There were questions on Energy and Climate Change yesterday.
Henley MP John Howell (right) asked about fuel poverty:
"Given that the term “fuel poverty” does not seem to have been used once in yesterday’s Budget statement, can the Secretary of State confirm that Warm Front will be sufficient to address Age Concern’s assessment of the Budget that its failure to tackle fuel poverty will continue to leave more pensioners out in the cold?
Edward Miliband: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman—and, of course, the Conservative party cannot support any of the measures that we took on public spending, because as we know it is completely opposed to increasing public spending at this time. The measures that we took on housing, including specifically £100 million for energy efficiency in the social housing sector, will help precisely some of the most vulnerable people in our country. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change will announce in a written statement this morning an increase in the maximum Warm Front standard grant from £2,700 to £3,500. I think that will be widely welcomed, alongside other improvements in Warm Front, because it is helping some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I am very proud of the record of what we are doing to help some of the most vulnerable people in our country who are facing fuel poverty."
It is, of course, a lie to say that you can't freeze or even cut a department's overall expenditure whilst concurrently increasing spending on certain individual projects.
Shadow Secretary of State Greg Clark went on the same issue:
"The Secretary of State knows that the coverage of the Warm Front scheme is limited, but does he accept that for most homes investing in energy efficiency saves money on fuel bills?
Edward Miliband: I do, which is why we unveiled plans in February for “pay as you save” insulation, whereby people will be able to spread the costs of energy efficiency measures over a number of years; it will not be linked to the person in the house but to the house itself, so that the costs can be spread over 20 years or so. Therefore, part of the savings from the energy bills will be able to be used to fund to kind of insulation that we need. We have very ambitious plans for 7 million houses to have whole-house refurbishment by 2020 and all houses to have it by 2030. Unlike the Conservative party’s plans, those are costed plans; they have been worked through and they will work.
Greg Clark: Yesterday, Greenpeace described the Secretary of State’s plans as strikingly lacking in ambition. If he accepts that savings can be made through investment in insulation, why, when households will face higher tax bills for years to come, is he resistant to our policy, which would give every home in the country an entitlement to £6,500-worth of immediate energy efficiency improvements, paid for from the savings that people make on their fuel bills? Why is he resisting that?
Edward Miliband: I will explain this to the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change wrote him a letter—he may have replied, but I am not aware of his reply. His proposal is that £6,500 will be available to every household in the country. That would cost £170 billion up front. As far as I can see, he has no idea where that £170 billion will come from and how he will raise it. I hope that he comes forward with that. I look forward to his having interesting discussions with the shadow Chancellor about how £170 billion of funding will be provided. I think it is the largest uncosted commitment made by the Conservative party, but of course it is not the only uncosted commitment that the Conservatives have made, and it shows that they simply cannot be trusted with the nation’s finances."
Defence Questions came around again yesterday. Conservative members dominated the session and exhibited excellent technical knowledge.
James Arbuthnot (MP for North-East Hampshire) chairs the Defence Select Committee. He asked about Pakistan:
"Does the Secretary of State accept that the events in Lahore today show that instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan extends far beyond the border region? While we have troops in Afghanistan, we do not have them in Pakistan. Is the Secretary of State, along with the United States, rethinking his entire strategy for the region? Will he make a statement and perhaps allow a debate and possibly even a vote in this House about that?
Mr. Hutton: Yes, we are looking very carefully at all these matters. I am sure that there will be an opportunity to have a proper debate in this place in the usual way, either on a statement or in another way. It is very important not just for the security of our operation in Afghanistan but for the security of the UK as a whole that we develop an approach that encompasses the security challenge that Afghanistan poses as well as the growing threat of instability and extremism in Pakistan. We very much welcome President Obama’s new strategy, which was published last week. It has the prospect of significantly improving the situation in that very troubled region and we stand ready to play our part."
Former Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind was also concerned:
"Is the Secretary of State aware that the Afghan Taliban have recently been successful in persuading the Pakistani Taliban to defer some of their operations in Pakistan and to join their Afghan colleagues to help to try to deal with the expected American surge? If the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban can get their act together, is it not about time that the Afghan and Pakistani Governments were also able to do so? Will the Secretary of State speak to his Pakistani colleague and impress upon him that the security of Afghanistan is crucial to the security of Pakistan itself?
Mr. Hutton: I agree very strongly with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I have already had those conversations with the Pakistani Minister of Defence, and I have had those conversations regularly with the Afghan Minister of Defence as well. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman 100 per cent., and we are focused very clearly on doing exactly what he has just said."
Yesterday saw questions to Transport ministers.
Congleton's Ann Winterton (right) - who is an assiduous attendee of oral questions - asked about rail prices:
"What recent assessment he has made of levels of rail fares. 
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We continue to regulate rail fares to balance the protection for passengers and taxpayers while allowing significant investment in rail. We have made it clear that the average cap—usually the retail prices index plus 1 per cent.—will be applied next year even if RPI is negative, leading to lower regulated fares in January 2010. From January 2010, the cap will also apply generally to individual regulated fares.
Ann Winterton: The Secretary of State will be aware of the horror expressed by commuters and passengers about the huge hike of more than 6 per cent.—the figure is much higher in some areas—in rail fares this year. I welcome his reaffirmation on behalf of the Government that fares next year will be pegged to the standard formula, but will he also assure us that rail companies will not cut services?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Lady refers to regulated fares. To deal with her last point first, the services are governed by the franchise agreement entered into by the train operating companies. Of course, we will not allow those agreements to be changed without a clear, good reason. To deal with the generality of her observation, support for railways comes from two sources: fare-paying passengers and taxpayers. If we are to maintain the level of investment in our railways that I think we should have, we have a clear choice. We can either allow fares to be increased according to the consistent arrangements that have operated for many years, or we can increase the subsidy from the taxpayer. If she is unhappy about the balance that we have struck, she needs to say so, as does her party. Instead of simply making generalised complaints, I want to hear what specific proposals the Conservative party would make about fares and the level of taxpayers’ subsidy."
Shadow Transport Minister Stephen Hammond posed a follow-up question on the same subject:
"The facts show that the Passenger Focus report published in February this year highlighted value for money as the most serious concern for passengers. The facts also show that the most packed trains are running at more than 170 per cent. capacity and that, since 2003, regulated and unregulated fares have risen by a third. Do not the facts show that after a decade of Labour control, the story is one of overcrowded trains, value for money falling, and the taxpayer having to pick up the tab?
I would not want the Conservative party to feel that I was letting it off the hook after the comments that I made about the Liberal Democrats. If the hon. Gentleman gets his way and eventually ends up on the Government Benches taking the decisions, he will have £840 million less to spend on the railways and on transport in general than has been spent by this Government. He and his party have to explain how they will manage to continue with investment in much-needed projects such as Crossrail at the same time as cutting the railway budget."
Questions were put to ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families department yesterday.
The very last question of the session was from John Bercow, Buckingham MP, and addressed the loathsome phenomenon of bullying:
"Given that approximately 6,000 children a year exclude themselves from school after suffering extreme bullying, approximately 50 per cent. of whom have contemplated or attempted to commit suicide, will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and a delegation of interested parties to consider the case for funding the network of Red Balloon learner centres across the country? They are doing fantastic work in restoring the self-esteem of those damaged children, and getting them back into school, into further education, on to university or into employment. They need a bit of help.
Ed Balls: I had the opportunity two weeks ago to meet a group of young people from Norwich and Harrow who were being given chances to get back into school through the support of Red Balloon. Such decisions are made by local authorities, and I urge all local authorities to support Red Balloon and such new opportunities for children. I would love to meet the hon. Gentleman and a delegation again, so that I can hear further inspiring stories of young people getting back into education because of this important voluntary organisation."
Mark Pritchard, who represents The Wrekin, asked about means testing:
"Does the Minister accept that there needs to be more flexibility in the means-testing criteria? For example, the circumstances of a household on an income of £30,000 with a single child in full-time education are entirely different from those of another household on the same income but with five children in full-time education. Such issues have an impact on whether some children fulfil full-time education.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The problem is that the more flexibility that we put into the system, the more complex it becomes. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there will not always be the same number of young people in the 16-to-18 age group. It is that particular age group that we are trying to attract with the education maintenance allowance."
The Commons also hosted Treasury questions yesterday.
Shadow Chancellor George Osborne scented blood:
"Are we really expected to believe that when the Prime Minister appointed Sir James Crosby to the board of the Financial Services Authority, and when the current Chancellor promoted him to the job of deputy chairman in 2007, neither of them had any idea that they were appointing someone whose business model at HBOS was being investigated by the regulator whose board they were appointing him to?
Mr. Darling: As the Prime Minister has just told the Liaison Committee, Sir James’s appointment in 2003 was made on the recommendation of a selection panel that followed an open competition, and that panel, which was chaired by the senior official then responsible for banking regulation, Sir James Sassoon, recommended the appointment of James Crosby. At that time, there was no reason to question that appointment. With the benefit of hindsight, many people now make claims about what they say they knew at that time, but the then Chancellor followed the proper procedures and followed the advice, and he had no reason not to make the appointment.
The FSA has said that in 2002, and subsequently, it drew attention to a number of concerns, as it did with several other organisations. In terms of the law, the way in which the FSA supervises any bank, let alone this one, is a matter for it. Neither the subsequent investigation into the allegations made against James Crosby, nor the concerns that it had, were reported to the Treasury. I would not expect them to have been, given the information that I have from the chief executive of the FSA at the moment.
Mr. Osborne: Either the Chancellor knew what was going on and did nothing, or he was entirely ignorant, and neither is much of a defence. Is not the net closing in on the Prime Minister and the Chancellor? Their accomplices are resigning, their alibi that no one knew what was going on has been blown apart, and their fingerprints are all over the mistakes that were made during the age of irresponsibility.
Is there a coherent view in the Cabinet about how long this recession will last? We know what the Treasury’s forecasts are, and we know what the Chancellor says about the economy recovering halfway through this year, but today the Health Secretary has said that we need to be ready for two years of recession. Is the Health Secretary expressing the collective view of the Government on this issue?
Mr. Darling: In relation to the FSA, the hon. Gentleman’s claims are frankly ridiculous. Appointments were made in the normal way, which is a great deal more open than for some of the appointments that were made in the past. At the time, there was no reason not to accept the recommendations in relation to Sir James Crosby.
On the broader economic picture, as I have said to the House on a number of occasions, there has been an extremely sharp downturn not just in this country but in countries right across the world, and we can see the effects of that. I am clear, though, that if we had followed the hon. Gentleman’s advice and done absolutely nothing to prevent the full effects of the recession from being felt, the impact and the long-term damage to this country would have been substantial. I believe that the action that we have taken is not only justified but will ensure that this recession will be shorter and less painful than would otherwise be the case. I am sorry that the Conservative party continues to take the view that there is absolutely nothing that they are prepared to do to help people and businesses in this country."
Ludlow MP Philip Dunne has produced some remarkable figures on community sentences, which the Government has not challenged:
"The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), referred earlier to the introduction of high-visibility jackets last week for those serving community sentences. Will he now turn his attention to getting people who have been issued with community sentences to turn up to undertake them? For the last year for which information is available, 94,000 community sentences were issued but only 42,000 were completed. There is not much point in having high-visibility jackets if nobody is turning up to do the work.
Mr. Hanson: Enforcement is far better than it was 10 years ago, when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in office. Sometimes sentences are not completed because people are sentenced further and end up in jail on a longer sentence. I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports visibility and community involvement, and that he recognises that community sentences are a strong punishment and a strong deterrent that can sometimes help to prevent reoffending."
It is quite breathtaking that so many people seem to have such a casual attitude to a sentence. It's not voluntary community work! It would be interesting to know what proportion of incompleted sentences are not finished because of subsequent sentences, and how many people just don't bother to turn up.
Also, it's a pedantic point, but the Conservatives were not in power ten years ago!
The House of Commons was dominated by the Pre-Budget Report yesterday, which has been well reported elsewhere on ConservativeHome. But there was also an oral questions session on Work and Pensions.
David Evennett, MP for Bexleyheath and Crayford, exposed a worrying fact - that far too many gas fitters are not properly qualified:
"Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): CORGI estimates that as many as 20,000 people are working illegally with gas in the UK. What more can the Government do to ensure that the public are aware of the dangers of employing unqualified workers?
Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He is right: about 10 per cent. of installations were carried out by people who are still not registered with CORGI, and more needs to be done on that. As part of the arrangements for the new contract with Capita, that body will donate about £1.7 million to a charity. My noble Friend Lord McKenzie is asking other energy providers to put in resources, too. That fund will be used further to raise awareness. The more we do to raise awareness, the greater the reduction in the number of fatalities will be."
Philip Dunne, the Ludlow MP, uncovered latest unemployment figures:
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): The number of people in the UK claiming jobseeker’s allowance in October was 980,900. In Ludlow, the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance was 651.
Mr. Dunne: I am delighted that the Secretary of State is aware that unemployment in Ludlow has gone up by 10.5 per cent. in the past year alone, but why are there 300,000 fewer British people in work today than two years ago, while there are almost 1 million migrant workers in work?
James Purnell: On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, we totally understand that people will be worried about the economic circumstances, and our commitment is to do everything that we can to help people get back into work if they lose their job. That is why we have announced, for example, an extra £100 million—to do exactly that. We will do that to ensure that we never reach the unemployment levels that we had in the past of almost 3,000 people, not 651, in his constituency at the height of the previous recession."