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13 May 2008 : Column 1213

Mr. Darling: My announcement today was entirely about income tax. All other matters will be dealt with in the usual way.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Does not the Chancellor admit, even to himself, a twinge of embarrassment that instead of coming here as a great reforming Chancellor, he has produced a shabby deal which is designed to get himself, the Government and his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister out of a fix of his own making? Does he believe for a moment that anyone beyond those on the Benches behind him will not see this announcement for exactly what it is: the most shameless attempt to buy a by-election since the Humber bridge?

Mr. Darling: A few weeks ago, the hon. Gentleman was, I assume, ready to follow the rest of the Conservatives into the Lobby, wanting us to take action to help people on low and middle incomes. We are taking action to help people on low and middle incomes, and it is clear that the Conservatives have no idea how to provide that help or about their position on this issue.

Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share my astonishment at the Conservative party’s new-found, synthetic concern for poor people? Will he remind the House that, during the last recession, the Conservative crunch left millions of people on the dole, more than 10 million senior citizens without any help with their fuel costs, people with negative equity and record numbers of repossessions?

Mr. Darling: I agree. Many people in this country remember what happened in the 1980s and 1990s, when people lost their jobs and received no help from the Government to help them get back on their feet. They also remember a time when interest rates were in double figures and people found themselves in substantial difficulties. They received no help because the then Government’s position was so weak that they could do nothing to help them.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Will the Chancellor make it clear, since he knows the answer to this question, whether it is his understanding that the people who will continue to lose out through the abolition of the 10p rate are those at the bottom of the income scale—in other words, the Government’s very own poverty line?

Mr. Darling: No. I said in an earlier reply that we have been able to help 80 per cent. people whose loss will be fully compensated or even more than that. There are about a million people whose losses will be halved. I said that I wanted to revert to that in the pre-Budget report. As a result of the announcement, 600,000 people will be taken out of tax. That shows our intention, which is a little more than the Conservative party would do if it were presented with the opportunity to do anything about helping people on low incomes.

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Points of Order

4.19 pm

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the Chancellor’s statement, the Opposition Chief Whip could be clearly heard shouting from a sedentary position, “Get back to Scotland.” Given that this is a UK Parliament, is that kind of language and behaviour acceptable? It is clearly inconsistent with the Conservative party’s unholy pact with the nationalists.

Mr. Speaker: It was a sedentary intervention and, take it from me, being invited to go to Scotland is a nice thing.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that the Labour party was putting literature around in Crewe and Nantwich this morning with the very figures that were announced to the House only a few minutes ago. Would you please investigate this matter to ensure that it does not breach electoral law or the primacy of the House?

Mr. Speaker: Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that my deep concern was about the statement not being given in this Chamber—I know that it was in the Vote Office, but it was not in the Chamber—so allow me to concentrate on that. The matters about Crewe and Nantwich I do not want to be drawn into.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do you take on board the concern among Conservative Members that the statement was not presented to those on our Front Bench before it was made, on the grounds of market sensitivity? It would appear that the only market that the Government were concerned about was the electorate market in Crewe and Nantwich.

Mr. Speaker: Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that that is a matter for the Government to judge— [ Interruption. ] Order. What concerned me was that the Press Gallery had the information before the House. No disrespect to the Press Gallery, but my priority is the Members of the House. If the Government had not put the statement out to anyone, that would have been a matter for the Government.

13 May 2008 : Column 1215

Armed Forces (Federation)

4.21 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I beg to move,

I am pleased to be able to introduce this Bill. Many hon. Members will remember that I tabled a similar Bill in the last Parliament. However, there has been a groundswell of opinion among the public and members of the armed forces on the need for an independent voice to represent their interests.

The controversies surrounding the standard of accommodation, injured personnel and the terrible incidents at Deepcut barracks have increasingly led to ordinary members of the armed forces coming forward to say that they need an organisation to make their voice heard. There is also a growing need for members of the armed forces to have independent legal advice. I served on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, where I moved an amendment to establish a federation for the armed forces. The Government resisted my amendment, but I strongly believe that there is now an overwhelming case for the armed forces to have an independent federation.

I should point out to those who oppose the move that I propose not a trade union, but a federation similar to the Police Federation. I would also like to build on the excellent work done by the British Armed Forces Federation. That organisation was established in October 2006. I pay tribute to Douglas Young and his team at the federation, who have got that vital initiative off the ground. The Bill does not seek to put in place a federation, but to put the federation that already exists on a formal footing that is recognised by the Ministry of Defence.

The aims of the federation would continue to be those set out in its statement, which are

The activities of the federation would be: first, to put forward professional and career development through the provision of education and information to its members; secondly, to liaise and monitor developments within the armed forces and Parliament, and in the provision of public services or in the commercial sector affecting members of Her Majesty’s armed forces; and thirdly, to act as an advocate for members of the armed forces in areas such as pay, accommodation, medical services, welfare provision, resettlement and all other areas relating to personnel support. Fourthly, the federation would be seen as a way of supporting personnel who were facing legal action and other issues connected with their service in the armed forces. Lastly, I would also argue that it should be an organisation that could put in place a range of benefits, including insurance, financial benefits, discounts and other affinity deals for members of the armed forces.

The federation would not be beholden to any political party or pressure group, or to any defence industry interests. It is important that it should be seen to be an
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independent federation representing members of our armed forces. It would not routinely comment on the adequacy, robustness or cost-effectiveness of defence expenditure, although it would obviously have to comment on issues that directly affected its members. It would certainly not be a defence pressure group, however. It would be seen as an organisation that gave a voice to the men and women who serve on our behalf in Her Majesty’s armed forces.

There is a contention that the federation would in some way control or interfere with the chain of command. I want to make it quite clear that it would not conduct or condone any form of industrial action or insubordination in our armed forces. Its role in relation to the chain of command should be subject to a code of conduct. That is not new; the chain of command already accepts information from and the involvement of organisations such as Daniel’s Trust, which deals with Army training and the interests of new recruits at Catterick. I would therefore argue that the organisation would enhance rather than interfere with the chain of command. The federation would protect individual members in relation to their living conditions and general well-being, as well as reinforcing the point that members of the armed forces are an important part of society and promoting the good work that they do.

It has been suggested that this proposal is somehow radical and new, and that we would be out of step with our major allies if we were to adopt it. I have looked at some of the overseas examples, including the Association of the United States Army, which works in three main areas. It provides a voice for all members of the US army, fosters public support for the army’s role in national security and provides professional, educational and information programmes. There are three other such organisations in the United States alone. One is the Non-Commissioned Officers Association, which was set up in 1966. The Military Officers’ Association of America does similar work for commissioned officers, and the oldest organisation, the Reserve Officers Association, was set up by General Pershing in 1922 to advocate and lobby for the interests of national guards and reservists. There are also a number of European examples of similar federations, which come together under the umbrella of the European Organisation of Military Organisations—EUROMIL—which was set up in 1972. It now comprises 36 associations from 24 countries across Europe, representing nearly 500,000 individuals. The latest additions are Malta and Romania.

In conclusion, the Bill will not set up an armed forces federation; there is already one in existence. It will, however, allow the British Armed Forces Federation to be recognised by the MOD and to be valued for providing a voice for ordinary members of the armed forces. The BAFF has already stated that, if the legislation were introduced, it would seek to work with the Government and other stakeholders to develop an appropriate structure. The Bill gives the Government an opportunity to recognise that, in an ever-changing world, the members of our armed forces need a voice. I urge the Government to take on board the provisions that I am proposing today.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Kevan Jones, Mr. David Crausby, Mr. Mike Hancock, Mr. Dai Havard, Helen Jones, Jim Sheridan, David Wright and Andrew Mackinlay.

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Armed forces (federation)

Mr. Kevan Jones accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the establishment of a Federation for the Armed Forces; and for connected purposes; and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 June, and to be printed [Bill 108].

13 May 2008 : Column 1218

Education and Skills Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

4.30 pm

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I beg to move,

Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings

    New Clauses other than those relating to Part 1 or to duties of local education authorities in relation to the provision of education and training

    Three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order

    New Clauses, and amendments to Clauses, relating to the application of Part 1 to persons in Wales

    Four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order

    Remaining proceedings on consideration

    One hour before the moment of interruption

We have limited time for debate, so I hope that we will not have to put this to a vote.

4.30 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Before it was announced that there was to be a statement today, we were relatively happy with the programme motion. We were, however, uncomfortable with the fact that the Government were shoehorning into the Bill at this late stage 16 new sections on admissions with 27 regulation-making powers that had not been debated in Committee. Some of those sections relate to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, but some are new and propose significant powers for the Secretary of State. As a constructive Opposition, we nevertheless did our best to accept the timetable despite the 150 amendments and 23 new clauses, but that was on the assumption that that tight timetable would not be squeezed by a statement.

Given that this is meant to be a flagship Bill for the Government, it is surprising that they are content to squeeze time on such important amending provisions, particularly new clause 6, which is designed to provide support for vulnerable young people and has the backing of both Barnado’s and Rainer. What is more, it is being squeezed by a statement made today for essentially party reasons, which could easily have been made on another day when the business was much lighter.

Even now, we would support a change to the programme motion to calculate the time from the commencement of proceedings on this motion, which would give us back the full five and a half hours of debate. If the Government will not make that change, I urge hon. Members to vote against the programme motion.

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4.32 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I do not want to delay proceedings either, but I want to support the comments of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). The time allotted is totally inappropriate for a Bill of such importance, especially when we are unlikely to have time to debate almost 110 amendments and new clauses set down for consideration in a portion of today’s proceedings and given that, in our earlier proceedings, we did not have the opportunity to debate certain issues, particularly those relating to new clauses 6 and 9. It is wholly inappropriate to shoehorn the business in this way, thus preventing us from debating issues that were not properly covered in earlier stages. The programme motion makes it impossible for us to do justice to the scrutiny required for this Bill and the amendments and new clauses before us. Unless the Government are willing to make the sort of concessions requested, I am afraid that we will also have to oppose the programme motion.

4.32 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I, too, urge hon. Members to oppose the programme motion. Mr. Speaker has been exceedingly generous in his selection of amendments, but the programme motion will not allow us to reach many of the amendments far down the line that need to be discussed. Because of the statement, a maximum of half an hour or, if there is a vote after the second group of amendments, perhaps only a quarter of an hour would be left available to discuss a raft of amendments.

I have tabled two of the amending provisions: new clause 16 and new clause 23. New clause 16 deals with an issue that the Secretary of State kindly got involved with earlier in our proceedings when a constituent of mine, who was an orphan, was expected to leave school because she could not afford to stay on. My new clause would do something to tackle that. We have amendments that are designed to address the problems that Kirsty Oldfield faces, but we do not have time to vote on them or even to debate them. How must this House look to constituents of mine such as Kirsty? It looks like a complete and utter shambles, and that brings it into disrepute.

Given that the statement has eaten into the time available—I certainly do not want to waste any more time discussing the programme motion—and that there are important matters to be debated, to which hon. Members have tabled amendments which deserve to be given time for consideration, it is beholden on the Government to reflect on what is in them that will not get debated unless we change the motion. If they will not listen, are intent on being dogmatic, and will not change it, I urge hon. Members to oppose the motion.

4.35 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I am very pleased that some important amendments on admissions have been tabled by the Government, even at a late stage. I remind the House that many of them are based on recommendations of the all-party Select Committee on Education and Skills, to which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) was party two years ago. Some very good amendments have been tabled. I hope that the House will be a little
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more positive than it otherwise might be, especially as no one is sitting on the Liberal Democrat Back Benches, and only three people are sitting behind the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen.

4.36 pm

Jim Knight: There is other business beyond this. I hope that we do not waste 15 minutes on a vote and that we can get on with it.

Question put:—

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