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That is fine, but let us apply that test to a few policies that they have proposed.

The shadow Chancellor was challenged today on the Opposition’s plans to abolish stamp duty on share transactions. That would be worth precisely nothing to the poorest people in our society, but would be worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the richest. He was also asked about his plans to abolish inheritance tax. Again, that would be worth absolutely nothing to the poorest people in our society but worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the richest.

I concede that allowing income tax allowance to be transferred between married couples is a bit better and not quite so regressive. Here a massive 3 per cent. of the benefit would go to the poorest 10 per cent. of families, but 1.2 million of the poorest couples would not gain a single penny. If we take together the proposals for a higher income tax allowance, a new 20p basic rate and the removal of tax credits from higher rate taxpayers, only a third of the poorest quarter of households would see any benefit at all; two thirds would not gain a penny. But every single household in the richest quarter benefits; most of them would be more than £1,000 a year better off.

These are all Conservative proposals and every single one of them fails their own test; they benefit the richest most and the poorest least. The same old policies: tax cuts for the few, paid for by spending cuts that affect us all.

In today’s debate, the supposedly new Conservatives are talking about helping families work hard to balance work and family life, but they voted against increased maternity leave and maternity pay. They talk about skills—

Michael Gove: I am inordinately grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am a great admirer of him and of his intellect, and it seems a pity that it has been bent this evening to entirely partisan ends. Can he give me the benefit of that intellect now? Why, under this Government, has the number of people who are at 40 per cent. of median income or less increased? Why are the very poorest in our society more numerous after ten years of the Labour Government?

Mr. Austin: It is partly a result of rising incomes across society as a whole, over which the Government have presided. If we look at the incomes of the poorest families—the hon. Gentleman is referring to them—their
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incomes have risen as well as a result of the tax credits, minimum wage, new deal and all the other measures that he and his colleagues have fought and voted against every single step of the way.

The Conservatives talk about public services but they still want to cut them. They claim that they are committed to tackling poverty but their top priority, as we have seen, is a tax break for City traders. On all these issues, there is not a single centre-ground policy, which shows that for the Conservatives, change is entirely cosmetic. Strip away the rhetoric about change and every speech makes it clear. They do not give the details, and they will not say exactly which bits of the so-called “big state” they want to cut back. But if we look beyond the positioning, the Tories are still committed to the same old spending cuts.

We should stop welcoming these supposed changes with nods of approval; we should start showing that there is absolutely no change at all. That will be the Tories’ problem. Election success in his country is determined by who the public trust and who they think has the best answers to the future challenges. When we contrast the Tories’ proposals, as we have tonight, with the new ideas from the Chancellor and his colleagues as set out in the Queen’s Speech, it is clear that it is the Government who are coming up with the coherent ideas on the other new policy challenges of welfare to work, the economy and skills, climate change and public service reform.

7.44 pm

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I had intended to concentrate on the work and pensions aspects of the Queen’s Speech but, before doing so, I would like to make a few comments on the economic aspects.

I noted that the Chancellor mentioned a cost of £5 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and he repeated, in a slightly different form, the assurance made by the Prime Minister some weeks ago that troops in the field would get whatever equipment they required. The problem is that troops from my constituency, from 45 Commando, are currently operating in Afghanistan and there have been reports that they are not getting all the equipment they require. There is a disconnect between what is being said in this country and what is happening on the ground. Whatever we may feel about individual operations, we would all agree that troops fighting those operations should get the equipment they need. The Government need to look seriously at this and make sure that these troops and others get the equipment they require.

On climate change, I was interested in what the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said and agreed with much of it. Like the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), I took part in the campaign ably organised by Friends of the Earth for a climate change Bill in the Queen’s Speech. I, too, was pleased to see that such a Bill was included, although one got the impression that it was stuck in at the last minute because of the huge build-up of support for it. It has not been particularly well thought out; indeed we have yet to see the detail of the Bill. The only thing that the Prime Minister has said so far about it is that there will not be annual targets because they are not practical. I disagree; it is important that we look at annual targets because they give a measure of how we are progressing on climate change.

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It is not beyond the wit of parliamentary draftsmen to build in a fail-safe mechanism for unforeseen circumstances, which we all accept can occur in any one year, that balances them out overall.

The most depressing thing about the debate on the proposed Bill is that it seems to have centred so far entirely on the question of taxation: what will be taxed, how it will be taxed and who will be taxed more. Tackling climate change must go much wider than that; it must encompass all areas of Government. If we get bogged down in arguments about taxation only, the people out there who are very concerned about climate change and want to do their bit will be turned off. There are very difficult issues, but we must look at other ways of tackling climate change, and not just through taxation.

For example, there are many ways we can look at how government works. In many areas of rural Scotland—I am sure that the same applies in rural England—services have been centralised, which means that people have to travel much more and emissions increase. This has gone on for some years in hospitals, schools and other areas. If the Government are serious about tackling climate change, we must look at reversing that process and making sure that services are near the people who wish to use them, which will reduce the amount of carbon that is required.

Mr. Newmark: I notice that the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) is here and I know how passionately he feels about the coal industry. Tax incentives can play an important role. If we give tax incentives to carbon sequestration, that will give business the encouragement to invest in carbon capture, which will support our dying coal industry.

Mr. Weir: I entirely agree. I was not making the case that there should be no tax incentives, but the debate must go wider than tax. Coke sequestration is a good example. Mitsui Babcock, or Doosan Babcock as it is about to be, which is based in Renfrew, is a world leader in this field and has been putting the machinery into Chinese coal plants. Many of the new plants in China, despite what we are told, are sequestrating carbon and making a real attempt to try to come to terms with some of the climate change agenda. We need to think outside the box; all areas of Government need to think about how we tackle climate change.

Interesting figures were released over the summer that showed that in many rural areas the carbon footprint was higher than in urban areas. The probable reason for that is that in rural areas we rely on motor cars much more because there is no alternative. We need to look at that—we cannot have a one-size-fits-all tax on motor cars and fuel—and the impact on different areas. There have to be trade-offs.

When we talk about air miles, we must take certain things into account. Many of us are keen on fair trade goods, but many such goods travel a great distance to get to our shops. We must balance the carbon emissions of the producers of those goods against the carbon emissions of getting the goods to the markets. Serious issues need to be examined, and we need to consider rebalancing all that, rather than looking only at taxes.

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Energy is a huge issue in Scotland. I have talked on many occasions in this House about the need to examine transmission charges. Under the scheme generated by Ofgem—no pun intended—transmission charges on wind farms in the north of Scotland are much greater than any that would result from a generation facility being built in the south of England. That means that there is a disincentive for many renewable energy developments, not only wind farms but tidal facilities and, possibly, some of the coal plants, depending on where they are built. We must examine that, and how to have an energy system that delivers to our towns and cities while taking advantage of renewables. That matter should also come under the climate change Bill. I am not a supporter of nuclear power, and I do not see it as an answer. There are things that we can do on transmission charges that will begin to answer the energy equation.

I move on to the work and pensions aspect of the Queen’s Speech, particularly the Child Support Agency. If I heard the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) correctly, he said that the Treasury regarded it as a cash cow when it was introduced. That seems to have been a serious miscalculation, as it has become a cash drain on the Treasury since.

There is no doubt that root-and-branch reform of the CSA is necessary and that the proposals in the Queen’s Speech are very welcome. All hon. Members will have filing cabinets full of cases relating to the CSA and will have torn their hair out trying to get solutions to seemingly intractable problems. The proposals on the CSA so far raise as many questions as they answer, because there is a lack of detail about what will take the CSA’s place and how the transfer to the new system will be handled. I raise the point because I am fearful that if we do not get the detail right, we will just put another serious problem in place of the one that we have. We need to get this right. People have suffered from the CSA for many years, and we must put something in its place that works and delivers as it is supposed to.

One of the proposals is to allow parties to enter into voluntary agreements, which is welcome as it would remove some of the contentious roadblocks to progress, but it is vital that the system for dealing with such agreements is robust and fair. I have raised this point several times with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions during questions and have still to get answers about how this will work.

Before the CSA’s creation, there was a system in Scotland, at least, where parties could negotiate an agreement through their respective solicitors. It could then be registered on the books of council and session and would thereafter have the same force as a court decree. That was important because it allowed many issues to be sorted out in a reasonable and amicable way, but this ceased to be possible after the CSA’s introduction. I invite the Ministers responsible to tell us whether it is envisaged that a new agreement will act in the same way.

I know that many Ministers seem to have a downer on lawyers. I should declare an interest as a non-practising solicitor and member of the Law Society of
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Scotland, but the reason it was important to have solicitors’ involvement was to ensure that each party received proper legal advice on their rights. It is not absolutely necessary for such advice to be given by solicitors in any new system, but it is essential that such agreements are entered into only after each party has had the opportunity to be fully advised on their rights; otherwise it could become a minefield and as bad as the existing system. Is the legislation intended to allow for a system whereby advice must be given prior to entering into the agreement?

The next problem relates to a question that will inevitably arise, and which has plagued the CSA: what happens when there is a significant change in the circumstances of one of the parties to an agreement? It is essential that there is a process to allow a renegotiation or amendment to the agreement in those circumstances, just as there was, at least theoretically, in child support cases. I would be interested to know the Minister’s thinking on this point. Does he envisage that there should be matters that come before a court, some sort of extra-judicial system or the replacement of the agency? Such matters might be technical, but they are important.

I have previously raised the enforceability of such agreements with the Secretary of State and have yet to receive an answer, so I shall try again to get one by asking the Minister to address the question whether these agreements will be enforceable in the same manner as a court decree or decision of the CSA. This is an important point because inevitably some parties will not live up to the terms of an agreement that they have entered into.

The second problem on enforceability relates to cross-border enforceability. I have encountered problems in some cases because child support has not been pursued because a party due to make payment has left the country. Even in cases where there is a treaty allowing the enforcement of decrees, it would seem that it has not been possible to enforce some child support orders. I urge the Minister, as I have previously urged the Secretary of State, to examine whether these agreements could have the same validity as a court order and be enforced in the same manner.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I am intrigued about how, if the hon. Gentleman’s party succeeds in taking Scotland out of the UK, this cross-border rule to which he refers would apply.

Mr. Weir: I am dreadfully sorry that the hon. Gentleman, a Scottish MP, does not understand that there is already a separate Scottish legal system and cross-border enforcement in the same way as there has to be cross-border enforcement in respect of any other nation. The problem he mentions does not arise, and I am sorry that he does not understand that. I thought that as a Scottish Member, he might know that there was a Scottish legal system, even in Dundee.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): May I refer the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) to an extremely good report produced in the previous Parliament by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions? I do not
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say that just because I was on that Committee, whose Chair was the former hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire.

The report answered a number of the questions that the hon. Member for Angus raises, as well as the question about someone trying to get out of the country—there was a bar on anyone who did not make payment. They could not get out of the country because they had to come back to the third party, which was not solicitors—I would like to keep out of that matter—but the Government.

Mr. Weir: That is not what happened in practice in the many cases that I have been involved in.

The other major plank in the work and pensions proposals is pension reform. The vision of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru is different from that of the Government. On pensions, the Government have taken the route of suggesting—I would hardly class this as a promise—that it might be possible to restore the link between pensions and earnings, but that we all need to work for longer. The problem with that approach is that it does nothing to make up for the fact that pensions have fallen further and further behind since the link between pensions and earnings was first broken by the Conservatives. Restoring the link at some future date will not deal with that, which is why we have proposed a citizen’s pension as the way forward.

Mr. Devine: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Weir: No. In our policy paper “A Secure Retirement for All”, we set out our proposals and the reasons we believe a citizen’s pension was the way forward. The subsequent Turner report and the Government’s response have not changed that view; we believe that it remains the best way forward. I am sure that the Government would point out all that they have done for pensions, yet too many continue to live in poverty. Rocketing energy prices are wiping out the benefit of the winter fuel allowance. The Minister at questions earlier confirmed that there were not plans to change the winter fuel allowance, despite the rocketing energy prices.

The current pensions system based on labour market participation translates poverty during working lives into poverty in old age. Current Government policies to tackle the unfair position of women and carers are far too timid, and they should have the courage to take the bold step of true reform and provide a state pension that delivers for all our pensioners. The state must provide all pensioners with a decent minimum income in retirement and take real steps to ameliorate the regressive effects of private pensions for those on lower incomes.

Mr. Devine: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Weir: I have taken a lot of interventions.

A citizen’s pension would ensure that all our pensioners are lifted out of poverty and have a decent basic pension on which to build. It would tackle the problem of disincentive under the current pension credit system. It could be made affordable by utilising the amounts currently paid in basic state pension and pension credit and by reforming the system of tax relief
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on private pensions. There is no evidence that the current system of pension tax relief encourages private savings; indeed, it costs a fortune as it is massively geared to the better off. Turner pointed out that it costs about £12 billion, with another £8 billion in national insurance relief. That is a massive subsidy to private pensions instead of using taxpayers’ money to provide a proper state pension. Worse still, more than half of the total cost of tax relief on private pension contributions is received by the richest 10 per cent. of the population.

It is high time that the tax relief system was reformed to become much more progressive and transparent and, in particular, to encourage low and moderate income earners to save for retirement and reward those who do so. Instead of doing that, the Government seem intent on raising the state retirement age, which will have a disproportionate impact on the poor and in areas where people have lower life expectancy. For example, a man in Glasgow has a life expectancy of 69.3 years, compared with more than 80 for a man in Kensington. Clearly, the Glasgow man will seriously lose out if the pension age is increased. To be fair, Lord Turner recognised the problem and suggested that pension credit should continue to be paid at 65, but the Government rejected that in their response, which said that they would consider it nearer the relevant time. The evidence on life expectancy already exists, and one has to ask what they think is the relevant time given that they have already decided to raise the retirement age.

8.1 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I am pleased to be able to speak in this part of the debate on the Queen’s Speech.

I was interested in the comments made by the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir). Let me offer a word of caution to him and to other hon. Members who have spoken about the Child Support Agency. As we all know from our advice surgeries, it is true that for many people the CSA has become a bureaucratic nightmare, but there was not a golden age before the CSA when justice was provided to women who had been abandoned by their partners—it is usually women who are left holding the baby. They had to go to court, and for most that was not affordable or feasible. Moreover, there was virtually no way in which the then Department of Health and Social Security could recoup any of the funds that went out to support lone parents and their children, who should have been properly supported by somebody in work. I hope that the forthcoming Bill will take matters forward. People should not think that there was a golden age; it never existed and women and their children had a nightmare time.

Mr. Weir: I am not suggesting that. I am merely concerned that when we change the system, we do so for the better and do not make things worse, as may happen.

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