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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Now that the Government no longer have a friend to ring, they ask the audience to solve the nation's problems. May we have an early statement about the Government's side of the big conversation? How much money does the Leader of the House believe that the Labour party will make out of the electronic messaging? Could it be a case of rip-off communications from a rip-off Government?

Mr. Hain: No.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): May I echo the calls for an early debate on the Audit Commission report? I hope that we could organise it so that we get away from the narrow party political point scoring of Conservative Members and consider the fundamental flaw in local government finance and indeed, in local democracy. For every £4 local government spends, it raises only £1. A properly agreed 1 per cent. increase in a council's expenditure can lead to a 4 per cent. rise in

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council tax. That is obviously a fundamental flaw in the system. May we have an early opportunity to consider the problem and, I hope, find redress?

Mr. Hain: I understand my hon. Friend's point about gearing in local government finance. He was a distinguished local government leader in Sheffield and knows a lot about such matters. The Deputy Prime Minister will want to listen carefully to his points and ascertain whether they should be tackled through a debate or in some other way. The Audit Commission report is an important document and the Government's review will be reported to the House. There will be a proper opportunity to discuss it then.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Leader of the House has confirmed that the House's opinion of top-up fees will not be asked. In the light of the Prime Minister's desire to listen and the fact that 150 Labour Members of Parliament disagree with the policy, as do Her Majesty's Opposition as well as the Liberal Democrats and members of other parties, what steps will the right hon. Gentleman take to ensure adequate time—a minimum of two days—for a full debate on Second Reading of the higher education Bill? During the Christmas recess, will he give consideration to ensuring that an appropriate time for debate is provided so that all voices are heard on the matter?

Mr. Hain: The Secretary of State for Education and Skills reported on the matter to the House only yesterday in a full debate. The right hon. Gentleman can press Conservative Front-Bench Members to hold an Opposition day debate on the subject. There will be a full debate on Second Reading, as is normal. However, we have set out our proposals to deal with the long-term problem of the deficits in higher education despite record investment. What are the Conservative proposals? The Liberal Democrats simply want to increase taxes, but they want to do that for everything. Conservative Front-Bench Members want a quarter of a million fewer students in our universities. What will that do for the prospects of the best knowledge-based economy in the world, which is the Government's objective? How will we achieve wider access and social justice for students, including some from my constituency, who are on low incomes? We are grappling with those issues and making proposals. The right hon. Gentleman should persuade Conservative Front-Bench Members to engage genuinely in a debate about serious policy instead of indulging in opportunistic sloganising and hypocrisy.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): In general, I support the change of hours in the House. However, what impact have the new hours had on the catering service?

Mr. Hain: It is interesting to consider what has happened since the new hours were introduced. As I reported last week, according to the House authorities, catering income has increased by 16 per cent. when compared with the same period last year. The issue about catering services is getting mixed up with that about the hours, but it is proper to deal with the huge subsidy for catering in the House and the Catering Committee is trying to do that. My hon. Friend's view is different from that of my hon. Friend the Member for

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Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) who opposes the change in hours. I have to weigh up the interplay of forces and divisions when deciding how to progress.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): The south-west is bottom of the league in the amount of support grant that it receives per head, despite the fact that it is one of the most generous regions in contributing to the Treasury's coffers. Surely, to quote the Leader of the House, "That is not fair". May we have a debate on the way in which the rate support grant has become nothing more than the Treasury's stealth tax-raising powers?

Mr. Hain: That is a ridiculous statement. Like all of us, the hon. Gentleman is worried about council tax levels, which the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire is considering in his review. He will take the Audit Commission report into account. I should be interested to hear practical suggestions from Conservative Members. Do they want to raise extra taxes so that central Government provide more finance for local authorities, as the Liberal Democrats propose? Have they other alternatives? We are committed to high quality public services and that is why increases in local authority funding have been real-terms increases year after year, compared with real-terms cuts under the Conservatives.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): If we had a debate on the Audit Commission report on council tax, it would give some of us an opportunity to point out that the major gerrymandering and fiddling in council tax measures arise from the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which introduced the poll tax that was transformed into the council tax. May we have a full day's debate on the current local government finance settlement? The Audit Commission report could be raised during such a discussion. A full day's debate, which was not chopped by statements, would give a good number of hon. Members a reasonable opportunity to contribute to the deliberations.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con) rose—

Mr. Hain: I am grateful for the chance to reply to my hon. Friend. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said that I might give better answers before I was asked the questions.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) that since 1997, there has been a real-terms increase in grant to local government of 25 per cent. compared with a real-terms cut of 7 per cent. during the last four years of Conservative government. The idea that we have not generously given extra support to local authorities is not true. However, my hon. Friend makes good points about the previous Government's rigging of the local government settlements. I remember when I was an unsuccessful Labour candidate for Putney in Wandsworth, the Thatcherite Government dished out lots of money from central funds to keep rates, the poll tax and the council tax low in Conservative-controlled Wandsworth. We are seeking to introduce a much fairer system.

Mr. Cameron: Given the Prime Minister's occasional tendency to say one thing and mean something ever so

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slightly different, may we have a clear statement about whether the Bill that deals with top-up fees is an issue of confidence for the Government? Are they saying that if the Bill were lost on Second Reading, the Prime Minister would resign?

Mr. Hain: The Prime Minister made it crystal clear yesterday that this is an important matter for the country and, therefore, for the Government, for him and for the House. We seek to tackle the funding gap that will arise in universities. The Conservative party, including the hon. Gentleman, is signally failing to acknowledge that gap because it does not care about the future of universities; they left them in a near-bankrupt situation. We seek to address that gap, widen access, increase social justice and enable more low-income students to go to universities, so that we can become the kind of economy that depends on high knowledge and high skills, and compete more effectively in the world. That is our objective: what is the hon. Gentleman's policy?

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I hope that when the Leader of the House has his big conversation he listens more than he is listening to the House today. He has heard argument from all quarters for a debate on council tax, and he is not listening. I hope that he will reconsider and that there will, at least, be a debate on that important issue in the new year.

In the meantime, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to ask the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire to come to the House to make a statement on the Audit Commission's report. He went to Devon county council, spoke to councillors, business men, pensioners and residents and told them that the council tax rise was all the county's fault. He came to the House and told Members from Devon and the south-west that it was down to the county council to decide the council tax rise. The Audit Commission's report clearly states that that is not the case. When will the Minister come to the House and put the record straight?

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