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.