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Volume 450: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2006

Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest sympathy and condolences to the family and friends of Marine Gary Wright of the Royal Marines, who was killed in Afghanistan last Thursday. He was a fine soldier who was doing an extraordinary job, and this country should be very proud of him.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, in addition to my duties in the House. I will have further such meeting later today.

Yesterday marked the passing of 11 years since the leader of Burma’s democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, was incarcerated, and during that time the widespread use of torture, rape and execution by the regime has continued. I congratulate the Government on the tangible efforts that they have made on Burma, particularly at the UN, but will the Prime Minister today make a commitment to close the loophole that allows companies to use British dependent territories to invest in Burma and help to prop up that wicked, evil regime?

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done in campaigning on the issue. He is right in saying that the British Government continue to raise the subject in the United Nations and in all the international forums that we possibly can. As for the particular point that he raises, I am perfectly happy to have a look at the issue, and to correspond with him. There may be many different ramifications of taking any such action, and we have to be careful about what consequences there are for British companies, but in general terms, it has been the Government’s policy to try to make sure that we isolate, as much as possible, the Burmese regime, and we support fully those campaigning for human rights and democracy in that country.

Q2. In the past year alone, nearly 8,000 families in North-East Derbyshire have had their incomes boosted by the working families tax credit. Can the Prime Minister assure me that any future tax policy under the Government will safeguard that much-needed extra cash for families in my constituency? (96556)

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend of that. It is extremely important to make sure that we continue with policies that have helped millions of families throughout the country to get off benefits and into work, because that is important. Certainly, as far as Labour Members are concerned, we will not make uncosted and uncostable commitments to making billions of pounds-worth of tax cuts that could only be afforded by depriving some of the poorest in our society of the help that they are currently getting.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the soldier killed in Afghanistan? Our thoughts should be with Gary Wright’s family.

Three years ago, the Government said that the youth justice system had been totally transformed. Yesterday, the chief inspector of prisons said that the system was approaching breaking point. Who is right?

Over the past few years, according to the National Audit Office—[Interruption.] I am trying to answer. According to the National Audit Office, in 1997 the system was a shambles; in 2004 it had made substantial improvement. The fact is, we have managed to reduce dramatically the time that it takes to get young offenders fast-tracked through the justice system. We have expanded the amount of secure accommodation. We are making sure now that those who breach antisocial behaviour orders are given a custodial sentence, although it is true that that is causing pressures in the system. We believe that that policy is right. That is why we shall continue investing in our youth justice system and continue to make improvements.

I think that the Prime Minister lives on another planet. After nine years there are no custodial places left for young people, secure units are completely overcrowded, and the Youth Justice Board warns of meltdown. Any halfway-competent Government would have seen this coming.

Now let us look at adult prisons. Will the Prime Minister confirm that we have run out of prison places; that last year the Government scrapped prison ships and now they are bringing them back; and that police officers are being taken off the streets to become jailers? Who is responsible for this complete failure of planning?

Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the youth justice system, the best way of testing it is the National Audit Office reports that are consistently produced on it. I just point out to him again that the latest National Audit Office report says that the system has been substantially transformed since this Government came to power.

As for places in adult prisons, we have expanded those dramatically. We have of course toughened up the sentences, but, of course, the right hon. Gentleman voted against the measures to toughen up sentences. And it is true that we are going to have to expand the number of prison places even more, which is why we are about to invest in another 8,000 prison places. Of course, he is unable to commit to that because of his tax cut policy.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about cuts, why do we not talk about the 21,000 jobs he is cutting in the NHS? I am happy to come here and talk about his NHS cuts any day of the week.

Now, Prime Minister, back to prison—actually, that has a certain ring to it. In May, the Prime Minister did something unprecedented: he put the Chancellor in charge of protecting the public. I quote: the Chancellor will co-ordinate Government policy to

“ensure families and communities have the protection and security they need.”

What on earth has the Chancellor been doing?

Let me explain what has been happening. As a result of the Chancellor running the strongest economy that this country has ever seen, we are able to make the investment in the national health service, in education and, yes, in prisons. But the right hon. Gentleman’s policy, which is to share the proceeds of growth between investment and tax cuts—that is his policy, is it not?—would mean cuts in the health service, and in prisons and in education. If he wants to debate the national health service, there are not 20,000 jobs being cut from the national health service [Interruption.]—no, there are not—there are 300,000 extra people working in the NHS today. The Labour party is committed to increasing investment in the national health service and he is not.

The Prime Minister talks about the Chancellor’s record. The Chancellor told us that he was going to freeze the assets of terrorists, but he could not even stop Abu Hamza buying a house while he was in prison. The youth justice system is in meltdown; the prison system cannot cope; dangerous prisoners are being released early; and there are no proper border controls. Is not this the truth: it does not matter who is in charge—Blair/Brown, Brown/Blair—this country is not safe under Labour?

The right hon. Gentleman spent rather a long time preparing that this morning, I suspect. But let me just point out to him that we do remember that under the last Tory Government, crime doubled. Under this Government crime has fallen. We have introduced tougher measures, that is true, and have put more people into prison, but every one of those tough measures he opposed, so there is no point in his coming to the Dispatch Box now and asking, why we are not taking tougher action on crime. Every time that we try to take tougher action he is opposed to it. The truth is, he talks tough but he votes soft.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that at this precise moment I have 100 rather attractive naked men outside my front door. That internationally renowned exhibition by Antony Gormley has attracted 600,000 visitors to the Sefton coastline, and much-needed money. We do not want to lose that exhibition but unfortunately local Tory councillors last week threw out the planning application for it. Will my right hon. Friend reassert his commitment to supporting the arts, recognising that it is a serious driver for economic renewal, and do everything that he can to enable Merseyside to enjoy that exhibition during our capital of culture year?

I congratulate those responsible —Antony Gormley and others—on the 100 naked men outside my hon. Friend’s door. That is a lot better than what is outside my door, which is the media every morning—my apologies for that—but I suppose we should be grateful: at least they are clothed.

My hon. Friend’s point is absolutely right. One of the reasons why it is important that we continue to invest in arts and culture is that this is not a peripheral issue for us. It is an absolutely central part of creating a more vibrant and decent society and we will continue to invest in it.

May I begin by associating myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of condolence and sympathy that we have just heard from the Prime Minister?

When may we expect the Attorney-General to make an application for the extradition and trial in Britain of those American soldiers against whom there is a prima facie case for the unlawful killing in Iraq of the ITN journalist Terry Lloyd?

For very obvious reasons, I think that it would be wrong for me to comment on anything that the Attorney-General may do in relation to that case. Once again, however, I would like to extend my deepest sympathy to Mr. Lloyd’s family.

Not much comfort there, I think. As recently as last night, the Government assured us that the extradition treaty with the United States would facilitate justice. Is not what we have a fast-track process, but a fast-track process that goes only one way?

I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is stretching reality a bit there, because the fact of the matter is that we were asked to make sure that the US Senate and Congress ratified the treaty and we have done our best to ensure that that happens. I have repeated again my sympathy to Mr. Lloyd’s family, but let me just point out to him that I think that it is important when we talk about American soldiers, or indeed our own soldiers that I make it clear that not just British soldiers, but American soldiers and the soldiers of many other countries who we are fighting alongside, are doing a superb job in very difficult circumstances. None of that will, of course, excuse anything wrong that has happened, but I do not think that it is right to have a debate about the armed forces, particularly when they are losing significant numbers of troops, as the American forces are, without paying tribute to their heroism, courage and bravery in defence of democracy in Iraq.

Q3. Does my right hon. Friend agree that 10 years of economic stability has made it possible for us to look to and plan for the long term? In my constituency, I have had £150 million of infrastructure investment and there is £100 million coming in the next two years. But we also need much social housing. Will he agree to look to toughen section 106 applications? So many times I am told that there is to be a school, a medical centre, a sports field or a village hall, but when the houses are built, the section 106 agreement is never delivered. (96557)

I totally understand the point that my hon. Friend is making. He illustrates exactly why the planning gain supplement is an important part of Government policy. It is also true that, with the section 106 applications, we are looking to see how we can strengthen that. There may be announcements on that in the weeks to come. The point that he is making about the investment in infrastructure is absolutely right. Where we are building more homes—and we need to build more homes—it is important that we are matching that with infrastructure investment in schools, hospitals, roads and so forth. That is why, again, it is important that we increase the investment in areas such as his, rather than cut it.

For almost a year, we have been pushing repeatedly for a climate change Bill. [Interruption.] That is right: if you want to get something to happen in this country, get the Leader of the Opposition to suggest it. In January, the Prime Minister rejected the idea. He even said that it was “a trifle dodgy.” Can he confirm today that the Government will have a climate change Bill in the Queen’s Speech?

Obviously, I cannot say what will be in the Queen’s speech before it is published, but I can give the reason why I described the right hon. Gentleman’s proposals as I did—I am surprised that I used the word “trifle” because “dodgy” would have been the accurate description. First, he is against the climate change levy, but we would never have been able to make the progress that we have without it. Secondly, he is asking for statutory, binding, year-on-year targets, which are very difficult to deliver because the changes that might happen in any one year could render them extremely difficult to achieve.

Why can we not just have a straight answer? Are we getting a Bill: yes or no? Can the Prime Minister confirm that he is not going to water it down? Will it include the two things that really matter: annual targets and an independent body that can measure and adjust them in the light of circumstances? Can we have a proper climate change Bill, not some watered-down version?

The reason why I cannot give commitments on that is that we have not yet published the Queen’s Speech. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would be aware that it would be in the Queen’s Speech that that would be announced.

Let me go back to the point that he is making. The action that we are taking—huge investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and the climate change levy, which has reduced dramatically what would otherwise have been the carbon dioxide and greenhouse emissions—is absolutely vital, but it must also be practical and workable. That is why we will make sure that any proposals that we bring forward will mean that we will be able to ensure that we get the reduction in CO2 emissions that we need—remember, this country will meet and exceed its Kyoto targets and will be one of the very few countries in the world to do so. Such proposals must also be entirely compatible with the interests of business and consumers.

As for the tax proposals that the right hon. Gentleman introduced last week, if I may very quickly—[Interruption.] I am citing this because it is an interesting example of how a Government should not make policy. In the morning, he was saying that green taxes on pollution will rise to pay for reductions. By the afternoon, he was saying, or his shadow Chancellor was—[Hon. Members: “Ah.”] Well, I assume that they are on the same side, roughly. By the afternoon, the shadow Chancellor was saying:

“some green taxes … are regressive, they fall primarily on the poor in society.”

By the time that the last edition of the Evening Standard was published, it was saying:

“The Tories hurriedly backed away from slapping higher tax on cheap flights today”.

If that is an example of the right hon. Gentleman’s policy making, we certainly will not follow it.