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Commons Chamber

Volume 473: debated on Thursday 13 March 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 13 March 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Broads Authority Bill (By Order)

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Thursday 20 March.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 20 March.

Oral Answers to Questions

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Use of Waste

1. What his policy is on the use of waste as part of the landscaping of new developments; and if he will make a statement. (193649)

The Government encourage the reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery of waste wherever possible. As a way of encouraging recovery, suitable waste can be used in landscaping developments under exemptions from waste management licensing, administered by the Environment Agency.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but has she had an opportunity to examine the situation at the Risebridge golf course in my constituency, where hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste have been dumped under the guise of landfill, to the great benefit of the company running the golf course? Will she come to see the destruction that that is causing to the local environment, and take immediate action to prevent this scam from happening elsewhere in the country? Basildon is another example of where it is now happening. Will the Government take immediate action to resolve that devastation of the environment?

I have indeed taken the trouble to examine the case that the hon. Gentleman raises, as well as that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) in respect of the Basildon golf course. The Environment Agency has permitted the use of the material on the site, but having heard the hon. Gentleman’s case, I have drawn the issue further to the attention of the agency. It tells me that it visited on 28 February, and will visit again on 20 March. Because of the concerns that he and other Members have raised, a review of exemptions from permitting will take place. A consultation will be carried out this summer, and the revised exemptions could be introduced at the earliest in October next year. That will be done, and we are concerned. Where waste can be used in low-risk operations, that should be done for recovery. Where there are possible scams, however, permitting will be needed. That will be the subject of the consultation.

Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the biggest new developments in the history of our country is the Olympic site? A great opportunity exists to reuse waste for other purposes on that site. Will she talk to the Olympic Delivery Authority, because the word is out that sustainable contracts, using waste transferred by water and rail, are being excluded on the basis of cost, and it is just going for the cheapest option? Will she talk to her colleagues urgently?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know takes a great interest in the subject of waste. As I indicated, the Government’s policy is that we should make use of waste, but only in sustainable ways; that is the crux of the matter. We will introduce new regulations in respect of construction sites, and it is important that waste from construction sites be dealt with better than it has been in the past, when many problems occurred. I undertake to talk to my colleagues, and to try to ensure as much recovery and reuse of waste as possible. Waste can be a resource, provided that it is dealt with sustainably.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will answer this question together with question 7. UK greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 16.4 per cent. since 1990. We remain on course to nearly double our Kyoto protocol target over the 2008-12 period. The 2006 UK climate change programme and the 2007 energy White Paper set out the policies and measures for reducing emissions and support the UK’s transition to a low-carbon economy. The Climate Change Bill, the first of its kind in any country, introduces legally binding carbon budgets to ensure that progress will continue.

Order. We ought to do things properly. Has the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) been informed of the grouping of the questions? If not, it would be unfair to him to deal with question 7 now, given that he may come into the Chamber later.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s answer, and the Chancellor’s reaffirmation yesterday that the Committee on Climate Change will consider increasing the target for greenhouse gas reduction from 60 per cent. to 80 per cent., but will my hon. Friend look again at the position of aircraft and shipping? Given that they now account for some 10 per cent. of greenhouse gas emissions, they need to be covered by a proper scheme. I know that there is a proposal to include aircraft in the European Union emissions trading scheme, but shipping must be brought into a framework of strict controls if we are to ensure that it too plays its role in reducing carbon emissions.

Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Speaker.

I, too, welcomed the measures announced in yesterday’s Budget statement. As my hon. Friend knows, as a result of the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the European Environment Council, aviation is to be included in the emissions trading scheme. That is an important development. As for shipping, we are hopeful that the International Maritime Organisation will achieve its inclusion, but if not we shall have to act, as the United Kingdom Government.

I am sure that the Minister applauds the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday that he would impose higher taxes on gas-guzzling cars that are big polluters. But what consideration has his Department given to the fact that one of the categories involved covers people-carriers, which tend to be used by larger families? If such families were discouraged from owning people-carriers, they might well use two cars instead.

The hon. Lady has obviously been thinking about this overnight. She makes an important point, which is blindingly obvious. It is true that people wish to contribute to the reduction in emissions, and getting the bandings right in the way proposed by the Chancellor is an important part of that. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the goal of 100 g per km travelled for efficient engines, bearing in mind that the United Kingdom is among the largest manufacturers of engines in the world.

I am sure my hon. Friend accepts that reducing greenhouse gases requires a massive investment in renewable energy, but a recent European Union table shows that Britain is the third worst country in the EU for producing renewable energy. Germany has 360 times more installed solar capacity and 10 times more wind capacity, and it has achieved that by intervening in the energy markets rather than leaving things to market forces. When will my hon. Friend take investment in renewable energy seriously?

My hon. Friend’s statistics are accurate. That is why a huge amount of attention is being given to ensuring that the United Kingdom can make its contribution. As my hon. Friend will know, a number of major projects and policy changes are in place. I remind him that yesterday’s Budget statement confirmed the intention to examine the issue of feed-in tariffs for microgeneration.

It is not unreasonable to expect the economies of countries such as China and India to grow by about 3 per cent. over the next decade. Those countries are increasingly using coal-fired power stations: in China, a new one seems to come into play practically every week. It is also not unreasonable for developing countries to want to catch up with developed countries. In setting our targets, what account are we taking of that, and of the fact that such countries are likely to produce considerably more carbon emissions over the coming decades?

The hon. Gentleman has asked an important question, which will be discussed at the informal G8 meeting in Japan at the weekend. The United Kingdom Government lead the world in policy on carbon capture and clean coal energy, and also in putting our money where our mouth is.

The hon. Gentleman also asked how we can balance the growth in countries such as China and India—which is, of course, perfectly proper and welcome—with the transformation that will lead to a clean energy world. That is at the heart of the discussions and negotiations that are taking place as part of the Bali process, to which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the United Kingdom is contributing positively.

My hon. Friend will realise that one way to reduce greenhouse gases is to reduce the demand. While I welcome the Chancellor’s moves on, and the projects for, home insulation, is it not time that we seriously recognised the role that energy suppliers play before they couple up to a type of accommodation? The type of construction of accommodation is what causes loss of heat, not the occupant of that accommodation. Is it not time that we approached this matter from that position, rather than have the current system under which people have to be over 70 years of age, disabled or have a serious need before they get free home insulation?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. He is right that in all these strategies energy efficiency is the biggest win, and is what saves the consumer money. Warm Front is not the only scheme available; the CERT—carbon emissions reduction target—scheme is a £1.5 billion strategy that places an obligation on the energy companies in respect of people across the country who are not dependent on benefits, so that addresses my hon. Friend’s point. I might add that we in DEFRA were punching the air with delight at the announcement in yesterday’s Budget on the zero-carbon commitment for non-domestic buildings, and particularly public sector buildings.

On Tuesday night at the Chemistry Club I listened to the Secretary of State speak with genuine passion about the enormity of the climate change threat and the need for urgent action. Yet yesterday we heard the Chancellor deliver the most unambitious and piecemeal of responses to the global warming crisis in his “bad news” Budget. It is becoming clearer by the day that the current DEFRA team is being completely sidelined by the new Prime Minister. Can the Minister think of any other reason why his party colleague, a former Home Secretary, told The Guardian last week that the Prime Minister’s efforts on climate change were “absolutely pathetic” and “embarrassing”?

I can think of many reasons why the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) might wish to say things like that, but none of them is related to the fact that this Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Think about it. None of them is related to the fact that this Prime Minister is leading, both domestically and internationally, the change to a low-carbon economy. The various measures announced in the Budget to build on that—one of which I have just mentioned, for zero-carbon non-domestic buildings—will bring about in this country the changes that the hon. Gentleman requests, and which were debated at the Chemistry Club this week.

I congratulate the Government on the policies on climate change in yesterday’s Budget, particularly those on taxation of the most polluting vehicles. The shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), was of course a distinguished member of the Environmental Audit Committee, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend has thought about whether we might need an environmental audit of the climate change policies of each Member of this House. It would be extremely interesting to audit Conservative Members’ preferences in domestic fuel consumption and their choice of vehicle, as we could then see whether they are consistent in their approach to climate change.

I have no tabbed reply for that question; it is a matter for the House. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State points out that the “Act on CO2 carbon footprint calculator is available online. All of us can play our part, and I believe that it is important for Members of this House to set an example to the country, because the public will judge us on what we do, not on what we say.

The Minister will be aware that a third of CO2 emissions come from power generation, and I hope that he shares my concern that a new generation of coal-fired power stations with unremitted carbon emissions would be catastrophic. Can he therefore confirm that DEFRA is banging some heads together in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and telling it not to give the go-ahead to new stations such as Kingsnorth unless and until they can be guaranteed to operate with carbon capture, not just the promise of that in some distant future?

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks—DEFRA and DBERR work in tandem on these issues. The proposals for the new power station have yet to be decided; planning consent locally has been given. The importance of carbon capture and clean coal energy, domestically and internationally, cannot be overstated; it is about 50 per cent. of the issue. We wish to be in a position where our companies and our technology can help the world to provide for carbon capture of coal. Of course, it would be unwise of me to comment on the particular site, but we do want to move to more efficiency in coal energy. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we cease to produce coal-driven energy, but it is important that the new technologies can be put in place.

Coastal Areas (Public Access)

We have regular meetings with Natural England, and we have done since it reported in February 2007 on ways to improve access to the English coast. The Government propose to publish legislation to improve access to the English coast in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Why does the Minister not get two manifesto pledges for the price of one by including access to the coast in the draft marine Bill, which has been anticipated eagerly by the House for a long time? When is that Bill going to be published?

Setting aside the Minister’s comment about early spring—it seems to me that we are indeed already in early spring—does he not agree with me that using a rather blunt instrument such as legislation to achieve an end that we all want—greater access to the countryside and the coast—might be a rather clumsy way of doing it? The better way would be by negotiation with individual farmers, such as, leading by example, the owners of the Blackwater estate, in Essex, one mile of which is closed to the public at the moment, with signs up stating, “No access”, “Private gardens: go round”—a long way round. The estate is owned, of course, by none other than the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman talks about access to the coast and the countryside. Of course, we brought in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which was not necessarily welcomed at the time by the Opposition, but it certainly has been a great success. We will use legislation to ensure that people have far more access to our wonderful and beautiful coastline. We estimate that some 30 per cent. of the coastline does not have secure access. The hon. Gentleman talks about a voluntary arrangement. There is a wonderful path round the south-west that he will know, which brings in millions of pounds to the local economy and is enjoyed by thousands of people each year. However, it took 40 years of voluntary arrangements to bring that into position. We think that, using the legislation, we can ensure that things happen a bit more quickly.

There is of course still the unresolved issue of small boat access to inland waterways, which the Minister is rightly approaching on a voluntary, rather than statutory, basis. However, that too has been going on for some years. Can he give us a progress report?

We want to bring these measures forward, and as I said, we will publish the marine Bill and the coastal access Bill in tandem in early spring of this year. We will ensure that there is access to as much of our country as possible. We know that people enjoy walking in the countryside, and it is absolutely essential that they be able to roam where they want to—within, obviously, certain constraints. I will write to the hon. Gentleman on the point that he raises.

Bottled Water

4. What assessment he has made of the environmental effects of the bottled water industry; and if he will make a statement. (193654)

Evidence suggests that drinking tap water uses around 300 times less energy than drinking bottled water. The Government have therefore decided to phase out the use of bottled water for meetings throughout the Government estate. Of course, it is not for Government to dictate what people should drink; that is a matter of choice for consumers.

I share my hon. Friend’s aspirations, but may I draw his attention to the recent “Panorama” programme on bottled water—[Hon. Members: “He was in it!”]—and, indeed, to his own comments in it, which I hope were directed more towards imported product than UK-produced product? However, they have had an unwanted impact on companies such as Highland Spring, in my constituency. Will he respond positively to my written request that he visit Highland Spring, and should not the real issue be the environmental footprint of the product, not the product itself?

I thank my hon. Friend for the representations he makes on behalf of his constituency. I can confirm that in addition to his correspondence, I have received a letter from the company concerned, and I shall do my best to respond positively to his request. The policy point he makes is, of course, correct—it is the carbon footprint that counts—and as we move towards the low-carbon world, we shall have to take such decisions on a range of products.

Does the Minister recall that at the time of water privatisation many parts of the green lobby jumped on the bandwagon of opposition on the grounds that drinking water was often unsafe to drink, and, as a result, many people bought foreign bottled water, which had to be brought over here at great expense and cost to the environment before the bottles were subsequently thrown away? Will he be careful about listening to the blandishments of the environmental lobby on this and many other issues, because they are often self-serving and short-term?

The right hon. Gentleman obviously speaks from experience, and I recall that period well. There are always unintended consequences of policy decisions. I can assure him that in making my comments I was not driven by a policy of pandering to any particular point of view. We made a policy decision for environmental reasons and for cost reasons, on behalf of the taxpayer; given his experience, I know that he would support that motive too.

Flooding

5. What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations in Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report on flooding. (193655)

6. What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations in Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report on flooding. (193656)

Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report contained 15 urgent recommendations for the Government, their agencies and others to take action. We accepted those recommendations and are implementing them. Sir Michael will report on progress in April and his final report will be published in the summer.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s response. The Government are planning to build 52,000 new homes in north Northamptonshire over the next few years, many of which will be on or close to floodplains. Is he a little concerned that the obsession with new housing is outweighing the Government’s duty to protect people from flooding?

With respect, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that I do not think that there is an obsession with new housing: there is a need for new housing, and that is why the Government are acting. He raises an important question: given that about 10 per cent. of England is located in areas of flood risk, how do we guard against that risk as the new homes are built? That is why we tightened the guidance, not once but twice, most recently in the form of planning policy statement 25. As he will know, the Environment Agency, which is the expert on flooding, now has to be consulted on the matter. I can tell the House that the number of applications for building on floodplains agreed by local authorities contrary to the Environment Agency’s advice has fallen significantly in recent years, precisely because of the way in which we have tightened the guidance.

This is not just about the floodplain itself; it is also about the areas around it. Sir Michael’s report states:

“the greater intensity of rainfall and increasing urbanisation are leading to more flash floods caused by water running off the surface of the land.”

I still do not understand how the Secretary of State can reconcile those comments with his responsibilities for flooding and these centrally imposed house-building targets, particularly in areas such as my constituency. Such areas are very constrained geographically and are significantly affected by flooding, so the effects are not felt only on the floodplains.

I recognise the issue that the hon. Lady raises. I know that there was some flooding in her constituency in January, and I am advised that it resulted from a combination of surface water and river. I gave the answer to her point in answer to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). This is about the guidance. The first issue is whether we can adequately defend an area. The second point to make is that it depends on how that is done.

One of the very practical changes that we made when we published the water strategy recently was to withdraw the present ability of house owners to pave over front gardens with impermeable paving without planning permission. In future, if people want to concrete over their gardens in a way that does not allow the water to soak away, they will have to seek planning permission, but if they use permeable paving they can decide for themselves.

Surface water flooding is a real problem, as the events of last summer brought home to all of us, not least in Hull and elsewhere. We have to bring together all the bodies that have responsibility for surface water flooding, and we are consulting on giving the Environment Agency an overview. Local authorities also have an important part to play. We need to think about how we develop in future so that we can build the homes that are needed and deal with the problem to which the hon. Lady draws attention.

Sir Michael Pitt’s report described the diverse group of organisations with overlapping responsibilities for flooding activities, such as local authorities, water companies, drainage boards and so on, and recommended that the Environment Agency be given the lead responsibility for all water management activity. Does the Secretary of State accept that recommendation? Will it require legislation to put it into effect and, if so, how quickly can that be done?

We are indeed consulting on that precise point. Depending on what arrangements we subsequently seek to put in place, legislation might be required, but—as I said in answer to the earlier question—we will in the end need to ensure that all the bodies with responsibility work together more effectively. Some of the functions may be given to local authorities, for example, because those tasks can best be undertaken by them. However, that will be within an overall framework in which someone will have responsibility for bringing together all the things that need to be done so that we can deal with the problem.

In a press release dated 4 February, the Department announced that it had put aside £34.5 million that it said might be needed to implement Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations. When the Select Committee probed the Minister for the Environment on whether the Department had done a back-of-the-envelope costing on the total cost of the 72 recommendations, he looked a little uncomfortable. A month has passed since we asked that question: has the Department now costed those 72 proposals? Will more than £34 million be available should it be needed to implement Sir Michael’s recommendations fully?

My hon. Friend has never looked uncomfortable, so I find that hard to believe. This is a question of prudent planning. The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that we do not yet know what Sir Michael’s final recommendations will be. It would not be sensible to allocate all the increased money that we are putting into dealing with flooding and not leave anything to one side to respond to what Sir Michael has to say. We have made a judgment and announced the sum. We will consider what he has to say, and decide how we can use it most effectively.

The Secretary of State still has some outstanding issues to deal with from the Pitt review, including who is responsible for drains, and what constitutes a drain. Can he clarify whether the £34.5 million is additional to the £800 million, and whether it will be spent on physical defences? How much of the money will be top-sliced by DEFRA before it reaches agencies such as the Environment Agency?

The sum of money is part of the increase that we are making available. We have put it on one side for the reasons that I set out in answering the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who chairs the Select Committee, and we will apply it when we have seen Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations. Because we have put more money in through the comprehensive spending review, the Environment Agency has been allocated sums from that increased amount, which will allow it to get on with building more flood defences over the next three years.

The Select Committee is conducting an inquiry into flooding, as the Secretary of State is aware. We have taken evidence from people such as Sir Michael Pitt. In his interim report, he referred particularly to the effects of surface water flooding, which were seen at their worst in Sheffield and parts of south Yorkshire last year. Does the Secretary of State agree with the recommendation that local authorities ought to have direct responsibility for tackling that, perhaps under the overall supervision of the Environment Agency? I have considerable reservations about the recommendation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) that the Environment Agency should be the overall supremo responsible, because I do not think that it will be able to tackle the problem in that way.

It is for precisely the reason set out by my hon. Friend that we are consulting on the best way to ensure that an overall look is taken at the question of surface water flooding and to work out what the exact allocation of responsibility ought to be. I have already made it clear in answer to an earlier question that I think that local authorities have an important role to play. In the end, we have to come up with a mechanism to ensure that there is co-ordination and an overview, so that there is one plan that everyone will work on implementing together.

Bluetongue

A number of EU member states have been affected by the current outbreak of bluetongue, but the UK was first to place an order for vaccine. Until the 22.5 million doses of vaccine begin to be delivered, probably in May, we will contain the disease as far as possible through movement controls. Those will be stricter when the vector-free period ends on 15 March.

With my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), I recently met the east Northamptonshire branch of the National Farmers Union at Weekley near Kettering. Its members were extremely concerned about the threat posed by the disease. What are the Secretary of State’s forecasts for the size and spread of the carrier female midge population now that the weather is warming up? Will he guarantee to this House that there will be enough vaccines in place in time to contain the spread of the disease?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, as will all right hon. and hon. Members whose constituents are affected by this terrible disease. It is for precisely that reason that I cannot, in all honesty, give him a forecast of the likely nature of the spread. All we need to do is to look at how bluetongue spread across northern Europe and arrived in the UK last summer. As of 7 March, the disease has been identified and confirmed on 101 premises. Vaccination is the only answer, because by definition we cannot do anything about the vector, and the fact is that we were the first northern European country to place the order for the vaccine and we have worked closely with stakeholders in the industry. I pay tribute to the contribution that they have made, and in particular to the NFU, which will lead a campaign to encourage farmers to take up the vaccine.

The vaccine will become available as soon as it can be produced and shown to be safe and efficacious, and then the supplies will arrive and the farmers can buy them and get on with the vaccination process. That is the way to do it. The fact that we have worked together in partnership thus far and will continue to do so in future is, I think, the best comfort that we can offer farmers about how seriously we are taking the problem, along with the practical steps that we have put in place to help them to beat it.

That is all very well, so far as it goes—I do not for a moment dispute the Secretary of State’s personal commitment—but I met farmers in Staffordshire last week and there is real concern about whether the vaccine will be on stream in sufficient quantities at the right time. The Secretary of State did not give the guarantee for which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) asked, so what can he do to give confidence to our farmers throughout the country who are faced with this dreadful disease?

The guarantee that I cannot give relates to the precise date at which supplies of the vaccine will become available, because that is down to the companies that are researching and manufacturing that vaccine. The House will be well aware of the way in which we have placed our order. I can offer the assurance that we will take all the necessary steps open to us to use our influence to ensure that the vaccine gets out as quickly as possible. That will depend on the science, the production capacity and the speed at which the supplier with which we placed the order can deliver. The ultimate demand, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, will depend on the take-up of the vaccine by farmers. The decision, rightly, will ultimately rest with them if they want to protect their animals.

The comprehensive spending review plans to cut £120 million a year from the animal health budget through cost-sharing for the control of bluetongue and other diseases, yet an answer yesterday from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), suggests the amount might be only a third of that. Given that disease control already costs the farming industry huge sums of money, can the Secretary of State explain how he has arrived at the figure to be obtained through cost-sharing? Does he agree that if farmers are to share the cost of disease control they should be confident that the Government will fulfil their obligations to keep disease out of our country and inside their own laboratories? Otherwise, as Professor Anderson showed on Tuesday, does it not simply look like farmers paying for DEFRA cock-ups?

In relation to bluetongue—the hon. Gentleman is not advancing that argument—we are working in partnership with the farming industry, including sharing responsibility for taking decisions about how we are to beat the disease. The farming industry said, “We want a voluntary approach to vaccination.” We said, “Okay, that’s what we’ll do if that’s what you want.” As for farmers paying for the vaccine, I think that is a fair sharing of the costs in the circumstances.

In relation to the Anderson report, as the hon. Gentleman will be well aware, that release should not have happened and I am determined that it shall not happen again. That is why we have taken steps since then, including changing the regulatory system applying to institutions such as Pirbright and getting on with investment to improve the facilities there, because as he acknowledges it is a world-class facility and we need its expert science to help us to beat the diseases that are in the country at present and those that may arrive in the future.

Given the nature of the bluetongue virus and its method of transmission, the problem will continue to face DEFRA and the livestock industry in years to come. The 22 million vaccine doses that the Government have ordered will not be sufficient for blanket vaccination in the time necessary. Will the Secretary of state take advice and make a risk assessment—an epidemiological assessment—to ensure that the vaccines are used in the places where they will best prevent the spread of the disease rather than on a first come, first served basis?

I certainly will. I have been taking advice on precisely that subject. The core group working on the issue is overseeing the strategy for getting the vaccination programme going. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question; it clearly makes sense to start the programme in the places where it should start first and then roll it out through the rest of the country, which is what we shall do.

Nitrate Vulnerable Zones

9. What recent estimate he has made of the costs to farmers arising from the nitrate vulnerable zones regime in England. (193659)

If nitrate vulnerable zones were extended to cover 70 per cent. of England, the expected costs to industry could be up to £105 million per annum. However, actual costs could be lower depending on how the proposals are implemented.

Does the Minister accept that 5,000 dairy farms may need to improve their slurry storage to comply with the NVZ action plan that DEFRA has proposed? What consideration is he giving to making the proposals much fairer by being more sensitive to individual farm circumstances and helping farmers comply through giving them a more realistic timetable to meet the regulations, easing planning restrictions and perhaps even providing some limited financial assistance?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is lots and lots and lots. The proposals in the action plan are for consultation. We have received a large amount of correspondence from Members on both sides of the House and there has been a Select Committee inquiry. We are looking at the proposals to consider how we can both fulfil our obligation under the nitrates directive and ensure that we move forward positively, given the representations that have been made.

Weather conditions over the past week or so have shown how difficult it is to limit slurry spreading to a short period of the year. Can the Minister tell me whether he has got anywhere in his discussions with the European Union about a derogation for UK dairy farmers? That crucial question will ease the plight of many farmers in my constituency.

I would not want to give false hope—that would be irresponsible—but we are working very hard. On the second point that the hon. Gentleman makes, it is too early to say yet. On the first point, he is right: of course, changing weather patterns that are coming about perhaps as a result of climate change—this is a 1991 directive—may change the way in which we have to do things.

Carrier Bags

As announced in the Budget, the Government will introduce legislation under the Climate Change Bill to enable us to require certain retailers to charge for single-use carrier bags if sufficient progress is not made voluntarily.

I am sure that we all welcome the Chancellor’s announcement. Clearly, he had seen my question on the Order Paper and wanted to ensure that my hon. Friend had a positive answer to give. Given that this is a useful, although small, step along the road, would it be possible to announce the date of the death of the single-use carrier bag and perhaps run a competition to find the best ecological alternative?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interesting suggestions. We have had a voluntary agreement in place with 22 major retailers and six trade associations for the past year to bring about a 25 per cent. reduction in the environmental impact of plastic bags. We have found that only a 7.79 per cent. reduction has occurred in the total number of plastic bags. That is clearly not good enough. So that is why we intend to legislate if we do not make sufficient progress. We will not legislate until such time as we have given the opportunity for that agreement to run its course, but we are very determined to see the end of the single-use free bag at the point of shopping.

Does the Minister not understand that the Chancellor’s proposals would be much more welcome if the tax raised was ploughed back into environmental charities? Otherwise, it will just look like another stealth tax.

I need to tell the right hon. Gentleman that, of course, this is not a tax; this is a charge—[Interruption]that retailers would be obliged to make. It is very important that he understand that point; it is really important. However, the point that he has spotted is that, of course, that could lead to a serious increase in revenue for those who make the charges. We have had discussions with them. A very good example has been set already: Marks and Spencer, where the money raised is going to environmental causes. That will be what we insist upon.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s responsibility is to help to enable us all to live within our environmental means. The measures announced in the Budget yesterday will contribute to doing just that. The changes to vehicle excise duty to encourage the purchase of lower emission vehicles, the decision to make all new non-domestic buildings zero-carbon from 2019, the increase in aviation taxation and the auctioning of 100 per cent. of allowances for large electricity producers all demonstrate the Government’s determination to act. By this time next year, the UK will become the first country in the world to start operating a national carbon budget.

Is the Secretary of State not aware that, by this time next year, there will be no pig farmers left in this country, because the pig sector is in crisis? It is wretched news for arable and rural Britain. It is very bad news for Norfolk, where many pig units are folding every day. They do not want subsidies; they want fairness in Europe. Is he aware that 70 per cent. of imported pigmeat is produced in conditions that would be illegal in this country? What can he do to ensure that consumers in this country are properly informed?

I take very much the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. The pig sector is having a very difficult time because of the rise in feed prices. I support the campaign that the industry is running to encourage consumers—in the end, consumers are the solution to the problem—to be aware of the problems that face the pig industry in Britain, to choose to buy bacon and pork from Britain, and to have the information that enables them to exercise that choice. That is where the solution lies to the problems that his constituents face, and I am sure that the whole House would want to support them in their endeavours.

T4. The Minister will be aware of the success of feed-in tariffs in several European countries. Given that we need massive expansion of renewable energy, does he not think that it is a path that we should go down? (193643)

I thank my hon. Friend for that very topical question. I mentioned earlier that, as the Chancellor announced in the Budget, and as was confirmed by my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, we will be examining feed-in tariffs as part of the suite of policies available to us to increase significantly renewable energy in this country. That is what we want to do, and what we will have to do.

T3. On the day before the Queen opens the fifth terminal at Heathrow, are DEFRA Ministers having any discussions with Transport Ministers, the Chancellor and his colleagues, or any London mayoral candidate, about whether Heathrow needs a new runway? The proposal appears to be opposed by all parties, and by everybody in the areas affected, yet everything that we hear about green policy, green transport, and sustainable development seems not to have any effect when passed to other Departments that have the lead responsibility for the issue. (193642)

Of course we have discussions with colleagues all the time. The single most important step that has been taken to deal with the contribution that aviation makes to global warming was the decision of the European Union Environment Council in December to include aviation in the EU emissions trading scheme, for which the UK Government have pressed long and strong and hard. That means that, subject to what the European Parliament finally agrees—it is a co-decision matter—aviation emissions in Europe will be capped at the 2004 to 2006 level, so any subsequent growth, whatever the reason for it, will have to result in reduced emissions elsewhere, paid for by the aviation sector. As it is an international industry, the question is whether we apply a cap. That is what Europe is about to do. Any further growth will mean that emissions will have to be saved elsewhere. The world that we are entering will involve us—

Order. I have to say to the Secretary of State that I need a bit of speed in topical questions.

We know from the Anderson report on last year’s foot and mouth outbreak, which cost rural businesses and the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds, that the outbreak was avoidable. The Secretary of State said today that it should never have happened. We still do not know who is to take responsibility for it, but what does the Secretary of State make of Dr. Iain Anderson’s observation that

“The response was not scaleable had there been multiple outbreaks”?

Could he put that into layman’s terms?

Dr. Anderson was saying that if there were a very large-scale outbreak, the huge amount of resources that we put into fighting the disease would have been more difficult to apply right across the country. The fact is that the disease did not break out all across the country. Why? It was because we acted swiftly and put a lot of resources in. In his report, Dr. Anderson recognises the real progress that was made compared with the 2001 outbreak.

I think what Dr. Anderson really meant is that the Government got away with a total disaster by the skin of their teeth. Will the Secretary of State please comment on another of Dr. Anderson’s remarks? He talked about the

“wrangling over departmental leadership that”

has

“bedevilled progress in this area”.

Has Dr. Anderson not hit on something rather important? Is not departmental wrangling the hallmark of the Department? There is wrangling over flood risk management, aviation expansion, nuclear power, waste policy, and energy policy. Does not the Secretary of State spend his life wrangling with other Departments? We support his wrangles. We like it when DEFRA is wrangling for the environment, and we wish we had joined-up government, but we would rather that he won one or two of his wrangles.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s care and concern for me in my job, but I do not accept that the handling of the foot and mouth outbreak was characterised by wrangling. Indeed, it was close co-operation between a lot of people, including the devolved Administrations and the farming industry, that meant that in the end the outbreak was contained in a small part of southern Britain. When Dr. Anderson summed up what he had found, he said that there was much to applaud, and that the positives outweighed the negatives by quite a margin. That is a judgment that I am happy to accept.

T6. The Committee on Climate Change had its first meeting this week. It has been asked to examine whether the Climate Change Bill should require an 80 per cent., rather than a 60 per cent., reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. I would not like the Bill to become law with the 60 per cent. figure in it, so how quickly will the committee’s recommendations be made? (193645)

The Committee on Climate Change will make its recommendation at the beginning of December. It will consider that issue and whether all greenhouse gases should be included in the target alongside CO2, and it will advise on the first five-year carbon budget. The Committee on Climate Change is an important, authoritative, independent body. We should let it do its work and give us its guidance, and the Government can take the decision.

T5. What discussions has DEFRA had with the newsprint industry on the environmental cost of the Sunday newspapers, many of which come wrapped in a single-use plastic bag, are heavy to transport, and sometimes have an environmental supplement? (193644)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the observations that he makes. All of us are conscious that the newsprint industry has increased the amount of reading matter that we are offered and the many layers of packaging around it. I have had discussions with the industry and my officials constantly have discussions with the industry. We are looking all the time for ways in which we can reduce the amount of packaging provided, lightweight the packaging and, where appropriate, make it subject to recycling or composting. The industry has dramatically increased the amount of material that is recycled and the recycled content of new products.

T8. We are bombarded daily by images of Buttercup feeding peacefully among the daisies, but in reality, zero-grazed cows permanently confined in the cow version of battery hen production represent 10 per cent. of the national dairy herd. What plans does the Minister have to tackle the welfare and health problems encountered by these stressed, overworked battery cattle, which have high levels of lameness, mastitis, infertility and acidosis? (193647)

We need to receive reports. We have one of the highest animal welfare levels anywhere in the world, and we are rightly proud of that, whether it is in intensive or organic farming. I know that there have been reports and that concerns have been expressed by some non-governmental organisations, but those reports have yet to reach the Department. If my hon. Friend has such reports and will let me have them, I will pass them on to our animal health agencies. A key aspect is stockmanship. There are rules and regulations on that, which were passed by the House by consensus. If my hon. Friend has information, he should pass it to us and we will examine it.

T7. The Minister will be aware of the continuing widespread public concern about whaling. I acknowledge the efforts that the Government have made in the International Whaling Commission, particularly in the context of Japanese attempts to resume full-scale commercial whaling, but given the whiff of compromise surrounding future meetings of the IWC, does the Minister believe that he will be able to maintain a coalition of support to continue to constrain and ultimately stop commercial whaling? (193646)

I am grateful for that question. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that I asked the Japanese deputy ambassador to come and see me, and I told him exactly what the British public thought. I am sure I represented all Members in the House. We condemn Japanese so-called scientific whaling. Earlier this week I was in Denmark talking to colleagues there and trying to persuade them to stop supporting Japan. Their support is a surprise to us. The views of Denmark and Britain have so much in common, but on this issue they part company. One of the reasons may be that the Faroes and Greenland have aboriginal rights, which we accept, and they have their quota. We will continue to keep up the pressure to ensure that at the IWC we have a majority. That has been welcomed by charities such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which I met in Copenhagen earlier this week.

T9. More than 80 per cent. of the cost of Warm Front quotes in my constituency are labour costs. Often workers come in from large distances, requiring contributions from my constituents. Will the Minister consider piloting a scheme whereby some of the work is offered in smaller batches to local contractors? (193648)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his representations on behalf of his constituents on that important issue. I have taken up his points with the company, and we are willing to look at his suggestions. We have announced that we will look at the cap to see whether what he suggests is required and if so, whether it is at the right level. Ensuring that local suppliers are accessible for the scheme is an important objective.

We heard the Secretary of State say that he believes in cost-sharing. We also heard him say that he has ordered the bluetongue vaccine. Can he tell my constituents how much they should budget for this vaccine, per cow and per sheep?

Ultimately, it depends on the size of the bottle that farmers purchase. We are working on an assumption of between 60p to £1 a dose. Those are the figures that we published. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman with absolute certainty because it depends on when the vaccine becomes available, the quantities and so on, but that is roughly the sort of price on the basis of which farmers can plan in order to protect their animals.

Farmers in Northern Ireland, along with pig farmers in other parts of the United Kingdom, have been badly affected by the increase in world grain prices. One of the influencing factors has been the increase in demand for grain because of the demand for biofuels. The Government’s own chief scientist indicated that the Government’s target of biofuels forming 5 per cent. of fuel used by 2010 needs to be reconsidered. Given the effect on food prices, farming and, ironically, deforestation, have the Government any plans to look again at that ill-advised target?

I recently met representatives of the farming industry in Northern Ireland, and we discussed a wide range of topics. One thing that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I have done is set up a review to look at the precise issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. There is a growing awareness that if we go for the wrong biofuels, there will be all sorts of consequences. It could be even worse for the planet than the fuel we are trying to replace, and it will lead to the other consequences to which the hon. Gentleman refers. That is why we have set up the review. We will look at the results, and we are also pressing in Europe for good sustainability standards so that we can take the right decisions on biofuels in future.

Is there any prospect of the Minister meeting Lymington river users, who are deeply concerned about the decision to have only an appropriate assessment, rather than a full environmental assessment, of Wightlink’s plans for new ferries?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the appropriate assessment is what is required in this case. There is no requirement for an full environmental impact assessment because of the size and type of the project. The Department has had a request for officials to attend a meeting, which is being carefully considered. There has been a public consultation, and we have to be concerned about the fact that all of the public have been invited to respond. I understand that the meeting is of a small group. We have to bear in mind that consideration, and my officials will attend to that. I have been in discussion with the group recently as a result of the hon. Gentleman’s representations.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 17 March will be:

Monday 17 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

Tuesday 18 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

Wednesday 19 March—Opposition Day [7th allotted day]. There will be a debate on the Post Office on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 20 March—A debate on the UK and the Commonwealth.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Tuesday 25 March—Opposition Day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by a motion to approve the Local Government Finance Special Grant Report (No. 129) (House of Commons Paper No. 256).

Wednesday 26 March—Second Reading of the Local Transport Bill [Lords].

Thursday 27 March—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by motions relating to House business.

Friday 28 March—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition referred to the Government’s plan to whip parts of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill through The Leader of the House said on 6 March that she wanted the Bill

“to be fully debated in the House.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 1929.]

Given the interest in the measure, when will she make a statement on how it will be handled?

Yesterday, the Chancellor delivered the Budget. Yet with accident and emergency departments and maternity services under threat and waiting times increasing, there was not a single reference to the national health service. Will the Leader of the House make a statement explaining why no Health Minister is leading any of the debates on the Budget, and why the Chancellor forgot to mention the NHS?

On Tuesday, it was announced that officials of the Crown Prosecution Service in Leeds had made up the results of court cases involving 12 defendants and 27 offences. They did not know the real sentences but they had to have something to put into their computer system, so they made it up. We are used to the Government losing data, but manipulating data and making them up has dangerous implications for individual citizens. “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was supposed to be a warning, not a model to be followed. The Justice Secretary has made a written statement, but may we have a debate on the issue?

This week, we found out that nine illegal immigrants were given free train tickets by the police and told to make their own way to a detention centre more than 60 miles away. Amazingly, none turned up. The Government go from the incompetent to the absurd. May we have a debate on their failure to manage deportation?

On Tuesday, the independent Anderson review of last year’s foot and mouth crisis, which was mentioned in Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, concluded that the Government’s Pirbright laboratory responsible for the leak was “shabby”, “dilapidated” and “badly regulated”. Last year’s outbreak resulted in the loss of thousands of animals and financial loss to farmers. Now we know that Government incompetence was the cause. May we have a debate on the Anderson review?

Yesterday’s Budget was supposed to be a green Budget, but perhaps the Chancellor should have told his Cabinet before telling the public what to do. We found out this week that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families used a Government car to chauffeur him 450 yd down the road to a Labour party function. We found out yesterday that he does not seem to care that the public are suffering from the highest tax burden in our history—a case of “Do as I say, not as I do”. Will the Secretary of State come to the House to make a statement on the example that he is setting the nation’s children?

Not only is Tony Blair running for EU president, but Peter Mandelson could stay on as EU Commissioner, so the old team of Blair and Mandelson are back in the saddle, this time running Europe. Tony Blair once said that the Labour party will have truly reformed only when it learns to love Peter Mandelson. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that the British Government support that partnership?

The Government have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous: making up court sentences, telling migrants to deport themselves, and showing disdain for the tax burden that they have inflicted on the public. It is little wonder that people now say that it is time for a change.

The right hon. Lady raised the important matter of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. As she reminded hon. Members, the Leader of the Opposition raised it yesterday with the Prime Minister, who reaffirmed that the Bill is an important Government measure. It offers the prospect of progress in combating devastating diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s, and of improving the treatment for people with life-devastating conditions resulting from spinal injury. As the Prime Minister told the House, the Bill was whipped as Government business in the House of Lords with, of course, free votes on amendments on abortion. The measure arouses strong views among those who are for it as well as those who are against it. We have to respect all those deeply held views and consider how best to ensure that we allow full time for debate in the House. The Bill is a Government Bill, but there are strong feelings in all parts of the House. I will be making announcements on how we will debate the issue in the House, and there will be discussions with all parties.

Shortly. We will ensure that those discussions take place in plenty of time, before the Bill comes to the House, and I can assure the House that there will be plenty of time to discuss it.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) talked about the NHS and said that the Chancellor had failed to mention it in his Budget speech yesterday. Perhaps she was not listening properly, because he said:

“In 10 years, spending on health has almost doubled”.—[Official Report, 12 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 289.]

That is certainly the case. Far from the NHS being forgotten, spending has doubled. Indeed, this was announced—[Interruption.]

So for the future, with a strong economy, a continued ability to invest in public services and a continued priority for public services, which was never shown under the previous Government, we will continue to ensure that our health services improve and that waiting times come down.

I can remember when people had to wait up to 24 hours in A and E at my local hospital, King’s College hospital. I can remember when people on waiting lists for cardiac surgery at Guy’s hospital died. I can remember a consultant surgeon showing me a waiting list for cardiac surgery on his wall, with names and addresses of my constituents, and saying, “One third of them will die before they get to the operating theatre.” That does not happen now, because of our investment, so I will take no lectures from the right hon. Lady about our commitment to the NHS.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned the failures in respect of the outcomes of cases in Leeds magistrates court being notified to the police. This is a very serious matter indeed. The Secretary of State for Justice has made a written ministerial statement and disciplinary action is being considered against those involved. Where there is a case, we must ensure not only that the police investigate it, that the prosecutors bring it to court and that the court secures a conviction against an offender, but that those data are entered into the system so that if the person reoffends, it can be known what they did previously and they can be dealt with and sentenced accordingly. We regard what has happened as a serious matter. It has been a failure and the Secretary of State will bring forward further information after the investigation concludes.

The right hon. Lady mentioned deportation and the Border and Immigration Agency. It is not true that the BIA advised the police to tell illegal immigrants in Cambridgeshire to make their own way to Croydon. With new biometric ID for foreign nationals in this country, which the Conservatives are not in favour of, we will be much more able to keep track of people who are in this country and be sure whether they are legally entitled to be here.

The right hon. Lady talked about foot and mouth, and gave a wrong characterisation of what the report on Pirbright said. Action is under way on that matter and has been taken forward by Ministers.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the British Commissioner to the European Commission. I understand that no decision has been made as yet. When a decision is made, no doubt the House will be notified, but there is no further information that I can give her on that.

Will my right hon. Friend provide time to debate early-day motion 1172, which is in my name?

[That this House deplores the incompetence and lack of concern of Manchester-based Adactus Housing Association which, informed on 15th January by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton of a life-threatening situation affecting a constituent of the right hon. Member, due to the negligence and lassitude of Adactus, and which led to that constituent having to leave his home for his safety, after two months and nine letters from the right hon. Member has still failed to solve the problem and at one time even offered that constituent £25-worth of B&Q vouchers as full compensation for his intolerable predicament; and calls on the Housing Corporation not only to intervene urgently to bring an immediate end to this totally unacceptable situation but to conduct an inquiry into publicly-funded Adactus and its publicly-funded staff.]

It draws attention to the failure of Adactus housing association in Manchester, for two months, to solve a life-threatening situation affecting constituents of mine, for which it is entirely responsible and for which the only solution it has so far offered is £25 of B&Q vouchers. Will my right hon. Friend not only provide time for debate but ask the Minister for Housing to investigate the matter urgently?

I shall do exactly what my right hon. Friend asks. I shall refer the matter to the Minister for Housing and ask her to look into it urgently. Adactus is a registered social landlord in receipt of public money, and its obligations are not only to its own tenants but to those in private housing nearby. If such people are affected badly by what has happened, Adactus should take responsibility.

I thank the Leader of the House for the announcement that there will be a debate next week on the UK and the Commonwealth. I hope that it will become an annual event. I am still waiting, however, for her to tell us when the debate that we have asked for on the new immigration rules will take place. May we debate the nonsensical procedure whereby the Government lay new rules as secondary legislation, with a start date only weeks away, which means that there is no opportunity to debate them before they come into operation? The pretence of parliamentary scrutiny is maintained, but in reality we have absolutely zero chance of influencing the Executive. Even if we vote against the secondary legislation, we do so retrospectively. That would clearly be nonsense even in “Alice in Wonderland”, let alone in the British House of Commons.

May we have a debate on the code of admissions for secondary schools in England? The Leader of the House will know that just over 50 per cent. of people in London are getting the school of their first preference. That is the case in her borough and mine. One in 10 families do not get any of the schools that they list as preferences. Is it not about time to review the old Greenwich formula and the rules in London, and to examine the problem that has now arisen of people buying their way into secondary schools? That is clearly unacceptable, and I hope that the Government will want to close that loophole as soon as possible.

May we have a debate on Lord Goldsmith’s citizenship review, which was published the other day? It refers to changing the law on treason, and from the general response it sounded as though Lord Goldsmith was likely to be the last candidate for hanging, drawing and quartering. However, there are serious proposals in the review, as there are in the Government’s Home Office paper on citizenship. There are also serious concerns. For example, Commonwealth and Irish citizens who have been here for decades could lose rights, such as the right to vote, in the country that has become their home. May we have a full debate in Government time on that important matter? We have not had a proper debate on it for a long time.

Finally, later this year there will be the usual G8 meeting, which this time will be in Japan. I gather that Development Ministers will soon have a pre-meeting about how we are doing in meeting our millennium development goals, not least on combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, for which the figures are getting dramatically worse, not dramatically better. May we have an early debate on that matter, so that the Government can be clear about Parliament’s opinion before Ministers go off and negotiate with their G8 colleagues?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the long-standing process by which the House deals with orders that are subject to a negative resolution. He said that the debate, and any action, comes retrospectively. That has always been the case, but I will look at him—no, not at him, but at it. I see quite a lot of him already, as he is my constituency neighbour. I shall examine the matter, consider whether a change is needed and consult hon. Members.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the citizenship review, and I would like to thank Lord Goldsmith for his comprehensive and thought-provoking report. I especially welcome his focus on volunteering as part of people’s common bond and commitment to society. There are many sensible proposals there, which we will need to consider, discuss and take forward.

As I understand it, there is no suggestion that those who currently have the right to vote should lose that right. Indeed, our preoccupation is to ensure that all who are entitled to vote should be registered to vote, which many are not, and that those who are registered but do not vote should be encouraged to do so. It is the other way round from what the hon. Gentleman suggests.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the G8 meeting in Japan and the millennium development goals. I would ask him and the House to accept that, under this Government, our Ministers have led the way in making international development and tackling poverty in Africa an issue for all the wealthier countries of the world and have really put it at the centre of the international agenda. The prevention of HIV/AIDS and malaria are other issues that they have highlighted. We not only set up the Department for International Development, which did not exist before we came into government, but we doubled the aid budget and put the issue on the international agenda, as I said. We had International Development questions and related topical questions yesterday, and there are Westminster Hall debates next week in which the hon. Gentleman may wish to discuss these issues further.

On school choice, it is important that all schools are good schools and that if preferences are being expressed, they should be expressed against that background. We have cut by half the number of failing schools, and an additional £200 million was announced yesterday to improve schools that should be doing better. We need a fair system of admissions. The current code recently put into effect must be complied with and the Secretary of State is on to it.

My right hon. and learned Friend is doing very well indeed—[Interruption.] And I do not want to replace my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) as her Parliamentary Private Secretary!

Recognising the need to ensure public confidence in the way in which MPs can claim expenses, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the first report, which recommended reducing from £250 to £25 the sum for which receipts are necessary, is a welcome step in the right direction? Hopefully, further recommendations will restore public trust in the manner in which we carry out our work and claim public money.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I think we all recognise that the announcements from Mr. Speaker are necessary to maintain public confidence, but that it is also important for MPs to be able to manage their offices in a sensible and proper way. As my hon. Friend said, further announcements will be made after the root and branch review, which is being led by Mr. Speaker and will be brought back before the House for discussion and decision in July.

Last week, the Leader of the House dismissed calls from many right hon. and hon. Members for a debate on the cuts in maternity services. May I reiterate that call, and at the same time ask for a debate on the cuts to acute general hospitals, such as the excellent Hemel Hempstead hospital, which is a modern acute general hospital where all acute services will close in October this year?

I think the hon. Gentleman is painting a completely misleading picture. I think we recognise that the way we provide services for—

I think that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) has given the House a completely wrong impression about health spending, including in his own constituency. Since 1997, the number of people waiting more than 26 weeks for in-patient treatment in NHS East of England has fallen from 31,000 down to 394. The hon. Gentleman may not be able to remember, because he was not a Member then, but there were real problems in the health service when his party was in government. Of course there has to be discussion at local level about the configuration of services, but we need to take into account the fact that a reconfiguration of services is taking place against a background of increasing investment and improving outcomes. It is fair enough for the hon. Gentleman to champion the views of his constituents, but let us not misrepresent the situation, as he has done. [Interruption.] Oh, sorry, that might have been unparliamentary. I should say, “Let him not give the wrong impression.”

I think we are all probably heartily sick of the press attention being given to our expenses, and particularly of the impression given in much of the media that all this money is for our own personal benefit. We all know it is not, and our staff allowances in particular are absolutely essential if we are to provide the proper service that our constituents look to us to provide. Will my right hon. and learned Friend please give me an update on exactly what is going to happen to our staffing allowances?

Following a decision in the House on 24 January, Mr. Speaker is leading a root and branch review of allowances provided for MPs, staff and offices. I totally agree with my hon. Friend’s point. I think that everyone in the country would agree that legislation must be properly scrutinised and that it is important for the Government to be held to account by the House. That can be done best by MPs who have good staff and properly equipped offices. A strong Parliament is necessary for a strong democracy. Before the House decides the matter in July, I will issue a paper setting out why a strong House of Commons with properly resourced Members of Parliament is necessary for a strong democracy.

I very much welcome the statement that the Leader of the House has just made. Last Thursday in her business statement, the right hon. and learned Lady announced that there would be a topical debate next Thursday. In her statement today, that topical debate has mysteriously disappeared. There is no topical debate today and there was no topical debate last week. When they started, we had one topical debate a week, but we are now down to one a month. Has March really been so uneventful that the Leader of the House cannot think of one single subject to bring to the House for a topical debate?

We wanted to have an extensive debate on international women’s day. We thought that the subject of women was topical on international women’s day, so we rolled up the topical debate with the international women’s day debate. Crowds of Members wanted to contribute to that debate, which was a very good one. That explains last week.

This week, we have had the Budget, and many hon. Members thought that it was topical and did not want to cut into that debate by having another topical debate. We have deemed the Budget to be topical this week, which is why there is no topical debate today. As for next week, we have had a number of representations—not least from the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), among others—to have a debate on the Commonwealth. Next Thursday provides an opportunity for a debate on the UK and the Commonwealth, so we have deemed that to be the topical subject for next week.

We are going to review the matter of topical debates. We have no axe to grind; this is Government time, and we want to allot Government time to enable the House to debate what is topical. As I say, we are reviewing the matter, and if anyone wants to make representations, will they please do so?

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), I should add that a letter is being sent by the finance and administration department, reminding Members that the resolution passed on 24 January—that we should accept the Senior Salaries Review Body report, recommending a move from 3 to 3.5 staff—will be implemented and will come into force by 1 April.

My right hon. and learned Friend may recall that we used to have an annual debate on the Floor of the House about the budget for the Metropolitan police. Given the national importance of the Metropolitan police, will she consider arranging an urgent debate on the Floor of the House, particularly in the light of the threats made to its budget by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) in the mayoral election campaign? Perhaps he will actually turn up for that debate in relation to London.

I accept my hon. Friend’s suggestion that we should have a topical debate on policing in London. Those of us who are London Members have campaigned long and hard to improve policing in London and the provision of police community support officers. Does he remember the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who represents a constituency in Oxfordshire, joining the campaigns for more police and police community support officers in London? He was nowhere to be seen. Lately, he has joined in—and his contribution to the debate is to say that there is “too much spending”. My hon. Friend’s suggestion may well be topical, and I will add it to the list.

May we have a debate, finally, on Heathrow expansion? According to reports in the Sunday newspapers, the Environment Agency says that the expansion could lead to increased morbidity and mortality rates around the airport. Papers that I have obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show possible collusion between BAA and the Department for Transport. Is it not time that the Secretary of State for Transport had the guts to come to the Chamber and debate the matter with Members of the House?

The accusations of collusion are utter nonsense. The Government’s position is to support a third runway at Heathrow in principle, provided that strict local environmental and noise conditions are met. If the hon. Lady was at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions half an hour or so ago, she will have heard the issue being raised and the House being reminded that all decisions on adding capacity at Heathrow will be taken independently by BAA.

May we have a debate on transport in London, to allow us to consider the improvements in buses, the modernisation of the tube, the threat to the freedom pass that still comes from some London boroughs, and the threat from the buffoon from Oxfordshire to the improvements made in London’s transport over the past eight years.

I agree with my hon. Friend that one of the reasons why London has taken such strides forward is the improved transport infrastructure—not just buses, but the tube. The hon. Member for Henley, who represents a seat in Oxfordshire, did not turn up to vote on Crossrail, so it is no wonder that he does not understand the figures, and that his proposals for London transport are short of the required funding by £100 million.

Will the Leader of the House tell us how likely it is that we will have a statement next week on the future role of the Attorney-General? That would allow us not only to clear up the general issue, with stories circulating about the Government offering extra powers to direct prosecutions to the Law Officers, as well as specific cases such as the Serbian utilities fraud case, in which it appears that the Law Officers are yet again sitting on a foreign corruption investigation.

In “The Governance of Britain”, the Prime Minister said that the role of the Law Officers is one of the constitutional issues on which he wants us to consider proposals for change. Discussion is under way, and a constitutional reform Bill will come out in draft. If legislative proposals arise out of the discussions on the Law Officers, those can be contained in that Bill. If the hon. Gentleman and other Members want to make proposals about how the Law Officers should operate, they should direct their suggestions to the Secretary of State for Justice—[Interruption.] I am glad that he has already done so.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate in Government time on the ring-fencing of moneys sent to devolved areas? It has been brought to my attention by many groups that money, such as that for disabled children, is not getting to those for whom it is intended, and is falling into the current Administration’s black holes. Such minority groups cannot speak up for themselves in numbers in the way in which the devolved Governments do.

I will consider my hon. Friend’s proposal. As a Government, we regarded it as important to get to all parts of the United Kingdom sufficient public investment, so that all those with particular needs had those needs met by the public authorities. Obviously, it is of great concern indeed if those for whom resources are supposed to be made available do not get them, perhaps because the matter is not being handled properly. We must make sure that the money actually gets to the most vulnerable, as everyone in the country agrees that it should.

The 57th seminar on parliamentary practice and procedures at Westminster, organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch, ends tomorrow. It has been an outstanding success and the Speaker himself has contributed to that success. I fully support the announcement by the Leader of the House of a debate on the UK and the Commonwealth, but why, after all this time and many requests from both sides of the House, has she not found time for a debate on Zimbabwe, where elections will occur in the near future? The future of that country, and its prosperity and peace, depends on the outcome of those elections.

It is not for me—it is for the Speaker—to decide what will be in order within that debate, but it may be possible to raise those points in the debate on the Commonwealth on Thursday. I pay tribute to the CPA UK branch and to all hon. Members who participate in that important work. We will keep the matters raised at the forefront of our minds.

May we have a debate on the future economy of the highlands and islands? My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware that the Convention of the Highlands and Islands met for years even before devolution, but I have been informed by the local MSP, David Stewart, that UK Ministers will no longer be welcome at that convention. That decision was taken by the minority-led Scottish National party Administration. Will she therefore raise the matter with the appropriate UK Minister, to make sure that the highlands and islands do not become a plaything of the SNP?

I will certainly raise the matter, as will people in the communities of the highlands and islands, who know that questions of tax policy, benefits policy and energy policy are all crucial. Highlands and islands people want to have a say, so UK Ministers need to be involved. It is disappointing and disreputable if politics is played with devolution, instead of local people in the highlands and islands being allowed to have a proper say in decisions that will affect them.

May I press the Leader of the House on when we can expect a Second Reading debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill? Will she bear in mind that the Joint Committee report on which the Prime Minister relied so heavily yesterday recommends free votes on both the use of hybrid embryos and the so-called “need for a father” provision?

I recognise that there has been a great deal of debate and discussion within the Select Committee system, as has been acknowledged in the House of Lords. The points raised by the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be raised when the Bill comes to this House for scrutiny.

Am I the only person to be concerned about the fact that the royal courts of justice are being hired out to commercial organisations for after-hours parties and other corporate functions? I wonder what the judges, who may be burning the midnight oil working on judgments, think about that. May I invite the Leader of the House to bring the Secretary of State for Justice to the House to explain the policy on hiring our courts to commercial organisations?

I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to write to my hon. Friend informing him of the position, but I am sure that, whatever is happening, parties are not being held in the judges’ corridor.

On far too many occasions when the Prime Minister is at the Dispatch Box, he finds it necessary to express condolences on the death of another British man or woman serving overseas. He says that a debt of gratitude is owed to those people and their families, but unfortunately that debt does not yet translate itself into funding for families’ legal representation at inquests.

The Ministry of Justice continues to say that inquests are not trials and that therefore no legal representation is necessary, but this week the Department told me in a written answer that so far it had spent more than £1.5 million of taxpayers’ money defending its own backside at inquests, while the families must grovel for legal aid which very few of them receive. May we have a debate on the Floor of the House—not in Westminster Hall—so that we can discuss the Government’s failure to implement the spirit of the undertaking given by Prime Minister Blair in December 2006?

I sympathise with the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman has said. We are all aware that if someone appears before a criminal court, not only the prosecution but the defence is legally represented, and if someone is brought before a civil court, not only is the claimant represented but the defendant can access legal aid. However, owing to the unique and ancient structure of the coroners’ courts and their inquisitorial basis, they have been within the purview of legal aid only on exceptional occasions.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if bereaved relatives with no legal representation turn up on the steps of a coroner’s court and find that the Ministry of Defence and the Army have a great battery of solicitors and QCs, they cannot help but feel that the position is unfair. The MOD is very concerned about the issue, which will be considered during debate on the Coroners Bill. We need to give bereaved relatives at inquests a real sense of fairness and support.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of an excellent report produced by the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the use of restraint on children, and of a campaign launched by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, INQUEST and others on the same subject? May we have a debate on the terrible use of techniques that deliberately inflict pain on children in secure accommodation throughout the country?

Ministers in the Ministry of Justice are considering the law and practice relating to restraint, particularly as it applies to children. A case in my hon. Friend’s constituency and the findings reported by the coroner have highlighted the issue, and the Ministers will doubtless report to the House when their consideration is completed.

What is it going to take to get the Secretary of State for Transport to come to the House and make a statement about the situation in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency? Last week the coastguards, who constitute an emergency service, went on strike. There was no statement in the House, and the Secretary of State did not even issue a press release. Would the Leader of the House tolerate such ministerial indifference if this were one of the emergency services—the fire brigades, the police or the ambulance service—that serve her constituents?

I know that the hon. Gentleman raised the issue yesterday during Prime Minister’s questions. We all agree that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency provides very important services, not only in saving lives but in protecting the environment. This is a matter of concern, which is why the agency has implemented contingency plans to prevent any threat to shipping or life during the strike.

We hope that this dispute will be settled, but I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to consider whether she needs to give the House further information, and how such information should be provided.

May we have a debate or a statement on the Government’s policy on removal of individuals to Iran, following the case of Mehdi Kazemi? He was refused asylum in this country; his application for asylum has now been refused in Holland, and he says that he will go to his death because of his sexual orientation. Surely discretion should be exercised in such cases. May we have a debate on such issues, which directly affect the lives of individuals?

My right hon. Friend is, of course, Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. It is possible for him and other hon. Members to make representations on that or any other individual case, but meanwhile he should be assured of our total opposition to the death penalty in any country in the world. We are in favour of the full human rights of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation. No doubt the case that he has raised will be examined carefully in the light of representations and evidence.

May I echo the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) for a debate on Heathrow in Government time? Serious allegations were made in The Sunday Times about collusion with Department for Transport officials and, possibly, Ministers. If the Leader of the House is so confident that they are rubbish, is it not about time that the Secretary of State for Transport came to the House and we were allowed a proper debate, or even an oral statement? So far we have had nothing.

Will the Leader of the House also confirm what I think she said a few moments ago—that the responses will be examined independently by BAA?

I can save my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the necessity of coming to the House by reaffirming to the hon. Gentleman that the accusations of collusion are utter nonsense, and that that is the Government’s position.

It is estimated that musculoskeletal problems cost the economy some £12 billion a year in lost working days, national health service treatment and benefit payments. GPs typically prescribe bed rest and painkillers when osteopathic treatment and diagnosis might be more helpful, and, indeed, could make a great contribution to solving the problems. Sadly, however, osteopathy is generally available only to those who can pay. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider allowing a debate on what osteopathy can do for patients, and how it can be provided more generally in the NHS?

I will bring my hon. Friend’s question to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, but he may wish to seek a debate in Westminster Hall.

Last week the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), attacked that wonderful British institution, the last night of the proms, on the grounds that it did not make everyone feel at ease. I have received many letters from constituents who enjoyed the BBC’s presentation of the event last year in Carrickfergus in my constituency, when people from all walks of life and of all ages experienced a magnificent night against the background of Carrickfergus castle. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate so that the Minister can explain her remarks, which seem to be at variance with the views of the Prime Minister, the House and millions of people?

Order. Before the Leader of the House responds, I should point out that a number of Members wish to ask questions, and I can only allow them to do so if they ask brief questions rather than making speeches.

I shall try to make my answer very brief, Mr. Speaker.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State answered questions on this issue in the House on Monday. On the previous Thursday, I paid tribute to the last night of the proms in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in Hyde park. We all agree that all our great cultural institutions are important, but that they should work together to ensure that they become more inclusive.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health, may I ask the Leader of the House to provide time for a debate on the sale of tobacco products to under-age children, and on licensing measures to protect them? My noble Friend Lord Faulkner has tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill requiring the Secretary of State for Justice to report to Parliament on the effectiveness of the existing measures to prevent under-age sales. A debate on a positive licensing system for tobacco retailers would be a step towards tackling our present difficulties.

Important light has been shed on that matter, because national no smoking day has fallen during this week. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he has led, which has fed into Government policy and is saving lives. I will bring his further points to the attention of Ministers.

Following on from what the Leader of the House just said about Mehdi Kazemi, may we have a debate on early-day motion 1180?

[That this House is concerned by the case of Iranian teenager Mehdi Kazemi who is currently living in Holland; notes reports that Mr Kazemi's boyfriend was forced by Iranian authorities to denounce other gay men, including Mr Kazemi himself; is appalled at reports that Mr Kazemi's boyfriend was then hanged for the offence of homosexuality; believes that Mr Kazemi's life is in serious danger if he were returned to Iran; further notes that the Dutch authorities have rejected Mr Kazemi's appeal for asylum in Holland and are likely to deport him to the UK; believes that the Home Office view that Iran is safe for homosexuals as long as they hide their sexuality is contrary to human rights standards on sexual freedom; and calls on the Government to uphold its asserted position as a supporter of human rights by refraining from sending Mr Kazemi back to Iran and near-certain human rights abuses.]

Last year, an Iranian MP told me that if gays practise in private, nobody knows, but that if they do not, they face torture. I reminded him that they face not torture but execution—perhaps with torture prior to that. Since the ayatollahs took control in Iran, more than 4,000 gay men and women have been executed, some of them publicly. Surely we are not even thinking of sending a gay Iranian back to Iran, where he would face humiliation, torture and execution?

No one will be deported to face execution or violation of their human rights. Such matters are addressed on a case-by-case basis taking account of the individual concerned and the circumstances in their country of origin.

Two weeks ago, I asked my right hon. and learned Friend for a debate on school admissions, and I therefore support the call made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). Last week, the allocation letters were sent out to parents, and a large proportion of them got their first choices. This week, however, the Secretary of State issued a written statement documenting some abuses of the new code of admissions by individual schools. Does my right hon. and learned Friend therefore agree that that would be an ideal topic for a topical debate?

My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to ask a topical question on Monday, when school admissions can be raised with the Department for Children, Schools and Families ministerial team. We must ensure that the new processes governing fair admissions are effectively enforced.

May we have an urgent debate on the future of medical general practice? Private sector polyclinics may or may not be right for urban areas, but they are certainly no substitute for an NHS general practice clinic in rural areas such as mine.

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to put that point in topical questions during oral questions to the Department of Health ministerial team on Tuesday. There is no suggestion that polyclinics provide a one-size-fits-all solution. They arose as a response to concerns about how to improve primary care in London, and they will certainly not be imposed unilaterally without local support.

Turning to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, and bearing in mind that the Leader of the House and I have been veterans of much similar legislation over the years and that we have usually been on the same side of the argument, may I put it to her that it is in the interests of this House that when there are issues of conscience, as there are in respect of this proposed legislation, there should be free votes on both sides? The Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats are having a free vote; why are the Government party not doing so?

It is for each party to decide their whipping arrangements—and, indeed, whether there will be whipping. I should also say that strong beliefs and conscience are not the sole preserves of those whose views are rooted in religious concerns; I have strongly held views, as does the right hon. Gentleman. We must take all these issues into account, and ensure we make progress on this important Government Bill.

In response to representations on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill from many Members over a period of several weeks, the right hon. and learned Lady has indicated a willingness to be flexible on time allocation; that is moderately welcome although decidedly unspecific, and greater specificity soon would be appreciated. As there is a principle that we should have plenty of time to debate controversial matters, may I invite the right hon. and learned Lady to make a statement next week informing the House when we will address the much delayed Counter-Terrorism Bill, and to confirm that there will be generous consideration of its more controversial provisions in a Committee of the whole House?

We might well have got on to the Counter-Terrorism Bill—and, indeed, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill—sooner had we not been having hours and hours of debate over weeks and weeks on Europe. [Interruption.]

Order. Let the Leader of the House speak. [Interruption.] Well, she is entitled to criticise herself, if that is what she is doing.

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker; it was a big error even to mention Europe, and I will be grateful if Members ignore the fact that I did so. Many Members mentioned the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill not only last week, but this week as well, and I reassure the House that it has certainly registered higher on the Richter scale as a result of their mentioning it.

Somerset county council has recently signed up to an organisation called Southwest One, along with Taunton Deane borough council. It has cost us in Somerset £400 million, with IBM as the lead contractor, but Avon and Somerset police have had to be bribed to join because nobody else wants to do so. That is a colossal waste of public money, which will be a long-term problem for the taxpayers of Somerset. It is being led with no consultation with local people or with other councils. How will it work? May we have a debate on how such organisations can make any sense at all?

I am not entirely clear about the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he clearly regards it as very important to his constituents and his region. I ask him to pop in to see me after questions to explain it, so we can work out what needs to be done about it.

Last weekend in my constituency, I visited pensioners living in council accommodation who have switched off their heat supply because they depend on liquefied petroleum gas, which is much more expensive than mains gas. Will the Leader of the House ensure that a Minister comes to the Dispatch Box to make a statement on fuel poverty and the Government’s failure to reach their targets, so that Members can raise the specific issue of those households that depend on LPG and heating oil for their heating?

Fuel poverty and insulation are important priorities for the Government. We are concerned that the least well-off who use meters have been paying a higher amount per unit for their fuel and heating, and we will sort that out. In the Budget, we have increased the winter fuel payments by £50 for those over 60 and £100 for those over 80. We are also stepping up our insulation programmes. I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point, and I will bring it to the attention of my hon. Friends.

May we have a debate on fairness in parking charges? As a result of a freedom of information request by the Peterborough Evening Telegraph this week, we learned that 1,436 penalty charge notices to non-UK registered vehicles have been written off, which is more than 80 per cent. of the total. By contrast, 63 per cent. of UK-registered vehicles’ penalty charges have been paid. This is evidently an example of great unfairness, and my constituents are right to raise the issue with me. When can we regularise that situation and have fairness in the payment of parking tickets?

Today is world kidney day, and the Northamptonshire Kidney Patients Association is supporting it with a display stand in the Newlands centre in Kettering to promote public awareness of renal failure and of the groups of people who are most at risk. While applauding the association for its endeavours, will the Leader of the House also arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement to the House about what is being done to promote renal treatment in this country?

I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to write to the hon. Gentleman, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the kidney patients association that covers my constituency in south London.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the House mentioned Europe a few moments ago. You will recall that we spent a number of days considering the Lisbon treaty, which is designed to steal from this House and the people whom we represent many of our cherished freedoms and rights. I seek your guidance, because in doing so much of the treaty was not considered, many amendments were not reached and the line-by-line scrutiny that we usually enjoy in Committee did not take place. Given that the British people are to be denied the referendum that they were promised and now crave, how can that be put right and how can we avoid repetition of such a parody of parliamentary scrutiny?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on an issue very important to my constituents. On Tuesday, during Justice questions, I raised the fact that an organisation called ClearSprings is creating open prisons across Basildon district by buying residential properties and converting them. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), responded by saying that Basildon district council had failed to use its veto. I have subsequently been assured by the council that that is not the case, that it made clear its universal opposition in writing at the earliest possible moment and that it was told that the Ministry of Justice would ignore that anyway. The Minister of State appears inadvertently to have misled the House, and I seek your advice—

Order. When such a matter comes up during a debate, it is open to any hon. Member to go back to his or her local authority and get the facts. The hon. Gentleman can pursue that matter by going to the Table Office and seeking to put down questions, now that he has extra facts. It is not for me to be drawn into this argument.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is definitely one for you, Sir. At column 299 of yesterday’s Hansard, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families made a sedentary intervention, allegedly saying, “So weak!” Apart from the fact that he is out on his own in thinking that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was making a weak speech, a large number of people on this side and in the Gallery—journalists—heard him say “So what?” There is a site called YouTube on the net, Mr. Speaker, and you can listen to the video. I reckon that I can hear “what” being said. Could you arrange for the editor of the Official Report to tell the House whether, or to make a statement as to whether, the Secretary of State or anybody on his behalf approached Hansard to have it doctored?

I have checked with the Officers of the House and they tell me that they are satisfied—more important still, the editor of Hansard is satisfied—that it is a correct record of yesterday’s proceedings.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice. During business questions, the Leader of the House accused me and smeared me by saying that I had misled the House in a statement that I had made. This is a smear on my character, and I ask for it to be withdrawn.

I think that the Leader of the House said that it was a misleading picture that the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] He is saying no, but my hearing is excellent—I can assure you of that—and it was a “misleading picture”. That is different from saying that the hon. Gentleman was misleading the House. Perhaps now he can go up to the Gallery and see the draft record; that would be helpful to him.

Orders of the Day

Ways and Means

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [12 March].

Amendment of the law

Motion made, and Question proposed,

(1) That it is expedient to amend the law with respect to the National Debt and the public revenue and to make further provision in connection with finance.

(2) This Resolution does not extend to the making of any amendment with respect to value added tax so as to provide—

(a) for zero-rating or exempting a supply, acquisition or importation,

(b) for refunding an amount of tax,

(c) for any relief, other than a relief that—

(i) so far as it is applicable to goods, applies to goods of every description, and

(ii) so far as it is applicable to services, applies to services of every description.—[Mr. Darling.]

Question again proposed,

Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

It is good to open this debate and it is a pleasure to do so, as is traditional, on the first full day of the Budget debate. May I say how happy we are that we have been joined by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions? He is one of a number of young Turks angling to deliver next year’s Budget, so we will see how he does today. It is good that he has been supported by so many members of the Labour party who have come to back up the Chancellor’s Budget just 24 hours after it was delivered.

It is indeed 24 hours since the Budget, and now the whole House has had an opportunity to examine not what the Chancellor said yesterday, but what he actually did in the Budget: to examine how, for example, the tax on so-called gas guzzlers is going to hit 70 per cent. of all cars sold; to understand how the tax on so-called binge drinking will hit 43 million drinkers; to get some explanation for how a Budget that was supposed to help business and enterprise actually has, according to the Red Book, £1.7 billion of new taxes on business; and to expose how a Labour Government whose sole claim to office was their ability to manage the economy have managed to leave Britain so ill prepared for the economic slow-down.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer said something extraordinary on the radio this morning. He was asked by the presenter, “Do you wish you had more room for manoeuvre?” He replied, “Well, we are where we are”—[Interruption.] Ah, the Chancellor has just arrived. I am grateful to him for appearing at this debate. I was just quoting from what he said on the radio this morning. He was asked, “Do you wish you had more room for manoeuvre?” He replied, “Well, we are where we are…er, you can only deal with the economy as you find it.” However, that prompts the question, who left him the economy that he now finds himself managing? Whose fault is it that we are where we are? The answer, of course, is the Prime Minister—the author of this Budget in every sense of the word.

Let us imagine for one moment that the Prime Minister, in his long years as Chancellor, had set aside something for a rainy day. Let us imagine—I know it is a fantasy—that like other Finance Ministers in other countries, he had used the 15 years of global economic growth to reduce the budget deficit or even to build up a surplus. Let us pretend that he actually meant what he said when he promised prudence with a purpose, and had used the good years to prepare for the difficult years. I know that it is difficult to take that leap of imagination today, but let us try. If the Prime Minister had done those things as Chancellor—if he had actually demonstrated the economic competence that he boasted of, if he had fixed the roof when the sun was shining—let us consider what yesterday’s Budget would have looked like.

There would probably have been a big fiscal stimulus package. We would be discussing a reduction of taxes on entrepreneurs, investors and businesses. There would be measures to put money into the pockets of families facing a rising cost of living. We would be discussing a cut in family taxes, not an increase. All these things are happening in other countries. They are happening in the United States, and they are happening because those countries can afford to do them. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) asks whether the United States is the only country that I can think of. No, in fact. There is Sweden, with its 2 per cent. budget surplus, Spain, with its 1.5 per cent. budget surplus, Australia, with a 1 per cent. budget surplus, and there are Denmark and Ireland. I could go on through a list of European countries.

We could even be considering—who knows?—where Britain’s new sovereign wealth fund was to make its first investment. Instead, what are we debating? We are debating a 3 per cent. budget deficit, £140 billion of borrowing, tax rises on business and measures that take money out of family pockets.

Does my hon. Friend also agree that, had the Prime Minister not sold the gold when he did and at the rate he did, we would have £4 billion to look at this in this Budget that we do not have now?

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was a great fan of modernising Parliament; now he is picking me up on my language. My hon. Friend, the hon. Lady, is absolutely right. The previous Chancellor managed to sell gold at the very bottom of the market. Indeed, the gold traders now call the price at which gold hit its lowest “Brown’s bottom”. Of course, gold might push through $1,000 in the next few days.

While the hon. Gentleman is on the subject of fixing roofs, will he comment on the roofs that have been fixed through investment in places such as my constituency, where there are three new schools at £30 million a piece, a new £100 million college and a £184 million Building Schools for the Future programme, and where every council and social house has been renovated through the decent homes initiative? Is he saying that he regrets, and would never have implemented, that programme of investment?

In London, I live in the hon. Lady’s constituency. I am well aware that the people whom she represents will be among those hit by the abolition of the 10p starting rate, upon which she will be asked to vote next week.

We were discussing economic incompetence—[Interruption.] I am coming to education spending, because I shall tell Labour MPs about something that they have not woken up to about this Budget. We were discussing this Labour Government’s economic incompetence and how it has left Britain with no room for manoeuvre. If this Chancellor was running for President, on the basis of that Budget his campaign slogan would be, “No, we can’t.” His tactic yesterday was to say that he had no room for manoeuvre and to blame the world economy. It is funny how this lot take the credit for 10 years of global economic growth and then blame everyone else when it slows.

It is the job of any Government to prepare for high oil prices or problems in the financial markets. It is not the fault of some sub-prime estate agent in Mississippi that we enter a downturn borrowing £36 billion—it is the fault of the Prime Minister. It is not the fault of Wall street bankers that we have the highest tax burden in our history—it is the fault of the Prime Minister. It is not the fault of some capitalist conspiracy that 5 million of the lowest-paid people in Britain face a tax increase this April—it is the fault of a Labour Prime Minister who is trying to fix his economic problems on the backs of the poor. His job in the 10 years that he was Chancellor was to prepare for when the global economy hit problems, and he failed.

Does my hon. Friend agree that when there are global inflationary pressures most sensible Governments try to cut taxes, not increase them?

My hon. Friend is right. He is also right in the sense that it is not clear that any other major economy’s response to the global economic problems is a significant increase in taxation. I cannot think of any Finance Minister in an equivalent country who will this year present a Budget containing a £2.5 billion increase in taxes. That shows what a mess we are in. The more closely one examines yesterday’s Budget the clearer it becomes, because as usual, of course, many things are hidden. That is one of the Chancellor’s predecessor’s habits that the Chancellor did not kick. Many things hidden in the small print of the Red Book were never mentioned in the Budget speech.

This debate is our chance to examine the small print, and let us begin by considering those public finances. One would never have gathered from yesterday’s performance at the Dispatch Box—[Interruption.] I am a generous man when it comes to this Chancellor of the Exchequer. I genuinely get on much better with him than I did with his predecessor—and I am not the only one. One would never have gathered from yesterday’s performance that not only have the Government got their borrowing figures wrong, but they were miles out. Never mind the fact that we have already borrowed £110 billion more than the previous Chancellor forecast in his earlier Budgets, and that the Government have been wrong in each of the past seven years, because even the forecasts made by this Chancellor in October are hopelessly wrong.

The Government are set to borrow in the coming period £20 billion more than the Chancellor predicted last autumn—£7 billion more next year alone. Last March, the Prime Minister told us in his last Budget that we would be in the black next year, but now we discover that we will be in the red to the tune of £10 billion, on the current Budget. As I say, that comes after 15 years’ global economic growth. It is the opposite of prudence and the opposite of what most of the rest of the world have done.

On the figures announced by the Chancellor, Britain enters this economic slow-down with about the worst budget deficit in the developed world; the exceptions are Pakistan, Hungary and Egypt. Labour has achieved the impossibility of making Italy, France and Germany look like paragons of fiscal virtue. We are now discovering the truth about the state of the public finances and about the public spending predictions—a point that was raised by the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck).

The Chancellor said almost nothing about spending in his Budget; indeed, he said nothing at all about the national health service. I thought the Prime Minister’s mantra was:

“education is my passion; the NHS is my priority”.

It is not a priority that made it into the first Budget of his Government. That does not mean it did not feature, because if one delves into the detail and compares the spending tables published yesterday with those published in the autumn, one discovers something strange. One discovers that health spending is set to be £1.3 billion less than we were told it was going to be last autumn, including £700 million less on capital spending. The Chancellor talked about investing in schools, but we discover that capital spending on education is set to be £300 million less than he predicted in the autumn. The spending of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which is supposed to be a priority, will be £1.9 billion less than the Government were predicting in the autumn. None of those changes was mentioned in the Budget speech.

Alongside a raid on reserves, the Government pay for not only a big increase in defence spending, but a £1.5 billion rise in Department for Work and Pensions administration costs. Health and education spending growth appears to fall and welfare administration costs appear to rise.

I shall certainly give way. Was the hon. Gentleman aware that the Government had reduced the growth predictions on spending on health and education? I was not when I was listening to the Chancellor.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Chancellor said nothing about health yesterday. In fact, one thing, among others, that he said about health was:

“In 10 years, spending on health has almost doubled”.—[Official Report, 12 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 289.]

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will now withdraw that remark. More importantly, he just referred to defence spending. The shadow Defence Secretary has said that the percentage of public spending on defence should increase and the shadow Health Secretary has said that the percentage spent on health should increase, so where will the hon. Gentleman find the cuts to pay for those commitments?

What I am trying to explain to the hon. Gentleman is that there is a big increase in defence spending this year, and it is apparently paid for—I am happy to give way to the Chancellor if he would like to explain what went on—by a reduction in the projected growth in spending on health and education. I am bringing that to the House’s attention. If the Chancellor wishes to intervene to explain exactly what has been going on with spending—I am sure the hon. Gentleman did not know what has been going on, just as I did not know, when listening to the Chancellor—I would be happy to give way to him. Apparently he does not wish to intervene.

That brings me on to another story—the impact of the new alcohol and car taxes. What the Opposition demonstrated last week was that one can use targeted tax rises, as other European countries have done, on the drinks favoured by binge drinkers and under-age drinkers to pay for lower taxes on lower alcohol drinks, leaving alone most of the drinks that most responsible adults enjoy. The Chancellor demonstrates this week how general rises in alcohol taxes hit 43 million people and do little to tackle binge drinking.

On that specific point, the hon. Gentleman is saying that he would not spend that alcohol duty on anything other than tax cuts. Does that mean that he will not support the winter fuel allowance increase this year or the measures on tackling child poverty next year?

The increases in alcohol duty and vehicle excise duty, which I am coming to, are permanent increases, whereas the winter fuel payment is a one-off payment this year. If the right hon. Gentleman, either now or in his reply, makes a commitment at the Dispatch Box that it is an annual increase—in other words, it applies year on year—and if he is honest with the British public about what he is doing, I will tell him how we will vote on the alcohol duty increases. He is not prepared to give that commitment.

The hon. Gentleman was not in the House at the time, but can he explain why during his party’s 18 years in office it never, at any stage, had a winter fuel allowance and why child poverty and pensioner poverty grew, as he well knows?

Although I was a young boy at the time, I seem to remember that the Conservative Government who came to power in 1979 inherited a situation where there was no winter fuel at all, because the power stations were on strike.