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Commons Chamber

Volume 480: debated on Thursday 16 October 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 16 October 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

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

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 23 October.

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Order read for resumed adjourned debate on Second Reading (12 June), That the Bill be read a Second time.

Debate to be resumed on Wednesday 29 October at Four o’clock.

Bournemouth Borough Council [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 29 October at Four o’clock.

Oral Answers to Questions

Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What steps his Department is taking to support the provision of apprenticeships in the construction industry in the current economic situation. (227247)

Despite the current economic crisis, the most recent construction skills estimate was that there would be more than 40,000 new entrants to the industry every year. We are determined to maintain the highest possible numbers of apprentices in the sector, so we are looking at how we can use the power of Government contracts to increase the number of apprenticeship places. We have set up a clearing house, which has already placed two thirds of apprentices who risk losing their apprenticeships with a new employer or training provider, and convened a group of employers and trade unions to advise us on other practical steps that we can take to support the sector. I am clear that we must be prepared to consider new and radical ways of promoting and supporting apprenticeships in the current economic conditions.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. He will be aware that despite the economic crisis in the construction industry, there are still some good employers who spend money and time training their employees. However, they are being undermined by unregistered rogue employers who do not pay tax or insurance, thereby undermining the good employers and their businesses. Could my right hon. Friend therefore ensure that, all things being equal, Government procurement contracts are given only to those registered companies with a track record of investing in training?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will know that in the £2.3 billion capital programme for further education colleges in England we have already made it clear that major new contracts will have to have a training agreement within them. I can assure him that I am discussing that message actively with colleagues across Government, so that we look into every area of Government procurement to see how it can be used to secure the maximum training and the maximum numbers of apprentices.

I am very supportive of the Government’s approach towards apprenticeships, and I think that I speak for my colleagues on the Front Bench when I say that. However, there is a concern, not only about construction apprenticeships, but about other apprenticeships. At the end of the last financial year, £284 million was taken out of the learning and skills budget, £128 million of which was given to higher education to support student grants. How does that attune with what the Secretary of State has said about trying to get more apprenticeships, to meet the target of 500,000 that Lord Leitch set and which the Government supported, and will that money go back to the Learning and Skills Council?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. We have made it clear through the Learning and Skills Council that we do not want any shortage of money to be a constraint on the number of apprenticeships and we have reinforced that in the past year. There are one or two examples at the local or regional level of people saying that there is no budget for apprenticeships. We have overruled that and made it clear that we will expand the financing going into apprenticeships to meet the demand that comes from employers. With regard to last year’s budget, the hon. Gentleman will know that £115 million of underspend last year, the first year of the Train to Gain programme, was reinvested in the further education and skills budget. However, I am more than happy to write to him and the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills to explain how that was done.

A substantial expansion of the newly restored rights of local authorities to build council housing linked to a requirement to take on apprenticeships would be a useful step forward. We have seen the number of apprentices double over 10 years and that is great, but 19 out of 20 employers still have no scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for that might be the paperwork associated with accessing public money for apprenticeships? The paperwork is quite substantial, ranging from the monitoring of quality assurance to retaining data on every apprenticeship for at least six years. Is there not a simpler way of approaching the matter?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. I had quite a lively meeting in my office in July with a number of people from different parts of the apprenticeship system. The farce of people believing that they had to keep vocational qualification documents for six years in paper form for audit purposes is being dealt with, as is the fact that people could not get their accreditation online and had to use a paper-based process. Some of the accrediting bodies are already removing that practice from their procedures. So I can assure my hon. Friend that, whether we are talking about public sector apprenticeships—where the numbers are expanding rapidly—or more private sector apprenticeships, we are determined to deal with the bureaucracy that has been an inhibition in the past.

I have worked in the construction industry, and I have to say that I am quite encouraged by the Secretary of State’s remarks. There is no doubt, however, that further trained personnel—particularly craftsmen—are required in the industry, and there should be additional apprenticeships available. At the moment, the industry sucks in too many people from overseas to fill the positions that are vacant. Will the Secretary of State take seriously the points that have been made on both sides of the House on this question?

Yes, I will. The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. I never want us to be in a position where someone in this country loses a job that goes to somebody from another country—whether that person comes here to do the job or whether the job goes there—just on the basis that they do not have the necessary skills. I am determined to ensure that we do not ignore untapped talent in this country, resulting in people losing out. We will look at new ways of approaching the situation, and the hon. Gentleman is quite right to suggest that projects such as the Olympics, the major Crossrail programme and the Government’s public sector housing programme will all draw people into the industry, even though the private house building market is very slow at the moment. We will need to look at new ways of doing this, recognising that smaller companies might find it a little more difficult financially than it has been in the past. We will look at those new ways of ensuring that we have a supply of skilled labour.

Will the Secretary of State accept that there is an urgent need right across the United Kingdom to grant the skilled training of apprentices in the construction industry a higher professional qualification and recognition by society?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the question of qualification levels. I want as many apprentices as possible to get the level of advanced qualification that will give them the ability to work on any building site. The other thing that the Government will be doing a lot more of in the next year is promoting the apprenticeship to its real value in society, as a legitimate means of training. Apprenticeships had disappeared in 1997; few people started them, and very few of those people finished them. We have rescued apprenticeships, but we are still on the journey to restoring their rightful position as a mainstream option in the training and education system in this country. That is what we are determined to do.

It is good to be questioning the Secretary of State, rather than one of the two novices sitting either side of him—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] But I do not want to be ungenerous. In 2003, the Prime Minister promised that apprenticeship numbers would rise to 320,000. We know that, today, there are just 240,000, and that level 3 apprenticeships have been falling every year since 2000. If the Government are really serious about apprenticeships, will they adopt some of the policies outlined in our green paper? Those include equalising funding for people over 18 doing apprenticeships, providing a cash bonus of £2,000 per apprentice to small and medium-sized enterprises, and helping group training associations, which would again help smaller companies to take apprenticeships seriously and boost their numbers. The Conservatives believe in apprenticeships. Does the right hon. Gentleman, or is it just more fine words and failed policies?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has started in such a disgruntled way. A few points off the Conservatives’ lead in the opinion polls have obviously put him in a very bad mood indeed.

Let me deal with a few of the statistics, although not all of them. The hon. Gentleman really should not confuse the real progress that we have made with the long-term targets for apprenticeship numbers that we are determined to achieve. They were set out in the Leitch report and we are working towards them. Let us look at advanced apprenticeships. The number of people achieving that qualification—which is what matters—has more than doubled under this Government. Of course, there was a time when there were far fewer apprenticeships, they were all called level 3 and nobody completed them. That was the apprenticeship system under the previous Conservative Government. At that time, no public money was going into apprenticeships.

I was very glad that the policy on group training associations announced by the Conservatives during the summer mimicked directly the one that we had announced in January. I was also very glad that their support for wage compensation for small employers mimicked directly the policy already implemented by this Government. It is really quite ridiculous for the Conservatives to go through our policies, repeat them and then claim that that is evidence of their support for apprenticeships.


2. How many young people were not in education, employment or training in the latest period for which figures are available. (227248)

The latest figures show that there were 730,000 young people aged 18 to 24 who were not in education, employment or training in England. Around 260,000 of those young adults have caring responsibilities and a further 78,000 have a disability or sickness. Since April this year, we have made it possible for 18-year-olds with a history of not being in employment, education or training to be fast-tracked through the new deal programme on a voluntary basis; and from April next year, early entry to the new deal will be mandatory for 18-year-olds who have been in the NEET category for six months. Since 1997, the Government have increased the numbers of young people active in work or education from 3.9 million to 4.7 million. Through the measures we have taken, we aim to continue that progress.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response, but notwithstanding the measures and results he referred to, one of the principal stains on this Government’s reputation is without question that during a decade of economic growth, rising employment and falling unemployment, hundreds of thousands of young people were allowed to fall through the net and effectively do nothing with their lives as they were not in education, not in training and not in the apprenticeships that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier. Now, at a time of economic hardship when jobs are being shed and the cupboards are bare, will the Secretary of State please tell us what measures he can bring to the table today that suggest that he knows how to bring down the number of NEETs at a time of economic difficulty?

First, at the risk of repeating myself, what was achieved in the decade of growth was a huge increase in the number of young people in education and employment and, of course, a dramatic reduction over the same period in long-term youth unemployment. The hon. Gentleman is right that, within the overall number of NEETs—it is a much smaller number than in the past—who do not have caring responsibilities, who are not out of work and bringing up their families, who are not among the 80,000 owning or buying their own homes and so living in households with significant incomes, there is a core of people about whom we remain worried.

I would say to Conservative Members, however, that opposition to increasing the participation age for training and work is the worst possible policy. The best way of ensuring that young people do not end up out of work, out of training and out of education is to ensure that, between 16 and 18, they are either in college or in work with training. I regret the fact that the Conservative party rejects the most practical measure that the Government are putting in place to deal with the issue in the longer term.

Second only to the Isles of Scilly, Wakefield has the second highest rate in the country of young people not in education, employment or training. With 11 per cent. of 16-year-olds classified as NEETs and just 22 per cent. progressing to higher education at 18, despite our excellent GCSE results, will my right hon. Friend sit down with me, Wakefield council and Wakefield college to discuss what can be done to stop that tragic waste of talent during the years before the secondary school age rises to 18?

I would be delighted to do so. I know that my hon. Friend is very keen on the development in her area of a stronger offer for higher education. Part of the challenge—it is only part of it—is to make sure that the aspirations of young people of talent and ability are raised to the highest possible level. In some parts of the country, local access to higher education is not as strong as it could be. The Higher Education Funding Council will shortly end its consultation on our new university challenge, which might be one of the issues that we should discuss for Wakefield. A number of other Members have a similar interest for their areas.

Has the Secretary of State had a chance to look at The Daily Telegraph this morning? If so, he will have seen an excellent article by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), a former welfare Minister, in which he points out that the number of NEETs under this Labour Government is now at record levels and suggests that the new deal should be scrapped for having failed young people and that the money saved should be spent on better projects in order to deal with the forthcoming economic difficulties that the country faces.

I shall undoubtedly read the article with great interest. It is difficult for me to comment, given that I have not seen the article or the statistics that it contains, but I can say that some of the statistics that are currently in play are very misleading. I do not think it fair—[Interruption.] May I be allowed to make my point? I think that the hon. Lady will agree with me.

If, for example, a mother decides to stay at home looking after her children and to study part-time, she will appear as a NEET in some statistics, but I do not think that a mother who chooses to do that should be labelled as someone who is not doing something useful or active, and the same applies to others with caring responsibilities. We must accept that there is a much smaller but, yes, hard-core problem involving those who have dropped out of the system and are not engaged in education and training, but I believe that the higher level of conditionality on benefit and the much earlier intervention with young people—particularly those who have already been out of work for a couple of years before reaching the age of 18—is the way to go.

Those core principles are at the heart of the new deal, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is making very clear that much more active and much earlier intervention involving more young people is the key to ensuring that they do not stay outside the employment, training and education system for long periods.

Higher Education (Knowsley)

We are very encouraged by the interest in our new university challenge policy, and want to extend the benefits of higher education to more people and places. If any proposals are developed, in Knowsley or elsewhere, we shall be happy to meet delegations led by hon. Members to discuss them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that the collaboration involving Edge Hill university in Knowsley and efforts to provide more higher education opportunities at Knowsley community college will pave the way towards establishing a campus in Knowsley?

My right hon. Friend raised this matter with me during my first week in the job. He is absolutely right: the work between the further education college and the higher education college, and the establishment of a new university, are bound to promote regeneration and opportunities for both young people and adults in that part of the north-west. I am very keen to talk to my right hon. Friend further about any proposals. The decisions will of course be made by the HEFCE, but there is currently a great deal of enthusiasm across the country about new universities. That suggests that there is a lot of unmet need out there, which our policy is supporting.

Research Careers

The Government are currently looking at Professor Nigel Thrift's review of research careers in the UK, commissioned as part of the higher education debate launched earlier this year. We expect it to help in developing our approach to higher education and research careers in the longer term.

There has been a 100 per cent. pass rate in all science subjects among students at Woodham community technology college in my constituency. What is the Department doing to ensure that those young people’s fascination with science today turns into successful careers in science tomorrow?

I applaud the work being done in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which places the institution to which he referred among the very best in the country. He is absolutely right: encouraging an ability in and an enthusiasm for science among young people is key to the country’s success in the coming years, and we are working closely with our colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families to achieve that. It is important that young adult scientists are returning to schools, and we are supporting that through our science and engineering ambassadors throughout the country. It is also important that we are supporting young people in those key stem subjects—chemistry, physics and mathematics—with an extra £15 million of investment over the next year.

I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities in relation to science. Does he recognise the particular challenge involved in recruiting and retaining women in research careers? Given that they leave universities with high levels of debt, face a continuing pay gap and, indeed, publication gaps due to family commitments, and given that we are starting from a low base—especially in some areas—is there not a particular need for Government to give research councils and other employers the tools to enable us to do better by women in science? We need to retain their talents in research.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He will, I hope, be aware of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) to ensure that women are represented in science and engineering. Indeed, I did some work about that with my hon. Friend in my previous role as Minster with responsibility for skills. The Government have provided direct funding, including pilot funding, to encourage women in those spheres. We are also working with training organisations and trade bodies, particularly in engineering and science, to support women in their careers, including when they are on career breaks because we recognise that when women who have been trained and have an extensive science background leave work to have children, they often come back into science employment at a lower grade, or are unable to regain the positions that they left. We want to support the work of those organisations and trade bodies to ensure that those women are pioneers within science.

Scientific Research

Earlier this year, when I addressed the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, I said that our ambition should be to go further than scientific literacy to a more mature relationship between the public, the media and scientists, where everyone understands each other. In particular, that means the public and the media maintaining the same healthy scepticism towards science that they do towards other information that they consume. We are currently consulting on a new vision for science and society, with a key strand focused on creating a society confident in the use of science. That will build on the good work that we already support such as funding the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre.

I thank the Minister for that response. One of the less welcome consequences of the UK’s success in scientific research has been the increase in the number of animal experiments being carried out year on year. I welcome the fact that his Department has increased funding to look at alternatives to the use of animals in research, but can he assure the House that, as we seek to promote and support our scientific research sector, we will also try to ensure that that research is conducted as ethically and humanely as possible?

Yes. I recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend has expressed, which are quite widely held across society. We believe that there is potential to make advances in science and to reduce animal use. Some recent scientific advances, including tissue engineering, stem cell research and imaging technologies, have that potential. She will be aware that the Government have funded the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, or NC3Rs as it is known, which is the first centre of its type in the world. The two research councils will give £12.8 million to that centre over the coming three years.

The Secretary of State will know that, in 2002, in a speech to the Royal Society, Tony Blair said:

“The benefits of science will only be realised through a renewed compact between science and society.”

The Secretary of State set out some recent things that the Government have done, but what did they do over that six-year period to renew that compact between science and society?

We did a number of things. The development of the sciencewise process meant that the Government increased not only their ability to consult with the public carefully and sensitively on controversial issues, but how to handle them. We were involved in encouraging the setting up of the science media centre, which is independent of Government, as it needs to be, and it has been critically important.

In some of the major issues, for example, the MMR vaccine case, one of the problems was that the media coverage lacked any independent source of scientific evidence. We all know that real damage was done by the way in which that issue was handled in the media. Since the science media centre has been in place, the quality of public debate has been much better. I refer hon. Members to the House’s recent discussions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, where the level of public and scientific understanding displayed was much higher. Therefore, I think that over a period of time a lot has been done by Government to improve things.

One of the ways that we have attempted to build public confidence in scientific research has been through the development of partnership with the business community. As we are facing an economic turndown, one of the areas that we must protect is that research; we must ensure that our companies are at the cutting edge of technology. What is my right hon. Friend’s Department going to do to ensure that companies do not see saving on investment in research and development as one of the ways to save money, so that we keep our companies and our country at the cutting edge?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In “Innovation Nation”, the White Paper we published in the spring, we recognised the importance of Government procurement in creating the markets for innovative products and services. We will shortly publish the first annual innovation report, and Departments are currently actively working on their procurement planning and on identifying how they will create a demand for innovative products. We have also revamped the small business research initiative, and Departments are now starting to offer new contracts to small start-up businesses for developing innovative technologies. One of the ways we can respond, therefore, is by making sure that Government procurement money is used in ways that reward research and encourage people to bring new products to market.

We were surprised to learn from The Guardian last Monday that, after 50 years of consistent Government policy in space research, the new Science Minister in the other place, who had been appointed on the previous working day, made a hasty multi-billion pound pledge to send UK astronauts into space. Does the Secretary of State agree with this policy U-turn, or is the new Science Minister speaking out of turn?

I am delighted to have Lord Drayson as a member of my team. His record both in business and in science as a Minister is outstanding. He made it clear in his interviews that his personal view, which he had expressed prior to being a Minister, was that we should join a manned space programme. The position of the Government, which he supports and understands, is that we have a review of—[Interruption.] We are currently setting out a review, and we established it for a good reason. Twenty years ago, Baroness Thatcher took the decision that this country should not participate in manned space flight. I have to say that I think that decision has stood the test of time, because while we were not participating in that programme we have become a world leader in satellite technology, robot-exploring devices and so forth. In the future, we will have to look at the issue of whether the opportunities that would come from participating in manned space flight now outweigh the other opportunities and costs of investment in other research areas. It is right that, 20 years on, we approach this with fresh minds, but there are no predetermined decisions.


The 2007-08 apprenticeships performance indicator of 75,000 framework completions has been met and exceeded early. with 112,000 people successfully completing an apprenticeship framework in 2006-07. Apprenticeship completion rates reached an all-time high in 2006-07 of 63 per cent. compared with 24 per cent. in 2001-02—and an effective rate of zero under the Tories. Apprenticeship starts have increased from 65,000 in 1996-97 to 184,000 in 2006-07. Expanding apprenticeships will play a key role in improving the nation’s skills base, and we plan to deliver more than 250,000 apprenticeship starts and 190,000 successful completions by 2020.

I welcome the Minister to his new job, and I wish him well in what is a very important responsibility. Following on from what was said on Questions 1 and 2, may I tell the Minister that many of the young people, and their families, in Southwark and Bermondsey would far rather they did apprenticeships than stay on at school to 16, let alone to 18? It is therefore important that we have good opportunities for work experience related to apprenticeships, and then good careers advice linked to real companies who are willing to take these young people on, if they are qualified to do the job. Can the Minister give me some assurance that there is a real—not a notional—opportunity for youngsters in construction and other industries who are clear about what they would like to do, but at present find it difficult to get the encouragement through their teenage years?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his gracious words of welcome. I had expected a few such words from my old friend from South Holland and The Deepings, who was in fact just mean to me before I even had a chance to stand up and reply, but I shall soldier on. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, of which the Government are cognisant. We have introduced junior apprenticeships to try to take the whole concept of apprenticeships down into school so as to introduce schoolchildren gently to the notion of what an apprenticeship is and how it works, and to put them on the pathway to one. A whole new framework of careers advice and guidance will be part of the new Bill that we hope will be forthcoming in the next few months.

I have looked up the figures and noted that the number of apprenticeship starts in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is quite low compared with the national figure. If he would like to come to talk to me about that at any point, I would be more than glad.

I too welcome my hon. Friend to his new post, and I certainly do not see him as a novice.

There are disproportionately more apprentices in England and Wales than in Scotland. Does my hon. Friend have any advice for the Scottish Government about how to rectify that unacceptable situation?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words of welcome. Indeed, if I am a novice, it is overnight success after seven and a half years on the Back Benches.

As for Scotland, far be it from me to advise the Scots, but if I were a Scot I would support John Park’s proposed apprenticeship Bill in the Scottish Parliament. I would consider issues such as why apprentices get paid £40 in Scotland compared with £95 in England, and why the Scots have put all the apprenticeship budget into three sectors and abandoned the rest. I would be looking for answers to those questions in the Labour MSP John Park’s Bill.

I congratulate the Minister on his promotion and on his new sartorial elegance, and I wish him every success in his important task. Does he agree that there is no more richly rewarding career than that of craftsman or craftswoman? We owe an enormous amount to the craftsmen of the past in the country. What are we doing to encourage young people to embrace a career in the crafts?

We have now reached a situation in which everyone is being nice to me, and I am very grateful for yet another hon. Gentleman’s kind and gracious words of welcome. I can say only that my sartorial efforts, such as they are, like the hon. Gentleman’s are not so much a new fad as antique.

The bulk of my answer is the same as it was to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is absolutely right to say that learning craft skills from an early age is a way to encourage and develop a sense of the value of learning a craft, and of building or making something. That starts in schools and, more than ever in the context of a massively expanded, high-quality apprenticeship programme, there are junior apprenticeships in school. Young people are doing, in old-fashioned terms, woodwork and metalwork and really getting a love for the materials and the craft.

7. What steps he is taking to increase the number of people successfully completing apprenticeship schemes. (227253)

The number of adults and young people completing apprenticeships has almost trebled since 2001. The Government’s document “World-class Apprenticeships” confirmed our commitment to making apprenticeships a high-quality option for both young people and adults and set out steps to increase the numbers of people successfully completing an apprenticeship.

In the summer we published the draft Apprenticeships Bill to drive and help sustain improvements in the quality of the programme. That will be complemented by an increase in apprenticeships funding to more than £1 billion by 2010-11. Expanding apprenticeships will play a key role in improving the nation’s skills base and we plan to deliver more than 250,000 apprenticeship starts and 190,000 completions by 2020.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new post, and I welcome the news of the increase in apprenticeships and completions. However, particularly in the hospitality and catering trade, some apprentices leave because of maltreatment by employers. My constituent Rosario Guarneri, in conjunction with City college Brighton, has developed a ground-breaking apprenticeship scheme that will, hopefully, address those issues and others. Will the Minister or a member of his team meet my constituent to discuss the matter?

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind personal words. The short answer to the end of her question is yes. The relevant Minister is the noble Lord Young, who I know is aware of this matter. He has agreed to meet the sector skills council, and has said he is very happy to meet her and her constituent. This sector is important: there are 14,500 starts made in the catering sector every year. In an apprenticeship, any mistreatment of employees by employers is unacceptable, and our new blueprint makes it very clear that a relationship of mutual respect between both parties is key. I am sure that Lord Young will do everything he can to ensure that this situation is rectified. My hon. Friend is a great champion of these matters and of her constituents, as we all know

I add my congratulations to the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon). I also congratulate the Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), on his elevation—we can say that he now truly is PC.

My concern is that, in the present economic climate, the number of completed apprenticeships will fall, because fewer apprenticeships will be offered. Can the Under-Secretary give the House the figures on those who, having completed apprenticeships, are offered full-time, permanent jobs?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words of welcome. I think that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) might be wishing he had been a little more gracious in the beginning.

Obviously, in economically straitened times there are pressures on this sector, just as there are everywhere. One of the things that we have done is to introduce, in the particularly pressed construction sector, a construction industry clearing house for apprenticeship places, so that as people are laid off, we can try to re-find such places for them. I do not have the specific figures on the placements that the hon. Lady wants, but I shall certainly write to her with them.

Is the Minister aware that Sheffield Forgemasters in south Yorkshire employs 70 apprentices, which is almost 10 per cent. of its total work force, and that the company has a record of taking on more than 90 per cent. of the apprentices who qualify? Does he agree that companies such as Sheffield Forgemasters are providing a best practice model for some of the bigger employers in the country in taking on apprentices?

I agree that Sheffield Forgemasters is an exemplary company. I know that my hon. Friend who is now Minister of State for Higher Education and Intellectual Property visited it when he was Skills Minister and was extraordinarily impressed by the outstanding work that he saw. I am thus happy to say from the Dispatch Box that the rest of the country should be looking to Sheffield Forgemasters for an example of how to do this brilliantly.

I am not going to be kind, because I expect Ministers to do a job. I want rights for apprentices who are working on building sites in England, because the way they are being treated is absolutely abominable. They are having to make themselves bogus self-employed. The situation is absolutely crazy—Siôn, sort it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I must say that it is not actually my job to sort it but that of Lord Young, and he will do so. As a former apprentice and a former senior trade union official with decades of experience, he is more than well qualified to sort it. My hon. Friend may know that we have set up a review involving the construction industry, the construction industry unions and the sector skills council. All the stakeholders are holding a review to examine exactly these kinds of issues and everything else that has an impact on the construction industry and apprenticeships at this difficult time. My answer is the same as it was to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow): any mistreatment, of any kind, including through low wages, needs to be dealt with, and is unacceptable.

Physics and Astronomy

8. What the Government’s policy is on the future of physics and astronomy teaching in universities. (227254)

Physics has been designated as a strategically important subject and we have asked the Higher Education Funding Council to work with others to increase and sustain both the demand for and supply of physics graduates. We are pleased that the number of physics and astronomy students has increased.

I know that the Minister will disagree, as I do, with those who say that it is engineers who create the wealth and that the scientists just spend it. We need the science to get the engineering going. In that respect, does the Minister believe we will see more science and innovation campuses, or will the current science funding settlement prevent that from happening?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a planned increase of 17 per cent. in our science budget over the next three years. Fantastic world-class science is being carried out across the country, and that is against a backdrop of increases in every subject in the number of students studying science at A-level. That is something to applaud and celebrate, as we can look forward to an increase in science and, as a consequence, in engineering in coming years.

I add my congratulations to both Ministers and wish them well in their new posts.

The future of physics and astronomy teaching in universities could be affected by the substantial problems with Icelandic and other offshore deposits. Will the Minister update the House on that potentially serious blow to our universities? In particular, £77 million has already been identified, but is the Minister aware of any further at-risk offshore deposits?

This is obviously a serious issue, but to put it in context I can say that the HEFC advises that front-line services and services to students will not be affected. We understand that 12 universities have placed money on deposit with Icelandic banks, and the total amount involved is £77 million. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that discussions are being held between the Treasury and Iceland on these matters.

Topical Questions

In these difficult economic times, we must obviously take every possible measure to assist those who may lose or worry about losing their jobs. One of the most effective things that we can do is enable them to refresh or update their skills, or to retrain. Yesterday, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I announced that we are making significant new money—£100 million—available over the next three years to support retraining and the development of new skills, so that people can move quickly back into employment.

In addition to the role that Jobcentre Plus personal advisers play in offering advice and support, I will take two further measures to ensure that advice and support on skills is available. First, learndirect will be able to offer one-to-one advice on careers, skills and retraining, and I will take further measures to promote that service. Secondly, I will work with further education colleges to ensure that they make every effort to offer appropriate advice on and support for skills training to those who may worry about losing their jobs. I will announce further measures in due course.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and, given the present economic climate, I am sure he appreciates the contribution that the west midlands makes to the British economy. More importantly, is he aware of the contribution made through research and development by the university of Coventry and the university of Warwick? They make a major contribution to the economy through innovation and research.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the important role played by universities in many different ways. The university of Warwick is one of the leading research-intensive universities, with much national and international research, and the university of Coventry has a powerful role to play in the local and regional economy. It is important that the role of both types of university is properly recognised in our higher education and innovation system.

May I press the Secretary of State on university applications? We recognise and welcome the increase in university applications for this year, but is the Secretary of State concerned about the sharp drop in UCAS applications so far for 2009? Will he confirm that at this time last year 196,000 applications had been received, while this year applications are down by more than 50,000, at 139,000? What explanation can the Minister offer the House for that dramatic 30 per cent. fall?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the figures that might be available at this time of year are figures from very early in the application process. There is always significant variation over the months. I do not see any reason to believe that the progress we have made on admissions and acceptances in recent years will not continue.

I worry about the policy put forward recently by the hon. Gentleman’s colleague on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), which seemed to suggest a return to the Conservative policy of encouraging unfunded university expansion on a larger scale. That had disastrous effects on funding for students in the 1990s and I urge the Opposition not to pursue that policy.

We want to see more children with the A-levels that will enable them to go to university. May I press the Secretary of State further on the leaked UCAS document, which I have in front of me? It shows that applications to university are down very dramatically at this stage. They have gone down by 30 per cent. compared with this time last year. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that that is potentially an alarming development? It was a pity that he was so complacent in dismissing that important evidence. I invite the Secretary of State to write to me with an update on the figures for applications so far and an explanation of why he believes a 30 per cent. fall is not something that he regards as a worrying trend.

We will report publicly in the proper way, as we do every year when the UCAS figures come in. There is a regular cycle of reporting and we will report on those figures. I want to see a continuation of progress in university numbers in years to come, and I believe that our policies will lead to that. We will start in the fairly near future with the launch of the student finance campaign, which emphasises the benefits of the financial support that we have extended, having reintroduced grants since they were abolished under the Conservative Government. I believe that we will make the progress that the hon. Gentleman wants to see. A leaked document at a very early stage in the process is not a point from which to draw too many firm conclusions.

T5. Staff and students at local colleges have contacted me about the call of the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning to restore the 1.5 million adult education course places lost by the further education sector and the communities that it serves since 2006. What do the Government plan to do about those lost places for local people and their FE colleges, given the clear social and economic benefits of adult education, in terms of universal access to basic skills, social inclusion and personal development? (227277)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I have come across the CALL campaign. It is clearly well meaning, but I think that it is misconceived. The overall investment in further education has increased massively and the only thing that has changed is the way in which the places are structured. We have moved towards a smaller number of higher-quality places with more of an impact on skills and employability. Simply to count numbers of places rather than thinking about the quality of learning does not make sense.

T2. Is it not the case that the university statistics show that most young people from our state schools who get the top grades are already going to our top universities? If we want to make sure that children from state schools are better represented at those top universities, is it not the case that we should fix the quality of schooling that they receive so that they get those top grades rather than beating up on top universities and their admissions procedures? (227274)

Nobody has been beating up on top universities. However, of course I responded when the chancellor of Oxford university launched an attack on Government policy and pretended that we were trying to turn the university into a social security office, because that is wrong. We want to make sure that schools identify and nurture talent and enable people to apply to the university that is right for them.

Any of our universities can be the right one for the right student. In the past year alone, more than 80 universities have become involved in academies and trust projects, because structural links between universities and schools are critically important. Many universities, though, recognise that they can do more, and just a couple of weeks ago nine of the most selective universities in this country told me that they wanted to find ways to guarantee that young people from schools that traditionally do not send children to selective universities have the chance to show what they can do. That will mean actively seeking out the best-performing students in some of those schools and offering them the chance to go on summer school exposure courses at the universities.

The answer is that we need all those measures: universities should look at their admissions procedures, but we also need to strengthen what is happening in some schools. I do not agree with those who want to rule out any of those options or say that it is either/or.

May I remind the House that, with topical questions, I am looking for brief replies and short and sharp questions?

T8. Having slept on the forceful arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) in last night’s Adjournment debate, will Ministers offer support for innovative research at universities? Sunderland university was mentioned last night, but I should like to add the university of Staffordshire, which has a campus in my constituency of Stafford. They make a great contribution to knowledge and wealth locally, regionally and nationally, so will Ministers favour the suggestion that 10 per cent. of the university research budget should go on specialist research of national significance? (227280)

I recognise the valuable research role played by many universities but I have doubts about the 10 per cent. levy idea, as it would have to operate irrespective of the quality of the research. This country has a number of universities in the top 10 for research—in the league tables of which we take no notice—because of the concentration of research investment. We want to support universities of the sort that my hon. Friend refers to, but we need to be careful not to undo things that are working well at the moment.

T3. The downturn in the housing industry means that some construction apprentices on my patch have lost their jobs. That is obviously a tragic waste of training, but the loss of their work placement also means that they are no longer able to continue their studies at their further education college. That is another waste of training, and I was wondering whether the Secretary of State could talk to the FE sector about safeguarding at least the FE element of apprenticeships. Could he also talk to the relevant skills council about setting up a brokerage system for transferring apprentices who have lost their jobs to employers who might be willing to take them on? In that way, the training that has already taken place would not be lost. (227275)

We set up a clearing house in August with precisely that purpose. To date, 400 young people have either been found new work placements with employers or been enabled to continue at college. I shall contact the hon. Gentleman to tell him how the system is operating, as it is designed to do precisely what he is quite rightly urging.

The Secretary of State is aware that discussions are taking place about the role of the expansion of higher education as a key driver in the regeneration of Blackpool. Will he therefore continue his discussions with colleagues in other Departments to ensure that that expansion takes place, as Blackpool needs the new students to boost both its economy and its skills base and to take the task force reports further?

My hon. Friend continues to champion the new university in Blackpool and sets it in the important context of regeneration in the area. I am pleased that the Department has been able to make some money available through the HEFC. I do know that the discussions to which she refers are continuing, and that they involve our colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s new ministerial colleagues to their positions. I look forward to constructive dialogue with them during the remainder of the Parliament.

In these difficult economic circumstances, employers will undoubtedly be seeking to trim their costs. Does the Secretary of State agree that one false economy would be to cut employer investment in education and training? What will the Government do to make it easier for employees to study part time, especially in higher education?

The hon. Gentleman will know that last year we made funding available through the HEFC for many thousands of co-funded part-time places. The number of courses has now exceeded the number that we planned for because the demand from universities has been so strong. So there is a real interest in universities and in business in funding part-time degrees on a new basis. That and other measures will help to sustain the investment that the hon. Gentleman rightly says is needed.

T4. Total student debt in this country is now about £22 billion. The average real student debt is about £33,000 after a three-year degree. One third of all students who have ever taken out a loan have not yet reached the threshold for repaying it. In the context of the current economic crisis and the fact that almost inevitably graduate unemployment will go up, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the future of those figures, and what contingencies does he have in place? (227276)

I remind the hon. Gentleman of two things. These are not like bank debts; they are income-contingent so if students do not achieve a level of earnings, they do not pay anything back. Secondly, the figures that he quotes take no account of the two-year time lag before the information gets on to the data system. More important, although people may start below the threshold for repayment in their first year of employment, typically the increase in earnings in the next two or three years is 37 per cent. So people do get jobs that repay the value of the degree for which they have studied.

I have noted that, although the hon. Gentleman and many of his colleagues fought the last election on a policy of opposing university fees, we have now been told by the Front-Bench spokesman that that policy is to be changed. So I—

While Loughborough university is rightly recognised for its sporting excellence—I congratulate many of those who are at Loughborough in the parade today—does the Minister recognise that Loughborough is at the heart of the energy technology institutes? This will bring jobs to the UK but also meet many of the demands that we shall hear later in the climate change statement. Will he ensure that the private-public sector partnership, which will spend more than £1 billion on research in this area is not lost in the current climate, in which research and development may be one of the first things that the private sector cuts? It is absolutely vital not just for the country but for Loughborough.

My hon. Friend is right. It is vital for the country; it will give us far more evidence on the benefits of energy renewables and help us to tackle climate change over the coming years. I congratulate Loughborough on being awarded the contracts. My hon. Friend should be reassured that that work will continue in the coming years.

T6. To return to the vexed problem of university deposits in Icelandic banks, can the Secretary of State answer two quick questions? What financial advice did his Department give to universities on their investments? Will he place in the Library a list of other dodgy offshore investments so that we can see the extent of the problem? (227278)

I will write to the right hon. Gentleman. I would be surprised if my Department had given any advice to universities on where to invest their money. Universities are autonomous bodies responsible for the management of their own affairs, including their investment policies. Nor is it for me as Secretary of State to produce a personal list of investments I would not like to put my money into; I think that that would cause something of a stir that would be unnecessary.

T7. Will the Secretary of State reconsider his approach to quality-related research funding? Although it is right that the most excellent research should receive a disproportionate share of that funding, surely a far more equitable distribution is possible so that institutions such as the university of Northampton benefit from the seedcorn investment. (227279)

It seems to me that the distribution of funding has to be determined by the quality of the research. The allocation system has changed to some extent to make sure that good research is not captured, but I am resistant to the idea of a simple, arbitrary, top-slicing of the distribution. The strength of our university system is built on rewarding quality, and I would hate to see that principle changed. That does not mean that we are not interested in how we support those universities that make a key contribution to their local and regional economy through different types of research and innovation activities.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 20 October—Second Reading of the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

Tuesday 21 October—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate entitled “Controls on Immigration” followed by a debate on the Olympic legacy. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Wednesday 22 October—Remaining stages of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].

Thursday 23 October—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

The provisional business for the week commencing 27 October will include:

Monday 27 October—Remaining stages of the Local Transport Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 28 October—Remaining stages of the Climate Change Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 29 October—Opposition Day (11th allotted day) (Second Part). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced; followed by the Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed private business for consideration.

Thursday 30 October—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on defence policy.

The information is as follows:

That this House takes note of the 5th, the 8th, the 14th to the 29th, the 31st to the 35th, the 37th, the 38th, the 42nd and the 50th Reports and the 1st and 2nd Special Reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Sessions 2007-08, and of the Treasury Minutes on these Reports (Cm 7366 and 7453).

I inform the House that the Commons calendar from December 2008 until October 2009 is available in the Vote Office.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week, which includes the debate on Wednesday on the remaining stages of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. There are reports today that the Prime Minister and the right hon. and learned Lady have fallen out over the amount of time that should be allowed for that debate. Will she confirm that she will make every effort to ensure that there are no statements that day, and that there will indeed be a full debate on the remaining stages of the Bill?

The Leader of the House referred to the debate in the following week on defence policy. On 13 October, the Prime Minister of Iraq stated that he wants British troops to withdraw. May we have a statement from the Defence Secretary, before that debate, on whether that changes the Government’s strategy in Iraq?

I raised the matter of annuities with the Leader of the House last week and yesterday my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pressed her on it again, but neither of us got a satisfactory answer. Given that thousands of pensioners are being forced to buy an annuity that locks them into a lower income for the rest of their lives, the need to address the issue is urgent. Will the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions make an urgent statement to the House on whether the Government will adopt our proposal to suspend the rule on annuities?

In July, I asked for a statement from the Chancellor on the ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life. Yesterday, the right hon. and learned Lady ignored two questions on Equitable Life. The ombudsman has clearly stated that the Government must take some responsibility for the failures in Equitable Life and should be compensating policyholders, so may we have an urgent statement from the Chancellor apologising for the Government’s failures and setting out the compensation scheme for policyholders?

On Monday, the Home Secretary took the unprecedented step of interrupting House business and making a statement about the Government’s defeat in the House of Lords on the issue of 42 days’ pre-charge detention. Why was the statement not made on the following day in the usual way, thus giving Members proper notice, or was it that the Government wanted to give the statement when fewer Members were in the Chamber to question the Home Secretary? Can the Leader of the House confirm that this sets a new precedent and that in future Ministers will always make an immediate statement to the House whenever the Government are defeated in the House of Lords?

In the past year the Government have lost the personal details of 25 million men, women and children from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, 45,000 people from the Department for Work and Pensions, 3 million learner drivers from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, 84,000 prisoners from the Home Office and over 2 million people from the Ministry of Defence, but yesterday the Home Secretary announced plans for a massive increase in the Government’s ability to access people’s personal data. What reassurance can the Home Secretary give that the Government will protect the integrity of any new data? Given the huge data losses so far, would it not be easier for the Home Secretary to make a statement listing the people whose data have not been lost by this Government?

Finally, the previous Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was also the Government’s anti-corruption champion. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Prime Minister has found it necessary to remove that responsibility from Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool, and will she explain why? While the Prime Minister is looking at the noble Lord’s responsibilities, will he also be removing his Department’s work on regulating mortgages?

On the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, there is no truth in the report that the right hon. Lady mentioned. She asked me to make every effort to ensure that no statement is made on the day the House debates the Bill. As I said this time last week, the House has had a great deal of time, rightly, to discuss this important and controversial Bill. It has been debated for a total of 81 hours on the Floors of both Houses, with 10 sessions in the Lords and, so far, seven in the Commons, and I hope that here will be a further full day of debate. I will seek to ensure that there is no statement that day. Obviously, I will need the flexibility to allow a statement for an urgent reason, but just as it is our intention to avoid making statements on Opposition days, we will try to ensure that we do not have a statement on the day we debate the Bill.

On defence, as the right hon. Lady acknowledged, there is to be a general debate on defence on Thursday week, in which the issues can be fully explored.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of those who need to buy annuities because they are approaching their 75th birthday. I have nothing to add to what I told the House yesterday. As I said then, this issue does affect some people; it is only a small number of people, but it does affect a number of people—[Interruption.] That is not what I said. I said that it is only a small number of people, but it is an issue of concern and it is being considered.

The right hon. Lady asked about the ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life. On 8 October, the Chancellor repeated what he had said in the summer, after the ombudsman’s report was published: this was an extensive and important report, and that he would make a statement on the Government’s response in the autumn. That remains the case.

Autumn has not finished yet.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Counter-Terrorism Bill and the Home Secretary’s statement to the House after the defeat of the 42-day provision in the House of Lords. Our view was that it was important for the House to hear the Government’s intention as soon as possible, following the defeat of the clause in the House of Lords. If we had waited until the next day, speculation would have run overnight and there would have been a great many speculative news reports; but we thought that the House would need to hear as soon as possible, and therefore the statement was brought before the House. In fact, many Members of the House were present when the Home Secretary made the statement; the Chamber was packed, and it was an extensive statement.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the communications data Bill, which the Home Office proposed and was included in the draft legislative programme. As she will know, instead of simply announcing the Bills for the legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech, we have given the public an opportunity to see the Government’s intentions by publishing the draft legislative programme in early summer, enabling people to comment before the Queen’s Speech clarifies the Government’s fixed intention for the legislative programme. The draft communications data Bill was in the draft legislative programme, and a number of issues and concerns have been raised about it.

The Home Secretary has made it clear that at all times on important issues such as these, she wants to listen to people’s concerns, consider them and consult on a wide, bipartisan basis. She has said that instead of pressing forward with legislation in the next Session, she will seek to consult further, including publishing draft clauses or possibly even a draft Bill. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) misunderstands the position: having published the measure in the draft legislative programme, we will undertake further consultation before we introduce the Bill in the House. It sounds as though she would probably welcome that, now that I have had an opportunity to explain the position.

The right hon. Lady talked about anti-corruption. Anti-corruption responsibility runs across a number of Government Departments. At one stage in the past, the lead responsibility was with the Department for International Development; at another stage, it was with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It is currently with the Ministry of Justice, but the point is that all Government Departments need to focus on the issue, and indeed they do so. The question of where the lead is is less important; more important is the fact that across government the agenda is delivered, and it certainly will be.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend make time available for a full debate in the Chamber on the unfolding catastrophe in Sri Lanka? We had a short debate earlier this week in Westminster Hall, for which I thank Mr. Speaker, but the situation is so serious, with the compulsory withdrawal of aid agencies from the Vanni region and the continued indiscriminate bombing of innocent Tamils, that a number of Members wish to speak on the issue. We need to hear a fuller response from Government—I acknowledge the extra aid that the Government have made available—so a full debate in the Chamber would be appropriate.

I will take my right hon. Friend’s proposal as a suggestion for a topical debate. I considered the forward business as she made that point, and I cannot see an immediate opportunity, as the business stands, for hon. Members to raise the important issue that she brings to the House’s attention, so I will consider it for a topical debate and think further on it.

May I endorse the request from the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), as there was a very large attendance in Westminster Hall, and I am sure that there would be interest across the House among Members from all parties in a substantive debate? Ministers have always been accommodating if the time has been provided.

May I return to matters raised by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), which are of huge significance in relation to Home Office business this week? First, to go back to Monday night, it was unacceptable that an important debate in Government time on democracy and human rights around the world was interrupted by the making of a statement in the middle of it. Why could the statement not have been made at 10 o’clock, as is traditionally the case if an urgent statement is made? We could have had the full debate as planned, and the statement, and everyone would have been alerted in the normal way. [Interruption.] It was indeed about news management, as it was hoped it would be covered by the financial discussions being conducted on Monday, which, as we know, was a difficult but important day financially.

Out of the hat on Monday night the Home Secretary produced the rabbit, the temporary provisions Bill, as her fig leaf to cover her major U-turn. If she is serious about another Bill in the wings, may we have proper pre-legislative scrutiny of it, with the opportunity to take evidence on whether it is needed? We have a provision whereby Special Standing Committees consider a Bill and take evidence. Given the widespread opposition to the Bill—opposition that is massive in the House of Lords, significant in this place and very large in the country—the justification for it has not been made out, and we need to have the debate before the Home Secretary has the Bill ready to introduce.

On the other home affairs matter properly raised by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, I have read the Home Secretary’s speech from yesterday, including her references to the communications data Bill and I understand the exchange that has just taken place, but to some of us, on the back of the DNA database, the plan for ID cards and the proposal for 42-day detention without charge, the idea of an Orwellian super-database adds the final nail in the coffin, turning us from a people of liberty to a people of suspects—a completely unacceptable proposal.

May we have a debate, therefore, in this place so that we can hear the Home Secretary, the proposal and the representations that she has received and see whether there is any public support for the idea that every phone call we ever make and its location, for example, is kept for the rest of our lives on some great Government system? The Government do not appear to be able to hold the data that they already have, let alone any more.

Tomorrow, we will debate private Members’ Bills: there are 51 on the Order Paper. The Government have always wanted to be helpful and the job of the Leader of the House is to be helpful to private Members. The right hon. and learned Lady may know that in the past six years nine out of 10 Government Bills have received Royal Assent. She may also know that only about one in 10 private Members’ Bills have received Royal Assent. Will she seriously consider ways of giving better opportunity for private Members on her own side and others to get their proposals into legislation, and not hog all the time for Government business?

We look for an assurance today that there will be no Government guillotine or timetable on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that prevents debate on related fertilisation, embryology or abortion if colleagues on either side wish to raise them. May we have an assurance not only that we will have a full day, but that the Government will not seek to manage the business to prevent that debate?

Lastly, we will have a welcome debate next week on the Olympic legacy and building on the Olympic achievement. I invite the Leader of the House to join me and, I am sure, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, on the day when the nation celebrates our fantastic Olympic achievement, in saying that we are hugely proud of our athletes in both games and many of us are greatly excited by the prospect not only of the games in London in four years’ time, but of even better success then.

The Deputy Leader of the House and I will consider what the hon. Gentleman said about private Members’ Bills and see whether we can make more progress.

I take note of the fact that the hon. Gentleman backed up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) about Sri Lanka, and I shall consider that as a request for a topical debate.

Like the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) raised the topic of the statement on 42 days. We wanted to ensure that the House was told first and at the earliest possible opportunity. [Interruption.] I see that the Opposition are now arguing that the statement should have been delayed until 10 o’clock. There are pros and cons to each timing. The most important aspect is the question of substance and the fact that the House was told expeditiously.

The hon. Gentleman asked about pre-legislative scrutiny of the temporary provisions Bill, which is a matter for the Home Affairs Committee. If it wants to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny of the provisions and how they would be introduced and what effect they would have, that is a matter for the Committee. Of course, it carried out extensive pre-legislative scrutiny of the 42-day clause in the Counter-Terrorism Bill and took evidence on that.

With reference to the communications data Bill, I cannot say more than what I said to the shadow Leader of the House. There will be further time for consultation. There will be publication, probably of draft clauses, if not of the whole draft Bill. There will be an opportunity for people to look at the objectives that the Bill seeks to achieve and whether the measures appropriately protect personal data and human rights. With all these measures, it should be recognised that as well as protecting personal privacy and confidentiality and human rights, it is important that we are able to help the police investigate and detect crime. The hon. Gentleman complains about the DNA database, but I remember the rape offenders who were brought to justice because DNA data were held on a database.

There have been welcome noises from the Government this week about helping people at work to maintain their jobs. May we have a statement from the Treasury about the decision by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to attack seafarers and mariners under the seafarers’ earnings deduction, which will leave my constituent, Mr. Penny, facing a future in which, he says, the ruling has

“devastated my family life to the verge of collapse, bankruptcy is looming and the only alternative for many UK based mariners will be to leave the Industry or live outside of the UK”?

The decision can be reversed so that people can remain in the industry and not be 25 per cent. worse off in their salaries.

I will raise the matter with Treasury Ministers and ask them to write to my hon. Friend and deal with the point he raises.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the continuing press reports surrounding the relationship between the Secretary of State for Business when he was EU Trade Commissioner and Mr. Oleg Deripaska, who I understand is banned from the United States following an FBI inquiry into his business activities. Given the very serious nature of some of the allegations, may we have a debate next week to try to ascertain the nature of that relationship when the Business Secretary was EU Trade Commissioner, in relation to the ownership dispute within the Russian insurance company Ingosstrakh and the aluminium tariffs situation in Russia?

I do not think that business questions and the privilege that attaches to them should be used by hon. Members to make unjustified smears and allegations.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, in line with usual procedure, when the House considers the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill on Wednesday, new clause 1 will be considered first?

In the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill the clauses, new clauses and amendments will be considered in the normal way.

May we please have a statement next week on the intended publication date for the delayed child health strategy and an indication of an early parliamentary opportunity to debate its contents? Given that early intervention and integrated commissioning between health, education and social services are vital to achieving better health outcomes for children, will the right hon. and learned Lady recognise that this important strategy needs to be published sooner rather than later, with explicit and funded commitments to meet the very high expectations that rightly now exist?

The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to an important strand of work. As to the timing of the publication of the health strategy for children, I will make inquiries to see whether I can be more specific and inform either him or the House.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware from her constituency both of the considerable distress that is often caused when family members, particularly those coming from the subcontinent, are unable to obtain visas or are refused entry clearance into this country and, therefore, of the importance of the representations that Members of Parliament can make on their behalf. She will also be aware that the realignment of the UK Border Agency and UK visa services has led to a considerable delay and, I understand, a change in how Members’ representations have been treated, so that it is now quite normal to experience delays of six to eight weeks. Will she investigate the matter and ensure that something is done, so that our constituents are not exposed to further distress?

There has been a considerable speeding up of responses to hon. Members in respect of their constituents in recent years. I will certainly look into the point that my hon. Friend raises and invite the Minister with responsibility for immigration to write to him and to place a copy in the Library so that it is available for all Members.

May I take the Leader of the House back to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill? In line with convention, Back Benchers in all parts of the House and on both sides of the argument have tabled important amendments to the Abortion Act 1967, for debate on the Bill on Report next Wednesday, giving the chance to debate the 1967 Act for only the second time in 40 years. If the new clauses are selected by you, Mr. Speaker, they will fall in the first group. Can the Leader of the House give us an assurance that there will not be a Government business motion relegating that group of amendments to a point where there will not be protected time, which would be most unfortunate and undemocratic given the free vote on those matters, and an assurance that they will be reached?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have already had a whole day’s debate on the question of abortion amendments that were raised on the Floor of the House in the summer. When we come back to the House I will seek to protect the time by doing my best to ensure that there are no statements on that day. The Bill will be debated according to the procedures in the normal way.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time, preferably before the autumn statement, to debate the impact of the imposition of the business rate on empty business and commercial property, which is potentially devastating in regeneration areas such as the one that I represent? Indeed, factories and businesses in Sunderland are already demolishing premises rather than pay the tax. The Pallion Engineering company, which is based in an old shipyard in Sunderland, faces an increase from £55,000 to £277,000 in a single leap, which will of course put it out of business and mean that the 200 people working there will lose their jobs.

There is particular concern about business in this difficult economic climate. I will draw the points that my hon. Friend makes to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and my right hon. Friends in the Treasury, who will no doubt take them seriously.

Does the right hon. and learned Lady still plan to proceed with her wholly misguided policy of setting up a range of regional Select Committees? If she does, will she publish the relevant Standing Orders way in advance of any debate?

Yes, we are planning to proceed with what the right hon. Gentleman regards as the wholly misguided proposal to set up regional Select Committees. We will publish the Standing Orders in advance, on the basis of his request, so that he and other hon. Members will have an opportunity to scrutinise them in detail. Let me also take this opportunity to inform the House that the Regional Ministers are being brought together today in the Council of Regional Ministers to discuss the economic impact, region by region, of the current economic crisis. When the regional Select Committees are established, they will be able to hold that sort of activity to account better in the House.

The Leader of the House will recall that on 5 July 1991, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International was closed. Thousands of people were put out of work and depositors, including the Western Isles in Scotland and Channel 4, lost their money. They were told at that stage that they would not get their money back. Some 84 per cent. of depositors have got their money back, but the liquidation has now been ongoing for 17 years. Could we have a statement from the Government or a debate about what is now the longest insolvency in this country’s history, so that it can be brought to an end as swiftly as possible?

I will ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to consider whether the best way to convey the information to my right hon. Friend and other Members who are concerned about the matter is to issue a written ministerial statement or to write to him.

Can we have a debate on fuel pricing in this country? Although there has been a welcome reduction in the petrol and diesel prices charged at the pumps in recent days, many motorists and households remain concerned about the extra costs imposed through the heavy levies of duty on fuel. They are also concerned about the practice of many retailers of operating a differential pricing policy depending on geographical location, so that the same retailer can charge different prices to motorists depending on where they live. That is clearly unfair and discriminatory, particularly to my constituents in Northern Ireland. I would therefore be grateful if we could have a debate to discuss those issues.

At the end of this business statement there will be an oral statement on the subject of energy from the Department for Energy and Climate Change, immediately after which there will be a topical debate on the subject of energy providers, so the hon. Gentleman should have two opportunities to make that point.

May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2254, which stands in my name?

[That this House calls on the Department for Work and Pensions to accept the recommendation of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, whose report it has been considering since August 2008, and declare A14 Osteoarthritis of the Knee a prescribed disease in relation to coalmining with an early implementation date, opening the way for this group of mostly elderly sufferers to claim an award of industrial injuries benefit.]

The motion requests a decision from the Department for Work and Pensions in response to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council’s recommendation that osteoarthritis of the knee should be a prescribed disease in relation to coal miners. Will she urge the Department, which has had the IIAC report since August, to make an early decision, because the group of miners affected are quite elderly?

My hon. Friend has an exceptional track record of prompting Government to act swiftly on such matters. I therefore take his point seriously. He is absolutely right: time is not on the side of people who are suffering from such industrial injuries and diseases. I will get on to the Department for Work and Pensions.

Now that the Government have dealt with the issue of toxic assets, is it not about time that we also looked into the issue of the toxic media? Much of the information in the leaks and scoops on our television screens and in our newspapers seems to be helpful to some, but immensely damaging to many of our constituents. Is it not about time that we had a proper look at how such information is obtained and reported?

I am sure that the Treasury Committee, on behalf of the House, will look at all such issues. As my hon. Friend says, it is very important indeed that when public information is given the economic situation is not made worse.

May I raise with the Leader of the House the serious allegations of match fixing and the unusual betting patterns that apparently took place in Asia in relation to the championship match between Norwich City and Derby on 4 October? I am sure that she would agree that such allegations attack the very integrity of sport in this country and must be treated with the utmost seriousness. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport so that we can establish what contact there has been between him and the Football Association and so that we can see what stage the investigation has reached and ensure that it is given the priority that it deserves?

I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s points to the attention of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and ask my right hon. Friend to write to him.

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether we can have a review of the effectiveness of topical questions? My understanding was that they were supposed to allow Back Benchers in particular to raise questions of importance to them and their constituents. However, there is clear evidence that the spirit and intent of topical questions is now being abused by Front Benchers, who are using them for their own needs. Does she agree that if Opposition Front Benchers want to ask questions, they should go to the Back Benches and take their chances like the rest of us, and also that Government Front-Bench responses should be a bit shorter?

I think that topical questions have been an important innovation. The House will remember that they were introduced for one Session only, so that they could be reviewed at the end of it. The Standing Orders pertaining to topical questions will lapse at the end of this Session, allowing us an opportunity to review them. I think that, by and large, the House has found them very useful in ensuring that the subjects raised at Question Time are more topical. There is also the issue of whether there is sufficient time for Back Benchers, compared with Opposition Front Benchers. Obviously, that is a matter for the Speaker as well as for Opposition Front Benchers.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes to the House next week to make a statement on the behaviour of the nationalised bank, Northern Rock? This would give many Members an opportunity to query why the bank has passed on only one tenth of the reduction in interest rates to its savers, and why some of my constituents have been told by Northern Rock that, when their fixed mortgages come to an end, those mortgages will not continue, because that is what the Government have told the bank to do. That is unacceptable behaviour at a very difficult time. As Northern Rock has been nationalised, it is now the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he should answer these questions.

The right hon. Gentleman knows very well, because the Chancellor has explained it to the House, that there is arm’s length management of Northern Rock. The arrangements for Northern Rock, and what it has been told by the Government, are a matter of public record on which the House has been informed. The right hon. Gentleman knows that individual decisions on lending are made on an application-by-application basis and are not a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Last weekend, a female constituent of mine went to an Oasis concert Birmingham’s national indoor arena. When she returned to where she had left her car, she found that it had been towed away and that she faced a bill of £300. There were no signs to indicate that there were any problems. She was left isolated, vulnerable and stranded in that city. May we have a debate on how we could better regulate these unscrupulous and unspeakable clampers and towers who wreak such havoc on decent people through the activities that they perpetrate? We really cannot have the angst and inconvenience that my constituent experienced last weekend replicated time and again in cities all over the country on frequent occasions.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Whether it is a question of people towing away cars or clamping them, we need to ensure that there are clear and fair rules and reputable operators. Real problems can be caused by cowboys taking liberties in this respect. This matter crosses a number of Departments, including the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport, as well as the Treasury. I will give some thought to the point that my hon. Friend has made and see how we can take this matter forward.

Yesterday, the Minister for Local Government informed the House of the situation relating to local authorities exposed to the failure of Icelandic banks. In particular, he was able to tell us that some 13 authorities might have short-term difficulties and that the Department for Communities and Local Government was sending a response team of experts into three of them. Last night, the leader of one of those three authorities, which the Minister had felt unable to name—Tamworth borough council—issued a statement saying:

“Tamworth…is not in any immediate financial difficulty and its budgets will remain unchanged. There is no threat to services…I am shocked at hearing an emergency team is being sent to us. We neither asked for nor need one.”

Against that background, will the Leader of the House ask a Minister from that Department to come urgently to the House to clarify exactly what is the basis of the Government’s intervention with these local authorities, on what criteria they were selected, which are the local authorities concerned, and which other institutions, such as regional development associations and housing associations, might also be affected? Drip-feeding only causes speculation, and the suggestion that the Government might be seeking to move attention away from themselves to the councils.

Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government have given information to the House during the course of the debate. There has also been a written ministerial statement. Response teams, which are the joint responsibility of the Department and the Local Government Association, will be sent to the authorities that request help. They will not be sent to those authorities that do not do so. I am sure that all the constituents of Tamworth will be reassured that their funds are safe.

It is two and a half years since the House had the opportunity to debate in Government time the Government’s policies for disabled people. I raised this matter with the right hon. and learned Lady on 1 May, and she very kindly said that she would consider my request and see whether there was an opportunity to debate the matter in the House. Can she tell us, five and a half months later, whether she has been able to give any consideration to the matter and when the House might be able to have a debate on the Government’s policies for disabled people?

Certainly I will consider that as a suggestion for a topical debate. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome and engage in the discussion on the Equality Bill, which seeks to give stronger rights and greater opportunities for people with disabilities.

Recent weeks have shown the importance of regulation. May I partly echo the words of the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds)? We must have a debate on fuel prices, but may we also have a debate on the contracts between fuel distributors and the oil companies and refineries? Can we look in particular at whether there is adequate funding for the Office of Fair Trading to investigate and regulate those contracts, some of which may be contributing to the slow fall in fuel prices at the pumps?

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to ask those questions in respect of the oral statement and to contribute to the topical debate on energy later this afternoon.

The Government are spending £16,000 for each and every taxpayer on bailing out and funding banks, based on an ill-thought-out and seriously flawed plan. This affects everyone in the country. Is not it extraordinary that we have had no full-day debate on a substantive motion on this matter? Is it not the duty of the Leader of the House to provide such a debate, so that she can test the opinion of Parliament?

The Prime Minister will make a statement next week, following the European Council. Economic issues will no doubt be at the heart of that. The Chancellor made a statement on Monday of this week. The Government have been concerned to ensure that information is being brought to the House, and that the House has an opportunity to hold the Government to account. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about spending in respect of each taxpayer, he will know that the Government needed to act to stabilise the financial situation and that that was necessary action. He does not need to rely on my word for that. Perhaps he will take the word of the Nobel prize winner for economics, Paul Krugman, who said:

“Luckily for the world economy…Gordon Brown and his officials are making sense. And they may have shown us the way through this crisis…The British Government went straight to the heart of the problem—and moved to address it with stunning speed”.

On protection for taxpayers, I should like to refer the hon. Gentleman to the words of Simon Wolfson, the chief executive of the high street store Next, who said that this was

“a very good plan and will probably make money for taxpayers”.

That certainly should not worry people. We undertake to keep the House informed.

Next week, communities across the south of Scotland will learn the fate of their local post offices. Frankly, few people are holding their breath. Confidence in the network as a whole is at rock bottom because nobody knows the fate of the Post Office card account. There are rumours swirling around that it might be given to PayPoint or awarded jointly, each of which would undermine the network. Given the seriousness of the situation, will the Leader of the House urge her colleagues to make an announcement as early as possible, and allow a debate in the House on the matter?

As I have told the House on previous occasions, the contract for the Post Office card account is subject to the procurement processes, and when a decision is reached, I am sure that the House will be informed.

For many years now, my constituents have been sending treats to our troops who are serving around the world on our behalf. Last week, they were dismayed to see press reports telling them not to send parcels to our troops, who are so bravely looking after us, and saying that only family members can send treats to the troops. May we have a statement from the relevant Minister to tell us why, in the 21st century, we cannot send parcels to our troops?

I am sure that the question of public and family support for our troops will be at the heart of the defence debate that I announced in my statement under forthcoming business.

Can we have a statement on the impact of inflation on pensioners? In particular, can the Leader of the House confirm that the state pension rise next April will be at least as high as the 5 per cent. retail prices index rise announced on Monday?

There will be an uprating statement from the Department for Work and Pensions shortly. Pensions and benefits will be uprated in the normal way. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the increase in winter fuel payments and the efforts to ensure that the decrease in wholesale energy costs are passed through to domestic consumers and households.

Can we have a debate next week on access to mortgages? I have been approached by mortgage brokers in Banbury who told me:

“Lenders have again put up their rates despite the Bank of England reducing rates last week. They have also reduced the loan to value ratios and we are seeing properties being dramatically down valued to such an extent that it is impossible for people to remortgage when their fixed rates end. We were under the impression that tax payers money being given to these banks was on condition that lenders…began lending at 2007 levels. This is not happening… the situation has worsened to such an extent that we are virtually unable to help any of our clients”.

If the mortgage market does not get going again, there is no hope for the housing market doing the same. May we have a debate some time soon—hopefully next week—on access to mortgages?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. If the Government are in a position next week to make further information available about access to mortgages, a statement will be made.

I declare an interest as a member of the national council of the Royal National Lifeboats Institution.

May we have a statement or a short debate on Ofcom’s proposals for changes to the charging regime for maritime radio users? Those proposed changes will see many voluntary organisations such as the RNLI paying massively increased fees. The Leader of the House must be aware that the RNLI is funded entirely by voluntary contributions and that it provides a crucial service. Frankly, the Government and Government bodies such as Ofcom should be grateful for the provision of those services rather than see them as a cash cow for more income.

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the RNLI and I will raise his point with the relevant Ministers and ask them to write to him.

One of the very few things that I have in common politically with the Leader of the House is that we both represent inner London seats. She will be aware that, notionally, our local police force, the Metropolitan police, is run by the Home Secretary. In view of the tumultuous and turbulent events within that organisation during recent weeks, does the right hon. and learned Lady feel that it is time either for the Home Secretary to make a statement to the House or for us to have a debate in Government time on the future strategy for the Metropolitan police?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the process is under way for the recruitment of a new Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Speaking for my own constituency, I pay tribute to the work that continues to be done—day in, day out; week in, week out—by the Metropolitan police in all the boroughs of London.

All through the recess, I wrote to many of my constituents who contacted me saying that I was absolutely sure that Ministers would want to make two statements within the first week or so of our return—one on the Government scheme for insulating homes, which will be of very little benefit to many of my constituents who have stone houses and no cavity walls, and a second one on the ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life. We have not seen either of those statements yet. Earlier, the Leader of the House rather airily said something about autumn, but will she further define what part of autumn she has in mind and when she believes autumn finishes?

As far as Equitable Life is concerned, I have nothing to add to what the Chancellor told the House on 8 October. As far as insulation and energy conservation are concerned, the hon. Gentleman will see that the Ministers from the Department of Energy and Climate Change are in their places to make a statement and take part in a debate.

Can we have a debate on the Government’s pharmacy White Paper, and particularly the proposals to restrict some GP practices on dispensing prescription drugs—changes that, if implemented, would result in my constituents in Hanslope having to travel some 10 miles just to collect their prescriptions? Is that really a sensible move for some of the most vulnerable people in our society?

In respect of pharmacy issues in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I suggest that he should either write to the relevant Secretary of State or seek a meeting.

Can we have a debate in Government time on parental neglect and binge drinking among schoolchildren? Last year, 250 people were so incapacitated from being drunk that they were admitted to Kettering general hospital, and one fifth of them were children under the age of 16.

We have had a topical debate on excessive drinking, particularly by under-aged children. The hon. Gentleman will know that work is going on across Departments on this issue, which is of concern throughout the country. I will consider how best to find an opportunity for the House to debate it further.

Can we have a debate on issues arising from the extradition of my constituent Gary McKinnon, confirmed this week by the Home Secretary? The Leader of the House will recall the debate regarding the NatWest three, when the Government gave assurances that they would take steps to seek bail. Can at least similar efforts be made on behalf of my constituent, who is a vulnerable young man of little means who was, significantly, recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome?

The best thing would probably be for me to discuss the issue with the hon. Gentleman after business questions, so that he can tell me the details of the case. I can then work out how to assist him further and raise the matter with the relevant Department. I always call the NatWest three the Enron three.

Can I reiterate the call of many hon. Members for an early statement on Equitable Life? If the Leader of the House continues her unacceptable stonewalling on the subject, can I ask her for a debate on the role of the parliamentary ombudsman? It is unacceptable to many people that the Government can ride roughshod over the ombudsman’s rulings.

The Government are not riding roughshod over the ombudsman’s ruling. The ombudsman produced a substantial report, which required considerable reflection from the Government. We have kept the House updated on how we intend to deal with the matter. The Chancellor said last week that he intends to make a statement on our response to the ombudsman’s Equitable Life report this autumn.

Department of Energy and Climate Change

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the new Department of Energy and Climate Change. The new Department brings together the Government’s work on three long-term challenges that face our country: ensuring that we have energy that is affordable, secure, and sustainable; bringing about the transition to a low-carbon Britain; and achieving an international agreement on climate change at Copenhagen in December 2009. Those are our goals, and the new Department recognises that when two thirds of our emissions come from the use of energy, energy and climate change should not be considered separately, but together.

Some people will ask whether we should retreat from our climate change objectives in tough economic times. In our view, it would be quite wrong to row back, and those who say that we should misunderstand the relationship between the economic and environmental tasks that we face. Of course, there are choices to be made, but there are also common solutions to both—for example, energy-saving measures for households, such as those announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in September, which cut bills and emissions; or investment in new environmental industries, which both improves our energy security and reduces our dependence on polluting fuels. What we know from the Stern report of 2006 is that the costs of not acting on climate change are greater than the costs of acting on it. Only if Britain plays its part will a global deal in Copenhagen to cut carbon emissions be possible, so, far from retreating from our objectives, we should reaffirm our resolve.

Over the summer, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to whom I pay tribute for his work and leadership on climate change, asked the independent Committee on Climate Change to review the long-term target for Britain’s emissions. Based on a Royal Commission report in 2000, the target had been set at a 60 per cent. reduction in CO2 emissions. Since then, independent reports have added further to our knowledge. Arctic sea ice has melted faster than expected, global emissions have grown faster than expected and the impact of each degree of climate change is known to be worse than expected.

Last week, Lord Turner wrote to me with the committee’s conclusions, which have been placed in the Library of the House. His report found that to hold global warming to 2° above pre-industrial levels—commonly accepted as the threshold for the most dangerous changes in the climate—global emissions must fall by between 50 and 60 per cent. by 2050. Lord Turner concluded that to play its proper part, the United Kingdom should cut its emissions not by 60 per cent. but by 80 per cent. He concluded that the target should apply not just to carbon dioxide but to all six Kyoto greenhouse gases. He also concluded that while there were uncertainties about how to allocate emissions from international flights and shipping, they too should play their part in reducing emissions.

The Government accept all the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change. We will amend the Climate Change Bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, a target that will be binding in law. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will support that move. Indeed, let me say that I want to create as much of a consensus as possible on climate change. However, as we all know, signing up to an 80 per cent. cut in 2050, when most of us will not be around, is the easy part; the hard part is meeting it, and meeting the milestones that will show we are on track. For us in Britain, the milestones will be shaped by the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change, which will advise us in December on the first 15 years of carbon budgets. That means national limits to our total emissions, within which we shall have to live as a country. We will report next year on how we will meet them.

We are also determined to ensure that the signal and the commitment come not just from Britain but, as the Prime Minister has been making clear in recent days, from Europe. That means an agreement by the end of this year on strengthening the European Union emissions trading scheme, and on the targets for 2020: that Europe should reduce greenhouse gases by 20 per cent. unilaterally and by 30 per cent. as part of a global deal—targets that I reaffirm today—and that the EU should confirm its renewable energy target.

Earlier this year, we published our draft renewable energy strategy. Having examined the issue, I can say that what is clear to me is not only the scale of the challenge, but the urgency of getting on with the delivery. The renewables obligation has tripled supply in the past five years, and we are making further changes in its structure, in planning policy and in access to the grid. However, having heard the debate on the issue, including what has been said by many colleagues on both sides of the House, I also believe that complementing the renewables obligation for large-scale projects, guaranteed prices for small-scale electricity generation—feed-in tariffs—have the potential to play an important role, as they do in other countries. Having listened to the views that have been expressed, including those expressed in the other place, we plan to table an amendment to the Energy Bill to make that happen.

I believe that renewable power can play a bigger role not just in electricity but in heating. Heating produces almost half Britain’s carbon emissions, and cleaner sources of heat can help us to meet our target in 2050 and the milestones on the way. I recognise that we need to make rapid progress on that issue as well, and I will make further announcements soon.

Our objective is a climate change policy that is fair and an energy policy that is sustainable. The present structure of the energy market was designed in a world of abundant supply, British energy self-sufficiency, low commodity prices and an emerging debate—but not a settled consensus—on the issue of climate change. Today, all those assumptions have changed. There is international competition for resources and a need for new investment in supply; there are structurally higher energy prices; and there is urgency about carbon emissions. To respond to this new world we need a market that secures future supply, which must include investment in nuclear power and carbon capture and storage. We need a market that provides incentives for cuts in emissions and does more to help homes and businesses.

Those are the big issues that we need to address for the future, but today I want to signal a direction of travel on affordability. Last week the energy regulator, Ofgem, highlighted what it believed to be unjustified higher charges for 4 million electricity customers in areas not connected to the gas main. It also believes that, even when account is taken of higher costs facing companies from customers with pre-payment meters, many homes that use them are being overcharged.

Unfair pricing that hits the most vulnerable hardest is completely unacceptable. I made that clear to the representatives of the big six energy companies when I met them yesterday. I also told them that the Government expect rapid action or explanation to remedy any abuses, and I will meet them again in a month to hear what they have done. We, and Ofgem, are determined to see those issues addressed. Ofgem is consulting on its findings until 1 December as part of a due process, but let me say this: if the companies do not act satisfactorily and speedily, we will consult on legislation to prevent unfair pricing differentials.

For us, markets can provide enormous benefits in dynamism and efficiency, but they will only work properly if they are regulated effectively in the public interest, including with a strong independent regulator. There is more to be done to help consumers, and we will not hesitate to act. We need an end to unfair pricing, feed-in tariffs for electricity generation, and an 80 per cent. cut in emissions.

Our aim is a climate change and energy policy which is fair and sustainable, and which meets our obligation to today’s and future generations. That is the work that we are beginning in my new Department, and I commend my statement to the House.

I warmly welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s statement, and welcome him personally—along with his ministerial colleagues—to the Front Bench. I also welcome him to the Dispatch Box, where he appears for the first time in his new post.

The Secretary of State is widely regarded as one of the most personable, thoughtful and respected members of the Government. Our debates have always been civilised and productive, and it is certainly my intention that our exchanges on this most important issue for our country’s future should remain so. I thank him for allowing early sight of his statement—although not quite as early as that secured by The Guardian and the Politics Home website, which published most of the statement this morning. I remind him that the true home of politics in this country is Parliament, and that it should have been through Parliament that the statement was first released. But, for all that, we welcome it.

Conservative Members agree that the choice between ambitious and progressive action on carbon reduction and a successful, powerful economy is, in fact, not a choice at all—they are one and the same. Without decisive action, there is a risk that climate change will leach away huge resources from this country and every other nation on earth. The economic events of recent days have proved that catastrophic risk must be acted on rather than wished away. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge, however, that we start from a position of disadvantage? There has been a decade-long void in the Government’s policy on energy, in which successive Ministers have looked the other way rather than addressing the issue of our future energy needs. Does the Secretary of State accept that to the intrinsic difficulties of making choices on energy have been added the consequences of a decade of indecision?

It was Conservative Members who first called on the Government to publish the Climate Change Bill, which we have sought to strengthen through scrutiny in this and another place. We have been called here today for the Secretary of State to announce a new target, but does he share his predecessor’s view that the Government are unlikely to meet their 2010 target of a 20 per cent. cut in emissions, despite three successive manifesto pledges? We support his acceptance of the Committee on Climate Change’s target of 80 per cent.—we have always said that we should be guided by the science on that—but, as he knows, eight years ago 60 per cent. was considered to be the right target. Does he agree that the committee should keep the target under constant review, and that if the advice changes, so must the target?

Does the Secretary of State share our view that the move to decarbonise our economy should involve leading the way in new technology and practices at home, rather than simply buying in permits from other countries? If he agrees with that, does he also agree that the Committee on Climate Change should advise on the right balance between domestic and traded reductions? Does he accept that his predecessors have been paying lip service to carbon capture and storage without decisive action? Will he commit himself to our policy of funding at least three CCS demonstration projects, so that Britain can lead the world in this vital technology?

If the Secretary of State is serious about decarbonising our economy, will he give us a guarantee by adopting our emissions performance standard, whereby no plant will be licensed if its emissions are worse than those of a modern gas-powered station? Will he acknowledge that decentralised generation offers a vital way for our citizens to cut their fuel bills and emissions, and inject greater resilience into our energy supply? I welcome his belated acceptance of our case for feed-in tariffs for micro and small-scale generation; however, it is regrettable that his statement appeared to contain nothing about tariffs for renewable heat and gas. Will he also now recognise the case for smart metering, which will enable customers to profit from microgeneration? Finally, will he tell us how many vulnerable people he now expects to be in fuel poverty by 2010, the date by which the Government have committed themselves to eradicating it?

Gas customers without pre-payment meters pay up to 40 per cent. more than those using online direct debits and, according to Ofgem, the cheapest online offers may be below cost—in other words, the poorest are subsidising the well-off. We look to the Secretary of State to act through his conversations with Ofgem and the companies, so that the poorest get the most help, not the least.

We welcome the measures that the Secretary of State has proposed today but, as with our public finances and our financial system, on energy and climate change, we are hobbled by—how would his friend the Prime Minister put it?—a decade of irresponsibility. Britain cannot afford the years ahead to be wasted like the years that have passed.

In the past few weeks, we have grown accustomed to the bipartisan consensus lasting all of 30 seconds before the Opposition retreat to their normal practice. I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new role. I had the pleasure of having him shadow me at the Cabinet Office, where he distinguished himself with his talent—and sometimes with his constructive suggestions. He made his name in the Conservative party through his admiration for Polly Toynbee, which I share. He went slightly further than me, however, because he was in the same party as her at one stage—the Social Democratic party. However, I welcome him to his new position and I am sure that he will fulfil the role with distinction.

Let me deal with some of the specific questions that the hon. Gentleman raised. On the question of inaction and targets, let me say clearly that currently, on the latest figures, our greenhouse gas emissions are 16 per cent. below our 1990 levels. We have made progress. Indeed I think that we are one of the few countries to be going beyond our Kyoto targets. Therefore, far from a decade of inaction, we have been making progress.

On the question of buying in permits, the Climate Change Committee will indeed advise us on that issue. I urge him, as someone who is new to these questions, to take care on that issue. It is right that we set stretching and demanding targets for our country, but it is also right that we find ways, because we are in this together, to encourage other countries to move to a low-carbon economy.

Exactly. One of the ways of doing that is through carbon trading and buying in permits. He says that it should not be one or the other. That is the position that I am explaining.

On the question of carbon capture and storage, the hon. Gentleman does what the Conservative party has started to do quite a lot, which is to say, “Why don’t you just fund more of this?” Of course we want to do more in respect of carbon capture and storage. However, he may not have noticed that times are tight in terms of public expenditure. We are funding a carbon capture and storage demonstration competition. What is more—this is an important point and Conservative Members do not want to hear it, because it is about Europe and they do not like to hear about that—we are arguing within the European Union for a dozen carbon capture and storage projects, which the European Parliament has agreed. In my early experience of this job, it has been quite good to go to European meetings and not to be seen as someone on the sidelines who is talking about withdrawing from the groupings that we are in or about renegotiating existing treaties. Being part of the European Union is about being a proper member of it.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of other questions. We agree that smart metering has an important role to play. We also agree on the issue of prices. I made it clear in my statement that we expect Ofgem to act as an independent regulator should, and put pressure on the situation in terms of prices across a range of areas, including on the issue of pre-payment meters—he rightly pointed out that that is an issue.

I look forward to my debates with the hon. Gentleman in the coming months, but on the issues of energy and climate change the Conservative party is completely confused. Nuclear power used to be a last resort. Now Conservative Members are not quite sure what their policy is. They say that they are in favour of renewable energy, but all around the country they oppose wind turbines, and they oppose tooth and nail the Planning Bill, which will make it possible for us to make a difference in relation to renewable energy. Therefore, I encourage him in his first few weeks in the job to sort out Conservative party policy on those issues.

It is customary to start questions from the Labour Benches by congratulating the Minister on his statement. I do not know how it is possible to add to that, but I unbelievably warmly congratulate the Secretary of State on the statement—the Gordian knot on climate change and energy supply has been untied.

On the proposals for a feed-in tariff for small-scale generators, is it the intention, either directly as a result of the feed-in tariff mechanism, or indirectly through an incentive mechanism, to ensure that heat is part of the process of small-scale generation tariffs as well as electricity?

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on these issues, particularly feed-in tariffs. He is one of the people who has led the work on those issues. I have looked at and listened to what he has been saying on those questions. I agree that heat can also play a role. We need to find ways of doing that. I look forward to talking to him about those issues. Again, we will want to make announcements very soon on that issue.

I also warmly welcome and congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on this critical role within government. I also congratulate the Government on following the Lib Dem lead from nine months ago and putting energy and climate change into a single brief. However, I want the right hon. Gentleman to be even more powerful than he is because we will tackle climate change effectively only if he also has control over pretty much the rest of the Government as well. Is it not the case that, in the week that he was appointed, one of his ministerial colleagues said, “We will expand Stansted airport”? What is the point of having a climate change Minister who has no clout with the rest of the Cabinet? I urge the Secretary of State to wield a big stick around the rest of the Cabinet and ensure that not just energy and climate change decisions, but all other Government decisions are taken through a green lens.

I welcome the move to the 80 per cent. target. Can I save the Secretary of State some trouble? He does not need to table a fresh amendment. He can simply accept mine: amendment No. 1 to the Climate Change Bill, which deletes “60” and inserts “80”. It is on the Order Paper, and I will be honoured to have his name added to it.

On a serious point, can the Secretary of State clarify the coverage of the 80 per cent. target? He used some vague words in his statement about aviation and shipping playing their part, but he did not say that they were included in the 80 per cent. target. Is not excluding aviation and shipping from the 80 per cent. target like being on a calorie-controlled diet but not counting the cream cakes that one plans to eat? Surely, we have to count the big polluters and the rapidly growing polluters in the target.

On the issue of domestic effort, we fully appreciate the importance of saving emissions at home and abroad, but is it not the case that the Climate Change Bill would allow every single saving to be brought in? We do not have to save any domestic emissions at all under the Bill. Surely the Secretary of State, when he goes to international forums, wants to set the lead? Is there not some floor that he is willing to set that insists that the British domestic effort is substantial?

The Secretary of State had a meeting with the energy companies yesterday, the latest in a very long line of cosy chats with them that have delivered precisely nothing. Is it not time, not for more cosy chats, but for action? His statement says that, if the energy companies do not play ball, he will threaten them with consultation on legislation. Have not hard-pressed customers had to wait long enough?

Today, I have published figures that show that the poorest four fifths of single pensioners will on average be in fuel poverty this winter; the figures were produced by the House of Commons Library based on Office for National Statistics projections. That is totally unacceptable. Waiting another month and then consulting is too late for pensioners this winter. Will the Secretary of State act far more urgently than that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about my statement. It is probably a good sign that everyone is trying to claim credit for that on the Opposition Benches—perhaps that is better than the alternative.

Let me deal with the specific questions that the hon. Gentleman has raised. The first was about Stansted airport and the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. One needs to be honest about the trade-offs and difficulties. If we carry on flying in the way that we are and expanding airports, we need to do less of other things. We are absolutely determined—this is why I said that—to meet our overall targets.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the 80 per cent. target and whether it includes aviation and shipping. Lord Turner’s advice is that they should be taken into account and be considered as part of the overall target. There are concerns, however, about including aviation and shipping in the Bill which relate to the measurement and calculation of international aviation, and the hon. Gentleman knows that there are ongoing discussions about how to calculate international aviation—domestic aviation is easier to deal with. However, it is, of course, the case that aviation and shipping need to be part of our overall approach to cutting carbon emissions. That is why, for example, we have argued that aviation should be part of the EU emissions trading scheme, which will be the case from 2013. The hon. Gentleman invited me to sign his amendment. I shall have a look at that and get back to him. However, I suggest that he does not call me; I will call him.

On the important issue of energy prices and pensioners, I agree with the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the urgency of getting on with things. I have been in this job for less than two weeks, and I am absolutely committed to moving as quickly as is legally possible on all these issues, as I have been making clear to officials in my Department—and as I made clear yesterday to the big six energy companies, and as I have made clear in my two meetings so far with Ofgem, the independent regulator. We have a regulatory system in this country that we must observe, but I am absolutely determined that we will deal as speedily as possible with some of the issues the hon. Gentleman has raised.

I thank my right hon. Friend for making a clear, serious and radical statement, which encourages many of us, and I congratulate him and his formidable ministerial team as they take up their new responsibilities. They take them up at a time when the geopolitics of energy insecurity impinge not only on Europe’s and Britain’s supply, but on Britain’s national security.

May I ask two questions? Many of us believe that climate change is truly the big challenge facing our planet this century. Will my right hon. Friend confront the siren voices that we are now hearing in many parts of the world, including Europe and Britain, that say that, given the economic and financial difficulties, we cannot afford to save the planet? My right hon. Friend has stressed the economics of tackling this problem, and I wish him all strength in that campaign.

My second question is on affordability. Despite the Government’s many achievements in many Departments in safeguarding the interests of the most vulnerable, we know that many vulnerable people, and not just the elderly, are frightened about the prospects this coming winter. Will my right hon. Friend consider going further than the energy efficiency package that has been announced, and develop a kind of national plan—to use an old-fashioned term—so that we can start to retrofit Britain’s housing stock to help tackle the problem of carbon emissions while making sure that we understand our duty to protect our most vulnerable from the perils of the cold?

Let me start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend for the great work he has done on this issue. He started much of what was in my statement on the energy side. I know that people across the House and across the energy industry have the highest regard for the work he has done on these matters, and I look forward to carrying on working with him in his new role around global energy markets.

On my hon. Friend’s climate change question, I completely agree that we must confront the siren voices who say we should retreat and row back from these commitments, partly because we know that the longer we wait the worse the problem will get, and partly because, as I said in my statement, we know there are ways in which we can address both the economic issues we currently face and the long-term climate change questions.

I also have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said on the issues of fuel poverty and affordability, and I am urgently looking into that by asking what more can be done, as soon as possible, to help such vulnerable people. Let me make just one other point, however, which refers back to my statement. We have a market system that was designed 20 years ago in completely different times, and some of the issues that we are now facing are symptomatic of having a differently designed system created some time ago. Therefore, there is a whole set of questions that we need to consider to do with how we can fundamentally tackle the issues my hon. Friend raised in his second question.

As Chairman of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, which has had responsibility for scrutinising energy policy, I must welcome the higher priority that is being given to energy and climate change matters, even as I regret what I imagine will be the loss of my Committee’s responsibilities in this area, and also the loss of an excellent Minister of State, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), who will be greatly missed. I also worry that the new Department might have an inappropriate tension between energy and climate change, because there is a tension between those two matters; securing supply is also very important for keeping the lights on, and I did not hear quite enough on that in the Secretary of State’s statement, although I am sure we will hear more about it later.

Let me ask a question specifically on fuel poverty. The Secretary of State referred to pre-payment meters, but may I gently remind him that they are not the real issue? The real issue is standard credit terms. Most fuel poverty is concentrated among pensioners and others who are on standard credit terms, and that, for me, is the real political priority if we are to keep people warm this winter.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I pay tribute to his Committee for its July report on these issues. I recommend it to Members as a good read—although perhaps not a bedtime read—as it addresses in great depth the issues surrounding the energy market and energy prices. It is an impressive piece of work, and I have found it extremely useful.

I agree with the points the hon. Gentleman makes on security of supply being a very important issue. Of course, there are always dilemmas and tensions in Government, such as between energy and climate change, and we need to find ways of resolving them. The new Department can, however, also now take advantage of the synergies between those two issues.

The hon. Gentleman asked about people on standard credit, and I agree that that is an issue. On pre-payment meters, however, let me just say to him that there is a conventional wisdom, which I do not say he shares, that many of the people on pre-payment meters are not disadvantaged people. The fact is that 53 per cent. of people on pre-payment meters are in the D and E socio-economic categories. Disproportionately, it is the poorest who are on such meters. Not everyone on a pre-payment meter is poor, but many of the poorest in our society are on one. That is, therefore, an urgent issue, and so, too, are the other matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend’s bold statement. The 80 per cent. target will be widely welcomed not only in Britain, but throughout the world. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), my right hon. Friend made the important remark that we need to look again at the whole structure of the energy markets. Will he give the guarantee, which I think is consistent with what he has said, that we will never allow price to be used as an instrument to ration energy supply to the poorest people in our country, because this issue is not only about security of supply, but it is also about adequacy of supply for people who need heat and light?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but we need to address the issues in a cautious manner because, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) has said, investment and security are also important matters, and we need to ensure that companies keep investing. In this area, there is a whole range of problematic issues across the board, which, again, the Select Committee addressed very well. As I pointed out to the energy companies, only 60 per cent. of the people who switch supplier do better from having done so, which means that 40 per cent. are either no better off or worse off from having switched. I made the point to the energy companies yesterday that that does not suggest to me that the market is working as well as it should in relation to the information people are receiving and what is happening with prices. Somebody said to me yesterday that a week after having switched suppliers the prices changed and they were worse off from having switched. Therefore, a whole range of issues need to be looked at; I thought it was better to look at them in detail with proper care and attention than to make statements about them in my first two weeks in the job, but they are important issues that need to be addressed.

Is the Secretary of State aware that earlier this week the Department for Transport brought forward new environmental regulations for the automotive industry where the Government’s own impact assessment showed that the costs are likely to exceed the benefits, possibly by as much as £11 billion? Does that not show that there are better ways of reducing our carbon emissions, such as by the Government’s new-found and recent conversion to nuclear power, and that it would be a sad and damaging outcome to his statement if we were to meet our UK emissions simply by driving businesses and jobs, and emissions, overseas without any benefit to the global environment, but at further great damage to British manufacturing industry, which is already in recession?

Two issues are raised by the right hon. Gentleman’s question. The first is the efficiency with which we meet our targets and about which he makes an important point. Our overall target for climate change emissions and the EU emissions trading scheme play an important role, but the more extra targets we have below that, the more danger there is that we will meet those targets less efficiently. I did not refer to that when the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman asked me about the matter, but that would be my response to additional targets and limits in relation to specific power stations. The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point on that.

The point on which I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman is that I think the European Union must play an important role. A lot of cross-border issues are involved, such as the EU emissions trading scheme, and they need to be dealt with in a cross-border fashion. We need a European dimension, partly for reasons of competitiveness. We also need to take care, when setting new targets, that we do not damage our competitiveness unnecessarily.

I welcome my right hon. Friend and his team to the new Department, which is an excellent step forward. It could not have had a better start than this statement, which addressed not only targets but issues such as the consumer impact. I welcome his comment that markets have changed in the past 20 years, and I wonder whether that logically means that the regulator’s role should be reviewed to address those changes.

As chairman of the all-party Globe UK group, I have written formally to my right hon. Friend, not only to welcome him to his new post but to offer our support as we move towards the crucial 2009 COP 15, and to express the importance of a post-Kyoto framework coming out of that conference. In that respect, does he share my concern that there are signs that some European member states are going backwards on mid-term targets because of the situation that we face? Does he agree that the European Union needs to set a clear example and send a signal if we are to get an agreement at COP 15?

Again, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s work, both in Government and as president of Globe, which is an important organisation that works with legislators across the world on climate change issues. His work will be an important part of our securing a deal in Copenhagen at the end of next year.

On the wider questions of regulation that he raises, I shall proceed cautiously. It is important that we continue to get the investment that we need in the energy market, but I have come to no conclusions on the matter yet. The context has changed and, in the coming months, I shall examine the implications of that on policy.

May I make a plea for people in rural areas who have no option of gas and depend heavily on heating oil? According to the Library note, heating oil is 86 per cent. above its July 2008 price and 227 per cent. above the late 1998 and early 1999 low. Those people are really hurting, and they are not benefiting from falling prices as others are. What can the Secretary of State’s Department do to ensure that they do?

Secondly, the Secretary of State has not mentioned the security of our own oil and gas production, which will still be needed despite the climate change commitments. Can he reassure us that the Government have a commitment to maximising production from our own resources for our own security?

On the second point, absolutely. That is very important. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that we are a transition economy, but it will be a long transition and the role of oil and gas will be central for many years to come. I absolutely agree with him about that.

On rural areas, I shall examine the right hon. Gentleman’s point about heating oil. He raises an important issue, because I believe that the 4 million electricity-only customers identified in the Ofgem report are mainly in rural areas. Part of the discrimination that Ofgem has found is against people in rural areas, who are paying more than they should be. I hope that the companies take action on that quickly to help ease some of the problems to which he refers.

I too welcome my right hon. Friend to his important new role in this very important new Department. I congratulate him also on the quality of his statement and particularly the decisions that it contained, such as the change of heart on the feed-in tariff, which I very much welcome.

My right hon. Friend mentioned Stern. May I ask him to consider how we are progressing towards achieving Stern’s recommendation that we should be spending 1 per cent. of gross domestic product on reducing and mitigating climate change? Of course, the feed-in tariff is an example of the Government using their powers to encourage private investment, and nobody is suggesting that all the money needs to come from Government sources. However, the information from the Library suggests that Government spending is only a fraction of what it needs to be if we are to meet the Stern recommendations. May I ask him to examine that? After all, having strong targets is no good if we do not have the means of achieving them.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think that the 1 to 2 per cent. recommended by Stern was for 2050, so we have some time to get there. I shall take that as a homework point to go away and examine. Working out the direction of travel for public spending and what will be required is an important part of the attempt to tackle climate change.

Order. I think that the time has come for a plea for brevity. I have to protect the important debates to follow, so I am aiming to move on to them by roughly 1.25 pm. I hope that I do not hear the word “secondly” again, and I am afraid that those who arrived late for the statement may be casualties.

Will the Secretary of State find time to come up to Norfolk and join me on a flight over the Wash, where he will see a large number of offshore turbines? We will eventually have 500 or so. They are very popular, in stark contrast to onshore turbines, which generate very little electricity, are extremely unpopular and do great damage to the environment. In a case such as Norfolk and Suffolk, does he agree that turbines should be concentrated offshore?

I will be cautious about accepting the hon. Gentleman’s invitation, not least because of the carbon emissions that would flow from flying over the wind farms. However, I agree that offshore wind plays an important role. Believe it or not, we are about to overtake Denmark in the amount of offshore wind power that we have, which is a good sign that we are moving in the right direction.

My right hon. Friend’s statement was dynamic and decisive, and it has given his Department the best possible start. In setting the 80 per cent. target, he has recognised that long-term certainty is vital for investment in energy. Will he consider ensuring that investment can be made in renewables, particularly wave technology and other marine technologies, and that incentives are aligned with the need for the technology?

Again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on forestry and a range of other matters. I shall definitely consider wave technology, which has already been raised with me, and I am happy to have a meeting with him about it.

In answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), the Secretary of State mentioned the study of electricity prices. It is important that our constituents get a fair deal on electricity in rural areas, where there is no access to the gas main. He did not tackle the fundamental point that even a slightly cheaper electricity bill will not pay the oil bill. The cost of heating homes that do not have access to the gas main is disproportionate. If the Government seriously want to tackle poverty in rural areas, they will have to come up with a much more robust strategy for those who do not have access to the gas main.

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me; I do not have an immediate answer to that question. I shall endeavour to look into it now that it has been raised by both him and the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce).

I think that there is a difference—at least, I hope so.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, but will he accept that there is bound to be anxiety up and down the country at the increase of some 35 to 40 per cent. that is being implemented in domestic prices? Would it not be useful if, when he met the energy companies, he would be a little tougher and make it clear to them that those increases should be cancelled? If not, why not a windfall tax?

My hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in these matters. As he knows, a windfall tax is really a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not for me, but I would say to my hon. Friend that we are very concerned about what is happening to prices. The wholesale gas price is now going down, and we will be looking to see how that is passed on to consumers. We absolutely want that to happen.

My constituents support renewable energy. We have a wind farm at Burton Wold with 10 turbines, soon to expand to 17 and possibly to 24 in future. It supplies between a quarter and a third of the houses in the borough of Kettering. What local residents do not want is loads more wind farms all over the countryside, but five planning applications are coming through. What mechanism exists for local authorities to support a wind farm in their locality without feeling pressurised into giving permission for all the applications that come along?

In the end, this is a matter for local decisions. We have taken action in the Planning Bill to speed things up, but this issue is not easy. I know, from the experience in my constituency, that people worry about the impact of wind farms on the value of their houses and so on. The problem is that, as always with these things, if we do not act on questions of renewable energy—the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) rightly made the point about offshore wind, but onshore wind must also play a part—we will not meet our renewable energy targets. There is no easy answer, but I think that feed-in tariffs and the possibility of community wind farms and smaller-scale projects have an opportunity to command more public consent than larger-scale projects sometimes do. That is another reason why I hope that the decision I have made about feed-in tariffs will help on some of these questions.