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2 Feb 2010 : Column 165

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we are very concerned about these high-cost credit products. That is why the Office of Fair Trading is bringing forward new guidance on irresponsible lending to cover the marketing and selling of credit products. We are determined to tackle irresponsible lenders, and we are sure that we will be able to take action against those who are unable or unwilling to follow the guidance.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Is the Minister aware that businesses in my constituency are suffering because they cannot get the credit that they need to survive? Can he outline what recent instructions he has given to those banks in receipt of billions of pounds of taxpayers' money to ensure that small businesses can get the credit that they desperately need?

Mr. Darling: As I said earlier, we have agreements with the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds to increase the amount of money that they are lending to the small and medium-sized enterprise sector. That lending has been issued, although the net figure is affected by the fact that there have been some quite large-scale repayments. In the first instance, the hon. Gentleman should do what I do and write to the branch of the bank that the small business deals with. If that does not work and the hon. Gentleman continues to have difficulties, I will be happy if he gets in touch with me and lets me know what those specific difficulties are. He will appreciate that sometimes the bank may be acting unreasonably, but that at other times there may be a reason why someone has been refused credit.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I listened with interest to the answers that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor gave to Question 1. The Americans appear to favour safe retail banks, guaranteed by the taxpayer, and casino investment banks that would not have such guarantees. I am sure that he would agree that the British taxpayer should not be on the hook for the risky activities of British bankers. Does he also agree that it is important that we get an early decision from the Government on how they intend to proceed?

Mr. Darling: First, I think that we should wait and see what the final American proposal is because discussions are taking place and it may not be quite as was reported last week. We will see. In relation to my right hon. Friend's point about what he calls casino banks, the safe investment banks, the problem with that approach was probably demonstrated most vividly in relation to Lehmans. It did not have a single retail deposit in it. The then American Administration let Lehmans collapse and it brought down the world's banking system on top of it. That rather makes the point that it is difficult for any Government to say in advance that they would never step in in relation to a particular bank, especially if there were a systemic crisis, as there was in 2008. That is the difference that I have in relation to approach but I look forward to discussing the matter with the United States Treasury Secretary when I see him in Canada on Friday.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Last Wednesday, the Chancellor made a welcome announcement to encourage greater investment in gas production west of Shetland. Can he confirm that that
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sends a signal to other investors in the industry that, if they are willing to come to the Treasury with detailed cases, the Treasury will be willing to look at ways to unlock further potential from our resources offshore?

Mr. Darling: Up to a point; I would not want to raise false hopes. As the hon. Gentleman knows, because he has long taken an interest in these matters, for some time, there has been a lot of discussion on how we can open up the waters to the west of Shetland to get at the oil and gas supplies there. It is estimated that about 20 per cent. of oil and gas supplies are there, waiting to be exploited. The measure that I introduced last week will, I hope, mean that some companies will be prepared to consider investing there. That is very important if we are to safeguard the security of supply of oil and gas, which is important. Of course I am always open to suggestions, but I would not want people to think that they only had to knock on the door and they will get what they want. That is probably not the case.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): Will the Minister take a look at the question of the differential interest rates that apply in many private finance initiative contracts? Interest rates were a lot higher when those contracts were signed, and all interest rates are now a lot lower. Cannot an area of equilibrium be found among those currently paying such high interest rates?

Ian Pearson: My hon. Friend is well aware of how many of these schemes there are and the details of how they operate, so he will know about the contractual obligations that are entered into and what scope there might be for renegotiating some of the existing contracts. We always look at this issue closely and discuss it widely with the PFI community, and I can certainly undertake to take away my hon. Friend's suggestions and examine them carefully.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Steps to address excessive risk-taking in the financial sector are necessary, but financial regulations must not be introduced at the expense of competitive business. What is the Chancellor doing to ensure that this principle is followed in the negotiations on the directive on alternative investment fund managers?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware that we are discussing that directive with the Commission and the presidency, which is held by Spain, because we have concerns about it. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we must ensure that at one and the same time we have sufficient supervision and regulation to make the system safer while also remembering that that must operate alongside the ability of financial institutions to generate the finance upon which our economy and those throughout the world depend.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): What is the Treasury's attitude to proposals by the Campaign for Real Ale and the British Beer and Pub Association to the European Commission that countries should be allowed to levy a lower rate of duty on draught beer, thus helping pubs in the same way as a lower rate of duty on small brewers has helped them?

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Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We recognise the difficulties facing small pubs and breweries. As I said earlier, restrictions operate under EU directives, and we are continuing to have discussions with our EU partners to see if we can make progress on this matter.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The cost of London Crossrail is £16 billion, with extra money being found from central Government at Westminster, whereas the cost of the Glasgow air link would be a 40th of that. What will the Government who control the UK purse strings do? Will they take the opportunity to provide the extra money for the Glasgow air link?

Mr. Darling: Well, I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that it was the Scottish National party Government in Scotland who cancelled the Glasgow air link. Therefore, how on earth he has got the gall to stand up and somehow blame someone else really says it all about the nationalists. They cut the rail link; they have to live with the consequences.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Will the Minister please confirm the current level of public sector pension liabilities that the Government are hiding off balance sheet, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP?

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Mr. Byrne: As the hon. Gentleman will know, the figures for public pension liabilities, and the way in which they are financed, were set out in the long-term finance report that was presented to the House alongside the pre-Budget report.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Rugby league remains a game rooted in the community. It is not awash with money and players are not paid huge salaries, yet the Leeds Rhinos testimonial committee has told me that testimonials will now be taxed retrospectively. That is unacceptable; how can the Treasury change the rules, which will damage a sport and its players?

Mr. Timms: I am not aware of there having been any change of policy on this, but I will, of course, be very happy to look at the particular case the hon. Gentleman raises.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Is the Chancellor able to tell the House what the contribution of UK taxpayers to the European Union will be for this year, and how much more that will be than the contribution for last year?

Mr. Darling: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the figures in the pre-Budget report.

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Points of Order

3.34 pm

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that on 21 January an urgent question was answered by the Minister for Europe on exchange rate movements and their effect on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget following the announcement of a £170 million loss in that budget as a result of sterling's depreciation. In answer to a question from me about hedging, he said that the Foreign Secretary had written to the shadow Foreign Secretary on the subject. After further questioning from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), the Minister for Europe pledged to put a copy of that letter in the Library. I have to report to you, Mr. Speaker, that that letter has not appeared in the Library-and that according to the FCO, that is because the letter was never written. Can we ensure that the Minister for Europe comes to this House to explain not only why this has happened, but all the background to the effect of the depreciation of sterling, and the FCO's failure to hedge for it, on the FCO's budget?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He has given to the House a very specific and detailed sequence of events and the House will have heard it; it is very clearly on the record. What I would say to him is that if a Minister promises that a letter will be placed in the Library, it should be placed in the Library, and that should be done without delay; what is promised should be delivered. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand if, beyond that, I simply say that I will look further into the matter, and that he has put his concerns very fairly and squarely on the record today.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday we reached the end of the
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business on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill in Committee, and we then lost time that could have been spent having a vote on new clause 52. There was a problem with how the handover when the House came out of Committee was to be conducted. We were told that that was an unprecedented development. Will you look into what happened? The matter was raised in two points of order yesterday, but I hope that you will examine how it was not handled well and how we need to learn from that, because Back Benchers, who have very little access to time, could have had the opportunity to move something about which many of us felt strongly.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Although I did not receive advance notice of it-I make no complaint about that, I hasten to add-I had a sense, given the strength of the points of order made last night, that this matter might be raised. I hope, therefore, that it will be helpful to the House if I make a short statement about those events.

I certainly do understand there was a hiatus last night-with the business in Committee on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill finishing significantly earlier than expected-and the House was informally suspended for just five minutes. I am grateful, of course, to the Deputy Speakers and to members of the Chairmen's Panel for their flexibility in chairing proceedings, whatever happens. I cannot comment on what happened in Committee-the House will understand that I am precluded from doing so-but I have inquired about new clause 52. I understand that once new clauses 85 and 86 had been agreed to, that decision of the House overtook new clause 52 and so ruled out the possibility of a separate Division upon it. No doubt Report stage will give Back Benchers other opportunities. As for whether the time of the House was well spent yesterday-the fifth day on this Bill-the management of legislative time on the Floor of the House is a matter for the Government.

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Compensation Act 2006 (Amendment)

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

3.38 pm

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I beg to move,

Last month, a large part of Britain was brought almost to a standstill by significant snowfall and freezing conditions. Local authorities up and down the land ran short of salt and were unable to grit many roads-and in particular, many pavements. Those pavements became impassable, or even dangerous, resulting in slips and falls and keeping some of our most vulnerable citizens virtually prisoners in their homes.

To their great credit, some people decided to help their neighbours and the wider community by clearing not just their own driveways and garden paths but the pavement outside their houses or their children's schools. Others read their newspapers and decided not to. That was substantially because those newspapers quoted a variety of lawyers who said that if people were to clear the snow off their part of the pavement and then someone were to fall over on it, they might be sued for negligence. Inaction, the lawyers said, was the safer option-and so the pavements stayed uncleared, because the council could not do it and householders would not do it. That is the type of situation that the Bill seeks to address.

Of course, some say that there is not really a problem, because the courts are very unlikely to find the public-spirited domestic snow shoveller negligently liable for any injuries, in the absence of spectacular incompetence. They may be right, but I do not think that the public-spirited domestic snow shoveller feels reassured, and many such people, to be on the safe side, remain deterred from doing the right thing by a fear that the law would not be on their side. What matters in that deterrence is not just the likelihood of a negligence action succeeding, but the likelihood of a negligence action being brought in the first place, incurring all the worry and potential expense needed to defend it.

We now live in a Britain where such negligence actions look more likely than they have ever done. Large legal advertising budgets are spent on persuading us that "Where there's blame, there's a claim", and that there almost always is blame. We have been conditioned to believe that there is no such thing as an accident any more, only a negligent act for which somebody owes compensation, even if they were trying to be helpful at the time. So the safest thing is to leave the snow shovel in the shed. That is not a perception that this House should allow to persist.

Others say that there has been a problem, but that the passing of the Compensation Act 2006 has solved it. Section 1 of the Act states, broadly, that a court considering a claim for negligence or breach of statutory duty, in determining whether a defendant should have taken particular steps to meet a standard of care, may have regard to whether a requirement to take those steps
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might prevent or limit a desirable activity or discourage people from organising or taking part in it. In other words, the desirability of the activity the defendant was engaged in at the time of the alleged negligence, and the benefit to the community of what he or she was doing, constitute only one of the factors that the court may consider, and it is not obliged to consider that factor at all.

During the passage through the House of the Bill that became the Compensation Act, the Government made it clear that section 1 did not, in their view, represent a change in the law. It was instead a restatement of the existing law, intended to reassure those involved in what the Act described as "desirable activities" that in carrying out those activities, they should not fear negligence actions.

The Compensation Act has now been on the statute book for three years, and I am afraid that the national conversation on snow clearing that we have heard over the past few weeks demonstrates that the Act has not succeeded in that aim. I believe that the House must go further. In addressing the specific issue of a private citizen's involvement in clearing snow and ice from pavements, we could go much further and make that involvement compulsory, as is the case elsewhere in the world.

In the United States, for example, various municipal codes require homeowners and tenants to clear all snow from the sidewalk adjacent to their homes within a specified number of hours after it has fallen, or after sunrise, if the snow has fallen at night. In Germany, the rules are set out in the Satzung über die Verpflichtung zum Reinigen, Schneeräumen und Streuen auf Gehwegen, which, as you will immediately recognise, Mr. Speaker, is the "Statute concerning the obligation for the cleaning, removal of snow, and sanding on walkways". It sets out householders' responsibilities in considerable detail, including the substances to be used for gritting their part of the pavement, the maximum grain size thereof and the specified minimum width of the cleared area. The House will be relieved to know that I do not propose the same legislation here.

I propose that we amend section 1 of the 2006 Act so that when a court considers a claim of negligence against someone who has done something for the benefit of their community, it will not simply regard their public-spiritedness as one factor among many that it may or may not take into account. Instead, there should be a presumption that someone who has engaged in that sort of desirable activity has satisfied the relevant standard of care. The court would not be prevented from finding someone negligent if they had gone about that desirable activity in a wholly incompetent or irresponsible way, but it would start from the premise that those who act to help their community should get a very strong benefit of the doubt. I believe that that will succeed in sending to the public the message that section 1 of the 2006 Act seems to have failed to send.

In many ways, this is a modest Bill. It does not seek to affect what anyone does as part of their employment. It does not seek to compel anyone to act nobly, or to condemn those who do not. It seeks simply to remove an obstacle from the path of those people in our society who are willing to put themselves out for others. I do not doubt that the Bill's drafting could be improved if it were to make progress, but it is meant to send the
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message that if someone makes an effort to do the right thing, the law will stand behind them, not in their way. We need people to do their bit.

January 2010 will not be the last time we have heavy snow, or the last time local councils run out of grit when there is heavy snow, and we want people to feel able to help their neighbours when the authorities cannot. More generally, in times of snow, flood or any other form of adversity, our communities are at their best when people come together and help each other with individual acts of kindness and consideration. That is what strengthens society, and it is our job as legislators to encourage that-or at the very least not to discourage it. I believe that the Bill would support the kind of society that we all want to see, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Jeremy Wright, Mr. Mark Harper, Mrs. Maria Miller, Mr. David Lidington, Mr. Philip Hollobone, Rob Marris, Mrs Siân James, Tim Farron, John Hemming, Angela Watkinson, James Duddridge and Mr. Stephen Crabb present the Bill.

Jeremy Wright accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March, and to be printed (Bill 58).

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