As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Riga at the NATO summit. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who is accompanying the Prime Minister, will make a statement to the House tomorrow.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear on several occasions that any contact with injured soldiers is a private matter and should remain so. In addition, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of Sergeant Hollingsworth, who was killed in Iraq last Friday. The whole House will be very proud of and grateful for the difficult and dangerous job he and others were doing on behalf of this country.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that reply and my colleagues and I join him in sending our condolences to Sergeant Hollingsworth’s family. The Prime Minister has refused to answer my question when I have tabled it in writing. Indeed, it is extraordinary the lengths to which he will go to avoid answering it on the Floor of the House. The Secretary of State for Defence is prepared to answer the question, not about individual soldiers, but about when and where he has visited them. Why will not the Prime Minister be as open and frank as the Secretary of State for Defence? What has the Prime Minister got to hide?
On every occasion, the Prime Minister has made it clear that those are private matters. That is still his position and I repeat it for him.
I join the Deputy Prime Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) in paying tribute to Sergeant Jonathan Hollingsworth and sending our deepest condolences to his family.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I returned from Baghdad this morning, having visited injured soldiers in Basra. We returned full of admiration for the incredible robustness and courage of our troops. It is clear that the situation they face is not getting any easier, with tens of thousands of roadside bombs this year and increasing sectarian violence. Will the Deputy Prime Minister spell out how the Government will encourage the Iraqi Government urgently to achieve an internal political settlement in Iraq?
The House will be pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has visited our troops, who are working in the most difficult circumstances. We all wish to express our appreciation of the bravery of their operations. However, from the right hon. Gentleman’s discussions with our troops, they will have made it clear that we are working hard with the Iraqi Government and the authorities to bring about a peaceful solution to the situation in Basra.
The politicians we met in Baghdad were adamant that only through a rapid improvement in the security situation could anything else be achieved. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that any future internal agreement could be reinforced by the early creation of an international contact group, formed initially by members of the United Nations Security Council and some neighbouring states? Is that something that the Government would support and recommend to the US Administration?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has mentioned to the House on several occasions that he would like to encourage neighbouring countries to participate in such agreements. It is not easy: it is difficult. Some of those countries are playing a difficult role and encouraging the assaults and injuries that are taking place, and they could do much more to prevent them. If the right hon. Gentleman’s discussions with those people are encouraging such developments, I am sure that we would welcome them.
Finally on Iraq, the Secretary of State for Defence said on Monday that he expected that British forces there would be reduced by a matter of thousands by the end of next year. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House whether that will depend on the security situation? If so, by what criteria will the security situation be judged?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know from his discussions while he was in Iraq, we have made it clear that security is the most important consideration there. We are negotiating to ensure that a stable situation is achieved by military and police forces, and it is not our intention to withdraw from the country entirely. We will continue to give our support, but he will know from his discussions that a lot of good work has been done. We have achieved some stability in the area, and will continue our efforts to that end.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that carers, whose earnings are limited because they have to look after people who are elderly, disabled or terminally ill, lose all of their £46 carers allowance if their earnings rise even marginally above £84 a week? Is he further aware that the latest increase in the minimum wage has put many carers in just that position, and that those people are now thousands of pounds a year worse off? Does he agree that the minimum wage was never intended to cause that problem, and will he look into it as a matter of urgency, so that carers are given a fair deal?
This Government can claim to be concerned about giving carers a fair deal, as we were the first to introduce a payment for them. The minimum wage has played an important part, but my hon. Friend refers to the difficulties experienced by people on the margins. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will take note of what he has said and that the matter will be discussed further.
May I add my tribute to Sergeant Hollingsworth of the Parachute Regiment?
Can the Deputy Prime Minister help us to interpret the comments made to regional journalists by the Prime Minister on Monday? He said that people in the north should worry less about the north-south divide and regional inequalities, even though evidence from the Treasury suggests that regional inequalities in growth remain as significant as ever.
I am not so sure that the hon. Gentleman’s analysis is correct. I recognise that he spends an awful lot of time looking at economic data, but the latest report that I have seen—[Hon. Members: “We can’t hear.”] I am sorry. I was just recognising the hon. Gentleman’s ability to contribute a great deal of information to our economic debates. However, the latest analysis that I have seen suggests that the differential between north and south has been reduced, thanks to work of the regional development agencies—[Interruption.] I appreciate that the RDAs were opposed by the Opposition, but they have played their part in a very successful economic policy that has led to a narrowing of the gap between north and south.
I have the benefit of the Prime Minister’s comments, as well as of the pithy summary by the Daily Mirror—“Blair Raps Northern Moaners”. I think that he was trying to make the more subtle point that it is the differences within regions that really matter, rather than the differences between them. On that measure, can the Deputy Prime Minister explain how income and wealth inequalities have become worse under a Labour Government than they were after 17 years of Tory Government?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there are 2.5 million more people in work now, that the differential has been reduced, and that everyone is enjoying a considerably better standard of living than was the case when we came to power in 1997. The hon. Gentleman has expressed different views about these matters at different times. I have been doing some research into his record, and have discovered that both his arguments and his politics have moved about a bit. He stood for Labour in Glasgow in 1970, for the Social Democratic party in York in 1983, and for the Liberal Democrats in Twickenham in 1992. With such nimble feet, it is no wonder that he lists ballroom dancing as a hobby.
The Prime Minister’s recent statement on slavery has been widely welcomed. Will my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister support an international remembrance day for slavery and does he back the new Liverpool slavery museum, which looks at the implications of slavery at present and in the future as well as at slavery in the past?
It is a very important occasion. As we approach 2007, the House should commemorate the piece of legislation that abolished slavery. We are all proud that the House was able to do that 200 years ago, but slavery has not gone away; trafficking and modern slavery are very much with us, as has been said from time to time, and I certainly support what my hon. Friend said about Liverpool. The commemoration is not only national; it is also international. Indeed, today I am going to New York to talk with the UN Secretary-General about yesterday’s resolution and about how we can make the commemoration international. It is not only about slavery 200 years ago; we have to stop the terrible trade in modern slavery. I am delighted that the man who moved that legislation 200 years ago was the MP for Hull.