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Mr. Osborne: Of course the European Union can do things to tackle climate change: it does not mean that we have to give up all our sovereignty to let it do them —[ Interruption. ] Now listen, I am asking the Chancellor about the views of Deborah Mattinson. I am surprised that he cannot agree, because she is his personal pollster and the event at which she was speaking was called “Brown’s first 100 days” —[ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Ian Austin, I am always telling you to behave yourself, and I am telling you now.

Mr. Osborne: And only newly promoted as well.

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Now look, that is not the only such event this week. What does the Chancellor say to the former Home Secretary, who served with him in the Cabinet, who said yesterday that thanks to the Chancellor, the Labour Government were sleepwalking to disaster? Does Mrs. Rochester agree?

Mr. Brown: I repeat what the shadow Chancellor says to every meeting that he addresses in the City:

He also talks about

That is very different from the interview that I heard him give this morning. The Leader of the Opposition said that he had an absolute commitment to introducing a married couple’s allowance, but the shadow Chancellor said on the radio this morning that he could say only that they were thinking about it. So in the Conservative party, Front Benchers make public spending commitments, Front Benchers say that they will cut taxes and Front Benchers say that they will cut borrowing and achieve stability. None of it ever adds up, as it never did in any previous election. As a result of the hon. Gentleman’s policies, we would be back to where we were in 1992, when the Leader of the Opposition had to stand with the then Chancellor and pronounce about 15 per cent. interest rates, 3 million unemployed, public spending cuts and the worst economic record of any Government since the war.

Housing Market

3. Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the operation of the housing market. [124163]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): New house building reached 160,000 last year, the highest level since 1990. When I met Shelter and other housing organisations this week, they welcomed what they described as outstanding progress since 1997 on investment in existing social housing and in creating more homes for people on low income. But they also called for further progress in the comprehensive spending review and supported Kate Barker’s conclusions that supply is not yet fully meeting Britain’s long-term housing needs.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Despite Kate Barker’s view, is the Minister aware that in Cornwall the housing stock has more than doubled in the last 40 years? It has grown faster than almost anywhere else in the country, but the housing problems of local people have got significantly worse. Indeed, in my constituency last year, five times as many properties were sold to second-home buyers as to first-time buyers. Does the Minister accept that simply heaping tens of thousands more homes into a supposedly homogenous and uniform market does not work in places such as Cornwall, and that much more sophisticated mechanisms are needed? Market equilibrium does not result in affordable homes for local people.

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Mr. Timms: We certainly do need to be smart about how we take this issue forward. We need more homes, and we set the objective in the pre-Budget report in 2005 of increasing the number of net additions to 200,000 a year within 10 years. That is important. We also need help for first-time buyers, and that is why we raised the threshold for stamp duty. We also need to go further on social housing. By next year, we will have increased the number of new social homes by 50 per cent. over three years, from 20,000 up to 30,000 a year. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has said that going further in that particular area, which will be important for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, will be a priority for the comprehensive spending review.

Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): The number of people registered for rehousing in the city of Newcastle is five times as high as it was six years ago. Low-income families on tax credits—the very thing that we were discussing earlier—simply cannot afford either to rent or to buy. That affordability gap, rather than housing supply, is the central problem. People are being priced out of their neighbourhoods because they cannot afford to rent or to buy.

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend will recognise that there is a link between the number of homes available and the price that people need to pay for them. I agree entirely that people in a number of parts of the UK face some very big and difficult problems in gaining access to the housing market. Further progress in that regard will be a priority in the comprehensive spending review, but it is also worth noting that total household-sector interest payments are currently 9 per cent. of disposable income, compared with 15 per cent. in 1990. That shows that some good progress has been made.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I am sure that the Chief Secretary shares my concern about the problems that first-time buyers face in getting a foot on the housing ladder. In my constituency of Basingstoke, the difficulties are significant. Last year, just 36 per cent. of new loans—that is, one in three—were made to first-time buyers, a significant reduction from the 1990s. What assessment has he made of the other up-front charges in addition to stamp duty that first-time buyers have to pay before they can buy their first home? Those charges place an enormous barrier in the path of people who, like my constituents, are finding it very difficult to get a foot on the ladder.

Mr. Timms: We need to do more to address the challenges facing first-time buyers, and I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome the increase in the stamp duty threshold, as that will be particularly useful and helpful. In addition, I remind her of the work that has been done on shared equity: we now expect 160,000 households to be helped into home ownership by 2010 through shared equity in various forms, and that is double the original estimate. We are making progress, although there is no doubt that more must be done. I am confident that, in the CSR, we will be able to announce steps that will help further.

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that investment in housing and social housing is important to helping people get on to the
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housing ladder? That is especially important in my constituency, where average earnings are around £20,000. What would be the effect on the social housing budget if overall public expenditure were to be reduced by the implementation of a third fiscal rule?

Mr. Timms: I am afraid that the effect would be catastrophic. Great progress in social housing has been achieved through the investment in the existing social housing stock about which Shelter and other organisations spoke to me earlier this week. Another factor has been the 50 per cent. increase over the past few years in the number of social houses being built. We need to maintain the investment and go further. I am confident that that will happen, but I am afraid that a third fiscal rule would take us very sharply backwards.

Childhood Well-being

4. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK’s macro-economic performance on childhood well-being. [124164]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ed Balls): Since 1997, the Government’s commitment to macro-economic stability, to providing work for those who can do it and to giving financial support to families has reduced the number of children in workless households by 440,000, and helped lift 700,000 children out of poverty.

Mr. Harper: I am surprised that the Chancellor is not wearing a daffodil to show his sense of Britishness, given that today is St. David’s day. Does the Economic Secretary share UNICEF’s assessment that economic poverty alone is not the sole indicator of childhood well-being? What does he think needs to be done to tackle the broader social problems that affect childhood well-being in Britain today?

Ed Balls: I agree that having strong families and sound public services are part of making sure that children get the best possible start in life. However, macro-economic instability and rising poverty make it much harder to give children that. The number of children in poverty has fallen by 700,000 since 1997. That number rose by 500,000 in the 1980-81 recession, and by 1.1 million in the recession of 1990-92. With that sort of instability, it is no wonder that child poverty doubled in the period up to 1997.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Both the minimum wage and the tax credits system have made an enormous contribution to reducing poverty across the country, yet 41 per cent. of London’s children remain in poverty. Does the Minister agree that London needs specific, comprehensive and complex cross-Government issues, measures—[Hon. Members: “Action.”]—action to meet the 2020 child poverty target? [Hon. Members: “Reading.”] Oh, you are pathetic. Will he meet me to discuss the matter and how the major regeneration initiatives in the east of the capital can help to reduce the number of children in poverty? [Interruption.]

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Mr. Speaker: Order. I am not singling out any hon. Member—I know that it can be daunting sometimes to ask questions on the Floor of the House—but I urge hon. Members not to read questions. Just stand and speak and ask a supplementary; it is a lot easier, believe me.

Ed Balls: I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend makes a serious point. The reality is that we have seen rising employment and falling child poverty in London, as across the rest of the country, but while London has benefited substantially, unemployment and child poverty in London are higher than in the rest of the country. It is campaigning work by her and other London MPs that can help to get child poverty rates down. One important way in which we can do that is by making sure that the Olympics bring genuine regeneration and job creation to constituencies such as West Ham. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to help take forward these issues.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does the Minister agree that good fiscal education in schools is essential for the future well-being of our children and the avoidance of personal debt? Will he undertake to discuss this with his Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Education and Skills?

Ed Balls: Good physical education and good financial education are both important. [Hon. Members: “Fiscal”.] Fiscal or physical? I am happy to answer the question whether the hon. Lady is talking about physical education, fiscal education or financial education. Whichever way, we have been improving the situation since 1997 from a low base. I am happy to talk to Ministers to ensure that we redouble our efforts.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend share with the House what the likely effect on childhood well-being would be of reintroducing the married tax allowances? It would take money away from poor children.

Ed Balls: That relates to a more general point, which is that taking us back to instability would be bad for child poverty. We heard today that the commitment to a transferable tax allowance is not a policy; it is a value. We are also told that a commitment to border police is not a policy; it is a value. Presumably, the commitment to the abolition of inheritance tax is also a value.

No. 11 Downing Street

5. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Which charities held events at No. 11 Downing Street during the past 12 months; and if he will make a statement. [124165]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): No. 11 Downing street is used for official meetings, engagements with external representatives and for charity events. Charities play a critical role in contributing to Government objectives. That is why the Government have backed them so strongly over the past 10 years. A list of the 67 charities that have used No. 11 since 1997 is on the Treasury website.

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Michael Fabricant: Will the Minister confirm that one of the so-called charities is the Smith Institute, that it meets monthly there and that often the lights are burning deep into the hours of midnight and beyond as it ponders hard how to brighten up the image of the rather dour Chancellor? Does that not make the Smith Institute a little more of a think-tank and a little less of a charitable institution?

Mr. Timms: That, of course, is a matter for the Charity Commission. One of the 67 charities is indeed the Smith Institute, but Conservative Members voted last night against legislation extending the role of charities in work with offenders. I hope that they will not compound that mistake by giving the impression today that they oppose charity use of No. 11.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Therefore, I have made a complaint to the Charity Commission about the Policy Exchange reform—

Mr. Speaker: No; please don’t.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): Ministers are reluctant to answer questions about the Smith Institute. The Financial Secretary took 10 weeks to reply to a question about how many events the Smith Institute held at No. 11 Downing street in one year, and he still will not reveal how many events it has held there since 1997. Is it not time to drop the pretence and recognise that the Smith Institute is nothing more than a cover for the political activities of the Chancellor and his political allies?

Mr. Timms: No, I do not agree. The questions have been answered and, as I said, the status of the institute is a matter for the Charity Commission. As we have made clear, 10 years ago the Smith Institute said that it would like to use No. 11 Downing street on a monthly basis, and sometimes more frequently, but many other charities have used it as well, so I hope that the Conservatives recognise—

Mr. Hoban: How many?

Mr. Timms: Sixty-seven charities are listed on the Treasury website. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman would support the use of No. 11 Downing street in that way.

Employment (Warrington)

6. Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the economic impact of likely changes of employment in Warrington over the next 10 years. [124166]

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): Over the past 10 years, unemployment has been cut by almost half and employment is up by 16,000 in Warrington. For the future, continuing growth, stability and near-record employment mean that we remain fully committed to full employment opportunities for all those in Warrington and across the UK.

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Helen Jones: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Now that we have moved from serious unemployment to full employment in Warrington, our next challenge is to produce more highly skilled, well paid jobs, particularly through development of the Omega project. Can my hon. Friend assure me that as that comes on stream we will continue the investment in training and further education that will ensure that people from the deprived areas of my constituency are able to take advantage of those jobs and improve their skills and prospects in the future?

John Healey: I can indeed, and I welcome the fact that phase 1 of the Omega project was given planning go-ahead just before Christmas. As a member of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, my hon. Friend knows that the huge investment over the past 10 years means that skills in the UK are improving—more than 1.4 million people have improved their basic skills and levels of qualification in the work force are increasing. However, she knows, too, that international challenges and competition and demand from employers mean that for the future our task will be even greater. I assure her that we accept the scale of the challenge set out by the Leitch report and Lord Leitch’s approach for tackling it, and we are working on ways to implement his recommendations.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Are not the Government concerned that the recent childhood well-being report showed that 30 per cent. of young people—presumably in Warrington, as elsewhere—do not aspire to anything other than low-skilled jobs? Bearing in mind the fact that over the next few decades the UK economy is unlikely to generate as many low-skilled jobs as at present, is not the Financial Secretary concerned about the impact that that is likely to have on the economy in Warrington and elsewhere, including on the well-being of those young people as adults?

John Healey: I am not sure whether the hon. Lady missed the question about the childhood well-being report that was answered by my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary a moment ago. However, she is right to note the strong requirement for a more skilled work force in the future. She is right, too—although she did not quite say this—that 70 per cent. of the work force in 2020 will already have left full-time education. She is also right that we need to do yet more for young people who are looking for vocational options, in particular for modern apprenticeships. The fact that the number of those on apprenticeships has almost trebled over the past 10 years is a good base on which to build and I hope she welcomes that.

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