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Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 2 April 2008

I have been asked to reply.

Before listing my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of the two Royal Marines who were killed in Afghanistan on Sunday, Lieutenant John Thornton and Marine David Marsh. We owe them both a deep debt of gratitude. As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is today in Bucharest, Romania, for the NATO Heads of State and Government summit meeting.

In a few days, the all-party group on the great lakes region of Africa will visit Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both of which have proper, legitimate, democratically elected Governments. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is, today, time for Mr. Robert Mugabe to accept that the people of Zimbabwe deserve no less?

I commend my hon. Friend for the work that he does in his all-party group. He is absolutely right: the whole House will want to express its solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe and its concern that they should have their democratic choice respected and recognised. Hon. Members in all parts of the House have raised the plight of the people in Zimbabwe. Four million people have been forced to flee that country. The average life expectancy is now down to 34 and the economy is in ruins, but today the eyes of the world are on Zimbabwe, which stands at a turning point. Robert Mugabe must respect the decision of his people.

I join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to Lieutenant John Thornton and Marine David Marsh, who were killed in Afghanistan on Sunday, and to the soldier who was killed in Iraq last Wednesday—a further reminder of the sacrifices and service of our armed forces.

On a lighter note, I should like to congratulate the Leader of the House on being the first female Labour Member ever to answer Prime Minister’s questions. She must be proud, three decades on, to be following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher, whom we on the Conservative Benches, and the Prime Minister, so much admire. I have just one question on Zimbabwe before the Foreign Secretary’s statement at 12.30 pm. Will the Leader of the House make it clear, on behalf of the Prime Minister, that Britain wants to send the clearest possible signal that the world will be there to help the people of Zimbabwe, on top of what she has just rightly said, and that there will be a comprehensive plan to assist them, whenever they are able, to move away from corruption and dictatorship, to the rule of law and democracy?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his congratulations, but I would like to ask him: why is he asking the questions today? He is not the shadow Leader of the House; the shadow Leader of the House is sitting next to him. Is this the situation in the modern Conservative party—that women should be seen but not heard? If I may, perhaps I could offer the shadow Leader of the House a bit of sisterly advice: she should not let him get away with it.

On the question of Zimbabwe, I absolutely endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, and I do so on behalf of the Government. This Government are the second biggest donor to Zimbabwe and we stand ready to step up that support. We will work with the international community, but it is also right to focus on South Africa and Africa to help find a solution to the problem. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spoken to Thabo Mbeki and to Kofi Annan; he will work to make sure that pressure is put on Robert Mugabe to respect the democratic choice of his people.

Before turning to domestic issues, I was going to be nice to the right hon. and learned Lady. She has had a difficult week. She had to explain yesterday that she dresses in accordance with wherever she is going: she wears a helmet on a building site, she wears Indian clothes in the parts of her constituency with a large representation of Indian people, so when she goes to a Cabinet meeting, she presumably dresses as a clown. [Interruption.] As I said, I was going to be nice to her before her previous response.

Turning to serious domestic issues, the Prime Minister is reported to have said on Monday night that no one would be worse off as a result of the doubling of the 10p tax band this weekend. Does the right hon. and learned Lady think that that statement was true?

I would just start by saying that if I were looking for advice on what to wear or what not to wear, the very last person I would look to is the man in the baseball cap.

Turning to the important question of the economy, it has been our Government’s determination to ensure that we have a strong, stable and growing economy, so that people can be in work, be in their jobs and be better off. What is important is that people should have jobs and be able to afford their mortgages. Before the right hon. Gentleman cries any crocodile tears about low-income families, perhaps I can remind the House that when he was Leader of the Opposition, it was he who led the opposition to our national minimum wage and he who led the opposition to tax credits, which are helping 6 million low-income families.

I did not detect an answer to the question in all of that. The Leader of the House might still need advice on what to wear, and if she thinks her constituents might kill her, she should look behind her.

Is it not the case that, contrary to what the Prime Minister said on Monday night, 5.3 million mainly lower-paid families will be worse off this weekend, as demonstrated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and as confirmed by a Treasury official to the Treasury Committee? Is she further aware that after the meeting of Labour MPs on Monday night, where that point was made, one Minister is reported to have said:

“Gordon did not seem to understand what they were talking about and kept insisting that nobody would lose out… He didn’t seem to understand why voters were unhappy with it and gave the impression he was living on another planet”.

Was not that Minister speaking the truth; and was it by any chance her?

One thing we recognise is that the tax burden under this Government is not as high as it was under the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a part. When it comes to standards of living, when we came into government, this country was the worst among the G7 for average income per head, and after 10 years of Labour government, we are second from the top; and we stand by that record.

If the right hon. and learned Lady thinks the tax burden is declining in this country, the Government are even more out of touch than anyone might have thought. The cost of living is rising; real earnings have fallen for two years; and the Government have chosen this moment to hit 5 million mainly lower-paid families and kick them when they are down. Let me read what another Minister said—this time on the record. The Health Minister, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) said that people

“feel the Government is losing touch with what fairness means to the majority who work hard, play by the rules and are feeling squeezed by rising utility bills, the cost of petrol and rising council tax”.

Does she not have even a little bit of sympathy with that Minister’s view that people feel that the Government are out of touch?

I do think it is right to recognise that with the international financial turbulence and uncertainty, people are apprehensive. They need to be able to look to the Government to have the determination that we will make sure that our economy is as resilient as possible as this country faces difficult and challenging economic circumstances. It is because we are in touch and concerned about the issues that most affect the British people that we have improved hospitals and schools and have ensured that there are more jobs in the economy, and that is what we will continue to do.

The right hon. and learned Lady is allowed, while the Prime Minister is not here, to say that the Government are out of touch. He has gone to a meeting in a palace, so he is probably lost by now. She is allowed to agree with the Minister who said that the Government are out of touch.

The right hon. and learned Lady has acknowledged, and I thank her for that, that people are apprehensive about the situation, but two months ago she wrote in her blog that

“there was no sense at all of concern or insecurity over the economy. People…are not worried about their own prospects for 2008.”

Does she want to update that statement in the light of what she just said and say that people are now apprehensive and are feeling insecure, and that the Government are out of touch?

When I wrote that blog as part of my “Harriet in the High Street”—[Interruption.] When I wrote that blog, having talked to people in Princes street in Edinburgh, that is what people were saying to me. I acknowledge, and we readily acknowledge, that since then the situation internationally has become more turbulent and people’s concerns are raised. We have to be ever vigilant and make sure that we keep the economy strong through difficult international times, in a way that the previous Conservative Government did not.

As far as the right hon. Gentleman’s jokes are concerned, normally people used to say about him, “Great jokes, poor judgment”, but I have to say that on today’s performance, he should be worrying about his income as an after-dinner speaker.

I will not ever accuse the right hon. and learned Lady of being all jokes. We need not worry about that. But has she not just given a demonstration of how out of touch the Government have become? Five million families are worse off this weekend and the Prime Minister denies it; council tax has doubled as of this weekend; and 300,000 small businesses are worse off this weekend. Is not the question that the whole country is asking, why do we have to wait another two years to get rid of this discredited Cabinet and have a change of Government?

The fact of the matter is that our economy is continuing to grow, and that is very important. We recognise that it will be growing at a slower rate than predicted, but it is important that it continues to grow. We recognise, too, that there will be continued investment from business and in industry. We recognise also that what is necessary to keep the economy growing is to ensure that the skills and education levels of people in this country continue to improve. That is why, to secure the economy for the future, we are ensuring that there is education up to the age of 18 for all people in this country; we are ensuring that there are more apprenticeships for people in this country; and we are also ensuring that more people have a university education. If the right hon. Gentleman was concerned for the prospects of our economy, he would be backing that, not opposing it.

The environmental lobby is urging us to save the planet by drinking only tap water. I have two water bottling plants in my constituency. May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to agree that in any future discussions, we remember the jobs of those in the water bottling industry?

We must recognise the need both to ensure that there is high employment in the economy, including the economy in my hon. Friend’s area—I know that she is a champion of people there—and to cut unnecessary waste. That is why the Government are introducing tap water instead of bottled, at least in the public services.

May I begin by adding my condolences over the soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq?

It was reported earlier this week that Her Majesty the Queen had cancelled her diamond wedding celebrations because it was judged inappropriate to engage in extravagance at a time of economic gloom and recession. Does the Leader of the House share my view that that demonstrates Her Majesty’s unerring instinct for the public mood, or do the Government think that she was overreacting?

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not discuss Her Majesty the Queen. Perhaps he could try asking another question. He has used one up, and he will not get another after that.

I am very happy for the Leader of the House to return to the issue of economic gloom and recession. Does she agree with that assessment?

As I told the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), our concern is to ensure that people continue to have jobs. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the economy still has 670,000 vacancies, and we want to ensure that it continues to grow as it has for some 62 consecutive quarters.

Q2. As my right hon. and learned Friend is aware, today is world autism day. Autism affects tens of thousands of individuals and families throughout the United Kingdom. What message has my right hon. and learned Friend for those people on this special day? (198130)

I am glad that my hon. Friend has given me the opportunity to mark national autism day on behalf of the Prime Minister. Three things are important in relation to autism. The first is early identification: the earlier autistic disorder can be identified in a child, the more help and support the family and the child can receive. Secondly, the health services, which help families and children with autism, and the education services are vital. That is why we have doubled investment in services for children with special needs. Thirdly and above all, I pay tribute to those in the voluntary sector, particularly the National Autistic Society. They are a lifeline for parents, and without them many families simply could not cope.

The United Kingdom and Scottish Governments are both right to provide the appropriate number of prison places. Why is the Treasury not providing the £120 million of Barnett consequential funding that would help to reduce overcrowding in Scottish prisons?

We have built more prisons and more offenders are being brought to justice, which is the reason for the increase in prison numbers. As for the hon. Gentleman’s point about prison places in Scotland, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to write to him.

Q3. Last Friday, after campaigning, I went to my local Bangladeshi curry house. [Interruption.] I was told that members of the immigration service are now visiting Bangladeshi restaurants between 7 pm and 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays—a critical period for any restaurant, because it is the busiest period of the week. They are closing the restaurants and clearing the customers out, who leave without paying for anything. The restaurant owners lose their revenue for Friday and Saturday nights, and are not allowed to telephone a solicitor or their Member of Parliament. That is not acceptable. Will my right hon. and learned Friend meet a group of Bangladeshi restaurant owners, so that we may at least change the process engaged in by the immigration service? (198131)

I know my hon. Friend will understand that the enforcement of immigration rules has to be an operational matter for the Border and Immigration Agency. However, the Bangladesh Caterers Association has already made representations to me on this issue, and I know that its members play an important role in this country and our economy, and I would be happy to meet representatives of the association with my hon. Friend.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady join me in condemning Nick Eriksen, the British National party candidate for the London assembly elections who said:

“To suggest that rape…is a serious crime is like suggesting force-feeding a woman chocolate cake is a heinous offence”?

Will she not agree with me that this man—this creature—is not fit to run for public office?

I strongly support the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and I thank him for bringing this matter before the House. It is for all parties in London to say that we have to make sure that everybody votes in the London election, because the best way to avoid a BNP member being elected to the London assembly is for as many people as possible to vote for all the other parties.

Q4. The Daresbury science and innovation campus is a great success for the north-west region, for the country and for world-class science. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that its future is too important to be left solely in the hands of the scientific research council involved? (198132)

My hon. Friend is a great champion of science, and of the Daresbury centre in her constituency, and I pay tribute to her for that. She will know that this Government have doubled investment in science, and that the Minister for Science and Innovation is in Daresbury in her constituency today announcing £25 million in extra funds for the next phase of the Daresbury science and innovation campus.

Q5. Can the Leader of the House explain to council tenants in my constituency why the Labour Government ask them to subsidise council tenants in other parts of the country? Why is it that for every pound that a council tenant pays in rent to Kingston council, the Government take away 31p to give to other councils? The Prime Minister told the House in July last year that he would reform this unfair system; why has nothing been done? (198133)

We are reviewing the way in which the housing revenue fund works, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the fact that in all the council estates and blocks in his constituency there have been new roofs, new windows and new lifts, and that there has been major investment in council housing since this Government came into power.

Thank you, anyway, Mr. Speaker.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ask the Prime Minister my question? Given the anxiety of people who live near the airports in London, particularly Heathrow, is it not time for there to be a fresh review of airports policy? We should consider the number of business men and tourists who have to travel from the north of England to London in order to fly abroad; that is ludicrous. Regional airport expansion should take place, and airports such as Liverpool, which could—

Order. I am so glad I called the hon. Gentleman, but he has gone on a wee bit too long, so I have to stop him.

I will pass my hon. Friend’s question on to the Prime Minister, but I should also say to him and the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is keeping all those issues under close review.

Q6. The Government talk much about Britishness, but it is certainly un-British to lock someone up for more than a month purely on grounds of suspicion, rather than evidence. Given that the pre-charge detention period in most other western democracies is less than a week, can the Leader of the House do something that her entire Home Office Front-Bench team has been unable to do so far—explain what is so unique about the British that we need more than a month? (198134)

I have to start by saying that I think the international comparisons have been spurious. [Interruption.] They have. People have been comparing completely different processes. On the proposals that this Government are bringing to this House, on which each Member will shortly be able to vote, the Government’s responsibility is to ensure that the public are safe, and safe from terrorism. It is also the responsibility of this Government to ensure that we protect civil liberties and human rights. I find it very ironic that the Conservative party, which purports to be strong on public protection, does not support the measures that we are putting forward and suddenly decides that it wants to be concerned about human rights when, in fact, it would abolish the Human Rights Act 1998, which this Labour Government introduced.

Q7. One of the least heralded but most popular initiatives taken in schools in this country has been the fruit in schools scheme offered to infants. Some schools in my constituency voluntarily extend that scheme beyond the narrow age range that it covers. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Government should consider extending the range of offering made at the moment to make this popular scheme available to other children? (198135)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point, because he is right. We introduced the scheme in 2004, and all four to six-year-olds in primary school now have free fruit every day. He will remember, as other hon. Members doubtless will, that when we first introduced the proposal it was jeered at; the Conservatives called it the nanny state, but we called it improving children’s health.

I welcome the fact that Lucentis will be prescribed for those suffering from wet macular degeneration, but I was disappointed that the Health Minister who responded to my debate on dry macular degeneration seemed to accept that the provision of services and appliances was poor, yet is not having much done about that. Given that the Leader of the House accepts the need for the right kit for the right association, can we have the right kit for dry macular degeneration sufferers?

Having set up the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, we want to ensure that there is an evidence-based process for new drugs. I would say to the hon. Lady that whatever she would like to achieve in the health service, it cannot be achieved without the extra investment that Labour has made over the past 10 years and is determined to make in the future.

Q8. I myself and other hon. Friends have joined forces to campaign for free, universal, locally-sourced school lunches—FULL. I am pleased to say that the Daily Mirror is backing our campaign, recognising that such a policy would help to fight child poverty and child obesity. Does my right hon. and learned Friend recognise that that radical and progressive policy would benefit the health and education of millions of children, regardless of family income? (198136)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is a champion for children in her constituency. I know that she has been pressing on this campaign. The Government have responded to the points that she has raised and are examining the results of the pilot that has taken place in Hull. We have increased both the take-up of free school meals and the eligibility for them. It is very important that all children have a good, nourishing, hot meal at least once a day.

Last week, people living in the broads area of Norfolk were confronted by a report by Natural England proposing the possible abandonment of six villages and 25 square miles of land to the sea. The Leader of the House will understand the potential implications of any report of that sort. The immediate implication is that it is proposed without any compensation to those affected. Can she offer any reassurance to those communities that the Government will defend this coastline?

I am aware of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman. The question of sea defences in the part of the world that he represents is very important. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working with the Environment Agency and will work with local authorities and Members of Parliament in the area to ensure that we take the right way forward.

Q9. Will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming the extension of free bus passes across England yesterday and the extra Government funding to local councils to pay for that? (198137)

I certainly welcome the extension of free bus passes. Let me take the opportunity to say two things. First, people who are over 60 want to get out and about, to see their friends and family and to socialise. It is important that they should have the opportunity to do so on public transport.

Secondly, in 2000 we required local authorities to introduce half-priced fares for pensioners and disabled people. In 2006, we required local authorities to provide free fares for all pensioners and disabled people. From today, wherever they are in the country, pensioners and disabled people will be able to travel free.

Q10. When the Government changed the emphasis from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index, were they aware that their new choice of index would be substantially lower than the higher one? What does the Leader of the House have to say to the pensioners who suffer because of it? (198138)