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Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Following the Attorney-General’s decision to refer the allegations about British complicity in the torture of Binyam Mohamed to the police, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the police will be provided with all the
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relevant papers that the UK’s secret services have, even if their source was the intelligence services of another Government—be they American, Pakistani or Moroccan? Will the police be able to interview any Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, not just secret service agents?

David Miliband: Of course they will have access to all the necessary materials, as did the High Court in conducting its investigations. The intimation or underlying assumption in the hon. Gentleman’s question that somehow the High Court inquiry did not have access to American or other papers is erroneous. We have had the debate precisely because the court had access to the American papers. I hope that the hon. Gentleman intended no slur on the work of the Attorney-General or the Metropolitan police. The work will take place under the precise terms that the Attorney-General set out, which are in line with this country’s determination to abide by its national and international responsibilities.

T5. [267624] Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Credible evidence of war crimes committed during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza are now arising from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Israeli soldiers. If a culture of impunity is not to continue in the region and if those responsible for war crimes are to be brought to justice, will the Government support a UN Security Council move for an independent inquiry into all war crimes committed by either side during the Gaza offensive?

David Miliband: As I think I said when I made a statement to the House on the Gaza conflict on the first day back after the Christmas holiday—the conflict was still under way then—we take seriously all allegations of war crimes and they should all be properly investigated. At the moment there are investigations by the Israeli Government, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross. We wait to see the results of those investigations, but we must get credible answers. That is the basis on which we will judge the need for any action after those inquiries.

T6. [267625] Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Notwithstanding earlier statements made on different occasions, can the Foreign Secretary today give the House an absolute assurance that at no time since May 1997 has any person who has been subject to extraordinary rendition been detained and held on any British island territory?

David Miliband: I am racking my brains back to the statement that I made last February on the issue. I can confirm that we were informed of two people who were rendited through Diego Garcia, but the hon. Gentleman will have to get a proper written answer from me to that question, because I certainly would not want to mislead anyone on the issue. I have nothing further to add to the statement that I made here last February.

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T7. [267626] Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Considering Estonia’s first-class contribution to NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan, what can we do to defend Estonia against cyber-attacks from its near neighbour Russia?

The Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint): I would like to echo my hon. Friend’s comments about the valuable support that Estonia has given to our collective efforts in Afghanistan. I am pleased to inform him that assistance to Estonia is being provided through NATO’s work to protect both its own and its allies’ communication and information systems from cyber-attack. NATO has established the cyber defence management authority to oversee work in that area and a team of deployable experts who can respond in an emergency. NATO has also set up a centre of excellence in Estonia to conduct research into cyber-threats. Threats come in many forms. We should not underestimate those that come in the form of blocking technology.

T8. [267627] Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What does the Foreign Secretary hope to achieve from the G20 summit to defeat protectionism and promote free trade, and what in his view would constitute a successful summit?

David Miliband: I am pleased to answer that. In addition to the measures on financial regulation and macro-economic co-ordination and the help for the developing world, it is vital that international leaders first make the right statements against protectionism, and secondly, ensure the right mechanisms to follow them through. Those mechanisms began to be put in place at the Washington summit, but I look forward to the hon. Lady reading the final communiqué of the G20 summit, which I think will show substantial progress in a number of areas. She knows that the agenda for the G20 is much broader than that for the Washington summit, but I believe that there will be important progress in those areas, which will more than justify the leadership that has been given on the issue by the Prime Minister and the Government more widely.

T9. [267628] Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What consideration has been given to the impact on UK foreign policy and on our commitment to Afghanistan and Pakistan of the potential cancellation of the A400M tactical airlift aircraft programme, which would have very serious consequences indeed for the deployment of any future rapid reaction force?

David Miliband: I do not know whether that is a question more designed for me or for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, but I can assure the hon. Lady that the rise in force projection in Afghanistan is very significant indeed. Obviously it is Pakistani forces that are operating in Pakistan, rather than coalition forces, but there is certainly no military constraint of the kind that she implied on coalition forces in Afghanistan at the moment.

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Points of Order

3.34 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 3 March, Dr. Challoner’s grammar school in my constituency received a final allocation letter for the spending on 379 sixth-form students for the financial year beginning tomorrow. Yesterday, the headmaster heard that the funding has been slashed by £119,000, so that it would cover only 362 students. Clearly, as the school already has 379 students, it cannot plan for a reduction at such short notice, so the decision will affect the quality of education offered to the school’s students starting this week. Can you advise me, Mr. Speaker, whether the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families can be asked to come to this House to make an urgent statement on why the Government have removed this funding at the last minute?

Mr. Speaker: I cannot advise the hon. Lady about that, but perhaps she could try for an Adjournment debate. She could put her case there and a Minister would have to respond.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 1 July, I received a written answer in reply to an inquiry about the security of the redaction process to deal with the 1.3 million receipts being processed. The spokesman for the House of Commons Commission, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) stated:

vetted. Do you agree, Mr. Speaker, that it is a very different thing when something that is going to be published later is released early in some sort of journalistic scoop and when personal information, such as home addresses, telephone numbers and bank account details, are hawked around journalists with a view to selling material in a way that would undoubtedly be both a crime of theft and a crime under data protection legislation? Is there anything you can do, Mr. Speaker, to protect hon. Members against this sort of personal data being disclosed when this House has voted that it never should be disclosed?

Mr. Speaker: This House has in good faith, as the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) pointed out, handed this work over to a contractor with security vetting, so I am deeply disappointed when any information like this has been put out. When a service is given by the House, it is obvious that security and confidentiality must be all-important. No one in that organisation, either for financial gain or any other reason, should be handing over information that has been put and safeguarded with it to do a certain job of work. I can confirm to the hon. Member that the House has started an inquiry to establish the facts relating to the release of personal documentation and to determine whether an offence has been committed. I shall of course keep the House informed whenever I can.

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Council Tax Rebate

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

3.38 pm

Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): I beg to move,

This Government have a proud record in reducing poverty among pensioners. Since 1997, a raft of measures, including the largest ever increase in the basic state pension, has helped to lift 2 million pensioners out of poverty and means that pensioners are, for the first time in our history, less likely to live in poverty than the working population. Too many of our pensioners, however, including our veterans who have served this country with courage and distinction, still live in poverty, so this is no time to rest on our laurels.

The House will be aware of the valiant campaign led by the Royal British Legion to increase levels of council tax benefit take-up. It has rightly highlighted that for many pensioners, council tax represents a significant outlay—in some cases, it is their largest single expenditure. I am sure that Members of all parties will recognise council tax as one of the most frequently raised issues on the doorstep, particularly among pensioners.

Council tax benefit was introduced to address precisely this issue: to help the most vulnerable members of our society with their council tax bills. But as it stands, as many as 2.2 million eligible pensioners do not claim council tax benefit, even though they are entitled to it. In fact, the level of take-up of council tax benefit has actually fallen by 10 per cent. over the past seven years for which data are available. This means that council tax benefit, which has the highest number of potential claimants, has the lowest take-up level of any state benefit. Nearly half of all pensioners who qualify for council tax benefit do not make a claim, and almost £1.5 billion of council tax benefit—money that has been set aside by the Government to help people pay their council tax bills—goes unclaimed each and every year.

The sum of £1.5 billion may sound like an abstract figure, but in real terms it would mean an additional £598 per year per eligible pensioner to help cover the costs of council tax. As 41 per cent. of pensioners living below the poverty line are entitled to council tax benefit but do not claim it, £598 is a very significant amount. Indeed, in many cases it would be sufficient to lift pensioners out of poverty altogether. A higher take-up rate of a council tax benefit could, therefore, bring about dramatic reductions in the level of pensioner poverty. Just a 10 per cent. increase in take-up would lift 47,000 pensioners out of poverty, and the Royal British Legion believes that as many as 20,000 veterans would be better off if they claimed council tax benefit. That is why the Royal British Legion was able to attract 25,000 signatures to the petition it presented to No. 10 Downing street at the end of February.

The Government accept that current levels of council tax benefit take-up are not good enough, and I welcome the fact that they have made it clear that pensioners are their priority group for increasing take-up. I believe that rebranding council tax benefit as
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council tax rebate would increase take-up, especially among pensioners, and this is what my Bill seeks to achieve.

For accuracy alone, there is a strong argument that council tax benefit ought to be rebranded as a rebate. Effectively, council tax benefit assesses an individual’s liability to pay tax and as such is misnamed at the moment. Using the term “rebate” rather than “benefit” would reflect more accurately council tax benefit’s true nature as a reduction in tax liability, rather than a state benefit. There is also evidence to suggest that this simple renaming could encourage higher levels of take-up. Indeed, when my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas) appeared before the Communities and Local Government Committee in June 2007 as a local government Minister, the first suggestion he provided for ways to improve council tax benefit take-up was, without being prompted,

In its final report, the Select Committee went on to endorse that sentiment, as its predecessor Committee did in 2004, and as have the Audit Commission and the Lyons inquiry into local government.

In his report, Sir Michael Lyons highlighted that when the old domestic rates regime was in place, the term “rebate” was used instead of the term “benefit”. Take-up rates stood at 75 per cent. overall and were around 90 per cent. for older people then, which is substantially higher than the current estimated take-up rate of between 55 and 61 per cent. This discrepancy may, at least in part, be explained with reference to the stigma associated with claiming what are perceived to be benefits, which may deter some eligible pensioners from submitting a claim.

Many older people I meet in Enfield are proud of their independence and do not like asking for help, not least our veterans who fought for the freedoms that we all enjoy. Indeed, a survey conducted by Help the Aged suggested that as many as one in seven pensioners would not undergo means-testing, even if that meant foregoing benefits to which they knew they would be entitled. This is certainly the opinion of the Enfield Borough Over 50s Forum, which, I am pleased to say, supports my Bill. Its chairman, Mr. Monty Meth, told me that the forum—and with more than 3,000 members, it is one of the largest in the country—had

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Renaming council tax as a rebate would address the stigma associated with the term “claiming benefit” and remove this barrier to take-up. In my experience, older people have far less aversion to claiming back tax than to claiming benefits. The use of the word “rebate” would, therefore, provide pensioners with a greater sense of legitimate entitlement to the relief and, moreover, would be consistent with the second adult rebate, which is already administered by councils and provides a reduction in the council tax bill for some people.

In principle, the Government accept the case for this change. My Bill does not seek to change the rules that govern who is entitled to council tax benefit or to alter the amount of assistance people receive; it is simply about helping to implement a policy that the Government have already introduced. They accept that the take-up level of council tax benefit is too low, that a priority must be increasing the level among pensioners, including among our veterans, and that changing the name of council tax benefit, particularly by removing the word “benefit”, would encourage a higher level of take-up, particularly among pensioners.

I do not think that any of the supporters of this Bill, who come from all parts of the House, think that a name change is some sort of panacea, but that is no excuse for inaction. There is no master plan, no one-size-fits-all strategy and no single solution to improving the level of council tax benefit take-up, and if Ministers are waiting for one, I fear that they will be disappointed and, more importantly, thousands of poor pensioners will go without the help to which they are entitled.

Increasing the level of council tax benefit take-up and reducing pensioner poverty, including among veterans, will require a variety of different strategies tied to local needs. That will involve central Government working in partnership with local authorities and using the creativity of voluntary organisations. Given that so many could benefit so much from such a small and straightforward change, I hope that Ministers will listen to the thousands of pensioners, including the 25,000 veterans who added their name to the Royal British Legion’s petition, and agree that the case for renaming council tax benefit council tax rebate is compelling.

Question put and agreed to.


That Joan Ryan, Siobhain McDonagh, David Cairns, Jim Dobbin, Bob Russell, Dan Rogerson, and Mr. Nigel Evans present the Bill.

Joan Ryan accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 June and to be printed (Bill 82).

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The Economy

3.49 pm

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): I beg to move,

In the week when the G20 leaders and Finance Ministers meet here in London, I am glad to have the opportunity to start this debate on the economy. We are now facing the most difficult economic situation we have seen in generations, with negative world growth this year—for the first time in 60 years—world trade collapsing at the sharpest rate we have seen since 1965 and industrial production falling in 54 of the 57 largest economies. By way of example, in the past year alone 4.5 million jobs have been lost in the United States, and last week we heard that Japanese exports have dropped by some 50 per cent. So this week, we have to show together that we can agree international solutions for international problems.

Thursday’s meeting here is the opportunity to show that countries can learn from what has happened in the past, and can work together with a commitment to growth. We want growth to be sustainable, and for that to happen it cannot be kept just for the richer countries but must be shared. Trade must once again drive growth, and a global recovery must benefit both us and the developing and emerging economies, not just to meet what we need to do today, but to serve our long-term interests in the future.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Can the Chancellor tell us what is a prudent limit for borrowing in this country at present, bearing in mind the need to stave off any danger of bankruptcy or inability to raise money?

Mr. Darling: It is right that countries borrow if it is for the purpose of supporting the economy at a time such as this, when we are encountering substantial difficulties. That is very important, and I am not alone in believing that. Indeed, I saw on last night’s “Newsnight” that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who sat at the Cabinet table in the last Conservative Government with the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—[Hon. Members: “Who?”] It was the shadow Business Secretary, and I am glad to see him in his place, supporting loyally—as ever—the shadow Chancellor. When the shadow Business Secretary was asked last night by Mr. Paxman what he would do to save jobs, he said:

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