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[That this House congratulates the millions of people who gain vocational qualifications every year and celebrates their achievement on the third annual Vocational
Qualifications Day on 23 June 2010; notes that, while there have been significant improvements in the way vocational qualifications are viewed, more needs to be done to raise the stature and demonstrate the benefits of practical and vocational learning; recognises that vocational qualifications provide the workforce of tomorrow with the practical skills needed to progress in the workplace and help employers improve and grow their businesses, especially in a challenging economic environment; and believes that the many paths to success available should be celebrated.]
It refers to Vocational Qualifications day, which was held yesterday. According to Edge, 4 million vocational qualifications were awarded last year, many of them in Harlow. Will the Leader of the House give thought to allowing an annual skills debate to be held on the same day?
Sir George Young: It so happens that I have read early-day motion 282. As my hon. Friend will know, the coalition agreement contains a clear commitment in this regard, which states:
"We will improve the quality of vocational education, including increasing flexibility for 14-19 year olds and creating new Technical Academies as part of our plans to diversify schools provision."
Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Several schools in my constituency are expecting investment under the Building Schools for the Future programme. I am deeply concerned by the Leader of the House's statement earlier that we would have to wait until October to find out whether that investment will go ahead. May we have a debate on the issue, and will the Government reconsider?
Sir George Young: The outcome of the comprehensive spending review will indeed be announced on 20 October, but I understand that a statement on Building Schools for the Future is likely to be made next week.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Further to the comments of my hon. Friend and best mate the Member for Cardiff South-sorry, I mean Glasgow South- [Laughter.] It is a bit further north than the Cardiff constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) obviously agrees with a predecessor of yours, Mr. Speaker. Bernard Weatherill once told me, "You can't have civilisation without sewers, and you can't have Parliament without the Whips." May we have a statement, or perhaps a debate, on the cost of democracy and of some things we have lost which are valuable, including the ability of Opposition spokespeople to travel in order to carry out their duties? That has been taken away by our handing over such matters to people who know nothing about politics. Is it possible for the Leader of the House to look into the matter? I am sure that he will want to make certain that the Opposition can do their job properly, as he did when he was in opposition.
Sir George Young: The Government are very anxious for the Opposition to be able to hold us properly to account. Having been an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman myself, I recall that the Short money makes provision for travel for Opposition spokesmen. That is the source to which the hon. Gentleman should look in order to fund his important travels around the country.
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The Amnesty International report "From Protest to Prison" reveals that up to 5,000 Iranians citizens are now languishing in prison following the disputed presidential election. There have been 150 executions in Iran, and persecution of the gay community, the Baha'i community and, of course, women remains characteristic of the Iranian regime. May we have a debate on the human rights record of the regime and our Government's necessary response to it?
Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman has raised the important issue of the barbaric treatment of a number of prisoners in Iran. Foreign Office questions will take place on 6 July; alternatively, he may wish to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall, where the matter could be dealt with at greater length.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): May we have a debate on ministerial statements, or at least a statement on statements? The right hon. Gentleman has suggested to us that it is fine for Ministers to use written ministerial statements even to deal with such highly controversial issues as retirement and the closure of magistrates courts in areas throughout the country, including Llwynypia in my constituency. He has just said that there will be a statement on something next week. Would it not have been better to include that in his opening announcement? Would it not be better for him to say that he knows that there will be a statement next week, so that it will be easier for us to scrutinise the Government?
Sir George Young: The business statement does not normally include written statements. We can give prior notice of written ministerial statements, and I shall see whether that could be done in the instance that the hon. Gentleman has cited. However, we have not deviated from the policy on written ministerial statements that was adopted by the last Government, of whom he was a distinguished member.
Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): If the Leader of the House granted a debate on public sector cuts, I could inform him of my plans for alternative cuts. The Foreign Office recently admitted to me that the ministerial wine cellar was worth £860,000 a year, and that it had just spent nearly £18,000 on replenishing it after the election. However, it was less candid about what was held in the collection. Does the Leader of the House think that Ministers should tell me what is in it, and should we sell it so that we are "all in it together"?
Sir George Young: I could have said that the Chief Secretary was not the only person who left the cupboard bare, and that the Government hospitality cellar had to be replenished when we came to office; but I will not.
It says here: "The Government hospitality cellar is a carefully managed resource that is integral to the service delivered by Government hospitality for all Government Departments. Expenditure since the election has been
part of the normal buying pattern for the cellar, on which between £80,000 and £100,000 is spent per annum."
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): When will the Leader of the House announce measures to make good his party's excellent manifesto commitment based on the Illegally Logged Timber (Prohibition of Sale and Distribution) Bill, which I presented as a ten-minute Bill? The party made that commitment in opposition. Will he also tell us whether the rumour that responsibility for it has been passed from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Department of Energy and Climate Change is correct?
Sir George Young: I would require notice of the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, but he has raised an important issue. There is a commitment, and it will be honoured.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Given that there is plenty of time for general debates over the next few weeks, may we have an early oral ministerial statement on Equitable Life? Before the election the Government parties made lots of sympathetic noises to Equitable Life policyholders, but they are now increasingly concerned that they are about to be betrayed. May we have an early ministerial statement to reassure them that the promises made not just by the Government but by 380 Members of Parliament across the House are to be kept?
Sir George Young: This side of the House will accept no criticism from Opposition Members about the treatment of Equitable Life policyholders. We can do better than a statement: we will introduce a Bill.
Mr Speaker: Last but not least, I call Mr Nick Smith.
Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Yesterday in Parliament the Prime Minister said, in regard to employment, that the Government would
"introduce our work programme, which will be the biggest, boldest scheme in.... history".-[ Official Report, 23 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 288.]
Unemployment in my constituency is almost 12%. The Labour Government's future jobs fund has been a tremendous success, creating nearly 500 jobs, but when will we have a proper debate? When will we have further discussion and much more information about this important subject?
Sir George Young: The short answer is "on Monday". My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will lead Monday's debate on the Budget, and will focus on that subject.
The future jobs programme was expensive in comparison with other programmes. It found relatively short-term jobs paying relatively low wages. We believe that we can do much better than that.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House raised today the issue of the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Health at 9.25 am on Monday of revisions to the NHS operating framework. I checked personally with the Library at 9.30 am and then throughout the morning for the written ministerial statement. It was not made available until 12.40 pm, 10 minutes after the deadline for submission of an urgent question to you, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for me to ask now for a review of the way in which written ministerial statements are made available to Members?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. The handling of matters of this kind, subject to its being orderly, is in the hands of the Government. As the Leader of the House is here, he might wish to respond, and is welcome to do so.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): I would welcome the opportunity to have a chat with the hon. Lady immediately and explain my understanding of what happened on that day.
Mr Speaker: I hope that that will suffice for now; I think it must.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Before we come to the serious matter of resuming the debate on the Budget, I wonder if I might crave your indulgence to see whether you might be willing to consider doing something on behalf of the House. You might have noticed that yesterday saw the most titanic tennis match ever played-in this great city of ours and in our country. Nicolas Mahut, the Frenchman, and John Isner, from the United States, ended up in the fifth set at 59-all when, for the second day running, they were not able to complete that match. They will take it to a conclusion today. I wondered whether at the end of the match you might consider inviting the two players to this House to show, in this great summer of sport, how much we value sport in this country and how much we value people from all over the world coming to show their talents in this great country of ours.
Mr Speaker: What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is as follows. First, it may or may not be of interest to him and the House to know that I myself watched significant parts of that match-certainly for at least a couple of hours in the evening-and was as fascinated by it as the hon. Gentleman. The second point is that his suggestion is an interesting one but, sadly, does not qualify as a point of order. My third point is that I would be more than happy to invite the two gentlemen concerned to the House, but I do not have the foggiest idea whether they would be interested in accepting the invitation.
If there are no further points of order, we come now to the main business.
Debate resumed (Order, 23 June),
That provision may be made in relation to the rates at which capital gains tax is charged.
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): I am delighted to open this day of the Budget debate and I want particularly to do three things in this speech. One is to argue why the Budget strategy-what used to be called the Budget judgment-is an essential and correct response to the balance of risks that the economy faces. The second is to address the question that always arises at this stage of the business cycle, which is from where the jobs are likely to come during the recovery. The third is to outline why, like all other recoveries from deep recessions, we will build a new economy. Indeed, a large part of the answer as to where the jobs will come from are the new low-carbon industries which represent our third industrial revolution. In five years' time, the outlines of a sustainable and resilient economy will be clear, thanks in part to the route map that we begin to sketch out in the Budget-the carbon price floor, the green investment bank and the green deal.
Let me start with the point about the balance of risks, and pick up where we left off in the last debate, when the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) was disparaging me for the "Greek defence" as he put it. This determines the timing of measures to cut the budget deficit. The last time that we debated these issues, the right hon. Gentleman accused me of performing a U-turn on whether there should be cuts in this year. I conceded that we in the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition had changed our minds. I also pointed out that we had done so on the basis of events in international capital markets, which have dramatically raised the risks of our being engulfed in a firestorm. If that were to occur we would not be looking at a proactive plan decided by Government, but at a forced reaction to market pressure, which would be unplanned, unconsidered and deeply damaging.
When I last made that point, the right hon. Gentleman said that there had been no change in circumstance that justified a change in judgment. So I looked up the figures for the key public finance borrowing interest rate: the 10-year bond yield for each of the afflicted economies and for our own. The 10-year bond yield determines the cost at which we finance our own borrowing, but it also sets the tone for interest rates in the rest of the economy. The 10-year yield for the Greek Government on the day the election was called in this country, 6 April, was a little less than 7%; it was 6.98%. It had hovered at or around that level for most of the early part of the year, yet during the general election campaign the Greek bond yield began lurching upwards, reaching a peak of more than 12% the day after our general election.
The right hon. Gentleman mocked my Greek defence and said that the circumstances were so different that we could not possibly be affected. I merely remind him that our Budget deficit is the second highest in the EU and currently higher than that of Greece. It is true of course that Greece has substantially higher public debt to national income ratios than we do, but that is not as consoling a thought as the right hon. Gentleman appears to think. Contagion does not work like that. It is, by definition, irrational and sees similarities even where a cooler mind sees differences.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Did the right hon. Gentleman have the opportunity to watch and listen to the eminent Japanese economist on "Newsnight" last night, who explained, on precisely this point, that were Britain to be paralleled with Greece, the bond rates in Britain would not be showing a four point spread at the moment and would not be being bought so avidly by British companies and consumers?
Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the circumstances, but markets travel on expectations. The expectations of what was going on in this country were very clear during the general election campaign: the hon. Gentleman and his friends were about to lose the election. It is precisely the case with the contagion in southern Europe that it spread quickly from Greece to Spain and to Italy. Italy, of course, has a very high public debt to GDP ratio and is clearly in a different category from ourselves. But that is not the case for Spain-one of the most substantial economies in Europe-where the central Government to GDP ratio is actually much smaller than ours. The debt to GDP ratio in Spain was 33% as against 60% in the UK at the beginning of this process. That is the problem that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North and his friends have to answer. It was absolutely clear from the rise in bond yields across southern Europe that we were in the firing line and it would have been completely irresponsible for us not to remove ourselves from it.
Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that yesterday in the Chamber the shadow Chancellor argued that the problem with Greece, and one of the reasons for what happened there, was that the authorities did not act quickly enough? Does he share my surprise that the shadow Chancellor can combine that with an argument for not acting now here?
Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no doubt that the lessons of history are completely clear. Those countries that grip their problems and deal with them do so in their own time and their own way and in a proactive manner. Those countries that fail to do so end up like Greece and Spain-with socialist Governments-grappling with measures that will be far more severe than anything that we have introduced in this House. I simply remind the right hon. Member for Doncaster North that Lord Keynes, the great Liberal economist who continues to be an economic hero to me, was once famously accused of changing his mind. He splendidly replied, "When the facts change, sir, I change my mind. What do you do?" The right hon. Gentleman's principal problem today is that the facts have changed and he has not changed his mind. That is precisely the argument.
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