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Mr. Hain: The right hon. Gentleman is expert at talking to himself in the middle of the night in this Chamber, so I guess that he will have no interest in the big conversation that is taking place with the public out there. I shall be happy, however, to continue to answer questions on it from him or from any other Member, because the truth is that we are doing something that no Government have ever done: we are carrying out a big consultation exercise about the challenges that face this country. Perhaps he does not think that the public ought to be involved in the hard choices that need to be madefor example, about an ageing society and the challenges that we face in funding our public services as an ever-increasing proportion of people are in retirement. A big conversation is required to give people an opportunity to express their own views on such matters.
The right hon. Gentleman asks how many events I have taken part in. The Prime Minister has so far been involved in a whole range of events, starting in Bristol and Newport last Friday and continuing with others since. I was with him at the Newport event, and I intend to take part in another one early next week
Mr. Hain: The right hon. Gentleman asked me how many times I have taken part, and I am telling him. I also have my duties as Leader of the House, which I am discharging faithfully in answering his question at boring length. I shall take part in future events, as will other Ministers, because we want to involve the public in a big exercise to determine the future of this country. Neither the right hon. Gentleman nor other Conservative Members are interested in facing up to challenges such as the crisis in higher education and the problem of an ageing society. They would deal with those big issues in their traditional elitist fashion; we are doing it by involving the public, because that is what we believe in.
Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Did the Leader of the House notice that this week Lloyds TSB and Norwich Union announced their intention to transfer large numbers of call centre and back-office jobs from this country to India? Can we have a debate about the globalisation of the telecomms industry, so that we can not only assess the risks that that poses to jobs in Britain and discuss how they can be minimised, but consider the benefits that the globalisation of communications provides to British companies, particularly in the financial services sector? If financial services were fully liberalised across Europe, British financial services companies, which are leaders in the field, would gain more work from others in Europe and thereby retain jobs in this country.
Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend makes some telling points. Obviously, he can apply for a debate; I am sure that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will also want to consider that opportunity. Evidence from the Call Centre Association suggest that companies that outsource part of their work create a big return for this country, in that the surpluses that they obtain enable them to expand services, create more jobs and contribute to our prosperity. It is painful and difficult when such churning takes place, with some jobs displaced and replaced by other, often value-added jobs, but it is not as straightforward as saying that we have lost jobs to another countrythe return that comes back is important, too.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): May I continue the main theme of today's business questions and join my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) in imploring the Leader of the House for an urgent debate, before the recess, on the Audit Commission's report on council tax rises? That independent report confirms not only that the blame for high council tax rises lies with Labour Ministers, but that the unfair Tory council tax system is fundamentally flawed. Given that councils are currently having to set council tax levels for next year, and that we now know that for more than three quarters of councils the rise in non-education grant is a real-terms cut, is it not urgent
Mr. Hain: How can a central Government-provided increase that is way above the level of inflation be a real-terms cut? This is Mickey Mouse Liberal economics. We heard the Liberal Democrat spokesman talk about Mickey Mouse income tax policies in the form of a 4p increase in the basic rate of income tax. All taxpayers should understand that the Liberal Democrat party is now a high-tax party flying the flag of higher income taxes. I should like to know what is the Conservative party's policy, too, because they are hiding behind an attack machine instead of putting forward coherent policies.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): When can we discuss the great puzzle whereby the Government's 40 per cent. increase in spending on the health service has led to an increase in activityoperations and so onof a mere 5 per cent.? Is one possible explanation the fact that the bill for drugs in the health service has increased by 50 per cent. in the past three years without any corresponding increase in the effectiveness of those drugs? Can we have a conversation about the fact that the big pharmaceutical companies are probably ripping off patients and taxpayers?
Mr. Hain: I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is asking for another conversation or for a debate, but I am sure that the Secretary of State for Health will want to study his comments carefully. My hon. Friend may have seen his excellent article in The Daily Telegraph earlier this week, in which he comprehensively rebutted the charge that is being made by the Conservativesalthough not, I am sure, by my hon. Friendthat all the public investment is not producing better results. The truth is that the record investment that is going into our health service means that waiting times for elective surgery are coming down increasingly fast, delivering people from the pain that they suffered, year after year, under the Conservatives. We will continue to put that money in and make reforms to ensure that we deliver a first-class service that is free to patients and to those in paina Labour-originated and Labour-modernised national health service.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Leader of the House confirmed that, for reasons about which we can only speculate, we will not have a Second Reading debate on the Bill on top-up fees before Christmas. It follows that there must be a vacant day in the business of the House. Why, therefore, is the Leader of the House so resistant to calls from Members on both sides of the House for a debate on the Audit Commission report, which concerns a matter that affects all our constituents and makes recommendations to the Government on short-term changes? Consultations on next year's rate support grant statement are under way. The Leader of the House said a moment ago that he wants to find out about the Opposition's policy: such a debate would give him that opportunity.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that the other Bill to get its Second Reading concerns an urgent matteralthough some of the comments by Conservative Members, including his leader, make that rather doubtful. It will toughen up our asylum laws even further by tackling the loopholes that are being exploited by people traffickers, illegal migrants, and the criminal gangs who are sometimes behind them.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that lifting Crown immunity from prosecution is notoriously complex and requires cross-departmental authority. I have received reassurances in the past six months that the Government are minded to tackle that important issue. It is especially important for the Wynne family in my constituency who regard Crown immunity from prosecution as a smokescreen that covers up deficiencies in health and safety and management at the Royal Mint in Llantrisant. If that proposal does not appear in the measures that are in the Library to which my right hon. Friend referred, what assurances will he give that the Government will move rapidly to ensure that Crown immunity from prosecution is no longer used to hide deficiencies in health and safety that can lead to fatalities in Crown estate properties?
Mr. Hain: I understand that the matter involves one of my hon. Friend's constituents, so it is therefore proper for him to draw it to the House's attention and seek a way in which to address it. The relevant Ministers and I will study his points carefully. Draft legislation is due to be introduced and discussed in the House and, during that pre-legislative scrutiny, he will have the opportunity to ascertain whether the plight and problem that he identified can be tackled in a better way than through the Government's proposals.