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Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): My colleagues and I strongly endorse the request for an urgent statement on council tax, not least so that the situation can be made more clear and transparent for local authorities led by all three parties. Does he share my surprise that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) did not apologise this afternoon? After all, after the poll tax fiasco, it was his party that introduced the system, with its inherent and fundamental flaws, to which the Audit Commission has drawn our attention. However, it is not sufficient for the Leader of the House to pretend that, after six and a half years, everything can be blamed on the previous Government. Will he give an undertaking that we will have no more incomprehensible gobbledegook explanations from the Deputy Prime Minister, but a simple word of apology to the House and to local authorities, which have been led astray on that matter?

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Will the Leader of the House also confirm the official hints in recent days that comparisons are now being made with completely different systems of local taxation—not least the local income tax that we have suggested, which would add only 4p in the pound to the normal rate of taxation and enable us to scrap the whole council tax system—and acknowledge, given his radical past, that the council tax is regressive and unfair and that a local income tax would be progressive and much fairer?

Mr. Hain: Here we have it: the Liberal Democrats propose an extra 4p in the pound for every taxpayer through their expensive local income tax policy. We now have that on the record, although I note that at recent Liberal Democrat press conference, the back of the press release—it was not supposed to be released but was inadvertently photocopied—referred to a 6p increase, so it could be even higher.

Mr. Tyler: Where is it?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps Mr. Tyler should listen to the Leader of the House. He put the questions to the Leader of the House, and I expect him to listen.

Mr. Hain: An income tax rise of 4p in the pound from the Liberal Democrats is high enough for me, and would be high enough for the average council tax payer and resident. We know that the Liberal Democrats are a high-tax party. They want to load tax on hard-working and low-income families, but Labour is committed to a much fairer system of local government finance. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to remind us that the leader of the Conservative party was responsible for the poll tax, which was one of the most unfair, regressive and punitive taxes in the history of this country.

The level of council tax payments is a concern, and the hon. Gentleman was right to draw the House's attention to it. That is why we are reviewing the matter and why we have already made changes that bring the current system into line with many of the recommendations of the Audit Commission report. We will study that report further and with care before we introduce any other changes that are necessary.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will recognise the success of the national minimum wage, but 700,000 young people aged 16 or 17 are working in the British economy without protection. Can he find time for a debate on that issue?

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend has an opportunity to secure a debate by applying in the normal fashion, but I understand the concerns that he identified. We are, of course, very proud of the fact that we introduced the minimum wage, which benefits millions of low-paid workers, against the fierce opposition of the Conservative party, which, in the words of its leader, said that it would cost 2 million jobs. Since its introduction, an extra 1.6 million jobs have been created, which gives the lie to that accusation. I shall certainly consider the points that my hon. Friend made about young workers, and I continue to advise him to take every opportunity to raise them on the Floor of the House.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): Can we have a debate on the way in which the Crown Prosecution Service treats mothers who are accused of killing their very young children? Sally Clark was my constituent and the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. Another

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case is before the Court of Appeal today and, without in any way wishing to prejudge the court's decision, surely it is time to examine how the Crown Prosecution Service deals with such cases. Given the uncertainty of medical evidence and the little use of a long prison sentence in such cases, the matter is of enormous concern to many people.

Mr. Hain: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, especially as the issue has affected his constituent. I know of the interest in such cases and the particularly strong arguments that his constituents put. I am sure that the authorities and the relevant Minister will note his points.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend consider finding time for a debate on the future of direct links between the west coast main line and Europe? We are the poor relations and such links would certainly help jobs in the north-west and everyone who uses that line.

Mr. Hain: I am sure that the Secretary of State for Transport will want to consider those points carefully. My hon. Friend's constituency is affected and we want there to be a massive opportunity for extra investment and prosperity in the north-west of England. It is therefore important that the line through to the export market that accounts for nearly two thirds of all exports from the north-west of England operates as efficiently as possible.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): May I return to the airports White Paper? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Members on both sides of the House are anxious to see what is in it? Can he confirm that it will be published before Christmas and indicate whether that is likely to mean next week or the week after?

Mr. Hain: I understand the anxieties that are felt, and I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that the intention is to publish the report as early as possible. The intention is certainly to do so before Christmas but, in any event, it will be done as early as possible. It is important that such a crucial decision, which will affect many constituents of Members on both sides of the House, is taken and delivered and reported to the House in the proper fashion.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab): Is the Leader of the House aware that more than 200 MPs from all parties in the House have called for a review of the sitting hours? Indeed, when they were introduced, we were promised a review. Tuesdays and Wednesdays have become a nightmare as we condense everything into just a few hours, and I know, through talking to Ministers and Whips, that there is real difficulty in getting people to serve on Committees.

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the plight of the permanent staff, many of whom are anxious about their jobs and futures? Because of the uncertainty, casuals are now being employed and that

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surely brings with it a security problem for the House. Can we have a review of the hours, as we were promised? Let us debate the matter here.

Mr. Hain: I know my hon. Friend's very strong views on this subject. I think that I am right in saying that she did not vote for the change in the hours. She has stuck consistently to her opposition to the change.

As my hon. Friend and the whole House know, we are committed to reviewing the new sitting hours by the end of the Parliament. She also knows that I am seeking to address a number of the difficulties that have been brought to my attention about individual issues associated with the change. However, I do not think that it is right immediately to override the original decision, which was to have the changed hours in place for the rest of the Parliament and to review the matter before the end of the Parliament. I do not think that we should act prematurely.

In respect of the staff, I am concerned about the reports and rumours that I have heard and I have discussed the matter with the authorities. I shall be very happy to receive additional representations from my hon. Friend.

As I have said before, there are strong feelings both for and against the changed hours. It is important that everybody who has strong feelings has the opportunity to represent them to me and suggest the exact changes that they want. Very few people have told me that they want to revert to exactly the old standard pattern of hours. Some have said that they want to sit longer on Tuesdays and others say that Committees should sit later in the morning. All those issues may be weighed up in good time.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I am sorry to have to return to the Audit Commission report but it confirms what many Conservative Members have said for some time: there was gerrymandering of the entire system last year against councils in London. Will the Leader of the House grant a debate on that because London councils—Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat—feel strongly that they have been deprived of vital funds? We need an urgent debate on the serious allegations made in the Audit Commission report that was published today.

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