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Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. His local authority will receive a good increase of 5.1 per cent. and I hope that it will budget prudently. He reminds the House of the authority's record last year, when it came close to falling within the capping regime with an increase of 8.5 per cent. I hope that it will do better in the coming year, because it behoves all authorities—especially Liberal Democrat-controlled ones, which have the worst record on high council tax increases—to be much more careful in the future and to budget prudently in the interest of council tax payers, who are not amused by the unreasonably large increases that they have had to meet in the past.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What is the main reason for the fact that the four predominantly rural districts in Northumberland have increases at or only just above the floor level, as some of them have had for year after year?

Mr. Raynsford: The right hon. Gentleman raises a fair question, but as we have just published the figures today I will need to look further at them to give him a precise explanation. The three rural Northumberland districts that he represents have increases of 2.7, 2.5 and 2.9 per cent., which are all above inflation and are not bad settlements by comparison with those in the past. I will have to look in detail at the explanation, which may be connected to demographic factors, as is often the case. He will also know that Northumberland county council has a good increase of 5.7 per cent. and I am sure that it will be able to operate well with that and set a low council tax increase.

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Business of the House

2.54 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 6 December—Second Reading of the Railways Bill.

Tuesday 7 December—Second Reading of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill.

Wednesday 8 December—Second Reading of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill.

Thursday 9 December—Estimates [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on "management of information technology projects: making IT deliver for DWP customers", followed by a debate on secondary education: "Diversity of Provision and Secondary Education: School Admissions". Details will be given in the Official Report.

At 6pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Friday 10 December—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 13 December—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced, followed by Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Tuesday 14 December—Remaining stages of the Mental Capacity Bill.

Wednesday 15 December—A debate on "European Affairs" on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 16 December—Remaining stages of the School Transport Bill.

Friday 17 December—The House will not be sitting.

The House may wish to be reminded that we will rise for the Christmas recess at the end of business on Tuesday 21 December and return on Monday 10 January.

I should like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall will be:

Thursday 9 December—A debate on the report from the Treasury Committee on restoring confidence in long-term savings.

Thursday 16 December—A debate on the twenty-sixth annual report from the House of Commons Commission.

Following are the details:

The 3rd report of Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2003–04 (HC311) and the Government's response to the 3rd report into Management of Information Technology Projects (2nd special report of Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2003–04) (HC1125)).

The 4th report of Education and Skills Committee, Session 2002–03 (HC94) and Government response to Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision (4th special report of the Education and Skills Committee, Session 2002–03 (HC1096)); and Secondary Education: School Admissions (4th report of Education and Skills Committee, Session 2003–04) (HC58)
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The list of estimates to be agreed are as follows:

Vote on account for House of Commons 2005–06 (HC1236); Vote on account for National Audit Office 2005–06 (HC1237); Vote on account for Electoral Commission 2005–06 (HC1238); Vote on account 2005–06 (HC16); Winter supplementary estimates and new estimates 2004–05 (HC1234)

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Although I thank the Leader of the House for the debate on European affairs, he will know that I have asked for a general foreign affairs debate to allow us to discuss the situation in Africa and the middle east. When may we have such a debate?

We all hope that an agreement will be reached in Northern Ireland. If so, can the Leader of the House assure us that there will be a full oral statement made to the House at the first available opportunity?

Turning to the accountability of Ministers, the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that the Opposition should be consulted about those conducting investigations into ministerial conduct. Why have the Government refused to consult the Opposition on that issue? May we have a debate about ministerial accountability and the independence of such inquiries? Do not the Government realise that by ignoring the advice of the Committee that they set up, they are giving those inquiries a bad name?

May we also have a statement about the granting of indefinite leave to remain to people working in this country? Andrew Walmsley, the former director of the nationality unit, with 37 years' experience in the Home Office, is quoted today as saying that he has

Given the implication of that for the inquiry into the Home Secretary's conduct, is not it vital that the position is clarified?

Will the Leader of the House widen out the subject of Thursday's estimates day? We all know about the failures of the Passport and Records Agency computer, the Child Support Agency computer, the national insurance computer and last week's disaster with the Department for Work and Pensions computers. Today it is reported that the national fingerprint computer system has suffered a huge crash, crippling many police investigations. Perhaps it is not by chance that the system is known as NAF, but does not it just sum up the incompetence of this Government? We have all these systems, but none of them works. How can the Leader of the House claim that we are safer under Labour—as he often does—if the police cannot even check a suspect's fingerprints?

Finally, how about having a debate on British retailing? It is bad enough that Christmas starts in October in many stores, but has the Leader of the House noticed that the January sales are now starting in the first week in December? Does not that show deep concern among retailers and is not the reason for it that the Chancellor's 66 tax rises are now biting hard into the earnings of ordinary people?
2 Dec 2004 : Column 822

Mr. Hain: The last point comes from a supporter of a party that, in its last period in office, increased taxes repeatedly on all sectors of the population. We have brought taxes down for the lowest income families, with a 10p tax rate that has particularly benefited them, working tax credit and child tax credits, and a series of other measures, including the national minimum wage, to assist hard-working families. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced further measures today, many—if not all—of which would be cut under the extravagant £35 billion cuts programme announced by the shadow Chancellor earlier.

I apologise to Conservative Front Benchers, as I have been making the point that their cuts amount to £20 billion, whereas, according to the shadow Chancellor, they amount to £35 billion, and that does not include the extra spending of £15 billion to which he committed himself as a result of his shadow Cabinet colleagues' badgering, which suggests that there is a £50 billion black hole in Conservative finances.

The shadow Leader of the House requested a general foreign affairs debate on Africa and the middle east. As he will recall, only on Monday the Foreign Secretary made a statement on the middle east, which was well attended. Obviously, I would be as keen as anybody to have a debate on Africa, especially as it will be a priority measure for our presidency of the G8 next year, and we shall have a look to see what opportunity there is for that.

The hon. Gentleman requested an oral statement, should there be a settlement in Northern Ireland. Yes, of course we would want to do that and I shall ensure that arrangements are put in place.

In response to the request of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the Opposition be consulted, the Government have made it clear that it must first be for the Prime Minister to decide whether an investigation is needed into a Minister whom the Prime Minister appointed. If the hon. Gentleman were ever in government again, he would acknowledge that that is a sensible approach. In addition, it is important to choose an independent person to conduct such an inquiry, and I think that has been done in absolutely the right way. On indefinite leave to remain, the hon. Gentleman will know that the inquiry established under Sir Alan Budd will look at all those matters and at the wider issues that might arise.

On extending—"widening out", as the hon. Gentleman put it—the estimates debate on Thursday, the subjects to be debated are chosen by the Liaison Committee. We cannot pre-empt that, so if the hon. Gentleman wants other subjects to be included, he should talk to the Chairman of the Committee.

On the fingerprints computer, this is the first service delivery problem of its kind that the national automated identification service has experienced in its six-year history. The issue has not affected forces' ability to arrest and charge criminals and our first priority has been to restore forces' access to the national database. There will then be a full lessons learned exercise to identify procedural and technical changes that will prevent that from happening again, but, as I said, this is
2 Dec 2004 : Column 823
the first time such a thing has happened in six years, so I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is entitled to make a meal of it.

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