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9 Jun 2009 : Column 651

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I wonder whether my hon. Friend saw the survey in the Financial Times yesterday of City economists. It showed that a majority thought the recession would end in June. The minority who did not thought it would end sooner rather than later this year. Does that not show that the City is coming round to the Budget forecasts for the economy? Is that not a clear endorsement of the Government’s programme for a fiscal stimulus?

Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend will be delighted to hear that I have no plans to provide a running commentary on growth forecasts. The Budget clearly set out our current expectations, and the next update will be provided to the House in the pre-Budget report. I merely note that several City economists and independent forecasters have revised up their forecasts for growth next year and adjusted their forecasts for the extent of the downturn this year. As I said in response to earlier questions, independent forecasters’ average for contraction this year is 3.8 per cent., which is much closer to the forecast that we published in the Budget.

T7. [278534] Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): May I ask Treasury Ministers to look again at the position of those families who are being pursued by the Treasury for alleged overpayment of tax credits? I still have a steady stream of families coming to my surgery who are being chased, sometimes for up to £10,000 or more. They come in with detailed files of information, and I am absolutely inclined to believe that they have been entirely honourable and honest in looking at their claims. Those families tell me that the Treasury sometimes takes the more expensive period of their child care, rather than looking at their child care costs over the period as a whole. Those families do not like the way the Treasury acts as judge and jury, with no right of appeal. That causes huge distress, so may I ask Ministers please to look again at the issue and tell us that they can do something to help those families?


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Mr. Timms: We have already made some substantial changes and improvements to the way the tax credit system works. One of the consequences is, for example, that complaints to the tax credit office are down by a half, compared with two years ago, so there have certainly been considerable improvements. The tax credits transformation programme that we have put in place is delivering. I accept that there is more to be done, but it is worth remembering that 6 million families benefit from tax credits, and that includes 10 million children. That is one of the main reasons why we have been able to reduce child poverty so substantially over the past 10 years, but we need to ensure that the system works as efficiently as possible and that overpayments are minimised. We have seen a big reduction in the number of overpayments, and we will work to improve the position further.

T8. [278535] Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): May I give the new Chief Secretary another opportunity, while the cat is away, to play at being open about the Government’s spending plans? Given the analysis of spending plans by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Departments are projected to face a real-terms cut of 2.3 per cent., which translates into cuts totalling £20 billion. Can he come clean today and accept that the 2009 Budget heralded significant Labour cuts?

Mr. Byrne: Let me be very clear—I am afraid I will have to repeat a number of the points that I made earlier. The Chancellor set out clearly what changes will happen overall to public sector net investment over the next few years and what changes we forecast to real growth in current spending. However, as he said as recently as last oral questions, with the degree of uncertainty in the international economy that we currently face, I just do not think that now is the time to start making detailed budgets for individual Departments for the year after the Olympics.


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Point of Order

3.37 pm

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is any procedure available to the House—to Ministers or Back Benchers—to extend the time available on Thursday for topical questions to the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? The publication of ministerial responsibilities today reveals the true extent of the massive changes being planned, with responsibilities moving to and from the new Department. I have just come from another place, where I saw a private notice question to the Secretary of State and First Secretary of State, the noble Lord Mandelson, who singularly failed to convince the House of the merits of the change. The bewildering range of questions on Thursday’s Order Paper shows the scale of what is happening to the Department. For once, the topical question, “If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities”, is the one question to which this House needs an answer, but sadly 15 minutes will not be enough to deliver it. Is there any guidance that you can give me, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker: That is not a matter for the Chair, but the House will have noticed that from time to time I tend to run topical questions beyond 3.30 pm, because they are very popular. No doubt those on the Front Bench will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say, and I thank him.


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Road Signs (Tourist Destinations and Facilities)

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

3.38 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I beg to move,

The Bill is the product of the frustration of people whose businesses depend on tourism at the obstruction that they meet in getting approval for signs to direct motorists to their location in rural areas. They are frustrated particularly with the attitude of the Highways Agency and the planning authorities, which in turn are influenced by guidance from central Government; their frustration is shared by hon. Members. I am grateful to those who so readily agreed to be supporters of the Bill, including my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who is here this afternoon and who I know is seeking to deal with the same problem in his constituency.

Tourism is absolutely vital to most rural communities, and many tourist businesses depend on motorists finding their way off the main road to the wide variety of leisure, educational, catering, retail and accommodation facilities on offer. Many of those facilities depend on passing trade; others might already be known about but are difficult to find without a sign indicating where to turn off the main road.

I am not in favour of American-style billboards all over our roads and fields, advertising products that are not local, and a rush of such signs along some motorways might have prompted a tougher line being taken. That was understandable, but there is a completely different case to be made for local tourism signs. Signs for local amenities need to be attractively designed, well sited and not confusing or too numerous. It is right that there should be planning controls, so long as they are exercised proportionately and sympathetically. In too many instances, however, we find obstruction and disproportionate action.

In looking at examples of the problem, I want to distinguish between two types of sign: brown signs and privately provided signs. On trunk roads, the Highways Agency has a system for the familiar brown signs, although it is at best a fairly rigid scheme. High visitor numbers are required to qualify for a sign, for which the tourist attraction pays. On motorways, an attraction needs 250,000 visitors a year to qualify for a sign; on single carriageway roads such as the A1 in Northumberland, the figure goes down to 40,000, with the possibility of an allowance for seasonal businesses. Many tourist attractions try to get through all the hoops and meet the definitions to qualify and pay for a sign, but are still refused.

I wonder how many can match the experience of Berwick-upon-Tweed golf club at Goswick, south of Berwick. It is a beautiful seaside links course that attracts thousands of visiting golfers and will stage the pre-qualifying competition for the British Open every year for the next three years. It is the first course in the north-east to get that honour. In 2000, it paid £1,200 for
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brown signs. Recently, however, the Highways Agency removed the signs, without consulting the club or allowing it to make representations.

I took the matter up with the Highways Agency, which has apologised for its failure to consult. So that is all right: the signs will go back up, won’t they? Oh, no. They cannot go back up, because the Highways Agency says that they are no longer in line with its current policy on tourist signs. It says that the golf club should advise visitors through its website to look out for the road sign to Goswick and follow that route. That involves taking a dangerous turning off a single carriageway road, one of several turnings to places with confusingly similar names: Goswick, Cheswick and Fenwick. The idea that hundreds of visiting golfers should have to rely on their computer back home to spot the right turning is ridiculous. If the Highways Agency wants to prove my Bill unnecessary, it must abandon this ridiculous refusal to reinstate very necessary signs, and show more flexibility and helpfulness to rural businesses.

Another case involves a newly built country hotel at Doxford Hall, north of Alnwick, which simply needs to be added to an existing brown sign on the Al that refers to other local amenities at Doxford. Hon. Members might have seen a reference to this place, because the owner is planning to sell it and to give the entire proceeds to cancer nursing in the community in north Northumberland—a marvellous gesture. On roads other than trunk roads, local highway authorities are responsible for the signs, and some are helpful. I gather that Northumberland county council has agreed to brown signage for Doxford Hall on the local roads, for example.

Brown signs are clearly going to be approved for and financed by only the larger tourist businesses. Small country pubs, tea rooms, animal sanctuaries, potteries, bed and breakfasts, farm shops and other smaller-scale amenities usually try to have a smaller sign on the edge of a field or on a fence alongside the road. Some of those signs are needed only during the tourist season. They require planning permission, for which there are
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fees to be paid, whether the application is successful or not. A couple of years ago, the Department for Communities and Local Government, through central guidance, set off a purge of roadside signs, which hit rural businesses in many parts of the country. Council officials were dispatched to remove signs. One over-zealous official in my constituency actually started painting over offending signs with a spray can.

I believe that there is a need for a more tolerant attitude, and for a simple approval process to ensure that signs provide direction to nearby tourist facilities and that they are safely sited, from a road safety point of view, proportionate and adequately designed. The absence of such a light-touch system has led to a proliferation of parked vans, farm trailers and other less attractive substitutes for proper signs—although they, too, are now covered by the planning guidance and are at risk of removal.

In a period of recession, the countryside depends more than ever on visiting tourists contributing to the rural economy. People need to be able to see where the facilities are, and it is better for road safety that the motorist can clearly see where to turn off and find a meal, a bed, a place of interest or a facility for the children. My Bill simply places obligations on the Highways Agency, highway authorities and planning authorities to help the promotion of local tourist facilities by providing appropriate road signs or permitting appropriate signs to be provided. At the moment, small businesses too often feel that the system is working against them when it should be helping them, enabling them to make their services available to the motorist and thereby to support tourism in the economy of the countryside.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Sir Alan Beith, Hilary Armstrong, Mr. Nigel Evans, Mr. Adrian Sanders, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Denis Murphy and Dan Rogerson present the Bill.

Sir Alan Beith accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 June and to be printed (Bill 107).


9 Jun 2009 : Column 657

Opposition Day


[12th Allotted Day]

Knife Crime

Mr. Speaker: I advise the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.47 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I beg to move,

Before I begin my remarks on the motion, I welcome the new Home Secretary and his new team to their positions. It is five years since I last did battle with the right hon. Gentleman over top-up fees, and it is a pleasure to shadow him again. I wondered whether he might prove to be the shortest-lived Home Secretary in the history of this country, but following last night’s meeting of the parliamentary Labour party it appears that he might have to wait a little longer before he gets the opportunity to move into No. 10. Seriously, however, I look forward to debating the issues facing us all over the months ahead.

No doubt we will argue intensively over the failures of Government policy, but today’s debate is intended to be different. I understand from the Clerks that it is customary for an Opposition day motion to be critical of the Government and their policies, but this motion is not intended to do that. Rather, it is intended to stimulate a serious discussion about an issue that has been of concern to all of us—knife crime, particularly among our young people. It is an issue that is both serious and disturbing and one that should be subject to dialogue across the political and community divides.

Last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee published a thoughtful report on the subject, and during the course of its inquiry it invited representations from across the House. The Committee took evidence from me and the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, as well as from Ministers, so it seemed logical and sensible for the House to have an early opportunity to discuss the matter. I very much hope that the Chairman of the Select Committee will be able to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and give us his perspectives on the inquiry.

It is also sensible to give the House the opportunity to praise and discuss the views of organisations out in the community that deal with knife crime and its consequences. Our voluntary sector does hugely valuable work in trying to break down the knife culture and the tendency of young people to become caught up in gangs. We should recognise the importance of what they do.


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Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words about the Select Committee report and for the tone of the motion. In giving evidence to the Select Committee, he went out of his way to stress the importance of cross-party approaches, which also includes the voluntary sector. Does he agree that only by parties working together and raising the issue above party politics will we truly find a solution to knife crime?

Chris Grayling: That is right. There will be times when we debate issues on a party basis, but not because we have different objectives. We all share the objective of reducing crime and knife crime and of restoring stability to communities affected by it. There may be times when we disagree over methods or are critical of Ministers because we think they have got it wrong. That is right and proper, but organisations and individuals out there are looking to this House for a grown-up and mature debate. It is right and proper that with an issue as serious as this one we take a step back from time to time and have a grown-up discussion of the kind that the right hon. Gentleman rightly started in his Home Affairs Committee.

Before I get to the heart of the debate, I want to make one important point. There is no arms race going on among all children in the United Kingdom, nor are all seven-year-olds carrying knives for their elders. There is an acute gang problem in some parts of the country, particularly in inner-city areas and most significantly in parts of London, but the vast majority of young people are decent, law-abiding citizens, getting on with their lives, taking their exams, working on a Saturday morning and having fun on a Saturday night. We must not allow a serious and important debate to create the sense that young people are a problem today.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent’s Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I, too, welcome the thoughtful way in which the hon. Gentleman is approaching this topic. I entirely endorse what he said about the majority of young people being law-abiding and going about their business as excellent young citizens in the making. Does he agree, however, that one issue with which all of us—politicians and others—need to engage is the fact that there is a fear race going on out there? As the evidence taken by our Select Committee confirmed, young people are often frightened of the streets, and frightened of the images conveyed to them about other people carrying weapons. We have a serious duty to get the balance right, and our media colleagues have a serious duty to help us.

Chris Grayling: That is absolutely true. We should not seek to create a climate of fear. In the vast majority of our communities, this is not the issue that it is in some inner-city areas, although there are certainly law-and-order problems up and down the country involving antisocial behaviour and some criminality. Happily, the incidence of serious knife crime remains limited to a relatively small number of communities, but it is there none the less, and it is to protect young people that we need to continue this debate. They are far more likely to be the victims of knife crime, and to be scarred for life or even worse. It is for their protection that we need to get this right.


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