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Private Finance Initiative Projects

14. Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): If he will make it his policy to ensure that the public sector comparator for PFI projects (a) contains a statement of the risks which have been quantified and included in it and (b) includes an independent element in its construction and in the evaluation process. [135962]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Andrew Smith): The public sector comparator is intended to provide an objective benchmark to test value for money, and contains a quantified statement of risk. In our response to the Treasury Select Committee's fifth special report, we have undertaken to consider how to improve further the clarity of the treatment of risks and benefits in the construction of the public sector comparator and the assessment of value for money.

Dr. Jones: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but I would have hoped for more detail by now. Does he agree that unless the construction of the public sector comparator is seen to be fair and transparent, doubts will remain about the value for money in private finance? Does he agree that with so much Government debt now being repaid, if public procurement is shown to be the better buy, there should be no barrier to a project, such as the new hospital in south Birmingham, going ahead as a result of Treasury-imposed constraints on the availability of public capital?

Mr. Smith: Yes, and further details are available in the Treasury task force technical note No. 5 on how to construct the public sector comparator. I agree with my hon. Friend that transparency is important. I can reassure her that, as the Government have made consistently clear, we will approve PFI projects only if it is demonstrated in a full business case that the PFI option offers better value for money to the NHS and the taxpayer when compared with a publicly funded alternative. I think that that is the assurance my hon. Friend was seeking.

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Taxation (Self-Assessment)

15. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the arrangements for self-assessment of personal income tax for the 1999-2000 tax year. [135963]

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo) rose--

Hon. Members: Hooray.

Dawn Primarolo: This is just to prove that I am here--the opportunity to answer is always the luck of the draw.

I am confident that the arrangements for self- assessment for the tax year 1999-2000 are as robust and effective as they have been for the previous three years. A total of 4,400,000 tax returns had been received by 30 September this year, compared with 4,500,000 at the same point last year, showing that self-assessment is on course.

Mr. Heath: Will the right hon. Lady confirm that the software known as "TaxSaver 2000 Lite Version 1" proved to be light in one particular respect--it did not work? How did that happen? How much did the software cost? What recompense is available to those who wasted their time and energy in trying to make it work? Moreover, if we want tax simplification, why have most of those who tried to fill in self-assessment forms this year found them more confusing and difficult to fill in than ever before?

Dawn Primarolo: It is true that some difficulties were experienced with internet filing. However, the software is now working, and is increasingly being used by taxpayers. The whole self-assessment process is continually under review. There is now, for example, only one set of instructions, rather than four, on how to fill in self-assessment forms. A recently completed review by the Chartered Institute of Taxation and the Inland Revenue will soon be published, and I am sure that it will make fascinating reading for every hon. Member.

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Business of the House

12.31 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Will the Leader of the House please give the business for the forthcoming week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 13 November--Opposition Day [20th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on London Underground public private partnership followed by a debate on the millennium dome. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Motion on the Energy Act 1976 (Reserve Powers) Order 2000.

Tuesday 14 November--Consideration of Lords amendments to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill.

Wednesday 15 November--Supplemental motion relating to the Transport Bill.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Transport Bill

Thursday 16 November--Remaining stages of the Insolvency Bill [Lords].

Friday 17 November--There will be a debate on embryology on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 20 November--Motions relating to Westminster Hall and Thursday sittings.

Thursday 23 November--There will be a debate on European affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Mrs. Browning: I thank the Leader of the House for her statement. She will be aware from the just-completed Treasury questions that many hon. Members are very anxious to have much more information on certain aspects of the pre-Budget statement made yesterday by the Chancellor, particularly in relation to ultra-low sulphur petrol. Will she ask, please, whether a Treasury Minister--preferably the Chancellor--could find time for a proper statement and debate on that specific aspect of the statement?

Last night, in television interviews with Treasury Ministers, it was very clear that the Government were ill-prepared to answer questions on the availability of ultra-low sulphur petrol, and on whether the new discounts will be treated in the same way as current ones--particularly the 1p discount that is being retained by the oil companies. There has also been a discount on ultra-low sulphur diesel which has not been passed on to hauliers. The question being asked in Treasury questions today was: what precise arrangements are there to ensure that the discounts will benefit consumers and hauliers? Were those arrangements discussed in September at No. 10 Downing street when the Prime Minister met the oil companies? It is a very important matter that merits more of the House's time, so that Opposition Members can question Treasury Ministers on it.

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On 26 October, I asked the right hon. Lady whether we could expect the Prime Minister to make a statement to the House on the conclusion of the Biarritz summit. She said that she expected that there would be a statement. However, the summit was held on 13 and 14 October, but a statement has not yet been timetabled. It is very important that the House should discuss the summit, not least because--as we have learned in the media--key discussions were held on the charter of fundamental rights, which will feature in the Nice treaty, among other things. We feel that it is incumbent on the Prime Minister not to break the habit of reporting to the House on summits. I hope that the right hon. Lady will convey urgently to the Prime Minister the fact that the House deserves a statement.

The right hon. Lady has just announced to the House that on Friday 17 November there will be a debate on embryology. I assume that it will include the Government's response to the Donaldson report. I hope that she will identify for us how the proposals in that report--if the Government accept them--will be put into legislation. I understand that there would need to be an amendment to the Embryology Act 1990, presumably in secondary legislation. The right hon. Lady will be aware of the strength of feeling on both sides of the debate, and right hon. and hon. Members--not just those who serve on the relevant Committee--will want to be assured that they will have the right to vote on the matter, particularly in respect of the findings of the Donaldson committee.

Mrs. Beckett: First, the hon. Lady asked for information about the availability of ultra-low sulphur fuel in the aftermath of the pre-Budget report. Off the cuff, I would have thought that it was a matter for Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions rather than for Treasury Ministers, as we are talking here about the availability of supplies rather than the price that is charged for them, but no doubt there will be a variety of forums in which the issues can be explored. The hon. Lady will not have forgotten that what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced yesterday are proposals for consultation. She asked about aspects of the proposals that no doubt will be explored in that consultation.

If I understood her correctly, the hon. Lady asked the Treasury to account for whether or not oil companies pass on any reductions in the price which might flow from the Chancellor's decisions. That is certainly a very interesting question. I am not entirely sure that anybody has ever said that the Government or the Treasury can take responsibility for that. We can all make our views known and heard, but the public should clearly be aware that if potential price cuts resulting from Government decisions are not passed on, they should direct their strictures to others than the Government.

The hon. Lady then, quite correctly, referred to our previous exchange on the Biarritz discussions. I am glad that she did so because she has reminded me that on this matter I definitely owe the House an apology. She asked me to confirm that the Prime Minister would maintain the previous pattern of statements on these matters, and of course he will, as he always has. The hon. Lady will know that the pattern is to make a statement after formal Councils. There has never been a pattern for the present Prime Minister or any other coming to the House to make a statement after an informal Council, such as the one at

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Biarritz. I owe the hon. Lady and the House an apology, as when she asked about the Biarritz Council it had gone out of my mind that it was an informal discussion and the formal Council will take place at Nice. So the proper reporting conventions will indeed be observed, but they do not apply to the discussions at Biarritz.

The hon. Lady then asked about the Government's response to the Donaldson report. Again, I am grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to make the issue entirely clear, particularly because she asked me for an assurance that hon. Members would be able to discuss the important issue of embryology and have an opportunity to vote on any proposals that are made. Let me at once stress to the hon. Lady and to the House that we envisage that debate as a preliminary stage in those discussions. There is no suggestion that the Government will put forward their response during the debate on Friday 17 November. We regard these as profound and serious matters which should be thoroughly aired, not least in the House, without a commitment being made or framework being set. Of course, when orders might be made and the content of those orders is for discussion and can be looked at in the long term. The Government fully recognise that there is a need for a thorough, on-going debate and examination of these delicate issues, and we see the forthcoming debate as the opening discussion and nowhere near its closing stages.

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