The Secretary of State was asked—
As part of our investment and reform programme for water services, we are introducing measures to guarantee that more than a quarter of homes, about 200,000 households, spend no more than 3 per cent. of their income on water and sewerage charges. To ease further the burden for all customers, all new charges will be phased in over three years and for pensioners we are making available the option of choosing a water meter.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We want to be proactive in ensuring that those who are entitled to the additional support actually receive it. That is why we have already put in place data-sharing arrangements with the Housing Executive and the Rate Collection Agency, to ensure that people entitled to the relevant benefits actually receive the support. That is a mark of how serious we are about ensuring that those on lower incomes receive the help and support that we are making available.
I remind the hon. Gentleman, who has detailed knowledge of the history of these matters, that the process was begun under the Executive and the last Assembly, and that we have followed through the work they began. Of course, delaying the process beyond the start of April 2007, when it is due to come into force, would put a big hole in the budget for next year. An incoming Assembly would be free to reverse the process, but it would have to find the money to keep the investment going into water and sewerage services that they desperately need. If we are not to do that by asking people to pay a fair share domestically, the money will have to come from other parts of the budget—from health, education and training and skills—and I do not think the people of Northern Ireland would welcome that either.
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I would like to reiterate my total opposition to the introduction of water rates, which are already collected under the regional rate. However, the Minister’s colleague wrote to me on 9 September citing Government policy in respect of rates and said:
“The Government’s view is that a rate relief scheme based on ability to pay best reflects the situation in Northern Ireland.”
How does the Minister square that statement of the Government’s policy and philosophy with the fact that he is not abiding by it in respect of the water rates, the little-mentioned sewerage rates or the general rate itself? Why the contradiction?
The hon. Gentleman has to face up to a simple fact: domestic households pay in council tax and water charges about £1,300 in England and Wales, £1,250 in Scotland and £668 in Northern Ireland. That is not sustainable if we want the investment in water and sewerage services that is needed to bring them up to the standards required. The process is a way of ensuring that people pay a fair share—not more than their fair share. At the same time, we have what we call an affordability tariff—help for those on lower incomes—that is far more generous than anything that applies elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We should be commended for a package of measures that gives the investment we absolutely need, is fair to everyone and gives support to those on low incomes.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): The Minister will be aware that the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland has launched legal action in an attempt to win more time for consultation, because people across the communities in Northern Ireland, especially vulnerable people, are very worried about what the Minister proposes to do. Will he give a guarantee that he will extend the consultation period, in line with what the General Consumer Council and all the parties and the people of Northern Ireland are seeking? Can he at least give that assurance?
This matter has been under consultation since 2001. The idea that the consultation period has been shortened is absolute nonsense. The matter comes before the court tomorrow, but on the general principle the consumer council supports the introduction of water charges. It has worked with us because it recognises that, if we are to have the investment we need to bring water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland up to an acceptable level, people—domestic consumers—have to pay their fair share. The consumer council supports that policy. I am absolutely convinced that we have consulted properly, thoroughly and rigorously on it, and we shall not delay it any longer.
I have established three ring-fenced priority funding packages—children and young people, skills and science and environment and energy—to redirect resources specifically to improve the prospects and life chances of future generations in Northern Ireland.
I am sure that the House will be pleased to hear about the progress of that approach, but are there other ways in which different Departments can work together—for instance, through cross-cutting budgets in respect of areas such as renewable energy?
There are indeed and I welcome my hon. Friend’s point. That is exactly what is happening. For example, we are seeing £60 million invested in renewable energy schemes and environmental protection schemes to make Northern Ireland the leader of the green agenda in the United Kingdom. There are also 100 per cent. grants to low-income households to install solar panels on their roofs, alternative microgeneration schemes and a change in building regulations, so that, from April 2008, no new build in Northern Ireland—whether it be a hospital, a school, a factory, an office or a home—can proceed without microgeneration designed in from the beginning. That will contribute to the fight against climate change, as well as reduce bills.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the DUP was the only party to argue for a reduction in the number of Government Departments. Does he agree that it is imperative for the funding for the distribution of essential life-improving drugs such as Herceptin, beta interferon, Enbrel and Remicade on the one hand, and for mental health provision on the other, to be ring-fenced? Sadly, in those two areas, money is often siphoned off when there are shortfalls within the national health service.
The hon. Lady will know that the Labour Government have doubled in real terms the health budget in Northern Ireland, but she has made strong arguments on those matters and I pay tribute to her. It is exactly the joined-up government approach that we are carrying forward and I hope that the devolved Executive will also carry it forward—and sooner rather than later.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on the ring-fenced funding and I ask him to think seriously about further ring-fenced funding for education. While there are wards in North Down where 70 per cent. of young people go to university, only 4 per cent. do so in the Shankhill. Such disparities cannot go on and extra ring-fenced funding will help to overcome them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although Northern Ireland has excellence at the top of our schools system, it has a very poor achievement rate down the ability ladder. What we need is everyone having opportunities in schools so that Northern Ireland can be world class. That is why I have ring-fenced funding for children and young people. For example, I have provided extra money directly to head teachers in about 400 schools in the most disadvantaged areas—including the one that my hon. Friend mentioned—to enable them to run breakfast and after-school clubs, providing high-quality care, so that parents can work if they wish to and children can get a better start in life. We are also offering a new pre-apprenticeship programme to young people at 14, so that they stay engaged in education and are fully prepared for further vocational education. That is our agenda.
Since 1998, the Government have provided £36.4 million of help to victims. As part of her remit, Mrs. Bertha McDougall, the Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, is carrying out a review of how well current funding arrangements are addressing need. Her final report is due around the end of this year and I look forward to seeing her findings and recommendations, which will help to inform our consideration of any new funding arrangements.
The Minister will be aware that in a recently published report, Bertha McDougall stated that there was a
“lack of co-ordination, which had led to confusion, duplication of funding, gaps in funding, over-administration and an incomplete picture of provision.”
In advance of the interim commissioner’s final report, is there not a need to look further into how to end the duplication and to ensure that the money gets through to the people who need it most—the people who have suffered: the victims and the survivors—rather than be spent on administration? There should also be greater flexibility with respect to the Northern Ireland memorial fund. The funding should be geared towards meeting the specific needs of individual victims rather than provide generalised funding through grant arrangements.
The hon. Gentleman makes some very fair points. I congratulate Bertha McDougall on her work to date as interim commissioner. She is doing a sterling job in reviewing these issues. As the hon. Gentleman said, she has identified a lack of co-ordination, duplication of funding arrangements and the fact that, in some cases, bureaucracy is preventing victims, through no fault of their own, from receiving what is due to them. That is the very reason why we asked her to examine the issues and the very reason why she will make proposals in December. I greatly share the hon. Gentleman’s aspiration for a more focused and targeted approach to funding for victims and for people who need Government support, so that they receive it in a proper and effective way. I am confident that, once the review is complete, we will be in a position to take those matters forward.
I thank the Minister for the comments that he has already made on this important issue. Does he recognise that, as we look to political progress in the talks in Scotland and beyond, every stage of progress has brought mixed feelings for victims in Northern Ireland? They do not reject the language of moving on, but they fear that they are being left in some sort of forgottenhood. Does he recognise that the promises made to victims in the Good Friday agreement have not been upheld? The Government and all the parties can do more to deliver those promises. Will he encourage the formation of a forum for victims and survivors to do the business that the parties and Governments have failed to do in addressing the needs of victims on truth, remembrance and recognition?
Again, there is much in what my hon. Friend says that I genuinely share. Bertha McDougall, as the interim victims commissioner, is examining the possibility of bringing together individuals to look at some of the issues that deal with the past. What has happened in Northern Ireland over the past 35 years and the impact on victims and survivors has been devastating to their lives, cannot be moved on from and will always need to be remembered, but it needs to be put into a context where we offer support and accommodation to examine those issues in detail. We will very shortly introduce into the Commons an order to establish the victims commissioner permanently. We are committed to an expenditure of about £5 million a year on victims currently, and we have spent more than £36 million to date. I am certainly discussing the points that my hon. Friend mentions with the victims commissioner now, and I hope that we can make progress on them in the near future.
Has the Minister examined the Alliance party’s proposals for an international commission to define a strategy that deals not just with the past, but with the legacy of the past and the victims of what has happened in the past three and a half decades? Do the Government share my view and, indeed, that of the Alliance party that Northern Ireland must have a strategy to address its past if it is successfully to implement a vision for a shared future?
Yes, I have seen the Alliance proposal and I congratulate David Ford MLA on bringing those ideas to the table. I am also very encouraged that the Committee on the Preparation for Government in the Assembly has looked seriously at issues that relate to the past, and we certainly need to give careful thought to how we deal with such issues. I welcome the paper from the Alliance as a contribution to that debate. There is certainly the potential for some form of consultation on dealing with the past, and we continue to keep that under review. No doubt, that will be discussed as we head for Scotland today and over the next few days as well.
Since victims groups were probably the most strongly opposed to the Government’s abortive Bill to give an effective amnesty to on-the-run terrorists, will the Minister give us an assurance today that the Government will not agree to this week’s demand from Sinn Fein that that legislation now be reintroduced?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. He will know that the Government attempted to take action on this issue. That attempt was not successful. The Government withdrew the Bill, and I can assure him today that there is no prospect whatsoever of the Government reintroducing the legislation that was before the House last year.
Despite the fact that the Northern Ireland economy is supporting its highest ever number of jobs and has below-average unemployment, it is still one of the worst economic inactivity hotspots in the UK. In Northern Ireland, a person of working age is 74 per cent. more likely to be receiving incapacity benefit than a working-age person in England. Therefore, we are implementing the pathways to work programme for people who receive incapacity benefit and have increased funding over the baseline by an additional £3.7 million over the next two years from the new skills and science fund to achieve that.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but given that the economic success of any community depends on the economic activity of individuals, is it not important to monitor closely how pathways to work can work best for individuals? In doing so, can we ensure that that programme is available to all the people of Northern Ireland, so that everyone can share in the success?
My hon. Friend may be aware that the pilots operating in six areas are showing extremely encouraging results, with up to five times more people finding work in those areas following the interventions than in other areas. By the time we roll out pathways to a further four areas this month, we will be covering about a third of the on-flow on to the benefit. I hope that we will be able to roll out the programme further across the whole of Northern Ireland over the next year or so, meaning that everybody in Northern Ireland coming on to incapacity benefit will have the benefit of pathways to assist them back into work and economic activity.
The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the economically inactive are twice as likely to have no qualifications as those who are in work, so developing key skills and giving people access to skills training is an essential part of our approach. In respect of those who have been inactive for some time, confidence-building measures and helping them to deal with the health conditions that often keep them on incapacity benefit are vital first steps. Both interventions need to go forward together, and they will as we roll out pathways to work.
The single equality Bill will bring together all existing Northern Ireland equality and anti-discrimination law in one legal instrument and, as far as is practicable, harmonise protection and extend protection to new grounds where appropriate. The resulting legislation will be more consistent and coherent, will clarify rights and responsibilities and will simplify the law to make it more effective.
The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the late right hon. Member for Redcar, was instrumental in setting up the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which is responsible for dealing with sexual discrimination, disability discrimination, fair employment and race relations. The single equality Bill has been consulted upon for several years, but when will this legislation finally become law?
I pay tribute to my former right hon. colleague, Mo Mowlam, who put a lot of work into ensuring that the single equality Bill came before the House. As Ministers, we are determined that Northern Ireland will not fall behind the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of the introduction of legislation. There is potentially about one year for work to be undertaken and we are committed to undertaking the legislation either by a Bill in the House or via the devolved Assembly if that is the appropriate way forward. As the direct rule ministerial team, we certainly wish to see the legislation before the House.
Will the Minister accept that any proposed equality Bill needs to ensure that, for example, the public sector recruitment ratios that have shown in recent years a significant under-representation of the Protestant community are addressed and reviewed so that genuine equality of opportunity is offered to each section of our community?
The Government are committed to introducing a fair rating system for Northern Ireland based on the current value of people’s homes. Through housing benefit and the new rate relief scheme, more than 185,000 households in Northern Ireland will receive assistance in paying their rates. In addition, those in full-time education and training, as well as all 16 and 17-year-olds and young people leaving care up to the age of 21, will be exempt from rates.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that comprehensive and welcome response, which is an example of reform tinged with sensitivity. As he now wears proudly the mantle of champion of the elderly, is he not aware of the 250,000 pensioners in Northern Ireland and will he not look at special support for a group that may be property rich but are often cash poor?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will be aware that I have taken on the role of older people’s champion. Older people, for this purpose, are determined as those over 50, and I am 49 and a half, so I am just about there. The Government are committed to introducing a fair rating system, and the number of people who will receive benefits for their rates will increase as a result of the changes that we are bringing forward. Under the old rating system, some 175,000 people had help with their rates. Under the new proposals, 185,000 will have help and more of those will have greater benefits than before. I am committed to ensuring that people on low incomes have the best deal possible from this Government in paying their rates.
We have tried to put in place a new benefits system that will help those in need to pay. There are many well-off pensioners who might not benefit from any schemes, but there are many low-income pensioners who will benefit from rate relief. The circumstances differ, but overall more people will benefit under the proposed new scheme.
I have taken a decision not to cap the rates in due course. That will affect approximately 3,000 properties. There are 700,000 properties in Northern Ireland. I am concerned about ensuring that the system is fair for the vast majority of properties—those who live in the largest properties can afford to pay a significantly increased contribution to their rates. That is my objective, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman, and in due course the Assembly, will share it.
I welcome the Minister’s answers relating to those on low incomes, but unfortunately, unlike the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), I do not believe that they will work out in practice. Does the Minister accept that the parameters of low income are far too tight and that many people with pensions and very small savings will not qualify for any relief? Does he accept that people with disabilities will require their homes to be specially adapted before they qualify? There is a plethora of single-person households, carers and all the rest who will not qualify for relief.
No, I am afraid I do not accept that. To give an example, a pensioner couple living in a house worth £500,000 with a combined pension and income of £21,000 and £15,000 in savings will still benefit under the rate relief scheme. I believe that the scheme is fair and appropriate, and I commend it to the House.
By the very nature of the scheme, more people will be paying higher rates, and that will lead to a lower disposable income across Northern Ireland. That will lead to lower demand for goods and services, and that will lead to fewer jobs. How does the Minister square that with his intention to make more people in Northern Ireland economically active?
Our figures show that 55 per cent. of the population of Northern Ireland will pay the same or less in their rates than currently. We are not raising one single extra penny from the rating system in Northern Ireland. We are rebalancing that system and ensuring that it is fair for all.
Northern Ireland Assembly
Substantial progress has been made in recent months, including a report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which opens the way to a settlement at the summit at St. Andrews that will start later today.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The whole House should welcome the progress that has been made and hope that more progress will be made this week. Have any specific discussions taken place that will allow the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have been forced into exile over the past 30 years to return to their homes in safety?
As my hon. Friend knows, the security situation has been transformed these last years under this Government, with not one soldier on the streets on 12 July for the parading season for the first time in nearly 40 years, and with last week’s IMC report confirming that the Provisional IRA no longer has a war machine and no longer poses a terrorist threat. That opens the way for delivering a political settlement, starting in St. Andrews today.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
Is the Secretary of State aware of how damaging it would be to the prospects for restoration if the Government were to return to the issue of on-the-run terrorists being given what amounts to an amnesty? Although we welcome the earlier answer from the Minister of State that no legislation is to be brought before the House, will the Secretary of State reassure the House and settle the nerves of my colleagues and me by assuring us that no other procedure will be used to allow on-the-run terrorists to return?
There is no other procedure. There is no prospect of an amnesty. The legislation was tried; it was withdrawn when support for it collapsed, not least in this House, and we have absolutely no intention of bringing legislation back. That, I think, should reassure the hon. Gentleman. What we shall look for in the next few days is delivery—not promises—from Sinn Fein on policing and respect for the rule of law, and then a commitment from all the parties to a power-sharing Executive.
First, may I wish the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland parties well in their negotiations at St. Andrews?
Secondly, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to confirm that he believes that if power sharing and devolution are to be durable in Northern Ireland, as we both want, they must be based on every political party and every potential Minister recognising the authority of the police and the courts as legitimate, and giving those institutions full practical support?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. The discussions will be critical. The politicians have a window of opportunity, which may not be available again for many years to come.
I am happy to agree unequivocally that Sinn Fein and everybody else must sign up to the rule of law. Anyone who seeks to hold ministerial office in Northern Ireland must support, co-operate with and report crime to the police, and ensure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is able to do its job of enforcing law and order.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our sympathy and condolences to the families of those members of our armed forces who have lost their lives in action in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few months. We pay tribute to their courage, their bravery and the importance of the work they do. This country is proud to have the armed forces that we have.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today, including, of course, hosting the talks on the future of Northern Ireland.
The excellent accident and emergency and maternity services at Hastings Conquest hospital are testimony to the massive improvement under Labour’s national health service—[Hon. Members: “But.”] There are no buts. However, may I ask my right hon. Friend how local people can challenge the bizarre proposals by bureaucrats to downgrade those valued and cherished services?
My hon. Friend is right to say that there has been enormous progress in the health service. Waiting lists are down by some 400,000. The number of deaths from heart disease has fallen since 1997 by about 150,000. We now have no one waiting for more than six months; when we took office, thousands were waiting more than 18 months. There have been improvements in cancer care, treatment for cataracts, and in accident and emergency services.
Any changes that are proposed locally will have to be fully consulted on, and the decisions will be taken locally by those who are responsible for the local health service. That is the sensible way to proceed. This Government have put enormous investment into our national health service and it is important that the right decisions on its future are taken locally.
There we have it: no buts, just cuts.
I join the Prime Minister in sending our condolences to the families of those soldiers who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few months. We must make sure that they did not die in vain.
The Home Office has explained that it is moving prisoners at risk of escaping to open prisons. The Home Secretary is apparently happy with that. [Interruption.] Is the Prime Minister?
As the Home Secretary has just pointed out, absconding is at its lowest for 10 years, so the idea that we are going to put the public at risk is absurd. No people will be put in open prisons who are a risk to the public. [Interruption.] As the Home Secretary has just pointed out, the figures on absconding are the lowest for 10 years. Let me point something else out to the right hon. Gentleman. When he was advising the Home Secretary at the Home Office under the previous Administration, many, many category A prisoners as well as other category prisoners escaped. I am pleased to say that under this Administration there have been no category A escapes.
But the public are at risk and the Home Secretary knows it. I have a memo from the governor of Ford open prison that could not be clearer. It states that
“this will mean almost inevitably that the abscond rate”—
that is, people escaping—
“will go up in Cat D prisons”
“medium term burglars and robbers”
“likely to abscond.”
Whatever happened to tough on crime?
Hold on a minute. I know the Prime Minister has only a few more goes. Let us look at something else that he said. He said that any foreign national convicted of an imprisonable offence should be deported automatically. The Home Secretary is now bribing prisoners with up to £2,500 to get them to go home. Whatever happened to automatic deportation?
The Home Secretary is, very sensibly, making sure that we can ensure that all those foreign secretaries—[Laughter.] There is not much of a recovery after that one. He is making sure that all those foreign prisoners can be returned as early as possible. It will obviously cost money, but in order to ensure that it happens more quickly we are making sure not that they are given a cash payment—that is absolutely wrong—but that we pay for their return before their sentence is completed, so that we reduce the pressure on British prisons and so that, when their sentence is completed, prisoners are returned immediately. That is the only way we will get the foreign prisoners back quickly.
Let us look at what happened. Of the 1,000 prisoners who were released and who should have been deported, only 86 have been sent home. That is not automatic deportation.
Let us look at another thing the Government said. The Secretary of State for Health told us that this was the best year ever for the NHS. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, since then, 20,000 jobs are being cut, 80 community hospitals are under threat and 60 major hospitals face cutbacks? Would he describe it as the best ever year for the NHS?
I am delighted that we have got on to the national health service. There are not 20,000 jobs going in the national health service. Since the Government came to power, there are 250,000 extra people employed in the national health service. Let me point out to the right hon. Gentleman, since he is launching a campaign on Saturday about cuts in the national health service, that his policy proposal earlier this week was for an independent commissioning board that would apparently be free to commission all services. [Interruption.] Nobody on the Government Front Bench is in favour of an independent commissioning board. It would be free to commission all services, and we know from the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) that there would be no limits to independent commissioning. Therefore, under the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal, if the board wished to commission maternity services, paediatric services or diagnostics from the private sector, it would be able to do so without limit. How does he put forward that policy proposal on the Monday, and then launch a campaign asking me to intervene in local decisions and provide more money at the end of the week?
I do not know why the Prime Minister is attacking our health policy. One of his Health Ministers has said it is worth looking at and the Chancellor is going around briefing everyone that he would introduce it. I know that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor do not talk any more, but if he read the newspapers he might find out what his Chancellor thinks. The Prime Minister is living in a fantasy world. In the real world, community hospitals are closing, nurses are facing the sack and beds are being lost. No wonder Labour is not trusted any more with the NHS.
Let us look at something else that the Prime Minister told us. He told us in January—Labour Members will enjoy this one—
“I’m absolutely happy that Gordon will be my successor. He needs the confidence of knowing he will succeed me and that’s fair enough.”
Does the Prime Minister still think that today?
Let me just say—[Interruption.] I do not resile from anything that I have said, but let me just go back for a moment to the NHS. The right hon. Gentleman has just proposed a campaign, saying that he would reverse all those decisions that are being taken by local decision makers on the NHS. Let me read to him from his campaign document—
Order. The Prime Minister has gone on too much about the Conservative party’s campaign document. [Interruption.] Order. I have given the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition some elbow room, and I ask both to take my advice, or sooner or later it will be my instruction.
I am simply explaining why I will not accept the policy on the NHS proposed by the Conservative party. I assume that the right hon. Gentleman is launching this policy proposal because he wants us to accept it, and the reason I will not accept it is that his proposal is for an independent board to take all commissioning decisions and to allocate resources. That would mean no accountability for politicians in this House about the decisions that are taken, and it would mean that, since there are no limits to the private sector involvement, none of these services that he will protest about at the end of the week will be guaranteed under his proposals made at the beginning of the week.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is a lot happier talking about that than he is about policy, but I will talk about policy. I will talk about the policy on the NHS, our policy and his policy, because in the end the issue for the country is who has the right policies for the future, and it is the Labour party that has made record investment in the NHS, which he voted against. It is this party that has delivered better waiting times, improved cardiac and cancer care and accident and emergency departments, and his policies would put all of that at risk, and that is why we will stick with our policies,not his.
Everyone can see that the Government are divided and paralysed. We have a Prime Minister who does not trust his Chancellor, a Chancellor who has been accused of blackmail, the latest Home Secretary wants the Prime Minister’s job, the Deputy Prime Minister does not have a job but is still being paid, and all the while hospital wards are closing and the prison system is in chaos. How many more months of this paralysis have we got to put up with?
There is no paralysis. We have record investment in the health service, which is delivering the results that we say. The reason it is important that we resist the right hon. Gentleman’s “campaign against the cuts” is that the changes that we are making in the NHS are necessary to make it fit for the modern age, when it is changing rapidly, when new technologies and treatments are coming in, and when 70 per cent. of cases are now day-care cases. He can make all the remarks that he wants, but it is this Government, on welfare, on pensions, on energy, on the NHS, on education, who are driving forwards, while his party has a series of policies that face both ways and have no credibility whatever. If he wants to be taken seriously as a leader he should get serious on substance.
Last week the Government confirmed that paid maternity leave will be increased from six to nine months from April next year, making a huge difference to the lives of about 400,000 women a year and many expectant mums in my constituency. Given that I will not be able to hang on that long, will my right hon. Friend consider putting in a good word with the Chief Whip for me?
That is an interesting suggestion. First, I offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend and hope that all goes well for her piece of individual delivery. Over the past few years, we have improved maternity pay and maternity leave, we have introduced paternity pay, we have expanded child care places by about 1 million, we have given free nursery education for three and four-year-olds, and we will expand that still further, we have given the right to flexible working for the first time, and we are ensuring that in maternity pay and maternity leave we are prepared to go even further. That is the difference between a Government who deliver on policy and one who do not.
I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence to those who have lost their lives since the House last met. We should never forget that each and every one of them leaves behind a grieving family and friends, and we should not forget the thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians who have also lost their lives.
Turning to Northern Ireland, with which the Prime Minister will be engaged later today and for which he has the support of the vast majority in the House, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government are still committed to the “Shared Future” agenda, which the Government published in March this year and which advocates integration, not separation, for the Northern Ireland community?
I certainly can confirm that. The “Shared Future” agenda is essential for the people of Northern Ireland, and we published an action plan to achieve it earlier this year. Obviously, what is necessary now is to get political stability within the right political framework for the future, and we hope that we can do that.
It is a few hours before the talks begin, and it would probably not be sensible to speculate about what will happen if they do not work. It is important to recognise that this deadline is not merely a deadline in legislation. If we are to make progress in Northern Ireland, it is necessary to realise that the issues will not change—the issues have been there all the way through. We have not had a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland over the past few years—since 2002—because we have been unable to resolve the outstanding issues, which will not change or go away and which will still be there, irrespective of what happens. In my view, this is a one-off opportunity to build on all the progress that has been made and put in place a future for the people of Northern Ireland that will last, that will allow prosperity, that will allow people to celebrate the diversity of Northern Ireland and that will allow people to pursue their political objectives in a peaceful way. I think that that is an historic opportunity, and we should seize it.
Last month, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and I visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where we saw the excellent work being done by the charity War Child for street children and child soldiers. Today, Amnesty International has expressed grave concern about the number of child soldiers still being held by warlords. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that the Government will put pressure on the new Government in the DRC to take immediate action to get those child soldiers released from the hands of the warlords?
That is a problem in the Congo, and it is a problem in other parts of Africa, too. We have a clear position: we put maximum pressure on any governmental or non-governmental bodies that engage in a form of child slavery and oppression that is truly disgusting. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do everything that we can to eradicate it in the Congo and elsewhere.
I am happy to look into the matter for the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he makes a speedy recovery. I know a little bit about the issue, and I am sure that it is worth while, but I need to check whether it is possible to intervene in a helpful way. I will get in touch with him as soon as I can.
What Dame Pauline Neville-Jones says is very sensible, and is yet another example of the Conservatives’ policy of facing both ways, as she chairs their security commission. The reasons why identity cards are important are simple: 70 per cent. of the cost will be necessary for the new passports in any event; identity fraud and abuse is a major question; and apart from the benefits for the individual in having secure identity, it is impossible to say that we are serious about tracking who is in and entitled to be in this country and who goes out unless there is such an identity system. Therefore, anyone who is serious about dealing with illegal immigration must get serious on the subject of identity cards.
Yes, but as the hon. Gentleman will know, the reason being put forward for the changes is not that they will diminish community facilities but that they will provide them in a different way—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but that is a change going on throughout the health service for perfectly good reasons. His petition to me, of which I have read the reports, makes the point about the differential in funding between different parts of the country. It is true, for example, since he has said it in his local newspaper, that there is a 20 per cent. gap between the funding per head in his constituency and that in my constituency, but that is based on the figures for mortality though cancer, mortality through coronary disease and low birth weight. Actually, it is
“the fact that the most NHS resources should be given to those areas where the disease burden is highest.”
That is a quote from the Conservative campaign document.
Given the latest obesity figures, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Labour councillors in Hull who introduced the “Eat Well, Do Well” scheme, which has doubled the uptake of healthy free school meals in Hull?
I am delighted to congratulate them, and I am sure that it is an important part of the public health drive in Hull and elsewhere in the country. The reason it is important is that, as we extend community facilities, as we see changes in school dinners and in competitive sport in schools—which has increased to 80 per cent. from the 50 per cent. that we inherited—and as we are able to provide greater local community services in which public health is a major part, the general health of the nation will be improved, which will reduce the long-term costs in our health care system.
Obviously, I do not know the figures in respect of Peterborough, and I will have to look into that and reply to the hon. Gentleman. Let me make one thing clear. In removing foreign prisoners, in relation to which, in certain instances, there are difficulties in the courts and elsewhere, we are keeping figures on foreign prisoners for the first time in years. Under the previous Government, no such figures were kept at all.
I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for the measures that were announced yesterday, including the important tax-free bonus of more than £2,000 for completing a six-month operational tour. The separation allowance announcement is also important. In addition, we are considering other issues, one of which is the council tax, which he mentioned. The Ministry of Defence is discussing that with the Department for Communities and Local Government. There is another specific issue involving soldiers from Commonwealth countries who fight for our armed forces, but have difficulties with naturalisation because of residence requirements. That is something that we want to look at as a matter of urgency and I hope that we can announce changes in the next few weeks.
I shall just point out where the money has gone in the hon. Gentleman’s area. It has gone on 400 more consultants, 7,500 more nurses, and 100 more dentists. In education, there are 1,700 more teachers and 5,700 more support staff. Class sizes are also at historically low levels. The hon. Gentleman might also want to know that unemployment is at a historic low, interest rates are at a historic low, inflation is at a historic low and the economy is the strongest it has ever been.
It is important that we continue with the enlargement process, because it helps countries to make political and economic progress. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about the individual case and I know that she has raised it with me before. We will continue to raise it with the Bulgarian authorities, but we have to be careful about interfering with another country’s independent judicial process. I can assure her that we will monitor the case closely and we are in touch with the Bulgarian authorities about it.
Tourism is of course a vital priority, not only for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but for the Department of Trade and Industry. I am pleased to say that we are improving the quality of tourism all the time—especially as a result of the investment in skills—and attracting more and more people to places in this country such as his constituency, for good reason. We will continue to do everything we can to support our tourist industry.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the strength of feeling on both sides of the House about climate change. I have written to him recently on behalf of many constituents to request the introduction of a climate change Bill. Am I likely to be satisfied and happy with the reply when I receive it from my right hon. Friend?
Nothing would please me more than to make my hon. Friend happy and satisfied, but we will have to wait for the Queen’s Speech and the outline of the Bills it contains. However, my hon. Friend is right to emphasise the priority that we attach to the climate change issue. It is why we introduced the climate change levy, which is saving millions of tonnes of carbon a year, and it is why it is important that we work with the EU and other countries. Last week in Mexico we made real progress on a framework for when the Kyoto protocol expires in 2012. It is also why we announced recently a five-fold increase in renewable energies. An immense amount is happening here and I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to take the issue very seriously, but I am afraid that she will have to wait for the Queen’s Speech to see whether her satisfaction is complete.
First, I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the Paras and the extraordinary work that they have done in Afghanistan. It is hard for anyone to imagine the trial that they have been through or the courage with which they have met it. It is also very clear from what is happening in Helmand province that they have been successful in pushing the Taliban back. The struggle is by no means over, but it is essential that we continue with it.
The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that it is important that all members of NATO should play their part. However, to be fair, Canadian and American soldiers in the area are also losing their lives, and Spain, Italy, France and Germany have all lost troops there. I was with the Finnish Prime Minister last week and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that even the relatively small contingent from Finland has lost troops there.
The situation is very difficult. We want to make sure that NATO does more, and that is what the Defence Secretary said at the meeting the other day. It is important that we all make it clear why our troops are in Afghanistan. The country was used as a training ground for al-Qaeda. It was from there that terrorism was exported and the 11 September attacks—in which more British lives were lost than in any other terrorist incident—were launched. If we allow Helmand province or any other parts of Afghanistan to return to the grip of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, they will yet again become a training ground for terrorism. That is why the work that our Paras did was not only immensely brave but immensely necessary.
Sometimes it is important that we do not merely support our troops in the obvious way by saluting their courage, but that we also have pride in the success of the work that they are doing. It is absolutely vital, for our security and for that of the whole world. We should be extremely grateful that we have men and women in our armed forces who are prepared to risk their lives and make that sacrifice.