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Public Funding (South-west)

13. Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): What estimate he has made of the amount of public funding the south-west region will receive in 2005–06. [55129]

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): The south-west region, like all parts of the United Kingdom, is benefiting from increased investment in public services. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the latest available figures show that, for 2004–05, the total identified expenditure invested in the south-west was projected to be about £30 billion—almost £6,000 per head. Information on public funding in the south-west region for 2005–06 will be published by the Government in the spring in their public expenditure statistical analysis.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful for that reply. I understand that the cost of the South West regional assembly is about £4 million a year. Regional assemblies are robbing local councils of their power. Why are taxpayers being made to pay for a deeply unpopular organisation that they never had the opportunity to vote for in the first place?

Dawn Primarolo: I reiterate to the hon. Gentleman what his Conservative colleagues in the regional chamber said to him when he stood up and spoke on this subject before, which was that it is good to make sure that one's policy is consistent across the party. He has called for more investment in transport, technical colleges, and recycling and regeneration. He knows full well that that has to be paid for and it is about time that he, with his colleagues, started to understand how.

Off-balance-sheet Debt

14. James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effect of off-balance-sheet debt on the sustainability of the public finances. [55130]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Des Browne): The Government are meeting their fiscal rules and the long-term public finance report shows that public finances remain sound and sustainable. The risk of off-balance-sheet projects lies with the private sector. Under the UK's internationally agreed and independently measured national accounts, off-balance-sheet debt is not included in measures of public net debt. The decision about whether any individual private finance initiative is on or off balance sheet is made in accordance with the UK's accounting standards. It is made independently of Government by the relevant audit body.

James Brokenshire: Now that the Office for National Statistics has decided to reclassify the borrowings of
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London and Continental Railways to bring them on balance sheet and therefore make them part of Government debt, is it not time to review the off-balance-sheet status of Network Rail's debts to give a clearer picture of whether the Chancellor's sustainable investment rule in relation to the country's national debt is being complied with?

Mr. Browne: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, the answer lies in his question. It is the independent assessment, which is carried out according to international accounting standards agreed by treaty, that judges whether a debt is on or off balance sheet. In both cases, the National Audit Office makes that decision independently. Rather than the Government making a decision in relation to one piece of debt and the National Audit Office making a decision in another case, we should leave things as they are. We should leave the decision with the independent body, which applies the same national standards and rules to one railway operation as it does to the other. That is precisely what we will do.

New Deal (Swansea, East)

15. Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): How many young people have been assisted by the new deal in Swansea, East; and if he will make a statement. [55131]

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): Since 1998, the new deal has helped 3,170 young unemployed
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people in Swansea, East and 1,870 young people have found work through the new deal, contributing to a 75 per cent. reduction in the number of unemployed young people in the constituency claiming benefit for more than six months. Independent evidence has repeatedly demonstrated the impact of the new deal and suggests that overall youth unemployment has been reduced nationally by between 30,000 and 40,000.

Mrs. James: I appreciate my right hon. Friend's answer. I recently met one of my constituents who praised what the new deal had done for his teenage daughter, who is a lone parent. The new deal helped her to train as a hairdresser and provided support for child care. No doubt she would still be on benefit had the scheme not existed. Her parents were profoundly grateful to the Government. Will the Government ensure that the new deal continues to help young people?

Dawn Primarolo: As the House will know, in 1997 Britain had the fastest growing youth unemployment and long-term unemployment in Europe. The contribution of the new deal to helping young people return to work, and the return of others to work through the programme, has proved a huge success. The Government are committed to its continuation, unlike the Conservative party, which wants to abolish the new deal, presumably because it thinks that unemployment is a price worth paying.

Business of the House

11.30 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give us the business for the coming week?

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

Monday 6 March—Second Reading of the Police and Justice Bill.

Tuesday 7 March—Remaining stages of the Merchant Shipping (Pollution) Bill [Lords], followed by motion to take note of various European documents relating to Financial Management.

Wednesday 8 March—Second Reading of the Road Safety Bill [Lords].

Thursday 9 March—Remaining stages of the Childcare Bill.

Friday 10 March—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 13 March—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the Terrorism Bill.

Tuesday 14 March—Remaining stages of the Animal Welfare Bill.

Wednesday 15 March—Second Reading of the Education and Inspection Bill.

Thursday 16 March—Consideration of Lords Amendments.

Friday 17 March—Private Members' Bills.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the next two weeks. True to his word, the Education and Inspection Bill was published by the end of February—just. There is, of course, considerable interest in this issue. The Prime Minister has described the reforms as the crux of his agenda and

I ask the Leader of the House again whether he will allow two days of debate on Second Reading to ensure that hon. Members have proper time to air their views on the Government's reforms.

There is growing concern about the impact of avian flu on the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Government's chief scientific adviser has said that it will be with us for a number of years. Given the different views on the value of vaccination and public interest in this matter, may we have a debate in Government time on avian flu and the Government's strategy for handling it?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will have seen the letter in The Times today from Sir David Attenborough, co-signed among others by the executive director of Friends of the Earth, the director of conservation of the Royal Society for the Protection of
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Birds and the executive director of Greenpeace. The letter refers to the proposal by the Natural Environment Research Council to close five out of the nine centres of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. It says that the cuts are "scientifically flawed" and

Given the significance of climate change, to which the issue relates among other things, will the Leader of the House arrange for publication of the evidence given by DEFRA to the NERC review and for a debate on the issue?

In business questions recently, hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised the Government's proposal to remove the Post Office card account. We have had interesting debates on the different meanings of "interim" and "temporary". I understand from papers placed in the Library that it is not clear that it was made apparent to those signing contracts with the Post Office that the account was either interim or temporary.

Given that the Post Office has said that it could run the mail service on only 4,000 branches, which would mean a cut of more than 10,000 post office branches, and given that many constituencies throughout the country, including mine, are already reeling from the impact of post office closures, will the Leader of the House make Government time available for a debate on the future of the Post Office, and in particular on the Government's strategy on whether or not they want to keep our rural and suburban post offices?

Finally, yesterday, in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on the present inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister said:

Will the Leader of the House confirm the Prime Minister's position?

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