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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The Leader of the House will recall that at business questions on 21 March, I asked her about the cut-off time for tabling oral questions, as a result of which the Procedure Committee produced a report. Paragraph 17 of its summary states:
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to say that that does not require a debate and vote. He will know how reluctant any Leader of the House is to try to find time for a debate that is unnecessary, given that we are unable to find time for so many necessary debates. Mr. Speaker will certainly have heard the hon. Gentleman's words, as I have, and I assure him that the matter will be considered.
Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): Referring to a point raised earlier, we should have a full debate after the Nice summit because many of the proposals are causing widespread concern. Indeed, there should be a full debate on all the European treaties, as that would allow us to ask why the Tories gave up sovereignty in 1985, why they signed up to the single currency in 1992, and why, shortly afterwards, they followed that with the stability pact. I look forward to the contribution of the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), because I am aching to know why he signed the Maastricht treaty in 1992.
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely correct. We know that Conservative Members introduced VAT because they took us into the European Union, but such a debate would give us an opportunity to find out why they almost doubled VAT, why they increased it again to 17.5 per cent., and why they put VAT on fuel, although they now complain about the taxes on fuel. I share my hon. Friend's wish to air all those fascinating matters thoroughly in the Chamber, but I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate to do so.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Will the Leader of the House provide time to debate the implications for land use, planning and public services of the latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics,
Mrs. Beckett: I remind the hon. Gentleman that during the period to which he refers, there have been, for example, substantial upheavals in eastern Europe, the Baltic states and elsewhere, which have led to pressure on migration across the world. I am not aware of the figures that he gives. It was my understanding that, until relatively recently, there had been a net outflow, so it may be simply that we are seeing something of a redress of the balance. Of course these issues are taken into account by Governments of every shade as we see the ebb and flow of travel to and from particular countries.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): My right hon. Friend will be aware that yesterday the EU gave approval for the Government to go ahead with its aid package to the deep coal mining industry--an industry that was so disastrously treated by the Conservative Government. That aid package is welcome in mining communities, but there are concerns about the early lifting of the gas consents and the need for investment in new clean coal technology. Will she find time for a full debate so that those issues can be aired when the regulation is debated?
Mrs. Beckett: I join my hon. Friend in his welcome for the agreement for the package of support. I understand that there will be concerns about the lifting of the gas consents--although my hon. Friend will know that these have been maintained now for a considerable time--and I recognise his concerns about the development of clean coal technology. I fear that I cannot find time for an additional debate on these matters, but I am confident that if my hon. Friend is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, he will be able to air some of the issues when we debate the scheme itself.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): The Leader of the House will recall that yesterday I asked the Prime Minister about community health councils. I am delighted to find that one of her colleagues has already asked a question about that matter. In contrast to yesterday, however, Members on this side of the House are not stumped for a further question.
I met the health trusts in my constituency, which led me to want to campaign for community health councils. There is bitter opposition to their scrapping. They said that the costs that they were incurring to change over to the euro--without any decision being made in this country--had already outstripped the amount stated to me in an answer during the previous Department of Trade and Industry questions, when four of my colleagues asked questions and received inadequate answers. Should not the Leader of the House make time in this House for a complete answer from the Government, taking into account all the various departmental budgets for the cost
Mrs. Beckett: I do not share the exaggerated claims for the costs of handling the euro which, after all, will be in circulation in this country--as it will be in the rest of Europe--whether Britain joins or not. In consequence, all sorts of organisations must prepare to deal with it. The notion that that will in some way impinge on health service provision in the hon. Gentleman's locality when his health authority received an increase of 8.4 per cent. in the announcements made the other day--I am surprised that he did not welcome that--cannot be borne out, even on the back of an argument about CHCs.
The hon. Gentleman said that he would ask his question even though somebody else has already asked it. I realise that I am risking the wrath of about 90 per cent. of the House in saying this, but women tend not to repeat something that has already been said; men never shirk from doing so.
Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): In view of today's report from Professor Colin Talbot--which says that the Welsh economy is now better than it has been since the 1950s and 1960s, with zero unemployment in certain parts--could we have a debate on the Welsh economy? Does my right hon. Friend agree that such a debate would be of particular interest to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), Lord Hunt, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Walker, who could all hear just how much better the Welsh economy is doing now that none of them is Secretary of State for Wales?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I have seen reports of the work of Professor Talbot, and the picture is certainly encouraging. I share my hon. Friend's view that there are important lessons, not least for the right hon. Members for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) to whom he referred. Great though the temptation is, I fear that I cannot find time for such a debate, especially at this time of year. However, may I warmly recommend Westminster Hall to my hon. Friend?
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): The Government have today published a White Paper on the future of our towns and cities, which is accompanied by two documents, "The State of the English Cities" and "Living in Urban England: Attitudes and Aspirations". These set out the supporting analysis, copies of which have been placed in the Library. As we have said on several occasions, we will publish our rural White Paper later this month with the agreement of the business managers and yourself, Mr. Speaker. I always try to assist the House and the Opposition in giving what information I can, and I assume that, on this occasion, information might have been useful to help with the list of questions that was distributed by the Opposition Whip just before their spokesman came into the Chamber. We shall note with interest whether we get different questions at different times.
A common message runs through those documents, which are about people, places and prosperity. We want to create sustainable communities in which everyone, no matter where they live, can enjoy a good quality of life in communities in which economic prosperity and social justice go hand in hand. I am sure that the House will agree that we have some of the best towns and cities in the world. We have famous historical and cultural centres, dynamic commercial areas, pleasant suburbs and seats of learning that command respect the world over and of which we are justly proud.
The last urban White Paper was produced by the last Labour Government more than two decades ago and focused narrowly on inner-city areas. We now understand the need for a much broader approach that takes in all urban areas. Much has happened since that urban White Paper was published. Cities are powerful engines of growth, but in the early 1980s many of them were hit hard by economic changes. The approach then regarded economic behaviour as detached from its social context, and in the years that followed many areas suffered from neglect, poor management, inadequate public services, lack of investment and a culture of short-termism.
Our aim is to reverse that legacy of decline and bring about a lasting urban renaissance. There are signs of hope, as our attitudes and aspirations survey shows: 85 per cent. of people are satisfied with the areas where they live, the rate at which people are leaving our cities is slowing down and people are moving back into our city centres. We still face big challenges. People and jobs have been leaving our great cities, and people are increasingly living in smaller households or alone, with the result that many more households will need to be accommodated over the next 25 years, as the House has discussed.
Some neighbourhoods suffer from a poor quality of life and a lack of opportunity. Economic performance in some areas is weak, with a knock-on effect on the surrounding region. Over the past 20 years, out-of-town shopping centres have taken the heart out of some of our urban areas; 30,000 hectares of our green belt have been built over; and playing fields have been sold off for short-term profit without regard for the health of the communities they served.
On coming to office, we took immediate action to alleviate the worst problems and began laying the foundations for the long-term strategy that we are now bringing together in the White Paper. We merged the Department of Environment and the Department of Transport to encourage a more joined-up approach to solving problems. We have got hundreds of thousands of young people back into work with the new deal--[Interruption.] It is all very well the Opposition mumbling, but we have provided an extra £5 billion to tackle the £19 billion housing repair backlog that we inherited.
We produced the integrated transport White Paper and the £180 billion 10-year plan to rectify decades of under-investment in our transport infrastructure under the previous Administration. We began tackling problems in our most deprived communities through the £800 million new deal for communities and the social exclusion unit. We have committed £350 million over three years to regenerate the coalfield communities that were decimated by the previous Government's policies.
Modernising local government has been a priority. We have legislated to make councils more efficient and more accountable to local people. We established the regional development agencies to drive forward economic growth and regeneration in the regions--[Interruption]--and they are working. Many years ago, the Opposition said that they would abolish the regional development agencies for Scotland and Wales. They failed to do so. Although it was a manifesto promise, they did not carry it out. Why would they keep regional development agencies for Scotland and Wales and not give them to the English regions? We shall be asking them that at the next election.
We are modernising the planning system and have set a new target of building 60 per cent. of new housing on developed land. We are on target for achieving that. The quality of construction is improving, following John Egan's report, "Rethinking Construction". In 1998 we set up the urban taskforce under Lord Rogers to look at the causes of decline in our urban areas and recommend practical ways of bringing people back into our towns and cities. I would like to express my personal appreciation to Lord Rogers and his team for the excellent report on which much of the White Paper is based.
The White Paper builds on that groundwork. It sets out a long-term strategy that will bring lasting benefits to all who live in our towns and cities--a strategy which recognises, in Lord Rogers' words, that