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Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2007

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.