevant services, including the NHS—and those alone? That is happening in every other constituent part of the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has taken a long-term interest in these matters and piloted through a major Bill for the protection of disabled people. The money allocated for disabled children and disabled people should go to disabled children and disabled people, and we will do everything in our power to make sure that, in every part of the United Kingdom, the needs of the disabled are properly recognised.

Q6. With police investigations under way into four projects of the London Development Agency, and with millions of pounds of central Government money unaccounted for, will the Prime Minister join me, and colleagues from across the House, in calling for an independent investigation into corruption at the LDA and the role of Mayor Ken Livingstone? (180924)

That is a matter for the police. If we look at London, we see that jobs are up, police numbers are up, crime is down and transport is getting more investment. That is why we need a Labour Mayor.

Q7. Working people in my constituency are just as concerned about their employment prospects as those who come from abroad to work in the UK. Will my right hon. Friend protect both British and overseas workers by guaranteeing fair wages and conditions for all? In the absence of a European directive, will he ensure support for domestic legislation that protects agency workers? (180925)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the question of vulnerable workers in the United Kingdom—those who have come here to work or who were already in the United Kingdom. That is why we have created a forum to deal with many of those issues. As for the agency workers directive, we look forward to there being a European agreement on that. If there is not a European agreement, of course we will look at what we can do domestically to protect workers and ensure that they have the rights that they should have.

In an age gone by, the Prime Minister might well have been a covenanter. Is he concerned about the current breach of the covenant with the military and about the breach, as we speak, of the covenant with the police services of England and Wales?

The Chief of the General Staff has said that there is not a breach. That is because we are spending more on defence than ever before. Over the course of the last year, we have made arrangements to give better allowances to those serving our country abroad. We are doing everything in our power to make sure that they are not only safe and well protected, but given the best allowances and accommodation. We will continue to do everything in our power to protect our military forces.

As far as the police are concerned, there has been a 39 per cent. rise in police pay over the last 10 years. People understand that in the fight against inflation it was necessary to stage public sector pay awards. I would like to have given the police more. I would like to have given the nurses more, and more to other public sector workers who found that their wages were staged. But if pay rises are wiped out by ever-rising inflation, no benefit will go to the police or anybody else who receives those pay rises.

I hope that over the course of the next year, we can move to a two or three-year pay agreement that will give stability and certainty to the police and other public sector workers. We believe that they do a great job. The important thing, however, is to recognise that in the fight against inflation it is necessary to take action at the right time. Others might not take that action. We did.

Q8. If Britain’s economy is to continue to meet the challenge of global competitiveness, we need to continue to upskill workers. In that context, the recent announcement on ELQ—equivalent or lower qualification—funding is a welcome recognition that the concerns of the Open university and others have been listened to. What more are the Government doing to help mature students and women returners, in particular, to access higher education? (180926)

No one has fought harder for the Open university than my hon. Friend. I congratulate her, as the MP for Milton Keynes, on what she has achieved in fighting for that institution. We have just allocated £100 million to give grants to 20,000 people to get their first degree. She is absolutely right: there are 2.5 million people in this country who have a qualification level just below higher education, many of whom want a second chance to get a degree. We want to do more, particularly for women and mature students, to make that possible, and over the course of the next few years we will set out plans to make that happen.

Q9. I am asking this question as an honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Midwives. With the number of midwives and student midwives falling, with last year’s cut in NHS resources for maternity services, and with the birth rate in this country dramatically rising, what urgent steps will the Government take to ensure that there is no deterioration in maternity services for pregnant women; and how will they honour the guarantees in their maternity strategy? (180927)

I share with the hon. Gentleman the desire to do more to help midwives and maternity services in this country. I thank him for his work as honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Midwives. The figures show that between 1997 and now there has been an increase of 2,084 midwives and a 20 per cent. increase in the number of students entering training for midwifery. We accept that we need to do more, and we will do more, with 1,000 more midwives in the years to come. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question. Britain remains one of the safest places in the world for children to be born, and we will ensure that we do everything in our power, with the Darzi report and the announcements that we will soon make, to ensure that that remains the case, and we will ensure that midwifery is properly financed.

Would my right hon. Friend care to congratulate the miners of Tower colliery in my constituency, who over the past 13 years, after investing their own redundancy pay in a miners’ co-operative, have been highly successful, despite the efforts of the Conservatives to shut them down?

I was pleased to visit Tower colliery and give support to the miners who had invested their own savings for all these years. We were able to support that colliery with operating and investment aid. I believe that some of the former miners will be able to continue their careers in deep mining, but the colliery is now exhausted. I want to thank them for their efforts, proving that working people can get together and make a success of a project that other parties said would never work, and to thank my right hon. Friend for her efforts in ensuring that Tower colliery was a great success during those years.

Q11. The Department for Work and Pensions holds records on tens of thousands of women in their 60s who would be eligible to boost their basic state pension under a very complicated scheme that most of them have never heard of. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the DWP simply tells those women what they are entitled to? (180929)

We will do what we can to ensure that women in their 60s have proper pension rights. As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is one of the areas where over many decades we have not done enough to secure rights for elderly women. Under the Pensions Bill, more women will get the basic state pension and will not have to have a smaller pension, as before, but we will try to do our best to ensure that women in their 60s get pension rights as well.

Q12. When the Prime Minister was in China recently, what talks did he have about co-operation in research and development in the science sector? Will he ensure that the UK marine science sector is as well resourced as possible so that it can make the most of its global reputation in partnerships with China and elsewhere? (180930)

In China, I was able to say that the marine centre in my hon. Friend’s constituency has very strong links with that country. We will do what we can to sign more agreements with China on scientific co-operation. My hon. Friend understands that under this Government the science budget has doubled. Science has never been better financed. That would not have happened under the policies of the Opposition. We will continue to support the science and technology of Britain.

When the Prime Minister was in China, did he receive assurances that British journalists could visit Tibet, which is currently occupied by China?

On my visit to China, I made it clear to the Chinese Government that we believed that journalists should not only be free to move within China, but free to interview people during the Olympic games. I hope that the offer that the Chinese authorities have made will be sustained after the Olympics, and I hope that international pressure will back up our efforts to ensure that journalists have the right of free movement.

Obesity

The first ever cross-government strategy to tackle obesity is being published today. The House last discussed this subject in October, when the then chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, and his foresight team published the report “Tackling Obesities: Future Choices”—the result of two years’ work by some of our most eminent scientists and academics, seeking to determine how we can deliver a sustainable response to obesity over the next 40 years.

I shall just remind the House of the challenges identified in that report. Foresight said that with 23 per cent. of men, 24 per cent. of women and 18 per cent. of children clinically obese, and with no expectation of any spontaneous reversal of obesity trends, those figures will rise to 60 per cent. of men, 50 per cent. of women and 25 per cent. of children by 2050. That will have a severe impact on the health of individuals, increasing the risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart and liver disease. The cost will be felt in every part of society, not just in headline financial or health terms, but in personal ways, by affecting the lives and opportunities of millions of people.

The overall cost to society is forecast to reach £50 billion over the next 40 years based on current trends, including a sevenfold increase to the NHS. However, as foresight said, such outcomes are not inevitable, and if we take action now the trends can be reversed. Halting the obesity epidemic is primarily about individual behaviour and responsibility—how people choose to live their lives, what they eat and how much physical activity they take. It is also, as I shall outline, a matter of the commitment of the private and voluntary sectors. However, the Government have the most significant role in expanding people’s opportunities to make the right choices for themselves and their families, in ensuring that people have clear and effective information about food, exercise and individual well-being, and in ensuring that policies in a wide range of areas promote an environment that supports people in their desire to maintain a healthy weight.

The Government have set themselves a new ambition of being the first major country to reverse the rising tide of obesity in the population by ensuring that all individuals are able to maintain a healthy weight. Our initial focus is on children: by 2020, we intend to reduce the proportion of overweight and obese children to 2000 levels. To help to fulfil that ambition, foresight suggested that the Government should focus their action on five main policy areas. I should like to set out the initiatives that the Government are announcing today in each of the five policy areas. They will be financed with £372 million of extra funding between 2008 and 2011.

The first initiative concerns the healthy growth and development of children. The strategy begins from the start of a child’s life, with early identification of at-risk families, and plans to make breastfeeding the default option for mothers. For school-age children, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, who has worked closely with me, set out yesterday, the Government will continue to invest in healthy schools, including making cooking a compulsory part of the national curriculum. We will also take measures to increase participation in physical activity by the least active children, and develop policies to ensure that the lunches that children bring to school are as healthy as those now provided as school meals. To support and empower parents to make changes to their children’s diet and physical activity at all ages, we will invest £75 million in an integrated marketing campaign.

The second strategy is promoting healthier food choices. It sets out a healthy food code of good practice, which we will develop in partnership with the food and drink industry and other relevant stakeholders. The code will challenge the industry to adopt voluntary practices to reduce consumption of saturated fat, salt and sugar. We will also ask Ofcom to bring forward its review of the restrictions on advertising unhealthy foods to children and report early findings by September. On the broader environment, we will promote the flexibilities already contained in planning regulations, so that local authorities can limit the spread of fast food outlets in specific areas, such as those close to schools or parks.

The third policy is building physical activity into our lives. The initiatives range from those focused on the individual—for example, a Walking into Health campaign, which aims to get 30 per cent. of the population walking at least 1,000 more steps every day—to those directed at whole communities and businesses. For example, we will invest £30 million in Healthy Towns, which means working with selected towns and cities to learn from the successful EPODE model used in France through a whole-town approach to promoting physical activity.

We will also set up a working group with the entertainment technology industry to incorporate devices that allow parents to manage the time that their children spend watching TV or playing sedentary games online much more widely. We will review our overall approach to physical activity, including the role of Sport England to ensure a clear legacy of increased physical activity up to and beyond the 2012 Olympic games.

The fourth policy area is creating incentives for better health. Individuals, employers and the NHS need to have stronger incentives to prioritise the long-term work of improving health. In that strategy, we lay out plans for working with employers and employer organisations to explore the way in which companies can best promote good health among their staff and make healthy workplaces part of their core business model. We will pilot and evaluate a range of different approaches to using personal financial incentives to encourage healthy living.

The fifth and final strand is personalised advice and support. When people are overweight or obese, they need access to personalised services that are tailored to their needs and support them in achieving real and sustained weight loss. We will support the commissioning of more weight management services by providing increased funding in the next three years. Our intention is that people have easy access to highly personalised feedback and advice on their diet, weight, physical activity and health, providing them with the information to encourage healthy behaviour. We will explore the potential to develop further the NHS Choices website so that it provides advice on diet and activity, with clear and consistent information on how to maintain a healthy weight.

The measures in those five policy areas are only the first steps towards our objectives. We will continue to examine not only the best emerging evidence of what works, but whether everyone in society—employers, communities and individuals—can participate fully in the programme. Our research will be part of wider efforts to develop our knowledge through the newly established obesity observatory. We will publish an annual assessment of the progress being made and use that to develop and intensify our policy focus as we acquire evidence on what works best.

Foresight pointed out that there was at that time no concerted strategy or policy model that adequately addressed the problem of obesity anywhere in the world. It added that the work assembled for the project gives the UK a platform from which to become a global leader in tackling a problem that is challenging policy makers across the world. The report has been produced with the full participation of the interim expert group of distinguished scientists and academics, which was created from the foresight project and contains many of the leading scientists and nutritionists who worked on it. The expert group will continue to guide us, placing science at the heart of our policy response, so that we are better able to grasp this opportunity to tackle the most profound public health risk that this country faces. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for supplying a copy of his statement during the past hour. I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who was already on a tour in the north of England when the Secretary of State said that he planned to make this statement.

Reversing the trend of rising obesity is a social responsibility in which everyone has a role to play. The UK now has more obesity than anywhere in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development except for Mexico and the US. England has a higher rate of obesity than anywhere else in the European Union, with a rate of 22.6 per cent. in the UK compared to 10 per cent. in France. Obesity could also cost £60 billion by 2050, on the Government’s own forecast figures.

With the rising tide of obesity, hospital treatments for the condition have spiralled on Labour’s watch, across all age groups and both sexes, with grave inequalities increasing among socio-economic groups. Most alarmingly, obesity among children is sharply on the increase, rising from 10 to 17 per cent. among children aged between two and 10 in the decade to 2005, with 31 per cent. of children in that age range in England now either overweight or obese. We therefore agree that there is a public health crisis in obesity, which is something that we have been urging the Government to prioritise for years.

The question is: how do we tackle it? Does the Secretary of State agree that we cannot leave the problem to doctors, thus recognising what Dr. Colin Guthrie has said:

“The GP’s role has changed so much over the past 10 years. We have so much else to do in our practices. We are swimming under targets to meet so many things”?

Does the Secretary of State also recognise what Dr. David Haslam, the medical director of the National Obesity Forum, has said:

“I am rewarded”—

by the quality and outcomes framework—

“for identifying an obese person. I then make a list, put it in a draw, close it and forget about it. It is good that obesity has made it into the GMS contract as a disease in its own right, but it is a catastrophic failure—a complete and utter waste of time—that it has done so in its present incarnation”?

There is no question but that obesity is a crisis that needs tackling, but what needs to happen without more overweening, nanny state, maddening lifestyle diktats?

We certainly agree that the Government have a duty to ensure that people have the information they need to make informed choices about the food they eat. The Government have so far failed in that duty, and the information is simply not available. At last we now have a commitment to cross-party working—again, something for which we have called for years. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire wrote to the Secretary of State only yesterday, building on the many representations that he has made on the issue over the years.

Does the Secretary of State agree that current food labelling practices are fragmented and confusing, with different manufacturers using different systems and some using none at all? The traffic light labelling system, which the Government advocated in 2004, added to that confusion because it is based on the concept of good or bad food, when what matters is whether a person’s diet is good or bad. The system does not work in practice, either. If a wholemeal bread roll is low in sugar, moderate in fats and high in salt, would it merit a green, amber or red light? If fruit juices, cheese or fish have red traffic lights, how will people understand that they can form part of a healthy diet? How does a crude traffic light system deal with the major differences between the diets of adults and children?

Since 2004, we have been calling for food labelling that is based on information about food’s nutritional value and its contribution to a good diet. That means that people should be given information about the recommended daily amounts of calories, fats, sugar and salt. Such a system would be well understood by the public and would help people to put together a good diet. That is why for more than three years we have argued for a combined multiple traffic lights and guideline daily amounts system. In its food and health action plan in 2005, however, the Department of Health said that by early 2006 there would be

“a clear, straightforward coding system that is in common use, and that busy people can understand at a glance, to find out which foods can make a positive contribution to a healthy diet”.

Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that little progress has been made?

Does the Secretary of State also accept that we should jointly advocate the traffic light GDA front-of-pack labelling system, making Britain a leader in the European debate on the issue? The matter has been handed over completely to the European Parliament to dictate directives on food labelling. As the Secretary of State well knows, I, on two occasions, and two of my colleagues, have introduced private Members’ Bills that would have given the Government the opportunity to pick up the issues of both country of origin labelling and standards of production. The question now is whether we can lead in that debate and ensure a common European position, given that the trade in foods requires standards that are recognised across Europe.

In 2005, the Government promised that they would take simple steps to clarify food labelling. They have not delivered. The Food Standards Agency has been strongly pushing the traffic light model, which the Department of Health strongly supported. As the Secretary of State well knows, food labelling is only a matter of voluntary practice.

The Secretary of State’s statement is a series of repackaged announcements, which were in Labour’s last obesity strategy but have not been delivered. Labour did not even attempt to tackle obesity until 2004, with its public health White Paper “Choosing Health: Making Healthy Choices Easier”. A comparison between the 2005 report setting out delivery dates for the commitments in that White Paper, and today’s strategy, shows that little progress has been made.

What of cooking in schools? Who could object to increased teaching of cooking in schools? We do not. But at what point does the curriculum allow teachers the discretion to balance cooking with enough physical education and sport? It is not the fault of teachers, but sport has been squeezed out by an emphasis on the core curriculum, obsessive health and safety rules and a mass sell-off of playing fields under this Government, especially in the late 1990s.

On the issue of junk food—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has gone over the time allocated to the Opposition. In fact, I have given him a minute over. Rather than being overweight, he is over time. [Interruption.] I am watching the clock as well. Back Benchers must get a chance to speak.

The hon. Gentleman can be described as Confused of Eddisbury, because on the one hand we are castigated for introducing an overweening nanny state, while on the other we are told that we have not taken enough action in this regard. I listened to him saying that we have made a commitment to cross-government working on the issue. I have looked through the document carefully, and I find that I have made no such commitment. Given the response from Conservative Members, I think that it would be a bit futile.

Let us deal with the questions raised. The constructive part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was his recognition that the issue is a real public health threat, and his acceptance that everyone has a role to play. That was absolutely right. As for the reference to GPs, this country now has 18 per cent. more than it had in 1997, and it will have yet more—we are creating 250 GP-led health centres across the country. When I talk to GPs, they do not tell me that they have to be incentivised to deal with someone who is overweight. Given that an overweight person who loses half a stone becomes half as likely to develop type 2 diabetes, GPs need no incentivising. I also remind Conservative Members that GPs now spend on average 10 minutes more with every patient than they did in 2000, so there is more time being devoted to this issue at primary care level.

The hon. Gentleman spent a large part of his contribution talking about food labelling, which is one aspect of a very wide-ranging debate. Let me pick up on the points that he raised. Yes, we have championed the traffic light system, and we have done so because consumers regularly tell the FSA that that is the system they prefer. It is clear, it requires no translation, and it is very accessible. However, we say in the report that we would like to move to a single system.

Incidentally, we are leading the world in that our food retailers and manufacturers have, to a large degree, accepted the need to put information on packets. We should congratulate them on that. The problem is that there are three different methods, and I think that we would all like a uniform system. Our view is that the expert independent group that we set up should look at the three systems and at all the evidence, and make a recommendation on which system we should adopt, whether it be the traffic lights, the monochrome system or the hybrid system. When we get that recommendation, we will work with the industry to try to establish a single system. That is the most constructive way forward.

The hon. Gentleman said that this strategy was a repackaging of old initiatives, and that there was nothing new in it. Let me remind Opposition Members that we are putting more than £100 million into cycling—

To the huge admiration of my hon. Friend the Minister. Cycling England has received about £14 million, and it is now going to receive something like £120 million, which will do an enormous amount to increase cycling levels.

Cooking has never been a compulsory part of the national curriculum at key stage 3. For the very first time, in this strategy we are announcing that it will become compulsory, and we are recruiting 800 extra teachers to ensure that it is properly taught. That is an enormous step forward. I also want to mention Healthy Towns. When we debated the foresight report, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) rightly looked at what was happening in France and Finland to see whether we could reproduce the kind of model that exists in those countries. The Thames Gateway presents a perfect opportunity for us to do that, by taking a whole-town approach. Such approaches have had startling results in France, using the EPODE model. That is just one of many new, fully funded initiatives in this proposal.

I want to make a final point to the hon. Gentleman about school sports and the myth about playing fields being closed. Playing fields closed under the previous Conservative Government. To close a playing field now, a school has to get the authority of the Secretary of State and prove that it will put the money back into new resources for sports and physical activity. Twenty-two per cent. of children in this country were doing four hours of high-quality sport and physical activity each week when we first measured it after coming into government; now, the figure is 86 per cent. We have a good record on this, and if we are going to take a cross-government approach to tackling this issue, I would ask for a less miserablist approach from those on the Conservative Front Bench.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this very constructive set of proposals. Experience shows that, provided we take the public along with us at a speed they are happy with, we shall make much better progress, especially in areas such as smoking and environmental issues, where the public can be educated in order to improve the situation for the future.

May I ask the Secretary of State to concentrate on two issues? One is that we need yet tougher regulations on advertising to children foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar. I still believe that that is a major part of the problem. Secondly, will he see what he can do to help GPs to help people with weight problems by making more interventionist strategies available? At the moment, GPs can monitor people’s weight but there are not enough interventions available to them to help people to manage their weight and obesity problems.

My hon. Friend is right to raise those two issues. This month, we have introduced the first restrictions on advertising to children. Ofcom said that it would review the situation after a year, but it has now agreed, as part of this strategy, to use just six months’ information. We therefore have the prospect of having an evidence base for whether to move further by September. This is a delicate issue, and there are different views on all sides, but I think that that is the right way to proceed.

My hon. Friend asked about GPs. This is more than an obesity strategy; it is a public health strategy. The body set up to tackle obesity is very much a cross-government public health body. All the issues involved—from breastfeeding through to taking more exercise and having a healthy diet—apply right across the public health spectrum. We therefore need more interventions, and GPs need more resources for that. That is why we have announced £372 million over the next three years as part of this package.

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me early sight of his statement. Last time we discussed this subject, I challenged him to join me in taking part in the 10 km London run. He has not come back to me on that yet. Perhaps the enthusiasm of the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), for physical exercise in the form of cycling suggests that he might be more up for it. However, I am still waiting to hear from the Secretary of State and, indeed, from the Conservative spokesman.

We all agree about the scale of this problem. It is growing at a much faster rate than anyone anticipated, and this country has the worst rates of obesity anywhere in Europe. By 2010, there will be 1 million obese children, which is a pretty frightening statistic, and we are now seeing the onset of type 2 diabetes among children, which had previously not been the case. We must also consider the knock-on health consequences—including heart and liver disease, as well as the mental health problems and low self-esteem that go with obesity—as well as the cost to the NHS and the economy.

I welcome the statement’s commitment to placing science and evidence at the heart of policy making in this area. It is always welcome when the Government are prepared to change the habits of a lifetime by moving away from gimmicky, headline-driven policy making to policy making that is based on science. I also welcome the focus on physical activity.

Is it not the case, however, that the Government are their own worst enemy? Their record so far has clearly been woeful. Of course it is absurd to suggest that they are responsible for all of these problems, but they over-promise and under-deliver. The 2004 White Paper made a grand spending commitment, but the Faculty of Public Health Medicine said today that only half the money that was promised has been put forward. Why should we believe the spending commitment that has been made today, when that previous commitment has not been met? Furthermore, the target of eradicating childhood obesity by 2010 has been quietly dropped in favour of a much vaguer commitment to achieving a target by 2020.

The main issue that I want to raise is the fact that the statement says absolutely nothing about growing health inequalities. That is more relevant in the area of obesity than in any other, and there is clear evidence of a growing divide in regard to weight. The foresight report was clear in raising that concern. Will resources be targeted at those disadvantaged groups in which the problem is the greatest? Low levels of breastfeeding are particularly prevalent in disadvantaged groups. Will resources be targeted at that problem as well, as there is a clear link with obesity?

The statement makes reference to tackling fast food premises, which hit the headlines over the weekend. What is the substance behind that proposal? The statement also talks a lot about the efforts to be made in schools, but the fact is that, since the Government’s introduction of the healthy eating strategy, 425,000 fewer children are eating school meals. What are the Government doing to address that concern and to encourage more children to eat school meals? The statement then lurched into nanny state mode, when it proposed to

“develop policies to ensure that the lunches children bring to school are as healthy as those now provided as school meals.”

How on earth are we going to do that? Will it involve the introduction of the lunch box police? How on earth can we dictate to people in that way?

The food industry clearly has a big part to play in all this, and it would be sensible to arrive at one system for food labelling. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that such a decision will be based on evidence? Different systems are being considered at the moment; will the decision be based on evidence—

That was a bit confused as well. The hon. Gentleman is trying to have it all ways. On his first point, I am tempted to say that my comments on whether I enter the cycling marathon will be delivered through a spokes person—

Yes, but that would not have made such a good joke.

At least we are agreed on the scale. I noticed that the Liberal Democrats very quietly dropped their commitment to free adult social care yesterday. If we had put resources into that, we would not have had enough money to invest properly in public health.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to using the relevant science. Let me mention Professor Susan Jebb from Cambridge university, who played an exceptional role in the foresight review and is now the chair of our expert group. She has looked at all these proposals in great depth and approved them.

Let me deal with the more negative aspects—for example, the hon. Gentleman’s comment that the Government’s record was “woeful”. We can always have a knockabout and say that we have not done all that we should have done. I accept that, but woeful? Let me just clarify on school sport that when I mentioned four hours, I meant to say two hours of high-quality PE in schools—[Interruption.] Well, the record has been put straight. Back in 2002, the first time it was measured, the figure for such provision was 22 per cent., but it is now at 86 per cent.—a massive increase, well ahead of our target.

For the first time ever, we have introduced restrictions on advertising to children. I accept that some would have liked us to go further, but this is the first time that it has been done. We have introduced front-of-pack labelling. Yes, there is confusion about the different systems, but we are far ahead of the rest of Europe in that respect. Furthermore, an enormous revolution has taken place in school food. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) said a few moments ago, we need to take the public with us. Pictures of parents putting fish and chips through school gates are depressing, but we are moving forward on all those fronts.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) asks what we are doing to encourage take-up of healthy school meals, so let me remind him that Hull had three healthy school meal projects being run under a Labour administration; the incoming Liberal Democrat council cancelled them, setting us back in tackling obesity—yet here we have Liberal Democrat Members demanding to know what more we are doing to counter obesity.

The hon. Gentleman is also wrong to say that we have a more lax public service agreement target. In fact, we have a tighter target because instead of simply seeking to halt the increase, we want to reverse the trend in child obesity—a much more difficult task—by 2020.

The hon. Gentleman asked two further questions. On fast food outlets, there are restrictions, but there is flexibility in the current planning rules. We do not want to introduce unnecessary rules; we need to use existing regulations to allow local authorities to stem the increase in those outlets near schools and parks. As for lunch boxes, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is not suggesting that we need lunch box police. What we are talking about are the sorts of ideas that we saw working in the Green Dragon school in Brentford today. The head teacher and other teaching staff take responsibility for looking in a child’s lunch box—it is much easier in a primary than in a secondary school—and if they find that the child has just a bag of crisps and a chocolate bar, they send a message back home. Some schools actually use a traffic light system, putting on a red, green or amber sticker to send an appropriate message to parents.

The hon. Gentleman’s final point was about health inequalities—a crucial issue. Obesity is a health inequality issue, as well as a public health and prevention issue, so the most intense activity should be focused on the poorest areas. We announced a £72 million investment in a public information system that we will want to use throughout the country, but it will be targeted where the problems are the most serious. I accept that obesity is a health inequality issue, and I believe that we need to use this strategy to tackle the broader health inequality problems we face.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s positive statement, particularly his encouragement of breastfeeding and compulsory cooking lessons. How would he build on the very successful GP exercise on prescription programme, particularly its extension to younger patients? Also, how does he intend to build on the successful school cycling initiatives, which have done very well in some parts of the country but have not been taken up as enthusiastically as I would like in other parts?

My hon. Friend has hit on two really important aspects of the problem. Exercise on prescription is being looked into further as we speak; it is a very important part of our plans to encourage more exercise. On school cycling, we have a very good relationship with the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Transport and have sought to increase the number of children participating through Bikeability. Some of the extra resources we are putting in will be invested in that.

It is obviously sensible to try to bring together the different systems of nutritional labelling and I am sure that the Secretary of State would accept that, in view of the food trade, it makes sense to attempt to achieve that on a Europe-wide basis. Does he also accept, however, that if we want to guide people’s choice and help them to make informed decisions about what to eat, they need to know about the nutritional qualities of food as well as about its drawbacks? Should we not move towards a system of information that is about more than just deterrence, as that could make a contribution to people sustaining a healthy diet?

The right hon. Gentleman makes two important points, the first of which is the significance of European competency, which was, incidentally, given by the Conservative Government, who I believe took the right decision. Nestlé, for example, is based in Switzerland and distributes its goods across the world, not just in Europe, so we need an international approach to the issue. I would try to convince the Commission that we should have a derogation to do our own thing in this country rather than be held back by the slowest countries in the European Union—but that is a debate for another day.

The right hon. Gentleman’s other important point was about deterrence and how to secure the best system. I believe that we should be looking into not only how a system of food labelling gives information to consumers, but how it encourages changed habits, so we need to highlight healthy food options. When items are labelled red under a traffic light system, it is not saying that people should never eat them, but that they should take into account the fact that if they are to maintain a balanced diet, they should not eat items such as chips every day. I am sure that a system can be devised that the food industry will buy into and that will take account of the right hon. Gentleman’s very important points.

My right hon. Friend’s statement was welcome, but does he agree that one thing that the Government can do to fight obesity, particularly in children, is to provide modern and inspiring sports facilities? Will he work with colleagues across Government to ensure that that happens so that an excellent school—albeit one that is some way down the list in Building Schools for the Future—such as Sir John Nelthorpe school in Brigg, that has no sports hall now, could gain funding for one? Government-inspired renaissance projects such as the one in Goole, which has an excellent sports village concept, could also gain funding. May I assure my right hon. Friend that should he be able to help with the Goole project—

My hon. Friend is an expert in covert lobbying for schools in his constituency. I know from my experience in education and the work carried on by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families that the school sport partnership is one of the Government’s great success stories. Although Building Schools for the Future is an important element in replenishing all school facilities, including sports, it is not as if there is inactivity in the meantime. The school sport partnership is already an important part of what has happened and will be an important part of what happens in the future. On the matter of the school in my hon. Friend’s constituency, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families suggests that my hon. Friend meet the Minister for Schools and Learners.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is a sad reflection on this Government that one of their key objectives is to get the number of obese children by 2020 back to 2000 levels, yet they have been in power for 10 years and the problem has got progressively worse during this Labour Administration? Notwithstanding the importance of food inputs, is it not a fact that getting people to exercise every day is the most important issue? What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that schools provide compulsory physical training and that people are made aware of the different exercise options—the relative merits of cycling, walking 5,000 steps and running, for example? What is he doing to introduce advertising—

Obesity, as foresight pointed out, has trebled over 30 years. I am perfectly willing, representing the party of Government, to take whatever responsibility we have in that matter. However, as the hon. Gentleman seems to recognise, there is a much wider responsibility in society. In his final comments, he came close to expressing the overweening nanny state argument.

We have made huge advances in the provision of high-quality sport and physical exercise. There will be two hours a week in 100 per cent. of schools by 2010, and we will then progress to five hours a week.

As one who, 15 years ago, presented a Bill to introduce a harmonised system of nutritional labelling using the traffic light system, I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the drive towards a single scheme. I am afraid my Bill received no support from the Government of the day, but it is good that it has received support from our Government. May I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that he puts the health of our children above the health of the advertising industry?

Yes, we will put the health of our children before the interests of any group that is acting in a way contrary to the health of our children, but the advertising industry has worked with us to introduce the system that Ofcom implemented this year. It is the first time that we have had any legislation at all. If we are to move further, we would like to do so with the full commitment and continued co-operation of the advertising industry, although obviously the health of our children comes first.

Does the Minister accept that in recent days, for good or ill, we have developed a celebrity culture, particularly among the youth of the nation? Would it not be appropriate for those in the public eye who have a particularly healthy and good lifestyle to offer their support, so that young people can look up to them as role models and take the exercise that they need?

We are considering using as role models people who had serious obesity problems when they were very young. At the weekend, there was a story in the papers about a male model who has shed about 10 stone and now appears in the kind of magazines that interest youngsters. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we need such role models—including many Labour Members, I might add—as part of a national campaign to get the message home to young people.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, but will he think again about the possibility of providing more space in the national curriculum? The progress made in providing two hours of sport a week is significant, but two hours in a whole week is not a huge amount. Should we not give sport the same status that we give to maths, English and science? Should schools not be assessed on achievements in running, swimming and cycling in exactly the same way as they are assessed on achievements at level 4 in key stage 2, or the gaining of five A-C grades at GCSE?

This is an important issue, but I remind my hon. Friend that we will progress from two hours in every school to four hours and then five. Furthermore, every school will be an extended school by 2010. That will provide huge opportunities for extra-curricular activities, not just in dance and drama but in sport.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about cycling. The extra money for Bikeablity will enable it to help us in a number of ways, as it has wished to do for many years, and I am sure that its contribution will be enormous.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that the Treasury is a key ally in his Department’s campaign to improve the nation’s health through, for example, the taxation of alcohol and tobacco? In the context of his statement about obesity, will he contact his colleagues in the Treasury and find out why those who join fitness centres in order to reduce their weight must now pay VAT on their membership fees?

I am sure that the Treasury will be aware of points made by Members throughout the House about how we can use the taxation system in our drive to tackle obesity. The Budget traditionally deals with that, and I think that the example given to the rest of us by the right hon. Gentleman—a distinguished cyclist in the House—will be taken into account when it is presented in a few weeks’ time.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he join me in commending head teachers such as Anthony Edkins of Harrop Fold school in my constituency? He has focused on the three issues of obesity, under-age drinking and teenage pregnancy among his pupils. As part of the focus on obesity, he has brought in a celebrity chef to teach young people about food values and to make the subject enjoyable. Is that not a great example?

I agree, and there are other great examples throughout the country. We have picked up some of that best practice. Only this morning I was with young Lizzy Butler, a 14-year-old from Leeds. In her school, the Watch It campaign has been remarkably sensitive in dealing with youngsters who have Lizzy’s problem of being overweight, and changing their lives completely. That initiative was launched jointly by the NHS and the school, and we can spread it much more widely with the resources that we are investing in the programme.

I commend the expansion of cycling through a very successful network in Bedfordshire. May I also draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the work of the Kids’ Cookery School, a charity based in west London which for some years has been working with children from a variety of backgrounds to introduce them to cooking and eating healthy food? Will he assure me that the work of charities of that sort will be made available across Government, so that their expertise and success in bringing good food to the notice of children will not be lost in what might otherwise be a top-down state-run scheme?

I will give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The Minister of State responsible for public health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), visited the Kids’ Cookery School recently, and tells me that the Department learnt an awful lot from what is happening there. Indeed, organisations across large swathes of the voluntary sector are crucial allies in our strategy.

I welcome the statement, but may I pursue the point about taxation? Given that incentives will be needed to get couch potatoes to the gym, is there not a case for tax relief on gym membership?

If I may, I will leave such questions to the Treasury. We have a Budget coming up. Representations can be made and questions can be asked of Treasury Ministers, and I am sure that my hon. Friend is as adept as any on these Benches at putting his view across.

Does the Secretary of State agree that healthy minds are as important as healthy bodies, and that access to high-quality United Kingdom-produced children’s programmes contributes to that? Will he bear in mind the damaging impact that restrictions on advertising have already had on the UK children’s programming sector, and will he resist any moves to extend the advertising ban further? That would do little to tackle obesity, and would do more damage to an important part of the broadcasting landscape.

What we have there is the balance of the argument. The covert point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), who has now left the Chamber, is that whatever the effect on the advertising industry, we should plough on regardless in the interests of children’s health. Now, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) has made a point about the effect on the industry. We do not believe that there is currently any proof of such dire effects, but we must listen to the industry. We do not want there to be fewer high-quality children’s programmes because we have taken certain measures. In that event, children might watch programmes made overseas and tune into channels on which there are no restrictions.

I understand the argument entirely, and so does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. He is part of the ministerial team examining the issue, and will remain part of it. The voice of the DCMS will be an essential element of where we go next, after we have had the review in the summer.

I warmly welcome the determination to increase the promotion of breastfeeding. Evidence is becoming stronger all the time that babies who are breastfed are not just healthier, but protected from harmful weight gain in childhood and from obesity in later life. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the work of the Breastfeeding Manifesto Coalition, and will he consider implementing the seven points in the manifesto, which are consistent with his strategy?

As my right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for public health mentioned at a meeting last week, we are considering that seven-point manifesto. There is no difference between us on the importance of encouraging breastfeeding. We introduced the 26-week period of maternity leave so that we could be consistent with the World Health Organisation’s drive in favour of six months of breastfeeding. Whatever we decide in relation to the manifesto, the coalition is crucial in helping us to implement the strategy. Breastfeeding is an essential part of beginning the process of good, healthy nutrition and tackling the problems of obesity.

The Secretary of State’s third action point was to build physical activity into our lives, and I entirely endorse that; it is one of the crucial planks of the strategy. Why then did the Minister for Schools and Learners confirm in a written answer that this Government are cutting the number of places for physical education teachers from 1,450 in 2005-06 to 1,180 in 2007-08—a cut of 25 per cent. in the very people needed to tackle the problem?

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, let me say that he can ask that question when he has the relevant Secretary of State in front of him. My recollection from when I was doing that job is that we had a large increase in the number of PE teachers. [Interruption.] Well, I would have to look at that in detail. I will not take it as read from the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] I mean no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.]

Order. Let the Secretary of State reply. The hon. Gentleman might not be satisfied with the reply, but it is the reply he is going to get.

My recollection is that we had increased the number of PE teachers and people dealing with sports in our schools, although I do no know whether they come under the heading of “PE teacher”. The situation might be similar to that in public health, where we have a huge increase in the number of people dealing with that but they are not categorised in our staff census in the same way as they were before. I think that the hon. Gentleman might be usefully be present for Department for Children, Schools and Families questions.

I welcome the statement, especially as there is currently a debate about the role of Sport England, and therefore probably about the role of primary care trusts and others working with the county sports partnerships. In view of the fact that there is a tight timeline for that—it is expected to have a broad strategy very soon and to have its business plan in place by April—can the Secretary of State give an assurance that the policy review he mentioned in his statement will be implemented in parallel with it rather than at a later stage, especially as the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recognises that physical activity is one of the most cost-effective ways of tackling the obesity problem?

We will try to do it in parallel, but there is some work to do. The basic discussion we are having is about whether Sport England should focus on sport alone. We could use its network and, importantly, its reach into local communities to focus on activity that might not be sport-related, such as more walking and healthier lifestyles. There is a lengthy debate to be had and many issues for us to address, such as finance. If we can go through that process in time to introduce the policies in parallel, it would obviously make sense to do so.

We have already heard how, sadly, the Jamie Oliver revolution has resulted in an exodus from school dinner tables, as children either bring in unhealthy pack-ups or leave the school premises to buy their favourite food: chips. In an effort to reverse this trend, will the Secretary of State discuss with Ministers responsible for school menus whether the status of oven chips in school meals should be reviewed? Although Scarborough’s most famous product qualifies for three green traffic lights and is less than 5 per cent. fat, it is lumped into the same category as the unhealthy deep-fried alternative, which is why it is not served up more regularly in school meals.

It is chips with everything in this debate. That is a matter for the School Food Trust to look at. On the point about declining numbers, that always happens: in such circumstances, there is always an initial decline in the number of children eating school dinners. The SFT believes that although schools must pay more attention to whether their menus are attractive, the figures will gradually increase and things will eventually improve. That is certainly our experience in Hull, where we introduced the policy on school meals pre-Jamie Oliver. There should not be a counsel of despair because of the initial reaction of some children and some parents. If we keep at it, we can turn things around. I was at Green Dragon primary school in Brentford this morning. One big issue is that primary school children are much more receptive to these messages, and we need to ensure that the good habits continue when they go on to secondary school.

Those of us who are overweight already get enough stick at home without having to come to work for another beating. What we need are some carrots and some incentives. If the Secretary of State will give an undertaking to come to Banbury to listen to concerns about the future of local NHS services, I will give an undertaking to lose a couple of stone by Easter.

The hon. Gentleman draws attention to the importance of carrots in this policy. The five-a-day campaign is important. He has started with carrots; there are another four to go. I am sure we will see a svelte Member for Banbury very soon.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), because the last time I dared to mention having lost a stone and a half, I was taken to task by one of the more delectable parliamentary sketchwriters, who disputed that at great length in her column. Having said that, I am a little puzzled by the idea of inspecting children’s lunch boxes to remove forbidden fruits—or, rather, forbidden chocolates. Given that children, for good reasons, now have more disposable income than 30 years ago, how will that solve the problem of them simply going out afterwards and buying whatever unsuitable food they wish to purchase?

I am afraid that that suggests that if we cannot do everything, we should do nothing. Schools across the country are already doing what we seek to do on school lunch boxes: work with parents to ensure that they have information and advice. The hon. Gentleman will have seen what children in his constituency have in their lunch boxes. Some of them come to school, probably having had no breakfast, with only a packet of Hula Hoops and a chocolate bar in their lunch box. Irrespective of what they might eat outside the school, our responsibility is what happens inside the school. Having put, with all-party support, a lot of effort into getting school meals right, we should use—without introducing the lunch box police or being heavy-handed—the initiatives that teachers themselves are introducing and spread best practice. At all stages, we should work with parents rather than against them.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Next week, we begin our consideration of the treaty of Lisbon. Some Members are strongly in favour, others are passionately hostile and the majority may well descend into a narcoleptic trance. Whatever our attitude, however, we need to know what we will debate on Tuesday. At present, no programme motion has been tabled. We do not know what is going to be debated and we cannot table amendments. Will you reprimand the Government, Mr. Speaker, for yet again being so blatantly disregardful of this House, and ask if we can have that information so that, whatever our attitude, at least we have something to debate?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I reinforce what my right hon. Friend has said, but not only from the perspective of Members of Parliament? It is important that outside interest groups know what we are debating on particular days, so that they can make representations to Members. At present, both Members and outside interest groups are entirely unaware of the programme.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I endorse what my right hon. Friend and my right hon. and learned Friend have said—that the fact that the Government have not tabled this programme motion is leaving perilously little time to table amendments that could be selected. In fact, the situation is worse than that: I understand that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury has distributed to the Labour party a schedule of what he proposes for the debate, and yet Opposition Members have not had the opportunity to have that information.

Let me say in reply to the points that have been made that, as I understand it, the situation is that there is to be a full debate on Monday on how we proceed in this matter. I do not know if that is of any help, and of course I am not a Government manager, but that is my understanding. Tomorrow, there is business questions and if Members catch my eye they are entitled to raise this matter with the Leader of the House.

The hon. Gentleman should let me finish. The Government will have heard the concerns Members have expressed through this point of order. I hope that this is of assistance to them. Members will understand that I have certain limitations in these matters, but these concerns will be heard.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for interrupting earlier; I thought that you had finished speaking. On Monday, at 11.45 am, the Government placed Command Papers 3710 and 3711 in the Vote Office for Members. Those Command Papers were central to the debate that started that afternoon and they were 356 pages long, so Members could not properly address that Second Reading debate. Will you, through your normal offices, make the Government aware that whatever we are going to debate on Tuesday and Wednesday next week, we need to receive the relevant papers and information in good time, so that we can have a meaningful and informed debate?

The point was well made by the hon. Gentleman that all relevant papers should be available for hon. Members before any debate in this House starts, and I am sure that it will also be taken up.

Christmas Savings Schemes (Regulation)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the regulation of Christmas savings schemes; and for connected purposes.

I am introducing this Bill as a result of the Farepak collapse, which in 2006 wiped out the Christmas savings of at least 122,000 small savers in this country. I am pressing for light-touch regulation for similar schemes, so that in future all savers’ money is protected by law. Currently, the only bodies that do not regard as savers those who use Christmas savings schemes are this House, the Government and the financial services regulators in this country. In contrast, the people who offer the schemes market them as saving for Christmas, and crucially, the people who put their money in them regard themselves as savers just as much as those who save with building societies such as Northern Rock do. It flies in the face of social justice that this House should protect one set of savers and not the other.

In my first Adjournment debate, on 7 November 2006, I set out three complementary principles for the future of former Farepak savers. The first was to work for immediate relief for the savers. The second was to secure an explanation and justice for the savers. The third was to get better regulation of the voucher industry.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) introduced a voluntary regulation scheme, and it is to his credit that that was in place to protect savers for Christmas 2007. However, as memory fades and we move further away from the Farepak collapse—already 18 months have passed—the likelihood increases of new schemes that decline to join the voluntary scheme, or of existing schemes withdrawing from it. It is therefore the right time to move forward with proper long-term regulation, and I am very grateful for being granted the opportunity to present this ten-minute Bill.

At the time of the crisis, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield, in his role as a Minister at the then Department of Trade and Industry, set up a charity fund that paid £6.8 million to savers at the national level. I was very pleased to be able to co-ordinate action to help savers in my constituency at the community level; many hon. Members on both sides of the House did the same in their areas. People in Swindon will always remember the success of that collective action as a reminder of how people get together when the going gets tough.

However, all our constituents are still waiting to receive the small amount of money left in Farepak after the collapse. I again urge the liquidator to hasten her work to bring a conclusion to this phase of the collapse and to bring closure for those affected. A gap of £29 million that has been lost to the Farepak savers remains. We know how Farepak savers were affected because of the excellent Unison-sponsored report that I helped to launch in the House last November. It found the following: women, particularly those on low incomes, were disproportionately affected by the Farepak collapse; Farepak customers were being ‘prudent savers’, using Farepak as a way of managing their low household incomes; and the victims of Farepak want justice, demanding adequate compensation for their plight and enhanced regulation, and demanding that those responsible be held accountable for the harms that have been committed.

Shortly after that launch, my hon. Friends the Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark), for Workington (Tony Cunningham), for Livingston (Mr. Devine) and for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) joined me for a meeting with our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who undertook to examine the regulatory framework for the prepayment industry to see whether anything more could be done to give Christmas club savers protection in future. He gave a commitment to come back to us on all the issues we raised on behalf of those affected by Farepak, and we look forward to hearing from him.

Christmas 2007 could have been a tragedy for two other groups of people, because Northern Rock ran into trouble in September last year—we all know the outcome for thousands of investors, savers and employees—and Travelscope, the tourism company, went into administration just before Christmas, affecting 40,000 holidays and putting 250 jobs at risk. The Government have rightly acted swiftly to protect Northern Rock savers and investors. Travelscope customers’ money was already protected by the arrangements in place to cover what happens when airline companies or tour operators go bust. The air travel organiser’s licence model is based on primary bonds provided by banks and insurance companies, backed up by a common fund, the air travel trust fund, managed by the Civil Aviation Authority. All those people were safe, unlike the Farepak savers.

I am proposing that the Civil Aviation (Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing) Regulations 1995 can be the model for regulation of the Christmas club and prepayment sector, and there are people in the sector who welcome that idea. I am happy to report to the House that last week I sponsored a briefing on the Post Office’s new Christmas club. That product is due to come to market in the next couple of weeks. The Christmas club is the Post Office’s response to the challenge laid down by Brian Pomeroy in his report on the Farepak collapse. The report suggested that the Post Office would be the ideal institution to produce a Christmas savings product, owing to the extent of its network and the trust that consumers have for the Post Office brand. Such a product will also give local post offices another product to offer customers, and will hopefully help keep open branches such as Guildford Avenue and Wescott Place in my constituency, which are currently threatened with closure.

Funds in the Post Office scheme will be locked away until 1 November 2008. The Christmas club card could then be used as a prepaid debit card with retailers signed up to the scheme or exchanged for gift vouchers at post office branches. I welcome this innovative product, because unlike hamper companies, the Post Office’s product will be governed by strict e-money regulations. That is because it is based on a pre-paid card system. Money will be held in a protected account under the control of the Bank of Ireland, and the funds will be accessible only to club members.

The Post Office has told me that it would welcome regulation, and that its business model would be viable were this House to legislate in this area. The short-term steps the Government took to provide protection for customers’ payments have been good, with existing companies putting in place ring-fenced trust accounts supervised by a new trade association—the Christmas Prepayment Association.

The companies in the hamper industry have introduced new safeguards for consumers’ money in the form of independently controlled, ring-fenced trust accounts. The trusts will safeguard customers’ money should a company go bust. Although such measures are welcome, they are only short-term steps, so I welcomed last November’s confirmation from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform that, for the longer term, the Government have received advice from the Office of Fair Trading and the Financial Services Authority on the regulatory framework. They will consider that further in the light of the Companies Investigation Branch inquiry into the activities that brought about the collapse of Farepak and its parent company, European Home Retail. That is good news, and I hope that the Government will consider giving the green light to this ten-minute Bill.

My intention is that regulation will place future Christmas club savers on a par with savers using other financial products. It will close the loophole that currently exists, and enable Government to look at ways of closing the £29 million gap for the 122,000 people who lost their money with Farepak. It is the only solution, because without regulation we cannot be assured that something this devastating for low-income families determined to keep out of debt will not happen again.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Anne Snelgrove, Chris Bryant, Lorely Burt, Ms Katy Clark, Michael Connarty, Mr. Jim Devine, Mrs. Madeleine Moon, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Bob Russell, Martin Salter, Bob Spink and Mr. Mark Todd.

Christmas Savings Schemes (regulation)

Anne Snelgrove accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the regulation of Christmas savings schemes; and for connected purposes. And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 25 April, and to be printed [Bill 58].

Appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Timothy John Burr to the Office of Comptroller and Auditor General.

The National Audit Act 1983 prescribes that the Comptroller and Auditor General should be appointed by the Queen on a motion by the Prime Minister with the agreement of the Chair of the Select Committee on Public Accounts. Such a motion has been used only once, in 1987, when the then Prime Minister, now Lady Thatcher, proposed the appointment of Sir John Bourn. I am sure that the House will join me in expressing appreciation for the achievements of Sir John Bourn over his 20 years in service as he leaves at the end of this month.

I first visited Sir John in the 1980s, more than two decades ago, and have always found him to be courteous in his dealings with Members of Parliament. I thank him for the work that he has done. The House will be aware that the Public Accounts Commission, under my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), is undertaking a review of the governance of the National Audit Office, which supports the Comptroller and Auditor General in his work. The commission has asked John Tiner, the former managing director of the Financial Services Authority, to advise that review.

The position of the CAG was established nearly 150 years ago and it has been some 25 years since the reforms that saw the creation of the NAO, so the Government fully support the review and will allocate space in the forthcoming constitutional reform Bill for any necessary legislation agreed on a cross-party basis. The Government have taken a series of steps to enhance the transparency and accountability to Parliament of public spending, including the introduction of resource accounting and professional financial management in central Government. We will also align budgets, estimates and accounts to a common format to allow expenditure to be better tracked from allocation to spend.

In our “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper we set out proposals for parliamentary scrutiny of certain key positions in which Parliament has a strong interest. I can announce that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has today sent to the Liaison Committee a list of public appointments that we propose should be subject to pre-appointment scrutiny by their relevant Select Committee. A copy has been placed in the Library of the House. The list includes the appointment of the future CAGs; the chairs of the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority and the regulators of water, communications, rail and post; chief inspectors; the Information Commissioner; the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and senior ombudsmen. I am also grateful to the Public Administration Committee for its work on the issue, which is timely and relevant. We will welcome the views of the Liaison Committee on the list of proposed appointments. The laws governing certain appointments like that of the CAG will continue to apply.

The motion before the House recommends that Tim Burr be appointed as the new Comptroller and Auditor General with the agreement of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. I am grateful for his support.

Mr. Burr has been deputy CAG for nearly eight years, in addition to some seven years’ previous service at the NAO managing the audit of Departments including the Home Office, Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise. That was preceded by a distinguished career in the civil service. I believe that Mr. Burr is eminently qualified to become CAG. Mr. Burr has undertaken to serve the House as CAG until the commission’s new governance arrangements can come into effect. I commend the motion to the House.

We are grateful to the Prime Minister for his motion and his words of support. This is an important announcement regarding an important post, and a matter that Parliament has quite properly decided should be taken seriously. That is evidenced by the fact that the motion is in the Prime Minister’s name and that he is here to move it.

I join the Prime Minister in thanking Sir John Bourn for his service. All those who have worked with him have a high regard for what he has done and for his organisation during his period of tenure. I also welcome the Prime Minister’s statement that he will implement the announcement that he made last July about his wish, and that of the Government, for a new process to scrutinise appointments of this nature. If the Liaison Committee and other Committees can act speedily, this appointment will, I hope, be the last when, as a matter of formal record, we are presented with a name but not a full CV—even though we know the details of the career of the proposed new Comptroller and Auditor General—and when no scrutiny of the appointment has taken place. I hope that the Liaison Committee and the Public Accounts Committee will move quickly to implement the new system.

It must be right that senior public servants should be appointed only after Parliament has scrutinised their appropriateness for the post. It is right that when Parliament comes to vote on such motions, it should be assured that the proposal has been scrutinised by Members of the House and that a CV has been presented for consideration.

I want to make two other points about the accountability and openness to which the Prime Minister is committed. The only thing that, unfortunately, marred Sir John Bourn’s career was the subject of expenses. That matter came into the public gaze last year, in particular. He was regarded as having spent more money than was justified in relation to his job. The same issue has surfaced once in relation to the proposed new—

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I must say to him and to the House that the motion is specifically about the appointment of a particular person. Although I allowed the Prime Minister a certain amount of latitude, this is not an opportunity for a general debate.

Of course I accept that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I was not proposing that it should be. My point was that I hope that the new appointee’s period of office, which I believe will begin on 1 February, will see an open regime, such as that which the Prime Minister has advocated elsewhere. The expenses of the new CAG and his colleagues should be in the public domain as a matter of course, as they are for all senior public servants. Our expenses are in the public domain, and that is proper and right. I hope that the new regime will ensure that that happens.

We welcome Mr. Burr’s appointment. We wish him well in his very important job. Scrutiny of the public accounts in this country by Parliament is very important and we all recognise that it is done better now than it has been in the past. We need to continue to do it well. We pay tribute to those on the Liaison Committee and the Public Accounts Committee who are part of the process. It is a good example of public service. It is important that Mr. Burr and his team do a good job to ensure that everything we spend is as well spent as possible, in the public interest.

Yesterday, I received the Tiner review of the governance of the CAG and the NAO, which was referred to by the Prime Minister, although I have not yet had a chance to read it. It is now being circulated to the members of the Liaison Committee and the Public Accounts Commission. The commission will consider it at our meeting with Mr. Tiner on 5 February. We are grateful to him for producing that report so early.

On the question of appointments, I thank the Prime Minister and welcome the pleasingly long list of appointments that will be referred to the Committees of this House. I shall have a response from the Liaison Committee within the next week or so, and we welcome what we have heard.

As the Chair of the House of Commons Commission, I very often work with the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who is the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. He will be involved in the selection and appointment, although the Commission will not.

Has my right hon. Friend formed an early view on the suggestion made at the meeting in December by the outgoing CAG, Sir John Bourn, that his replacement should have a limited tenure?

That question was covered by the Tiner review. The Chair of the PAC and I believe that there should be a time limit. I have not read the Tiner review yet, but I suspect that the dispute will be more about the length of service than about whether there should be a limit.

My right hon. Friend will recall our recent discussions in this Chamber about the outgoing CAG, but is he aware that the typical tenure for parallel appointments in other countries is five years? It is never more than 10, and certainly nothing like the 20 years that Sir John has enjoyed—the second longest tenure in the post’s history.

Yes, I am aware of the tenure limits elsewhere. In preliminary discussions, the Chair of the PAC and I made it clear that we hoped that a limit would be adopted, and that up to 10 years would be appropriate. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will be able to contain his impatience in that regard.

There is widespread agreement that there should be a time limit, and Sir John Bourn himself thinks so, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it should be longer rather than shorter? In the US, the Budget and Accounting Act 1921 sets a term limit of 15 years for the equivalent post there. That may be a little long, but might not a limit of only five or six years be too short?

If I give any more commitments to the House, there will not be much point in having the report from John Tiner. I shall stick to what I have said already, which is that the Chair of the PAC and I feel that a limit of up to 10 years should be considered.

As Chair of the Commission, I should like to express the House’s gratitude to Sir John Bourn. We are indebted to him for his 20 years of service. There may be disagreements about some matters, but right at the beginning of his tenure in the post he did something of supreme importance: he made the early and brave decision that the NAO would deliver to the taxpayer £6 in savings for every £1 that the taxpayer gave him to carry out his duties. That was a risky decision, but he achieved the target that he had set. In fact, he increased the ratio to 7:1. At the request of the Commission and the PAC, he then raised it to 8:1, and subsequently to 9:1, which is where it stands today. Under Sir John Bourn, the NAO is producing savings for the taxpayer that are nine times as great as his total annual operational budget. This year alone, the savings are likely to total £667 million, and I am sure that that is delightful news for the Prime Minister. Sir John should feel proud of that achievement, and he deserves the House’s thanks.

Sir John Bourn has also recognised that the House of Commons has a wider responsibility in the world. Like the US, France and other nations, we have experience that is valuable for the emerging democracies. As the Chair of the PAC will no doubt say, our NAO and the system that supports it are greatly admired throughout the world. The NAO has fee-paying contracts with the UN and other international bodies to help emerging democracies establish systems of scrutiny and accountability. Sir John has taken some stick, including some from this side of the House, for the additional work that he has done, but I think that we owe the third world a duty to share our experience. We cannot tell countries what they must do; we can only share our experience, good or bad.

Switching to my role as Chair of the Liaison Committee, I should like to thank Sir John Bourn for a third thing that he has done. One source of grievance between the PAC and the other Committees has always been that the NAO is a PAC asset. The PAC has guarded it jealously over the years but, at the request of the Liaison Committee and with the approval of myself and the Chairman of the PAC, Sir John has changed the NAO’s role. He has started to give support to the Select Committees in the form of evidence and witnesses and, most importantly, by making available specialist secondees who help with the Committees’ staffing and background work. That is an invaluable role for the NAO, and one that is very welcome. I think that Sir John has every reason to be proud of what he has done for the House of Commons and for Parliament in his 20 years as CAG.

Finally, I welcome the appointment of Tim Burr. He is a delightful and very unassuming man, with integrity and great ability. He will do the job well, and I hope that he finds it a fascinating experience.

I am pleased to second the motion moved by the Prime Minister, for three reasons. First, it underlines the bipartisanship and the lack of party politics that should inform the work of the NAO and the PAC. Secondly, it underlines the supremacy of Parliament. The appointment to this country’s oldest public office—it dates back to the 13th century, and has existed in its modern form for at least 150 years—can be made only on the Floor of the House of Commons by the Prime Minister of the day, with the support of the Chairman of the PAC, who is always a member of the Opposition.

Thirdly, I have worked with Tim Burr for a number of years. He is a man of incisiveness and integrity, and the NAO will be in safe hands under his stewardship until a permanent successor can be found.

I should like to pay tribute to Sir John Bourn, with whom I worked very closely.

I am concerned about how the continuity of work is maintained when one CAG retires and another takes over. First, the NAO has joined a consortium—along with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Clerk’s Department and other bodies—that provides advice on strengthening parliaments abroad. I hope that work will continue.

Secondly, I have been in correspondence with Sir John Bourn about how Health Ministers report to Parliament on independent NHS treatment centres, and he has commissioned an inquiry into that. Will the Chairman of the PAC give an assurance, to me and to other hon. Members with balls in the NAO’s court, that there will be continuity in respect of work that is currently under way?

I can absolutely give that assurance—the king is dead, long live the king! The work will carry on. While Tim Burr is CAG, he will have all the powers and prerequisites of that office, and the NAO will carry on exactly as before.

I should like to pay a short tribute to Sir John Bourn. In numerous private briefings, I have found him to be immensely patient and kind, despite all my shortcomings. He is a wonderful civil servant in that sense. He may be in his 70s, but he has the spark and energy of a man in his 40s.

As has been said, Sir John has been CAG for more than 20 years. He has overseen a revolution in public accountability. He set a very ambitious agenda for the NAO from the outset and he followed some guiding principles that are still adhered to.

First, audit must be unfettered. Sir John fought a long, and ultimately very successful campaign, to secure access to all Government Departments and agencies. Secondly, auditors must be professional and expert and he has equipped the NAO well. Next, we must have sound financial audit that requires modern professional accounting from Government. This is the point that the Prime Minister made, and it is an excellent one. Sir John’s active support for the introduction of accruals accounting—I pay tribute to the work that the Prime Minister did while Chancellor of the Exchequer in that respect—has helped drag Departments from the dark ages of the penny notebook system into the modern world, vastly improving the quality of information available to Parliament. In addition, audit should always be prepared to tackle the tricky issues of the day and not be deterred by vested interests. Sir John has reported on wars, on every major private finance initiative—PFI—deal, on waiting times in the NHS and, most recently, on major projects such as the Olympic games.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the magic three letters PFI, and I am sure that what he says about the Comptroller and Auditor General and the NAO is true in so far as it goes. He says that the NAO has got to grips with modern techniques and methods, such as PFI, but why were the early and middle years reports so insipid and ineffectual? It seems that the NAO was being sucked into the received wisdom that PFI was a good—

Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) will not be seduced down that alleyway. He should not go down that route.

Suffice it to say that, in my view, Sir John has been quite robust, but I will leave it at that. Of course, he could not get involved in the politics or the policy issue of whether we go down the PFI route. That was not his remit.

Sir John and I think that audit should shine light on often neglected areas, and his pioneering work on hospital infections, on services to stroke victims and, just last week, on services to people suffering from dementia, bear testament to his success. As the Father of the House has just said, audit should be able to prove its value. Sir John has set very stretching targets for the savings derived from the work of the NAO; they should generate £9 for every £1 spent. In those ways, Sir John has made a profound and lasting contribution to public audit and accountability. I pay tribute to him.

It would be difficult to do so. The targets are already stretching and we do not want targets that start distorting the work of the NAO.

I am pleased to second the motion to appoint Tim Burr pending the Government’s new arrangements that will be agreed, as the Father of the House has said, by the Public Accounts Commission, shortly following John Tiner’s review.

Before my hon. Friend finishes his tribute to the outgoing CAG, will he say whether he agrees that the work that Sir John Bourn did to introduce public accountability to the BBC in undertaking its value-for-money audits is something that should go down on the record sheet as one of his great achievements?

It certainly should, and we have a compromise at the moment. The Public Accounts Committee is strongly of the view that we should have full rights of access.

Tim Burr has been a public servant for 40 years. He worked at the centre of government until he joined the NAO 14 years ago, and he has been Sir John’s deputy for eight years. Tim Burr is very well qualified and I am confident that he will continue to develop the NAO’s work during his time in charge.

On the appointment of Mr. Burr, did the Member have a pre-appointment hearing with Mr. Burr before my friend the Prime Minister appointed him?

For Members who have just come into the debate, I should say that it is a temporary appointment, and I will talk about that in a moment if the hon. Gentleman gives me time. The governance of the NAO will be reviewed and the findings will be subject to debate on the Floor of the House, so we do not need to spend a lot of time on that issue now. However, needless to say, I think that we all recognise that the internal controls and administration of the NAO need strengthening. However, the cardinal principle that is very important for the House of Commons remains—that the CAG has the independence to write his own reports free from any interference from whatever quarter.

Can my hon. Friend confirm whether Tim Burr will be an eligible candidate when the new and transparent appointment system is implemented?

Of course Tim Burr will be an eligible candidate, but I have had no conversation with him. He will hold the appointment until a permanent appointment can be made.

This is only the second appointment under the current arrangements whereby the nomination is made by the Prime Minister with the support of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. During the debate the last time this happened, there was considerable support for making the appointment entirely a matter for the House. That is not an unreasonable view, as the CAG is an Officer of the House and he must be independent of the Government. That point was not lost on the Labour party in opposition. Indeed, summing up in the debate on Sir John Bourn’s appointment 20 years ago, the shadow Minister committed a future Labour Government to changing

“the method of appointment so that there is no ambiguity between the role of the Executive and that of the House.”—[Official Report, 16 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 1201.]

My view, however, is that—I say this to the Prime Minister, to whom I am grateful for his presence—there is a need for the Government to have confidence in the person appointed because that person has unlimited access to all private papers and persons of the Government. Therefore, my view—of course, the House can take a different view—is that the current situation, in which both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Chairman of the PAC have to agree is not unreasonable. I say that as long as the Government appreciate the difference between selection and appointment. They need to be involved in the appointment, but not in the selection. That should be the job of the House.

In this sense, I want to proceed according to statute and to precedent, and I want to follow closely the precedent set by my predecessor Bob—now Lord—Sheldon. He selected the candidate after exhaustive interviews and that selection was then put to Mrs. Thatcher and she approved it. Clearly the process now needs to be modernised in accordance with good practice. There needs to be openness, open advertising and transparency, and I would need to be advised by a senior board in accordance with modern practice. Although all that can be arranged in agreement with the Government, I hope that the board would consist of a recently retired very senior servant—perhaps a former permanent secretary—a senior accountant from private practice and perhaps a recently retired officer from the NAO. I would need to listen to and consider their advice, but the Government do not need to be involved in that part of the process; otherwise there is the danger that I could find myself steered in classic Whitehall fashion in the direction of a safe candidate. I am sure that that would not be good for the future independence of the position. The Government do not have a right to a final veto.

Needless to say, I want to assure the House that I approach the task with the utmost seriousness. We all want to find someone of the highest calibre, great experience and, above all, independence of mind and spirit. I believe that such a person should serve for a fixed, lengthy and non-renewable term of the order of eight to 10 years, and they should not be allowed to return to the civil service if they came from it. There can be no question of their independence being compromised. All that is for discussion, but I assure the House that I am immensely proud of the independence and the work of the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee. During my watch, I will seek to preserve that.

I associate myself with the generous tributes that have been paid to Sir John Bourn. His record is a distinguished one and I regretted very much that his final period in office was distracted by stories of exotic expenses. They should not be allowed to detract from the extraordinary service that he provided to the House and to the audit of public money over the years. I am sure that the appointment of Mr. Burr will be an excellent interim arrangement; I have no difficulties with that.

I should like to pay tribute to a former Member of the House, John Garrett. He could sometimes be curmudgeonly, but he was an heroic and stubborn protector of the interests of the House when it came to public money. He died just a few months ago. Back in 1987—the only other occasion on which the House has had the opportunity to discuss a motion of the kind that is before us—he said:

“the arrangements by which he”—

that is, the Comptroller and Auditor General—

“is nominated pay inadequate respect to Parliamentary democracy”.—[Official Report, 16 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 1182.]

That point has been picked up by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. We have improved things since then, and I hope that we will improve them further.

I agree with what has been said about the need to ensure that the Executive and Parliament have a joint interest in the appointment, for reasons that have been given. It is essential that there be fixed-term appointments. The emerging consensus is that key constitutional posts ought not to have open-ended terms of office, and the terms ought not to be renewed. It should not be possible to influence the process, and the terms should be secure and reasonably long. I hope that the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General will conform to that—it is, I think, what the Government want—and that there will be a consistent pattern for all the constitutional watch-dogs.

In light of the hon. Gentleman’s reference to the historical importance of the democratic principle, perhaps he will find it worth while to recall what Gladstone had to say on the subject when he introduced the arrangements in, I think, the 1860s. Many of the eternal truths that he laid out in an important speech on the subject are well worth rereading today.

I am always glad to accept a reference to Gladstone. The period to which the hon. Gentleman refers was the great era of public service reform, which we should never forget. Until now, there have been difficulties and inconsistencies in how we make key public appointments. The issue of pre-appointment hearings has rightly arisen. I am glad that the Prime Minister said what he did, because it was slightly odd that when the Government came forward with their welcome list of suggestions for posts that would in future be subject to pre-appointment hearings by Parliament, the Comptroller and Auditor General was not on it, yet there could scarcely be a more pivotal position, as far as the interests of Parliament and the public are concerned. I am glad that we are attending to that.

Alongside the issue of the extent to which Parliament is involved in such appointments, there is the question of which appointments should require the approval of the official Opposition. That is another check that we should put into the system. There is also the issue that we are discussing now—the final approval by Parliament, on a motion in someone’s name. At the moment, there is considerable confusion on all those fronts. The Government today presented a list of suggested posts for which there should be pre-appointment hearings. So far there has not been clarity on what the basis should be for such a list, but perhaps the list will help us with that point. We need clarity, and that certainly applies to the appointment that we are discussing, too.

There have been recent instances of the confusion that I mention. For example, Sir Michael Scholar’s appointment as chairman of the Statistics Board was approved by both Houses of Parliament, but it did not have to be; it was just thought to be a good, constitutional thing to do, as indeed it was. That shows that there is inconsistency. The new chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life said recently that he would have liked a pre-appointment hearing, because it would have increased his authority, and that he would have liked his appointment to be subject to a resolution of the House, which would have allowed Members of all parties to support his appointment. We need to ensure consistency in the arrangements.

After the review of the governance of the National Audit Office, and when we have taken a view on issues such as term limits, I hope that we will have a clear system, in which there are reasonable term limits—a subject that has already been mentioned. I hope that the appointment process will be controlled by the Commissioner for Public Appointments; that is the system that we have put in place over the past 10 or 15 years to ensure the integrity of the public appointments process. The system should be supervised by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and should be linked to pre-appointment hearings in the House, which would, I presume, be held by the Public Accounts Committee. That would give Parliament a role in the process. A motion should also be brought before the House, as has happened today. I hope that that is the process at which we arrive. In a sense, we are discussing an interim point on the journey to that destination.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s independence from the Executive is of absolute, fundamental importance. The format that my hon. Friend proposes presents us with a problem, because of course the Government control the majority in the House. I foresee a danger, and I ask him to think about it, as I know that he is open-minded. There is a danger that if we demand a vote in the House—this may sound undemocratic, but I cannot see a way around that—and the Government used their Whips, we could end up with a Government appointee. That is a dangerous possibility, so I ask my hon. Friend to think twice about that.

My right hon. Friend’s concern would be met if we insisted on parliamentary involvement in the process. The new element will be the direct involvement of Parliament through a pre-appointment hearing, in which Parliament assures itself that the candidate is robustly independent.