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My hon. Friend puts the point that, first, we should act on child poverty, and we will; and secondly, that we should act on science and innovation, and I have made announcements today about what we will do. Thirdly, he rightly raises the question of the future financial framework for Northern Ireland. I have put proposals to the Northern Ireland parties, and I was grateful to him for attending the meeting when we discussed those matters. I am prepared to make a longer-term settlement to the Northern Ireland Assembly, provided that it can be reconstituted by the agreement of all political parties. I look forward to further discussions with him and other Members of the
Assembly about how we can expedite that process. We remain ready to give the financial support that is necessary, so that Northern Ireland, particularly its economy, can move forward as a result of the Assembly being reconstituted, and we will continue to make that offer.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): The Chancellor announced an increase in fuel duty, with which I concur, as it must be right to redress the balance between public transport and motoring; but may I ask him again to address the punitive premiums paid in remote rural areas, where there is no alternative to the car, as they cause real hardship and social exclusion?
Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman will know that we introduced a varied licence fee, which is of benefit to people making choices in rural areas. That is one of the ways that we have approached the issue. We have also put considerably more money into public transport, as a result of the decisions that we have made to allocate more resources in that area. For elderly people, of course, a national bus pass scheme will be introduced very soon. So we continue to look at what we can do to help rural areas. We continue to look at the variable elements of the vehicle excise duty system, and we continue to do more to provide for public transport in constituencies such as his.
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): In view of the Chancellors recent meeting with Cardinal OBrien from Edinburgh and other faith leaders and the quite remarkable growth that he has again announced today, can he confirm that the Government are still on target to achieve the United Nations figure of 0.7 per cent. of gross national income being spent on aid and still on target to make our contribution to achieving the millennium development goals?
Mr. Brown: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because he has been one of the leading advocates throughout the world of action to achieve the millennium development goals and he has a proud record of passing legislation in this House that requires us to keep to the targets that we have set. Yes, we are intent on the 0.7 per cent. target. We are also intent on meeting the millennium development goals. In the next few months, we are launching the education for all initiative, which is designed to get every potential primary school pupil into education by 2015. There are 110 million children who are not. At the same time, Cardinal OBrien, whose work in this area I applaudparticularly his visits to Africa to give hope to people in the areas of greatest needwas present at the launch of the vaccination initiative. We have agreed that500 million children will be offered vaccination. As a result of that, over the next 10 to 15 years, it is possible that 10 million lives will be saved. I was grateful that the Pope sent his representatives to that launch. The Archbishop of Canterbury was there, as was the Chief Rabbi. Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and other faiths were represented. It is a measure of the consensus among the Churches that something needs to be done that Governments around the world are being influenced by Cardinal OBrien and many like him.
Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): To complete the picture placed before us today, will the Chancellor tell us what part he thinks that he, personally, played in the collapse of final salary pension schemes? As a former opponent of means-testing, what pride does he take in the fact that 40 per cent. of the population, and well over 50 per cent. of the pensioner population, are now subjected to means-tested benefits from the state?
Mr. Brown: A total of 3.3 million people have pension credits as a result of the Governments decision. In many cases, they are £30 or £40 a week better off as a result. If the hon. Gentleman is going to say to the pensioner community of this country that he will take away pension credit, and that that is part of the Oppositions policy
Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman says that it is not. Is it or is it not part of the Oppositions policy? If the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) is criticising what we are doing, he ought to be able to put up an alternative. Pension credit goes to 3.3 million people. It is easy to claim; it can be done by telephone. It is claimed for a period of years, not just for one year. He should be encouraging his constituents, rather than declaiming pension credit, because it is a proper way forward. As for the reform of pensions generally, I hope that he will support the pensions Bill that will be brought forward in the next few months to get a framework that we can agree across parties for the development of pensions for the future.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I welcome the extra investment in transport, housing and skills, the innovative policies for community ownership, and the green policy. Will my right hon. Friend say how, in moving forward, he intends to ensure that the delivery agencies on the ground, including local councils, are fit for purpose? I want to make sure that my constituents get the benefits of the announcements that he has made today.
Mr. Brown: I hope that my hon. Friend will lobby to have the new Warm Front initiative, which will extend Warm Front through community-by-community programmes. We will approach people in each area almost on a house-to-house basis, offering them insulation and central heating. It may be that her constituency or others can be included in that programme. The fact is that there are still millions of houses that are not insulated and many houses that do not have central heating. It is possible, under the arrangements that we have negotiated with the energy companies, for more people to get the benefit of both heating and insulation. It is our job to go out and persuade people that that is worth doing. For low-income pensioners, it is free. For many, there is a large grant available. I hope that the community-by-community projects that we are now proposing, to reach that group of people that we have missed so far, will cover a large number of constituencies.
Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): During the Chancellors rather long statement on the pre-Budget report, he talked about a £1 billion tax raise through air passenger duty rates. However, I notice in table 1.2 that the tax going to be raised this coming year is not£1 billion, but £2 billion. Will he please confirm that?
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): In tackling climate change, will my right hon. Friend look at what seems to be a nonsensical position whereby employees who are given travel concessions by their employer to use public transport have that taxed as a benefit, whereas the provision of free car-parking places at places of work is not taxed in that way? Will he look at the anomaly that has arisen as a result of the otherwise welcome increase in the minimum wage, whereby many working carers are losing up to £46 a week because the minimum wage has taken them marginally above the £84 earnings threshold?
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend makes two important points. I will look at each of them in detail in the run-up to the Budget. On the tax relief issue, I will arrange a meeting with him and Treasury officials. On carers, we will look carefully at the interaction of the minimum wage and tax credits.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Chancellor mentioned making life easier for people on low incomes. Let us look at last year. How many tax credit recipients were overpaid and how many were underpaid?
Mr. Brown: I will send the figures to the hon. Gentleman. We are introducing a better system today so that there will be less overpayment. The issue is that we want to be as flexible as possible in responding to peoples situations. If their income goes up, their tax credit has been too high and therefore it is right to ask to recover it. We have arrangements in place whereby if the income change is reasonable, we will not ask for money back. The challenge is related to the difference between having a relatively inflexible system that cannot be adjusted during the year and a flexible system that enables us to respond to changes in the labour market. That is the challenge that we have always faced on tax credits. I believe that we were right to go for a flexible system, but obviously we must make sure that the figures for people who have to repay money are in order. That is why we are trying to reduce them with the change that we are making today.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): We are in the middle of a £70 million investment programme involving building three new schools and a £140 million investment programme involving building schools for the future. I assure my right hon. Friend that educational spending is not the spin claimed by the Opposition. It looks like teachers, computers and new school buildings. However, is he also aware that inner London, in particular, faces exceptional challenges with education and skills? As a consequence of that, I have one warda mere mile from the west endin which 83 per cent. of all children are growing up in workless households. In the run-up to the Budget and the spending review, will he look urgently at skills training, the tax credit system and affordable child care to make sure that no child or community is left behind?
Mr. Brown: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who persistently puts the case for her constituency both to me and other Ministers, and quite rightly so, because of the degree of need in the constituency. We will listen to what she says about the issue of the number of people in poverty in her constituency and the need for better training. I agree with her entirely that it is easy to talk about the schools and educational institutions capital budget of £10 billion, which I announced, as simply a figure, but it is thousands more schools repaired, hundreds of childrens centres, better colleges all round, more books, whiteboards and computers, and modern facilities. The Conservatives may want to scorn what are major changes, but if they had done half as much as we have since we came into power, perhaps they would not have been out of power for so long.
Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): Will the Chancellor confirm that he has today downgraded the GDP growth forecast for 2008 and will he also confirm whether he would have met the golden rule had he not changed the dates of the economic cycle last year?
Mr. Brown: The trend growth rate is exactly the same. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that if growth is upgraded this year, it should have no effect on future years, he is not living in a world with economic cycles and economic change.
Mr. Brown: Boom and bust is a term that applied to the Conservative years and two of the worst recessions in history. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to have a debate on boom and bust in the House of Commons, we are happy to do so. Growth this year is 2Â3/4 per cent. and is higher than forecast. Growth next year is between 2Â3/4 and 3Â1/4 per cent. and therefore is higher than this year, and growth in 2008 is forecast to be2Â1/2 to 3 per cent. When did the Conservatives ever have 12 years of economic growth?
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the extra£8.3 billion capital investment in schools, which will make a huge difference to my constituency. I thank him for resisting the temptation to introduce a third fiscal rule. Will he confirm that such a rule would prevent all the extra investment in education that he has announced, including reading recovery and books for children at five and 11, which are so necessary to meet his strict targets for skills in 2020?
If we had to adopt a policy to cut£28 billion of public spending now, it would be the equivalent of closing down most schools in the country. It would not just prevent capital investment, but mean that we could not hire teachers or pay the other bills of schools. Conservative Members will have to think about this. They are promising to spend more, but they say that they are going to tax less and that they would borrow less because they say that we have a structural deficit. They then say that their fiscal rule requires a reduction in spending. None of that adds up,
but that is typical of the Conservative party. It left us in exactly that situation in the early 1990s and we are not going back to that.
Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): The Chancellor rightly emphasised the need for fiscal measures to tackle the causes of climate change. Does he also accept that measures are needed to tackle the consequences of climate change? As a Scottish Member, he will know that the Scottish ski industry has been one of the first industries in this country to feel directly the consequences of climate change. Would he or one of his ministerial colleagues be willing to meet representatives of the Scottish ski industry to determine whether fiscal measures could be brought forward to help to alleviate the impact of climate change on that important sector of the rural economy?
Mr. Brown: If meetings are necessary on this issue, I am sure that they can take place. At the same time, I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that there are now 200,000 more jobs in Scotland as a result of the Labour Government. Whatever changes are taking place, some of which are because of the environment, we are determined to replace jobs that are lost and we will continue to do so. That is why the Scottish Administration have adopted a new policy, with a new agency, to move towards full employment. Given that his party forms part of that Administration, I hope that he will support the policy.
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friends statement and everything that he said about child poverty, especially. As he will know, the Adoption and Children Act 2006 is working well. With crucial support from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, homes are being found for vulnerable children, many of whom used to live in institutions, and resolutions are being delivered for families in dispute. However, may I persuade him to examine the situation that CAFCASS faces? It has a standstill budget, and although the work that it does is excellent, the demands on it are exponential. The children that it helps usually have special needs. We need more money, so will my right hon. Friend look at the matter?
Mr. Brown: I will consider in detail the information that my hon. Friend has given me about that important agency. Obviously, there is not money to pay for everything. If I am right, the agency has the same budget as it did last year, but I shall examine the matter.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): When the Chancellor was in opposition, he made a statement that if the parliamentary ombudsman found maladministration against a Government and people had lost out, that Government should compensate those pensioners. Why has the Chancellor turned into a hypocrite when the parliamentary ombudsman has found against the Government
Why has the Chancellor refused to accept the parliamentary ombudsmans ruling that there has been maladministration under the Government and that they have stolen millions of pounds of pensions from our pensioners?
Mr. Brown: If I am right, the criticism was made against the previous Government [ Interruption. ] This is a Labour Government and that was a Conservative Government. Since 1997, we have created the pension protection board and a scheme to help people who were not protected before the board came into being. We have done more than any other Government to deal with the problems faced by pensioners who have lost their pensions.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): In addressing Labours historic commitment to end child poverty, the Chancellor was right to talk about the importance of child health. Babies with low birth weights are more likely than others to have learning disabilities and to suffer from heart disease and diabetes throughout their lives. The best start that a child can have is a healthy mother. Will the Chancellor explain in a little more detail the changes to child benefit that he proposes to make to tackle the problem?
Mr. Brown: At the 29th week, mothers to be are eligible to receive maternity grants. I propose that we consider whether we can give child benefit to mothers to be at that time so that they can get the nutrition that is necessary and prepare for the birth of their child. I am happy to talk to the Select Committee about that proposal.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Will any aspect of the Chancellors announcement about universities and tuition fees affect the situation under which English and Welsh students at Scottish universities pay much higher fees than Scottish students or students from anywhere else in Europe? Does the Chancellor think that that situation is fair?
Mr. Brown: I made two proposals on tuition fees: one in relation to voluntary work and the other in relation to children in care. The hon. Gentleman has to accept the principles of devolution. Once there is devolution, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assemblyand, hopefully, the Northern Ireland Administrationcan make decisions that are relevant to their needs. I am determined to ensure that there is sufficient educational investment. When we came to power, such investment represented 4.7 per cent. of national income, but that figure has been rising to 5.5 per cent. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting us for that, not criticising us.
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