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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Thousands of foreign women are trapped in domestic slavery. We read in the papers about mail-order brides and so on. It is a mystery to me why holding another person's passport cannot be made a criminal offence. Will the Leader of the House urge the Home Secretary to make a statement on that pernicious form of exploitation.

Mr. Hain: I agree that it is indeed pernicious. The Home Secretary and his Ministers take a close interest in the matter, and I am sure that further information will be sought from my hon. Friend about the precise circumstances that he has properly raised.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The Independent Monitoring Commission's report of 20 April recommended action against Sinn Fein in response to continued high levels of violence and terrorism. The £120,000 fine imposed is entirely inadequate. When will the Leader of the House give the House the opportunity to consider withdrawing facilities in the House from Sinn Fein as a result of the IMC's recommendations?

Mr. Hain: I understand the hon. Gentleman's wish to raise these matters, and I recognise that he regularly attends business questions. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a full statement on the matter and answered questions for nearly an hour.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): My right hon. Friend today announced a debate on Tuesday 4 May on the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill. I am sure that the strongly held feelings about the Bill on both sides of the House are not lost on him. Will he use his good offices to ensure that—notwithstanding an emergency—no ministerial or other statements will be made on that day that would eat into the already limited time that Back Benchers will have?

Mr. Hain: I am aware of the many strong feelings among hon. Members on the matter. I can assure my hon. Friend that more than adequate time will be provided for a full debate in which all the issues can be raised. There are no plans for a statement at the moment, but in politics one can never anticipate what may arise. I will certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Will the Leader of the House make a statement on the working of Prime Minister's Question Time and will he consider extending it to 40 minutes? As I am sure the Leader of the House is aware, yesterday out of 535 lines in Hansard, 216 were taken up in an exchange between the
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Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative party. Last week, of 652 lines in Hansard, 246 were taken up by that exchange. Some 650-odd other right hon. and hon. Members might wish to catch the Speaker's eye and if the time were extended to 40 minutes, it would give us a better chance.

Mr. Hain: When I next need advice on Prime Minister's questions, I shall turn to the hon. Gentleman, as he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of them. For the period that it has operated—in this Parliament and the previous one—the half-hour provided for Prime Minister's questions has been very successful in enabling the House to hold the Prime Minister to account. That is what he wants, and we do not need to extend the time any further.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab): On the matter of the timing of the Report stage and Third Reading of the Pensions Bill, will my right hon. Friend pass on to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister my thanks for the remarks that he has made in Prime Minister's questions—including this week to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan)—and for the work that has been done by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor to try to find a solution to the problem of the 60,000 people who have lost their pensions? But will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House also convey the necessity for the Government to produce their conclusions on that work before Report, which will be the last opportunity that the House will have to influence the issue?

Mr. Hain: I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on behalf of the Allied Steel and Wire
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workers in Cardiff, who—like many others—were scandalously robbed of their pensions. We are anxious to resolve the matter if we can in a way that does not read across to other areas and cost taxpayers billions of pounds in extra claims for compensation because of the collapse of private schemes across the country. I am grateful for his comments about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's words yesterday. If there is a way to achieve our aims, there is certainly a will to do so on the part of the Government, and we will do all that we can to secure that outcome.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will the Leader of the House turn his attention back to what the website of The Daily Telegraph calls "Thieving, laziness and utter chaos in the post"? He has dealt with the thieving and laziness allegations, but in my constituency and in Hampshire there is utter chaos, with people not receiving their deliveries until well after lunch. It is not the second delivery that has been abolished, but the first delivery. Can the Minister responsible come to the House and explain how the Post Office can compete with new, electronic forms of communication, when the service now appears to be so unreliable?

Mr. Hain: I remember when I was a researcher for the Post Office workers' union, many years ago, that most union members argued that the second delivery was a protection to ensure that the first delivery arrived on time. At any rate, that has been changed. It is a matter for Royal Mail, but I will certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman made, especially in respect of his constituency. If he has accurately depicted the situation there, it is obviously of great concern.
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Council Tax Capping

1.14 pm

The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about how the Government propose to handle those local authorities that have set excessive budgets for the current year.

The average increase in council tax in England this year is 5.9 per cent. That is less than half the previous year's increase, and lower than many people predicted. It is also the lowest for the last nine years. A large number of authorities have set lower council tax increases than they originally proposed, following the Government's strong messages to local authorities that high increases were both unacceptable, and unnecessary. They are unacceptable, because people are rightly concerned about increasing council tax bills. They are unnecessary because, for two years running, the Government have provided all local authorities with above-inflation increases in general grant.

Nevertheless, some authorities' budget and council tax increases are still too high and impose unreasonable burdens on council tax payers. The Government therefore intend to take action against those authorities whose budget requirements they consider to be excessive. That is not something that we are doing lightly. The Government attach great importance to local accountability and believe that first and foremost it is for local authorities to set their council tax and justify it to their local electors. However, we also have a duty to protect council tax payers from increases that we believe to be excessive. Many people, including representatives of pensioner interests, have urged us to use our capping powers.

After this Government came to power, we replaced the previous Government's crude and universal capping regime with new reserve powers that are more discriminating and flexible. As well as the option of in-year capping, the Secretary of State now has the power to set a notional budget to be used for future comparisons or to cap the following year's budget. The experience of last year, when council tax rose by an average of 12.9 per cent., showed us that not all local authorities can be relied on to behave responsibly when setting their budgets and council tax.

Of course, it is not just the percentage increase in council tax that is relevant. We have first to decide whether an authority's budget requirement is excessive. In doing so, we have used the following principles. These are described in more detail in a report that is being placed in the Library of the House. In the case of unitary authorities, London boroughs, metropolitan districts, counties, the Greater London authority and the Isles of Scilly, our view is that budget requirements are excessive if they involve an increase of more than 6.5 per cent. over last year's budget and if council tax has increased by more than 8.5 per cent. over the same period.

Shire districts are in a different position, as this year authorities no longer have to contribute 5 per cent. towards the cost of council tax and housing benefit. While that change has also affected some other local authorities, the amount involved represents a relatively insignificant element of their budgets whereas the change to shire district councils' much smaller budgets
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represents a considerable saving to them. We have therefore judged their budget requirements to be excessive if they are more than 2 per cent. higher than last year and, again, if council tax has increased by more than 8.5 per cent. As those are small authorities, whose increases in council tax may be correspondingly small in absolute terms, we have introduced a further test by applying those principles only to district councils with a band D council tax for 2004–05 greater than the shire district average.

Police and fire authorities also have a duty to be efficient and to act responsibly in setting their precepts. At the same time, we recognise that those services face particular pressures. We have therefore judged their budget requirements to be excessive if their budgets are more than 7 per cent. higher than last year and if their precepts have increased by more than 13 per cent. As those are single-purpose authorities, whose precept increases may be relatively small in absolute terms, we have applied a similar de minimis principle to that for shire districts. The principles have therefore been applied only to police and fire authorities with band D precepts for 2004–05 greater than the average for the relevant category of authority—either metropolitan or shire police, and either metropolitan or combined fire authorities.

Calculations relating to the combined fire authorities and their constituent authorities are based on figures in "The Limitation of Council Tax and Precepts (Alternative Notional Amounts) Report (England) 2004/05", which was approved by the House on Monday. Those figures take account of the fact that combined fire authorities have become major precepting bodies for the first time this year. The alternative notional amounts for 2003–04 allow like-for-like comparisons to be made with this year.

As I have mentioned, the Secretary of State has a number of options for dealing with authorities that have set excessive budgets. He may either designate an authority and proceed to cap it in-year, or he may nominate it and then either set a notional budget requirement to be used for future comparisons or designate it for next year.

According to the principles I have described, four unitary authorities and two shire district councils have set excessive budgets this year. They are Herefordshire, Nottingham, Telford and Wrekin, Torbay, Fenland and Shepway. We are writing to them today informing them that the Secretary of State is designating them for 2004–05 and setting a maximum budget. The authorities have 21 days in which to respond. We will carefully consider the representations that they make and the information that we have required them to send us. We will then either make an order, to be approved by Parliament, designating them at the level of the proposed maximum budget or another level, or we will withdraw the designation and nominate them instead.

Also according to the principles I have described, three police authorities and five fire authorities have set excessive budgets this year. They are the police authorities of Cumbria, Northamptonshire and West Mercia, and the fire authorities of Bedfordshire, Durham, Essex, Hereford and Worcester and Nottinghamshire. We are writing to the police authorities and four of the five fire authorities informing them that the Secretary of State is nominating them. In
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the light of the information that we have required them to send us and any information that they themselves want to provide, we will then take decisions about whether to set notional budget requirements for 2004–05 against which increases in 2005–06 will be measured, or to designate them in respect of 2005–06.

However, one of the fire authorities—Hereford and Worcester—has set very large increases in its budget and council tax precept: a 19.4 per cent. increase in budget and a 29.4 per cent. increase in precept. We are therefore writing to that authority, informing it that the Secretary of State is designating it for 2004–05. The calculation of the maximum amount and the procedure to be followed are the same as for the unitary authorities and the shire districts.

We believe that the actions that we are taking represent a measured response to the increases that we have seen this year. We are pleased that many authorities have heeded our warnings, but some have not. We will listen carefully to the cases put forward by the authorities that I have named and, where justified, we will use the greater flexibility afforded by our new capping powers. However, authorities should be in no doubt that the Government mean business.

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