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Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): May I suggest to the Leader of the House that the issue raised by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about the allocation of appropriate Bills to a Special Standing Committee is precisely the kind of issue that ought to be discussed between the parties around the table, as was recommended by the Modernisation Committee and approved by the House? I drew this matter to the attention of the Leader of the House last week.

May we have a statement as early as possible after the recess from the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on today's Select Committee report on schools funding? This damning report draws two very important conclusions. It says:

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It goes on to say:

This report, produced by a Committee with a large Labour majority, makes it quite clear that the schools Minister was guilty of presiding over a complete disaster this year: a £1 billion bungle. He and the Secretary of State blamed local education authorities of all parties—not just Opposition parties—for the way in which they handled the issue, when in fact the blame should have stayed with the Department. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State comes to the House early in the new year, apologises to those local authorities on behalf of his ministerial team and gives us an assurance that this will not happen again in 2004–05?

Mr. Hain: On the question of discussions between the hon. Gentleman, the shadow Leader of the House and me on forthcoming matters, this has not been the practice in the past and I do not see any persuasive case for changing the arrangements. As the hon. Gentleman knows, however, I have written to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee about a large number of draft Bills, giving the Chairman and, therefore, all Select Committee Chairmen early notice of the timetable that we envisage for introducing draft Bills for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Chairman of the Liaison Committee very much welcomed that initiative, as did his colleagues on the Committee.

On schools funding, yes, there was a glitch in the system that caused considerable difficulty, but a package has been put in place by the Secretary of State that will ensure adequate resources for local authorities and provide minimum increases in funding for every school. It will also involve making early announcements, reversing cuts in grant and limiting central spending. All those measures will address the problems that were raised by this episode. The Secretary of State also answers questions regularly in the House when these matters have been raised, and that will continue to be possible. I would like to put this in perspective. Despite those unhappy glitches, the Government are introducing record investment into schools, recruiting thousands of extra teachers, and driving up standards in primary and secondary schools, achieving the highest levels of attainment and investment for decades. The difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which were unacceptable, should be set against this impressive record of continued educational investment and spending, and the rising standards that result from that.

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware of the magnificent efforts of our Post Office workers who have delivered record levels of Christmas mail in the last few weeks. He will also be aware that, some months ago, I came to the House and extracted from the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services a guarantee that before any sub-post offices were closed, the local Members of Parliament and local authorities would be consulted. My right hon. Friend will therefore be as alarmed as I was to learn of

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the announcement this morning of the closure of 11 sub-post offices in my area, without that guarantee having been met. Will he ask his colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry to invite the chairman of Royal Mail, Mr. Allan Leighton to explain why he has baulked that guarantee? Perhaps it could be suggested to Mr. Leighton that if he spent as much time saving rural and urban post offices as he spends trying to save Leeds United, he would do a better job.

Mr. Hain: It is probably easier to save local post offices than it is to save Leeds United in the current circumstances. I am disturbed by the account to which my hon. Friend refers. It is imperative that local Members of Parliament and local councils, as well as the local public who will be affected, should be consulted by the Post Office on any planned closures. That is normally what happens, as I know from my own experience. If my hon. Friend has not been consulted, especially given the large number of closures involved, it is totally unacceptable. I am sure that the chairman of the Post Office will note my hon. Friend's anger about this matter. My hon. Friend will have the opportunity to raise the issue again in the debate on this subject planned for 7 January, and I hope that he takes the opportunity to do so.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The local transport settlement for 2004–05 was announced in today's Order Paper, which gave notice of a written statement on the matter. Last year, there was an oral statement, which gave hon. Members the opportunity to question the Government on this important matter, particularly given the increased congestion and rail problems in certain areas. May we have a debate early in the new year to enable hon. Members to hold the Government to account on this important issue?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to apply for an early debate, but I believe that at this moment just before the recess it was absolutely proper to have a written ministerial statement setting all these matters out. I am sure that he will also recognise that we have a very impressive record of extra investment in rail services, local transport schemes and extra bus provision, especially in rural areas. As a result of that investment, 1,500 new trains have come into service since we have been in power, and there has been a 20 per cent. rise in rail passenger journeys—[Interruption.] I hear a few scoffs from Conservative Back Benchers, but let us compare this with their Government's record of cuts in rail investment that led to the absolute shambles and danger to passenger safety that we inherited.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a very nice Christmas box for Labour Members and for the majority of people in the country would have been an announcement that the Parliament Acts would be used to ensure that the Hunting Bill became law in the lifetime of this Parliament? Is he aware that the Countryside Alliance has produced playing cards with the 50 most dedicated opponents of fox hunting on them? I am pleased to say that I am on that list, but I would like to be higher up.

Mr. Hain: I am not sure whether I am on that list, but it would be an honour to be so. I have made our position

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absolutely clear, both at business questions and elsewhere, on how this matter is to be taken forward, and I do not have anything to add to that.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Leader of the House has been pressed on several occasions for a debate on the Procedure Committee report recommending legislation on Parliament square. He has said that that issue needed to be resolved sooner rather than later. That was on 27 November. How late can "soon" be, before "sooner" becomes "later"?

Mr. Hain: A number of different agencies are involved, as the right hon. Gentleman understands, such as the Royal Parks Agency, local authorities and the police, and consultations are taking place. I understand the point that he raises; "soon" means soon. I shall seek to address the matter as soon as I can. Equally, he will understand that the Procedure Committee report, which was strongly argued and persuasive, raised important issues and they need to be considered properly rather than prematurely.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware of the success of the pension credit in helping some of the poorest pensioners in this country. In my constituency, more than 4,000 pensioners have benefited, but I would like a debate early in the new year to consider specifically how to increase take-up of the pension credit and find more ways to encourage pensioners to get the benefits that they are entitled to.

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend raises an important matter. Already, 2.4 million pensioners receive pension credit, which is a big total. I would urge all Members of Parliament to publicise the credit and appeal to local pensioners to contact local pensioner groups to ensure that take-up is even better than it has been, because we need it to be extensive. The credit is a radical improvement in the lives of pensioners who have almost certainly been hard-working for all their working lives, who may have been thrifty and may have a small amount of savings. They have not had support if they received a small widow's pension or a small occupational pension or had modest savings.

The Government are delivering the pension credit as part of the £9 billion more a year we have spent on support for pensioners since we came to power. It is disgraceful that the Opposition plan to axe the pension credit.

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