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Secondly, I am struck by the variation in petrol prices across the highlands and islands; they vary substantially. I noticed an excellent article in the Stornoway Gazette a couple of weeks ago—I like to keep informed—that drew attention to the fact that the
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price of diesel seems to vary quite a bit depending on which side of the Minch one is on. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar has, I think, raised the matter with the Office of Fair Trading, but the fact that there is such variation, when it is not abundantly clear why that is, is something that perhaps all of us ought to have a look at.

T6. [200856] Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I listened carefully to the exchanges between the shadow Chancellor and the Chancellor. Is it not obvious that the Prime Minister has done a deal to buy off Labour MPs next Monday, and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is in the process of reneging on it? Labour Members will find that they have been conned.

Mr. Darling: Absolute nonsense. The Conservative party ought to continue to reflect on the fact that on this issue, as on so many others, its positions are completely contradictory. The Conservative party has absolutely no coherent strategies for helping people on low incomes, for getting children out of poverty, or for helping older people and people on low incomes who do not have children. We do. We are determined to improve people’s living standards, and that is precisely what we will do.

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Business of the House

11.33 am

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Will the Deputy Leader of the House give the forthcoming business?

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): The business for the week commencing 28 April will be:

Monday 28 April—Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Tuesday 29 April—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Wednesday 30 April—Remaining stages of the Energy Bill.

Thursday 1 May—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on child poverty in Scotland.

Friday 2 May—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 5 May will include:

Monday 5 May—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 6 May—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.

Wednesday 7 May—Opposition Day [11th allotted day][First part]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced. After that, the Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed private business for consideration. If necessary, that will be followed by consideration of Lords amendments. The House will not adjourn until the Speaker has signified Royal Assent.

Thursday 8 May—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on defence in the world.

Friday 9 May—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 1 May and 8 May will be:

Thursday 1 May—A debate on the report from the International Development Committee on sanitation and water.

Thursday 8 May—A debate on the report from the Health Committee on the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

Mr. Vara: I express my thanks for that information.

This morning, the Leader of the House issued a written statement on topical debates. Given the importance of those debates, an oral statement would be more appropriate, giving Members an opportunity to question her proposals. This morning the Prime Minister, too, issued a written statement to report on the NATO summit in Bucharest. To date, the Government have come to the House to make an oral statement following such a meeting. Why did we not have an oral statement this time? What is the Prime Minister trying to hide? Yesterday, the Chancellor announced a U-turn on the 10p tax in a letter to the Treasury Committee, instead of making an oral statement to the House. Will the Deputy Leader of the House give Members an assurance that her colleagues will start practising what they preach and treat Parliament with the respect that it deserves?

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Last week, the Home Secretary said that police forces under pressure from migrants settling in their areas would get extra funds, but we now know there is to be no additional money, and that the fund had already been announced by the Home Office in February. We need a statement from the Home Secretary apologising for recycling a statement and for trying to gain cheap political advantage during the local election campaign.

On Tuesday, the Work and Pensions Secretary announced that poverty figures, due to be published in March, but then delayed until early May, have been delayed again until June. Given public concern over rising prices, particularly on food and fuel, that procrastination does little to allay people’s fears. The Secretary of State needs to explain the impact of soaring prices on Britain’s poorest families, and may I suggest that the subject of next week’s topical debate should be the cost of living?

On the subject of the cost of living, Ken Livingstone said that he would not put up tube fares, but it is reported that he has done a secret deal to do just that—another reason why the man is not fit to be Mayor of London. Can we have a debate on honesty in politics?

The Public Accounts Committee has said that the Government were “entirely unrealistic” when they made their original estimate of the cost of the 2012 Olympics. The massive rise in the budget was a result of their ignoring basic considerations such as contingency provision, VAT and security measures. The Minister for the Olympics has some serious explaining to do, and she should make a statement about costly incompetence in her Department.

The Office for National Statistics has announced that it will make house visits to interview nearly half a million people every year and ask a range of personal and intimate questions at an annual cost to the taxpayer of £3.5 million. There will be questions on salaries, 35 questions on contraception, and questions on former sexual partners—a subject on which we know the leader of the Lib Dems is more than happy to respond. Those questions are extraordinarily intrusive—

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Why is the hon. Gentleman raising them, then?

Mr. Vara: I am raising them because of the Government’s incompetence in not allowing questions to be asked in the first place. Those questions are extraordinarily intrusive, and it is widely accepted that such surveys are inaccurate. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government should come to the House and explain this scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money.

Yesterday, on St. George’s day, we read in the papers that England has been wiped off a map of Europe drawn up by Brussels bureaucrats. The map makes no reference to England, or indeed Britain, and has even renamed the English channel the “Channel Sea”. It is all very well the Prime Minister putting up patriotic flags on top of No. 10 Downing street, but he needs to make an urgent statement to tell us what he is doing to protect Britain’s interests in Europe and Britain’s identity.

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So, Mr. Speaker, there you have it. We have a Government who dither, who spend millions on sex surveys while millions of their people worry about the cost of food, and who betray their people by refusing to stand up for them in Europe.

Helen Goodman: Once again, the hon. Gentleman has gone completely over the top. Every week at business questions we have to listen to wild hyperbole. Last time I looked, England was still on the map.

The public will not be taken in by crocodile tears from a party which, while it claims to be concerned about the low paid, opposed the minimum wage, and which, while it claims to be concerned about economic insecurity, produced 3 million unemployed. I shall not delay the House further. Instead, I shall move on to the substantive points that the hon. Gentleman found time to make.

On topical debates, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have instituted a review. We would be pleased to have the views of hon. Members on the way topical debates are going. Members are welcome to come and see the Leader of the House or to write to us.

With reference to the oral statement relating to the European Council—

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): NATO.

Helen Goodman: Oh, it was NATO; I am sorry. I misheard what the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) said.

On the 10p rate, the hon. Gentleman asked why the Chancellor of the Exchequer had written to the Treasury Committee, rather than producing an oral statement. We have had ample opportunity and we will continue to have ample opportunity to discuss the matter. The Prime Minister answered questions yesterday. As the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire knows, the Chancellor was standing at the Dispatch Box about five minutes ago answering questions on the matter. On Monday there will be a debate on clause 3 of the Finance Bill, when all the issues can be fully aired.

The Home Secretary’s announcement about policing was perfectly in accordance with the rules because it related to national, not local, issues. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows if he has read properly the written ministerial statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the delay to the publication of the statistics about households on low incomes is due to a technical difficulty with the statisticians. The decision was taken by officials and had nothing to do with Ministers.

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion for a topical debate for next week. We will accept that alongside all the other suggestions that we receive.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about the candidates for the mayoralty of London. He failed to take account of the fact that Ken Livingstone has been at the forefront of developing public transport in London, unlike the candidate whom the hon. Gentleman supports, who did not even have time to
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make a speech when his own colleagues had given him an opportunity to do so yesterday in a debate on crime in London.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the costings for the Olympic games. He should be aware that the costings were established not in the most recent National Audit Office report, but more than a year ago, in January 2007. The fact that we have a full NAO report and that the PAC has an opportunity to consider it shows that there is adequate parliamentary scrutiny. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the Office for National Statistics has now been set up as an independent body and that it is undertaking those surveys to produce statistics. However, I am sure that the head of statistics will read his remarks in Hansard.

Before I sit down, I should like to pay tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody, who was a regular at business questions. More than that, she was a remarkable woman, a great parliamentarian and a formidable Chair of the Transport Committee. I am sure that the whole House will miss her greatly.

Mr. Speaker: David Winnick.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab) indicated dissent.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the massive concern across the House about the situation in Zimbabwe. There is to be a Westminster Hall debate on the issue next week, but will my hon. Friend make sure that there is also a statement to the House about it next week, so that we get information on a fast-moving situation and so that we can press for measures such as tighter sanctions on Zimbabwe? In that way, we can try to get the regime to release the election results and let Zimbabwe move on to a renewed democracy.

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She has taken a long-standing interest in the affairs of Zimbabwe. The Prime Minister made clear everybody’s total disgust at Mugabe’s treatment of the election results and the importance of standing by a proper democratic outcome that respects the will of the people of Zimbabwe.

As my hon. Friend says, there will be a Westminster Hall debate on Zimbabwe next Tuesday. I do not know whether she is aware that the arms shipment, about which many people were concerned, has been turned away from South Africa. I am sure that the whole House will welcome that news. She may be aware that the European Union has an arms embargo on Zimbabwe. The Government believe that it would be excellent if as many other countries as possible joined that embargo.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): May I associate myself and my colleagues with the tributes made by the hon. Lady—and you, Mr. Speaker, earlier this week—to Gwyneth Dunwoody? She was a formidable, doughty and relentless parliamentarian, and by being so gained huge respect across the House and outside it. She also broke two great records. She was the woman who served for the longest continuous period in Parliament, a record previously held by Barbara Castle, and the woman who served for the longest period overall, a record previously held by Irene Ward. She was
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a phenomenal parliamentary contributor, and we send our condolences through the Deputy Leader of the House to her family and friends and her constituents in Crewe and Nantwich.

Through the Deputy Leader of the House, I should like to thank the Leader of the House for her letter explaining why she is not here today. She is at the funeral of Gloria Taylor, Damilola Taylor’s mother. We send our love and sympathy to the Taylor family, who have suffered two terrible blows in far too short a time.

May I ask the Deputy Leader of the House three questions about business, all of which are about the economy and matters about which we heard the Chancellor and colleagues speaking earlier? First, will the hon. Lady assure me that, on Monday and Tuesday, when we debate the Finance Bill, there will be time to debate adequately the working tax credit? In particular, if the Government are determined to use the credit as the method of giving back to the poor, may we debate how we can change a situation in which under a quarter of those eligible as working couples with no children obtain working tax credit, and under a third of those who earn less than £10,000 obtain it?

There is also the fact that 2 million people get working tax credit repayments that they should not get, and 1 million do not get the ones that they should. It is no good having a reliance on this system if it works so badly for so many people. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House can assure us that on Monday or Tuesday there will be time to debate that issue instead of just saying that that is the mechanism for dealing with the Government’s recent difficulties.

On Wednesday, we have the debate that the Deputy Leader of the House announced on the remaining stages of the Energy Bill. She has heard before the exchanges about giving enough time for Opposition new clauses and amendments. May I ask specifically that we have time to debate why someone who pays their energy bills by direct debit may have fuel bills on average £400 lower than people who have prepayment meters? People who pay by prepayment meter are the poorest and those who pay by direct debit have the most stable incomes, bank accounts and the rest. If we are going to deal with the poor and energy bills we need to be able to help those people, who are clobbered most and can afford least.

One of the effects of the credit crunch appears now to be impacting on housing associations, which have to borrow in the private sector for the house building that they contribute to social housing. The Government have an ambitious target of 3 million extra homes by 2020, and an affordable housing target of approaching 100,000 homes a year by 2010-11. May we soon have a debate about achieving the objective of building the affordable homes that we need in London and across Britain? At the moment, the banks are less willing to lend, the housing associations therefore have less money to spend, and the risk is that the ambitious targets turn to nothing and people have additional housing problems in addition to all the other ones that we know about.

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