Building a more prosperous Britain and a fairer Britain is the purpose of the draft legislative programme that is published today for debate in the House and in the country. In this statement I will focus both on immediate action that the Government are taking to help steer the economy safely through the current global economic problems, and on the changes, including a new welfare reform Bill and a new education and skills Bill, that are needed to make Britain a fairer, more prosperous society and to meet the challenges of the future.
Our immediate priority for the coming Session, at a time when food and fuel prices are rising and mortgages are more difficult to obtain, is to help family finances. In the next few weeks we will set out the elements of our economic plan as we steer our economy safely through the global downturn, the credit crunch and international oil and food price rises. Legislation on the economy in the Queen’s Speech will include a banking Bill so that Britain underpins its banking system with the best protection for depositors.
In addition to action that we will take on fuel bills, to help small firm finance, and internationally on oil prices and food prices—and the benefit that we gain in stability from three-year public sector pay deals that now cover 1.5 million workers—my right hon. Friend the Housing Minister is today announcing a £200 million fund, re-allocating money to purchase unsold new homes and then rent them to social tenants or make them available on a shared ownership basis; £100 million pounds for shared equity schemes to allow more first-time buyers to purchase newly built homes on the open market; and for the first time an offer of shared equity housing open to applications from all first-time buyers, subject to a household income limit.
The Queen’s Speech will also introduce a savings Bill to help not only home ownership but wealth ownership generally, giving 8 million people on low incomes access to a national savings scheme, with each pound saved matched by a contribution from the Government. We will look at whether further action on housing is required in light of the study by the Office of Fair Trading into the sale and leaseback market and the rise in second charge mortgages to ensure that, as should happen, customers are treated fairly.
With a second public sector efficiency review under way, we are setting the objective of value for money and greater efficiency in public administration, as we move to achieve the lowest civil service numbers since 1945.
Advancing our enterprise agenda, the Government will also consult on the idea of regulatory budgets, for the first time giving Departments that seek new regulation a strict annual limit on what they can impose.
As well as taking decisive action to help families and business weather the current economic storms, the Government have a duty to equip this country to meet the challenges of the future, with welfare and education reform to help people rise as far as their talents can take them, and in the education, health, policing and community empowerment Bills that we are announcing today, a commitment to new standards of excellence in services and to the transfer of more power and resources to parents, patients and citizens—measures which, alongside our constitutional renewal Bill, reshape for a new age the respective roles and responsibilities of citizen, community and Government.
In the next two decades the size of the world economy will double and 1 billion new skilled or professional jobs will be created. The new legislation that we propose today is founded on the new economic truth that the countries that have the best skills and the best education systems will reap the greatest rewards. So attaining the highest standards of education as we expand opportunity is the theme of the new education Bill for schools and lifelong learning.
It is unfair to consign any child to a poor school or even one that is coasting along without the ambition to do better. So after legislation this year for education to 18, there will be a second education Bill to support our plan to ensure that, by 2011, no school is underperforming: the first independent qualifications system to guarantee to parents the highest standards; more power for parents to receive regular information on their children’s progress; and, as we expand academies, reform to strengthen the accountability of schools to parents, giving them a bigger say on how to raise standards and whether new schools are needed in an area.
It is unfair, and a threat to our country’s future prosperity, that many qualified young people are still denied access to an apprenticeship. By deciding to legislate for the first time in the Queen’s Speech for the statutory right of every suitably qualified young person to obtain an apprenticeship, we expect the numbers of people starting an apprenticeship to rise by 2011 to more than 200,000—three times as many as in 1997.
Every adult should have the right to a second chance in education—to have the chance to make the most of their potential. It is not only a threat to prosperity but unfair that adults—in work or looking for work—are denied the opportunity to get the training they need to advance their careers, or even the time needed to do a course. So my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills is proposing today for the first time a major change in workplace rights that will benefit both employees and employers—giving every worker the right to request time off to train. And we will offer every adult a personal skills account so that they can access the training they need, with resources tailored to the individual—[Interruption.]
Order. It is bad manners—[Interruption.] Order. These are things that I cannot do right away. I know about the statement’s availability. The Prime Minister is delivering a statement to the House—[Interruption.] Order. I am looking into the matter and I ask hon. Members to let me deal with it. While the Prime Minister is addressing the House, hon. Members should allow him to be heard. Some hon. Members are complaining that the statement is not available, and I am dealing with that matter. The Opposition often tell me that Ministers should come before the House: the Prime Minister is here and I do not want any interruptions. It is unfair.
Leaving the unemployed without the skills they need to obtain work is costly for our prosperity and unfair to both benefit claimants and those who pay taxes. So as part of the next stage of welfare reform, emphasising obligations as well as rights, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will legislate to impose a duty on the unemployed to have their skills needs assessed and to acquire skills. We will also consult on further radical reforms to ensure that no-one with the ability to work is trapped on benefits for life. Those who can work should work, so new and existing incapacity benefit claimants will be required to go through a medical assessment and will be given a personalised programme to help them back into work.
Fair treatment also means respecting people’s need for flexible arrangements to care for their children, especially as evidence now shows that flexible work is no obstacle to business success—fairness and efficiency advancing together. So my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will announce tomorrow that we will take forward the recommendations of the Walsh report to extend the right to flexible working to parents of older children. We will consult on the details of implementation, with the aim of introducing new rights from next April.
Since last year we have secured in the NHS cleaner hospitals, better access to GPs, and progress on waiting times. It is right, as we celebrate 60 years of the NHS, to introduce a new NHS reform Bill to continue the change and renewal of the health service so as to equip it to offer a higher standard of care; to focus it on prevention as well as treatment; and to make it more accountable to local people, giving patients real power and control over the service they receive.
We will establish a constitution for the NHS that sets out what patients can expect to get from the health service, including entitlements to minimum standards of access, quality and safety. For the first time, payments to NHS hospitals will be adjusted according to patient satisfaction and health outcomes—deepening our commitment to a patient-focused NHS.
In the same way as we are tackling underperforming schools, we will take new powers, as part of a comprehensive NHS performance regime, to ensure that no health care provider falls below the minimum standards that we require. Just as we will consult in education on giving more rights to parents, we will bring forward radical proposals in health to put more power in the hands of patients, including new rights to information about their care, to control their own personal budgets and to have more say over the decisions of their local primary care trust.
Just as we will give both parents and patients more control, so we will give social housing tenants more say—greater choice over where they live and new rights to independent information on landlords' performance. We will look at ways of rewarding good tenants and hold to account those who do not meet their responsibilities, as we crack down further on antisocial behaviour in our estates.
Protecting the safety of the British people is paramount for every Government. Since 1997, we have increased the numbers of policemen and women; introduced new community support officers and new powers for police and the courts to target antisocial behaviour, burglary, car crime and street crime; and taken action against terrorism. Our aim is not just a reduction in crime, but that people feel safe in their homes and in their neighbourhoods. One way forward, as with education and health, is to empower citizens, giving them more direct say on how crime is tackled in their areas, so the Home Secretary will bring forward proposals for directly elected representatives to give local people more control over policing priorities and responsiveness.
We will legislate so that neighbourhood police teams have to meet tougher national standards to ensure the high visibility and responsiveness of local police and community support officers. Legislation will also give the victims of crime more legal rights, including protection for vulnerable victims and witnesses of gun and gang-related crime during investigations and trials. The Home Secretary will set out shortly further detailed plans to allow police time that is now spent on paperwork to be spent on the beat, liberating the police from needless red tape, and she will announce new measures to improve police performance.
Organised crime, particularly in the areas where there are serious problems with drugs and illegal immigration, must be dealt with severely. It is right to close every loophole to prevent criminals from retaining the proceeds of their crimes, so the policing and crime reduction Bill will legislate to speed up the recovery and seizure of assets obtained through criminal acts.
If our crime policy is to punish and prevent, our migration policy is to ensure for Britain the benefits that migration brings while managing it securely and ensuring that expectations for newcomers are clear. We have already introduced the Australian points system to ensure that only those who contribute can come to Britain, and we have integrated the vital work of the Border and Immigration Agency, Customs and UK Visas into a single border agency. After a consultation that finished this week, the Home Secretary will legislate to put in place our new and tougher test for permanent residence or British citizenship. The requirements in law will be that newcomers learn English, play by the rules and show they are making an economic contribution to the UK. Only full citizens will have full access to benefits or social housing, and newcomers will be required to pay into a migration impact fund to help local communities deal with changes in population.
We will also take new powers in legislation to enhance airport security and protect against terrorist acts at sea.
We will take further steps in the next Session of Parliament to safeguard and enhance our heritage and our environment. For the first time in 30 years there will be legislation to increase protection of our historic sites and buildings. This will include reforms to the planning system to improve the protection of old buildings, and new rules to make it an offence to deal in cultural property illegally exported from occupied territory.
We will consult in draft on the legislation necessary to implement the recommendations of the Pitt review into the 2007 floods, and so better protect vulnerable communities in the future.
We have already legislated this Session to put a legal limit on Britain's carbon emissions—the first country in the world to do so—and we will bring forward a Bill in the next Session to protect our seas and shores. There will be new powers to designate marine conservation zones and to create a path around the whole of the English coastline, with public access for walking and other recreational activities.
Last year, we announced new measures, including restricting the royal prerogative, to make the Government more accountable to Parliament, and those will be taken forward in a constitutional renewal Bill. But we will go further and consult on a major shift of power directly to citizens themselves. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will set out proposals, to be taken forward through a new community empowerment Bill, to give people greater power to influence local decisions—local spending decisions, local council agendas, the use of local assets—that affect them as citizens.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice will publish a White Paper on reform of the House of Lords and details of our proposals to reform the system of party finance and expenditure. He will also bring forward proposals for consultation on a Bill of rights and responsibilities.
We are committed to both flexibility and fairness in the workplace and we will do nothing that jeopardises jobs and businesses taking on new workers, but most people agree that it is not fair that, even after months in a job, agency workers can currently be paid less than the staff they work alongside, and as a result permanent staff can feel they are being unfairly undercut. Therefore, the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform plans to bring forward legislation—subject to an agreement between employers and employees, and in Europe—that will for the first time ensure new rules for fair treatment of agency workers in Britain.
Discrimination anywhere is unacceptable and a new equality Bill will compel public bodies to take seriously the requirements of both their work force and the communities they serve, sending a clear message that in the 21st century prejudice in Britain is no longer acceptable.
Therefore, we will have a banking Bill to support financial stability; an education Bill to ensure that every school is a good school; an NHS Bill to improve the health service and to entrench patients’ rights; an immigration Bill so that people earn their citizenship; a welfare reform Bill to help people into work; and reforms on agency workers, on skills and on flexible working. Those are the priorities, and I commend the statement to the House.
We had a discussion during Prime Minister’s questions about whether the Prime Minister could be straight with people. It turns out that the Government cannot even make a statement in a straight way, distributing it to the press before they give it to Members of Parliament.
There are lots and lots of things in the statement that we welcome, not least because we proposed them. We welcome the constitution for the NHS. That is an idea that we set out last June. We welcome the extension of the right to flexible working. We announced that in September 2006. We welcome the independent exam regulator. I raised that and proposed it in 2005. The list is enormous. A simple saving scheme was in the 2005 Tory manifesto. We proposed regulatory budgets in 2006—I think. The list is almost as long as the draft Queen's Speech, so I hope that, when the Prime Minister gets up, we will get a bit of gratitude for all that. He cannot say that we have not got any substance when he has taken it all and put it in his Queen's Speech.
We particularly welcome what the Prime Minister had to say about shared equity. Those proposals are being pioneered in record numbers by the record amount of Conservative councils up and down the country. Most of all, we welcome the welfare reforms. The Prime Minister has stuffed No. 10 full of spin doctors and pollsters. Why not just get a shorthand typist and send them to the Tory conference to take it down? It would save a lot of money.
Now we hear that the Prime Minister is going to accept our proposals for elected officials to make the police accountable. That is the proposal that his Government called “completely daft”. I think that they meant “completely draft”. It is a great idea that officials who hold office and wield power should be elected. Who knows—it might catch on and one day we might have an elected Prime Minister. The grin is back.
Look at the Bills that are to clear up the mess of the last decade. Do we not have a banking Bill because the regulatory system that the Prime Minister created 10 years ago failed on its first test with Northern Rock? Do we not have an NHS Bill because a decade after the Government promised to end mixed-sex wards they are still there, the promise has been broken and people are not getting the care they need? Are we not getting an immigration Bill because the Government completely failed to prepare for or even anticipate the scale of immigration that is taking place? Are we not having a welfare Bill because, after 15 years of global growth, Britain has 5 million people on out-of-work benefits?
Let us be frank about what today's statement adds up to. It is another re-launch, and the Prime Minister has had to bring it forward. The Government are still struggling to implement—[Interruption.] Hang on a second; Members will have their turn. The Prime Minister is still struggling to implement last year's Queen Speech. There is no solution to 42 days; last year’s Budget is still being rewritten; badly drafted Bills are stuck in the House of Lords—no wonder he wants to talk about next year’s Queen’s Speech. However, the draft Queen’s Speech has nothing to do with the country’s long-term needs and everything to do with the Prime Minister’s short-term political survival.
The draft Queen’s Speech reveals the Prime Minister’s deeper problem. On the progressive goals that we need to achieve in this country—unblocking social mobility, beating poverty, taking people out of persistent deprivation—his ideas have run out of steam. He no longer has the solutions. Instead of more redistribution, more tax credits, more top-down state control, we need a Government who tackle the underlying causes of poverty, fight family breakdown, break the monopoly of state education and can work with the voluntary sector. Is not it the case that he cannot do that and we can?
One positive aspect of the Prime Minister’s statement is the claim that he wants personalised public services. If that is true, why does he not accept our plan to bust open the state monopoly in education and allow new schools to open? Why does he not scrap the restrictions on the right to buy and accept our plans to extend it to all council and housing association tenants? He does not believe in giving people genuine choice and control over their lives. If he did, he would give the country a referendum on the EU constitution. Watching the Prime Minister talk about personal choice, giving people more freedom and letting them have more control over their lives is completely unconvincing. The supreme leader just does not do freedom. Will not people rightly conclude that, if they want a Government who give people more freedom, choice and competition, why not vote for the real thing?
Is not there a negative side to the Prime Minister’s comments? It is his usual trick of political positioning and setting the false dividing lines, with which he is obsessed. When will he learn that the political positioning and fake dividing lines have landed him in the mess that he is in today? He faces defeat on banging people up for 42 days without charge. He proposed that not because it is the right thing to do, but because he wanted to try to look tough. The shambles of yesterday occurred because the Budget was not about helping the poorest people but about posing as a tax cutter. That is why he had to execute such a big U-turn.
We will fight tooth and nail against one part of the Queen’s Speech: the Prime Minister’s plan to enforce polyclinics and close GP surgeries up and down the country, although it will be noted that there will be none in his constituency. We will continue to fight the Government’s real agenda of closing post offices, thus tearing the heart out of communities; releasing prisoners, thus making our streets more dangerous; and taxing businesses into moving abroad.
After yesterday’s U-turn, today’s draft Queen’s Speech is simply another attempt to save the Prime Minister’s skin. It will not wash. People can see a Government—not only the Prime Minister—who have run out of road, run out of money and run out of ideas. Seven months ago, the Prime Minister cancelled the election because, he said, he needed more time to set out his vision. Now we can see that there is no vision, so when can we get on and have the election?
This morning, we read about a new plan from this great man of substance—to appear on a new version of “The Apprentice”. I am glad to see the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in her place, blushing slightly. I am not making it up, but she said that it would be “The Apprentice” meets “Maria”, meets “Strictly Come Dancing”. I expect that there is probably a role for the Liberal shadow Chancellor.
I have a better idea for the Prime Minister. Why not take part in a reality show that involves the whole country? It is called the general election. Would not that give everyone the chance to square up to him and say, “You’re fired”? Is not that the only way to get a Government who genuinely give people control over their lives, strengthen our families and our society, and make our country safer and greener?
If we had taken the Conservative party’s advice, none of this year’s major Bills would have got through. We would not have decisions on energy, planning, airports and many major issues that face the country, and we would not have the ID cards that we need for the security of our people. If we had taken the Conservative party’s advice, we would have put all the tax cuts into stamp duty on shares and inheritance tax instead of helping 22 million people, as we have done today.
The Conservative party should face up to the fact that the right hon. Gentleman says that he supports flexible working, but he voted against it. He says that he supports families, but he voted against longer maternity and paternity leave. He says that he supports banking regulation, but a Conservative party report called for even more deregulation. He says that he cares about people on low incomes, but he opposed the minimum wage, tax credits and the new deal. The Conservatives now say that they want to help children, but they also want to cut Sure Start. The right hon. Gentleman says that he is tough on crime, but he also wanted to hug a hoodie. He claims that he is tough on immigration, but he does not want ID cards for foreign nationals. He says that he is interested in the environment and cycles to work, but the chauffeur follows behind. The Conservative party is so full of contradictions that it is unable to put forward a policy for the future of this country.
Today, we have presented our proposals for the economy—and there was nothing from the Conservative party. We presented our proposals for greater opportunity for young people—the Conservatives opposed the last education Bill and I presume that they will oppose the next one. We presented proposals to improve rights for parents, patients and citizens—the Conservative view on that is not clear.
When we talk about police officers, the Conservative proposal is to elect one chief police officer in every area—just one person. Our proposal is for directly elected individuals from their communities. That is a far better way of local democracy working. The right hon. Gentleman should read our proposals before criticising them. He is a salesman without substance.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement—[Interruption.] Well, it was only a few minutes before Prime Minister’s questions, but let us be thankful for small mercies.
It has been a desperate week for the Prime Minister. Yesterday, he brought forward the Budget by a full 10 months and borrowed £2.7 billion to dig himself out of a political hole over the 10p tax rate, yet still managed to leave a million people worse off. Today, he has brought forward the draft Queen’s Speech, producing it a full two months before he did it last year. I have no idea what we can expect him to bring forward next—Christmas, perhaps. How desperate is he?
We already knew that the Conservatives would say anything to get elected, but it is now clear that the Prime Minister will try anything to cling to power. He has scraped the legislative barrel to save himself. The long legislative list is a rag-bag of proposals in which he either addresses things that the Government said were not a problem, such as the economy, or tries to turn around problems that the Government created, such as over-centralisation.
The Prime Minister established the banking regulation system. Is he not embarrassed to come here today and tell us that it does not work and that we need a new one? Is he not even more embarrassed to announce a £200 million fund to purchase unsold houses, when, by my reckoning, that will cover only 1,000 homes—far too little to make a genuine impression on the deep crisis in the housing market? He allowed irresponsible lending to over-inflate the housing market. Is he not embarrassed to admit that it needs propping up because of him?
Is the Prime Minister not embarrassed that the statement contains nothing—not a word—on the growing crisis of fuel poverty in this country, which will soon have 5.5 million people in fuel poverty?
How could the Prime Minister tell us, with a straight face, that he wants to empower people and communities? Let us remember that he was the man who turned Britain’s doctors and nurses into bean counters and took away our freedom of speech and right to protest. The new Labour Government have made more than 3,000 new things illegal since 1997. By my reckoning, that is two new illegal offences for every day that Parliament has sat since new Labour came to power. They capped communities’ council tax and imposed mass centralised school testing. Most shamefully, they took money from the pockets of the poorest workers. Since 1997, the Government have passed 65 home affairs Bills. Today, we are considering six more. If legislation made us safer, we would have been the safest nation on the face of the planet years ago. The NHS—shoved from pillar to post—will get a 14th reform Bill in 10 years.
If the Prime Minister wants to devolve power, why is he introducing so much more central legislation? Another stir of the legislative pot will not save the Prime Minister. If he wants to devolve power and protect us from the economic downturn, he will have to do much better.
I thought that the right hon. Gentleman would say that he supported what we propose on the environment, on giving more power to local people, on the community empowerment Bill, on the Constitutional Renewal Bill and on all the changes that we are making that make for a better relationship between individual citizens, communities and the Government. I thought that the Liberal party was supportive of those proposals, and I hope that when it looks at them in more detail, it will support them.
The gist of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks was about the economy. It is right to protect banking depositors; it is right to take new action to do so, given what has happened over the last few months. I do not think that it is a criticism of previous Governments that everywhere in the world people are looking at strengthening financial services regulation after what has happened in the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States of America.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about fuel poverty, but we are the party that introduced the winter allowance; the Conservative party opposed it. We are the party that has raised the winter allowance in the last few weeks to help people who are in difficulty as a result of fuel bills. We are the Government who have negotiated a new deal with the oil, energy and utility companies so that £100 million, and £150 million in future years, will go to help people on low incomes pay their fuel bills. The right hon. Gentleman should be praising us for the action that we are taking to try to protect people against the difficulties of rising fuel costs.
As for housing, the important thing, which the Conservative party forgot when it was in power, is that we can keep mortgage rates low. Some 1.8 million more people have homes as a result of a Labour Government, and the right hon. Gentleman should recognise the fact that that was possible only because we have kept mortgage rates low. Mortgage rates are half what they were under the Conservative Government. It is because we have run a strong economy, with economic stability over the past 11 years, that while other countries have had recessions—and the Government of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) had two recessions—we are in a position to continue to grow as an economy.
We will take every action necessary to help home owners and others who face difficulties as a result of the world economic downturn. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) should be supporting us, not criticising us.
I thank my right hon. Friend and congratulate him on his comments, particularly those on the housing market, and on his recognition of the importance of action. Although I welcome the proposals to introduce the new scheme to assist shared ownership, I put it to him that the scale of the problem, in terms of the withdrawal of lending facilities and the collapse of confidence among many house builders, is such that more intervention will almost certainly be required if we are to restore prudent lending at a level that will ensure that the market recovers. I urge my right hon. Friend to do everything in the coming weeks to achieve that, and to avoid the situation deteriorating to a point at which there would be parallels with the dreadful experience that we all saw when the Conservative party was in power.
My right hon. Friend is an expert on the housing market, and I am grateful for his remarks. The £50 billion that was injected as liquidity into the economy in the past few weeks is a means by which we can restore the flow of funds from banks and building societies to home owners. We will not hesitate to take the necessary action to deal with that.
However, I would disagree with my right hon. Friend on interest rates. At the moment, they are at 5 per cent.; in 1992-93, when the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) was advising the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, they were at 15 per cent. That was a shameful episode, from which the country took years to recover. We are not going to get into that position again.
This morning, the Prime Minister spoke about his defence of the Union. He is now faced with a referendum in Scotland. I remind him that in 1997, during the Scottish referendum Bill, he did not vote, or abstained, on a three-line Whip when I tabled an amendment calling for a United Kingdom referendum. About 400 of his colleagues voted against my amendment. Does he now agree that there should be a referendum of the United Kingdom with respect to the Scottish question?
There was no support for the hon. Gentleman’s amendment in 1997, as he confirmed by having 400 people vote against it. But I have to tell him that no legislation is coming forward for a referendum in Scotland now or in the immediate future. It is not coming forward in Westminster and it is not coming forward in Holyrood in the immediate future, as far as I can see. So the hon. Gentleman’s question is posed on a misunderstanding: there is no proposal for a referendum now or in the immediate future.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and for the advance procedure in which we are engaged today. I will not dwell on the questions that some of us might have about the worth and workability of an immigration impact fund. However, when it comes to the new Bill to protect our seas and shores, will the Prime Minister’s Government use the British-Irish Council to work with all the other Administrations on these islands so that all the Governments and Chambers with responsibility for a common marine environment adopt a compatible, co-ordinated and coherent approach?
May I say on behalf of my party and the Scottish National party that we were rather disappointed not to have been given an advance copy of the statement? If the Prime Minister seriously wants to engage, providing advance copies is a prerequisite.
Several things in the Prime Minister’s statement will no doubt be useful when we look at the detail. However, given the global downturn and the credit crunch, will he consider some form of equitable lending Bill that outlaws illegal lending? While I am on the subject of poverty, may I ask him again to reconsider the civil service job cuts in Wales, the vast bulk of which will fall within objective 1 areas, undermining all the good work that has been done there to try to raise gross domestic product?
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman did not receive the statement in advance, and I shall look into that; I shall also look into what happened to prevent Members from having the statement early enough for them to be able to look at it.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about lending and what he wants to be done, and I shall consider what he has said. As for civil service jobs, we have to recognise that new technology is making possible major changes in how occupations are constructed. That was the purpose of the Gershon report, and now a second Gershon report is to be done. We have to catch up with the changes in technology that are taking place, and I believe that we can make major changes. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that although jobs are being lost in certain areas of the civil service in Wales, overall a substantial number of additional people are in work as a result of the other policies of the Labour Government.
When banks get into trouble, directors and shareholders tend to make decisions in their own interests, rather than those of depositors. Will my right hon. Friend say whether the new banking Bill will include a power, similar to that in the United States, that will allow an independent authority to override the shareholders and insist that decisions are made in the interests of the people who have their money in the bank?
I shall certainly look at what my hon. Friend says and pass his comments on to the Chancellor. The purpose of that particular clause of the banking Bill is to make sure that there is adequate and full financial protection for depositors in the event of a banking crisis or failure. As we dealt with Northern Rock, we found that more had to be done to make sure that depositors were properly protected. We raised the ceiling of protection and at the same time gave wider guarantees, and the purpose of the Bill is to put those into legislation.
At the beginning of his statement, the Prime Minister made it clear that the draft legislative programme would be debated in the House and the country, and I welcome that. However, will he reflect on whether it then makes sense in November, when we have the Queen’s Speech proper, to spend another five days debating a legislative programme that we will already have debated? Would it not make more sense to reinstate into Government time debates that we used to have on public expenditure and the economy, which have mysteriously disappeared from the programme?
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says. Last year and this year we published the Government’s legislative programme in advance, and that is unique. We are allowing for an early debate about its merits so that a full consultation can take place. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, that raises questions about the nature of the Queen’s Speech debates that follow.
As far as debates on the economy are concerned, we welcome those at any time, because the choice is between a policy that has worked for 11 years and one that failed when it was last tried.
My right hon. Friend’s statement on assistance for people buying houses through shared equity schemes and for people to enter the housing market is welcome. However, I stress to him that even with that assistance, house buying is out of the question for many of my constituents in London. If we are to provide affordable housing for young families who are trying to set up their own homes to bring up their children, we will need more affordable rented accommodation. Will he bear that in mind?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has brought this issue to my attention on many occasions. One of the purposes of the £200 million fund is to purchase unsold new homes and then rent them to social tenants, which would, in the short term at least, increase the amount of rented accommodation. He is absolutely right that our plans for increasing affordable housing over the next few years involve a substantial increase in rented homes, and that is the right thing to do.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. I am sure that everyone would wish to see a successful policy implemented that will steer us through the current global economic crisis. However, examination of the detail does not seem to live up to the headline that he has claimed. On the housing market, does he agree that the funding he announced will result in about 1,000 new houses being bought and about 2,000 people being helped through shared equity schemes? Will he explain how, given that it takes three or four years to turn round failing schools, he can claim that by 2011 there will be no failing schools in this country?
It is an ambitious programme to turn round all underperforming schools, but we are determined to do it. I do not think that a child who is not benefiting from a good school should have to wait longer than is necessary to get the best schooling possible. We have set an ambitious target, and it is one that we want to achieve. I hope that there will be support for that in all parts of the House.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s comments on housing, the two additional proposals about extra resources for a purchasing scheme and a shared equity scheme are on top of many other initiatives that we have announced before. An open market homebuy scheme and a second shared equity scheme are already allowing thousands of people to take the first step on the housing ladder. Those policies are on top of the huge amount of money that is spent on social housing by the Government as part of the public expenditure plans. If we are going to deal with the problems of the housing market, it is important that interest rates remain low. What really did the damage in the early 1990s—I know that the Conservatives do not want to hark back to this, because there were 200,000 repossessions—[Interruption.] I do not think that they have learned from the past—that is the problem. What really did the damage in the 1990s was that interest rates—
It is important that interest rates can stay low, and that demands that we bear down on inflation. Even facing huge increases in world oil prices, as is happening in every country, inflation is currently at 3 per cent., while it is 4 per cent. in the United States and about 3.5 per cent. in the rest of Europe. We will continue to bear down heavily on inflation so that we can keep interest rates low. That is the best thing that we can do to help potential home owners.
Is the Prime Minister aware that my constituents will very much welcome the protection that he is giving to consumers, particularly in his announcements on banking and on fuel bills? On banking, the Government have been supportive, and it is perfectly right that consumers should be protected. The leader of the Liberal Democrats did not seem to hear the part of the statement where my right hon. Friend referred to fuel bills. It is right that he should do so, and may I say that he has the moral authority to ask the energy companies to make their contribution—for example, in terms of their competitiveness and accountability?
My right hon. Friend has been a great campaigner on behalf of people who have been affected by poverty. Obviously, high fuel bills are a determinant of poverty and that is why we wanted to increase the winter allowance, which was announced in the Budget, why the low income households deal has been done with the utility companies, and why we will not hesitate to take further action to protect people against high fuel bills. It is in the interests of the country that people are protected at a time when oil prices have trebled.
According to the National Audit Office, the chances of an unemployed person getting a job when coming off the jobseeker’s allowance programme vary between one in five and one in 40 depending on their age, sex and where they live. What will the new proposals do to help people in my constituency, for example, where we have lost 4,500 jobs in the past five years and unemployment is on the up? What is the Prime Minister going to do to help those people?
Employment is still rising—that is why there are 600,000 to 700,000 vacancies in the economy. Our desire is to help people who are unemployed or moving between jobs to fill the vacancies that are available. The hon. Gentleman will know that in his constituency there is still a high number of vacancies, as there is across the region. Through the welfare reform Bill, we want to make it an obligation on people to undergo a skills test and then for them to be advised as to whether they need to acquire further skills, because we know that the number of unskilled jobs in the economy is falling but the number of skilled jobs is rising. We want to help his constituents and all other unemployed constituents to get the skills that they need for the future.
My right hon. Friend’s proposals mean that Swindon will be an even more prosperous community in future. We are a proud industrial town and we have a proud industrial heritage derived from the railways. Would his proposals to protect historic buildings help the mechanics institute in Swindon, which is in private hands, and is a crumbling but beautiful building that we seek to protect? Will he help us by ensuring that people who are private owners of such buildings are included in that protection?
My hon. Friend has been most innovative in citing the new Bill as a means by which we might support what is obviously an historic building of great value in her constituency. We will certainly look at what we can do. Swindon is a community that has benefited from the expansion of investment over recent years. That is why there are more people in jobs there than there have been previously, and why people in Swindon will think twice about a Conservative Government who caused so much unemployment.
Is the Prime Minister aware that his conversion to Conservative policies would be welcome—there is, after all, more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents—if only he understood them. How does he reconcile his welcome proposal for “directly elected representatives to give local people more control over policing priorities and responsiveness” with the very next sentence, which proposes statutory, national, top-down legislation defining how police authorities should employ their resources and ensure their visibility and responsiveness? Is not the difference between karaoke Conservatism and the real thing that he can recite the words but he does not know what they mean?
It is pretty clear that the right hon. Gentleman has learned nothing from his years in opposition. While it is right that people are elected at a local level to discharge representative functions in their area, it is also right in certain circumstances to set down minimum national standards. I hope that he will continue to support the setting of a minimum national standard in respect of policing as in other matters.
I think that when the NHS constitution is published and subject to debate my hon. Friend will find that it does give patients new rights. I have mentioned access, safety and care—clearly, people want those things when they use the national health service. For the further details, he should wait for the statement by the Health Secretary.
Why should we believe the Prime Minister on apprenticeships and lifelong learning given his history? When Chancellor, he predicted that by 2006 there would be an average of 320,000 apprenticeships—in fact, there were 235,000—and on lifelong learning the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education reports this week that in just two years the number of adult learning places has been cut by 1.4 million. Does not the Prime Minister realise that in anticipating the future we do not need a crystal ball when we have his dismal record book?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to point out that apprenticeships were dying out under the previous Conservative Government. There were barely 70,000 in the country when we came to power. If the figure was 235,000 a year or two years’ ago, that represents a trebling of apprenticeships under Labour.
May I warmly welcome the extension of rights to temporary workers, which adds to the protections offered by the minimum wage, the extension of maternity pay and rights at work? Does my right hon. Friend agree that although that is a priority for this Government, it is something that we would never have seen under a previous Tory Government or see even under a future one?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. On all the major advances in rights, including the minimum wage, the social chapter and maternity and paternity pay, we have had very little support from the Conservative party. That is totally in line with the history of the Conservative party that opposed the national health service in the first place.
The Prime Minister has spoken of a migration policy based on an Australian-style points-based system. A fundamental feature of the Australian system is an annual limit on migration. Does he have any such proposals for a limit on migration?
I do not think that any party has an annual limit on migration, and no political party has proposed one. We are saying that we reserve the right to set a limit for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, but if skilled workers have a contribution to make to the country, they should be allowed in. Any business that the Conservative party talks to—I know that it wants to put a cap on this figure as well—will tell it that it wants to be able to draw on the skills of the world when it is necessary to do so, and I would have thought that that is the sensible way forward.
Did the Prime Minister share my concern that neither Opposition party leader noted the valuable initiatives in his statement about protecting the natural environment? The marine Bill is much appreciated and widely anticipated. It also contains measures to extend access to the countryside and the coastline, something for which working people have campaigned for 100 years and which a Labour Government have delivered.
I was surprised that neither the Conservative nor Liberal party welcomed this—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Witney could not list all the things that we were suggesting. This is an important part of legislation about the environment, and his party says it cares about the environment. Perhaps it should be consistent in its support for the environment.