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Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2008

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.