Des Browne: Not at all. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman does not fully understand where the strengths of the scheme lie. He also probably does not understand his partys policy on identity cards, given that 80 per cent. of the scheme and its costs relate to e-passports, which are supported by his party. The scheme and its integrity depend on being able to build a database that links biometrics to the individual persons identity so that it can be protected. Whether any service, devolved or otherwise, chooses to use that opportunity to check the identity of those people who access the service will in no way undermine the scheme.
Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): The Government have constantly said that the ID card scheme would help to protect Scotland from the threat of terrorism. The Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921 will mean that Irish citizens will not be required to have an ID card, and the Governments legislation will mean that foreigners who stay for three months or less in Scotland will not have to have one either. Do not these foreign exemptions, plus the opposition of the Scottish Government, mean that the ID card scheme in Scotland is a colossal waste of money and an unnecessary threat to civil liberties?
Des Browne: It is nothing of the sort. The hon. Gentleman has asked me questions at the Dispatch Box about the ID card scheme before. On the last occasion, it was manifest that he did not understand his partys policy of support for 80 per cent. of the scheme. The scheme underpins e-passports, and 80 per cent. of the cost and administration of the scheme is required for the e-passport scheme that his party supports.
Let me deal with the issue of whether the existence of a national identity scheme helps us to tackle terrorism. Of course it will, for the following reason: 67 terrorists have been convicted in the UK courts in the past 18 months, and it is almost certain that 90 per cent. of them had multiple identities. Anything that helps those whom we charge with stopping those people carrying out their evil tasks in this society will be useful. That is not only my view; it is that of those we send to police such matters, who say that the single most important thing we can do to protect ourselves against terrorism is to introduce an identity scheme.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The Scottish Parliament has quite rightly decided that it wants nothing to do with the scheme, yet Scottish residents will still have to pay for identity cards and for the running of the national identity register through their taxes. Will the Government not accept that this is just an expensive waste of money that would be better spent on employing more police?
There is a fundamental misunderstanding about this scheme, it would appear, across the Opposition Benches. I know what the hon. Gentlemans partys position is, but I ask him rhetorically whether he supports the e-passport system. If he supports his partys policy, he will. The national identity scheme is necessary to underpin and support that e-passport system. Any UK citizen who wants to travel in the 21st century will require an e-passport. We will require a database that connects biometrics to those citizens identities. To extend that for the comparatively small number of
people who will not have passports so that they can take advantage of the opportunity seems positive to me. That is what the people of Scotland think, and it is what the vast majority of people in the UK think. The hon. Gentleman and his party had better get connected to the opportunity.
Mr. Joyce: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Does he share my concern that the Scottish National party Administrations plans for a local income tax in Scotland appear to bring 55,000 students within the ambit of local income tax for the first time?
Des Browne: Another flaw in the SNP local income tax policy is uncovered daily, and this particular one relates to the policys alleged fairness. An answer to a question in the Scottish Parliament revealed that 55,000 students would be brought into paying local income tax. Of course, all those students are exempt from paying council tax. I have a series of quotations from student leaders indicating how unfair the policy would be, but I think that we all know how unfair it would be. It is bad enough that we did not know that it would affect those students, but we do not know how the money would be collected, and those are only two of several major flaws in the plans for local income tax.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): On local taxation in Scotland, the Secretary of State will know that the UK Government confirmed in 1997 that council tax benefit would form part of the Scottish block. That was repeated in the funding statement published by the Government in October 2007. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that if the Scottish Government proceed with changing the nature of local taxation in Scotland, this Secretary of State will hold fast against the Treasury and ensure that the UK Labour Government do not denude Scotland of the £400 million that it gets to offset local taxation in Scotland?
Des Browne: To all but a very small minority of people, it appears quite clear that if there is no council tax, there is no need for any council tax benefit. The SNPs fundamental problem with the policythere are many other problemsis that it promised the people of Scotland that it would unveil a tax system that would be fair, but it has unveiled a tax system with a number of manifest unfairnesses, and it is seeking to cover them up by trying to access a benefit that relates to the taxation system that it said was unfair and that it wanted to remove. That does not make any sense.
Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) about the effect on students in Scotland. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State next meets the First Minister, will he get clarification of whether the policy will affect English students studying in Scotland or Scottish students studying in England?
Des Browne: I will of course seek to clarify that issue for my hon. Friend. The fundamental problem faced by the SNP with its proposal for a local income taxit would certainly not be local, of course, having been fixed centrallyis that we have revealed this week the flaw that it will affect 55,000 students. The SNP must explain why that manifest unfairness will be imposed on students, whom it was elected to help support.
David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): The Treasury, no doubt in consultation with the Justice Secretary, has said, along with several legal experts, that a tax that is set and collected on a Scotland-wide basis would not be sufficiently local to remain within the powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Does the Secretary of State thus intend to make a formal legal assessment of the competence of the Scottish Governments proposals, or does he propose to leave it to aggrieved taxpayers to test them in the courts?
Des Browne: I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows that we have not yet seen the legislative proposals. I am not surprised that the SNP Executive are having such difficulty in drafting and revealing them because another problem becomes apparent every week and every day. When we eventually see the proposals, there will of course be an assessment, as is the case with all legislation, to ensure that they are compatible with the devolution settlement.
It is inevitable that the matter would end up in the courts; it is unavoidable...The question of legality will cast a long shadow over the proposal until it is settled one way or another.
Des Browne: Of course I have responsibilities in relation to the devolution settlement; they are set out in law, and I intend to fulfil them. In my experience of practising law, it is always unwise for a person to anticipate what they will be asked to express a legal opinion on, and if one asks five lawyers for a legal opinion, one gets six different opinions. In my position as Secretary of State for Scotland, with those responsibilities, it seems wise to wait to see the legislative proposals. I have, in the Advocate-General, access to one of the leading lawyers in Scotland. I rely on his advice regularly. He will give me advice, and if it is necessary for me to act on it, I will do so.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Marine Dale Gostick, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday 25 May. We owe him, and all those who have given their life in the service of our country, a huge debt of gratitude.
Mr. Kidney: On behalf of myself and other Back Benchers, may I add my condolences to the family and friends of Marine Dale Gostick, who was killed in an explosion in Afghanistan? Our thoughts are also with his two comrades who were seriously injured in that explosion.
The tragic killings from stabbings are causing concern everywhere in the country, though I stress that they are not happening everywhere. Will my right hon. Friend accept that, alongside tough laws on possession and use, it is important to take action with families, schools and communities to tackle a culture that allows some people to think that it is acceptable to carry a weapon?
The Prime Minister: I, too, send my condolences to the families of those who have suffered as a result of knives and violent crimes in recent weeks. Every parent will want their teenage sons and daughters not only to be safe, but to feel safe in our neighbourhoods. That is why knives are unacceptable, and we have to do everything in our power to deter their use. That is why the average sentence for carrying a knife is rising, and that is why there are three times as many people in prison for the possession of knives. That is why we are using the powers of stop and search. In London, in Operation Blunt 2, some 4,000 people were stopped and 200 arrested. That is why wands, arches and metal detectors are being used. That is why we need visible policing to back up our safer school policy, support for parents in their communities, and the education programme that we are carrying out.
The whole House will agree on the presumption that we prosecute, on which the Association of Chief Police Officers will lay down its proposals in the next few days. It is right, when we see young teenagers below the age of 18 carrying knives, that the presumption that we prosecute should now extend to 16-year-olds as well; that is what the Government propose.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Marine Dale Gostick, who was killed in Helmand province on 25 May. He died serving our country and we should honour his memory.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer is today in front of the Select Committee on the Treasury. The next tax hike planned by the Government is to hit family cars, including those bought seven years ago, with massive increases in vehicle excise duty. Is the Prime Minister really going to go ahead with this deeply unpopular tax when families are struggling with the cost of living, or can he give us another of his trademark U-turns?
We recommend...changes in VED, aimed primarily at influencing the used car market where annual running costs comprise a larger proportion of total costs.
Mr. Cameron: When is the Prime Minister going to learn that new green taxes should be offset, one by one, by cuts in family taxes? The Prime Minister says that we should look at the detail; let me take him up on that, because he spews out statistics that, in any other walk of life, would result in trading standards officers coming in and clamping him in irons. He says that next year, half of all motorists will be better off or no worse off; that is what he has just said. The full effect of the tax rise is not planned to take effect until 2010, and the Treasury has said that under this regime, 81 per cent. of cars will be worse offonce again, dodgy statistics from the Prime Minister.
Let us start when the tax was first announced. Can the Prime Minister tell us why the Chancellor, in his Budget speech, made no mention of the fact that the tax would hit people who had bought a car up to seven years ago? Why no mention?
The Prime Minister: It was in the Budget documents. Twenty-four of the 30 top models, which are the most popular models, will have the same or lower tax as a result of it. The right hon. Gentleman says that he supports green taxes. He also said a few days ago that
there will be tough choices to make for the environment and I wont shy away from them for one moment.
Mr. Cameron: If a company director got up and read out a statement like that, the authorities would be after him. The Prime Minister says, Lets concentrate on the detail. Let me take one of the things that he has just said. He said that 24 out of the 30 car models will not be affected. That is what he just said. What he is doing when he uses that figure of 24 is treating the Ford Focus, for example, as one model. In fact, there are 40 models of the Ford Focus. There is the saloon, the estate, the green car [Interruption.]
Mr. Cameron: I know the Prime Minister thinks that one fills up a car with a barrel of oil, but I am speaking about the cars that people buy with their money. There are 40 models of the Ford Focus [Interruption.] I do not know why Labour Members are all shouting at me. It is the Prime Minister who has given them the lowest poll rating since Michael Foot.
The Prime Minister: As a result of the measures that are being taken to deal with polluting cars, a third more cars in this country are low polluting and a quarter are less polluting, so we are making advances in encouraging people to buy the less polluting cars. The right hon. Gentleman says that he supports green taxes. Steve Norris, who was on his quality of life review, says we should return to the fuel duty escalator. When will the Conservative party be honest? When Conservative Members say that they support green taxes and then run away from every one of them, is it not like the Leader of the Opposition when he cycles to work, with his car following? He is sounding more and more like a used car salesman today.
Mr. Cameron: It is not my Back Benchers who are telling me to get on my bike. It would do the Prime Minister good to get out a bit. The tax is not a green tax; it is a stealth tax. The former Transport Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman)I do not know whether he is on the Prime Ministers cold calling listsaid:
A green tax that you cannot avoid by changing your behaviour is not a green tax, its just a tax.
The Prime Minister: Now the right hon. Gentleman says that there can be green taxes, but he excludes any tax on a car from being a green tax. Does he not know that the reforms will save 1.3 million [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister: I was pointing out to the House that we expect the reforms to save 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 and to increase by 650 per cent. the number of clean cars that pay little or no vehicle excise duty because they are the least polluting cars. So we are making a change in the way we use energy for the environment. The Leader of the Opposition says that he wants significant incentives to encourage the ownership of vehicles. Why will he not support the measures that are before us?
Its the kind of measure that gives green taxes a bad name because it does not change behaviour.