The Secretary of State was asked—
On 23 October, I made a full statement on the Gould report in the House, in which I committed to taking forward five important recommendations. Recently, when my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scotland Office, gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, he set out our intention to consult very soon on other issues that Mr. Gould raised. I shall have discussions with colleagues before finalising the Government’s response.
Gould particularly found that
“the voter was treated as an afterthought”
in the planning and organisation of the May 2007 elections in Scotland. The Government introduced incomprehensible ballot papers in Scotland, e-counting—particularly discredited by Gould—and postal voting throughout the United Kingdom, which has led to numerous cases of corruption, and which the Electoral Commission warned against. The Government are also introducing pilots on e-voting. This country used to have an enviable reputation for its democratic electoral processes, which have been reduced to the status of those of a banana republic. Is the Secretary of State proud of being associated with that?
The hon. Gentleman is right to base his question on the words of Mr. Gould. The problem, of course, is that he edited them. Not only did he select just one sentence out of Mr. Gould’s report, subsequent letter, press release and evidence to a Scottish Committee, but he edited the sentence. The words that he missed out are:
“by…all the other stakeholders.”
Those stakeholders included the Conservative party—[Hon. Members: “No.”] Mr. Gould has made it perfectly clear that, in his view, all those in the political classes share responsibility for the situation in Scotland; we all ought to be big enough to take that responsibility and to start to address the issues through the processes that I have just announced.
Having listened to the Secretary of State’s answer, I think that he and the Labour party have absolutely no idea of the damage that the situation did to the integrity of the democratic process in this country. He said that consultation would start soon. Will he tell the House what exactly he means by “soon”?
It will be on or about a date in the first half of December.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it really is time to move beyond the allocation of blame and party political point-scoring? Surely it behoves everyone, from all the political parties, to get together constructively and put in place arrangements to ensure that we never have a repeat of what happened last May.
That exactly summarises Mr. Gould’s position when he recently gave evidence to a Committee in the Scottish Parliament. He expressed significant disappointment about what politicians had sought to do by picking on his report— [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Those are his words, not mine. Given that my right hon. Friend has in the past been unstinting in his criticism when it was appropriate, we ought to listen to the lesson that he sets out for all of us in the House and in the political classes.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Gould report suggests that we move away from overnight counts. Does he agree that there is no evidence to suggest that counting overnight caused the problem in May, and that we should stick with the tradition where practicable?
My personal view is that the overnight count is part of the recognised tradition of the electoral system in this country. Many people, whether or not they are otherwise engaged or interested in politics, expect to wake the morning after a general election able to know who their Government are to be. That is a big prize to give away. That having been said, in his report Mr. Gould sets out arguments on why asking people to take responsibility for such an important process after they have done a day’s work may not be the best way to deal with things. That is exactly why we decided that it is one of the recommendations that ought to be consulted on, so that the difference of views across the country can inform the eventual decision on whether we make that significant change.
The Gould report focused on the organisational issues raised by the Scottish Parliament elections rather than on financial matters, but since the publication of the report, it has emerged that £326,955 of illegal donations were made by David Abrahams between the 2003 and 2007 Scottish Parliament campaigns. Can the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that none of those illegal laundered donations funded the Labour campaign in Scotland—yes or no?
The hon. Gentleman knows that that issue is not part of my responsibility as the Secretary of State for Scotland, but I can give him a categorical assurance that, in terms of my state of knowledge, none of the donations to the Labour party that have figured in the media over the past couple of days went to fund any part of the Scottish election campaign.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scotland Office, has devoted a significant amount of his time to it. As the hon. Gentleman would expect, I have provided strategic supervision. He and the House can be satisfied that I have sufficient knowledge of the report and the matters relating to it to be able to carry out my responsibilities, which is partly why I am answering questions about it. I am sure that he will not be disappointed.
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman could give a categorical assurance to the House that there were no unlawful or completely unacceptable donations to the Scottish Labour party campaign for the Scottish elections—but does not this very issue highlight the reason why his predecessor the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), who is now Secretary of State for International Development, should not have administered the elections and at the same time run the Labour party campaign?
I do not think that there was any conflict of interest in the role that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development played as the Secretary of State for Scotland. Everything that he did was completely transparent and above board; none of it was done in party interests, nor was the subsequent role that he played as a politician in the conduct of Scottish parliamentary elections.
But does the Secretary of State not agree that his predecessor, who was also Transport Secretary, has a lot of explaining to do to the House, not least about the Scottish election debacle? Does he not agree that rather than hide behind pre-recorded television interviews, his right hon. Friend should face scrutiny in the House and appear before the Scottish Affairs Committee?
Who appears before the Scottish Affair Committee is a matter for the Committee, not for me—or, indeed, for the hon. Gentleman, other than in his capacity as a member of that Committee.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State wrote to the First Minister on 21 September offering our full support for the bid, and I was delighted to hear that Glasgow had won the 2014 Commonwealth games. Officials in the Scotland Office are continuing to work closely with the Scottish Executive on a number of issues relating to the games.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in congratulating the people of Glasgow and the bid team. The bid received support from all political sides, and now that the games have been secured for Glasgow they will provide a fabulous opportunity to inspire young athletes, such as 16-year-old Matthew Graham in my constituency, the Scottish 1,500 m steeplechase champion. As lottery funding has halved since 1997, and there is uncertainty about grass-roots sports funding because of the lottery and the Olympics, what has the Secretary of State done to ensure that Scotland receives increased funding both for elite and grass-roots sport in the run-up to 2014, so that we can spot the talents of athletes such as Matthew?
Given the hon. Lady’s obvious interest in the issue and her specific constituency interest—I congratulate the young person in her constituency who has that talent, which I am sure will be nurtured to allow the best to be made of it—she will know that in the time that we have been responsible for this area of policy, the amount invested in the development of athletics and elite athletes has more than doubled. She asked what I would do. I will ensure that we in Government continue to invest at world-record levels in nurturing and supporting our athletes.
Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the leader of Glasgow city council, Steven Purcell, and the city councillors on all the work that they did? Will he also thank and pass on our good wishes to Jack McConnell, who did a great deal of work to make sure that Glasgow won the 2014 bid and did not, like some people, jump on the bandwagon at the end of the day?
This success, which is a success for Glasgow, for Scotland and for the United Kingdom, ought to be distinguished by our ability across all political parties not to turn it into some sort of partisan Olympic competition, as it were. Because of that, and because the city of Glasgow was the bidder, I contacted the leader of Glasgow city council immediately after the award and expressed my congratulations to him and my support for all those who had been involved in securing the award—those who were present when the bidding process and the voting took place, and those who had been involved in the past. Everybody who has been involved is entitled to credit—[Interruption]—including the present Scottish Executive, and the previous Scottish Executive under the leadership of Jack McConnell.
There have been no such recent discussions, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently met Ofgem to discuss a range of issues.
I note with interest that the Secretary of State recently met Ofgem. The Minister will know that there has been a great deal of concern in Scotland about the discriminatory transmission regime that Ofgem imposed on generators. It is now proposing a double whammy for Scottish generators by also proposing a locational distribution charge for energy generated in Scotland by whatever means it is generated. Will he urge his colleagues at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and other Cabinet colleagues to reject this latest bout of madness from Ofgem?
The current transmission arrangements ensure that Scottish consumers are paying lower utility bills than they were paying previously, but of course transmission charges are irrelevant if the generating capacity is not being built. The Scottish Executive had four planning decisions to make about onshore renewable wind farms, and they rejected three of them. If they turn down three wind farms, they will not have the capacity to transmit energy. Until they can come up with an explanation of how they will plug the gap that will be left when they do away with nuclear power, they have no credibility whatever on the issue.
My hon. Friend is right. Across the UK as a whole about 20 per cent. of electricity is generated from nuclear. In Scotland the figure is nearer 40 per cent., so it is incumbent on those who think that there will be no nuclear in future to explain how we will get the base load, how we will keep the lights on, and how we will make sure that Scotland has a sufficient supply of electricity. Only this week a new proposal for a wind farm is being made in my constituency. Guess who is leading the campaign against it? The local Scottish National party.
The Minister will be aware of the immense potential for renewable energy in the Pentland firth. He will also be aware, because I have told him about it, of the work—[Interruption.]
The Minister will be aware of the work being done by the project team. The Minister will also know that the responsibilities to enable that to happen fall between the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Scottish Government. How can he use his best offices to ensure the best outcome for renewable energy in the Pentland firth?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is tremendous potential in the Pentland firth, as I saw for myself not once but twice during the past few months. Here at Westminster, the Government are advancing on three fronts at once with the Planning Bill, an energy Bill and the Climate Change Bill to ensure that we can supply the energy that our country needs without wrecking the planet in the process. Many planning issues are the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. We will work closely with them to guarantee that the best advances can be made in ensuring that the potential of the Pentland firth comes on stream, although onshore wind capacity is far more advanced. They have turned down three out of four planning applications in that area, so how on earth do they hope to plug the gap?
Yesterday, British Energy announced an interest in two sites in Scotland for the next generation of nuclear power stations. Why should both the United Kingdom’s energy policy and its ambition to reduce carbon emissions be held hostage by Scottish nationalists using planning technicalities in a Scottish Parliament? What will the Secretary of State and his colleague do to ensure that the First Minister does not gamble with Britain’s environment on constitutional politics?
The Government are entirely clear that it is for the private sector to come forward with proposals for nuclear power stations and to decide where it would like them located. In terms of consents under the Electricity Act 1989 and planning, these matters have been devolved. The Scottish National party is turning down three quarters of applications for new wind farms, but the Conservative party wants a moratorium on all new wind farms, so it would not be able to plug the gap either.
Pensioners (Heating Costs)
I speak regularly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I am pleased to report that more than 1 million winter fuel payments are made in Scotland, and that the payments represent about 34 per cent. of a pensioner’s average annual fuel bill.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that some pensioners in my constituency will not be able to spend that money? They are like the more than 10,000 pensioners in Scotland whose heating systems have been condemned and will not be sorted until next April at the earliest. Although it is easy to condemn the Scottish National party’s Government for complacency, we should not play politics with pensioners’ lives. Will he convene a meeting to ensure that we get the problem sorted so that our pensioners can have a warm Christmas?
The central heating programme has made a very significant contribution to combating fuel poverty in Scotland. Since it started in 2001, more than 89,000 installations have been done. It is singularly inappropriate that people who qualify for inclusion in the programme, pensioners in particular, should be left waiting over the winter for the installation of a new heating system. There has recently been an increase in the number of people coming to my constituency surgeries complaining about this matter, and I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss it—but as he points out, this is a devolved responsibility.
The Secretary of State is right to point out the significant achievements of the central heating scheme promoted by the previous Scottish Executive. Is it not ironic that many Scottish pensioners will not be able to use the central heating systems that were installed because of exceptionally high fuel prices this winter, particularly oil prices? Does he not accept that historically high oil prices present a particular threat to Scottish pensioners, and that his Treasury colleagues should try to find a solution this year?
I think that we all agree that when fuel prices go up, the least well-off are the most challenged by them. We have an agreed definition of what constitutes fuel poverty. The hon. Gentleman cannot suggest with a straight face that this Government have not been alive to that issue across the United Kingdom. He will recall that winter fuel payments were £20 when they were introduced in 1997 for the first time, but they have now risen to £200, and to £300 for households containing someone who is more than 80 years old. They represent more than a third of an average pensioner household’s winter fuel bill. He should congratulate the Government on what they have achieved.
I speak regularly to Digital UK’s national manager for Scotland about switchover, and I also speak to Ofcom in relation to a number of issues, including switchover. Preparatory work is proceeding apace.
I thank the Minister for his answer. However, 20 per cent. of my constituents do not, and will not, receive digital transmissions, and we will not get the digital changeover until 2010. Surely, as the BBC offers a universal service, we are entitled to a rebate until that changeover takes place.
I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point, but he must consider this: if we were to take money out of the BBC’s budget as he suggests, it would be difficult for it to meet the challenging timetable that we have for digital switchover. I cannot therefore offer him any comfort in that regard. What matters is that we proceed as quickly as we can with switchover, as is happening throughout the rest of the world. We need particularly to ensure that older and more vulnerable people are given the help and support that they need—I know that he has been campaigning on this issue—and that remains the Government’s top priority.
My constituents in the Girvan area are in the first tranche for digital switchover in Scotland, but are currently subject to a postcode lottery for both analogue and digital, whereby some people get Ulster TV, some people get Border, and others get access to STV. Now that the digital switchover is happening, can the Minister guarantee that everyone will be able to access STV as their default ITV channel?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has been doing on this issue. I know that she is due to meet Ivan Kennedy, the community liaison executive from Digital UK, in the coming week. I have alerted Digital UK to the fact that that is the issue that she wants resolved, so I hope that when she has that meeting it will be able to provide her with the answer. In the meantime, I understand that there is a website that people can visit, and if they put in their postcode they will be able to find out exactly which channels they will receive.
As the Minister will be aware, these are tense times for the new Gaelic television channel. The political expectation from me—and from him, I hope—is that it will come into existence in the springtime. When does he hope that it will be available on digital terrestrial television?
The hon. Gentleman is correct. The Government have been firmly supporting that service. He will know from the article that I wrote—in Gaelic—in Scotland on Sunday how committed we are to it. It is our expectation that the service will be up and running this financial year. I understand that it cannot go on Freeview until the switchover, but will be available on other platforms in the meantime. We are committed to ensuring that it happens.
The Scotch whisky industry is of massive importance to the Scottish economy, and that is why the Government have announced steps to enhance the protection of Scotch whisky. Exports of Scotch whisky are worth £2.5 billion annually to the Scottish and UK economy.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Government are soon to bring forward new legislation to protect the Scotch whisky industry, especially in the important overseas market. Can he assure me, and the House, that that legislation will be relevant solely to the Scotch whisky industry, rather than being part of wider regulation, so that the industry can be better protected in the vital overseas market?
I recently had the pleasure of visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency to see the importance of the whisky and related industries to the economy of his area. While I was doing that, my hon. Friend the Minister of State was engaged in continuing discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the issue that he raises—the translation into legislation of a European directive to protect the intellectual property rights of Scotch whisky. We had already announced that we as a Government would consult on the legislation, and we are determined that it will be in the best interests of the Scotch whisky industry. Like everyone else, my hon. Friend will have to wait until we announce and publish the legislation that will be consulted upon, but I suggest that all of those who share the best interests of the Scotch whisky industry are unlikely to be disappointed by the legislation.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the duty the Chancellor charges on whisky is far higher per unit of alcohol than on wine. Will the Secretary of State lobby the Chancellor to equalise rates of duty in the next budget to create a level playing field for the Scotch whisky industry?
I suppose I should declare an interest in this matter, because I have one of the biggest Scotch whisky bottling plants in my constituency—the world-famous Johnnie Walker plant in Kilmarnock. I have a long-standing interest in ensuring a level playing field for Scotch whisky in the United Kingdom and throughout the world. I am pleased to remind the hon. Gentleman of what he already knows, which is that since we came to power, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has frozen the duty on Scotch whisky year on year in order to achieve that very competitiveness.
Veterans in my constituency welcomed last week’s news that priority health care is to be extended to them. However, many of the scars of war are mental and psychological, and I would like my right hon. Friend to tell me what he proposes to do to extend treatment to the soldiers, sailors and air force men affected by them.
I thank my hon. Friend for taking up the cause of veterans in her constituency. She is absolutely right; last week the Health Secretary announced that veterans would be accorded priority treatment in the national health service, as they should be. He also announced that there will be a new community-based veterans’ mental health care service, which will run for the next two years with independent evaluation. There are 150 mental health professionals working throughout defence, employed by the Ministry of Defence, and we are determined to do what we can to support not only our veterans but all those in our armed forces who do an outstanding job and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude and a duty of care.
The Prime Minister told us that he would deliver honest government, that he would be open, that he would end spin and restore trust, and that he would deliver competence. After the events of the last few days, can he honestly stand there and say that all over again?
That is why I have acted immediately to set up two inquiries. All of us on all sides of this House have an interest in integrity in the funding of political parties, and we should do everything in our power to ensure that political party finances are transparent and that everything is above board. That is why what happened was completely unjustifiable. It has got to be investigated as a matter of urgency. Two internal inquiries have been set up within the Labour party, and the Electoral Commission will investigate. I am determined to make sure that political party finances are above board.
That is a matter, as the right hon. Gentleman should know, for the Electoral Commission. The commission has announced an inquiry into this matter. We reported the matter to the Electoral Commission; we have told it that we are setting up two separate inquiries. The commission will run an inquiry and it is its decision as to whether the police are brought in. We are happy to co-operate in any way because, in my view, this is something that has to be cleaned up in the interest of the whole of public life, and I am determined to take that action.
Under every convention, we report the matter to the Electoral Commission, which was set up under a law that we passed with the support of the other parties in the House. The Electoral Commission will decide whether the matter is for the police and we will co-operate in any way possible with it, the police or both. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is in everybody’s interests for action to be taken against something unjustifiable. The procedures that were followed were not acceptable and any necessary changes in the law will be made. I believe that all parties have an interest in sorting that out.
Mr. Mendelsohn has issued a statement clarifying what happened. On 3 September, he started employment in the Labour party. He has had no involvement in the donations that have been made. Those donations were happening for four years before he took office. That is why the investigation that should take place is the one that I have set up internally in the Labour party. The inquiry will be led by Lord Harries and Lord McCluskey, a senior High Court judge and a retired Bishop of Oxford. [Interruption.] We will do everything in our power, as the terms of reference have said, to show that the standards that will be followed in future are acceptable in every area of public life.
If I can put the right hon. Gentleman right, Mr. Mendelsohn says in his statement, which has just been issued, that he was led to understand by the general secretary of the party that this had been cleared with the Electoral Commission. That was the issue before him. He also says that he was unhappy in principle with those arrangements, and that he had approached one of the people involved and was seeking a meeting to sort matters out.
Mr. Mendelsohn started on 3 September. He was involved in none of the donations that were made. He is not the registration officer reporting to the Electoral Commission, but of course, if anything untoward has happened in that respect, it will be a matter for the inquiry and we will take whatever action is necessary to sort the matter out.
I have to say that the Prime Minister’s explanation beggars belief. It takes us to questions about the Prime Minister’s own integrity. Does he expect us to believe that someone whom even Labour Members believe to be a control freak was preparing for an election, sorting out the finances, sitting around the table with everyone who is caught up in the scandal, yet did not have the first idea about what was going on?
We have had 155 days of this Government: disaster after disaster, a run on a bank, half the country’s details lost in the post and now this. The Prime Minister’s excuses go from incompetence to complacency and there are questions about his integrity. Are not people rightly asking, “Is this man simply not cut out for the job?” [Interruption.]
Our party introduced legislation in 2000 to restrict foreign donors, register donors, have a comprehensive framework for elections and have an Electoral Commission, and we are ready to take any further measures. I hope that there will be all-party support so that everything in party politics is above board, including the use of third-party sources for donations.
As for competence, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that in 1992, he sat there when interest rates reached 15 per cent. Competence is the lowest interest rates for a generation, the lowest inflation for a generation, the highest employment for a generation, doubling investment in the health service, a minimum wage and properly financing education. We will continue to do our best by the country. [Interruption.]
While we let the hot air settle, may I tell my right hon. Friend that wind farms are enormously popular in my constituency, with 80 per cent. of people responding to a survey saying that they think they are attractive, produce clean energy and tackle global warming? Will they have to continue to wait for the planning process to produce the wind farm that they want? Will we have to wait and listen to the windbags—[Hon. Members: “Hoorah!]—or will we get a wind farm?
I hope that all parties in this House will support the development of wind turbines, both offshore and onshore. That is the only way to meet our target for renewable resources, if it is going to be as high as the European Commission proposes it to be. I believe that there is a duty on all parties in all areas of the country to consider the development of wind turbines.
The House has noticed the Prime Minister’s remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr. Bean [Laughter] creating chaos out of order, rather than order out of chaos. But amidst the administrative bungling and even the sleaze, does he not accept that the most damaging remark over the past week came from the services chiefs, when they accused him of wilfully neglecting the safety and welfare of the young men and women who serve in our armed forces?
At every point in the job that I am in, I will do everything in my power to defend and protect the security of our armed forces. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the defence budget is rising every year and will continue to rise, and that when we came into power the defence budget in Britain was the fifth largest in the world. It is now the second largest in the world. As for housing, we are spending £5 billion over the next 10 years on armed services accommodation, more than at any point in the history of the armed forces—[Interruption.]
We know about the defence budget, because the Prime Minister signed £5 billion-worth of cheques for the Iraq war, but is not the truth at the end of it that the troops lack adequate equipment, adequate medical care and adequate accommodation? Is not the underlying truth that where the armed forces are concerned, fundamentally, the Prime Minister is not interested and does not care?
The chief of the armed services gave a briefing last week, saying that we were better equipped than ever before. That is why we have not only invested the money from the defence budget but, in order to meet the urgent operational requirements of our armed forces, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, invested an additional £6.6 billion above the defence budgets that have been announced. Whether it be for tanks, helicopters, night vision equipment, specific help for individual members of the armed forces in contacting their relatives or accommodation at home, we will continue to do everything in our power to help our armed forces do their duty.
I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the debate that is now being held in the House between those who want to spend the £4.5 billion that has been allocated on Building Schools for the Future, which would renovate existing secondary schools and then primary schools, and those who want to divert the money from promises already made to secondary schools into building additional academies beyond the 400 that have been provided for. I believe that existing schools, to which commitments have been made, should have the investment made within them. This affects almost every constituency in the country, and perhaps the Conservative party should think again.
As the right hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: “He is not.”] As he will know, the Bank of England will make funds available in certain circumstances at the behest of the Treasury, by its agreement. That is what happened in relation to Northern Rock. I again ask Opposition Members to think again. They said at the beginning that they were overwhelmingly in favour of putting the money into Northern Rock. Last week, they said that they were against it. I believe that the weight of opinion in the country is that it was the right decision to save that company.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that there have been allegations from Members on this side of the House that a lot of the problems relating to binge drinking stem from supermarkets selling alcohol at too cheap a rate. The Licensed Victuallers Association now has documentary proof that certain supermarkets are selling alcohol at the cost of production. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning our supermarkets for selling alcohol so cheaply?
My hon. Friend might know that, last Wednesday, we held a seminar with members of the retail industry and also with people from the production industry—the brewing industry and the drinks industry—and people who are concerned about what is happening as a result of binge drinking. One of the concerns that was raised was the price of alcohol. Another was the special promotions that were being done by the supermarkets. Another was the intensive advertising by supermarkets, which is encouraging young people in particular to buy substantial quantities of drink. We also looked at whether the drinks industry could run promotion campaigns to educate young people about the dangers of binge drinking. We will be publishing a paper suggesting changes in the next few weeks.
When we have acted, whether it be on terrorism, on foot and mouth or on floods, we have acted when it has been necessary to do so and never refused to act. On party political issues, I will tell the House what I said yesterday: I first knew about this on Saturday evening, and I acted immediately.
I believe that it is right that every teenager should have some training so that they can get jobs for which they are employable. That is why, when we bring forward our measures to expand apprenticeships, to raise the education leaving age for people in part-time or full-time training or education to 18, and to increase the amount of funding for the new deal to enable it to help young people, I hope that there will be all-party support for those measures.
As he wanted so much, and for so long, to be Prime Minister, has the right hon. Gentleman been reflecting on the advice of an earlier, more successful, dealer in gold, King Midas, who warned that we should be careful what we wished for, as we might receive it in a poisoned chalice? Or is he planning to pass the chalice to his charming deputy?
I have had debates across the House with the hon. Gentleman over the years, and he has always been very generous in his comments to me until now. I hope that we can continue to agree that this job is an important job, and I will do it to the best of my ability.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I congratulate the company in her constituency and its workers who have done so well. The skills Olympics will be held in Britain. We are determined that, at that point, we will have increased the number of apprenticeships, as my hon. Friend says, so that we can meet the vacancies that exist in our economy. There are 600,000 vacancies at the moment and I want young British apprentices to get the chance to fill them.
I think that the hon. Gentleman will know that over the past few years, particularly when there have been difficulties, we have put more money into tourism to help the tourist industry flourish. I think that he can see that the numbers of people coming to this country—despite some of the difficulties we have had with terrorism and foot and mouth—reflect the intensity of the advertising, and we will continue to do that.
I have had the privilege of being able to congratulate Mr. Rudd on his election as the Prime Minister of Australia and I have also phoned the outgoing Prime Minister, Mr. Howard, to thank him for his work in the international community over the past 12 years. Mr. Rudd has announced that he is going to sign the Kyoto treaty immediately, which is in line with what we have done, and he has said that he will lead the way with us in seeking a post-2012 Kyoto agreement. I look forward to working with him against Conservative policies.
But surely the answer is to build more homes, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the plans that we have set down to raise the amount of house building in this country to 240,000 houses a year and to build 3 million homes by 2020. I know that building more homes is not a popular policy in the Conservative party, but to get affordable housing in every constituency, we need to build more homes. That is what we will do.
We are trying to remove every barrier to young people getting the chance of both training and jobs. Given the creation of educational maintenance allowances in addition to the removal of that aspect of the 16-hour rule, I still hope that all parties in the House will support our belief that every young person should have the chance to get at least some education until 18. The difference between us is that we believe in opportunity for all until 18 while the Opposition believe in opportunity just for some.
The Prime Minister told us that his decision not to call an election had nothing to do with the polls. He also told us that his change of policy on death duties had nothing to do with Conservative party policy, so why should we believe his account of the dodgy donors?
Because I do what is in the best interests of the country, and am prepared, with my colleagues, to make difficult decisions even when it is uncomfortable to do so. I think the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that during the year we have made difficult decisions, such as those on public sector pay, to get the rate of inflation down. That is why we, unlike many other countries, can look forward to stability and growth.
I will certainly ask the Low Pay Commission to examine the matter. Although it is independent, it will examine matters relating to the employment of young people as well as the elderly. I believe that our decision to create a minimum wage in this country is one of the biggest decisions by the Labour Government over the past 10 years.
Since we came to power we have increased the number of apprenticeships from 50,000 to 250,000. [Interruption.] The Conservative party does not like hearing about the successes with apprenticeships. The number will rise to 500,000 over 10 years. That is what the future of our country is based on. We will look at the remuneration and the education and training of young people, so that we can have the best training in the world.
As an Aberdeen Member, my hon. Friend has taken a big interest in the matter, and as she knows, a private Member’s Bill concerned with those very issues has been before the House during the past year.
With the expansion of the oil industry over the past 30 years, we have taken health and safety issues very seriously. I believe that whenever incidents have raised questions we have acted immediately—and that is true of all Governments. I understand that proposals are on the table for an extension of the health and safety legislation in this area and for more intensive and higher standards, and I believe that the proper place in which to consider such matters is this United Kingdom Parliament.
It would appear that Baroness Jay was aware of the illegal nature of Mr. Abrahams’s donations to the Labour party long before the Prime Minister himself. Can the Prime Minister tell us which of his Cabinet colleagues shared her knowledge at the relevant time, or is it sub judice?
That is not, I believe, what Baroness Jay said, but the hon. Gentleman’s question will be a matter for the inquiry, which will examine all issues relating to this matter. Surely the right thing to do when a problem arises is to investigate it in detail, deal with it, change the procedures if necessary and, if necessary, reform political party funding—which we are prepared to do.
We agreed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 as a matter of consensus. There was a consensus in 2000 about the things that needed to be done. I hope that we can proceed to make reforms—including reforms relating to donations from third-party agencies and the timing of donations involving local political finance—by agreement, and I hope that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) will change his mind about running away from the party talks that were involved in solving this problem.
The Leader of the House has made it absolutely clear that the criteria on which she judged donations—[Hon. Members: “When?”] I am explaining this. The criteria were whether the people giving donations were known to her campaign team or were registered with the Labour party. There is not an iota of evidence to suggest that at any time until Saturday the Leader of the House knew that the donation was being given by a third party.
We have set up a review into exactly that matter—the special needs of young people and particularly children at school. I believe, again, that there should be all-party consensus about what needs to be done. Let me repeat: our policy is educational opportunity for everyone until 18, not just for some.