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I hear that complaint from Conservative Members. [Interruption.] I have the greatest respect for my old university, but the figures that I read out tell an impressive story. Sixty kids out of every 100 leave
school with better skills as opposed to 45 kids out of every 100. That is 15 more kids in every 100, which is a significant improvement in 10 years. However, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), the position is much better in constituencies such as mine, where the figure for schools whose pupils get five A to Cs at O-level was approximately 15 per cent. in 1997. That has increased to around 50 per cent. today. The investment has led to a big improvement. I would be surprised if the hon. Gentleman had not seen better school buildings and more teachers in his area.
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Can I tell the Minister about a great news story in my constituency, where new specialist engineering colleges such as Freebrough college are opening thanks to £5 million of Government support? Thanks to the Governments commitment to engineering, we will see many engineers in years to come. May I thank the Minister for the support that he has given to my constituency, particularly in rural parts, and ask him to ensure that investment keeps coming through?
Andy Burnham: I am happy to accept that and should like to repay the compliment to my hon. Friend for all the work that he has done to improve education on Teesside. He is absolutely right: because of the policies that the Government have taken forward, areas such as Teesside are benefiting from much closer integration between the business community and the education service. That is why the Opposition are taking on, lock, stock and barrel, the proposals that we have put forward to improve education in this country.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Kitty Ussher): The Government regularly meet representatives from the voluntary sector. I most recently met credit unions when I visited Manchester about a month ago, where I was delighted to visit the offices of Manchester credit union and meet representatives of the Association of British Credit Unions Ltd.
Paddy Tipping: Just over a year since the Farepak fiasco, what further steps are being taken to help credit unions such as the Cashfields credit union based in Hucknall meet the needs of the more economically disadvantaged members of our society?
Kitty Ussher: I was delighted to hear of the formation of Cashfields in my hon. Friends constituency. I understand that it is relatively new and I wish it every success. Following the collapse of Farepak, more that 100 credit unions throughout the country now offer Christmas savings accounts, which is to be welcomed. I shall shortly be publishing the results of the Governments financial inclusion action plan, which will include further measures to support the growth of credit unions.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jane Kennedy): Accuracy in processing remains high, at around 97 per cent. As the House knows, tax credits provide crucial support to some 6 million hard-working families in Britain. Tax credits staff are working hard to improve the service to customers.
Andrew Selous: What action are the Government taking to amend the 35-year-old European regulations that require the payment of child tax credits to migrant workers whose children live abroad, about which the Government tell us nothing, but which should be fair to both migrant workers and host nations, such as the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Austria?
Jane Kennedy: As the hon. Gentleman said, those rules have been in place for a long time. The Government are in discussion with European partners about all such rules, as they affect all our citizens throughout Europe. He will know that changing rules of that nature requires agreement throughout the whole of Europe.
Mr. Randall: We have heard a lot about what advice has been given to banks regarding the loss of personal details. Given the sort of information that has been lost by the Government, one thing that could be dangerous is its use to apply for credit cards. What action have the Government taken in that regard?
Jane Kennedy: We have been in consultation with organisations such as Experian to discuss what could be done to protect people from identity fraud and to prevent the use of that information by criminal elements. As things stand, both the police and the banks are advising us that there is no evidence of fraudulent use of the information, which we believe could still be found. That is why the police inquiry and the searches are ongoing.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): The Minister will know that I have apologised to the Chancellor for yesterday. I do not hold Ministers accountable for the random actions of individuals, but Ministers do have to answer for the fact that individuals can access data, even after so many security reviews, without a relatively simple management system overlay to provide an audit trail and to ring alarm bells.
Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the apology that he has offered for yesterday, although it was a very entertaining intervention. In response to his question, I would say that he is right. That is why we have invited Kieran Poynter to conduct a review. That will not take a long time; we need swift action on this in order to be satisfied that all the necessary protection and security is in place. My right hon. Friend and I look forward to receiving the interim report on 14 December.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Kitty Ussher): The Government recognise the major contribution that co-operatives make in providing greater choice and diversity in financial services and the wider economy. We intend to update the legislation governing co-operatives to enable them to compete with other companies and to serve their local communities more effectively. We consulted on legislative reform in the summer, and I am pleased to say that we received more than 200 responses. We will publish further consultations later this month.
Joan Walley: I greatly welcome the work that the Government and my hon. Friend are doing on reviewing the industrial and provident society legislation. I agree that co-operatives play a huge role across the country. In advance of introducing any primary legislation, will she review whether steps could be taken immediately under regulatory reform legislation to increase the £20,000 limit on withdrawable share capital? Will she also consider relaxing the requirement on interim accounts that exists for co-ops in the same way that it does for companies?
Kitty Ussher: I am grateful for my hon. Friends suggestions. When we publish our ideas on these matters before the end of the year, we will look at absolutely everything with a view to making legislative and non-legislative changes. I will certainly take on board the points that she has made. In response to her wider point, I agree that co-ops play an extremely important part in the dynamism of our economy. I want to remove all barriers that prevent them from competing on a level playing field and from growing.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Treasurys aim is to raise the rate of sustainable growth and to achieve rising prosperity and a better quality of life with economic and employment opportunities for everyone.
Jo Swinson: As the Chancellor has just said, the Treasurys aim is to raise the rate of sustainable growth and to improve quality of life, but, given that Britain is three times richer but no happier than it was 50 years ago, does he think that it is time to look beyond the crude measure of gross domestic product and to monitor other indicators of well-being?
Mr. Darling: I am willing to consider a Liberal Democrat happiness index, although I am not sure how happy the hon. Lady can be at the moment, given that most of her colleagues appear to be out on the campaign trail. Over the past 10 years, we have seen our economy grow in every quarter. We have had 10 years of uninterrupted growth, which has resulted in fewer people being out of work, more people being in work and historically low interest and mortgage rates. That has led to our countrys growing prosperity. Our job is to ensure that that prosperity continues and, above all, to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in it.
T2.  Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Unemployment in Wrexham has fallen by more than 36 per cent. in the past 10 years, and by 3.5 per cent. in the past year. How much money has the Exchequer saved by not pursuing the Tory policy of paying the cost of wasted lives?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): My hon. Friend is quite right. We are spending about £5 billion less on unemployment benefits than we were 10 years ago. One of the advantages of having a strong economy with more people in work is that money is not wasted on unemployment benefits, as it was as a result of the high levels of unemployment that we saw 10 or 15 years ago. Also, we are paying less in debt interest because the level of borrowing and debt that the Conservatives ran up meant that that was the first call on a lot of the extra money that was spent.
T3.  David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Notwithstanding the so-called credit crunch, high street banks with commission-hungry staff are still aggressively selling credit to the hard-up and the desperate, with the resulting unrepayable debt too often chased by bullying or unprincipled collectors. What action is planned to strengthen and enforce the voluntary banking code and the Office of Fair Tradings debt collection guidelines, both of which seem to be routinely flouted by a section of the financial services industry that is still rather too lightly regulated?
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Kitty Ussher): I share my hon. Friends concerns about aggressive credit selling. That is one of the reasons why we are supporting the growth of the credit union sector, which can provide affordable credit to those who need it. An independent review of the voluntary banking code has recently been completed, and the banks published the reviews recommendations and their response last week, on 22 November. That confirmed that the banks will strengthen and enhance the code in key areas, including the provision of more support for people in financial difficulty and the introduction of enhancements to responsible lending practices, involving the rigorous assessment of borrowers before loans are made, which I hope will help. In addition, the Government have made extensive changes to consumer credit legislation to strengthen consumer protection.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con):
May I ask the Chancellor a question about what the Governor of the Bank of England has just told the Treasury Select Committee? He said that the short-term outlook for
the economy is uncomfortable and highly uncertain with slowing growth and rising inflation. Is that assessment shared by the Chancellor and what impact does he think it will have on public borrowing this year?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): The hon. Gentleman is right that the Governor spoke to the Treasury Committee this morning and said that there is continuing uncertainty in the financial marketssomething that I have said on a number of occasions over the past few weeks. We do not yet know the full extent of that uncertainty, particularly in the United States, which is important because of the size of the US Government.
The Governor said today that he expects the economy to slow down, which is exactly what I said in the pre-Budget report when I revised downwards our growth expectations. The Governor also said today that inflation has come down since the peak in March this year, but the Monetary Policy Committee will keep that under review.
Mr. Osborne: Perhaps the Chancellor could answer my question on borrowing when he gets up again. Will he also deal with the point that the Governor has announced an emergency five-week facility over the year-end because of what he calls
the fragility in the banking system?
Clearly, the tripartite arrangements set up by the Government did not work as expected in September, which the Government have explicitly acknowledged in setting up a review of those arrangements. What assurances can the Chancellor give the House now as we approach this difficult year-end period that measures are in place to ensure that the tripartite arrangements will work much better if there is a problem in a particular bank? Will we know who is in charge in a liquidity crisis?
Mr. Darling: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman asked about borrowing. I set out my forecasts in the pre-Budget report and I will keep the House updated. For the past 10 years borrowing generally has been very substantially lower than we have seen in the past.
I said in reply to an earlier question that the Governor has announced additional facilities to be put into the system, which is the right thing to do, especially having regard to the present uncertainty. The House will know that a number of banks are due to report, although the Governor made the point in his remarks this morning that what banks have been able to report has reassured the markets in respect of individual institutions. I assure the House that the Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority and the Treasury are keeping these things under constant review and that we will take whatever action is appropriate. Todays announcement by the Bank of England, putting money into the system, will be welcomed. It is entirely the right thing to do. Indeed, the US Fed and the European Central Bank have taken similar action over the past few days.
T4.  Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab):
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the success of renewable obligation certificates in ensuring investment in onshore wind farms. Has he given
consideration to what further can be done so that our fiscal regime ensures the speedy development of other forms of renewables?
The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Angela Eagle): The Government are committed to meeting their share of the EU renewables target and the energy White Paper set out a range of measures that we are taking forward, which will triple the amount of renewable energy in the UK. That includesin direct response to my hon. Friends questiona planning reform Bill that will speed up issues, allowing both offshore and onshore wind farms to be brought to bear and to generate electricity in that renewable form much more quickly than would have been the case before the reforms.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): Of all the problems that we face at the moment, I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman could have come up with a better question than that.
T6.  Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): As my right hon. Friend probably knows, over the last few years I have been pressing for action on sports taxation issues in particular. I remind her that I have written about the need for work to be done to ensure that in this sporting nationin the build-up to 2012, and following the disaster of Englands recent football performancejoined-up thinking must include examination of the way in which we deal with tax and sport, and the contribution of sport to the economy. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me as soon as possible to discuss some of the smaller issues, on which we could make progress fairly quickly, and also some of the bigger issues, such as corporation tax and VAT, which might require more long-term work?
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jane Kennedy): Of course I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the wide range of tax issues that he wishes to raise, involving the way in which we support athletes and sports organisations in the United Kingdom. He will know, however, that in partnership with the lottery the Government have already committed themselves to significant funding for our elite athletes in particular in the run-up to the Olympic games, as well as support to encourage sportsmen and women to put something back into grass-roots sport and inspire young people.
T7.  Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): Is an early solution envisaged to the inequitable problem of the damping mechanism in local government financing, which has a very bad effect on councils such as Wirral?
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