Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2007

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Democratic Republic of the Congo

We have given significant support to civil society in the DRC, both before and during the elections, to enable organisations to undertake civic education and to act as observers, and we are also supporting the media to help improve accountability. More than 30 per cent. of our support goes mostly to international non-governmental organisations to deliver programmes. That support will include £27 million over three years to two large NGOs to provide free basic health care in 20 health areas.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the continuing concerns highlighted on Radio 4’s “Today” programme this morning about arbitrary arrest and violence by President Kabila’s regime towards political opponents? There are also problems of rampant corruption, especially in the extractive industries, and a continuing history of a lack of development in the basic infrastructure. Will the Government put renewed pressure on President Kabila to end those autocratic practices, as without a real and meaningful development of civil society all our increased aid budget will be frittered away? Is not a significant civil society a prerequisite for meaningful and long-term economic development?

I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman. The DRC is a country where virtually everything is broken. That is the truth, as I saw for myself on my recent visit, and as did the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the Opposition spokesman on international development, who has also been there recently. I raised precisely that point in my meeting with President Kabila, because the people of the Congo want to see that the Government will reach out and embrace the Opposition there and allow civil society the time and space to acquire a voice. In that way, for the first time in their lives, people will be able to experience good governance. Unless good governance comes to the Congo, none of the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred will be dealt with, but establishing it will take time.

I strongly commend the Secretary of State for the huge personal effort that he has made, and the amount of work that he has done, in supporting the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in getting the election process under way. Will he do his best to ensure that the Government of the DRC use the country’s enormous mineral wealth, and any aid that is being donated, to develop primary education? I visited the DRC last year as an election observer, and it seemed to me that the illiteracy rate was rising not falling. Unless we address that, all the other development goals will be impossible to achieve.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to hon. Members on both sides of the House for the interest that they have taken in the Congo. Indeed, a number of hon. Members acted as observers in the elections to which the UK was proud to be the largest contributor. That was an extraordinary moment in the country’s history.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the DRC does not lack natural wealth. The truth is that it has been raped and pillaged—first by its colonial masters, and then by some of the neighbouring countries. That treatment is now being continued by some Congolese, but good governance is the solution, as that will ensure that the natural resources are used in the interests of the people and not of the private pocket.

We are working with the World Bank on a programme to help abolish school fees in part of the country. For the very poorest families, they act as an obstacle to getting children into the classroom, which is where they belong. Education, good governance and an open form of politics are three essential elements that must be secured if the country is to make progress.

I commend the Secretary of State for what he is doing in Africa and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but he will be aware that the Government of that country and President Kabila have a unique relationship with President Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Is the right hon. Gentleman able to exert pressure on Zimbabwe, through President Kabila, to promote civil society in that country? I hope that he feels that we should use every avenue open to us to try to bring a change in Zimbabwe, as well as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

May I simply say that the development of civil society is vital for all countries and communities, including Zimbabwe? As I have said to the hon. Gentleman before, if the countries neighbouring Zimbabwe spoke up more loudly and truthfully about what is going on there we would see faster progress towards enabling the people of Zimbabwe—and of the DRC—to express their views, openly and without fear, about what they want to happen to the future of their country.

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the Congo’s ruling elite has understood that the purpose of government is to benefit the welfare of the people, and that it is not an exercise in looting? What progress has been made towards the integration of the army? As he knows, it does not defend the people but poses a threat to their welfare.

The cultural and political change—if I may describe it in that way—to which my hon. Friend refers in the Congo can be described only as work in progress, because it has a long way to go. Army integration is an example of that. There has been some progress, but one of the difficulties is that the large amount of money that comes out of the Exchequer every month to pay for the armed forces does not bear a direct relationship to the number of soldiers who need paying. One of the points that I made to President Kabila both on my recent visit and previously is that if the Government of the DRC want the international community to give more support to army integration—the UK is doing something to provide tents and clean water to those who are part of the integrated brigade—they have to demonstrate that the money that the donors are putting in is being used for the purpose for which it is intended. Army integration is crucial to the future of the country. The country has to stop having separate armed forces representing separate political groups. There is one elected President. The army must come behind that President and act on behalf of the country as a whole.

In spite of the Congo’s awful history and the accurate comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), does the Secretary of State agree that the recent elections, the performance of the United Nations forces, whose mandate must be renewed, and the support of the British taxpayer all give some grounds for optimism in a country whose stability and prosperity is crucial to that of all of Africa? Since it is clear that building space for the Opposition in Parliament there is of vital importance, will he say a little more about his Department’s future plans for supporting the promotion of that?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Despite all the difficulties that we have just been discussing, the transitional Government represented real progress and the elections—the first for 43 years— were extraordinary. I join him in paying tribute to the contribution of the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I agree with him that MONUC has got to stay there for quite some time, because the country needs the security and the reassurance that it provides. I specifically raised with President Kabila the issue of space for the Opposition. I met members of the Opposition both in the National Assembly and separately. It was hoped recently that they would meet President Kabila. I understand that that meeting has not taken place, although they met one of his advisers. Some of the Opposition have now gone back into Parliament, having boycotted it for a while. This issue is the real test. In the end, President Kabila is the President of the whole country and he has a great responsibility, as well as an opportunity, to reach out to all those who won representation in the elections and to show that the Congo will be a country in which people can say what they think and participate in that very fragile democracy, which, if they commit to it, will allow the country to move forward. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we are going to stick with that process every step of the way.

I also applaud the work of the Secretary of State and the progress that has been made in the DRC. Will he tell us a bit more about what President Kabila said, on the Secretary of State’s recent visit, about providing space for the Opposition? We have met Opposition politicians here who have been concerned about that. What support can we continue to give via EUSEC—the EU security sector reform mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—in particular in relation to the crucial issue of the security forces and their integration?

President Kabila expressed to me his commitment to the democratic process. In the end, the international community should judge the President and the country by what it does, as well as by what it says. Only time will provide the answer. On EUSEC, we have provided support in the form of the secondment of staff and we have provided funding, as I indicated in answer to an earlier question. For the reasons that I set out, it is important that the process of army integration continues.

Water Supplies

2. What steps his Department is taking to promote the availability of clean drinking water in developing countries. (136206)

3. What steps his Department is taking to promote clean water and sanitation in the developing world; and if he will make a statement. (136207)

We will double our expenditure on water and sanitation in Africa, where the millennium development goal targets are most off-track, to £95 million a year by 2007-08, and then double it again to £200 million a year by 2010-11. Last November, I published a global call to action on water and sanitation. We need both developing country Governments and donors to do more, we need to invest more and to ensure that money is spent effectively, and we need to put the best structures in place to make all of that happen.

Like me, my right hon. Friend will have visited developing countries such as Ghana and Nigeria and seen at first hand the lack of proper drinking water and the poor sanitation. What tangible efforts could be made in terms of the World Bank to assist us in our millennium goals and in solving the problem of poor sanitation in developing countries?

It is a question of funding—there needs to be more funding for water and sanitation from the international community, donors, multilateral institutions and the Governments of developing countries themselves—and giving local authorities in the growing towns and cities of the developing world the resources that they need to provide water and sanitation as their populations increase. It is also about changing cultural attitudes and habits, which is why our support for the community-led total sanitation initiative is a really good thing. The initiative has shown its capacity to change attitudes throughout the world and to get people to realise that if they do not deal with sanitation, they undermine the health of their community. We need more of that.

Given that more than 1 billion people throughout the world lack access to clean water, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that that important issue is on the agenda of the G8 meeting in June?

By our own actions we have increased investment, which I have described to the House. The global call that I issued in November was all about trying to raise the profile of the issue. I am pleased to report to the House that at the recent spring meetings of the World Bank, we reached an agreement that there should in future be one annual report on how the world is doing and one annual meeting at which we can gather to determine what needs to be done next and to divide up the work. The UN has indicated that it is prepared to nominate one lead UN body in- country to be the vehicle through which support for water and sanitation will be provided, which represents real progress. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to press the matter, including through the G8.

To return to my right hon. Friend’s comments about changing habits, is he aware that the local authority in Nairobi had well-advanced plans some months ago to pipe water to one of the city’s largest slums, but that the plans had to be withdrawn owing to landlords’ threats of violence because they were making too much money out of selling water in that slum?

The story that my hon. Friend tells draws our attention to the difficulties that countries face as they try to make progress. In the case that she cites, the landlords have a vested interest in the existing system because, as the House knows, the highest prices for water are paid by the people who buy it in plastic bags and buckets from water sellers. In Ghana, such people pay five to six times as much for water as those who get it through the leaky, creaky water supply system. That illustrates that one problem that local authorities face is how they deal with informal settlements. There is a question whether there will be recognition of the fact that millions of people live in an area and whether clean water will be provided, and that shows what a big task local authorities face. That is partly about governance and partly about resources.

Will the Secretary of State note that I have tabled an early-day motion, which has been signed by the chairmen of six all-party groups connected with Africa, that calls for support for the “End Water Poverty” campaign? Some 193 Members—soon the number will be more than 200—from all parties have signed the early-day motion, which, as it happens, is supported by Conservative Front Benchers, to call for the problems to which the Secretary of State has just referred to be remedied. Is he aware that we are going to Downing street on Saturday to present a petition about the matter? WaterAid and Tearfund, which have led the campaign, deserve every conceivable support. Does he agree that the £95 million a year that he is proposing might not be adequate and that we need to do more?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s very last point, and that is why we will double the amount again when we reach the £95 million figure, because the problem is greatest in Africa. I am grateful to him for telling me about the petition that will be presented. I join him in paying tribute to the two organisations to which he referred, which we support and work with, because this is a great global cause—frankly, we need all the help that we can get. Above all, the people who do not have clean water and sanitation need all the interest and attention that we together can garner so that progress can be made to improve their lives.

What is my right hon. Friend doing to improve access to water and sanitation in the slums? Is his Department working with UN-Habitat to examine the upgrading of slums and the likely impact of that on improving access to these services?

I have met Anna Tibaijuka, who heads up UN-Habitat, to discuss the slum upgrading programme and the facility that she is advocating. In the end, the most important thing is to give resources to the people who have responsibility for providing clean water and sanitation in the urban areas of Africa and Asia. This country’s history shows that local authorities, as they developed, were principally responsible for putting in place piped water and sewerage systems, which did more than anything else in 19th century Britain to prolong life expectancy. Developing countries are going through exactly the same process, and we need to ensure that they have the means, the political will—that must come from within—and resources at a local and city level, given that that is where the investment must be made.

The Select Committee on International Development’s recent report highlighted the fact that sanitation is a poorly performing target within the Department, and it recommended the establishment of a sanitation agency. I cannot support that request. Does the Secretary of State not think that it would be more appropriate for him, his Department and his civil servants to highlight sanitation as an issue, to focus on it and to try to improve the situation?

I think that that is what we are doing. In fairness to the Select Committee, it acknowledged that the UK played a leading role in securing a millennium development goal target on sanitation, which was agreed in 2002. Britain deserves credit for having pushed for that. Secondly, our support for the rural hygiene, sanitation and water supply project in Bangladesh has helped 7.7 million people in the first five years, and we are funding a UNICEF programme in India that aims to reach 213 million people. In addition, the community-led total sanitation initiative is a practical way of dealing with the problem. It is very blunt and direct; it involves going into villages and saying, “We’ve got to take a decision to stop open defecation in this village because that’s the cause of a lot of ill-health,” and it works, because it does not have a fixed plan. It works with the community and finds solutions. In some cases, the price of the plates that are needed for pit latrines has come down to as little as a dollar. These are the practical steps that need to be taken if more people are to have clean sanitation.

What role does my right hon. Friend think that private water companies can play in ensuring clean water and sanitation through charitable work, and what will he do to ensure that our private companies do even more charitable work overseas?

I welcome the contribution of any organisation that supports charitable work to provide clean water and sanitation. On the public-private argument, I welcome what the Select Committee report had to say. In the end, we are not having an ideological debate about public or private; the issue that we should be interested in is the most effective way of getting clean water and sanitation to the largest number of people. I am interested in what works.

The Secretary of State must be acutely aware of the widespread concern, expressed by the Select Committee, numerous non-governmental organisations and many others, that clean water and, in particular, the unglamorous but vital issue of sanitation risk becoming the orphan millennium development goals. On current progress, we will not meet those targets for nearly 70 years. Is not all our work on prioritising health and education undermined if girls have to walk five miles each day to get water for their families, and if children risk death from poor sanitation?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is why providing clean water is not just good for the health of children and communities, but very good for getting girls into school. That is why, as I saw for myself on a recent visit to Malawi, providing toilets as well as classrooms is absolutely fundamental in the education work that we support. That maximises the chances of girls coming to school, and, as they get older, staying in school, which they will not do if there are no toilets for them to use. The issue is how we integrate all the approaches to health, education, water and sanitation to ensure the progress that the hon. Gentleman and I both want.

Faith-Based Organisations

4. What percentage of aid provided by his Department was distributed through faith-based organisations in 2006-07. (136208)

In 2005-06 the Department for International Development provided more than £23 million to UK-based faith groups, including Christian Aid, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and Islamic Relief. That sum represents about 10 per cent. of funding to UK civil society. It does not include DFID funds that are passed to faith groups through multilateral donors, or through developing country Governments, so the total sum will be much higher.

I thank the Minister for that response, and I congratulate him, the Secretary of State and all officials in his Department on rightly recognising the important work that faith-based organisations such as Tearfund, CAFOD, World Vision and Christian Aid do in delivering aid and development all over the world. Would the Minister like to put on record today a reaffirmation of the importance of faith-based groups delivering such aid?

I am grateful for the opportunity that the hon. Gentleman has provided, because I share his view that faith-based groups do a huge amount of good in the direct provision of services in many developing countries. I had the opportunity to see a superb Christian Aid-funded project in South Africa that is doing a huge amount of good in the Germiston township just outside Johannesburg, helping that community to deal with the impact of HIV and AIDS. Faith-based groups do a lot more than that, too: they advocate efforts to tackle poverty, and they play a huge role in the campaigns that are inevitably mounted in the run-up to G8 conferences to encourage international leaders to do more. We welcome them.

Would the Minister join me in congratulating Hindu Aid and its chairman, Arjan Vekaria, on the excellent work that they do in building up relations between our country and India in particular? The Secretary of State will address Hindu Aid shortly. Surely, that is the best way of trying to get those networks working so that aid is properly spent.

I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to Arjan Vekaria, the chair of Hindu Aid, and the many other members who support Hindu Aid’s work. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State looks forward to the forthcoming conference with Hindu Aid—indeed, I do too. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) is right that the development work that we are doing in India is extremely important. Given the huge number of people in India who still live on less than a dollar a day, there is much more to do. Hindu Aid’s work both in drawing attention to that and in campaigning for more resources and more progress on poverty in India is hugely important.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) rightly highlighted the important role that UK faith-based organisations and their dedicated volunteers play in alleviating poverty across the developing world, particularly in conflict zones and with vulnerable groups. A recent report by the World Health Organisation identifies the fact that up to 70 per cent. of the health infrastructure in Africa is owned by faith-based organisations, yet it concludes that there is minimal co-operation between them and mainstream public health programmes. Perhaps the Minister will say what specific proposals DFID has introduced to enhance collaboration with and between faith-based organisations, particularly to ensure that the goal of universal access to HIV prevention and treatment is achieved by the target date of 2010.

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the need for considerably more effort across the international community by faith-based groups and international donors such as ourselves and other countries attending the forthcoming G8 summit to make progress towards the goal of universal access to HIV prevention, care and treatment. We work closely with a range of faith-based organisations in a number of developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. He rightly drew attention to the report that said that more effort is needed to bring those groups together and to link them to mainstream health care services. We are seeking to do more through our investment in health care in Malawi and Sierra Leone to link those faith-based organisations together. We have come a long way but, as he said, we have an awfully long way to go, too.

World Bank

5. What representations he has made to the World Bank on the conduct of the bank’s president; and if he will make a statement. (136209)

I discussed the issue with my fellow governors of the World Bank at the spring meetings on 15 April. We agreed that we have to ensure that the bank can effectively carry out its mandate and maintain its credibility and reputation, as well as the motivation of its staff, and that the current situation is of great concern. We endorsed the bank’s actions in looking into this matter, and we asked it to complete its investigation, which is continuing.

The bank’s credibility in fighting corruption was severely undermined by the president’s decision to increase his partner’s salary. The corrupt leaders of many countries now say, “If it’s okay for the bank, it’s okay for me to channel public funds to my own family.” The bank would start to repair its reputation if the president admitted that he had made a mistake and changed the bank’s policies so that no bank employee in future will ever again reward a member of his family or a close friend. Will my right hon. Friend tell the president that if he showed a bit of humility and changed the bank’s policy there would be fewer people arguing for a change in the bank’s leadership?

The president of the World Bank said on 12 April:

“I made a mistake, for which I am sorry…I take full responsibility for the details.”

A process is investigating what went on. We should let the bank board get on with its work. We will consider its report when it is published.

How can the World Bank demand an end to corruption in developing countries when many staff in the World Bank feel that there is corruption at the very top of their own organisation?

It is very important that all institutions maintain the highest standards. It is for that reason that, as governors, we expressed concern about what has gone on. It must be brought to an end, and to a satisfactory conclusion that maintains the credibility and the reputation of the bank.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before listing my engagements, there are a number of things that I should say. First, I pay tribute to Lord Weatherill, the former Speaker of the House, who died at the weekend. As I said then, he was a real gentleman. He was an outstanding Speaker, someone of impartiality and decency, and he will be missed by Members in all parts of the House.

I am sure the whole House will once again wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of Guardsman Simon Davison from the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, who was killed in Afghanistan last Thursday, and Private Kevin Thompson from 19 Combat Service Support Battalion, who died at the weekend from injuries sustained in Iraq. Once again, we salute their courage and their sacrifice.

Finally, I am sure the House would also wish to send our condolences and sympathy to the family and friends of PC Richard Gray, who was tragically shot on Sunday. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.

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 associate myself both with the tribute to Lord Weatherill and the expressions of condolence.

In this historic week, I thank the Prime Minister and his Government sincerely for all the work that they, with so many others, have done to bring peace and hope to the 6 million people of Ulster and of Ireland. Before he retires, will the Prime Minister offer some hope also to the hundreds of thousands of people affected by mental illness in our capital city, who fear that if the Government do not change their decision to close the 24-hour emergency clinic at the Maudsley hospital next week, they will be severely affected and the Government will have made a terrible mistake?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words on Northern Ireland.

We have significantly increased mental health funding. It has gone up by a very large amount—hundreds of millions of pounds—over the past few years, but the way in which mental health services are delivered must always be a matter for local decision making. As the hon. Gentleman knows, although I understand the controversy about the Maudsley, there will be a new, designated space at King’s hospital, which will provide a safe environment for mental health service users. A massive amount of additional health care investment, including for mental health, is going into not just his constituency but neighbouring constituencies. What we cannot guarantee, at the same time as we are making this investment, is that health services will always be delivered in exactly the same way.

On Tuesday last week the French pharmaceutical company Ipsen Biopharm announced a £37.5 million investment in Wrexham. Does my right hon. Friend consider that that had anything to do with the fact that, two days later, Wrexham was a Labour gain in the National Assembly elections?

I am certainly happy to celebrate Labour gains last Thursday. I congratulate the new Assembly Member. The fact that major investment is still being made in our economy is one reason the British economy is doing so well, why we are still leading the world in foreign and direct investment, and why many of the leading pharmaceutical companies find Britain the place to come and invest.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Guardsman Simon Davison and Private Kevin Thompson, who died serving their country. Conservative Members also strongly agree with what he said about the serving police officer, Richard Gray in Shrewsbury. We join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Jack Weatherill. He was a kind man, a dedicated public servant and a great Speaker of this House.

Tomorrow, the Prime Minister will announce his departure. Today, he is announcing the splitting up of the Home Office. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), says that the splitting of the Home Office is a “completely batty idea” that will “damage our national security”. Why is he wrong?

He is wrong for this reason: if we want the Home Secretary to focus on terrorism, it is important that we make sure that the Home Office is better able to do so by moving prison and probation services to where the courts are. That makes sense, it is what is done in many other countries, and it is a far better idea, if I may say so, than retaining all those functions in the Home Office and doing what the right hon. Gentleman wants, which is to appoint a special Cabinet Minister under the Home Secretary to take responsibility for terrorism. That would simply confuse the lines of accountability. It is far better, given that this terrorist threat is a new and very dangerous threat that we face, to have the Home Secretary focused on the issue of terrorism to a greater degree. That is the reason for the change.

The last thing a Department in crisis needs is the huge distraction of a big reorganisation. Let us try another former Home Secretary—after all, there are plenty of them about; in fact, some of them might be coming back. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) said that this

“is the wrong move. The last thing this department needs right now is fiddling about with structural changes.”

He went on to say:

“It’s like re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic”—

with which the Prime Minister is probably becoming rather familiar. Why does he think that that Home Secretary is wrong as well?

I have already explained why I believe it is right to take the prisons and probation out of the Home Office and into a new Ministry of Justice. The right hon. Gentleman says that the Home Office has failed across the board, but whereas crime doubled under the previous Government it has reduced under this Government. When we took office, there was a backlog of about 60,000 asylum claims, whereas the figure is now down to 6,000. Whereas trials frequently used to collapse, the figure has been reduced by 20 per cent; the collection of fines is up; and there are extra numbers of police and community support officers, and antisocial behaviour laws. If we want the Home Office to focus on terrorism—I think everyone agrees that we face a different and new threat today—it is sensible to move part of its functions to a Ministry of Justice. That is why it is the right thing to do.

Of course we want the Home Office to focus on terrorism, but let us take just one example of a Home Office fiasco—the failure to deport foreign criminals; we all remember that one. Under the Prime Minister’s plans, one Department will be responsible for putting them in prison and another Department will be responsible for deporting them. How is that going to help co-ordination?

As a matter of fact, as a result of the changes that are already being made, the number of foreign prisoners being deported is about 50 per cent. up from last year. [Interruption.] The criticism was that we were not deporting them; we now are. Having the prisons and probation with the courts will make a lot more sense, because such cases can be managed from the courts system through to prisons and probation. That is why many other countries have the Ministry of Justice system.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about deportations and policy, let me bring the House up to date with Tory policy in this area. A couple of months ago—[Interruption.]

The right hon. Gentleman said a couple of months ago that the way to deal with this issue was to say no to ID cards. He also said,

“we are announcing plans for the development of a dedicated border police.”

Two days later, the shadow Chancellor said: “until we’ve made” a

“study…we couldn’t be sure it would be a serious proposal we could put in our manifesto.”

Better than that—who is to carry out this study? Lord John Stevens, who says:

“I see the absolute benefits of an ID card system.”

The right hon. Gentleman should work his policy out before he criticises ours.

The Prime Minister wants to know our policy, so I shall tell him.

“In my view, the fit between immigration… crime and prisons… is a proper fit.”—[Official Report, 3 May 2006; Vol. 445, c. 964.]

Those are not my words; the Prime Minister said them at the Dispatch Box a year ago. If splitting the Home Office is such a good idea, why is not the Home Secretary hanging around to see it through?

The reason is the one I have given. The result of looking at how we best focus the Home Office on fighting terrorism was not to do what the right hon. Gentleman proposes—his foolish idea of having two Cabinet Ministers with the same responsibility—but to move some of the functions out of the Home Office into the Ministry of Justice. If the right hon. Gentleman would move them back, let him say so, but I think it would be a foolish thing to do.

If the Prime Minister wants to stop that happening, he could call an election and we could stop it right away. I asked him about the Home Secretary and he failed to answer. Is not the problem the fact that the Government are now paralysed? The Home Secretary is splitting his Department, but he has already resigned. We have a Foreign Secretary who is negotiating a European treaty that she will not be around to ratify. We have a Prime Minister, who, even after last week’s drubbing, simply does not understand that it is over. Everybody knows who the next Labour leader is—thank God he has got out of his blacked-out limo and come to the House of Commons. Why does the country have to put up with another seven weeks of paralysis?

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman on what I shall concentrate in the next seven weeks: policy—on the economy, health, education and law and order. Let me give him some advice: if I were him, I would concentrate on policy, too. I have something else of which to inform the House. Yesterday, there was a leading policy speech by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who is in charge of the Conservatives’ policy commission. The speech was entitled:

“Is Cameron Conservatism just a set of attitudes, or is it a political theory?’ asks Oliver Letwin”.

Here is the answer:

“Cameron Conservatism is… an attempt to shift the theory of the State from a provision-based paradigm to a framework-based paradigm. The provision-theory of the modern State is the successor to socialism in the post-Marxist era.”

It concludes with the words:

“It all goes back to Marx.”

That is Groucho, I assume.

Soon, the Prime Minister will have plenty of time to read all our speeches, but he just does not get it. How can the Department of Health sort itself out when we all know that the Secretary of State is for the chop? The new Secretary of State for Justice was pathetically pleading for his job on the radio this morning: everyone knows that he will not last five minutes. [Interruption.] I do not know why members of the Cabinet are shouting. The Chancellor’s spin doctors are wandering around the lobby handing out all their jobs. This is the Government of the living dead. Why do we have to put up with even more paralysis?

The Government have run the strongest economy that the country has seen in 10 years. Just last week, health service waiting lists were down again. We have the best school results that the country has ever seen, and living standards for every section of the population are up. The right hon. Gentleman can be as cocky as he likes about the local elections; come a general election, policy counts. On policy, we win and he loses.

Will the Prime Minister join me in sending the best wishes of the House to the people of Northern Ireland on this week’s momentous occasion? Will he also send a clear message to the politicians in Northern Ireland that, this time, we expect them to make it work and not let things break down, no matter how hard it gets?

One of the most remarkable things about yesterday was not just the fact of the institutions being up and running but what I might call the atmospherics in Northern Ireland. They were an extremely good augury for the future. I accept my hon. Friend’s point, but I believe that there is now the will to make things work in Northern Ireland. One of the most interesting things about the recent election is that it was back to the normal bread-and-butter issues of politics. That is a huge advance.

I associate myself with the generous tribute that the Prime Minister paid to the former Speaker, Baron Weatherill, who was particularly generous with his hospitality and advice, especially for new Members. May I also associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expressions of sympathy and condolence?

Two years ago, the ombudsman produced a report into the tax credit scheme. Why have that report’s recommendations not been fully implemented?

Many of the report’s recommendations are being implemented, which is why the difficulty described today by the National Audit Office is reducing all the time. Let us be quite clear about this. Some 6 million families benefit from tax credit and 10 million children get it; and take-up is way above the old family credit. About 2 million pensioners have been lifted out of acute hardship and about 700,000 children lifted out of relative poverty. That would not have happened without the tax credit system. I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is indicating that he is opposed to it, but I can tell him that it has worked miracles for many of the lowest-income people in this country.

It certainly has not worked miracles for everyone. Why are some of the poorest families in this country—38,000 alone last year—being pursued through the courts for money they simply do not have? Why should the most vulnerable pay for the mistakes of the most powerful?

If there is a mistake and an overpayment, the Treasury is obliged to try to claim that money back. It would not be fair to the remaining taxpayers if that did not happen. Let us be absolutely clear about the vast majority of the millions of families who have benefited from tax credits as a result of that. That is why the incomes of the poorest 40 per cent. of this population have gone up in percentage terms roughly double what they were in the previous 18 years. It has made an immense difference to many families in this country. We must all know of people in families in our own constituencies who, as a result of the working tax credit, have been able to go out and get a job. The job has paid and they have been able to look after their families properly: it has dramatically transformed their lives. Yes, it is true that we must make sure that we remove some of the problems within the system, but tax credits have brought an enormous amount of social justice and benefit in this country overall.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that over the past four years Liberal-Tory Luton council has wasted unprecedented millions on temporary and agency staff—and on consultants who told it not to waste money on consultants—while cutting services to the elderly and disabled? Will he ensure that we never see such waste again, that we secure better rights for temporary and agency staff and, most particularly, that we congratulate the people of Luton on showing great wisdom in ensuring a Labour council in Luton?

I congratulate all my hon. Friend’s constituents who worked so hard for that victory. It is absolutely true that many of the cuts imposed on services are indicative of what would happen if the Conservative central Government got back into power. That is one very good reason why they should not.

Q2. As someone who voted for the Iraq war, I know that the events leading up to it and its aftermath have substantially reduced trust not just in the Prime Minister but in the whole political process. Given that the Leader of the House seems to have indicated that there will be full Privy Council inquiry “at an appropriate moment”, would not the Prime Minister do a lot to restore his reputation if he held that inquiry now, not waiting for his successor, and apologised for the more obvious errors of judgment? (136185)

I am afraid that I do not agree with that. Let me say this about what has happened, particularly in the last two or three years in Iraq; it is important that people understand it. What is happening in Iraq is essentially that al-Qaeda on the one hand and elements of the Iranian regime on the other are backing terrorism in that country, the purpose of which is to destroy the prospect of that country being able to have the democracy its people have voted for and want. In those circumstances, it is extremely important that we fully support the work that our forces are doing and rebut this idea that somehow people are dying in Iraq as a result of the activities of British or American or other coalition soldiers. They are dying as a result of the activities of terrorists, and our job should be to stand up to them and not give in to them.

The Prime Minister might well remember our telephone conversation of Saturday 15 August 1998 when, as duty Minister, I had the sad task of informing him that the bomb that had gone off in Omagh 30 minutes earlier was likely to be Northern Ireland’s worst atrocity. Does he agree that it is a testament to the courage and will of people in Northern Ireland that we have come a long way from that almost fatal wound of Omagh so that once mortal enemies are now discussing the real stuff of politics—education, jobs, welfare, and, dare I say it, water rates? Will the Prime Minister congratulate Northern Ireland Assembly Members and, more importantly, the people of Northern Ireland, on their courage and indomitable spirit over these many dark and heartbreaking years and wish them well?

I do, of course, recall that conversation with my right hon. Friend. The Omagh bomb was a terrible and destructive act of terrorism, and in its aftermath the choice had to be made whether it should be allowed to wreck the peace process or whether it should mean that we redouble our efforts to reach peace. Fortunately, the will of the people in Northern Ireland was that the terrorists should not have their way, and that we should redouble our efforts to find a lasting peace. That is the best thing that we can do to honour properly the memory of those people who died in Omagh on that day.

Q3. As the Prime Minister knows, Shropshire attracts many retired people. If he plans to spend his retirement there with his family, he will have noticed the spectacular Conservative gains that were achieved there last week. The issue was local democracy, and the Government are consulting the public on a costly reorganisation of local government. The public have spoken through the ballot box. Will the Prime Minister give a parting gift to the people of Shropshire by committing not to put a costly unitary authority in place in Shropshire? (136186)

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) obviously has strong support from his colleague. The same controversy has arisen in County Durham, and I am afraid that we have to go through a consultation process and a decision will be made. I suspect, however, that in Shropshire—as, indeed, in County Durham—there are different views about the future.

Q4. When my right hon. Friend became Prime Minister, pensioners were the most likely section of society to be living in poverty. Today, they are the least likely, sharing in the economic prosperity under Labour. Will he contrast this Government’s achievements on behalf of pensioners with the attempts in the House of Lords and the Greater London authority to cut the availability of the freedom pass, which is enjoyed by thousands of London’s pensioners? If the Tories will cut the freedom pass for pensioners, what else does my right hon. Friend think they would cut? (136187)

I thank my hon. Friend for what he said about pensioners in 1997 and now—[Interruption.] It is all very well for Tory Members to shout, but we should remember that, over the past 10 years, about 2.5 million pensioners have been lifted out of acute hardship. There has also been a dramatic improvement in the living standards of the poorest pensioners. Many of us remember when every single winter there were stories about pensioners not being able to afford proper heating, but now they have the winter fuel allowance. We have introduced a whole series of benefits for them. The freedom pass is extremely important; it has been a tremendous boon for pensioners and disabled people in London. It has been introduced through partnerships with the Mayor of London and with local councils, and we have managed to ensure that that free local transport is available to pensioners. When the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill comes before the House on Monday, I hope that the Opposition will not put that progress at risk.

As someone who voted against the Iraq war, I can still admire the Prime Minister’s consistency of purpose. Does he acknowledge, however, that with British and American troops increasingly becoming a magnet for terrorists and therefore often becoming part of the problem rather than the solution, a growing number of people who voted for the war in the United States Senate and in this House, and who think that we have acted with honour, now believe that the time has come for an ordered withdrawal of western troops from the country so that it can find peace and justice according to its own lights?

I do not in the least disrespect the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman’s views, or the fact that he has held them from the outset. However, I want to tell him why I believe that he is profoundly wrong in saying what he has just said, and why, if there are voices across the Atlantic saying it, I disagree with them as well. The fact is that the people who are in the best position to judge are the Iraqis themselves. They have a proper democratically elected Government today, and there is a unanimous view among all sections in Iraq—Sunnis, Shi’as and Kurds—and the people they have elected, who should not be disfranchised in this debate. With one voice, they are saying, “Yes, we wish you to go when the time is right, but not before.” And it is not right yet. We still need to ensure, whether in the south or up in Baghdad, that those people who, through terrorism, are trying to destroy the possibility of Iraq getting on its feet are unable to do so. Of course, it is difficult at the moment—our troops are facing an immensely challenging and difficult time, as are the American troops up in Baghdad. The fact is, however, that they are now working with Iraqi security forces, which, in many cases, are taking the lead—three of the four provinces in the south are now in Iraqi hands—in standing up to those, often linked to outside groups, who are trying to destroy the country. When such carnage is being visited on the country through terrorism, the last thing we should do is get out. Instead, we should stay until the job is done, and the best people to judge that are the Iraqis themselves. At least some credit should be given to the democratically elected voices of the Iraqi people.

Q5. At a time when I and a great many others are working hard to attract inward investment to my constituency of Barnsley and make it an attractive place for public sector relocations under the Lyons review, is not it shameful that the Department for Constitutional Affairs has imposed regional pay rates for court staff in this country, which means that Barnsley will be designated to the lowest pay band and designated a low-income area, and court staff in Barnsley will be paid a lower rate than their exact counterparts working in Sheffield, 14 miles way? Alternatively, is my right hon. Friend’s legacy to the country to be one of unfairness in the workplace? (136188)

It is correct that in some cities—London, Manchester, Bristol and Sheffield—higher rates are often paid to attract staff. That is nothing new. We have also done our best to try to make sure that premiums are given to the lowest paid, as is the case with the DCA proposals for Barnsley. My hon. Friend would fully support what we have done for the low paid in this country, in agreeing the minimum wage, the signing of the social chapter, paid holidays, the first rights to trade union recognition and the same treatment for part-time workers as for full-time workers. We can be justifiably proud of the provision for the lowest paid in this country.

At this transitory phase in the right hon. Gentleman’s political life, may I commend him for managing to portray, despite the deep disillusionment of his fellow countrymen with his premiership, an optimism that eluded King James II and would have delighted Walter Mitty?

Some things are never transitory, and the hon. Gentleman is one of them. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has just reminded me, King James was not re-elected three times as Prime Minister.

Q6. What can my right hon. Friend do to allay the fears of my constituents about the proposed tax increases that might be imposed on them? Young families are struggling from day to day to pay the mortgage, never mind an exorbitant tax bill. What can he and the Government do to support those people? (136189)

It is important to remind people that although, for all sorts of reasons, they do not enjoy paying the council tax, they would enjoy a local income tax a lot less—especially two or three-earner households, who would be very hard hit. The single most important thing that we can do is to keep the economy strong. Fortunately, the economy of Scotland is strong today, and we need to make it even stronger.

Q7. Last week, a boy of 13 pulled a fake gun on a teacher in Mereway community college in my constituency. Earlier this year, we experienced a spate of vicious attacks on bus drivers. Yesterday, we learned that muggings in Northampton in April exceeded the previous monthly average by a massive 79. Is the Prime Minister happy that my constituents have already defined his legacy as failed on crime, and failed on the causes of crime? (136191)

According to the information I have here, in Northamptonshire there has been an 8 per cent. fall in overall crime—and, incidentally, an 8 per cent. fall in domestic burglary and a 15 per cent. fall in motor vehicle theft—and there are actually 1,300 more police officers than there were 10 years ago.

Of course I am very sorry about what has happened in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Crime will still happen, as it will under any Government; but under this Government crime has fallen significantly in the past 10 years, following a Conservative Government under whom it doubled.

Q8. When and how will my right hon. Friend insist on the supremacy of this elected House over the other place, and ensure that the 17 casinos to which we agreed are built? (136192)

We hope very shortly to present proposals to ensure that the regional casinos are agreed and introduced. I entirely understand what my hon. Friend says, and he will know that not only am I extremely sympathetic to the point of constitutional principle—which is that this House should have primacy over the other House—but I have never understood why Blackpool and Manchester should be pitted against each other. If the money is there and the investment is possible, let us have both. [Interruption.] I find it extraordinary that the Conservatives have put the Manchester casino in jeopardy, and are going around the streets of Blackpool telling people that they support the casino there. If we had had our way originally, without their intervention, we would have been able to have both.