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Commons Chamber

Volume 481: debated on Thursday 23 October 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 23 October 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

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

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 30 October.

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

The Minister of State was asked—

National Minimum Wage

1. What representations he has received on the effects on the observance of the national minimum wage of employers who overcharge migrant workers for accommodation. (229212)

Within the minimum wage there is an allowable accommodation offset, currently set at £4.46 a day. It is considered every year by the Low Pay Commission, and representations on its level are normally directed at the commission.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that although foreign workers, particularly from the EU countries, are an essential part of our economy, it is not acceptable for employers to undercut local employment by abusing the minimum wage, accommodation charges and charges to transport workers to and from their place of work? That has been a problem in Lincolnshire in relation to rogue gangmasters, but it is not confined to them. Can he assure me that such issues will be cracked down on, and that the people responsible will be punished?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. The minimum wage has been in place for a decade now, and there is no excuse for the practices that he sets out. With that in mind, the Government have allocated extra support to enforcement of the minimum wage—some £3 million more a year—but we are also changing the law through the Employment Bill, which is currently before the House. It will increase the arrears for any employee who is not paid the minimum wage and stiffen the penalty regime against the employer who does not pay it. Those measures are absolutely right and in the interests of both low-paid workers and the vast majority of good businesses that obey the law and treat their workers decently.

How many prosecutions have there been of employers who have abused the minimum wage and exploited workers in this way?

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which recovers arrears on the minimum wage, has up to now placed its emphasis on that and recovers several million pounds a year, so there have been relatively few prosecutions. One change that we are making in the Employment Bill is to give the enforcement officers extra powers. The Opposition did table some amendments on the matter, but I am glad that they did not press them to the vote.

When I was undertaking research for my private Member’s Bill on temporary and agency workers I came across such scams day in, day out. Some of them are covered by current legislation and some will need fresh regulation. Can my hon. Friend assure me that now that the agency workers directive is in force—it came into force this week—the Government will implement the necessary changes to enforce it?

The agency workers directive is not yet in force, but it has been agreed. Of course, that agreement was made possible in part by an agreement reached in this country between business and employee representatives on how to take it forward. That has been reflected in the directive, which represents a much better deal for the United Kingdom than previous drafts of the directive that have been discussed in recent years.

But does the Minister agree that the biggest influence on wage levels is the supply of labour? Under the circumstances, does he agree with the immigration Minister that immigrant labour should not replace indigenous labour?

I think that migrant workers from other countries have made a very significant contribution to economic growth in this country in recent years. When it comes to the future, we have the new points-based system. The idea behind that is precisely to match the demands of the labour market with migrants coming from other countries.

What steps is my hon. Friend’s Department taking to promote employment rights to the low-paid and increase their awareness of the minimum wage?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We will spend some £850,000 on minimum wage awareness over the next year, which will include advertising on radio and efforts to communicate with migrant workers who, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) said, can sometimes be subject to exploitation in this area. It will also include direct mail to employers to ensure that they are aware of the rates, which were increased on 1 October.

Post Office Network

When he next expects to meet the National Federation of SubPostmasters to discuss the future of the post office network. (229215)

The Secretary of State met the general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters on 15 October to discuss a range of matters relating to the future of the post office network. I have had regular contact with the federation since I came into the job 16 months or so ago, and I will continue to do so.

The Minister will be aware that the branch network in East Anglia, and west Norfolk in particular, has been devastated. The one crystal clear message we hear from the remaining sub-post offices is that they are determined to keep the Post Office card account. I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), about that yesterday. Although he was sympathetic, he basically said, “Not me, guv. It is down to Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions.” Will the Minister of State and the newly ennobled Business Secretary get a grip of this matter, and give a clear guarantee that the Post Office card account will be kept?

I understand the value of the Post Office card account to the post office network; the general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters has made his views on that clear. I stress what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said to the House on Monday—this decision is subject to competitive tendering, no decision has yet been made and it will be made in the proper way.

My hon. Friend will be aware that many MPs in Wales have been trying to work with the federation and local government to sign an accord providing for more council services to go through the post office network. Can he tell the House what progress has been made on that, given that he hosted the first meeting? Does he agree that if we are to have a sustainable network, we need local authorities to invest in local communities through the post office network?

Local authorities will always want to consider the outlets for their services, and that will include post offices. For example, most local authorities offer people a range of ways in which to pay bills and the option of paying council tax online. That reflects the changes that people are making in their lives and the decline of business in the post offices in recent years. Of course, even after the current closure process is completed, the Post Office will still have an unmatchable reach in urban and rural communities, involving many more than 11,000 branches. That is a valuable asset to anyone interested in delivering services and reaching local communities.

If, in the next few days, Post Office Ltd confirms its initial proposal to close Bengeworth post office in my constituency, it will entirely forfeit my confidence in its common sense and commercial judgment. However, if the Post Office card account is not awarded to Post Office Ltd, many more post offices in my constituency and around the country will face closure. In the context of the Government’s understandable concern about small businesses, may I remind the Minister of the crucial role that rural sub-post offices play for many struggling small businesses?

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise makes a good point about the value of post offices to small businesses. He again mentioned the Post Office card account, but I cannot go any further than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who told the House on Monday that this decision would be taken in a proper way, and that when there is an announcement to be made, we will make it.

I return to the impact of the possible loss of the Post Office card account. The Post Office has a poor record of tendering competitively for these sorts of services. I hope that the Minister has ensured that those in the Post Office who are preparing its tender have emphasised the network’s strength, not in terms of its numbers, because PayPoint outnumbers it now, but in terms of its proximity to the communities that it seeks to serve with the benefits that would be distributed through the card account.

I am sure that all the bidders for this work, including the Post Office, will have tried to maximise the strengths of their bid by pointing out the strengths of their network. As I say, I appreciate the value of the card account to the post office network. When we have an announcement to make on this matter, it will be made.

The Minister has recognised that the Post Office has an unmatchable reach. If that is the case and if the card account contract is not given to the Post Office, our constituents will get a poorer service from whatever the replacement is. His Department has said that it wants to make life easier for small business and that it wants to speed up payments and everything else. Surely it needs to speed up decision making, because small businesses need to make investment decisions. If people do not know whether they are going to get the card account contract, how can they plan for the future of their local sub-post office?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s impatience and I know that the House is keen to hear the results of the tendering process. When we have made a decision on this, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be announced in the normal and proper way.

I hear what my hon. Friend says and it was interesting to hear what his colleagues at the DWP have said. Does he realise that the Post Office has wonderful opportunities in these times of financial crisis? In particular, an opportunity is presented by the credit union movement. Will he go back to the federation and to the Post Office to see what opportunities there are for launching the credit union movement nationally by using post offices so that our constituents have safe ways to save and borrow?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Post Office has seen increasing success in offering financial services over the past couple of years, and not only in the area he mentions: the Post Office is now the leading retailer of foreign currency in the country, is expanding in insurance and offers deposit savings that I understand have been quite popular in recent months.

I hope that we can all agree on the importance of the Post Office network to all communities, particularly rural communities. As has been mentioned, the renewal of the Post Office card account will be vital to maintaining footfall. In that regard, is the Minister aware of the recent press speculation that the contract is to be split between Post Office Ltd and a number of other suppliers? Is he also aware that most sub-postmasters would regard that as the final nail in their coffin? Will he take the opportunity to reassure them?

I am aware of all sorts of speculation; whether it is wise to comment on it is another matter. I am certainly aware of the value of the card account to the post office network, but as I have said, the decision will be taken in the proper way by the Department for Work and Pensions. When a decision is reached, it will be announced in the normal way.

In Loughborough, we have already gone through the closure programme, having lost four post offices. I would like to press the Minister on the level of compensation that is paid and whether there is any flexibility. A constituent of mine who had a post office and a Chinese food business that served the Chinese community at Loughborough university in particular feels that the amount of compensation in relation to the length of his lease is not adequate. Is there any flexibility in the scheme? Is there any hope that my hon. Friend can give to me as I go back to that constituent next week to try to sort the matter out?

The compensation for sub-postmasters leaving the network as a result of the closures over the past year was negotiated with the National Federation of SubPostmasters. On the whole, the system of compensation is generous, which is quite right; it is paid in recognition of the very valuable contribution that those sub-postmasters have made to local communities over the years.

Given that there are some 4 million users of the Post Office card account, equating to some 10 per cent. of sub-postmasters’ net income, are not the Government slightly ashamed that they continue to delay the tender process for POCA’s replacement? Will the Minister explain why the delays continue, and tell us when the announcement will be made and certainty given to customers and staff of the Post Office?

We are certainly not ashamed. We have put large financial sums into supporting the Post Office network: some £150 million a year. Without that level of subsidy, thousands more branches would be under threat because the Post Office is losing £500,000 a day and has lost 4 million customers a week in recent years. The decision on the card account will be taken in the proper way by colleagues at the DWP and, when we are ready, it will be announced in the normal and proper way.

In terms of his admiration for the private sector, the last Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was known to be on our party’s right wing, but the present one seems to be off the pitch and somewhere in the directors’ box. Can my hon. Friend tell me whether he thinks that Lord Mandelson’s inclination towards part-privatisation will go down well with the National Federation of SubPostmasters when next he meets it?

I think that the Secretary of State will do a great job on the pitch. It is always good for a team to have its best players on the pitch. He has been on loan to another team, but I am glad that he is back playing a proper role. My hon. Friend’s question refers more to the Hooper review, which will report shortly.

Construction Industry

The global credit crunch is affecting all economies, including the UK. Overall, the construction industry is experiencing a significant downturn in activity, but some sectors are faring better than others. The housing and commercial sectors are being hit hardest. However, the outlook for other parts of the industry is more positive due to major programmes of work such as Crossrail, the Olympics and the Building Schools for the Future programme.

The Minister mentions the Chancellor’s solution to the problem, which is to bring forward major infrastructure and construction projects—a massive spending splurge paid for by a borrowing splurge. But does he really think that that will address the problems facing small construction companies, especially in the housing sector, that are facing problems this week and this month?

As I said, the housing and commercial sectors are among the hardest hit at the moment. We announced a package of measures on 2 September, some of which will help the housing sector. I would have thought that the Opposition would want to welcome the bringing forward of infrastructure investment, because such investment is important for the UK’s long-term future and, if we can speed up the investment process, it will create new jobs for prime contractors and down through the construction supply chain. That will be valuable at this difficult economic time and will be welcomed by those who work in the construction industry.

I am sure that the Minister is concerned about the fate of house builders across the UK. In that context, is he aware that house builders in Scotland face particular problems from rule changes introduced by the Scottish Government, which require housing associations to borrow a greater proportion of money for new affordable housing developments from the private sector? That is reducing the scope for such developments and making matters worse for the house building sector. Will he raise that with Ministers in the Scottish Government to ensure that the entire UK house building industry is given the boost that it needs?

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. As he will be aware, that is a devolved matter, but I hope that the Scottish Government would recognise, as the UK Government do, that the housing sector is an important part of the UK economy, and regulation needs to be proportionate and appropriate. We do not want regulation that gets in the way of construction projects that need to continue at this point in time.

My hon. Friend mentions the need for regulation to be proportionate and appropriate. Even in the good times, the construction industry makes use of false self-employment, which often leaves people unprotected and uninsured. Construction also suffers from high levels of health and safety risks. Now there is a downturn and competition is tight, those problems will increase, so can he make the regulatory agencies aware of the need for extra vigilance to protect people employed in that industry?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about health and safety issues in the construction sector. As he will be aware, we already have rigorous inspection regimes and it is important that we continue to be vigilant in regulating the construction sector. It is done through a risk-assessment methodology, and that is the right approach.

The broader point is that during these difficult economic times, it is right for the Government to want to invest in major construction projects that will bring long-term benefits to the UK economy, and that is what we will continue to do with programmes such as Building Schools for the Future and the new hospitals project. Only this week, we saw the 100th new hospital build implemented. Those programmes are important for the UK economy and we need to continue to make progress with them.

Many construction firms are facing a double whammy with projects being cancelled on the one hand and credit being withdrawn on the other. What they need, investment plans notwithstanding, is help with their cash flow. Given that, and given the potential appalling impact on jobs in that sector and in those sectors that rely on it, why are the Government refusing to let small firms defer their VAT payments? After all, they did it for farmers in 2001. Why will they not help builders now?

I would be very interested if the hon. Gentleman could give us the cost of his VAT deferral proposal—

I do not accept that suggestion from a sedentary position.

Obviously, we will consider all representations, but the Conservative party’s policy, as I understand it, is to say that it wants a 1 per cent. cut on national insurance and it wants a VAT payment holiday. It will pay for that by cutting tax reliefs, but those reliefs are important to businesses and to their long-term investments, so I do not think that that is a responsible strategy. The simple fact of the matter is that the Government have taken action to recapitalise banks and to ensure that banks will continue to make available competitive lending to small businesses. I would like to think that that would be widely welcomed.

May I reinforce the Minister’s point? In constituencies such as mine, many jobs are dependent on the Government’s sustaining their public sector investment. Will the Minister assure me that he will do everything within his power to press the appropriate ministries to sustain that investment in the coming years?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The public sector construction market is hugely important given that it counts for about 40 per cent. of the industry’s total output. At this point in time it would be grossly irresponsible to do anything other than to continue to seek strong investment in our national infrastructure. The public sector can lead the way in continuing to ensure that there is strong demand and that there are jobs in the construction sector. That is the responsible thing to do in difficult economic times. To suggest that we should cut that investment, which is what the Opposition seem to want to do, or to reject our proposals to do more, would not be welcomed by the public, who are concerned about construction jobs and about jobs more generally in our economy.

Small Businesses

4. What steps his Department is taking to help small businesses in town centres and ensure that shop premises do not remain vacant. (229219)

The Government are committed to supporting small businesses, including shops, which play an important part in local communities. Yesterday, we announced a cross-Government package of support that focuses on the things businesses have identified as top priorities: cash flow, access to finance and training for staff. We will also continue to promote policies to support vibrant town centres.

There are about 500 empty businesses in my local authority area and that number is rising. It is customers with money in their pockets who keep shops open and the best way to that end is to have decently paid jobs and good inward investment, but the biggest barrier to investment in my area is transport links. The Government have said that they want to bring forward infrastructure projects. Will the Minister give his support to bringing forward the Kingskerswell bypass linking Torbay to the motorway and dual carriageway network? The absence of that link is the biggest barrier to investment that my constituents face.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to raise that transport issue at an appropriate point in Transport Question Time. His general point, however, is important, and it is about what we can do to help people and businesses during difficult economic times. The best thing that we can do is to continue to provide a package of support for small businesses that are going through difficult times. That is why we made the announcement that we did yesterday. In this difficult macro-economic climate, we need to take some fairly fundamental decisions about borrowing, too, and that is what the Government are doing.

In his answer, the Minister rightly pointed out that cash flow is a big issue for small businesses. However, although there may have been argument in favour of empty property taxes in the boom times, does he accept that they compound the problem in the down times? Will he reconsider the matter, to help small businesses and others to get through this difficult period?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, both the Barker and Lyons reviews suggested that we should end vacant property relief, and that is what happened in April. That relief was regarded as a £1.3 billion subsidy for owners of commercial property, and not for the small and medium-sized businesses that are the backbone of this country’s economy. We need to help small and medium-sized businesses, and that is the focus of the package that the Government announced this week. That package has been welcomed by the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce. I hope that the Opposition will welcome it too.

Barker and Lyons reported before the recession. What we need from the Government is specific action now, not mere generalities and platitudes. One specific thing that is within the Government’s power is to suspend the rates on empty properties. Will the Minister do that, and do it now?

I can understand that the hon. Gentleman feels passionate about this issue. We are going through challenging economic circumstances: it looks as though we have tougher times ahead, and the best thing that I can say is that we need a Government who are on the side of hard-working people. We are providing help for small businesses with health checks, training support and business advice. In addition, the Government are a huge purchaser and we have said that we will ensure that we will pay our bills promptly. We are introducing all those measures at the moment, and a range of other measures is already available through the Business Link programme. The Government are committed to ensuring that support for business continues to be delivered effectively.

This may be the first occasion on which a Minister of Cabinet rank is not available to answer questions in this House. Many consider that to be a complete insult to the democratic process.

Small shops need rate relief and credit lines, but there is an enormous gap between the Government’s words about banks being prepared to lend to small businesses and the reality on the ground. Even now, banks are cancelling overdraft facilities left, right and centre, often at just two days’ notice. Does the Minister accept that that is already driving many businesses to the wall?

I am certainly very aware that there is anecdotal evidence of the practices that the hon. Gentleman describes. It is one of the reasons why the Chancellor and my noble Friend Lord Mandelson are meeting the banks today. It is clearly right at this time that banks should continue to make lending available to small businesses. One of the conditions of the bank recapitalisation fund that we announced two weeks ago is that banks must continue to make competitively priced loans available to small businesses. We are discussing that with the banks and will continue to do so, because we want to make sure that small businesses are helped through this difficult time. We do not want the banks to turn off the tap and cause good businesses to face huge financial problems.

The Government say that there should be more lending, but they then add—understandably, I suppose—that financial conditions will have to be met. In a recession, are not those conditions bound to stop the lending that is promised? Whatever propaganda we get from the Government about what they want to happen, there will in fact be a further serious contraction in lending by banks to business, and not much of the promised expansion in lending.

It is not the role of Government to make decisions on lending between individual banks and companies, and it is right and proper that that business be conducted in the normal way. However, the Government can talk to the banks about the principles that underpin their lending—the instructions that go from head office to branches and the managers who make decisions with companies on a day-to-day basis. It is right that the Government should show a strong interest in that, and right that when talking to banks about the bank recapitalisation package, we insist that they do all that they can to support small businesses and home owners with mortgages in these difficult economic times, and we are committed to doing just that. The hon. Gentleman should welcome that, not criticise it.

Grocery Sector Ombudsman

5. What recent assessment he has made of the progress made by the Competition Commission in establishing a grocery sector ombudsman. (229220)

The Competition Commission is undertaking an informal consultation on how to establish an ombudsman and is arranging a series of meetings with interested parties. Subject to responses, the commission plans to publish shortly, for wider consultation, a final order on the groceries supply code of practice and undertakings in relation to the ombudsman.

I am sure that the Minister will congratulate the Competition Commission on a thorough, balanced report, which draws conclusions and makes recommendations. Crucially, the commission found that

“the transfer of unexpected costs and excessive risk”

by supermarkets would impede investment and innovation, and would ultimately affect consumer interests, too. In what circumstances would the Government contradict the commission’s carefully considered conclusions and recommendations, particularly with regard to the establishment of the ombudsman?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for pointing out to him that the Competition Commission published its report at the end of April. I acknowledge that it did a thorough piece of work. I hope that he acknowledges that the Government, who published their response to that document some three months later, after we had had the chance to talk to a number of interested parties about the commission’s recommendations, also did a thorough job of work in thinking about how to respond to the commission. I hope that he will forgive us if, rather than speculate on what might happen and what might be in the order that the commission publishes, we wait to see what happens in the forthcoming consultation. We will allow the commission to do its work, and we will review our position at the end of the process.

Topical Questions

Our Secretary of State has the Department firmly focused on working with business in this difficult economic period and on making sure that business comes out the other side of this period with the entrepreneurial strength and creativity for which British business is renowned across the world.

The best thing that the Government could do to help small businesses is get off their backs. If the Government do not do something to ease the taxation, regulatory and employment cost burdens on small businesses, many thousands of them will go to the wall and many thousands of people will lose their jobs. May I therefore suggest that one of the first things he should look to do is exempt small businesses from huge swathes of regulation that some bigger businesses might be able to afford, but many small businesses certainly cannot?

I agree that regulation can be a cost to businesses. We need some regulation because we operate in a society and a labour market with rules, but the Government make a significant effort to reduce administrative burdens. We have identified some £800 million of administrative burdens to be cut—for example, many small businesses no longer have to appoint a company secretary or have an annual general meeting, which saves costs, and we have made a number of other changes. The general point that the hon. Gentleman raises about regulation is fair, and the matter is one that the Government take seriously. We make a significant effort across Government to make sure that regulatory burdens are no greater than they need to be.

T5. On the need to look at regulation across Government, in a time of great economic uncertainty, the glass industry has begun to suffer. It is a multinational industry, but Ardagh Glass has already closed a furnace in Worksop, and United Glass is closing a plant in Harlow. All those factories are affected by climate change legislation, including the integrated pollution prevention and control directive and the climate change levy, which has been increased even before its first term has run out. They are also affected by huge gas prices and by the emissions trading regulations. All those pieces of legislation or regulatory burdens are dealt with by other Departments—either the Department of Energy and Climate Change or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—but will my hon. Friend get together with colleagues across Government, as he has mentioned, to consider how to relieve that environmental taxation burden on industries such as the glass industry? (229236)

I know that the glass industry is important in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Overall, it is worth about £1.2 billion annually and provides about 28,000 jobs. He is right that climate change agreements and the EU emissions trading scheme cover the glass sector. We are obviously not going to reduce our commitment to climate change agreements, which are beneficial, or to the EU emissions trading scheme, which we strongly support, but he is right to point out the burden of some regulations, and I am certainly happy to meet him and talk to colleagues in the new Department for Energy and Climate Change about those issues.

T2. Is the £350 million that has been announced to help to train staff in small and medium-sized enterprises new money or warmed-up old money? (229233)

It is money that is part of the budget of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to the period 2010-11. We decided to give priority to small businesses, which I would have thought all parties in the House would welcome. We have also announced that we will remove some restrictions on how that money is spent. We have refocused measures, so that there will be less regulation on how the money is spent and so that it can be used to help to provide bite-sized chunks of training for companies. Companies that face having to go on to short-time working can take the opportunity to retrain staff, rather than lay them off. That is a sensible thing to do during difficult economic times, and it will be welcomed by business.

T3. Since the Department is responsible for regional development agencies, will a Minister—any Minister—tell the House what exactly regional Ministers do? What is the point of them, apart from their acting as regional cheerleaders for the Labour party? (229234)

Regional Ministers play an important role in working with businesses in their local area in difficult economic times, as do RDAs. The other night, we debated in the House measures to help small businesses. RDAs are an important part of that work, because they can always move more quickly on information on the ground in local areas, and respond in a timely and appropriate matter.

As my hon. Friends are aware, it is just over two years since the collapse of Farepak and people are still looking for answers to what happened to their money. Two weeks ago in business questions, I asked about the report commissioned by the Government, and I was given an assurance by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House, who said:

“The fact that they are still waiting for the report is not acceptable. I thank him for raising the issue…We really do need to get the matter sorted out. I will work with the Deputy Leader of the House to make sure that we get some answers fast.”—[Official Report, 9 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 419.]

When are those people going to get answers?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he and a number of other Members have continued to pursue the matter extremely closely. He will be aware that the companies investigation branch of the Department has been investigating what went wrong in that case and has completed its investigation. As my hon. Friend may know, legal advice is being sought to decide whether there are grounds for prosecution or disqualification.

T4. On the subject of the part-privatisation of Royal Mail, we were told a few minutes ago that Richard Hooper’s report on independent mail services was due to be published soon. When the Secretary of State appeared before the Select Committee on Tuesday this week, he said that he was contemplating giving additional work to that review team. Can the Minister say what additional work is planned and what impact that will have on the publication timetable? (229235)

The Hooper review is considering the changed context in which Royal Mail operates in terms of competition not only from other mail providers, but from other technologies. That competition has seen the volume of mail decline by 2 or 3 per cent. a year in recent years in this country and in others. The Hooper review must take all these changes into account in compiling its report, and that is exactly what the review team is doing.

T6. Further to the Minister’s statement yesterday on small businesses, does he agree that a consensus is emerging that the public sector could make a real difference to small and medium-sized enterprises if the entire public sector paid its invoices on time? Will the Minister confirm that central Government, local government, quangos and agencies will all pay SMEs’ invoices within 10 days? (229237)

The Government’s commitment to make payments within 10 days is an important one and we already monitor that through Department annual plans. The majority of Government payments are made within 10 days, but we want to do better. The regional development agencies, which each spend £750 million a year, have also committed to pay within 10 days. We are spending public money, and in matters of the public purse we need to ensure that we do so in a proper way. We must make sure that invoices are correct and that goods and services of the right quality have been delivered. Once those assurances have been provided, we need to get cracking and ensure that we pay promptly. That is important for small businesses facing cash flow problems. We are doing all we can to deliver that through the Government system.

I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that the creation of the Internet Governance Forum with a five-year mandate from the United Nations was a British diplomatic triumph, and that the creation of the UK Internet Governance Forum is a good example of co-operation between Government, industry and Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to promote international co-operation in the long term is to use the UK IGF to make the UK the safest place in the world to do business online?

I agree with my right hon. Friend, who makes some important points. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done on the matter over many years. We are committed to ensuring the success of the multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum. It is largely due to his actions that the UK has taken such a leadership role in this area, and we will endeavour to continue to do that in the future. I am happy to work with him. As he knows, our noble Friend Lord Carter will meet him shortly to discuss these issues.

T7. The Minister will know that my constituency, Romford, has a wide variety of small and independent local businesses that serve our community, one of which is the Havering Christian bookshop. Many such organisations are struggling to survive in the present economic climate. What will the Government do to nurture and protect small businesses such as that? (229238)

In addition to the series of measures mentioned by my fellow Ministers, the hon. Gentleman may wish to check that the small business he mentions has sought to claim small business rate relief, a measure that is helping to reduce the administrative burdens on small businesses. It was opposed by his party but we have introduced it none the less, and it makes a real difference. If the business does not know how to claim, it should check the local council’s website, where the form should be shown.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

NAO Corporate Plan

1. What the procedure is for the Public Accounts Commission’s consideration of the National Audit Office’s corporate plan. (229204)

The National Audit Office normally prepares a corporate plan in July each year. The Public Accounts Commission then questions the Comptroller and Auditor General, and if it is content, it approves the plan.

What support is the National Audit Office providing to Select Committees of the House, and does it have any plans to extend it?

The National Audit Office has plans to extend the support it gives, but that work is growing rapidly anyway. The NAO provides support within its areas of expertise, such as analysis of financial statements, value for money, performance evaluation and financial management and reporting. In addition, it provides staff on short-term secondments to Select Committees and to the Committee Office scrutiny unit. As I have said, the support has been increasing. In 2007-08, the NAO assisted 17 parliamentary Select Committees in addition to the Public Accounts Committee.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that one of the new roles that the Government have given the National Audit Office is to audit the figures in the Red Book following the pre-Budget statement. An increasing task in that Red Book work will be on the alarming increase in debt, which has to be repaid and serviced. Can he give the House an assurance that there will be sufficient resources in the National Audit Office’s corporate plan to deal with that increasing task?

At the moment, the corporate plan has an increase of 3 per cent. a year for the next three years. I have received no representations for any extra resources as yet. Obviously, if there were a request, we would consider it.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Financial Stability

2. What recent assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the impact of recent economic events on the financial stability of the Church of England. (229205)

If I might differ slightly from the Church of England by way of assessment, I should say that the Church Commissioners manage their investments proactively and are able to move swiftly when economic circumstances change. Even before the credit crunch began, they sensed that times were changing and acted accordingly. Between 2005 and early 2007, they sold more than £400 million of residential property at prices near the top of the market, and they made £250 million from commercial property sales during the same period. However, in the Church of England we must not overlook the role of individual churchgoers in funding the Church’s vital contribution to the spiritual life of this country.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York were enthusiastically applauded by the public for their recent broadsides against the financial yobs in the City, yet the Church Commissioners’ investment practices, including sales of mortgage portfolios and depositing many millions of pounds in hedge funds, seem to undermine the authority of the archbishops’ acerbic articles. What discussions has the Church’s ethical investment advisory group had to ensure that that sort of investment is proscribed, not least because it risks the spiritual as well as the financial stability of our Church?

The statements of the archbishops added a moral dimension to the current global financial crisis. The commissioners are in regular touch with the ethical investment advisory group, and are in contact with it again in the light of the archbishops’ comments. I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to our ethical investment policy, which is of long standing, and that all the commissioners’ investment decisions are informed by the work of the ethical investment advisory group.

Can the hon. Gentleman assure me that the financial pressures facing the Church Commissioners will not lead them to any precipitate action in relation to Hartlebury castle, the historic home of the Bishops of Worcester? He will know that discussions are taking place in Worcestershire to ensure that public access to the castle remains and to ensure the continuity of the Hurd library in its historic location. I hope that the Church Commissioners will continue those very constructive discussions.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a strong interest in the castle, as have we, over a period of time. He is aware that my door is always open to any representations that he might wish to make.

To return to the broader question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) about the financial stability of the Church, we invest for the long term and distribute the returns with a view to the long term, thereby aiming to maintain the value of the funds in real terms over time. In other words, we do not allow our support for today’s beneficiaries to disadvantage tomorrow’s beneficiaries.

Further to the answer that my hon. Friend gave earlier, will he assure us that during these difficult times the ethical dimension of funding and investment will not be lost? There is always great pressure at such times to get the greatest returns, but if archbishops are going to talk about moral imperatives, the Church of England and the commissioners must daily live those out in their investment decisions.

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I refer again to the ethical investment advisory group, but we should not overlook the role that local churches play. They depend on individuals giving, and that is true for the Church of England. As for the Church Commissioners, we will continue to work closely with the ethical investment advisory group.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

NAO Overseas Investments

I am grateful for that answer. However, does the right hon. Gentleman not think it strange that the commission responsible for overseeing local government, the Audit Commission, had £10 million invested in Icelandic banks?

That is—thankfully—outside my remit, but I point out that, as the Audit Commission is audited externally by the NAO, it is a matter for the Public Accounts Committee.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Lottery Grants

4. If the Church Commissioners will provide guidance to churches and cathedrals on applications for lottery grants for the upkeep of church buildings and the provision of visitor facilities. (229207)

I advise the hon. Gentleman that the Church already provides such advice via its “Church Care” and “Parish Resources” websites. In addition, the lottery providers give specific advice on their own schemes via their websites. I applaud the cathedrals that do so much to welcome tourists. They see that work as part of their ministry, and we should recognise the boost that they give to the wider economy through tourist income. Cathedrals such as Lichfield’s are a major draw.

May I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the commissioners need to be a little more proactive than he describes? Lichfield cathedral recently applied for many millions of pounds for the Inspire project to improve the fabric and visitor facilities, but it was refused. Such applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund cost thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of pounds. Do not the commissioners need to give much better advice on what sort of lottery applications are likely to be successful?

I am aware that Lichfield cathedral applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding for a scheme to improve visitor and interpretation facilities. I congratulate the cathedral and the hon. Gentleman on their sterling efforts to engage with visitors. My colleagues at Church house supported the cathedral’s application, but unfortunately the Heritage Lottery Fund could not fund all the applications that were before it; it held a ballot in which Lichfield cathedral was unsuccessful. I hope that the cathedral will find an alternative funding source, but I will take his comments back to the Church Commissioners.

As one who was associated with the appeal for our diocesan cathedral in Lichfield, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to examine this with a little more care and in greater detail? The diversion of lottery resources to the Olympics has caused enormous distortion and created a very great problem for all our cathedrals. It is shameful to think that there has to be the sort of ballot to which he refers. Will he do his best to influence the powers that be?

I raised that question with the Heritage Lottery Fund after the subject was brought up on the Floor of the House, and it told me that lottery funding for the Church would not be affected by the Olympic games. We should welcome the help that the Heritage Lottery Fund gives us with the challenge of keeping cathedrals and churches in a good state of repair. We all acknowledge the need for continuing Government support and the constant pressure that this House exerts through questions such as those put by the hon. Gentlemen, which are always welcome.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Party Funding

5. How many investigations the Electoral Commission has carried out into political party funding in the last 12 months. (229208)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it has carried out formal investigations into three cases relating to political party funding in the past 12 months.

My hon. Friend will know that the Government intend to rush through new rules on what is known as “triggering” before the Electoral Commission has issued its guidance on the matter. Does he agree that that is a recipe for confusion, which will fatally undermine the confidence in any new rules?

My hon. Friend is on to an important point. If the House passes the measure in the Political Parties and Elections Bill that introduces a new triggering mechanism, the Electoral Commission will consult as soon as possible after the parliamentary process and before Royal Assent. It will then issue its guidelines on the new triggering mechanism as soon as it can. Of course, the guidelines will not be definitive because the law on the triggering mechanism will stand to be decided by the courts, and because the matter falls under the Representation of the People Acts, it will be for the police, not the commission, to decide whether or not to prosecute.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is illegal either to receive or to solicit in any way foreign donations for political parties? In view of the allegations made about the shadow Chancellor, would it not be appropriate for the Electoral Commission to investigate accordingly?

Order. The shadow Chancellor is not in the Chamber. Did the hon. Gentleman approach the shadow Chancellor to say that he was going to ask this question?

Well, he should have. The hon. Gentleman knows the courtesies of the House—he has been here long enough. I instruct the hon. Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) not to answer.

During Second Reading of the Bill on Monday, it was noted that the Electoral Commission remains opposed to the provisions dealing with new political donor notification. Does that remain the case?

Mr. Speaker, you will know that the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission does not get involved in individual cases, but the commission has made a statement that no facts have been reported to it that would cause it to make any inquiry.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

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

Tuesday 28 October—Remaining stages of the Climate Change Bill [Lords]. Followed by a motion to establish a Select Committee of the House.

Wednesday 29 October—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day] (Second Part). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled Olympic legacy, after which the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.

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

The provisional business for the week commencing 3 November will include:

Monday 3 November—Remaining stages of the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 4 November—Remaining stages of the Employment Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 5 November—General debate: subject to be announced.

Thursday 6 November—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by general debate on public engagement on fighting crime.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 6 November will be:

Thursday 6 November—A debate on the report from the Communities and Local Government Committee on the supply of rented housing.

I am sure all Members would like to wish the Leader of the House a healthy recovery as she has been struck down by the lurgy.

I assure the Deputy Leader of the House that Conservative Members send their best wishes to the Leader of the House and hope that she makes a speedy recovery.

The Home Office announced today that several police forces have been under-reporting the figures for violent crime. The Home Secretary has been trawling through the TV studios, but may we have an urgent statement from her in the House about that serious matter so that hon. Members can question her on it?

Yesterday, the Government deliberately restricted the time available for debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, contrary to assurances that the Leader of the House gave last week. That meant that dozens of new clauses and amendments were not debated. Not only did the Government schedule a statement, which could easily have been made 24 hours earlier, but they ignored the conventions of the House to ensure that the clauses on abortion were not debated. May we have an assurance from the Leader of the House that she recognises her responsibilities to the whole House and that, in future, she will ensure that the timetabling of debates is dictated by the interests of the House rather than by the Government’s convenience?

On Monday, we will debate the remaining the stages of the Local Transport Bill. At this late stage, the Government have tabled 162 amendments and 11 new clauses, and effectively rewritten part of the Bill. Yet again, the Government will railroad a Bill through without proper scrutiny. May we have more time for Report stage of that measure? More generally, when will the Government implement the Modernisation Committee’s call for more time for debate on Report?

In the past three weeks, the House has debated the Government’s fiscal rules, unemployment and small business—all on Conservative motions in Opposition time. Given that tomorrow’s GDP figures are expected to show negative growth, that the Governor of the Bank of England has said that the UK now seems likely to be entering a recession, and that even the Prime Minister has allowed the R-word to pass his lips, when will we have a full debate in Government time on the state of the economy?

There is a report today that the Office of Rail Regulation has ordered Network Rail to correct a design flaw in thousands of points on our rail network. Network Rail has challenged that, but may we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Transport so that concerned Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), in whose constituency the Potters Bar crash occurred, can question the Government on that serious matter?

May we have a debate on Government communications? On 15 October, the Government announced £100 million to help unemployed people retrain. That was not new money—it had already been announced. On Tuesday, the Government announced £350 million for small businesses. That was not new money—it had already been announced. On 13 October, the Government announced that bank lending would return to 2007 levels, but we now know that that was not a commitment but an aspiration. When people are facing the loss of their jobs and their homes, and small businesses face going under because they cannot get bank loans, what sort of a Government give people false promises of hope? They are a Government who believe more in political convenience than proper scrutiny, who are more interested in spin than effective action and who have taken this country from boom to bust.

Well, it is very nice, as usual, to hear from the right hon. Lady as she comes out with some of her usual lines, especially the last bit. She talks about the Government re-announcing things, but I think that I have heard her peroration perhaps 25 times in the past year. It is good that she is on her usual form.

First, the right hon. Lady mentioned crime statistics, but she failed to say that the latest crime statistics show that crime again has fallen by 6 per cent. That means that crime has fallen by 39 per cent. since 1997. [Interruption.]

The right hon. Lady is mouthing things at me, and she is right to point out that there is a significant issue about how we tackle violent crime. Crimes of violence against the person are also down by 7 per cent., but we all know, in each of our constituencies, of our constituents’ genuine concern about violent crime. There is an issue in that some police authorities this year have chosen, following advice, to report some violent crimes in a slightly different way. However, it is important to acknowledge that all the statistics for homicide and burglary are down.

The right hon. Lady’s second point was about the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill. The Government are glad that the Bill passed its Third Reading yesterday with a very significant majority of more than two thirds—355 to 129 votes. There were many free votes yesterday and I think that the House reached its settled mind on the Bill, which I believe will make a significant difference, ensuring that in future scientific innovation can make a difference to people’s lives.

On the Local Transport Bill, the right hon. Lady referred to the large number of amendments tabled for next week’s debate. As she knows full well, many of the Government amendments are often technical and many are a response to Committee debates. One much misunderstood aspect of the political process—it is never reported by the media—is the importance of the Committee stage in improving our legislative work.

The right hon. Lady made various statements about the economy. I make no bones about the fact that we are facing difficult times, which is why we need to be absolutely focused on the needs of home owners, on jobs and on ensuring that if people are going to lose their jobs, they have the skills necessary to find a new one and additional support for paying their mortgage. We have provided the ability to debate these issues in various ways—through regular statements, for example—and when I speak to the Leader of the House later, I will ensure that she understands the House’s requirement to be kept up to date throughout the process.

On Network Rail and last year’s crash, which very unfortunately led to the death of an elderly lady, we of course send our sympathies to those involved. We want to make sure that any lessons that can possibly be learned will be learned. The right hon. Lady could bring the matter up at Transport questions. If a statement needs to be made, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will want to come to the House.

Finally, the right hon. Lady spoke about Government communications. I make absolutely no apology for Government communications over the last few weeks, because we have made it absolutely clear that we will stand by ordinary families as they face the difficult international situation that we all face. I know that sometimes the right hon. Lady would like to pretend that this is just some home-grown situation and that we in little Britain can simply manufacture our own way out it. The truth is that the issues we need to address are international and some of the solutions are international—

Order. It is not the international issues, but those of next week, that we should be addressing.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box and on the combative way in which he disposed of the stream of consciousness that we always receive from those on the Opposition Front Bench?

I refer my hon. Friend to early-day motion 2327.

[That this House declares Richard Kay, 287 Middleton Road, Crumpsall, Manchester M8 4LY, to be unfit to be a property owner, since on 30th June 2007 he bought 64 Sandown Street, Manchester M18 8SA from Places for People with a covenant put into the contract of sale that the property be brought back into occupation within nine months of being sold but has flouted that covenant, leaving 64 Sandown Lane virtually derelict, not only making the area unsightly but causing considerable expense to a neighbour; and calls on Manchester City Council to take immediate action against this irresponsible person to require him to conform to the covenant without further delay or face condign consequences.]

It is headed “Richard Kay, Manchester property owner”, referring to a man who, in breach of legal agreements and commitments, is turning an area of my constituency into a slum. Will my hon. Friend refer it to our right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing so that she may assist Manchester city council to get this slum provoker dealt with in the most condign way?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind comments. He was a fine Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport—indeed, he can probably never be bettered in that capacity.

On the issue that my right hon. Friend raises, I know from my constituency that unscrupulous landlords can create slums in a way that we would have hoped had been abolished in the 1920s, let alone today. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will want to take up the issues precisely as my right hon. Friend outlined them.

I, too, welcome the Deputy Leader of the House to his stand-in role, and ask him to pass our best wishes to the Leader of the House for a speedy recovery.

May I join in the strongest protests that have been made about yesterday’s business? Every objective listener to last week’s business questions would have taken what the Leader of the House of the House said then to mean that the business would follow its normal course: that new clauses would be taken first and amendments next. It was not until this week that the Government tabled a programme motion to change the normal procedure. It is not acceptable for that to be done in any circumstances, but it is even less acceptable given that we were led to believe, literally a week earlier, that it would not be done.

We have been given plenty of reassurances that the Government will consider how we deal with Report stages. Four Government Bills are to be dealt with in the next two weeks, and amendments and new clauses are likely to be tabled. Can the Deputy Leader of the House assure us that there will be time for Opposition Members and Labour Back Benchers to debate those amendments and new clauses, and for a proper Third Reading debate to take place? If he cannot, he and the Leader of the House are not doing their job properly in regard to the most serious parliamentary matter.

May I link that with a question about the timetable for next year’s sittings, which was announced last week in a written statement by the Leader of the House? It was announced that the House would sit for 128 days, fewer by far than in any other non-election year since at least 1979.

Yes, it was an election year. No Government have announced such a small number of sitting days for nearly 30 years.

When people are going to lose their jobs, for us to give ourselves holidays—an extended Christmas and new year holiday, for instance—[Hon. Members: “It is not a holiday.”] It is a break from this place. For the House of Commons not to come back to work between July and October gives it the most adverse reputation out there.

The Deputy Leader of the House and his colleagues have indicated that they are interested in constitutional reform. Will the Deputy Leader now say whether the Government are serious about handing over control of the business of the House from the Government to Parliament? If he does not tell us that, I will table a motion for us to debate, proposing that Parliament should be in charge of Parliament’s business, not the Government, who are clearly rigging it to their own party political advantage.

We heard today of the continuing difficulties of establishing a political settlement in Zimbabwe. May we have an early debate about whether asylum seekers from Zimbabwe who cannot go home should be allowed to work in this country while they wait for their cases to be decided? I gather that there are Ministers who share that view, and it is the logical view. I ask for us to be able to debate the matter, so that those poor people who cannot go back to their own country, who want to work here, pay taxes and contribute, and with whom Britain has the strongest links, can have an opportunity to participate in this country while their future is determined.

Finally, yesterday we received a major lobby on pensions. May we have a debate on the state pension before the uprating statement, so that we can quiz the Government on whether the level of the pension will be what pensioners need and demand, and whether it can be what pensioners who have worked believe, honestly, that they deserve?

It is good to see the hon. Gentleman in his place. I am sure that the real reason why he wants that debate on pensions is that he will be able to bring along the leader of his party, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), so that the right hon. Gentleman can understand precisely how much the state pension is. It is not £30 a week.

The hon. Gentleman made an interesting and important point about Zimbabwe. I will pass his comments to the relevant Ministers, and will also take what he said as a suggestion for a possible topical debate.

As for whether the business of the House should be run by Parliament or Government, the fact is that, last year, 59 of the 155 days on which Parliament sat were determined not by the Government but by the official Opposition, the smaller parties or Back Benchers. I will only add that it is not right to compare this House, and our constitutional settlement, with arrangements in other countries. In our case, the Government are the Government only because they have a majority in the House. I therefore think that the hon. Gentleman makes a constitutional faux pas.

On next year’s sittings, the dates of the party conferences are an issue, as that has made it difficult for us to start earlier in October than we did this year. There is also an issue in that next year’s Session will finish earlier than this year’s; this year it will finish late in November and the state opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech is not until December, but next year they will be considerably earlier. It is therefore wrong to compare too precisely next year’s dates with this year’s. I should also add that although the hon. Gentleman says that we are on holiday when we are in recess, that is certainly not my experience. Since I was elected to the House in 2001, my experience of parliamentary life is that I work just as hard during the recess as I do when I am sitting here, and I find that my constituents expect me to do so because the job of the constituency MP has completely changed over the last 20 years.

On yesterday’s events, there was a programme motion before the House, which it voted for, so we decided to go forward with the business, and we had a series of votes. In the end, the main issue is that it is absolutely right and proper that we should have an appropriate amount of time to scrutinise all proposed legislation that passes through this House. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was debated in total, on the Floor of both Houses, for 86 hours, with 10 sessions in the Lords and, so far, eight sessions in the Commons. I think that that is an adequate amount of time for us to be able to do our work, not least because there was also substantial pre-legislative scrutiny.

Will my hon. Friend allow the House time to explore the welcome news, announced by the Prime Minister yesterday, about helping people facing the repossession of their home? I understand, however, that these welcome measures do not apply to Scotland, and given that the whole country is experiencing difficulties during this economic downturn, can my hon. Friend say what support, if any, this House could give to the Scottish people, or, indeed, what the Scottish Parliament could do to help them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we must make sure that repossession is the last possible outcome when people are having difficulties in paying their mortgage. That is why the Master of the Rolls yesterday approved the Civil Justice Council’s new protocol, which will make sure that every other avenue is pursued first. It would be extraordinary if the same were not to apply in Scotland, and I urge the Scottish Executive to ensure that home owners get that protection in Scotland. That is what is already making a difference in Britain, as opposed to the United States of America.

As the Deputy Leader of the House will be aware, it is now established that the people of the British overseas territories have the right to self-determination, as is the case for Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. Will he ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on the House on the Lords’ decision regarding the British Indian Ocean Territory and the appalling fate of the people of the Chagos islands, who were forcibly removed from their homes in the 1960s by a Labour Government, and who are now, against their wishes, living in a foreign land? Will the Deputy Leader of the House make a statement to the House and arrange for a debate to take place, so that justice can be done to those British people who have been so appallingly treated?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the House of Lords has already found in the Government’s favour on this issue, but that is not to say that we do not want to do everything we can to support those people. I know the hon. Gentleman has led—admirably, although I often disagree with him—many debates on overseas territories in Westminster Hall, and I would have thought this was a suitable subject for debate there.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate on why it is taking so long to renew the Post Office card account? People are very worried about this issue. The Deputy Leader of the House is a great supporter of the European Union, and he well knows that if this were happening in France, Germany or any other European country, the decision would have been made ages ago, despite all the rigmarole. It is time that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions came here to explain again why this is taking so long.

The Secretary of State was here earlier this week and answered many questions. [Interruption.] Well, I read what he said, and he said that he hated to sound like a broken record, but the truth is that a commercial tender is currently going on, and it would be wrong of me or him to affect that process. I do, however, know from my own constituency that post offices are essential to many communities, and I am sure that that will be borne in mind in this process.

Will the hon. Gentleman convey to the Leader of the House that the Prime Minister is negligent in his duties to this House in respect of not coming here on a regular basis to make a statement about the war in Afghanistan? British troops are engaged every day in situations of great danger. There is a constantly shifting strategic scene. General Petraeus has recently been here to discuss these matters with the Prime Minister, and NATO members are at odds with each other. This is a very dangerous situation and the Prime Minister should come before this House regularly—as all former Prime Ministers have done when Britain has been at war—to account for the actions of the Government in the administration of the war.

The hon. Gentleman, who is a former Defence Minister, speaks wisely in that it is important that the House receives regular updates on what is happening, because we all know from our constituencies that people are in some cases laying down their lives on an entirely honourable basis in Afghanistan, to protect the people of Afghanistan, to bring peace there and to protect security in the world. There will be a debate on defence next Thursday afternoon, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will want to take part in it. I should just say, however, that this Prime Minister has appeared very regularly in the House and made statements on a wide range of issues, and I know that he takes very seriously his responsibility of making sure that the House is updated on these important issues.

The House takes identity fraud and its prevention very seriously, and we have passed legislation on it, but may we have a debate to look at whether some of the relevant agencies are properly implementing the measures we have provided, because if the experience of a constituent of mine is anything to go by, it would appear that it is possible to go to post office depots and ask for post to be delayed without the proper identification requirements? That gives fraudsters a window of two or three weeks in which they can use an identity before its use is even discovered by the people affected.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that. It is clearly a significant issue, and I have never spotted it before. I will raise it with the Department for Work and Pensions, and I will take it as a suggestion for a topical debate. Ensuring that people’s identities are not stolen is an issue we have to deal with now, and it is one that we would never have thought of 20 years ago.

I think the House will agree that it is as important that we show as great an interest in small businesses as in the situation of the people in the City. Notwithstanding yesterday’s statement on this matter, may we therefore have a debate in Government time on small businesses, in order to answer some of the questions about which Ministers only waffle, such as how we can provide proper access to the small firms loan guarantee scheme, how we can avoid the arbitrary call-in of overdraft facilities by banks and how we can create flexibility on the part of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and discuss the malign effects of the empty property tax?

The hon. Gentleman raises important issues, which, as he admits, have already been raised this week. The Government are very keen to make sure that the House is updated in what is a fast-moving environment in terms of the general economy. The most important thing we have done for small and medium-sized enterprises is recapitalise the banks, and I think the eyes of all Members of the House, and all taxpayers in the country, will be on the banks, making sure that they are not paying themselves bonuses and then failing to make loans available to small enterprises. If the money is not circulating to the SMEs, the heart may be beating but the blood will not be circulating around our economy.

Will the Government prepare the ground for the next time that the House considers our 40-year-old abortion law, by commissioning an independent study into the operation of the law to date?

Obviously, that is a matter for the Secretary of State for Health, and I will pass on that suggestion to him. However, it also falls within the remit of the Health Committee, and if it were to choose to conduct a further report on the issue of abortion—how it operates, and how people have access to termination services—that would be within its power.

May we please have a debate in Government time next week, on the Floor of the House, on the proposed changes to the special educational needs and disability tribunal procedure, regulations concerning which were laid before the House by the Ministry of Justice on 15 October? On 16 October, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition tabled early-day motion 2273.

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (Health, Education and Social Care Chamber) Rules 2008 (S.I., 2008, No. 2699), dated 9th October 2008, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th October, be annulled.]

The motion requested that those regulations be annulled because of genuine and widespread concerns that they advantage local authorities against the interest of parents. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that the issue be fully aired sooner rather than later?

As sympathetic as I am to the comments of the hon. Gentleman, whom I think of as an hon. Friend—[Interruption.] Well, I think that the Leader of the House referred to him as an honorary member of the sisterhood. In all honesty I cannot offer him the assurance that he seeks about next week, because I have already declared the business of the House for that week.

I welcome the Deputy Leader of the House to his stand-in role, in which he has done an excellent job. He will be aware of the importance of seaports to the economy of the British isles and of the Valuation Office Agency’s re-rating of ports, which will be backdated to 2005 and will double the rate in many cases. That will have an impact not only on the owners or authorities that run the ports, but on the small businesses located in them. May we have an urgent debate on the matter? Competitiveness and small businesses will suffer as a consequence, and ask that we reconsider the decision.

I will raise those issues with the Treasury on my hon. Friend’s behalf. I know that he has raised them elsewhere and been a doughty defender of small businesses in his constituency. The Government can do several things to alleviate the problems of small businesses in ports and elsewhere, notably by paying bills more swiftly, bringing forward capital projects so that small businesses have the opportunity to gain Government funding, and ensuring that there is a significant training package so that businesses are as efficient and effective as they can be in an economic environment that will be difficult for all of us.

Is the Deputy Leader of the House aware that he has a duty to take into account the interests of the House as a whole, not just the interests of his Government? Will he therefore take more seriously and respond to the point made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House and the Liberal Democrat spokesman that more time should be allowed on the Floor of the House for a Bill on Report? Any programme motion that the Government table should be fully discussed with and agreed by the Opposition parties and should take account of the number of amendments that have been tabled.

I would actually prefer there to be fewer Government amendments clogging up the system. The honest truth is that by the time Bills come to this House, they should be in better nick and should not need the large number of the Government amendments that are often necessary. I know that the Leader of the House is working on trying to ensure that that is true of every new Bill that comes before us. The process of pre-legislative scrutiny that we have introduced should make that easier. In fact, the Bills that have had pre-legislative scrutiny have tended to suffer less Government amendment, although obviously they may still be subject to amendments from others.

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point, and I know that the Procedure Committee has been considering how we can structure debates on Report in a way that makes it possible to deal with more issues. Yes, I would have preferred it yesterday if it had been possible for us to debate more fully all the issues on which amendments were tabled. However, there had also been a request for a statement on small businesses, and it was important that we had that.

May we have a debate, perhaps in Westminster Hall, about the situation of UK nationals who have lost money in Isle of Man bank accounts? Such people include my constituent Katy Watts, who had just sold her house after spending four years as a youth worker on the Isle of Man and saw its value disappear overnight when Kaupthing Singer and Friedlander was taken into administration. Constituents of Derbyshire Members, where part of the building society was sent off to the Isle of Man, have also lost everything.

My hon. Friend raises important issues, and I am sure that she will want to do so again in the House when the relevant Ministers are here. I shall pass her comments on to Treasury Ministers, and I am sure that they will want to get back to her.

I congratulate the Deputy Leader of the House on the skill with which he is defending the indefensible on issues such as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

On Monday I raised the issue of oil with the Prime Minister, at columns 33 to 34 of Hansard, and he said that we needed a constantly increasing supply. I find that rather strange, because if we are going to do something about climate change we need to reduce the consumption of oil. May we have a debate about the pressures on Ministers? The Prime Minister has clearly lost the plot, and perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House, standing in for his boss, who is standing in for her boss, would do a better job.

I confess that I have not the faintest idea what point the hon. Gentleman was trying to make towards the end. Perhaps he can elucidate it to me later.

There is a real difficulty when considering climate change. My constituency is quite isolated from most of the labour market in south Wales, and historically people came to live in the Rhondda because there was coal there. Now there are no coal mines. A car is therefore absolutely essential for people to be able to get to work. We must balance the needs of people who need to drive their cars with the need to cut emissions.

The Eliasch report, published last week, made clear the importance of carbon markets in a post-Kyoto settlement incorporating reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation. Will my hon. Friend consider making time for a debate about the way in which deforestation contributes 19 per cent. of all global emissions each year?

I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to raise that issue in the debate on the Climate Change Bill on Tuesday. Labour Members are proud not only that this will be the first Government in the world to ensure that an emissions reduction is written into statute, but that we are increasing the target from 60 per cent. to 80 per cent. Many of us have had constituents write to us about that.

I welcome the Deputy Leader of the House, and I am most relieved that his great talents have been kept well away from his preferred area of Europe.

This week has seen the world day for osteoporosis, a disease that is causing increased bone fragility and a greater number of fractures. There are quarter of a million fractures a year in this country—one a day in each of our constituencies. May we have a debate on the condition, not least to discuss the National Osteoporosis Society’s report, “Your bones and osteoporosis: What every man, woman and child should know”? It highlights the importance of diet and activity in heading off the distressing human cost, and indeed the economic cost to the NHS, of something that is largely avoidable.

I know that my hon. Friend, whom one day I will manage to persuade on Europe, has pursued this issue for some years. All of us will know from our own constituencies that many people who suffer from osteoporosis would have been able to avoid it if they had been given wiser advice in younger years. I am proud of the investment that we have made in the NHS, which has made it possible for us to open 100 brand-new hospitals. It was shameful for this country that when we came to power in 1997, 50 per cent. of the hospitals had been built before 1948.

The Deputy Leader of the House has on three occasions very elegantly sidestepped the main issue that arose from the Government’s handling of yesterday’s business, so may I have another shot? Can we have the assurance that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) sought—that in future, when we reach the remaining stages of a Bill, the Government will not, in defiance of the normal conventions of the House, table a timetable motion simply to avoid debate on matters that the Government find inconvenient?

I cannot give entirely that assurance. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) gave the game away a bit when he said that he wanted us to take not the amendments but other things first. When a Bill is being discussed, it is important to deal with the issues on which Members have tabled amendments to clauses that are already in it. However, I know that the Procedure Committee is considering the matter, and if we need to amend the way in which we do our business, I am sure that the Leader of the House will seek to do so.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new role. A series of contracts was awarded in respect of the Scottish renewables obligation in the 1990s. The SRO output is now eligible for renewables obligation certificates, and sales have accrued £120 million, which is sitting in an Ofgem bank account. That money is accessible only by Scotland and can be spent only by the Scottish Government. However, if it were to be accessed and spent, the departmental expenditure limit rules would effectively result in a pound-for-pound clawback from existing spending. Can we have a statement from a Treasury Minister to explain the idiocy of those rules and, more importantly, to tell us when they will be changed?

If the facts are precisely as the hon. Gentleman says, the position does appear curious. However, I am cautious, because I have sometimes heard him present facts that I have subsequently investigated and found not to be quite as I would have presented them. We have Treasury questions next week, and I am sure that he will take that opportunity to raise this matter. If he wants to do so, he can, of course, apply for a Westminster Hall debate on it.

On rail safety, is there not a case for a statement if it is true that the Office of Rail Regulation has concluded that a design flaw in track up and down the country is exposing passengers to a risk of derailment? Is it not amazing that this is all being conducted in secret, not least given the fact that the situation is highly relevant to the Potters Bar crash, which took place six and a half years ago and in respect of which there has still not been a coroner’s inquest or a public inquiry?

I am sure that the Secretary of State for Transport will be interested in what the hon. Gentleman has to say; I know that he has raised this issue on several occasions. There is no desire to keep anything secret. If there are facts that can help us to prevent other situations from occurring in future, obviously we have to learn from them. We will also ensure that the House is informed of them, so that everybody can take part in the debate.

Can we have a debate on the Severn barrage situation? I strongly believe that the Government want the project to happen, as do local people, within reason. It is a massive civil engineering project that will take years to come to fruition. Local people are concerned, because the plans are moving and mixed signals that we are receiving from Departments are not helping local people to engage in the debate. Can we have a debate in the House to decide exactly what will happen in respect of this project, to discuss the effect of the Welsh Assembly on it and, more importantly, to ensure that local people have a say?

This could well be a subject for a topical debate, not least because I know that many Welsh MPs would like to take part in such a debate and to inform the one that has already been going on, to some degree, in the Welsh Assembly. If the Severn barrage were to go ahead, although some environmental issues and issues of relevance to people on either side of the Severn would clearly have to be debated, it is probable that significant jobs would be involved, and we would like them to go to local people.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House accept that it is not a trivial matter when the Government announce outside Parliament that there has been a considerable under-reporting of violent crime in a number of police areas, and that that has led to a 22 per cent. increase in violent crime this year? Does he also accept that the situation confirms to members of the public, who know that crime is rising, that the Government have been hiding these facts? Should not a statement be made today, or at the very least on Monday, by the Home Secretary about this very serious issue?

The right hon. Gentleman asserts that people know that crime is rising. They know no such thing; the truth is that crime is falling. It has fallen by 6 per cent. again this year, and by 39 per cent. since 1997. Violence against the person has fallen by 7 per cent. over the past year. I do not think that he should cast aspersions around in that way. It is obviously important that announcements are made to the House, and I shall look into precisely what arrangements have been made. The Home Secretary was in the House earlier this week on two occasions. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman will restrain himself, I would be happy to look into the matter on his behalf.

Can we have an urgent debate on the role of the media in clarifying Government policy? Such a debate would give the Home Secretary an opportunity to explain to the House why she has barred her immigration Minister from appearing on “Question Time”. An appearance on that programme would have given that Minister the opportunity to clarify a contradiction between his statement in The Times last week that

“It’s been too easy to get into this country”

with the Home Secretary’s statement in the House the following day that UK borders are

“among the most secure in the world”.—[Official Report, 21 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 173.]

Surely we need that opportunity either in the House or on “Question Time”.

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the immigration Minister was in this House, and answered the debate, earlier this week. I recall that it was the shadow Home Secretary who was not prepared to speak in the debate and ended up resorting to bobbing up and down like a man on the wide ocean.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House follow up the progress of two internal reviews that the Department for Transport is carrying out at the moment? They relate to freedom of information requests on Heathrow airport expansion; in one case, it took seven months for a response to be given, and I am sure he will be concerned by that. I want to ensure that the internal reviews are undertaken quickly, because, as he will be aware, his Government are taking an important decision on Heathrow in the next few weeks. If I provide him with the details, will he be prepared to follow things up with the Department for Transport?

If hon. Members want to bring things to me so that I can chase them up with other Ministers, I am always prepared to do so. All the hon. Lady has to do is find me in my room around the corner.

Today, the Royal British Legion celebrates the launch of its poppy appeal. Can we have a topical debate before 11 December to celebrate the work done by the Royal British Legion and the other veterans’ charities, and to celebrate our veterans at this time, when we are all thinking of those who have given so much to our country?

I think that the hon. Gentleman meant 11 November, but yes, that is a very good idea for a topical debate, and I shall pursue the matter. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude; my constituency sends a lot of young men and women into the Army and the other armed forces, and we should pay tribute to them in a much more regular and sustained way in this House.

May we have a statement soon from a Health Minister on the abuse of public money by the South Central strategic health authority and Southampton City national health service primary care trust in relation to a consultation about fluoridation, which is due to affect Southampton and parts of my constituency? The strategic health authority has issued a very one-sided consultation document, and the PCT must have spent thousands of pounds of public money on producing reply postcards where first-class postage is paid. I am holding one of the postcards, which state:

“I support fluoridation as a safe and effective method of reducing high levels of dental decay for children and adults.”

It is clear that those bodies have made up their minds and that this consultation is a sham, and a Health Minister needs to step in quickly.

I do not know whether I want to get my teeth into that issue. [Interruption.] There needs to be one bad joke every week, does there not? The important issue is that although I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman a statement, the subject would be very suitable for either a topical debate or an Adjournment debate. Obviously, I shall ensure that his comments are taken into consideration by the Secretary of State for Health.

May we have an urgent debate on the siting of incinerators? My constituents are reasonable people who accept that there is a role for incinerators, but does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that companies such as SITA UK need to accept the view of local people in places such as Muxton, Sheriff Hales and Priorslee in my constituency that incinerators should not be sited close to schools and residential areas?

Obviously, I do not know the details of the precise siting of the incinerator to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I know from historical issues in south Wales that the siting of incinerators can cause many families a great deal of concern and worry, and that if incinerators are placed inappropriately, they can lead to major health concerns. I think it is important that the views of local people are taken into consideration, but I cannot promise him a debate.

May we have a debate on the impact on the housing market of home information packs? Since their introduction, at an average cost of £400, 1.5 million houses have been put on the market for sale, only 500,000 of which have been sold. That means that £400 million has been wasted on HIPs, which buyers do not want, at a time when high street estate agents are struggling to remain viable.

I know that the hon. Lady has always been opposed to the home information packs, which we debated when the legislation went through. I am not sure that now is the right time for another debate on the issue. Obviously she is free to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall, where the Minister concerned would be able to provide her with fuller information.

Yesterday was a huge embarrassment for the Leader of the House. The previous week, she had promised plenty of time to discuss the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill and that there would not be a statement. That did not happen yesterday; the Leader of the House was lent on by the Prime Minister. I hope that the Leader of the House is in fact unwell and recovers soon, and that the reason she is not present is not that she is considering her position today.

The hon. Gentleman let himself down towards the end of his question. I am sure that he does not hope that the Leader of the House is ill and that he was not questioning whether what I said earlier was true. As he knows, I was here last week when the Leader of the House said that she would prefer not to have a statement yesterday—

Except in an emergency, as the right hon. Lady says. There was a call for a statement in the House of Lords. I believe that it would be inappropriate for a statement to be made in the House of Lords without its being made in the House of Commons, which I believe to be the primary Chamber.

The Deputy Leader of the House will no doubt be aware of the deeply worrying statistic that 36 pubs in this country are closing every week. Clearly that is bad news not only for those small businesses, but for the communities in which they are based. Bang on cue, the Department of Health has produced a new consultation that threatens considerably to add to the regulation on pubs and brewing companies, causing the chief executive of Shepherd Neame, a family brewer in my constituency, to write to me to say:

“This will increase costs on responsible operators at a time when they can ill afford it and at a time when the Government is still apparently considering implementing the punitive rate of duty in the duty accelerator.”

Can we have a debate on the future of the pub industry because of the effect not only on small businesses, but on the small communities in which they are situated?

There is a complicated balancing act here. Many communities know the problems alcohol abuse, especially by young people and under-age drinkers, many of whom buy alcohol not in pubs but in off-licences. It is right that local authorities have the responsibility to make sure that there are not places where under-age people can get alcohol and that they work closely with the police to close down pubs that enable young people to do that. Yes, there are difficulties for all small businesses, including pubs, at the moment, which is why we have tried to make sure that the banks are recapitalised so that loans are available to small businesses. We have tried to make sure that every small business is—[Interruption.] I can hear the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) chuntering about regulation. I presume that she is now trying to say “Deregulate, deregulate, deregulate.” That is what she said for 11 years until she realised that the banking industry needed a little bit of adult supervision.

Can we have a debate on housing, and in particular on the Government’s failure to provide adequate infrastructure for new housing developments? I campaigned long and hard for “I before E”, or infrastructure before expansion in Milton Keynes, and the Government’s response was to introduce a Milton Keynes tariff, where £18,500 is paid towards local infrastructure for every new house built. Unfortunately, with the economic downturn, not many houses are being built. With hindsight, does the Deputy Leader of the House think that any policy based on economic growth was probably slightly shortsighted?

It strikes me that the hon. Gentleman has probably not looked at the policy of “Sharing the proceeds of growth”, which seemed to be based entirely on the presumption of growth into the future. We want to make sure that the economy continues to grow, but the most important point is the local issue and it relates primarily to local government in his area. That subject would be entirely appropriate for a debate in Westminster Hall.

A coroner yesterday ruled that 10 servicemen including Flight Lieutenant Stead—a talented pilot whose parents live in my constituency—were unlawfully killed and accused the Ministry of Defence of systemic failures, including the failure to fit protective suppressant foam on their Hercules, which was shot down. Will the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for a Defence Minister to come to the House to explain why there were these systemic failures and why the Ministry of Defence is putting at risk the lives of people who should expect top protection from the Government? In an age when the Government have gone for health and safety gone mad in local authorities, why do they have such a cavalier approach to the safety of our servicemen?

Obviously the sympathy of the whole House goes to the families of those who died in the crash and we need to make sure that everything that can possibly be learnt from what the coroner came up with yesterday is learnt. The MOD has made it clear that it pays tribute to the work of the coroner, who it thinks has done a very thorough job in this case, and it intends to do precisely as I said. The hon. Gentleman quite often criticises health and safety legislation. Sometimes health and safety legislation does save lives.

Every year hundreds of children are injured by fireworks, and while there is strong support for organised firework displays, there is growing concern about the antisocial use of fireworks and the distress they cause to both people and animals. With bonfire night approaching, could we have a topical debate or a debate in Westminster Hall on the Government’s legislation with regard to the control of fireworks?

This matter comes up annually and every Member will have large numbers of constituents getting in touch with them to ask whether there should be further legislation on fireworks. When I was elected in 2001, there was practically no legislation on fireworks; it was pretty much an unrestricted market, except for the precise circumstances in which they could be sold. We have moved some considerable way. I find it slightly difficult to be an ardent repressor of fireworks because I rather like them.

Point of Order

12.26 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On a number of occasions you have expressed your concern about the use of amplifiers by protestors in Parliament square, and we had a meeting with representatives of Westminster council on this issue some months ago. We were told that the licence for the use of loudhailers would run out at the end of January this year and that we would be informed if any application was made to renew it. Evidently no such application has been made and yet the use of the loudhailers goes on persistently, incessantly and at unreasonable volume. Will you please consider writing to Westminster council and urging it to enforce the law, irrespective of the fact that the Government will bring forward new legislation that may affect this matter in the future? That has not happened yet, but the law of the land is as it is and should be enforced.

Work and Skills

I beg to move,

That the House has considered the matter of work and skills.

I am very pleased that we are debating this extremely important issue today. I am conscious that I have taken up the post of Employment Minister at a time when the labour market faces great challenges as a result of the instability affecting the global economy, but I have already been struck not only by the important role that the DWP plays—in particular with Jobcentre Plus—but by the progress there has been in the services provided through the Jobcentre Plus network, in helping people to move away from dependence on benefits and into work, and by the range and complexity of the issues that it addresses daily.

I am also keenly aware that topical debates are principally for Back Benchers, so half hours from me, from the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and from the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) probably will not do. I do not want to take up too much time by way of introduction.

I know that Jobcentre Plus operates in each and every one of our constituencies. Helping people into work and supporting them while they find it is the reason why it exists. We know that the continued success of Jobcentre Plus will be central to our ability to help those among our constituents affected by unemployment to get back into work as quickly as possible. I am very clear that the active system of support developed over the past couple of decades—I am happy to acknowledge that it came partly from the previous Government, but it has been greatly strengthened and deepened since 1997—puts the country in a far stronger position to deal with the consequences of the storms that have been affecting the world economy in recent weeks. However, we also need to be ready to do more and to respond quickly and flexibly to the new issues and challenges that we surely face. I want to spend what little time I have elaborating on the future, rather than on where we have come from.

The Minister and I are former Harrow councillors, and I remember discussing unemployment in that area with him several years ago. Rising unemployment was a problem then as it is now. Will he look again at an issue that I raised when I served on the Work and Pensions Committee? Before the Government close Jobcentre Plus offices, will they look at the unemployment rate in the area? Does it not make sense that Jobcentre Plus offices should be retained in areas where unemployment is highest?

That is a fair point. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making it clear that we served on Harrow council together, as the last time he mentioned it he talked of us being at Harrow together, with all the wrong connotations that that has. I am clearly not an old Harrovian.

The point that the hon. Gentleman raises must be one of a range of considerations in the decision to close job centres. I should emphasise that we are shifting more and more staff to the front line to deal with people. One aspect of the expansion and improvement of the network is the fact that people are accessing the services of Jobcentre Plus in other ways than the old traditional method of going into the office. However, I take the broad point and I have in my diary a series of meetings with people who have such concerns.

In the Select Committee yesterday, we heard evidence that long-term unemployment is set to quadruple to some 600,000 a year. Does the Minister agree that it is a bit odd that a debate on this issue has not attracted a single Labour Back Bencher?

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) is in his place. Pointing to attendance is an easy game to play and I shall not get into it. I firmly and passionately believe that the Ulster Unionist party, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the rest of the Liberal Democrats and my colleagues share our concerns about unemployment. I am not about to suggest at any stage in my speech that Labour Members, present or absent, have a monopoly on sentiment when it comes to the serious issue of unemployment—[Interruption.] Well, they are busy doing other things, probably not least helping people in their constituencies, given that this debate is subject to a one-line Whip. That is entirely a matter for them.

The hon. Gentleman’s first point, about the trends in unemployment and the extent to which we might see a rise in longer-term and harder-to-reach unemployed, is well made, and it goes to the point that I was about to make. Now is not the time to flinch on conditionality, pathways to work or providing active support for the unemployed. That happened—I am not making a political point—in the early 1980s, and we need to learn the lessons of that. I am happy to suggest that the Opposition have learned those lessons. Conditionality and helping the longer-term unemployed back into work remain uppermost in the work of Jobcentre Plus.

I see that the Whip has moved from the Front Bench to the Back Bench, and I shall give way so that he can make his no doubt facetious point.

I am disappointed that the Minister thinks that I wish to make a facetious point, given the seriousness of the problem of unemployment in Chelmsford and the east of England. What is he doing, with the Minister for the East of England, to address unemployment and the need for skills improvement? Can he also enlighten my constituents as to who is the Minister for the East of England?

That is a reasonable point. In the broader context, the National Economic Council, the regional economic councils that are being developed and the regional councils for Ministers are addressing the issue of unemployment, and working with local authorities and regional development agencies on that. I have yet to attend a council for Regional Ministers so the name of my hon. Friend escapes me, which I am sure will assist the hon. Gentleman in his attempt to be facetious—[Interruption.] No, the east of England has not escaped me—[Interruption.] Well, that is a matter for the hon. Gentleman.

The serious point was about the National Economic Council and regional economic development, and how unemployment fits in with that. That point was fairly made and I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets a little paper outlining those structures. I do not know about the east of England, but I know that the east midlands already has in place regional economic forums that meet regularly to bring together all the key partners, including the RDA, the private sector, Jobcentre Plus and others, to discuss economic development and address any deterioration in the labour market. In any case, I say well done to the hon. Gentleman for making his facetious point.

There continues to be a real dynamism in the labour market. There is a huge churn in jobs and vacancies, with people coming on to jobseeker’s allowance and coming off it too. The picture is not static. The House will know that there are regularly as many as 600,000 vacancies, but that figure is also subject to churn. Some vacancies never reach those statistics because they are filled before they can be correlated with the figures.

I am receiving a growing number of complaints from constituents who are taking up jobs after being out of work. They suffer from the delay between the immediate loss of benefits and the receipt of their first wage packet, which provides a clear disincentive to finding work for many people, especially single mothers in straitened circumstances. What steps are the Department taking to try to smooth that transition?

That is a fair point and I will look into the technicalities of it. The transition into work should be as smooth as possible, and there should be no disincentives en route. I am pleased that some 60 per cent. of JSA claimants get back to work within three months, and 80 per cent. do so within six months. Although we need to do better, those are phenomenal performance figures. Nobody yet knows the exact nature of the new inflow—to use the jargon that I have just learned, although I am trying to avoid it—as they may come from different sectors and geographic areas. It is almost a cliché now, but I have said in the past that Halifax and Bradford & Bingley are not simply brand names but places. In those places, there are many employees who are wondering about the consequences of the upheaval in the financial sector. I do not know how that will shake out, but Jobcentre Plus is considering what will happen when a newer cohort of financial professionals presents in greater numbers than they have done before. We need to start looking at such issues.

The Minister mentioned the dynamism of the labour market. Does he accept that part of the problem with the current unemployment figures is the churn caused by people getting a short-term job, then losing it and going back into unemployment? Some of that is negative, rather than evidence of dynamism in the job market. It is important for the Government to ensure that jobs are sustainable, and they may need sustaining through Government help in the crucial first weeks and months.

I accept that. That is why I tried to use dynamism in the most literal sense, to mean a lot of change and a lot of activity. There will be those who will come on to employment at the shorter-term end, and we need to stop that. Increasingly, particularly with some of the harder-to-reach groups, that means we must ensure that when we say that they are ready to work, they are ready to work and can do so in a sustained fashion. I accept that it is in no one’s interest to have a merry-go-round of on-off claimants.

The answer to the question asked earlier by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) is that the Minister for the East of England is my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett).

No, it was just inspiration from somewhere or other. Where it came from is not the hon. Gentleman’s concern.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) about sustainability. I repeat the fact that 80 per cent. of reported people who go on to jobseeker’s allowance get back into work within six months. That is a very good figure, but clearly we need to do better; we need to ensure greater sustainability. There will always be a hard core of people who go into work, come out, go back in, and then come out. We need to try to prevent that, especially in the hardest-to-reach groups, such as lone parents and others.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his promotion and on his new job. He talked about Bradford & Bingley, the financial markets and what has happened. That catastrophe has occurred because financial markets have been left to themselves and globalised without intervention or regulation. Is not the same true of skills? If we leave skills to be developed by the markets, by people learning on the job and by people picking things up, we will suffer the same disadvantage, with other developed nations. Does my right hon. Friend accept that we have to be proactive, to drive skills forward and to teach young people rigorously to ensure that they have the skills and that we do not suffer such disadvantages in future?

I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says. I do not agree that there is now a mixed economy, for want of a better phrase, in skills provision or that there has been a laissez-faire approach that has somehow led to a diminution in the importance of skills. I do not think that that is necessarily accurate. The work that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is doing alongside the Department for Work and Pensions is very important and there has been much progress.

I agree with my hon. Friend that in much of the other work that DWP and Jobcentre Plus are doing we need to start looking forward and to understand the consequences of the economic turbulence, not least in the financial sector, and to respond accordingly to what we think the future of skills provision might look like. I can assure my hon. Friend that a lot of close work takes place between the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my Department and others in that regard, in trying to preserve people in their jobs, to support sectors and to encourage reskilling and refocusing where possible. I was going to come on to that in the short time that I have left.

My hon. Friend will know that in collaboration with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills we announced last week a cash injection of some £100 million over the next three years to help people who are newly redundant, or who face redundancy, to move into another job quickly by supporting them to refresh their skills or to retrain. Earlier this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills announced a £350 million fund that will refocus the in-work support available through Train to Gain to help small businesses deal with the tougher economic climate by developing the skills of the staff.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North might not yet have seen the details of the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform of his wider solutions for business and of the company support package that was announced earlier today.

Is this really new money? The £350 million Train to Gain budget was already there. Is the £100 million genuinely new money or is it a re-announcement?

I said very clearly that the £350 million was about a refocus given the context of the situation. I was not saying that it was new money. At the moment, the £100 million is made up of £50 million of new money, via the European Social Fund, and £50 million of Train to Gain money, refocused and reprioritised. It must be right for us to refocus and reprioritise, given the extraordinarily fast pace of change in the wider economy.

I want to discuss the matter in more detail with the relevant Ministers, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North that there is an issue about the wider life skills that people are getting in schools. If the future is to be a far more credit-restricted period than otherwise, the notion from the 1980s and 1990s that people could secure credit for anything they liked, any time they liked, must change. That level of responsibility and focus on the individual through their life skills is probably something that we need to do more about. I do not accept, either from the DWP perspective or that of DIUS—I was trying to resist saying DIUS—that the circumstances of the provider, whether they are private, third sector or public sector, determine the level of professionalism in what they offer.

Notwithstanding the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), the money that we are making available along with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the greater focus on Train to Gain, what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has said today about support for business and the announcements already made—