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Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions

37. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What assessment she has made of the quality of Ministers’ answers to written parliamentary questions. [173666]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave earlier.

Mr. Jones: About three weeks ago, I tabled a question to the Secretary of State for Wales asking him how frequently he meets the Deputy First Minister of Wales, and on how many occasions he has done so since the conclusion of the all-Wales accord. The answer I received was:

That answer was not terribly helpful, but unfortunately it is not untypical of the sort of thing that we receive these days. Is this a manifestation of deliberate obfuscation on the part of Government, or is it simple idleness? It must be one or the other.

Helen Goodman: I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. If he would like a more specific answer, perhaps he should write to the Secretary of State.

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Capital Gains Tax

11.32 am

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD) ( u rgent question): Mr. Speaker, I am very grateful to you for agreeing to enable this urgent question to be put, and the purpose of putting the request in this form—

Mr. Speaker: Order. If the hon. Gentleman would just ask the question.

Dr. Cable: Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer make a statement on the position in relation to capital gains tax policy?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): Let me answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. The Government’s position on the reform of capital gains tax was set out in the pre-Budget report on 9 October. However, I have subsequently received representations from a number of organisations and individuals with whom I have been consulting, and as a result of which a wide range of proposals have been made to me. Because those proposals cover a wide range of approaches, and in some cases are quite complex, I think it desirable to have further discussions with those groups before I finalise my proposals. It is not now going to be possible to conclude that process until the new year. I can tell the House that when I am ready to make proposals, I will come to the House and make a statement in the usual way.

For the sake of completeness, I understand that the hon. Gentleman, who is the acting leader of the Liberal Democrat party, was moved to ask this question because he saw on today’s Order Paper notice of a written ministerial statement on Finance Bill measures. Perhaps I can tell the House that those measures relate to two types of corporation tax avoidance involving the leasing of plant machinery, such as combine harvesters, tractors and so on, which had a potential tax loss of hundreds of millions of pounds. The written ministerial statement had nothing whatever to do with capital gains tax.

Dr. Cable: May I explain to the Chancellor why the matter is urgent? It appears that the Prime Minister, no less, and the Chancellor have been separately briefing national newspapers about imminent changes to the legislation. Surely this House should be told about that. I was further prompted by the fact that I understood that the Federation of Small Businesses and the Confederation of British Industry have booked rooms this afternoon in order to announce changes communicated to them by the Government. It may be, as is often the case, that there is a terrible breakdown in communication between the Government and the business organisations. It may be that the Chancellor simply did not wish to communicate his findings to the House first. That is the source of the urgency. Does not he agree that the Government made a serious error in not consulting business organisations before announcing the pre-Budget report statement, that that failure to consult lies behind an enormous amount of ill will in the business community and that his standing with business is roughly comparable with that of the Home Secretary with the Police Federation?

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Will the Chancellor clarify whether the Government still intend to proceed with their proposal to abolish taper relief, which was a central feature of their policy? Was not the reasoning behind the proposal that it would tackle a specific anomaly in relation to private equity funds? It was realised, once the 10p rate was abolished, that private equity partners would pay less—in some cases, a lower rate of tax than their low-paid employees. The Government introduced the far-reaching change to deal with that. However, is not it also the case that the anomaly remains? The private equity partners still pay a lower rate of tax than their low-paid employees. In the process of introducing those changes, did not the Government create a set of anomalies whereby, for example, entrepreneurs now pay a much higher rate of tax—18 per cent. rather than 10 per cent.—and second home owners can pay a lower rate of tax? Those anomalies have created a great deal of anxiety and concern in the business community.

Will the Chancellor confirm that the Government intend to proceed with the abolition of taper relief? In doing that, have the Government now accepted that their policy in 1998, which was strongly opposed at the time by me and my colleagues and the Conservatives, who appear to have done a U-turn on the matter, was misguided and introduced excessive complexity into the system?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is beginning to debate the matter as if it were a statement when it is an urgent question. I think that we must now let the Chancellor respond.

Mr. Darling: Despite what the hon. Gentleman says, his question was not prompted by the booking of rooms. In the normal way, when a request for an urgent question is made, Mr. Speaker has to consider it. The hon. Gentleman saw a reference to a written ministerial statement on the Order Paper. I simply point out that it was made to plug a loophole in relation to corporation tax; it had nothing to do with capital gains tax.

The hon. Gentleman asked many questions about capital gains tax. The Government’s position is as I set it out. We have received a wide range of proposals, and helpful discussions have taken place. I want to ensure that we get those things right and I intend to do that.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. With an urgent question, I have to hear what the appropriate Minister has to say. The Chancellor’s answer leads me to conclude that I will not open up the subject to prolonged questions. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) keeps calm, I will, of course, call Front Benchers.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): The Chancellor of the Exchequer pretends that it is all a mistake. However, he told the CBI conference on 27 November:

The Chancellor has told us for the first time today that he will not publish those details until the new year,
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although, as the leader of the Liberal Democrats said, business organisations expected them in the next couple of days.

Is not it the Chancellor’s final humiliation that he has to defend at the Dispatch Box his first and only original tax proposals when everyone knows that, in the next couple of weeks, he will have to announce major concessions and U-turns, not least because the Prime Minister went behind his back and briefed the newspapers? In the meantime, thousands of small businesses and employee share owners do not know what to do or what the position will be next April. He knows what the concessions will be. Why does not he admit what they are and that he has lost, hoist the white flag and say, “I surrender”?

Mr. Darling: Nice try. I had hoped to be in a position to announce final proposals, but for the reasons that I have stated that is not now possible. However, I will come to the House, as I always do on these occasions, when I am ready to make my proposals.

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Business of the House

11.39 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give its forthcoming business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The business for the week commencing 17 December will be:

Monday 17 December—There will be a statement on the European Council. There will also be a statement on the Poynter review, followed by Second Reading of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.

Tuesday 18 December—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

The business for the week commencing 7 January 2008 will be:

Monday 7 January—Second Reading of the Pensions Bill.

Tuesday 8 January—Opposition Day [5th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 9 January—Remaining stages of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.

Thursday 10 January—Topical debate: Subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on armed forces personnel.

Friday 11 January—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 14 January will include:

Monday 14 January—Second Reading of the Education and Skills Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the first week back will be:

Thursday 10 January—A debate on the report from the Home Affairs Committee on Police Funding.

Through you, Mr. Speaker, may I extend the warm wishes of all hon. Members to the Clerks of the House, the Officers of the House, the catering team, the cleaners, the police, the doorkeepers and all who keep the House running smoothly? A happy Christmas to one and all.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business. I should like to join her in wishing you, Mr. Speaker, all the staff in the House who provide us with support and all right hon. and hon. Members a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

The right hon. and learned Lady said that there would be a debate on the armed forces on Thursday 10 January, but, given the topical debate on that day, we will have less than half a day for that important subject. It seems that we will now have a part-time debate for a part-time Secretary of State for Defence. Will she rearrange the business so that we can have a full-time debate on the armed forces?

Last week I suggested that the right hon. and learned Lady should select the housing market as the subject for this week’s topical debate. If she looks at the front pages of today’s newspapers, she will see that it is not
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only a topical issue, but an extremely worrying one for millions for families. Will she now commit to a debate on the economic slow-down, and the problems in the banking industry and their effects on the housing market?

Last weekend the Prime Minister went to Basra, where he promised that the troops would be home by Christmas. Why did he not make a proper statement about that to the House? How many troops will come home? When will they come home? Will they go back if there is trouble in Basra? How many troops will stay to train Iraqi forces? It is to answer questions such as those and many more that we need a statement. Every week the Leader of House tells us that she puts Parliament first; every week her colleagues, from the Prime Minister down, treat Parliament with disdain.

The Pensions Minister and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions want to compensate the 125,000 people who lost their savings after their pension schemes went bust, but the Prime Minister and the Chancellor appear to have blocked them. Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Cross-Bench Peers, Labour MPs and Peers, Ros Altmann, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and now the Work and Pensions Secretary all now believe that those innocent people deserve full compensation. They did the right thing and saved for their pensions, but lost everything through no fault of their own, so will the Work and Pensions Secretary make a statement on why the Government refuse to compensate fully those innocent victims?

Some 89 Labour MPs have signed a motion calling for the Government to honour the police pay award recommended by the Police Arbitration Tribunal. According to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, 10 Ministers oppose the Home Secretary’s policy. Police authorities in England and Wales have already budgeted to meet the cost and the Police Federation has called it “a betrayal of trust”, so can we have a debate in Government time on the breakdown in the crucial relationship between the police and the Home Secretary?

On Europe, the Prime Minister said this morning:

However, he is reluctantly making his way to Lisbon today to sign the renamed constitution, explicitly breaking his manifesto promise not to sign without a referendum. He is too frightened to let the people decide, and too frightened to be photographed with the other Heads of Government. Is this really what the Prime Minister means by “leading the way”?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady mentioned the debate on the armed forces on Thursday 10 January, and the topical debate on the same day. I would say two things in response. First, she supported the introduction of topical debates, as did the whole House. I believe that they are going to be very important. Secondly, we have five days’ debate on defence as well as Defence oral questions and other statements that are made from time to time. Defence and our armed services are of importance at all times to Members on both sides of the House, and we ensure that they are debated regularly and that they remain at the forefront of the concerns of the House.

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On the housing market, the right hon. Lady will know that it is important for that market that we have low inflation, and that people can pay their mortgages because they are able to remain in work and because interest rates are low. She will also know that it is important for that market that there is affordable housing, and that means that there should be a greater supply of housing. If she is as concerned as she says she is, I hope that the Opposition will support our Housing and Regeneration Bill, which will make the biggest possible contribution to the housing market.

The right hon. Lady asked a number of questions about the Prime Minister and Iraq. Perhaps she will remember that, only yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister answered questions about Iraq, as he does nearly every Wednesday at this Dispatch Box. Indeed, he also made a statement on Afghanistan.

On pensions, the right hon. Lady will know that we have just concluded deliberation in this House on one Pensions Bill, and that our legislative programme contains another pensions Bill. She raised the question of the police pay award, and I want to pay tribute to the police for their important and courageous work. She will know that it is Government policy to ensure that we deal with police pay within the overall context of the Government’s public sector pay policy.

The right hon. Lady raised a range of issues about Europe. She will know that, because the Prime Minister believes in the importance of the House, he was answering questions before the Liaison Committee this morning. He cannot be in two places at once, so he has answered the Committee’s questions and he is now travelling to sign the treaty. She then raised a whole load of other spurious questions about Europe—I know that this is the festive season, but this is supposed to be business questions, not panto.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): It is perfectly clear that the Government are not going to move on the vexed question of police pay. I am very sympathetic to the position of the police, because the matter has been to arbitration. How would my friend describe the meaning of arbitration in this context?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend will know that it is the responsibility of the Home Secretary to set the level of police pay. He will also be aware that negotiations and discussions are taking place on a new mechanism for setting police pay fairly; more information will no doubt be given to the House on that in due course. He will also know that, because of the importance that the Government place on the police, there has been an increase in police pay of 39 per cent. since 1997, and justly so. That is 9 per cent. above the rate of inflation. Police numbers are also increasing. There is no doubt that the Government place huge value on the work of the police in this country.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I was tempted to say in response to the earlier reply from the Leader of the House that we could have both business questions and panto, which might be more acceptable.

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