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Engagements

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 16 May 2007

Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 16 May. (137247)

I have been asked to reply. As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Washington today for discussions with President Bush ahead of the G8 summit in June. Later today, the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and I will meet members of the family of Madeleine McCann, at their request. I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House will be with them at this terrible time.

I endorse the sentiments about the tragic situation in Portugal that the Deputy Prime Minister has just expressed.

May I quote two statements to the right hon. Gentleman? The first is from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister, who said:

“I think if you look back over the last 10 years, what happened over the dome was a mistake.”

The second is from the Deputy Prime Minister himself:

“If we can’t make this work, we’re not much of a Government.”

Who was right?

It was another terrible Tory mess that we inherited. I was supportive of the strategic necessity of building the Jubilee line under the previous Administration, as that was the right decision. It was also absolutely right to pay £350 million to bring back into use that poisonous bit of land in the middle of London. The target of 12 million people attending the dome was set before we came into office. I disputed that at the time, but 7 million did attend, and 98 per cent. thought it was a good exhibition. I think that they were right, and I am not apologising for that.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that on Friday 2 March more than 100 Labour Members were in the House to make sure that the Temporary and Agency Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Bill was heard? As of today, 120 colleagues have signed early-day motion 1299 to urge progress on measures to end unfair discrimination against agency workers. In his remaining weeks in office, will my right hon. Friend look at that, try to get some progress on what was a promise at Warwick before the last election, and continue his decades-long fight for ordinary working people and hard-working families?

May I begin by echoing what the Deputy Prime Minister said about Madeleine McCann, her family and their terrible worries at this time? In all parts of the House, and throughout the nation, people will be praying for the safe return of that little girl.

The Deputy Prime Minister has just been told, following the announcement of his resignation, that he will be missed on his side. He can be sure that he will be even more missed on our side. Seriously, although we have disagreed with many of his policies and exchanged many harsh words, he has so far served 37 years in the House and 10 years as Deputy Prime Minister, and by any standards that counts as an achievement. We wish him well in his retirement,

However, he is still the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer says that the Government should admit mistakes—although the Deputy Prime Minister has just disagreed with the one that the Chancellor put at the top of the list. In the spirit of admitting mistakes, does he agree that the junior doctor recruitment process has been, by the standards of any Government, a truly shocking piece of incompetence?

It is so nice, after 37 years, to know that I will be missed—but I am not leaving the House yet, and I will still play my part. I will not be whingeing on the Back Benches, as I hear some of my colleagues do from time to time. I will support this Government, who have done a wonderful job over the past 10 years. I notice that the right hon. Gentleman did not attend the first session. Was his fee for the first session too expensive, or, given his rates for speaking, is the overtime that would be charged too much money for the Tory party?

On the question asked by the right hon. Gentleman, let us make no mistake: the Secretary of State for Health has apologised for the difficulties with the technology and the system’s delivery. I understand that she will also be making a statement after Prime Minister’s questions, so the matter is best left for then.

While the right hon. Gentleman is on mistakes, let me point out what this Government have done in office, compared with what his Government did. You gave us boom and bust, and we gave an economy of economic growth. You put 3 million—[Hon. Members: “He.”] I will do it again. He gave the country boom and bust, and we delivered sustained economic growth, which we had not seen for decades. He put 3 million on the dole; we put 2.5 million people back to work. Most scandalously, he doubled the number of pensioners in poverty; we lifted 1 million out of poverty. I will swap mistakes and records with him—the House will hear more and more of that, whether I am Deputy Prime Minister or not. May I say that I am the longest-serving Deputy Prime Minister? I have seen off five Tory shadow spokesmen and four Liberal ones, and I am still here.

We are very sorry to hear that the right hon. Gentleman will not be whingeing from the Back Benches, because we hoped that he would—and indeed he may be tempted to in the coming years. However, the question was about junior doctors.

A year and a half ago, the Government knew that unprecedented numbers of doctors would require training posts on 1 August. Now, with 11 weeks to go, thousands of junior doctors either have no training posts or have no idea where in the country their jobs will be, or even in which country they will be. If the Government are going to start admitting to mistakes, should they not also start holding Ministers to account? Given the right hon. Gentleman’s long experience of sitting at the Cabinet table, which we have all just celebrated, who does he think is to be held responsible for the junior doctors fiasco? [Interruption.]

Yes, the Tories. [An Hon. Member: “Wicked Tories!”] Yes, even the wicked Tories, when we look at the record.

I have told the right hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State will come to the House to deal with the matter later, and that will be the appropriate time for it to be dealt with. Indeed, I understand that she will be answering an urgent question that has been tabled. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman tabled it, but it has been tabled and we will answer it.

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman where the fault lies. We had to increase the number of medical students when we came to office: this Government brought in 72 per cent.—13,300—more student doctors. The Opposition health spokesman, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), knows that to be true. We doubled investment in junior doctor training, and doctors’ pay increased by 17 per cent. That is not a bad record. It is the difference between us in government and the Tories in government.

It is a bad record, given that large amounts of the money are being spent on junior doctors who must then find jobs in Australia and Canada because training posts are not available in this country. It is no good blaming everyone else. Two thirds of GPs now think that general practice has become worse in the last decade, and 95 per cent. of consultants say that the Government’s performance in this regard has been miserable.

The Chancellor is keen for the Government to admit to mistakes. Is not another of those mistakes the looming fiasco over home information packs? Given that the Chancellor wants to strengthen Parliament and strengthen home ownership, will he be here in Parliament this afternoon to vote with us against home information packs, which will damage home ownership?

The issue of home information packs is a typical example of the hypocrisy of the Opposition. They say “Vote blue, get green”—I think that that was their slogan—but as soon as an opportunity comes to vote for an energy conservation measure, whether it is home information packs or the climate change levy, they always vote against it. That is the difference. It is rhetoric versus substance.

While I am on the subject of rhetoric versus substance, let me deal with the point about doctors. It is interesting to note that a Healthcare Commission survey published today shows that 90 per cent. of patients said national health service care was “excellent”, “very good” or “good”. There are 115,000 more nurses in the NHS, waiting lists are down, there are more operations, and there is massive investment in the health service. Under the Tories, waiting lists went up, beds were cut and the hospital building programme ground to a halt. Don’t tell me about your record!

The survey also shows that mixed-sex wards are still prevalent in a large number of hospitals and trusts, so don’t tell us about your record! I mean that the right hon. Gentleman should not tell us about his record, Mr. Speaker.

Let me return to the subject with which we are now dealing. Is it not the Chancellor who has cut grants for low-carbon building programmes and the use of solar power? I know that he always likes to disappear when there is trouble, but where is he today, when home information packs are to be debated? He is never around when there is bad news, although making himself invisible when he launched his leadership campaign was taking things to extremes.

The Chancellor says that he wants to see more humility in Government. Given that home information packs are opposed by almost everyone with an interest in the stability of the housing market, why does he not listen to those people?

If the right hon. Gentleman looks back at the record on home information packs he will find that consumer groups fully supported them when I introduced them after we came to office. They made the point that they wanted the costs to be switched from buyers to sellers. Buyers already have to pay those costs, and many of them bitterly complain. They enter into arrangements to purchase a house before a contract has been produced and then find that they lose thousands of pounds in paying for things that they cannot claim for. The situation I have described does not arise in Scotland because Scotland had the courage to make the change. We have faced vested interest groups that have constantly opposed improving the lot of people moving house. However, in the end there will be a debate. There is no doubt that the energy part of the process has been improved, which is welcome, although the Conservatives will vote against it. That is another classic example of the difference between their rhetoric on the environment and what they actually do in this House.

Home information packs will not deal with the point that the right hon. Gentleman has just raised. He mentioned Scotland; he will need the votes of Scottish MPs to force this measure through here in England. The Chancellor talks about admitting to mistakes, but no one is held to account on junior doctors. He talks about boosting home ownership, yet home information packs go through. He talks about humility, but refuses to listen even to the Consumers Association. Does not that show that the Chancellor cannot be the change that this country needs, and if a new Cabinet will have the same attitude as the old, collapsing Cabinet, should we not have a general election and let the people decide?

I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would be a bit careful about calling for a general election. I remember him doing that and getting horribly beaten—it was one of the worst results of any Tory party. Given those circumstances, he should not ask for that. This Chancellor has been responsible for an awful lot of Government policy. That has resulted in a record period in office, with us winning three elections despite all the calls for general elections that we have had.

The right hon. Gentleman points to difficulties to do with differences in view. May I ask him, as I have seen this today—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”] I just wish to make a point. I notice that the leader of his party is away today and that there has been a change of policy on grammar schools. When the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was leader, he promised that there would be one in every town. I do not know how popular this U-turn is within his party—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I do not know how popular this new policy is in the right hon. Gentleman’s party. Will all the Opposition Members who support it put their hands up?

We recently celebrated the 1 millionth child being helped by Sure Start. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the many parents and children in North-East Derbyshire who have been helped by this fantastic service that it will be safeguarded for the future?

Everybody agrees that Sure Start has been a very successful service. So far, about 1 million children have benefited from it and we are on course to achieve 3,000 Sure Starts within the next few years. There has been a real improvement, and we are proud of it. The next stage in the finances involves the comprehensive spending review, which is under way. We have given assurances that we are committed to this programme and they will be followed through in that future spending commitment.

May I express my colleagues’ support for the McCann family?

At the Labour party conference last year, the Chancellor said:

“David Miliband, John Prescott and I will publish proposals this autumn”—

that was last year—for the creation of 100,000 new environmental jobs. Where are they?

There are considerable advantages in such jobs and plans are under way to achieve that aim. The development of new low-carbon houses and the investment in the environment that is being made will constitute a major investment in creating jobs and will change the whole economy. The commitment to the 60 per cent. of emissions target that we have set ourselves requires many of our regions to make considerable changes to their economies and development. Such changes will bring that new type of investment and a tremendous number of jobs, and we are on the way to achieving that aim. The primary purpose of my speech at last night’s John Smith lecture was to make precisely that point. Major changes are happening, and they are coming about because of climate change. Along with any kind of industrial revolution comes jobs.

The answer to my specific question is that this was an attempt to imitate the Conservative leader’s undoubted talent for coming up with environmentally friendly but empty soundbites. Another soundbite that we heard this week was the proposal for eco new towns. Why does it make sense to provide tax breaks for developers to build on greenbelt land, when 25 million householders who want to improve energy efficiency and the quality and quantity of housing have to pay full value added tax rates?

There is no doubt that the hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but it is not a question of building on the green belt. The record of this Government since 1997 shows that we have transferred a lot of house building on to brownfield sites. The figure for such building was about 50 per cent. under the Tories when they left office; it is now 72 per cent., which is a considerable change. We are looking at the example of China and working with the Sustainable Development Commission on how to move away from the motorway cities into which Birmingham and Leeds have developed, for example, and to develop instead new types of cities and sustainable growth. That is the challenge and we are working hard on it. I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the lecture that I gave last night, which, as I said, was about precisely this issue.

I take this move on the environment as perhaps being a leadership bid. According to today’s edition of The Times, half of Lib Dem voters want a new leader. Perhaps the time has come to pass the heavy mantle of leadership on to a younger man. The hon. Gentleman might bring true youth and vitality to the role—by the way, I congratulate him on reaching 64 last week.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his expressions of sympathy and support for my constituents Kate and Gerry McCann, who are in Portugal, and their family. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that what has happened to the McCann family is every parent’s worst nightmare? Will he join me in expressing the thanks of the House and of this country for the support of the authorities and people of Portugal in their efforts to find Madeleine, and will he express the hope that their efforts will be rewarded by success as quickly as possible?

The whole House will agree with everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said. It is indeed every parent’s nightmare, and like everyone in the country, we hope and pray for the safe return of Madeleine. We are doing everything that we can to support the McCanns in Portugal. The Foreign Office has been actively involved, the Leicester police are involved and we are doing everything that we possibly can to assist Madeleine’s parents in this most difficult situation. The investigation is of course the responsibility of the Portuguese police, but our people are assisting where they feel that that is necessary. The right hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and I will meet Madeleine’s relatives at about 1.15 pm, and I will express what I know is the full feeling of this House in these difficult circumstances.

When my right hon. Friend visited Ellesmere Port last year, he saw some wonderful new school developments built under this Government. He also visited West Cheshire college, which is on the site of his old secondary school. He will be interested to know that the college is going to expand in order to increase the opportunities for young people in my constituency. During the last few weeks of his time in office, will he ensure that he does all that he can to promote the development of the college’s next phase, and to ensure that the architecture is of the standard that we have come to expect?

Thank you. Anybody else want to give the answer?

We have had a huge investment in our education system which nobody doubts. There are arguments sometimes about value for money, but an announcement was made in the last two days about the new schools that have been built in every one of our constituencies. No hon. Member can say that they have not had a new school. We have built more new schools in the last five years than were built in the previous 25 years. That is another example. I will be delighted to see extra investment going to the Grange, as I used to know it, for adult education in Ellesmere Port. It was a secondary modern school when I went to it—some hon. Members may think that that is evident. At the time, many people were dependent on free school meals. Given the recent announcement about grammar schools and the concern about free school meals, I wonder whether having a low proportion of school meals will be a threat to the Eton establishment.

Q2. On the topic of rhetoric versus reality, the Chancellor recently reannounced plans to build up to 200,000 zero carbon homes in Britain by 2016. But in yesterday’s Committee on the Finance Bill, his great guru the Economic Secretary, when pressed on exactly how many such homes had been built under Labour to date, replied, “None.” Is that admission correct or was it a load of old, well—Ed? (137248)

A number of houses have been built to a low carbon specification and we changed the rules governing building regulations. There were nine millennium sites, starting with Greenwich and the dome, where we built houses to low carbon standards and new environmental standards. We have built a number of thousands of them already. The Chancellor was referring to the importance of building many more to meet the need for affordable homes, and I fully support that.

This morning UNICEF ambassador Jemima Khan joins me in Westminster Hall to launch the breastfeeding manifesto. Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that breastfeeding brings tremendous health benefits for mothers and babies, helps tackle health inequalities and can even save the NHS money? However, breastfeeding rates in the UK are lower than in many other countries. Will he give his personal support to the manifesto, which seeks to make our society more tolerant and supportive of breastfeeding?

Q3. Given that official figures show that between 1997 and 2006 completions of council homes across the UK dropped from over 1,500 to under 250, and completions of other social housing dropped from over 28,000 to under 25,000, will the Deputy Prime Minister apologise for the appalling record of 10 years of lack of provision of social housing and promise that under his successors things can only get better? (137249)

I must tell the hon. Gentleman, as I have done from time to time, that in 1997 we made a decision that, as there had been £20 billion disinvestment in our public housing because the Tories had sold houses but done nothing about those lived in by millions of tenants, we would have a programme of £40 billion to bring 2 million homes up to standard in kitchens and central heating. A little old lady in central London told me that she was delighted with her central heating because, she said, “I can now invite my kids without worrying that they will be cold.” That is the difference that has been made for millions of people.

The hon. Gentleman is not taking full account of the social housing provision in the Housing Association programme—[Hon. Members: “We are.”] Well, the difficulty is that at the same time more and more demands have come from single parents. There is no doubt that there is a need to give the matter greater priority, as Ministers have said. That is what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been saying in his speeches, and I have no doubt that he will carry it out.

Q4. Schools without books, let alone computers—that is the reality for children in Lesotho in southern Africa. Those schools are linking with schools in Wrexham in north Wales so that children in Wales can get a real perspective on how lucky they are. Will my right hon. Friend commend the Global Schools Partnership, in which the Government invested heavily last year, and say how many schools are involved in that excellent project? Will he encourage all hon. Members to advance the cause of the partnership in their constituencies? (137250)

I very much agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. I am sorry that I cannot tell him how many schools are involved in the programme, but I shall write to him with the information. The British Council has been conducting a similar programme called “Connecting Classrooms”. I was in Ghana and Sierra Leone only a few weeks ago, and I saw the importance of twinning schools there with schools in the UK and the benefit that it brings to the children. It is our intention to use the programme—and I know that you, Mr. Speaker, are aware of this—to bring children from Ghana, Sierra Leone and the West Indies here to join children from UK schools for a debate in the Westminster Hall Chamber on slavery and modern-day trafficking. That is an example of the beneficial connection between schools that the programmes makes possible. I am delighted to say that I have been involved in a programme that unites schools from various countries with schools in my constituency, and I am sure that other hon. Members have been similarly involved.

Q6. Two weeks ago, the Minister for Europe explained in an article in The Guardian that one of the failures of the Government in 2003, when he was Defence Secretary, was that it did not influence the American Administration sufficiently, especially with regard to the disbandment of the Iraqi army and Administration. He said that the Government had failed to notice the influence of Vice-President Dick Cheney. Since the Deputy Prime Minister marks Dick Cheney in the American Administration, what explanation does he have for that failure, and its catastrophic consequences? (137252)

I did not mark Dick Cheney particularly, although I met him once or twice. I recall that we met for the first time via video screen because, after the terrible 9/11 business, he was in a cave somewhere under security control. [Interruption.] I remarked that I did not think that bin Laden would be living under the same conditions, but perhaps we should leave that aside. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Europe is entitled to his point of view. I do not know how correct it is, and I shall not make any comment as to whether I heard similar thoughts expressed in Cabinet but, as I have already made clear to the House, I am not joining that brigade.