The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
I am just checking to see that the press are in the Gallery.
I regularly discuss policy relating to Europe with ministerial colleagues. Detailed departmental policy relating to the European Union is decided collectively by Cabinet and its committees. For example, I chaired recent Cabinet committee discussions about the future of the European emissions trading scheme. As a result of those discussions, we agreed a set of proposals that were submitted to the European Commission. The House will be aware that the Commission recently confirmed that the UK is the only member state to produce an acceptable cap on carbon emissions for the next stage of the emissions trading scheme. It was a tough decision, but it demonstrated the Government’s commitment to tackling climate change and the importance of bringing Departments together to discuss difficult political issues and make a decision.
With the advent of the German presidency of the European Union, and Chancellor Merkel’s commitment to a revived constitutional treaty, albeit in compressed form, will the Deputy Prime Minister give the House an undertaking that if there is a transfer of more powers and competences, and any further loss of UK sovereignty as a result of a compressed or mini treaty, the UK will have an opportunity to express its view in a national referendum?
It was agreed after the last referendums that there would be discussions, and that the German presidency would introduce proposals after those discussions. We have always made it clear that a referendum would be required, whatever the conclusions of those discussions.
Is it not important to take a positive and engaged approach to the European Union so that we do not just talk about climate change but introduce serious proposals for change through an emissions trading scheme and a post-Kyoto agreement?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, the statement by the Commission to which I referred made it clear that Britain and Sweden were the only two countries that met their Kyoto targets. On the emissions trading scheme, we were the only country to make a proposal that was acceptable to the Commission. Yet again, that shows that Britain is ahead on most of the climate change proposals.
The House may recall that, as I reported last month, I recently returned from the far east, where I discussed a range of international and bilateral issues with Prime Ministers and senior Government Ministers. Our discussions included climate change, sustainable development, security and nuclear tests in North Korea. I also used the visit to promote British business interests in those fast-growing economies. As is usual for ministerial visits, I was accompanied by civil servants on scheduled flights to support me in my role.
We learned last month that the Treasury had spent £56 million on subsistence for travel in the United Kingdom and overseas. Since the Deputy Prime Minister commenced his new role—I do not use the word “responsibilities”, as he has none—how much has he spent, and does he consider that good value for money?
It is clear that when one compares the amount of money spent on hospitality and travel by this Government, it is a lot less than the amount spent by the previous Administration. [Interruption.] Yes, it was, and I believe we get better value for money than they did.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are more than 2,000 civil servants living in my constituency and the surrounding area who provide a national service through the Inland Revenue? Those 2,000 jobs would be at risk if the nationalists stole Scotland out of England.
However many civil servants accompanied the right hon. Gentleman to the far east, is it not an insult to the taxpayer that 20 civil servants have to support him in what has become the non-job of Deputy Prime Minister? Is not the £2 million cost of that a sum that could keep open nearly 100 post offices, and would that not be dramatically better value for the nation?
That is almost as much money as the right hon. Gentleman earns making speeches abroad. [Interruption.] The holder of the position in the previous Administration did less work in Cabinet Committees, did less work than I do, and made it clear to the Select Committee that a Deputy Prime Minister does the job as requested by the Prime Minister. I am happy to do the job that I am doing. I have met more Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers than the right hon. Gentleman has in his job.
The House is aware that that is a complex and sensitive issue. I have chaired a Cabinet Committee a number of times to discuss the future of the post office network. The Government will make an announcement very shortly.
I recognise that my hon. Friend has made clear in an early-day motion the importance of post offices providing social access for people in rural and urban communities. That is the major consideration in the Cabinet Committee that I chair. I can assure her that the decline occurred under both Administrations—about 50 per cent. of the decline took place under the previous Administration—and there is a real problem achieving a proper balance between cost and social access to those facilities. We will take that into account, and it will be included in the consultation document that we will shortly announce to the House.
In the Deputy Prime Minister’s co-ordinating role, can he say what action he took when four separate Government Departments announced their intention to take business from the Post Office, leading to closures? Did he do nothing, or did he intervene but was overruled by his colleagues?
I think the hon. Gentleman knows that when those decisions were taken, I was a member of the Government but did not have responsibility in the Cabinet Committee for that. I was given that responsibility when I was given my present job. I can tell him that the matter causes real concern. All Governments have examined the expenses of Departments and asked them to get value for money. However, under this Government we have spent about £2 billion supporting the post office network, whereas nothing was put in by the previous Administration, so we will take no lectures from the Opposition about that, and as for the Liberals, they are never in power to make any decisions anyway.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall telling the Labour conference in 1999 that he would protect post offices against closures? Is it not the case that since then the Government have taken away the traditional business of post offices and that the fastest rate of closures has been in the past two years? Since it is his responsibility to co-ordinate Government policy on this, is the devastation of our post office network the intended result of a brilliant piece of co-ordination or the unintended result of a staggering piece of incompetence?
Always clever with words, but the facts never measure up. Nearly 50 per cent. of post office closures took place under the Government of whom he was a member. He gave no money or financial support to the post offices; we have given nearly £2 billion. We established the Post Office card account, which everybody agrees was a good step forward. Our actions in government have shown our support for the maintenance of a post office service, which has to be sustainable and to have public support. I note that neither the right hon. Gentleman nor the Leader of the Opposition offer any guarantee of giving subsidies to a future network if they were to get control in here.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the report published recently by the Communication Workers Union into the future of the post office network? During the course of his review, will he meet representatives of that union to ensure that post offices continue to be a valued part of our community?
As my hon. Friend knows, we have had discussions with several stakeholders about our responsibility for the post office network and their concerns about it. We will shortly publish a consultative document. When that is announced to the House, the debate can start on the Government’s proposals on the Post Office and the maintenance of its network.
I thought that the game was that I was to give an answer and the right hon. Gentleman was to respond—he has been here long enough to know that.
The House will be aware of the Government’s commitment to developing an affordable, just and sustainable pensions system. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister chairs the Cabinet Committee on welfare reform, where decisions on pensions policy are taken. I continue to play an active part in those discussions. The Government’s Pensions Bill, which was presented to the House on 29 November, makes a landmark settlement for future generations. It will link the basic state pension to earnings—a link that was broken by the Opposition—and make the system fairer to women and carers. The pensions personal accounts White Paper was laid before the House yesterday. It sets out in more detail our proposals for a new, low-cost way for ordinary working people to save for retirement. I am proud to be part of a Government who are bringing forward these plans for the long-term benefit of ordinary people, and I commend them to the House.
In view of the Deputy Prime Minister’s active interest in this, and in view of his own imminent retirement, will he, as his last act, put right that crime against pensioners—the £5 billion annual raid on pension funds carried out by the Chancellor since 1997—or is he content to retire himself on a secure pension having undermined the savings and pensions of the rest of the country?
I will take no lectures from the right hon. Gentleman, who was a member of a Government who drove 2.5 million pensioners into poverty, whereas we have lifted them out of it, who changed the pension rules allowing them to tax surpluses on pension funds—that was first done by Geoffrey Howe—and who allowed pension holidays. They created the problems in pensions, and we are now correcting them.
May I begin by thanking my hon. Friend for the close interest and support that she has expressed for next year’s commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade? As she is aware, the Government have been working to co-ordinate activities across a wide range of groups in the UK and with our international partners. As part of that effort to ensure international co-operation, I recently met a number of senior figures at the UN in New York. Along with a range of other issues, I discussed the bicentenary with the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and with the permanent representatives of several Caribbean countries and of some Asian countries whose people suffer from the modern form of slavery that is people trafficking.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Will he make it clear to the House when a statement will be made on the programme of events taking place in 2007, how organisations and individuals can contribute and get involved, and whether he supports a Government-funded annual remembrance day?
We are actively co-ordinating that, and I hope that the Prime Minister will make a statement in January about the nature of national and international activities to commemorate the 25 March—a resolution was passed by the House. The UN passed a resolution a few weeks ago saying that 25 March should be commemorated and celebrated throughout the year. The House will recognise, however, that 23 August is the UNESCO international day for the remembrance of the slave trade and its abolition. We will mark both those dates during the 2007 commemorations.
Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of the Royal Marine from 42 Commando who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday. Again, we in the House pay tribute to the bravery, professionalism and commitment of our armed forces.
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 that the whole House will want to support the Prime Minister in his comments about our lost serviceman.
Is the Prime Minister aware that most of the strategic A1 road in north Northumberland remains the single carriageway that it was when he went from Durham to school in Edinburgh? Does he blame that on bad decision making, which has led to nearly £500,000 being spent on schemes that have been dropped from the road programme, or on the fact that he has never given the north-east anything like the Barnett formula, which has enabled Scotland to spend more money on transport, public transport and other services?
There are a number of political minefields that I could step on in answering that question. We have, of course, invested a great deal more money in road building. I not only know about the A1 but recall many occasions on which I drove on it and wished for precisely the upgrade to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. We must make sure, however, that our transport budget is spent according to our overall means. Although we have increased the budget substantially, we have not been able to find the money for that upgrade yet. I know that he would want to pay tribute to the work that has happened in the north-east over the past few years, which has seen the strongest economy in the north-east for probably the past 100 years, massive investment in education and health and the lowest unemployment there for the whole time that I have been an MP, and probably for the whole time that he has been an MP.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to express horror at the events and sympathy with the family and friends of the five young women who have disappeared from in and around Ipswich and probably have been murdered. Will he express confidence in the Suffolk police, the other east of England police services, their ability to work together and the resources available to them in order to bring this vile murderer to justice as quickly as possible?
I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend has said. We support the police fully in dealing with the horror of the situation and with the entirely understandable fear in the community. I am sure that the whole House will want to send sympathy to the people of Ipswich, to the people of the county of Suffolk, and particularly to the family and friends of the victims. I assure my hon. Friend that we will do everything that we can to support the police in the difficult and challenging work that they do, and I have every confidence that they will perform their task well.
I agree very much with what the Prime Minister said about Ipswich. We all want this monster to be caught and locked up. May I join the Prime Minister in sending our condolences to the Royal Marine who died in Afghanistan?
The Defence Secretary told the House of Commons that changes in allowances for troops would
“not take one penny away from anybody”.—[Official Report, 30 October 2006; Vol. 451, c. 13.]
Will the Prime Minister confirm that Government briefing now shows that that is not true?
Let me explain what is happening in relation to the allowances. I apologise at the outset because some of it is complicated, and this is as I understand it.
At the present time—[Interruption.] I am trying to give the explanation, if the House would be kind enough to listen. At the moment, for the Navy and Royal Marines, two different allowances have been amalgamated. One of those allowances—the longer service at sea bonus—is then split into two different types of payment. When all of it is amalgamated into one allowance, which is going to be called the longer separation allowance, the amount of credits under that particular part of the longer service at sea bonus will be deemed to be at roughly 60 per cent. That will mean that within that bonus there are those people who have accrued more than 60 per cent. who may receive less than they otherwise would. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Will the House listen? However, that is more than compensated for by the fact that the new allowance is going to be paid at a bigger higher rate—£25 rather than £12.80—and all personnel will be credited with an extra 100 days as the deemed separation.
As a result of that, so I am informed, the letter that the Second Sea Lord sent to the Navy and Marines is correct—people will not lose under that benefit. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but this is the explanation. [Interruption.] I spent a long time this morning trying to get to grips with this.
In relation to the other allowance, the accumulated turbulence allowance, I am told that at present it kicks in when 280 days are served. That is now going to be amalgamated so that there is the one longer separation allowance. I am told that it is possible that some of those who are getting that allowance at present may receive less than they otherwise thought they would. However, the majority of them will receive more under the longer separation allowance. Quite apart from all of that, however, the new operational allowance—tax free at £2,200 a year—means that overall no one loses money and everyone gains money.
I am very grateful for that answer. This is complicated and I think that the Prime Minister has shown that when his current career is over, a relaunch of “Yes, Minister”, with himself as Sir Humphrey, would be very effective.
At the heart of this is a simple question: are Ministers reflecting the briefing that they are given? I have the Ministry of Defence briefing. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Yes. Officials now are so concerned about inaccurate answers that they have started giving the briefing to us as well. The briefing, which says “Restricted policy”, states:
“The Prime Minister is being briefed along these lines for PMQs on Wednesday”.
It also says very clearly:
“It has always been recognised and accepted that there will be a few potential losers”.
Given that there are going to be potential losers, why did the Defence Secretary effectively give an inaccurate answer? Will the Prime Minister get him to come here and apologise for doing so?
If one looks at what is happening as a result of the explanation—which I shall not repeat, the House will be delighted to know—it is not the case that, in relation to the allowances paid to Royal Marines and the Navy, people are losing out. On the contrary, they are gaining. Indeed, in some cases they will gain significantly. That is why the Defence Secretary, when he agreed with the letter that the Second Sea Lord sent to the Navy and Marines, was absolutely accurate. The point in relation to the other allowance—the accumulated turbulence allowance—which arose, I think, in the newspapers this morning in respect of the Grenadiers, is not that they receive less money—[Interruption.] No. It is that the money that they were going to receive under the current allowance may be less than they thought they were going to get. However, many of those will in fact get more. In any event, the charge that has been made by the shadow Defence Secretary—that we are effectively giving the operational tax allowance of £2,200 with one hand and taking it away with the other—is completely wrong. In actual fact, we have worked it out that £60 million additional in total is being paid under the allowance system.
But the lieutenant-colonel in the Grenadier Guards said:
“To have this entitlement withdrawn nine days before Afghanistan sends an appalling message after a 7 month… interval.”
The point is simple. The Secretary of State for Defence was briefed to say one thing, and said something else. Why not apologise? Why do this Government find it so impossible to apologise?
Let me turn to another front-line service that the Government are letting down. Today the Labour-dominated Health Committee said that many of the problems in the NHS were caused by “poor central management”. Who is responsible for that poor central management?
Of course anything managed from the centre is the responsibility of Government, but let us look at the situation in the health service today. As well as the Health Committee report—which actually, on balance, points to improvements in our health care system—we have seen the publication of the latest results showing the amount of work done in our health service. They show, for example, that for the first time ever the average waiting time for out-patient appointments is less than four weeks, and that there have been dramatic falls in both waiting lists and waiting times across the board.
The Prime Minister stands there week after week saying that local cuts are the fault of local health staff. This report shows that they are due to poor central management. The Health Committee report says that
“the NHS has veered from one priority to the next as the political focus has changed. It has concentrated on meeting targets with too little concern for finance.”
It also says
“Not only will services be affected, but also patient care.”
Does the Prime Minister accept that that poor central management, and the financial crisis in the NHS, is harming patient care—yes or no?
I do not accept that patient care is not improving in this country. I believe that patient care is improving in this country. That is perfectly obvious from the publication of the results this morning, but also from the fact that when we cane to office, literally hundreds of thousands of people used to wait for 12 months, sometimes 18 months, for their operations. We are now on course for an 18-week period from door to door for the in-patient and out-patient lists combined. That is happening not just as a result of massive investment, but as a result of change.
Not only did the right hon. Gentleman vote against the investment, every penny piece of it, but he is now apparently opposed to the reforms and changes that are necessary to provide value for money in the health service.
The Prime Minister talks of the situation when he came to office. Let me tell him that when he is leaving office, accident and emergency departments are threatened, maternity units are under review and community hospitals are closing. The Prime Minister must be the only person in the country who thinks that patient care is not suffering.
Is not the problem the fact that that the Government cannot address the problems of failure at the centre because the person at the centre is a lame duck? Why does the Prime Minister not give us all an early Christmas present, and tell us when he is off?
I hope the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw the claim made by his shadow health spokesman that 29 accident and emergency departments were to close. I have been through this. It is true that many are subject to consultation about changes in provision, but 12 are not even subject to consultation about change.
Let us look at what is happening overall. Accident and emergency departments have been transformed from how they were a few years ago. When we came to office, people had to wait for weeks and weeks, sometimes months, to see a cancer consultant. They no longer have to do that. As for cardiac care, people used to die waiting for operations; now people get their operations within three months. People used to wait for more than two years for cataract operations; now the average is three months or less. Moreover, the largest hospital building programme since the inception of the NHS is under way.
The fact is that the NHS is getting better. It is getting better under a Labour Government. After years of cuts and under-investment under the Tories, the NHS is once again the pride of the country.
I hope that the Prime Minister will ignore the fatuous invitations to inform the Opposition about his departure intentions, but will he tell us whether he has any plans to visit the House of Commons to lead a debate on the current and deteriorating situation in Iraq, so that the House can exercise the duty of scrutiny that has so far been accorded only to the Americans?
I have to say to my hon. Friend that I do of course answer questions on Iraq at this Dispatch Box the entire time. Over the next few weeks, there will be the US Administration’s response to the Baker-Hamilton report that has been presented to it. We will also come to a different position ourselves in respect of how we deploy troops in Iraq, provided that the operation currently being conducted in Basra is successful, for all the reasons that the Defence Secretary and the Foreign Secretary have given. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will tomorrow give details of how we can make sure that the House has an opportunity to debate these issues properly.
I join the Prime Minister in his earlier expressions of sympathy and condolence.
Like the rest of us, the Prime Minister is obviously shocked by the disturbing events in Suffolk. Is it not clear that we once again see that there is a link between poverty, prostitution and drug abuse?
There obviously is a link between all those things, but let me say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that although there might well be lessons that we have to learn as a result of the terrible events of the past few weeks, I think that those lessons are best learned in a considered, rather than a reflex, way. At present, our priority must be to find the person responsible and to give our full support to the police. It is wise for us to leave to a later time a more considered response, and potentially a policy one, to the issues that have arisen.
As I have said, I think that we should try to learn the lessons of this whole issue at a later time. But I should just make this point as well: when we published a consultation paper last year, the responses showed how difficult policy in this area is.
When my right hon. Friend next visits Liverpool will he meet Kay Fyne, who came to Britain from Germany on 26 August 1939 with the Kindertransport? Does he agree that the painful, honest testimony of folk such as Kay brings shame to those who deny the holocaust?
I agree entirely with what my right hon. Friend says, and I think and hope that the response right across the civilised world to the attempt to deny or cast doubt on the holocaust at the conference in Iran sends a very clear signal that people such as Kay, and the misery that they and their families went through, should never be forgotten.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on both the excellence of Aberdeen and the facilities there and the potential for renewable technologies. The difficulty is how long it will take to get those technologies to market. I also agree with him about diversity of energy supply. That is why we recently concluded the deal with Norway on the import of Norwegian gas into this country, which will meet about 30 per cent. of our gas needs. I also happen to believe that that is why we need to replace our existing nuclear power stations as well. But, whatever we do, the Government will make a significant additional investment in renewable technology, and co-operation between business and the academic world will be of prime importance.
As my hon. Friend says, the non-governmental organisations and the Department for International Development have done a superb job that is deeply necessary. We will provide about £1.5 billion of extra money in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Some 4 million people get infected every year in Africa, but the more positive news is that 800,000 people there are now getting treatment, and that number can rise very substantially over the coming years if this millennium goal is met. That shows that, if the necessary political will is there, it makes a difference on the ground in treating people who need such treatment.
Since the Prime Minister is so fond of apologising to foreigners for the conduct of our long-dead ancestors, will he now, particularly in view of the “accumulated turbulence”, apologise to the British people for his own folly in leading us into the Iraq disaster?
I am afraid that I will not, because I believe that it was right to remove Saddam and that it is right now to support people in Iraq, who want democracy. As for the earlier comments—I do not think that I have ever heard the word “foreigner” expressed with quite such strong emotion—I am always amazed at how these things are treated. I should have thought that even the hon. Gentleman and I could agree on our saying in 2006, as we approach the anniversary of the abolition of slavery, that it was a shameful trade.
I must confess to my hon. Friend that I was not fully aware of all the changes in British waterways and canals—but I am now. It is correct to say that in the past few years, there has been a very significant rise in people’s use of our canals and waterways. The British Waterways board has done a superb job, and as a result, the situation has been turned around from the position a decade ago. However, it, like everyone else, has to live within the means that we set ourselves. We are giving moneys additional to those that were available in 1997, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, like everyone else, must live within its means.
I in no way, shape or form underestimate the problem that the hon. Gentleman raises, but we have put some £2 billion into social housing, and we have tackled not just rough sleepers but the concept of families being in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for long periods. But I agree that we have to do far more, which is why the investment coming over the next few years will be very important. The danger in giving yet another statutory obligation to local authorities is whether they are able to meet it within the resources that they have, and whether it is right for central Government to set them such a target. But I entirely agree that it is a proper responsibility that local authorities should take seriously.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the independent Audit Commission yesterday announced that Labour-controlled Wigan council, superbly led by Lord Smith of Leigh, was one of only two councils in the country to be awarded four stars. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Labour councillors on their strategic success, and the officers on their superb achievement? Does he also agree that it is important that we provide additional resources for excellent councils such as Wigan, not just the freedoms that were announced in the local government White Paper?
I am certainly happy to give my congratulations to Wigan council and the councillors and officers who have made such enormous progress there over the past few years. To take just one example, I know that education in Wigan has seen a tremendous amount of improvement and change, including record results. The area has also had substantial reductions in unemployment, and increases in tax credits and additional child benefit have reduced poverty. The partnership between a strong Labour local authority and a Labour Government has delivered for the people of Wigan.
When my right hon. Friend is in Brussels later this week, one of the most difficult problems that he will have to deal with is Turkey, as the opposition of several centre-right Governments and politicians in Europe has made its application to join the European Union much more difficult. Does he therefore agree that the decision by the Conservatives to break all links with the centre-right parties of Europe—
People will be concerned today to hear that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence report recommends that some teenagers may, as a last resort, have to have surgery to treat obesity. Would it not instead be better to deal with problems with nutrition through the healthy start programme? While the extra money for low-income families is welcome, is not nutritional and exercise advice the best way to tackle the growing problem of teenage obesity?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the healthy start scheme—a good scheme that provides vouchers for healthy food for hundreds of thousands of children. Through extended schools, the increase in breakfast clubs and after-school activities, many children who previously did not get a meal before school are now doing so. Also, as a result of the several hundred specialist sports colleges, we are increasing the availability of sport in schools. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a major area in which the Government have to expand our activities and deepen the support we give people, because the issue of public health—on which the future of the national health service depends, in large measure—can be met only by people having the opportunity to live healthier lives and taking some responsibility for doing so.
I assure the hon. Lady that of course under the provisions of any such Bill no one will be forced to speak the Irish language. In relation to the consultation document that has been put out, we will await responses. However, the sooner it is possible to get devolution back up and running again, the easier it will be for such decisions to be taken where people in Northern Ireland would wish them to be taken.
I wish the campaign for Reddish baths well, and hope that it is successful. My hon. Friend draws attention to the strength of our voluntary and community groups, and in fact we held a reception for them in Downing street last night. Up and down the country, those groups provide facilities in the way that he described, and perform all sorts of magnificent social enterprise work. The Government fully support them and the work that they do, even if the Liberal Democrats do not.
When inquests are held into the deaths of service personnel whose bodies are returned to the UK, the Government are represented by the Treasury Solicitor, who has access to effectively unlimited taxpayers’ funds for QCs, witnesses and support investigations. In contrast, families of the bereaved attending the same inquest have to pay out of their own pockets. Is it right that the dice should be loaded against the bereaved?
First, when we talk about those who have fallen in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, we should pay tribute to their heroism, courage and dedication. I know that the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) is looking carefully at the arrangements in respect of coroners. I do not have anything to say about that at present, but it is of course important to make sure that bereaved families are given every possible facility.