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Deputy Prime Minister

Volume 456: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2007

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Departmental Efficiency Savings

9. What action he plans to take in response to the initiative on departmental efficiency savings announced in the pre-Budget report. (112469)

The Government’s objective is to achieve a strong economy and a just society. I continue to play a full part in developing and implementing that Government policy, as the Prime Minister has asked me to do. Significant progress has been made over the past 10 years whereby we have proved that we can have strong economic growth coupled with social justice, as well as exceed our Kyoto targets on the environment.

On performance, the House will know that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, unlike any other Whitehall Department, is not required to produce an autumn performance report or a capability review. Is that official confirmation that the Deputy Prime Minister does not have a proper job, or is it that he is incapable of performing the one that he is supposed to have?

As I have told the House before, I carry out the job exactly as Lord Heseltine defined it—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Well, hon. Members can check the record as to exactly what Lord Heseltine said to the Public Service Committee about working on behalf of the Prime Minister at their request.

As for departmental capability reviews, it is a pity that the previous Administration did not have them. If that had been done under the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported perhaps we would not have had the mess that we had with mass unemployment and the running down of most of our social services which led to the Tories being thrown out in 1997.

Given the Deputy Prime Minister’s long track record in trade union activity, will he comment on today’s strike by Public and Commercial Services Union members who are concerned about job losses, reductions in pay and the billions being spent on consultancy, which make it ever more difficult for them to deliver the quality of service that we as taxpayers need—particularly today, which, I remind hon. Members and colleagues, is the last day for self-assessment forms to be returned?

As the Government have made clear, the two parties have to get round the negotiating table on these matters of dispute. Indeed, I spend quite a bit of my time involved in that process. I would say to the union that it should look at this Government’s record in terms of how many public service employees there are now compared with 1997—well into hundreds of thousands are employed in front-line services in hospitals and in education. Of course there have been some adjustments and reforms—we accept that—but, in terms of what the union is talking about, there have been only 35 redundancies. Yes, it has a job to do in presenting the viewpoint of its members, but at the end of the day this dispute must be settled around the negotiating table, and we encourage the union to get there.

Since the Department’s efficiency savings depend on the success of the profit-sharing agreement for the millennium dome site, and since Anschutz Entertainment Group has said that it has no plan B following the collapse of the £300 million casino project, what plan B does the Deputy Prime Minister have to salvage the revenue?

The contract on the dome is clear for all to see. It was negotiated between the Government and the company, and that is what it will have to carry out. I have not been involved in any way in plan As or plan Bs, although the hon. Gentleman makes that suggestion. I have simply been involved in seeing that a contract negotiated by a previous colleague was implemented. It has been very good for Greenwich, creating more jobs and more prosperity, which mirrors an awful lot of what this Government are doing right round the country.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that despite the initiative on departmental efficiency savings, he has managed to spend £645 changing the sign outside his office from “Office of the Deputy Prime Minister” to “Deputy Prime Minister’s Office”? Does not that symbolise the shocking waste of money under this Government when thousands of jobs are being cut from the NHS?

As for the name plate, it is dealt with by the Department and its civil servants, to be honest. I hear the argument about £645, but that would not have paid for one sentence of any of the right hon. Gentleman’s speeches at the rate he charges—[Interruption.] Leaving that aside, if the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the waste of money, let us talk about the billions of pounds we paid keeping people on the dole, which this Government changed in 1997.

It will not be many months before the Deputy Prime Minister can charge a fortune, because people will split their sides for his speeches. He has all of that to look forward to. In the meantime, since he is responsible for the co-ordination of Government policy, does not the state of the Home Office, with prisoners who should be in jail being released because of the failure to plan, and the state of the health service, with 37,000 job cuts this year, suggest that co-ordination of policy has rarely been so incoherent and paralysed? Does the responsibility for that lie with the Deputy Prime Minister or with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

We fully accept our responsibility for the good government of this country. We have got millions of people back to work, we have reduced waiting lists and put more investment into education and health, so we are happy to compare that record with the 18 years under the right hon. Gentleman’s Government. We have a very good record, which I ask him to consider. It is a bit of a cheek for the right hon. Gentleman to criticise us, bearing in mind that he was a member of that disastrous Government, who brought terrible consequences for our people and the country’s economy. I am quite prepared to make a comparison. Let the right hon. Gentleman keep on making the speeches; quite frankly, that is just about where his ability lies. I believe that he is now the man responsible for getting the votes back for his party in Yorkshire and Humberside. There were no gains when he was leading the Tory party and if he has to get the level of support back to that in 1992, I am bound to tell him that it will take 40 years. That sounds right. Keep the night-time job and the pay, but quite frankly, he will not be back in government.

Early Years Provision

10. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on schools policy, with particular reference to early years provision. (112470)

Discussions have taken place on an individual basis with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State as well as within the Cabinet Committee system and, indeed, the Cabinet. With specific reference to early years and schools, I think that our record speaks for itself. We have abolished classes of more than 30 for primary-aged pupils; we are on track to deliver 3,500 Sure Start centres for the under-fives by 2010; we are extending flexible, free part-time nursery care for three and four-year olds up to 15 hours a week, also by 2010; and we have invested £40 million for extra classrooms and extensions to ensure that no child of five, six or seven will be in a class of 30. Thanks to £35 million investment, we have ended the scandal of primary schools having to rely on outside toilets, which characterised their state under the previous Conservative Administration.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that the Government’s poverty programme depends heavily on rolling out the children’s centres in particularly poor areas where the take-up is the lowest? That programme is being hampered by the fact that primary care trusts such as the North Yorkshire and York PCT are running at a record deficit and will not be able to make a contribution. The trust’s nursery programme is also under severe threat because of the code of practice. Does not the right hon. Gentleman accept that early-years provision is in absolute tatters?

I certainly do not accept that. Three thousand children’s centres are now being established and there were 500 Sure Starts set up under our previous Administration. They provided opportunities not only for young children, but for mothers to start national vocational qualifications and for old and young people to come together in community centres. I have to tell the hon. Lady that although we have not done as much as should be done, we are on target to achieve what we said we would by 2010. What she said would be a little more acceptable if the hon. Lady had not voted against every Budget to provide the money to pay for those programmes.

Public Relations

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the Government employed the Labour-supporting public relations consultant Sheree Dodd, and that she provided PR support to him? Given that the departmental annual report will be produced long after he has left, should he not tell the House today how much Sheree Dodd cost?

May I remind my right hon. Friend that he has a public relations contract, which was signed, sealed and delivered at the general election? On that basis, may I invite him to come north at the earliest opportunity and remind the people of Scotland what the Labour party has done for them?

I think that is right and the test will come in the elections, which will show exactly what we have done not only in Scotland but in Wales and, indeed, in England. We look forward to the result—we shall certainly play a part in the elections. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), of the Scottish Nationalist party, who is nodding, looks forward to those elections, too. Judge us on our record for a United Kingdom, not one that is divided.

Ministerial Visits

I make regular visits to communities across the UK, which enable me to see the real progress that has been made in tackling poverty, increasing employment and bringing new life to our cities through urban regeneration and improved housing.

I usually incorporate several strands on each visit. For example, recent visits to Bristol, Liverpool, Hull and London have included discussions on this year’s bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. The events were launched at No. 10, and I am happy to say that I had the support of the Opposition at that launch to commemorate 1807.

In addition, when I was in Liverpool two weeks ago, I talked to residents of the housing market renewal pathfinder in the Welsh streets area and visited a community centre in the new deal area in Knowsley.

All those visits were, and I think that visiting to see exactly how Labour’s policies are successful in the new deal areas or the pathfinder housing schemes is important. All those policies will be put to the test in the election. I am proud of what the Government have done in the past 10 years, compared with the previous Tory Administration. We will see what the people think when the election comes. Tories should stand by for getting another bloody nose.

When the Deputy Prime Minister visited Liverpool, did he meet residents who were satisfied with their new homes, which have been provided as a result of Government housing market renewal policies in the Welsh streets area? Does he intend to make a return visit as part of the commemoration of the abolition of slavery?

I am well aware from my visit—and, indeed, from my hon. Friend’s support—of the Welsh streets area. Pathfinders have been criticised but nearly 80 per cent. of the people want the old Victorian houses knocked down and to live in decent conditions. That is what the pathfinder programme is about. The people are also proud of the historic landmarks that are coming, especially the commemorations of 1807 and the abolition of slavery. Liverpool has a comprehensive programme this year, which includes celebrating the city’s 800th anniversary.

Departmental Capability Review

[Interruption.] Part of the problem is that questions 1, 2 and 3 are followed by question 13. The numbering has changed.

Decisions on the timing of capability reviews of individual Departments are a matter for the Cabinet Secretary.

Is the deputy leader concerned that the review will decide that there is no need for his Department? Does he believe that, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer becomes Prime Minister, he and the Department will be scrapped?

Well, whether we have a Department or a Deputy Prime Minister is a matter for the Prime Minister. That has always been the case. I leave whoever is the next Prime Minister to make that judgment. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I am at a rather happy demob stage, so I can say that.

As the right hon. Gentleman talks about the capability review, may I remind the House that he was the official Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland who, at the time of the Good Friday agreement—on which we may see historic success in the next few weeks—went on holiday? That may have been good for his perma-tan, but it was not good for the agreement, and certainly did not show any capability.