Previous Section Index Home Page

11 Dec 2008 : Column 701

In the broader context of all that the Department is seeking to do, as I have announced and others have announced previously, there will be an additional £1.3 billion because of the economic downturn—and that is £1.3 billion that could not be counted on as an absolute if the policies of the right hon. Gentleman’s party were pursued. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made that point yesterday.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): We are indeed experiencing difficult times when even the greatest financial institutions in the land are happy to take Government loans on very acceptable terms. Meanwhile, some of the very poorest people are taking money at the door at annual percentage rates of 100 per cent., or even several thousand per cent. Has the Minister reviewed the operation of the social fund in connection with both the money that is available and the stringent conditions that are applied?

Mr. McNulty: I believe that an informal consultation paper reviewing the operation of the social fund was published yesterday along with the White Paper, but if it was not, it will be published very shortly. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said yesterday, we want it to become much more community-focused and responsive, and, if possible—and eventually, we hope, on a national basis—to have credit unions at its core. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s interest in this topic, and I accept the broad sweep of his perspective on it. I invite him to read the consultation paper and present us with his comments.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s statement. Unfortunately, there have been a series of redundancies in my constituency. When I met a group of people who had been made redundant this week, they reported that the local Jobcentre Plus simply could not cope and they were being referred to telephone numbers. While I welcome the uprating, I wonder what advice the Minister can give people who are finding it difficult to obtain benefits in certain parts of the country.

Mr. McNulty: Obviously I do not know the details of the case, or cases, raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I can say that people who have been redundant and want to claim benefits are finding increasingly that the telephone is the first point of contact enabling them to establish their claims and get the process running, so I would not be so dismissive of telephone numbers.

11 Dec 2008 : Column 702

I made it very clear the other week—on the Jeremy Vine show, no less—that if people did wish to complain about the service that they had received, I genuinely wished to know about it. I do not want to go around saying that this is a world-class service, although I believe that to be the case. It is certainly a far better service than that provided in the early 1980s, when I was unemployed; in those days people had to run around four or five different buildings before they knew for certain whether they could make a claim. What I want to do is provide a service at local level, because that is what is required.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are increasingly using Train to Gain funds and other interventions to work with companies to try to prevent redundancies from occurring in the first place, and, when that cannot be done, to ensure that people know exactly what support they will be offered long before they are faced with the cliff edge of redundancy. For that purpose we need, and are receiving—for which we are grateful—support and intelligence from, for instance, companies, the insolvency administrator—whatever that is—and trade unions on a region-by-region basis. The earlier the intervention, the earlier we can tailor the appropriate response from Jobcentre Plus.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Can the Minister answer the specific question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) about the Department’s decision to reduce the time limit for pensioners to backdate their pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit from 12 to three months? Does he accept that older pensioners are more likely to be affected by the proposed change, and can he explain why a decision was made which will cause endless extra poverty to people who are in difficult circumstances at this time of year?

Mr. McNulty: I am sorry that I failed to deal with that question when it was first asked. The change is part of a wider package to increase take-up and make claiming simpler, and we believe that it will benefit thousands. It is not about saving money, but about targeting people in the most effective way possible. I do not doubt that the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and those of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) are genuine, and I should be happy to pursue the matter with both of them outside the Chamber, but we genuinely believe that this measure is not about saving for the sake of it. As I have said, it is part of a wider package to increase take-up and make the claiming process simpler.

11 Dec 2008 : Column 703

Points of Order

1.6 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you have received any indication that the Prime Minister intends to come to the House to correct the statement that he made on 3 December about the Government’s response to the report on Equitable Life. He was quite specific last week, when he said:

We learnt this morning that the statement would not be made until January, but I and other Members have written to constituents telling them that there would be a statement before Christmas, on the back of what the Prime Minister said.

We have been misled by the Prime Minister’s statement, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will the Prime Minister now come to the House to correct his statement, or ensure that the Chancellor comes to the House before Christmas and makes a statement on Equitable Life as promised?

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and I have raised this matter persistently. If neither the Prime Minister nor the Chancellor feels able to come to the House and respond to the specific question asked by the right hon. Lady, can we at least have an apology and an explanation? We have had neither today. All we have had is an announcement that a statement will not be made by the date by which we were told that one would be made. There may be a good reason for that, although it is difficult to understand how the Prime Minister could be confident last week but cannot be confident this week. However, surely the House and our constituents deserve at least some factual explanation of why a statement made last week has been undermined and contradicted by a ministerial statement made this afternoon.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is not the first occasion on which the Prime Minister has made a statement in the House which he has subsequently failed to correct. I hope you agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in this Chamber the spoken word is of the utmost importance, and carries enormous integrity in the context of the respect from the outside community that we all command as parliamentarians. Will you advise me what can be done to ensure that the Prime Minister himself makes an effort to correct the record and to avoid such misrepresentations? If the Prime Minister does not do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the possibility will arise that other Members on both sides of the political divide will take the view that if the Prime Minister can make a misrepresentation and get away with it, so can they.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I think that hon. Members should choose their words very carefully on this issue. I think that the use of words such as “misrepresentation”—which I ask the hon.
11 Dec 2008 : Column 704
Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) to withdraw—suggests that an hon. Member, whoever he or she may be, knows what he or she is saying to be wrong when he or she says it. We have no evidence that that is the case in this instance. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to withdraw the word that he used.

Mr. Vara: I will withdraw it, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and use the word “inaccurate” instead.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman.

The Leader of the House gave the House further information today about the proposed statement on Equitable Life. If hon. Members wish the Prime Minister formally to correct the statement that he made last week, I suggest that they table parliamentary questions. Let me add that I have no doubt that Ministers have heard the points of order raised today, and I also have no doubt that the Prime Minister will respond if he feels it appropriate.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you might have heard, there is bad news today for our armed forces and defence industry, with delays in major procurement programmes, including our aircraft carriers, the Navy tanker programme and future Army vehicles. There is, therefore, huge uncertainty about jobs at what is a very difficult economic time. When Ministers made previous announcements about these programmes, they were all too happy to do so by oral statement to the House, yet today, when it is bad news, we get a written statement with no opportunity for Members to ask the questions that matter. Have you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, had any requests for an oral statement on these very important and worrying matters? It is in stark contrast to the courage expected of our armed forces that the Ministers who represent them are too afraid to come to the Commons to explain and defend their own incompetence.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At business questions, we witnessed the spectacle of the Leader of the House doing her level best to answer the substance of questions on the statement that was issued in the form of a written statement, but failing dismally to explain to the House why an oral statement was not being made. Can you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, tell us whether there is any reason, from the point of view of Mr. Speaker’s office, as to why that statement could not have been an oral statement?

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think I understand the point that Members are seeking to make. Mr. Speaker has made it very clear that on all important issues on which the House will have a view, statements must be made to this House. Whether they are oral or written statements is entirely a matter for the Department and Ministers concerned. That is not a matter for the Chair, but I repeat that Government Front Benchers will have heard the comments, which are on the record.

Several hon. Members rose

11 Dec 2008 : Column 705

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I will not deal any further with the same point of order.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance. When a Minister comes before the House to deliver an oral statement relating to a piece of procurement and gives the House an opportunity to question them on the announcement, if there is subsequently a delay in, or cancellation of, that procurement is there not a convention that the Minister should return to the House to give another oral statement? Otherwise, is that not unfair?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: . I think we are covering the same ground again.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I shall take more points of order only if they are about entirely separate matters.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The defence training review is the largest private finance initiative in British history, worth £11 billion—indeed, the costs have increased in the last six months to £12 billion. I seek your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because in today’s Financial Times it was announced that Land Securities Trillium, one of the major backers of the defence training review package, has pulled out of the project altogether. This has major implications for the future training of our armed forces not only in the short term, but in the medium to long term. Is it not a disgrace that, yet again, the Government have chosen to leak this information to the Financial Times rather than bring it to the Floor of the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I can only repeat that Mr. Speaker considers it extremely important that all important matters on which this House should have a view should be brought before the House, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will find ways to pursue these matters himself, and the points he has made are on the record.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was listed to have a
11 Dec 2008 : Column 706
question today for the Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Yesterday, however, my question was removed from the Order Paper. It was very similar to Question 1, which was accepted, because it concerned small businesses and banks. I see no logic in why my question was removed, and I ask for your advice and assistance.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The Chair plays no part in how such questions are dealt with.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance on the topic of matters that are deemed relevant to particular debates. At this morning’s business questions, the Leader of the House said that on 15 January there will be a debate on defence personnel, and that it will be in order to raise during that debate matters to do with defence procurement; she said she was sure it would be in order. I remember from previous defence debates, however, that when Members tried to raise detailed questions of procurement in personnel debates, the Chair ruled that they were not in order. I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as to whether what the Leader of the House said this morning was accurate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The scope of the debate is entirely a matter for the Chair on the day of the debate, and I think that that can probably safely be left until then.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance on what we are to make of Secretaries of State who attend the House to make a contribution when on the same day we see in the press leaks of a very significant nature that have to do with vital national interests. Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), is it not a disgrace that such matters should be gleaned from the press without this House having the opportunity to quiz the relevant Minister adequately and fully?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I honestly do not think I can say anything more to the House about that than I have already said.

11 Dec 2008 : Column 707

Debate on the Address

[5th Day]

Debate resumed (Order, 10 December)

Question again proposed,

Health and Education

1.16 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): I beg to move,

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Interestingly, in his speech last Wednesday at the commencement of these debates, the Prime Minister sought to upstage the Queen’s Speech itself. It was not hard to do; we knew the Queen’s Speech would be thin, but it turned out to be skeletal. I do not object to having fewer Bills—

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Hear, hear!

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that.

Legislative hyperactivity and lack of delivery are the story of this Government—I am now waiting for another “Hear, hear” from the hon. Gentleman—but if the Government propose legislation, one would at least expect that it might be original, purposeful and substantive. On health, the Government’s approach is none of those. It is certainly not original.

Next Section Index Home Page