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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 451: debated on Wednesday 1 November 2006

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Comprehensive Spending Review

1. What work he has undertaken on Government policy with regard to the 2007 comprehensive spending review. (98410)

This is the fifth spending review undertaken by the Government and the second comprehensive one. Since 1997, 2.4 million jobs have been created and the UK economy is enjoying the longest period of sustained economic growth for 200 years, which the International Monetary Fund says is a remarkable and enviable record. The present comprehensive spending review is based on an assessment of the long-term challenges facing the UK in the decade from 2007. It will enable us to sustain the momentum of improvements in public services and release the resources needed to meet the challenges of the decade ahead. I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, Cabinet colleagues and others about how to meet the changes.

How does the Deputy Prime Minister think that the next comprehensive spending review can avoid a repeat of the prison places crisis and the tax credit fiasco?

The spending reviews of the past 10 years show the most enviable economic record, as I have just said, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is our intention to maintain that. The IMF has endorsed that policy, which has not always been the case with Labour Governments or even Tory Administrations. To that extent, it is a bit much for the hon. Gentleman to talk about what he might do about public expenditure—[Interruption.] The implication is clear—what they would do rather than how we deal with public expenditure. Ours is a successful record, which we will continue.

The interim report of the comprehensive spending review in July stated that pay settlements across the public sector should be based on the Government’s inflation target of 2 per cent. Does that target apply to public quangos and, if so, will the Deputy Prime Minister explain how, in Northern Ireland, the Police Ombudsman and the chief executive of the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment and many other public bodies could receive pay increases of nearly 10 times that target?

The comprehensive spending review applies to all public sector payments. I am not up to speed on what exactly has happened in Northern Ireland, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the review will apply to all.

Given the demanding level of future housing that the Deputy Prime Minister has willed on the south-east of England, in the course of his discussions on the comprehensive spending review, what representations has he made to the Chancellor to increase the woefully lacking infrastructure in the south-east?

When the Chancellor makes his statement, he will make clear how much of the resources will be available for infrastructure expenditure. But let me be absolutely clear: houses are needed in the south-east, as people in the region make clear, and we shall provide the necessary infrastructure.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us how much money will be set aside in the comprehensive spending review to fund his own new Department? Does he think it right that while 20,000 jobs are being lost from the NHS the Government are having to spend millions setting up a new office for a Minister who has been stripped of all his departmental responsibilities?

As usual, the right hon. Gentleman is not up to speed with the facts. His hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said that 20,000 jobs had been lost in the NHS, but it was made clear by the Secretary of State for Health and, indeed, the Prime Minister not just that the figure is only 900 but that it should be seen against the increase of more than 100,000 jobs in the health service, so the figure was just untrue and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to withdraw that obvious untruth.

Post Office

I have discussed this important issue with Cabinet colleagues and some postmasters, who lobbied all Members at Parliament on 18 October. The House recognises the important contribution that post offices make to the life of many urban and rural communities, and they will continue play that role in the future. Post offices need to adapt to change, as they are doing, and to offer new services. To support that, the Government have already invested more than £2 billion, and in the coming weeks, once the consultations are concluded, we shall bring forward our strategy.

Under this Government, thousands of post offices have closed, causing real hardship to the elderly, the most vulnerable in our society, people on low incomes and the disabled. Did the Deputy Prime Minister really come into politics to make the daily lives of those vulnerable groups in our society more difficult?

It is a matter of fact that the Post Office has declined considerably over a long period and thousands of post offices have closed, as the House knows from our many debates on the subject over the past 10 or 15 years. The hon. Gentleman should consider the fact that the Government have invested more than £2 billion in modernising the Post Office, whereas the Conservative Government gave it nothing. We have given almost £800 million to develop rural and urban post offices. We are consulting on the issue, we are well aware of the concerns and we will make a statement to the House. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that about 99 per cent. of people live within one mile of a post office.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister use his position as chair of the interdepartmental group on post offices to ensure that his different Departments know that they should give work to the Post Office instead of taking it away? Is not that the real problem—that while we are putting in subsidies, different Departments are not joined up in supporting the Post Office?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s point, but I have to say that many people’s choice has been—[Interruption.] Well, they have a choice whether to take their money to a particular account or leave it with the Post Office card account, and many people have decided to change, which Departments have to recognise. In reality, it is about the use of public resources, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the committee is actively debating how to secure a proper balance between technological change, available resources and customer choice.

Does not the Deputy Prime Minister realise that unless Government Departments give work to the Post Office, people will not be able to use post offices? The most important factor is the continuation of the Post Office card account after 2010. The Government must state soon that there will be a Government-supported successor to that account and make it easy for people to transfer—we do not want all the bullying and badgering to persuade people to go to the banks that happened when pension books were taken away. We want a Government-supported successor and an easy means for people to transfer from the Post Office card account to that successor.

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point and I can assure him that these issues are actively being debated in the committees. A statement will be made to the House shortly, so all those questions can be properly answered.

Does not my right hon. Friend accept that what we really need is an early statement? What sub-postmasters and mistresses require more than anything is the security of knowing what is being planned for the network. Will my right hon. Friend include in the statement clear guidance on how local communities can play a part in providing greater support for the Post Office, including the role of social enterprise?

Again, I find myself in agreement with much of what my hon. Friend says. The postmasters who came here two weeks ago made it clear that the present system is unsustainable. We are trying to find a proper balance, as I said, and a statement will be made soon.

This is a classic example of the Government’s policy not being joined up. The Prime Minister says that he wants to keep post offices open, yet the Department for Work and Pensions has been bullying people to move their benefit claims from post offices to banks. People no longer know whether the Post Office card account will be maintained. Furthermore, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is in her place next to the Deputy Prime Minister, talks about social exclusion, when the sub-post offices most likely to be closed are in the most rural areas. Two sub-post offices in my constituency at Bolingey and Portloe have been closed and the buildings sold because a profit cannot be sustained. In those areas, however, one in four people do not have access to a car and it is pensioners, disabled people and those on benefits, particularly young mothers, who have the greatest need for a post office.

The reality is, as I have already pointed out, that 99 per cent. of people live within a mile of a post office. It is true that the number of post offices has declined, but the Government have put in nearly £800 million to sustain the existing service. If the Liberal solution is to privatise the Post Office, I suggest that that is made clear to the Post Office, but I am not sure that it will view that as a happy solution.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend recognises the important role that post offices, whether urban or rural, play in the community, but does he acknowledge that one of the problems has been Government Departments’ strong-arm tactics to get people to give up their Post Office card accounts? We also need a reversal of the BBC decision not to allow the Post Office to supply TV licences. I understand that the DVLA is reviewing its position on whether post offices should be available for car tax.

The Prime Minister made it clear two weeks ago that there has to be a balance in financing the BBC and the Post Office. As the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said, those matters are being given serious thought. We hope to make a statement to the House when the questions can be answered.

The Trade and Industry Committee report, which was published last week, found a lack of joined-up thinking between Departments. It is seriously concerned about the lack of urgency in the remit of the Cabinet committee on the Post Office that the Deputy Prime Minister chairs. If he hopes to leave our Post Office network a better legacy than the mess that he left in regional government and the strategic transport plan, should not the expected Government statement include a review of their decision to scrap Post Office card accounts?

As has been made clear in exchanges between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Government are considering all such matters, including the Post Office card account. We hope to make a statement to the House shortly, once the conclusions have been finalised.


The House will recall our inheritance in 1997, against which we should measure our improvements. Under the Conservative Government, homelessness doubled, housing finance halved, 500,000 homes were repossessed, there were record levels of rough sleeping and 1.2 million homes were in negative equity. Our improvements must be measured against that. The Government’s record, which was implemented by the homelessness directorate that was set up in 1999, is: reducing rough sleeping by 73 per cent.; bringing to an end the long-term use of bed and breakfast accommodation for families with children; reducing new homeless cases to the lowest number for more than 20 years, and doubling housing investment. In March 2005, I set out our strategy for building on those achievements in “Sustainable Communities: Settled Homes; Changing Lives”.

Does the Deputy Prime know that Salvation Army research shows that there will be 100,000 rough sleepers on the streets of Britain tonight, too many of whom formerly served in Her Majesty’s armed forces and too many spent time in care? Will he consider spending more time on the streets of rural England and this country generally rather than touring the streets of far east Asia? Perhaps there would then be fewer homeless people on the streets of this country.

That is the sort of silly question I expect from the hon. Gentleman. The House can make its judgment but let me pray in aid our record, including the fact that

“the homelessness directorate’s target setting, supported by financial support and advice to local authorities, has helped to bring about significant alleviation of the worst consequences of homelessness”—

not my views, but those of the Tory Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who is hardly a friend of the Government’s.

Does not my right hon. Friend accept that we should build council houses for homeless people who cannot afford even affordable housing?

We are doubling the amount of investment in social housing.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that this morning’s statistics on mortgage lending show that the affordability of housing for ordinary families is at its all-time most difficult?

I do not accept that. I acknowledge that there are difficulties, and that is one of the reasons I provided that the building industry could establish the £60,000 house, giving people a chance to get a foot on the buying ladder. The previous Administration halved the amount of housing investment, and record numbers of people were homeless and sleeping on the streets during their time in office. We have changed that in a remarkable way and we shall continue to build on that.

The most important part of the homelessness strategy is an increase in the supply of affordable rented accommodation. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give the House today that the welcome increases of recent years will be sustained in future?

As we spelled out in the papers that we produced for the House, we intend to continue with those programmes. When my hon. Friend examines the expenditure in the comprehensive spending review and public expenditure statements, he will realise that we intend to provide the resources to achieve those objectives.

The Government’s policy on finding homes for key workers is clearly failing, and 90,000 public sector homes are still lying empty. What are the Government going to do to help these vital workers to find somewhere to live? Given that we have this huge problem, why is Lord Falconer—who has a mere five homes already—receiving a grace and favour flat? Is it not time for the Government to help the key workers to find homes, rather than helping themselves to homes?

More homes are being provided for key workers than under the previous Conservative Administration. I have already read out the record of that Administration—for which the hon. Gentleman has a responsibility—under whom the amount of housing investment was halved, more people were living in houses with negative equity, and many people were made homeless. We are quite proud of our record on housing, and we are improving on it.

Ministerial Visits

As the House may be aware, during my 10-day visit to the far east, I met a number of senior Asian leaders on behalf of the Prime Minister. These included the Prime Ministers of Japan and South Korea, the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, the Foreign Secretary Ban Ki-Moon—the United Nations Secretary-General designate—State Councillor Tang, who is the co-chairman of the China taskforce set up by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and Premier Wen of China. The House will be aware that State Councillor Tang is also China’s special envoy on North Korea, and I spent three hours with him discussing North Korea and other interests.

The main outcomes of my visit were: to confirm our support for the United Nations resolution and encourage the resumption of the six-party talks; to support and strengthen the UK’s political and economic relationships with these countries; to meet senior members of the new Administration in Japan; to exchange ideas on areas of common interest and concern, including the environment, security and inter-faith issues; and to agree a future programme of work for the UK-China taskforce.

Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about his conversations in China and South Korea about North Korea? Does he feel that China is ready to step up to the plate and take the lead on that matter?

The House will welcome yesterday’s statement that the Chinese Government have successfully persuaded North Korea and America to reconvene at the six-party talks. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has made the Opposition’s view clear in calling for tougher United Nations sanctions to get North Korea to participate in the talks. However, North Korea has now agreed to do so without the need for that pressure, which we supported. I hope that the discussions that I had in Japan, South Korea and China will help to press home the Government’s position, supported by the Opposition, that we support the United Nations resolution and that the six-party talks should begin. We look forward to that happening.

During the Deputy Prime Minister’s visit, what impression did he get of Chinese attitudes towards the North Korean President Kim Il Sung?

Without disclosing any confidential discussions that I had, which I have conveyed to the Prime Minister, I think that it is public knowledge that the Chinese were not happy with the announcement that was made, of which they had very little notice. The hon. Gentleman must accept, however, that China played a major part in doing what the whole international community wanted—namely, bringing pressure to bear to get North Korea to the table so that the six-party talks could continue. The whole House should welcome that—[Interruption.]

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the proposed major Chinese investment in the borough of Wigan. Did he discuss this matter with representatives of the Chinese Government during his visit? Will he use his best endeavours to ensure that there are no blockages at the UK end to this important investment in Wigan?

My hon. Friend knows that I take every opportunity to press the case for British investment in China and, indeed, for Chinese investment in the United Kingdom. There was a great deal of discussion about how we can improve that. Indeed, the subject is one of the major items for the China taskforce, which I chair with State Councillor Tang on behalf of the two Prime Ministers.

As the Government intend to tax the public to the hilt in their efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, will the Deputy Prime Minister make a commitment to reduce foreign travel to support the green agenda?

If the hon. Lady knew anything about these global problems, which require global solutions, she would know that Members of Parliament have to travel to different countries to negotiate the agreements involved. The Government have a scheme under which all such travel will be taken into account, credited and used as part of the carbon agreements.

Equal Pay

5. What discussions he has held with stakeholders on equal pay across the public sector; and if he will make a statement. (98414)

Hon. Members will be aware that the Office for National Statistics announced last week that the pay gap between men and women is at its lowest recorded level. I am sure that the whole House will welcome that. However, there remains more to do. The Government have issued a clear action plan to respond to the women and work commission. I have chaired meetings with Baroness Prosser and the general secretary of the TUC to discuss how we can continue to narrow the pay gap. I intend to continue to meet interested parties, including the CBI, to discuss how we can continue to narrow the gap further.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. What are the Government doing to help public sector employers to break down the barriers faced by women in the labour market and narrow the pay gap?

It is important to engage employers on the matter. We have started to build up a set of exemplary employers from both the public and private sectors that have good practice initiatives to improve the situation. We are building on an initiative fund, which stands at approximately £500,000 at the moment, to increase the number of senior, quality jobs that are available part time. We are setting up funding for a network of equality representatives and trade union reps to champion equality in the workplace.

Why is the gender pay gap among part-time workers bigger in the public sector than it is in the private sector?

That probably reflects the negotiation techniques that have been used in the past—I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is aware of them. The recent Cadman judgment stated that pay related to years of service had definitely worked against women. The Government are having to take that into account.

chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Mental Health

6. What Government policy is on the support employers should offer to those with severe mental health problems. (98415)

The Government believe that people with severe mental health problems have the same rights as other citizens and should be supported to manage or overcome their problems, especially if their needs are complex. We all have a role to play in challenging stigma. However, as is recognised in the social exclusion action plan, employers have a particular role and obligation to ensure that they do not discriminate, that our workplaces encourage mental well-being, and that employees are offered support if problems occur.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. With one in three people who visit a general practitioner’s surgery having a mental health problem, with one in five people likely to experience anxiety or depression during their lifetime, and with 40 per cent. of those on incapacity benefit having a mental health problem, employers play a critical role in ensuring that people can build stability into their lives and return to constructive employment. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming BT’s initiatives and work to ensure that its staff have support if they experience mental health problems?

I support the important points that my hon. Friend has outlined relating to people’s well-being at work. The pathways to work pilots, with their strong local partnerships between Jobcentre Plus and the national health service, have been acknowledged internationally as the best way of helping people on incapacity benefit to get back into work quickly. The programme has been the most successful to date in getting people with mental health problems back into work. I hope that my hon. Friend and other colleagues will work locally to ensure that more of that happens in their areas—[Interruption.]

The Minister referred to the pathways to work pilots, but is she aware that the evaluation suggests that they have not been especially successful for people whose first reason for claiming benefit is their mental health? Will she thus consider what the Government’s response should be to the proposal of Lord Layard to increase substantially investment in cognitive behavioural therapy so that measures to help people with mental health problems back into work can be more effective?

The hon. Gentleman is right: it is more difficult to get people with mental health problems back into work than any other single group. That is why we are implementing pathways to work, which has been more successful than any other programme. It is also why we have been working with Richard Layard and others on the increased use of talking therapies so that we can ensure that more people do not get on to incapacity benefit. That strand of work is important. I am working with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and other Departments to ensure that we make the best of that and build capacity. A significant amount of work has already been done through the Department of Health to fulfil our manifesto commitment on the issue.


The Prime Minister was asked—


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

I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in condemning the incendiary bomb attacks in Belfast last night. The republican terrorists behind those attacks have nothing to offer the people of Northern Ireland. As the Democratic Unionist party continues to consult widely on the St. Andrews agreement, will the Prime Minister once and for all confirm that the Government will not grant an amnesty to IRA terrorists who are on the run, and will not reintroduce the deeply offensive legislation that was previously brought before the House or seek to achieve the same objective by any other means?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already made it clear to the House that there will be no amnesty for on-the-runs, and that we have no intention of bringing back legislation on the issue. On the first point that the hon. Gentleman makes, I entirely share his condemnation of the attacks last night. He is also right to point out why they are taking place—because people do not want the prospect of agreement that was offered at St. Andrews. They are trying to disrupt it and change the stated desire of people in Northern Ireland to live together in peace. The best response to such acts of violence is to make sure that the St. Andrews agreement is fully implemented, that we get the institutions back up and running, and that the peace process thrives and moves Northern Ireland forward. If we can do so, that is the best response to those who use violence.

Apropos the St. Andrews agreement, does the Prime Minister agree that secret side deals can frustrate even the most creditable agreement? As the parties have very many difficult points further to negotiate, will he lift the veil, so to speak, from these side deals so that we have a better relationship, as was said before, and no further side deals can be done? For example, does he agree that the question of education by academic selection or otherwise in Northern Ireland is not for one party alone, but for the entire community?

The most important thing is that the decisions on matters such as education are taken by the directly elected politicians in Northern Ireland. That is one reason why we want the St. Andrews agreement to succeed. The agreement is very open about what is necessary. We need to resolve the issues in relation to policing, but there is a tremendous desire right across the political parties in Northern Ireland for the St. Andrews agreement to be implemented. The basic deal that has been at the heart of it since the outset has been peace in return for exclusively democratic means being used in order to further people’s political objectives. If everyone can get behind that essential position in Northern Ireland, the St. Andrews agreement will be implemented and the peace process will move forward.

Today hundreds of health workers will be lobbying Parliament worried about deficits, cuts and low morale in our health service. The Government’s chief medical officer—[Interruption.]

Members do not like hearing about Labour cuts in our NHS. The Government’s chief medical officer has said that evidence

“from within the NHS…tells a consistent story for public health of poor morale, declining numbers, inadequate recruitment and budgets being raided to solve financial deficits.”

Was the chief medical officer speaking for the Government?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what is actually happening within the national health service. There are 400,000 fewer people on waiting lists than there were in 1997, waiting times for cataracts and heart operations are down, people now get their cancer treatment on time, and there are 300,000 more staff in the NHS. If he wants the best evidence of improvement in the NHS, someone said this morning:

“if you were to say to me is the NHS better now than it was in 1997, I think there have been improvements”.

Who was that? The shadow health spokesman.

What about the chief medical officer, who advises the Government? As ever, the Prime Minister never answers the question. Let us hear from someone else in the NHS. The chairman of the British Medical Association says:

“This year has seen vitally needed healthcare professionals losing their jobs.”

He says that he is “dismayed” by what he calls

“the incoherence of current government policies and the damage they have caused to the NHS”.

Did the Prime Minister ever think that, after nine years of Labour Government, morale would be so low in the NHS?

The comprehensive report on the health service was published by the Healthcare Commission just a few days ago. This is what it says:

“There are real improvements to applaud and celebrate.”

Patients are seeing real improvements to health care services in England and Wales. They are waiting less time for treatments. There are now more doctors, more nurses and more health care professionals. Of course changes are taking place in the NHS—and rightly, because more cases are being dealt with as day cases, new technology is shortening waiting times, specialist care is being developed, and more is being done in primary care settings now. All that is part of necessary change. The Conservative party, having first opposed all the investment in the NHS, now apparently also opposes reform. The only way in which the NHS will improve is if we keep the money coming in, not cut it back, which is his policy, and make sure that we make the reforms to get value for money.

The health service professionals are not here protesting about our policies; they are protesting about his cuts. If the Prime Minister will not listen to people within the health service, will he listen to his own health guru, Sir Derek Wanless? Derek Wanless told the Chancellor that the money could have been better spent. We now have an account of how the conversation went. Sir Derek said to the Chancellor that the Government’s policies since 1997 had made the NHS worse. There was then

“an uncomfortable silence… Brown was no longer interested in the conversation.”

Does that sound at all familiar to the Prime Minister?

There is one issue: whether the NHS has got better since 1997 as a result of the investment and reform. Now, even the right hon. Gentleman’s own shadow health spokesman admits that it has. It has got better because we got the largest ever hospital building programme under way. It has got better because there are more staff in the NHS. It has got better because the very targets that he wants to scrap are resulting in reduced waiting times and reduced waiting lists. Yes, it is true that there are real difficulties in the NHS—of course there are. There are bound to be when we undergo a process of change. The right hon. Gentleman says that staff are protesting about our policy, not his, but that is hardly surprising when we look at what his policy is. [Hon. Members: “Order!”] I was just about to indicate why we would not follow it.

For once, the Prime Minister admits that there are real difficulties in the NHS. Are not the real failings in the NHS due to bungled contracts, endless reorganisations and top-down targets? Are not those the hallmarks of the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

The reason why we have managed to get waiting times and waiting lists down, why people are being treated for cancer far quicker and why we have 150,000 fewer deaths from heart disease since 1997 is precisely that we have laid down targets for minimum treatment. If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that he is going to get rid of targets inside the NHS, that will mean that those patients who are currently guaranteed proper waiting times and treatment, or who are guaranteed that when they go to accident and emergency departments, for example, they can be seen quickly, will no longer have those standards. If that is his policy, he is not merely committed to cutting the investment in the health service, but to taking away the very minimum standards that have delivered the improvements that his own health spokesman admits to.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to talk about the Chancellor—he cannot even mention his name—but let us just spend a moment on the subject. Let me put the question that I put to him three weeks ago. In January, the Prime Minister said:

“I'm absolutely happy that Gordon Brown will be my successor.”

Does the Prime Minister—

Order. I allowed the right hon. Gentleman to get away with that before. I will not labour the point—the Prime Minister is here to talk about the business of the Government. [Interruption.] Order. I am giving a ruling on an important point. Questions should be about the business of the Government. The issue of who will be the next leader of the Labour party is for the Labour party to talk about and decide. [Interruption.] Order. I am giving a ruling. Ultimately, that leader may become the Prime Minister, but I am telling the right hon. Gentleman that it is not a matter for the Floor of the House. [Interruption.] Order. Hon. Gentlemen should not keep interrupting me, or I will suspend the sitting and the Leader of the Opposition will not be able to speak. I am making it clear that it is not a matter for the Prime Minister, who is responsible for Government business.

Are you honestly saying, Mr. Speaker, that we cannot ask the Prime Minister of the country—[Interruption.]

Order. May we have some calm? Of course, anything that I say from the Chair is said honestly, and I tell the right hon. Gentleman that he has no right to ask, on the Floor of the House, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, who the Prime Minister is supporting for an office within the Labour party.

Perhaps with my last question I can ask the Prime Minister who he would like to see as the next Prime Minister of this country. [Interruption.]

I was simply going to say—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] I am about to answer. The Chancellor’s record of having delivered the lowest inflation, lowest unemployment, and lowest interest rates in this country’s history, and of having managed the strongest growth of any major industrial economy, which, as a result, has delivered record investment in the national health service, is a rather better recommendation than having spent some time advising Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Turner and Newall is in liquidation, which means that there is very little money available for compensation for people suffering from mesothelioma. Will he join me in congratulations, as last Thursday it was announced that benefits previously paid will not have to be deducted from compensation, following the campaign that I conducted with Amicus? Will he confirm that that could only happen under a Labour Government?

I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend has done in campaigning on the issue, to the Amicus union, and to all the others who have taken up the cause of that particular group of employees. As a result of that successful campaign, about 4,000 people will each receive about £6,000 in compensation. That, along with all the money paid out in miners’ compensation, is an indication of the profound difference in values that the Labour Government bring to the government of this country.

Last night, the Foreign Secretary declined to commit the Government to an inquiry into Iraq, but later the Defence Secretary said that there would be such an inquiry. Which is it?

The Foreign Secretary stated the position very clearly in yesterday’s debate. We certainly do not rule out such an inquiry, and our motion stated that lessons must, of course, be learned, which is always important, but this is not the time for such decisions. Had that motion gone through last night, it would have sent a signal that would have dismayed our coalition allies and the Iraqi Government and heartened all those who are fighting us in Iraq. That is why we opposed the motion and why it is important that we stand up and fight those in Iraq who are trying to prevent the democratic process from taking root.

With regard to an inquiry, is it not now time for a British strategy based on British priorities, and not one that depends upon the outcome of the American elections? And should that strategy not be phased withdrawal sooner rather than later?

Let me explain something to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. British troops have been in Iraq for three and a half years with a United Nations resolution. When British forces are trying to help those who want democracy to function in Iraq, and when American forces are trying to make sure that that democratic process is secured, they are not simply acting on behalf of America or Britain; they are acting in accordance with a United Nations resolution and with the full support of the Iraqi Government. The trouble with Liberal Democrat Members is that they want to pray the United Nations in aid when it suits them, but when it does not suit them, they ignore it.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that last Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of bus deregulation outside London. He may not be aware that in south Yorkshire for every three people who rode on a bus in 1986, there is now one passenger and two empty seats. Will he accept that bus deregulation for most areas has been a failed Thatcherite experiment? Will he back the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport not to turn the clock back to 1986, but to give real powers to passenger transport authorities to ensure that our constituents outside London have the same access to decent public transport as is currently available to people in the capital?

I fully understand why the Secretary of State for Transport has said that, and I fully support it. My hon. Friend has made his point in relation to Sheffield, and I have heard it in many different parts of the country. In London, where there has been a tougher system of regulation, some of the same problems have not appeared. Without in any sense turning the clock back, it is entirely right to look at the issue again.

Q2. What requests for Warrior armoured vehicles have been received from commanders in Afghanistan to help make good the currently inadequate protection available to our troops? (98426)

I think that the Defence Secretary has just indicated that there have not been any such requests. In any event, if there were such requests, or indeed requests for any type of equipment whether for Afghanistan or elsewhere, it would be a duty to meet those requests. The work that we are doing in Afghanistan is extremely important, and, yes, it has proved to be very tough in the south of Afghanistan. When our forces begin operating in an area such as Helmand, they adjust their tactics and strategy, which is perfectly natural. They may well ask for more forces, troops or whatever they think necessary to accomplish the mission, which is entirely natural. What is happening down in the south is a remarkable tribute to what British troops are doing. It is absolutely vital to support the democratic process in Afghanistan. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, let us be clear that the very people who are disrupting the democratic process are the same people whom we are fighting world wide in this battle against terrorism, so we should support our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq in taking them on.

Q3. Warrington borough council has just said that it is minded to approve plans for the Omega development, which is the largest industrial development site in the north-west, but it cannot make the final decision because the Government office for the north-west has issued an article 14 direction. In view of the strategic importance of the site, will my right hon. Friend take a personal interest in ensuring that the planning process is completed as soon as possible? Will he also assure me that Warrington will get the investment in education and skills to enable local people, particularly those in the most deprived areas, to take advantage of the 12,000 highly skilled jobs that will be created by the development? (98427)

I know something about the project, and I am very happy to follow its progress, because it is an extremely big development that involves a lot of potential jobs in the area. As my hon. Friend will know, Warrington Collegiate, for example, has a major £27 million project. In her constituency, there is about £1,000 a year per pupil in extra funding. We want to keep that funding going. It is important that the Government’s position in respect of education and health remain that we do nothing that interrupts the flow of investment that is delivering real results on the ground.

Q4. I sincerely thank the Prime Minister for his considerable support for the Motor Neurone Disease Association and its quest to cure that debilitating, and sadly invariably fatal, disease. Is he aware of the continuing negotiations with the Department of Health on matched funding towards our £15 million research target? Will he join me in inviting colleagues to spend a few minutes at the launch of the MNDA’s research foundation in Strangers Dining Room today between 4 o’clock and 6 o’clock to advance our vision of a world free of MND? (98428)

I look forward to meeting the chief executive of the MNDA foundation shortly. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), will attend the reception, and I hope that as many other hon. Members attend as possible. We are not yet at the stage of being able to respond to specific proposals from the foundation, but we will do so when we get them.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the work that he is doing on behalf of the foundation. MND is a very serious condition. The people who campaign on it are often incredibly brave and committed people who, unfortunately, know that they will die as a result of having the disease, and we would like to support them in any way we can.

Q5. Does the Prime Minister recall the Bill that I introduced last year, the Age of Sale of Tobacco Bill, which proposed to raise the age for the sale of tobacco from 16 to 18 to bring it into line with alcohol? Is he aware of the recent report by the Government’s advisory council on the misuse of drugs, which fully backs my Bill? Does he agree that the time is right to introduce this measure in the next Queen’s Speech? (98429)

We will strongly consider what my hon. Friend says. There was virtually unanimous support for raising the age for the sale of tobacco to 18 from health groups, retailers, the tobacco industry, parents, schools and young people. We hope shortly to put measures before Parliament to bring that into force, and we are looking carefully at my hon. Friend’s proposals.

Q6. When the Prime Minister promoted the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) to be Secretary of State for Europe, and then demoted him hours later to Minister of State, did he anticipate that his Foreign Secretary would have to answer all questions on Europe at Foreign Office questions yesterday? Does he have any other odd job in mind for the right hon. Gentleman? (98430)

What my right hon. Friend is doing on behalf of this country in Europe is absolutely excellent. For example, we are able as a result to negotiate difficult matters on behalf of this country in the European Union. That, I may say, is a rather better position than that of the hon. Gentleman’s party, which is to renegotiate the terms of our membership of the European Union and to separate itself out even from other conservative parties in Europe.

Q7. While it is vital that the UK play its role in reducing domestic carbon emissions to fight global warming, does my right hon. Friend agree that the real prize lies with an international solution? Can he tell the House what he is doing to encourage greater commitment from our international partners? (98431)

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that although it is important that we exercise leadership here in relation to climate change, the solution to this, given that Britain accounts for some 2 per cent. of worldwide emissions, must lie at an international level. That is why in the European Union we are working with partners to extend the European trading system, and why, in the G8 plus 5 dialogue that was started at Gleneagles last year and which includes not only G8 members but India, Brazil and China, we are trying to secure a framework agreement whereby, when the Kyoto protocol expires in 2012, we will have a binding set of commitments on behalf of the international community. That will send the right signal not only to countries but to business and industry to invest. In the end, that is the only way in which we will tackle and defeat climate change.

Q8. In his letter to me about the decision to single out chaplaincy for dramatic cuts in Worcestershire’s hospitals, the Prime Minister rightly underlined the NHS’s commitment to providing holistic care. He said“Patients’ religious and spiritual needs have to be addressed as part of an overall care package.”Does he realise that the cuts are not compatible with that principle, and that a dangerous precedent is being set which other trusts under financial pressure will have to follow? (98432)

I do of course recall the correspondence, and I have corresponded with the priest who has been leading the campaign. I entirely understand the concerns that people have, but I think that such decisions must be taken at local level.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, over the past few years there has been a major expansion in the number of people working in the national health service in Worcestershire. Nevertheless, when trusts balance their books and make changes for the future, they must also make those decisions. I hope that they make them sensitively, recognising the tremendous pastoral care that is given and its value to local patients; but I do not think it would be right for me to interfere directly in that process.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me—and with trade unions, business leaders, the people of Copeland and nuclear industry analysts—that a policy of nuclear generation as a last resort is really a policy of no nuclear generation at all?

I know that, for obvious reasons, my hon. Friend has a specific interest in this issue. If we do not make the decisions on nuclear power now, both our energy security and our effort to defeat climate change may be put at risk. The reason is simple: over the next 10 or 15 years, we will move from self-sufficiency in oil and gas to importing 80 or 90 per cent. of it. We will lose the existing nuclear power stations. We have already done an immense amount in terms of energy efficiency, renewables and so on, but without the component of nuclear power it is hard for me, at least, to see how we can both reduce carbon dioxide emissions and ensure that we are not dependent on foreign imports of oil and gas in the future.

Q9. This week the Select Committee on Trade and Industry made it clear that if the Government are to achieve their goal of social and financial inclusion, they will have to maintain the post office network at a level above that which is commercially viable for the Post Office. Does the Prime Minister accept the Committee’s recommendation that, in principle, the social network payment must continue beyond 2008? (98433)

What I do accept is that there is a role for public subsidy. Indeed, I believe that over the past few years we have put some £2 billion of subsidy into the post office network, precisely because we recognise that it has a social as well as a commercial purpose. Now we are thinking about how we can sustain that purpose. The trouble—as the hon. Gentleman will know—is this. I met the sub-postmasters, or their representatives, last week. They are people doing an excellent job, often in very difficult circumstances, and providing a tremendous local service. However, we must ensure that that service is viable for the long term. We can support it, but it will still have to be viable—sufficiently viable, in fact, for people to volunteer to run the post offices.

We will make an announcement in response to the sub-postmasters’ campaign shortly. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the network has a social purpose, but obviously it must be limited by the extent of the funds available to us to subsidise it. We should be considering whether post offices can provide other services that give them a different and more modern rationale.

Q10. Plymouth’s excellence cluster has cut fixed-term exclusions by three quarters in secondary schools and by almost 90 per cent. in primary schools in just one year, thus breaking cycles of disruptive behaviour. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lessons learned from schemes of that kind, which tackle unacceptable behaviour head-on, should be applied more widely? (98434)

I certainly agree that the excellence cluster in Plymouth has worked very well. Similar things are happening in other parts of the country. In London, for example, as a result of targeted investment in education and action through the excellence in cities programmes, whereas in many boroughs 25 per cent. of kids or fewer would obtain good GCSEs, the figure is now no lower than 40 per cent. in any borough. In places such as Plymouth, results have improved dramatically over the past few years. I think that we should sometimes pay tribute not just to teachers and other school staff, but to the work that pupils and parents are doing throughout the country in giving us the best school results that we have ever had.

Q11. I hope the Prime Minister is aware that, as a result of ongoing co-operation between Conservative Members and Ministers—particularly in the Home Office—there has been considerable strengthening of the legislation dealing with paedophiles. Sadly, just as that is happening, the Met police, who have a tight budget, are about to cut large numbers of the men and women who work in child protection. May I ask the Prime Minister to talk to his namesake in the Met police and ask him to reconsider, so that children in London and elsewhere can be protected? (98435)

I met some child protection officers in Downing street the other day—although they were not from London, but from different parts of the country—and they do a superb job of work. I simply say that the Metropolitan police budget has increased significantly over the past few years. Such decisions are principally for the Met Police Commissioner. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has indicated that he is very happy to raise this issue with the Met Police Commissioner. I am sure that he will be in touch with the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) about it.