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Ed Balls: Despite that proposal, I understand that when the hon. Gentleman was a member of the Committee that considered the National Minimum Wage Bill he opposed the minimum wage at every stage. The Low Pay Commission is responsible for monitoring the minimum wage, its impact and all the details, and I am sure that it has looked at that
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suggestion. As for employers who are trying to make payments below the minimum wage, that is exactly the wrong thing to do. I saw in this morning’s newspapers the comments by Mr. Worrall Thompson, who said that it would be a good idea to abolish the minimum wage for restaurant workers in London. He presents “Saturday Kitchen” very well, but he should stick to cooking, as our country would take the wrong direction if restaurant workers were denied the minimum wage and fairness at work.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Since the introduction of the minimum wage, 111,000 individuals in the north-east have benefited, including many women and part-time workers. In addition, unemployment in my constituency is down by 50 per cent. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time that those sanguine voices who said that the minimum wage would create unemployment should apologise?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In his constituency, as in all constituencies, the minimum wage has had a substantial impact. We set up the Low Pay Commission not just to advise on the level of the minimum wage but to build consensus between employers and trade unionists on the importance of the measure. I believe that we have built that consensus throughout the country, and it is a pity that it does not extend to the two Opposition parties.


8. Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his plans to promote biofuels. [69711]

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): We are committed to support biofuels as part of long-term measures to reduce carbon emissions in transport. In the Budget, we announced the extension of the 20p per litre duty discount on biofuels until 2008-09, and we made a range of announcements on a renewable transport fuel obligation, which means that by 2010, 5 per cent. of all fuel sold for roads in the UK will come from renewable sources.

Mr. Wright: In the Tees valley, companies such as Petroplus, SembCorp and the Biofuels Corporation, as well as public sector organisations such as One NorthEast, Renew Tees Valley and NEPIC—the north east process industries cluster—are all working together to help to develop a modern, environmentally friendly industry. My sub-region has a fantastic opportunity to become not only a national but a global centre of excellence. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that that vision is realised?

John Healey: My hon. Friend is right. The biofuels plant that he mentioned in Teesside will be up and running later this year. It will be one of the biggest in Europe, and it is supported by One NorthEast. The joint effort in his region to support the biofuels industry and market in Britain is second to none. The chief executive officer of the Biofuels Corporation strongly welcomed the Budget package which, he said,

He said that it worked for biodiesel, and would kick-start the investment necessary. He has contributed a great deal to consultations and discussions on the
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package of measures needed for the future, and he thought that it would help the Biofuels Corporation to get a second plant up and running in the next three years.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Minister aware that East Anglia faces its greatest farming crisis since the 1920s? The one bright light at the end of the tunnel is biofuels. Teesside notwithstanding, does he share my concern that as new refining capacity has come on stream at a snail’s pace, we need a wider fuel duty differential?

John Healey: The biofuels market has increased sixfold since 2003, and a number of biodiesel and bioethanol plants have been built or planned, including the Wessex grain plant near the hon. Gentleman’s constituency that will probably be the first bioethanol plant in this country. I should expect him to welcome what we put in place in the Budget, because it will give greater certainty to the industry, which has welcomed it because it wants to invest for the future. I should like the consensus on environmental policy for which the leader of his party has called to fall behind the measures that the Government have taken.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend tell the House what he is doing to ensure that in future biofuels used in the UK are sourced through second-generation technologies, such as cellulose bioethanol, which uses the non-food part of the crops, or Fischer-Tropsch biodiesel, which uses woody waste, rather than from sources that give suboptimal carbon savings and compete with food production?

John Healey: I can, indeed. First, we have said that we will back pilots to look at whether we can use the duty discount differential in order to reward the feedstock for the sort of plant that my hon. Friend wishes to see. Secondly, we have submitted an application to the European Commission for state aid clearance to introduce an enhanced capital allowance for good quality biofuels. Thirdly, the Department for Transport will be leading work in the preparation for the new obligation that will allow us to put in place a carbon and sustainability assurance scheme, to make sure that future UK biofuels will come from good sources and contribute to the challenge of climate change, as we intend them to.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Could the Minister advise the House how much joined-up government there is in respect of the development and production of biofuels? Not only is the Treasury involved, but clearly the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Trade and Industry are involved. Such development is extremely important. How much joined-up government is there, to ensure the maximum progress?

John Healey: A great deal of joined-up work has gone on. The hon. Gentleman missed out a fourth important Department, the Department for Transport. With regard to the obligation, its terms will lead the
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design of the new measure and determine the draft legislation and regulations that will be required to put it into place. It represents some of the important policy work which I explained to the House a moment ago, to make sure that we have in place the carbon assurance schemes that will mean that we get the maximum environmental benefit from the measure in the future.

Millennium Development Goals

10. Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the contribution of the international finance facility to meeting the millennium development goals on sexual and reproductive health; and if he will make a statement. [69713]

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown): Following the international finance facility on vaccination, which will front-load $4 billion of extra funds for immunisation and could save 5 million lives, we are examining facilities that will offer front-loaded long-term predictable finance across all areas of health and education, to ensure that finance is sustainable and predictable for those services.

Chris McCafferty: Given that the UN Secretary-General has said that the millennium development goals, particularly the eradication of poverty, cannot be achieved unless questions of population and reproductive health are squarely addressed, will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that in discussions on financing for development, he will ensure that reproductive health and the empowerment of women stay at the top of the agenda?

Mr. Brown: I know that in the report that the United Nations is producing this year, it is looking again at its objectives in this area so that we can achieve the millennium development goals, as my hon. Friend rightly says. I thank her for raising the issue with Ministers not only in the Treasury, but at the Department for International Development. We are spending £240 million a year on supporting maternal health and reproductive health services, and we will continue to see whether, through innovative forms of financing, we could do more to build up health care capacity, as well as the supply of treatments and drugs.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): To what extent is the Treasury working with the Department for International Development to ensure that there is co-ordination concerning the sorts of product available for reproductive health? Sometimes vaccines are available, but not syringes or needles. To what extent is the Chancellor able to ensure that both requirements are available?

Mr. Brown: We are working together on that. The hon. Gentleman will know that new developments in advanced market mechanisms mean that we can underpin the research and development of new drugs and treatments, and then have drugs in mass production at affordable prices, whereas at present treatments and drugs are in low production at very high prices. It is our intention at the G7 meeting of
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Finance Ministers in St. Petersburg to consider whether we could do more so that drugs, treatments and services that are now in short supply but very expensive could be widely available and the cost of them could come down. I will take on board everything the hon. Gentleman says.

Gershon Review

12. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What efficiency savings have been made as a result of the implementation of the Gershon review of public sector efficiency. [69715]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): Our progress has been excellent, and we are on track for our target of more than £20 billion-worth of efficiency gains by 2008. By December last year, we had already secured £6.4 billion-worth, as well as gross work force reductions of more than 40,000, including more than 7,000 reallocations to the front line. Forthcoming departmental reports will provide a progress update.

Angela Watkinson: The National Audit Office has stated that the biggest risk with Gershon efficiency savings is that they will be accompanied by an unintended fall in the quality of public service production. Given the parlous state of the health service, which the Chancellor was too embarrassed to mention in his Budget, is not that exactly what is happening now?

Mr. Timms: No, it certainly is not. Indeed, the NAO report to which the hon. Lady refers makes the point that one of the respects in which this programme is significantly better than what has been tried by previous Governments is that Departments have to show that

That is built into the process. The example that I know best is that of the Pension Service, which reduced its work force by 30 per cent. over a two-year period and at the same time improved its customer approval ratings. It did that by very effective implementation of IT and by investing in its staff. That is the kind of transformation that we are determined to bring about right across the public services. I hope that the whole House would welcome that.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Has my hon. Friend seen yesterday’s report by the Audit Commission in respect of local authorities, which points out that even in the most deprived areas, high rates of collection of council tax and housing rents by direct debit are possible? That would free up tens of millions of pounds for redeployment to front-line services. I hope that if implemented, it would not lead to local authority staff redundancies.

Mr. Timms: I have not seen that report, but I agree with my hon. Friend’s point about the benefits of maximising collection. The key reason for the success of our efficiency programme has been the new stability
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in the public finances that the Government have achieved. That meant that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was able in the Budget to tell the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office how much they will have to spend in five years’ time. That is a remarkable change from what used to happen in the past. The more that local authorities are able to be confident about the resources that they will have in future, the better able they will be to plan, to be more efficient, and to continue to make the gains that we have seen. That was never possible before, given the instability created by the policies of the previous Government. It is vital that we lock that stability in as the economy gains momentum.

Pension Credit

13. Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the long-term financial sustainability of pension credit. [69717]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): Until last week, I was having extremely regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on all aspects of pensions policy. Discussions are continuing as we prepare for the forthcoming White Paper. Pension credit has had a dramatic impact on reducing pensioner poverty.

Mr. Stuart: On Monday, I asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions whether means-testing for pensioners should be increased, decreased or remain about the same. He told me that

Do the Minister and the Chancellor agree with that assessment?

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Mr. Timms: Of course. Indeed, we have had means-testing of pensioner incomes in the UK since 1908. The Turner report rightly points out that a large and unpredictable future expansion of means-testing would be a problem, but the commission was right to support pension credit because of its success in reducing pensioner poverty. In 1997, 27 per cent. of pensioners were below the poverty line. Since then, the poverty line has been uprated in line with earnings, but the number below it has fallen to 17 per cent. That is a reduction of 1 million in the number of pensioners below the poverty line. Half of that reduction followed the introduction of pension credit in 2003. I understand that nowadays the hon. Gentleman’s party supports reductions in pensioner poverty. I hope that it will support—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Jenkins.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): In his talks with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, will my hon. Friend offer any help and support that he can to that Department to undertake research into why pensioners do not take up the opportunity available to them? Is some psychological barrier preventing people from believing that there is money available for free? How do we overcome that problem?

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Department for Work and Pensions has done a good deal of work on that and we, too, have been in discussions about it. Approximately 2.7 million households receive pension credit. That number has increased substantially since the introduction of pension credit in 2003 and the Pension Service is taking effective steps to increase take-up further. However, my hon. Friend is right—we need to research more and ensure that the number increases even more.

I stress that the evidence clearly shows that those who stand to benefit most from pension credit are taking it up to a much greater extent. That is why it has had such an impact on reducing pensioner poverty.

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Personal Statement

11.30 am

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a personal statement.

On 4 May, during business questions, you asked me whether I had given the Secretary of State for Wales notice of my intention to name him. I said that contact had been made at five minutes to 11. My personal assistant, in my presence and hearing, telephoned the Secretary of State’s office at that time and was told that he was away on a private, family matter. The member of staff at the Wales Office offered to put me through to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary. I did not take up that offer. I recognise that I did not make that clear, and that by not doing so, I inadvertently misled you and the House, for which I sincerely apologise.

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Member for his apology to me and to the House. It is clear that he did not succeed in alerting the Secretary of State for Wales to the fact that he intended to refer to him in business questions last week. That is a courtesy that every Member should observe when intending to make a serious allegation against another Member. I expect all Members to observe that convention scrupulously in future. Having said that, I do not intend to allow any debate or points of order about the hon. Member’s apology, and still less about the substance of his allegation last week. That is a matter to be pursued elsewhere, if at all.

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Business of the House

11.32 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I see that the Leader of the House is eager to give us the business for the next two weeks, which I ask him to do.

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

Monday 15 May—Progress on remaining stages of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.

Tuesday 16 May—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.

Wednesday 17 May—Remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Thursday 18 May—Motion relating to Members and Chairmen’s pay, followed by a motion relating to the Association of Former Members.

Friday 19 May—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 22 May—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Armed Forces Bill.

Tuesday 23 May—Progress on remaining stages of the Education and Inspections Bill.

Wednesday 24 May—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Education and Inspections Bill.

Thursday 25 May—Motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

The House will rise at the close of business on Thursday 25 May and return on Monday 5 June.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the 25 May and 8 June will be:

Thursday 25 May—A debate on west coast route modernisation.

Thursday 8 June—A debate on economic partnership agreement.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the next two weeks. I have already had the opportunity to welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post, and I am sure that this will be the start of a fruitful relationship— [ Interruption.] But there are certain matters that I should make clear to him from the outset. I do not get up at 4.30 am to go to the gym, I cannot play the piano and I have absolutely no intention of standing for the presidency of the United States. None the less, may we have a debate in Government time on Iran? Given the different views within the Government on what action should be taken, such a debate would allow the Foreign Secretary to clarify whether she has changed the Government’s position.

According to a recent report, half of all the children born to parents with learning difficulties are taken into care. This raises concern about the authorities’ attitude to those parents. Furthermore, the state’s failure to care properly for looked-after children raises concerns about their future. This country’s record on looked-after children is a scandal. May we have a debate on the matter?

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