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Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab):
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the announcement made this morning that identity theft is costing the people of this country £1.7 billion a year. I hope he agrees that a debate on that problem would be useful,
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not only in highlighting the distress caused to our constituents by this crime but in focusing on what can be done to tackle it.
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What is disappointing about the attitude of many Conservative Members is that while they concentrate their criticisms on, for example, aspects of the use of identity cards in relation to the public sector, the private sectorparticularly the banking and credit card industriessuffers very significant financial losses as a result of identity fraud. There is no doubt, as those organisations argue, that the availability of an identity card system will have an enormous impact on reducing the level of fraud. I am sorry that Conservative Members, who otherwise claim to represent the interests of business and the financial community, have failed to take account of that.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Last week, when I asked the Leader of the House about the Government's Arbuthnott report, an expression of utter vacuity crossed his face, so this week I shall try to ask about subjects that he has at least heard of.
Will the Leader of the House set aside two hours for statementsone from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on why stringent carbon emission controls on industry are necessary, followed by another from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on why they are not? From that, we may be able to assess some form of coherent climate change strategy.
May we have a debate or a statement on the Child Support Agency? We were told eight years ago that it was in urgent need of reform, and two months ago the Prime Minister himself said that it was not fit for purpose. We are still waiting for an announcement on the fundamental reform of the CSA that is clearly necessary.
I understand the Leader of the House's difficulties with half-term coinciding with a week of business but does he believe that it is wise, given Tuesday's events, to schedule three controversial Bills for that week? Would it not be better to leave a little extra time for the Chief Whip to understand what is happening in the party and for the Prime Minister to plan his diary engagements?
Mr. Hoon: The Government remain committed to tackling climate change and we continue to review our climate change programme. We have made remarkable progress. If the hon. Gentleman examined the international negotiations that we have led and their results, he would praise the United Kingdom and our efforts to deal with the issue. We are one of only two EU15 countries that are on track for delivering the Kyoto targets. The hon. Gentleman should congratulate the Government on that rather than making carping observations. His party only talks about climate change and has no responsibility for doing something to achieve progress.
The same applies to the hon. Gentleman's observations about the CSA. Its organisation has faced problems over the years but it also provides significant help to some of the most vulnerable families in our community. Although it needs to improve its
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organisation, and determined efforts are being made to achieve that, we should not overlook the considerable good that it does throughout the country.
I will not add much to my comments about the arrangements for half-term. I made the Government's difficulties clear. Several important items have to be tackled and I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that such decisions are not taken lightly. They have to be taken to allow progress to be made on the Government's legislative programme. I hope that he understands that that is the position.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): This Sunday will be the second anniversary of the tragic deaths of 23 cockle pickers in Morecambe bay. My right hon. Friend knows that the House approved legislation to go some way towards preventing such disasters from happening again. Despite that, the Government have not yet implemented the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. If there is further delay, illegal gangmasters will have yet another year to operate in the twilight world. I have personally tried to find out where the blockage is, but it is like knitting fog. Will my right hon. Friend identify the blockage and use his influence to unblock that necessary legislation?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important issue. He rightly acknowledged that the Government took prompt action to deal with the matter through legislation. It is obviously important that it should be implemented. I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is made aware of my hon. Friend's observations.
Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House confirm that, by order of the House, the Senior Salaries Review Body is automatically bound to review Members' salaries this year?
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make a statement as soon as possible on the future of the Post Office card account? He will have seen early-day motion 1531.
[That this House is gravely concerned by the Department of Work and Pensions' (DWP) decision to withdraw support for the Post Office Card Account when the existing contract expires in 2010 and in particular by the Department's attempt to kill off the Account in advance of 2010, through pilot schemes being introduced immediately when it will deny to new benefit claimants the option of opening a Post Office Card Account, inform 35,000 existing customers that they will have to use a bank or building society instead of the Post Office Card Account and require them to provide their account details, and pay benefits of 2,500 existing customers into a bank account rather than the Post Office Card Account, ignoring the preferences they made when their benefit books were stopped; condemns the fact that, in breach of
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all plans, these pilot schemes are being introduced without consultation; and calls on the Government to halt these pilot schemes immediately and to institute an immediate review of the DWP's proposal to abolish the Post Office Card Account by 2010.]
It has attracted more than 100 signatures in 24 hours. With few days' consultation, the Department for Work and Pensions is introducing pilots in February that will make it difficult for people who are beginning to receive pensions or benefits to use the Post Office card account. That constitutes an out-and-out attack on the Post Office card account. It was mentioned last week and everyone is concerned. We need a statement. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions?
Mr. Hoon: The matter can be raised on Monday when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions comes to the House to answer questions. However, let me make it clear that the purpose of the arrangements is to allow those who use the existing Post Office card account system to use equally simple and straightforward Post Office accounts at their local post office. The purpose of the pilots is to provide that opportunity, thus allowing people to continue to use facilities in the post office. The arrangements for the card were designed to be interim arrangements to give people an opportunity of developing the use of other sorts of simple, straightforward bank accounts at their local post office. Our approach is entirely consistent and I hope that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members support it.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I hope that the Leader of the House will look again at his answer to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), because it can be very difficult for people to set up a bank account if they do not have a long residential record.
I want to ask the Leader of the House a question about audiology. The Government rightly assert that they are paying a lot of attention to cutting waiting times and waiting lists, but those involve consultant-led services. The length of time that it takes to get a hearing test in a hospital, and then to have a hearing aid fitted, ranges from about six months to four years, although I have been told that it can be as much as six years. I know that the Government are proposing to introduce changes that will result in an 18-week waiting time, but is that the waiting time for the hearing test or for the hearing aid?
Mr. Hoon: On the hon. Gentleman's first observation, those arrangements are clearly designed to allow the use of some very simple and straightforward Post Office accounts at a local post office for those people who, so far, have relied on the Post Office card account. The pilots to which I referred are designed to allow people to use that facility until 2010, so this is not an overnight change; it will be signposted well in advance. Many of the Post Office accounts are simple, straightforward and easy to use; they are no more complex than the card account. In the light of that, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support this process.
On audiology, I will certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is made aware of the hon. Gentleman's concern. I will ask her to
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write to him directly about it. It is obviously important to the Government to ensure that waiting lists come down right across the range of services and facilities offered by the national health service. The Government have had remarkable success in reducing those waiting lists, and we want to ensure that that affects every part of the health service.
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