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Congestion Charges

Q6. [23475] Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): If he will make a statement on the Government's action to consult on the introduction of congestion charges.

The Prime Minister: The Government require local authorities to undertake full and effective consultation before seeking approval for any local congestion-charging scheme in England outside London. Consultations about London schemes are a matter for the Mayor.

Richard Ottaway: Does the Prime Minister recall, during the London mayoral and Assembly elections, campaigning on a manifesto featuring his photograph and signature on the first page and, on the front, the words "New Labour, new London, no congestion charges"? What exactly does he mean by that?

The Prime Minister: What I mean is that the decision is obviously for the Mayor to make. It will be for him to decide whether to introduce congestion charging. The Government's role is to ensure that any money used for congestion charging is put back into public transport. That, we believe, is the sensible way in which to proceed.

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Q8. [23477] Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): Now that the whole country is free of foot and mouth disease, what plans has my right hon. Friend to restore and support the tourism industry—particularly in my constituency and in north-west Wales, where tourism is vital to the lives of many citizens?

The Prime Minister: We are trying to ensure, by means of funds for the tourist boards not just in Wales but throughout the country, that we give a significant boost to British tourism. Spending on the advertising campaign will run into millions of pounds. It is having an impact, and I understand that the Welsh Assembly is making a further £2 million available to the Welsh tourist board to boost the industry specifically in Wales.

Q9. [23478] Mr. John Baron (Billericay): Having recently seen deprivation abroad, the Prime Minister knows that the European Union's overseas aid package is motivated by politics. Poland receives twice as much aid as the whole of Latin America and Asia combined. When will the Prime Minister stop the EU from playing petty politics with the poor of the world?

The Prime Minister: The negotiations that are taking place with Poland about accession to the European Union will deal with many of those issues. We are in favour of European enlargement, and in favour of Poland's coming into the European Union. As for European policy as a whole, if we can make changes in the European Union's aid and development policy, it will be only because we have some influence within the European Union itself. The worst course that we could follow, in having that influence, would be to pursue the policies of isolationism that are exhibited constantly by the Conservative party, not least at this Question Time.

Q10. [23479] Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the economic test currently faced by flood prevention schemes, and will know that many argue that it fails residents and businesses affected by flooding. Will he consider modernising the formula to take account of the huge social costs incurred by those affected, and to make it easier to establish flood defence schemes for residents and businesses in such places as Worcester?

The Prime Minister: I understand my hon. Friend's concern. We are looking at ways in which we can improve the effectiveness of the resources that we put in for protection against flooding, but we are increasing those resources significantly, by some £100 million or more. I will certainly look into my hon. Friend's point, but I must tell him that in the end the important thing is for the Government to make the investment, and for local people to make the final decision on how that investment can best be used.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Will the Prime Minister assure the House that no Minister in his Government played any part, through pressure or influence of any kind, in the effective dismissal of Elizabeth Filkin, and that her findings against the Deputy Prime Minister and other Ministers in his Government

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played no part in it either? When will he force the Deputy Prime Minister to abide by his ministerial code, and register his pecuniary interest in the RMT?

The Prime Minister: As I heard just before the beginning of Prime Minister's Question Time, the Deputy Prime Minister dealt very comprehensively with the usual rubbish from the Conservative party on this issue. In respect of Mrs. Filkin, if the hon. Gentleman has any such evidence he should present it to the proper authorities rather than engaging in the usual Conservative party smear.

Q11. [23480] Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): It was great to see my right hon. Friend in Afghanistan earlier this week—[Laughter.]—encouraging our very brave troops, but is it possible to employ our

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peacekeeping troops in an aid programme? I understand that many of our aid programmes are being hampered by bandits. It would be extremely helpful if particular use could be made of our troops' expertise.

The Prime Minister: It is important that the troops reduce the possibilities of instability. However, I was fascinated by Conservative Members shouting at my hon. Friend for saying that we should support the British troops in Afghanistan and what they are doing. Of course, that is part of the Conservative party's new policy. It is against us being part of the security force in Afghanistan. It is against us being in Sierra Leone. It is against us being in Macedonia. It is against us being anywhere near India and Pakistan, so it appears. It is against us being in Europe. It is the Howard Hughes school of diplomacy, but it is not very effective.

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Points of Order

3.30 pm

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know that you give special allowance to the Prime Minister, but you have ruled on previous occasions that it is not the role of those on the Government Front Bench to talk about Conservative party policy, or at least their version of it. Earlier in Prime Minister's questions, the Prime Minister spoke for over one minute giving his incorrect version of Conservative party policy, and he repeated it for the final 30 seconds of the session. Surely there must be a limit to which he can abuse Prime Minister's Question Time.

Mr. Speaker: Order. If the hon. Gentleman will let the Speaker run Prime Minister's Question Time, that will be very helpful indeed.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I raised with the Prime Minister a question of constituency significance, of which I had given him prior notice, relating to a particular constituent. Is it not the usual courtesy in the House that when a Member has given notice of such a specific case, that Member has a right to expect a response on it? The Prime Minister did not even allude to the case of my constituent. I give you notice, Mr. Speaker, that I am greatly dissatisfied with the Prime Minister's response and that I will seek leave to raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Mr. Speaker: I note what the hon. Gentleman has said.

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Right to Self-employment

3.32 pm

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): I beg to move,

The Bill, which particularly creates the right to self-employment, is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the chairman and both vice-chairmen of the all-party small business group. I take the opportunity to thank the many Members who have offered their support.

The self-employed are vital to our economy both nationally and locally. Numbering in excess of 4 million people, they comprise of owner-managers of shops, factories and farms as well as freelances working in the media, information technology and the creative industries. Indeed, it could be said that Members of the House can technically be included among their ranks, so I guess I should declare an interest. Together, those 4 million people are leading creators of this country's wealth. They provide most of the local services that we use and employ approximately half of those working in the private sector.

At the same time, because the nature of work is changing, self-employment is becoming an increasingly popular option. The days of working from nine to five are gone, and the impact of technology means that when and where we work is constantly changing. Self-employment has the flexibility to respond to those changes, which is why it is increasingly the first option for many people at work.

A good example of that is the recent huge rise in the number of self-employed women, who have set up their own businesses and in the process smashed the glass ceiling. That is a wonderful market example of challenging discrimination. However, self-employed people matter not merely for their economic work. For me, the self-employed embody a value, which is one of the reasons why I came into the House in the first place: it is the simple idea that, no matter who one is and what one's background, if one has the ability, the ambition and the will to work, one can be one's own boss and make one's way in the world.

Sadly, in this country we do not seem to realise that full potential. Despite the excellent work of organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the self-employed continue to be discriminated against, whether it is by high street banks unfairly refusing mortgages or by the state handing out inferior benefits. The root of that negative attitude lies in the very status of self-employment. The onus lies with an individual wishing to become self-employed to prove his status. That is not, as it may seem, a simple process, because the regulations are based not on consistently applied criteria but on ever-changing case law.

Thus many self-employed people have to prove and re-prove their status every year. Indeed, some have to do so for each contract. The House will recognise that that is an unreasonable requirement. After all, why should a fisherman or, for that matter, a freelance writer, have closely to follow the legal ins and outs and the latest verdicts, and then try to determine whether those apply to him or her now or in the future? Accumulatively,

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that reliance on changing case law represents an appalling waste of time and money. For example, if only half of the 4 million self-employed lose two hours a month in dealing with that problem, that represents more than 3 million working days lost to the economy every year.

In short, the current approach is confusing, wasteful and adversarial. It is also inherently unfair, because it bases the burden of proof not on the state but on the individual. The purpose of my Bill is to reverse that situation by creating a right to become self-employed, removing the confusion of ever-changing rules, and switching the burden of proof from the individual to the state. In practical terms, my Bill would achieve that by requiring individuals to register as self-employed, with Government agencies then being entitled to challenge that registration for a period of up to, say, six months.

By registering, an individual would make an informed and positive choice, and registration itself would remove the need to continue to rely on ever-changing case law, with all the uncertainty and waste that that creates. Equally, by registering, an individual would recognise both the freedom and the responsibility that self- employment brings. Rights must balance benefits with burdens.

Let me offer two examples, one of a burden and one of a benefit. First, when an individual registers, he or she will be required to have insurance cover appropriate to the nature of their work. That would be particularly relevant to those working in a hazardous environment, such as road haulage or agriculture. Conversely, registration could allow people to opt out of paying class 4 national insurance contributions, especially given that state benefits are fully paid for by class 2 contributions.

That right to self-employment would be enormously beneficial. It would give people a real freedom of choice while emphasising their responsibilities; it would bring relative certainty for most small enterprises—an essential ingredient for good business; it would save millions of productive working days, and thereby millions of pounds in lost revenue for the Government; and it would

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significantly reduce the need for the Government constantly to redefine self-employment in order to regulate and tax that activity. There could be wider benefits from registration in the workplace, which Ministers may wish to consider, such as trying to define a worker and an employee.

The self-employed lie at the heart of our economic life. They are the source of most private sector jobs; they provide the services upon which most of us rely; and they represent a vital source of innovation. Equally, social and economic changes are likely to increase the demand for self-employment. As a recent survey by the Prince's Trust has shown, record numbers of school leavers now want to be their own boss when they enter work. They know that in a highly competitive, global economy, in which footloose multinationals regularly downsize—as the term has it—it is perhaps self-employment that will give them some measure of control over their working lives. For many of them, as the next generation of workers, it is the way ahead. That is why it is now time to update how the state interacts with the self-employed.

We need to move away from a confusing, unfair and adversarial approach and towards giving people the right to choose how they work and the freedom and responsibility of that choice. The purpose of the Bill is to provide that right. It would not solve all of the problems in the relationship between Government and the self-employed. However, it represents a vital first step in overhauling how we treat the self-employed and I therefore commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Mark Prisk, Mr. Richard Bacon, Mr. John Baron, Mr. Peter Duncan, Brian Cotter, Mr. Mark Francois, Michael Fabricant, Mr. Adrian Flook, Angela Watkinson, Mr. Kerry Pollard, Mr. George Osborne and Mr. Alistair Burt.

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