Previous Section Index Home Page

23 Apr 2008 : Column 1299

David Cairns: My hon. Friend is a long-standing advocate and proponent of the coal industry in Scotland, and he is quite right. Let me refer him back to my original answer and remind him that 33 to 35 per cent. of Scotland’s electricity comes from coal-fired power stations, so coal has to play a part in the balanced energy mix. Clean coal technology is being pioneered in Scotland by Doosan Babcock, Clyde Blowers and others, and Scottish companies are also playing their part in the carbon capture and storage competition that is being run at the moment. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that coal has an important part to play in the future.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): The Minister will be aware that the availability of fossil fuels for electricity generation and other purposes is a major concern in Scotland, given the potential shutdown of the Grangemouth refinery. Will the Minister tell us what role the UK Government are playing in seeking a resolution to this matter, and will he update the House on the current position? Can he also offer business and private motorists in Scotland a reassurance that contingency arrangements are in hand to ensure that there will be no threat to fuel supplies, and that the panic buying and stocking up of petrol is therefore completely unwarranted?

David Cairns: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been in regular contact with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform over the past few days, and they have made it clear that by far and away the best solution will be a negotiated solution between the management and the trade unions. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that such talks are under way, and being facilitated by ACAS. I am happy to offer him the reassurance that contingency plans are in place and that there is no need for motorists to buy more fuel than they would normally buy at this time. Of course, all our focus at present has to be on getting a negotiated settlement.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Is the Minister aware that a substantial amount of electricity will be required to manufacture the two new aircraft carriers? Can he tell me—or can he ask a friend—when he expects those orders to be placed?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister can write to the hon. Gentleman about that.


5. Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with the Driving Standards Agency on test facilities for motorcyclists in Scotland. [199794]

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): Neither I nor the Secretary of State has had any recent discussions with the Driving Standards Agency on test facilities for motorcyclists in Scotland.

Mr. Reid: A well intentioned plan to improve training for motorcyclists is backfiring. From September, motorcyclists from Argyll and Bute will have to travel to Glasgow to take their test—a round trip of more than
23 Apr 2008 : Column 1300
200 miles for many. A motorcycle school in Oban has already closed as a result and the same thing is happening elsewhere. Will the Government apply the brakes to those new plans for the test centres, review their locations and build such centres in all parts of the country before the new test regime comes into effect? Closed motorcycle schools are not going to help road safety.

David Cairns: I am aware of the concern about this issue in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and elsewhere—and, indeed, in my own constituency. The question of the siting of the new test centres is obviously an issue for the Driving Standards Agency, not for the Government, but it is important that such things are kept under review. Motorcyclists represent 1 per cent. of road traffic users, but have 19 per cent. of fatalities and accidents, so it is in the interests of motorcyclists themselves that standards are raised. That, as the hon. Gentleman says, is the good intention behind the move, as part of a European directive. I take his point that it is important to keep these issues under review. I, for one, would not want to see closures of the training centres of the type that he mentioned.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): On behalf of the Scottish National party, I wish our friends and neighbours in England a very happy St. George’s day and look forward to England’s independence.

The biggest protest against Driving Standards Agency closures took place recently in Moray where more than 700 bikers protested against the DSA’s plans to close a testing centre. Does the Minister agree that the safety of bikers, learners and those about to take their test has to be paramount?

David Cairns: I am aware of the issue of the Elgin test centre and of the hon. Gentleman’s involvement in the campaign. I saw a photograph of him in the newspaper in motorcycle leathers—at least, I assume they were motorcycle leathers—so I know that he has been part of the campaign. I entirely agree that the safety of motorcyclists has to be the paramount concern, which is, of course, why the new testing regime is being brought in—because motorcyclists are dying on our roads to a hugely disproportionate extent in comparison with their total number. Having said that, I think it important to keep the location of the new test centres under review to ensure that we do not see the closure of the training centres such as has been mentioned, which would clearly not be in anyone’s interest.

Scottish Constitutional Commission

6. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Whether he plans to discuss with the Chancellor of the Exchequer the remit of the Scottish constitutional commission on the fiscal powers of the Scottish Parliament. [199795]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Des Browne): I meet regularly with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to discuss a wide range of issues. The hon. Gentleman will, however, wish to note that the remit of the commission is clear: it will put forward recommendations to improve financial accountability to the Scottish Parliament.

23 Apr 2008 : Column 1301

Mr. Goodwill: The Scottish Executive of course already have the power to introduce road tolls. Does the Secretary of State share my concerns at the threats that have been made to introduce them in a disproportionate way that would threaten the operation of the Faslane nuclear base?

Des Browne: We in government accept our responsibility —our primary responsibility—to ensure the safety and security of this nation, and the strategic deterrent is an important part of securing that. It is our responsibility as the UK Government, and we will not allow anything to interfere with the defence of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): In view of the somewhat imperious decision of the First Minister not to meet me on the issue of the £34 million allocated to disabled children and their families, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Barnett formula is an important issue for discussion, because transparency is clearly of the essence?

Des Browne: We have no plans to review the Barnett formula; indeed, I do not think that any party in this House has any plans to review it. My right hon. Friend is right to desire transparency, and I pay tribute to him for the good work that he has consistently done for disabled people, particularly in securing additional funds from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer for families with disabled children. The people of Scotland are entitled to know what additional resources will be made available to those families as a result of that extra money. The failure of the Scottish Executive to answer my right hon. Friend’s simple questions on these matters will be noted by the people of Scotland, particularly by those families.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Has the Secretary of State discussed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer the exact purpose of his factual paper on the Barnett formula? Given that the formula has been in operation for 30 years, that its details are well known and that the Treasury has not even consulted Lord Barnett about the preparation of the paper, is not the real purpose of the exercise not, as the Prime Minister claims, simply to inform the work of the Scottish constitutional commission, but to serve as the beginning of the review of the Barnett formula for which the Secretary of State for Justice and Labour Back Benchers have been lobbying?

Des Browne: It is nothing of the sort. The purpose of the exercise is exactly as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer described it: to inform the debate. The hon. Gentleman may know exactly what the Barnett formula is, but the ill-informed debate that constantly rages around the place suggests that many people could do with a refresher course on what it actually is and does.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [199804] Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 23 April.

23 Apr 2008 : Column 1302

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Before I list my engagements, let me say that I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending profound condolences to the families and friends of Senior Aircraftman Graham Livingstone and Senior Aircraftman Gary Thompson, who were killed in Afghanistan on Sunday 13 April, and Trooper Robert Pearson, who was killed in Afghanistan on Monday 21 April. We owe them, and all others who have lost their lives, a deep debt of gratitude.

I am also sure that I speak for the whole House when I say how sad we were to learn of the death of Gwyneth Dunwoody. She was a great parliamentarian, and she will be greatly missed from her usual seat in the Chamber. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Mrs. Ellman: While I welcomed the letter from the Chancellor that was published recently, may I ask the Prime Minister to make a specific commitment to introduce, in the current financial year, measures to protect the 5 million people who will be penalised by the abolition of the 10p tax band? Does he agree that such a step would be consistent with the Government’s successful policies in combating poverty, making work pay, and moving people from welfare into work?

The Prime Minister: For over a decade, with the minimum wage and child and pension credits, this Government have done more than any Government for a century to tackle child poverty and help low-income families. However, as we have found, there are better ways of helping low-income families than the 10p rate.

I think I should tell the House that 85 per cent. of the benefits of the 10p rate go to higher-rate and basic-rate taxpayers, and that 11 million people, mainly the lowest-income people in the country, receive no benefit at all from it. That is why we have increased tax credits to tackle poverty. That is why we have increased child tax credits, pension credits and the pension tax allowance in our Budgets. That is why the Chancellor said today in his letter to the Treasury Committee, repeating what he had said yesterday, that for the group that had missed out—those of pensionable age, between 60 and 64, who were benefiting from the 10p rate—we would present proposals, perhaps using the mechanism of the winter allowance, to provide them with additional payments that could be backdated to April this year. And that is why we will present proposals on the working tax credit, which involves issues relating to young people and part-time workers, in time for the pre-Budget report.

We are determined to take action, because we are the party of fairness tackling poverty. I should prefer to be on this side of the House cutting poverty than to have been in the Conservative Government when they were in power trebling poverty.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I think that we should call this session Prime Minister’s U-turns rather than Prime Minister’s questions.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Senior Aircraftman Graham Livingstone and Senior Aircraftman Gary Thompson, who were killed in Afghanistan on
23 Apr 2008 : Column 1303
Sunday 13 April, and to Trooper Robert Pearson, who was killed on Monday. The whole country owes them a great debt of gratitude.

I also associate my party with the Prime Minister’s warm words about Gwyneth Dunwoody. She was the very model of an independent Back Bencher and Select Committee Chairman. She spoke her mind, she had no truck with political correctness, she was courageous in her political beliefs and she— [ Interruption. ] I can remember exactly where she sat. She was never afraid to hold any Government to account if she thought that they were doing the wrong thing. She will be sorely missed on both sides of the House.

The Prime Minister’s emergency announcement about income tax this morning represents a massive loss of authority. This morning, we have had panicked concessions before he came to the House of Commons. We were told that there would be no back-down; we have had a back-down. We were told that he could not rewrite the Budget; he is rewriting the Budget. We were told that there would be no concessions; there are now massive concessions. So will the Prime Minister tell us whether he is making those changes because he thought he would lose the vote next week?

The Prime Minister: We have said for some time that we want to do more to help people on low incomes. His party policy, two years ago, was to abolish the 10p rate. Last year, it was to abstain on the 10p rate. This year it is to keep the 10p rate. They are the “no, don’t know, yes” party: they cannot make up their minds what they want to do. We will be consistent in our desire to tackle child poverty.

Mr. Cameron: Consistent? Does the Prime Minister have any idea what a pathetic figure he cuts today? He is making these changes because he thought he would lose the vote. Or is this like the general election that he cancelled even though he thought he was going to win it? Is he not just taking people for fools once again? Why will he not admit it? He is not making these changes because he thinks they are right. He is not making these changes because he wants to help the people whom he hurt. He is making these changes because he was frightened of losing a vote. Why not admit it? Why not be straight with people?

The Prime Minister: I see the right hon. Gentleman’s new-found enthusiasm for poverty has lasted only a few seconds. Why does he not address the central issue? The central issue is that we are taking more people out of poverty than any previous Government. If we took the advice of the Opposition, we would not have a minimum wage, but 2 million people are better off. If we took his advice, we would not have tax credits, but 6 million people are better off. If we took his advice, there would be £10 billion of tax cuts, depriving the poor of the public services they need. The choice is clear—between a Conservative party that would cut the incomes of the poor and a Labour party that will increase them.

Mr. Cameron: What this is about is weakness, dithering and indecision from the Prime Minister. He talks about the central issue, so let us deal with the central issue. Why did all this begin? This began because as Chancellor
23 Apr 2008 : Column 1304
of the Exchequer he stood there and presented a tax con Budget to try to wrong-foot the Opposition, to try to pose as a tax-cutter and to try to win a few cheap headlines in the newspapers. He did all that on the back of 5.3 million of the poorest people in our country. Will he admit now that that Budget was a gross miscalculation and it was immoral, and will he apologise for the tax con Budget?

The Prime Minister: Everybody now agrees that the 10p rate is not the best way to tackle poverty. The Conservative party agreed with that two years ago. They abstained on the vote a year ago and now they are supporting the 10p rate, and nobody believes their credibility on that matter.

The Leader of the Opposition has said that he wished we had

and abolished

The policy he announced in 2002 was not just cutting the 10p rate but abolishing tax credits and allowances. That is not a party that cares about the poor; that is a party that put more people in poverty.

Mr. Cameron: As ever, the Prime Minister was about to thump 5.3 million of the poorest people in our country and he is scrabbling around with policy documents trying to find some excuses. As ever, there is no apology or admission of guilt, just a U-turn to try to save his skin. Does that climbdown not tell us all we need to know about this Government? It is always about politics, not policy. It is always about calculation, not conviction. It is always about his self-interest, not the national interest. Does the Prime Minister think that his reputation can ever recover?

The Prime Minister: Why does the right hon. Gentleman not address the central issue, which is how we lift people out of low incomes and poverty in this country? Why does he not admit that as a result of our tax credits, which he opposed, 3 million children are in families with incomes of £80 more a week than in 1997? Why does he not admit that 2 million pensioners have incomes of £40 more than in 1997 because of the pension credit? None of that could have been achieved through the 10p rate. It can be achieved only through tax credits, which he opposes.

Why does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that under the Government 1 million pensioners and nearly 1 million children have been taken out of poverty and 3 million more jobs have been created? We are nearer to full employment than at any time in our history. None of that could have happened if we had followed the policies of the Conservative party.

Next Section Index Home Page