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Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): My constituents are extremely concerned about the quality and speed of communication between major Departments. Yesterday, it seemed to take an inordinately long time for the message to go from the Prime Minister to the Foreign Secretary, "Get out there and say something." In view of concerns about what would happen were
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there a greater national calamity, can the Leader of the House assure us that communication will be rather quicker in the future?

Ms Harman: The Foreign Secretary is getting out there and doing his job, which is what the Prime Minister, and indeed the whole country, would expect him to do. That is exactly what he is doing.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware of my early-day motion 529 on the proposed march by Islamic extremists through Wootton Bassett.

[That this House notes that Anjem Choudary, the UK leader of al-Muhajiroun, plans to stage a march through Wootton Bassett town carrying empty coffins as a protest against Britain's presence in Afghanistan; considers that such a demonstration would be a gross mark of disrespect to the soldiers who have died or been wounded in Afghanistan, their families and those who continue to fight on active service in Afghanistan; believes that such a march would cause great distress to those who have lost loved ones; further notes that the Muslim Council of Britain has described the proposed march as 'deplorable'; calls on the Home Secretary urgently to investigate the breaching of public order and other related offences; and urges Wootton Bassett Town Council and Wiltshire Police to ensure that any proposed demonstration that breaches the Public Order Act 1986 be rightly refused.]

Would it be possible to have a statement from the Home Secretary about what powers local authorities and police authorities have in relation to such a march? Does she agree that if the march went ahead, it would be a slight against not only the memory of our heroic servicemen and women returning to the United Kingdom, but the great people of Wootton Bassett who turn out in such great numbers to respect our war dead?

Ms Harman: I very much understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns. I understand that the police have not yet received notification of any such procession taking place. If notification is given, there are powers under public order legislation for the police to impose conditions subject to the consent of the Home Secretary, and indeed to deny the opportunity for the march to take place. The Home Secretary has said that he will look sympathetically on any application made by the police in that respect.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Residents and shopkeepers up and down the country are frightened of clearing pavements in front of their properties of snow and ice for fear of being sued should any pedestrians fall over on that section of public pavement. During the urgent question, I asked the Transport Minister if he would look at changing the law to protect residents and shopkeepers in such cases, and he said that he had no power to do so. Will the Leader of the House ask the Justice Secretary to make a statement about how the law could be changed to protect residents and shopkeepers in such circumstances?

Ms Harman: The Transport Minister was saying that people should be protected from the unreasonable fear, which is not founded on reality, that if they look to protect the forecourt of their business or help their
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neighbours they will be sued. The health and safety laws are important for protecting public health-for example, in the E. coli outbreaks that we have seen in city farms and suchlike. Those on the Opposition Benches are quick enough, if the public are not protected, to expect the Government to have effective regulations in place to protect them. However, nobody should go round encouraging the notion that there are nonsensical provisions waiting to entrap people who are using their common sense. There are not. I therefore assure the hon. Gentleman's constituents, as the Transport Minister did, that everybody can do what is commonsensical. If it is commonsensical, we can be pretty certain that it will be absolutely within the law.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): May we have a debate on the timeliness and clarity of ministerial responses? All Members from time to time have concerns about responses to parliamentary questions or correspondence with Ministers. However, I am thinking in particular of the delay of some hours yesterday among senior Ministers, including the Leader of the House, in responding to the simple question of whether they supported the Prime Minister, and of the equivocal and evasive nature of many of their answers.

Ms Harman: All the statements that have been made have been made on numerous occasions, including yesterday. I am going to continue with my view on such questions, which is that I do not respond to them when we are being asked about the business of the House.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Some 2,500 of my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House have been without electricity over the past two days as a result of the adverse weather, and this in a period of sub-zero temperatures. We urgently need a broader statement
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from the Government on how the severe weather is being handled. Indeed, I find it extraordinary that the Government should have relied on a Conservative urgent question, tabled today, for the problem to be discussed in the House.

Ms Harman: I do not think that it matters where an urgent question comes from. If it is an important urgent question, on which Members from all parts of the House want to join in and ask questions, and if it is granted by the Speaker, it can be a positive contribution to debate in the House. It is no skin off anybody's nose for that to happen. There will be an opportunity next week to discuss energy security on an Opposition day motion. In anticipation of that debate, I can say that the National Grid Company has said that because of the cold weather there is unprecedented demand on our energy supplies, as one would expect, but that it is confident that supplies will be sustained. Indeed, the important work of repairing energy lines that are affected by falling trees cutting energy supplies is also an issue. However, there is no reason why there should not be an opportunity to ask questions in the meantime, and to debate them further next Wednesday.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Does the Leader of the House share my concern that 4,600 households in Shirley, Croydon were without power during this cold period? Unfortunately, the problem is not just weather-related, because there were cuts on Christmas eve and on previous days too, when the weather was clement. Does she think that I will be able to get away with dealing with this Croydon issue in a debate on energy security?

Ms Harman: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman raise the issue directly with the relevant Ministers. I will alert them to the fact that he wants to raise the issue on behalf of his constituents and see whether he can deal with it by correspondence, a meeting or further discussion.

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Point of Order

12.53 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier in business questions, which I am sure you were following avidly, the Leader of the House clearly said that nobody had been released from prison early because of overcrowding. That is surprising, given that the Government introduced a scheme that releases all prisoners 16 days early from prison, specifically because prisons are overcrowded. Given that people following proceedings in the House or reading Hansard should be able to rely on the accuracy of the things said here, particularly by those on the Government Front Bench, can you ensure that the Leader of the House corrects the record, so that people are not misled about the state of play with regard to prisoners being released from prison?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): No, I cannot. However, if the Leader of the House wishes to catch my eye, further to the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, which is not strictly a point of order, I am sure that she will try to help.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for bringing that issue to my attention. What I meant was that nobody is released outwith the framework that the Justice Secretary has presented to the House in respect of the overall approach to the provision of early release, which is a well established pattern that has been followed not only by this Government, but by previous Governments.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am grateful to the Leader of the House. I hope that everyone is clear and happy about the situation.

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Pre-Budget Report

[Relevant documents: The Fourth Report from the Treasury Committee, Pre-Budget Report 2009, HC 180; and the Third Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Financial Services Bill and the Pre-Budget Report, HC 184.]

12.55 pm

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Liam Byrne): I beg to move,

I welcome the chance to open today's debate, the first on the pre-Budget report. I welcome it because decisions as significant as these should be tested in debate, so that the House and the public whom we represent can see clearly where each party stands and, amidst the arguments that we have in the media and elsewhere outside, where the policy of each party really rests.

We on the Government Benches are very clear about where we stand. We stand on the side of workers, businesses and home owners, who need protection from the worst global recession in 60 years, and for locking in recovery. We stand for taking the difficult decisions that will be needed to halve the deficit over the four years to come, while protecting our priorities for public services. We also stand for investing in growth, new jobs, new industries and new infrastructure that together will be vital in balancing our economy better in the years to come.

I hope that the crispness and clarity of our position in this debate will be matched, especially by the Opposition. This week, policy pose after policy pose has given way to position after position, sometimes with up to three difference stances in one afternoon. However, credit where credit is due: the Opposition are nothing if not nimble, as they hop madly between constituencies that they are so desperate to please. We will have none of that on this side of the House, so let me use the few minutes allotted to me this afternoon to set out some of the measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor presented before Christmas.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): To reinforce the points that my right hon. Friend has just made, has he seen page 24 of The Guardian today, which says, "Demand for gilts at its highest for nine months," and "Service sector recovery raises hopes of end to UK recession"? The Government must be getting something right, and the Tories must be completely wrong.

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing page 24 of The Guardian to the House's attention. I will address some of those points shortly.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Byrne: I will give way in a moment.

The first objective of our policy as set out in the pre-Budget report is, of course, to secure the recovery. When we look back over the year that has passed, we are glad that we ignored the idiosyncratic advice proffered by the Opposition and, instead of doing nothing, as they suggested, chose to act: to rescue the banking
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system from the brink of collapse; to cut VAT; to invest £5 billion in jobcentres, which have helped 3 million people out of unemployment in the past year; to introduce measures to allow families to stay in their homes, helping to ensure that repossessions are two times lower than in the 1990s recession; and to set up the Time to Pay scheme, which has helped more 160,000 businesses to spread their tax payments over a timetable that they can afford, helping to keep insolvency rates three times lower than in the 1990s.

In the pre-Budget report, the Chancellor forecast a return to growth, but as we know, over the next period unemployment may continue to rise in the short term. So to lock in the recovery, the Chancellor said that he was able to do more: by extending the Time to Pay scheme for as long as it is needed; by deferring the proposed increase in corporation tax for smaller companies, leaving the 2010 tax rate unchanged for nearly 900,000 small businesses; by freezing support for mortgage interest at 6.08 per cent. for six months more, to help people who are worried about their mortgage payments; and, perhaps most importantly, by ensuring that every 18 to 24-year-old who has been out of work for more than six months is offered the chance of a job, training or community service.

However, the second point made by the Chancellor in the pre-Budget report is about looking ahead-to the years beyond 2010 and the return to growth and prosperity in the years to come. I am afraid that those years of growth will not be years without difficult decisions-indeed, they will be full of them-and especially not without the decisions needed to halve the deficit and protect our priorities in public services. We have said that, in our judgment, the right time frame over which to execute this difficult decision is the 48 months up to the end of 2013-14.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): I want to ask the Minister about the exchange on this subject during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday. The Prime Minister said:

He went on to say:

Can the Chief Secretary tell us where in any published Treasury document we can find details of those departmental cuts?

Mr. Byrne: Let me explain that in detail in a moment.

It is fair to say that the Conservatives have questioned our judgment that four years is the right time frame over which to halve the deficit, but their questioning has been in the style and manner of rather open-ended, slightly ponderous thinking aloud. They have not offered an alternative proposition, such as reducing our four-year time frame to three. They know what the price of such a move would be, and they seem unsure whether they want to pay it.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): It is not only the Opposition who are questioning the Government's debt reduction plans. The bond markets around the
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world are also doing so, and I was alarmed to read yesterday that the world's biggest bond house, PIMCO, which is based in the United States, has said that there is an 80 per cent. chance of Britain losing its triple A sovereign debt rating. That would result in increased mortgage and borrowing costs for the whole UK economy.

Mr. Byrne: That is an important point that I will address directly in a moment.

First, let me return to the question of the level of detail, because the House is right to ask how the sums will add up in 2013-14. In framing my remarks, I should like to draw on the excellent report from the Treasury Select Committee and the evidence presented to the Committee by the Chancellor and by Her Majesty's chief economic adviser.

Our judgment is that the deficit must fall from £178 billion this year to £96 billion in 2013-14, a fall of £82 billion. We anticipate that £25 billion of that sum will come from growth, and the return to business as usual, including the reversion of the VAT rate, but, as the Chancellor said to the Treasury Committee, £57 billion must come from discretionary action-in other words, decisions. As the chief economic adviser said to the Committee, we have decided to deliver two thirds of that sum through spending, and one third through new taxes. On decisions on tax, we have set out plans to raise £19 billion from new taxes, which we have sought to introduce in a fair way by ensuring that 60 per cent. of them are paid by the top 5 per cent. of earners in this country. That leaves £38 billion to be secured from spending cuts.

Capital investment must fall, as it safely can, from today's historically unprecedented level. In the 2008 pre-Budget report and the 2009 Budget, we announced substantial reductions to the overall capital spending budget, and that is set out on page 189 of the pre-Budget report book. Yes, Departments will have to cut back, which is why we have reduced our plans for current expenditure from 2011 onwards.

That is why this pre-Budget report, together with the command paper "Putting the Frontline First", announced £20 billion of cuts and efficiencies. If the House will bear with me, I think that it will be helpful if I run through them. They include: £8 billion to be delivered by 2012-13, identified across the public sector through cutbacks in Whitehall through the operational efficiency programme; £600 million from the greater use of online systems to deliver public services; £650 million from cuts in consultancy, marketing and communication spending across government; £550 million from cutting back on quangos and arm's-length bodies; £550 million from local government, including reducing the costs of inspection; £140 million from cutting senior civil service costs by 20 per cent.; £1.4 billion from ending temporary employment measures as unemployment falls; £850 million from delaying things that can wait, or from cutting back systems such as the NHS IT programme; £900 million from asking businesses and students to pay a little more for training; £360 million from reforming the criminal justice system and legal aid; and £730 million from focusing regeneration and transport spending on areas where it is needed most.

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