House of Commons
Tuesday 13 May 2008
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
The United Kingdom wants the Durban review conference to contribute to the global fight against racism. The preparatory work is ongoing, but there should be no repeat of the disgraceful anti-Semitism that blighted events surrounding the 2001 world conference against racism.
With Libya chairing the preparatory committee and Cuba and Iran supporting it as officers, the signs are not too good. Can the Minister assure us that if there is even the slightest whiff of anything comparable to the disgrace of the first Durban conference, the United Kingdom will not participate?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to other hon. Members in all parts of the House who played such an important part in the all-party inquiry into anti-Semitism. My hon. Friend is right that there have been dreadful comments and behaviour of an anti-Semitic nature in previous gatherings of that type. I wish to be clear that the UK Government will play no part in a gathering that displays such behaviour. We will continue to work to make sure that the conference is a success, but we will play no part in an international conference that exhibits the degree of anti-Semitism that was disgracefully on view on the previous occasion.
Although the Minister’s comments are welcome, and his remarks about the anti-Semitism group are equally welcome, does he agree that it is interesting that Canada, whose Government are one of the most responsible and friendly with whom we ever have dealings, has already decided not to attend the conference? Is he in touch with the Canadian Government about their reasons for doing so?
The hon. Gentleman was another important contributor to the all-party inquiry and it is right to put that on record. We are in touch with international partners on this serious issue. One of the reasons why the Canadian Government withdrew, as I understand it, is that unacceptable conditions were placed on a Jewish non-governmental organisation from Canada, initiated by the Iranian authorities. We continue to discuss that with Canada and other international partners and that dialogue will continue. If it gets to a point that we come to the view that the conference cannot be a success, the option of withdrawal from the conference remains available to us.
Iranian Nuclear Programme
Iran continues to enrich uranium and carry out heavy water-related projects in defiance of four UN Security Council resolutions requesting it to stop. We urge Iran to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, to implement the additional protocol that it has signed with the agency, to respond to the serious questions that the agency has put to Iran on weaponisation, and of course to comply with UN Security Council resolutions. On 2 May, I chaired a meeting of my E3 plus 3 colleagues to agree a refreshed offer to Iran as part of our dual track strategy to persuade Iran to comply with its international obligations. That will soon be transmitted to the Government of Iran.
Much of the west’s knowledge of the Iranian nuclear programme is the product of information passed to it by the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran, most recently in respect of the nuclear warhead facility at Khojir. Given the historic helpfulness of the PMOI to the west and given also the trenchantly expressed judgment of the Court of Appeal last week, can the Foreign Secretary please say when the Government will make a statement to the House as to the continued proscription of the organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000? [Interruption.]
We were deeply disappointed by the result, given the well documented history of terrorist attacks involving the MEK. I am happy to give details. It explicitly claimed responsibility for a number of serious acts of terrorism on Iranian interests for a number of years. [Interruption.] It has never publicly given up violence and gave up its arms only in the face of overwhelming military might in Iraq in 2003. [Interruption.] None the less, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) will be pleased to hear that we will of course abide by the ruling of the court, and I understand that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will lay an order before Parliament in the next few weeks to take forward that judgment.
The Foreign Secretary is aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee published a report a few months ago on the situation on Iran. In that report we expressed concern that the current strategy to prevent the Iranian regime from developing a nuclear weapon is not very successful. Does the Foreign Secretary share the Committee’s view that on present trends Iran could have such a breakout capability in about seven or eight years? What will the Government, with their international partners, do over the coming months and years to make sure that that does not happen?
I am obviously not going to comment on intelligence—ours or others’—in respect of the timeline for the Iranian nuclear programme. However, the sense of importance that came through in the Foreign Affairs Committee report is shared by the Government and by our partners as well. Not only the three European countries and the United States, but Russia and China are part of a coalition that sees the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the middle east, which all sane people would see as a danger.
Our quarrel is not with the people of Iran, which is a country of huge civilisation and education; in the end, our quarrel is not with Iran’s rights under the non-proliferation regime, which ultimately include the right to civilian nuclear power. Our quarrel is with the responsibilities, or the lack of responsibility, exercised by the regime. That is why it is important that we take forward at each stage the dual track strategy. There is the offer to Iran of economic, scientific and cultural co-operation, but if it refuses to co-operate with the international community, it is right that sanctions be in place.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that last year’s United States national intelligence estimate that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 was deeply misleading, because it referred only to warhead production? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the real threat is from the uranium enrichment programme, which, far from slowing down, has been accelerated by the Iranians in recent months? Will he do all in his power to ensure that that point is fully understood, both by public opinion in this country and at the United Nations?
I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is quoting from my article in the Financial Times that appeared after the national intelligence estimate came out, but I certainly echo entirely what he has said. A very important confusion was created by the national intelligence estimate report about the difference between, on the one hand, weaponisation, and on the other, the three processes—above all, the uranium enrichment process—that are important for building a nuclear weapon.
It is precisely the dangers of the expanded uranium enrichment programme that have motivated successive United Nations Security Council resolutions that have demanded the suspension of that programme. Last year, the E3 plus 3 put forward a proposal for a “freeze for freeze”—a freeze on sanctions in response to a freeze on the uranium enrichment programme. We are refreshing our offer, but are absolutely clear that underlying it is a determination to ensure that Iran fulfils its responsibilities as well as exerts its rights under the NPT.
What is the best estimate available to my right hon. Friend on the number of centrifuges available to the Iranians for uranium enrichment at present? Where are those centrifuges coming from?
I am not going to comment on our estimate of the number of centrifuges. My hon. Friend will have seen President Ahmadinejad’s claim—I repeat that it is a claim—that 3,000 centrifuges have been increased to 6,000 centrifuges. As I say, that is his claim. I am afraid that I am not able to go into any details on their origins, but obviously we are working across all parts of the international community to staunch the flow not only of equipment, but of personnel and ideas.
Following on from the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he sets more store by the United States intelligence community’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear capability, to which he has referred, or by the very much more bullish assessment made by Israeli intelligence, on which he had a report this week?
What is bullish and what is bearish in this context I will not go into. What I rely on are British intelligence estimates. That is the right basis for policy—[Interruption.] I am very, very surprised to see Opposition Members querying the exceptional quality of British intelligence. [Interruption.] I might expect the Liberal Democrats to denigrate the work of public servants, but I will not do that. What is important is that the international community is united in recognising that the problem is serious and that it is not a question of pursuing a vendetta against the people of Iran, or even the regime of Iran. We are seeking a change in behaviour, not a change in the regime. It is right that we devote ourselves diplomatically to achieving that end.
The centrifuges are based on a design stolen by A.Q. Khan; that is how the Iranians acquired them. May I clarify something with my right hon. Friend? Are the use of the centrifuges or the lack of inspection agreements at the core of the problem? How is he proposing to change the inspection regime to ensure that although Iran can continue with a nuclear power programme if it wants to, nuclear weapons conventions will be protected?
There are three charges against the Iranian regime: first, in relation to its refusal to comply with UN Security Council resolutions in respect of uranium enrichment; secondly, in respect of IAEA demands for full information on previous programmes, not just the P1 but the P2 programme—I apologise for going into the detail—and thirdly, there is the question of the additional protocol, which the IAEA has demanded that Iran lives up to. These are not my demands; they are demands that have been made by the international community, unanimously on successive occasions, and by the International Atomic Energy Authority—[Hon. Members: “Agency.”] I am sorry; I am grateful for the correction. Living within the bounds of UN and IAEA requirements is what we ask of the Government of Iran. I should also add that we are asking nothing more of them than to live within boundaries that are set for every other country; that is a point that we can all do well to remind people of, in Iran and more widely.
Can the Foreign Secretary give us a clear assurance that if Iran were now to reject the new offer that he has described to the House, the sanctions against Iranian oil and gas, which the Prime Minister promised as long ago as last November, will finally be imposed? Does he agree, too, that with Lebanese Ministers alleging that Iranian republican guards have been deployed and are fighting on the streets of Beirut, the need for effective pressure on the Iranian regime really is urgent?
I certainly reaffirm our commitment to take this up at European level. We said that we would pursue these actions at the European level, because that is the right place to do it, and we will certainly continue to do so. It is worth reporting to the House that the latest figures for the UK’s action alone show that £513 million of Iranian assets have been frozen, and EU trade with Iran is down 34 per cent. in the year to March 2007.
In respect of the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which takes us into new territory, all I can say is that I spoke to the Prime Minister of Lebanon on Friday, discussed the very serious situation there, and expressed my total support for his Government in seeking to maintain the integrity and democratic legitimacy of the Government of Lebanon. I hope that in topical questions I may be able to say more about last night’s phone call of the Friends of Lebanon group, which involves 12 countries around the world, mainly from the region. I will be happy to report on that to the House.
We are encouraged by Guatemala’s participation in the United Nations universal periodic review of human rights. As part of this process, the UK has raised its ongoing concerns about the human rights situation in Guatemala—in particular, widespread impunity, child rights, human rights defenders and the rise in murders of girls and women. I raised these issues with the Guatemalan Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Vice-Minister, during my recent visit.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. She will be aware that there were 6,000 murders in Guatemala last year, which is equivalent to 28,000 murders in a country the size of Britain. There are terrible problems with policing and the justice system in that country. Will she comment on the recent Bill on the death penalty vetoed by President Colom?
Certainly—my hon. Friend is absolutely right about these concerns. We have also been putting in support for training of police officers. The UK worked with EU partners and we were successful in lobbying President Colom to veto the recent law that the congress had passed seeking to restore the death penalty. I stressed with the Guatemalan Minister for Foreign Affairs the importance of finally abolishing the death penalty. I can assure my hon. Friend that the UK and the EU will continue to work towards the abolition of that in its entirety.
Does the Minister agree that if the new President of Guatemala, Álvaro Colom, is serious about human rights, he will deal with the corruption in the judiciary, in the army and in some parts of the Government, and he will introduce the measures that he said he would introduce prior to his election as President to deal with what is perhaps Latin America’s worst human rights record?
The hon. Gentleman raises important points. During my visit in April, I had a frank discussion with Ministers about their unacceptable human rights position. They insisted that the Colom Government would work energetically to improve matters, but clearly those good intentions need to be put into action and we will continue to press the Guatemalan Government on the fact that good human rights are essential to good democracy.
I would like to thank the Minister for visiting Guatemala and for raising human rights concerns with the Government there. She must be aware of the marginalisation of women, particularly non-Spanish speaking women, in society; they have little access to justice or human rights and are fearful of the army and the police in all that they do. Is there anything that she can do by way of providing practical or financial support to human rights defenders and human rights advocates, and training programmes for them, so that they can try to defend themselves legally against unaccountable forces?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those are the precise issues that we raised. The Department for International Development has committed £60,000 in support of a United Nations anti-impunity commission in Guatemala, and there is a range of other support for projects there. Perhaps I can write to my hon. Friend in greater detail on that.
The UK works to support the Government of Afghanistan at both national and provincial levels through an extensive, co-ordinated programme of development assistance and military support, as well as diplomatic activity. That includes providing support to the local government structures in Helmand. We have frequent and wide-ranging contacts with Governor Mangal of Helmand—the new governor—as well as with the independent directorate of local governance, working together to extend governance and the provision of services in the province.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Given the crucial importance to the whole world of a stable and democratic Government in Afghanistan, can he outline the progress being made in the international community to ensure better co-ordination of economic, military and political assistance to the Government?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are now 46 countries in Afghanistan, and the danger is that the Government of Afghanistan spend all their time in a series of bilateral meetings with each of those Governments instead of getting on with the business of running Afghanistan. The appointment of Mr. Kai Eide as the new UN Secretary-General’s representative in Afghanistan is a major opportunity. My meetings with him suggest that he is a serious figure who has the confidence of all sides, and he will be able to play a co-ordination role at national level as well as the rallying role in capitals around the world that is so important.
What does the Foreign Secretary think the new Secretary-General’s representative will be able to do about improving the security situation in Helmand province, which is where our armed forces are primarily deployed? When will we see some improvement in the situation for our security forces?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the first responsibility for security after the Afghan Government lies with the commander of the international security assistance force, General McNeill. The responsibility of Mr. Eide, the UN Secretary-General’s representative, is to ensure that civilian work matches that military activity properly. The two are two sides of the same coin.
One indicator of improved security in Helmand is the fact that drug production is falling so fast. That also reflects the rising wheat price, which is encouraging farmers to go into farming wheat. In a way, that is a leading indicator of security. That is not to say, however, that our forces do not face serious danger every day that they are doing work. Kai Eide’s appointment, and his professed determination to get to grips with policing issues as a counterpart to the military campaign, is essential. It is in respect of policing that we hope to see the greatest improvement over the next couple of years.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the long term the only way to resolve issues in Afghanistan is through a greater involvement of the Afghani military and police, and the civil structure? The quicker that we establish those relationships, the quicker we can deal with those issues.
Yes; my hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. He will also appreciate that a major contribution will be to ensure that complementary strategies are pursued on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. The fact that the new Pakistani Government have made a commitment to ensure that they tackle terrorism on their side of the border is the sort of activity that will help the Afghans, and get us out of the Afghan-Pakistan blame game, which has too often typified relations between those two countries.
Can the Foreign Secretary outline whether there are any plans to allow the Territorial Army personnel who are currently serving in Afghanistan to join in the commemorations of the centenary of that fine and upstanding organisation?
I have discussed President Karzai’s alleged hostility with him directly on three occasions. He denies any hostility and insists that he has been misquoted in the allegations that have been made against him. He also insists that he has nothing but admiration for the commitment of British forces, and that of the British people in supporting the role of British civilians and British armed forces in that country.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is important that the Department for International Development works more closely with British military forces on the ground? It is a widely held view by all those who have served in Afghanistan that the Department for International Development, although it does a good job, could do much more if it would swallow the nonsense about not working with people in uniform.
I have talked in Helmand to soldiers and representatives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. I do not want to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s allegations but I want to take collective responsibility for the activities of FCO and DFID staff. There is no question but that we need to ensure better civilian-military co-operation. I hope that he agrees that the appointment of a civilian head—as it happens, from the FCO—of the Helmand provincial reconstruction team, who takes office next month, will be the symbol of the proper, high quality civilian-military co-operation that he and I agree is essential.
The Foreign Secretary knows about the complexities of co-ordinating policy in Helmand. What is the Foreign Office view, especially given the new appointment, of conducting negotiations with those elements of the Taliban who may have been active in violence but are now prepared for a more peaceful solution? How will he persuade President Karzai of the importance of such a subtle approach?
The position is clear and shared by President Karzai and the British Government. I sat with the US Secretary of State in President Karzai’s office in Kabul in February, discussing the reconciliation programme. I describe it as a reconciliation programme rather than a negotiation programme for the simple reason that those members of the Taliban who are willing to live by constitutional rules are welcome to do so, and the Government of Afghanistan will bring them into the political system. In that sense, it is not a negotiation—the red lines are clear. Recent evidence from Musa Qala shows that there is a genuine opportunity to bring members of the Taliban, who are not ideologically convinced but make a contingent decision about which side to back, into the mainstream and persuade them that that is where they have the most stable and prosperous future. We are determined to do that.
In light of the recent devastating earthquake in China, I am sure that I speak for the House in extending our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of all those affected. I commend the Chinese Government for their rapid and efficient response to the crisis.
Our relationship with China is strong and growing. The Government believe that engagement with China is firmly in the UK’s national interest.
China’s development offers opportunities for co-operation and advancement on key global challenges. Our engagement allows us to tackle all issues with China, including human rights and internal reform.
I am sure that the House would wish to be associated with the Under-Secretary’s sentiments about the Chinese earthquake. The earth’s fragility has been awesomely demonstrated through the recent tragic events in south-east Asia, as has the need for the world to rely on itself and our mutual dependence for aid and assistance. Does the Under-Secretary believe that, in the medium term, those events might help China revisit its obligations on issues such as carbon emissions? Much more urgently in the short term, does she believe that China’s experience of tragedy today will ensure that it urges the Burmese Government this afternoon to do all they can to allow aid and assistance in immediately, given that it is waiting on the borders and needed to deal with Burma’s tragedy?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made that point when he spoke to his counterpart in China just before this Question Time. I understand that China is now requesting international support for the situation. We know that the position in China is much better than in Burma. There is much more infrastructure and the Chinese Government are much more capable of supporting people. We know that the situation in Burma is dreadful. Without the help and support being readily offered by the international community, many more people will die. We will continue to urge China, as well other countries in the region, to make those points to the Burmese Government. This is not a political issue; it is a humanitarian issue. On climate change, we are in discussions with the Chinese on the development of technology. We will continue to work on those issues, which affect us all and on which we need that international co-operation.
The Foreign Secretary has used strong words on the subject of Burma and the responsibilities of other countries, such as China, to assist in getting humanitarian aid instantly—not in a few days—to Burma. The United Nations has established the principles of the right to intervene and the responsibility to protect. We chair the Security Council; surely we can do more than we are now.
We will support any and all activities that will take the matter forward and get that aid into Burma. It is clear that the US and the European countries on the Security Council are ready to move the issues forward. We are pressing to get that aid in. What is important is not just the physical aid, which is already under great pressure, but the need for people who can distribute it. There are development workers on the ground, but they are not disaster relief experts. We need disaster relief experts there. Burma needs to let those people in now.
The Minister has just told the House that the Government’s relationship with China is strong and growing. Will she also tell us what action the Foreign Secretary has taken in expressing our concerns to the Chinese Government that that arms shipment should never have been sent to Durban? It was only as a result of the brave decision of the dockers in Durban that that shipment did not go to Zimbabwe, where it would have been used by a vile regime.
I am sure that we all applaud the stance taken by the dockers in preventing that shipment, which demonstrates the importance of civil society acting in such situations. We on the Labour Benches support the role of trade unions in that. We are working for an international arms embargo to Zimbabwe and will continue to do so.
We need to recognise that China can choose to play a positive role in the world, too. We know that China is putting a great deal of aid into Africa. We of course express our concerns about human rights and negative actions, and through our engagement with China we are unable to do so better.
I add the condolences of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru to the people of China on the terrible circumstances of the earthquake. The Minister used the same words as the Red Cross in Beijing today to describe the response there—the Red Cross said that it was “swift and very efficient”. Should the Burmese Government not pursue the same course of action? What will the Minister and her EU colleagues do in concrete terms to persuade them to emulate the Chinese approach?
Of course—that is exactly what should happen and that is what we are doing. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is at the EU Development Ministers meeting doing precisely that. The problem is that the Burmese Government are failing to grant visas for the aid workers to enter. The world is ready to help. This is not a political situation; it is a humanitarian disaster. The Burmese Government need to grant those visas and let people in, so that they can begin to save lives.
I shall shortly visit Taiwan to attend the inauguration of the new, democratically elected President of that country. What pressure are the Government bringing to bear on the People’s Republic of China to live in peaceful co-existence with its small neighbour and to remove the 1,000 missiles that are directed from mainland China towards Taiwan?
It has been Government policy for a long time to support a one China policy, and our position on Taiwan is well known and has not changed. However, we certainly look to both sides to avoid unilateral measures that raise tensions across the straits, and we will continue to engage in confidence-building measures. In that respect, I support what the hon. Gentleman has said.
Bosnia (EU Accession)
I met High Representative Lajcák on 18 March in Sarajevo. I discussed with him the key reforms needed for Bosnia to move towards EU membership and reaffirmed the UK’s support for his efforts to uphold the Dayton peace agreement.
Following the welcome demonstration by the Serbian people in Sunday’s general election that they want closer links with the European Union, will my hon. Friend ensure that the accession of the Balkan countries, and of Bosnia in particular, remains a high priority in the European Union, so that we can help to contribute to bringing peace and stability to that still-troubled part of Europe?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct to say that the result of the election in Serbia was a clear demonstration of the continuing European aspirations of the population of that country. We should acknowledge and celebrate that fact. He is also right to say that the area is recovering from the vile ethnic cleansing of recent years. The United Kingdom Government will do all that they can to support the expansion of the European Union into the western Balkans. It is also in our strategic self-interest to do so.
My hon. Friend will be well aware that the priorities of the people of Bosnia are focused on job creation and on securing further improvements in their standard of living. What contribution does he think that members of the EU could make towards ensuring that the voices of the people of Bosnia are properly heard by their Government at every level?
My hon. Friend is right. The real need for economic development was made clear to me when I met representatives of the Bosnian, Croat and Serb communities in Bosnia. The signing of the stabilisation agreement with the European Union over the next few weeks will be crucial as it will send a clear signal that all 27 EU countries are willing to support Bosnia’s development and economy. In return, Bosnia will of course have to undertake significant structural domestic reform.
We support reconciliation talks, arranged by the special representative of the UN Secretary-General, due to begin this month, between representatives of the Somali transitional Government and the opposition Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia. We remain very concerned by the general humanitarian and security situation in Somalia. We are working hard within the UN Security Council for improvements, including a new resolution addressing the political, humanitarian and security needs.
I am sure that a United Nations Security Council resolution would be very welcome, but does my hon. Friend not agree that the world has neglected Somalia, to all our costs? We know the lessons of the failed state in Afghanistan, and we are aware of the potential for Islamic radicalisation in Somalia. Because of our resident Somali population, Britain of all countries has a huge interest in creating stability in Somalia. Can we ensure that the EU addresses the lack of capacity of African agencies such as the African Union, and that we now put real effort into bringing this internal conflict to an end?
I know that my hon. Friend has long taken an interest in this area, and he is absolutely right to point out the importance of the European Union in this regard. I am pleased to be able to tell him that the EU has done a great deal. It has contributed €15 million to the African Union mission, and it is engaging with the Opposition. It has contacts within civil society to try to develop its role in the country, and it is responding to the humanitarian problems that arise there. I am sure that we will continue to press for this engagement through the European Union as well as through the United Nations.
The Minister will be aware that the African regional press testifies that food prices in Somalia are skyrocketing, which means that families have to buy less food or less nutritious food, leading to malnourishment and malnutrition. Does not that present a massive task for the international community and the World Food Programme? Will the Minister share with the House the results of the welcome summit that the Prime Minister recently held at No. 10 on the rises in international food prices? As has been said, Somalia will become a humanitarian disaster area if the international community does not act in the near future.
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points and I appreciate the tone in which he does so. We are giving a lot of humanitarian aid to Somalia; we are the second largest bilateral donor. Of course, the humanitarian situation will improve only if the political situation improves. A genuine political process is under way and we have to put our support behind it. In view of the history of Somalia, it is easy to be discouraged, but for precisely the reasons that the hon. Gentleman raises—the concerns of the population and the continuing pressure of rising food prices—we must ensure that this political process moves forward, if at all possible, in order to bring about greater stability in the area.
There has been little movement in the Darfur political process because of fragmentation among rebel groups and continued violence. The Prime Minister has offered further UK support for international efforts, including a meeting in the UK, if it would help revitalise the process. We are exploring the scope for this with the United Nations, the African Union, Sudan’s neighbours and international partners, the Government of Sudan and movements in Darfur.
The Secretary-General’s most recent report states that in, one month alone, the air raids of the Government of Sudan have killed 200 civilians and displaced 10,000. Their impounding of vital equipment, blocking of the deployment of contingents and withholding permissions for 15 helicopters have resulted in less than a quarter of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur forces being deployed. Is it not time that we had a serious review of the sanctions regime?
We rightly discuss Darfur and Sudan every month at parliamentary questions and it is, of course, extremely disappointing and frustrating when the situation does not improve. Indeed, it is a matter not just of the aerial bombings by the Government of Sudan but of recent incursions by rebel groups that have made the problem even more difficult. The fighting must stop and the talking start. Sanctions might have a role to play, but the serious issue is the need for the fighting to stop so that proper talks can begin.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the warrants issued by the International Criminal Court in respect of events in Darfur should still be pursued—and pursued urgently?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the new Italian Foreign Minister designate, Mr. Franco Frattini, on 16 April to congratulate him on his appointment. Both my right hon. Friend and I look forward to meeting our new counterparts in the very near future.
The sight of supporters of the new right-wing nationalist Government in Italy celebrating their victory with fascist salutes and shouts of “Duce” was not exactly a good advert for Italy throughout the world. When my hon. Friend has the opportunity to meet the new Foreign Minister, will he discuss with him the importance of the Governments across Europe working together to tackle xenophobia and racism?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that all European Governments—in fact, all Governments across the world—have a responsibility to demonstrate by their actions as well as their words their revulsion at the sentiment represented by those fascists and extreme right-wing politicians. We rightly take the view, however, that the Italian Government as they are and will be constituted will, as a modern democratic European state, take that responsibility very seriously indeed.
When the Minister meets the Foreign Minister of the newly elected centre-right Administration in Italy, one of the issues that I am sure they are bound to discuss is the Lisbon treaty and its ratification. When they do meet, will the Minister confirm to his Italian counterpart that if Ireland votes no on 12 June, the British Government will respect that decision and there will be no adverse consequences for Ireland were the people of Ireland to make such a choice?
Only the hon. Gentleman could turn a question about the new Italian Government into a question about the Lisbon treaty referendum in the Republic of Ireland. [Interruption.] He takes it as a compliment, but I take it as a statement of the modern Conservative party and its Europhobia gone mad, running rampant through the middle of the party. When I am in Italy, as I hope to be next week, I will search very hard for a political party anywhere near the Italian mainstream that shares the British Conservative party’s view of Europe. As I have reflected before, there are literally dozens of conservative parties in Italy and not one of them shares his obsession with, and dislike of, all things European.
May I calm things down a bit? Clearly we must all be sensitive to the election of high officials with whom we do not agree. They might use words such as piccaninnies or xenophobic language, but they are elected, and that is it. Foreign Minister Frattini, as a former Foreign Minister, worked very constructively with this country, and as the EU Commissioner on Interior Affairs he worked constructively, sensitively and tolerantly. Italy is an important country. Its diplomatic service is first-rate. We should construct a positive relationship with Mr. Frattini. After all, the centre-right parties of Europe can only talk to this party in power; they do not talk to the rubbish over there.
I have always considered my right hon. Friend in the role of a conciliator, both here and elsewhere, and towards the end of his question he showed just why.
On the specific points raised, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have common cause with the Italian Government and Italy on so many big strategic interests that face our world—climate change, international terrorism, and concerted and co-ordinated work on the migration of people across the planet. We have a packed agenda of common concerns with our colleagues in Italy, and we look forward to holding that conversation in the months and years ahead.
We met on 1 and 2 May to talk about the middle east peace process and discuss the situation in Gaza. The ad hoc liaison committee meeting in London kicked off a critical six to eight week period for the middle east peace process, and it is vital that the practical progress in the negotiations is matched by improvement of the situation on the ground.
Is it not clear that without an improvement in the economic and humanitarian conditions within Gaza, we are not going to see any lasting chances of peace in the near future? Surely the road map is coming to the end of its life and we should reappraise it so that we can work with our EU partners and the Quartet to bring some lasting chances of peace to the region.
I entirely agree that the humanitarian situation in Gaza needs to be improved, but I plead with the hon. Gentleman not to start throwing out the road map and the Annapolis process now. This is a critical six to eight week period. President Bush is, I think, going to the region tomorrow, the Bethlehem investors conference is taking place the week after next, and the Germans are taking a lead on security sector reform to support the Palestinian Authority. For seven years, we have not had a process: now we have one, for goodness’ sake, let us not lose it at this stage.
The whole House will be aware that as we debate here today people are dying by the score in Burma, and the Burmese regime are unconscionably holding up the supply of foreign aid. Hon. Members throughout the House will share my anger that any Government could show such a callous disregard for their responsibility towards their own citizens.
The Prime Minister made it clear yesterday that Britain would do everything possible to make a difference. We have pledged £5 million of assistance, a United Kingdom aid flight has left for Burma and more are planned for this week, and a team from the Department for International Development is on the ground there. We are examining all options for getting the aid through, and getting the message through to the Burmese regime that its obstructionism is completely intolerable. Over the past 12 days we have supported the use of any and all United Nations action that will help, and we will continue to do so. The only test is whether that action saves lives in Burma.
The Secretary of State will share the House’s deep sadness about the terrible consequences of the earthquake in China. As he knows, following earthquakes specific aid is required, and is required quickly. Can he assure us that the Foreign Office is offering aid and discussing what aid is necessary and relevant? Can he also assure us that the Foreign Office is participating in the co-ordination of aid so that it arrives quickly and relevantly?
I am happy to say that just before I came here today I had a long conversation with the Chinese Foreign Minister about, among other things, the Chinese response to the disaster, which in many ways has been exemplary. I obviously inquired about the position of British nationals, about which we are concerned, and about offers of assistance. I am pleased to say that the Chinese Ministry of Commerce has now made it clear that the country is open to cash donations and humanitarian help, and we shall ensure that that is given maximum publicity. At present, as I have said, the Chinese Government are handling the matter in an exemplary fashion, but I think that this is an opportunity for people to come together at a difficult time.
I support what the Foreign Secretary has said about the gravity of the situation in Burma and the extraordinary callousness of the Burmese regime. Will he take up the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow Secretary of State for International Development, that the United Nations Secretary-General go to Rangoon on behalf of the whole international community to urge the regime to provide immediate, unfettered access for all international relief?
While aid can be delivered with great effectiveness only with the co-ordination of the Burmese Government, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the international community has a responsibility to consider any other options? He just mentioned that the Government were considering all options for delivering more help to people in such desperate circumstances. What assessment has he made of the viability of direct aid drops? What plans exist for such drops, and when would they be put into effect?
The right hon. Gentleman asks about the role of the United Nations Secretary-General. For some time we have discussed with him the proposition—originally advanced, I believe, by this country in New York—that he should go there himself. The statement that he issued yesterday was very helpful and positive, and suggested the degree of engagement that is necessary. We know from what happened in 2004 that the role of the UN Secretary-General in bringing people together can be very important.
I chose the phrase “any and all options” deliberately, to make it clear that we are supporting any and all action at the United Nations. As for aid drops, I think it best to quote what has been said by the World Food Programme. It does not rule out such action, and it would be quite wrong to do so, but it does say that
“it’s dangerous and potentially counter-productive if you carry out air drops of food or assistance without the proper set-up on the ground.”
Oxfam, which has a long history in this area, says:
“Food and mosquito nets cannot be targeted at the most vulnerable… clean water systems and safe sanitation cannot be dropped from the sky”.
It also says:
“The biggest risk is that… air-drops will be a distraction from what is really needed—a highly effective aid operation on the ground.”
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to want to be certain that all options are being considered, and I assure him that they are. However, the best option by a long way is for the Burmese Government to stand up to their responsibilities.
Let me raise another matter on which I am sure there is cross-party agreement. We have been emphasising the important role of the Association of South East Asian Nations. The neighbouring countries that will inevitably have to provide the basis for any sort of humanitarian or military help will play a critical part, which is why we have been talking directly to ASEAN countries on the telephone and in person through ambassadors in capitals. I am sure that that action is supported throughout the House.
May I emphatically support what the Foreign Secretary says about the ASEAN countries, and may I turn his mind to another tragic situation: Zimbabwe? Given the violence and intimidation, orchestrated by the Mugabe regime’s thugs, across Zimbabwe, will he join me in commending the bravery of the Opposition activists in their conduct since the elections, for which some have already paid with their lives, and their bravery in contesting a second round that may be overshadowed by violence and devoid of transparency? The regime has indicated that it will not accept international observers to oversee the poll. Can the Foreign Secretary hold out any prospect of southern African nations making a decisive effort to change that, so that the efforts of Mugabe to rig and intimidate in this way can at least partly be constrained?
Yes, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised this issue. The bravery is exemplary, and support from the international community is much needed. It is true that the Opposition have not yet won the presidential election, but Mugabe has not been able to claim victory, and that is very significant in itself. I agree that monitors are essential. I was very pleased to hear from the Ghanaian Foreign Minister in person yesterday, and by e-gram from the Tanzanian Foreign Minister, of Southern African Development Community countries taking their responsibilities seriously. I also believe there is a role for Caribbean countries in supplementing the observer mission from the SADC countries, so that there are a greater number of observers on the ground to ensure that, in dreadful circumstances, some sort of freedom is available for people to cast their votes.
Forty-one countries have so far recognised the independence of Kosovo, including all the G7 nations and 20 countries of the European Union. The United Kingdom is, of course, among that number, supporting Kosovo’s independence based on the Ahtisaari plan. That is about ensuring that there is no break-up of Kosovo and maintaining territorial integrity, and it is also about ensuring that the forthcoming international donors conference is a success, so that the new Government in Kosovo can kick-start the economy effectively.
The Foreign Secretary has spoken eloquently against the malign neglect of the Burmese Government in respect of foreign aid. I recognise that Ministers have been working hard on this issue, but how does he explain the delays in getting British Government aid into Burma, when aid from the American, French, Indian, Swedish, Spanish, Greek, Chinese and Russian Governments has arrived, not to mention aid from the World Food Programme and non-governmental organisations such as the Red Cross and Save the Children? If other countries and organisations have managed to get aid in despite the problems with the Burmese junta, why did the first British Government aid plane arrive only today?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind words, and the answer lies at the door of the Burmese Government, who have placed so many obstacles in the way of foreign aid, and of foreign aid workers, who are essential to ensure that the aid is delivered to the people who need it, not to support the regime.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has today spoken to the Foreign Minister of Serbia, Mr. Jeremic, to congratulate him and his party, For a European Serbia, which is now the largest party after the elections in Serbia. It is clear that Serbia now has a European future. The 27 countries of the European Union have said that very clearly, and have signed up to a new agreement with Serbia. With that, of course, comes responsibility for Serbia, in particular adherence to its responsibility to bring to justice in The Hague those alleged war criminals, Mladic and Karadzic, and we will continue to press the Serbian authorities on that matter.
My hon. Friend is right: that has slipped from the front pages. However, he is also right to say that a grand Government coalition has now been formed and that common sense has prevailed. Clearly, the imperative is for Kenya’s leaders to implement the power-sharing agreement. In terms of our support, the Secretary of State for International Development will reinforce our message about the UK’s commitment to this process when he visits Kenya next week.
The Foreign Office was rightly congratulated on its support following the tsunami; it provided consular support on the scene and at home. Today, I received a message from a constituent whose parents from Hereford are missing in China. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that consular support will be available not only in China, but at the Foreign Office in London to ensure that families are kept abreast of the situations of missing British nationals?
Yes, I can. Our ambassador is on his way to the main scene of the earthquake disaster, we have a consular team in place and we have investigations going on into all those whom we know are missing. I am happy to have a word with the hon. Gentleman straight after this, and we will get the details of his constituent. I am pleased to tell him that the Chinese Foreign Minister, to whom I spoke just before questions, wanted to talk to me about what his Government were determined to do to maximise the openness with which the Chinese authorities investigated any and all suggestions of missing people. I hope that that will bring some relief to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, who are doubtless very worried about the situation.
Yes, I shall. The regional powers, notably China, have an immensely important role to play not only in facilitating practical support on the ground but in applying political pressure on a Burmese regime who have so far been closed to reason. It is obviously essential that we continue the links with the Chinese Government to ensure that they understand the strength of feeling across British political parties and across Britain about the need to respond to what is becoming a man-made catastrophe.
May I invite the Foreign Secretary to give his latest assessment of the situation in the Lebanon? May I also ask him to reassure us that military preparations are being made to evacuate 5,000 British citizens and their dependants, if necessary, and that a decision on that will be made early enough, before the situation deteriorates and an armed force is required to land in the Lebanon to effect such an evacuation?
The attempt to disrupt and disable the Government of the Lebanon—the full frontal challenge to that Government from Hezbollah—is, or should be, completely unacceptable to the whole international community. Last night’s Friends of Lebanon discussion, which was convened by Saudi Arabia and the United States and which included the United Kingdom, brought a strong statement of condemnation of the activities of Hezbollah and its supporters from a wide range of viewpoints. I am happy to associate myself with that. Practical support must be not only military, but economic and political support for the existing Government of Fouad Siniora. I shall continue to offer that political support, as I did to him personally on Friday.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are in regular contact with Governments on those issues. As I have said, the important point is that all sides need to stop the conflict, because until it stops and the talks are in place, we cannot hope for the much-needed peace in Darfur and in Sudan.
We obviously share the concern that all Cameroonians should enjoy equal rights, free from disadvantage, in respect of their regional or linguistic reasons. We have not raised this issue previously, but I am happy to pass this on to my noble Friend and to take up this issue of discrimination.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on how I propose to deal, this year, with the consequences of the withdrawal of the 10p starting rate of income tax.
In the Budget last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, as Chancellor, introduced just two rates of tax with the basic rate of tax cut from 22p to 20p—the lowest rate for 75 years. At that time, allowances for pensioners over the age of 65 were increased; and recognising that, as the tax credit system became more developed and more generous, we were better able to target resources on low-income households, we increased the working tax credit and the child tax credit, as well as child benefit.
As a result of those changes, more than 16 million households have gained and 600,000 more pensioners pay no income tax at all. Because of the changes announced in 2007 and in this year’s Budget, half a million children will be lifted out of poverty—a record that no other Government have ever matched.
In my letter to the Chairman of the Treasury Committee three weeks ago, I said that I would set out our proposals to help those who lost out as a result of the withdrawal of the 10p starting rate of tax for the longer term in the pre-Budget report later this year. As I said in my letter, my focus would be on changes to offset the average loss of £120 per household and that whatever conclusions we came to, the changes would be backdated to the start of this financial year. But I also said that I would not wait unnecessarily until November before setting out how we intended to proceed.
I said that I would look at the administrative practicalities of other options that some right hon. and hon. Members have suggested, including a one-off rebate or compensatory payment, as well as changes to the tax credit system to allow the average losses to be offset. Having looked at this further, I believe that a rebate scheme would be complex and expensive to administer. It would also take time to set up and, in any event, changes to the eligibility for tax credits could not be introduced this year.
However, I can bring forward a proposal for this year that will offset the average loss and that will provide financial support more fairly, quickly and efficiently than any one-off rebate scheme—provided we legislate for it now in this year’s Finance Bill. For that reason, I am proposing to bring forward one measure from the pre-Budget report now.
I want to help families on low and middle incomes as soon as possible. But my proposal for this year will not only help those on low incomes who lost out, but do more to help all basic rate taxpaying families at a time when oil and food prices have been rising in every part of the world. So, at a cost of £2.7 billion, I will increase the individual personal tax allowance by £600 to £6,035 for this financial year, benefiting all basic rate taxpayers under 65.
That will mean that 22 million people on low and middle incomes will gain an additional £120 this year. It will mean that 4.2 million households will receive as much, or more than, they originally lost. The remaining 1.1 million households will see their loss at least halved. In other words, 80 per cent. of households are fully compensated, with the remaining 20 per cent. compensated by at least half. In addition, 600,000 people on low incomes will be taken out of income tax altogether.
People aged between 60 and 64, whose average loss was £100, will also get the advantage of the increased personal allowance worth up to £120. They will also receive the additional £50 winter fuel payment for this year, which I announced in the Budget. The increased personal allowance will apply to all income for this tax year and so will be backdated to 6 April. As a result, from September, basic rate taxpayers will see a one-off increase in their monthly income of £60 and then an increase of £10 per month for the rest of the financial year.
Higher rate taxpayers were largely unaffected by the reforms that were announced last year. So it is fair to focus this additional support on basic rate taxpayers only. However, as the £600 increased personal allowance applies not just to basic rate taxpayers but also to those paying tax at a higher rate, I am reducing the threshold at which an individual starts to pay tax at the higher rate by £600.
The net effect of these changes is that the tax liability of everyone who currently pays tax at 40 per cent. will be unaffected by the increase in the personal allowance. Those brought into the higher rate will gain by up to £120 this year.
I propose to legislate for these changes in this year’s Finance Bill so that taxpayers will get the benefit of the change from September. Raising the personal allowance is simpler than other solutions, and also retains the benefit of a simpler tax system and allows basic rate taxpayers to see the benefits as soon as possible, and for the whole of this financial year.
My proposal will also provide additional support for individuals and families this year, including those on middle incomes who have benefited from other reforms announced in 2007. We are providing that support at a time when they are facing additional costs. I have brought forward this measure from the pre-Budget report in order to ensure that people get the benefit as soon as possible. I shall set out proposals for next year and beyond at that time.
As I made clear at the time of the Budget, it is right and sensible to allow borrowing to rise and investment to be maintained as the economy slows. Debt is lower than it was in the past and low by international standards. Our fiscal policy, like our monetary policy, is designed to support stability in these uncertain economic times generated by the turbulence in world financial markets and global commodity-price inflation. I am able to finance the proposal through borrowing this year, ensuring that we do not take money out of the economy at this time.
I will, of course, set out my fiscal projections and decisions in the pre-Budget report as usual, consistent with the fiscal rules and in line with the requirements of the code for financial stability. For future years, our aim is to continue the same level of support for those on lower incomes and I shall bring forward proposals to do that in the pre-Budget report.
The change that I am announcing today represents the fairest and most effective way to help all those affected as a result of the changes proposed last year. In addition, this family tax cut provides support this year for those on middle incomes at a time when they face increased bills, so supporting the economy. I commend the statement to the House.
This is, of course, the 10th emergency statement in the 10 months that the Chancellor has been in office. How humiliating for him to come to the House today with a mini-Budget to clear up the mess made by the Prime Minister in his last Budget as Chancellor.
Unlike in the case of the Minister for Housing today, we have not seen an advance copy of the statement. The Chancellor will forgive us if we look at the small print of his Budget announcement—after all, this lot cheered when he announced the last changes, which then unravelled.
Let me also make it clear that we will welcome anything that can be done to help the millions of low-paid people hit by the regressive tax rises of this Government. We will support any genuine compensation that is offered. The Prime Minister, muttering to his Chancellor, might remember that he spent months before the last general election arguing against increases in personal tax allowances, saying that they were not a particularly well-targeted measure.
Surely the lesson is that this sounded less like a considered statement from a Chancellor and more like a cynical press release in a by-election campaign. First we got the tax con, and now we are getting the compensation con, for it is clear that this help is for one year only. It is a one-off payment—a one-off solution to tax rises that hit every year. The Opposition remember the one-off council tax rebate to pensioners before the last general election. We will look carefully at what the Chancellor promises. We will ask him what the long-term plans are to help people and to compensate them. The Government are treating people like fools.
The Chancellor said in his first interview in his job, with the Financial Times, that tax changes should only ever be announced “at the proper time”—at the Budget or the pre-Budget report. Since then, he has announced U-turns on every single original tax idea that he has had. And here he is, in the middle of May, reopening last year’s Budget’s changes in income tax and attempting to clear up the mess of the man sitting next to him. It comes on the same day that inflation numbers have soared and his plans to tax foreign profits are unravelling. Surely whatever remaining reputation that the Prime Minister had for economic competence has evaporated today.
This is the Prime Minister who, on the plane back from America, said that there were no losers from his Budget, but was then forced to admit that there were millions of losers. He said that he would not rewrite his Budget but he now sits as the man next to him rewrites the Budget that he gave. He said that in-year payments were impossible, but now the Government are making in-year payments.
Let no one be fooled—[Interruption.]
Why do they not save their fury for the internal Labour party rows that are happening?
Let no one be fooled about why the Chancellor is making this statement today. It is not because he wanted to, or because of any sense of guilt at hitting the low-paid, or because the Prime Minister thinks that it is the right thing to do. It is because this divided, dithering and disintegrating Government are panicking in the face of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. The Prime Minister, who once commanded so much respect from friends and foes alike, now looks like the unelected leader who is desperate to save his skin, cowering before every electoral challenge and insulting the intelligence of the very people whom he has hurt.
This is a one-off change only, for this year only. The Chancellor serves up a compensation con after a tax con and expects people to believe it. What utter cynicism, what total incompetence—and what a complete humiliation for this Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Three weeks ago, when the hon. Gentleman stood at the Dispatch Box on the first day of consideration of the Finance Bill, he led us to believe that he had very strong views and that steps should be taken immediately to deal with those people who lost out as a result of the withdrawal of the 10p rate. Yet today he cannot tell us whether he is for or against what we are proposing.
Once again, as on every issue, we see that there is nothing here of substance. The shadow Chancellor cannot say whether he is for the proposal or against it. The Conservative party was in favour of withdrawing the 10p rate when the proposal was first made. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) put forward his amendment last year, the Conservatives abstained. Three weeks ago, they wanted to reinstate the 10p rate. Their position has been completely confused and it is self-evident today that they have no idea whether they are for or against what we are proposing.
We are making proposals that will help 80 per cent. of those who lost out as a result of the changes. They will gain up to £120 a year, and that will go a substantial way towards helping people. I am sorry that the Conservative party could not bring itself to welcome what we are doing.
I welcome the Chancellor’s statement today. I have to say that it is nothing but churlish and mean not to welcome a statement that benefits everyone on basic rate taxation and which takes 600,000 people out of tax altogether.
Given the Chancellor’s welcome for the Treasury Committee’s inquiry, which was focused exclusively on the low-paid, will he continue to work with us to monitor the effects of the Government’s policy on ensuring the reduction of child poverty, the elimination of fuel poverty and the increase in the labour market participation of those on benefits? That inquiry will ensure that we work towards the PBR and get something done for people—not just for this year, although what my right hon. Friend has done is welcome, but for future years as well.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the welcome that he has given. He is right that today’s proposals will benefit many people in this country. Yes, the Treasury will of course continue to co-operate with the Treasury Committee and its inquiry. I think that I am still looking forward to appearing before that Committee at the beginning of June.
I of course welcome measures to lift low earners out of tax, and for a few hours this announcement may well get the Chancellor out of the difficulties that he created for himself. How many of the 5.3 million losers will be fully compensated by the measure? A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation—that is all that he has allowed us to do, because he is hiding behind market sensitivity—suggests that to compensate the losers, he would have needed to raise the threshold by £1,000. Clearly the Treasury has done the sums and has looked at the various categories, including pensioners, low-paid workers, and part-time and full-time workers. Can he tell us precisely how many of the 5.3 million losers will be fully compensated within the year?
Secondly, the Chancellor has imposed an apparent levy on high earners; the money will be clawed back from them. How long will that measure be in place, and how much of the £2.4 billion cost will be paid for by that route, rather than through additional borrowing?
Can the right hon. Gentleman also explain in a little more detail his reasons for rejecting the idea of a tax rebate? Over the past few days, I have had discussions with tax practitioners, including people from the low incomes tax reform group, which I know he relies on very heavily. That group suggests that it would be perfectly simple for the Inland Revenue to calculate the tax that people would have paid under the old 10p/20p system, and rebate them fully for their losses. The group will come forward with a proposal to that effect in the next few days. Why is the measure that he described more complex than that, and why does it do less to guarantee payments?
Finally, the Chancellor is quite right to focus attention on the low-paid workers, many of them earning well below the minimum wage, who pay tax. It is welcome that he is moving in the direction of lifting them out of tax. All of us will have to focus on how that is done and how it is paid for. I hope that today’s measures are not just another short-term gimmick, but the beginning of a process through which the low-paid pay less tax.
The hon. Gentleman raises four perfectly pertinent questions, which I shall answer. May I acknowledge his welcome for the measure that I am proposing?
First, I said in my statement that 4.2 million households will receive as much as, or more than, they originally lost. The remaining 1.1 million householders will have their loss at least halved. In addition, those people might be benefiting from tax credits and other measures. I set out to try to offset the average loss; I think that that is what the majority of people in the House wanted us to do. The hon. Gentleman also asked how the measure is being paid for. This year, it is being paid for by borrowing. As for what I have done in relation to higher rate tax payers, under the tax system, every single taxpayer gets the same personal allowance, but because I wanted to ensure that the help went to basic rate taxpayers only, I made a change there. People who currently pay the 40 per cent. rate will not pay any more, so the cost is covered by borrowing.
The hon. Gentleman also asked why I did not use a rebate. I looked into that very carefully. I had always thought that the Liberals’ policy was to use allowances. He is nodding; it is not clear why he is wishing on me something that he does not want himself, but there we are. I considered the issue of rebates, and I saw that that would be horrendously complicated. We would have to set up a new system. In addition to that, the Inland Revenue tells me that every year about half a million people move, and the Revenue does not know their addresses, so their cheques would go missing. When I looked at the proposal, and at the comparative costs, which are not actually that different, I decided that it would be far better to do something simpler and easy to understand. It is easy to understand that personal tax allowances will be raised by £600 a year. Basic rate taxpayers will therefore get £60 in their pay packet from September, and £10 a month thereafter.
The hon. Gentleman’s final question was what would happen in future years. I have said that I will set that out in the pre-Budget report, but I repeat what I said in my statement: in addition to helping those people who have an income of up to £20,000—those whom people were principally concerned about—we are helping those whose incomes go up to £40,000. Given the current circumstances, in which people face increasing bills because of what is going on in the world commodity markets and the financial markets, this year it is right to do more to help people on low and middle incomes—in other words, all those on the basic rate tax—as other countries have done. That is why I think that my proposal is far better and far more effective, and goes far further, than the measures that many people were asking for just three weeks ago.
I congratulate the Chancellor on putting an end to the issue. I hazard a guess that the pleasure being expressed from the Labour Benches will be widely expressed in the country as well. As the Prime Minister is in his place, may I add that over the weekend I allowed my campaign to become personal. I much regret that, and I apologise without reservation.
I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend said in both respects. It is not every day that hon. Members have the courage to say what he said, and it is appreciated. In relation to his comments on tax, I hope that most people, not just in the House but outside, will welcome the announcement as a substantial step in helping people on low incomes as well as those on middle incomes, especially at a time when they rightly look to their Government to support them in very difficult and uncertain times in the world economy.
The Chancellor has not spelled out where he will obtain the welcome £3 billion, almost, that he was not able to find at the time of his Budget. In the past he has always said that any tax cut translates automatically into a reduction in the number of nurses, doctors and teachers. If he is not saying that that consequence follows in the case of his tax cuts, why does he say it of other tax cuts?
I am glad the right hon. Gentleman does not want to see any reduction in the numbers of doctors, nurses and teachers. As I said in my statement, I promised the Select Committee that I would return to the matter in the pre-Budget report. The reason that I am announcing the step today is so that we can legislate in the Finance Bill that is before the House, to get the changes in place so that the extra money can be in the hands of taxpayers from September onwards.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his patient efforts to tackle and resolve the matter. That clearly demonstrates that even in difficult circumstances, it is this Chancellor, this Prime Minister and this Government who are clearly on the side of the people on low pay and middle incomes. Will my right hon. Friend also deal with the abysmally low take-up of tax credits? Could his Department initiate a take-up campaign so that people get the income that is justly theirs?
On the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), I agree that we need to do more to encourage the take-up of the working tax credit. The take-up of the child tax credit is quite substantial. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend overall for the welcome that he has given.
Mr. Speaker, if my statement is not now in the Vote Office, it ought to be, and I will take steps to make sure that it is.
Can the Chancellor confirm that the 1.1 million losers of whom he spoke earlier are from the lowest income brackets—those earning between just under £7,000 and £8,000 a year? Those people will lose up to £120. Will he confirm that that is the case? Will he now take the opportunity to apologise to them— as his right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has done—right now at the Dispatch Box, for all the trouble and fear that he has caused them?
As I said in my statement, the overall effect of what I am proposing is that 4.2 million households will receive as much as or more than they lost. The 1.1 million people to whom I think the right hon. Gentleman referred will see that their losses are at least halved. He asked about the distribution of those people. The position is that there are people at different stages of income who do not benefit as much as others. I said that I will return to that matter at the pre-Budget report this autumn.
I most sincerely congratulate the Chancellor on the steps that he is taking today. I do not wish to be pedantic, but I sincerely hope that in the pre-Budget statement he takes steps on the issue of families who still find themselves £2 or £3 a week worse off; £2 or £3 a week is precious to people on extremely low incomes. I hope that he will further rectify the situation with a second announcement in the pre-Budget statement.
I said in my statement that I wanted to concentrate help in future years particularly on those with lower incomes. Today I have been able to propose a measure that will benefit not just people on low incomes, but a substantial number of my hon. Friend’s constituents and others who face increased bills at this time. It is right to do that, having regard to the current uncertainties in the world economy and the rising prices that people face here at home.
In his statement, the Chancellor said that he would deal with the issue this year, that he would offset the average losses and that he has brought forward the increase in the allowance to £600. I give that a very, very guarded welcome—first, until I read the small print, and secondly, because 1 million-plus individuals will still be worse off.
Will the Chancellor confirm, however, that the change to the allowances on earnings will have no bearing on the abolition of the 10p rate on savings income, and that those households that may lose up to £460 a year in additional tax because of the abolition of the 10p tax rate on their savings income will not be compensated in any way as a result of the measures announced today?
Last year, when the changes were proposed, the savings rate was not changed at all. If the hon. Gentleman was raising a slightly different point or I misunderstood him, I will be happy to deal with that in correspondence. However, I think that he will find that the savings rate was not changed.
I join other hon. Members in welcoming the Chancellor’s statement. The remedy that he has announced today is clearer and has come earlier than previous statements had indicated. As well as the welcome remedy that he has provided for the 4.2 million households—in some cases, it is better than a remedy—will he give us an assurance that the figure of 1.1 million in respect of those who will see their loss reduced by at least half is accurate? Will he tell us who, typically, those remaining losers are and why they could not be better helped?
As I explained in my statement, I am proposing to increase the personal tax allowance that everyone gets. To that extent, the benefit is a flat-rate one that will go to all basic-rate taxpayers. As a result, 80 per cent. of people will find that their loss is completely offset or that they will do better than that. There are others whose loss is at least halved. At the pre-Budget report, when I set out proposals for future years, I want to do more, particularly for people on low incomes.
When I looked at how we might deal with the problem, I saw that the difficulty of trying to isolate actual losses or set up a rebate system that took account of individual circumstances was such that doing those things would have taken a very long time. I also suspect that it would have been a very blunt-edged instrument. The approach that I have set out is more straightforward and simpler and has the benefit of getting money into the hands of people at an early opportunity, rather than our having to wait right up until the end of this financial year.
I said when I wrote to the Select Committee—and this was certainly a theme taken up by many Members of the House—that what I wanted to do quickly was offset the average loss that was sustained by people following the withdrawal of the tax rate. That is what I sought to do, and that, I think, is the right thing to do. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that we should be doing something different or more, then no doubt he will advocate that course to his own Front Benchers. As far as I can see, however, they have no intention of doing anything more, just as I suspect, if left to their own devices, they would have absolutely no intention of helping people on low incomes at all.
I very much welcome the statement, because it would be very cumbersome to try to recalculate for individuals. It also recognises that although taking children out of poverty has been very welcome, those without children or whose children have grown up have lost out because of this. Will my right hon. Friend still consider some of the proposals that he previously suggested he would consider, such as the minimum wage for young people and the tax credits system generally, in looking forward to the next pre-Budget statement?
Yes, I can. I said that one of the things that we needed to consider was the minimum wage and its inclusion of younger people. Equally, in relation to tax credits, I think, unlike the Conservatives, that tax credits have gone a long way towards boosting the incomes of people on low and middle incomes and have made substantial changes. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) said, we need to ensure that take-up of the working tax credit is improved, but tax credits are a much better way than we have had in the past of helping people who particularly need help. The answer to my hon. Friend is that those are both areas to which I will return.
There are still 1.1 million low-income households that will lose out as a result of today’s announcement, even though all the people who had previously been paying the basic rate of tax will gain. Why does the Chancellor consider that this group remains the least deserving poor, in his opinion?
As I said earlier, I wanted to introduce a system that was simple, that was quick to get on to the statute book, and that, above all, was quick to get the money into the hands of as many taxpayers as possible. The problem with the sort of scheme to which the hon. Lady refers—a rebate scheme, because that is the only way in which one could do individual calculations—is that it would be cumbersome and complicated. I suspect that if we set it up, she and her party would be the first to criticise it.
The Chancellor will know that in my constituency there are many former miners who took early retirement in the 1990s, mainly because the Tories closed all the pits in south Yorkshire. Many are now above pensionable age and have been adversely affected by the removal of the 10p income tax rate. What are the implications of the Chancellor’s statement for constituents of mine who fall into this category?
As I said in my statement, the changes that I propose affect people over the age of 60 to 65. That is why I decided that the personal tax increase should apply to them rather than making a payment through the winter fuel payment mechanism. In 2007, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made his original proposal to reduce the basic rate of tax to 20p, he raised the age-related allowances for the over-65s in order to look after them. The answer to my hon. Friend is that his constituents of pensionable age will benefit from this in the way that I described.
May I recall to the Chancellor’s mind the noble Lord Lamont? When Lord Lamont pushed interest rates up to 15 per cent., Britain was required to withdraw from the exchange rate mechanism and it took us years to recover, which we did only with the onset of a Labour Government. I congratulate the Chancellor on assisting low and middle-income earners and all tax-paying families, as we have done over the past 11 years, in contrast with the record of the Tory Government from ’92 to ’97.
My hon. Friend is quite right. The whole country has benefited from high levels of employment, and from the fact that we have historically low interest rates and—even given today’s figures—historically low inflation rates, which are lower than those in America and Europe. During the past 11 years, because we have had such a strong and stable economy, we have been able to do far more to lift children out of poverty, lift pensioners out of poverty and help people on low incomes as well as those on middle incomes. I believe that my announcement today will go a long way in helping people who do not have children, or whose children have grown up—a group of people whom many in my party feel strongly we ought to support, especially at the moment.
I am somewhat disappointed that we cannot have an accurate profile of those who will still lose out, apart from describing them as having their average losses halved. The Chancellor says that he has used a system that is simple and quick—some might say he has done so for expediency—but that indicates to me that those lowest-paid workers will have a system that will be slow and complicated, in which case they will be hard to target and to recompense, and my constituents will not find that acceptable.
My proposal means that through the tax system, assuming the House agrees to the amendments that I have proposed, from September taxpayers will receive a payment of £60, followed by a monthly payment of £10 for the rest of the financial year. I would have thought that that was pretty simple. The hon. Lady would be on stronger ground if she were putting forward an alternative, but as I understand it, the Conservative party does not have a position. It has no idea what it would do.
Credit where credit is due: people often say that politicians do not listen, but the Chancellor has shown that he has listened and he has acted very quickly to help low-paid people in my constituency. I am very grateful for that, but does he agree that it is difficult out there at the moment? People are struggling with the rise in food prices and the price of fuel, which are due to world economic circumstances. Will he give me an assurance that he will continue to look out for the interests of those on modest incomes?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, which is why this year my proposal will help not just people on low incomes—below £20,000—who were affected following the withdrawal of the 10p rate, but crucially, people on middle incomes of up to £40,000 as well. I agree with her that people, especially those without children, are finding it difficult. They have to meet higher fuel and food bills because of what is happening throughout the world, and it is right that we should help them. That is why my proposal is deliberately designed to help a far wider range of people than was anticipated when we were simply talking about the starting rate of tax. I welcome what my hon. Friend says; I am sorry that the Conservatives cannot do so.
I welcome the Chancellor’s partial attempt to undo the damage caused by the previous Chancellor to the poorest earners. I regret, however, that more than a million, including many in my constituency, will still be losing out. I ask the same question that I asked three weeks ago: why did it take 13 months for the Government to realise what their policies would do? Did they not analyse the figures 13 months ago and realise what the impact would be on the poorest, or did they have a cynical belief that they could do this to the poorest because they would still vote Labour?
Last year, my right hon. Friend introduced a number of changes to the tax credit system, raising the age-related allowances, but it is clear that others had lost out and we needed to help them. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman cannot welcome what I am proposing today, but it is infinitely better than what I am beginning to detect might be the Liberal Democrat policy, at least for today, which is a policy relating to rebates. I do not think that that would be the right way to proceed.
I welcome the simplicity of the scheme that the Chancellor announced because it will enable a speedy response, which is what my constituents want. They want the money in their pocket as soon as possible. Will he therefore tell me how he intends to let them know about this good news? Sadly, there are many 60 to 64-year-old pensioners and people on the lowest of incomes who do not read newspapers and who do not see television news. Will he write to them directly or work through the voluntary organisations that have links with them to let them know that relief is at hand?
There is always a chance that my hon. Friend’s constituents will read about the announcement in the newspapers or see it on the television, but I will consider ways in which we might better tell people what is happening. The advantage of my proposal is that the payments will be made through the PAYE scheme, with which most people are familiar and which is simpler and easier to operate.
Does not the Chancellor admit, even to himself, a twinge of embarrassment that instead of coming here as a great reforming Chancellor, he has produced a shabby deal which is designed to get himself, the Government and his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister out of a fix of his own making? Does he believe for a moment that anyone beyond those on the Benches behind him will not see this announcement for exactly what it is: the most shameless attempt to buy a by-election since the Humber bridge?
A few weeks ago, the hon. Gentleman was, I assume, ready to follow the rest of the Conservatives into the Lobby, wanting us to take action to help people on low and middle incomes. We are taking action to help people on low and middle incomes, and it is clear that the Conservatives have no idea how to provide that help or about their position on this issue.
Does my right hon. Friend share my astonishment at the Conservative party’s new-found, synthetic concern for poor people? Will he remind the House that, during the last recession, the Conservative crunch left millions of people on the dole, more than 10 million senior citizens without any help with their fuel costs, people with negative equity and record numbers of repossessions?
I agree. Many people in this country remember what happened in the 1980s and 1990s, when people lost their jobs and received no help from the Government to help them get back on their feet. They also remember a time when interest rates were in double figures and people found themselves in substantial difficulties. They received no help because the then Government’s position was so weak that they could do nothing to help them.
Will the Chancellor make it clear, since he knows the answer to this question, whether it is his understanding that the people who will continue to lose out through the abolition of the 10p rate are those at the bottom of the income scale—in other words, the Government’s very own poverty line?
No. I said in an earlier reply that we have been able to help 80 per cent. people whose loss will be fully compensated or even more than that. There are about a million people whose losses will be halved. I said that I wanted to revert to that in the pre-Budget report. As a result of the announcement, 600,000 people will be taken out of tax. That shows our intention, which is a little more than the Conservative party would do if it were presented with the opportunity to do anything about helping people on low incomes.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the Chancellor’s statement, the Opposition Chief Whip could be clearly heard shouting from a sedentary position, “Get back to Scotland.” Given that this is a UK Parliament, is that kind of language and behaviour acceptable? It is clearly inconsistent with the Conservative party’s unholy pact with the nationalists.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that the Labour party was putting literature around in Crewe and Nantwich this morning with the very figures that were announced to the House only a few minutes ago. Would you please investigate this matter to ensure that it does not breach electoral law or the primacy of the House?
Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that my deep concern was about the statement not being given in this Chamber—I know that it was in the Vote Office, but it was not in the Chamber—so allow me to concentrate on that. The matters about Crewe and Nantwich I do not want to be drawn into.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do you take on board the concern among Conservative Members that the statement was not presented to those on our Front Bench before it was made, on the grounds of market sensitivity? It would appear that the only market that the Government were concerned about was the electorate market in Crewe and Nantwich.
Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that that is a matter for the Government to judge—[Interruption.] Order. What concerned me was that the Press Gallery had the information before the House. No disrespect to the Press Gallery, but my priority is the Members of the House. If the Government had not put the statement out to anyone, that would have been a matter for the Government.
Armed Forces (Federation)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the establishment of a Federation for the Armed Forces; and for connected purposes.
I am pleased to be able to introduce this Bill. Many hon. Members will remember that I tabled a similar Bill in the last Parliament. However, there has been a groundswell of opinion among the public and members of the armed forces on the need for an independent voice to represent their interests.
The controversies surrounding the standard of accommodation, injured personnel and the terrible incidents at Deepcut barracks have increasingly led to ordinary members of the armed forces coming forward to say that they need an organisation to make their voice heard. There is also a growing need for members of the armed forces to have independent legal advice. I served on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, where I moved an amendment to establish a federation for the armed forces. The Government resisted my amendment, but I strongly believe that there is now an overwhelming case for the armed forces to have an independent federation.
I should point out to those who oppose the move that I propose not a trade union, but a federation similar to the Police Federation. I would also like to build on the excellent work done by the British Armed Forces Federation. That organisation was established in October 2006. I pay tribute to Douglas Young and his team at the federation, who have got that vital initiative off the ground. The Bill does not seek to put in place a federation, but to put the federation that already exists on a formal footing that is recognised by the Ministry of Defence.
The aims of the federation would continue to be those set out in its statement, which are
“to represent, foster and promote the professional welfare, and other legitimate interests of all members of the federation in their capacity as serving or retired personnel of the fighting services of the United Kingdom”.
The activities of the federation would be: first, to put forward professional and career development through the provision of education and information to its members; secondly, to liaise and monitor developments within the armed forces and Parliament, and in the provision of public services or in the commercial sector affecting members of Her Majesty’s armed forces; and thirdly, to act as an advocate for members of the armed forces in areas such as pay, accommodation, medical services, welfare provision, resettlement and all other areas relating to personnel support. Fourthly, the federation would be seen as a way of supporting personnel who were facing legal action and other issues connected with their service in the armed forces. Lastly, I would also argue that it should be an organisation that could put in place a range of benefits, including insurance, financial benefits, discounts and other affinity deals for members of the armed forces.
The federation would not be beholden to any political party or pressure group, or to any defence industry interests. It is important that it should be seen to be an independent federation representing members of our armed forces. It would not routinely comment on the adequacy, robustness or cost-effectiveness of defence expenditure, although it would obviously have to comment on issues that directly affected its members. It would certainly not be a defence pressure group, however. It would be seen as an organisation that gave a voice to the men and women who serve on our behalf in Her Majesty’s armed forces.
There is a contention that the federation would in some way control or interfere with the chain of command. I want to make it quite clear that it would not conduct or condone any form of industrial action or insubordination in our armed forces. Its role in relation to the chain of command should be subject to a code of conduct. That is not new; the chain of command already accepts information from and the involvement of organisations such as Daniel’s Trust, which deals with Army training and the interests of new recruits at Catterick. I would therefore argue that the organisation would enhance rather than interfere with the chain of command. The federation would protect individual members in relation to their living conditions and general well-being, as well as reinforcing the point that members of the armed forces are an important part of society and promoting the good work that they do.
It has been suggested that this proposal is somehow radical and new, and that we would be out of step with our major allies if we were to adopt it. I have looked at some of the overseas examples, including the Association of the United States Army, which works in three main areas. It provides a voice for all members of the US army, fosters public support for the army’s role in national security and provides professional, educational and information programmes. There are three other such organisations in the United States alone. One is the Non-Commissioned Officers Association, which was set up in 1966. The Military Officers’ Association of America does similar work for commissioned officers, and the oldest organisation, the Reserve Officers Association, was set up by General Pershing in 1922 to advocate and lobby for the interests of national guards and reservists. There are also a number of European examples of similar federations, which come together under the umbrella of the European Organisation of Military Organisations—EUROMIL—which was set up in 1972. It now comprises 36 associations from 24 countries across Europe, representing nearly 500,000 individuals. The latest additions are Malta and Romania.
In conclusion, the Bill will not set up an armed forces federation; there is already one in existence. It will, however, allow the British Armed Forces Federation to be recognised by the MOD and to be valued for providing a voice for ordinary members of the armed forces. The BAFF has already stated that, if the legislation were introduced, it would seek to work with the Government and other stakeholders to develop an appropriate structure. The Bill gives the Government an opportunity to recognise that, in an ever-changing world, the members of our armed forces need a voice. I urge the Government to take on board the provisions that I am proposing today.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Kevan Jones, Mr. David Crausby, Mr. Mike Hancock, Mr. Dai Havard, Helen Jones, Jim Sheridan, David Wright and Andrew Mackinlay.
Armed forces (federation)
Mr. Kevan Jones accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the establishment of a Federation for the Armed Forces; and for connected purposes; and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 June, and to be printed [Bill 108].
Education and Skills Bill (Programme) (No. 2)
I beg to move,
That the Order of 14th January 2008 (Education and Skills Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:
1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Order shall be omitted.
2. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.
3. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.
Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings New Clauses other than those relating to Part 1 or to duties of local education authorities in relation to the provision of education and training Three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order New Clauses, and amendments to Clauses, relating to the application of Part 1 to persons in Wales Four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order Remaining proceedings on consideration One hour before the moment of interruption
Time for conclusion of proceedings
New Clauses other than those relating to Part 1 or to duties of local education authorities in relation to the provision of education and training
Three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order
New Clauses, and amendments to Clauses, relating to the application of Part 1 to persons in Wales
Four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order
Remaining proceedings on consideration
One hour before the moment of interruption
4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption.
We have limited time for debate, so I hope that we will not have to put this to a vote.
Before it was announced that there was to be a statement today, we were relatively happy with the programme motion. We were, however, uncomfortable with the fact that the Government were shoehorning into the Bill at this late stage 16 new sections on admissions with 27 regulation-making powers that had not been debated in Committee. Some of those sections relate to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, but some are new and propose significant powers for the Secretary of State. As a constructive Opposition, we nevertheless did our best to accept the timetable despite the 150 amendments and 23 new clauses, but that was on the assumption that that tight timetable would not be squeezed by a statement.
Given that this is meant to be a flagship Bill for the Government, it is surprising that they are content to squeeze time on such important amending provisions, particularly new clause 6, which is designed to provide support for vulnerable young people and has the backing of both Barnado’s and Rainer. What is more, it is being squeezed by a statement made today for essentially party reasons, which could easily have been made on another day when the business was much lighter.
Even now, we would support a change to the programme motion to calculate the time from the commencement of proceedings on this motion, which would give us back the full five and a half hours of debate. If the Government will not make that change, I urge hon. Members to vote against the programme motion.
I do not want to delay proceedings either, but I want to support the comments of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). The time allotted is totally inappropriate for a Bill of such importance, especially when we are unlikely to have time to debate almost 110 amendments and new clauses set down for consideration in a portion of today’s proceedings and given that, in our earlier proceedings, we did not have the opportunity to debate certain issues, particularly those relating to new clauses 6 and 9. It is wholly inappropriate to shoehorn the business in this way, thus preventing us from debating issues that were not properly covered in earlier stages. The programme motion makes it impossible for us to do justice to the scrutiny required for this Bill and the amendments and new clauses before us. Unless the Government are willing to make the sort of concessions requested, I am afraid that we will also have to oppose the programme motion.
I, too, urge hon. Members to oppose the programme motion. Mr. Speaker has been exceedingly generous in his selection of amendments, but the programme motion will not allow us to reach many of the amendments far down the line that need to be discussed. Because of the statement, a maximum of half an hour or, if there is a vote after the second group of amendments, perhaps only a quarter of an hour would be left available to discuss a raft of amendments.
I have tabled two of the amending provisions: new clause 16 and new clause 23. New clause 16 deals with an issue that the Secretary of State kindly got involved with earlier in our proceedings when a constituent of mine, who was an orphan, was expected to leave school because she could not afford to stay on. My new clause would do something to tackle that. We have amendments that are designed to address the problems that Kirsty Oldfield faces, but we do not have time to vote on them or even to debate them. How must this House look to constituents of mine such as Kirsty? It looks like a complete and utter shambles, and that brings it into disrepute.
Given that the statement has eaten into the time available—I certainly do not want to waste any more time discussing the programme motion—and that there are important matters to be debated, to which hon. Members have tabled amendments which deserve to be given time for consideration, it is beholden on the Government to reflect on what is in them that will not get debated unless we change the motion. If they will not listen, are intent on being dogmatic, and will not change it, I urge hon. Members to oppose the motion.
I am very pleased that some important amendments on admissions have been tabled by the Government, even at a late stage. I remind the House that many of them are based on recommendations of the all-party Select Committee on Education and Skills, to which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) was party two years ago. Some very good amendments have been tabled. I hope that the House will be a little more positive than it otherwise might be, especially as no one is sitting on the Liberal Democrat Back Benches, and only three people are sitting behind the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen.
Orders of the Day
Education and Skills Bill
[Relevant document: The Nineteenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2007-08, Legislative Scrutiny: Education and Skills Bill, HC 553.]
As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
New Clause 14
‘(1) The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (c. 31) is amended as follows.
(2) After section 88 insert—
“Admission arrangements: England”.
(3) In section 88A (prohibition on interviews), in subsections (1) and (3), after “maintained school” insert “in England”.
(4) After section 88A insert—
“88B Admission arrangements relating to children looked after by local authority
(1) Regulations may require the admission authorities for maintained schools in England to include in their admission arrangements such provision relating to the admission of children who are looked after by a local authority in England as may be prescribed.
(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may in particular include provision for securing that, subject to sections 86(3), 86B(2) and (4) and 87, such children are to be offered admission in preference to other children.
88C Procedure for determining admission arrangements
(1) The admission authority for a maintained school in England must, before the beginning of each school year, determine in accordance with this section the admission arrangements which are to apply for that year.
(2) The admission authority must, before determining the admission arrangements that are to apply for a year, carry out such consultation about the proposed arrangements as may be prescribed.
(3) Regulations under subsection (2) may in particular make provision—
(a) specifying persons who must be consulted, or who must be consulted about prescribed provisions of proposed arrangements;
(b) Specifying provisions of proposed arrangements about which any such consultation is to be carried out;
(c) specifying matters to which any such consultation is, or is not, to relate;
(d) as to the manner in which, and the time by which, any such consultation is to be carried out.
(4) When the admission authority have determined the admission arrangements that are to apply for a year, they must notify the appropriate bodies of those admission arrangements.
(5) Regulations may make provision—
(a) as to the manner in which, and the time by which, any such notification is to be given;
(b) specifying cases in which subsection (4) does not apply.
88D Determination of admission numbers
(1) A determination under section 88C by the admission authority for a maintained school in England of the admission arrangements which are to apply for a school year must include a determination of the number of pupils in each relevant age group that it is intended to admit to the school in that year.
(2) Such a determination under section 88C may also, if the school is one at which boarding accommodation is provided for pupils, include—
(a) a determination of the number of pupils in each relevant age group that it is intended to admit to the school in that year as boarders, and
(b) a determination of the number of pupils in each relevant age group that it is intended to admit to the school in that year otherwise than as boarders.
(3) Regulations may make provision about the making of any determination required by subsection (1), and may in particular require the admission authority for a maintained school to have regard, in making any such determination, to—
(a) any prescribed method of calculation, and
(b) any other prescribed matter.
(4) References in this section to the determination of any number include references to the determination of zero as that number.
88E Variation of admission arrangements
(1) Subsection (2) applies where an admission authority—
(a) have in accordance with section 88C determined the admission arrangements which are to apply for a particular school year, but
(b) at any time before the end of that year consider that the arrangements should be varied in view of a major change in circumstances occurring since they were so determined.
(2) The authority must—
(a) refer their proposed variations to the adjudicator, and
(b) notify the appropriate bodies of the proposed variations.
(3) Subsection (2)(a) does not apply in a case where the authority’s proposed variations fall within any description of variations prescribed for the purposes of this subsection.
(4) Where the local education authority are the admission authority for a community or voluntary controlled school, they must consult the governing body before making any reference under subsection (2)(a).
(5) On a reference under subsection (2)(a), the adjudicator must consider whether the admission arrangements should have effect with the proposed variations until the end of the school year in question.
(6) If the adjudicator determines—
(a) that the arrangements should so have effect, or
(b) that they should so have effect subject to such modification of those variations as the adjudicator may determine,
the arrangements are to have effect accordingly as from the date of the adjudicator’s determination.
(7) Where the adjudicator makes a determination under subsection (6), the admission authority must notify the appropriate bodies of the variations subject to which the arrangements are to have effect.
(8) Regulations may make provision—
(a) as to the manner in which, and the time by which, any such notification is to be given;
(b) specifying cases in which subsection (7) does not apply.
(9) Regulations may make provision—
(a) specifying matters which are, or are not, to constitute major changes in circumstances for the purposes of subsection (1)(b);
(b) authorising an admission authority, where they have in accordance with section 88C determined the admission arrangements which are to apply for a particular school year, to vary those arrangements to such extent or in such circumstances as may be prescribed;
(c) for the application of any of the requirements of, or imposed under, subsections (2) to (8) to variations proposed to be made by virtue of paragraph (b), or to any prescribed description of such variations, as if they were variations proposed to be made under subsection (1).
88F Sections 88C to 88E: supplementary
(1) Regulations may make provision—
(a) requiring an admission authority who have made a determination of a prescribed description under section 88C to publish such information relating to the determination (including information as to the authority’s reasons for making the determination) as may be prescribed;
(b) as to such other matters connected with the procedure for determining or varying admission arrangements under sections 88C to 88E as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.
(2) The power under paragraph (a) of subsection (1) to require an admission authority to publish information includes power to require them to publish it—
(a) by giving a notice containing the information to prescribed persons, or
(b) in any other prescribed manner.
(3) In sections 88C and 88E, the “appropriate bodies”, in relation to an admission authority, means—
(a) whichever of the governing body and the local education authority are not the admission authority,
(b) the admission authorities for all other maintained schools in the relevant area or for such class of schools as may be prescribed;
(c) the governing bodies for all community and voluntary controlled schools in the relevant area (so far as not falling within paragraph (a) or (b)),
(d) the admission authorities for maintained schools in England of any prescribed description,
(e) in the case of a foundation or voluntary school which has a religious character for the purposes of Part 2, such body or person representing the religion or religious denomination in question as may be prescribed,
(f) the admission forum for the area of the local education authority in which the school is situated, and
(g) such other persons as may be prescribed.
(4) In subsection (3), “the relevant area” means—
(a) the area of the local education authority in which the school in question is situated, or
(b) if regulations so provide, such other area in England (whether more or less extensive than the area of the local education authority) as may be determined by or in accordance with the regulations.
88G Power to restrict alteration of admission arrangements following establishment or expansion
(1) Subsection (2) applies in relation to a maintained school in England where—
(a) proposals for the establishment of, or the making of a prescribed alteration to, the school have been published under Part 2 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 (c. 40) or under section 113A of, or Schedule 7 to, the Learning and Skills Act 2000 (c. 21),
(b) in the case of proposals for the making of a prescribed alteration to the school, the proposals are for an increase in the number of pupils that may be admitted to the school or for an enlargement of the premises,
(c) the proposals fall to be implemented (with or without modifications), and
(d) prescribed conditions are satisfied.
(2) Regulations may provide that, where this subsection applies in relation to a maintained school—
(a) the admission arrangements for the initial period and each of a prescribed number of school years following that period are to be the arrangements which fall to be implemented in accordance with the proposals (or in accordance with the proposals as modified), and
(b) those arrangements may not be varied by the admission authority for the school except—
(i) to comply with any duty imposed on them by regulations under section 88B, or
(ii) in accordance with regulations under subsection (5).
(3) Regulations under subsection (2) may exclude or modify any provision of section 88C, 88E or 88F in its application to cases to which the regulations apply.
(4) Regulations under subsection (2) may provide that in cases to which the regulations apply the admission arrangements which fall to be implemented in accordance with the proposals (or in accordance with the proposals as modified) are to be treated for the purposes of section 86(5) to (5B) as having been determined by the admission authority under section 88C.
(5) Regulations may prescribe circumstances in which an admission authority may refer to the adjudicator proposals to vary admission arrangements in cases to which regulations under subsection (2) apply.
(6) Regulations may make provision as to the determination by the adjudicator of any reference made by virtue of subsection (5).
(7) In this section—
“initial period” means—
(a) in relation to a maintained school which is being established, the period beginning with the day on which the school opens and ending with the beginning of the first school term to begin after the following July;
(b) in relation to a maintained school which is increasing the number of pupils that may be admitted to the school or enlarging its premises, the period beginning with the first day on which additional pupils may be admitted or (as the case may be) the enlarged premises are in use and ending with the beginning of the first school term to begin after the following July;
“prescribed alteration” means an alteration prescribed for the purposes of section 18 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 (c. 40).
88H Reference of objections to adjudicator
(1) This section applies where admission arrangements have been determined by an admission authority for a maintained school in England under section 88C.
(a) an appropriate person wishes to make an objection about the admission arrangements, and
(b) the objection does not fall within any description of objections prescribed for the purposes of this paragraph,
that person may refer the objection to the adjudicator.
(a) a parent of a prescribed description wishes to make an objection about the admission arrangements, and
(b) the objection falls within any description of objections prescribed for the purposes of this paragraph,
that person may refer the objection to the adjudicator.
(4) On a reference under subsection (2) or (3) the adjudicator must decide whether, and (if so) to what extent, the objection should be upheld.
(5) Regulations may make provision—
(a) as to any conditions which must be satisfied before—
(i) an objection can be referred to the adjudicator under subsection (2) or (3), or
(ii) the adjudicator is required to determine an objection referred to him under subsection (3);
(b) as to circumstances in which the adjudicator is not required to determine an objection under subsection (4);
(c) prescribing the steps which may be taken by an admission authority where an objection has been referred to the adjudicator under subsection (2) or (3) but has not yet been determined.
(d) prohibiting or restricting the reference under subsection (2) or (3), within such period following a decision by the adjudicator under this section as may be prescribed, of any objection raising the same (or substantially the same) issues in relation to the admission arrangements of the school in question.
(6) In subsection (2), “appropriate person” means—
(a) a body or person within any of paragraphs (a) to (f) of section 88F(3); or
(b) any person prescribed for the purposes of this subsection.
88I Other functions of adjudicator relating to admission arrangements
(1) This section applies where admission arrangements have been determined by an admission authority for a maintained school in England under section 88C.
(2) Where it appears to the Secretary of State that the admission arrangements do not, or may not, conform with the requirements relating to admission arrangements, the Secretary of State may refer the admission arrangements to the adjudicator.
(3) Subsection (4) applies where—
(a) the Secretary of State refers the admission arrangements to the adjudicator under subsection (2), or
(b) the adjudicator receives a report under section 88P which, pursuant to regulations under subsection (5) of that section, states that the admission arrangements do not, or may not, conform with the requirements relating to admission arrangements.
(4) The adjudicator must—
(a) consider the admission arrangements, and
(b) decide whether they conform with those requirements and, if not, in what respect they do not.
(5) Where it appears to the adjudicator that the admission arrangements do not, or may not, conform with the requirements relating to admission arrangements (and subsection (4) does not apply)—
(a) the adjudicator may consider the admission arrangements, and
(b) if the adjudicator considers the arrangements under paragraph (a), the adjudicator must decide whether they conform with those requirements and, if not, in what respect they do not.
(6) Regulations may make provision prescribing the steps which may be taken by an admission authority where the adjudicator—
(a) is considering the authority’s admission arrangements under subsection (4)(a) or (5)(a), but
(b) has not yet made a decision in the case under subsection (4)(b) or (5)(b) (as the case may be).
88J Changes to admission arrangements
(1) This section applies where the adjudicator is required to make a decision (“the primary decision”)—
(a) under section 88H(4) on whether to uphold an objection to admission arrangements, or
(b) under section 88I(4)(b) or (5)(b) on whether admission arrangements conform with the requirements relating to admission arrangements.
(2) The adjudicator—
(a) must consider whether it would be appropriate for changes to be made to any aspect of the admission arrangements in consequence of the primary decision, and
(b) may consider whether it would be appropriate for any other changes to be made to any aspect of the admission arrangements.
(3) Where the adjudicator decides under subsection (2) that it would be appropriate for changes to be made to the admission arrangements—
(a) that decision may specify the modifications that are to be made to the arrangements, and
(b) the admission authority must forthwith revise those arrangements in such a way as to give effect to that decision.
(4) The adjudicator may—
(a) decide, in the case of any change required by subsection (3)(b), that it is to be a protected change for the purpose of section 88L, and
(b) where the adjudicator does so but considers that the change ought not to be protected for the number of years prescribed under subsection (2) of that section, decide that the change is to be protected only for such lesser number of school years as the adjudicator may specify.
88K Sections 88H to 88J: supplementary
(1) Subsection (2) applies to any decision of the adjudicator—
(a) under section 88H(4) on whether to uphold an objection to admission arrangements,
(b) under section 88I(4)(b) or (5)(b) on whether admission arrangements conform with the requirements relating to admission arrangements, or
(c) under section 88J(2) as to whether or not it would be appropriate for changes to be made to admission arrangements.
(2) Any decision of the adjudicator to which this subsection applies is binding on—
(a) the admission authority in question, and
(b) all persons by whom an objection may be referred to the adjudicator under section 88H(2) or (3) in relation to the admission arrangements.
(3) In the case of a decision mentioned in subsection (1)(a) or (b), the adjudicator must publish a report containing the following—
(a) the adjudicator’s decision on the objection or (as the case may be) on whether the admission arrangements conform with the requirements relating to admission arrangements,
(b) the decision of the adjudicator under section 88J(2)(a), and any decision of the adjudicator under section 88J(2)(b), on whether it would be appropriate for changes to be made to the admission arrangements,
(c) any decision of the adjudicator—
(i) under section 88J(4)(a) that a change is to be a protected change for the purposes of section 88L, or
(ii) under section 88J(4)(b) that a change is to be protected only for such lesser number of school years as the adjudicator may specify, and
(d) the adjudicator’s reasons for the decisions mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (c).
(4) Regulations may make provision—
(a) requiring an admission authority for a maintained school in England to provide information which—
(i) falls within a prescribed description, and
(ii) is requested by the adjudicator for the purposes of the exercise by the adjudicator of functions under sections 88H to 88J or this section or of enabling the adjudicator to decide whether to exercise the power conferred by section 88I(5);
(b) as to the manner in which a report required to be published under subsection (3) is to be published;
(c) requiring such matters to be notified to such persons, and in such manner, as may be prescribed;
(d) prescribing circumstances in which an admission authority may revise the admission arrangements for their school in the light of any decision by the adjudicator relating to the admission arrangements for another school, and the procedure to be followed in such a case.
(5) In sections 88I and 88J and this section “the requirements relating to admission arrangements” means the requirements imposed by or under this Part as to the content of admission arrangements for maintained schools in England.
88L Restriction on alteration of admission arrangements following adjudicator’s decision
(1) This section applies where—
(a) in accordance with section 88J(3)(b) the admissions authority for a maintained school in England have revised any provisions of admission arrangements for a school year, and
(b) the revisions include any protected change.
(2) In this section—
“protected change” means a change which the adjudicator has decided under section 88J(4)(a) is to be a protected change for the purposes of this section;
“the protected provisions”, in relation to any admission arrangements, means provisions corresponding to—
(c) provisions so far as implementing a protected change, or
(d) provisions so far as revised in accordance with regulations under subsection (6);
“the required number” means such number as may be prescribed or such lesser number as is specified by the adjudicator under section 88J(4)(b) in relation to a particular protected change.
(3) The admission authority for the school—
(a) must incorporate the protected provisions in determining the admission arrangements for each of the required number of school years following the school year mentioned in subsection (1)(a), and
(b) may not vary those arrangements in such a way as to alter the protected provisions.
(4) Subsection (3) does not apply to the extent that—
(a) the admission authority are required to determine or vary their admission arrangements in a way which alters the protected provisions in order to comply with any duty imposed on them by regulations under section 88B, or
(b) the arrangements may be determined or varied in a way which alters those provisions in accordance with regulations under subsection (6).
(5) Regulations may exclude or modify any provision of section 88C, 88E or 88F in its application to cases to which this section applies.
(6) Regulations may prescribe circumstances in which, in a case where this section applies, an admission authority may refer to the adjudicator proposals to determine or vary their admission arrangements in a way which alters the protected provisions.
(7) Regulations may make provision as to the determination by the adjudicator of any reference made by virtue of subsection (6).
88M Co-ordination of admission arrangements
(1) Regulations may require a local education authority in England—
(a) to formulate, for any academic year in relation to which prescribed conditions are satisfied, a qualifying scheme for co-ordinating the arrangements for the admission of pupils to maintained schools in their area, and
(b) to take prescribed action with a view to securing the adoption of the scheme by themselves and each governing body who are the admission authority for a maintained school in their area.
(2) Subject to subsection (3), the Secretary of State may make, in relation to the area of a local education authority in England and an academic year, a scheme for co-ordinating the arrangements, or assisting in the co-ordination of the arrangements, for the admission of pupils to maintained schools in that area.
(3) A scheme may not be made under subsection (2) in relation to a local education authority and an academic year if, before the prescribed date in the year preceding the year in which that academic year commences—
(a) a scheme formulated by the local education authority in accordance with subsection (1) is adopted in the prescribed manner by the persons mentioned in paragraph (b) of that subsection, and
(b) the authority provide the Secretary of State with a copy of the scheme and inform the Secretary of State that the scheme has been so adopted.
(4) Regulations may provide—
(a) that each local education authority in England must secure that, subject to such exceptions as may be prescribed, no decision made by any admission authority for a maintained school in their area to offer or refuse a child admission to the school is to be communicated to the parent of the child except on a single day, designated by the local education authority, in each year, or
(b) that, subject to such exceptions as may be prescribed, a decision made by the admission authority for a maintained school in England to offer or refuse a child admission to the school is not to be communicated to the parent of the child except on a prescribed day.
(5) In this section
“academic year” means a period commencing with 1st August and ending with the next 31st July;
“qualifying scheme” means a scheme that meets prescribed requirements.
(6) Nothing in this section applies in relation to arrangements for the admission to maintained schools of pupils—
(i) have ceased to be of compulsory school age, or
(ii) will have ceased to be of compulsory school age before education is provided for them at the school, or
(b) for the purpose of receiving sixth form education.
88N Further provision about schemes adopted or made by virtue of section 88M
(1) Regulations may make provision about the contents of schemes under section 88M(2), including provision about the duties that may be imposed by such schemes on—
(a) local education authorities in England, and
(b) the admission authorities for maintained schools in England.
(2) Regulations may provide that where a local education authority in England or the governing body of a maintained school in England have, in such manner as may be prescribed, adopted a scheme formulated by a local education authority for the purpose mentioned in section 88M(1)(a), sections 496 and 497 of the Education Act 1996 (c. 56) are to apply as if any obligations imposed on the local education authority or governing body under the scheme were duties imposed on them by that Act.
(3) Regulations may provide that where any decision as to whether a child is to be granted or refused admission to a maintained school in England falls to be made in prescribed circumstances, the decision must, if a scheme adopted or made by virtue of section 88M so provides, be made by the local education authority regardless of whether they are the admission authority for the school.
(4) Where any decision as to whether a child is to be granted or refused admission to a maintained school is (by virtue of regulations under subsection (3)) made by the local education authority although they are not the admission authority, the governing body of the school must implement the decision.
(5) Before proposing a scheme for adoption under section 88M(1) a local education authority must comply with such requirements as to consultation as may be prescribed.
(6) Regulations under subsection (5) may in particular require consultations to be undertaken with a view to securing that the arrangements for the admission of pupils to maintained schools in the areas of different local education authorities are, so far as is reasonably practicable, compatible with each other.
(7) Before making a scheme under section 88M(2) in relation to the area of any local education authority, the Secretary of State must consult—
(a) the local education authority, and
(b) any governing body who are the admission authority for a school which appears to the Secretary of State to be a school to which the scheme will apply.
(8) A scheme made under section 88M(2) may be varied or revoked by the Secretary of State.
88O Sharing of information by local education authorities
The Secretary of State may by regulations require local education authorities in England to provide other local education authorities with such information as may be required by them in connection with the exercise of any of their functions under this Chapter.
88P Reports by local education authorities to adjudicator
(1) A local education authority in England must make such reports to the adjudicator about such matters connected with relevant school admissions as may be prescribed.
(2) In subsection (1) “relevant school admissions”, in relation to a local education authority, means—
(a) the admission of pupils to relevant schools in the authority’s area;
(b) the admission of pupils in the authority’s area to other relevant schools;
(c) the entry to the sixth form of pupils who have been admitted to relevant schools in the authority’s area; and
(d) the entry to the sixth form of pupils in the authority’s area who have been admitted to other relevant schools.
(3) In this section, “relevant school” means—
(a) a maintained school,
(b) an Academy,
(c) a city technology college, or
(d) a city college for the technology of the arts.
(4) The matters which may be prescribed under subsection (1) in relation to a report by a local education authority include, in particular, matters relating to—
(a) the determination and operation of admission arrangements for maintained schools in the area of the local education authority;
(b) the determination and operation of arrangements for the admission of pupils to Academies, city technology colleges and city colleges for the technology of the arts in the area of the local education authority;
(c) the adoption and operation of any scheme, whether or not formulated by the local education authority and whether under section 88M or otherwise, for co-ordinating—
(i) the admission of pupils to relevant schools in their area,
(ii) the admission of pupils in their area to other relevant schools.
(5) Regulations under subsection (1) may make provision as to—
(a) the time by which any report under that subsection must be made; and
(b) the form and content of any such report;
and may, in particular, require a report to include a statement as to whether or not admission arrangements for maintained schools in the area of the local education authority conform with the requirements imposed by or under this Part as to the content of admission arrangements for maintained schools in England.
88Q Reports under section 88P: provision of information
(1) A relevant person must, on request, provide a local education authority in England with such information as the authority may reasonably require for the purpose of enabling the authority to fulfil their duties under section 88P.
(2) In subsection (1), “relevant person”, in relation to a local education authority, means—
(a) an admission authority (other than the local education authority) for a maintained school in the area of the local education authority;
(b) the admission forum for the area of the local education authority;
(c) any member of an appeal panel constituted under section 94 by—
(i) the local education authority, or
(ii) the governing body of a foundation or voluntary aided school in the area of the local education authority;
(d) the proprietor of—
(i) an Academy,
(ii) a city technology college, or
(iii) a city college for the technology of the arts,
in the area of the local education authority;
(e) any other local education authority in England;
(f) such other person as may be prescribed.’.—[Ed Balls.]
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