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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 464: debated on Wednesday 10 October 2007


The Secretary of State was asked—

Cardiff’s Women’s Safety Unit

1. What discussions he has had with National Assembly for Wales colleagues on future funding of Cardiff’s women’s safety unit; and if he will make a statement. (156149)

The Cardiff women’s safety unit does a fantastic job in helping the victims of the abhorrent crimes of domestic violence. The Assembly Government and the UK Government are committed unreservedly to protecting vulnerable women and prosecuting violent partners.

Every year the Cardiff women’s safety unit supports about 1,500 domestic violence cases. I know that the Minister is aware of its excellent work, but is he aware that the unit is facing funding shortages in the short term, as some charitable funds are coming to an end, and in the long term, with funding for the Cardiff community safety partnership being cut by 14 per cent.? Will he speak to the Home Office to ensure that the unit is able to maintain the good work that it does well into the future?

As mentioned by the hon. Lady in whose constituency the unit is located, I visited the unit recently with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and saw at first hand the very good work that it does. The unit is a model of good practice and provides an invaluable service. This year it received £247,298 core funding from the Assembly Government, which is secure for 2008-09. That is an increase on the original three-year allocation approved in March 2006. In addition, for 2007-08 the Assembly has awarded £63,442 to fund the male helpline, which operates from the unit, and that is an increase as well. The Assembly is considering its budget plans for future years, but I applaud the work that the unit does and the secure funding that is in place.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the pioneering success of the women’s safety units in halving the number of repeat offences of domestic abuse? That has been achieved about by their pioneering system of holding multi-agency conferences on all cases of high-risk domestic abuse. Is my hon. Friend aware that this system has been copied in 70 areas of the UK, and that Wales has been leading the way in this regard?

Absolutely. It would right and proper to say that we recognise the work of my hon. Friend in taking the initiative forward from its instigation. Yes, the multi-agency risk conferences are not only innovative but are proving their effectiveness. We hope to see more and more of them across the UK. It is worth pointing out the Government’s commitment to specialist domestic violence courts, of which there are eight in Wales and more to come in the UK. That shows how serious the Government are, both at UK level and in the Welsh Assembly Government.

Does the Minister agree that the women’s safety unit and other groups like it should do more to prioritise preventing the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation? Is he aware that since the law against that was passed in 2003, not a single person has been convicted, and that in Wales there is a danger that thousands of women could face that disgraceful and awful practice?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, but I am sure he is aware that one of the significant feature of the women’s safety unit is the way in which it brings together various agencies and actors from different women’s and male groups in the Cardiff and south Wales areas. They no doubt share the concerns that he expressed, but the core work that the women’s safety unit does in tackling domestic abuse and violence against partners, both male and female, is to be firmly applauded.

Cross-border Rail Links

2. What steps he has taken to assist in the improvement of cross-border rail links in north Wales. (156151)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), take a keen interest in Welsh rail services. This includes regular discussions with ministerial colleagues both in Whitehall and the Assembly Government, as well as with train operating companies and other stakeholders.

In Wrexham we are celebrating the introduction of the first direct rail service to London since 1957, which was announced last month, but we are ever ambitious and we now want the electrification of the Wrexham-Liverpool line. We note with some concern that the rail assessment plan that was issued over the summer somehow made the mistake—I am sure it was a mistake—of putting back the work on that till 2014. Will my hon. Friend have discussions as soon as possible with the First Minister to make sure that the error is rectified?

My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner on behalf of his constituents and north Wales rail. We welcome the new direct service between Wrexham and Marylebone. In respect of the Wrexham to Bidston electrification, the co-operation between Merseytravel and the Welsh Assembly Government to examine the feasibility of improving the line is welcome because it could indeed deliver improved rail links, leading to economic and employment opportunities. I understand that the Welsh Assembly Government are considering the options resulting from the feasibility study. Decisions on the way forward will be for them, but as my hon. Friend has been such a strong advocate of rail issues in his constituency and across the region, I am more than happy to meet him and discuss the matter further.

The Minister will be aware of the recent announcement by the Welsh Assembly Government that it is a priority to improve rail journey times between north and south Wales and to introduce electrification. Will the Minister do what he can to assist Ministers in Cardiff to implement that approach, bearing in mind the huge economic, social and other benefits?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. On 2 October, the Welsh Assembly Government announced new transport priorities, which include a commitment to examine further improvements to north-south rail travel, including a new fast service with business-class facilities operating southbound in the morning and northbound in the evening. On 3 October, the Welsh Assembly Government launched their freight strategy consultation, which aims to deliver a robust, modern and efficient freight transport system. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s views on board. The plans are exciting and ambitious, and we all hope that they can be delivered.

While welcoming the news about the improvement of railway services in north Wales, may I ask my hon. Friend what impact the recently published rail White Paper will have on railways not only in north Wales but across Wales?

The recent rail White Paper will deliver real benefits for Wales. It discusses improved reliability on long-distance services—Virgin, First Great Western and Arriva cross country—increases in safety and an enhanced network capacity at Reading, which, as my hon. Friend will know from campaigning conducted by her and other MPs, is a pinchpoint on the First Great Western route. Most importantly, the White Paper mentions a 20 per cent. increase in capacity into Cardiff at peak times by 2014. We should applaud the rail White Paper and recognise that it is in no small way due to effective campaigning by Government Members.

I want to return to the question raised by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas)—the electrification of the Wrexham to Bidston line, which is extremely important to the economy of north-east Wales. We know that the Welsh Assembly Government were committed to that proposal before the Assembly elections, but now they appear to have shelved the scheme for up to 12 years. Does the Minister know the reason for that change of plan? Was it perhaps a concession extracted from the First Minister by his Plaid Cymru coalition partners to enable them to pursue policies that are likely to find favour in the areas where they are strongest?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the decision is ultimately for the Welsh Assembly Government. However, I have heard what he has said, and we are keen to see the scheme proceed, too. The hon. Gentleman is challenging us on plans for the rail network, but in the past 10 years we have had to deal with the failures caused by the botched rail privatisation by the Tory Administration. Now, rather than offering robust policy alternatives, they are offering us a return to privatisation with threats to break up Network Rail—far from learning from past mistakes, they are condemned to repeat them.

I welcome the additional services proposed by Virgin Trains on cross-border and mainline services. My hon. Friend will know that one of the problems in north-west Wales is the lack of synergy between mainline services, regional services and the ferry port of Holyhead in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend bring together train operators and ferry operators to ensure that we have joined-up thinking and a truly integrated service? And will he agree to meet me to discuss that case in more detail?

Yes, I am open to meeting my hon. Friend and other north Wales Members who are concerned about the matter. I will take up that offer to work constructively with my hon. Friend.

“One Wales” Document

3. What discussions he has had with the First Minister since the signing of the “One Wales” document on the impact of the implementation of that document on the governance of Wales. (156152)

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Is he aware that several aspects of the “One Wales” document, such as council tax relief for older people and consultation on hospital reconfiguration, originally appeared in the Welsh Conservatives manifesto? Will he guarantee that those proposals will be implemented?

If they are sensible proposals, they will be a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government to implement.

I assume that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), sitting behind him, who said in The Western Mail on 21 September:

“Some Conservatives like myself, and all my fellow MPs, feel we were correct to oppose the establishment of the Assembly and should continue to oppose further powers”

for the Welsh Assembly. I assume that the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and Conservative Front Benchers agree with that, as the hon. Member for Monmouth was claiming ownership of all Conservative MPs.

Are not the Welsh Assembly Government to be congratulated on how they dealt with the recent farming difficulties—particularly the single farm payment and the recent health crises? They have been cautious, but practical and swift, in reducing the harm that was likely to be caused to the farmers. Can we now expect a hallelujah chorus of gratitude from the National Farmers Union to the “One Wales” Government?

If there were to be such a chorus, it would be the first. However, I agree with my hon. Friend’s comments on how the Welsh Assembly Government have handled the situation.

Yesterday’s spending review will have a devastating effect on the affordability of the programme set out in the “One Wales” document. It will also show how unfair the Barnett formula is for Wales. If the Assembly review of the formula recommends that it be scrapped, will the Secretary of State campaign for reform and be Wales’s man in the Cabinet, or will he remain true to form and be Westminster’s man in Wales?

I will be both Wales’s person in the Cabinet and Westminster’s person in Wales, because that is my job. The hon. Gentleman has said something extraordinary. Spending, however we define it, has been increased by more than £2 billion compared with the past year, according to the pre-Budget statement yesterday. That is a massive injection: a 2.4 per cent. real-terms increase per year, and an increase over the period of 14.5 per cent. Some £2 billion extra is coming into the Welsh budget; the hon. Gentleman should be applauding that.

We are always interested in what the Secretary of State says in The Western Mail. Given the Plaid Cymru-Labour coalition in the Assembly, how will the governance of Wales be helped by Plaid MPs calling the Chancellor’s settlement for Wales the worst settlement since devolution and the Secretary of State boasting that Wales gets £1,000 more expenditure per head than England and calling Plaid “the enemy”?

Does the Secretary of State agree that in addition to discussions with the First Minister, he needs to have urgent discussions with his coalition partners in this Chamber—or does the proposal and promise of “One Wales” not apply here in Westminster?

For the hon. Lady’s education, I should say that we have a Labour Government here. We do not have a coalition Government with anybody in Westminster, and I am pleased about that.

On the Welsh Assembly Government’s position on the Budget, Andrew Davies, the Welsh Assembly Finance Minister, said yesterday:

“I am confident that we can meet the challenges ahead and deliver our ambitious “One Wales” programme within the level of resources announced this afternoon.”

That compares with a black hole of £5.4 billion in the Tories’ future public financing plans, which would result in savage cuts in the Welsh budget for public services. The hon. Lady should seek to explain that position, not to attack a £2 billion increase—a real-terms increase—in the Welsh budget over the next three years.

Animal Health Measures

4. What discussions he has had with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the cross-border applications of emergency animal health measures. (156153)

The Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on a range of issues, including on animal health measures. The recent crises in animal health and our Government’s reaction prove the seriousness with which we take such issues and that the procedures in place to deal with such sudden events are working well.

The Minister will be only too well aware of the importance of livestock farming to the economy in Wales. He will also know that Wales is designated as a low-risk area for foot and mouth disease. However, what action would be taken if a case were confirmed in Wales?

The Welsh Assembly Government and DEFRA have worked closely on this matter and, as the hon. Lady is aware, many aspects of the powers on animal health measures are devolved to Wales. I applaud the way in which the Welsh Assembly Government have responded. If there were an action, measures are already in place to respond to it, but it is good to stand here and say that we do not fall within the protection zone or need to take such measures.

On farmers, the Welsh Assembly Government are seeking European approval for a lamb welfare disposal scheme, which will be of assistance, and they are also on track to start payments under the single farm payments scheme, as soon as it opens in December.

In view of what the Minister has just said will he ensure during his discussions with the Environment Secretary that the National Assembly is fully compensated for any system of compensation to Welsh livestock farmers? That should happen not least because the foot and mouth outbreak occurred in a UK laboratory—the basis being that the polluter must pay.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that compensation is paid for the culling of livestock and in relation to machinery and equipment affected by disease. This case is different. As DEFRA has done in a different way throughout the rest of the UK, the Welsh Assembly has put in place measures of support for farmers. It is appropriate for DEFRA to do so in England, and for the Welsh Assembly Government to do so in Wales.

Last month, the Secretary of State for Wales incredibly boasted that the Government’s handling of the foot and mouth outbreak had established their reputation for competence. Given that that assertion has been shot to pieces because the outbreak was caused by the Government’s own incompetence, and that many Welsh farmers are facing financial ruin, will the Minister confirm categorically that farmers will be compensated by DEFRA to the full extent of the legal liability and that the costs will not fall on the Assembly budget? We need to know where the money is coming from for our Welsh farmers.

It may be helpful to clarify for the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman that, under the current devolution settlement, there are responsibilities for DEFRA and for the Welsh Assembly Government. I shall outline once again that the Welsh Assembly Government are putting support in place. That is not compensation, but it relates to support mechanisms, including light lambs and their disposal, and ensuring that the single farm payments are on track. That is different from what would have happened if there had been an outbreak in Wales, which currently, I am glad to say, we do not have.

Employment (Swansea)

Up to December 2006, there were over 34,000 people in employment in Swansea East, an increase of over 3,000 in two years.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I am sure that he is aware that one of the fastest growing sectors in Wales is that of information and communication technology. There has been an increase in jobs in that sector in Swansea, East, with companies such as nSure investing and benefiting from the excellent staff and opportunities in Swansea. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be continued investment in this important sector and that we will drive up employment levels even higher?

Yes, indeed. What nSure is doing is very good, and I notice that Swansea is leading the way with RAP International based at the Technium Swansea. Swansea university has a Technium digital base there, and there is a £3 million Boots centre for innovation, designed to assist global researchers and entrepreneurs. That is a good sign that Swansea is leading the way and becoming a city that will make a major impact in the ICT sector, which, as my hon. Friend says, is crucial to the strength of the Welsh economy.

As well as welcoming the increase in Welsh exports, which was published last week, would my right hon. Friend join me in recognising the importance of businesses such as Machynys golf club, which bring money into Wales and provide jobs in the Llanelli area?

Yes, I do, and I visited the golf club with my hon. Friend. It is a good example of a world-class investment that shows that Llanelli and the whole region of south-west Wales is doing very well, compared with how it was more than 10 years ago, during the miserable experience it had under the Tories.

Economic Inactivity

The Government are planning a wide range of initiatives aiming to help those on benefits back into work in Wales, including city strategy pilots in Rhyl and the heads of the valleys, and extending pathways to work to all Wales by the end of this year.

The Secretary of State will know about the recent Bevan Foundation study, entitled “Caring and Working? A Welsh Case Study”, which addresses the barriers that carers face in returning to work. Does he agree that one of the best ways to help carers in Wales and elsewhere is to review the carer’s allowance and significantly improve their respite care? Does he also agree that the Prime Minister’s review of the national carer’s strategy and his excellent initiative to establish a carer’s commission present an ideal opportunity to assist carers and thus reduce economic inactivity in Wales?

Yes, I do. I commend my hon. Friend for his pioneering work in support of carers—he has done a fantastic job. The Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004 took up much of that work. The Bevan Foundation publication on caring and working, which I have read, is very interesting and will inform our current debate on a national carer’s strategy and our intention to publish a Green Paper once we have taken the work forward.

Wales has the capacity to become the capital of environmental industries for the United Kingdom and, indeed, Europe. Is the Secretary of State willing to meet a delegation representing environmental enterprises to discuss the potential of tackling economic inactivity throughout Wales at the same time as contributing to our sustainable agenda?

I would be happy to meet such a delegation. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that environmental manufacturing and environmental businesses have a vital role in a strong, modern Welsh economy, which we are building in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that economic inactivity in south Wales will be greatly reduced by the military training academy at St. Athan, especially if we get the transport infrastructure right? Is he satisfied with the progress that the Welsh Assembly Government are making on that infrastructure?

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary visited in the summer to look into the matter. The St. Athan project is a flagship project for Wales, which will bring in billions of pounds of investment and create thousands of jobs. That shows the value of the partnership between our Government here in London and the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff, with Wales as part of the United Kingdom, not taken out of it, as the nationalists propose, or forced to withdraw as a result of the disastrous proposals of the Leader of the Opposition to create first and second-class Members of Parliament.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the transformation in economic success of my constituency. Ten years ago, it was an unemployment blackspot; now it has almost full employment. However, problems remain with economic inactivity. May I draw his attention to the work of the Prince’s Trust and Pembrokeshire college, which are delivering upskilling for young people, 140 of whom are based at the Cleddau activity centre, which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary visited in September?

Wearing his other hat as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—

I agree with my hon. Friend that the Prince’s Trust does fantastic work in Pembrokeshire and elsewhere in the country. I also agree that the transformation in the Pembrokeshire economy has been nothing short of miraculous, given the devastation that I remember seeing when I canvassed with him in the early 1990s. Now, more than 1,000 job vacancies have been advertised in his constituency alone. That shows the enormous growth in the economy in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire and the fantastic potential for everybody there to do well, for people to get more jobs and to go from strength to strength.

Cancer Treatment

7. What discussions he has had with Ministers in the National Assembly for Wales Government on the treatment of patients from England for cancer in Welsh hospitals. (156156)

I am in regular contact with all my ministerial colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government. The Welsh Assembly Government are committed to providing a world-class health service that is available to everyone, irrespective of who they are or where they live.

The Under-Secretary knows that the geography of Wales makes transport difficult. When, for example, cancer consultants are being withdrawn from Bronglais hospital in Aberystwyth and people in that part of mid Wales have to go to Caernarfon or even across to Shrewsbury for treatment, it causes genuine difficulty. Will he speak to members of the Welsh Assembly Government to ascertain whether the situation can be resolved?

As always, I am more than happy to take up individual issues that are raised. On the Welsh Assembly Government’s commitment, the hon. Gentleman knows that, in 2007, £5.5 billion is being spent on health in Wales—more than £1,800 per person and more than double 1996-97 figures. Cancer services in Wales now receive £4.5 million extra. Record investment is showing record results.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Conservative-controlled London borough of Bromley on achieving the highest rate of dry recycling in London and on being recognised as an exemplary authority for garden and home recycling? Would he like to come and see the work that we are doing in Bromley? I could take him and show him one of our bottle banks.

The hon. Gentleman will therefore be very pleased with the public expenditure settlement yesterday, which gives huge amounts of money to the environment.

Will my right hon. Friend take a personal interest in helping to resolve the industrial dispute at Royal Mail? I am sure that, as the owner of the business, the Government share everybody’s concern about the interruptions in the cash flow of small businesses, in the contacts between constituents and their MPs and in the daily lives of all residents, including those in rural communities. Given that both sides of the dispute say that they share the same interest—[Interruption.]

This has to be settled by negotiations between the Post Office and the work force, but there is no justification for the continuation of the dispute. It should be brought to an end on the terms that have been offered as soon as possible. I urge the work force to go back to work.

The big question this week is: can we believe what the Prime Minister says? So let us start with his credibility gulf over the election. The Prime Minister was asked, “Hand on heart, if the polls showed a 100-seat majority, would you still have called off the election?” and he said yes. Does he expect anyone to believe that?

I will take no lectures from the Leader of the Opposition. This summer he was for grammar schools, against them and then for them again. He was for VAT on air fares and then against it. He was for parking charges and then against them. He was for museum charges and then against them. I will take no lectures from the Leader of the Opposition about that.

He is the first Prime Minister in history to flunk an election because he thought that he was going to win it. Does he remember writing this? It is in his best-selling book about courage:

“As far back as I can remember, I have been fascinated by men and women of courage. Stories of people who took brave decisions in the service of great causes…especially when more comfortable and far less dangerous alternatives were open to them”.

Does he realise what a phoney he now looks? Has he found a single person who believes his excuses for cancelling the election?

He talks about a clamour for an election. I looked at the Downing street website this morning. There is a petition on the website—[Interruption.]

Certainly there is a petition on the Downing street website calling for an election. It is signed by 26 people—and not one of them is on the Conservative Front Bench. We will govern in the interests of the people, and what matters to the people is the health service, education and housing. We will govern to make housing, health and education better in this country.

The Prime Minister is going to have to do better than that. Let us try another claim. Did the draft of the pre-Budget report, written before the Conservative party conference, include plans for the taxation of non-doms and the raising of inheritance tax? It is a simple question: yes or no?

If the right hon. Gentleman looks back to the summer and to the interviews given by the Chancellor, he will see that he talked about these very issues. We have raised the exemption on inheritance tax on 10 occasions since 1997, and we have dealt with tax avoidance in relation to non-domiciles and non-residents on many occasions since 1997. We are going to continue to take the right decisions for the country. It is very interesting that he has raised the issue of inheritance tax and non-domiciles, and I think that we can have a detailed discussion on this over the next few weeks. He will have to explain to the House, as we will explain to the House, that there are not 150,000, or even 115,000, non-domiciles who would pay this tax; there are only 15,000. When the Conservatives start to look at the official figures, they will find that they could raise only £650 million, not £3.5 billion, as they claim. As for inheritance tax—again, I welcome the debate that we are going to have in the country on this—we can exempt estates below £700,000 by 2010 and put money into health and education. The Conservative party are going to put £2 billion into giving money to those with estates above £950,000—£1 billion to those who are already rich. When the debate is held in the country, people will choose our policies and reject theirs.

I tell you what: if you have got some questions about our policy, find a bit of courage, discover a bit of bottle, get in your car, go down to Buckingham palace and call that election.

The Prime Minister now tells us that he was planning to change the rules on inheritance tax and non-doms all along. He is treating the British people like fools. Next, he will be telling us how much he admires Margaret Thatcher! Let us try another example of straight talking from the Prime Minister. Your manifesto said—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister said that the Labour manifesto was an issue of trust. That manifesto promised a referendum on the European constitution. Do you understand how not holding that referendum damages your credibility?

If we were having a debate on the euro, we would have a referendum. If it was the old treaty, we would have a referendum. But because we have won in negotiations, by standing up for British interests, all the red lines that we asked for have been achieved. When the intergovernmental conference reports, he will see very clearly that these red lines have been achieved. I just ask the right hon. Gentleman to look at the issue of the referendum. Every single shadow Cabinet member who was in this Parliament in 1992 voted against a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. Every country apart from Ireland that wanted a referendum a few months ago no longer wants one. We stand up for the British national interest, and we will continue to do so.

Nobody believes him. The Labour-dominated European Scrutiny Committee says that the EU treaty is “substantially equivalent” to the constitution. It says that pretending otherwise is “misleading”. When Labour MPs say this, why should anyone believe the Prime Minister?

Because I have the report here and it makes a distinction between the treaty—[Interruption.] Oh yes—[Interruption.] Well, if people want a debate about the future, they should read the full report. It makes a distinction between the treaty itself and its effect on Britain with the protocols, the opt-ins, the exemptions, the emergency brake and the veto. What the Leader of the Opposition forgets is that we went to Brussels and negotiated for Britain the opt-out, the protocol, the opt-in and the emergency brake. We have stood up for the British national interest. That is more than the Conservative party ever did over Maastricht.

What we will not forget—and what the British people will not forget—is that the Prime Minister made a promise and he has broken it. We have a Prime Minister who will not talk straight about the election, who will not own up on inheritance tax and who will not keep his promises on an EU referendum. Never have the British people been treated with such cynicism. For 10 years the Prime Minister plotted and schemed to have this job—and for what? No conviction, just calculation; no vision, just a vacuum. Last week he lost his political authority, and this week he is losing his moral authority. How long are we going to have to wait before the past makes way for the future?

This is the man who wanted an end to the Punch and Judy show! This is the man who wanted an end to name calling! We are the Government who have created 10 years of economic stability in this country. We are the Government who adopted the minimum wage—against Conservative advice. We are the Government who made the Bank of England independent—against Conservative advice. We are the Government who have delivered record rises in health expenditure—against Conservative advice. We are the Government who are improving our education system—against Conservative advice. We will continue to govern in the interests of the whole country.

Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer revealed that an increase in the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million would hand an eye-watering windfall of £1 billion to just 1 per cent. of the richest estates in this country. Has the Prime Minister had an opportunity to cross-reference those figures with the Register of Members’ Interests to find out how many Members would benefit from the Conservative proposals?

Let us have this debate about the future of inheritance tax. I welcome such a debate, because there is a choice to be made between those who favour raising the threshold to £700,000 and using the extra money to spend on health and education, and those who want a £1 million threshold, which would mean giving £1 billion to the top 1.5 per cent. in this country. I know how the British people will feel about that issue: they will want investment in health and education, as well as the improvements in inheritance tax. Once the Conservative party settles down, it will realise that by publishing its election manifesto early, it has ensured that that will be dissected week by week in the House of Commons.

As the Prime Minister has stolen Liberal Democrat policies in order to help the better-off, will he also steal Liberal Democrat policies in order to assist lower and middle-income families, and cut the basic rate of income tax to 16p in the pound?

We are cutting the basic rate of income tax, from 22p to 20p in the pound—but what we will not do is follow Liberal party policy, which would cut the basic rate by another 4p, costing £12 billion and putting the public finances at risk. In exactly the same way as the Conservative party, the Liberals would put the management of the economy at risk. We will not follow that policy.

Let us remember that the Prime Minister’s cut in the basic rate is at the expense of some of the poorest people in the country. Was not the most glaring omission in yesterday’s pre-Budget report statement the absence of any proposals for reform of the unfair council tax? Council tax is set to rise by twice the rate of inflation. How fair is that for low and middle-income families?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman should look at his own proposals. First, he faces an £18 billion black hole in his proposals. Secondly, he is not offering people a free gift on council tax, as he wants to replace it by local income tax, which would mean people paying 3p in the pound more. Thirdly, at every point where I have costed the Liberal party proposals, nothing adds up. The Liberals would be better going back to the drawing board.

The Government are giving considerable assistance to London in preparation for the 2012 Olympic games. I wonder whether the Prime Minister has considered any increase in the assistance going to Liverpool, which next year celebrates being the European city of culture. I am thinking in particular of increased funds for the Merseyside police and the local authorities.

I congratulate Liverpool on becoming the city of culture. Having visited the city and seen what has been done to prepare for that, I know that there is more urban regeneration place in Liverpool than at any time in the last 20 to 25 years. I would also say to my hon. Friend that the local government settlement and the public expenditure plans announced yesterday will help Liverpool and the north-west, ensuring that jobs can be created in the area and that urban regeneration continues. We will keep our promises to the people of Liverpool.

Q2. The Prime Minister might be aware of proposals in West Sussex to downgrade the accident and emergency units at either St. Richard’s hospital in Chichester or at Worthing hospital. Will he therefore clarify Lord Darzi’s comment on the “Today” programme last week that his statement that the days of the district general hospital are gone applies only “to big metropolitan capital cities like London”.Given that neither Chichester nor Worthing is a big metropolitan capital city, will the Prime Minister assure my constituents that both these excellent hospitals are now safe? (156089)

Obviously, I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about what is happening in his constituency. I have to say, however, that he should be applauding yesterday’s announcement that health service expenditure will go up from £90 billion to £110 billion. In the interests of accuracy, given that Conservative Members raised the issue throughout the summer, and listed 29 hospitals that they said were at risk or subject to reconfiguration, I should explain that it was immediately pointed out that 10 of those hospitals had no such plans. As far as the Leader of the Opposition is concerned, on the Horton hospital in Banbury, the shadow Health Secretary said,

“We wouldn’t get that wrong”.

The chairman of the local heath trust then said,

“As far as the A&E is concerned, there is no threat, indeed it’s rather the opposite, the board has agreed to invest additional funds”.

Once again, the Conservatives cannot be trusted with the national health service.

Q3. In the past two weeks, we have heard alternative approaches to the taxation of foreign non-domiciles. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he is confident that the Government’s approach will target people who can realistically be expected to be able to pay the tax? (156090)

It is right that people pay their fair share, and we have taken action against avoidance every year for the past 10 years. This will be a debate held over the next period of time, but I have to say that the proposal that we can find 150,000 non-domiciles to tax is completely wrong: only 115,000 are registered in this country, and only 15,000 have earnings and income that would allow them to consider that paying £25,000 in taxation was in their interests; others are nurses and teachers who earn little more than £25,000. When we asked where the calculations came from, first we were told that they came from Accountancy Age, then we were referred back to The Observer, and then we were referred back to a so-called tax expert, who was unnamed. Those who put forward proposals to tax non-domiciles, and say that they can raise £3.5 billion, will have to do better in future.

Could the Prime Minister give us a cheerful answer, and tell me whether he believes that imitation is the surest way to salvation or merely the sincerest form of flattery?

When we made the Bank of England independent, the Conservatives opposed it; now they support it. When we created a minimum wage, they opposed it; now they support it. When we invested in the health service, they opposed it; now they support it. I know who has been leading the argument in this country: it is the Labour party.

Q4. Does the Prime Minister think that people who want to return to work but have become trapped in the incapacity benefit system should be supported and encouraged to seek and obtain work, or forced to do so by the removal of their benefit? (156091)

There is an interesting debate to be heard on the future of incapacity benefit in this country. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: under our proposals, 1 million people will come off incapacity benefit by 2015. Under an alternative proposal, it is said that that figure could be 1.6 million: two thirds of those currently on incapacity benefit would come off it and lose £5,000 per person. It is said that that proposal, put forward by the Opposition, would raise £3 billion. Given the number of constituents we know who are disabled and who are in wheelchairs, and the many who are mentally as well as physically handicapped, the idea that 1.6 million of 2.7 million people could come off incapacity benefit by the beginning of the next Parliament is faintly ridiculous. Given that we already expect 1 million to come off incapacity benefit, those who say that they can raise £3 billion from that proposal are, again, completely wrong.

May I remind the Prime Minister that some time ago an announcement was made about Northern Ireland losing many of its Army installations, and a promise was made in a joint statement that the people of Northern Ireland would benefit from what was done with those areas of Government ownership? Will the Prime Minister give me an assurance today that that will be done, and will he announce the time when it will be done?

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, who is the First Minister in Northern Ireland, will accept that the public expenditure settlement reached yesterday was very much in line with what we talked about previously; indeed, it was higher than the figures that I gave him before. I will certainly look at what he says about land in Northern Ireland, just as I am looking, as I promised to do, at the corporate tax regime in Northern Ireland. Perhaps we can talk about these issues at a later date.

Q5. May I welcome the recent uplift in the minimum wage which is helping 90,000 people in the south-west? May I ask the Prime Minister to guarantee that the future of the minimum wage will be assured as long as he is Prime Minister? (156092)

The rise in the minimum wage, which came in on 1 October, is an increase from its initial £3.60, and it is now £5.35. It will continue to rise—obviously, subject to economic conditions. What we have achieved in addition to that in the last few years is a minimum wage for teenagers. We were also able to introduce on 1 October the first number of days of paid holiday entitlement for workers in this country—again, a sign that if we can keep the economy moving forward and have stable economic growth, the rewards will flow to the whole of the population, and not just to some of the population.

Q6. The Prime Minister recently described Burma as one of the world’s darkest corners and said that human rights were universal, but his Government are still trying to deport Burmese dissidents into the hands of that dreadful regime. Will he tell the House why his moral compass has failed to identify this transparent hypocrisy? (156093)

I will certainly look at any individual cases that the hon. Gentleman brings to me, and look at them sympathetically, but there is an appeals system and that will be dealt with.

May I say that I hope that there will be all-party support on Burma? This is a repressive and illegitimate regime. Aung San Suu Kyi was the elected democratic leader of Burma. The sanctions that we will step up in the European Union are necessary to tell that Burmese regime that what it is doing is completely unacceptable. I hope that the Secretary-General of the United Nations will be able to lead a United Nations team that will bring reconciliation to the people of Burma.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reported statement from the Association of British Insurers on future cover for flood damage is deeply unhelpful, and will lead people to conclude that the industry wishes to remove any commercial risk to its own profits and place that risk instead on current and future policyholders, including families and businesses in my own Sheffield constituency?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I think that what the Association of British Insurers announced today is a review of its practices for the future. I hope that it will not take the step that he suggests, which might be considered, of denying people insurance. I also have to say, again in the interests of accuracy, that over the summer and very recently, the Association of British Insurers has asked that by 2011 we spend £750 million a year on flood defences. The figures that we announced yesterday are that we have raised spending on flood defences from £600 million this year to £800 million in 2011. I hope that whatever difference there is between the Association of British Insurers and us—a very small difference, on the figures involved—we can show, as a result of the Pitt report, which will come soon, that we are doing everything we can to improve flood defences in this country.

Q7. On 20 September the governor of the Bank of England said that the market abuse directive had undermined his ability to carry out an operation that would have been in the interests of everyone connected with Northern Rock. Does the Prime Minister agree? (156094)

The Chancellor will make a statement on that very matter in the House tomorrow. There is an issue about the requirement to make dealings that take place to try to rescue companies transparent, and there is an issue that must be dealt with in the European Union as part of that, but other issues arise from Northern Rock which I think are probably more important for the longer term. There is, for instance, the question of how the international community can come together to arrange an early warning system when events happen in America, affect Europe and then affect the United Kingdom. On all those issues, the Chancellor will make a statement tomorrow.

The brutal murder of my constituent Mr. Garry Newlove has highlighted continuing concerns about the effects of under-age drinking. I welcome what the Government have done so far to tackle the problem, but can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will consider what needs to be done now? In particular, will he assure me that he will try to persuade the industry to end the immoral practice of targeting alcoholic drinks directly at young people, and enforce severe penalties for those who sell alcohol to under-age youngsters?

I share my hon. Friend’s sadness, and send my condolences to the family of her constituent.

We are committed to doing everything in our power to tackle antisocial behaviour, and specifically under-age drinking. I have appealed in the past to alcohol and drinks companies to advertise the dangers of teenage drinking far more widely. We have said repeatedly that we will fine, and impose heavy penalties in closing down, shops that sell illegally to young people. I urge councils to use their new powers to ban alcohol in trouble spots. Police already have powers to disperse young people who are involved in alcohol-fuelled disorder, and I hope that they will use their powers as well. Local authorities can designate areas in their towns, including town centres, and make it an offence to drink alcohol there. The combination of all those measures—as well as, I believe, a review of the 24-hour drinking laws—is an essential element of making it absolutely clear that teenage drinking is unacceptable at the level at which it is being carried out in our towns and inner cities, and that action must be taken.

Q8. Does the Prime Minister think it right that a pupil in my constituency receives, on average, £736 less than a pupil in an inner-London borough, although the cost of employing a teacher is the same? Will he put an end to that huge injustice, so that schools in Hornsey and Wood Green can finally be given a fair funding deal? (156095)

I should have thought the hon. Lady would accept that expenditure per pupil in every part of the country is rising. I hope she will accept that although in 1997 we inherited a situation in which average expenditure was only £2,500 per pupil, it is now £5,500 per pupil and rising. Of course we will continue to look at what happens in particular areas—in this case, the outer London area—but it is only because of this Government’s policies in securing economic growth that every school pupil in the country is enjoying additional investment in the future.

Q9. Given the still extremely serious situation in Darfur, will my right hon. Friend explain what steps his Government took during the recess to support Security Council resolution 1769, as well as the wider peace agreement in Sudan, in order to ensure that humanitarian aid is delivered in desperate circumstances, and that this carnage is discontinued? (156096)

I know that my right hon. Friend has taken a huge interest in these matters, and in the future of the whole of Africa. I think the United Nations resolution that was achieved at the beginning of the summer is now being complemented by the United Nations-African Union forces, who are ready to come to Darfur and to be there on the ground. At the same time, we want an end to hostilities, and there is a sense that all the parties in Darfur may be prepared to bring an end to them as the peace talks begin. The combination of peace talks beginning in the next few days, and the possibility of an end to hostilities, gives us hope that this outrage—which has meant that 2 million people have been displaced, 4 million are in famine and a quarter of a million have died—can soon be brought to an end.

I hope that as a result of the announcements we made yesterday to increase the money for flood defences from £300 million in 1997 to £600 million now, £650 million next year, £700 million the year after and £800 million the year after that, the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and every other constituency where there are flood defence issues, will benefit. He might have heard the head of the Environment Agency saying this morning that it would be able to continue to spend more money on flood defences not only in his region, but all over the country.

Q11. Will the Prime Minister consider visiting Milton Keynes to see the large number of new houses being built as a result of this Government’s policies, together with new schools and GP surgeries, and does he agree that building more houses is the most effective way of increasing the supply of affordable housing, and that a cut in stamp duty would simply be taken up in increased prices if demand continues to outstrip supply? (156098)

If we are to have a housing strategy that ensures that there is affordable housing for young couples, we need to build more houses, and the demand and supply equation must be improved. In the last 10 years there have been almost 2 million more owner-occupiers. For the next few years, we hope to build 3 million new houses by 2020. I must say, however, that Conservative councils that are resisting plans to build more houses will not help the country meet its objectives. There must be a common effort by all parties if we are to achieve the number of houses that people need.