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Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On 3 May, I asked a series of named day questions to the Home Secretary about my local prison. As of today, I have received no replies. If the answers are being delayed to save the Government embarrassment, that would be a gross abuse of power by the Executive. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to make
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an urgent statement on parliamentary questions absconding from the Home Office?

Mr. Straw: I talked to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about this issue this morning. He is very concerned about the delay in answering questions. The delay is not for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman implies. As I said in answer to a point of order yesterday, part of the problem is that since about April the number of written questions for answer by the Home Office has doubled. With the best will in the world, as I explained yesterday—

Mr. Bone: They are named day questions.

Mr. Straw: Whether they are named day questions or otherwise, the numbers have doubled. There is understandable concern in the House and outside it about the performance of the Home Office. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary understands that. With the best will in the world, additional pressure has been put on those who are responsible for drafting the answers. The hon. Gentleman would be pretty merciless if the answers were drafted and they turned out to be inaccurate. There is a balance between timeliness and accuracy.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Does the Leader of the House recall from his days of being Foreign Secretary the favourable reception that was given to the Government’s strategic defence review for recognising the need for a shift to an expeditionary strategy based on aircraft carriers to deal with terrorist threats as far away from home as possible? If so, can the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement soon on who is in charge of future defence policy, given the report this week that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is insisting on £1 billion being shifted from the defence budget to the homelands security budget, which will almost certainly result in at least one of the aircraft carriers not being built?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I call Tobias Ellwood.

Mr. Straw: Would you like me to answer the question, Madam Deputy Speaker? We could adopt this practice all the way through for Opposition questions.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I have to remain neutral, so I will not do it all the way through.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is, of course, responsible for defence policy, through the Cabinet and to the House. It is true at all times that there is pressure on defence spending. I will not embarrass the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) by reminding him of the cuts that were made in defence spending towards the end of the Major Administration. If there is any change in our
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current position in respect of aircraft carriers, it will be announced to the House. I am not anticipating that there should be.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I returned this morning from Afghanistan, having visited Kabul, Kandahar and the provincial reconstruction team in Lashkargah. I had meetings with President Karzai. I also travelled with General Jones, the head of NATO, and met General Richards of the international security assistance force. I put the question of poppy licensing to them. They all agreed that it is something that we need to pursue, even if it is only a pilot scheme.

I am asking for a debate on Afghanistan so that we can discuss these issues and, I am sad to report, the lack of co-ordination between international organisations, whether they be the EU, the United Nations, the Department for International Development and the embassies that are pouring in a great deal of money and good will. There is no overall co-ordination, as we have seen in Bosnia.

Mr. Straw: As the hon. Gentleman will know, when he was in Afghanistan—I am grateful that he made that journey—my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Defence and for International Development were there, and they gave a report in Cabinet this morning. Work by the British Government is knitted together, but co-ordination by other foreign organisation remains a challenge, not least to the UN, as those forces are at present under UN mandate. On the licensing of heroin production, I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s concerns on to my right hon. Friends, but I cannot promise the outcome that he seeks.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I am afraid to report that a public menace is abroad. When he was responsible for the environment, for transport and local government, he made a mess of them, and he is now damaging parliamentary questions. To make room for the Deputy Prime Minister, Transport and Work and Pensions questions have been cut to only 40 minutes. Transport and pensions affect every single citizen, so is it right to cut them to 40 minutes to give us what is admittedly an enjoyable half hour harpooning a figure of public ridicule?

Mr. Straw: I am afraid that I will treat that question with the contempt that it deserves. The hon. Gentleman would complain far more loudly if there was not an opportunity to question the Deputy Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware that thousands of pensioners have sent copies of their council tax bills to the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and its successors in the past few months. Hundreds of those pensioners live in my constituency, and they kindly sent me copies, too. Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the effect of council tax rises on pensioners, many of whom are on fixed incomes and are suffering very badly, which is a cause for great concern, particularly in my constituency of Weston-super-Mare

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Mr. Straw: Questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will take place shortly. It is easy to collect council tax bills and pass them on, and it is fine for the hon. Gentleman to do so as a constituency Member of Parliament. However, I hope that he has done two things. First, I hope that he has told his constituents about all the benefits received by pensioners in the past 10 years, which are very significant indeed. Secondly, I hope that he has explained to his constituents what he and his party would introduce in place of council tax. His party has rightly ruled out a completely mad Liberal Democrat proposal for local income tax, but council tax was a Conservative policy, not a Labour one, so if it does not like it now, let us hear what it would do.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): My local newspaper, the Braintree and Witham Times, has fought a tremendous campaign to build a local community hospital in Braintree. My constituents were promised a community hospital that should have been built by the end of last year, but not a brick has been laid. Developers have moved on to the old site, which has only increased their concern. Can the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House and make a statement to reassure them a community hospital will indeed be built in Braintree?

Mr. Straw: I do not think that we need a debate. As an Essex boy, I know the hon. Gentleman’s Braintree constituency and I know, too, how much the area’s health services have improved in the past nine years. Indeed, I have gone there to see and hear about the changes that have taken place. He complained about the delay, but I hope that he will celebrate the fact that there are over 2,000 extra nurses in the health authority covering his area, over 700 doctors and over 200 consultants.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am a member of the Standing Committee considering the Company Law Reform Bill, which is the largest Bill ever to proceed through the House. Given that the Government lost a vote in that Committee this morning, can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to explain why the Government talk tough but vote soft?

Mr. Straw: I doubt whether that is the largest Bill ever. The Local Government, Planning and Land Bill introduced by Mr. Michael Heseltine was, as the Conservative Whip, the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), will recall, a massive Bill. It was so awful, however, that it had to be withdrawn. If the hon. Gentleman can guarantee that there will never be the odd procedural glitch in the unlikely event that a Conservative Government are elected, I am happy to listen to him. The Committee will meet next Tuesday, so we will not lose a great deal.

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Points of Order

12.25 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In Treasury questions this morning, I asked about the likely cost of the increase in the tax credit disregard. The Paymaster General said that that “the information has been made available to the House.” I have checked with the Library and the Public Accounts Committee, but they are not aware that that information has been passed on to them. I therefore seek your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, on how we can correct that and how, if the right hon. Lady has inadvertently misinformed the House, that can be put right as soon as possible.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The tenfold increase in the disregard is the key element of the package to put right the tax credit problems announced in the pre-Budget report last December. There has been a great deal of controversy about the cost, which the Government have consistently refused to give to the House and to the public. If it has now been made available, it is a serious matter, because it could be well over £1 billion. The Paymaster General appears to have said that it is available, but we cannot ascertain that that is definitely the case. Will you arrange for her to come to the House today, Madam Deputy Speaker, and make a statement to clear the matter up once and for all?

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I asked a question before the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), and the Paymaster General said that the information I sought which, essentially, is the same as that sought by the hon. Gentleman, was in the Budget book or the Budget document— Hansard will reveal which one. I am not saying that it is, but that is what she said.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I understand hon. Members’ concerns, but it is not appropriate to extend Question Time under the guise of points of order. The hon. Members concerned may wish to table further questions to follow up the Paymaster General’s answer.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am concerned about the timeliness of responses to written parliamentary questions, as I tabled a question to the Department for Work and Pensions on 1 December 2005, and received the answer this morning. While I am grateful for the response, Madam Deputy Speaker, is that length of time appropriate for responses to inquiries from Back Benchers?

Madam Deputy Speaker: I understand that the Leader of the House, who is in the Chamber, commented on that point.

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Orders of the Day

Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

12.28 pm

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill enables the National Assembly to set up an independent champion for older people. The position will be the first of its kind in the UK and, indeed, possibly in the world. It is modelled on the highly successful post of children’s commissioner—another first for Wales. The post was a key commitment in Labour’s 2003 manifesto for the last Assembly elections, and the Bill delivers that commitment.

The Bill is the latest milestone in our commitment to older people in Wales. It will provide a platform for further progress, building on what we have already achieved. When we took office in 1997, one in four pensioners were living in poverty, and pensioner inequality was wider than it had been for 30 years. That is why, for the past nine years, our No.1 priority for older people has been to tackle the scourge of pensioner poverty.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I very much welcome the Bill and the partnership between the National Assembly for Wales and this Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend envisage that the commissioner’s role should include raising awareness, as many pensioners do not apply for means-tested benefits? I accept that we are moving away from means testing, but I am concerned that when we apply the earnings link many of those poorer pensioners will be left behind. Does he believe that the commissioner should assist pensioners in those circumstances?

Mr. Hain: Indeed I do, and my hon. Friend makes a very important point, which is as applicable in his Ynys Môn constituency as it is in mine. A proportion of pensioners have not taken advantage of pension credit, which has lifted literally millions of pensioners across the UK and tens of thousands in Wales out of poverty. Yes, the commissioner for older people could have an important role in championing the opportunities that are available, perhaps putting greater pressure on the bureaucracy to deliver more.

We have also made huge strides in reversing the terrible legacy of pensioner poverty that we inherited from the Tory Government, lifting nearly 2 million pensioners out of absolute poverty and 1 million out of relative poverty. As a result of the measures that we have introduced, the average pensioner household is £1,400 a year better off than it would have been under the Conservative Government, and the poorest pensioners are £1,900 a year better off.

We are now spending on pensioners £10.5 billion more in real terms than when we took office. We are spending on the minimum income guarantee, the pension credit, the £200 winter fuel payment and increases in the basic state pension. Those are just a few
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of the measures that have boosted the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of older people right across Wales, with a massive 160,000 pensioner households receiving the pension credit and more than 460,000 households benefiting from the winter fuel payment.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Those figures do not take account of the huge increases in council tax that many vulnerable older people have had to pay since this Administration came to power.

Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there is generous council tax benefit for the lowest income pensioners, which helps them to avoid the large council tax bills that they would otherwise face. The council tax was introduced, especially in Wales, after local government reorganisation by the hon. Gentleman’s party. In my constituency, a discriminatory settlement was imposed on the borough of Neath Port Talbot in comparison with Swansea when the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) set up local government and imposed the council tax structure on Wales.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The Secretary of State fails to mention the £200 given to pensioners to mitigate council tax increases before the general election, which was withdrawn the following year.

Mr. Hain: When that was introduced, the Chancellor made it clear that it was intended to deal with the particular problem of high council tax bills at that time. It was welcomed and I think that the hon. Gentleman’s own party welcomed it. We have since kept council tax rises very low, especially in Labour-controlled areas and under Labour councils, in comparison with Conservative and, even more, with Liberal Democrat councils, so I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman raised that matter.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, not least because three years ago almost to the day I introduced a private Member’s Bill to set up an older people’s rights commissioner, which embraced similar issues. Can the Secretary of State reassure me that, in promoting and safeguarding the rights and dignity of older people and tackling poverty in Wales, some aspects of the Bill will allow investigations and enforcement to take place over the English border? Will it not create anomalies unless and until we have an older persons’ rights commissioner covering England as well?

Mr. Hain: I intend to deal with that matter later in my speech, but I can point out to my hon. Friend that the focus of the UK Government is on a Cabinet Sub-Committee on ageing policy, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. That is driving forward a UK-wide strategy, obviously including England and my hon. Friend’s own constituency. Devolution allows for, as it were, a policy laboratory to take place right across the UK and to great effect. The Children’s Commissioner
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for Wales was, because of its very success, subsequently copied in England. Likewise, policy on driving down waiting times was more successful in England than in Wales until similar policies were adopted in Wales. I believe that devolution has brought great benefits in that respect.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): The Secretary of State forgets that Wales has been used by the Labour Government as a laboratory because Wales had the revaluation, which badly affected pensioners, and we have yet to have the revaluation in England. We will take no lessons from the Secretary of State on what the Government have done for pensioners, when those I talk to have been so badly affected by the revaluation in Wales.

Mr. Hain: In that case, why did the Welsh Conservatives, along with the Liberal Democrats, support that revaluation when the Assembly decided to conduct it? Under the new touchy-feely Conservative party, are we not entitled at least to a bit of repentance or consistency from the hon. Lady when she intervenes?

The Government have also taken action to protect people who are let down by the private pensions market—people such as the workers at Allied Steel and Wire in a scandalous case—by setting up the Pension Protection Fund and the pensions regulator and by increasing the financial assistance scheme from £400 million to £2.3 billion. At the Assembly, too, Labour has shown that it is the party best placed to improve the lives of older people in Wales. Many of the Assembly’s most ground-breaking and innovative policies have been aimed at older people, including free swimming, health promotion, the strategy for older people and the independent national partnership forum for older people.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): On the ASW case, in welcoming the huge increase that has gone into the financial assistance scheme, which will increase the number of ASW pensioners who benefit, does my right hon. Friend also accept that some of my constituents, because they started their working lives young and do not fall within the 15 years before retirement criterion, will not benefit at all? Will he do all he can to extend the provision to those people?

Mr. Hain: Indeed. The former workers of ASW and their families are grateful to my hon. Friend for championing their interests so well. It is a scandalous case and one of the worst examples of how the pensions market can collapse. The abuses that followed affected some workers who had spent all their adult working lives with the company, in some cases leaving them with absolutely nothing. At least we have taken an important step along the road. The fivefold increase in available funding will mean that even more of my hon. Friend’s constituents will benefit, but I accept that some have been left high and dry by the collapse.

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