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17 May 2006 : Column 979

House of Commons

Wednesday 17 May 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Departmental Staff

1. Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): How many staff will be working in his new office. [71279]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): As the House will be aware, that very much depends on the role of the Deputy Prime Minister, which varies under different Prime Ministers and Governments. I will have the support of a private office, a secretariat and the Cabinet Office, as is relevant to my role. The Prime Minister today announced the responsibilities that are being given to me in my role as Deputy Prime Minister. Those details are available in the Library of the House.

That is not my description of the Deputy Prime Minister’s role; it is Lord Heseltine’s description when he appeared before a Committee of this House in 1996. I think that it is right and I endorse his interpretation of the role.

Mr. Wilson: I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that, but I am not sure that he answered the question that I laid before him. What steps will he take to ensure that staff working under him are not subject to sexual harassment or bullying?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Staff work to the civil service code. It is their responsibility, and that of the Cabinet Office, to implement that.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that many in the Labour party and the country are very proud of the role that he has played as Deputy Prime Minister. We are pleased to hear that his Cabinet Office responsibilities —[ Interruption. ]

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Mr. Speaker: Order. There is too much noise in the Chamber. Remember this; I am always able to go from one question to another if I get this behaviour. That would mean that there would be no supplementary questions and that Front-Bench Members would be denied an opportunity to ask questions.

Anne Snelgrove: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As I was saying, there is a great deal of pride in the party and the country about the role that the Deputy Prime Minister has played. In particular, we are pleased to hear that his responsibilities have now been defined. Perhaps he could tell us how many of his staff will be responsible for the extended responsibilities that he is taking on.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for her supportive remarks; any more would be very welcome today. Let me make it absolutely clear that those responsibilities are both international and domestic and include Cabinet Committees, far more of them than is the case with any other Deputy Prime Minister. The support role and the numbers are being worked out. Obviously, until that has been concluded, we are not able to give a precise answer.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Is not the blunt truth that the Deputy Prime Minister’s principal role is, as his party chairman said, as a political broker—a sort of marriage guidance counsellor between No. 10 and No. 11? Will he assure us that the civil servants in his office will not be dragged into those squabbles, and should not the Labour party being paying the bill?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I recommend that the hon. Gentleman read the Select Committee reports from when Lord Heseltine was giving evidence on the definition of the Deputy Prime Minister’s role. It was made absolutely clear that civil servants were used as cheerleaders under his office. That had to be changed. It is not the intention to use civil servants in that way. Let me be clear that the office that Lord Heseltine defined is exactly the one I accepted. He also said in his evidence that he chaired a number of Cabinet Committees. That is true, but I will be chairing two or three times as many as he did. He also said:

Within two years, we had a majority of 169—it does not sound as though his presentation worked too well.

Duchy of Lancaster

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—


2. Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): What steps she plans to take to take to contribute to lifting the burden of regulation on business and industry. [71280]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office(Mr. Pat McFadden): The Government are committed to a radical agenda of regulatory reform. In the March 2005 Budget, they announced a programme to lift the burden of regulation. They have engaged with business and industry and are undertaking measures to reduce unnecessary and burdensome regulation. Last but by no means least, we are legislating to make it easier to reduce unnecessary or outdated regulatory burdens on business, charities and the voluntary sector.

Gordon Banks: I thank my hon. Friend for that response and welcome him to his new position, in which I am sure that he has experienced great joy in the past few days. In my constituency of Ochil and South Perthshire in Scotland, a number of businesses are creaking under the burden of regulation. Is he being bold enough in his attempts to address that?

Mr. McFadden: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The strong and stable economy that we have enjoyed in recent years is of course essential to business growth and business health. In addition, all Government Departments have been asked to produce a plan to cut unnecessary red tape by the time of the pre-Budget report later this year. However, businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency and, indeed, throughout the country will want to know why the Conservative party voted against the Third Reading of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill yesterday. Conservative Members say that they want to reduce the burden of regulation, but when it came to action, they voted against the Bill.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Minister has walked into a bit of a trap, if I may say so. Given the vast amount of European over-regulation that accumulates as burdens on business, will he explain why his Bill does not include an express override of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993 so that the judiciary can ensure that we do not have the burdens on business that European legislation provides?

Mr. McFadden: The hon. Gentleman must face up to the fact of our membership of the European Union, however much he dislikes it. He will also be aware that the Bill to which I referred contains measures to enable Departments not to gold-plate European directives when they are introduced in this country.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): One of the problems that I find when I visit businesses in Stourbridge is complaints about the number of regulators with which they must deal. What are the Government doing to simply the process?

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend might be awarethat as a result of the Hampton review, over the next three years, 31 existing national regulators will be consolidated into seven.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): With an average of 3,800 regulations now being imposed on British business a year, will the Minister tell us how many he proposes to abolish next year?

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Mr. McFadden: Given the way in which the hon. Gentleman’s party voted last night, he, by his actions, is making that process more difficult. However, happily, the Bill was passed, which will mean that when Departments come up with their simplification plans by the time of the pre-Budget report, we will have an Act in place that will make it much easier to remove outdated and unnecessary burdens on business, charities and the voluntary sector.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): One of the complaints that I get from businesses in my constituency is about the alleged gold-plating of EU legislation. What are the Government doing about that?

Mr. McFadden: Business is rightly concerned about that. My colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry are taking action to reduce the problem. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the Bill that was passed last night makes it easier to address the problem of gold-plating, so that when we have an agreement on a new directive in Europe, the problem will not be added to through the way in which that is implemented in this country.

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—


3. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): What role he has in the formulation of public sector pension policy. [71281]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): As well as being involved in recent discussions and the Cabinet Committee on the development of pension policy this week, hon. Members will be very aware that I have been closely involved in discussions on the local government pension funds. As the Prime Minister has made clear, there are some very tough decisions to be made and difficult negotiations to be undertaken, and I will be heavily involved in them. I am, of course, aware of the need for fair and affordable pensions for public sector workers. The matter affects all Government Departments, and I shall continue to seek the best way forward across the Government as a whole.

Mr. Boswell: I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his reply. While I am sure that the House will understand his interest in safeguarding his personal financial affairs towards a time when he is perhaps less active than he has been, will he meanwhile examine the whole spectrum of national occupational pensions policy? Public sector pensioners can continue to enjoy a retirement age that is protected at 60, yet yesterday’s news from a major clearing bank indicated that there are still significant and systemic cutbacks in the private sector. Does he really feel that that is fair? Is there not a two-tier—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. I call the Deputy Prime Minister.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about the difficulties in pension policies and the range of considerable differences between the different pension policies within the public and the private sector. We will try to iron out those difficulties, come to an agreement and, I hope, achieve consensus with the Opposition as well as the other parties involved.

I think that the hon. Gentleman was a Pensions Minister in the last Conservative Government; certainly, at one stage he was their spokesman on pensions. I will not take any lectures about pensions after 18 years of a Tory Government, who put millions of our pensioners into poverty, took away their fuel payments and brought about the most disastrous conditions. It took this Government to introduce pension credit, with today’s pensioners better off than any other generation of pensioners. Some 2 million pensioners have been lifted out of poverty. We will not take any lectures from Tories about the pensioners in this country.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to settlements that are both fair and affordable. Does he agree that the principle established in some schemes, whereby the scheme for new entrants is separate from the one for those already employed, is one useful way forward?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is right. The new negotiations have sought to differentiate between those entering a pension fund and those already in it. It is causing a bit of a concern, and it is a matter of some controversy. We will have to find answers to those difficulties. We face a range of differences, not only in Departments, but in the pensions for which they are responsible. I will do my best to see whether we can find common agreement, looking at all ways of getting a fair pension fund. However, I notice that the Opposition have stated that they would renegotiate the local government pension fund, or those that will be negotiated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Perhaps they could make their position clear on that.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): If the right hon. Gentleman wants lectures about pensions, he should talk to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who has made it very clear that when Labour came to office we had some of the best pensions provision in Europe and now we have some of the worst. What can the Deputy Prime Minister say about fairness to pensioners who pay the council tax and whose tax bills have rocketed by £250 this year when the architect of that disaster loses his job, yet still has three homes, two Jags and a fancy office in Whitehall?

The Deputy Prime Minister: For the record—though the hon. Gentleman would not know much about the record—I have one house and one car, which is 10 years old. I suspect that most Conservative Members have got much more than that.

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With regard to pensions, we should be concerned about asking the pensioners themselves what they think about 2 million of them being forced into poverty conditions and not having enough money to heat their homes. They are the people to make judgments. The hon. Gentleman talks about private pension funds and what my right hon. Friend said, but we had to introduce the Pension Protection Fund and provide £400 million to help those who had failed to get what they deserved from their private pension funds.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): The Deputy Prime Minister has had a long-standing involvement with the local government pension scheme. Will he use that experience in his new role to ensure that there is a common and united approach towards public sector pensions across government?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is aware that we have had a number of discussions in the past12 months while I have been involved in the negotiations on a new local government pension scheme. He is right that there are differences in that fund and, indeed, that there is discrimination. Women are denied the possibility of having a fair pension fund, and we have had to make changes to it. Those orders are before the House. They will make things better, but the negotiations continue, as he knows. We want afair and affordable pension scheme. That is the Government’s aim and that is what we are negotiating.

Ministerial Responsibilities

4. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What policy responsibilities he will have in his new role. [71282]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): The Prime Minister has asked me to oversee and co-ordinate Government policy across the full range of the domestic policy agenda. To help achieve these objectives, I will chair nine Cabinet Committees including domestic affairs, which has wide-ranging responsibilities for delivering the Government’s priorities. I will also actively deputise for the Prime Minister on several other Committees of which he is the chair.

I will be bringing Departments together to find solutions to improve the effectiveness of policy development across government. I will also be working with the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other Departments across government to deliver the post-Kyoto environmental agenda, in particular ensuring that we deliver on our domestic environmental objectives.

The Prime Minister has also requested me to develop my role internationally, particularly in relation to China through my chairmanship of the China task force, and to take ministerial responsibility for the British-Irish Council, which I will chair in London on2 June. The full text of the letter that I have received from the Prime Minister about my new role has been deposited in the Library.

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