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The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Andrew Smith): In Kettering, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, we are continuing to deliver a platform of economic stability that will help us attain our objective of high and stable levels of employment. Since the previous election, claimant unemployment in the Kettering constituency has fallen by 35 per cent, long-term unemployment by 81 per cent. and youth unemployment by 83 per cent.
Mr. Smith: Yes, indeed. I am pleased to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the young people concerned and to record the House's appreciation of all the efforts made by the personal advisers, the providers and, of course, the employers who have given them work opportunities. The message is very clear--the greatest threat to the progress that we have made in tackling youth unemployment and to the future of those young people would be the return of a Conservative Administration who would want to abolish the new deal.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Melanie Johnson): Pensions, by their very nature, are investments for the long term. Investors should not be deterred from making sensible provisions for their retirement by short-term volatility in the investment markets.
Mr. Illsley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Can she give any assistance to pension schemes such as that of the William Cook group, which is based in Sheffield? Its pension fund had a shortfall of some £4 million when valued in October last year, causing the pension scheme to ask its members either to increase their contributions or to change to a money purchase scheme, which will be to the detriment of those workers. Can my hon. Friend offer any advice to such pension funds?
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Has the hon. Lady received any recent representations from the pension funds about the cost of the withdrawal of payable tax credits? Does it amount to more than £5 billion a year, and is she proud of that record?
Miss Johnson: As the hon. Gentleman knows well, the reason for making the change was to increase and maintain investment in funds, rather than to encourage artificial withdrawal of money. At the same time as the change has taken place, stock market values have gone up and the values of the funds have increased.
Wednesday 4 April: European Standing Committee C--Relevant European Union document: 10544/00, Community Postal Services. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee reports: HC 28-iv (2000-01) and HC 23-xxviii (1999-2000).]
The House will wish to know that, subject as ever to the progress of business, I expect that the House will rise for the Easter recess at the end of business on Tuesday 10 April and return on Monday 23 April.
As business is clearly moving at a satisfactory pace, may we have a statement from the Deputy Prime Minister early next week about the tube? The public-private partnership completion deadline was March 1999. Today's tube strike, with the resultant gridlock in surface transport, shows clearly the urgent need for the House to be kept informed of the Government's proposals.
Transport for London was set up by the Government. It is not clear what it is meant to do if it is not to run the tube. We have seen the Deputy Prime Minister on the Treasury Bench this week. It would be a courtesy as well as a matter of urgency for him to allow the House to question him on that important subject.
On the assumption that the county council elections will proceed, and given the problems around the country with foot and mouth, will the Leader of the House say whether the Government intend to make a statement before the Easter recess about arrangements for the elections? Will there be any consideration of the expenses of candidates who are farmers? I have three county council candidates in my constituency who are farmers restricted to their farms. They will want to contact the electorate by telephone, which will have a read-across into election expenses. Will arrangements be made for electoral returning officers to take it on themselves to distribute postal votes, perhaps even on a parish-by-parish basis? That is a matter of concern for the right of candidates to contact their electorate.
Now that the Leader of the House has kindly outlined when we can expect the Easter recess, will there be a statement on how Members of Parliament can be kept informed and have access to Ministers, especially at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, during the recess? The present national emergency is likely to be still with us during the Easter recess, and it is most important that hon. Members can continue to deal with constituency casework relating to foot and mouth on a day-by-day basis. Proper arrangements need to be made, and they should include officials at MAFF being aware of contact numbers for hon. Members if new outbreaks occur in their constituencies during the recess. That matter should be put in hand, and I hope that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will tell the House early next week about the contingency arrangements that the Government have put in place.
Will the Leader of the House say whether it is the Government's intention to offer a full debate--not a statement--on foot and mouth in Government time before the House rises for the Easter recess? The two debates that have been held in the Chamber have been in Opposition time. We welcome statements from the Minister, but each day new problems and issues arise that hon. Members of all parties want to raise. It would be appropriate if the Government were to find time in their agenda for a much more detailed debate before the House rises for the recess.
Mrs. Beckett: I shall try to remember all of that. First, the hon. Lady asked for a statement on the London underground, and I shall draw her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. She will know that the Government have been striving heartily to get agreement about the future of the underground, but unfortunately it has not yet proved possible to resolve all the problems. Obviously, however, my right hon. Friend will continue to work on the matter.
The hon. Lady then asked, on the assumption that the county council elections will proceed, about the many arrangements that need to be made. I shall draw her remarks to the attention of the relevant Ministers. I hope that she is aware that electoral returning officers already have considerable powers, and that, even before there was any question of a foot and mouth outbreak, they had been advised to draw to people's attention the greater availability of postal voting. They are doing what they can in practical terms to make that option more genuinely available. In that sense, therefore, there is little need for further steps to be taken.
I turn now to the general question of how the county council elections should be handled. It seems that the Conservative party has had its own thoughts on that, and made its own arrangements. Although it has called for the cancellation of the county council elections, the Conservative party has called no fewer than three county council by-elections--in Cumbria, Essex and Wiltshire--since the outbreak began.