House of Commons
Wednesday 22 October 2008
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Cross-border Health Services
Wales Office Ministers have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues including health matters. The border between England and Wales does not represent a barrier to the provision of health care; rather it illustrates that, although there are distinct elements of the health service in both countries, we are still one nation in our commitment to universal access to health care for all our people.
I thank the Minister for his response, but I am afraid I shall have to disagree with it. In Wales, 20 per cent. of patients—one fifth—must wait more than 14 weeks to be admitted to hospital, whereas in England the proportion is only 5 per cent. Why are Welsh patients treated as second-class citizens in the context of the national health service?
With all due respect, that is not the case. Waiting times on both sides of the border have fallen dramatically. Nine out of 10 patients in Wales are seen within four hours in accident and emergency departments, while 90 per cent. fewer in-patients and 99 per cent. fewer out-patients wait more than 22 weeks for appointments than was the case a year ago. In short, the position has improved dramatically, and there is great comparability between Wales and England.
Does my hon. Friend agree that his ability, the ability of other British Ministers and, indeed, the ability of Back Benchers to engage in any discussions on cross-border health issues would be dramatically reduced, or even ended, if the Conservatives’ proposals for English votes on English issues went ahead?
Many of my constituents must travel across the border to obtain health provision. The Welsh Affairs Committee’s interim report stressed the need to border-proof that provision. How will the Minister, working with his Assembly colleagues, ensure that we do not have what feels like a second-class service, with different waiting times for Montgomeryshire constituents and English residents? I know that the Minister wants to put an end to that differentiation, but it is real and it is felt by my constituents.
Although the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred is an interim report, it is very well balanced and we look forward to fruitful discussion of it. In a broader context, discussions are taking place about the cross-border control protocol, and I am pleased to say that the recent discussions have been extremely productive. As I am sure he will appreciate, this is a complex matter, but I expect the improved protocol to be finalised before too long, and we hope that it will be implemented by the end of the year.
I welcome my hon. Friend to his post. I know that, having grown up in my constituency, he has all the abilities and capacities to do an excellent job in his new role.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the NHS in England is carrying an unfair burden in relation to young people in the Parc young offenders’ institution? Because the Assembly does not provide an “inreach” child and adolescent mental health service for the prison, those with mental health problems are required to go to England, where the English NHS gives them support. Will my hon. Friend meet me, as a matter of urgency, to help resolve the great injustice that is being done to young people in Wales?
I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. I do indeed come from her constituency.
In general terms, I am aware of the situation that my hon. Friend has described. It is an important issue that requires the attention of both central Government here in London and the Welsh Assembly. I certainly give a commitment to meet my hon. Friend as soon as possible, as a matter of urgency, to discuss her concerns.
Does the Minister realise that as well as waiting longer for treatment, Welsh patients cannot gain access to important drugs such as Tarceva which are available elsewhere in the United Kingdom? Does that not make a mockery of the national health service, which has become a regional health service under the Welsh Assembly? What does the Minister propose to do about it?
That is completely untrue. Let me emphasise that we do, very much, have a national health service for all our people. Of course I know full well that the hon. Gentleman is against devolution as a matter of principle, but the essence of devolution is allowing the devolved Administrations to respond to specific needs in specific parts of the country, which is what the Welsh Assembly Government have been doing very effectively. That does not mean, however, that we question the integrity of the national health service over the country as a whole. I believe that the two can operate together, as has been the case.
I, too, welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. No doubt he will be very busy, which will keep him out of mischief for a long time.
As a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I am sure that the Minister will want to join me in paying tribute to the hard work of the staff who have resolved many of these cross-border questions in the interim report. There will, of course, be a full report in due course. However, does he think it would be wise to open up the can of worms of the health costs to the Welsh Assembly Government and the people of Wales of people retiring from England to north Wales?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind welcome, and I am sure that he is right to say that I will be extremely busy in my post. The issue he touches upon will undoubtedly require my attention. However, I should stress that the health service budget in Wales has increased dramatically over the past few years. That is true, too, for the current budget: the draft budget from the Welsh Assembly Government again proposes an increase that is far in excess of the rate of inflation. I therefore think that there is plenty of scope within that broad expansion of finance to address the issues the hon. Gentleman is concerned about.
I have regular discussions with the First Minister about all aspects of the Welsh economy, including the minimum wage, which is one of the most important employment rights, provided by this Government for all workers, both in Wales and the whole of the UK.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He will be aware of the importance of tourism in my constituency. Does he share my view that the minimum wage makes a significant contribution to the development of responsible employment in the catering and tourist industries, and does he share my joy that it was this Labour Government who legislated on this matter, for which workers in this country have been fighting for 100 years?
Yes, I do share my hon. Friend’s joy about the minimum wage, which, as she says, we introduced. As she also said, it particularly helps those in the tourism and catering industries, which are especially important businesses in her constituency and north Wales in general. Government plans to amend the regulations so that tips can no longer count towards the payment of the minimum wage are especially welcome, and are a credit to the trade unions and newspapers that campaigned for that. That is, of course, very important for those businesses and industries to which my hon. Friend refers.
Increasing the minimum wage alone will do little to help the 11,000 newly unemployed people in Wales from this year, or the poor and elderly households who are struggling with rising food and fuel bills. Given that 12,000 construction jobs have been lost in Wales over the last year, which is more than for any other part of the UK, what measures will the Government put in place to create green jobs to tackle the problems of the loss of construction jobs and increasing fuel poverty in Wales?
I cannot agree with the hon. Lady that the minimum wage is of no importance. It now stands at £5.73 per hour, and it is important in ensuring that people in Wales get proper wages. She should also bear in mind that, not that long ago, people in the tourist and catering industries, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) referred, were being paid less than £2 an hour, so the minimum wage is important in our general economy.
We continue to work with Cabinet colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government to maximise the potential benefits to Wales of the 2012 Olympic games. We are confident that the overall impact of the Olympic and Paralympic games will be enormously beneficial to Wales. I am also sure that we would all like to extend our congratulations to all the Welsh Olympic and Paralympic athletes on their wonderful success in Beijing.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I welcome him to his new post—his promotion is well deserved—and may I say on behalf of the Welsh Affairs Committee that we look forward to working with him? I am sure he will agree that the best way to give a warm Welsh welcome to the London Olympics and Paralympics is to ensure that the physical access and facilities, particularly for competitors with disabilities and spectators with disabilities, are of the highest standard. Will he assure the House that he will raise this important matter of equality with the Welsh Assembly Government, the Minister for the Olympics and all the sporting bodies at the earliest opportunity, as we are about to have evidence sessions on it in the Welsh Affairs Committee?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and, indeed, I look forward to working closely with him in his role as Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee.
The Welsh Assembly Government are using the pre-games training camps agenda to offer accommodation providers best practice advice on disability access and to raise the profile of accessible transport. The Olympic and Paralympic villages are being designed from the outset as accessible and inclusive communities, complying with both the spirit and intent of all the relevant legislation. That is as far as competitors are concerned, but I can say that the same will also apply to spectators.
If we want Wales to be taken more seriously as a potential partner in helping to deliver the 2012 project, does the Minister agree that it would help if the Football Association of Wales dropped what looks like insular, narrow-minded opposition to fielding a United Kingdom team at those games, despite FIFA’s strong assurances that such a side would pose no threat at all to the independent Welsh national side in European and World cup competitions?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The Prime Minister is keen for the country to have a football team at the 2012 games, but there is clearly some work to be done to reassure the football associations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we will continue our dialogue in a positive way.
Overseas Bank Accounts
I have regular discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not least during the regular meetings of the National Economic Council. I have also had discussions on the issue with the First Minister, the Welsh Assembly’s Finance Minister and Local Government Minister and representatives of the Welsh Local Government Association. In addition, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales attended the meeting last week between the Minister for Local Government, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and the English and Welsh Local Government Associations to deal with this important matter.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that lengthy and perhaps unenlightening reply. He will realise, as a responsible Secretary of State, that the whole issue is not to be left at the feet of the National Assembly, since the investments were made under Treasury rules with Treasury encouragement, and the liquidity injection is not being “Barnettised”. It should therefore be dealt with in this place, and I ask him to fight Wales’s corner on this issue.
The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that I shall certainly do that, but it is a matter both for us in the United Kingdom Government—he is right to point out the Treasury’s role—and for the Welsh Assembly Government, who are directly responsible for local government finance in Wales. I must tell him that the first issue is that we must try to get the money back from the Icelandic banks. As he knows, intense negotiations for that to happen are taking place.
Of course, if there are financial problems in the nine local councils affected in Wales—there is nothing to say that there are problems at the moment—the Welsh Assembly Government assure me that they will step in to help. The hon. Gentleman should be assured that we are working very closely together on what is an important issue.
As far as the Treasury guidance is concerned, it always stressed the balance between security and breadth of investment on the one hand and ordinary investment on the other.
There have been reports that at least three Welsh universities have more than £8 million at risk in Icelandic banks. Given the resource constraints that those universities already have, what impact does the Secretary of State think that this matter will have on higher education in Wales?
I hope that there will be none, and that the negotiations between the Treasury and the Icelandic Government and banks are successful, but of course we await the results of those. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Bank of England has already given £100 million to the banks in Iceland to try to resolve the issue. The point is not unimportant, but as in the case of local authorities, we are not going to see a collapse of service. In the case of councils, there will not be immediate rises in the council tax for this reason, but we must obviously watch the matter carefully and do our best to get the money back.
Iceland is the 10th most prosperous economy in the world and Wales should follow its example—that was the advice given by nationalist Assembly Member Helen Mary Jones earlier this year. Unfortunately, the nationalists who run my council listened to her and put £15 million into Icelandic banks. Now unsure whether they are going to get the money back, they are having to raid balances for £11 million to deliver Labour’s promise on equal pay. What advice has my right hon. Friend got for my constituents in those circumstances?
Does the Secretary of State agree that local authorities in Wales and across the United Kingdom should make a greater commitment to the people’s bank—the Post Office—by making large deposits of their money in it, securing the UK post office network, rather than risking it in the meltdown of the banks, which is the advice for independent small nations that Plaid Cymru wishes to follow?
The Auditor General for Wales has a duty to scrutinise the finances of public bodies. Does the Secretary of State have discussions with him and if so, what specific advice has he given on foreign investments to public bodies?
I have met the Auditor General for Wales, but that was before the issue of the Icelandic banks and local authorities arose. In discussions with my ministerial colleagues, I will look at the question of advice, but I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd): the advice generally from the Treasury and the Assembly is that the investment should be spread, and that security should be balanced with investment.
On behalf of the official Opposition, I issue a warm welcome to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) in his new role on the Front Bench, and I send our best wishes to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) in his new duties.
Given the well-reported increasing risk attached to Icelandic financial institutions, why was no revised advice issued to Welsh public institutions earlier? In the light of the risks posed by further investments in foreign banks, can we be assured that new advice will now be issued regularly that takes these risks into account?
I was told by the Treasury that so far as its advice was concerned, it did not provide a list of individual banks or institutions in recent years and months, and it was up to individual authorities to judge what a prudent investment might or might not be, and of course, there would be professional advisers, as well. However, I repeat what I have said twice already: that that guidance had to be balanced between a breadth of investment and security, and every council has a responsibility so to do.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. In the joint statement from his Department with the Assembly Minister, the Minister said that there would be no immediate impact on services or council tax levels following this debacle, but as local authorities are now switching investment strategies toward low-risk, low-yield funds, their budgets are based on figures that cannot be achieved, and something has to give. When can we expect to see the council tax rise, assets sold or spending cut in Wales?
I obviously hope that none of that occurs, but the issue first, as I said, is to get the money back from Iceland. When that is done, it is for each individual authority in Wales that feels it has a difficulty to approach the Welsh Assembly Government, and then proper advice will be given to it. Of course, as the hon. Lady knows, nine authorities are involved to varying degrees. All of us have been told by the Local Government Association that there is no immediate threat to services or, indeed, to the level of council tax.
Cross-border Transport Links
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my predecessor have had regular discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government and UK Government Ministers on cross-border transport links.
Does the Minister agree that the upgrading of the A494 at Ewloe is essential to link north Wales effectively with the national motorway network? Will he urge the Welsh Assembly Government to prioritise a new scheme to replace the one abandoned in March?
It is important that discussions take place between the Government here in Westminster and the Welsh Assembly Government. Obviously, transport is a devolved matter, but that does not necessarily mean that it is simply the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government, full stop. It is important to pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) about ensuring that there is the greatest possible voice here in Westminster, as well as in Cardiff, to secure the best deal for the people in Wales.
Will my hon. Friend undertake to have discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department for Transport about extending the concessionary bus pass scheme so that it can be valid cross-border and pensioners in Wales can undertake bus journeys in England using the passes issued to them in Wales?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. When we talk about bus passes, it is important to remember that devolution is a partnership, and it is good to see that England is learning some lessons from what has happened in Wales because of the Welsh Assembly Government. It is early days in the introduction of a bus pass in England for senior citizens, but it is important that we encourage discussions to take place so that the two schemes have complementarity and all our citizens can benefit from the introduction of the schemes in both our countries.
I congratulate the Minister on his new role. Has the issue of train services to mid-Wales been a feature of his early discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government? He will be aware that the programme for an hourly service from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth is slipping; we were anticipating that it would be in place in December. Will he urgently raise the issue of funding with both Network Rail and the Welsh Assembly Government?
The issue of rail services is important. There is always room for improvement, and we must have ongoing discussions to ensure that improvements take place. It is also important to recognise that meaningful improvements have been made to a number of services within Wales, and between Wales and England. For example, the Arriva Trains service is operating a new timetable involving longer routes and more stations in 2007-08, and it is better than the timetable in any previous year. Although there is room for improvement, significant improvement has been made in Wales.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), the Minister will be aware that the single consent regime to be introduced in the Planning Bill will not apply to highway projects in Wales. Consequently, there will be lengthy planning inquiries and cross-border routes will take much longer to upgrade. Can he say why the Welsh Assembly Government declined the opportunity to participate in the single consent regime? Does he agree that it is an enormous missed opportunity for Wales?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point, on which discussions have taken place. Those discussions must continue, so I would not jump to his conclusion that delays will be inherent in this regime—we must ensure that that is not the case. We must ensure the greatest co-ordination possible, and I assure him that I shall make it one of my priorities over the next three weeks to ensure that the situation is facilitated as far as is humanly possible.
Small Businesses (Cardiff, North)
I have regular discussions with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on a range of topics. Numerous initiatives are in place in Wales to support small businesses, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Is he aware that Whitchurch in my constituency is one of the two places chosen by BT to pilot its super-fast broadband system? Does he agree that that will be a huge boost to local small businesses, giving increased access in a more effective way?
Yes, I do, and I welcome that news from my hon. Friend. It is one of only two pilots in the whole of the United Kingdom. On Friday, the Government will launch our digital inclusion action plan, which tries to meet the needs of 17 million people who are not actually connected to the internet. I welcome that announcement and the work of my hon. Friend.
The Government say that they want to help small businesses, but many are unable to access Government contracts, so 10-day payment will be irrelevant to them. If the Government are serious about helping small businesses in Wales, the Secretary of State might advise Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to repay overpayment of corporation tax more quickly.
Certainly, prompt payment is important. I talked this morning to the Minister for Finance and Public Service Delivery in Cardiff, who assures me that all public bodies in Wales will now work towards the aim of paying their bills within 10 days. That includes local authorities and health authorities, as well as other public bodies.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Trooper James Munday of the Household Cavalry Regiment, who was killed last week in Helmand province, Afghanistan. We owe him and all those who have lost their lives in conflict a huge debt of gratitude.
I am also sure that the House will wish to join me in sending condolences to the family and friends of Gayle Williams, who was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan on Monday. She worked for the charity Serve Afghanistan, which offers education and training to people with disabilities. It was a barbaric act by the Taliban against someone devoted to improving the lives of ordinary Afghans. I believe that her family and the House should be extremely proud of the work that she did.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Despite the best efforts of the Government during this economic and financial situation, many of our constituents are still worried about losing their jobs and the impact that that could have on their ability to pay their bills and mortgages, which could lead to them losing their homes. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that every option will be explored to ensure that any support that we can give these people will be given?
I can announce today new guidance—[Interruption.] New guidance will be given to the judiciary to halt or adjourn court action on repossessions unless alternative options that help the home owner, including extending the terms of the mortgage, changing the mortgage type and deferring payment, have first been fully examined. We are determined to do everything that we can to help home owners avoid repossessions.
The Governor of the Bank of England said last night that not since the first world war has the international banking system been so close to collapse. I agree with him. Having taken action on the banking system, we must now take action on the global financial recession, which is likely to cause recession in the US, France, Italy, Germany, Japan and—because no country can insulate itself from it—Britain too. That is why we are giving our undivided attention to helping families and businesses—[Interruption.] I expect later this afternoon an announcement of an early summit of global leaders, which I shall attend on behalf of Britain.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Trooper James Munday who was killed in Afghanistan last week and to aid worker Gayle Williams who lost her life this week. The Prime Minister was right to pay such a fulsome tribute. Their deaths are a reminder of the sacrifices that our armed forces and humanitarian aid workers are making, not only on our behalf, but on behalf of people in Afghanistan. We pay tribute to their memory.
In the first six months of the year, the Government borrowed more than £37 billion. At the end of a long boom, and just as the downturn is beginning, Britain has one of the biggest budget deficits in the industrialised world. Does the Prime Minister think that that is a mistake?
The right hon. Gentleman said on the radio just a few days ago:
“Borrowing goes up. That’s inevitable and you have to allow that to happen.”
Unfortunately, he said a few weeks ago that
“we have reached the limits of acceptable…borrowing.”
He must make up his mind which side he is on. Let me explain to him that the reason that we can afford to borrow is that we have low national debt. We have lower debt than America, France, Germany, Japan and Italy. It is right, when we are facing global financial problems, for the Government to increase economic activity in the economy by borrowing to do so. Which side is the right hon. Gentleman on—the side of what he said two weeks ago or the side of what he said a week ago?
Of course borrowing goes up in a downturn, but the Prime Minister’s problem is that he racked it up to record levels before the downturn began. How can he possibly think that it is right to go into recession with such a high level of debt? Why cannot he just admit for once that he got it wrong? He keeps quoting the national debt figures, but let us look at what that does not include: billions of pounds spent on PFI, Network Rail and pension liabilities, even before we get to Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley. He could not lecture the banks on borrowing because he was borrowing so much, and he cannot lecture them on transparency because he is hiding so much—[Interruption.]
We cut the level of debt in national income. We cut it from the level that we inherited from the Conservative party. Is the right hon. Gentleman really now saying that to finance Network Rail we should close hospitals, we should close schools and we should close down the rest of the transport system? That is the implication of what he says. I repeat to the House that net debt in the UK, on the IMF figures published a few weeks ago, is 38 per cent. In France it is 55 per cent., Germany 56 per cent., Italy 101 per cent., Japan 94 per cent. and the USA higher at 46 per cent. We have the ability to borrow to take ourselves through these difficult times. May I just remind the Leader of the Opposition of what he said only a few days ago:
“People will want to see cross-party support rather than perhaps what we’ve seen in the US because we have to try and take public opinion with us for difficult decisions that may have to be taken.”
One thing one week; another thing the next week.
The Prime Minister knows perfectly well that he has cross-party support for the banking rescue, but he does not have cross-party support for the record debt that he has racked up in this country. As he is fond of quotations, perhaps he will try this one from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which says that he
“did not leave his successor as Chancellor with the fiscal room to cope with even a modest economic slowdown, let alone the problems we currently face.”
For years, the Prime Minister was telling us about the beauties of prudence with a purpose. Now he is telling us about the joys of borrowing without limit. Does that not show how ridiculous he now sounds? Let us have a look at another of his claims, which is particularly relevant on this day when the Governor of the Bank of England says that we are going into recession. Will he finally admit that he has not abolished boom and bust?
I have already said that I agree with the Governor of the Bank of England. As for the issues that the right hon. Gentleman raises about debt, is he really saying that we should not have stepped in to save Northern Rock, that we should not have used public money to save Halifax Bank of Scotland and that we should not have used the public money that we have used to save the Royal Bank of Scotland? I believe that he needs to look again at what is happening in the global economy and its effect on every country round the world. If he were to look at what the cause of the problem was, he might be able to have a better idea of what the solution is. Let me remind the House of what he said:
“I always think Leaders of the Opposition have to be…careful not to…talk down the economy. You know there are some…strong fundamentals in the British economy and we should celebrate those and point them out.”
That is what he said, but that was a few weeks ago, before what he is saying today.
The Prime Minister asks me to recognise the causes of the problems that we are now in. Well, I can tell him—we are looking at them. Why can he not answer a direct question, just for once in his life? He has said dozens and dozens and dozens of times that he had ended boom and bust and rewritten the laws of the trade cycle. Now, with unemployment rising, growth stalling, repossessions up, businesses closing and the Governor of the Bank of England saying that we face recession, will the Prime Minister finally admit that he did not abolish boom and bust?
I have already answered about the Bank of England Governor and what he said. [Interruption.] This is a very important issue for the country. People must understand—which the Opposition appear not to—the cause of the problems that we are dealing with. [Interruption.] The Opposition like to think that this is a problem created in Britain and in the public sector. Everybody knows apart from the Opposition that this is a global problem that arose in the private sector as a result of irresponsible and undisclosed private sector lending. It has to be dealt with by recapitalising the banks and ensuring that they are funding small business and home owners.
If the Opposition really are interested in home owners and small businesses, as they say they are, they should be supporting us as we try to get bank lending moving again and to build confidence in the financial system so that it can do the job that it is supposed to do—that is, give flows of money to households and businesses. If they cannot begin to understand the problem, they are going to be a million miles away from the solution.
Anyone listening to this exchange will know that the Prime Minister claimed the credit in the boom, so why will he not take the responsibility in the bust? Let me ask him one more time—it is a simple yes or no. Have you abolished boom and bust, yes or no?
We are not returning to the days of 15 per cent. interest rates. People are going to be tested over the next few days on the judgments that they make, and that applies to the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor as well. Unfortunately, on Northern Rock, they took the wrong judgment; on deregulating the mortgage market, they took the wrong judgment; on short selling of shares, they took the wrong judgment. The shadow Chancellor proposed a fuel duty escalator balancing mechanism that would have led to our having to increase today the duty on petrol by 3p. That is the judgment of the shadow Chancellor. With or without the Opposition’s support, we will continue to do what is right for this country.
Does not the Prime Minister understand this: to the millions of people who have seen the value of their homes fall or their pensions decline, to the thousands of people losing their jobs, to the small businesses that are writing to all of us complaining about 15 per cent. interest rates, this is a bust? Let me ask him just one more time: why not admit, just for once in your life, that you have not ended boom and bust?
Is that not interesting—not a single policy idea. The right hon. Gentleman makes not one attempt to come together with all the parties in the interests of the nation, or to put forward a constructive solution to the problems. I fear that the reason why the Opposition cannot put forward constructive solutions is that they do not have a clue about the real problems in the economy.
Last week, British Gas told one of my constituents that his gas bill would be going up by over 118 per cent., despite his account being in credit. Can my right hon. Friend commit himself to dealing with these outrageous price increases—especially at a time when the price of oil is down to under $70 a barrel?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that now that the price of oil and the price of gas are coming down, we not only expect that to be reflected in petrol prices coming down, but want to see it reflected over time in consumers’ gas and electricity bills. In the meantime, we have taken action to ensure that the social tariff is available at a lower rate for low-income families, and of course we have the winter allowance, which is £250 for over-60s and £400 this year for over-80s. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; we will monitor the fall in oil and gas prices, so that people facing gas and electricity bills can get the real benefit.
Let me add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Trooper James Munday and aid worker Gayle Williams, who in their very different ways were serving this country and serving the people of Afghanistan.
The public have seen that the Prime Minister delivered his multi-billion pound bail-out package for the bankers only once the banks were on the edge of collapse, so they are now asking themselves how bad it needs to get before he delivers a bail-out package for them. Yesterday we heard the energy companies saying that they will be handing down price cuts next year at the earliest, yet this winter four out of five single pensioners will be living in pensioner poverty, and the measures that he outlined in answer to the earlier question will be too late for them. What will he do now for them, this winter?
First, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman. We have been putting liquidity into the banking system for months. We have put £100 billion and more into the banking system to ensure that our banks can continue to be in existence. The recapitalisation of the banks was to strengthen them, so that they could face all sorts of difficulties ahead, and at the same time restart lending. So I have to correct him on that; he is wrong on that issue.
On helping pensioners this winter, the right hon. Gentleman knows, of course, that the pension is more than £30 a week, but let me point out to him that we are helping pensioners this winter by the rise in the winter allowance that will come to people very soon, by the help that we are giving with the social tariff, which also helps many pensioners, by encouraging pensioners to use the direct debit system to keep their bills low, and by all the measures that we are taking on insulation and central heating to give pensioners the best chance of saving energy or saving costs from the use of energy. We are trying to do all these things; I hope that we will have all-party support for them.
I asked the Prime Minister about fuel poverty and he gave me a wholly different answer. The answer shows that this Prime Minister—[Interruption.] He is all at sea—[Interruption.]—if not in a luxury yacht, like some prominent members of the Opposition. [Interruption.]
Let me make a specific suggestion about something that the Prime Minister could do now. At the moment, we all pay more for the energy that we use first—our early energy units—and less for the rest. That hits families on low and middle incomes, who use less energy, very hard indeed. Will he commit today to reversing that unfair system—turning it on its head so that those who use less energy pay lower prices? It makes environmental sense, it makes common sense and it is something that he could do now, to help people this winter. Will he do that—yes or no?
I am happy to look at any constructive suggestion that has been put about how we can help people through these difficult winter months. We have also raised the payment that would be paid to people if there should be severe weather during these months. But I think the right hon. Gentleman’s protestations about what ought to be done would be better heard if he had not committed his party at his conference to £20 billion-worth of cuts in public expenditure.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that as the price of oil and gas comes down there should be the benefit that gas and electricity bills become lower. We took action in September with £1 billion in an energy package. Lower-income households—600,000 people—are benefiting from lower social tariffs, and prices will not rise at all this winter for almost half a million of the most needy households. We will continue to look at what can be done, but what we will not do, whether for petrol or for gas and electricity bills, is to take the advice of the official Opposition, because their fuel duty stabiliser would mean that we would have to increase the tax on petrol by 3p a litre.
Men and women alike are concerned about the economy, the future and the welfare of their families. Will my right hon. Friend, whatever the situation, promise the women of this country that he will not stoop so low as to hire a public relations firm to get inside our pretty little heads?
Twenty-two million people are receiving a tax cut of £120, which is being paid to them over the next few months. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about home owners and housing. We will deliver 50,000 homes a year for social rent and increase housing supply in the social sector.
I am grateful for the chance to welcome the fact that the Government are announcing today the opening of St. Helens hospital, which is the 100th hospital under our 10-year hospital building scheme. We launched the hospital building programme to replace and modernise the NHS. In 1997, half of it dated from before 1948 and was not fit for purpose in a modern NHS. This is the biggest hospital building programme in history, and even if there is opposition from the Conservative party, we are determined to continue to build hospitals and schools.
Will the Prime Minister assist ex-servicemen in prison? According to the National Association of Probation Officers, there are 8,500 ex-servicemen in prison, which represents about 10 per cent. of the entire prison population. Will he speak to his ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence so that they liaise to determine the extent of the problem and put proper mechanisms in place to deal with returnees from conflict zones before they commit offences?
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and we are looking at the matter. A National Audit Office report commissioned last year showed that the majority of those who leave the services make a successful return to civilian life, and 94 per cent. find work in six months, but a small minority can face severe difficulties. The Ministry of Defence provides a wide range of support; our package of specialist mental health care is one example. The MOD’s prison inreach initiative gives veterans in prison access to a range of support services. We are working together with the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Justice on the issue to get up-to-date, authoritative data and a survey. We will then see what we can do to help people who have helped and served our country; it is our duty to assist them when they are civilians.
I am aware of the case. The factory announced that it would cease production in Machrihanish, near Campbeltown. It was Scotland’s only wind turbine tower factory. The company is investing in another plant on the Isle of Wight, but the problem is due to the factory losing money. I understand that the Scottish Administration’s Highlands and Islands Enterprise met the company and those who are trying to find other potential occupants of the site. I will endeavour to find out what I can do to help in this instance.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She has taken a very big interest in how we can get knife crime off the streets of London, and away from the major hotspots at which knife crime is concentrated. We have undertaken more stops and searches over the summer months. Since July, there have been 77,000 searches, and 2,192 knives have been seized in those areas. Only 2 to 3 per cent. of young people stopped had a weapon, but it is important that we change the culture so that it is wholly unacceptable to carry a knife. We have introduced strong cautions, and we have said that prosecution will result from carrying a knife. We are taking more action on prevention, and are ensuring more education in schools and safer schools. Wands are used and searches are done on young people. We have involved the England football team and others who can influence young people as role models.
I believe that we are talking about not just enforcement, punishment and prevention, but about changing the whole culture, so that it becomes as unacceptable to carry a knife as it is to carry a gun—as unacceptable as bullying now is in schools or as racism is in sport. We should all, on a cross-party basis, support the culture change that so many people who have been affected by knife crime are trying to bring about.
I have met Members of Parliament from the area to talk about the issues and to see what could be done, but I have to say to them, after 10 years of Labour Government, that the south-west enjoys higher employment, higher standards of living and better public services as a result of a Labour Government.
Will the Prime Minister give us a rock-solid assurance that whatever he does to clear the debts of the nation’s finances, he will never, ever, meet a Russian billionaire to try and cadge the money? We will leave that to the sleazy Tory party.
I am in favour of more funding for schools around the country and I am in favour of more funding for schools in rural areas, as in urban areas, but I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman must make a prior decision: does he support extra investment in schools and education, as we do, or does he oppose the extra investment, as his own party has done?
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall now make a statement on the latest Government measures to help small businesses. The Government understand that many small firms are having real difficulties as a result of the credit crunch and worldwide economic slowdown. Those companies are critical to our long-term economic success. More than 99 per cent. of UK businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises. They contribute as much as large businesses to UK output, and nearly 60 per cent. of private sector jobs.
We have always made getting the business environment right for SMEs a priority, and since 1997, 1 million more small businesses have been created. UK SMEs employ 1.5 million more people; they are more productive and more innovative, and they survive longer. Most recently, our enterprise strategy set out our renewed vision to make the UK the world’s most enterprising economy and the best place to grow and start a business. We increased the small firms loan guarantee lending allocations by 20 per cent. for 2008, boosted enterprise programmes and committed to a new approach that avoids placing unnecessary regulatory burdens on smaller firms.
These tough times have only made us more determined to help SMEs. We need to be practical and innovative; above all, we need to ensure that what we do makes a real difference. We are meeting business organisations and businesses across the country to discuss the problems that they are facing, such as cash flow, access to finance and higher bank charges and costs, and to ensure that their views are reflected in Government action.
Our first priority has been restoring financial stability. Without a strong financial system, small businesses cannot access the credit that they need, home owners struggle with their mortgages, and trade in the high street slows down. But as the impact of the global financial squeeze hits small businesses further, the Government believe that it is not enough for us to focus on financial stability alone. So, building on the measures that we have already brought forward, the Government announced yesterday further action, with immediate effect, to help SMEs through these tougher times.
For SMEs, cash dominates: cash in—prompt payment—and cash out, to their work force, for inputs and to the Revenue. Over the past year, the time that organisations take to pay their bills to suppliers has increased, intensifying the cash-flow pressures of many businesses. The Government are determined to do everything they can to help. The Government will aim to pay their suppliers as soon as possible, and within 10 days at the latest. That will bring forward billions of pounds-worth of payments, on top of the majority of payments already made within 10 days. The regional development agencies, which spend around £750 million annually with suppliers, have also committed to that. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote to the Local Government Association, and the chief executive of the national health service wrote to NHS trusts, asking those public bodies to review their payment performance and to follow the Government’s lead.
I recognise the essential role that the approach of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to business tax compliance can play in managing the economic downturn. HMRC already has a policy of flexibility in dealing with struggling businesses, and I know that the Treasury will continue to impress upon it the importance of implementing and publicising that policy in the current climate. We are also working with the Institute of Credit Management and all leading finance and business organisations to promote prompt payment and ensure that businesses have the best advice and guidance on managing cash flow.
The Government’s measures of financial support to the banking industry are designed to stabilise UK banks and support the long-term strength of the economy, which helps small businesses. As part of the recapitalisation package, Royal Bank of Scotland, HBOS and Lloyds TSB committed to
“maintain the availability and active marketing of competitively priced lending to SMEs at a level at least equivalent to that of 2007”.
Small businesses must know that the banks are open for business. RBS, HBOS and Lloyds TSB make up 50 per cent. of small business lending, but given that they operate in a competitive environment, we can expect other banks to follow suit. The Government will monitor how recapitalised banks are delivering their commitment on SME lending. We will ask the banks how they will achieve that, including the availability of capital and liquidity allocated for small businesses, marketing plans, and their principles for SME lending, from head office to branch level.
We want to see banks taking appropriate risk assessments on SME lending—being responsible but not unduly risk-averse, and not passing on unreasonable costs. The Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will be meeting all the banks and building societies tomorrow to discuss those issues, and what small businesses can expect from them.
The Government have also been brokering contact between UK banks and the European Investment Bank. The four largest UK banks have now signalled their initial interest in negotiating loans totalling about £1 billion from the EIB to lend to UK SMEs. I hope that we will be able to make rapid progress on that for small businesses.
It is critical at this difficult time that businesses have access to support and advice that helps them to survive now and succeed in the future. Business Link advisers will provide a free health check for every small business, whatever its size, sector or location, and other advice on how to adapt to changing economic conditions and be ready for the economic upturn.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills yesterday announced that small businesses are the focus of £350 million of Government funds to help them get through the tougher economic climate by building the skills and expertise of their workers. The Government are making improvements to Train to Gain that will deliver advice and funding for training, with the minimum bureaucracy and delay. For the first time, training at level 2 will be free for all SME employees regardless of whether they already have qualifications at that level, and there will be free bite-size courses in business-critical areas, including business improvement techniques and customer service, to raise productivity. Management and leadership training will also be opened up to the smallest employers so that it is now available to employers with five to 250 employees.
Small businesses drive our economy forward, and during this global economic downturn, the Government are determined to give the millions of people who run and work for SMEs the chance to maintain their livelihood and prepare for better times in the future. That is why we have brought forward these measures, and we will continue to do all we can through the work of the National Economic Council to look for and implement solutions that help SMEs. I commend this statement to the House.
The Minister’s statement is an unprecedented occasion, representing an unacceptable mixture of farce and contempt. The Department has no one of Cabinet rank in this House, so instead, a Minister has just read out a statement that the real Secretary of State will deliver in another place in three hours’ time.
Last week the Leader of the House said that there would be no statement delivered today, but then today’s announcements were made first in a Select Committee, then in a press release sent out by the Department yesterday lunchtime, and then in a press conference attended by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. If the real Secretary of State says something in the House of Lords that the Minister has not said here, will we be entitled to a further statement tomorrow?
The Government have been slow to cotton on to the fact that the turmoil witnessed over the past few months in financial markets is now causing the deepest imaginable pain for businesses both big and small throughout the country. Is there not a danger that even the most imaginative measures to assist business cash flow will simply be too small and puny to cope with the scale of the fallout caused by a decade of Government mismanagement and financial hubris?
We have been ahead of the Government in sounding the alarm about the debt that has been built up, the taxes that have been raised and the irresponsible financial practices at the heart of Government. We want to see some immediate practical assistance for small businesses, which are having to deal with serious cash-flow problems: prompt payment from central and local government, deferral of VAT, a cut in national insurance, a reduction in corporation tax for small business, and more promotion of the small business rate relief, to which many are entitled but for which not all apply.
Will the Minister therefore confirm that the £350 million that was announced yesterday, and repeated today, to help SMEs train staff is, in fact, just a reheat of old money and a recycling of old schemes? How, indeed, can the Government possibly monitor prompt payment by Government and Government agencies, when they have admitted in a parliamentary answer that they never even record that information?
On what basis can the Minister defend the assertion made by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills on the “Today” programme, and repeated today, that bank lending will continue at 2007 levels? How will the Minister measure that? Is it not the case that all over the country, contrary to the Government’s assertions, overdraft facilities are being viciously called in by the banks, to the severe detriment of thousands of businesses? Is it not blatantly evident that banks are not continuing to lend as the Government say they are and must, but are in fact pulling the rug from under many perfectly good firms?
To whom can business turn for a reprieve, when a bank declares that it will withdraw an overdraft facility or suddenly call in guarantees? What is the Minister’s estimate of the number of businesses that will go to the wall in the coming year? Does he agree with some independent economic experts that unemployment will shoot through the 3 million mark by the end of next year? Is it not the case that although the base rate is falling, actual borrowing costs are rising through 15 per cent.?
The Minister mentioned the small firms loan guarantee scheme, but what plans do the Government have to extend this very narrow scheme to help businesses more widely? How, indeed, can they claim that regional development agencies will make a difference when the Government have just raided their budget to prop up the housing market?
Does the Minister share my analysis that there is growing anger that a Prime Minister who has spent the last years declaring that he has abolished boom and bust, while in fact storing up all the trouble that is now hitting us hard, is massively to blame for mortgaging this country just as bankers have mortgaged their banks? While demanding praise for building what he has not yet even paid for, he has delivered only the illusion of prosperity, behind which will now follow massive bills for future generations to pay. Having built the country on a mountain of debt, the Labour Government are now as bankrupt as the economy that they have created. Does that not prove the abiding truth of post-war British politics—that Labour Governments always run out of money?
I start by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his courteous welcome to me at the Dispatch Box.
What we are doing as a Government is concentrating on the real work of helping small businesses through difficult economic times. I would have liked to think that he would welcome the package of measures that we are announcing today. He mentioned small business rate relief, so may I remind him that the Opposition voted against the Bill introducing it?
Let me address the questions that the hon. Gentleman posed, first about the £350 million announced by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. That focuses on SMEs as a top priority and relaxes the rules on spending on training to gain. I should have thought that that would be widely welcomed at a time when companies are thinking about shedding staff and about whether to move to short-time working. I should have thought that the ability to say, “You can work four days a week and you can train for one, so you will have additional skills”, would be warmly welcomed during these difficult economic times. I am surprised that the Opposition do not seem to accept that.
On the subject of prompt payment, the hon. Gentleman should be aware that Government Departments report annually on their progress in meeting payment targets. Yes, it is an ambitious target that Departments pay within 10 days—although I think that the majority of payments are already made within 10 days. If we can get this right, it could be a big boost to help small companies, but we are paying with taxpayers’ money and we need to make sure, when we are safeguarding the public purse, that the goods and services have been delivered and the invoice is right. We will then do everything we can to ensure that it is paid within 10 days.
Let me repeat the point about bank lending. We are not saying that there should be lending at 2007 levels; we are saying that the availability of that funding should be at 2007 levels, and that we expect banks to market actively and to offer competitively priced products to the SME sector.
There is clearly an issue in relation to rates. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence out there suggesting that some banks are starting to look again at their lending practices and are insisting on higher margins. Although we cannot interfere in individual lending decisions and it would be wrong to do so, it is right that we should expect banks to be clear about their lending principles. That will be one of the subjects for discussion when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Chancellor meet the banks tomorrow.
There was an accusation from the Opposition that we have been too slow in taking action. In March we announced that we would increase the small firms loan guarantee scheme by 20 per cent., because we understood that companies were going through difficult times and would need extra support. We are making such decisions. I heard the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) argue last night in the debate that there should be lower spending. I do not see how, in our current difficult economic times, low spending will help the SMEs that he professes to want to support. That is bad economics, and he should be ashamed of himself.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer is considering bringing forward capital works in order to stimulate the economy in the face of the economic downturn. Is the Minister aware that improvements to the major road network and local rail services in the north-east, which are currently outside the scope of regional funding allocations, would be of major benefit to small businesses in the north-east, which have been calling for such improvements for some time? Will my hon. Friend draw to the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer the opportunity that the proposal presents for helping small businesses in the north-east of England?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that a number of worthwhile infrastructure projects could be brought forward to provide strong economic benefits while at the same time helping small businesses during difficult economic times. We are actively looking at such possibilities. Our policy contrasts very sharply indeed with that of Conservative Members, who do not want to borrow, think we are wrong and think we should be spending less. That would damage our economy, so it is not the right or responsible thing to do.
I am grateful to the Minister for having sent me a copy of his statement in advance—although there is not much new in it. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the importance of small businesses, which are the bedrock of commerce in many parts of the country and vital for our long-term economic growth. The key issue facing small businesses is cash flow and, more particularly, the availability of bank finance. Will he explain how the Government will ensure that the banks negotiating for refinancing will actually deliver on the sentiment? The sentiment in favour of maintaining availability is fine and laudable, but how will the Government ensure that that is what happens? May I suggest that a memorandum of understanding be agreed between the Government and the banks, which specifically deals with the question of rates, fees and availability? That should be agreed in principle in advance.
On payments to small companies, I welcome the move to oblige public sector bodies to pay up quickly, and within 10 days, if possible. Again, however, how will the Minister ensure that that actually happens, given that most of those bodies have computerised payment systems that operate on a monthly basis?
How will the Minister ensure that HMRC will be more flexible, particularly when the work force change programme is taking 10,000 skilled people out of HMRC and replacing them with a call centre operation? And what can he do to ensure that private companies, too, pay more quickly? Will he talk to the CBI about how it could talk to its members about that?
The Minister mentioned the small firms loan guarantee scheme. Is he aware that its annual report, published in August this year, noted a further decline in the number of loans given—notwithstanding the new money. Total loans now stand at £270 million, but default rates are about 13 per cent., and the biggest complaint from small businesses is about the administrative burden of getting into the scheme. The best way to make that scheme work is to improve the administration, so what action is the Minister taking to get the administration right?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, particularly his welcome for the Government’s attempt to ensure prompt payments. Yes, there are administrative difficulties in carrying out some of these measures, but there is a clear commitment from the top to do that. We need to ensure that the system continues to deliver. As I said, a significant majority of payments are already being made within 10 days, but we need to consider how to raise that performance; it is a question of managing for better performance. Yes, we also want to encourage large private companies to pay their suppliers more promptly, and I have no doubt that we will want to discuss the matter with them.
The hon. Gentleman asked about HMRC. We have said that we want it to look into how it can operate more flexibly during these difficult economic times, and I have no reason to believe other than that it will want to do just that.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about another matter that I mentioned in my statement—about how we can reach agreements with the individual banks that are taking advantage of the recapitalisation fund to ensure that they continue to lend to small businesses. We do want to monitor that closely; we will be in discussion with the banks about it and we have been very clear that we want them to continue marketing actively. We want to talk to them about ensuring that they make competitive rates available. As I said, it is not for the Government to make individual lending decisions, but we need to understand the principles by which they operate. That is the right thing to do.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the small firms loan guarantee scheme. We always want to see whether we can make that administratively simpler, so I shall take his comments into account. We also want to ensure that the scheme is actively marketed to SMEs by the banks, which have not always done as much as they should have. I hope that we will see significant change over the coming months.
On Monday, I met the chamber of commerce chief executive, who is also chief executive of the enterprise trust, and it became apparent to us that although we wanted to achieve things through HMRC, and, indeed, the Treasury, it is the Scottish Administration who have the power. Will the Minister agree to meet me, and a number of other Scottish MPs, to discuss how we can overcome that problem, because it is imperative that the changes are implemented in Scotland as quickly as possible?
As the House will be aware, enterprise policy is a devolved matter, so today’s statement applies only to England. However, I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these issues further, because supporting small businesses is important to this Government, wherever those small businesses are located.
I intend no criticism of the Minister, who is an able and decent man, when I say that he has said nothing to this House today that his noble Friend the Secretary of State did not tell the Select Committee that I chair at yesterday’s sitting. That raises important questions about the accountability of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to this House, but those are questions for another day.
Let me press the Minister on one issue that we also raised with the Secretary of State yesterday—the question of business rates, particularly void rates. Small businesses face a huge burden when they cannot let property in the current commercial downturn. That urgently needs to be relieved, and the Government should also drop their plans for business rate supplements, which pose another huge challenge to the cash flow and finances of businesses in very difficult times.
I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s points. As Chair of the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, he speaks with considerable experience. I believe that the package is an important one, which will be welcomed by business because it offers practical measures that will make a difference, but it should not be seen as the last word on Government support. It builds on the already impressive programme of business support that we, as a Government, have provided. Over the coming months, we will be looking to see what more we can do to help businesses through these very difficult economic times.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and his commitment to SMEs, on which the economy and community of Northern Ireland are very dependent. On the policy of flexibility for HMRC, will he give further indication of what that means, so that we can interpret it on the ground and help our constituents to avail themselves of that opportunity?
I endorse the point in the previous question about the rates on vacant properties. Apart from the spectre of vacancies, we now have genuine vacancies brought about by the economic recession. As the Minister is probably aware, transport, gas and electricity costs in Northern Ireland are far above the UK average, so will he provide some help through equalisation or rationalisation?
Lastly, I would like to ask the Minister, even though he has no jurisdiction in the matter, whether he is aware that the failure of the Executive to meet in Northern Ireland has frustrated the issue of Government contracts for public utilities and public works, so could either he, if he has personal knowledge, or, if not, his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, encourage the Executive—
My hon. Friend raises a number of points, most of which are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Administration and their Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I cannot reply to those questions, but in response to his question about his desire for HMRC to show more flexibility, I can be pretty clear. We do not want HMRC to be first in the queue to put companies into bankruptcy in order to get their money. We want it to be flexible, to recognise companies that are in difficulty and to discuss issues with them on a case-by-case basis—and I hope that that is what HMRC will do.
The Minister says that the Government are keen to do all that they can to help small business, yet this year they are increasing capital gains tax by £300 million and small business corporation tax by £370 million, and charging £900 million on empty properties. Will the Minister now tell us that those increases will not be implemented and that he will change the rating arrangements to provide relief—or are his words fine, but not very meaningful?
What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that, in my view, the measures we have announced can help to make a real difference and are attuned to the difficult times that we face. I am sure he will welcome the entrepreneurs’ relief on the first £1 million of capital gains, and also the effective tax rate of 17.2 per cent. on a £10 million capital gain. I do not think that 17.2 per cent. on a £10 million capital gain is an unreasonable price to pay.
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion of rural areas, and he is right to raise the issue of broadband connectivity. We want to ensure that broadband is available in rural as well as in urban areas, and we have been very good at achieving the targets that we have set for broadband access, but there is more that we can do. I should be more than happy to discuss the issues with my hon. Friend, and also to put him in touch with Lord Carter, who has direct responsibility for them.
The Minister says that he expects the rest of the banking sector to follow the lead of the recapitalised banks—HBOS and the rest—in reopening lines of credit. I wish that I shared his faith in market mechanisms after all that has happened over the past few weeks. Surely a better approach would be to insist that all banks—not just those that participated in the recapitalisation scheme, but those that availed themselves of the £250 billion of Government guarantee for new debt—agreed to lend responsibly to small businesses.
We all want to see responsible lending, but, as I said earlier, the banks that have taken advantage of the recapitalisation currently constitute more than 50 per cent. of the market. There is still a competitive market out there when it comes to loan finance, and our priority must be to ensure that competitive products are available to SMEs.
I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s fear that banks that do not take advantage of the recapitalisation scheme will still not want to lend to good SMEs. What we must do is ensure that the many excellent companies that we have in the United Kingdom still have access to finance when they require it, on reasonable and acceptable terms, so that they can invest for the future.
The Prime Minister has said that, at the European summit, he put pressure on the European Investment Bank to release millions of pounds for small businesses in this country. How will that money filter through to small businesses in, for example, Leyton and Wanstead?
As I said earlier, the banks have expressed an initial interest in making £1 billion available to small and medium-sized businesses through the European Investment Bank. That has not yet been completely sorted out, but it is potentially a significant package which, if we can get it right, will benefit companies in areas all over the country, including my hon. Friend’s constituency.
The Minister has outlined a number of measures which we hope will go some small way towards assisting small businesses, although we must wait to assess their efficacy. He said that banks should not pass on unreasonable costs. Given the recapitalisation that was mentioned a few moments ago, what steps will the Government take to ensure that small businesses do not face the unreasonably high costs that have faced them heretofore?
I also said earlier that conditions had been applied to the banks involved in the recapitalisation scheme in regard to lending to small businesses, and also in regard to the provision of mortgages. We will continue to engage in a dialogue with the banks and monitor their actions, to ensure that companies are given fair access to loans at competitive prices.
Will my hon. Friend avoid returning to the woeful Conservative record on small businesses, which experienced a doubling of VAT, the imposition of a tax of more than 30 per cent., and a 25 per cent. interest rate which crippled them? Will he also ensure that the banks’ stampede to withdraw credit facilities and claw back their loans is halted, that the process is properly monitored, and that, at the appropriate time, the effectiveness of that action is reported to the House?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that the Opposition have form in this regard. The fact that they have wanted greater financial deregulation, the fact that they did not support us on Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley, and the fact that they seem to have completely lost faith with the City of London give great cause for concern about whether they are acting as a responsible Opposition.
As I said earlier, during this difficult economic time we want to ensure that banks lend responsibly, but also to ensure that they do not profiteer and try to restore their balance sheets at the expense of good British businesses. That is something that not just the Government but, I am sure, the whole business community will want to watch very closely.
May I return the Minister to the issue of small business rate relief? Many businesses across south Essex are eligible for the relief, but do not access it because of the paperwork and bureaucracy involved. Why will the Government not make it automatic?
I understand that there is a two-page form for the claiming of small business rate relief, and that it needs to be filled up only once every five years. It has been suggested that it might be possible to automate the relief, and we will consider that possibility, but I do not think it is as difficult to apply for it at present as the hon. Gentleman seems to suggest.
Last year, Swindon and Bristol jointly topped the league for the biggest growth in the number of small businesses. I welcome the announcement of practical measures to help our SMEs in the south-west, but what can my hon. Friend do to encourage more local councils to put business their way, and to persuade councils to follow central Government’s lead in respect of payment within 10 days?
My hon. Friend has made some good points. We certainly want to encourage local authorities to pay promptly, and a number of them already do. During these difficult times, however, we should consider how we can use public money most effectively to support our small businesses. As my hon. Friend says, Swindon and Bristol contain many very successful small businesses, and over the years I have visited a number of them.
I, too, congratulate the Minister on his new post. Does he agree that SMEs need proper and detailed macro-economic as well as micro-economic information? Will he confirm two facts: first, that we are now entering a recession, and secondly that we have not seen an end to boom and bust in the economic cycle?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. As somebody who used to run a small business, I always wanted to understand the global competitive environment, so what he says about SMEs is right. The Government do not make it their practice to provide a running commentary on the state of the economy, but, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, Government forecasts will be updated in the pre-Budget report.
The Government cannot make banks lend money to small businesses under the small firms loan guarantee, but given worrying reports of banks refusing to take any part in the scheme at the present time, can the Economic Secretary, at least for the duration of this serious global economic downturn, make the word “guarantee” refer to access to capital for those small businesses that need it?
It is all too timely that we are recognising the real consequences for real people of this recession, with the news yesterday of the proposed closure of a paper mill in Inverurie, with the loss of 400 jobs. The recession will, therefore, hurt real people in the economy. To return to the Economic Secretary’s announcement about the HMRC and its policy to adopt an understanding approach to business and the collection of tax, I understand that it is also under an incentive to maximise its revenue collection. Will the Minister therefore place in the Library the revised guidance that will go out to the HMRC putting into effect what he has announced in his statement?
I cannot guarantee to do that at this point in time, but let me take that request away and see whether it is possible to do so. The redundancies in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are regrettable, and they reinforce that we are facing difficult times and that we need a Government who are active and decisive in taking practical measures that will help businesses.
I welcome the package my hon. Friend has announced, but he will be aware that many small businesses have earmarked for their January 2009 tax bill money that is currently invested in Icelandic banks. While they may get some of that money back under the guarantee scheme, that could take months. Is there any scope for the HMRC to defer payments in the same way as happened when the foot and mouth crisis hit us?
The situation involving the Icelandic banks is complicated, and people’s circumstances depend on whether they are creditors in an Icelandic branch that is regulated by the Icelandic authorities or in a subsidiary of an Icelandic bank that is regulated through the Financial Services Authority. I hope that we can make very quick progress in the administration of the Icelandic banks’ subsidiaries in the United Kingdom. We have also been strongly pressing the Icelandic authorities for a quick and fair administration in Iceland, so I hope we can give companies with investments in those banks some early reassurance—although I do not know the scale of the problem. We will continue to do all that we can to press the Icelandic authorities to ensure that the UK creditors are treated fairly.
For about eight to 10 days now, I have been asking the Government one simple question, and I would like to give them another bite at the cherry. Last Monday, I said there was concern among small businesses about the £300 million raid on their funding through the regional development agencies. On Monday, I was told by an official that it was a difficult decision, taken with reluctance, and that the Prime Minister and other Ministers had been involved in it. I would like to know what evaluation was made of the impact of that decision on small businesses. I asked on Monday, and got no answer. Yesterday, I asked the Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden)—he is sitting next to the Economic Secretary now—and got no answer, and in my speech I requested an answer but got none, and nor was there any mention of it whatever in the summing up. I give the Economic Secretary another bite at the cherry: what evaluation was made of the impact on small businesses?
RDAs are important economic agents in their regional and local economies, and it is right that the Government provide support to them. Of course, decisions will from time to time be taken on different matters when there are changing priorities—and I would like to think that the hon. Lady would have welcomed the housing package we announced on 2 September this year.
The Government are right to focus on cash flow and improving credit, but what more can be done to help local authorities as, at the end of the day, it is they who are asked to give an—often discretionary—concession to small businesses, and they frequently say they do not have the funds to do that?
The hon. Gentleman is right that cash flow is one of the first priorities for businesses during economic downturns. That is why the Government have taken the action we have taken and why getting in good, top-quality business advice is crucial. Many big businesses have a range of support available to them, but small companies often feel left on their own, and we as a Government want to say very clearly that we are on their side, and, in turn, we are providing practical advice and support to them. I believe that responsible local authorities also want to do that. Local authorities are independent in these matters, but I want to encourage them to work with Business Link and to ensure that we have a co-ordinated programme of support in local areas, as that is important.
Does the Economic Secretary agree that sub-post offices are among the most important family-run businesses in both urban and rural areas? Does he also agree that as many of our constituents are currently moving money into safe post office and national savings accounts, now is not the time to scrap the Post Office card account, and will he give a guarantee today that it will remain in place?
That matter, which is clearly one for the Department for Work and Pensions, does not relate to the statement before the House. However, in answer to the hon. Gentleman, there are many small businesses in his constituency and the region that are the backbone of that local economy. It is right that this package of support is being made available to them. I hope he will welcome it, and I also hope he will appreciate that if his Front-Bench colleagues got their way and cut lending, it would not be possible to introduce such packages and small businesses in his constituency would be unable to get the support to which I think they are entitled.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I raise a matter of the greatest importance affecting your role as the defender of the interests of Members of Parliament? A decision has been taken and, sadly, Members have been denied an opportunity to comment on it. It was a decision to give an indemnity to an American company against future accidents that could cost the taxpayers multi-billion pound amounts. Information was given only to the Chairs of two Select Committees, while the minute informing Members arrived at the House only last week, 75 days after the date that was laid down for us to comment on it. That means there is no opportunity for us to comment on what appears to be a reversal of Government policy in subsidising the nuclear industry. It is a matter of great importance, which could lead in future to a very big bill for taxpayers.
What the hon. Gentleman raises is not a matter for me, but I understand his concern. It sounds to me like a good subject for an Adjournment debate, and I am quite sure he would be more than capable of informing the House of his concerns if such a debate were granted by Mr. Speaker.
Health and Safety (Education and Training)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make requirements about the integration of health and safety issues in education and vocational training; and for connected purposes.
Accidents at work destroy lives and cost money. Many, although not all, can be prevented. No amount of regulation or training can wholly eliminate human risk or error, but it is right that dangerous practices should be regulated. The principal focus of this Bill is to change mindsets, so that by the time young people reach employment they already have an understanding of the principles and practice of good health and safety. Correspondingly, the purpose of the Bill is to reduce the human, economic and social toll that results from poor management of health and safety risks, through effective education and training. It would achieve that by embedding health and safety into national vocational and professional curricula and helping to provide the skills needed to keep people well and to create and sustain a modern and competitive work force.
Before I talk about the measures in the Bill, it is important to put it in context. Some 247 people were killed at work last year and 274,000 seriously injured. Some 2.2 million suffered an illness that they attributed to work. In addition, it is estimated that up to 1,000 people a year are killed in work-related road accidents and that thousands more die from occupational cancers. That is a particular concern in Knowsley, which is represented by myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), who is in his place.
In the past decade in Britain, 64 under-19s were killed at work, nearly 15,000 suffered major injuries and more than 50,000 other teenagers were hurt by their work. It has been estimated that the cost to society of workplace accidents and work-related ill health is up to £31.8 billion a year.
Reducing the number of needlessly lost and devastated lives must be a priority. We are fortunate that there is also a strong economic rationale for doing that. The Health and Safety Executive estimates that the cost to society of workplace accidents and work-related ill health ranges between £20 billion and £31.8 billion per annum. The total cost to individuals is estimated at between £10.1 billion and £14.7 billion a year, and the cost to employers at between £3.9 billion and £7.8 billion a year. A reduction in accidents will lead to reduced costs to employers, through less staff absence, and fewer disruptions in work flow.
The Bill provides the scope to build on the foundations already laid in schools, so that workplaces provide adequate training for all levels of the work force. Those in crucial vocational and professional roles such as architects, planners, designers, engineers, managers, doctors and teachers need to understand the essentials of health and safety so that core principles can be designed into buildings and new ventures rather than imposed after the fact.
There is a straightforward way to ensure that standards are raised consistently across the board. We need to embed relevant health and safety understanding as an integral element of all curricula. Clearly, that needs to be tailored to different ages and levels of expertise, but it makes sense to begin at an early age by tackling health and safety in schools before students start their work experience.
The Department of Health’s national director for health and work, Dame Carol Black, has rightly pointed out that future generations will have higher expectations, stating:
“Healthy workplaces need to become the expected norm…schools, further education and higher education have a role in embedding these expectations into the next generation.”
The good news is that much work has already been done. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, which I should thank for providing a good deal of briefing material for the Bill, has worked with the HSE, teachers and young people themselves to produce the workplace hazard awareness course, or WHAC. It is a free resource for teachers that emphasises the need to take a balanced approach. Additionally, it is important that managers understand their responsibilities, including how to supervise young people properly, and that people vetting work placements are suitably trained in health and safety.
A number of things could be done to ensure a safe start in work. First, teacher training should equip new teachers to deliver a short course on health and safety so that students are properly prepared for their first work experience. There is also a need for professional development to help existing teachers achieve similar objectives. Secondly, we need to teach health and safety in the classroom before young people start work experience. WHAC, produced by the IOSH and the HSE, should be delivered as part of work experience preparation and could lead to a level 3 entry qualification.
Thirdly, work placements should be organised in suitable environments. That means that people with the right health and safety knowledge must check that employers and workplaces are suitable. Training that meets national standards would help to achieve consistency and should be applied by schools, colleges and local authorities. That could be achieved more easily if bodies that award Government funding to work placement organisers required suitably trained placement officers.
Fourthly, employer vetting and workplace supervision need to improve. The HSE and the Learning and Skills Council have improved the guidance to those involved in educating, training and employing young people.
Fifthly, accidents need to be properly reported so that lessons are learned. There is a general problem of accidents being under-reported both at work and in education. Schools and colleges running vocational training on their premises are currently required only to report incidents in which students are killed or taken to hospital, as they are classed as members of the public. I ask the Government to consider tightening up the reporting requirements for students in colleges and schools.
Sixthly, health and safety needs to be a priority. The Government should signal the importance of health and safety when setting their strategic priorities for education, training and skills. There is an opportunity for the Government to show leadership on the matter. For example, in England the health and safety of young people on Government-funded programmes could be noted as a key priority in the next LSC grant letter, which is due in November.
I welcome the Government’s new Education and Skills Bill. Its drive to improve the skills of the UK’s work force is a welcome opportunity to integrate core health and safety principles into the training and education system. Health and safety should be seen as a key component of modern apprenticeships and new diplomas. It should also routinely be part of the disciplines of business and management qualifications, just as they currently cover marketing, finance and human resources. Such work is already being carried out by the inter-institutional group on health, safety and risk, to ensure that adequate health and safety knowledge is provided to engineering undergraduates. One such programme is being trialled at the university of Liverpool. All of that amounts to a welcome step forward, but more needs to be done so that business schools and universities systematically include health and safety in vocational disciplines, especially MBA programmes. Health and safety at work should also be fully incorporated into the new qualifications and credit framework.
Finally, it is worth remembering that evidence shows that people new to workplaces are at a greater relative risk of work-related injury. Rhys Davies and Paul Jones of the Warwick Institute for Employment Research estimate:
“Those with current employment tenure of less than one month are almost 400 per cent. more likely to have a workplace injury than those with 20 years or more experience in their current job.”
Their research showed clearly that the risks are greatest in the first four months of a new job, which also has implications for those working on short-term or agency contracts.
The Bill would create an opportunity to prepare young people so that when they begin their working lives, they are better able to handle the risks that face them. In time, that change in mindset will reduce unnecessary risk.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. George Howarth, Mr. Tim Boswell, Mr. Terry Rooney, Mr. Edward O’Hara, Mr. Michael Clapham, Paul Rowen, Harry Cohen, Bob Russell, Mr. Mike Hancock, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. Peter Kilfoyle and Joan Ryan.
Health and Safety (Education and Training)
Mr. George Howarth accordingly presented a Bill to make requirements about the integration of health and safety issues in education and vocational training; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 31 October, and to be printed [Bill 155].
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you will tell me if this is not an appropriate time to raise this point of order, but in view of the fact that the Minister is about to move a programme motion relating to the order in which amendments are taken, it seems the appropriate time to put it to you. As you know, Sir, I wrote to you last week regarding the selection of amendments. I accept totally that it is absolutely within your discretion to decide which amendments you select for debate, and that you are not required by precedent or procedure to state the reasons why you have selected them. Nevertheless, I am asking, and I will accept it entirely if you say that my point of order is invalid or that I am not raising it at the right time, whether it is open to you to explain to the House—if it is not, I accept that—how it comes about that you have selected a large succession of new clauses on abortion when there is no reference in the Bill to abortion.
First, the right hon. Gentleman did write to me, but I did not reply to him or to any other letters because I did not want to be drawn into this argument. It was only this morning that I was drawn into the argument, but I think that I can put on the record that I did not reply to the right hon. Gentleman for the reason that I have given. The amendments were selected because they were within the scope of the Bill; it is as simple as that. All the amendments on the Order Paper are there because they are within the scope of the Bill, and that is the explanation.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should be grateful for your advice and I am sorry that I have not had a chance to give you advance notice of this point of order. During business questions, we were told by the Leader of the House in answer to a question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) that in today’s debate
“the clauses, new clauses and amendments will be considered in the normal way.”
That was in response to a question asking whether new clause 1 would be dealt with first. In response to a question from me, we were told:
“The Bill will be debated according to the procedures in the normal way.”—[Official Report, 16 October 2008; Vol. 480, c.925-6.]
My understanding was that the normal way, in the absence of anything abnormal, would be that new clauses were debated before amendments in the order of selection, according to your selection. I should be grateful if you gave us guidance as to whether it is normal for there to be a programme motion that reverses the order of the normal way of doing these things.
The Leader of the House mentioned the normal way—I was in the Chair when that was said. I am not responsible for the way in which the Leader of the House or any other Minister of the Crown replies. On the normal way as the hon. Gentleman expresses it, he is right: it is laid out in a certain manner, except that the rules of the House allow a Minister to come forward and put down a programme motion. That is what is happening now, and we have before us a programme motion that changes the order of business in terms of what clauses will be called. Again, that is not a matter for me. A Minister is allowed to do that in the normal way, and it is up to the House to say yea or nay to what the Minister has to say.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I realise that, on the subject of the programme motion, it is within the powers of the House to alter the order of debate, but you have certain powers, which are governed by convention, protecting the practice of the House and the way in which it normally expects to debate the matters regarded as most significant to large numbers of Members. Do I take it that you accept that the Speaker has no discretion whatever if the Government of the day choose to order for debate amendments, as well as new clauses, in whichever order they deem fit? Obviously, the consequence is that they are able to choose that the House debate only those matters that are not, for some reason, inconvenient for them to have debated, and everything else falls to a guillotine under our new timetabled arrangements.
This is up to the House. A programme motion is in order, and it is up to a Minister, if they so wish, to come forward with a programme motion. The motion has been tabled and it is for debate, and the House, if it so wishes, can vote it down. I am not suggesting that it should do that, but the House can vote the programme motion down, and if it does, we revert to the situation where the clauses are in the order of consideration. I hope that I am explaining myself properly. So, it is not a question of my discretion; at this stage it is before the House, and it is up to the House to say yea or nay to what the Minister is proposing.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I note that the order in which the amendments are printed in the Order Paper is also not in accordance with the usual convention. Normally, the new clauses are printed first, followed by the amendments in the order in which they relate to the Bill. In today’s Order Paper, that convention has not been followed. On whose authority has this unconventional means of dealing with the amendments taken place?
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 2)
I beg to move,
That the Order of 12th May 2008 (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows:
1. Paragraphs 10 and 11 of the Order shall be omitted.
2. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken in the following order: amendments to the clauses of the Bill; amendments to the Schedules to the Bill; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on consideration.
3. Proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 6 p.m. at this day’s sitting.
4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 7 p.m. at this day’s sitting.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill contains important provisions that are of great interest to the public and to patients, to the scientific community, to researchers and to Members in all parts of this House. They have a potentially profound impact. One in seven couples needs help with fertility treatment; 350,000 people in this country live with Alzheimer’s; every week, five children are born with, and three young people die from, cystic fibrosis. All those issues, and the potential for treatments, this Bill addresses.
Today is the last opportunity for the House to debate the Bill before it returns to the other place for consideration of the amendments that we have made. We have amendments for debate today that cover embryo research, the definition of embryos, the parenthood of people who receive assisted reproduction treatment, and saviour siblings. These matters go to the very heart of the Bill and they need consideration before it finally leaves this Chamber. The programme motion provides for that.
I shall confine my remarks at this stage specifically to the programme motion. As the Minister correctly said, this is the last chance for the House to discuss many detailed and complex issues before the Bill moves to the other place. We Conservatives have a completely free vote on the Bill—from the programme motion to all amendments, and through to Third Reading—and in my view the Government should have had far more free votes on it, as was the case with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. The Government had free votes on only the three key areas, in addition to abortion: admixed embryos, saviour siblings and the need for a father.
The Conservatives have a totally free vote, so my remarks from this Dispatch Box will be personal ones. Clearly, having one day to debate the volume of amendments that have been tabled, both about the main part of the Bill and about abortion, demonstrates what a insignificant amount of time the Government have allocated. It is possible that significant aspects of the Bill will not have been debated on the Floor of the House and will not be reached. Such issues might include key amendments to the saviour sibling proposals, key changes to the surrogacy arrangements and the disclosure of donor information.
I sympathise with the Minister’s view that the Bill is not a vehicle for abortion issues, but the Government must take note of the significant feeling in all parts of the House that a serious debate about the workings of the abortion legislation needs to take place. There is real concern and anger in all parts of the House about the Government’s tactics to limit debate, both on abortion and on other key aspects of the Bill.
I know that the Minister wants to ensure that the Bill, when it is enacted, has the same longevity as the 1990 Act, and like most Members of this House, I share that aim. A key part of the 1990 Act’s success was the depth and thoroughness of the debate and discussion that took place on it, and my fear is that the curtailment of debate today as a result of the programme motion will mean that the same might not be said for this Bill. That is why I shall vote against the programme motion, given the chance.
I agree with the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) that the Bill deals with large and fundamental moral issues. I am not discussing the Bill’s merits at the moment, but I point out that it deals with fundamental moral issues about the human race. I therefore agree that free votes are appropriate on this Bill, just as they were on the Bill that became the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, when my party, like the hon. Gentleman’s, had free votes throughout.
After a great deal of discussion within the Labour party, our Whips have agreed to free votes along the way on this Bill. They have agreed to more free votes than they originally intended—their original intention was that we should have none. Despite the fact that Labour Members are whipped on Second Reading and on Third Reading, paragraph 3 of the parliamentary Labour party’s code of conduct allows members of the PLP not to vote on an issue of this kind. Having written to the Chief Whip, I shall avail myself of paragraph 3 and not vote on Third Reading of the Bill, because I refuse to give it my support.
The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness rightly says that the issues raised in the Bill on which amendments have been tabled and to which the Government are giving priority go to the very heart of the nature of the human race. That is why it is very important that the programme motion allows the opportunity to discuss matters that trouble me and trouble large numbers of my constituents. Such matters relate to hybrid embryos and saviour siblings, among other things. It is essential that this House is given a proper opportunity—and uses it—to debate those issues and to come to decisions on them, whatever those decisions may be. I know on which side I shall be voting, as I did in Committee in May. I go that far with what the hon. Gentleman said.
This Bill is clearly not about abortion, which is why I raised my point of order with Mr. Speaker before we began discussing the programme motion, why I went to see him and why I wrote to him. The Bill does not contain a single word about abortion; it did not when it was originally published or when it was completed, and it does not now. I acknowledge—who would not acknowledge it?—that the issue of abortion is of profound importance, whatever view one takes on it. Many different views on abortion can be taken, so talking about pro-abortion and anti-abortion oversimplifies an approach to a topic on which people have very strong feelings. I respect those feelings, whatever side of the argument they represent. I do not regard it as appropriate for the issue of abortion, given all its profundities and the strong feelings it generates, to be pinned on to this Bill. The Bill was never tabled to deal with abortion and does not deal with it.
The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness is right to say that the issues relating to abortion, of which there are many—the time limit is but one such issue, despite its importance; other such issues include medical approval and the question of procedure—are very important. However, it is clearly not appropriate to debate them in relation to a Bill that has nothing to do with abortion. It should be appropriate, at some stage, to debate the issues associated with abortion. Since David Steel introduced his private Member’s Bill, the issue of abortion has never been introduced into, debated by or legislated on by this House of Commons as a Government issue and in Government time. As with a number of other very important moral issues, such as the legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults, these matters have been brought before this House of Commons by private Members.
I support the Government’s motion because the abortion issue should not be pinned on to a Bill that is not about abortion. If a Member of Parliament were to be successful in the ballot in the next Session and able to introduce a Bill on the issue, it might be appropriate at that stage for the House to debate it.
Order. Perhaps it would be convenient for the House if I were to re-emphasise the ruling that Mr. Speaker gave a short while ago that the subject of abortion is within the scope of the Bill. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to maintain a clear distinction between arguing about Mr. Speaker’s selection and about the order contained in the programme motion.
I made it perfectly clear in my point of order to Mr. Speaker that I totally respect the Speaker’s right to decide which amendments to select. Once I had put my point of order to Mr. Speaker, I in no way questioned his decision; the House must accept his decision and respect it. If anything that I was just saying appeared to infringe on the Speaker’s absolute right to make a selection within the bounds of order, I am very sorry, because that was never my intention. What the Government have done in this programme motion is to introduce an order in which the groups of amendments should be taken. That order, which the Government are proposing to the House and which I support and shall vote for in the event of a Division, says that amendments on abortion should be dealt with right at the end, after every amendment or group of amendments has been considered. That is appropriate because abortion is a subject all on its own. While it may well come within the ambit of the Bill as drawn, it was not intended by those who drafted the Bill to be debated as part of this Bill. That being so, I support this motion and I shall vote for it.
Like the Conservative spokesman, I confirm that my party will have free votes throughout the debate, including on the programme motion. What I say will therefore reflect my personal thoughts.
I will oppose the programme motion. There has been no consultation on it. The Minister said in her opening remarks that the Bill dealt with serious issues that needed to be debated, but the Government could have chosen to take two days to debate it, and they could also have chosen not to have a statement today. So there is no substance to the Minister’s suggestion that that is the reason for the proposed order for debate.
It has been suggested that there may have been some secret deal or understanding that has led to this outcome. There have been suggestions that the Government are concerned about what might happen in the House of Lords, but Front Benchers from all parties in the other place have confirmed that they would not interfere with the decisions of this House on abortion. That was the case in 1967 and 1990. In any event, that is no good reason to prevent debate in this House.
My understanding is that it was, but in any case that does not negate the points that I am making.
The Government allowed expectations to be raised that opportunity for debate would be provided at this stage. That is demonstrated by the number of amendments that have been tabled and the investment of time and energy by Members and by organisations outside on both sides of the argument. I am sure that all of us have received many letters and e-mails from women in Northern Ireland. Whatever side we take on that issue, those women clearly had an expectation that their case would be heard, but they will be denied that opportunity.
The Government say that it is not appropriate to debate these issues at this time. If that is the case, when is the appropriate time to debate abortion issues? On other occasions, such debates have arisen on amendments tabled by Back Benchers. In 1990, the Conservative Government allowed time for discussion of abortion issues. This time, the Labour Government have refused to do so. Will the Minister give a commitment now to allow time at some future point? There has been a suggestion that the Government would commit to allowing time on a private Member’s Bill. Will she now ensure that that is the case, because it is important that this significant issue, with strong feelings on both sides, should be properly aired and debated in this Chamber?
I speak against the programme motion because—and I say this with no pleasure—it and the order of discussion appear to be a shabby manoeuvre by Ministers to stop the full debate of some very important matters. I appreciate that Ministers did not intend this to be a Bill about abortion. I am open to the argument that we should have another piece of legislation that would enable a full debate on most of the matters in relation to abortion that have been raised as amendments and new clauses to the Bill, but there is a special case for debating and voting on the particular new clause that I tabled to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland.
In Northern Ireland, abortion is a criminal justice matter. In due course, criminal justice matters will revert to the Assembly. At present, no major party in the Assembly supports a woman’s right to choose. If we do not debate my new clause today, women in Northern Ireland will lose for a generation the opportunity to gain the rights that women in the rest of the United Kingdom have enjoyed for more than 40 years. The other matters in relation to abortion can come back to the House in due course, but my new clause is widely regarded by the hundreds of women who have written to me as their last chance to get justice on this matter.
I have been roundly abused by male politicians from Northern Ireland for tabling the new clause, so I wanted to touch not on the substance of the new clause but on why I have tabled it. I have not tabled it out of any desire to run contrary to people’s deeply held religious opinions, nor out of a desire to persuade people in Northern Ireland that abortion is a good thing—which I do not think myself. Nor did I table the new clause to override the authority of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I certainly did not table it to force a single woman in Northern Ireland to have an abortion. I tabled the new clause because, as it stands, the law on abortion in Northern Ireland is the same law that was passed in 1861. So long as this remains the Parliament of the United Kingdom and so long as women in Northern Ireland are citizens of the United Kingdom, we have a responsibility to move those women’s rights into the 21st century.
Women in Northern Ireland cannot have an abortion under the 1967 Act, not even as a result of rape, incest or gross foetal abnormality. If we do not have sufficient time to debate my new clause this afternoon, we may miss the opportunity to change that for a generation. Women from Northern Ireland cannot have an abortion in Northern Ireland. The lucky ones are the thousands who have the resources and the support to travel to Britain to get an abortion. How can that be right? If I go to Belfast and break a leg, I can have an operation on the national health service, but because of the manoeuvrings of politicians down the years, poor women have to find the money—at a time of enormous stress and difficulty—to come here and pay for an abortion. I do not wish to speak to the merits of my new clause, but I do wish to emphasise the urgency of this matter. The question is whether this United Kingdom Parliament is content to keep a group of women as second class citizens on this important issue of liberty and rights.
I am in a quandary. Normally, the very mention of the words “timetable motion” is enough to have me rushing into the No Lobby, but we Conservatives have a free vote today, even on the timetable motion, and I shall not go into the No Lobby. More time should have been given to a subject of this order of magnitude, but the Government are justified in taking the view that they have taken on the order of subjects for debate. This Bill began in the other place. There was no substantial debate on abortion there, save one brief examination of a disability issue related to abortion. In other words, all the issues that were raised in this House were not raised in another place and have not been debated there. That would not matter if the Bill were starting here, but it started in another place. Surely the Government are right to say that given that we have limited time—which is a shame, because time should not be so limited—the issues that we must discuss are those in the original Bill, which have already been debated and which are still in the Bill, rather than those that were raised only at a late stage in this House, which have never been considered by the other place.
The Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), and I have never agreed on any issue even remotely connected to this subject matter, but I reluctantly have to say that I think that the motion is right. I urge people who do not normally welcome timetable motions to at least take that into account when deciding how to use their free vote.
Many Opposition Members have laid proper emphasis on the fact that they will have free votes on this measure, but we will have free votes for those Labour Members who wish to exercise them. I encourage my right hon. and hon. Friends to do precisely that.
I wish to address a question to the Minister. She was so thoughtful in ensuring that the House had as much as possible of the 45 minutes available to discuss the programme motion that one did not even have a chance to intervene. I believe that the Government are right to say that we should concentrate on the main issues that gave rise to the Bill. I also believe that the way we go about debating abortion in this place, picking off bits and pieces as though we were playing bingo, is not an appropriate way to consider a major issue.
That is why I tabled a new clause that would empower the House to set up a Select Committee of both Houses to report back coherently on how we might or might not reform the abortion laws. My preference would be that we should make abortion much easier earlier on and much tougher later on, but it might be that that would not be the conclusion of the Select Committee. We would then at least have before us a coherent set of proposals. We would know what we were voting for and could table our amendments accordingly.
Although the Government are right to exclude abortion today, I hope that when the Minister gracefully replies she will tell us what the Government’s plans are to give us the appropriate time for the sort of debate for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) also asked.
I find this programme motion particularly cynical. It marks another rather important change in the way that Parliament is handled. The Government have decided to stop parliamentary debate on various important issues altogether and to ensure that no votes take place at all on key issues that they find it politically embarrassing to have raised at the present time. If that becomes an established practice, we will see another serious step back in the way the House can discuss matters.
This is the first time that the House has had the opportunity to discuss embryology or abortion in Government time since 1990. We have private Members’ Bills on the subject of abortion from time to time, but they do not have the faintest prospect of changing the law because there is always, on one side or the other, a sufficient blocking minority to stop progress. I would be very surprised if more Government time were made available in the next 20 years or so for those subjects to be returned to, but they are very important to many of our constituents and they arouse profound emotions.
The general public, whom we represent, have every view and none on the subject, but there is an enormous range of opinion, about which people on both sides feel very passionately. It cuts completely across political party, both for the public and for us, and there is no way in which a particular Member of Parliament can possibly hold himself up as representing the strong feelings that some sections of the population hold.
We must have legislation, and this is the legislative Chamber for the country. As it happens, the House is representative, because, again crossing party lines, Members of the House of Commons represent, in my experience, just about every range of opinion one could possibly have on the subject. Many Members have strong feelings on moral, political, practical and social grounds that ought to be expressed. Every now and again, a chance comes to address those issues.
The 1990 Act has been referred to, and I spent far too much time on Second Reading reminding the House of how that went through. A free vote was permitted to every Member of the House, including Ministers in the then Government. That Bill was deliberately drafted to ensure that abortion came within its scope. I pay credit to Geoffrey Howe, now Lord Howe, who was then the Leader of the House of Commons. He made it quite plain that he wanted me, as Secretary of State, to ensure that the Bill was drafted in such a way that Mr. Speaker would allow abortion amendments, because there was such a demand from the House that they should be considered. A great deal of time was allowed for the discussion and the law was settled for the next 18 years. It needs to be revisited and debated again.
A motion such as this programme motion merely serves to outrage the range of opinion in the House, on both sides of the argument, as people find that they are not allowed to open up the subjects again. There is no practical reason for it. It is some political embarrassment—political with a small p or a large P—that causes the problem. I suspect that Scottish by-elections are determining the progress of the Bill all the way through.
The House has lots of time in which it could consider the issues. I cannot remember a period in which the House of Commons has had less serious business to transact brought before it by the Government. There is no earthly reason why we should not have the powers extended today to go on into this evening. There is no earthly reason why we should not have two days’ debate, at least at this stage. A Christmas recess of quite unprecedented length has just been announced, because the Government cannot think of anything to occupy the time of the House.
As we have, in practice, a free vote on both sides, I make the usual hopeless plea that I have found myself making in recent debates on programme motions. I trust that Members on all sides will regard themselves as having a free vote. If we allow this motion to be whipped through, it will be applied to other sensitive and political Bills. In future, by reordering clauses and putting knives in the guillotine and so on, the Government will be able to determine that any subject that they regard as inappropriate or unsuitable will not even be debated, let alone voted on, by the House of Commons. Such cynicism would take my breath away if I were not becoming ever more accustomed to such a process on the part of a control-freak Government who regard the House of Commons as an embarrassing nuisance to be silenced on all suitable occasions.
I have spoken to the Bill on a number of occasions, and on each occasion I have spoken about the embryology elements, but I have been in the Chamber when amendments relating to abortion have been discussed. It feels to me as though the issue is being treated in an asymmetrical way, so that those who sought at an earlier stage to curtail abortion rights were heard, but those who seek at this stage to extend them are to be silenced by the programme motion. Frankly, I feel that that is a failure of leadership of this House and this Government and we should rethink.
I accept that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) makes a reasonable point when he says that the Bill is not necessarily the right vehicle with which to deal with this matter. If we were assured by those on the Front Bench that there would be an opportunity to deal properly with the issue, when all aspects of the abortion debate could be properly discussed, I would be content to support the programme motion. If we do not receive that assurance, I shall not feel able so to do.
I rise to support the Government and the programme motion. I assure the House that my party was not party to any deal whatsoever on this issue.
The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) referred to her new clause 30, which is before the House today and which would have the effect of extending the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland. One reason for our support of the programme motion is that we believe that it is not appropriate for the House to debate that new clause today, as there is strong opposition in Northern Ireland to the proposition on which it is based.
I know that hon. Members will have received a letter from the leaders of the four main parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The letter was written by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who is my party leader, the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), the leader of Sinn Fein, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, and Sir Reg Empey, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. Between them, those four parties represent more than 90 per cent. of the electorate in Northern Ireland, and have more than 100 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. That makes it clear that this sensitive matter should be dealt with by the Assembly and not by this Parliament.
Northern Ireland has had separate legislation on this and many other issues, going back centuries. Indeed, there are different bodies of law that apply in Scotland and Wales, and there is nothing unique about the issue of abortion. In Northern Ireland, we have laws in respect of other matters of legality that are different from the laws that apply in other parts of the UK.
It is clear that we should consider only the human fertilisation and embryology element of the Bill and not try to tack on something that will cause considerable problems for the political process in Northern Ireland. The implementation of the 1967 Act, if it were to be extended to Northern Ireland, would fall largely to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would therefore be entirely wrong for this House to legislate against the wishes of the parties in the Assembly, as those parties would be required to implement a law with which they did not agree.
Unless my memory serves me false—which it may be doing—my recollection is that the right hon. Gentleman did try to amend the Bill at an earlier stage in order to add abortion issues to it. If so, does he agree that his argument simply will not wash?
I did not table any amendments to this Bill at any stage, so the hon. Gentleman is entirely incorrect in that respect. As far as the principle is concerned, any Member of this House is of course free to vote on any amendment, but new clause 30 has been tabled by hon. Members who represent constituencies where abortion is already available. We are dealing with these matters in the context of the 1967 Act, and no hon. Member with a constituency in Northern Ireland supports new clause 30. Indeed, the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington has not set foot in Northern Ireland to talk to people about this issue.
The hon. Lady has not consulted about her new clause, even though section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998—which was passed by this House and which enacted the Belfast agreement—requires that any major legislation brought forward by Parliament or the Assembly should be subject to proper consultation and equality impact assessments. There is no opportunity for the public to be consulted about new clause 30, so she and the other hon. Members who have proposed the new clause are simply seeking to impose their will in a way that goes against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and of their elected representatives.
The leaders of the four main parties in Northern Ireland have written to all hon. Members to say that the matter should be addressed by the Northern Ireland Assembly, and not by this House. That is why I urge the House to support the programme motion, and to leave this matter to the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives.
I begin by thanking the Leader of the House for bringing this Bill back after July. At that time, I was unfortunately indisposed, and never got the opportunity to vote against it. I shall now be able to listen to the debate, take part in it if necessary—and then vote against it on Third Reading. That will give me some satisfaction.
The Bill is about human fertilisation and embryology issues, but that is not the perception in the public arena. The media coverage that the Bill has received means that the public perception is that it is purely about abortion, and that is why I support the programme motion. Abortion is a very serious issue, and I accept that it comes within the scope of the Bill, but it is not the dominant aspect of the Bill and there are many other important matters that need proper debate.
I believe that there should be a proper review of the Abortion Act 1967. That is the way ahead, because it would allow people on both sides of the argument to have a reasonably intense and detailed debate. If we were being honest with ourselves, we would not play this sort of game. We would treat all of these subjects with great seriousness.
I do not often feel sorry for the Government, but in a sense they are the victims of their own actions. We are debating these matters because they have recognised the pent-up demand in the House to examine the abortion issue, and the logical result of that is that any hon. Member can table an amendment on the subject.
We all recognise that the Bill is fundamentally about human fertilisation and embryology, and that is a very big and important subject. I must gently disagree with the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) and what he said about the amount of publicity given to the human fertilisation and embryology element of the Bill, but there is huge demand for clarification and modernisation of the law on abortion. That is what all the amendments are about, and I very much agree with those who have pointed out that there is plenty of time in our parliamentary timetable for the necessary debates to take place. That is why I shall go into the No Lobby against the Government, even though in general I approve of what they are trying to do with the Bill.
I am very disappointed to have to state that I will have great difficulty in supporting the programme motion this afternoon. I chair the House’s all-party fertility group, and am well aware that the community of people outside the House who have serious problems conceiving are looking to the Bill for support.
However, the Bill makes no mention of access to NHS facilities—something that was discussed in full in the other place. There, the subject was given a very fair run, but we in this House are not allowed to discuss it. The Bill focuses on the regulation of IVF treatment and research, and makes no mention of the many other treatments that infertile people can access.
The founding principle of the NHS was that people could receive treatment at the point of need, but most people with infertility problems have to go to private clinics, where IVF is the only treatment on offer. They often have to pay for that treatment by remortgaging their homes. I am seriously disappointed that we will have no chance to discuss these issues. I tabled an amendment in the hope that it might be selected for debate, but it has not.
I shall have great difficulty in supporting the programme motion this afternoon.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is with great regret that I shall not be supporting the timetable motion. I have supported the Government through thick and thin, I think, in their attempt to get on the statute book a moderate and tolerant piece of legislation that is absolutely necessary. I have accepted that it is perfectly in order to debate the question of abortion, so I regret very much that we shall probably not have time this afternoon to discuss even those important issues—such as parenthood, surrogacy or saviour siblings—that relate to the original Bill.
That is a very great regret, because I think that the Government are well intentioned with this Bill. I therefore ask that they—and Parliament—consider changing the habits of a lifetime: they should accept that the very important issue of abortion should not be shuffled off to a private Member’s Bill but instead tackled in Government time with a Government Bill. We are mature enough in this country now to take those issues as public business; they are public business. I therefore hope that they will be so treated in the future.
Meanwhile, I shall vote against the programme motion, because it ignores the wishes not only of almost everyone in the Chamber today, but of our constituents, who are bemused, indeed amazed, that although we have plenty of time, the Government are rushing the Bill through—even though they are largely right.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
These are very important matters, and it is important to focus on the Bill. It is about IVF treatment. Actually, it is about access to the treatment, the improvement of that treatment and broadening the range of people who are entitled to it. It is about research on debilitating and killing diseases and about giving hope. The Bill has had 81 hours of debate thus far. Unusually, it has had two days on the Floor of the House—unique for this type of Bill—including time for the debate on abortion, without restriction on the subjects on which amendments could be tabled.
I shall answer two specific questions that have been put to me. First, there are no plans to introduce a Bill on abortion. Secondly, in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) who asked about a special Committee of both Houses, that is not a matter for Ministers; it is a matter for the House authorities, and he can pursue that if he wishes.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I understand that she is saying that that is not a matter for her, but if we had a vote on that, would she support new clause 34, which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) have tabled?
My right hon. Friend will know that that is not for me to say as a Minister. I may have a view personally, but I am speaking from the Dispatch Box as a Minister. There is a free vote, and each Member will be able to decide. Those are the free votes that we will conduct this afternoon.
Orders of the Day
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords]
As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
Prohibitions in connection with embryos
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 41, page 3, line 26, at end insert—
‘(5A) Regulations made under subsection (5) may not provide for an egg or embryo whose nuclear genetic material has been altered by genetic modification, or whose nucleus has been replaced by the nucleus of a somatic cell, to be a permitted egg or a permitted embryo.
(5B) In this section, “genetic modification” includes the alteration of the nuclear genetic material of an egg or embryo by—
(a) recombinant nucleic acid techniques which change the DNA sequence of nuclear chromosomes of the egg or one or more cells of the embryo, or
(b) the introduction into the egg or into one or more cells of the embryo of a stably-maintained artificial chromosome, virus or plasmid.’.
Amendment No. 47, in clause 4, page 4, line 37, at end insert—
‘(f) an embryo created by combining pluripotent or totipotent human cells with amimal embryonic cells in which the latter have been altered so as to contain double the number of chromosomes, or in which the animal cells have been otherwise altered to become largely or entirely extra-embryonic tissue.’.
Amendment No. 50, in clause 68, page 53, line 19, at end insert—
‘(2A) This section shall be subject to section (prohibition on placing human gametes into an animal).’.
Amendment No. 73, in schedule 2, page 58, line 42, at end insert—
‘(4A) A licence under this paragraph may not authorise any activity the purpose of which is to develop techniques for creating a child by germ line genetic modification.
(4B) Regulations made by virtue of paragraph 3A(1)(c) may not provide for activities the purpose of which is to develop techniques for creating a child by germ line genetic modification.
(4C) For the purposes of this paragraph and paragraph 3A, “germ line genetic modification” means—
(a) altering the nuclear genetic material of an embryo, or of a gamete used to create an embryo, by—
(i) recombinant nucleic acid techniques which change the DNA sequence of nuclear chromosomes of one or more cells of the embryo or of the gamete, or
(ii) the introduction into one or more cells of the embryo or into the gamete of a stably-maintained artificial chromosome, virus or plasmid, and
(b) placing the embryo containing the genetic alteration in a woman, so that any resulting child could transmit the genetic alteration to its descendants.’.
New clause 24—Prohibition on placing human gametes into an animal—
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall by regulations make it an offence to place any human gamete into an animal.
(2) Sections 3 and 4 of this Act shall not come into force until regulations under subsection (1) have been made.’.
As sufficient brickbats have been handed out so far, may I put on record that this emotive Bill was dealt with courteously and considerately in Committee?
The big debate is about whether it is right to extend the range of experiments involving the human embryo that may be carried out. The alleged goal is the extension of scientific and medical knowledge that could alleviate human suffering, especially, but not exclusively, that of a generic origin. For some hon. Members, no possible reduction in suffering, improvement in maternity or growth of knowledge can justify what they regard as the violation of human life and the interference with normal human development. Their position is unqualified. For many hon. Members in the Chamber, however, this is a case of balancing hope and fear. On the one hand, there is the hope that some day, terrible inheritable and cellular diseases will be conquered, and on the other hand, there is the fear that an increasingly casual approach to human life will denature our society and create possibilities that we would not wish. That balance is being played out in nearly every Member’s head.
I suspect that we cannot know with any confidence whether those hopes or fears—or both—will be realised many years hence, so we all act on a kind of faith. Our position depends on whether we believe that the grounds for hope outweigh the grounds for fear, or vice versa. On Second Reading, that point was made most eloquently by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who is not in the Chamber; he said that he was more fearful than hopeful. That is the heart of the debate.
Whatever one’s judgment on the main issue, my amendments Nos. 49 and 50 and new clause 24 do not affect it, because regardless of one’s take on the Bill—for or against—we know that it was never intended that the Bill would authorise human genetic engineering or reproductive cloning, even through it repeals the Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001. Nor was it intended that the Bill would allow scope for genetic engineering or reproductive cloning. The humane intention behind the Bill is to allow women whose eggs are encased in cytoplasm with disease-carrying mitochondria to transfer those eggs into healthy cytoplasm and avoid inheritable disease. I am sure that we all wish to avoid the transmission of inheritable disease.
The key point is that the Bill says that an egg or embryo for which mitochondrial disease is addressed is a “permitted” egg or embryo. It is an unquestionable, but ignored, fact that some mitochondrial diseases result from deficiencies in the nucleus, rather than arising from the cytoplasm or the mitochondria. The manipulation of the nucleus is thus—subject to regulation, of course—unintentionally permitted. Several amendments in the group, including Nos. 49 and 41, would address that by simply closing the door, or drawing the line, and restricting the law to what was originally intended.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the vast majority of genes in the mitochondria look after mitochondrial proteins, which apply across the human race? They would not contribute to a person’s individuality, so he is exaggerating the problem of mitochondrial disease.
To exaggerate a problem is still to identify that a problem exists, and I do not think that it was intended that the Bill would generate such a problem.
Hon. Members may think that amendment No. 41 is more comprehensive than amendment No. 49, which I tabled, but my amendment would put the Bill back on track. The amendment would mean that the Bill would do what hon. Members, whether they support or oppose it, thought that it actually did.
May I offer my support for my hon. Friend’s amendment No. 49, which is at the head of the group that we are discussing? I have no doubt that the regulations in the clause would stop nuclear modification to prevent cytoplasmic disease, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority would not, in any event, license such a procedure, but my hon. Friend is right: it is sensible for legislation to say what it means. There is no doubt that the Government mean the provision to deal only with cytoplasmic causes of mitochondrial disease in DNA. It is unfortunate that the Bill reaches us in this imperfect form, but my hon. Friend’s amendment would improve it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that support. I see that we are in a holy, or perhaps unholy, alliance. We all have our views on the “slippery slope” argument, but slopes are certainly a lot more slippery if we do not examine carefully where we are treading and what exactly we are doing. Arguably, that is all my amendment seeks to do. We are talking about not an unintended consequence, but an unintended meaning to the Bill, which it behoves us to address.
Turning to new clause 24 and amendment No. 50, the legislation prohibits the placing of animal gametes or embryos in a human. My amendment mirrors that by banning the placing of human gametes in an animal for experimental purposes. Such an experimental procedure was carried out as recently as in 1984 in Australia. It, too, involved embryos. At the moment, such an act is covered, rather weakly, only by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.
Arguments against that simple, seemingly innocuous but important amendment are extraordinarily weak. They include the argument that so far, such experiments have been futile and uninformative—that is probably true—and the argument that scientists would not want to do such procedures anyway. The Department of Health argued that
“the development of a foetus or progeny is impossible”,
but that is disputed by Professor Millar of the Medical Research Council.
The Medical Research Council, the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Wellcome Trust and the Academy of Medical Sciences say that new clause 24 and amendment No. 49 would weaken invaluable research. What does the hon. Gentleman say to that?