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Volume 456: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2007

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.

The Prime Minister will know that the number of police officers across England and Wales dropped by 173 in the first six months of this year. He will also know that Greater Manchester has seen a cut of 216 police officers. Bearing in mind the fact that his staff believe that his area has had far too much police attention, while my constituents believe that my area has had far too little attention to policing, will he arrange for a transfer of resources, so that both he and I can have a good night’s sleep?

Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that we have record numbers of police: more than 140,000. That is some 14,000 more than we inherited in 1997. In addition, we have thousands of community support officers. Furthermore, as a result of the antisocial behaviour legislation, we are now able to take action against those who make life hell for people in communities such as his. What do all three of those things have in common? The Liberal Democrats voted against every single one of them. I am therefore delighted when Liberal Democrats ask about law and order.

Today we have seen the takeover of Corus UK by Tata, which will affect every one of Corus UK’s 24,000 employees. Will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to adding their voice in support of continued investment in the UK steel industry? Such a commitment would be warmly welcomed by Corus workers in my constituency and elsewhere in the UK.

I pay tribute to the work done by Corus employees in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere in the country. I assure her that we will continue to support investment in our steel industry, which remains in a difficult competitive atmosphere internationally. I know, however, that the Corus work force are doing their best to ensure that they compete successfully and safeguard jobs.

The Home Secretary has said that the problems at the Home Office will take two and a half years to sort out. Clearly, a long-term approach is needed. Can the Prime Minister therefore guarantee that the current Home Secretary will be in his job for longer than four and a half months?

I can certainly guarantee that he will continue to make investment in prison places, for example, and community support officers. I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that just last week the latest crime statistics showed a fall in recorded crime yet again. Over the past 10 years, whatever the challenges in the Home Office, crime has fallen. It doubled under the Government he supported.

The fact is that violent crime has doubled and our prisons are in crisis—and the Government have had 10 years to sort it out. I asked about the Home Secretary’s future. Because the Prime Minister is going, he cannot give any sort of guarantee. Is that not the whole problem with this Government? In any organisation, if one has long-term problems, one cannot have a short-term chief executive. Does the Prime Minister not realise that in those circumstances a Minister such as the Home Secretary just cannot plan for the future?

Let me just point out that as well as crime being down overall, the most serious violent crime fell by 20 per cent. in the past year. We are increasing investment in prisons: we have increased it by 36 per cent. in real terms over the past 10 years, and we are about to build another 8,000 places. The right hon. Gentleman opposed the investment in our prison places. In addition, as a result of his shadow Chancellor’s fiscal rule of sharing the proceeds of growth between tax cuts and investment, he cannot even commit to the 8,000 places. There is no point lecturing me about it.

We do not have to take the Prime Minister’s word for it, because the Home Secretary has told us that his Department is not fit for purpose, and is going to get worse. Let us consider his case: the person responsible for giving him the money to sort out the problem is his bitter rival, who wants him to fail. I ask the Prime Minister again: when the Home Secretary does not know whether he will have a job in four and half months’ time, how can he plan for the future?

As a matter of fact, there was a specific agreement to increase prison funding last year. That is why we are able to commit ourselves to 8,000 extra places. I repeat, not only did the right hon. Gentleman oppose the investment that has given us the extra prison places—2,500 are coming on stream this year—but if we adopted the policy that he wants, we could afford only half that number of places. The fact of the matter is that as a result of the Chancellor’s strong economic record, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is able to provide the investment—and the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is opposed to it.

The Prime Minister talks of his policy, but he will not be here to implement it. When will he realise that it is all over? Just look at his Cabinet! Half its members are falling over themselves to attack his foreign policy so that one of them can become deputy leader, while the other half are appearing on picket lines to protest against his health policy—and there is nothing he can do about it. Can he not see that it is time for him to go?

The right hon. Gentleman took a long time building up to that.

Let us compare the record of this Government on crime, police numbers, and asylum and immigration with the record of the last Government. We have cut crime. We have managed to ensure that for the first time ever, the Home Office is expelling more people with unfounded asylum claims than it is taking in. When we came to office the proportion was one in five, and we inherited a backlog of 60,000, which is now down to a few thousand. That is a record of change and investment of which we can be proud—and which the right hon. Gentleman opposed every inch of the way.

Why can the Prime Minister not see the reality that is staring him in the face? The Government cannot plan, and Ministers are treading water. They are all waiting for the Chancellor, and not listening to the Prime Minister. His authority is draining away. Why does he not accept what everyone knows—that it is now in the national interest for him to go?

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what I believe is in the national interest: that we continue with a strong economy, the highest levels of employment and the lowest levels of unemployment, that we continue with our policies for the health service, which have seen waiting lists fall by 400,000, that we continue with our policies on education, which have seen the best school results ever, and that we continue to reduce crime and do not, as the right hon. Gentleman’s party did, increase it.

My right hon. Friend will know of the massive investment in our museums and galleries that has led to millions of new visitors. In the light of that, will he comment on the decision by the London borough of Wandsworth, only nine months after council elections at which it remained silent on the subject, to close the very popular Wandsworth museum and threaten Battersea arts centre with closure? Is that not an example of a Tory council choosing cuts over cultural heritage?

Let me add to what my hon. Friend has said by pointing out that we have substantially increased the grant to local government. There is absolutely no cause for the closure of museums and arts centres that perform such a good local role. And of course it is this Government, as a result of our policy of free entry to museums, who have enabled literally millions more visitors, including children, to go to museums. My hon. Friend has given a telling example of the difference between the values of a Labour Government and those of a Tory Government.

Does the Prime Minister share public concern about the fact that at 5 per cent., the conviction rate for the crime of rape in this country is one of the lowest in Europe? Is it not time for a wholesale review of the law to ensure that we provide proper protection for women—and men—who are subjected to this traumatic and violent assault?

We are already considering how to improve the conviction rate for rape, but I think it fair to point out that more than 80 per cent. of rape cases involve non-stranger rape—in other words, the alleged assailant is known to the victim—and in more than 50 per cent. of those cases either a partner or an ex-partner is involved. For those reasons, it will obviously always be more difficult to secure a conviction. As the most recent report says, however, the way in which the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are working to help victims of rape has improved the position significantly over the past few years.

Everyone who has ever met a rape victim will know that they are devastated not only by the experience, but by the investigation that follows. Is the Prime Minister satisfied that standards of care and support are good enough?

I am satisfied that those have improved dramatically over the past few years. Victims are treated with far greater care and far greater attention to their trauma than was the case a decade or a couple of decades ago. I want to point out a detail that it is important to recognise. Although the number of convictions has gone up, not down, it is true that the proportion of claims that result in conviction has gone down—but it is only fair to point out that as a large proportion of cases involve people who either are in or have been in a relationship with the alleged assailant or are known to them, it is inevitable that it will be more difficult to secure a conviction. I entirely agree that it is important that we continue to see what more we can do to make sure that this horrendous crime is treated properly.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the anger and disappointment felt in the communities of Lambeth and Southwark over his Secretary of State for Health’s decision to close the 24-hour emergency clinic at the Maudsley hospital? Does he realise that, in the teeth of opposition from two local councils with all-party support, as well as opposition from five local MPs including two Cabinet Ministers and his own Parliamentary Private Secretary, the Secretary of State went ahead and made that decision? Will he have a quiet word with her and ask her why she thinks that she knows more than all those people in the community who know how important that clinic is?

I am sure that local consultations will have been involved in the putting forward of those proposals. I am perfectly happy to have a look at the matter, but I am sure that my hon. Friend would also want to point out that overall, health care in her area, as in other parts of the country, has improved dramatically thanks to the investment and the change that has been made.

Q2. Last week the Prime Minister refused to answer a question about the loans scandal. May I invite him to explain precisely why he is refusing to answer questions about that? Is he “taking the fifth”? Is he saying that anything that he might say in this House might tend to incriminate him? (112445)

The hon. Gentleman knows that, for perfectly obvious reasons, there is nothing I can say on the subject.