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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2007

Duchy of Lancaster

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Social Exclusion

Personalisation is crucial to the effectiveness of public services and tackling social exclusion. We have taken significant steps forward, for example, through direct payments for disabled people and those requiring social services. Personalisation also requires good information and advice to support individuals in deciding what is appropriate to meet their needs, and the Government are taking steps to ensure that that is available.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. What involvement and assistance are the Government giving to the voluntary community sector to enable it to work with the public services in the state sector to support the most hard to reach individuals?

My hon. Friend is right that we have to work closely with the voluntary community sector, especially to reach people who have, for whatever reason, become excluded from many aspects of our life. We are working closely with the third sector to ensure that it is able to provide services and act in different ways. One of the results emerging from the third sector action plan, which we published last November, is that we will train 2,000 commissioners in the public sector to work effectively with the third sector to provide services in a very personalised way. When people have a real problem, they need someone who will be able to engage with them, and that is often someone in their local community or voluntary organisation.

I am sure that the right hon. Lady’s sentiments are impeccable, but I wish that I could say the same for her language. Can we start putting these things into language that the ordinary people of this country can understand?

I am really not sure to which bit of my language the hon. Gentleman objects. The voluntary and community sector knows what we are talking about and it wants to be involved in designing and delivering services. That is what commissioning means and the sector understands it well. It wants to work with us to ensure that it can play its part in providing real opportunities for the socially excluded.

It is possible that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) was referring to the word “personalisation”. Will my right hon. Friend take great care to ensure that when we speak of personalisation we do not really mean depersonalisation? I remind her that in the tax credits system we have had to bring back case workers—real people—because relying on computers did not provide a satisfactory service for tax credit claimants. Let us ensure that personalisation means that people have the ability to contact real people about their problems in the round.

I understand absolutely what my hon. Friend means. Personalisation does mean that an individual who has a particular challenge—be they a child in care, someone with a disability or an elderly person—is able to have contact with someone who will really address their individual needs. I ask my hon. Friend to look at what is being done by the Department for Education and Skills in relation to schools, where individual tuition will be given to those children who are not making the grade, as it were, in their reading. This whole agenda is aimed at ensuring that we address such problems in a very personal way.

Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest barriers to truly personalised back-to-work support services is the fact that the range of support available to claimants depends too much on which benefit they claim, and not enough on individual needs? In his recent review, David Freud discussed moving towards a single working age benefit. Does she agree that that would help to break down some of those barriers, and make it easier to ensure that the help that people get depends on their needs and not on the benefit that they claim?

That is how the pathways to work scheme operates. It looks much more closely at the individual needs of unemployed people, and addresses those needs accordingly. I was interested to hear that David Freud had returned to the idea of a single benefit. Many previous Governments have considered that possibility and found it very difficult to achieve. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is looking at that option but, regardless of whether we are able to introduce it, we must still achieve much more personalisation. That is especially true of the unemployed, as we must determine—and then overcome—the barriers that prevent a person from getting back to work.

The Minister will be aware of the groundbreaking report on free automated teller machines produced before Christmas and supported by industry, consumer groups and Parliament. In her discussions with local authorities, will she encourage them to try to attain the target of 600 free ATMs in low-income areas, as people who are excluded financially are excluded socially as well?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. The Department is part of a working group being set up by the Treasury, and I assure him that we will pursue the agenda that he and his Committee raised in that very useful report. I promise to keep in touch with him about our progress.

The Minister says that the voluntary sector has a vital role to play in tailoring public services to individual needs, but there is a problem. The Charity Commission has said that the terms offered by the state to voluntary sector providers undermine their financial stability and independence. Only 12 per cent. of charities are being paid the full costs of their services, and only a quarter of them felt able to make decisions without pressure from public sector funders. When will the Government properly trust the voluntary sector to do the job at a local level?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has intervened, as I thought that the way that he voted last week in respect of a Bill designed to increase voluntary sector involvement signalled a change of direction on his part. Perhaps he was not happy at being asked to vote that way, and so is renewing his support for the voluntary sector this week. We have discussed the question of full cost recovery at length with the voluntary and community sectors, and the Charity Commission recognises that there has been significant improvement. The situation is getting better and, with the hon. Gentleman’s support, will continue to do so. However, he had an opportunity to support the voluntary sector last week, and did not take it.

Social Enterprises

3. What discussions she has had on encouraging participation in co-operatives and social enterprise initiatives. (125520)

In November 2006, the Government launched a social enterprise action plan to support the work of social enterprises and co-ops, both as ethical businesses in the private sector and as partners delivering public services. Key parts of the plan included a higher profile for social enterprise in the school curriculum, improved advice and finance for social enterprises starting up, and greater access to finance to support their work.

The ABLE partnership in my constituency is funded by the green business network, Wakefield primary care trust and the social care charity Turning Point. The partnership is transforming 100 acres of brownfield site donated by Yorkshire Water into a hazel coppice and a fish farm which, in three years’ time, will produce Wakefield’s first caviar. Will the Minister join me on a visit to the environmentally sustainable transformation achieved by that social partnership, which demonstrates how Wakefield is leading the way in social enterprise?

I look forward to joining my hon. Friend in tasting Wakefield caviar; I am sure that it will be a great experience. She is right about the great work that social enterprises do in reaching out to the most excluded people in our society. The key is that the state should continue to fund public services adequately, and not use social enterprises as an excuse to abdicate its responsibility in that regard. In addition, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, we support the work of social enterprises in deed as well as in word, and that is why it was so regrettable that the Opposition voted against the Offender Management Bill last week.

Surely local government also has a big role to play in developing social enterprise, so has my hon. Friend considered how best to encourage it to play its full part in that agenda?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Much of the income for the third sector comes from local government. The key thing is culture change on the ground, so that commissioners understand the role that social enterprises can play. We see that in waste and recycling, for example, where we want councils not just to go for the conventional private sector option but to understand the contribution that third sector and social enterprise organisations can make. That is why, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, our programme for training 2,000 commissioners is so important, because that will achieve the culture change on the ground that we need.

Coming from Rochdale, I would much rather the Minister used the word “co-operative”. What is he doing to support credit unions? I commend to him the work of the Rochdale credit union, Streetcred, which in the light of the Farepak collapse has in the past few weeks launched a Christmas savings scheme. Does he think that there is a role for such groups in helping people to save?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the role played by credit unions, which I, too, see in my constituency. The Treasury is conducting a review of the co-operative sector, which has been called for over a long period and will include the work of credit unions, to consider how the structure can be reformed to the advantage of co-ops and credit unions. Many of the most successful social enterprises are themselves co-ops, so our general work to support social enterprises will help co-ops, too.

In my constituency, a number of social enterprises are run by tenants of the Duchy of Lancaster. When will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster embrace her other role as guardian of the tenants and of the land she holds on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen and visit those tenants and social enterprises, instead of skulking away in Downing street?

Regrettably, I am not in charge of my right hon. Friend’s diary, but I know that she has visited many tenant farmers and others, such as those to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. I am sure that she has heard his request and will give it the consideration that it deserves.

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Slave Trade

11. If he will make a statement on progress on plans to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. (125508)

The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister hosted an evening at No. 10 Downing street in January to launch the Government’s package to mark 200 years since Parliament passed legislation—brought in by the Member of Parliament for Hull, William Wilberforce—to outlaw the slave trade in the British empire.

The Government’s approach to the bicentenary has been to encourage and facilitate grass-roots organisations, faith groups, the voluntary sector and local authorities—particularly in the port cities of Liverpool, Bristol, London and Hull, whose histories are so closely linked with this important event—to commemorate the year in a manner appropriate to their own communities. A national service of commemoration will be held in Westminster abbey on 27 March, and the House authorities are arranging for an exhibition to take place in Westminster Hall, to be launched on 23 May.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I am sure that he will join me in congratulating the regional Trades Union Congress for Yorkshire and the Humber, which is holding a conference on 23 March to mark the abolition of slavery. Our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has signed the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, but does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that this opportunity is the best time for us to ratify the convention and give protection to the 4,000 women and children who have been trafficked into this country for sexual slavery?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the role of the Yorkshire conference organised by the TUC. It is most appropriate and reflects the fact that 200 years ago other people, such as workers in various Yorkshire towns and other parts of the UK, were campaigning to get rid of that terrible trade. It gives us the opportunity to remember in our commemorations many other people who played a part in getting rid of slavery—a terrible trade of human trafficking. I hope that not only will we sign the convention, as the Prime Minister said, but that we will discuss how it is to be implemented. The important part is ratification; indeed, this afternoon I am meeting the Home Secretary—my mate—to discuss that.

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that William Wilberforce—about whom I wrote a short life history and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) is about to produce a magisterial work—was in fact the Member for Yorkshire, not Hull, at the time of the abolition? Does he agree that the most fitting parliamentary memorial would be to erect a statue to William Wilberforce within the parliamentary precincts?

I agree very much with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. There are a number of groups looking at various statues that could be erected to people who were involved in the campaign. I will be encouraging that. As for the writing of the article or booklet, by himself and indeed by the—I was going to say the Leader of the Opposition; I should be careful—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), I will attend the launch of the book in Hull to commemorate that event. I am looking forward to that. I can assure him that I will not put in a bill of £16,000 to attend.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that young people often know how to celebrate most effectively and with an international perspective? Does he agree that the fact that a group in Hull known as Freedom Road has produced a three-track CD to mark Wilberforce, the proceeds of which will be used to bring a blind choir from Sierra Leone to Hull to sing with Freedom Road, truly marks this as an international celebration?

It is important that young people are involved in the commemoration. Indeed, we are organising a debate that could probably take place in the House—if the authorities agree—involving young people from various parts of the Commonwealth, who will discuss not only the commemoration of the abolition of slavery, but the whole issue of the human trafficking that is going on today. The activities of Hull in twinning with Freetown, and the schools that are involved—that is called class-to-class connection—form an important part of that. When I visited Sierra Leone only a few weeks ago, I saw the important role played by the British Council in encouraging schools and local authorities to come together. That would be a worthwhile legacy to come out of the commemorations this year.

May I express the strong support of the Opposition for the commemoration by local authorities, schools, trade unions and the Government, in the bipartisan spirit of the bicentenary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade? Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it is a time to remember the terrible crimes and unspeakable inhumanity of the Atlantic slave trade, but also to note that it was the early development in Britain of a free Parliament, a free press and a public conscience that allowed our country to lead the way among European nations in removing that scourge from the earth?

I could not agree more with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. On my recent visits to Ghana and Sierra Leone, I found it interesting to see those two independent Commonwealth countries commemorating, not only in Ghana the 50th anniversary of independence, but a piece of what could be said to be colonial legislation passed by this Parliament 200 years ago to abolish the slave trade. I very much agree with what he says and we shall do all that we can to see that the commemorations extend further than this country. I am glad that he also said that it was a wider level of support in the community that brought the abolition about, but Mr. Wilberforce was the man who was effective in bringing the legislation to the House.

Would not the best monument to the efforts of 200 years ago be a cross-party resolve to confront the traffickers involved in modern human trafficking, in its new and wicked form? We welcomed and called for the Government’s announcement that they will ratify the Council of Europe’s convention on trafficking in human beings. Will the Deputy Prime Minister say whether the Government have any plans to strengthen the protection of victims through safe houses and special helplines, as advocated by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary? Will he establish with the Home Secretary a UK border police force, without which the war against traffickers cannot be won?

Again, I agree with an awful lot of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I am having a meeting with the Home Secretary later this afternoon to look at exactly what we have to do to implement and ratify the Council of Europe’s convention. That is important. Some of the measures that the right hon. Gentleman has referred to are being actively considered by the Home Office and, as he knows, it is about to announce its action plan to meet some of the requirements. Hopefully, the House will then be able to debate the proposals involved. We have already made some proposals in regard to housing, which is indeed one of the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s convention.

Departmental Travel

All overseas and domestic travel will be accounted for in the usual way.

In the past six months, I have undertaken a number of overseas visits on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in addition to those already announced to the House. Among the most recent was a visit to Romania and Bulgaria in January, when I had meetings with the Prime Ministers and Presidents of both those countries following their accession to the European Union. We discussed key areas of co-operation, such as managed access to the labour market for different categories of workers in the European Union.

Last week, I met representatives of the World Health Organisation in Geneva to discuss the serious implications of climate change for public health. I had discussions with a number of UN agencies, including the International Labour Organisation, about people trafficking and the Government’s intention to sign the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings.

The Deputy Prime Minister has been given a role in responding to climate change. He has given us a litany of the travel that he has undertaken in the past six months, yet he has not answered my question about the cost of that travel—it is a considerable cost to the public purse. Does he have any concerns about the environmental impact of such travel? While the Government have a carbon offsetting scheme, which is worthy in its own right, the cost of that is also borne by the British taxpayer.

The hon. Lady is making a point about the cost of travel, and she will get the figures for the year, which will be produced in the normal way. I have compared our travel costs with those of the previous Administration, as set out in a parliamentary reply. Between 1993 and 1996, the average Government expenditure on overseas travel was £6.6 million, while between 2003 and 2006—the last three years of this Government—the expenditure was more than £1 million a year less. We not only spend less, but we are more effective in international operations, especially on climate change.

Has the Deputy Prime Minister noticed that the list of ministerial responsibilities describes his own as:

“Oversight and co-ordination of Government policy across the full range of domestic … areas”?

Does he think that the Prime Minister allows him to wander around the world so as to fill up his day because he does not seem to have enough to do on domestic policy, which is, by definition, the job that he is appointed to do?

The job that I do is at the request of the Prime Minister, as was true of every Deputy Prime Minister, whether that was Mr. Heseltine acting at the request of Mr. Major, or me. The job is defined by the Prime Minister—that is what comes with the title of Deputy Prime Minister.

As for travelling abroad, what I am doing is relevant to the Cabinet Committees for which I have some responsibility. I mentioned human trafficking in reply to a question asked by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). It was appropriate for me to have a meeting with the ILO and other UN bodies in Geneva to inform myself of the proper measures that the Government should be introducing so that we could implement them. It is relevant to travel to learn what other parties and Governments are doing right across a range of issues—climate change and others—so that we can give leadership, as we do, in all those areas.

What use do the Government make of video conferencing and other new technology to avoid the need for domestic and international travel for face-to-face meetings? What impact does that have on reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change?

By definition, using the available technology leads to a reduction in carbon emissions. It might shock the House to know that I have it in my office. I use that technology from time to time, but there are times when face-to-face meetings are needed, which means travel. Indeed, I understand that the Leader of the Opposition has travelled to Europe to discuss climate change and other matters. In reality, although a lot of fuss is made about this, air travel is necessary in the global world.

How far do travel costs explain the extraordinary 30 per cent. inflationary increase in the Deputy Prime Minister’s supplementary estimate, taking it to £2.5 million? When public spending growth and increases in nurses’ pay are being kept below the rate of inflation, how can he justify that extravagance?

As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman’s profession is accountancy. If that is his reading of the figures, I would suspect most of his other arguments on the economy. In reality, as he must know if he has looked at the figures, there are no extra costs involved whatever. It is a transfer that, according to the auditor, needs to be made. Instead of other Departments paying, the figure is now attributed to my Department. Exactly the same money is used, in terms of total expenditure; it is just apportioned differently. I am amazed that he, as an accountant, did not know that simple fact.


13. If he will make a statement on the debate that he is seeking to organise for young people from Commonwealth countries on the consequences of slavery. (125510)

Mr. Speaker, you will recall the enthusiasm and the high quality of the discussion that took place when, as Deputy Speaker, you chaired a debate for young people whom I had brought together some years ago to examine environmental policy. I am hoping that a similar debate will be arranged as part of our plans to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. I am discussing with various authorities, including the British Council, which does excellent work on the issue, the possibility of getting young people from a number of Commonwealth countries, as well as younger people from across the United Kingdom, to participate in that debate, which I hope will take place in the Houses of Parliament. The debate will allow our young people, who live in an increasingly interconnected world, to share their thoughts and experiences of life in a discussion on the growing problem of human trafficking. They will be able to reflect on the past, and look to the future.

My right hon. Friend is right to seek to hold that debate. Will he inform the House of how his discussions with young people in Sierra Leone and Gambia have informed his thinking on the debate, and will he meet me to discuss how the subject of modern-day slavery could play a part in the discussions?

I most certainly will meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matters. Indeed, the House will have a chance on 20 March to debate the issue of slavery. The importance of bringing young people together was impressed on me during our visit to the classrooms and schools in Sierra Leone and Ghana. In a powerful commemoration of the bicentenary, a slave scene was enacted, in which people dressed in chains, like the slaves of that time, and were chained to a person with a whip. One of the lines that was said, to which everybody should give thought, was that not every white man was guilty and not every black man was innocent. In those circumstances, if we saw the broader picture of the problem of slavery, we could start a proper debate about the issues, instead of about the total shame that we feel about the actions that took place more than 200 years ago.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am afraid that before listing my engagements I must ask the whole House, again, to join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of those members of our armed forces who have fallen in the line of duty in the past week. Private Jonathon Wysoczan of the 1st Battalion the Staffordshire Regiment died on Saturday as result of injuries sustained last week in Iraq. He was a brave soldier and we pay tribute to him. We also send our condolences to the family and friends of Lance Bombardiers Liam McLaughlin and Ross Clark, both of 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery, and of Marine Benjamin Reddy of 42 Commando Royal Marines, who were killed in Afghanistan helping to ensure that the project on the Kajaki dam went ahead. That will bring electricity to 1.8 million people in the south of Afghanistan and make a huge difference to the lives of people there and to the economy. The work that they were doing is of enormous importance, and I think our armed forces who are, at the present time, in the south of Afghanistan are displaying a heroism that, even given the rich history of the British military, is almost unparalleled, and we pay tribute to all of them.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House I will have further such meetings later today.

First, may I associate not only myself but, I am sure, all Members on this side of the House with the Prime Minister’s message of condolence? [Interruption.] Members on both sides of the House; I beg hon. Members’ pardon.

€50 to visit a GP; €85 per month in prescription charges; 25 per cent. VAT; 50 per cent. income tax; and, hardest of all for some people to swallow, £8 for a pint of beer; does my right hon. Friend believe that the Scottish people would accept those characteristics, all of which are drawn from small European countries regularly used for the purposes of comparison by Members of Parliament who advocate independence for Scotland?

My hon. Friend makes his point very well. The truth of the matter is that England benefits from Scotland being in the United Kingdom, and Scotland benefits from being in the United Kingdom. In the past few years, we have seen dramatic falls in unemployment and rises in employment. Some 200,000 extra jobs have been created, and there is a strong Scottish economy. About £11 billion-worth more money is spent on public services in Scotland and it is raised by taxes, so wrenching Scotland from the UK would be very serious for the Scottish economy and the living standards of the Scottish people.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the soldier who died following his service in Iraq. We pay tribute, too, to Lance Bombardier Ross Clark, Lance Bombardier Liam McLaughlin and Marine Benjamin Reddy, who were killed in Afghanistan. They died taking part in a NATO operation enforcing a UN mandate, and helping a democratically elected Government. As the Prime Minister said, they were in the front line against terrorism.

This week, NATO launched a significant offensive in the south of the country. With spring approaching, many people expect the intensity of the fighting to increase. Are the Prime Minister and the Cabinet confident that British forces are sufficiently backed by other NATO countries, are properly reinforced and adequately equipped, not just to withstand attack but to secure peace and security throughout Helmand province?

I believe that the additional contribution that we are making and the contributions of other NATO countries are immensely important. For example, Sweden has made a decision today to reinforce its armed forces in the north of Afghanistan. Other countries are providing assistance for reconstruction and extra equipment such as helicopters and so on. All of that is important, but it is fair to say that, yes, of course, we want our NATO partners to do even more, which is why in the meeting in Seville a short time ago we pressed for that, and we will continue to press for it. The important thing about our own reinforcements in Afghanistan is that they are there not just to complete our mission but to protect our troops.

I am grateful for that answer. Britain has 5,500 troops in Afghanistan, but does the Prime Minister agree with me that this year, there will be significant pressure for further reinforcements unless we encourage other NATO countries to do more and, vitally, if we remove the caveats on many of the NATO forces in Afghanistan? Will he update us on progress on those two vital objectives?

As I said, other countries such as Australia are committing forces and additional equipment. However, it is important that we recognise that the extra 1,400 troops whom we are sending in as reinforcements will play a vital role, not just in securing the southern part of Afghanistan but in ensuring that our own troops are better protected. It is correct that some countries have lifted caveats, but others have not, and we continue to press them to do so the entire time. Yes, of course, I want more to be done by other NATO countries, and that will be part of informal discussions, I do not doubt, at the European summit as well as in any NATO meeting. In the end, we must make sure that we discharge our responsibility, which is not dependent on what others can do with us, although we press them to do more. We believe—this is probably the reality—that it is only the British forces who can make a real difference in south Afghanistan. It is tough for them, as we can see. Anyone who has read the accounts of what British forces are doing, particularly in the northern part of Helmand, will have read an extraordinary story of heroism and courage. We believe that we have to do it—we think that it is right for the world—and, yes, we will continue to press others to come in with us. In the end, however, we are doing what we need to do, and we are proud of doing it.

The Prime Minister is right that our troops are doing a magnificent job in the south, but with reference to his last answer in particular, we know that NATO commanders in the south have asked for two additional battle groups. We are providing one of them, but last week the Secretary of State for Defence was unable to say who would provide the other. Can the Prime Minister update us on that? More generally, given that last year in Helmand we saw attacks on soldiers increasing, high levels of insurgency, a rising poppy crop and the governor dismissed, how confident is he that over the next six months we will see real progress on all those fronts?

We should not ignore the progress that has already been made. The Afghan economy is double what it was a few years back. There are millions more girls now in school. We have reconstruction projects that are refurbishing schools and opening health clinics in Afghanistan. As important as anything else, it is not just the British forces and the forces of many other nations that are fighting down in the south of Afghanistan and elsewhere—it is an Afghan national army as well, whose capability is being built the whole time. Yes, we must press for the additional battle group from elsewhere. We are continuing to do that. At present we do not know the exact provenance of that battle group, but we are sure that in the end we will be able to get the support that we need. The important thing is to understand, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree, that there has been real progress in Afghanistan. What our troops have been doing there is remarkable, but what the Afghan people themselves have been doing down in the south of Afghanistan is incredible, standing out against the bullies of the Taliban. We know that just a few months ago, for example, a teacher was taken out and executed in front of his class for teaching girls in school. That is the battle of values in which we are engaged. I entirely agree that we need to ensure that the whole world faces up to its responsibility, but I am primarily responsible for our contribution, which I think is right and proportionate. We will continue to work closely with other allies. It is worth pointing out that there are soldiers from many, many other nations working alongside us. They are doing an excellent job as well, and we continue to press for more.

Will my right hon. Friend celebrate international women’s day by committing the Government to support the private Member’s Bill, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill, introduced in the other place by the Lord Lester of Herne Hill? I recognise that the Bill will not stop families forcing young people into unwanted marriage, but it will send a strong message that we are on the side of the victims of this wicked practice.

First, it would be right to pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done to make sure that we tackle forced marriages, which are an iniquitous practice. As I think I have indicated, although much has been done, not least the establishment of the forced marriages unit a couple of years ago, which assists about 300 victims of forced marriage a year—I pay tribute to the work of the unit—because we fully support the aims of the private Member’s Bill on forced marriage, we are looking to see how we can support the Bill and make sure that it is in order. I know that there is a strong feeling in all parts of the House that we should do all we can to end the practice.

I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence. We owe all these brave young men an enduring debt of gratitude. Does the Prime Minister agree with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, that the position of the Attorney-General, in his words, is not maintainable?

The position of the Attorney-General and the role that he carries out has been in our constitution for hundreds of years and I believe it to be the right role.

In the light of recent controversy in relation to Iraq, BAE and now cash for honours, is it not essential that the functions and responsibilities of the Attorney-General should be separate—[Interruption]—so that decisions about prosecution can be taken entirely independent of Government?

Q2. As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the European Union’s treaty of Rome, will the Prime Minister find time to read an article called “Beware the Berlin Declaration”, which calls for this country to leave the European Union? It can be found on the blog Chameleons on Bicycles. (125430)

First, it will be a very good thing for the whole of Europe to celebrate 50 years of the European Union, which has brought peace and prosperity to a continent that used to be ravaged by war. I think that we should celebrate our own position in the European Union. I look forward to going to the European Council tomorrow in order to bring forward proposals for climate change, where I am pleased to say that at least this Government will have some allies in ensuring that the battle against climate change is taken to a proper fruition.

Last night, the BBC broadcast the Prime Minister’s political obituary; I am sure that it will be the first of many. In it, his senior foreign policy adviser in No. 10 Downing street, Sir Stephen Wall, speaking of his time working with the Prime Minister, said:

“You got the very clear impression…that they could not govern without Gordon but they could not really govern with him either”.

Why would someone at the heart of Downing street say that?

People say many things, particularly after they leave. What I can say is this: fortunately, thanks to the Chancellor’s 10-year stewardship of the economy—which I am afraid is the weakness of the right hon. Gentleman’s position—he has delivered us the strongest economy, with 2.5 million more jobs, lower interest rates, the lowest unemployment and rising living standards. Actually, I am delighted to have had that record in government.

The Prime Minister is very good at praising the Chancellor, but the Chancellor is not so good at praising the Prime Minister.

It is not just his senior foreign policy adviser who says this—it is also the Cabinet Secretary, who sat next to him for five years in the Cabinet. Lord Wilson said this about the Chancellor:

“He states with absolute certainty what the position is…threatening…anyone foolish enough to interrupt…without any hint that”—

he—“might listen to” other “departments”. Does the Prime Minister think that there is any prospect of a return to Cabinet government when the Chancellor takes over?

As a matter of fact, the best thing about having a strong economy is that it enables one, when one is taking one’s Cabinet decisions, to make the investments in health and education, for example, that we want to have. The good thing is that we have had a consistent economic policy.

Can I give the House an update on the Conservatives’ policy on the married couples allowance? A few days ago, the chairman of the Conservative party was asked whether it would apply—[Interruption.]

Talking about policy making, the chairman of the Conservative party says that married couples allowance applies to couples without children. The Tory leader’s office then says:

“Francis was confronted on a particular point and was trying to answer the question…but he wasn’t sure…the truth is that it is…still being worked out.”

Then a couple of days ago the shadow Chancellor says that he is not sure whether it will apply to married couples without children, but for it to apply to gay couples in a civil partnership, they have to have children. We have this Chancellor with 10 years of a strong economy, and we have that shadow Chancellor with his policy making; perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to explain the difference.

The Prime Minister might have noticed that we are ahead on the economy.

I asked the Prime Minister a question about Cabinet government, but he will not answer, so let us ask the Cabinet. Who thinks that they will have more of a say round the Cabinet table when the Chancellor takes over? Come on—hands up! Is not that the problem—they all know it is going to be dreadful, but none of them has the guts to do anything about it?

First of all, I should remind the right hon. Gentleman of some experience that we had in the 1980s. Opposition parties can often be ahead in opinion polls in mid-term, but that does not mean that they win an election. In the end, let me tell him what will win an election—strength of policy.

I just gave an example about the shadow Chancellor, so let me give one about the right hon. Gentleman from his great speech on Europe yesterday in which he said how he was going lead Europe in the battle on climate change. Who is his ally? The ODS party in the Czech Republic, whose founder says that global warming “is a false myth”. This is serious politics. The right hon. Gentleman wants to form an alliance with a party that thinks global warming is a false myth and he will not go into the same political room as the Chancellor of Germany, who is the leader of the Conservative party, the President of the European Union and believes that global warming should be tackled. So when it comes to serious policy making, the right hon. Gentleman is simply in the kindergarten. We have got the answers: that is the difference between a serious political party and an Opposition party.

Staying with Europe, did my right hon. Friend have the opportunity to watch the outstanding display of football at Anfield stadium last night? Is it not about time that we marked the memory of the late and great Bob Paisley with an honour? Will my right hon. Friend read early-day motion 1038 signed by Members of the House—both red and blue?

I look forward to reading that. I did watch the match last night. Congratulations to Liverpool, who did absolutely brilliantly. Congratulations also to Chelsea—we should congratulate the blues as well as the reds on this occasion. Let us hope that we have two other teams going through as well—[Interruption.] As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary reminds me, there is also Celtic, and we wish it good luck, too.

Q3. My constituent, Mrs. Morello, has an 11-year-old son with recognised special educational needs. All the professionals suggest that the right education for her son is an out-of-borough specialised small school. However, reflecting the cost concerns of so many local authorities, they are trying to put him in a mainstream local school. After 10 years in power, when will the Prime Minister make the necessary changes to ensure that Mrs. Morello’s son and thousands like him get the education that they need and deserve? (125431)

Surely, in the end, it has to be a decision for the local authority. The hon. Gentleman talks about funding, but there is an extra £1,350—I stress, extra—per pupil for the funding of education in his area. Surely it has to be a local authority decision. That has been the case under the previous Government and under this Government. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if a child is best placed in specialist provision, that is where they should go. They should go into mainstream provision only if that is suitable for them. I do say again, however, that it has got to be a decision for the local education authority.

Q4. Last week saw declines in all the Wirral stock markets following falls in Shanghai—demonstrating again the global challenge and opportunity that is China today. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the UK is appropriately resourced and institutionally structured to deal with the fact that the world’s centre of gravity is moving eastwards, both politically and economically? (125432)

My hon. Friend raises an immensely important point. I think that we are well placed, actually, because of our bilateral relationship with China today. I also think that the work done through the G8 and the G8 plus 5, which includes China, is also important. The China taskforce is, of course, an important part of our bilateral relationship. However, as well as that bilateral relationship, the key thing is to recognise that both our alliance with America and our membership of the European Union are important parts of building a strong relationship with a country that will soon comprise 1.3 billion or 1.4 billion people and be the largest economy in the world—a country of immense importance as a superpower in the world. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should make sure that we are well positioned with China. In part, however, for a country such as ours in the early 21st century, that will happen through our alliances as well as on our own merits.

Q5. Does the Prime Minister agree that voting in a £10,000 communication allowance for incumbent MPs out of taxpayers’ money, without the support of the Opposition, while at the same time lobbying Sir Hayden Phillips to limit the private funding of candidates in those incumbent seats, is nothing short of an abuse of power bordering on corruption? (125433)

As I understand it from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the matter is discussed in the House of Commons Commission and it will come before the House at the end of the month. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will put forward proposals that are just and fair.

My right hon. Friend will know of the serious concerns about Quiz Call television and shows that have premium lines for interactive viewer participation. Does he agree that ITV has done the right thing in pulling from our screens all its premium line shows for an independent health check? Will he urge all other broadcasters to do the same to ensure that their customers—our constituents—are not being ripped off?

The point that my hon. Friend raises causes a great deal of concern to many members of the public. I welcome ITV’s temporary suspension of all premium rate interactive services on all ITV channels. My hon. Friend will wish to know that the regulatory body for the premium rate telecommunications industry is currently investigating complaints about several television shows, and I understand that the broadcasters are meeting later this week. It is obviously important that they come together with the relevant telecommunications companies and make sure that the service is provided in a reliable and trustworthy way. I understand and share my hon. Friend’s concerns.

Q6. The Prime Minister has fought hard in his party to ensure that parents have a wider choice of schools to which to send their children. Would he have accepted his children being allocated a school place on the basis of a lottery system? (125434)

Whatever system is involved—a catchment area or a lottery—there will always be parents who do not manage to get their first preference, although the vast majority do. For once, I agree with the shadow spokesman on education who said that the most important thing, whatever system is chosen, is to increase the number of good schools. Whereas in 1997 I believe that only 80 secondary schools in the country got more than 70 per cent. good GCSEs—five good GCSEs—today the figure is more than 600. That is a huge improvement in the past 10 years, not least in the area that the hon. Gentleman represents. Of course, there will always be parents who are disappointed but the most important thing is to improve the quality and standards in our schools. That is precisely what the Government are doing.

The White Paper on House of Lords reform lists several countries that have wholly or partly elected second Chambers. In the Prime Minister’s view, which of them is governed better than the United Kingdom?

For obvious reasons, I do not think that I would accept that any could be better governed than the United Kingdom, though that might be open to some dispute. However, I said at the time of the election, and our manifesto stated, that we would try to seek a consensus on House of Lords reform. The purpose of the vote later today is to ascertain whether we can do that. We said that we would facilitate that; that is precisely what we shall try to do.

Q7. Lord Levy has accepted that he may have offered his opinion about who should be nominated for peerages. In what capacity was that advice offered—as the Prime Minister’s middle eastern envoy, his personal friend and tennis partner, or because he is, just coincidentally, the Prime Minister’s chief fundraiser? (125435)

For obvious reasons, I can say nothing at all about the issue.

Let me simply say to the hon. Gentleman that it is extraordinary that the Scottish National party is aiming to be the Government of Scotland after the election on 3 May—that Government will handle the economy, health, education and law and order—yet the SNP has nothing to say about the economy because it knows that independence would wreck the Scottish economy, nothing to offer on health and education, and its law and order policy is a disaster. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are campaigning on a police inquiry conducted by the London Metropolitan police. I think that that says everything about the SNP and its fitness to govern.

Along with hon. Friends, I applaud Monday’s announcement of an extra £2 million to tackle domestic violence. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government will remain focused on that important policy area, especially on supporting victims through the legal process to bring their attackers to justice?

I assure my hon. Friend that our strong and co-ordinated set of policies on domestic violence will continue. According to the most recent British crime survey, domestic violence has fallen by about 60 per cent. in the past 10 years. Although more domestic violence offences are being recorded, their prevalence has fallen significantly, partly as a result of our additional investment, and partly, as she says, because we are treating the issue more seriously and offering more protection to people within the courts system. We should maintain our focus on the issue, which continues to be a serious one, as we approach international women’s day.

Q8. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs faces a £300 million fine from Brussels, 25,000 single farm payment claims remain unresolved, the policy on bovine TB is, as yet, unresolved, and the Department’s budget has been cut by £200 million. May I therefore ask the Prime Minister why the House has not been given the opportunity to debate those matters, bearing in mind that the last agriculture debate was in December 2002? (125436)

I am sure that there will be opportunities for people to raise and debate those issues. We are well aware of the problems that have arisen over payments to farmers, however, and we have said on many occasions that we are doing all that we can to speed up that system. We are not in a position of difficulty with the European Commission. It is also correct that there will be enormous budget pressures on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other Departments. The Conservative party, however, has committed itself to putting half the money that goes on public spending into tax cuts—[Interruption.] Yes, the extra money from growth—[Interruption.] The extraordinary thing is that I seem to know more about Conservative policy than Conservative Members. Their policy is to share the proceeds of growth between tax cuts and spending. Therefore, whatever figure we have for investment, the Conservative party would have less.

Q9. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the people of the Congo on their determined involvement in their first democratic elections for 40 years, which have been strongly supported by our Government. In view of the strategic importance of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa, and the fragile state in which it has emerged from conflict in which 4 million died, will he confirm the commitment given in this morning’s Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall by the Secretary of State for International Development to continued support and assistance to the DRC’s Government, civil society and politicians for the difficult tasks that are ahead of them? (125437)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work on this issue. We have increased our investment in the DRC from, I think, just under £6 million to almost £70 million. We are doing that precisely to support the democratic process there and to give humanitarian assistance. I hope that people in the country understand that when I refer to that extra investment in Africa, I deliberately use the word “investment”. If those countries are riven by civil war and large numbers of people are displaced and become refugees, all the evidence of the modern world is that, sooner or later, that becomes a problem for countries such as ours in Europe. Therefore, when we bring peace and stability to parts of Africa, as with the DRC, that is an investment not only in those countries but in our own future.