Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 473: debated on Monday 17 March 2008

House of Commons

Monday 17 March 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Small Schools

Local authorities have legal responsibility for determining the pattern of school provision most appropriate to their areas, taking account of parents’ wishes. Small schools that are popular with parents must have a place in our educational system, and many serve rural communities. We will continue to support small rural schools through the presumption against closure, and by allocating funds to take account of the sparse population in rural areas.

That is all very well, but up and down the country small schools are being closed by local authorities. If the Minister wants his “presumption” to be taken seriously, will he withdraw the guidance that was issued to every local authority in December, which threatened to withhold money for primary school buildings and renovation from authorities that did not close schools or remove so-called surplus places?

The hon. Gentleman should note that we have reduced the number of rural school closures significantly, from a peak of 127 in 1983 to an average of just six a year over the last 10 years. The guidance to which he referred should be read in its entirety: it makes clear that if access for young children is to be preserved there may be a need for more surplus places in rural schools, and acknowledges that it will not always be practical or desirable to remove all such places. Somerset county council’s work on federation of rural schools provides a model for how the situation should be tackled.

Will my hon. Friend give a cast-iron assurance that when it comes to maintaining small schools—rural schools, in many cases—he will not necessarily be swayed by the views of parents, but will take a stance on what constitutes the best solution for the children? Multi-age classes are not always the best solution. They may make it possible for a school to be maintained, but the outcome is not good. Will my hon. Friend give that assurance that he will put children first?

As my hon. Friend knows, we always want to put children first, but I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). These are decisions for local authorities, and although we want them to listen to the views of parents, obviously we also want them to ensure that the individual needs of all children in their areas are met.

The Minister said that the number of closures of small schools in our rural areas—against which the Government made a strong commitment in 1998—had declined to only six a year, but the fact is that we now have some 1,200 fewer small schools in our rural areas than we had in 1997 when the Government came to power. I have the figures in front of me. The Minister shakes his head, but I will happily show him the figures later. They are as plain as the nose on your face.

We need more than just words and the paying of lip service to schools. What about cutting the bureaucracy, initiatives and general messing around that makes small schools so difficult to maintain?

The hon. Gentleman should consider his own bureaucracy when he quotes completely false figures. Statistics of that kind do not relate to the number of schools that have been taken out of communities. They relate to the closure of schools as a result of mergers between infant and junior schools to form primary schools, and to a range of factors that do not feature in the rurality classification used by DEFRA. The statistics that we use are consistent. The hon. Gentleman should remind himself of the trend that we saw when his party was in power, which, as I have said, resulted in a peak of 127 closures of small rural schools in 1983.

Will my hon. Friend commend the track record of Leicestershire county council? It has never been under the control of the Labour party and has only been under the control of any party for the last seven years, but in a generation or more it has never closed a rural school, with the single exception of Tilton on the Hill, east of the city of Leicester. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that enough funds are being allocated to local education authorities in rural areas to allow them to skew their budgets to meet the recognisably higher cost of enabling smaller schools to exist in the medium term?

I am happy to commend the job done by Leicestershire county council in managing its schools against the background of a relatively difficult funding arrangement, although even in Leicestershire funding has increased significantly over the last 10 years, and its dedicated school grant will include funds for sparsity. I do not have the Leicestershire figure in front of me, but Somerset, for example, receives £5.48 million in sparsity funding.

I am reassured by the Minister's emphatic statement that there should be a presumption against the closure of rural schools. Does he accept that, often, the school in a village is the only major facility, so keeping it open is of great importance? Does he believe that federation of some schools is a good way of getting over the problem facing many local education authorities? Perhaps a merger between a Church of England school and a Catholic school to make an all-faith school can help in keeping small schools, village schools and rural schools open.

I never thought that I would say that I hope that local authorities have the imagination of the hon. Gentleman. He is entirely right that we should be looking more at federations. In my own constituency, hard federations have resulted in school buildings remaining open in two villages, but under a single head teacher and a single governing body. That has been extremely successful. In Somerset, as a result of a move towards federation that encompasses all but five of its primary schools, just 9 per cent. of primary school places are surplus places. That is the kind of thing that we want to see, alongside co-location of services, so that a range of children's services and other services can be offered from a village school to keep village communities alive.

The Minister will be well aware of the value of small schools, particularly in his constituency in Dorset, where a view has been taken to keep schools open for the wider community benefit, as he has stated. I congratulate him on reducing the number of small school closures over the past few years. That is absolutely right. Will he help me on Canvey Island, where one of my small schools is under threat of closure from Essex county council because of low numbers, even though much more building will be forced on Canvey Island, which will increase the capacity requirement on the island? What is more, that school is making excellent progress. Will he ask the county council to declare a moratorium on that closure?

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman needs all the friends he can get right now, and I am happy to have a chat with him about what is going on in Canvey Island and about how he can have a constructive conversation with his former friends in Conservative-controlled Essex county council.

Capital Funding (Milton Keynes)

2. How much capital funding will be provided to schools in Milton Keynes local authority area in the next three years. (194064)

Capital funding allocated for schools in the Milton Keynes local authority area in the next three years amounts to more than £75 million, including £30 million for growth. We are now considering Milton Keynes' application for additional growth funding to reflect its exceptional circumstances, which may result in further capital support. Of course I have been informed by the extensive representations made by my hon. Friend.

This morning I was at the start of the construction of the Milton Keynes academy in my constituency, so I am mindful of the money that we have had in Milton Keynes, but I have been making representations to support the bid by Milton Keynes council for the safety valve funding. Will the Minister confirm that, when he considers that, he will not just provide it according to formula but take into account the special needs of Milton Keynes?

Naturally, following the representations that I have received, I will certainly seek to do that. I am glad that my hon. Friend was able to be at the academy this morning to see the results of the excellent investment that is going in, which has risen significantly from the low level of less than £10 million in 2001-02 to the high levels today. I am hopeful that we can make an announcement in the next few weeks about what we are going to do in respect of the application that has been made by her authority for the basic needs safety valve funding.

The Minister is keen to trumpet the cash for Milton Keynes but less keen to confirm that there is now a £50 million shortfall in funding for Milton Keynes—confirmed to me by the Secretary of State in a letter on 4 February. That means that, at a time when the Government are forcing new houses on Milton Keynes, they seem less keen to fund the 10 or 12 new schools that we desperately need to accommodate that new housing. What exactly will the shortfall be for Milton Keynes over the next three years?

Certainly Milton Keynes council argues that it needs another £50 million. As I say, we are looking at the representations that the council and others have made. The hon. Gentleman has also been to see me to discuss the matter, but he needs to bear in mind when talking about that to his constituents that his party plans a raid on Building Schools for the Future that will take £4.5 billion from areas such as Milton Keynes, meaning that two of the 12 secondary schools in his town may not even be rebuilt.

English and Mathematics

As a result of our investment and reform since 1997, there has been an unparalleled rise in primary and secondary school standards in English and maths. Primary standards are at their highest ever, and record numbers of pupils left school in 2007 having gained five good GCSEs, including in English and maths.

I begin with a declaration of interest: I am a product of the international baccalaureate, so I did not do A-levels or GCSEs. As we are talking about raising standards in maths and English, why is the Secretary of State introducing a new form of diploma that has already proved very unpopular with the universities, when we have the international baccalaureate, under which English and maths are taught up to the age of 18, and which is popular not only with schools but with universities and employers? Why is the Secretary of State reinventing the wheel?

I am pleased to hear that the IB did a good job for the hon. Gentleman, as it does for many pupils throughout the country. We have been trying to put together a qualification that can combine academic and vocational learning, and I must say to him—I can get him the detailed information if he would like it—that the diploma has been welcomed by a wide range of universities, including Cambridge university, whose admissions tutor said that a diploma in engineering could be better preparation than A-level maths. The diploma has also been welcomed by a wide range of employers. Conservative Members would do well to reconsider their opposition to our new diplomas, as they are the best chance in more than a generation to break the two-tier system in academic and vocational learning. It is revealing that the Conservatives remain on the two-tier side of the argument when it comes to educational qualifications.

My right hon. Friend will probably agree with me that the evidence taken by the Education and Skills Committee shows that standards have been rising in both English and maths. Will he, however, look at the experiment in Warrington, where five schools are using different forms of information technology to advance teaching in maths and English? Will he also look into whether we can improve the training of maths teachers so that both the teaching and learning experiences can be improved?

My hon. Friend is an expert in these matters, and he knows that 100,000 more young people are now making the required grade at key stage 3 in English than in 1997, and that 95,000 more are making the grade in maths. It is because we want to improve the teaching of maths and teacher training in maths that we asked Professor Williams to produce a report for us on mathematics, and it will be published shortly. Also, our new master’s qualification in teaching will enable teachers to get in-career training in mathematics. I am happy to listen to my hon. Friend’s points, and to look at the Warrington example and see what further lessons we can learn.

I am glad that the Secretary of State is arranging to build on the work on maths teaching of Professor Adrian Smith of Queen Mary college. Will the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers get a list of the relevant secondary schools where A-level maths could be taught, find out which of them has not had a grade A in A-level maths in the past five years, and ask whether none of the pupils would have had the ability or aptitude to achieve that?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the primary school teachers in my constituency? Over the past five years, there has been a greater than 40 per cent. increase in the children’s English ability and more than a 25 per cent. increase in their maths ability. That is astounding delivery by the primary sector. What are we going to do to improve further primary school education?

My hon. Friend is right, as the facts show. In 1997, only 63 per cent. of children reached key stage 2 level 4 at the age of 11; that proportion has now increased to 80 per cent., and in maths it has increased from 62 per cent. to 77 per cent. That is a real improvement in standards, but it is not enough; we want to get to much higher levels even than those. That requires us to do even more to back the learning of our primary school pupils and to tackle the barriers to learning both in and out of school. One way to make sure that we can do that is to improve even further the teaching of reading in the earliest years. Along with Lord Adonis and Professor Jim Rose, I visited a school on Friday to see how it is using phonics in the curriculum. That is now being done extensively in three quarters of all schools, but we want to get to 100 per cent. and we will do so over the next year.

Speaking of phonics, Sir Jim Rose in his report into the teaching of reading said:

“‘synthetic’ phonics is the form of systematic phonic work that offers the vast majority of beginners the best route to becoming skilled readers.”

However, the Secretary of State, in his press release on Friday, in which he reported that a quarter of primary schools were not using phonics to teach children to read, and indeed in his response just now, does not use the term synthetic phonics. Can he therefore confirm the Government’s policy? Is it that schools should use synthetic phonics, as recommended by Jim Rose, or is it a return to the mix of strategies that was the hallmark of the national literacy strategy?

I know that no one is more keen on taking forward the issue of phonics and synthetic phonics in our curriculum than the hon. Gentleman. I am very pleased, therefore, that he read my press release. He will see that the first quote in it came not from myself, but from Sir Jim Rose himself; it was his findings that I was quoting. He was reporting on the progress on implementing his report and he says that all schools are using phonics, but that only three quarters are using them in the way that he would like—and we would like—which probably means using synthetic phonics in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. That will differ school by school, depending on the needs of different individuals, but Jim and I are clear on what needs to be done. We need to make sure that this is across all schools in the curriculum. The school that we visited was really interesting: 95 per cent. of children did not have English as a first language, and phonics was being taught not just in reading but in PE and right across the whole curriculum. I can therefore assure the hon. Gentleman that we are taking forward this agenda with determination, and we will make sure that the right kind of phonics are taught in all schools for all pupils.

In September 2004, the Government appointed Celia Hoyles as the mathematics tsar to promote mathematics in our schools, colleges and universities. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the tsar’s progress in promoting mathematics in our schools?

Celia Hoyles did a wonderful job, and we are really grateful for her work. She has laid the foundation for the strengthening of maths in the curriculum in primary and secondary schools, and we are taking that forward, including through the Williams review.

Alderman Blaxill School

4. If he will visit the Alderman Blaxill school in Colchester to discuss its future with the head teacher, staff, governors, pupils, parents and representatives of the local community. (194066)

I am obviously very grateful for the invitation from the hon. Gentleman and I am of course aware of the representations that he has been making about the future of Alderman Blaxill school, not least through last year’s Adjournment debate, to which I responded. I know that there is an urgent need to raise standards at that school for the benefit of pupils, parents and the whole community.

I am not sure whether the Minister will visit, but if not, will he receive a delegation from the school? Will he confirm that the latest Ofsted report, which was published this month, says that the school is now making satisfactory progress, which is no doubt entirely down to the inspirational leadership of executive head Mr. Jonathan Tippett? In view of the Minister’s earlier comment that we should be looking more at federations, does he accept that the community resolution of the Roman river federation of secondary schools in south and west Colchester is the right way forward to save the three schools concerned?

I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman thinks that the executive head who has been brought in is doing a good job, and that is certainly what I have been told. However, the reports that I have from what I think was the most recent monitoring visit, in February—there may have been a more recent visit since then—show that progress since going into special measures is still inadequate. I have not been briefed on the Roman river federation, but I am very happy to look at the issue and to meet and talk with the hon. Gentleman, who has met my noble Friend Lord Adonis on a number of occasions to discuss the matter.

IT Projects

5. How much his Department plans to spend on IT projects in the next 12 months; and if he will make a statement. (194067)

Subject to final spending decisions, the Department plans to spend £150.2 million on IT-enabled projects in the 12 months commencing 1 April 2008. That figure covers a wide range of investments in the Department’s internal systems at a cost of £20.5 million, and in major IT-enabled policy initiatives at a cost of £129.7 million.

Despite the Department’s spending millions on its ContactPoint database, the recent report by Deloitte and Touche highlighted the fact that significant data security risks remain with the project. Given that ContactPoint will draw together information on every single child in the country, creating a honeypot effect, what sort of risk does the Minister think is acceptable in relation to those sensitive data?

I would not agree at all with the hon. Gentleman that the report identified significant risks. We commissioned the Deloitte report to look over the ContactPoint project, and it confirmed that ContactPoint has been developed very much with security in mind. The database is very important, and I hope that at some stage the Opposition will look very seriously at why we are setting it up. For example, there has recently been quite a bit of publicity about forced marriage. If we are to be able to identify young people who are at risk, we need to be able to share information between the professionals working with them. I hope that the Opposition will reconsider their position on ContactPoint.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the adoption of open-access IT systems can result in significant savings? Is his Department promoting their use throughout the education sector?

BECTA—the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency—leads for us on that issue, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a way of achieving significant savings. As any modern business or any modern constituency MP knows, having properly IT-enabled systems is vital to serving the needs of children in this country and of our constituents.

There is, however, a real and growing concern about IT database overload in the Department. It has three major databases of its own—ContactPoint, Connexions and the national children’s database—and nine other children’s databases feed into ContactPoint. May I take it from the Minister’s response that there is a disagreement between the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government as a result of the recent “Lifting the Burdens” report, which stated that the obsession with multiple databases has diverted attention from the most important task that the Department should have, which is delivering real support for families, or has the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government got it wrong?

As usual, that is a rhetorical rather than a substantive question from the hon. Lady. The point about ContactPoint and the other databases is that they exist to promote the welfare of children and young people in this country. I remind the House that ContactPoint was developed as a result of the Lord Laming inquiry into the Victoria Climbié case. I make no apologies whatever to the House for our continuing to develop that important project, which will enable professionals working with children to identify the other professionals working with them. That is a basic requirement of safeguarding children, and I hope that all parties in the House will support it.

Children in Poverty

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the proportion of (a) disabled and (b) non-disabled children living in poverty. (194068)

I have had several discussions recently with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on a number of aspects related to child poverty, including poverty rates for disabled children. The Government are committed to our child poverty targets and improving the life chances of all children. In addition, over the next three years, a total of £340 million has been set aside by my Department specifically to improve the lives of disabled children and their families.

The Minister will know that the Opposition share the Government’s aspiration to eliminate child poverty by 2020, although I note that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions conceded only recently that the Government were unlikely to hit their target of halving it by 2010. Some 55 per cent. of families in the UK with disabled children are living in poverty. To return to part of the announcement that the Minister has just made, will she update the House on what progress has been made in improving access to child care for families with disabled children, so that they are more able to access work?

There are many reasons why the Government want to support families with disabled children. It is true that in some of those families the children are in poverty, but if the hon. Gentleman had read the excellent document that we produced last week, “Ending child poverty: everybody’s business”, he would have seen that it is not actually the presence of a disabled child that increases a family’s risk of poverty; it is the presence of a disabled adult that significantly increases that risk.

The Government want to halve child poverty by 2010 and eradicate it by 2020, and we remain absolutely committed to that. We have already reduced absolute poverty by half and we will continue to move children out of poverty through the Budget—unlike the previous Government, who were responsible for more than doubling the rates of child poverty. They made Britain the worst place for child poverty and reversed the upward trend in social mobility. We are reversing that legacy.

The right hon. Lady’s boss, the Secretary of State, has made a considerable personal investment in the plight of disabled children, but last year the number of children living in poverty after housing costs were taken into account rose by 200,000. We now have a higher proportion of children being brought up in workless households than any European country, and they stay in poverty for longer. Given the disproportionate effect on disabled children, who are twice as likely to live in poverty and twice as likely to leave school with no qualifications compared with their peers, thus reinforcing the cycle of generational underachievement, is not the Minister embarrassed by the Government’s lack of a truly joined-up approach to disabled children and poverty involving employment, education, transport, health and housing—or is this just another case of so what?

The hon. Gentleman cannot have read the document that we produced last week or have considered the measures in the Budget. Those measures—increasing the rate of child benefit, changes to the child tax credit, and disregarding child benefit—will lift a further 300,000 children out of poverty, and taken with last year’s Budget that is another 500,000. We are committed to reversing the disastrous and atrocious legacy that the Conservatives left children in this country. They said that unemployment was a price worth paying, and they cannot be trusted on the family. They say one thing, but when they have the chance they do—

Teachers’ Pay

The Minister for Schools and Learners made a written statement to the House on 15 January 2008 concerning the latest report of the School Teachers Review Body and our response. Following consultation on those proposals, we expect to make a further statement shortly.

But with one in 10 teachers having been physically attacked in the classroom, with more than 33 knife attacks on teachers, and with 75 per cent. of all teachers having been verbally abused last year, does the Secretary of State agree with Lord Adonis that future pay settlements should include some sort of bonus or performance-related pay that is linked to improving discipline in the classroom?

It is essential that we do even more to improve discipline in the classroom. We have taken substantial action, including in legislation, to ensure that we back teachers and give head teachers and governing bodies the power that they need to confiscate dangerous items and to act in and out of school. We will do more. That is why I have asked Sir Alan Steer to produce a report on the implementation of his report on behaviour and to suggest what we can do to improve behaviour further. When I speak to members of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers at their conference next week, I will tell them that we are on the side of teachers in rooting out ill-discipline in the classroom and will give them the powers that they need. It may be a more serious issue than can be addressed through a bonus in pay: we will give teachers the powers they need to act, so that they can get on and teach.

Employment Choices

8. What steps his Department is taking to encourage male and female school pupils to consider a wider and less stereotyped range of employment choices; and if he will make a statement. (194070)

I expect schools and the external information, advice and guidance services that support them to be rigorous in challenging gender stereotypes and low career aspirations. We have taken, and are planning, a range of measures that make clear our expectations and which will embed good practice. For example, all 14 to 19 consortiums wishing to deliver diplomas have to undergo a rigorous diploma gateway process assessing them against a number of key criteria, including how they will challenge gender stereotypes and raise aspirations.

I welcome that response. The Women in Work commission report and the recently published Select Committee report, “Jobs for the Girls”, identified occupational segregation as one of the major reasons for the continuing gender pay gap. In view of that, will my hon. Friend consider the proposals in the Committee’s report for providing further funding and resources specifically for careers advice and work placements, such as the proposal from the YWCA that boys and girls should have more than one work placement so that opportunities are not limited at too early an age through the assumptions embedded in families and society in general?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s consistent championing of these issues in the House. We will, of course, look closely at the Select Committee report to which she has referred. I pay tribute, too, to the YWCA for the work that it has done. I met representatives of the YWCA before the Committee stage of the Education and Skills Bill, and they found that the lowest paid apprenticeship, hairdressing, is more than 90 per cent. female while the highest paid, the electro-technical trades, pays twice the average and is 100 per cent. male dominated. It is clear that we need to do better as regards careers advice. That is one reason why we have brought in a new quality standard, which all authorities will need to have regard to in the future.

Why does the Minister think that male and female pupils choose stereotypical employment? Is it nature, nurture or neither?

The hon. Lady has raised an interesting doctoral question. I suspect, Mr. Speaker, that you would not want me to expand at any great length on it. I imagine that it is a combination of the two, but I leave hon. Members to reflect on where the balance lies. That does not take away from the need to do more about gender stereotyping. I saw an excellent example in a school that took year 7 pupils and gave them taster sessions of work experience that did not fit their gender stereotype. As a result, interest in such careers increased significantly. If people have access to such taster sessions, which are more nurture than nature, it can only be a good thing.

Bullying

We are implementing a wide range of measures to help schools tackle bullying. These include reinforcing the power of school staff to discipline pupils who bully and providing them with comprehensive practical guidance on proven strategies for tackling bullying. We also provide support for individual schools through the Anti-Bullying Alliance, support peer mentoring schemes and fund a helpline for parents whose children are being bullied.

My hon. Friend will be aware that because of new technology, bullying now involves the internet and mobile phones. Sometimes, advertising such things makes the situation worse, as can be seen in some schools. What is my hon. Friend doing to try to solve the problem and what discussions has he had with service providers and schools to try to tackle that new kind of bullying?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Bullying takes lots of new forms because of the new technology that is available. I agree absolutely that the virtual world is not a valueless world, and we should ensure that we enforce the same standards when dealing with online bullying or the use of mobile phones as we do when we deal with more traditional forms of bullying. We have taken measures to make it clear in law that schools can confiscate mobile phones when they are being misused and that discipline can be enforced beyond the school gates when bullying takes place online.

Given the finding of the Stonewall school report that no less than two thirds of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have suffered bullying, will the Under-Secretary of State join me in congratulating Stonewall on the magnificent campaign that it is waging across the whole country, working through no fewer than 5,000 secondary schools, on the theme, “Some people are gay. Get over it!”? It is a good campaign that is making progress, and it has elicited a very positive response. We need to see more of that.

Yes; unfortunately, the legacy of section 28 lives on to a certain extent in our system. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his work on equality as a pioneer in his party on the subject. He will be aware that we issued guidance on homophobic bullying last September. In fact, I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State attended an event with Stonewall a month ago in relation to that.

On the legacy of section 28, does my hon. Friend agree that homophobic bullying is not just a matter of victimising pupils who are gay or lesbian, but about the routine use of the terms “gay” and “lesbian” as forms of abuse? Does he recall that the Select Committee on Education and Skills report on bullying last year placed huge emphasis on the role of head teachers and governing bodies in establishing firm anti-bullying policies in schools? Will he incentivise efforts to stress the importance of that to head teachers and the chairs of their governing bodies?

I am happy to do that, and to confirm what my hon. Friend said. We all agree that relationships in our schools should be based on respect—respect between teachers and pupils, respect between pupils and respect between families and parents who use the school. That is why we issue anti-bullying guidance on all forms of bullying. I am happy to tell the House that in the near future we hope to issue the guidance that we have been developing on tackling the bullying of children with disabilities.

Ofsted Inspections

Schools are already able to request an Ofsted inspection, although I understand that such requests are rare. The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is important that the chief inspector of schools has the capacity to target inspection resources where they are needed most. The decision whether to inspect, following a request, is a matter for the discretion of the chief inspector, taking into account factors such as the timing of previous inspections.

I am grateful to the Minister, who is my constituency neighbour and who knows my local schools well. She knows that I have four grammar schools and four non-selective high schools, all of which are excellent. Of the non-selective high schools, three have already been awarded an “outstanding” categorisation by Ofsted. The fourth—Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic college—is confident that it, too, will be found to be outstanding. It is keen to receive that categorisation as soon as possible, so that it can proceed with applications for a second specialist status. I think that it will take comfort from the Minister’s words, and I would be grateful for any support that she can give.

I welcome the finding, in the school’s last inspection report, that parents and pupils hold the school in very high regard and that it performed very well across the piece. For reasons that the hon. Gentleman will understand, schools are now given minimal notice of inspections and so cannot choose when an inspection takes place, but if the school wants to make a request to Ofsted, Ofsted will consider that request for an inspection on its merits. I understand that the school must be inspected by June next year, so an inspection must be on the cards in the near future.

Admissions Process

12. What assessment he has made of the effects of the changes in the secondary schools admissions process in 2007. (194074)

The data that my Department published last week showed that, for the first time, 82 per cent. of families received an offer of a place at their first choice of school, and 93 per cent. of families received an offer of a place at one of their first three choices of school; both of those figures are an improvement on last year. The new stronger admissions code that was introduced last year has been widely welcomed. We are determined to ensure that all schools comply with the code.

In constituencies such as mine, there is enormous stress and upset over secondary school admissions at this time of year. In Hammersmith and Fulham last year, 40 per cent. of pupils did not get their first choice, and 10 per cent. got none of their choices. That is despite the best efforts of the Conservative council in Hammersmith and Fulham to extend secondary school choice, so why does the Secretary of State simply say that parents should “engage in the appeals process”, when the real issue is that there are not enough quality secondary school places?

The hon. Gentleman is right in his figures: about 60 per cent. of parents in his area got their first choice, and 90 per cent. got one of their preferences. I agree with him—in the end, the only way to deliver fairness for all parents is to make sure that every school is a good school. If we do not do so, we will always have some schools that are over-subscribed. I know that in his area there are three single-sex faith schools that are particularly over-subscribed. That is why I hope that he will back my national challenge programme, which seeks to reduce to zero the number of schools where less than 30 per cent. of pupils get five good GCSEs including English and maths. In 1997, that was the case in more than half of all schools—more than 1,600. We have got that number down from 1,600 to 638, and our pledge is to get it down to zero. I would like his support in making that happen.

In Slough local education authority, which is a selective education authority, this year only 41 per cent. of parents received a place at their first-choice school. Some 10 or 11 per cent. of parents were offered places at schools that they had not identified, and there are still 40 parents in Slough who have not yet got an offer of a school place. Given those circumstances, will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss what we can do in Slough education authority, which has improving schools but not enough school places for our local children, and to see what can be done to meet the needs of parents in our area?

I am happy to have that meeting with my hon. Friend and the Minister for Schools and Learners. The situation in Slough is quite concerning; the numbers there are substantially out of line with those in comparable authorities in the south-east. The number of pupils getting their highest preference was 38 per cent. in Slough, compared with an average of 79.5 per cent. in the south-east. As I look at the list of numbers in front of me, Slough seems to be at pretty much half the level of every other area in the south-east. Clearly, that is not acceptable. We need to see what is happening and whether the schooling system or the local authority are not getting it right. We are happy to meet my hon. Friend and see what we can do to help.

Child Care

13. What recent representations he has received from child care providers on the Government’s child care policy. (194075)

Child care providers in the maintained and the private, voluntary and independent sectors all have a vital role in ensuring that local authorities can fulfil their new duties to secure sufficient child care for working parents and parents with disabled children, and to improve the well-being of young children. I am personally very keen to hear the voice of providers, and I take every opportunity to do so. I want local authorities to do the same.

Will the Minister therefore hear the voice of the voluntary, private and independent providers in my constituency? They are concerned that following the full implementation of the code of practice next month, there will be a loss of provision in my constituency. Many are concerned that the Government do not understand that what is effectively a one-size-fits-all approach does not take account of the shortfall in funding.

I would have those concerns, if they had proved to be true. The hon. Gentleman is jumping the gun somewhat. I understand that so far a third of providers have signed the new funding agreement with Enfield council, his local authority, and that the rest of them have almost three months to do so. I am clear that the £3 billion that the Government are putting in for the free entitlement is absolutely adequate.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the amount of money that his council is forwarding to private and voluntary providers. Given the size of its dedicated schools grant, the allocation is less than the national average. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman talks to his council to see whether it is passing on all the money from the Government that it can.

Topical Questions

This morning, my Department put before the House three written statements. The first was on the reform of the funding of 16 to 18 and adult education, and the second was on the steps that we are taking to ensure that we have the toughest ever vetting and barring system for all those working with or seeking to work with children and vulnerable adults. I am grateful for the constructive way in which the hon. Members for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) have discussed those difficult issues in recent months. I have offered them today a further meeting to discuss the detail of that statement in due course.

The final statement was about ensuring proper implementation of the school admissions code. Today, I am publishing regulations to extend the period for referring objections to unfair admissions arrangements. I am also publishing my letter to the schools adjudicator asking him to report on compliance with the code this year, with an update in July and a final report on 1 September. I pay particular tribute to the faith organisations that are working closely with us to ensure compliance with the code, and I welcome their statements today. I hope that the measures will have the support of both sides of the House as they ensure that all parents and young people can have fair admissions through fair compliance with the code.

I look forward to reading the three written statements. The Secretary of State has said that by defending A-levels one is committed to excellence for only a few. Is he seriously telling us that after 11 years of Labour Governments, only a few are capable of taking on A-level study?

I am happy to say that last week in the House I was pointing out the weakness of the Opposition on education policy. Let me say what would be weak of me. It would be weak of me not to take action when I have clear evidence of unfairness in the admissions code. It would be weak of me not to put forward diploma proposals which extend across the academic and vocational divide and which I have said will exist alongside A-levels and will deliver excellence for all. It would also be weak of me not to fight the corner for more investment in education alongside heath and defence—a fight that I fear that the hon. Gentleman has been losing in recent weeks.

T4. When I spoke to the Sure Start team in York today, they stressed that they have health visitor team leaders in their Sure Start children’s centres. Sure Start has given thousands of children a better start in life, and health visitors are part of that. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be wrong—robbing Petra to pay Paula—to take money away from Sure Start to fund health visitors, and will he give me a commitment to retain the funding for both? (194057)

Yes, I can. Leaving aside the gender stereotype and the fact that we want more men in those professions, I agree with my hon. Friend on his question and the points that he makes. To be serious for a moment, it is very dispiriting when we constantly have sniping and undermining of Sure Start by the Conservatives. As the national evaluation has recently shown, Sure Start is making a real difference, which is why we on the Labour Benches will reject any proposals to cut outreach workers—a policy that would undermine Sure Start and hit the poorest families most. Yet again, the Tories’ sums do not add up. They are saying—

Order. When I tell the right hon. Lady to stop attacking the Opposition, she stops—she does not continue after she is told.

Last week, on the day that we discovered that 100,000 families had been denied their first choice of school, the Government named three local authorities in which they claimed that a significant minority of schools were in breach of the admissions code. The Secretary of State said that a disproportionate number were voluntary aided—that is, faith schools. This was not a handful of schools, he said—it was certainly in the tens. He specifically drew attention to schools demanding money for places. However, we now know that the allegations were made after what he has conceded was “unverified desk research”. Was it wise to point the finger at faith schools before the research had been verified?

It was the right thing to do, and I make no apology whatever. Last week, we set out the good news that 80 per cent. of parents—indeed, more than last year—are getting their first choice of school. That is good news, not bad news, and I am very proud of what has been achieved in that respect. As I said in my statement last week, we did an internal piece of work that showed that although the vast majority of maintained schools and academies were compliant with the code, a significant minority, which are disproportionately voluntary aided and foundation schools, were non-compliant. The advice that I received, which I took, was that we should verify the data before making them public school by school, but I felt that it was right that if I was verifying that information around the country I should also make it clear and public what we were doing, and that is what I did. Just to give one example—

It is revealing that the Secretary of State has said that it was his decision to go public with that announcement, because it is important to have one’s facts straight before criticising minority faith schools. This is what head teachers of schools in Barnet have said:

“I do not understand why the allegation of school places for sale was made—the allegation was completely unfounded”.

Another said:

“It was extremely worrying that I was rung up by the press before I had received any letter from the Department”.

Another said:

“I was outraged and insulted to receive suggestions that we were asking for financial contributions to secure places”.

The Secretary of State knows that many of the schools against which allegations have been made receive purely voluntary contributions to pay for the security of Jewish children under threat from extremists. The schools adjudicator has now been told to lead an inquiry into school admissions. Surely it would have been better to wait until that inquiry had reported and verified pronouncements before singling out faith schools in this way.

Not at all. The fact is that voluntary contributions for security or other purposes are entirely legal under the code. What is not allowed is to ask for contributions as a condition of application to schools. The hon. Gentleman should be careful about jumping to conclusions; he should wait for the detailed data that we will publish. The reason why the faith organisations—I could quote the Board of Deputies, the Catholic Education Service or the Church of England—today supported publicly what we are doing is that they know that the credibility of the admissions code depends on dealing with these issues.

Mr. Speaker, may I please give you one example of an e-mail I received from a parent? She said that she was applying to a school where the application

“requires parents to state their occupation, sign a form agreeing to give permission to claim Gift Aid…and complete a standing order. The fees chargeable are stated in the prospectus as £37.50 per month. This must be submitted along with the application form to the school. Before I submit any of this information I would like to know if I am legally obligated to do so.”

The answer is that she is not obliged to sign a form saying that she will pay £37 a month before applying to a school—

Order. Both Front Benchers are saying too much here. Topical questions are for the benefit of Back Benchers, so that they can put brief questions and get brief replies.

T6. Last week, the Chancellor announced an extra £30 million for a science fund for schools. May I ask the Secretary of State how schools in my constituency can access this fund? I invite him to come to my constituency to see the excellent work being carried out at Freebrough engineering college to train future scientists and engineers. (194059)

Naturally, I would be extremely pleased to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency, particularly as he is a consistent advocate for the importance of science. The £10 million of Government funding for Project Enthuse that was pledged by the Chancellor last week will be matched, we expect, by equal investment from business and the Wellcome Trust to make £30 million. Secondary schools will be able to develop the skills and knowledge of their science teachers through professional development as a result of that investment.

T2. If diplomas are to be introduced successfully this September, parents, pupils and employers need to understand what they are all about. The children’s plan toolkit, published today, contains five brief paragraphs on diplomas, one of which says that GCSEs and A-levels can be taken either as part of diplomas or alongside diplomas, which is confusing for people who do not understand the system. What will be done between now and September to explain to parents, pupils and employers, in a pamphlet or brochure, what diplomas mean and what their value is, so that there will not be confusion at the start of the autumn term? (194055)

I will make a written statement to the House tomorrow on the take-up of diplomas in the second of the consortiums. Alongside that, for which there has been good take-up, we will continue our communications campaign. In my constituency, there has been full take-up of the construction and built environment diploma as a result of radio advertising locally and throughout the land. We will continue to try to get the message out to parents, but it will always be a challenge to get people to understand what we are suggesting for a brand new qualification. Roughly, the process will involve the equivalent of three days’ curriculum time and we expect to see people taking GCSE English and maths at level 2 alongside the diplomas.

T7. I know that the Minister answered a similar question earlier, but are there any further initiatives he can take to protect teachers from abuse and violence in the classroom? (194060)

As I have said, we have taken initiatives to ensure that teachers have the authority to discipline pupils, including the confiscation of mobile phones, and to discipline pupils for behaviour beyond the school gate. I know about the concerns about behaviour. We are determined to raise the bar, which includes asking Sir Alan Steer to conduct a review of the measures brought in as a result of his earlier review. There will be a report on an interim basis in the near future, and on a more detailed basis after that.

Last month, the Department confirmed that in the past year it has carried out investigations into two of its contracts with private sector contractors. One of those investigations has led to a referral to the police. Will the Minister tell us what the allegations were, which private sector contractors were involved, and the outcome of the investigations?

The matters that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned have been the subject of written questions from him. Many aspects of those matters are covered by commercial confidentiality. I am happy to meet him if he wants to discuss the issues further, and I confirm that there have been police investigations into some of those matters.

This morning, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced £5 million for GCSE and A-level music and dance at. Will my right hon. Friend ensure positive discrimination in allocating those scarce resources to the most disadvantaged schools, rather than to middle-class schools, which have all the gravitational pull of the high expectations of parents, pupils and teachers? Will he ensure that we act as a socialist Government and allocate the money to the poorest and most disadvantaged in our community?

Of course I can do so, and Lord Adonis will take forward that socialist policy. Evidence shows that dance is an effective way of encouraging especially girls in their early teenage years to keep active and participate in PE and games. We will ensure that that is available for not only some but all schools, and for all young people in every community in our country.

T3. I assume that that is new socialism, not to be confused with old socialism. At a time when we are teaching youngsters to be more environmentally aware of what they can do to help save the planet, we also tell them that they cannot go to their first, second or third choice of school, that they cannot get on the bus that starts in their village to the schools that they want to attend, and that parents have to get into a car and drive some distance to another place. May we have a little more joined-up thinking so that we practise what we preach and let youngsters go to schools that are nearer where they live? (194056)

As the Secretary of State said earlier, it is important that there is a choice of good schools for every parent in the country. That is why we introduced the national challenge. I was pleased that, in Lancashire, 97.6 per cent. of parents got a school of their preference and that 87 per cent. got their first choice. That is better than the national average. Lancashire is doing a good job—incidentally, under a Labour administration—in providing the good schools that every parent legitimately wants.

European Council

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the European Council held in Brussels, which I attended with the Foreign Secretary on 13 and 14 March.

I begin with the most important concern that the Council addressed: the need to ensure that, faced with global financial turbulence and what the Council identified as a deteriorating global economic outlook, high global oil and commodity prices and volatility in exchange rates, we continue to do all we can, with co-ordinated action at European and global level, to maintain stability and growth.

All European member states agreed to measures for greater financial market transparency: first, prompt and full disclosure of exposures to structured products and off balance sheet activities; secondly, more rigour in credit ratings; thirdly, improvements in valuation standards, particularly for illiquid assets; and fourthly, a strengthening of risk management under the capital requirements directive.

Given the globally transmitted nature of the risks, it is clear that many of those recommendations—the changes to credit rating agency operations and assessments; risk management and disclosure by global financial institutions; changes to capital adequacy rules; and arrangements for valuing financial instruments—which have also been proposed as measures for change by the American Administration, can best be implemented at a global level.

In welcoming that international dialogue as the first step in reform, I can tell the House that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is today writing to the G7, the International Monetary Fund and the Financial Stability Forum to call for co-ordinated international action on transparency and disclosure, better risk management and action on credit rating agencies to be agreed when the G7 and the IMF meet from 10 to 12 April.

In line with the approach of other major central banks, the Bank of England has this morning announced a further £5 billion liquidity support to financial institutions, and a new group has been set up to improve liquidity in the mortgage market.

At the European Council I made it clear that, while our economy is resilient and fundamentally strong, we will at all times remain vigilant and, especially at this time of global uncertainty, continue to take whatever action is necessary to maintain economic stability and growth.

The Council also discussed a new approach to the rising number and economic power of sovereign wealth funds. I strongly welcome the conclusions. Sovereign wealth funds are now worth $2 trillion, but may soon potentially be worth $10 trillion. Our new approach—calling for a voluntary code of conduct based on best practice, openness, transparency and corporate governance—is one that will enable funds to show that they are commercial in their operations.

The Council also discussed food and energy price inflation, and agreed further steps to monitor worldwide inflationary pressures. We agreed that the current global financial turbulence was not a reason to postpone fundamental economic reforms that are essential to building a more competitive European economy. We agreed that we should now press ahead with the liberalisation of markets and with new investment in knowledge and innovation. That includes further liberalisation in the energy, post and telecoms markets, which could generate up to 360,000 new jobs.

We discussed the need also for an economic reform strategy that looks beyond Lisbon—a comprehensive strategy to improve the business environment, strengthen relations with China and India, put our creative and knowledge industries at the forefront of the world economy, and make European universities leading global players, in particular through increasing their contacts with business. So the next stage of the Lisbon agenda will include a review of human capital and skills in Europe, and a renewed focus on competition policy in the single market.

The second major issue discussed by the Council was climate change, and it is essential that we achieve our ambitions of a comprehensive post-2012 agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and of Europe leading the world in a low-carbon economy.

In December, the united European front at the climate change negotiations in Bali played an important part in the historic breakthrough that agreed the need to make large cuts in emissions and achieve a new climate deal within two years. Only a common European approach—a Europe with Britain not at the margins but at the centre, leading the world—can ensure a global low-carbon economy founded on our proposal of a global carbon market.

Building on this commitment, the Council agreed an ambitious schedule for adopting a package of measures to cut emissions by 20 per cent. by 2020 or by 30 per cent. as part of an international agreement. The Council also agreed with the UK on the need for an effective EU emissions trading scheme to provide the incentives to drive carbon reductions in the most cost-effective way and for a cap on emissions set centrally, with a clear emissions reductions trajectory to give investors the predictability that they now need.

The Council also considered a report from the EU high representative on the security implications of climate change and, at our request, agreed to submit recommendations on follow-up action—including intensifying co-operation with countries outside Europe—by the end of the year.

Meeting the EU’s climate change targets requires not just action to reduce carbon emissions from energy suppliers and industry, but incentives to change individual behaviour. The Council will now invite the Commission, in bringing forward its legislative proposals on VAT rates, due in the summer, and working with member states, to examine areas where economic instruments, including VAT rates, can play a role in increasing the use of energy-efficient goods and energy-saving materials, from, as the UK has proposed, insulation and household materials to energy-efficient electrical goods, where VAT is cut.

The Council also agreed on the importance of achieving a fully functioning and joined-up internal energy market, as an essential condition for the secure, sustainable and competitive supply of energy across Europe. We also committed to an energy agreement by June this year. It is clear that energy security is strengthened by a policy that takes a collective approach to third-country producers, notably Russia.

Europe can also play a part in ensuring stability beyond its borders. The Council agreed to build on existing co-operation to establish a “Union for the Mediterranean”, to promote security and stability in the wider region and to provide a framework for co-operation between the EU27 and other Mediterranean coastal states on political and security issues, as well as economic, social and cultural affairs. That new union will be launched during the French presidency in July this year.

We also agreed that international development issues and the achievement of the millennium development goals, as well as Europe’s continuing leadership as the biggest contributor of aid in the world, will be the subject of a major discussion at the European Council in June.

The outcome of the Council and the preparations that are being made for June affirm the conclusions of the debate that we have had in the House over the past nine weeks: they demonstrate that, with the completion of the Lisbon treaty, we now have an opportunity to move beyond institutional issues to create a more outward-looking, flexible and global Europe, and to address the challenges that matter most to the citizens of Europe.

With three quarters of a million businesses, 3.5 million jobs and 60 per cent. of British trade dependent on our relationship with Europe, we should do nothing to put the stability of that relationship at risk. It is only by working constructively and remaining fully engaged with our European partners that we properly address the challenges ahead.

As we prepare for the European Council in June and the French presidency later this year, our aim is that European countries working together can lead the way on climate change, on security, on international development and on the response to global financial turbulence. I will be discussing with President Sarkozy when he visits Britain next week how we can take all these challenges forward during the French presidency. I commend this statement to the House.

I welcome the focus of this Council: global competitiveness, global poverty and global climate change. This is the right agenda. On climate change, the first thing that Governments should do is get their own house in order. The draft communiqué included specific targets to reduce energy use in Government buildings, offices and cars. Will the Prime Minister explain why those specific targets were removed from the final text agreed at the weekend? Looking at our own record here in the UK, does the Prime Minister accept that 14 Government Departments are less energy-efficient than they were eight years ago, and that 15 Government Departments have actually increased their carbon emissions during that time—[Interruption.] He asks what this has got to do with Europe. I think we should be leading by example. In a similar context, will he confirm that, despite the fine words in the Budget about plastic bags, the Government have bought 1.2 million Whitehall-branded single-use plastic bags in the past two years?

The Prime Minister is right to say that the success of the emissions trading scheme is vital. Will he acknowledge, however, that the Lisbon treaty is completely irrelevant to making that happen? There are six words on climate change in the treaty and, as the House of Lords Committee pointed out last week, they have no legal significance. Is it not the case that we do not need a new constitution or a new treaty to deal with climate change at EU level?

Everyone will welcome the Prime Minister’s intention to use indirect taxes, including VAT, as incentives for green behaviour. That is something that we have put forward in our own quality of life policy group report. The Commission said that it had doubts about whether the proposal was workable. One EU diplomat said that the agreed wording was

“a polite way of saying no”,

and

“a way of saving face”.

In regard to the outcome that we all want, is the Prime Minister sure that he is right and that that EU diplomat was wrong?

On the economy, Ministers discussed the recent turbulence in the financial markets. Clearly, proper co-ordination by central banks is going to be essential. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that his approach of putting the Financial Services Authority, rather than the Bank of England, in the lead to rescue British banks in distress will not make the process more difficult?

The final communiqué from Brussels warns Governments across Europe about the dangers of high deficits. Will the Prime Minister confirm that Spain’s budget is in balance, and that Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden all have budget surpluses, while Britain has the largest budget deficit in western Europe? Does he now regret the fact that we are the one country that failed to prepare for the downturn by putting money aside in the good years?

The other main issue for Europe to focus on is global poverty and the urgent need to make rapid progress on the Doha round. Will the Prime Minister tell us why the EU seems to be showing so little urgency in getting the deal moving again? The commissioner in charge of those negotiations is Peter Mandelson. Whatever any of us may think of him, I have always had very helpful briefing from him on trade and, I have to say, on other issues, too—[Laughter.] The Leader of the House should not laugh; she might put herself in jeopardy. What matters is that there should be a clear decision on whether he is going to serve another term. It cannot be in anyone’s interests for the commissioner’s future to be the subject of endless speculation. Will the Prime Minister tell us today whether Peter Mandelson is going to go on doing his job, or whether that decision is to be the subject of further dithering?

While Ministers were in Brussels, there was violence—[Interruption.] Look, I thought the boot boy had been told to calm down. I read in a Sunday newspaper that he was actually the soon-to-get-the-boot boy. Soon, he might have to go and sit in another part of the House. I see that the Prime Minister is laughing. I think your career—you will be on the same conveyor belt as the Leader of the House.

While Ministers were meeting in Brussels, there was violence on the streets of Tibet. An EU statement on Tibet has been issued today, which I am sure the whole House will welcome. Britain rightly works closely with China and we very much welcome the way it has opened up its economy, but is it not vital that the Chinese Government understand that with the greater role they play in the world comes greater responsibility? Does the Prime Minister agree that the strong relationship we all want with China requires us to be candid and frank, even on issues where we disagree?

I will deal with each point, but is it not remarkable when 3.5 million jobs are dependent on our membership of the European Union and when European co-operation on the environment was crucial to what happened at Bali that the right hon. Gentleman can say so little about the advantages of co-operation in Europe, and that he should spend his time attacking the European Union rather than seeing the benefits in it?

The right hon. Gentleman says that the environment is nothing to do with the European reform treaty, but it is the first time we have set down as a strategic objective that the environment is an important issue and it is there in the treaty. All the other parties in Europe believe it is important that the environment be at the centre of Europe’s work and if I may say so, if we are to lead the world on the environment, we will need to co-operate with our European partners.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the question of how we as a country are cutting emissions. We are one of the few countries meeting our Kyoto targets and we will continue to do so. One of the reasons why we are meeting them is that we implemented early on in our Government the climate change levy, which the Conservatives continue to oppose.

I find it very strange for the right hon. Gentleman to be raising issues that compare us with the rest of Europe in terms of economic progress. We have lower inflation than the rest of Europe and we have a history of stability and growth. He will find, during the course of this year, that the American deficit will be higher than the British one because people are taking the right action to deal with the global financial turbulence. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has so little to say in support of the action that the European Union and, indeed, all international authorities are taking on the economic issues confronting them. If the Conservatives want to be a serious party, perhaps they could actually address the serious issues of economic progress.

As far as the issues about Tibet are concerned, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that, although it was not discussed at the European Council, all of us are concerned about what is happening there. We have made our views known to the Chinese authority: we believe that there should be restraint and an end to violence; and we believe that there should be a dialogue between the different authorities, which should happen soon. It is very important to recognise that at this time the whole world is looking to China to see what the reaction will be.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of trade and may I say that we, too, have been pushing the rest of the world because we believe it important to use this window of opportunity to get a trade deal? That is why we are working as we are with the European Trade Commissioner and why it is essential to move other countries forward to see if we can get a deal.

One of the people who was at the European Council during the course of the weekend was the Czech Prime Minister. Until recently, he was the Conservative party’s only supporter in Europe. What he is saying now, however, is that failure to support the reform treaty will leave the Czechoslovakian people isolated in Europe. That is exactly what would happen to this country if we ever listened to Conservative advice.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his statement. As European summits go, the conclusions were workmanlike; largely welcome, but fairly unremarkable. I wonder whether that is in part because of the issues that were omitted. Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s words about Tibet today, will he explain why there was no discussion among EU Heads of State last week on Tibet? Does he not think that it is precisely the actions of the Chinese authorities in Tibet that should be the subject of discussion between European leaders?

I know that the Prime Minister is extraordinarily reluctant to do anything, it seems, to annoy the authorities in Beijing, but will he none the less confirm today that he will follow the lead of President George Bush and of Chancellor Angela Merkel and meet the Dalai Lama on his forthcoming visit to London to express solidarity with the Tibetan people? [Interruption.] As the Prime Minister knows, I have written to him about that on two occasions and still not had a clear answer—[Interruption.]

I congratulate the Prime Minister on inserting, at the last minute, a reference in the conclusions to his laudable aim of reducing VAT rates on environmentally friendly goods, but why did he apparently go about that in such a bizarre fashion? Why did he spring it on his colleagues—if reports are to be believed—at the last minute through a letter with President Sarkozy? Is that really the best way to show leadership and do business in the EU? My worry is that the manner in which the proposal was spun in the press had as much to do with obscuring the Government’s woeful record on the environment, compared with that of other EU countries.

We are now 25th—25th—out of the 27 EU member states on the use of renewables, and more than 25 per cent. of our carbon emissions come from our housing stock, compared with 5 per cent. in Sweden, which is a much colder country. We have a recycling rate well behind that of France, Germany, Spain and other countries. The go-ahead is being given to Kingsnorth power station—the first in a new generation of coal-fired power stations—without any effort being made to use carbon capture technology, and the go-ahead is being given to a third runway at Heathrow. The list goes on.

Does the Prime Minister not accept that he can make all the noise he wants about his VAT proposal, but our green credentials in the EU will never be strong unless real action is taken across a much broader range of issues? For instance, will he commit today to giving support to a new draft directive on the geological storage of carbon, which is being drafted in the European Parliament and which would oblige all member states to accelerate the use of carbon capture technology at all the coal-burning power stations?

I strongly agree with the Prime Minister that there is a pressing need to move towards a fully integrated and competitive energy market in the single market. In particular, the EU needs the powers to take action against monopoly energy providers in markets such as France and Germany. Does he agree that the new Lisbon treaty would give the EU precisely those powers further to liberalise the EU energy market, and that that is just another example of the benefits that the treaty would bring the British economy, which the Conservative party is so keen to deny the British people?

I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s remarks about co-ordinated action at European level to ensure stability and greater transparency in the financial markets. The reverberations around the global markets today, caused by the news that the US investment bank Bear Stearns is to be taken over at just 2 per cent. of its share value compared with 12 months ago, show how timely the EU’s Council statements are.

It is critical, at a time when liquidity remains so tight for the world’s banks, that steps are now taken to ensure that this does not create an environment where credit is being withdrawn for millions of ordinary people. That is why we must also now pioneer reforms to the system of lending to ensure that we do not find ourselves in a similar position in years to come.

Does the Prime Minister agree that while it is critical that the capital requirements directive be reviewed if we are to prevent a further boom-and-bust cycle in the credit markets, we must be prepared to use levers to control supply as well as demand for credit?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. First, may I correct him on VAT? I first raised the issue months ago with our European colleagues; I have been following it up ever since. I am grateful that we now have an agreement to look in detail at whether VAT reductions on matters such as household materials and electrical goods can be beneficial both in encouraging people to use energy-efficient products and in stimulating a market where Europe can benefit in the future. So, he is wrong to say that this was raised only on the day of the Council. We have been pressing our European colleagues on the matter for some time.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the importance that we attach to environmental issues. Again, I have to correct him. Carbon capture and storage is something that we have been pushing right across the EU. There will be 12 demonstration plants, and one of them, we believe, will be in the UK, but we want the European Commission to make it possible for there to be greater incentives so that people will develop carbon capture and storage at a quicker rate.

The right hon. Gentleman is right about energy liberalisation and the importance that we attach to it in the EU. That is one of the reasons why qualified majority voting in energy matters will be beneficial, opening up markets and the creating of jobs, although it was opposed by the Conservative party.

I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman about Britain’s record in relation to other countries. I repeat that we are one of the few countries in the world that is meeting its Kyoto targets, and we will continue to do so.

On the economy, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that Europe is leading the way on calling for a proper international response. We had a meeting with Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy, Mr. Prodi and the President of the European Commission a few weeks ago. We have now put forward proposals in detail. The Chancellor is writing to all members of the IMF, the G7 and the Financial Stability Forum to push these forward. Our proposals are in harmony with those that have just been put forward by the US Treasury Secretary. To ensure confidence in financial markets, we believe that it is important that those proposals are adopted.

Finally, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman when he says that action to express our views on Tibet is important. People around the world are expressing concern. We have made our views known, and there will be an EU statement later today. There is a demand for restraint on the part of the Chinese authorities. These are the most important matters now. We will make other announcements and decisions in due course.

The Prime Minister has stressed the importance of ensuring stability beyond the borders of Europe. Were there any discussions about Burma because, obviously, the UN envoy, Mr. Gambari, has failed in his mission to bring about stability and progress there? If the Prime Minister had no opportunity for discussions on this occasion, will he use the meeting with Mr. Sarkozy later in the week to discuss that matter?

My right hon. Friend is right that Burma is an issue on which we have common cause with many people in the rest of Europe and, indeed, in the rest of the world. Mr. Gambari has just finished his visits to Burma. It is important that we recognise that the Burmese regime’s proposals for a referendum and elections that would exclude Aung San Suu Kyi are totally unacceptable. She should be released from house arrest immediately. Democratic elections should happen, and there should be reconciliation to bring the forces in the country together. I will continue to press that cause with my European colleagues.

Why did the Prime Minister not answer the question about the future of Peter Mandelson as our European Commissioner? Surely he should be putting his right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) out of her misery.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it was important that he achieved success on getting the Council to consider a reduction in VAT on insulation materials? Will he go further and press the Heads of Government in Europe not only to achieve the target of a 60 per cent. reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, but to go beyond that towards 80 per cent.?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the whole of Europe should consider whether a more ambitious target than a 60 per cent. reduction by 2050 is not only necessary, but desirable and something that we should work for as part of the Bali negotiations that will be held in Copenhagen a year from now. I agree that it is important that we look at that, which is why we are asking our own Committee on Climate Change to report on it. I believe that other countries are ready to follow suit and that a common European policy is possible on this, as on other matters. May I say that it is no good for Conservative Members to call for environmental co-operation in Europe if they are about to renegotiate the whole of the treaty in Europe?

While we are on the subject of European co-operation, did the Prime Minister ask the other 26 Heads of Government at the European Council why none of them is prepared to send fighting troops to support our Army in the Helmand province of Afghanistan?

There are 43 countries involved in Afghanistan. Different countries are making different contributions in different ways. This will be a matter for discussion at the NATO summit in Bucharest, where other countries will be asked to share the burden in Afghanistan in terms of both equipment and troops. The specific location of troops will be a matter for discussion among the different partners in the coalition and we will reach agreement in due course. People ought to remember that, contrary to what was said at the time, 40 countries and more have joined the coalition on Afghanistan because they know that Afghanistan is the front line against the Taliban.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and refer him to paragraph 5 of the conclusions, in which member states are invited to strengthen the involvement of stakeholders in the Lisbon process. Will he tell the House how he intends to make sure that that happens, and that we will stick to the benchmarks that were originally suggested by the Lisbon process?

A range of discussions is taking place with all the social partners on all the issues related to Lisbon, and I know that industrialists and business groups have been called in to consider what the next stage of the Lisbon process might involve. I believe that we should now also consider the post-Lisbon process, so that we can think about how universities and skills can be part of the agenda for the future. A better competition policy may be part of the agenda as well. On all those matters, we will consult and work with not only all 26 of our colleagues in Europe but the various stakeholders who are concerned about the way in which the European economy develops.

I agree with the Prime Minister that it makes absolute sense for this country to be fully involved with Europe on environmental policy, and for Europe to be the most important mediator in the presentation of a greener agenda. The EU can achieve much more than any nation state can achieve on its own. Will the Prime Minister emphasise that such an approach would be gravely undermined if this country were to adopt the sheer folly of a process leading to a policy of effective disengagement at European level?

May I draw attention particularly to the Prime Minister’s comment about the strengthening of energy security through a policy that takes a collective approach to third-country producers, notably Russia? Will he flesh out the discussions that took place a few days ago on that specific issue, which is a cause of growing concern throughout Europe?

There was a discussion about energy security and relationships with Russia, which is indeed a serious matter. Although it should not prevent us from trying to secure a partnership agreement with Russia, we should be absolutely clear about where our strategic interests lie, and there is merit in Europe coming together to present a united front in this regard.

The right hon. Gentleman is also right to say that we would be in danger of not being able to make progress on the environment or on other issues if we were again to become isolated in Europe. I repeat that not one other country proposes a referendum on the European Union treaty—[Hon. Members: “Ireland!”]—apart from Ireland, and not one Government of the 27 opposes the treaty, while this Conservative party in this House opposes it. I understand that the only parties that support the Conservative position on the referendum are the Dutch Party for the Animals, the French Hunting, Fishing, Nature, Tradition party, Sinn Fein, and a variety of Trotskyists. Moreover, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic—I repeat, the Czech Republic—made it absolutely clear not only that he would be isolated in Europe if he opposed the treaty, but that he was totally against the Conservative position on a referendum. In other words, the Conservatives have no allies in Europe.

The Prime Minister rightly referred to the need to co-ordinate energy security across Europe, but, if the climate change scientists are right, it seems likely that in the next few years lack of access to drinking water in north Africa will lead to dramatic changes in patterns of migration into Europe. In the past, that danger has tended to interest only the Mediterranean members of the European Union. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is now vital that the whole European Union take it seriously?

It is true that problems in Africa, whether they involve water shortages, lack of economic development, poverty, disease or migration, can directly affect the whole of Europe. That is why it is important that we have strong relationships with the African Union, and why the proposed union of the Mediterranean—which will involve 27 countries in Europe as well as Mediterranean countries bordering Europe—is such an important development. One of the issues that will be discussed is what help we can give African countries to develop not just their water supply but their infrastructure, so that they can trade with the rest of Europe.

The whole House will welcome the target of a 20 per cent. reduction in emissions by 2020, but which figure will the Prime Minister use in referring to the United Kingdom’s contribution? Will he use the figure that is often quoted to the United Nations, or the figure in the report published today by the National Audit Office, which is some 12 per cent. higher?

It is predicted that greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 will be 23.6 per cent. lower than they were in 1990. The goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 20 per cent. below 1990 levels as well, and that is obviously part of the Government’s objective. We are now considering the targets for 2020 and 2050.

One of the great advantages of our membership of the European Union is the opportunity it provides to young people to work, study and travel freely across the EU. In the context of the post-Lisbon agenda, the review of human capital and skills and the role of universities, will my right hon. Friend look particularly carefully at the difficulties that we have in encouraging our young people to take advantage of the financial assistance schemes that are available to enable them to study abroad? British young people seem more reluctant to study abroad than young people in similar EU countries. Will he look at that carefully?

The Minister for Europe is here, and he draws my attention to the Erasmus scheme and other schemes that make it possible for people to study in the rest of Europe. We will certainly look at that matter. Co-operation between universities—and, indeed, between all institutions of education—will be very important. We must do everything in our power to deepen those collaborations.

When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister was critical of EU structural funding and the waste of that funding and of industrial expenditure. He said that

“there is no better place to start than by bringing regional policy back to Britain”.

If that is still his view, what progress has he made in persuading other member states of that?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that matter, because we have made reforms in European Union expenditure. That means that more of the resources are going to the poorest countries, which was the objective of the proposals that I put forward. I wanted more resources to go to the poorest countries in the rest of Europe and I wanted member states such as us to be able to carry out our own regional policy. That is why we have advocated changes in the state aid rules, and why, for example, on venture capital, we have made progress exactly in that area.

I welcome the decisions in the European Council about financial market transparency and today’s boost to the liquidity of financial institutions by the Bank of England, but given that irresponsible lending by those institutions has created real risks for home owners, will the Prime Minister initiate discussions about how to keep people on the home ownership ladder? We have many excellent schemes to get people on the first rung, but existing home owners are at risk of losing their homes because of bad lending. What can he do to help them?

One of the announcements that I made during the statement was that the Government are creating a new group to look at mortgage markets, and that will cover some of the questions that my hon. Friend raises. I agree that it is important at these times that we do everything we can to help those who are finding it difficult to pay their mortgages. However, she will note that the rate of people losing their homes and the rate of people who are in arrears on their mortgages are substantially lower than they were in the last world downturn in the early 1990s, when we had more home repossessions than at any time in our history.

As a director of the Great Britain-China Centre, a body partly funded by the Foreign Office, I was pleased to note in the Prime Minister's statement that he discussed a comprehensive strategy to strengthen the EU’s economic relations with China, but I found his response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) about the influence that the EU should have on China in relation to Tibet somewhat thin. Will the Prime Minister provide us with some practical examples of what his Government will do in the next few days in that regard?

We have made our views known. While there was a discussion among Foreign Ministers about Tibet, it was not at the full European Council. Information was very sketchy on Thursday and Friday about what was happening in Tibet. It is only recently that we have become more aware of the problems that have arisen there. We have made our views known to the Chinese authorities. The Foreign Secretary is in touch with the Foreign Minister of China. We are calling for restraint and we believe that the way forward is a dialogue between the different parties. The hon. and learned Gentleman may know that we have been part of a human rights dialogue with China whereby there were visits to Tibet recently to look at conditions there, so we keep everything in that area under review and we are calling for restraint, for an end to violence and for dialogue between the parties involved.

May I ask the Prime Minister what was agreed at the Council to get better control of EU spending and budgets, so that we do not see a 14th successive failure to get the accounts signed off by the auditors because of major problems in each of the key spending areas?

The hon. Gentleman is right in that we have been pressing for better accountancy procedures in relation to that, but he should betray to us the true nature of his inquiry: he wants Britain out of the European Union altogether.

The very first line of the presidency conclusions from the summit are:

“The fundamentals of the European Union economy remain sound: public deficits have been more than halved since 2005 and public debt has also declined”.

As by 2005 the Prime Minister had been in charge of the economy for eight years, will he explain why in the ensuing period the United Kingdom made such a significant negative contribution to the wider EU position?

When we came to power, debt was 44 per cent. of GDP, but it is now 38 per cent.; it is billions of pounds less than it was. We should not take any lectures from the party that caused the recession of the early ’90s.

As I have said, the priority at present is to deal with the issues in Tibet and to make our representations to the Chinese Government. We will make any further announcements later.

While the Prime Minister was chatting—convivially, I am sure—with his fellow European leaders in Brussels, did any of them congratulate him on pushing the Lisbon treaty through this House, even though that did, of course, involve his breaking his solemn promise on a referendum, contrary to the wishes of the British people?

When it was a constitutional treaty, nine Governments in Europe said there should be a referendum. As it is no longer a constitutional treaty, only one Government—the Irish, who are legally obliged to do so—are having a referendum. This has been through constitutional courts in Denmark and Holland, which agreed that this is not a constitutional treaty. In fact, the first words of the Brussels declaration are that the constitutional concept has been abandoned. The Conservative party would do better to follow us in negotiating better living standards and better deals for the British people than to try to renegotiate past treaties, which is clearly what it will spend all its time doing.

Does the Prime Minister recall that when the Lisbon agenda 2000 was first launched, it promised 3 per cent. annual growth in the European Union until 2010 and that red tape would be cut? The then Prime Minister said that it

“marks a sea change in European economic thinking…away from heavy-handed intervention and regulation”.—[Official Report, 27 March 2000; Vol. 347, c. 21.]

However, the European Commission itself now accepts that even though the single market increases European GDP by €225 billion, the burden of European regulation is €600 billion. Is that why the Lisbon agenda has to be relaunched time and again with the words:

“Launching the new cycle of the renewed Lisbon strategy”?

l We have been making proposals to cut red tape in Europe during our presidency and in recent presidencies. The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the success of the Lisbon process: 10 million new jobs have been created in the EU as a result of it. He should tell us the true nature of his inquiry about Europe. He wants a referendum to oppose the amending treaty. He wants that even if it is ratified. He would force renegotiation of our membership of the EU. No country in Europe supports that, and he would be totally isolated.

The promise of a discussion of the millennium development goals at the June Council sounds somewhat weak. Will the Prime Minister undertake that between now and June, UKREP—the United Kingdom Representative Office—and No. 10 will work with colleagues elsewhere in the EU to try to ensure that at the June Council meeting a process is put in place to implement the MDGs by 2015 and that there is not just further discussion, but that some decisions are made about a process to implement them by then?

I am grateful for that question from the hon. Gentleman, who used to be the Chairman of the International Development Committee. We have called a conference with business leaders and others in May to look at how we can make progress on the MDGs and get a wider coalition of business, voluntary groups, foundations, charities and faith groups, as well as Governments, to pursue them. In June, this matter will be discussed in detail at the European Council as a report is being prepared already by Mr. Barroso, President of the Commission, about the progress that has been made and the progress that has still to be made. That will lead through to September, when there will be a special session of the UN—called by the Secretary-General—to look at what we must do next to achieve the MDGs. All Members should recognise that Europe leads the world: it is the biggest contributor to aid. It has done more than any other continent, but we want to do still more in the future. It is only possible for us to work successfully if we continue to work together. That demands a high level of co-operation in Europe, which I hope all Members will support.

The Prime Minister spoke about Russia’s important role in energy security and made particular reference to Ukraine. Russia also has a very important role to play with its allies in Serbia in connection with the future security and stability of Kosovo. Has the Prime Minister yet managed to speak to President-elect Medvedev, and when does he expect to meet him face to face to discuss the important role that Russia has to play in the future of Europe?

As far as Kosovo is concerned, the violence that is happening now is most regrettable. I hope that the withdrawal of some of the UN forces can be avoided. It is very important to recognise that the policy of supervised independence in Kosovo means that there is a role for all minorities in that country. I am pleased that a large number of countries have now recognised the new Kosovo. Serbia is guaranteed a European future if, of course, it continues to observe democratic rights, which it is doing. I understand its frustrations about what has happened in Kosovo, but it is important that it recognises its responsibilities to the rest of Europe.

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well the difficulties in our relationship with Russia that have arisen from what happened in London, where we had an assassination, and, at the same time, as a result of the treatment of the British Council, but we want good relations with Russia. We support a partnership agreement between the European Union and Russia, and we will continue to pursue these objectives.

Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), does the Prime Minister have any plans, separate from those of the EU, to meet the Dalai Lama?

I have made it clear that we are concerned about recent events in Tibet; we have made our view known. We have called for restraint. We believe that there should be a dialogue between the parties. That is the most important thing at the moment, and any further announcements or any further decisions can come later.

Given that the Prime Minister seems reluctant to meet the Dalai Lama, will he confirm that he will at least have the courtesy to have a conversation on the telephone with him?

I have made my views known. I repeat: this was not discussed at the European Council. A statement is being made by European Union Foreign Ministers this afternoon, and I believe that that will show the unity of Europe in expressing concern about the situation.

Following the Prime Minister’s reference to Czechoslovakia—that far-away place of which he obviously knows little—do we now have evidence that he has been receiving foreign affairs briefing from the President of the United States?

I talk regularly to all my colleagues in Europe, and I made it absolutely clear when I was talking about the Czech Forum that I was talking about the Czech Republic.

Nail Bars and Special Treatment Premises (Regulation)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the licensing of nail bars and premises where tattooing, cosmetic piercing and other prescribed treatments are carried out; and for connected purposes.

A constituent of mine first drew my attention to nail bars and the potential problems posed by what one might describe as the bargain-basement end of the market. My constituent, who runs a reputable nail bar in central Milton Keynes, became very concerned by the damage that had been done to the nails of some of her customers by other, less reputable establishments. Since I first raised this issue in the House on 15 November 2007, I have received feedback from across the UK showing that this is a widespread problem—a point reflected in the wide geographical spread of the sponsors of this Bill.

It might help Members who are not familiar with the nail bar business if I briefly describe what nail bars are and the procedures they use. Nail bars are a relatively recent import from the US. They are a part of the beauty industry, and offer artificial nail extensions that can then be painted or decorated. In reputable nail bars with properly qualified nail technicians, nail extensions are created from mixing a polymer powder with a polymerising agent called ethyl methacrylate, or EMA. The resulting nail extension is flexible and easily attached to the natural nail. Unfortunately, the expansion of nail bars has led to a rise in the number using unqualified technicians and using an alternative polymerising agent called methyl methacrylate, or MMA. The agent is banned in nail bars in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, but there is no such ban in this country. The attractions of MMA to the operative is that it is much cheaper than EMA, at between a third and a sixth of the price, and that it forms the extensions more quickly, enabling non-standard nail bars to undercut the prices of the more reputable businesses.

The customer might not be aware until it is too late that MMA has serious disadvantages, however. The nail extension is much more rigid and does not adhere well to the natural nail, so the natural nail has to be drilled or etched with an electric file to help adhesion. Unlike EMA, MMA polymers continue to polymerise once attached, and the MMA penetrates and damages the nail bed. Long-term use of MMA is associated with respiratory problems and serious allergic skin reactions, and the staff using it usually protect themselves, including from the dust generated by the electric filing, by wearing gloves and masks. That ought to suggest to the customer that the use of MMA is not risk free.

The other consequence for the customer of using MMA is that the extensions are so rigid and so tightly stuck to the nail that if they get caught or jammed the natural nail can be ripped off. Pain is caused by the drilling, and the permanent ridging and damage to the natural nail and nail bed can take a long time to grow out. To compound matters, MMA extensions are much more difficult to remove than those formed with EMA. [Interruption.] I can see that I am catching the attention of the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening). Several of the nail bar technicians who have contacted me have shown me graphic pictures of the damage that MMA has caused to the nails of patrons of sub-standard nail bars.

One way to deal with the problem is to improve awareness among the public, particularly young girls and women, of the damage caused by MMA and the importance of ensuring that, before anyone tampers with their nails, they check that the person is properly qualified. I know of one scheme that is to be launched shortly, which will allow potential customers to check a website for reputable nail bars in their area. I very much welcome that, but simply improving public awareness will not stop the continued spread of non-standard nail bars. Such bars not only risk affecting their customers but undercut the credibility of the whole sector and those who try to provide a high-quality service.

London councils within the M25 already have the power under part II of the London Local Authorities Act 1991—“Special treatment premises”—to license nail bars, and thus in principle to impose standards, including the appropriate level of qualification for staff and restrictions on the chemicals that can be used. However, the contacts that I have had suggest that even in London, where licensing powers exist, council licensing officers may be focusing on hygiene—that is important, because hepatitis C can be spread through the use of electric drills on nails—and may not be aware of the specific risks of MMA or of the need to check the qualifications of staff.

Outside London, the situation is even more confused. Nail bars do not come within the scope of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, and therefore cannot be subject to licensing. Environmental health staff can give advice on the use of chemicals, but their only enforcement powers come through the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which is relevant to employees, not to customers. Trading standards can respond to customer complaints, but most customers do not realise that the pain and damage that they experience because of MMA are not just a normal part of the process.

Although the problem of MMA seems well known in the industry, it seems to be below the radar of public authorities. In response to earlier comments that I have made in the House, the Department of Health has told me that it has made no assessment of the public health risk of MMA in nail bars, and the Health Protection Agency has no record of ill effects to customers or employees in the last three years. The HSE’s health and safety laboratory is apparently reviewing health issues for technicians in nail bars, but it seems that, once again, the effect on the customer is being ignored—perhaps because damaged nail beds are not regarded as a terribly serious public health issue.

That is not satisfactory. Most of the customers of non-standard nail bars are likely to be young women and girls on low incomes, for whom the low prices that those businesses can charge make nail extensions seem much more accessible. Customers need to be protected from unscrupulous operators, which is why I propose that the powers already enjoyed by London councils to license nail bars and a number of other similar businesses should be extended to all local authorities across England.

The chief environmental health officer at my local council in Milton Keynes tells me that following an inspection, tattooists, for example, like to have a document from the local authority as it drives the cowboy operators out of business. It helps to bring in customers if businesses can advertise that they are registered with the local authority. Among qualified nail technicians, there is also strong support for regulation. At present, an astonishing 85 per cent. of nail technicians do not have NVQ level 3 qualifications, and have no incentive to invest in the training as it gives them no competitive advantage.

A proper licensing regime across England would protect customers, drive up standards and reward those businesses investing in training. It would mean that girls and young women could use nail bars and be confident that they would suffer no ill-effects.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Phyllis Starkey, Ms Celia Barlow, Mr. Clive Betts, Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods, Richard Burden, Ms Sally Keeble, Fiona Mactaggart, Chris McCafferty, Kerry McCarthy, Martin Salter, Anne Snelgrove and Margaret Moran.

Nail Bars and Special Treatment Premises (regulation)

Dr. Phyllis Starkey accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the licensing of nail bars and premises where tattooing, cosmetic piercing and other prescribed treatments are carried out; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 25 April, and to be printed [Bill 87].

Orders of the Day

Ways and Means

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

amendment of the law

Motion made and Questions 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

I welcome the opportunity afforded by the Budget debate to discuss the challenge that we face as a country and as a world to move from our historical reliance on a carbon-intensive way of living towards a sustainable, low-carbon economy. Wherever we look, whatever goods and services we buy, whatever things we do, all of them have a carbon footprint. Carbon is currently central to our way of life, but we need that to change if emissions are to decline in the way that is necessary.

The UK has made progress. We have broken the link between economic growth and growth in carbon emissions. The economy has grown by about a quarter in real terms in the last 10 years, whereas greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 7.6 per cent. But for the action that has been taken, greenhouse gas emissions would now be about 15 per cent. higher than they were in 1990; instead, we will more than meet our Kyoto target. However, as the facts of climate change become more stark, we will need to be even more radical, and the Climate Change Bill will enable us to do just that. For the first time anywhere in the world, a legal requirement will be placed on the Government of the day to ensure that the country’s carbon account does not exceed its carbon budgets. Budgets will be set in legislation.

I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way so early in his speech. He has just mentioned the carbon budgets, but what about the Budget? Can he give us some idea of the total amount of carbon reduction that he expects as a result of the measures announced in the Chancellor’s recent Budget?

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall give some of those figures in the course of my speech. The facts, however, are that the independent climate change committee, the shadow version of which met for the first time last week, will of course propose the first of the three carbon budgets at the end of this year. At the same time, it will advise the Government, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor outlined last week, on whether we should go further than the 60 per cent. reduction by 2050 and strengthen it to an 80 per cent. reduction.

Our task now is to ensure that the UK meets those budgets. That will require a contribution from every business and every household in the land as well as co-ordinated efforts across government. That is why the Chancellor announced last week that the first three carbon budgets will be set alongside the Budget next year. That is a sign of the Government’s determination to put reducing carbon dioxide emissions at the centre of policy making and of the economy.

The Secretary of State will be well aware that measuring the right thing is critical. He will know that the narrow measure used for Kyoto tells one story while the broader measure in the nation’s environment accounts, produced by the Office for National Statistics, tells a different story. Does he accept that on that basis, according to a comprehensive measure, CO2 emissions have not fallen at all since 1990 and have increased since 1997? Is that not a cause for grave concern?

According to the measure that we use to report to the United Nations, because that is the way it asks for the figures to be submitted, it is clear that UK emissions of greenhouse gases have fallen by 15.4 per cent. and emissions of CO2 by 6.4 per cent. We also report to the UN figures on emissions from aviation and shipping, which are included in a footnote when they are published. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the ONS does its own estimate in the environmental accounts. That calculates emissions from flights in a different way and also includes estimates resulting from UK citizens who live and work in other countries. It clearly would not make sense for those figures to be included in the UK totals that are reported to the UN framework convention on climate change. The way in which we report fulfils the requirement that the UN places on us, and we are making the progress that has been set out. Aviation and shipping are issues that we need to deal with internationally.

The changes that we are putting in place mean that 12 months from now—only a short time—meeting our carbon budgets will be on an equal footing with meeting our financial budgets. The House will, I am sure, appreciate that that is a profound change in the way in which we do things. As the first of its kind in the world, the Climate Change Bill is also a sign of the UK’s international commitment. As the House will be aware, the world agreed in Bali just before Christmas to start negotiations on a new global climate deal to take us beyond 2012.

Getting the United States of America, Australia, China and India into formal negotiations on a new deal is a huge step forward, but the hard part starts now. We have to get every country in the world to play its part. That is why leadership in Europe is so important. As we have just heard from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the European Council has reaffirmed its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by 20 per cent. by 2020, with legislation next year. Part of the agreement is that Europe will go further, with a 30 per cent. reduction by 2020, if an international agreement is reached.

I am sure that the House will recognise that international leadership by any country is not enough. We can bring to the negotiating table only that which we can contribute at home. That means that the UK must take bold action both to make possible progress in the negotiations and to reduce our carbon footprint.

Our approach to reducing emissions across the economy—in our homes, our businesses, the public sector, transport and energy supply—is based on three principles. The first is pricing carbon, through a trading tax or through regulation, to get the most cost-effective reduction. The second is encouraging innovation in low-carbon technologies, and the third is removing barriers to action, including encouraging long-term behavioural change. The Budget does those things by setting out the steps that we intend to take in each of those areas. Each of us as individuals has a role to play in tackling climate change.

Before the Secretary of State gets to the meat of the three principles, may I point out that both he and the Chancellor in his Budget have been entirely silent about using taxpayers’ money to buy carbon credits in overseas markets to allow us to fulfil our ambitious carbon targets? The National Audit Office estimates that the cost to British taxpayers will be about £5 billion by 2020; what is the Government’s estimate?

It will depend on the decision that the Government take about the use of international credits. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Bill provides for the Committee on Climate Change to give us advice on the use of international credits. The Government will have to look at that advice in due course, when we receive it. In another place, there was a lively debate about the use of international credits, and we will no doubt have such a debate in the House when the Bill comes before us. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman accepts, it is entirely legitimate to make progress partly by using international credits because in the end, from the world’s point of view, it does not matter where emissions are saved, as long as they are saved. That is why the Government’s view is that carbon trading and the purchase of credit have an important role to play.

Some 40 per cent. of emissions are the result of choices that we make as individuals, so the Government want to help people to make low-carbon choices, and to ensure that our homes and products are working towards low-carbon living. That is why we launched a big public awareness campaign last year to encourage people to act on CO2. I saw that campaign working for myself in Leeds last Friday. The online carbon calculator has already been visited by about 800,000 people. It is practical and simple; it helps us as individuals to understand what our own carbon emissions are, and gives practical ideas on how to reduce our carbon footprint.

Through the carbon emissions reduction target we have obliged energy companies to double the amount of energy-saving measures that they install in people’s homes from this April, which means that they will reach up to 8 million households. That will help to save 4 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2011, and deliver a typical saving of £90 on fuel bills. The green homes service, which is to be launched next month, will provide people with comprehensive advice on how they can reduce their carbon footprint, and will connect people with the offers that are available from energy companies and with other support. We will put £26 million into that service.

We will become the first country in Europe to phase out high-energy light bulbs. That is to be completed by 2011 and will save up to 5 million tonnes of CO2 a year that would otherwise be produced through UK electricity generation. We have introduced regulations to improve the energy efficiency of new homes. Today’s buildings are 40 per cent. more energy efficient than those built before 2002, and 70 per cent. more efficient than those built before 1990. In under a decade, all new homes will be zero-carbon. We will set out the definition of a zero-carbon home for the purposes of the 2016 target by the end of 2008, following a consultation in the summer. The Government are determined to enable business and the public sector to play their part in a low-carbon Britain.

Has the Secretary of State looked any further into giving householders an incentive, such as a reduction in council tax, for embarking on microgeneration—for example, for installing a small windmill, a ground source heat pump or solar panels?

As the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware, we are considering the role that feed-in tariffs could play in ensuring that people do the things that he sets out. It is clear that we need to find more ways to incentivise and encourage that kind of investment. The experience of other European countries that have adopted feed-in tariffs for microgeneration is that it brings forward investment: the renewables obligation certificates work better for large-scale generation.

I wish to mention the climate change levy, as it was opposed by the Opposition. It is forecast to reduce emissions by 12.8 million tonnes a year by 2010, and the climate change agreement is forecast to reduce emissions by 7 million tonnes a year by 2010. The carbon reduction commitment will cover the non-intensive business sector. Up to 5,000 large public sector organisations and businesses, such as banks and supermarkets, will participate in the scheme. It will save at least 4 million tonnes of CO2 per year by 2020 and will save the organisations involved some £755 million through lower energy bills.

I believe in the importance of Government leadership, and because of that all Government Departments will participate in the scheme. However, we need to go further.

My right hon. Friend referred to feed-in tariffs, which we welcome—they cover revenue costs and help with day-to-day costs. However, the capital cost of installing solar panels, for example, is very high. There was a Government scheme for 50 per cent. grants; if that were available generally, I am sure that solar panels would rapidly be installed across the whole country.

Following the consultation that the Government are going to undertake on them, feed-in tariffs would encourage people to invest and encourage others to lend money for people to invest, by providing the income stream for the years ahead. As I have said before, I think that way of doing things is better than the Government giving out grants to achieve the same effect. The tariffs would incentivise the system; that is why the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has announced that we will consider them.

However, we need to go further still. That is why the Chancellor announced in the Budget our aim that all new non-domestic buildings be zero-carbon from 2019, with the public sector leading the way. It is already the Government’s aim for all new schools to be zero-carbon from 2016; we want all new public sector buildings to be zero-carbon from 2018 and we will establish a taskforce to advise on the timetable and on how to reduce carbon emissions in the intervening period. To help public sector bodies in England, including local authorities and hospitals, I have already announced an extra £30 million over three years in interest-free loans for energy-efficiency projects through the Salix scheme.

Cars and lorries are the second largest source of CO2 emissions in the UK. Changing the transport sector to meet the demands of business and personal travel while reducing carbon emissions is clearly important. That is why the Government have provided sustained year-on-year investment in public transport. One consequence has been that passenger numbers on our railways are up—from 735 million passengers in 1994-95 to 1.16 billion in 2006-07. That figure is as high as it has been since the late 1950s to early 1960s.

We are investing in and promoting new clean technologies for transport, including a £20 million fund to help public sector organisations to buy environmentally friendly vehicles. The House will have seen the King review, published at the same time as the Budget. It considers even more radical steps to decarbonise transport, especially cars, in the next 25 years. In response, the Government have made clear their support for an EU-wide target for vehicle manufacturers to reduce average CO2 from new cars to 100 g per kilometre by 2020. That would be on top of the provision for 130 g of CO2 per kilometre currently being discussed in Europe. Furthermore, the Budget outlined a restructuring of vehicle excise duty to encourage motorists to purchase fuel-efficient vehicles.

Can the Secretary of State suggest how a rural farmer or country dweller will be able to do without his Land Rover or other 4x4 vehicle and escape the penalty that the Government are imposing on him by way of increased vehicle excise duty?

From memory, I think that the best-in-class 4x4 has an emissions figure of 151 g of CO2 per kilometre. If the hon. and learned Gentleman looks at the new table for vehicle excise duty, he will see that that figure is well below some of the others. The aim of the change to vehicle excise duty is to encourage people purchasing new vehicles to choose the most fuel-efficient and least polluting in class. That is why individuals who buy the most polluting, fuel-hungry vehicles will have to pay £950 in the first year, 2010-11, which is more than double the current rate, while those who buy the cleanest—those emitting 130 g of CO2 or less per kilometre—will pay nothing.

Recognising that there is a genuine debate about the sustainability of biofuels, we announced in the Budget a switch in support from the existing biofuels subsidy towards the renewable transport fuels obligation, which contains sustainability criteria. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I have asked Ed Gallagher, who chairs the Renewable Fuels Agency, to lead a study of the wider economic and environmental impacts of biofuel production, including the impact on fuel prices. Together with the changes to company car taxation, all these steps are sending a clear signal that choosing the cleanest and most fuel-efficient vehicle is, in every sense, the sensible thing to do.

How many family vehicles has the Secretary of State been advised that the car companies are intending to produce that will fit within the low-carbon bands?

I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with a list of the best in class for all the different categories showing what vehicle can be purchased and what are the CO2 emissions in grams per kilometre for those vehicles. The change is intended, first, to incentivise the purchase of low-emission vehicles and, secondly, to incentivise the manufacturers to invest more effort in producing more vehicles that have lower emissions. That is one of the changes that must be made if we are to make progress in meeting the aims of the Budget. Although I understand the Opposition’s wish to raise these points, in the end this is about making choices. It is all very well to talk about the need for green taxation, but when measures come along to create an incentive structure for vehicles in order to lead to a change, the House should support that.

I am sorry to return to the same point, but if the Secretary of State cannot give us a figure for the overall carbon reduction impacts of the Budget, can he give us just the figure for the changes to car taxation? If we are to be invited to support these measures, it is important to know what the impact is going to be.

The reduction relating to the change in car taxation is some 500,000 tonnes of CO2 a year; that is the figure that I have before me. Of course, what it is going to mean in reality will depend very much on the choices that individuals make. Road transport is only part of the picture. In the 2007 pre-Budget report, the Government announced that air passenger duty would be replaced with a per-plane rather than a per-passenger tax better to reflect the environmental costs of aviation, and we said that in order to strengthen the environmental signal through taxation we would increase the tax by 10 per cent. from 1 November 2010.

I may be able to help the Secretary of State out at this point. I think that he may have inadvertently misled the House. The figure of 500,000 tonnes of carbon reduction arises from the deferred increase in fuel duty, not from the changes to car taxation. I would be grateful if he could give us the figures for the latter.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I apologise for that mistake. The answer on vehicle excise duty will depend on the decisions that individuals take in making their purchases. It is therefore quite difficult to forecast what the changes will be, but the reduction as a result of fuel duty is indeed the figure that I gave the House a moment ago.

Let me turn my attention to the energy sector. The UK has signed up to an EU-wide target for 20 per cent.—

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I want to make a little progress, having been generous is giving way.

The UK has signed up to an EU-wide target for 20 per cent. of energy production to come from renewable sources by 2020. In the summer, the Government will launch a full consultation on proposals for meeting the UK’s share of the target. We will look at all options for doing so, from things such as the Severn barrage, which could meet 5 per cent. of the UK’s electricity supply needs, to offshore wind—the UK is now the No. 1 location for such investment in the world and is forecast to overtake Denmark as the country with the most offshore wind generation capacity—to microgeneration, which we have just discussed, along with our commitment to consider feed-in tariffs in that area.

The EU emissions trading scheme is at the heart of the plan of the UK and Europe to deal with climate change. It creates a price incentive for generators to reduce their emissions. To ensure that the EU ETS sends the strongest possible signal to the power sector, in phase 3 the UK will go to a system of 100 per cent. auctioning in the large electricity producers sector.

On the issue of offshore wind generation, will the Government finally address the unfairness and imbalance in connectivity charges to the grid—the subsidy received in the south versus the massive cost to connect in the north-west of Scotland? We cannot gain from offshore wind capacity if the unfairness in the connectivity charge is not removed.

The fact that we are now the No. 1 location for investment, and that we will overtake Denmark as the country with the largest installed offshore wind capacity, shows that, despite the issue the hon. Gentleman raises, we are making progress in putting more wind capacity in place to meet our need for renewable energy in the years to come. No doubt the debate will continue about the most effective way to allow more capacity to come on stream. When one talks to renewable energy companies, one finds that they are most concerned about planning. That is a special case as far as onshore wind is concerned, but as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government are taking steps to address that.

We are introducing a wide range of low-carbon technologies as part of the £400 million domestic environmental transformation fund. The Carbon Trust technology programme will receive more than £90 million to introduce new energy technology, such as offshore wind, third-generation photovoltaic power, marine energy and biomass heating. During the next three years, the Government will provide about £10 million for a new anaerobic digestion demonstration programme.

Carbon capture and storage will be vital if we are to deal with the problems facing the world, and another example of the UK taking the lead in the demonstration of technology on a commercial scale is the launch of a competition to design and build the world’s first post-combustion CCS power station. We are currently the only European Union country committed to fund a commercial-scale CCS project, and we will shortly launch a consultation on what it would mean for a new coal-fired station to be capture-ready, and on whether all new fossil-fuel power stations should be required to demonstrate that they are capture-ready.

Is the Secretary of State not aware of the BP Abu Dhabi CCS project, which was announced at the world future energy summit in January? It will be up and running by 2012, when the Government’s competition will barely be over.

I am indeed aware of that. I was referring to European Union countries building demonstration projects in the EU, and I said that we are the only EU country doing that in the EU. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are also funding, alongside other countries, the near zero-emissions coal demonstration project—NZEC—in China. We have to demonstrate that post-combustion CCS works because we have to fit it in all existing coal-fired power stations and in those built during the months and years ahead owing to the thirst for energy in developing countries.

I attach the same importance to clean coal technology as the right hon. Gentleman, but will he clarify whether the Government intend to attach any carbon capture and storage conditions at all to the proposed coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, and if not, why not?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will make that decision, which he will announce in due course.

Recycling saves the equivalent of approximately 18 million tonnes of CO2 a year and our waste strategy, which was published last year, sets out how we can recycle or compost half of all household waste by 2020. As well as recycling, reducing our overall demand for scarce natural resources is essential if we are to meet the challenges that face the natural environment. A disposable society is not a sustainable society. That is why the 13 billion, free, single-use, plastic and other bags that are distributed in the UK each year are a symbol of a disposable society. There has been growing public concern about that symbol and the Government, using the Climate Change Bill, will legislate to require retailers to impose a charge if they do not take voluntary action.

The Secretary of State has been generous in giving way. He briefly mentioned business recycling and then got on to carrier bags. Is the Department not cutting money to support organisations such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme and the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme, which help businesses to recycle? Is there not a disjunction between the right hon. Gentleman’s rhetoric, with which we all agree, and the reality—the cuts that the Department is making?

No, there is no disjunction. We have put a considerable amount of money into several such organisations and we continue to fund them. However, we must deal with the issue of whether, when it is in the interests of business to reduce carbon emissions and improve recycling, it is right for the Government to continue to pay for free advice to be given to it. Is it not reasonable to ask business to begin to pay for some of that advice? I have made the decision that it is reasonable to ask business to contribute to the cost of getting advice. We have set our budget on the basis of that policy and I am clear in my mind that it is right.

In addition to our changes to deal with plastic bags, landfill tax will increase by £8 a tonne from 1 April and by that amount each year until at least 2010-11. The aggregates levy ensures that the external costs associated with the exploitation of aggregates are reflected in the price. It will increase to £2 a tonne to maintain its environmental impact.

I want to consider the impact of changes in fuel price on those who find it difficult to pay their bills. As the House knows, more than £20 billion has been spent on benefits and programmes since 2000 to help to remove people from fuel poverty. That has led to 4 million households being removed from fuel poverty since 1996—the figure is down from 6.5 million to around 2.5 million, although the rise in energy prices means that it is rising again. Further action to help to tackle fuel poverty and vulnerable groups is therefore needed.

Energy companies spend approximately £50 million a year on social programmes and the Government want that figure to increase to at least £150 million a year. We will work with companies to achieve that, and legislate if necessary.

Will my right hon. Friend go back to the figures that he used? Does he accept that the current figure for the number of households back in fuel poverty is estimated to be 4 million, and that the challenge that faces us is that the numbers that the Government’s Warm Front programme took out of fuel poverty are being overtaken by those thrown back into it, simply because of the scale and pace of rises in energy costs?

That is the case, as I just acknowledged, because of the substantial increase in the prices that energy companies charge and that consumers have to pay. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget his wish for energy companies’ expenditure on helping vulnerable customers through their social programmes to increase. It is also why he drew attention to the fact that customers who use prepayment meters typically pay around £55 more on their energy bills than those who use standard credit and £144 more than those who pay by direct debt.

My right hon. Friend has been generous in giving way. A wish is not the same as a requirement for energy companies to put in that money for vulnerable households. What will the Government do to monitor the position? Will they introduce a requirement? It has been reported that there was an argument in the Cabinet about whether there should be a requirement. I would be interested to know the Secretary of State’s position on that.

I will happily tell my hon. Friend what my view and the Government’s view is. We think it is now time to tackle the issue and we are looking to Ofgem and the suppliers to bring forward proposals for treating prepayment meter customers more fairly. However—this is the answer to his question—if sufficient progress is not made by next winter, the Government are prepared to use statutory powers to reduce the differential between prepayment and other forms of payment.

In the meantime, as my hon. Friend and the House will be aware, we are providing immediate help to pensioners who face pressures from higher energy bills this year, by raising the winter fuel payment for the over 60s from £200 to £250 and for the over 80s from £300 to £400. Some 9 million pensioner households will be better off as a result. I simply remind the House that before 1997 there was no winter fuel payment at all.

I am going to bring my remarks to a conclusion, as I have been very generous in giving way.

One the reasons why today’s debate is welcome is that it gives us the chance to discuss the change that is to come. In the rest of this century, debating and deciding on our carbon budget will be as important as doing so on traditional financial budgets, and arguably even more so. The measures that I have set out in my speech have shown the practical steps that the Government are taking to enable the country to reduce its carbon emissions. It is for that reason that we have a strong record on the environment; but I recognise, as does the House, that we will all need to do more to help build a low-carbon Britain. The Budget shows exactly how and why we are determined to do that.

I have to take issue with the Secretary of State’s final sentence. He barely spoke about the Budget in his remarks and the Budget hardly deals with the pressing environment challenges that we face at all. On the other hand, I do not doubt for a moment his integrity and sincerity on such matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) and I heard him speak at the Chemistry Club last week. He gave a passionate and committed speech about the environment and the importance of living within natural limits, which is a lesson that the whole of humanity has to learn. He said:

“We are living beyond our means”,

which is true in respect of the environment, but unfortunately it is true of the Chancellor, too, in respect of the economy. That is one of the dilemmas that we face.

The Budget was supposed to be the great green Budget. The headline in The Guardian on 10 March ran “Darling plans greenest budget yet”. We expected it, we wanted it and we were all prepared for it. Indeed, the Chancellor warmed us up for it last December, when he said:

“Sustainability will be at the heart of the next Budget. This is not an optional extra, it is essential to all our futures.”

In his Budget speech, the Chancellor cranked up the excitement further, saying:

“our greatest obligation to the future must be to tackle climate change.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 295.]

I agree, so I was looking forward to the greenest Budget yet. We needed the greenest Budget yet, because carbon pollution in this country is higher than it was in 1997. On that most fundamental of measures, the Government have failed.

To say that I was disappointed by the Budget is a huge understatement, but I was not alone in being disappointed. The director of Friends of the Earth said:

“He has merely tinkered at the edges”,

continuing,

“the overall package falls a long way short of what is required. We urgently need real political leadership on this issue”.

The executive director of Greenpeace said:

“His measures have failed to match the scale of the challenge we face”.

Perhaps the headline from the Green Alliance summed it up best: “Green Budget? What Green Budget?”

I am happy to take as my text for this debate the press release issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Budget day. It is headed “Benn welcomes Budget 2008” and sets out the Department’s response to the measures announced by the Chancellor last Wednesday. I suspect that it was issued through gritted teeth. The opening paragraph of the press release appears to be have been drafted before the Department knew what was in the Budget, and reads:

“The Chancellor today set out the 2008 Budget which includes measures to tackle climate change, the most serious and pressing environmental challenge the world faces. Setting out new policies to reduce emissions across all major sectors of the economy, this Budget will ensure the UK continues to lead the climate change agenda internationally while the government continues to take action to protect the UK’s natural environment.”

There are no policies in the Budget to

“reduce emissions across all major sectors of the economy”.

Or, if there are, I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could tell us what they are. If there had been any, he might have been able to tell us by how much he expected carbon emissions to be reduced as a result of the Budget measures, but he was unable to do so.

The next paragraph of the press release has a faltering tone and conveys a sense of putting on a brave face. It states:

“Following the Budget statement, Hilary Benn said: ‘This Budget demonstrates how seriously the Government takes the environment, with clear incentives for action, for example the new vehicle excise duty bands and charges for plastic bags, and measures to reduce emissions, for example zero carbon new commercial buildings.’”

I shall say more in a moment on the new vehicle excise duty bands, charges for plastic bags, and zero-carbon new commercial buildings, but let us first reflect on that list of highlights. It reveals just how pathetic the Chancellor’s measures are in response to

“the most serious and pressing environmental challenge the world faces”.

It contains only a car tax, a charge on plastic bags—perhaps—and a promise to do something about commercial property in 2019.

Let us move on from the headlines to the nitty-gritty, such as it is. Most of it comprises familiar, heated-up re-announcements, or has been borrowed by Conservative party policy—we are always pleased when the Government do that—or will merely have a marginal impact on climate change. The press release continues:

“The Green finance measures in the Budget include: Laying the ground work for the introduction of five-year carbon budgets”.

That is an achievement not of the Budget but of the Climate Change Bill, which was introduced only after a concerted campaign by green groups, the Conservative party, and other Opposition parties. We support the Climate Change Bill, and I am pleased to say that those in another place have introduced some important amendments, which I trust the Government will not seek to overturn when the Bill comes to our House.

A report entitled “UK greenhouse gas emissions: measurement and reporting”, published by the National Audit Office at the weekend, has thrown some worrying light on the way in which the Government measure the carbon that we produce. It seems that we might be using dodgy data. The NAO report raises profound questions about the credibility of the Government’s approach to reducing carbon emissions, which threatens to send its climate change strategy off course. If the measurement of carbon and other greenhouse gases is flawed, the whole process of setting targets for cutting emissions is undermined.

To make matters worse, there has been an extraordinary degree of ambiguity about the targets that the Government have set themselves. They repeatedly boast that the one target that they have met is the unambitious Kyoto target, but even that is now being called into question. It all depends on the system of measurement used. It is unclear whether the confusion is accidental or whether there has been a deliberate attempt to create wriggle room. The Lib Dem spokesman was right to draw attention to this earlier, and to point out that, on one basis of measurement, we have not reduced our greenhouse gas emissions at all since 1990. The existence of two quite separate carbon accounting systems would do credit to Enron.

There is an urgent need to rationalise the reporting system, so as to make it coherent and consistent. The NAO report reveals not only that different Government Departments use different methods to measure their carbon emissions, but that it is possible, within Departments, for two separate systems to be used to make different points.

It is all very well for the Chancellor to announce in the Budget that next year will see the establishment of the first carbon Budget, but he might also have pointed out that there is at present no true or fair means of validating it.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm to the House that the figures that we report to the United Nations framework convention on climate change follow the guidelines that are set down by the intergovernmental panel on climate change, and that we do that in the way in which the panel has requested?

I accept that. However, this becomes more difficult when that method of measurement is applied to UK emissions, as aviation and shipping are excluded. As a result, it does not give a true and fair picture of our emissions. In the absence of reliable and honest reporting, nobody will have confidence in the system. In view of the seriousness of the issue, the Secretary of State should address it as a matter of urgency when he responds, as no doubt he will, to the National Audit Office report.

Beyond the problems of accounting for domestic carbon emissions is the revelation that the Government are planning to allow up to half of our progress towards meeting our carbon reduction targets by 2020 to be met by buying our way out of the problem with overseas credits. No mention was made of that in the Budget and Ministers have not mentioned it at all. We now know, thanks to the NAO’s work, that the Office for National Statistics does not have enough faith in the reporting standards of the overseas carbon credit market to include international credits in the official national statistics. Any problems with the accuracy of measuring our own domestic carbon pollution are magnified when we try to apply measurement on a global scale.

I know that this may seem rather nerdy, but it is fundamental to the Government’s credibility on the whole climate change agenda—an agenda that, in the words of the Chancellor, is “essential” to “all our futures”. Do the Government plan to buy their way out of dealing with climate change; will they put a cap on the indulgences that we can buy from abroad; or have they instead a plan for a dynamic transformation of our country’s economy towards low-carbon, prosperous, greener and safer industries that will be truly essential to all our futures and truly essential to the well-being of our children and grandchildren? It is essential if their carbon budgets are to have proper credibility that the Government act urgently to clear up the questions now being raised about dodgy data and the purchase of foreign indulgences.

The next line in the DEFRA press release refers to

“reform of car vehicle excise duty rates and bandings including the introduction of new bands from 2009 to reward drivers of the cleanest cars, and higher first year rates in 2010-11 to influence purchasing choices”.

We can agree that, in principle, it is better to influence choices at the point of purchase—at the point of choice—than to penalise people for decisions that they have already taken, but there is a world of difference between genuine green taxation and stealth taxation. It is a difference that the Government do not seem to get and, as a result, a difference that the public do not get either.

As an Ipsos MORI report suggested last year,

“the public appear far from convinced that measures announced under the banner of climate change are actually intended to benefit the environment…Trust is a key factor impacting on the ability of government to make the case to its electorate about any particular policy measure, and eco-taxation… suffers from the stigma of ‘stealth’ taxation”.

We need to shift the burden of tax away from good things such as families and work and on to bad things such as pollution, especially carbon pollution.

The key point is not to raise the overall burden of taxation, so what does the Chancellor do in his Budget? He proposes increasing car taxes to generate an additional £735 million in revenues while the tax cut on low-carbon cars will give back to us £15 million. To put it another way, the Chancellor is raising 50 times more tax than he is cutting. In the light of that fact, it is extraordinary for the Chancellor to claim that an average family will be no worse off as a result of those changes, when seven in 10 motorists will pay more in vehicle excise duty.

Is not the position actually worse than that? In the next two years, the take on the vehicle excise duty change will be £1.2 billion. Given that amount of extra yield, does it not indicate to the hon. Gentleman that the Government are not planning for any behavioural change? It is indeed just a tax.

I think that the hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. That is one of the reasons why the Secretary of State had such difficulty answering my questions earlier.

What will all the extra tax do for the environment? That is what we need to know. According to The Guardian, it will help reduce CO2 emissions from the transpo