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26 Mar 2009 : Column 447

My decision to cut the rate of VAT, which puts about £12.5 billion into the economy, will have an effect. It is not just there for one month, and it was not just there for Christmas. It is there for a 13-month period, and it has to be seen alongside a range of other measures: reducing tax for basic rate taxpayers, help for families and pensioners, and measures to bring forward construction. The difference between the hon. Gentleman and me is that I believe that Government have a duty to help the economy—and should do so—through times such as this, and he does not think so. The country will judge, but the lesson from the ’80s and ’90s is that if you do nothing, you will pay a heavy price.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Can I ask the Treasury what is being done to encourage the Financial Services Compensation Scheme to redress the imbalance in contributions from the banks, at 5 per cent., and from the building societies, at 15 per cent.?

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Yvette Cooper): My hon. Friend has raised that issue with me, and I am due to meet her to take forward her concerns.

T7. [266554] Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Chancellor of the Exchequer said in an earlier answer that he thought that the monetary policy being pursued would lower the cost of credit in the economy, but can I draw his attention to the fact that if, for example, someone wants to buy a motor vehicle, they will pay between 7 and 9 per cent. interest, while credit card rates are between 18 and 20 per cent. and mortgage rates, if one is lucky, are about 4 per cent.? When will the effect of the lower base rate reach the consumer in a way that will help to kick-start the economy?

Mr. Darling: The right hon. Gentleman should know, as he was a Treasury Minister during the last recession, that there is a difference between the Bank of England’s base rate, what is charged for lending and what banks offer savers. Some banks are trying to offer a higher rate to savers, which in turn has to be paid for by a higher rate for borrowers. In general, low interest rates benefit people, such as those on tracker mortgages and so on, and many are seeing the benefit of lower rates. However, as I said earlier, the key is to ensure that we have sufficient credit, and credit at a price that helps the economy, which is what our measures are geared to do.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): The Government are helping small companies in the area of taxation by making it easier for them to have a credit arrangement for tax payments. Could my right hon. Friend consider extending that assistance into the area of the status of certain companies, such as gross payment status? A company in my constituency is about to lose
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that status, which will put a considerable financial burden on them in the credit crunch.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the effectiveness of the time-to-pay arrangements that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has put in place. With agreements reached very quickly, £1.7 billion of tax has been deferred so far, and a large number of businesses have been able to continue when they otherwise might not have done. I would be happy to talk to him about the issue in his constituency, and look at the idea that he suggested.

Mr. Speaker: I call Andrew Selous.

T6. [266553] Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I thought that I might have been too short to be noticed. The Chancellor is responsible for ensuring value for money in public services, so what lessons does he intend to learn from the £1.4 million that has been “completely wasted”, in the words of the principal of Dunstable college, on a new build project that was encouraged by the Learning and Skills Council over many years? That money could have been spent on students, and FE colleges up and down the country are in exactly the same position.

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there have been problems with the Learning and Skills Council and the decisions that it has taken at regional and national level. That is why the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills has asked for a detailed inquiry and has been taking action, and why he is looking at areas that have been put in the position of having to consider their local colleges. The hon. Gentleman will know also that we have substantially increased investment in FE colleges from a baseline of zero—there was previously no money allocated for such additional capital expenditure. We are very clear that we need to keep investing in new facilities for FE, and I will certainly pass on his concerns about that college to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

T9. [266557] Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Do the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have full confidence in the Governor?

Mr. Darling: I have made it clear on a number of occasions this morning that the difference is not between me or the Prime Minister and the Governor. The difference is between those of us who do and those of us who do not believe that we should be supporting our economy, jobs and increasing credit to businesses and individuals. The difference is that we are taking action; the Conservatives would do absolutely nothing.

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Business of the House

11.35 am

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): May I invite the Leader of the House to give us the future business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 30 March—A general debate on Africa.

Tuesday 31 March—A general debate on the economy.

Wednesday 1 April—Second Reading of the Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [ Lords], followed by a motion relating to the Non-domestic Rating (Collection and Enforcement) (Local Lists) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2009.

Thursday 2 April—Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week commencing 20 April will include:

Monday 20 April—A general debate on defence procurement.

Tuesday 21 April—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Industry and Exports (Financial Support) Bill, followed by:

The Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed private business for consideration.

Wednesday 22 April— My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

Thursday 23 April—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by continuation of the Budget debate.

Friday 24 April—Private Members’ Bills.

Alan Duncan: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I thank her also for her thorough answer to my question last week about NHS trusts replying to Members’ letters. It is encouraging that we can sometimes work together constructively on issues that affect all hon. Members and, more importantly, our constituents.

May I, however, protest that convention has been discarded by the Government’s somewhat offensive decision to stick a topical debate in ahead of the second day of the Budget debate, which is traditionally opened by the shadow Chancellor? Will the right hon. and learned Lady undertake to reverse that unacceptable decision?

The draft National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Housing) Order 2009, which would affect the right to buy in Wales, was laid before the House on 3 February and was down for scrutiny on Monday 23 March. That scrutiny did not take place. I would like to ask the Leader of the House why not and when the order will come to Committee. Even better, will she allow it to be taken on the Floor of the House?

Yesterday, the Government promised that there would be an announcement on the inquiry into the Iraq war on 31 July, a full 10 days after the start of the summer recess. Quite simply, that is not acceptable. Will the right hon. and learned Lady undertake to give us a statement on the remit and intent of that inquiry before we rise for the summer?

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Once again, I stand here to request an urgent debate on Equitable Life. On Monday, the parliamentary ombudsman launched an excoriating attack on the Government’s contemptuous treatment of her recommendations, and today in Treasury questions, the Economic Secretary compounded that by treating policyholders and this House with utter contempt. Because the Government’s response has been, as the ombudsman put it, a betrayal of justice, and they have ignored her recommendations, she has decided for the first time ever to invoke powers to produce a follow-up report. When will we have such a debate, and when will the people affected be compensated?

Citizens advice bureaux are performing an invaluable service for the millions of people who are suffering grave financial difficulties in the recession, and we should do everything we can to support them. Instead, the Government’s new network of community legal advice centres is squeezing out CABs and forcing them to make damaging cuts at exactly the wrong time. May we have an urgent debate on the Government’s decision to tender legal services in that way, so that the House can put a stop to the callous destruction of CABs?

May we have a debate on the work ethic of Members of Parliament? Last week, we heard complaints from the Labour Chief Whip that at least 5 per cent. of his own MPs were completely idle. [Hon. Members: “Where are they?”] Well, exactly. Today, the Government have lost three votes in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill Committee, because Labour MPs, including a Minister, did not even bother to turn up. In the interests of value for money, which the public expect, may I invite the Leader of the House—I hear calls for this from behind me—to list the 5 per cent. by name?

When it comes to performance, perhaps the right hon. and learned Lady will agree to be more forthcoming than she was at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. She refused to answer three questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on what the Government thought about the Governor of the Bank of England’s warning about a second fiscal stimulus. It has now become apparent that the Government’s entire economic argument has collapsed, to the extent that The Independent has today called the Prime Minister, “A haunted Prime Minister, marooned on his fantasy island”. In a further fantasy, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has told the New Statesman that he wants to be Chancellor and Labour leader.

May we at least hope that the Prime Minister and Lord Mandelson can make the most of their visit to Brazil? [Interruption.] It is not where the nuts come from that matters: it is the nuts we send there who worry me. It could, after all, be the right hon. and learned Lady’s “Evita” moment.

There is one little ray of sunshine. At last, one Minister has begun to take our advice and started making an apology. We are told that the right hon. and learned Lady got into a bit of a mess about whether the actor who plays Tony Blair, or Tony Blair himself, is the better looking. We have heard the words of her apology, “Tony, you are still the fairest of them all.” One can but imagine his reply, “You know, I was a marvellous Prime Minister, but I got out in the nick of time.”

Ms Harman: The shadow Leader of the House has complained that we have scheduled a topical debate for Thursday 23 April, when otherwise there would be
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continuation of the Budget debate. I am happy to accept his protests. That business was only provisional, so I will amend the business and make sure that there is a full day’s debate on the Budget opened by the Opposition, who choose the topic.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the draft National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Housing) Order 2009. We will make sure that it is properly scrutinised. The process is new, and we need to get it right.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Iraq inquiry. There was a debate about that, and I have nothing further to add in business questions. Nor do I have anything further to add to what Treasury Ministers said about Equitable Life.

I will raise with the Justice Secretary the hon. Gentleman’s questions about citizens advice bureaux. The Government have strongly supported their work, which is even more important to help people who find themselves in difficulties because of the downturn.

The hon. Gentleman said that our economic argument had collapsed. Well, that is not the way everyone sees it. The former Tory leader of Thurrock council, Councillor Terry Hipsey, expressed a rather different view when he said:

He went on to say that because of the excellent work of the local Labour Members of Parliament, my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), and because of the work of the Prime Minister, he had decided to join the Labour party. We welcome him.

The hon. Gentleman raised the subject of the work ethic. I think that his point about value for money was very important. It is the case that 60 per cent. of Conservative Members have second jobs. That is why I think that the public will greatly welcome the fact that the Prime Minister—

Hon. Members: Behind you! Where are they?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The point is that we are here, and we must listen to the Leader of the House.

Ms Harman: Sixty per cent. of Conservative Members have second jobs, and I do not think that that is value for public money.

The hon. Gentleman raised questions about what he described as manoeuvring. He mentioned a number of Cabinet Ministers, but I think that the manoeuvring on which he ought to be focusing is that of the shadow shadow Chancellor against the Leader of the Opposition. I think that it is a case of Hush Puppies on the Leader of the Opposition’s lawn.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned my unfortunate gaffe in relation to Michael Sheen. Let me say that I think that he is an excellent actor, who is clearly capable of covering a diverse range of roles. He brilliantly
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played a socialist, Brian Clough. He also played the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He is a great credit to his native country, Wales.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): One of the many tasks that take up the time of Members of Parliament is handling constituents’ worries about the way in which their benefits and tax credits are processed, and generally dealing with Government bureaucracy. May I urge the Leader of the House to call a debate on the Department for Work and Pensions report, published today, on how jobcentres and other organisations deal with customer complaints?

Ms Harman: I think that the Public Accounts Committee report—I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to it—reflects a big improvement in jobcentres and the way in which those claiming benefits are dealt with. Obviously the Government will reflect on the report, but it should also be pointed out that, against a background of increased work for jobcentre staff, they are providing a much better service. I pay tribute to them for that.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I previously welcomed the two days allotted to the Report stage of the Coroners and Justice Bill, but last week’s timetabling was a disgrace. None of the clauses relating to the reform of the coronial system were reached; nor, indeed, were the clauses relating to the law of homicide. The Government literally got away with murder.

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to another problem? It relates to the Committee considering the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan). Setting aside the Government’s difficulty that only six of their 12 MPs on the Committee bothered to turn up—I would love to have heard the conversation between the Deputy Chief Whip, the hapless hon. Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) and the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon)—126 clauses and 20 new clauses remain to be considered by a Committee that has only three sittings left. Some clauses may not be considered either in Committee or on Report.

I have a revolutionary suggestion for the Leader of the House. We should do something that is normal in another place and that used to be normal in this place: we should not have a restrictive timetable, and we should let this House scrutinise the Bill properly and fully. If there are difficulties later, the Government can react to them, and if there is a need to shorten speeches, no doubt you can intervene, Mr. Speaker, but the House should have its say on that important Bill, which would be welcomed by all.

Most Members are aware of the difficulties caused by endemic AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in much of the developing world. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has been set up to deal with those issues. May we have a debate on the workings of the fund? The UK has a relatively good story to tell—quite properly, we have taken the lead—but there is still a shortfall between the fair share of the British contribution and what is actually being received by the fund, which is desperately short of cash. May we in this House consider how we can better help people suffering from those awful diseases in other parts of the world?

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