HC Deb 04 December 2003 vol 415 cc649-64 12.31 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 8 DECEMBER—Remaining stages of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill.

TUESDAY 9 DECEMBER—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, followed by a debate on fisheries on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 10 DECEMBER—A debate on European Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 11 DECEMBER—Estimates [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on child care for working parents, followed by a debate on people, pensions and post offices. Details will be given in the Official Report.

At 6 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 15 DECEMBER—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill, followed by Second Reading on the Child Trust Fund Bill.

TUESDAY 16 DECEMBER—Remaining stages of the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 17 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill.

THURSDAY 18 DECEMBER—Motion On the Christmas recess Adjournment.

The House may wish to be reminded that we will rise for the Christmas recess at the end of business on Thursday 18 December and return on Monday 5 January.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall next week will be:

THURSDAY 11 DECEMBER—Debate on accelerating the United Kingdom response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Details of the business announced today are now available on my office website: www.commonsleader.gov.uk, which goes online today. For the convenience of Members and following representations I have today placed a complete list of all the Bills and draft Bills that have been introduced or announced for this Session in the Library. As has always been the case, other measures will be brought forward as the Session progresses.

[The list of estimates to be agreed are as follows: vote on account for House of Commons 2004–05 (HC17), vote on account for National Audit Office 2004–05 (HC18), vote on account for Electoral Commission 2004–05 (HC19), vote on account 2004–05 (HC16), winter supplementary estimates and new estimates 2003–04 (HC15).

All stages of the Consolidated Fund Bill will also be considered in due course.]

Mr. Heald

We will study that list with great interest. Has the Leader of the House had the opportunity to read the Audit Commission report into why increases in council tax average 13 per cent.? Despite Ministers' attempts to deflect criticisms of the increases, which pushed band D rates in some places over £1,000 for the first time, the report concludes that town halls that received bigger Government increases had smaller council tax rises and those with smaller grant increases had higher council tax rises. It also states that Government grant—[Interruption]—hon. Members should listen to this—was the single biggest determinant factor in this year's increases. The report highlights the geographical shift in resources that the Government have deliberately imposed. Since the report clearly demonstrates that everything that we have been saying about the Deputy Prime Minister's manipulation of council tax is true, may we have a debate in Government time on that vital report?

On Monday and Tuesday, the. House will debate the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. It is a matter of great concern that such a large number of amendments have been tabled by the Government to introduce a fixed tariff payment system for planning gains, despite the fact that the Government are currently consulting on that very issue and that the consultation does not end until 8 January. Yet we are supposed to debate the Bill and table amendments by this evening.[Interruption.] Apart from the discourtesy, about which the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is not too worried, surely such a consultation should run its course before the crucial decisions are reached. It reminds me of something: the big conversation, where, as we know, not much listening is involved at all.

On the Hutton inquiry, does the Leader of the House expect the report to be published in the week commencing 12 January? Will he say a little more than he did on 16 October—either now, or next week—about the Government's intentions? Does he expect the report to be received by the Government and those who have taken part in the inquiry at the same time? Does he agree that Opposition parties should receive the report at the same time, and will he make representations to that effect? How much time does he expect to elapse between receipt of the report and the Prime Minister making a statement in the House? Can he confirm whether there will be sufficient time for hon. Members on both sides of the House to consider the report—at least a week—before a full debate and whet her the Prime Minister will lead for the Government in the debate as well as the statement?

Finally, on a different matter of which I have given the Leader of the House notice, hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the airports capacity White Paper. Obviously, we know that there will be a statement about it before Christmas, but will he tell us what the date of the statement will be?

Mr. Hain

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been advising the House authorities, but the annunciator was saying that business questions were to start at 12.30 am.

On the council tax, the truth is that we inherited a policy from the Conservative party on council tax arrangements, and we have been making it fairer. Is it not significant that the biggest increase is, I think, in a Conservative flagship council, Wandsworth, which has had a 57 per cent. increase? The truth is that, as the Audit Commission made perfectly clear, we need to get the balance right in ensuring that council tax payments are fair and that the Government contribution is delivered to local authorities and then passported on to local services in a way that results in fair contributions by local residents, rather than unfair ones, and eliminates any inefficiency in the distribution system.

The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, as the hon. Gentleman understands, is designed to speed up the planning process and free up opportunities for enterprise and business to regenerate local communities, especially in deprived areas, which will, in addition, increase flexibility in the economy and help to boost prosperity.

On the big conversation—[Interruption.] Conservative Members scoff, but I was with the Prime Minister in south Wales, where we launched the big conservation on Friday last week. Contrary to the Conservative Front-Bench team's stance as an attack machine, with a series of dodgy policies that have not been thought through—we shall come back to that—we believe that the big challenges, whether we are dealing with local crime and antisocial behaviour, which we were discussing in Newport on Friday, or with the big challenges for decades ahead, are best resolved by getting the whole public into a conversation about how Britain should confront them and how people feel the future should go.

On the Hutton inquiry, I made clear in the statement that I made on 16 October what the procedure would be. The Government commissioned the Hutton report and set up the inquiry, and we will ensure that Parliament has a proper opportunity to debate the outcome, as I said on 16 October. The Cabinet will consider it in the appropriate fashion and the Prime Minister will, of course, want to be accountable to the House, as I also made clear on 16 October.

The airports issue is important, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it and for giving me advance notice. I can help him only by confirming that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will make a statement as soon as he can to bring the White Paper forward. He will report on it to the House in the proper way, and the House will have an opportunity to consider it.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

My colleagues and I strongly endorse the request for an urgent statement on council tax, not least so that the situation can be made more clear and transparent for local authorities led by all three parties. Does he share my surprise that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) did not apologise this afternoon? After all, after the poll tax fiasco, it was his party that introduced the system, with its inherent and fundamental flaws, to which the Audit Commission has drawn our attention. However, it is not sufficient for the Leader of the House to pretend that, after six and a half years, everything can be blamed on the previous Government. Will he give an undertaking that we will have no more incomprehensible gobbledegook explanations from the Deputy Prime Minister, but a simple word of apology to the House and to local authorities, which have been led astray on that matter? Will the Leader of the House also confirm the official hints in recent days that comparisons are now being made with completely different systems of local taxation—not least the local income tax that we have suggested, which would add only 4p in the pound to the normal rate of taxation and enable us to scrap the whole council tax system—and acknowledge, given his radical past, that the council tax is regressive and unfair and that a local income tax would be progressive and much fairer?

Mr. Hain

Here we have it: the Liberal Democrats propose an extra 4p in the pound for every taxpayer through their expensive local income tax policy. We now have that on the record, although I note that at recent Liberal Democrat press conference, the back of the press release—it was not supposed to be released but was inadvertently photocopied—referred to a 6p increase, so it could be even higher.

Mr. Tyler

Where is it?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Perhaps Mr. Tyler should listen to the Leader of the House. He put the questions to the Leader of the House, and I expect him to listen.

Mr. Hain

An income tax rise of 4p in the pound from the Liberal Democrats is high enough for me, and would be high enough for the average council tax payer and resident. We know that the Liberal Democrats are a high-tax party. They want to load tax on hard-working and low-income families, but Labour is committed to a much fairer system of local government finance. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to remind us that the leader of the Conservative party was responsible for the poll tax, which was one of the most unfair, regressive and punitive taxes in the history of this country.

The level of council tax payments is a concern, and the hon. Gentleman was right to draw the House's attention to it. That is why we are reviewing the matter and why we have already made changes that bring the current system into line with many of the recommendations of the Audit Commission report. We will study that report further and with care before we introduce any other changes that are necessary.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will recognise the success of the national minimum wage, but 700,000 young people aged 16 or 17 are working in the British economy without protection. Can he find time for a debate on that issue?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend has an opportunity to secure a debate by applying in the normal fashion, but I understand the concerns that he identified. We are, of course, very proud of the fact that we introduced the minimum wage, which benefits millions of low-paid workers, against the fierce opposition of the Conservative party, which, in the words of its leader, said that it would cost 2 million jobs. Since its introduction, an extra 1.6 million jobs have been created, which gives the lie to that accusation. I shall certainly consider the points that my hon. Friend made about young workers, and I continue to advise him to take every opportunity to raise them on the Floor of the House.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con)

Can we have a debate on the way in which the Crown Prosecution Service treats mothers who are accused of killing their very young children? Sally Clark was my constituent and the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. Another case is before the Court of Appeal today and, without in any way wishing to prejudge the court's decision, surely it is time to examine how the Crown Prosecution Service deals with such cases. Given the uncertainty of medical evidence and the little use of a long prison sentence in such cases, the matter is of enormous concern to many people.

Mr. Hain

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, especially as the issue has affected his constituent. I know of the interest in such cases and the particularly strong arguments that his constituents put. I am sure that the authorities and the relevant Minister will note his points.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend consider finding time for a debate on the future of direct links between the west coast main line and Europe? We are the poor relations and such links would certainly help jobs in the north-west and everyone who uses that line.

Mr. Hain

I am sure that the Secretary of State for Transport will want to consider those points carefully. My hon. Friend's constituency is affected and we want there to be a massive opportunity for extra investment and prosperity in the north-west of England. It is therefore important that the line through to the export market that accounts for nearly two thirds of all exports from the north-west of England operates as efficiently as possible.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

May I return to the airports White Paper? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Members on both sides of the House are anxious to see what is in it? Can he confirm that it will be published before Christmas and indicate whether that is likely to mean next week or the week after?

Mr. Hain

I understand the anxieties that are felt, and I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that the intention is to publish the report as early as possible. The intention is certainly to do so before Christmas but, in any event, it will be done as early as possible. It is important that such a crucial decision, which will affect many constituents of Members on both sides of the House, is taken and delivered and reported to the House in the proper fashion.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab)

Is the Leader of the House aware that more than 200 MPs from all parties in the House have called for a review of the sitting hours? Indeed, when they were introduced, we were promised a review. Tuesdays and Wednesdays have become a nightmare as we condense everything into just a few hours, and I know, through talking to Ministers and Whips, that there is real difficulty in getting people to serve on Committees.

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the plight of the permanent staff, many of whom are anxious about their jobs and futures? Because of the uncertainty, casuals are now being employed and that surely brings with it a security problem for the House. Can we have a review of the hours, as we were promised? Let us debate the matter here.

Mr. Hain

I know my hon. Friend's very strong views on this subject. I think that I am right in saying that she did not vote for the change in the hours. She has stuck consistently to her opposition to the change.

As my hon. Friend and the whole House know, we are committed to reviewing the new sitting hours by the end of the Parliament. She also knows that I am seeking to address a number of the difficulties that have been brought to my attention about individual issues associated with the change. However, I do not think that it is right immediately to override the original decision, which was to have the changed hours in place for the rest of the Parliament and to review the matter before the end of the Parliament. I do not think that we should act prematurely.

In respect of the staff, I am concerned about the reports and rumours that I have heard and I have discussed the matter with the authorities. I shall be very happy to receive additional representations from my hon. Friend.

As I have said before, there are strong feelings both for and against the changed hours. It is important that everybody who has strong feelings has the opportunity to represent them to me and suggest the exact changes that they want. Very few people have told me that they want to revert to exactly the old standard pattern of hours. Some have said that they want to sit longer on Tuesdays and others say that Committees should sit later in the morning. All those issues may be weighed up in good time.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

I am sorry to have to return to the Audit Commission report but it confirms what many Conservative Members have said for some time: there was gerrymandering of the entire system last year against councils in London. Will the Leader of the House grant a debate on that because London councils—Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat—feel strongly that they have been deprived of vital funds? We need an urgent debate on the serious allegations made in the Audit Commission report that was published today.

Mr. Hain

The truth is that all local authorities received an increase from the Government that was higher than inflation. That compares with the situation prior to 1997 under the Conservative Government when there were consistent cuts in funding from central Government to local authorities. The hon. Gentleman will find that six London authorities received grant increases of 8 per cent. or more. That is an example of the way in which the Government have provided generous funding for local services through local councils.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab)

Those of us from the north-east would welcome a debate on council tax to destroy the myth that we have somehow been the beneficiaries of the changes that have been made. Is my right hon. Friend aware that Lloyds TSB has announced the closure of its call centre in my constituency and the centre's transfer to the Indian sub-continent with the loss of almost 1,000 jobs? May we have an early debate on the implications of that for the British employment market, private financial information and data protection, and about what the Government might do about that serious threat to British jobs?

Mr. Hain

I well understand my hon. Friend's concern about any job losses in his constituency and I know that there will be an opportunity to consider the matter in a debate in Westminster Hall next Wednesday. We obviously should fight locally, as local Members, against any job losses but we are subject to a whirlwind of global pressures in which the outsourcing of some call centre jobs is continuing. Interestingly, higher value added call centre jobs tend to stay in this country.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Oh, that is all right then.

Mr. Hain

No, it is not all right. I want to see all jobs preserved, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we cannot simply withstand competitive global pressures on our private enterprises, including call centre companies. He will understand that, and we are trying to combat the system as best we can.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) knows, the Government have put good procedures in place to help people into jobs, and unemployment has continued to fall in pretty much every parliamentary constituency since we came to power.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC)

May we have a debate on the restrictive shellfish licensing scheme that is due to come into force in the new year, which will destroy half the jobs in the traditional shellfish fishery in my constituency on the Llyn peninsula? That is at least one good reason for the debate that I can discern. While the Leader of the House is considering that, will he have a word with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which clearly does not share my urgency or that of my constituents on the issue? I wrote to the Department on 9 October about the scheme that is coming in the new year but I have yet to receive any acknowledgement of that.

Mr. Hain

If the hon. Gentleman is right about the beginning of his correspondence in October—I am sure that he is—the relevant Minister will want to find out why he has not received a reply. The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a debate on fisheries next Tuesday and I hope that he will catch Mr. Speaker's eye to raise the points that he wants to make on behalf of his constituents.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend and I want an elected second Chamber but, shamefully, it seems that we are to be saddled with a wholly appointed second Chamber. Will the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform be reconstituted in the current Session with, if necessary, a new membership and revised terms of reference?

Mr. Hain

That is a matter for the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. My hon. Friend is right that I voted with him and others for an elected second Chamber but our position was defeated. [Interruption.] Conservative Members suggest that I was wrong. That may or may not be the case but the proposal was defeated by the Commons in any event, so there is no agreement on an elected second Chamber.

While we are on the subject. may I sweep away a lot of the breathtaking hypocrisy on the matter? I noticed that earlier this week in the House of Lords, Conservative Lords defeated a Liberal Democrat motion that called for an elected second Chamber. We now know where the Conservative party stands on the matter, despite the position that has been shouted from the Conservative Benches. We shall see whether we can have an honest debate about who wishes to preserve the 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords. All progressive people think that we should have a second Chamber that is more representative of opinion throughout the country than accidents of birth.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

May I endorse the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) for a debate on the role of expert medical witnesses in criminal trials? Following the acquittal of Trupti Patel, the case of my former constituent, Sally Clark and the predicament of my constituent Angela Cannings, I note that nothing has been heard of the review committee that the Attorney-General established six months ago to look into the issue. It is a matter of urgency to know what is now in the mind of the Government when they consider the cases that I mentioned.

Mr. Hain

I well understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns, especially on behalf of his constituents. I would feel the same if my constituents had been similarly affected, so I shall ensure that the relevant Minister is aware of his urgency and his constituents' feelings.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that it appears that Russia is refusing to ratify the Kyoto protocol and that the United States, which is one of the richest countries in the world, has failed to set an example? Will he grant us a debate in the House on the Kyoto protocol so that we may reaffirm its importance to everyone in the world? It is not a question of economic growth, as is often said, but of environmental survival.

Mr. Hain

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be in Milan at the climate change conference next week precisely to spur on the world to take its responsibilities seriously, implement Kyoto—the Government have signed up to it—and reduce the impact of climate change throughout the world. I am not sure that the Russian Government have made their position on Kyoto as clear as my hon. Friend implied. We hope that Russia will ratify the protocol and allow it to come into force so that the world may begin to confront the horrendous challenge of environmental devastation and climate change.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House convey to the Pentagon the alarm felt by many at reports that it is planning to recruit paramilitaries from political organisations? Will he seek assurances that such a thing will not happen in southeast Iraq, where it is felt that it is important that the police and security forces may act impartially and not as the servants of specific political organisations?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Given his expertise on the situation in Iraq, to which the Prime Minister referred yesterday, I know that the Defence Secretary will want to take his points seriously.

John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab)

There were two questions earlier about the Audit Commission report that was produced today. The commission also pointed out the fundamental unfairness of our system of council taxation, which is not related to people's ability to pay and was introduced when the official Opposition were in government. May we have a debate on that so that we can consider the system of council taxation and point to councils such as mine that fritter away thousands of pounds on pet projects and put up their council tax by an enormous amount yet refuse to examine new powers that would allow them to introduce lower council taxation for groups such as pensioners on fixed incomes?

Mr. Hain

Obviously, I am concerned about my hon. Friend's comments about the performance of his local authority. The House will want to look into that carefully. We have sought to develop and progress a much fairer system for local revenue raising—that is why the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire is conducting a review that takes account of all the points that the Audit Commission made. It is important to read its report carefully, because it gives a much more rounded and balanced account of the situation than some of the more lurid headlines and political statements might suggest.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Can the Leader of the House tell us when we will hear a report back to the House on the so-called big conversation? Will we be told how many of those events have been attended by the Leader of the House and by the Prime Minister, or how many of the 60 million people in this country attended them, and how many are Labour party members? We need to know those things. Most importantly, will we be told how many Government policies have changed as a result of the so-call big conversation?

Mr. Hain

The right hon. Gentleman is expert at talking to himself in the middle of the night in this Chamber, so I guess that he will have no interest in the big conversation that is taking place with the public out there. I shall be happy, however, to continue to answer questions on it from him or from any other Member, because the truth is that we are doing something that no Government have ever done: we are carrying out a big consultation exercise about the challenges that face this country. Perhaps he does not think that the public ought to be involved in the hard choices that need to be made—for example, about an ageing society and the challenges that we face in funding our public services as an ever-increasing proportion of people are in retirement. A big conversation is required to give people an opportunity to express their own views on such matters.

The right hon. Gentleman asks how many events I have taken part in. The Prime Minister has so far been involved in a whole range of events, starting in Bristol and Newport last Friday and continuing with others since. I was with him at the Newport event, and I intend to take part in another one early next week—

Mr. Forth

Another one!

Mr. Hain

The right hon. Gentleman asked me how many times I have taken part, and I am telling him. I also have my duties as Leader of the House, which I am discharging faithfully in answering his question at boring length. I shall take part in future events, as will other Ministers, because we want to involve the public in a big exercise to determine the future of this country. Neither the right hon. Gentleman nor other. Conservative Members are interested in facing up to challenges such as the crisis in higher education and the problem of an ageing society. They would deal with those big issues in their traditional elitist fashion; we are doing it by involving the public, because that is what we believe in.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab)

Did the Leader of the House notice that this week Lloyds TSB and Norwich Union announced their intention to transfer large numbers of call centre and back-office jobs from this country to India? Can we have a debate about the globalisation of the telecomms industry, so that we can not only assess the risks that that poses to jobs in Britain and discuss how they can be minimised, but consider the benefits that the globalisation of communications provides to British companies, particularly in the financial services sector? If financial services were fully liberalised across Europe, British financial services companies, which are leaders in the field, would gain more work from others in Europe and thereby retain jobs in this country.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend makes some telling points. Obviously, he can apply for a debate; I am sure that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will also want to consider that opportunity. Evidence from the Call Centre Association suggest that companies that outsource part of their work create a big return for this country, in that the surpluses that they obtain enable them to expand services, create more jobs and contribute to our prosperity. It is painful and difficult when such churning takes place, with some jobs displaced and replaced by other, often value-added jobs, but it is not as straightforward as saying that we have lost jobs to another country—the return that comes back is important, too.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)

May I continue the main theme of today's business questions and join my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) in imploring the Leader of the House for an urgent debate, before the recess, on the Audit Commission's report on council tax rises? That independent report confirms not only that the blame for high council tax rises lies with Labour Ministers, but that the unfair Tory council lax system is fundamentally flawed. Given that councils are currently having to set council tax levels for next year, and that we now know that for more than three quarters of councils the rise in non-education grant is a real-terms cut, is it not urgent that we have that debate in order to learn from the Audit Commission report and help councils around the country?

Mr. Hain

How can a central Government-provided increase that is way above the level of inflation be a real-terms cut? This is Mickey Mouse Liberal economics. We heard the Liberal Democrat spokesman talk about Mickey Mouse income tax policies in the form of a 4p increase in the basic rate of income tax. All taxpayers should understand that the Liberal Democrat party is now a high-tax party flying the flag of higher income taxes. I should like to know what is the Conservative party's policy, too, because they are hiding behind an attack machine instead of putting forward coherent policies.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab)

When can we discuss the great puzzle whereby the Government's 40 per cent. increase in spending on the health service has led to an increase in activity—operations and so on—of a mere 5 per cent.? Is one possible explanation the fact that the bill for drugs in the health service has increased by 50 per cent. in the past three years without any corresponding increase in the effectiveness of those drugs? Can we have a conversation about the fact that the big pharmaceutical companies are probably ripping off patients and taxpayers?

Mr. Hain

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is asking for another conversation or for a debate, but I am sure that the Secretary of State for Health will want to study his comments carefully. My hon. Friend may have seen his excellent article in The Daily Telegraph earlier this week, in which he comprehensively rebutted the charge that is being made by the Conservatives—although not, I am sure, by my hon. Friend—that all the public investment is not producing better results. The truth is that the record investment that is going into our health service means that waiting times for elective surgery are coming down increasingly fast, delivering people from the pain that they suffered, year after year, under the Conservatives. We will continue to put that money in and make reforms to ensure that we deliver a first-class service that is free to patients and to those in pain—a Labour-originated and Labour-modernised national health service.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con)

The Leader of the House confirmed that, for reasons about which we can only speculate, we will not have a Second Reading debate on the Bill on top-up fees before Christmas. It follows that there must be a vacant day in the business of the House. Why, therefore, is the Leader of the House so resistant to calls from Members on both sides of the House for a debate on the Audit Commission report, which concerns a matter that affects all our constituents and makes recommendations to the Government on short-term changes? Consultations on next year's rate support grant statement are under way. The Leader of the House said a moment ago that he wants to find out about the Opposition's policy: such a debate would give him that opportunity.

Mr. Hain

There is no vacant day. There are two Second Reading slots before Christmas, one of which, as I announced, will be filled by the debate on the Child Trust Fund Bill—a very important measure that will bring a minimum of £250 and up to £500 of assets to children born in this country. It is important that the Bill goes through quickly and gets early Royal Assent so that its provisions can be implemented as speedily as possible.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that the other Bill to get its Second Reading concerns an urgent matter—although some of the comments by Conservative Members, including his leader, make that rather doubtful. It will toughen up our asylum laws even further by tackling the loopholes that are being exploited by people traffickers, illegal migrants, and the criminal gangs who are sometimes behind them.

We are introducing those two urgent Bills before Christmas. The higher education funding Bill will be introduced in due course, when we are ready to do so.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend knows that lifting Crown immunity from prosecution is notoriously complex and requires cross-departmental authority. I have received reassurances in the past six months that the Government are minded to tackle that important issue. It is especially important for the Wynne family in my constituency who regard Crown immunity from prosecution as a smokescreen that covers up deficiencies in health and safety and management at the Royal Mint in Llantrisant. If that proposal does not appear in the measures that are in the Library to which my right hon. Friend referred, what assurances will he give that the Government will move rapidly to ensure that Crown immunity from prosecution is no longer used to hide deficiencies in health and safety that can lead to fatalities in Crown estate properties?

Mr. Hain

I understand that the matter involves one of my hon. Friend's constituents, so it is therefore proper for him to draw it to the House's attention and seek a way in which to address it. The relevant Ministers and I will study his points carefully. Draft legislation is due to be introduced and discussed in the House and, during that pre-legislative scrutiny, he will have the opportunity to ascertain whether the plight and problem that he identified can be tackled in a better way than through the Government's proposals.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Now that the Government no longer have a friend to ring, they ask the audience to solve the nation's problems. May we have an early statement about the Government's side of the big conversation? How much money does the Leader of the House believe that the Labour party will make out of the electronic messaging? Could it be a case of rip-off communications from a rip-off Government?

Mr. Hain


Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)

May I echo the calls for an early debate on the Audit Commission report? I hope that we could organise it so that we get away from the narrow party political point scoring of Conservative Members and consider the fundamental flaw in local government finance and indeed, in local democracy. For every £4 local government spends, it raises only £1. A properly agreed 1 per cent. increase in a council's expenditure can lead to a 4 per cent. rise in council tax. That is obviously a fundamental flaw in the system. May we have an early opportunity to consider the problem and, I hope, find redress?

Mr. Hain

I understand my hon. Friend's point about gearing in local government finance. He was a distinguished local government leader in Sheffield and knows a lot about such matters. The Deputy Prime Minister will want to listen carefully to his points and ascertain whether they should be tackled through a debate or in some other way. The Audit Commission report is an important document and the Government's review will be reported to the House. There will be a proper opportunity to discuss it then.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

The Leader of the House has confirmed that the House's opinion of top-up fees will not be asked. In the light of the Prime Minister's desire to listen and the fact that 150 Labour Members of Parliament disagree with the policy, as do Her Majesty's Opposition as well as the Liberal Democrats and members of other parties, what steps will the right hon. Gentleman take to ensure adequate time—a minimum of two days—for a full debate on Second Reading of the higher education Bill? During the Christmas recess, will he give consideration to ensuring that an appropriate time for debate is provided so that all voices are heard on the matter?

Mr. Hain

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills reported on the matter to the House only yesterday in a full debate. The right hon. Gentleman can press Conservative Front-Bench Members to hold an Opposition day debate on the subject. There will be a full debate on Second Reading, as is normal. However, we have set out our proposals to deal with the long-term problem of the deficits in higher education despite record investment. What are the Conservative proposals? The Liberal Democrats simply want to increase taxes, but they want to do that for everything. Conservative Front-Bench Members want a quarter of a million fewer students in our universities. What will that do for the prospects of the best knowledge-based economy in the world, which is the Government's objective? How will we achieve wider access and social justice for students, including some from my constituency, who are on low incomes? We are grappling with those issues and making proposals. The right hon. Gentleman should persuade Conservative Front-Bench Members to engage genuinely in a debate about serious policy instead of indulging in opportunistic sloganising and hypocrisy.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

In general, I support the change of hours in the House. However, what impact have the new hours had on the catering service?

Mr. Hain

It is interesting to consider what has happened since the new hours were introduced. As I reported last week, according to the House authorities, catering income has increased by 16 per cent. when compared with the same period last year. The issue about catering services is getting mixed up with that about the hours, but it is proper to deal with the huge subsidy for catering in the House and the Catering Committee is trying to do that. My hon. Friend's view is different from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) who opposes the change in hours. I have to weigh up the interplay of forces and divisions when deciding how to progress.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con)

The south-west is bottom of the league in the amount of support grant that it receives per head, despite the fact that it is one of the most generous regions in contributing to the Treasury's coffers. Surely, to quote the Leader of the House, "That is not fair". May we have a debate on the way in which the rate support grant has become nothing more than the Treasury's stealth tax-raising powers?

Mr. Hain

That is a ridiculous statement. Like all of us, the hon. Gentleman is worried about council tax levels, which the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire is considering in his review. He will take the Audit Commission report into account. I should be interested to hear practical suggestions from Conservative Members. Do they want to raise extra taxes so that central Government provide more finance for local authorities, as the Liberal Democrats propose? Have they other alternatives? We are committed to high quality public services and that is why increases in local authority funding have been real-terms increases year after year, compared with real-terms cuts under the Conservatives.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

If we had a debate on the Audit Commission report on council tax, it would give some of us an opportunity to point out that the major gerrymandering and fiddling in council tax measures arise from the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which introduced the poll tax that was transformed into the council tax. May we have a full day's debate on the current local government finance settlement? The Audit Commission report could be raised during such a discussion. A full day's debate, which was not chopped by statements, would give a good number of hon. Members a reasonable opportunity to contribute to the deliberations.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con)


Mr. Hain

I am grateful for the chance to reply to my hon. Friend. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said that I might give better answers before I was asked the questions.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) that since 1997, there has been a real-terms increase in grant to local government of 25 per cent. compared with a real-terms cut of 7 per cent. during the last four years of Conservative government. The idea that we have not generously given extra support to local authorities is not true. However, my hon. Friend makes good points about the previous Government's rigging of the local government settlements. I remember when I was an unsuccessful Labour candidate for Putney in Wandsworth, the Thatcherite Government dished out lots of money from central funds to keep rates, the poll tax and the council tax low in Conservative-controlled Wandsworth. We are seeking to introduce a much fairer system.

Mr. Cameron

Given the Prime Minister's occasional tendency to say one thing and mean something ever so slightly different, may we have a clear statement about whether the Bill that deals with top-up fees is an issue of confidence for the Government? Are they saying that if the Bill were lost on Second Reading, the Prime Minister would resign?

Mr. Hain

The Prime Minister made it crystal clear yesterday that this is an important matter for the country and, therefore, for the Government, for him and for the House. We seek to tackle the funding gap that will arise in universities. The Conservative party, including the hon. Gentleman, is signally failing to acknowledge that gap because it does not care about the future of universities; they left them in a near-bankrupt situation. We seek to address that gap, widen access, increase social justice and enable more low-income students to go to universities. so that we can become the kind of economy that depends on high knowledge and high skills, and compete more effectively in the world. That is our objective: what is the hon. Gentleman's policy?

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD)

I hope that when the Leader of the House has his big conversation he listens more than he is listening to the House today. He has heard argument from all quarters for a debate on council tax. and he is not listening. I hope that he will reconsider and that there will, at least, be a debate on that important issue in the new year.

In the meantime, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to ask the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire to come to the House to make a statement on the Audit Commission's report. He went to Devon county council, spoke to councillors, business men, pensioners and residents and told them that the council tax rise was all the county's fault. He came to the House and told Members from Devon and the southwest that it was down to the county council to decide the council tax rise. The Audit Commission's report clearly states that that is not the case. When will the Minister come to the House and put the record straight?

Mr. Hain

Obviously the Minister will want to listen carefully to the hon. Gentleman's point. Turning to his party's policy on this matter, which needs to be clarified, I can tell the House that a briefing note entitled, "Lines and ideas for Monday's press conference", discusses increases in local income tax as high as 6p and says: However, we don't want to be drawn extensively into this! We should be told exactly what the Liberal Democrat policy is: sky-high income taxes instead of fair taxes and fair local provision.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)

I thank the Leader of the House for twice referring to my colleagues on the shadow Front Bench as an attack machine. We have been after that endorsement for quite some time, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge his contribution to our reaching our first objective.

May we have an urgent debate on rural public transport? Already this week my constituents have suffered a number of strategic bus route cuts and face the threat of parents being asked to pay for their children to be taken to school. Whatever solutions to the problem of rural public transport the Government are producing, they are certainly not working, and if the right hon. Gentleman wants a conversation with my constituents on that, they are ready to have one with him.

Mr. Hain

The press reports on the draft school transport Bill were completely misfounded and erroneous. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills wants to set up a series of pilot schemes that enable local authorities better to provide local school transport for a range of pupils, to reduce peak-hour traffic congestion, to improve pupil safety and to deal with other situations that Church schools, for example, are concerned about. The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to contribute to that discussion when it is subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, as it is intended to be next year, and I hope that he will do so.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider the detail of the situation that we are trying to tackle, which is a series of anomalies in which local authorities are not able to provide a flexible range of bus services, as we believe they should, to help pupils to get to school more safely, to take them out of the cars in which their parents tend to bring them, to put them on buses and so to relieve traffic congestion.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)

In view of the call by the German Chancellor and the French Defence Minister for the resumption of European arms sales to the People's Republic of China, which have been embargoed since the Tiananmen square massacre, and rightly so in view of the continued repression in Tibet, human rights abuses in the People's Republic and sabre rattling against Taiwan, can the Foreign Secretary come to the House next week and make a statement that the Government will, at the European Foreign Ministers Council, veto any such suggestion, because if it were acceded to this request would lead to the European Union becoming a friend of the great dictators?

Mr. Hain

The Foreign Secretary will, of course, address the House next week, and he holds himself accountable to the House at every opportunity. On the question of arms sales to China or any other country, I point out to the House that after all the shenanigans and scandals of the last Conservative Government on this matter, we were responsible for introducing a strict code of practice that regulates arms exports and makes sure that they cannot be used for internal oppression or external aggression. In addition, and this is directly relevant to the hon. Gentleman's question, we were responsible for ensuring that much the same code of conduct was adopted by the EU, so we can proudly hold our heads high, knowing that we put defence trade on a much more equitable basis that respects human rights, rather than selling any arms to any country that wants to buy them, as tended to be the practice under the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported.