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Commons Chamber

Volume 481: debated on Thursday 30 October 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 30 October 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven 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 6 November.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Small Businesses

1. What assessment he has made of the effects of recapitalisation on the policies pursued by the recapitalised banks on providing credit to small businesses. (231511)

The measures that I announced on 8 and 13 October included agreements with the banks that use the bank reconstruction fund that they would maintain the availability and active marketing of competitively priced lending to small businesses at 2007 levels.

As a former chairman of a county council finance committee, I once borrowed £37 million from the European Investment Bank; I also managed to pay it back. I welcome today’s announcement that the bank is to make £4 billion-worth of credit available for small companies in this country. Many of them are faced with bully-boy tactics from British banks, which are simply cancelling their overdraft facilities and denying them vital capital to invest. What action can the Government take to ensure that British banks give small businesses the same support that our Government have given the banks?

I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is important that we do everything we can to support small and medium-sized businesses in this country. They employ more than half the work force and account for an important part of the economy. In addition to the EIB making £4 billion available to British banks, we want to ensure that the banks that have used the bank reconstruction fund make funds available at the equivalent of 2007 levels, and that they make that EIB money available. That does not mean that everyone who comes through the front door of a bank will get what they want, on the terms that they want, but it is important that British banks play their part. We, on behalf of the taxpayer, have put a lot of money into the banking system because we recognise its importance. In turn, banks have to recognise the importance, not just to the country but to the banks, of ensuring that small and medium-sized enterprises get the support that they need.

Will the Chancellor clear up the position that the newly appointed Government directors of the banks in question will take when considering such lending? Will they be required to act in the interests of the Government, the taxpayer, or—as proper company directors do—the business?

I made it clear when I made my announcement in the middle of last month that even the banks in which we are taking significant shareholdings need to operate in a commercial manner. They will operate at arm’s length from the Government. All directors have one duty, and that is to represent the interests of their shareholders; of course, the Government, on behalf of the taxpayer, will be a major shareholder in three of the banks. No doubt we will explore the issue further when I appear before the Treasury Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, on Monday afternoon.

The Chancellor, along with the Governor of the Bank of England and the chairman of the Financial Services Authority, has kindly agreed to come along to the Treasury Committee’s banking crisis inquiry on Monday. We asked the public what questions they would like to ask the Chancellor, the Governor and the chairman of the FSA, and more than 1,500 e-mails have been received. One big issue is that the banks do not play fair with savers and small businesses. The taxpayer is the lender of last resort, but today will the Chancellor and Lord Mandelson impress on the banks that the taxpayer will certainly not be the sucker of last resort?

My right hon. Friend has done a good job of providing a trailer for Monday afternoon’s performance. He rightly draws attention to the fact that today, many businesses find things difficult because of the prevailing economic conditions. We need to make sure that banks do not make a difficult situation worse. As I say, that does not mean that every business will get what it wants, on the terms that it wants—because although something might have been a good business prospect 12 months ago, the situation may be different today. It means that banks have got to play their part. Small businesses rely on banks for support more than large businesses do. The banks need to remember that although they go looking for customers in the good times, when times get more difficult their customers depend on them, so it is important that they play their part. My right hon. Friend Lord Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, will meet small business representatives and banks regularly to ensure that if problems arise, we work through them, because it is important that we make sure that support gets through to where it is needed.

Is the Chancellor aware that some banks are changing small businesses’ overdraft facilities to loan facilities, with an even higher rate of interest, at a time of difficult commercial problems for small businesses? When the Chancellor and the noble Lord Mandelson hold the meetings just mentioned, will the Chancellor bring to the attention of the bankers just how devastating the changes are to businesses’ cash flow and chances of survival?

Yes, and Lord Mandelson and I raised those cases when we met the chief executives of the major banks a week ago today. We will continue to raise those matters. If hon. Members come across such cases, they will obviously make inquiries about what exactly happened. If there appears to be no justification for what has happened to a business and put it in difficulties, my colleagues and I will be very pleased to hear about it from hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman included.

I congratulate the Chancellor on the recapitalisation of banks, which has been admired and copied throughout the world, but was that task helped by the leaking of confidential documents by the Bank of England and by the hon. Gentleman on the Opposition Front Bench on “The Andrew Marr Show”? What does the Chancellor think of his opposite number’s judgment? [Interruption.]

Order. Did the hon. Lady warn the shadow Chancellor that she was going to make an attack on him?

Well she should have done. I call Julian Brazier. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Lady must behave herself.

The Chancellor has made a series of assertions to comfort small businesses, but may I now direct him back to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon)? The Chancellor knows perfectly that the duties of directors are laid down extremely clearly in law and are tightly and narrowly drawn. Does he plan to introduce an order to vary the legislation on that, or not?

I can understand why the Chancellor would not want the request to the banks to lend at 2007 levels to be taken as a green light to repeat the mistakes of the past in terms of irresponsible lending, but does he agree that any analysis will show that there has been very little evidence of irresponsible lending by banks to small businesses? Therefore, will the Chancellor ensure that the banks maintain their focus on keeping credit lines open to small businesses?

Indeed, that is what I was saying just a few moments ago. The point that I was making was that there will be occasions when a business with a credit line or other facilities with a bank may have a perfectly good business, but for perfectly understandable reasons circumstances may have changed and the bank may then say, “Look, we’ll have to change the arrangements.” I think that everyone understands that. What people do not understand is if a bank, especially one that has had the benefit of a substantial injection of public funds, has a blanket policy of saying to people, “Actually, we’re not concerned about you at all, and we’ll cut your credit and put you into difficulties.” In any banking operation, whether it is lending to individuals or to businesses, there must be discretion, and Opposition Members made the point that directors clearly have a duty to the banks’ shareholders. But at present, learning from what has gone wrong in the past, if we do not ensure adequate funds are available to small and medium-sized enterprises, we will exacerbate the situation. That is why, both in terms of capitalisation of the banks and the measures that we announced earlier this month, and today’s announcement in relation to persuading the EIB to come forward with substantial sums, I hope that banks will play their part, because it is as much in their interests as it is in everybody else’s that this works.

I look forward to the advance warnings of the attacks on me, which certainly would have helped in the last week.

The banks, of course, should act responsibly to help small businesses as the economy deteriorates, but does the Chancellor agree that the Government should act responsibly as well? Can he confirm that he is still—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Does the Chancellor still plan to increase the small companies tax rate next April? Does he agree that even if this was a good idea two years ago—and I did not agree that it was—it is certainly not a good idea when we are in recession? Will he now abandon this tax rise? If he does not do it now, he will certainly have to before the Budget in April.

I agree that the Government have to play their part in supporting businesses and in supporting individuals. For example, the fact that we have reduced the amount of tax paid by basic rate taxpayers is an extremely useful step. We have frozen fuel duty, and if I may say so—if the hon. Gentleman does not take this as an attack—that is a much better policy than the fuel duty escalator that he announced in July, which would have resulted in fuel duty having to go up now, at the very time when businesses want tax to come down. We will continue to do everything that we can to help businesses, because that is very important.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is planning to increase the small companies tax rate next April. If he wants to talk about cars, I should say that he is still planning the big increase in family car tax next April as well. Surely the thing that would most help small businesses—this is a simple statement of fact—is a sustained reduction in interest rates.

The Chancellor and I agree that the Monetary Policy Committee must make its own decisions, but the Government should do nothing that gets in the way of that. Will we have an end to all this irresponsible spinning about Keynesian spending splurges and all this irresponsible nonsense about borrowing without limit, which have spooked the international markets? Can we instead have from the Chancellor a clear plan to get the public finances back under control? Is it not the case that on the current path, this Labour Government are set to leave behind them the biggest budget deficit of any Labour Government in the entire history of this country? Again, the Conservatives will have to clear up the mess.

If I were the hon. Gentleman, I would say a little bit less about spinning. Let me deal with the points that he has raised. First—and this perhaps goes to the heart of what is now emerging as a difference between the two parties—at this time in the economic cycle, and in the face of the extraordinary conditions that we face just now, it is right that we support the economy. Yesterday, the hon. Gentleman said in The Daily Telegraph that he was against borrowing. That would have a profound consequence for the economy. He might want to have a word with the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who in the space of one single interview said:

“Increasing borrowing is not a strategy for dealing with the recession”,

and, seconds later:

“To increase borrowing to deal with an economic downturn—that’s a perfectly sensible thing to do.”

The Conservative party is all over the place on the issue. In relation to interest rates, during one of the last debates that we had here I made it clear that the Bank of England has a remit sufficiently wide to enable it to take into account the wider economy. I also have to say to the shadow Chancellor that he said in the House on 14 October that he made it a practice not to comment on interest rates. Yet yesterday he was calling on the Bank of England to cut interest rates.

It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman has not a clue about how to deal with this problem. What the public want is a clear course of action, and decisive action being taken. That is what we are doing. It is obvious now that the Conservative party and the hon. Gentleman are completely incapable of sticking to a decision and seeing it through.

Mortgage Lending

2. What recent assessment he has made of the support being offered by banks recapitalised with public funds to mortgage holders. (231512)

The Government have agreed a range of commitments with the banks supported by the recapitalisation scheme. They include arrangements to make available affordable mortgage products over the next three years and to help individuals who are struggling with their mortgage payments to stay in their homes.

I spoke to Wakefield citizens advice bureau representatives yesterday and they told me that there is a three-week waiting list for people in our district who wish to be referred for help, particularly in respect of mortgages given out by Northern Rock and HBOS. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that she ignores a recent paper from the Conservative party that saw no need to regulate the provision of mortgage finance, as that would be truly catastrophic for this country’s economy?

My hon. Friend is right. I am aware of the concerns about people wanting more debt support and advice in our district, too, and that is the case right across the country. That is why we have substantially increased the investment in providing debt advice in the past 10 years. We are looking into what more we can do, because people need more support. My hon. Friend is also right to say that, at the heart of this, it would have been utterly irresponsible to cut the regulation of mortgage provision, as some in the Opposition seem to advocate.

Do the Chief Secretary and her right hon. Friend the Chancellor agree that with the recapitalisation of our banks it was urgently needed that, as in America, there should be substantial cuts in interest rates, yet the current position is that our interest rates are 3½ per cent. higher than those in America? The present state of apparent paralysis of the Monetary Policy Committee—which I may say that I predicted in 1997 would be the case whenever there was a crisis—is adding to the problems facing mortgage holders.

I know that Opposition Members opposed and voted against the independence of the Bank of England at the beginning, but after time they said that they supported it. Clearly, they have now changed their position again.

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I think it is right to have an independent Bank of England. That is why interest rates are 4.5 per cent. instead of the 15 per cent. that they reached at the end of the ’80s and in the early ’90s. It is right that the Bank should take these decisions, not only to ensure that it has the inflation target in mind but to support the economy in the way that its remit allows it to do.

Lloyds TSB was bailed out with £5.5 billion of Government money. Since then, it has refused to pass on the recent interest rate cut and has increased the rate for its tracker mortgages. In the past couple of days, it has stopped existing customers moving from repayment mortgages to interest-only mortgages, which is a first step in easing people’s mortgage payments. As we are one of the biggest shareholders in this bank, does the Minister agree that at the next meeting we should ask our managers to review those destructive lending policies?

My hon. Friend is right to raise questions about what is being done by the lenders who have help from the recapitalisation scheme. They have agreed to make available lending at 2007 levels, and we will put in place procedures to monitor how they are maintaining availability of mortgage lending. As hon. Members have said, it is right, given that the Government are taking action to support the banks, that the banks should take action to support mortgage holders and home owners across the country.

Why is the publicly owned Northern Rock now the most ruthless and unforgiving of any institution in pursuit of defaulters of any kind?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, Northern Rock operates at arm’s length and on a commercial basis, and it is right that it should do so. I am aware of concerns that have been raised by charities about Northern Rock’s lending, and as a result it will meet some of those charities. They have particular concerns about its Together mortgages, which were, in effect, mortgages of over 100 per cent. It is right that all lenders, not only Northern Rock and those that have support from the recapitalisation scheme, should do everything they can to make repossessions, properly, a last resort, not a first resort. That is why we have introduced new court rules to strengthen the procedures to ensure that borrowers who get into difficulties can be offered alternatives and other support.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that she would never have welcomed the report by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) calling for the complete deregulation of the mortgage market, because to do so would show a total lack of judgment that could be taught only at the Bullingdon school of being on another planet?

My hon. Friend is right. To propose reducing the regulation of mortgage lending at such a time, a matter of weeks before the credit crunch hit, was not only irresponsible but did indeed demonstrate a lack of judgment.


3. What assessment he has made of the repossession policies of banks recapitalised with public funds. (231513)

We are concerned to ensure that all lenders do more to help people to stay in their homes at this difficult time. In addition, as part of the recapitalisation arrangements, HBOS, Lloyds TSB and the Royal Bank of Scotland have agreed to put additional funding into shared equity and shared ownership schemes to help borrowers who are in difficulties with repayments.

Does the Chief Secretary not share my concern for constituents who see Members of Parliament as their only option to intercede with the courts to stop repossessions while they get their finances in order, because the banks have not allowed them time to do so? She may say what she likes about encouraging banks to change their policies, but how is she going to deliver?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the courts, and we have introduced new court rules and procedures that will make clear for the courts, and lenders, the sort of things that they will be expected to do before taking a repossession case, which the court will then ask them serious questions about. Those procedures were introduced during the past week, and will be an important part of ensuring that all lenders follow what is already best practice among some lenders in some cases. We are concerned about cases where that does not happen, and mortgagee repossessions should be a last resort in all cases. We do not want a return to the early 1990s, when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power and 140,000 families lost their homes in the space of two years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the current crisis stems from the fact that there is no trust or confidence between banks? They are not lending money to each other, so the wholesale markets have collapsed. The main reason for that is their exposure to substantial debt. As well as recapitalising the banks and underwriting their lending, is it not about time we insisted that they declare their exposure to the debt, draw a line under the matter, and move on?

My hon. Friend is right in that a range of issues have led to the collapse in trust and confidence between banks, and what started with dodgy lending in the United States sub-prime mortgage market has infected financial institutions throughout the world because of the way in which they were lending to each other—bundling up assets—and they have now lost trust with regard to where those problem debts lie. We have urged much greater transparency, not just here but across the world. This is a global issue, and a global lack of trust has developed in the financial markets. It is important that we have a global approach to transparency, as well as to recapitalisation.

Last week the Chief Secretary said that she wanted repossessions to be a lot rarer. Yet despite reassurances last year about the quality of its mortgages, Northern Rock is repossessing more homes than any other lender. Is she saying that the reassurances she gave were wrong, or are her demands just hot air?

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening earlier, he would have heard me say that Northern Rock has agreed to meet charities that have raised concerns about its position. It also has issues with some lenders who have taken out Together mortgages, which people are aware of; those are mortgages of more than 100 per cent.

However, this is not simply a matter of Northern Rock. It is about every lender recognising its responsibilities to do the right thing by its borrowers and to look for alternatives. That might mean repayment holidays or looking for different mortgage rescue schemes, which is why this Government have introduced extra investment for mortgage rescue schemes, new rules for the courts to follow and increased support for mortgage interest for people who lose their jobs. That is the right thing to do, and I point out to the hon. Gentleman that on the day we announced the extra support for mortgage rescue schemes, his party was advocating increased tax cuts for millionaires’ estates. That is the wrong priority at a time like this.


4. What steps he is taking to ensure that his macro-economic policies support the provision of employment opportunities. (231516)

We are maintaining our commitment to high employment. There are more than 600,000 job vacancies currently, and most people who have lost their jobs are finding work again quickly. We have also announced £100 million over three years to train people facing redundancy so that they can move quickly into a new job.

Mr Speaker, I wonder whether it might be possible for you to accept a note signed by everyone on the Labour Benches, because for the next 18 months we all intend to do little else other than attack the shadow Chancellor. [Interruption.]

Order. A genuine attack is one thing, but a personal attack on anyone’s integrity will be stopped. I just put that on the record, but I know that the hon. Lady will not indulge in any personal attacks on anyone.

Perish the thought, Sir.

Yesterday I met representatives of the G15 group of major housing associations in London. They are concerned that the dip in house sales will have significant consequences for social house building. That has consequences for the construction industry and related trades. Will my right hon. Friend liaise with the Department for Communities and Local Government and others to ensure that construction—social housing and other forms of construction—goes ahead so that those infrastructure jobs are delivered in London and elsewhere?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. She knows from our announcements last month the high importance we attach to maintaining investment in social housing and bringing forward some of the investment that has already been committed. She will also know, through her extensive work on the problems of child poverty in London, about the good and imaginative initiatives of several housing associations to maximise the benefits of employment from house building and to work with their tenants to increase employment. She is right that we need to use the opportunity of investment in social housing, maintain our commitment to it and bring investment forward to increase employment.

Will the Financial Secretary reflect on the fact that small and medium-sized enterprises in my constituency are working hard to maintain employment opportunities, but that dealing with punitive interest rates and arrangement fees, which many now have to face, is making that extremely difficult? In his discussions with the banks, will he agree a set of principles with them that recognise the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises in our country, especially given the effect of punitive interest rates on employment opportunities?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has discussed exactly that matter with the banks, recognising the importance of supporting small businesses through the period of turbulence in the world economy. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is also considering ways in which to support small businesses through this period, and I hope that we will be able to say something about that soon.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that most people hope that the Government will continue to step up investment in social housing and ignore the views of, for example, the stupid, comfortably off collection of professors and ne’er-do-wells who wrote in The Times that Keynesian overspending would not rescue the economy, and claimed that the Government’s investing as they propose to do would lead to the serious misallocation of resources? Most people believe that investing in houses for people who do not have anywhere decent to live is a proper allocation of resources—much better than anything that came from the market forces in banking, which led to the problems that we all face today.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need to maintain our commitment to investment. We have put right a past policy of chronic under-investment in housing and in other public services. We now need to maintain our commitment to investing in public services, especially housing.

If, after 15 years of benign conditions, a business went into more difficult times running a loss of nearly 10 per cent. on its turnover, its bankers might ask serious questions of its management and charge a risk premium on future lending to that institution. The United Kingdom is in that position. What risk premium will we have to pay to fund the Government’s macro-economic policies during the recession?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have reduced debt. The IMF said:

“For over a decade, the United Kingdom has sustained low inflation and rapid economic growth—an exceptional achievement…the fruit of strong policies and policy frameworks, which provide a strong foundation to weather global shocks.”

My right hon. Friend is well aware that construction sites are closed at the moment and that an announcement is due any day from Leyland Trucks about compulsory redundancies. What can we do to get Britain back to work and to ensure that we have procurement policies and a “Buy British” campaign? That is what we want from the Government. Will they launch that campaign? Let us back Britain, support British jobs and get Britain back to work.

We must work hard to ensure that people losing their jobs can return to work as quickly as possible. My hon. Friend will know that the consultation on the recent welfare reform Green Paper ended this week. It contains important proposals that we want to take forward. We want to support small businesses, as we have already set out, as well as companies large and small throughout the UK. However, the key is to ensure that if people lose their jobs, they do not get a long way from the labour market, as happened in the recessions under the Tories, when far too many people were pushed on to incapacity benefit, for example. That no doubt dealt with the short-term political problem, but too many of those people have never been able to get back into work. We need to keep people close to the labour market, so that they can get back into work as quickly as possible.

May I seek some clarity from the Minister on whether the Government are seeking to introduce a fiscal stimulus programme to prevent increases in unemployment? We all know that tax receipts go down in a recession and that welfare bills go up. Over and above those automatic stabilisers, however, do the Government believe that more borrowing will help the economy, or do they accept that we cannot spend our way out of a recession and that the main consequence of such a policy would be to make it harder for the Bank of England to cut interest rates?

It is right to support the economy at a difficult time in the world economy. We have a low rate of borrowing on the latest figures compared with other developed countries. That is why we are in a position to allow the rate of borrowing to increase, in order to support businesses and the economy.

Will my right hon. Friend share with the House his views on the belief held by some people that it is a function of capitalist markets to make money out of the misery of others? Is he aware, too, that people who believe that also believe that unemployment is a price worth paying?

I remember a time when views of that kind were expressed on the Government Benches. It is a matter of shame that some of those points were made. It is also a matter of deep regret that the Conservative party opposed the ban on short selling. I think that that position was a serious misjudgment.


5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of audit in the regulation of financial institutions; and if he will make a statement. (231517)

How is it that the auditors of big companies, whose job is to ensure regularity and probity in the public interest, can apparently wave through the accounts of big companies whose finances, it then transpires, are so vulnerable and precarious? Is there not a suspicion that the concentration of audit of big companies in the hands of a few large accountancy firms has created far too cosy a relationship between those firms and the companies that they audit? If the Chancellor agrees with that concern, is he going to do anything about it?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the fact that there are comparatively few large accountancy firms that can carry out audits can be a problem. I am not sure that we can simply produce more auditors just like that, but as I have said on a number of occasions, the first line of defence in any regulatory system must be the board of directors of banks and other companies, too. Auditors also have their role to play, to ensure that people understand the risk to which they are becoming exposed. That is an important function that should never be overlooked.

It is clear that there has been a collective failure of financial regulation, no more so than among the credit reference agencies. The issue is particularly complex, but what consideration has my right hon. Friend given to reform in this area to ensure that we do not see the sort of double standards that we have seen with credit reference agencies up to now?

I agree with my hon. Friend. He will recall that, really since last autumn, we have been calling for reform of the way in which credit rating agencies operate. That is something on which we need an international agreement; we cannot do it in one country. Indeed, given the nature of our banks and other financial institutions, there would need to be agreement here. We have been calling for that at meetings of the IMF and the Financial Stability Forum, and it is also something that we are pursuing actively through the European Union. Such an agreement is one of many reforms that need to be put in place, because we need to recognise that the financial markets today are very globalised. We therefore need to ensure, right across the piece, not only that we have a robust domestic regulatory regime, but that there is increasing international co-operation, as we are now seeing. More than 30 big banks are now being regulated by colleges of regulators from different countries, so that they all know what is going on and will therefore be better equipped to spot problems far earlier than in the recent past.

The Chancellor will know that credit default swaps are credit derivative contracts between two counter-parties, and that they played a role in the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. Effectively, these derivatives separate the management and ownership of the credit risk from the qualitative aspects of ownership of the underlying asset. They are very complicated, more so because derivatives now look not only at equity, commodity and currency markets but at more subjective risks as well, making them very volatile. How does the Chancellor envisage audit capacity being enhanced so that auditors can fully understand and report on the real risks to institutions and investors?

The point that the hon. Gentleman is making is that banks and their directors need to understand the risks to which they are becoming exposed. The problem is not necessarily the instruments themselves, because it makes sense to insure and reinsure against risks, which is perfectly okay as long as people know what they are doing. The problem is that those at the top of rather too many institutions did not seem to know what they were doing. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that we need to have effective audit. The directors of the banks need to know what they are doing, and—as I said last night in my Mais lecture—the supervisors and regulators also need better to understand what individual practices are doing and the exposures that banks are entering into, because this is not just a problem for individual banks. There are systemic problems, as has been graphically shown, and the hon. Gentleman has given the House two examples from the United States of institutions that are no longer with us.

Vehicle Excise Duty

The changes to vehicle excise duty were set out in Budget 2008, and they are scheduled to be legislated on in the Finance Bill in 2009.

In West Sussex, during half-term week, the traffic levels on the A27 typically fall by about 20 per cent., due to the absence of the school run. This is related to the impracticalities of public transport, and is happening despite the fact that we are encouraging car sharing, which typically requires larger cars. Worthing also has a disproportionate number of elderly and disabled constituents who require larger cars for their mobility equipment. How does the Minister suggest that those constituents change their driving behaviour, given that they are to be faced with the treble whammy of swingeing increases in vehicle excise duty, plummeting second-hand car sale values, and no money being available to buy new, environmentally friendly cars?

It is important to remember that 55 per cent. of motorists in graduated VED will be better off, or no worse off, under these proposals. There are family cars and larger cars at or under the 160 g/km emissions level, below which the motorist will be either better off or no worse off.

On the cost of motoring, has my hon. Friend made an assessment of the policy of a fuel duty escalator? If so, does she agree that it would be a ridiculous misjudgment to implement such a policy?

Under a policy of fuel duty stabilisers, we would now be putting an extra 5p a litre on fuel duty. That would directly affect prices at the pump, which would affect the cost of motoring far more than VED.

The Government’s planned unfair road tax rises will bring in £1.8 billion over the next two years. That is money that families could have done with in their own pockets, rather than the Government’s. Are the Government not making a difficult situation worse for those families? The reality is that Ministers should ditch this road tax rise. It does not support families; it does not support the economy; and it does not even support the environment.

Why is the hon. Lady talking about that, when her policy would put 5p on fuel duty now, creating an increase that would feed right through to the pumps? That is bad judgment.


No. The Government do not think that this change would provide well-targeted, cost-effective support for their objectives. That view was supported by the 2004 Wanless report “Securing Good Health for the Whole Population”, which argued that it would be ineffective and unfair. However, we keep these matters under review.

I know that my constituent Mr. Ian Williams, who runs the Empress health club in Mexborough in my constituency, will be disappointed with that response. The health club is excellent and has full boxing facilities for Mexborough boxing club. It ticks all the right boxes as far as the Government are concerned in terms of health, well-being and community cohesion, and yet Mr. Williams is finding it increasingly difficult to compete with Denaby sports centre down the road, a local authority trust facility which is VAT exempt. Given my right hon. Friend’s response, will he look at the issue again? If he is not willing to do so, will he give me any other financial advice that I can offer to Mr. Williams, because this facility will close if we cannot get additional help to it?

I am aware of concerns about competition with regard to leisure centres. HMRC has discussed that with some of those involved, but of course I would be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about it. It may well be that the help that we have talked about today for small businesses will be valuable in that particular case.

Counterfeit Currency

9. What estimate he has made of the number of counterfeit pound coins in circulation; and what steps he is taking to remove them from circulation. (231522)

The latest survey conducted by the Royal Mint indicated a potential counterfeit level of around 2 per cent. The Royal Mint continues to work closely with the police, banks and cash-in-transit companies to introduce more robust methods for detecting and removing counterfeit coins from circulation.

Is not the biggest scandal not the number of counterfeit coins but the fact that each of these counterfeit pounds in the pocket is worth 14 per cent. less than they were at the time of the last general election? Is not that 14 per cent. devaluation of the pound a tragedy for our country and a reflection of the failure of this Government’s economic policies?

The hon. Gentleman is imaginative in trying to get a dig at the Government. The key point, of which he will be aware, is that we have robust coinage in this country. We have strong enforcement mechanisms to ensure that counterfeit coins and notes are rigorously followed up. The counterfeit note rate represents something like 0.013 per cent. of the average stock of notes in circulation. We take vigorous action in these areas, and I am sure he welcomes that.

Topical Questions

The core purpose of the Treasury remains to ensure the stability of the economy to promote growth and to manage the public finances.

My right hon. Friend may be aware of the Help for Heroes campaign, which is raising money to support those injured and disabled in the service of our country. Next week, contestants on “The X Factor” will release a charitable single to raise money for that excellent cause, but as things stand they are liable for VAT on the proceeds. I wonder whether there is anything that he can do to help.

I very much support the Help for Heroes campaign and the efforts made by contestants on the “The X Factor”. In recognition of that, I am proposing effectively to waive VAT on the sale of the singles. We will do that by making a donation to the fund equivalent to the value of the VAT.

T2. The Chancellor’s predecessor, the Prime Minister, once stated that losing control of public expenditure does not help the poor. How can the Chancellor reconcile that with his plans to increase both borrowing and public expenditure? Will he give an undertaking that he will not increase taxation, which would again harm the poor in our country? (231537)

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that our policy of supporting the economy is wrong, he should have a word not only with the shadow Chief Secretary, but also with the leader of his party, who said on the “Today” programme on 20 October that at a time like this

“borrowing goes up. That is inevitable…you have to allow that to happen. Those automatic stabilisers as Keynes called them, those have to operate.”

If it is good enough for the Leader of the Opposition, it ought to be good enough for someone who, I presume, supports him.

T3. I recently visited TEi Engineering in Wakefield, an engineering firm that is training the next generation of young apprentices, men and women, to be welders to build the next generation of eco-power stations. It is desperate for further investment to increase the skills of its staff. Does my right hon. Friend agree that cutting £1 billion from the Train to Gain programme would be catastrophic for firms across the country? (231538)

I agree with my hon. Friend. Maintaining investment in training is essential. As we get through the present difficulties, the opportunities for this country and, importantly, for the people of this country are immense.

I also agree with what my hon. Friend said about nuclear power. At a time like this, when we must reduce our dependence on imported gas and oil, it is imperative that we invest in the new generation of nuclear power stations. That is another example of the Conservative party’s inability to face up to the difficult decisions that we need to make for the benefit of the people of this country.

The Chancellor knows about the enormous anxiety in charities and local government about the billions lost in Icelandic banks, and the thousands of British savers whose savings disappeared because they were routed through Kaupthing Isle of Man. Now that he has confirmed that he was informed of the difficulties of Icelandic banks months ago, will he place in the House of Commons Library a full record of the information that the Treasury was given over the past year, and the action that it took on the back of it to protect British savers’ interests?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Financial Services Authority, which is the regulator of banks, building societies and other financial institutions, monitors what is happening in institutions all the time. That is its job. It is not surprising that, from time to time, the FSA may have concerns about institutions. It speaks to those institutions, and it gets them to try to address those concerns.

As for the Icelandic banks, the fundamental problem was not here but in Iceland. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Iceland has effectively had to take over its banks. I have been trying to persuade the Icelandic authorities to ensure that they honour their obligations to savers in this country under their compensation scheme, and also that they treat creditors in this country fairly and on the same footing as Icelandic creditors. I have had a number of discussions with the Icelandic Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, but so far we have not been given those assurances, which is why I have had to step in to guarantee retail depositors and savers in this country. That is where our obligation lies. I will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect people who find themselves in that position, but what we really must do is encourage the Icelandic Government to conclude their discussions with the International Monetary Fund. Some of those discussions will, I hope, ensure that British creditors—indeed, all creditors outside Iceland—are treated fairly, and in the same way as those living in Iceland.

T4. Is it bad judgment to oppose Government action to protect small savers’ money in banks and building societies, or just another example of social justice from the perspective of the Bullingdon club? (231539)

During the recession of which the Prime Minister has spoken, tax receipts are likely to fall rapidly. What assessment has the Chancellor made of future tax receipts, and is there any truth in reports in the newspapers that the Treasury is already considering—beside borrowing—tax rises and cuts in public services?

As I think is clear to everyone, when a global credit crunch hits, it hits not only tax receipts from the financial sector but tax receipts from such things as stamp duty. We have made it clear that it is right to maintain public spending and increase borrowing to support the economy at a time like this, but we are also cutting taxes this year, for example through increased tax allowances and by freezing fuel duty below the level of inflation. That is in contrast to the policy of the hon. Gentleman’s party, which would increase taxes on fuel duty this year.

T5. One third of the work force in South Derbyshire are employed in manufacturing industry in companies such as Toyota, Rolls-Royce and JCB, which invest heavily in the future in terms of both capital and development costs. In the context of the design of a fiscal regime that will support such businesses, will the Chief Secretary comment on alternative suggestions whose implementation might improve some of the incentives for investment of that kind? (231540)

I think that my hon. Friend is referring to tax reliefs for investment and allowances for business. I think it right for us to support businesses through what is a difficult time for not only the world economy but the United Kingdom economy. That includes, for manufacturing industry, tax allowances for investment, and claims that cutting those allowances would help businesses are simply disingenuous.

T6. We all know the value of charities within our society and, in recession, people will need the support of charities even more. I understand that Treasury Ministers have recently met representatives of the sector to discuss possible measures to support it. Will that support be forthcoming soon and, if so, where? (231541)

There was a meeting with charities in relation to the Icelandic banks and those discussions with charities are continuing. We are aware of the position in which they find themselves and, as I said to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) a moment ago, if Iceland can resolve its problems, that will be helpful for all creditors. We are aware of the problems and the discussions will continue.

Is the Chancellor aware that it makes a lot more sense to borrow money to create jobs and to help small businesses rather than spending the whole summer cadging money for the Tory party to shore up its finances?

Order. I thought the hon. Gentleman was going to give us a good example, but that did not happen.

T8. When the Minister met the delegation that I led on 4 June, in a positive meeting, she agreed to undertake an examination of the case for fuel duty derogation for remote island communities. It is now a number of months since that meeting. What progress has she made? When can we expect a conclusion? Although the Prime Minister’s recent remarks on the cost of fuel were very welcome, people in my constituency would love to pay the price that he was complaining about. (231543)

Obviously we understand the issues, particularly in island communities. We are continuing to look at the matter, and we will make announcements in due course, but I hope he will recognise that there has some been some easing of fuel prices since the time we met. I understand that his community has to face extra costs, and I assure him that we are focusing on the matter.

Will the Chancellor confirm that the latest estimate from the Bank of England of worldwide write-offs is £2.8 trillion? Is not a cause of that the uncontrolled creation of credit by private financial interests, which has jeopardised the public and the public interest? There have been a lot of dubious financial practices invoked as part of that. When will we get a full-scale analysis from the Treasury of all the causes, so we can make sure that it does not happen again?

I agree that there are lessons to be learned as a result of what has happened over the past few years. It is important that we act on that and, as I said last night at the Mais lecture, I hope to be in a position to publish some preliminary conclusions and proposals in the not-too-distant future.

T9. The Minister may use anti-terrorism laws to throw hecklers out of the Labour party conference, but does he not consider it utterly inappropriate to use them to freeze the assets of foreign banks? Can he not see that that impacts on the Government’s reputation and the country’s reputation? I could not care less about the Government’s reputation, but I care about the country’s reputation. (231544)

The legislation that we used was approved by Parliament and I believe that it was necessary for us to take action to safeguard the position of creditors in the United Kingdom. It is important that we take action, because there is a clear public interest there.

The Prime Minister has made positive statements, welcomed by Members and by people across the country, about oil companies and utility companies passing on the cut in oil prices to their customers. Can Treasury Ministers encourage banks to pass on the recent, and future, cuts in bank rates to its mortgage borrowers and customers?

My hon. Friend is right. It is important that, with world oil prices coming down, those cuts be passed on to consumers because, as we all saw, the price increases were certainly passed on to consumers. We have seen many petrol companies passing on price cuts, and it would be good to see all petrol companies bringing prices down right across the country. Gas and electric companies could also do more to pass on reductions in oil prices in their fuel bills. He is also right that it is important to ensure that the banks do their bit, particularly given the amount of support that the Government are providing for the banking system as a whole to keep it safe, and we will be setting out further procedures to monitor the way in which banks can do that in future.

Does the Minister accept that for many small and medium-sized businesses the last straw in these difficult times is having to find the money to pay the rates on empty properties? Please will the Government recognise that as an urgent problem?

We are aware of the worries about empty property relief, but it is important to remember that the vast majority of that relief went to the City of London and four other areas. We are looking into the matter, and we understand the difficulties, but it is also important to remember that when 100 per cent. relief was given, buildings remained empty for a very long time and therefore were not recycled, which is economically inefficient, and that the areas that had the most access to the relief had some of the highest rents in the world.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the difficulties being faced by businesses in ports such as Hull and Liverpool now that they have been presented with three years of backdated business tax bills? What steps is he taking to deal with that injustice?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and I talked about this matter with the Treasury Committee yesterday, and we said that we were looking at ways to enable companies that had been affected to pay the due amount over a longer period than would normally be the case. What has typically happened is that the rates liability for the port operators has been reduced, whereas the liability for the occupiers has been increased. There has been some rebalancing there, and the port operators also have a responsibility to consider whether they can help.

T10. Kettering borough council is organising a credit crunch summit to which it is inviting local businesses, residents, banks, building societies, housing associations and others to discuss what steps can be taken to minimise the impact of the recession on local residents and businesses. Would the Chancellor like to applaud this initiative? (231545)

It is important that we consider what we can do to help businesses, as we have been discussing during Question Time, and individuals. I repeat what I said earlier: steps such as reducing the amount of tax being paid by basic rate taxpayers and postponing the fuel duty increase will all help. I should also say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that it is important as well that the Government are prepared to put their money behind what they say, which means we have to allow borrowing to rise. The Conservative party is now saying that we should not borrow, which would have consequences, and sooner or later it will have to spell them out—or perhaps not, if, as with so many other Conservative policies, it adopts it one week, and then drops it the next.

Business of the House

I welcome back the Leader of the House; we are very pleased that she has made a full recovery. Will she give us the forthcoming business?

The business for next week will be as follows:

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 on work and welfare.

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

The provisional business for the week commencing 10 November will include:

Monday 10 November—Opposition day [20th allotted day]. There will be a debate on a Liberal Democrat motion. Subject to announced.

Tuesday 11 November—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by general debate: subject to be announced.

Wednesday 12 November—Motions relating to House of Commons business.

Thursday 13 November—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by general debate: subject to be announced.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 13 November will be:

Thursday 13 November—A debate on the report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on harmful content on the internet and in video games.

Earlier this month the shadow Justice Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), tabled a written question to the Ministry of Justice on rates of reoffending by prisoners on early release. By 10.30 pm on Monday, he had not received an answer, yet that night the Daily Mirror was going to press with details of the answer. Answers to written questions should surely be given to Members before they go to the press, so what action is the Leader of the House taking to ensure that Ministers follow that rule, respect Parliament and do not leak answers to the press for their own political convenience?

The Leader of the House has just announced a debate on work and welfare, which follows our Opposition day debate on unemployment. On Monday, the House of Lords will hold a general debate on the economy. When will we have a full debate in this House, in Government time, on the state of the economy? Apart from other things, that would give Members an opportunity to debate the Chancellor’s Mais lecture, which was described in The Times as being

“as striking for its lack of introspection as for its vagueness in indicating a way forward. The Government has repeatedly proclaimed an end to boom and bust, yet has produced both.”

We need a debate.

Continuing on the state of the economy, it is reported today that one in 10 small businesses are in danger of going under. Members need to be able to hold Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to account in this House, but the Secretary of State sits in the House of Lords and there is no Minister in this House at Cabinet level. What is more, there is only one Minister in this House dedicated solely to the Department. At this time, when even the Government have admitted that we are heading into a recession, that is simply not good enough. The Select Committee on Business and Enterprise is rightly concerned by that unprecedented lack of accountability, so may we have an urgent statement from the Leader of the House explaining what action she will take to ensure that there is proper accountability by that Department to this House?

May we have a debate on the BBC? There is public outrage at the behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, yet for several days the BBC seemed like a rabbit caught in the headlights, unable to act. We need a debate on the BBC’s handling of the incident, because licence fee payers have a right to know what went wrong and how similar incidents will be avoided in future.

On 7 February, the House agreed a Conservative resolution that the European Scrutiny Committee should meet in public, but I understand that it has been holding the majority of meetings in private, that members of the public have effectively been prevented from attending and that the Committee has now decided to ask the Leader of the House to let it meet in private in future. It is an important Committee and should be open to the public, so may we have a statement from her on why it appears to have been flouting the will of the House?

There are reports that the Cabinet is divided over a third runway at Heathrow. Indeed, the right hon. and learned Lady herself is reported as questioning the Government’s decision for a third runway. Our policy is clear: no to a third runway and yes to a high-speed rail link. Today it is reported that the Government are adopting our policy on high-speed rail. May we have a debate on Heathrow, so that we can find out whether the Government are going to make a U-turn and adopt our policy on a third runway as well?

Finally, two weeks ago the Leader of the House promised a statement on Equitable Life in the autumn. The clocks have changed and London has had its first snowfall. Does she still think that it is autumn, or will she now give us a date for a statement on Equitable Life?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her best wishes to me as I was off with flu last week. I have to confess that I was apprehensive that my failing to reply to business questions might cause alarm and despondency among all parties. However, I was able to watch a few moments on television last week and detected that that was far from the case, and that the House felt it was in very safe hands being looked after by my deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I thank him for looking after the shop while I was away.

I agree with the right hon. Lady’s proposition that written answers should go to the Members concerned before they are given to the press. I shall look into that point and write to her about it, because the issue is a serious one. A Department has to be sure that its answer, which it is free to give to the press, has first reached the Member directly; the Member should not see it in a newspaper first.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the economic situation. Whether in statements from the Treasury or from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, in answers at Prime Minister’s questions, in answers at Treasury questions this morning or in debates such as this afternoon’s topical debate on businesses and the regions or last week’s topical debate on skills and employment, the economy is before the House for debate and discussion, and Ministers are being held accountable at all times, and rightly so.

The right hon. Lady will know that that the director-general of the BBC is today meeting its board of trustees, who represent the interests of licence holders.

In its procedures, the European Scrutiny Committee follows the resolutions passed by this House. There is no question of that Committee flouting the will of the House, because it is not in a position to do so: it has to comply with the Standing Orders at all times. Indeed, those Standing Orders were introduced for a temporary period and will come back to the House to be renewed, re-debated and discussed on 12 November, as I announced, so the right hon. Lady, like all hon. Members, will have an opportunity to make further points then.

The Government’s position on Heathrow is that London has fewer runways than other European capitals. In principle, we are in favour of an additional runway at Heathrow, but we have always said that this was subject to environmental concerns, in particular, and to extensive consultation and the gathering of scientific and other evidence. This is being considered by the Secretary of State for Transport.

As for the investment in rail infrastructure being the Conservative party’s idea, that is a laugh. When we took over, the infrastructure—the network, the stations and the rolling stock—was in a state of disrepair and investment was lacking. We have invested in our national infrastructure. That has been part of our investment in this country while the sun shines, and we will not cut that investment. We will continue it, because it is important to the economy.

The right hon. Lady also asked about Equitable Life. I have given her an answer to the question about the Government’s accountability to the House on all economic issues and the opportunities for this House to debate them. She will remember that the Equitable Life issue arose out of a structure that the company adopted in the 1970s. In the 1990s, that structure meant that a problem surfaced: Equitable Life was not able to meet its obligations to its policyholders. The parliamentary ombudsman spent four years investigating the background to this matter, and produced a weighty report this summer. After four years of investigation into a very complex issue, it is right that the Government should consider the matter seriously and should have the time to do so. As I said, the report will be given to the House this autumn by the Chancellor; he will give his decision to the House. Incidentally, the parliamentary ombudsman is giving evidence to the Public Administration Committee this morning.

As a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since its creation, I have long been disappointed that we devote relatively little time to matters of food and diet. This is against a backdrop of an increase in obesity and diet-related diseases, particularly among younger people, which is linked to foods that have high salt, sugar and fat content. Will the Leader of the House say whether time could be allocated to debate the Food Standards Agency report on food labelling, which considers some of the options that exist, such as guideline daily amounts and traffic-light systems, so that we can get the retail industry behind whatever the chosen best option is and start to tackle some of the health and social problems that we face?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about a what is a major public health issue not only for DEFRA but for the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. The latter is especially concerned about child health and what happens in schools. Labelling also raises questions about information for consumers, especially parents. I shall therefore consider whether we can have further opportunities to debate the matter, possibly in a topical debate.

I too welcome the Leader back and hope that she makes a full recovery soon.

I join the Conservative shadow Leader of the House in requesting full-day debates in Government time on the economy and on Heathrow. On the latter, there does not appear to be unanimity in the Government, so there must be some hope that we can change their mind.

Last week, protests were held, yet again, over the short period allowed for the Report stage of Bills. Today the Government announced two Bills returning to the House on Report and Third Reading next week. I bring to the Leader’s attention—I do not know whether she was here at the time—the fact that a further two Bills were not given enough time for debate on Report. At the last minute, the Government tabled loads of their own amendments to the Local Transport Bill. There were nine groups of amendments, but we reached only three, and issues such as bridge tolls, road charging and local transport plans were not properly discussed.

The same happened with the Climate Change Bill—we did not discuss 2020 targets, charges on carrier bags or refundable deposits on recyclable containers. Please will the Leader do what she led us to believe she would do and ensure that we have a timetable that allows Labour Members and Opposition Members the chance to debate all the issues on Report?

For the week after next, the Leader has announced, cryptically, a debate on the business of the House, by which we understand that we will have a debate on the Government’s wish to set up Select Committees for the English regions—

Given the controversial nature of the proposal, and the fact that it got through Committee only by a majority of one and with a lot of good luck—

Indeed. And given that on Tuesday night, as the Deputy Leader knows, real concern was expressed on both sides of the House about the number of Members available to serve on Select Committees, may we, before Christmas, have a debate on Select Committees and their numbers before we set up the new Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, which we have agreed on, and before debating any regional Select Committees for England? It is a nonsense to try to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. The Government might be wise to back off and think again.

As we all know, next Tuesday sees the United States election. The Liberal Democrats look forward unanimously to the election of Senator Obama as the next American President, and hope that he will be a beacon of light and hope in a very gloomy and threatening world. May we have a debate as soon as is practical after Tuesday on the effect of the American presidential election on worldwide issues? It is the most important election outside this country to people here, and I hope that we can have an early debate on its foreign policy implications.

Next Thursday sees the important by-election in Glenrothes. I do not know whether the Leader has had a chance to visit it and the surrounding villages—

The Leader might, or might not, know that rail fares in Fife are greater, mile per mile, than anywhere else in Scotland. May we have a debate on the rail pricing structure across the UK? If we want to encourage people to use public transport, it is no use their discovering that it is far more expensive in some parts of the country than in others.

Lastly, there is great concern about the effect of the recession on small businesses. We have waited six months since the tenders for the Post Office card account went in. May we therefore have a debate, before the decision is made, about the implications for the future of thousands of post offices if the card account contract does not go to the Post Office? That would allow us to express our hope that the Government will see sense and keep the remaining post offices viable rather than threatening them with another potential death blow.

The hon. Gentleman asked for further debate on the economy and on Heathrow. Of course, his party has an Opposition day the week after next, so he could consider those as topics for debate on that day.

The hon. Gentleman talked about allowing adequate time for the scrutiny of Government business, and mentioned in particular the Climate Change Bill and the Local Transport Bill. We must ensure that at all stages legislation is properly scrutinised and that we bring as many Bills forward as possible in draft form so that before they are even introduced formally into this House there is proper pre-legislative scrutiny. That has assisted greatly in the scrutiny that the House gives to legislation. That was the case with the Climate Change Bill. In addition to Second Reading, it is important that there is full scrutiny in Committee and on Report. It is also important that we have post-legislative scrutiny. It is not just about what we say about the intentions of a Bill: we should look back and see whether what was said in the House by Government or Opposition Members about our aspirations for the legislation was borne out in practice. We need to ensure that across the piece there is proper scrutiny at all stages and we seek to do that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the business of the House that will come before the House on the 12 November and raised the issue of regional Select Committees. I would have thought that he would want better scrutiny of important activity in the regions. Billions of pounds are being spent by regional health authorities, regional development agencies and highway authorities, and that profoundly affects individual regions. Surely it is right that there is accountability to the House when millions of pounds of public money are involved. However, I do not want to pre-empt the debate, which is recognised to be controversial. We will try to ensure that we place the resolutions before the House as early as possible so that Members have a chance to look at them before they come steaming in to disagree with regional accountability. How many Members will sit on the Committees will obviously come within the scope of the resolutions relating to regional Committees.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the United States election. Foreign Office questions are a week on Tuesday, but I want to highlight one point about that election. It looks set to have very high turnout involving people who have previously not necessarily voted. They have registered to vote and then gone out to vote. We should all be preoccupied with tackling the lack of registration in the UK, particularly in inner- city areas and among poorer people, and with tackling low voting turnout. If we can learn anything from the American elections about getting more people—and particularly more young people—to vote, we should try to do so.

The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to discover that I shall be going to Glenrothes on Tuesday.

On the Post Office card account, the hon. Gentleman asked for a debate in order to affect the Government’s decision. The post office network is important, and the card account is important for the post office network. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Post Office is on record as having said that it has put in a strong bid for the contract, but he will also know that there are legal structures for such a public procurement exercise. Asking for the views of the House as a way of contributing to that public procurement process cannot be done. The decision is subject to the legal process at the moment, and when it has been made it will be brought to the House.

May I ask about a rather sensitive and no doubt controversial matter? Could Government time be provided for a debate on assisted suicide in some cases of terminal illness? Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that such a debate in the House would be well timed, whichever line we took? The House of Lords debated the subject some two years ago and we should reflect our point of view as soon as possible, so I hope that debating time can be provided.

The Government have published our pre-legislative programme in advance of the Queen’s Speech to give people the opportunity to propose a bit of legislation, if they think it needs to be included in the programme. Of course, from time to time there are Bills whose long title allows such a provision to be brought forward through a Back-Bench amendment. My hon. Friend will know that the case that has been before the courts, in which a judgment was issued this week, is subject to appeal. There will be further judicial consideration of the subject. The situation under the criminal law is certainly unusual. The criminal offence of assisting somebody’s suicide is unique as it is the only part of the criminal law where it is an offence to assist the commission of something that is itself not an offence. I know that there is concern about the subject, and we will no doubt have a further legal ruling.

In the reassuring, avuncular presence of the Leader of the House’s right hon. and eternal Friend the Deputy Chief Whip, will she have some conversations with those who arrange the business of this House to try to give real priority to the issues that concern our electorates? They expect us to debate foreign affairs; they expect us to debate the economic situation; they do not expect us to waste time on the ridiculous and stupid idea of regional Select Committees that we do not have sufficient Members to man adequately.

We do find time to debate the important issues of foreign affairs and the economic situation. That is one of the issues that we have chosen for weekly topical debates. I do not think that properly holding to account the agencies that implement public policy in the regions is a waste of time, but the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make his views known when the resolutions are brought before the House.

At the end of next month, the ballot papers will go out to every household in Greater Manchester for the referendum on the future of public transport in the region. The proposals include an element of peak period congestion charging. As we have been reminded, in our discussions on the Local Transport Bill on Monday we were not able to consider the amendments on road pricing. Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on road pricing and congestion charging so that we can have the opportunity to see how those policies fit in with the policies agreed in the Climate Change Bill on Tuesday, which set stringent targets for emission reductions? It would offer a chance for those who supported the Climate Change Bill but who oppose road pricing to justify their position.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The provision for local people to choose a congestion charge was enabled in the Local Transport Bill not only to allow people to tackle congestion, which can be a big drag on businesses and can hold back economic growth in particular cities, but to enable cities to contribute to reduced carbon emissions. That provision has now been included in the Bill, so once the Bill becomes law it will obviously become a matter for local decision making.

May I preface my question with a comment? The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) referred to the workings of the European Scrutiny Committee. As a member of that Committee, I can say that it has never met in private, except under the conditions debated and set by the House.

The Government stated that they are looking to bring forward capital schemes. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport on whether such schemes as the Kingskerswell bypass will be considered for early construction?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making it absolutely clear that the shadow Leader of the House was completely wrong to say that the European Scrutiny Committee had flouted the rules of the House. She owes an apology to the Chair of the Committee, who would not think it his business to flout the rules of the House when chairing the Committee, and to the Clerks of the Committee. Even if the Chair did decide to flout the rules of the House, they would play no part in that. She owes all the members and Clerks of the Committee, and its Chair, an apology. Apologies appear to be the order of the day in the Conservative party. Let us see whether she can join the shadow Chancellor in making an apology.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) made an important point about bringing forward capital schemes, and all Members will be concerned to identify capital schemes that could be brought forward in their local area. We firmly believe that it is not the right time to cut public investment, because such investment helps the economy to grow, and because we do not want to do anything that takes money out of the economy at a time when it needs the stability of continued public investment. This is yet another issue on which the official Opposition simply cannot make up their mind.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate, or at least a statement, on the situation facing the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo? The war there has cost more than 5 million lives in the past decade. Fighting has broken out again in the east, and although there appears to be some kind of temporary ceasefire, we need a statement from the Government on what they are doing to ensure that the ceasefire holds, and that further aid flows. A terrible plight of starvation and homelessness faces refugees in the east, and as much as possible must be done to help them through this dreadful crisis.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is great apprehension and foreboding about the unravelling of the situation, and an absolute determination that the international community should not, as has happened in the past, fail people in central Africa when such situations emerge. I have said that the House needs an opportunity to discuss economic issues and the economy of this country, and I will take his question as a suggestion for the next topical debate.

While the economic crisis and the credit crunch have dominated the attention of Members and the country—I believe that a full, two-day debate on the economy should be held—should we forget the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe? Despite the intervention of ex-President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and the Southern African Development Community, ex-President Mugabe still clings to power. Is it not time for a full-day debate on the subject? It is our duty to represent the interests of the people of Zimbabwe, as we brought about Mr. Mugabe’s emergence as President, so we should discuss the issue and perhaps indicate what action should be taken.

The people of Zimbabwe expressed their view in the election in March. Hon. Members on both sides of the House—the hon. Gentleman is not least among them—are concerned that the will of the people of Zimbabwe should be reflected in the governance of their country. We have sought opportunities for the House to debate the issue. We had a topical debate and a written ministerial statement from the Foreign Secretary on the subject in July. Oral statements were made on 12 and 15 September, and the Lords Foreign Office Minister met the all-party group on Zimbabwe on 7 October. There will be oral questions to the Foreign Secretary the week after next, and the issue can be raised again then. We remain deeply concerned; there is intense Government action and international action. The situation is far from resolved.

May I endorse the point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about the need to give a more reasonable amount of time to the Report stage of major Bills? It is not as though we are short of time in this House; it is currently sitting for less time than it has done for as long as anybody can remember.

As regards the eastern Congo, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House suggested, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), that the matter be the subject of a topical debate. We need a statement from the Foreign Secretary on what this country can do to assist in averting the catastrophe, which is one of the greatest of recent times; 3 million to 4 million people have died in the Congo in the past 10 or 15 years. I appreciate that our influence is limited, but we really need to hear from the Foreign Office about what we can do, in co-operation with the EU and the UN, to help alleviate that catastrophe.

My hon. Friend reinforces points made by other hon. Members about the need for adequate time, and we are well aware of those points. We need to get Government business through, to have it properly scrutinised, and adequate time to discuss amendments and new clauses tabled by Back Benchers on both sides of the House on Report.

In relation to the Congo, I will have a discussion with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on how best to make sure that the House is kept up to date and has an opportunity to make its view known, through a statement, a topical debate or some other means.

I echo those calls for a debate about the Congo. Ban Ki-moon said that the violence overnight, reported this morning, is in danger of creating a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions. The UN forces are undermanned, and they call for further reinforcements. What can the Government do to provide those reinforcements?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s question as reinforcing the point that the House wants to hear from the Foreign Secretary on the issue; I take that point.

May I endorse all the comments on the appalling situation in the Congo, which I visited with other Members?

Moving on, in this anniversary year of women’s suffrage, may I urge my right hon. and learned Friend, in her capacity as Leader of the House, to do everything in her power to promote the wonderful new exhibition on suffrage that has just been set up by the Admission Order Office? It includes the scarf that Emily Wilding Davison was wearing when she fell under a horse at the Derby, a medal of Emmeline Pankhurst and a picture by Sylvia Pankhurst. Will my right hon. and learned Friend do all she can to promote the exhibition, and ensure that the tour guides show the exhibition to our schoolchildren and other parties when they visit and tour the House?

My hon. Friend has made the point extremely well, and I thank her for doing so. We still have further to go; although woman have the vote, there is still unequal representation of women.

That is right; Mr. Speaker, you are holding a Speaker’s Conference on how we can tackle the issue of the under-representation of women and minority ethnic groups in the House of Commons, which should reflect the country as a whole. I looked at the figures just this morning. It is wrong that only 27 per cent.—fewer than one in three—of Labour Members of Parliament are women. However, it is absolutely shameful that only 9 per cent.—fewer than one in 10—of Conservative MPs are women. We all have a long way to go, but some have a great deal further to go than others.

May I ask the Leader of the House to give the House time to debate the Government’s decision to prop up the housing market through its housing clearance policy? The policy will cost several hundred million pounds, and much of that will come from other pots of money, including those set aside for small businesses. Given that £13 million went to one private developer this month, we should scrutinise the issue at the highest level.

I thank the hon. Lady, who is among the one in 10 to whom I referred, for making that point. Obviously, the issue of the housing market and house building is of concern. It was raised in questions to the Department for Communities and Local Government and in Treasury questions, and it was raised with the Prime Minister. We firmly believe that it is an issue on which the Government should act and that there should not be a laissez-faire attitude in the market. Public investment and public regulation of the mortgage markets have a role to play. I hope that the Conservatives will support us as we try to make progress on the issue.

Last weekend, along with local ward councillors, I went to the Burton upon Stather village post office where I met Hilary Baker who runs the branch, and she presented us with yet more Post Office card account postcards, which all hon. Members will have seen plenty of. I asked for a statement on this issue at the last business questions before the summer recess and we are now some months down the line. I understand the point about not having a debate while the tendering is going on, but I do not mind being on the record as supporting the Post Office card account going to the Post Office, and I hope that we can have a statement next week that at least tells us when the contract will be awarded.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs is present to hear that point, but I do not think that any of us are in any doubt about the importance of the post office network and the Post Office card account contract.

Will the Leader of the House be more specific about when we will hear from the Government on Equitable Life? She said autumn, but the temperature outside tells us that winter is not far away. Given that dozens of people in East Dunbartonshire and across the rest of the country have been waiting eight years for redress, and that the Government have had the ombudsman’s report for four months, surely it is now time that we found out what action the Government intend to take to make redress to the many people who have suffered because of Equitable Life.

The parliamentary ombudsman took four years to construct her report and, as the hon. Lady said, the Government have been considering it for four months. It is an important issue and we will give our response shortly.

This week, Sense, the deafblind charity, lobbied Parliament and drew Members’ attention to potential discrimination in the way in which the travel concessions are being applied, in particular, that some people with disabilities who are entitled to a free travel concession are unable to make use of it because their carer, who is necessary for them to get around, is not eligible for the concession. Will the Leader of the House consider ways in which this potential discrimination within the travel concession system can be debated in the House?

I will bring that important point to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Transport. It is one reason why, in the equality Bill that will be in the next Queen’s Speech, we will be strengthening the duties and obligations on public authorities, including those involved with travel, to ensure that all public services are properly available to members of the public with disabilities.

May we have a debate next week entitled “The Prime Minister’s responsibility for the UK’s recession”? That would enable us to point out, among other things, that his often-repeated boast that he had abolished boom and bust was not only economically illiterate and also untrue, it encouraged many people who should have known better to embark on excessive borrowing and lending, and to that extent he has personally aggravated the situation. It is quite wrong that a man whose judgment has proved so poor should now be in charge of policy making.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister himself at Prime Minister’s questions every Wednesday when he answers on such issues to the House. It is thanks to his time in office as Chancellor that we have had investment in hospitals and schools. Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman like to say which hospitals in his constituency he would rather not have had the investment in? Would he like to say which schools in his constituency he would rather not have had the investment in? Would he like to decry the fact that there are more home owners in his constituency than there were when the Conservative party was in government? This is clearly an economic crisis whose origins are international, and we are fortunate to have a Prime Minister who has not only strengthened our economy but can help to sort out the world economic problems.

I should like to associate myself with the remarks made earlier about having a longer parliamentary year so that we can have proper scrutiny on Report, with two days if necessary.

May we have a debate on the functioning or non-functioning of the parliamentary ombudsman’s office? It is reprehensible that it took her four years to produce a report on Equitable Life, and meanwhile pensioners are dying. I have a constituent, Mr. X, who was told by her office that it would take more than six months to make a preliminary decision as to whether his case would be investigated, although she rowed back on that after I complained. We either have an incompetent ombudsman or one who does not have sufficient resources, and the House should debate the matter sooner rather than later.

The parliamentary ombudsman is giving evidence to the Public Administration Committee this morning, and we will be able to see from the report of those proceedings whether the important points made by my hon. Friend were addressed by her.

Further to the right hon. and learned Lady’s earlier reply, I hope that she will be supporting all those excellent women Conservative candidates who hope to unseat her male colleagues, which would improve the percentage that she criticised.

Last year, the pre-Budget report was in the first half of October. This year it is even more important that the House and country know how much the Government plan to borrow, spend and tax, so will the right hon. and learned Lady now give us the date of the pre-Budget report?

I will announce the pre-Budget report in the usual way as part of the following and the subsequent weeks’ business.

It is important that we have women Members of Parliament who support women in the country, not women such as the shadow Leader of the House who, having been elected to Parliament, then voted against the national minimum wage, which was the most important measure for women’s income.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that many millions of households are very worried about high energy costs, particularly with winter coming. She will also be aware that the Prime Minister has called on the oil companies to pass on the falls in crude oil prices to their customers as quickly as possible. Many people in rural areas are dependent upon liquefied petroleum gas and domestic heating oil, which are linked directly to the price of crude oil. Yet my constituents have recently received a letter from a major supplier of LPG, Flogas, informing them that the price will not be going down but up. Moreover, one neighbour received a letter from Flogas saying that his price was going up 5p, but for his neighbour the increase was 3p. May we have a debate on competition and transparency in the LPG and heating oil market in rural areas as it is clearly needed urgently?

Those are matters of real concern. We need to maintain the supply of oil internationally and to ensure that it is competitive and well regulated. When there is a fall in the price of a barrel oil, we must ensure that it is passed on to the consumer. My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which I will raise with my Government colleagues and make sure that they write to him to tell him what action is being taken.

Earlier this year, the Leader of the House made a decisive intervention on the question of the confidentiality of Members’ home addresses. Will she consider doing the same thing again in the light of the fact that the Ministry of Justice is considering whether in future candidates’ addresses at general elections must be revealed when they nominate themselves and on various documents later? The guidance from the Information Commissioner in such situations is usually that the first part of the postcode is enough. Bearing in mind that the reason the judges made their dangerous decision early this year to allow home addresses to be revealed was the fact that they are revealed every four or five years in general elections, may we now consider closing this loophole?

This matter is under consideration by the Ministry of Justice and I know that it found the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions extremely helpful. He takes a thoughtful approach to this. It is obviously in the public interest for the public to know when they come to vote in an election whether a candidate lives in their area or miles away, but whether the precise address, including the flat number in a block in a particular street, should be given is questionable. We need to ensure that the public have the information that they need and the MPs, candidates and their families have the privacy that they need. I am sure that hon. Members can work together to sort this out.

The shorter daylight hours concentrate our minds still further on the energy challenges—electricity capacity, in particular—that we face as a country. May we have a debate on the need to extend the existing life of currently generating power stations, so that we can meet short-term and medium-term demand while new technologies and stations are being considered and developed?

In an extremely brief intervention, my hon. Friend has made a profound and important point, which relates to one of the reasons why we created the new Department of Energy and Climate Change and to one of the issues that it is addressing. I know that my hon. Friend will play an important part in the new Department’s deliberations.

May we have a debate on what I can only call bogus land banks? An internet site is offering 209 so-called building plots in my constituency for up to £18,000 a time in the village of Dean, which comprises about 30 houses. The plots are on agricultural land that will never, ever have planning permission for such development.

I do not think that the offer is illegal at the moment, but it is undoubtedly a scam. May we have a debate on how we can better protect the potential purchasers, who often will not be in this country, but are expatriates hoping to come home and retire in a house in beautiful rural Somerset? They may find that they have actually bought a field.

If people are offering for sale as building development sites areas of land that are no such thing, that could be fraud. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seeks a meeting with the Serious Fraud Office about whether criminality is involved. I shall bring the issue to the attention of the Department for Communities and Local Government.

May we have a statement on how aspects of sharia law are being introduced pre-trial in some civil courts? Those are profound changes with enormous implications. Many of our constituents find it absolutely extraordinary that this is happening without any parliamentary scrutiny at all.

Sharia law is not being introduced into our civil courts or any other part of our justice system. If agreement in respect of sharia has been reached, there is sometimes provision for that to be endorsed by the courts. However, that is subject to the agreement not trespassing on the public policy principles of fairness. There is no question that any other legal principles will compromise our own justice principles. If the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have been reading the newspapers or inadvertently listening to him, he can reassure them that they do not have as much to worry about as they thought.

As this is international brain tumour awareness week, may we have a debate as soon as possible on the issue of brain tumours, in Government time and on the Floor of the House? Given that brain tumours can attack anyone, that their causes are unknown, that screening is unrealistic, that prevention is impossible but that treatment is improving, will the Leader of the House accept that we need to debate the case for more research, more access to cutting-edge therapies, more clinical trials and more support for families at the earliest opportunity?

The hon. Gentleman might draw that issue to the attention of the Health Committee. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to write to me about what is being done in all parts of the country to improve the treatment of brain tumours once they have been diagnosed. I shall ask him to send a copy of the letter to the hon. Gentleman as well.

This week, the Transport Committee published its report on road safety which has again confirmed the Government’s lack of progress on tackling drunk drivers and on the problem of uninsured drivers. Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on those issues so that more lives are not needlessly lost?

I pay tribute to the Chair and all the members of the Transport Committee. Over the years, the Committee has played an exceptional role in taking forward and pressing issues of transport safety. Some call that evidence of the nanny state, but it is about saving lives. The Committee’s important recent report will get full consideration from the Government.

In the hands of the Government, the seasons can be a somewhat flexible concept. For the purposes of the right hon. and learned Lady’s statement on Equitable Life, on what date does autumn end?

I have simply repeated to the House what the Chancellor has said. We all recognise that many people have been profoundly affected by the problems at Equitable Life. The issue is being investigated. The Government are considering that investigation, and will respond.

In response to the remarks on assisted suicide made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), with whom I fully agree, the Leader of the House said that Back Benchers had the opportunity to raise controversial issues in Bills on Report, when the scope is wide enough for amendments to be selected. In respect of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, such issues were raised but the Government took what I understand to be the unprecedented step of whipping through a programme motion to deny a free vote on the controversial issue of abortion, in which Back Benchers on both sides were engaged. Two weeks ago, the right hon. and learned Lady intimated that that would be a normal procedure and no notice was given to those who tabled the amendments—many of them women with whom she has worked on equality issues for many years. For her sincerity to be recognised, will she give time to explain to the House how programme motions are normally used to decide the time given to controversial issues on free votes on Report?

When deciding on a programme motion, consideration is paid to how Government and Back-Bench amendments and new clauses can be given adequate time for debate on Report. That time follows the consideration that there would have been during pre-legislative scrutiny and in Committee. In the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, exceptionally, there had been time on the Floor of the House for consideration of amendments. The normal procedure is for the programme motion to come before the House to be discussed.

The hon. Gentleman and I agree that it is important that not only should there be proper sex education and proper availability of contraception, but that if a pregnancy has to be terminated, the facilities should be there for that to happen as early as possible. That is the position in all parts of the country. I suggest that he and I work together on what is a free-vote, not a Government-versus-Opposition, issue. Instead of attacking me, he should work with me to make progress for women all around this country.

On 17 October, the Government opposed my Bill to abolish the television tax, arguing that having the licence fee was the only way to protect the editorial freedom of the BBC. In the light of what the Prime Minister said this week, in what seemed a blatant attack on the independence of the BBC, may we have a fresh debate on the issue? In that way, we can get all the people together in this country and recognise that the licence fee is outdated and regressive and that it is a tax that should be abolished.

We have no plans to abolish the BBC and its important public financial support, which comes through the licence fee.

In parts of Birmingham, commercial property is being offered for as little as 50p a square foot. Other commercial properties are being needlessly demolished because their owners cannot afford to pay the empty property business rate. May we have a debate on Government policy to see whether it is possible to get some shift for those companies, which are in a bad state at the moment?

The hon. Lady makes a serious point. This subject was raised immediately preceding business questions in Treasury questions, when one of the Treasury Ministers said that they understood the concerns and were looking into them. I refer her to that earlier exchange in the House.

Can we have a debate in Government time on changes to train timetables? Kettering rail users’ group is rightly outraged. This week, signs have been put up at Kettering railway station promising major improvements to the train service from December, yet the number of trains north from Kettering is due to be halved, the evening peak time return service from London is going to be the worst that it has been for 25 years, and the Saturday service will be quite appalling.

I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport. However, people in Kettering, as well as throughout the country, have benefited from more trains being on time, better quality rolling stock and more investment in the rail network. We certainly have further to go, but I hope that he recognises the progress that has been made on rail transportation for passengers, as well as freight, in Kettering and elsewhere in the country.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to raise this, but I have had to do so before. The Chair is the guardian of Back Benchers in this House, and business questions is an exceptionally important opportunity for Back Benchers. I acknowledge the fact that, because it is a light House today, all the Back Benchers who wanted to get in got in, but it is also true that the Front Benchers between them took 20 minutes, and the Leader of the House is prolix in her answers. As a consequence, Back Benchers are often not called on these important occasions. Will you and Mr. Speaker see what can be done to address what is potentially a very great unfairness to Back Benchers?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is not the proper answer to the question, “Can we have a debate?”, either yes or no; we can or we cannot? If the Leader of the House were to do that rather than attempt to have the debate now, in which she always gets the last word, the business of the House would be more expeditiously dealt with?

If I may deal with those two points of order in reverse order, my response to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is that how Ministers answer questions is certainly not a matter for the Chair, and I suspect that it is not a new problem either.

With regard to the point of order raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), Mr. Speaker or any occupant of this Chair is very keen to allow as many Back Benchers to get in as possible, because this is very much a Back Benchers’ occasion. Today, fortunately, we got in everybody who wanted to get in. I trust that the Front Benchers, who are both here, have heard his comments.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When hon. Members ask when they may expect an answer to a question, it is less than helpful to be told that it will be autumn, particularly when we are also told, as we were in the Communities and Local Government Committee, that autumn is defined as December. It would be more helpful if the Leader of the House stuck to a rigid timetable instead of fobbing us off with vagaries about seasons.

I am afraid that I have to repeat to the hon. Lady what I just said—the manner and the time in which Ministers answer questions is not a matter for the Chair. I suspect that the definition of autumn may vary a little, particularly considering the weather that we have had recently.

Topical Debate

Businesses and the Regions

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of businesses and the regions.

It is right that we discuss how the current economic situation is affecting business in the great regions and cities of our country. In recent months, we have experienced what the International Monetary Fund has described as

“the largest global financial shock since the Great Depression”.

Last week, the Governor of the Bank of England said:

“Not since the beginning of the First World War has our banking system been so close to collapse.”

The crisis facing us is global, interconnected and unprecedented in recent times. The depth and global nature of the crisis means that it affects not only the City of London and the financial markets but the wider economy.

A properly functioning banking system is the vital foundation stone for a thriving wider economy. When we do not have that, as we have not in recent months, businesses find it hard to gain access to finance, investment decisions become more difficult, and confidence declines.

Kettering borough council is organising a credit crunch summit involving local businesses, residents, banks, building societies and housing associations. Will the Minister or one of his colleagues accept an invitation to attend or, if he or they cannot, will the regional Minister be able to support this initiative? Will the Minister take this opportunity to applaud Kettering borough council’s efforts in this regard?

I am sure that that will be carefully considered if the hon. Gentleman lets us know the date.

Last week, my noble and right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out some of the measures that the Government are taking to help businesses through these difficult times. We are taking those steps because we are aware of the critical importance of small and medium-sized businesses to our economy—the wealth that they create, the creativity that they offer, and the contribution to the quality of life that they make. The Government are taking steps as regards cash flow, with early payment of bills; and on access to finance, with the important discussions between the Government and the banks relating to the availability of credit. Indeed, today my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State are meeting the heads of the main banks, the European Investment Bank and business representatives to drive forward take-up of ElB’s loan facility for small and medium-sized enterprises. We also announced measures on access to training, advice and support, which are vital to businesses in these difficult times.

I welcome the re-announcement of the EIB money. However, as it originally occurred six weeks ago, why is that money yet to be received in any small firm’s account, even though the French Government have already issued the first tranche?

I can assure the House that the Chancellor and the Secretary of State are pressing ahead with this as quickly as possible in their discussions with the banks.

Last night, in the Mais lecture, the Chancellor set out further steps in our approach to the situation, particularly with regard to public spending. He said:

“When private activity slows, it is even more important to maintain wider public spending. This is why it is right to bring forward planned spending commitments—as with our housing package in September...We must also make sure we maintain public investment—in infrastructure, education and health”.

He also stressed that the Government will take the decisions necessary to ensure stability in the medium term to return borrowing and debt to a sustainable level.

These statements matter for businesses in our regions because many businesses depend on the Government as a customer. Those businesses supply the goods and labour that are necessary for the building of schools, roads, and so on. They include companies such as Hill and Smith in my constituency, which I visited on Friday. It makes crash barriers for our roads, and the Highways Agency is one of its main customers. Such companies are very interested in the level of public spending that is to take place.

Statements are welcome, but money would be nicer, from small firms’ point of view. Why have the French Government managed to get the money out and we have not?

The hon. Gentleman says that money would be nicer. Perhaps he could take that up with his colleague, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), who last week, having posed the question, “Where should we be?” told the House that we should have “lower spending”. There is quite a contrast between the position that the Chancellor set out last night and the position of the Conservative party.

The steps that we have announced on support for businesses and on public spending are measures aimed at benefiting the whole country. We want to see businesses prosper and opportunities created in every part of the country. For that reason, we reject the notion advanced by a right-wing think-tank over the summer that we should give up on certain parts of the country and that if people wanted a better life they would simply have to move to get it.

One of the announcements made last week concerned help for business through the way in which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs dealt with the collection of taxes and with companies in difficulty. At the time of the announcement, the Treasury Minister was unable to say whether new guidance would be placed in the Library on how that help would be achieved. Have there been any developments on exactly what message we can give in our constituencies that are facing trouble about how HMRC will put into effect the headlines on taking a more sympathetic approach at a time of economic crisis?

If my Treasury colleagues are ready to issue guidance, they will do so, but the statements from last week stand.

As I said, we are not about to give up on the great cities, the smaller industrial or market towns or the rural parts of our country, as the report over the summer suggested that we might. We believe that action at national and international level is necessary to respond to the current problems, given the global nature of the crisis, but so too is action at regional and local level. One important lever in that process is the network of regional development agencies.

On the regions, will the Minister acknowledge that there is a role for individual Ministers for each region to play in helping to encourage and foster good business conditions? If he accepts that proposition, could he explain why the Minister for the East of England, during the first 11 months of her tenure, never once stepped foot in the largest county in the east of England, Essex?

I believe that all the Ministers of the regions are doing a good job in working with business, and I include the Minister for the East of England.

It is now a decade since the Government created the regional development agencies, though I note that the Opposition voted against the Bill that created them. Those organisations, together with business, local authorities and other local partners, have played an important role in fostering economic development in their areas, be it the new media city in Salford, the North East Productivity Alliance aimed at lean manufacturing, or the east midlands redevelopment to create the UK’s largest bioscience and innovation centre. Wherever we go, we can see value-added examples in which those organisations have been important partners.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for drawing attention to the role of the regional development agencies. He will be aware that marine skills and sciences are important to the south-west, particularly to Plymouth—there is a lot of international expertise. The RDA has been investing heavily in that area and supporting apprenticeships, which are important to small and medium-sized enterprises, of which there are many in the south-west, feeding into that industry. Will my hon. Friend give a commitment to ensuring that there is ongoing investment into RDAs to support apprenticeships in the south-west?

As I said, we can find good examples in each region, and my hon. Friend highlights such an example in the south-west.

I ask the Minister again whether he has evaluated the impact of removing £300 million-worth of investment via the RDAs from small businesses. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) may well have wanted some of that investment. It was a painful decision; has he evaluated it, and would he like to tell us what he thought about it?

I have a couple of things to say to the hon. Lady, who has raised this point consistently during the past couple of weeks. First, it is not the case that that money has been removed from small business support. The RDAs will spend some £6 billion during the next three years. Some of that money is spending geared for 2010, which has been brought forward to spend on a housing package now which will make an impact in the regions. If she is worried about public spending, I suggest that she discuss the matter with the Members on her Front Bench. They said last week that we should have lower spending. Perhaps she might take up the matter with them.

I do not suggest for a moment that there is an equivalence of severity between today’s global shortage of funding and credit, and the collapse of MG Rover in the west midlands in 2001, but does my hon. Friend agree that in the aftermath of that collapse, which was severe for the region, the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, responded positively with support for the supply chain so that we did not lose the number of jobs that people thought we would? Is that not a model for the benefit that RDAs across the country can bring?