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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 461: debated on Wednesday 20 June 2007

Duchy of Lancaster

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Family Nurses

Experiencing pregnancy in the early years of life profoundly affects the resulting child’s life chances. The family nurse partnership pilots, which are based on the extremely successful US nurse family partnership scheme, will help to improve parental and child outcomes through structured and intensive home visiting to mothers from early pregnancy until the child is aged two. I have recently visited the Slough and Barnsley pilots, where I was very impressed by the good work of the nurses and the enthusiasm with which the programme was received by all involved.

I am looking forward to the evaluation of the pilot. I am particularly interested in the pilot in Tower Hamlets, which is a borough neighbouring Hackney. Will my right hon. Friend indicate when that evaluation will take place? What particular work is being done with teenage mothers, who have three times the rate of post-natal depression of other mothers and who are a particularly vulnerable group in my constituency?

The programme is targeted at any women aged 20 or less who present themselves as pregnant in the pilot areas, so it will be offered to every prospective teenage parent in those areas. My hon. Friend is right that Tower Hamlets was the successful applicant, and I am sorry that Hackney’s application was unsuccessful. The pilots are currently being evaluated at Birkbeck college, and we anticipate that that will be a two-year programme. We are discussing across Government how we can pick up on the lessons learned as quickly as possible in order to enable many other young mothers around the country to benefit from the programme.

The nurse family partnership is one of a panoply of pilots from the Cabinet Office. As the right hon. Lady prepares to leave office, does she think that that multiplicity of pilots has contributed usefully to tackling social exclusion, or does she think that the fact that Britain is more unequal and that the lot of the very poorest has got worse since 1997 suggests that, for all the Government rhetoric, the reality of life for the most socially excluded has got little better during her time in office?

For many hundreds of thousands of children life has got better, because of the success of universal programmes such as Sure Start, improvements in education, the introduction of tax credits and changes to child benefit. There have been significant improvements for many children. We are the first Government to seek to identify and work with those who have simply not got to the starting gate in the past. Because no one has done that successfully in the past, the right thing to do is to pilot programmes to find out what works, which means that we will be better able to persuade taxpayers that we are using their money effectively in helping families to turn around their circumstances.

My right hon. Friend has referred to her visit to the nurse family partnership in my constituency. The evidence from America is that for every dollar spent on such projects, $5 is saved. That $5 saving will happen in 15 or 16 years. What consultation is she having with colleagues to try to make sure that they back investment in such programmes in order to save future spending on, for example, prisons and remedial education?

My hon. Friend anticipates the work that is going on across Government leading up to the comprehensive spending review. I have had enormous support from colleagues across Government for this particular programme. There is real interest, and many people want to visit the pilots and find out about it. One of the reasons why we are evaluating it so carefully is that our circumstances are different from those in the United States, because we already have universal services. I see that progressive universalism as a way to tackle problems. If we can make savings, we will secure the future of the programme for a long time to come.

May I start by wishing the right hon. Lady well as she leaves the Front Bench after 19 years, with two years as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the late John Smith and six years in the Cabinet? Perhaps now she will have a little more time for Sunderland football club. I do not know whether she has been giving the manager, Roy Keane, any of her Chief Whip’s tips, but I notice that the team has just got promoted.

Given that poverty is getting worse and that Professor Olds, the US pioneer of her pilot scheme, has said that success in the UK may be much reduced, when will she, or her successor, consider rolling out the programme nationally, and will there be enough health visitors and midwives to make it possible?

David Olds has said that it may be more difficult for us to gain as much as in America precisely because he recognises, and is a bit overwhelmed by, the quality of universal services in this country and how those services have ensured that not nearly as many children fall into poverty and that there is not nearly the same problem for families as there is in the United States. That is why we are going to evaluate things well in this country. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to visit some of these programmes, because then he will see the enormous enthusiasm of health visitors and their hope that the recent report will enable them to concentrate much more on working with the most disadvantaged, because that is where they think that their skills will be best used.

Early Intervention (Nottingham)

2. What progress has been made in setting up a national and local partners group to examine the concept of a package of early intervention measures in Nottingham. (143852)

Let me begin by joining the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who has been a good friend of mine for many years. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband), would agree that we have both very much enjoyed working with her in the past year and have learned a great deal from her.

I am keen to support Nottingham’s proposals for developing the idea of the early intervention city, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s energetic campaign in that regard. As he will know, my officials have had regular contact with local agencies in Nottingham regarding this issue. In March, they attended a meeting setting out the policy context, and I understand that we expect to have a first steering group meeting between officials and local partners in August.

May I, from the Back Benches, join my Front-Bench colleagues in their congratulations to my right hon. Friend, particularly on her personal energy and commitment in the area of early intervention, which has made a big difference to many of us?

Does my hon. Friend the Minister accept that a definition of an early intervention policy must mean that it seeks to break the inter-generational cycle of deprivation, not merely maintain it? Although the nurse family partnership is a cornerstone of that policy, does he accept that there are many other aspects to that package of policies, including working with youngsters at primary school, working with young mothers, and developing a set of pre-parenting skills, as we are trying to do in Nottingham? Will he therefore redouble his efforts—

I agree that the nurse family partnership is only one aspect of what is needed to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty and social exclusion. There are many other excellent programmes out there, including the incredible years programme, which is being pioneered in north Wales and other parts of the country. It is very exciting that my hon. Friend and other partners in Nottingham are trying to develop an all-encompassing approach in order to do the best job that they can in breaking that cycle of disadvantage and increasing opportunity for the next generation of Nottingham’s children.

Civil Service Jobs

3. What steps her Department is taking to change the geographical distribution of civil service jobs. (143853)

The Government remain committed to meeting our target of moving 20,000 posts out of London and the south-east by 2010. We have made good progress so far with more than 11,000 posts moved to all nations and regions in the UK as of December 2006.

My hon. Friend will know that Dundee in particular has recently suffered a spate of job losses, with major employers—including NCR, Tesco and the Wood Group, to name but three—announcing redundancies. In the light of that, many Dundee people hope that civil service jobs that are being relocated from London and the south-east may make their way to Dundee. What will my hon. Friend do to ensure that jobs come to Dundee as a matter of urgency to help offset the job losses that have been announced recently?

I am aware of the recent announcements of job losses in my hon. Friend’s constituency and nearby that he cited. I am also aware of the excellent job that he has done in speaking up for his constituents over the issue. He makes a strong case, and the Government will continue with the relocation process because the civil service serves the whole of the UK and it makes sense to ensure that some posts are located to parts of the country where property and other costs are lower than they may be in central London. We will continue the process from now to the end of the time scale that we have set.

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Sustainable Cities

As chair of the China Taskforce, I hold regular discussions on sustainable cities with a range of stakeholders across UK business, academia and Government, including Cabinet colleagues.

Creating sustainable cities is important to tackling climate change, especially in China, where 15 million people a year are expected to migrate to the cities over the next 20 years.

The taskforce has recently been working on a proposal for strengthening co-operation between the UK and China on developing sustainable cities within the framework of a low carbon economy.

In April this year, I discussed the taskforce proposal with State Councillor Tang and Premier Wen. I hope that a further report on sustainable cities will be presented at the summit of the two Premiers in the autumn.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and I am sure that the House will join me in warmly welcoming him back to the Front Bench after his recent illness.

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to discuss with his colleagues the innovative proposals for the renaissance of our cities that were unveiled in Bristol last Friday? Does he share his predecessor’s view that the best way to create sustainable cities is to cut the regional development agencies, the learning and skills councils and, for good measure, English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her kind remarks and for all the good wishes to me. I want especially to thank all the hard-working doctors, nurses and staff at University College hospital, who work day and night, as the staff in all our hospitals do, to help all of us who are suffering from illness. I think that every one of us would like to express our congratulations to all our NHS hospitals.

No, I do not agree with what Mr. Heseltine said in Bristol about the renaissance of cities. I have been in the House long enough to know that he went to Liverpool with a bus load of bankers and a Merseyside urban development corporation that gave no powers to the local authority, developed a garden city and led to further decline in Merseyside. If my hon. Friend examines the report of Labour, which has used the RDAs and English Partnerships, it is clear that we have been able to show that the major cities in this country, including Bristol and Liverpool, reflect the comments of Michael Parkinson in a recent review. He said:

“England’s cities are now better placed than at any time since the end of the 19th century to become motors of national advance…The years of decline and decay have been overcome.”

That is genuine renaissance; that is a decade of delivery.

I, too, welcome the Deputy Prime Minister back from his illness. How does he reconcile the claim in his annual report that he spent 10 years developing and implementing sustainable communities with the devastating report of the Sustainable Development Commission, to the effect that the Government’s housing programme is characterised by lack of consultation, poor design standards and lack of attention to public transport, shops and parks?

I just do not agree with that conclusion because of the number of houses we have built and the degree of our investment in transport. To provide one classic example, in 1997, I rescued the Channel tunnel rail link from going bankrupt. That was the most important investment in transport innovation in this country and was particularly important for the development of the whole south-east and the whole Olympic village. If we take into account the pathfinder formulas, the millennium village and the 2 million people now living in better accommodation as a result of our decent homes programme, I have no reason to make an apology. There have been improvements and people will make a judgment when they see the final conclusion.

Departmental Budget

My Department’s budget for 2007-08 is £2.5 million, in line with Treasury guidelines. That figure has already been published in a number of places, including the departmental main estimates and the Department’s annual report, a copy of which is available in the Library for the reference of Members.

Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that this budget is big enough to enable any one of his six potential successors to do what he has been able to do over the past 10 years?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that money has been better spent by this Government than by the previous Administration. I recall in particular that the hon. Gentleman was an advocate of the poll tax. How anyone can come here and talk about this amount of resources when £5 billion was wasted on the poll tax, which he advocated, I do not know. Perhaps he should not be doing that. Let me tell him that he should stick to his original position when he was the MP for Basildon. He launched a song called “I love Basildon” and then got on the chicken run to Southend. It is now rumoured that he is composing another song called “I love Southend”—good luck!

In welcoming the Deputy Prime Minister back to the House in what is clearly robust good health, may I say that for once I was very pleased with his answer, because it clearly illustrates that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has just assumed his place on the Treasury Bench, will not need his Department any longer? Does the right hon. Gentleman assume that he will be the last holder of that office?

That is clearly a matter for the incoming Prime Minister, who I have no doubt will do an excellent job.

Has the Department had any money available to spend on opinion polls? If not, has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to look at the recent opinion poll in The Times, which showed that there was unanimous support on the Government Benches for equality measures and next to no agreement on the Conservative Benches? May I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on 10 years of absolutely resolute support for equality for lesbians and gay men?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. No, we have not invested in polls to find that out; quite frankly, I am not a great believer in them. The Department has not spent any money on that. I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks about our contribution to equality. It has not been easy to make some of those arguments in the past, as he well knows, but I am glad to have belonged to a Government who have made those radical changes.

On behalf of Conservative Members, may I extend all our personal good wishes to the Deputy Prime Minister in respect of his rapid recovery and his return to rude good health, which seems clear from his answers to the previous questions? Before extending even further good wishes, may I ask him one last question of substance? Since his departmental budget is paid largely for him to be a kind of marriage guidance counsellor between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, can he assure the House that the two of them have reached complete agreement on the Government’s negotiating position for the European summit, which starts tomorrow?

My experience is that there has always been good agreement between my two colleagues and I am sure that it will continue. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. It seems that while I was away, the Leader of the Opposition had something to say about me, too. He described me as a cross between Ernie Bevin and Dameosthenes—[Laughter.] It seems that I have not yet figured it out. Well, the Leader of the Opposition reminds me of someone, too. When I read classics and Greek mythology at the Ellesmere Port secondary modern school, we learned about Narcissus. The House will know that he died because he could only love his own image. Yes, he was all image and no substance. Speaking as an historian, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me?

I am sure that Dame Osthenes will be very flattered that the Deputy Prime Minister has singled her out for praise today. This only goes to show that, for all the harsh words that the right hon. Gentleman and I have exchanged over the years, politics will be dramatically less entertaining without him. Not only do we not know how the Labour party will manage without him; we do not know how the Conservatives will manage without him. Nevertheless, we wish him a thumping good retirement, with many years of good humour and good health off the Front Bench.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. We live in truly remarkable times. As a previous Leader of the Opposition, he must have heard the present Leader of the Opposition say this week that the Tories were

“not abandoning Conservative principles, but applying them in new ways to new challenges”.

That sounds like my

“traditional values in a modern setting”.

So now we know. The Leader of the Opposition is not the heir to Blair; he is a prophet of Prezza.

Poverty Reduction

13. What recent discussions he has had on the co-ordination of the Government’s policies on reducing poverty. (143845)

The Government have made considerable progress in reducing poverty and helping the most vulnerable families and older people. The House will recall that, under the Tories, child poverty doubled and one in four pensioners were living in poverty. Thanks to measures such as the national minimum wage and tax credits, relative child poverty has reduced faster than in any other country in Europe, 600,000 fewer children are living in relative poverty than in 1998-99, and absolute pensioner poverty has been cut by three quarters. That is the result of 10 years of a Labour Government, and it is something that I am proud to have played a part in.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. I also want to wish him a happy anniversary, as he entered the House on 18 June 1970. Labour policies have benefited the average family in my constituency by almost £3,000 a year, but in the past 12 months, my constituents have been made systematically poorer by Brent council, a Lib-Dem and Tory-run council. It has changed the payment terms for council tax from 12 to 10 months, it promised 0 per cent. council tax increases but delivered 5 per cent., and it has increased charges to the elderly by 300 per cent. What can I say? Will my right hon. Friend—

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. I am receiving so many today that I might even come back—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] My hon. Friend has raised the important issue of the difference between a Labour Administration and a Liberal Administration. It is important to so many people living in poverty and to so many people in jobs. Let us judge what the Liberals do in local government; that will give us an idea of what they might do in national Government if they ever got the chance.

As a working-class lad, how does the Deputy Prime Minister explain the fact that, during his tenure in office, the gap between the rich and the poor has got ever wider?

The hon. Gentleman knows, because it has been said by the Prime Minister and others at this Dispatch Box, that poverty has gone down. Relative poverty is an important issue, and property prices have played an important part in that. It is equally true, however, that everyone has gained from the prosperity of this Government in the past 10 years.

In congratulating my right hon. Friend on the 37th anniversary of his election to the House of Commons on 18 June, may I thank him on behalf of my constituents for the neighbourhood renewal policies that have lifted the Northmoor area in particular out of abject poverty? We now have a cohesive community with rising property prices and wonderful community facilities. That is what my right hon. Friend has done for my constituents.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks. The improvement is obvious in our cities: the new deal programme has helped to reduce unemployment and crime and improve housing in the poorest parts of our communities, making them areas where people now want to live. There are many examples of the success of our policies, particularly in the inner cites. The Government made that promise, and we have delivered on it. May I also congratulate my right hon. Friend, as he came into the House at the same time as me, and has also been here for 37 years?

Since we are on congratulations, may I express to you, Mr. Speaker, and the whole House, my appreciation of the kindness and generosity shown to me during my years in this job, through good times and bad, of which I have had my share? I cannot say that about the feral beasts or penny scribblers in the Gallery—with some notable exceptions, of course. While we are on Greek mythology, may I say that they remind me of Hermes the messenger god? The House will know that Hermes was the god of shepherds, and, boy, do they operate in a herd. As for invention, need I say more? Best of all, he was

“the god of cunning and liars”.

Enough said. I look forward to reading all their rave reviews tomorrow. But whatever they say, I am proud to have been a member of this Government. In a decade of delivery, we have transformed our country for the better, following traditional values in a modern setting.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Lance-Corporal James Cartwright of Badger Squadron, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, who died in a vehicle accident while on active operation in Iraq on Saturday night. We send our sympathy and condolences to his family and friends.

The whole House will be sad to learn of the death of Piara Khabra, who passed away yesterday. As his many friends on both sides of the House know, he was a tireless campaigner, particularly on international development and racial equality. He was a tremendous servant to his constituents. We all remember him, as I do, often asking questions from the Bench just behind me. He will be greatly missed, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.

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.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expression of condolences? May I also join him in paying tribute to my dear friend the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra)? He was a friend for a long time, and a dedicated servant of the people.

My right hon. Friend has created a great spirit of multiculturalism and of campaigning against racism. In all the years I have known him, no other Prime Minister has been able to deliver with such a spirit. I praise him for that.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of Indian independence, there are 1 million people of Indian origin in this country. Will he join me in praising their great contribution to this country and their achievement? Finally—

It is particularly appropriate that my hon. Friend asks that question after the sad news about Piara Khabra. I endorse entirely what he says about the tremendous contribution made by the Indian community—1 million of them—in this country. The state of the relationship between the UK and India has never been stronger, and it is a wonderful example of how our relationships with countries can change over the years. Today, this country has about 20,000 Indian students, which represents a major increase in the numbers coming to study here. We are the third largest investor in India today, and I can see our relationship only getting stronger in the years to come.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance-Corporal James Cartwright, who was killed in southern Iraq. I also join him in paying tribute to Piara Khabra, who served his constituents energetically and enthusiastically for 15 years and will be sadly missed both in the House and in Ealing.

This week we have the scandal of the Prime Minister, in his last few days in office, opening the prison gates and releasing 25,000 prisoners on to our streets. Can he tell us when he was first warned that the prison population would exceed 80,000?

Let me explain what is actually happening. We have exceeded even the top-end projection for the number of people in prison—that projection having been made last year—so there is a requirement for us to release prisoners early, 18 days before the end of their sentences—in other words, 18 days before they would have been released anyway—as a temporary measure while new prison places are being built, to ensure that we do not breach the prison conditions regulations. I regret having to do it, but we have to do it.

Why is it having to be done? First, the number of people in prison has risen dramatically as a result of a 25 per cent. increase in sentencing. Secondly, this Government are now recalling people who breach their licence conditions, and as a consequence there are 5,000 extra people in prison. Thirdly, we now have almost 3,000 people in prison serving indeterminate sentences for violent and sexual offences.

When we build the new prison places, as we shall—8,000 places, and now a further 1,500—we shall be able to retrieve the situation. I regret having had to do this, but it was necessary.

I asked the Prime Minister a very simple question: when did he first know that the prison population would exceed 80,000?

The truth is that the Prime Minister was told by the Home Office in 2002, five years ago, that the prison population this year was projected to be not 80,000 but 88,000. That was five years ago. Why did the Government so comprehensively fail to act in response to that warning?

As I have just explained to the right hon. Gentleman, the projection that we were given at about this time last year—we deal with this matter on a year-by-year basis—was a projection that we have exceeded, and have exceeded now. We must therefore take this temporary measure, but let us be absolutely clear: the reason there are more people in prison than ever before is that under this Government there are tougher sentences—particularly for violent and dangerous criminals—and there are 20,000 more prison places. We are now going to build an extra 9,500 places on top of that. Most important of all, crime has fallen under this Government as a result of the measures that we have taken. Incidentally, the most serious violent crime has fallen by more than 20 per cent. in the past year.

The truth is that those indeterminate sentences were introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. As I have said many times, the right hon. Gentleman and his party refused to support the Act, and voted against it. It is true that we will have to take this measure as a temporary measure—and I hope it is very temporary—but it is important to recognise that under this Government prison places are up and crime is down.

The Prime Minister tells us that he examines the position on a year-by-year basis. That tells us all we need to know: there was a complete failure of planning. The Government were told about this five years ago.

The Prime Minister mentioned the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I checked the record, and I think Members will find that the Prime Minister and I voted the same way. I did not support the Act because I do not believe in letting people out of prison half way through their sentences; the Prime Minister did not support it because he could not be bothered to turn up.

Not only were the Government not thinking about this matter five years ago; they were not thinking about it a month ago. Last month, the Secretary of State for Justice said:

“I am not going to announce early releases because of prison overcrowding… Any early releases, no…  It is simply wrong.”

Why on earth did he say that?

First, let me make something clear about the Criminal Justice Act. The Tory party voted against the Criminal Justice Act, and the fact that the right hon. Gentleman did not turn up to vote on it does not alter that.

The reason we have more people in prison today is the tough measures that we introduced for violent and sexual offenders—which the right hon. Gentleman and his party opposed—to put more people in prison. I have already said that I regret having to take this action as a temporary measure, but we are going to build an extra 9,500 prison places.

Let me just point out that the Tory party voted not only against the tougher measures, but against the extra investment in prison places. The one group of people from whom we will not take lessons on this matter are the right hon. Gentleman and his party.

I am glad the Prime Minister mentions the money, because I have checked that, too. Let us look back at the five years since 2002. In 2002, the Home Office budget was £14 billion; in 2003, it was £13 billion; and in 2004, it was £13 billion. There was not any extra money, and the person responsible is sitting next to the Prime Minister. I shall ask the Prime Minister again. The Justice Secretary said one month ago that any early release system was simply wrong. Why did he say that?

The right hon. Gentleman said that investment in prisons has not gone up. It has gone up by 35 per cent. in real terms, so when he gets to his feet again, let him apologise for saying that investment in prisons has not gone up. It has gone up, and his party voted against the Budget measure that introduced that. On the reasons for introducing this measure, we have said again and again that it is important that we make sure that we deal with violent and sexual offenders most severely. That is why there are 3,000 people in prison today on indeterminate sentences. If the right hon. Gentleman’s party had had its way, those people would not be there.

Things have come to a bit of a pass when the Prime Minister will not even defend his former flatmate. Let me put the question to him again. The Justice Secretary said one month ago that any early release system was simply wrong. Why did he make that statement?

We hoped for a long time to avoid having to do this, but we have had to do it because, as I have said, the projections for the prison population, which we do on a year-by-year basis, have been exceeded even at the top end. As I have also said, I regret having to do this. However, as a result of the measures announced yesterday and those announced by the Chancellor in the Budget, we will now have an extra 9,500 prison places. We will be able to make sure that this is a temporary measure. Most importantly, violent crime is falling and the crime rate is coming down because we have more investment in prisons and the police and tougher measures, many of which the Tory party voted against.

We have had foreign criminals let out of prison when they should have been deported, and the Prime Minister now plans to release more prisoners this year than the entire prison population of Australia. Ten years ago, he told us that he would be tough on crime; now he is releasing 25,000 criminals on to our streets. Should he not, just this once, apologise for what can only be described as an abject failure to deliver?

When we came to power in 1997, crime had doubled. When we came to power in 1997, there were no proper plans for making sure that we had the money to invest in our prison system. As I have said, I regret very much having to take the measures on early release. However, over the 10 years of this Government we have reduced crime, increased the number of police officers and introduced measures on antisocial behaviour, and we have 20,000 extra prison places. When we compare the 18 years of a Government who doubled crime with the 10 years of this Government, it is clear who people should vote for on law and order.

Has the Prime Minister read an article in this morning’s Financial Times in which someone called Lord Harris, who I understand owns several academy schools, is quoted? He is reported to have said in a conversation:

“I have a very good relationship with Andrew [Adonis]. He rings me up and says, ‘Do you want this school?’ and I ask what it’s like and if it sounds like the sort of place that we are interested in I say yes.”

Does the Prime Minister believe that the language of that exchange is appropriate for people charged with looking after the education of young people, or does he think that it is more appropriate for 21st century spivs?

As my hon. Friend knows, I have only got a week to go and I am not keen on making too many more enemies. However, I will have to doubly disappoint him. First, I think that Lord Adonis has done a superb job on the city academy programme. Secondly, although Lord Harris is from a different political party, as a result of the work he has done in education, not least in Peckham, he has given some of the poorest kids in the country the opportunity to get a decent education for the first time. If those two people are having an exchange about how we can improve our education system and give opportunity to kids who do not currently have it, that is good.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expressions of sympathy and condolence and his generous tribute to Piara Khabra? [Interruption.]

Does the Prime Minister believe it right for private equity executives to pay tax at a lower rate than those who clean their offices?

It is precisely because of the concerns over whether people are paying an appropriate level of tax that a review has been set up that will report around the time of the pre-Budget report later this year. However, it is important to distinguish between that question, which it is perfectly legitimate to raise, and condemning all the work that private equity companies do, because that would not be right at all. But yes, of course people have concerns about this issue, which is exactly why we said that we will look into it in a sensible and serious way and reflect on what we can do.

While this review is taking place, we are giving a tax break of £6 billion per annum to some of the wealthiest people in the United Kingdom. Would it not be much fairer to give tax cuts to lower and middle-income families, who have suffered most under this Government? Would that not be an illustration of governing for the many, and not the few?

I know that the Liberal Democrats like to say, “Here is this great pot of gold that is waiting to be redistributed to the families of the country.” Incidentally, it is just nonsense. However, there are real issues here, and they have been raised right across the political spectrum and by sensible people within the private equity field itself. The serious way of approaching this is to examine these claims carefully and to deal with the matter in the pre-Budget report, and that is what, very sensibly, the Chancellor is doing.

Q2. May I thank my right hon. Friend for keeping the promise that he made to me on 8 January 2005, the day when my constituency was devastated by floods? During our telephone conversation, he said that moneys would be available to build flood defences to protect the people of Carlisle. Some £30 million was made available and those defences are being constructed. However, given the problems that we have seen today in the south of England, and given the problems of global warming and climate change, is he convinced that, following the comprehensive spending review, there will be enough money available to protect other communities from the devastation that we suffered in Carlisle? (143827)

My hon. Friend raises a perfectly reasonable point, and it is one of the reasons we are committed to spending an additional £600 million in this financial year on our costal defences. Since 1997, we have invested some £4 billion in coastal defences. This is an indication of how, over time, as a result of the changing climate, countries will have to invest very large sums in protecting ourselves against the changing weather. However, I entirely agree with hon. Friend, and I can assure him that this will obviously form a very significant and serious part of the comprehensive spending settlement.

Q3. When the Prime Minister referred to the Chancellor as the “big clunking fist”, was it a term of endearment or based on bitter personal experience? (143828)

I fear that the bitter experience will be felt on the hon. Gentleman’s side of the House once my right hon. Friend gets going.

My right hon. Friend will recall meeting representatives of Mountain Rescue England and Wales on 14 March. Will he find time during his final days in office to review its request for public funding similar to that available in Scotland? If he is unable to resolve the issue, will he ensure that the request is in the in-tray of our right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown)?

I can assure my hon. Friend that, as I explained to those representatives when I met them, I will take a close interest in this issue right up to the time of my departure. It is a very live issue that we are considering.

Q4. Reading’s increasingly congested roads are becoming a major constraint on economic success. We urgently need a third Thames bridge and north-south bypass. While Reading chokes, the local authorities are spending their time squabbling with each other. Will the Prime Minister help me to sort out those squabbling neighbours? (143829)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern and the desire for a new road crossing. The trouble is, as he knows, there is a dispute. He called it a squabble, but unfortunately the view he expressed is not shared by some of the local authorities. The trouble is that it will, in the end, have to be resolved at a local level. I know that the Department for Transport is also engaged with the issue and I am sure that it will do everything it can to mediate, but to get it done local agreement will in the end be necessary.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that since being elected to this House I have campaigned for formal recognition of the Bevin Boys and the role that they played in our world war two success and the defeat of Nazism. In January, the Prime Minister acknowledged their role and said that he would make progress on some kind of formal recognition for those brave men. Will he be able to bring that to a conclusion before he leaves office next week?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaign that he has mounted for some recognition for the Bevin Boys and the extraordinary work that they did in world war two, without which our war effort would have been seriously hindered. We will have a special commemorative badge for the Bevin Boys, and we will announce that later today. It will provide some recognition for the tremendous work that they did, express the sense of gratitude that the country has for them, and show why it is a good idea that on this day we should commemorate their work.

Q5. When the Chancellor says that he wants to see Britain governed in a different way, and Government to be more open and accountable, what does the Prime Minister think that he means? (143830)

I am sure that over the course of my right hon. Friend’s premiership he will want to carry on changes that we have been making. For example, we now have a Freedom of Information Act and devolution, which we have never had before. We also have a London Assembly and Mayor, which we have not had before. I am sure that such changes will continue over the years and fortunately, in the circumstances, that is something that I happily leave to my right hon. Friend.

Crime has been falling for many years: why are there huge increases in the number of people, including women, in prison? Does my right hon. Friend now agree with a former leader of the Tory party that prison works?

I have never agreed that, in itself, prison is what works, but if people are committing violent offences or are a threat or danger to the public, it is important that they are imprisoned, if that is what a court feels is appropriate. There are more people in prison because sentences have been getting tougher. I mentioned a few moments ago the more than 5,000 people who have been recalled to prison as a result of the breach of their licensing conditions. In 1997, that figure was around 200. People out on parole would breach their conditions, but nothing would happen to them—now it does, and that is one reason why the most serious violent crime has fallen by more than 20 per cent. in the last year. In the crime partnership areas where crime has been highest, specific focus has been put on 44 of them and crime, especially violent crime, has fallen by 7 per cent. or more in the last year in those areas. We have to protect the public first, and that is what we are doing.

Q6. Last Saturday, a 23-year-old man was lost at sea off my constituency when his small boat overturned in Hoy sound. Two months ago, eight Norwegian seamen lost their lives when the Bourbon Dolphin capsized and sank 85 miles off Shetland. In both cases, as in so many others, the role of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, in co-ordinating the search and rescue, was crucial and very much appreciated. Will the Prime Minister, in the time that remains to him, knock some heads together among the senior management of that agency to ensure that the current industrial dispute is resolved and the coastguards are paid the money they deserve? Or will that have to wait until things get so bad that the dispute escalates and lives are lost? (143832)

First, I am sure that the whole House will join the hon. Gentleman in sending condolences to the family of his constituent who died. Secondly, we of course regret that the dispute is going on. Thirdly, I will be happy to look into the matter and to correspond with him about it. Obviously, we want the maritime service to return to full strength as quickly as possible.

Q7. Over the years, my right hon. Friend has visited my constituency on a number of occasions—[Interruption.] Some visits have been more memorable than others, but on his most recent visit he came to the £2 million local improvement finance trust scheme at Woodgate Valley primary care centre, one of 200 LIFT schemes across the country. Does he agree such schemes demonstrate real investment in the NHS and real commitment to our patients, compared with the half-baked ideas that we get from the Opposition? (143833)

I recall the LIFT scheme in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and it is one of the many around the country that have led to some 2,500 GP premises being renovated. In 1997, 50 per cent. of the NHS estate was older than the NHS itself, but today that figure is 20 per cent. As a result of that massive capital investment, waiting times are falling and we are also able to provide the most up-to-date equipment for our constituents. I deprecate the Opposition’s policy to scrap the target of an 18-week maximum wait for NHS treatment, with an average of seven or eight weeks. That policy would be a disastrous and retrograde step, whereas we intend to keep to the targets and make sure that we deliver on them.

Since taking office, there has been more investment in schools, local health services have been protected and young families have benefited from more free nursery care—all provided by the new Scottish National party Government. Will the Prime Minister congratulate the First Minister on those excellent developments?

I think that I prefer to say that investment on any scale can be made only because my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has run the most effective economy in this country for 30 years or more. We are able to invest in health and education because of the sensible policies of this Labour Chancellor, not because of the SNP’s economic policies.

Q8. Today, world refugee day is being marked across the globe. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in praising the refugee awareness projects being run by Refugee Action in Bristol, Nottingham and Liverpool? The project workers go into local communities to challenge the many myths and media distortions about refugees and asylum seekers, and to help the refugees who have genuinely fled persecution in their homelands to find a safe haven in this country. (143834)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and the Government are making a financial commitment to supporting refugee week. It is right for us to reduce the number of unfounded claims and make sure that only genuine asylum seekers can claim asylum here, but none the less we must make it clear that this country should always be open to genuine refugees fleeing tyranny. This country has a very proud record in that regard, and I am sure that that will continue.

Q9. As there might just be some misunderstandings over the next few weeks, does the Prime Minister agree with Baroness Morgan, his old friend and former Downing street aide? On the radio this week, she said that the Chancellor was“really involved in the nitty gritty of how to phrase the argument, and it made a difference.”Was that the role that the Chancellor played with respect to Iraq? (143835)

The position on Iraq was the position of the whole Government. I happen to believe that removing Saddam was the right thing to do, as is standing up against those people who would by terrorism prevent democracy from flourishing in Iraq. I pay tribute to the support provided by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. It is important that those fighting us in Iraq understand that our position on Iraq is shared by the whole Government, and I am sure that they do.

Is my right hon. Friend able to use his influence in the case of baby Sebastian, who was born in Texas to my constituent Samantha Lowry and abducted to Mexico at the age of nine weeks by her estranged and unstable partner? Does he agree that the best place for Sebastian is with his mother, who is best breastfeeding him? Will he use his influence with the Mexican Government to get the case dealt with as soon as possible?

I am aware of the case and I sympathise with Samantha and her family. I assure my hon. Friend that full consular support is being provided to the family by UK consular staff in Houston and Mexico City. We are also in touch with the FBI about the case, and are ready to give every support to the US and Mexico’s FBI to ensure the safe return of Sebastian.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should all be concerned about the growth of air travel, especially in relation to climate change? What are his suggestions for curbing that growth? (143836)

We must be careful, because many people have travel opportunities, particularly on cheap flights, that they have never had before. As politicians we must be careful that we do not appear to say that opening up such opportunities for people is somehow wrong. The best way to deal with aviation is through the European Union emissions trading system. As a result of the work done by the Government there is the prospect of aviation coming within the system, which will incentivise business and industry to develop ways of saving on harmful emissions. Personally, I do not believe the way to do so is to try to ban domestic travel on aeroplanes, as I think some people in the hon. Gentleman’s party have suggested. I do not think that is realistic.

Last week, my right hon. Friend opened the new management centre at Knowsley community college. Apart from that and 240 extra medical staff in the NHS, a brand new hospital, an 18 per cent. increase in GCSE passes, seven new learning centres and halving the rate of unemployment, what has my right hon. Friend ever done for Knowsley?

In addition, we have the minimum wage, paid holidays, extra increases in child benefit and all the investment that has gone into this country over the past few years. The reason we have been able to invest, as I said a moment or two ago, is that we have run a strong economy—my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been its steward over that time. It is important always to recognise that for the first time this Labour Government are able to combine a more just and fair society with a well functioning, strong economy. Under this Government that is exactly what will continue.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the recent exchanges, my constituent, Lord Harris, was referred to as a spiv. Will you rule, Mr. Speaker, that that is inappropriate language to describe a member of the other place?