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Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): Over the past hour it has become apparent that Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the police grant and the precept, and the gearing effect on council tax. We have not yet had a statement on that from the Home Office. When shall we have that statement and will the Leader of the House give us an absolute undertaking that there will be an opportunity for a separate vote on that extremely important issue?

In the Queen's Speech last week, the Government said:

When will the House get an opportunity to debate the Second Reading of that Bill? In the programme that he has just announced, a whole afternoon is devoted to European affairs, so why cannot we have that Second Reading debate then? Is he aware that the Chief Whip has apparently already announced that Second Reading will not be debated before Christmas? I have the greatest respect for the Chief Whip, whose powers of persuasion are famous—or infamous; indeed, last night, she managed to persuade Conservative Front Benchers to go into the Lobby with the Government to defend the Prime Minister and to say that he did not need to be more accountable to Parliament. That requires great powers of persuasion, but surely it is for the Leader of the House to decide and to announce to the House when business is to come before us, not the Chief Whip.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that if the Bill makes no progress in this place before Christmas, and if the Session is interrupted—perhaps next April—there is no way in which the Bill will reach the statute book in this Parliament? Will he give us an absolute undertaking about when he expects the Bill to progress through the two Houses? Does he accept that there is a suspicion that the Government want some other EU member state to kick it into touch before we even get it on to the field in the House and in this country?

Mr. Hain: We have made it clear—the Prime Minister has been crystal clear—that we will stage the referendum before the end of 2006, if we win the next general election. That is the deadline for ratification, and we are committed to it.

On the hon. Gentleman's question about announcements on the progress of the Bill, I announce to the House, as he properly says, what the business of the House is, and once I am ready to tell the House when the European Union Bill will come before us, I shall do so. I would treat with a large dose of salt anything coming out of the women's lobby, which is when that conversation apparently took place. I attended the women's lobby some time ago—delightful company and brilliant journalism, but attempting to get a story out of nothing is really the object of the exercise. I gather that the reporting of that issue came from the women's lobby. As I said, when I am ready to inform the House and the hon. Gentleman about the progress of the European Union Bill, I shall do so. He cannot make assumptions about the timing of the next general election. We want to get the Bill through when we can, and we will do so.
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I shall certainly look into the hon. Gentleman's point about the police grant. I know that there is much concern about the police grant, which, as he knows, is always dealt with separately from the local government announcement. We shall look into the precise arrangements for that.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend organise an early debate on the proposed improvements to the baby bond for seven-year-olds that the Chancellor mentioned in his statement today? I should certainly want to make the point that, as at the beginning of this year, more than 1,400 children in my constituency will benefit from the bond. It would also offer Members who do not support the bond and want to scrap the scheme an opportunity to explain whether it would be scrapped only for children at a future date, thus meaning that only a handful of children would benefit from it for only a small number of years, or whether they intend to take back from children's piggybanks the bonds that have already been given—snatching money back from children to pay for the expensive introduction of a unneeded local income tax.

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend makes a telling and interesting point. Members who advocate the abolition of the child trust fund, especially those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, will have to answer a very important question for all the youngsters and the parents of children who will already have received the average bond of £250—£500 in the case of low-income families. The money will already be in those children's piggybanks. Will the Liberal Democrats raid them and send in robbers to take the money back, and will they deny youngsters the opportunity, when they reach the age of seven, to receive up to £500 in addition? There will be £1,000 sitting in the piggybanks of children in low-income families. That would be daylight robbery—or perhaps night-time robbery in the case of the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): As I understand it, the statement that we have just heard on local government finance marks the beginning of a consultation process. Given the growing importance and sensitivity attached to local government finance and council tax, will the Leader of the House arrange a debate, ahead of the final debate when we endorse the orders for the local government finance settlement, to enable the House to be consulted about the progress of local government finance settlement consultation? There is a ridiculous situation in Worcestershire, where there is a growing gap between us and our neighbours: the capping of the fire authority, the unreasonable settlement for West Mercia police authority, the unreasonable refusal to give us area cost adjustment and, this week, the announcement that we are to lose another £1 million just because the Government got their figures wrong and are taking the money back. We are beginning to ask what we have done to upset the Deputy Prime Minister or the Minister for Local and Regional Government. Could we be told, please?
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Mr. Hain: I find it very difficult to follow the hon. Gentleman's point. The Chancellor has just announced an extra £1 billion of available funding to help local government ensure that council tax rises are low and that local government gets a decent deal.

Today's statement is the beginning of a process of engagement with local authorities on the final outturn of their provision. There will obviously be an opportunity to consult on that, and I shall consider the point that he made in respect of any follow-up.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): The Leader of the House will realise that one of the most widely welcomed measures in the Queen's Speech, by all parties in the House, is the consumer credit Bill. It is nothing to do with credit cards; it is to do with stopping lenders levying extortionate rates of interest on individuals. One of my constituents borrowed £8,000 and has had to repay £120,000. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the good will towards that measure that exists in all parties is not turned sour by the fact that the Bill is timetabled at a point at which it cannot be realised? Will he also acknowledge that he has received a letter today from more than 100 Members of Parliament from all parties, requesting that time be given for an early Second Reading of the Bill? This is a matter of concern to everyone. Will he ensure that it does not turn sour?

Mr. Hain: First, I am indeed aware of the letter that my hon. Friend and his colleagues have sent me, asking for progress on that Bill to be made as early as possible, and I understand the reasons. The Government are fulfilling a manifesto commitment to introduce a Bill to tackle the problem of rogue traders and loan sharks to bring to an end the appalling experience that his constituent and many of our constituents have endured. There is cross-party support for that principle, and I hope that the Bill will have cross-party support and that it will receive Royal Assent as early as possible. I cannot give him the date for Royal Assent, but I will certainly look at the Bill's likely timetabling to see what we can do.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House look at the report of today's Education and Skills questions and arrange for the Secretary of State to make a statement to the House some time next week about his rather stupid comments? When I simply asked him why a primary school child in Derbyshire received less than a primary school child in Nottinghamshire, the Secretary of State said that that was because Nottinghamshire had better representation. Is that not an outrageous attack on the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, putting a new meaning on Cabinet collective responsibility, and on the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and the other six Labour MPs who represent Derbyshire constituencies?

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