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Ian Pearson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that as an issue. The Government have made substantial investments in institutions such as Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds Banking Group, Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock, and we need to ensure that we get best value for the taxpayer. We will not be giving these away, and it is the responsibility of UK Financial Investments to manage the Government's interests in
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these matters. We do not want to own these for the long term. We do want to make sure that they go back into the private sector. But it has to be done at a price that works for the taxpayer.

T8. [322217] Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): For the purpose of furnished holiday letting rules, will the Minister please explain why it is that if a holiday letting provider is providing a static boat, they are deemed to be trading, if they are providing a static caravan, they may or may not be trading, but if they are providing a chalet, they are deemed definitely not to be trading, very much to the detriment of their future business?

Mr. Timms: These matters are the result of lengthy application of the law. We have said that the current concession, which applies only to freehold holiday lets in the UK, may not be consistent with European law and therefore we will withdraw the concession from 2011. But the definitions are very well established and familiar in tax law.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): The announcement recently by the Treasury to extend the offshore new field allowance to developments west of Shetland, will, I hope, allow the Laggan-Tormore development to go ahead. Has my hon. Friend worked out how much the development of the west of Shetland province could be worth to the British economy in the years that follow?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We certainly wish to assist in the development of fields where it is more difficult to get out the natural resources, not only for the security of supply for the UK but for the benefit of the whole economy. I do not have the exact figure to hand, but I will be more than happy to write to my hon. Friend.

T9. [322218] Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): When the Chief Secretary said last week:

what exactly did he mean by that?

Mr. Byrne: At the risk of repeating myself, we said that over the next four years we will halve the deficit-we have not seen a plan as clear as that from the Conservative party-and we said that we would do that in a fair way. We said that in part we would need to raise taxes, and we set out very clearly how £19 billion of taxes needs to be secured, alongside spending cuts. I hope that during the next week or two we will see a plan of equal clarity from the Conservatives, and I hope that as part of that plan they will renounce the proposal that the shadow Business Secretary set out this morning to take another £29 billion out of public spending by 2014.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I put it to my right hon. Friends that cuts in public spending
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are not the only way to reduce the deficit. We could, for example, raise the basic rate of income tax, not to as much as it was under Mrs. Thatcher, but by a penny or two.

Mr. Timms: Our view is that those with the highest incomes should bear the largest share of the burden of consolidation. That is the reason we have announced the introduction of the 50p rate of income tax on the highest incomes, and the restriction of personal allowances also for people with high incomes. We think that that is the right place for the consolidation to start.

T10. [322219] Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Does the Chancellor agree that we now need a dangerous banks Act, with owners who cannot control them refused permission to maintain them?

Ian Pearson: That just shows what would happen if the Liberals held the balance of power in a future Parliament.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Chief Secretary to the Treasury referred to the budget deficit. Is the UK's budget deficit as a proportion of GDP higher or lower than that of Greece?

Mr. Byrne: We have the highest budget deficit, pretty much, in the G7, but the reason why we have a high budget deficit is that we chose to act to protect jobs, to protect homes and to protect businesses over the course of the past year. As the International Monetary Fund has recognised, the reason why we had that flexibility to act was that we went into the recession with the lowest debt of any country in the G7 apart from Canada.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The Minister prays in aid EU legislation to change the basis of furnished lettings. Will it apply to French gîtes as well?

Mr. Timms: The proposal that we have announced is to withdraw the concession, so it would not apply to furnished holiday lets outside or inside the UK.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): Last week Sutton council granted planning permission for a new patient wing to be built at St. Helier hospital, removing the last obstacle to Treasury approval for the necessary investment. Will the Minister today give my constituents and NHS workers the good news that Treasury approval is coming and coming very soon?

Mr. Byrne: I thank the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for the consistent way in which they have championed the need for a new hospital in their area. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am in close discussion with the Secretary of State for Health, and we hope to make an announcement on that matter shortly.

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British Airways Strike

Mr. Speaker: Before I call Theresa Villiers to ask the urgent question, I should inform the House that an appeal has been lodged in the court case related to the British Airways strike action. This matter therefore falls within our sub judice resolution. I have exercised my discretion to allow this matter of public importance to be discussed, because I do not consider that there is a substantial risk of prejudicing the court proceedings.

3.31 pm

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the current situation relating to the BA strike.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): Passengers will be seriously inconvenienced if a strike goes ahead. The Prime Minister and my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport have both urged the union to call off the strike and both sides to seek to reach an agreement. However, British Airways is a private company, and the resolution of the dispute is a matter for the company and its staff. The Government have no powers to impose a settlement.

Mrs. Villiers: Since before Christmas the Conservatives have been urging Unite to cancel the strike, which will inflict huge misery on passengers and serious damage on BA. Why did it take the Prime Minister so long to condemn the strike? Has the Prime Minister spoken directly to Unite officials to urge them to call off the strike? Will the Minister admit that Labour accepted £300,000 from Unite on the very same day that the Christmas strike dates were announced; and that the party was able to get its accounts signed off in 2008 only after the union gave a written guarantee of future funding? How can the Government stand up for the interests of passengers when one quarter of Labour's funding comes from the-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am genuinely sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but there is for parliamentary purposes a distinction between the Labour party on the one hand and the Government on the other, and it is in relation to the responsibilities of the Government that she must focus her remarks and questions. I know that that is what she will now do.

Mrs. Villiers: Yes, Mr. Speaker. Will the Minister join me in urging cabin crew to work despite the call for strike action? Will he ensure that the Government are going to stand up to the unions? How can Labour propose to do that when one quarter of its funding is provided by the very same union that is holding passengers to ransom and threatening to wreck their holidays?

Mr. Khan: You always, Mr. Speaker, impress on people who speak in the Chamber the need to think about how the public will view them, so I ask the public to ask the question about how a party that seeks to form a Government tries to politicise what is an industrial dispute. Some serious allegations have been made about the motives of the trade union and the Government,
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and, rather than trying to encourage both sides to reach a resolution in a calm and less emotive manner, one party is seeking to politicise an industrial dispute. I urge both sides of the dispute to start talking again to try to reach a settlement, so that the thousands of passengers who would otherwise be inconvenienced will not be. I would have hoped that there would have been agreement around the Chamber on that wish; given that an election is imminent, I am afraid that that has not been the case.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I am disappointed that British Airways and the Unite union are acting like two badly behaved children and seem to be paying little attention to the needs of their passengers; macho management from BA and intransigence from the union help nobody.

May I ask the Minister what steps in particular he has been taking since November, when the dispute first appeared imminent, to try to stop it occurring? Clearly, the strike has had a long period of notice. We could legitimately expect the Government to have taken action to try to prevent our reaching the stage that we have got to now. The Minister will understand why without any clear indication of what action has been taken, some feel that there has been some influence from the trade unions.

May I ask the Minister about compensation for passengers who are not able to get their flights but will nevertheless be significantly out of pocket-through holiday tours that they have booked, for example? Will there be any compensation for them, from the airline or elsewhere?

Does the Minister believe that when they voted for industrial action, the union's members understood that they were voting for seven days or more of such action, or did they think, as many appear to have done, that it was a one-day strike?

Lastly, what further steps does the Minister intend to take now to knock heads together? Would it not be sensible for the BA offer to be retabled now-if necessary, at the same time as Unite withdraws its strike action, as it ought to do immediately?

Mr. Khan: As ever, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. Ministers have been in close contact with all parties from the outset and continue to be so. It would be unhelpful to give a running commentary on the steps taken to try to resolve the matter. What is important is that there is willingness in some parts of the Chamber for there to be a resolution; clearly, however, it is in some parties' interests for the dispute to carry on.

It is important that BA should provide as much information as possible to the thousands of passengers who would otherwise be inconvenienced. I checked its website before I came to the Chamber; it does provide lots of advice to passengers who may be inconvenienced, and it has a phone number that can be rung by people who do not have access to a website.

The hon. Gentleman's final point was about balloting. It is not for me to look into whether the balloting was fair. He will know from history that when BA thinks that there has been unfair balloting, it seeks to challenge the trade union in the courts. It has not sought to do so in relation to this ballot.

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Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. Some 14 Members are seeking to catch my eye, and as always I should like to be able to accommodate everybody. However, I require brevity, a legendary example of which will now be provided by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard).

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Is there not a very simple way in which the Government can demonstrate that they are sincere when they say that they disapprove of this strike? Why does the governing party not refuse to take any more money from Unite until the dispute is resolved?

Mr. Khan: There is one party that has been clear and transparent in how it receives donations -[Interruption.] It is an insult to the 6 million hard-working trade unionists, all of whom pay taxes, who have chosen to give money to a political party. I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that parties have stayed within laws made by Tory legislation. One big donor to the Conservative party, I am afraid, has breached both the spirit and the word of the law.

Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the trade unions have stuck within the law during the whole of this dispute and the one thing that we do not want is politicians interfering? This is an industrial dispute, not the political dispute that the Opposition are trying to orchestrate to make the situation worse, not better, for the passengers.

Mr. Khan: It is noteworthy that while a Member of Parliament is trying to urge both sides to get together and resolve the issue, other Members are hectoring him. The public will not be fooled by the politicisation of an industrial dispute.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Will the Minister now answer the question about why the Prime Minister took four days to condemn the strike? Does it have anything to do with the fact that Charlie Whelan, the political director of Unite, is now back at the heart of Downing street?

Mr. Khan: If evidence were required of some people's desperation to try to politicise a dispute, it has been provided by the tone and substance of the questions that have been asked. This is a private dispute between BA and Unite, the trade union. It is important that both sides should get around the table and resolve the issue. I am disappointed that there is not agreement in the House that the dispute should be resolved sooner rather than later.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): May I declare, as a member of T & G and Unite for some 36 years, that I genuinely feel that stuck in the middle of all this, as my right hon. Friend the Minister has indicated, are the customers of BA, the work force, and the company itself and where its future lies? Does he agree that cheap political point-scoring plays no part in where this company and its work force should be going?

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Mr. Khan: It is worth comparing and contrasting the questions by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, who was concerned about customers and the work force, and the questions from Conservative Front Benchers and Back Benchers-evidence, if ever it were needed, that they believe that this is a political dispute, and that rather then trying to resolve this in an amicable, calm and temperate manner, they are trying to use emotive language to raise the temperature.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): The Prime Minister said yesterday on "Woman's Hour" that the strike was

Given, however, that we have been made aware by the Unite union since 14 December last year that a strike would happen, exactly what has the Prime Minister been doing for the past three months?

Mr. Khan: I have already answered that question. One of the problems when someone is given a question to ask by their Whips is that they often do not hear the answers that are given before they ask it. To put the answers that the Prime Minister gave on "Woman's Hour" in context, he said:

Do the Conservatives agree with that?

David Cairns (Inverclyde) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that of the approximately 40 per cent. of BA flights that will not go ahead during the dispute, the overwhelming majority are on the domestic routes, primarily to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, which means that travellers to and from Scotland, and businesses in Scotland, will be disproportionately affected by this industrial action? Does not that underscore the need for a grown-up attitude towards this and for all sides to get back around the negotiating table to solve what is primarily an industrial dispute, which is not being helped by partisan point-scoring?

Mr. Khan: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right. Cool, calm heads are required now, not dossiers about perceived links between a trade union and a Government being unfurled at press conferences. I really hope that British Airways and the trade union will listen to some of the debate in the Chamber today and get round the table to resolve this so that my hon. Friend's constituents, big businesses, small businesses and ordinary residents of this country are not suffering unnecessarily.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Following the previous question, with Aberdeen airport in my constituency and as a regular user of BA, I welcome the fact that BA has protected some of the services at Aberdeen because it recognises how important it is, but the situation is still inadequate.

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