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Volume 453: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2006

2. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 29 November. Three years ago, my constituent James Wollacott contracted MRSA in hospital following successful surgery on his knee. Since then he has suffered significant problems with mobility and is in constant pain. He has had five corrective operations and will require further surgery in the new year. He is only 23 years old. What assurance can the Deputy Prime Minister give him and other victims of MRSA that combating hospital-acquired infections will not be compromised by the current financial pressures in the national health service? (104555)

The Government’s record on the NHS is very good and is there for all to see. We should be proud of the amount of resources we have put into the NHS. We created the NHS and we have sustained it. Every time we try to bring in resources to make improvements, it is always opposed by the Conservatives. Make no mistake about it: we will proudly defend the NHS. It is our creation. Millions of people in this country are totally dependent on it and we shall continue to provide a high-quality national health service.

3. Is it not nonsense to call for a crackdown on illegal immigration without investing in the necessary identity technology to tell us who is moving in and out of the country and who should and should not be here? Is not it hypocrisy to talk about greater protection from criminals and terrorists without giving our police the powers they ask for to do the job we want them to do? (104556)

That is precisely what the Government are doing, as the Home Secretary made clear and as other people said in the debate on the Queen’s Speech. Security is at the heart of what the Government are bringing about, but we are concerned about the rights of citizens and the ID card is a very important part of that. On identity technology, I note that the former Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee said that there is a case for ID cards. She is now chair of the Conservative security policy group. The Tories voted against ID cards but perhaps when the group reports they will listen to her advice about ID cards.

4. A scheduled British Airways flight from London to Turkey costs £161. The new standard-class rail fare from London to Torquay costs a staggering £184. How does that fit into the Government’s plan to encourage people to use the train and how does it fit in with the Government’s oft-repeated claim that they support the British tourism industry, which is so important to Torquay and other seaside resorts? (104557)

However the question is posed, the reality is that more people are travelling on public transport than for decades. More people are travelling by rail than for 40 years and more people are travelling on buses. I said in 1997 that I wanted to see more people using public transport. That has been achieved—another Labour promise delivered.

My right hon. Friend’s commitment to tackling the problems of global warming and climate change is well known. Does he agree that local authorities have a vital role in taking this matter forward, and will he ensure that local authorities have the advice, the resources and the motivation to tackle climate change at a local level?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, but I have to say that when I was at this Dispatch Box nearly 10 years ago talking about Kyoto and the environment, we got no support whatever from the Opposition. This country led the way on climate change and the Kyoto agreement, and in those negotiations, and it is the only country, apart from Sweden, to more than achieve its Kyoto targets.

We are now on the second stage. The Stern report points the way forward. The local authorities are extremely important in that and we will see that they have the resources and the back-up to make the changes necessary to bring about the climate change that we all know is required. We will be consistent in our policy—unlike the sudden change that we find now among the Opposition, who have discovered climate change 10 years too late.

Q5. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that lung cancer accounts for more than one in five cancer deaths. As we approach the end of lung cancer awareness month—[Interruption.] (104558)

As we approach the end of lung cancer awareness month, will the Deputy Prime Minister commit the Government to support urgent research into the value of lung cancer screening, which is looking very promising in major research in the USA, so that we are equipped to deliver a national lung cancer screening programme once the techniques are fully appraised?

I know that there is a great deal in what the hon. Gentleman says. I think what the Government have done in the health service, particularly in regard to cancer treatment, is a very good process and has done very well, and we should be particularly proud of it. If he looks at his own area, he will find that the amount of nurses, doctors and hospital investment has improved considerably—[Interruption.] Well, every constituency has benefited from those resources. The difference between the Opposition and ourselves—

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would like to congratulate the dedicated staff who work at Chorley and Preston hospitals and the quality of service that is provided. Will he ensure that work will not be transferred into the private sector, and ensure that all referrals from GPs will go to the hospitals and not to independent treatment centres? Let us keep those dedicated staff in employment at both hospitals.

My hon. Friend must recognise that in all these cases, first—[Hon. Members: “Speak into the microphone.”] Well, I am talking to somebody who is sympathetic to the health service, not somebody who is against it. I do not wish to ignore the Speaker and I am sorry if I have done, Mr. Speaker. It is quite clear, as I said, on our investment in our national health service we are creating additional services, both in the public and private sectors and in the public-private partnerships, and I think the guaranteeing of the workers in those industries, as well as the services, will be maintained. I am sure we will be keeping on board the point that my hon. Friend has made.

In the Chancellor's first Budget he took billions of pounds a year out of pension funds. What now, after nine years, is the total cumulative amount taken out of people’s pension funds—straight into the microphone, please?

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will tell me in his second question.

The right hon. Gentleman is going to have to wait for the third for that. Why does the taxpayer spend £2 million a year keeping him in what one of his colleagues calls a non-job, when he cannot even answer a simple question at the Dispatch Box? There should be a number in that folder for the biggest destruction of savings by any Government in the history of this country. Surely he knows the figure for how much the pension funds have been robbed by the Chancellor. So let us ask him again: what is the figure, including all the interest and dividends that they would have earned in the meantime?

We will take no lectures from the Tories about pensions. They were the ones who ran down the pensions system; they were the ones who have opposed our new pensions Bill, which is intended to strengthen the pensions system so that the people of this country get a far better pension deal. Pensioners already do in respect of private and public pensions. Instead of talking about whether we have robbed the pension fund, which I totally reject, as does the Chancellor, the right hon. Gentleman should tell us what he thinks the figure is.

Could the right hon. Gentleman get a little less excited? We do not take any lectures from a party, one of whose members brought in the biggest pension fraud in history when Robert Maxwell was sitting on those Benches. It is no good the Deputy Prime Minister saying that we oppose the pensions Bill—it was only published today and we have not done anything to oppose it in the last few hours.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) pointed out that when the Government came to power they had one of the strongest pension provisions in Europe, and now they have some of the weakest. Some 60,000 occupational pension schemes have shut down; 120,000 people have lost some or all of their pensions; and, according to independent experts, £100 billion has been wiped off pension funds. Was not the right hon. Member for Birkenhead absolutely right?

I notice that the right hon. Gentleman has still not given us the figure that he says we robbed from pension funds. On the Maxwell pension fund that he talked about, let me tell him that it took this Government to bring in legislation to correct that abuse and that it was the previous Government who allowed pension holidays—[Interruption.] Yes, the previous Tory Administration allowed those pension holidays, which have caused many of the problems in our pensions today. I have to tell him, for all the clever remarks that he might make about these matters, he is certainly not convincing the electorate. If we look at the polls today, it is clear that the honeymoon for the right hon. Gentleman and his friend is over. I notice from the papers and on television today that the Tories have now brought in a new person to get people to vote Tory, and I could not help noticing that the person is named, as I saw on the website, “Mr. Tosser”. I do not know which person on the Front Bench this man is modelled on, but let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that I always thought that his party was full of them, and that is why they have lost three elections.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the opening next weekend of the critical care unit at Christie hospital? A further welcome development at the Christie is a young adult oncology unit. Patients and former patients of the unit are visiting Parliament today. Will my right hon. Gentleman congratulate the patients and staff of the unit on their ID card scheme? They have funding nationwide to launch the scheme, which will help young patients whose appearance is altered by their treatment and ensure that door staff of public houses do not turn them away because of their dress code.

The House should welcome the fact that the Christie hospital, a specialist cancer hospital, remains open, despite what was said during the election campaign by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), who campaigned together with the Tories on the basis that this facility would close down or not be opened. It has, in fact, been opened this week and is now serving the people of Manchester. If the hon. Gentleman had been a bit more honest, he would have thanked the Labour Government not only for the continuing promise to keep the facility, but for the 11,000 more nurses, 1,000 more consultants and 600 more GPs that are serving his area and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley). That is a Labour Government in action. We are delivering, and the people in this country are grateful for it.

Q6. In an age when employees of our national airline cannot even display a Christian cross without being suspended from their employment, is there not a case for saying that Christians in this country find themselves increasingly under pressure? With the sexual orientation regulations, many Christian leaders are speaking out against what the Government are doing in putting the Christian Church under pressure. In Northern Ireland, those regulations are being imposed against the wishes of the vast majority of people in that part of the United Kingdom. Is it not time that the Government caught themselves on and started to listen to the majority in this country, who are fed up with being discriminated against as Christians? (104559)

I am not a religious man, but I always understood that religion was about tolerance. There is not much tolerance being shown in what the hon. Gentleman has said. It is a pity that we do not show more tolerance to different cultures and different religions. We would be a lot better off for it.

Has my friend had the opportunity to read early-day motion 327 on the Government’s consultation on Trident? Will he give an undertaking, as Deputy Prime Minister and deputy leader, that he will use his best offices to persuade the national executive committee to consult Labour party members and publish the results—

Q7. Following a positive and helpful meeting—for which I am extremely grateful—with the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), concerning the Broomfield hospital private finance initiative scheme, and given that the conclusion is so tantalisingly close, can the Government do anything to get a decision, one way or another, before Christmas? (104560)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of that question. I think that he understands that some issues have been identified in relation to the financing of the scheme. Following the meeting last week that I think he attended with the trust, it has now submitted its final report to the strategic health authority for endorsement, as I think he is aware. The trust, the strategic health authority and the Department of Health will meet again in early December and there will be a final decision before the end of the year, for which I know he has been pressing for some time. I also thank him for his support for the PFI. Since 1997, more than £9 billion has been allocated through PFI schemes, helping us to undertake the largest hospital-building programme in our country’s history. That must be welcome.

Q8. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, for those on low incomes, credit unions provide a safe way of saving regularly and borrowing at a low interest rate? Will he join me in condemning companies such as Provident Personal Credit, which have offered loans at 177 per cent. interest to my constituents who have lost all their Christmas savings with the collapse of Farepak? At those rates, £300 is paid back at £495. (104561)

The point made by my hon. Friend causes many of us great concern. Those loans are made to desperate people at very high interest rates. Often they are not well aware of that. The Farepak situation has brought that to our attention. There are people who are driven into poverty and that makes the circumstances more difficult. The investigation into Farepak being run by the Department of Trade and Industry will hopefully give us some indication of changes that might help in those situations. The Treasury Committee, which is looking at the matter, has also made certain recommendations. It is undoubtedly true that those people in the most unfortunate circumstances, suffering great deprivation, should not be exploited in such a way.

Q9. The flooded homes in Malton and Norton in my constituency, which the Deputy Prime Minister kindly visited during the October 2000 floods, now have the benefit of good flood defences, but there are communities the length and breadth of Britain, including in my constituency, that still do not have the protection that they need. They are exposed to a serious flood risk. He will know that the Stern review has predicted that river and sea levels will rise. In those circumstances, does he not think that the cut in Environment Agency funding for flood defences was a mistake and should be reversed, and that funding should be increased in the comprehensive spending review so that communities have the protection that they need and deserve? (104562)

The hon. Gentleman will recall that when I visited his constituency there was extreme concern about the amount of resources going into flood protection—and rightly so. Following those meetings, we have put in record amounts, with an increase of something like 35 per cent. in real terms from the level in 1996-97 to £600 million in 2005-06—[Interruption.] The cutting to which he refers—we are being reminded about that in a sedentary intervention—comes on top of that tremendous increase. We inherited a reduced budget for flood control in 1997 and we increased it by 35 per cent. One or two changes have been made at the margins, but, as can be seen in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, the investment in flood control has undoubtedly been to the benefit of people who suffered from floods for so long. There is still a lot to do, but we are putting record investment into these areas.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my concerns about the desperate plight of those people who have been ripped off in the Farepak scandal? Given that the family fund closes today and is very far short of the amount needed, will he use his good offices to persuade his colleagues in the Cabinet that the Government should top up that family fund a bit further to ensure that those people are not left without a Christmas?

I note the point made by the hon. Gentleman. I think that £5 million has been raised so far and further calls have gone out to some of the companies involved to make a greater contribution. I understand that the debt is in the region of £35 million, which is an awful lot of money. I hope that the inquiry that is being conducted by the DTI will give us some idea of how we can avoid such a thing in the future. I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about whether the Government can give any more in such circumstances.