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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2008

Duchy of Lancaster

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Gift Aid

In Budget 2008, the Government committed to a transitional gift aid rate of 22 per cent. for three years, worth £300 million to the sector, which was widely welcomed. Alongside that, we are making significant changes to the auditing, record-keeping and claims process to reduce the administrative burden on charities. We will continue to work with the charitable sector to see how the take-up of gift aid can be improved.

Gift aid has been such a successful scheme that there was real concern about detrimental effects when announcements were made about changes to the tax regime. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is close contact with the charitable sector, including the many small organisations, to ensure that it fully understands the changes so that the scheme can be as effective as it has been in the past?

My hon. Friend is right. The Government have a good record on gift aid. Gift aid receipts were £385 million in 1996-97 and were £830 million in the latest year for which figures are available. The transitional relief that we have been able to provide has been widely welcomed by the charitable sector. My hon. Friend is right that there is still a lot of unclaimed money in gift aid, and both the Government and the charitable sector must work to ensure that it is taken up.

Is not the Minister concerned that the amount that charities receive in gift aid will fall as a result of the cut in income tax, and what will he do to ensure that they have more funding opportunities?

With respect, the hon. Gentleman must have missed my reference to the announcement in the Budget. The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced three years of transitional relief to tide over charities that face a cut in gift aid as a result of the cut in the basic rate of income tax to 20p.

The charitable sector thinks that the tax rate and the gift aid rate need to be tied together in the long term—and it is right—because it removes the Government’s discretion to vary the amount the sector gets. We need to use the next three years to see whether we should reform the gift aid system further—I welcome any suggestions that he has—and to increase the take-up of gift aid.

Will my right hon. Friend look sympathetically at the representations that have been made to extend gift aid to subscriptions to junior sports clubs? That would be an excellent way to encourage young people to participate in sport and to reward parents and others who run the clubs, who make an enormous contribution to our communities.

I was not aware of the specific campaign, but I clearly should be. I will endeavour to look at my hon. Friend’s proposal. Sports clubs play a huge role throughout the country and are an incredibly important part of the charitable sector. I shall make representations to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

As the Secretary of State will be aware, many charities will have a hole in their budget when the transitional period is over. Surely this is the time to look again at the ability to recover VAT on charities. He will know that the EU commissioner has confirmed that member states—although not including Britain—are implementing systems compatible with EU legislation that would allow the whole charge to be reclaimed and recovered.

I understand the hon. Lady’s suggestion, because it is a long-running issue for the charitable sector. To be candid, the costs would be significant, running to hundreds of millions of pounds. EU legislation also poses barriers, although I will look into the point that she makes. My feeling, from talking to people in the charitable sector, is that the argument has moved on. People welcome the gift aid reliefs, and they want to build on the system that we improved and have protected through the transitional relief that I have mentioned.

It is good news that charities now have three years to prepare for what will be a hit when the gift aid rates come into line with income tax rates. This is a good time for charities and employers to encourage the use of payroll giving. Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to increase the amount of payroll giving on which gift aid can be claimed?

My hon. Friend is right. Payroll giving can play a big role in increasing the income that is available to charities. We should be honest about the fact that we can do much more to promote payroll giving. Outside work is being done on how payroll giving can be reformed to make it more attractive for people to take up, because there is nothing like having people committed to giving to a charity through their payroll. It means that the charity has some certainty about the income that it will receive. I would welcome any suggestions that my hon. Friend or others have about how to improve the system of payroll giving and increase take-up.

Relate is a fantastic charity that offers a valuable service in many of our constituencies. I met Sue Andrew, the Hertfordshire director of Relate, who said that the charity had previously been entitled to gift aid but was not now. Relate stresses that it suggests a voluntary donation of approximately £40 in Hertfordshire, but it does not withdraw services if a donation is not forthcoming. Indeed, some families give more. Will the Minister investigate why gift aid has not been available for Relate?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. I have a local interest in Relate, as one of its offices is based in Doncaster. Even if that was not the case, I would endeavour to look into that point. I shall write to her.

We miss the Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) from his usual place, but he has courteously explained why he is away. I am sure that the whole House will want to send him and his wife all its good wishes for the forthcoming event.

We welcome the transitional relief to which the Secretary of State refers, which has been given to compensate charities for the shortfall in gift aid income as a result of the Prime Minister’s income tax changes, after my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) raised the issue in the Budget debate last year. What assessment has the Cabinet Office made through its social exclusion taskforce of other groups in society that are losing out as a result of the income tax changes?

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman’s ingenuity in bringing that point into a question about gift aid. I think that it is good that we are cutting the basic rate of tax to 20p. As we can see, that has an effect on the charitable sector, and it is right that we should try to help the charitable sector out. As I said earlier, I think that the transitional relief has been widely welcomed.

Is it not clear that the belated introduction of the transitional relief on gift aid shows that the income tax changes were simply not thought through? After the kick in the ballot box that the Government received last week, do not Ministers realise that it is now time to set out in detail what relief there will be for the millions of low-paid victims of the 10p tax hike? Is it not unfair to Ministers such as the hapless Communities Secretary to send them out night after night on “Newsnight”, unable to answer the most basic questions on that point? When will she be put out of her misery?

This Question is on gift aid, but I will happily answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question on the other issue, with your permission, Mr. Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is looking at the issues in relation to the 10p rate and he will make a statement at the appropriate time. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to have an argument between now and the next election, either about the charitable sector or about people in poverty in this country, and about which party is best to deal with those points, I say, “Bring it on”. Not only do this Government have a good record on gift aid and the charitable sector, but we have a record on poverty of which we can be proud.

Social Change

2. What recent assessment he has made of the role that charities play in campaigning for social change; and if he will make a statement. (203756)

Charities play an essential role in campaigning for change. I welcome the Charity Commission’s recently published guidance, which gives greater clarity to the freedoms that charities have to campaign in order to meet their charitable purposes.

Does the Minister have an estimate of the degree to which local authorities punish charities that campaign for change within their area and on behalf of residents? What can he do to stop local authorities cutting grants to campaigning charities?

My hon. Friend is a former charities Minister, and she knows the issue well. She knows some of the difficulties of addressing it. Her fundamental point is absolutely right. Charities should not feel constrained from biting the hand that feeds them. Whether they are funded by an organisation, a local authority or a national Government, they should feel absolutely free to campaign against the policies of that authority or Government. I want the Commissioner for the Compact, Sir Bert Massie, to consider how we can do more locally to ensure that local organisations can campaign with freedom on local issues.

In the area that I represent, public transport is inadequate for many people who do not have cars. Voluntary community transport schemes provide people with the opportunity to be taken to hospital, yet the amount of money that the schemes can pay volunteers who provide their own vehicle has been pegged. The schemes are not allowed to pay any more without tax being deducted. As there has been an increase in the price of petrol and in other costs, will the Minister consider that and decide whether the amount paid can now be increased?

I am taking away rather a lot of work today for myself and for the Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope). The treatment of expenses for volunteers is a significant issue. It arose about a year ago in relation to lunch expenses for people on benefits, and we managed to get a good result with that. As I have said in answer to some other questions today, we will endeavour to look at the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises.

One social change that I have been working with the third sector to try to achieve is a shift towards healthier lifestyles and diets. Will the Minister join me in congratulating organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and Unison? They have joined me in campaigning for free, universal and locally sourced school lunches to ensure that every child in every school has a hot, healthy meal.

May I begin by paying tribute to what started off as my hon. Friend’s one-woman campaign for universal free school meals? It is an ingenious campaign, and many people in this House will understand its benefits. I was recently in Hull, where the Labour council introduced free school meals in primary schools for a time, but that was unfortunately abolished by the Liberal Democrats—[Hon. Members: “Shame!”] Well, what would one expect? However, I can tell my hon. Friend that I know that others in Government are looking at this matter, and I hope that they are doing so sympathetically.

Wellingborough Mind does a wonderful job of campaigning for social change in my constituency. It is funded by the NHS and the county council but, unfortunately, that funding runs out on 30 June. What would the Minister say to those organisations about providing a properly funded budget for the future?

All organisations should seek to bring stability to funding for the third sector. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make representations to Wellingborough council—

The hon. Gentleman indicates that he is doing so, Stable funding is incredibly important for the third sector. Again, I pay tribute to the work of Mind, which does an excellent job throughout the country. From here in Whitehall, it is very difficult to ensure that every local organisation is funded, but I wish him luck with his representations.

National Youth Volunteering Programme

3. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the national youth volunteering programme, v involved. (203757)

England’s biggest ever youth action scheme, v involved, started in April. The scheme funds 158 projects to recruit volunteers up and down the country, and 107 teams to support young volunteers and to help organisations to involve young volunteers. Over the coming three years, v involved will create 500,000 more volunteering opportunities. That will help it to progress towards its overall objective of 1 million new volunteers by 2011.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he join me in congratulating the Ingol and Tanterton Action Group, and in commending it for its work? The group is made up of many young people from Preston who are working in the community to develop many fantastic activities such as summer festivals, internet cafés, coaching in sports activities and DJ workshops. They are also working with older people to generate the intergenerational capacity that we need so much in our communities.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I certainly want to congratulate him on his work as a champion of young people and young volunteering in his constituency. The Ingol and Tanterton Action Group does terrific work, and I want to emphasise that its intergenerational nature fosters better relationships between younger and older people in the community. That can do a great deal to break down barriers, dispel myths and build community cohesion between people of different ages.

When the charity v was launched by the Prime Minister two years ago, it was set a target of raising £50 million from the private sector. How much cash has been raised so far?

The charity v was charged with delivering in a variety of ways the resources that we provide, as I described earlier, and with creating match-funding opportunities as well. Some £75 million of the £117 million that v will be delivering has come via the v involved programme. The match-funding target is some £45 million. To date, v has secured more than £32 million in pledges for youth volunteering from the private sector—well on course!

Is the Minister aware that we have a very active volunteer centre in Mansfield? Part of it is the new Artemis project that deals with young ex-offenders. I hope that he will give that project a fair wind today, and give us some news about its future.

I have some good news for my hon. Friend: the Artemis project in Mansfield is receiving money from v to do some very interesting work on peer mentoring between older young people and young people who find themselves in trouble with the criminal justice system. I think that there is particular value in the one-to-one relationship that that can provide for young people, either when they are in custody or when they leave custody and go back into the community and need support. May I remind everybody that the first week of June is national volunteers week? I hope that every Member of the House will take the opportunity to go to their volunteer centre—my hon. Friend mentioned the one in Mansfield—and offer their services for a couple of hours during volunteers week.

Will the Minister volunteer to learn the English language? What does all this ghastly jargon mean—v involved? It has not even got a capital letter. Will he please get rid of this awful jargon?

I am struck by the thought that some intergenerational volunteering might not be amiss for the hon. Gentleman. “V” is short for volunteering. He will be glad to know that young people are getting cash to support their projects through v cashpoint, are getting involved in local projects through v involved, and are having a great time contributing to building their communities through v teams. Perhaps he might like to go down to his v volunteer centre and offer to educate himself about the contribution that young people are making through those very innovative schemes.

Gift Aid

In addition to the measures that I listed in response to Question 1, the Government are funding a small charities training programme that targets charities with a turnover of less than £1 million per annum to ensure that small charities can access guidance and training on gift aid.

The Mary Stevens hospice in Stourbridge is much loved by all my constituents—so much so that it derives 82 per cent. of its income from legacies and donations. How will changes made to gift aid in the Budget assist small charities and organisations such as Mary Stevens?

Let me join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to her local charity and the work that it does. The changes that we announced in the Budget—not just the transitional relief for gift aid but changes to rules on auditing and record-keeping—are specifically designed to help small charities, which often get small donations and find that there is a lot of complication and bureaucracy involved in claiming gift aid. I hope that she will find that the changes will help her local charity.

Websites such as justgiving.com make it easy for people who want to donate to charities to access gift aid. What specific encouragement will the Minister’s Department give to such websites, so that online access can be extended?

The hon. Gentleman has just given the website a good plug. I believe that I used it, or a similar website, to sponsor someone who was running in the London marathon to raise money for a hospice. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and we will endeavour to look into whether there is anything more that we can do to help such websites. It is important that the Government do not try to do the task themselves, because independent organisations are doing a very good job.

Social Exclusion

In response to the Cabinet Office report, “Think Family”, the Government recently received 90 bids from local authorities across the country to be part of the £16 million family pathfinder programme. The proposals set out how to take forward social exclusion policy in local areas better to meet the needs of the most vulnerable families. Fifteen successful areas have now been chosen.

I am surprised that the Minister has not received representations from the many thousands of people who are unfortunately trapped on council house waiting lists, and who are therefore excluded from decent housing. In fact, the Labour Government’s achievement in developing council housing post-1945 was perhaps our greatest contribution to public health. The House will welcome the millions and billions that are to be spent on housing, but a great proportion of that money should go directly to local authorities, where it will be well spent helping to reduce the historic waiting lists.

Of course, my hon. Friend has been an ardent campaigner on the issue for many years, and I pay tribute to his campaigning, even if I do not agree with every part of it. He is absolutely right about the need to increase the amount of social housing that is built; that is what we are doing, through local authorities, housing associations and other means, but no doubt his campaign will continue.

Will the Minister ensure that social exclusion policy includes prisoners with literacy problems and those who suffer from dyslexia so that more can be done while they are in prison to help to raise their literacy skills so that they have a better opportunity when they return to society and do not reoffend?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important subject, and I wholeheartedly concur with everything that he said. As part of our public service agreement targets, we have a target to help ex-offenders find a home and a job when they leave prison. He makes an important point, and we will look at it as part of that work.

My hon. Friend asks a pertinent question. I had the pleasure of visiting his constituency recently. I saw the amazing work that is going on in Rhyl, and I pay tribute to all the work that he and members of his local community have done. I look forward to Rhyl and many other seaside towns continuing to regenerate in the years ahead.

Will the right hon. Gentleman, who has ministerial responsibility for social exclusion, take his share of responsibility for the abolition of the 10p rate, given that it has plunged 300,000 more people into poverty and hits those on the poverty line hardest? The Prime Minister has promised to listen, but many Members on both sides of the House think that the trouble is that he has listened too much to the right hon. Gentleman and his gang.

Of course, we all take responsibility for the Government’s tax policy. We take responsibility for the fact that we have taken 600,000 children out of poverty since 1997; we take responsibility for the fact that we have 3 million more jobs in this country; and we take responsibility for the fact that we will continue to show that we are the best party on poverty.

Volunteering

The Government will invest £117 million in youth volunteering through v from 2008-2011. The youth-led volunteering charity v has the mission to inspire 1 million more young people to volunteer. Since its establishment, it has created over 210,000 volunteering opportunities. The national programme that began in April 2008 aims to create 500,000 more volunteering opportunities for young people.

Does my hon. Friend accept that too much paperwork and red tape deters young people from volunteering, so what can he do to avoid unnecessary time-consuming checks, especially in cases where those volunteers are not involved with children and vulnerable adults?

I am unused to such a tribute from the Opposition when I rise to speak. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Baroness Neuberger, who was appointed volunteering champion by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, identified the issue of bureaucracy and unnecessary checks on volunteers. There is anecdotal evidence of some confusion, which means that potential volunteers and, indeed, young volunteers are being checked unnecessarily, and that acts as a barrier to participation. I am therefore pleased to be able to tell the House that we will produce clearer guidance to voluntary organisations about volunteering, about when, and when not, to recheck individuals and about alternatives to checking such as seeking references, which, I hope, will reduce the barriers that my hon. Friend described.

May I commend to my hon. Friend the work of TimeBank—the largest volunteer organisation in the UK, of which I am a patron? Will he have a word across government to introduce an NVQ for volunteering, as that would have a great impact on volunteering in schools?

My hon. Friend makes a good point—it is one that he has made to me in the past—about being able to accredit and recognise, through qualifications, the contributions made by young people when they engage in volunteering. He will be glad to know that v is developing a system to bring on board the best experiences from the Duke of Edinburgh award and other schemes that give out certificates that recognise the contribution made by young people, either in their initial attempt to volunteer or if they volunteer for, say, 40 or 50 hours. We wish to find a way of building in the ability to accredit young people’s contribution to the community and recognise that through volunteering and the certificate employers and universities can see the contribution that they have made to the community in which they live.

Low-income Households

7. Whether the social exclusion unit has undertaken research on the effect of the tax system on low-income households. (203761)

Analysis from the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that tax and benefit reforms introduced since 1997 have increased the annual incomes of the poorest tenth of the population by 12.4 per cent. or £1,300 on average. In addition, independent research confirms that tax credit and other measures have helped lift 600,000 children out of poverty during that period.

Given the specific remit of the social exclusion unit, will the Minister state whether, prior to the last Budget, the unit provided any advice to Ministers on the entirely predictable negative consequences to people on low incomes of the abolition of the 10p tax band? If so, why was that advice ignored?

We have discussions about a range of issues with all kinds of colleagues across Government. Nobody in the House is proposing that we restore the 10p tax rate. The Opposition had to admit that yesterday. I come back to what I said in my earlier answer: we take credit for the fact that we have taken 600,000 children out of poverty—a record that the Conservative party could never match.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before I list my engagements, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Trooper Ratu Sakeasi Babakobau of the Household Cavalry Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan on Friday. We owe him and all others who have lost their lives a great debt of gratitude.

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

As the right hon. Gentleman is the only person in the House with experience of unseating a sitting Prime Minister, what is his own estimate of how long he has got?

Once again, the big policy questions of substance. I will tell the hon. Gentleman what the Government have done under two Prime Ministers. We have created the highest employment in history; we have cut child poverty and pensioner poverty; we have doubled investment in health and social services; we have got the best education results in our history—and none of that would have happened under a Conservative Government.

Q2. Over 5,000 of my constituents in Newham are living in substandard temporary accommodation, paying over £1,000 per calendar month in rent. That is clearly unaffordable for those who are living on low incomes, and it traps families in benefit dependency. Will my right hon. Friend confirm his commitment to building 15,000 affordable new homes in London per year, and review the benefits system to incentivise work? (203740)

Yes, we will. We have made available money for 70,000 new affordable homes, including 45,000 new social homes. That is a 50 per cent. increase, and half of those will be delivered in London. I welcome the new Mayor of London to the House. I hope he will continue the record of his predecessor in social housing and creating affordable housing.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Trooper Ratu Babakobau, who was killed in Afghanistan on Friday.

The whole House will also want to send our condolences to everyone caught up in the Burmese cyclone. The Prime Minister knows that he will have the full support of those on the Opposition Benches in any action needed for the aid and assistance that clearly will be necessary.

I join the Prime Minister in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) on his magnificent victory. I am sure the Prime Minister has always secretly wanted to see the back of Ken Livingstone, and I am sure he will have a fruitful relationship with my hon. Friend. [An Hon. Member: “Will you?”] Indeed. Following Thursday’s elections, the Prime Minister said that he would listen and lead, so let me start with an issue of leadership. Labour’s leader in Scotland, Wendy Alexander, says that there should be a referendum now on Scottish independence. Does he agree with her?

That is not what she has said. The Conservative party, the Liberal party and the Labour party have joined together in setting up the Calman review, the commission on devolution. I hope that we can see progress in that commission, and we will review the progress before making any further decisions. I thought that that was the policy of the Conservative party, which supported the commission.

I think the Prime Minister is losing touch with reality. This is what Wendy Alexander said:

“I don’t fear the verdict of the Scottish people,”

she told BBC Scotland on Sunday,

“Bring it on.”

What else could that possibly mean? Can I ask the Prime Minister again? Does he agree with Wendy Alexander or not? It is not much of a leadership if no one is really following him.

The Calman commission has been set up to review the progress of devolution. I believe that all parties in the House will welcome the fact that it is looking at all these issues. When we review the progress of the Calman commission, we can make further decisions.

What the leader of the Labour party in Scotland was pointing to was the hollowness of the Scottish National party, which said that it wanted independence, said that it wanted it immediately, and now wants to postpone a referendum until 2010-11. That is what she was pointing out. She was making it clear that what the Scottish National party was doing was against its election manifesto.

The one thing that people thought about this Prime Minister was that he was quite a good political fixer—and he has now lost control of the Scottish Labour party. So there has been no leadership on the Union.

Let us turn to listening. People want to know whether this is a genuine listening exercise, or just another relaunch. In London, where we now have a Conservative Mayor, one of the biggest issues at the election was crime. Under this Government’s early release scheme, nearly 24,000 prisoners have been released early from prison. The last Prime Minister, who introduced the scheme almost a year ago, described it as “very temporary”. If the current Prime Minister is serious about listening to people, will he now scrap it?

We are building up the number of prison places. We have made an announcement about the new prison places that we are going to create this year and in the next few years. When we have built up the number of prison places from the 60,000 that we inherited—now 80,000—to 82,000 and then 86,000, we will make our decisions on the right thing to do about early release. But it is important to have a situation where we have built enough prison places and that is what we are going to do. Again, I thought that the right hon. Gentleman supported us on the building of prison places—and so he should.

So that is a no, then—no action to stop the early release of prisoners. Every week, more prisoners are going to be released under the Prime Minister’s early release scheme. He is not going to listen to people when it comes to crime.

Up and down the country, people told the Government in the clearest possible terms that they wanted to keep their local post offices. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)—[Interruption.] They should listen to the former Home Secretary; he always has something helpful to say. He said that the current review was “over-bureaucratic” and should be suspended. So will the Prime Minister listen to people and halt the closure programme for the post offices?

Once again, the right hon. Gentleman is proposing to spend money that he does not have. He knows perfectly well that we are putting £1.7 billion into post offices to keep as many post offices open as possible. The London results of the review have just been published, and it has saved some of the post offices in London. But the fact of the matter is that the right hon. Gentleman has no money to be able to keep further post offices open, and he should stop misleading the electorate about what he can and cannot do.

So that is another no, then—he is not listening to people about post offices. When it comes to post offices, when it comes to releasing criminals and when it comes to taxing the low paid, people will just conclude that this whole listening exercise is just empty words.

Seven months ago, the Prime Minister called off the general election and said that he wanted more time to set out his vision. Since then, we have had nearly 130 White and Green Papers, 34 Government Bills and 7,457 Government press releases. If he had a coherent vision, would not people have heard it by now? Should not everyone conclude that we have a Government who just lurch from one relaunch to another? Should they not conclude that what is missing is what is really needed—that is, a clear vision and some strong leadership for Britain?

The choice in this country is between a Government who have created jobs, stability, growth and public services and a Conservative party that has absolutely nothing to offer the people of this country. When I look at what the Conservative promises are, I see £10 billion of tax cuts, a black hole in public spending, risk to the economy and going back to the situation that we had in the early ’90s. No amount of slick salesmanship can obscure the fact that there is no substance in anything the Conservatives are saying.

People expressed their view on the choice last week. The Prime Minister talks about salesmanship. We all know his brilliant salesmanship—this is the man who sold gold at the bottom of the market. That is the problem with the Prime Minister—he has got nothing to sell and he is useless at selling it. While we are at it, I have got a bit more advice for him. This is the Prime Minister who went on “American Idol” with more make-up on than Barbara Cartland; this is the Prime Minister who sits in No. 10 Downing street wondering—[Interruption.]

He sits in No. 10 Downing street waiting for Shakira to call and waiting for George Clooney to come to tea. I have got a bit of advice for him: why does he not give up the PR and start being a PM?

This is a man who tries to lecture us on presentation, this is a man who tries to lecture us on style, because there is no substance in any of his questions. The choice is between a Government who have raised the minimum wage and a Conservative party that opposed the minimum wage. The choice is between a Government who have taken a million children out of poverty and the Conservative party that trebled poverty. No amount of presentation from the Conservative party can obscure the vital question that the choice in this country is between a Labour Government who deliver and a Conservative party that just talks.

During the ’80s and early ’90s, many families in Portsmouth had to cope with sky-high interest rates, rampant inflation and little likelihood of finding work. Since then, sustained investment in jobs and training has led to the highest employment levels ever. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a prime example of fixing the roof while the sun shines?

There are more people in employment in this country than at any time in our history, there are more vacancies for jobs, and we have cut unemployment to its lowest level since 1975. That could not have happened if we had followed the policies of the Conservative party. More than that, there are 1.8 million more home owners in this country, and that could not have happened if we had the 15 per cent. interest rates that we had under the Conservatives.

May I add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Trooper Ratu Babakobau? Also, I am sure that I speak on behalf of all Members of the House when I extend our expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Ray Michie, the former Member for Argyll and Bute, who sadly passed away just last night.

Does the Prime Minister understand the threat from the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) when he said that the doubling of the 10p tax rate will

“resonate until there is clarity”?

When will we get concrete proposals to compensate all those who have been hit?

I add to the condolences that the right hon. Gentleman has sent to the family of Ray Michie, who was a very distinguished Member of this House.

The right hon. Gentleman’s party is not proposing the restoration of the 10p rate—not at all. Let me also say that the Chancellor has put his letter to the Treasury Committee and outlined the steps that he is taking to deal with the two groups that were missed out—the 60 to 64-year-olds and those people on low incomes who cannot claim the working tax credit—and he will put forward his proposals in due course. I would have thought that the Liberal party would be prepared to wait until he puts his proposals.

That is not good enough. This is a matter of principles—remember those? I think that everybody now knows that when it comes to helping the most needy, the Prime Minister has got no principles and the Tories have got no policies. Will he now provide an absolute guarantee that those who have lost out will be compensated in full, backdated to the beginning of April, and will not have to jump through hoops to claim what is rightfully theirs?

The Chancellor will put his proposals. The Liberal party opposed the new deal, which has helped 2 million people get into work. The Liberal party wanted a local minimum wage, not a national minimum wage, and the Liberal party opposed our child tax credit and our child trust fund. That is not a record that it should be proud of.

Q3. May I add my condolences to the family of the serviceman killed in Afghanistan on Friday?My right hon. Friend is aware that the fight against crime is ongoing, and when the police introduce proposals to improve the way in which we tackle violent crime and terrorism, they should have confidence that policy makers will give those proposals serious consideration. What does my right hon. Friend have to say to those Members of this House who claim to be on the side of the police, but do not back that up when it comes to votes on measures such as the national database on DNA or the imposition of mandatory sentences for rapists and those who carry guns and knives? (203741)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We proposed tougher sentences for murder, for sexual and violent offences, and for persistent offenders; indeterminate sentences for anyone who committed serious sexual or violent crime; and five-year minimal custodial sentences for unauthorised possession of firearms. All those proposals were opposed by the Conservative party.

Does the Prime Minister recall agreeing with me when I suggested to him a month or two ago that the House was going to need a much better and fuller explanation of why an increase in time is being sought by the Government for holding people in detention without charge? When is he going to give us that explanation? Would it not be a good time to do so now?

That is what the debate at the moment is about. I have appealed to Members of this House to look at the matter so that we can find a consensus. I have said that using the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which some people wish to use for this purpose, would mean going beyond 28 days, but we would have to declare a state of emergency to do so. Many people in this House would be prepared to have a period lasting longer than 28 days, but to do so we would have to declare a state of emergency.

I and the Government are proposing that we give a power to the House. The Home Secretary, with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the head of the Metropolitan police, would have to come to this House with an order and the House would have to vote a second time on whether it approved the action to allow someone to be detained for more than 28 days before they were charged. I believe that the safeguards that we have put in place protect the citizen against arbitrary treatment. They include a judge reviewing the detention every seven days, a report by an independent reviewer, the Home Secretary being required to come to the House and a final report on how the procedure had been adopted. Those are the protections for civil liberties that people have asked for. But I have to take the advice of other people who tell me that it is important for us to have a precautionary power in place so that, if there were a multiple incident, we could go beyond 28 days with the approval of the House.

I have looked at terrorist incidents over the past few years, and I have looked at the sophistication of terrorists who are using multiple passports, multiple telephone numbers and multiple e-mailing facilities. If there was a plot involving a number of people, we would need more than 28 days to review all the evidence. I believe that most sensible people in this House, as well as most members of the general public, support that position, and I hope that the House votes for it.

Q4. In my constituency of Bury, North today—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] In Bury, we now have the only Tory leader in the country who has been subject to a police investigation into fiddling pensioners’ postal votes. In my constituency of Bury, North there is a job for almost everyone able and willing to work, but the Prime Minister will know that there is severe economic pressure on many working families, particularly those on low incomes. What can he do to assist in the short term, through relieving the pressure on taxes and prices, and in the long term, by investing in the skills of our young people to maintain full employment in Bury, North? (203742)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We wish the strength of our economy to withstand the economic downturn that is happening worldwide. We will do everything in our power, working with other countries and through action we take on our own, to withstand these problems. In the next few weeks, we will look at what more we can do to help the housing market and the construction industry as a result, and we will look at what we can do to help first-time buyers, who are in a difficult position because of the rise in mortgage rates being charged by building societies. We will look at how we help those people who are subject to high utility bills. On employment, we will work with small and medium-sized businesses to ensure that they have the funds to invest for the future. In every area, we will look at what we can do to help Britain to withstand a problem that is hitting America and the rest of Europe, and I believe that the strength of the British economy will withstand the problems that we face.

Sustainable Communities Plan (Kettering)

Q5. If he will meet the hon. Member for Kettering and local authority representatives to discuss co-ordination between the Department for Transport, the Highways Agency, East Midlands Trains and the Department for Communities and Local Government on the implementation of the Government’s sustainable communities plan in the borough of Kettering. (203743)

It is vital that all Departments and their agencies work closely together to deliver the homes needed in Kettering and elsewhere. It is precisely because we need to ensure that new housing is not built in isolation and that it is delivered with transport infrastructure, utilities and public services that we have allocated over the next three years £1.7 billion for infrastructure in growth areas and new growth points. Northamptonshire has received £59 million. Since 2003, the Government have allocated in total over £250 million to Northamptonshire, made up of various growth area, community infrastructure and transport funds. This has been possible because we have been able to expand public spending.

Local residents would like a meeting with the Prime Minister so that he can explain to my constituents why the Government’s plans to increase the number of houses locally by one third by 2021 is being matched on the one hand by cuts in the train service and on the other by restrictions on the use of the local road network. Will the Prime Minister please agree to a meeting?

I can say to the hon. Gentleman that £1.7 billion is being allocated for infrastructure. Northamptonshire alone has received £250 million. I will of course look at what he says, but he has to agree with me that no Government have spent more on public services and public infrastructure than we have, and that his county has benefited as a result.

Q6. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Lancashire police on their excellent work over the past 18 months in closing down cannabis factories across Preston? Will he continue to campaign against the use of cannabis, particularly given its effects on health—there are new forms of cannabis, such as skunk, that are much stronger and far more dangerous than previous forms—and the social problems and problems with crime that it causes? (203744)

I am grateful for the work that is done by the police authority and the police in my hon. Friend’s area. The Home Secretary will be making a statement on this matter just after Question Time. It is generally agreed that the quantity and the type of cannabis being sold on the streets of our cities, and the threat that it poses to the mental health of many of the people using it, make it necessary that we look at this matter again. I believe that the recommendations that the Home Secretary will put forward will be in line not only with what the public want to see, but with what the police want to see. I believe that the House will be pleased that she is also taking new measures for enforcement that will be welcome in all parts of the country.

Ken Livingstone, the outgoing Mayor of London—[Hon. Members: “He’s gone.”] Yes, of course. Ken Livingstone, the sadly gone Mayor of London—sorry Boris—has said that he is looking forward to doing a spot of gardening and taking his children to school. What is the Prime Minister looking forward to when he leaves office?

I am looking forward to building a stronger economy in Britain; I am looking forward to creating more jobs in our country; I am looking forward to building a better health service. I know that we will get no help from the Welsh nationalist party, but we will go ahead and do that for Wales as well.

Q7. May I tell the Prime Minister that last week the Wolverhampton trades council organised a May day celebration that attracted more than 1,000 trade unionists, who paid tribute to their fellow workers—dock workers—in South Africa who, in a very principled stand, refused to handle arms to Zimbabwe? May I ask the Prime Minister to give support to that action and to recognise that where trade unionists act to intervene on international business for humanitarian aims, they are to be supported, even though their Governments sometimes look a little tardy? (203745)

I have given support to those South African workers who stopped an arms shipment coming from China that would have gone to Zimbabwe. At the same time, we have been calling at the United Nations for an arms embargo, to prevent other arms and armaments from getting into Zimbabwe at this time. This is a critical time for Zimbabwe. It is important that we recognise that the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and all those who have an interest in the future of Zimbabwe should apply pressure, so that any elections that take place in Zimbabwe are free and fair, monitored by the whole international community to be seen as free and fair, so that justice is done in securing for the Zimbabwean people their democratic rights.

Does the Prime Minister understand that unless his Government tackle the scourge of bovine TB soon, there will be little or no livestock industry left in the south-west of England?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we have to deal with the disease, but that must be based on the scientific evidence that is available to us, and that is exactly what the Environment Secretary is looking at.

Q8. Do people want the right to see their doctors in the evenings and at weekends, or are the Tories right to scrap that right to choose and turn the clock back? (203746)

The vast majority of British people want more access to their GPs in the evenings and at weekends, and the vast majority of British people welcome the vote by the British Medical Association to give an extra three hours of medical services either on an evening or at the weekend in half the areas of the United Kingdom. I am pleased that that service is now starting. That is why it is surprising that the Conservative health spokesman said in Pulse magazine on 29 April that he wants to restore to GPs the power to make that decision, and presumably also the power to block the extension of primary care to new providers. I do not believe that the Conservative party is acting in the interests of the national health service, and that is the tradition of the Conservative party.

Q9. Last weekend, the Prime Minister claimed to share people’s pain at the rising cost of living, so can he tell the House how much it costs to fill up a family car in his constituency and when exactly he last had to do it himself? (203747)

The cost of petrol has gone up as a result of what is happening around the world. A barrel of oil is now $110. A litre of petrol—[Interruption.]

A litre of petrol is now £1.10 in many places, and it is rising in some other places. The important thing is that we have postponed the fuel duty increase, and we are doing what we can to work with OPEC to get the price of oil down. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me that in every part of the world, when oil prices rise, it hits households and motorists. We are doing everything in our power to get the price of oil down.

Q10. Tomorrow, Israel will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its independence. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Israeli people on this important anniversary of their vibrant democracy and economic achievement, particularly in the high-tech industries? Will he assure Israel of the UK’s continued support and friendship into the future? (203748)

I wish to add my congratulations to the state of Israel on its 60th anniversary. Israel has come a long way in those 60 years. I look forward to being present at the Finchley united synagogue with the Chief Rabbi this evening to celebrate 60 years. Israel’s future is as part of a secure middle east, and it must remain optimistic that that can be achieved. We will work with people on both sides to secure a settlement—a two-state solution—with a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel. I believe that that is the best guarantee of the future of Israel in the next 60 years to come.

Q11. A Populus poll of Labour supporters, out today, has said that the Prime Minister should step aside for a younger, fresher and more charismatic leader. I suspect that a few of his colleagues were on the receiving end of those calls. Does he not understand people’s anger about his crippling tax increases, which have hit the poorest in this country? He has two proposed tax increases for motorists: a £400 vehicle excise duty for those with family cars and a 2p increase on fuel in the autumn. Will he ditch those proposed tax increases before his colleagues ditch him? (203749)

It is right that households are suffering as a result of what has been happening in a world downturn and it is right that fuel prices have gone up—and it is unacceptable that so many people have lost out as a result of that. That is why we have postponed the fuel duty rise, that is why we have increased the winter allowance by £50, and that is why we have negotiated with the utility companies a deal that, next year, £100 million will go to help low-income households in this country. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that none of that happened under a Conservative Government when people were suffering.

Last week, Nestlé opened a brand new £15 million chocolate factory in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that that is a vote of confidence by a foreign multinational company in the British economy, and in the city of York? Will the Prime Minister come to York, or ask his Business Secretary to come to York, to see the fundamental strength of the British economy?

I congratulate the companies in my hon. Friend’s constituency that are expanding; long-term unemployment in his constituency is down by more than 80 per cent. The reality is that, while unemployment is rising in other countries, employment is rising in Britain. That is because of the fundamental strength of the British economy—something that I believe that all people who look at that will accept. We will continue to create more jobs in this country.

I took the job for the reason that I gave in my answer to the last question: to create jobs for people; to create better public services; to tackle poverty; and to make Britain a better place. Is it not remarkable that not one question coming from the Tory Back Benches is about the substance of policy? They cannot face up to the big policy questions facing this nation.

Q13. The Prime Minister referred earlier in his answers to colleagues to affordable housing. Can he tell us more about what he is doing to ensure that those who are struggling to pay their mortgages have the leeway to manage their budgets? (203751)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are in discussions with the Council of Mortgage Lenders to enable people to get a better deal when they are faced with difficulties in paying their mortgage bills. At the same time, we have put forward proposals for a shared equity scheme that will allow more people to buy a percentage of their house, if they are not in a position to buy all of it as a result of the changes in the rates that are being charged for mortgages. We will do everything that we can to help young homebuyers to get on to the first rung of the housing ladder.