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Mr. Hain: This is obviously a serious point, and given my hon. Friend's expertise and background, I am sure that the House will want to take particular note of it. He has the opportunity to apply for a private Member's debate on the issue, and I hope he will avail himself of that opportunity. I cannot promise him an early debate, but it is vital that such issues are addressed.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the state of British manufacturing industry? In my constituency on Monday, a manufacturer of trailers, Crane Fruehauf, closed its doors. The administrator was brought in and 345 employees were made redundant. As the right hon. Gentleman will understand, that has had a devastating impact on the small market town of Dereham. Obviously, that situation came about for many reasons, but is there anything that the Government can do in the short term, through the offices of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Trade and Industry, to help the workers who have been made redundant?
Secondly, it seems that the company, like many others, was having great difficulty exporting, owing, among other things, to the high level of fuel tax on lorries. It seems to me that that is unfair competition, compared with many of our European partners.
Mr. Hain: The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will want to pay careful attention to the hon. Gentleman's point, especially given the importance of the matter in his constituency. For the benefit of his constituents and the House, I remind everyone that Jobcentre Plus provides an enormous range of support for those who, unfortunately, face redundancy. There is also a rapid response service when additional support is necessary, which has made its services available to more than 112,000 people facing redundancy. Unfortunately, manufacturing, more than almost any other sector of the economy, is subject to enormous global pressure and a certain amount of churning and changes in jobs. However, it is important to put it on record that last year manufacturing created £150 billion of our wealth; 3.5 million people earn their living directly from the sector; and it accounts for more than half our exports and three quarters of our business research and development.
There is a thriving manufacturing sector and it is important that we continue to invest in science, skills and other support for it, but obviously I am
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disappointed about what has happened in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and trust that the requisite services will be provided as soon as possible.
[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Local Government Pension Scheme (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2004 (S.I., 2004, No. 3372), dated 17th December 2004, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22nd December, be annulled.]?
The motion reflects deep concern about the local government pension scheme regulations. He will be aware of the huge concern among public sector workers who believe that they are being given very little time for debate. May we have an urgent debate on the matter?
Mr. Hain: I understand my hon. Friend's concern, which she is not alone in expressing. The changes that she describes, which will come into effect in April, are necessary as part of a wider package that the Chancellor announced to reduce pressures on local authority budgets, thus helping to protect front-line services and, crucially, to keep council tax increaseswhich she is concerned about, as we all areunder 5 per cent. in the coming year. If those changes are not implemented, local government would face increasing pension costs of about £300 million per annum over the next three years, which could involve cuts in services, front-line jobs and pressure on council taxes. These are difficult matters, but her concern is being taken into account.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Following last night's statement by the Provisional IRA, does the Leader of the House feel, as I do, that we have heard just about everything from that organisationan organisation that has butchered our fellow citizens for 25 years, rejected the Government's comprehensive agreement and instead carried out the biggest bank robbery in British history, and now has the bare-faced effrontery to say that the Government have tried the IRA's patience to the limit? Has he seen early-day motion 463, which calls for the withdrawal of privileges from Sinn Fein-IRA in the House,
[That this House notes with concern the statement by the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland that the IRA were responsible for the raid on the Headquarters of the Northern Bank in Belfast when in excess of £26 million was stolen; recalls the Prime Minister's assertion that the IRA and Sinn Fein are inextricably linked; believes that this act of criminality proves that Sinn Fein cannot be treated like a normal democratic party; and calls upon the House to immediately withdraw all privileges from Sinn Fein honourable Members.]?
Does the Leader of the House recognise that if he takes the attitude that he expressed in response to an earlier question, many will see that the Government do not have the bottle, the political backbone and the moral courage to take on those gunmen and gangsters?
I understand the force behind the hon. Gentleman's argument, but does he really want to describe the Government as lacking in bottle, backbone
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or moral courage when the Prime Minister put his entire reputation on the line in negotiating the Good Friday agreement and has paid consistent attention to trying to get the peace settlement entrenched permanently and achieve a permanent democratic settlement? The discussions that my right hon. Friend has had with the hon. Gentleman's party are part of that. That is where we should focus. I agree that the events of the past few weeks have been deeply unfortunate and the behaviour concerned unacceptable, but instead of a blame game we must concentrate on really getting down to securing the future of a democratic Northern Ireland.
John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): I raised with my right hon. Friend some weeks ago ATM charging in poor areas of the city of Glasgow and areas with a high elderly population. I have subsequently found more information on that subject. Is he aware that a charge is made at 78 per cent. of all ATMs in post offices throughout the country? Those charges are made only in areas with low employment and a high elderly population where many people are on benefits. Is it not time that he called a debate in the House to try to get the banksin particular, the Alliance & Leicester and Hanco, which is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotlandto stop the disgraceful act of charging the poor and the elderly, as well as those who live outside a main city or town?
Mr. Hain: I represent a constituency with many outlying former pit villages, so I absolutely understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. It would be very helpful if he could secure a private Member's debate, in which other hon. Members could express their view on the matter and the banks and other institutions responsible could be held to account. As he says, the poorest and some of the oldest citizens, who do not have cars or the ability to go to a free ATM, are most punitively hit by such behaviour. I would certainly welcome the opportunity of a private Member's debate, but I cannot promise him one in Government time.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House a question of substance and policy that relates to the disgraceful situation of the electoral registration of members of the armed forces? Is he aware that the Government have effectively disfranchised four out of five servicemen and women, while they are willingly sending them to risk their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is he aware that, perversely, under regulation 23 of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2003, each member who is not registered is liable to a fine of up to £1,000? Is he further aware that the Ministry of Defence website is still more than four years out of date on the issue and gives entirely the wrong advice? That is scandalous. What will the Government do about it before the impending general election?
I endorse the principle that the hon. Gentleman expresses: our armed forces, especially those serving in some of the most dangerous conditions, which he knows of at first hand in Iraq, should have the
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opportunity to vote at the general election. The Secretary of State for Defence is looking into the matter
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