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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Although we shall shortly have a pre-Budget statement from the Chancellor, the Leader of the House knows that that allows only about an hour or an hour and a half for Members' questions. There are headlines today such as "Negative equity to peak in 2006 says consultancy" and "Brown faces risk of raising taxes", which was endorsed by no less a body than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Given that, and the fact that, since 1997, central Government employment has risen by 200,000 and local government employment by 150,000, while manufacturing employment has fallen by 600,000, when are we going to have a debate about the Government's disastrous record on employment? In view of those shifts in the pattern of employment and the dire warnings being issued by reputable bodies outside the Government, when are we going to have a debate?

Mr. Hain: Disastrous record? The Government have presided over probably the longest period of sustained growth, low inflation, low interest rates and high employment of any Government in living memory, if not ever. If that is a disastrous record, I would like to see what a successful record is like. The truth is that the Government have been successful economically and in other ways. The right hon. Gentleman complains about the level of public investment, but that is not surprising coming from a Conservative, because the Conservatives want to slash public spending by 20 per cent. At this point in the economic cycle, with world trade conditions being stagnant and with virtually every one of our economic competitors either in recession or stagnant, we have seen not just high consumption, but high public investment. Over the cycle, we shall have to stabilise public spending and investment and ensure that private investment fills the gap, as it is already starting to do, with an upturn in manufacturing reflecting another good success story under the Labour Government as compared with the decline in manufacturing in virtually all our competitor nations.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Will the Leader of the House re-examine the policy that determines when Ministers come to make statements before the House? I ask that because in the last few days we have learned that, instead of dealing with the difficulties of getting tax credits, the Inland Revenue is, on account of mistakes, demanding the repayment of overpayments of moneys. Secondly, we have recently learned that the new computer of the Child Support Agency has gone on the blink to the extent that further misery will be visited on many of our constituents with deeply personal issues. Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have the chance to probe Ministers on such matters? Finally, will he confirm whether there is any truth in the rumour that the Prime Minister will be at Speaker's Corner on Sunday to take forward the great conversation?

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Mr. Hain: The Prime Minister, other Ministers, and indeed the whole of the Labour party will be involved in a great conversation with the whole of the public right across the country—

Mr. Forth: Where?

Mr. Hain: That will no doubt include the constituency of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), if he wishes to take part in it.

On Ministers making statements, when they are to be made, Ministers will make them in the normal fashion. There have been some hiccups in the tax credit administration, but the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) would not want to detract from the fact that this is an overwhelmingly popular measure that has brought huge income and benefit to those on low incomes. I accept that if there have been administrative hiccups, they need to be sorted out.

As to the Child Support Agency's computer, big computer projects are often difficult to bed down. That is true in the private and the public sector. The problem is being sorted out. There have been some problems, but the right hon. Gentleman exaggerates them enormously.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): The Leader of the House will have been as disappointed as I was to hear that Benjamin Zephaniah has turned down the offer of an award for his poetry—an offer that I am sure was made purely on artistic merit. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on poetry, which we should encourage? There is already one budding poet in the House, who wrote the immortal words:

Perhaps we could encourage poetry in the House by instituting a poet laureate of the House of Commons. It would show an inclusive and forgiving nature in the Government if the author of those lines were to be the first recipient of such an award.

Mr. Hain: I am tempted, but on reflection, I will not be seduced.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on means-testing? I am not just talking about the increasing number of pensioners who are means-tested in every fashion, but middle income earning middle Britain and the sort of people who pay full prescription charges, full council tax, full payment for school meals and full tuition fees. They are the sort of people who pay full for absolutely everything. Now we hear that access to free school buses, a tradition in this country, will be means-tested as well. When are the Government going to stop kicking middle Britain?

Mr. Hain: This business of means-testing goes back to the 1930s when it was punitive. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that giving people on low pensions and low incomes an entitlement to extra benefits through tax credits and pension credits is the equivalent of means-testing, that is a joke. The truth is that the Conservatives oppose such support for people on low incomes and low

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pensions, because they plan to scrap it. We are putting in extra resources to make work pay and to make sure that thrifty pensioners who have worked hard all their lives can benefit and enjoy retirement.

On school buses, the hon. Gentleman has completely misrepresented—as have the newspapers—what is proposed in the draft Bill, which he will have an opportunity to subject to pre-scrutiny. The Government are seeking to deal with an issue. First, there is much traffic congestion during the school run. Traffic is up by about a fifth, so we want to try to get more children to go to school in buses and out of cars. Secondly, there is the question of child safety. The issue is complicated by the fact that school transport is generally not provided for journeys of less than three miles, so how do we change the regulations and configure school transport in a way that, especially in rural areas, provides for a better deal? That is what the proposal is about and the hon. Gentleman should not seek to mislead the House—inadvertently, I am sure—in the way that he has.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I bring to the attention of the Leader of the House an item from yesterday's Gracious Speech that I hope there will be no rush to bring before the House, namely the Civil Contingencies Bill, which is currently published in draft? It will be apparent to anyone who has read the draft Bill that it poses a very real threat to civil liberties in this country and that it is widely drawn in that it would give wide powers to the Government. Indeed, many of the definitions in the Bill, such as that of an emergency, are widely, loosely and dangerously drawn. I understand that the Joint Committee that examined it is due to report tomorrow and I hope that there will be plenty of time for the Government to consider the terms of that report before the Bill comes to the House for Second Reading.

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to raise whatever detailed points he wants, but it is extraordinary that he is effectively saying that people in this country who stand in danger of being blown up by terrorists or attacked by suicide bombers should not have proper civil contingency arrangements in place. If that is what he saying, he will no doubt vote against the Bill. If he has constructive amendments to move or thinks that some detail could be better, we will consider his suggestions.

Nobody should be in any doubt that this country faces a terrorist threat that is very serious indeed even when compared with the worst days of the IRA. We therefore need proper civil contingency arrangements in place and systems prepared to allow us to deal with that. That is what the Bill will do.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on post offices so that a Minister could explain to me why the Post Office proposes to close 80 per cent. of the post offices in Belper? It wants to close four of the five post offices that serve the people of Belper, so how on earth can the Government give a commitment that pensioners will still be able to collect their pensions from a post office when the Government will leave only one post

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office serving more than 20,000 people? That cannot be right. What are the Government going to do to instruct the Post Office to alter these disastrous proposals?

Mr. Hain: We will certainly not privatise the Post Office in the way that many Conservatives have advocated. The Post Office obviously uses criteria for local post office provision and, as I have said on many occasions before when answering questions in this slot, I find the decline of local post offices extremely regrettable, but it is a long-term trend. If the hon. Gentleman wants a debate about the subject, there will be one on 11 December, as I announced only a few moments ago.

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