I have been asked to reply. As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is today at the G8 summit in Japan.
We know that a third runway at Heathrow will be very damaging for the local environment and drive an aeroplane through the Government’s carbon reduction targets. Has the Leader of the House seen the comments of Bob Ayling, the former chief executive of British Airways, who said:
“A third runway at Heathrow is against Britain’s economic interests…It is likely…to prove a costly mistake”?
When are the Government going to put the public interest first and stop behaving like a wholly owned subsidiary of BAA?
The Government are going to put both the economic interests of this country and the question of tackling climate change first. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are consulting on the question of Heathrow and considering a great deal of evidence. We will not make our decision until we have finalised and are satisfied by the question of the sustainability of the runway.
The Government have a proud record of compensating miners who suffered as a result of their time in the pits. However, does my right hon. and learned Friend share my alarm that the vibration white finger group 3 scheme automatically assumes that claimants—often elderly miners—have exaggerated the time that they spent using vibratory tools, and cuts the hours in half and rejects the claims? Is that not an appalling abuse and age discrimination of the worst kind? What are the Government going to do to put it right?
The Government have done a great deal to compensate those who, just by going to work, have suffered horrific injury and disease at their workplaces. We have made important steps forward on vibration white finger. I will look into the point that my right hon. Friend has raised, but I know that he will agree with me that it is very important that today the Government have issued their consultation paper on how we compensate those who have suffered from pleural plaques.
Given the turbulence in the financial sector, my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor proposed last year—the Chancellor has since agreed—that the amount of people’s bank savings protected by the Government should rise from £35,000 to £50,000, and also that the system for paying out should be simpler and faster. Can the Leader of the House confirm when the Government intend to legislate to give effect to that proposal?
The right hon. Gentleman will have seen in the Queen’s Speech programme—the draft legislative programme—that there is a measure to ensure financial stability. At any time we are keeping under close review ensuring that we keep the economy on track. That is why although the economic situation is tough and threatens to get tougher, we will see the country through this difficult economic situation.
The Chancellor did say on 1 October last year:
“We will legislate in the forthcoming…session”—
that is, this Session—
“to implement this new regime.”
Given the approach of an 11-week recess, would it not be prudent and reassuring to expedite that particular aspect of the legislation specifically concerned with deposit insurance and pass it into law as soon as possible? As there is cross-party agreement on the need for the measure, would the Government respond positively to an offer of help from the Opposition to ensure that the measure passes through Parliament before the summer recess?
Of course, all offers of help from the Opposition to get our legislation through are very welcome. The right hon. Gentleman was in the Cabinet under the previous Conservative Government, so perhaps he knows a bit about the economy. Perhaps he will remember that when he was in the Cabinet—[Interruption.]
Since the right hon. Gentleman is offering Labour Members economic advice, perhaps I can remind him of the time when he was in the Cabinet. Was unemployment higher or lower than it is now? It was higher. Were interest rates higher or lower than they are now? [Hon. Members: “Higher!”] Was debt higher or lower than it is now? [Hon. Members: “Higher!”] I think that we will have help with our legislation from him, but we can manage without his advice.
It is a great pity that the right hon. and learned Lady cannot answer on this particular point. If she wants to be Prime Minister, she had better start acting like one. Since she says that the offer of support from the Opposition is welcome, will she at least undertake to consult her colleagues, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, when he comes back from the G8, and come back tomorrow with a full and considered response that takes into account the instability of the financial markets, the length of the recess, the widespread agreement that something needs to be done, and the duty of the Government to reassure and protect the public?
Of course I will consult my colleagues, and of course the Government will bring forward the necessary legislation. When it comes to manoeuvring, I want to know why once again the right hon. Gentleman has manoeuvred the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) out of her job of answering the questions. Last time, I offered her some advice that clearly did not work. This time, my suggestion is that she should give up on the Tory party, go across Lambeth bridge to Lambeth palace, and apply to become a bishop.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in thanking the hard-working staff of Great Western hospital in Swindon, who have used extra funding from the Government to cut clostridium difficile cases to well below target? Will she ensure that matrons throughout the country have the resources to keep the NHS sparkling in its 60th anniversary year?
I congratulate the staff at Great Western hospital and throughout the national health service on tackling hospital-acquired infection—that is important work. The 60th anniversary of the national health service is an opportunity to pay tribute to its entire staff team, who have kept it going even when it was under-resourced and struggling, and to pay tribute to their work under the leadership of Ara Darzi. Two thousand clinicians have been involved in shaping a consultation paper for the way forward. I hope that we can not only thank all staff in the NHS for their work but invite them to help us to shape the way forward for the future of the NHS.
Does the Minister acknowledge the severity of the crisis in the housing industry, where leading private house builders are going bust, sacking 40 per cent. of their workers and dragging down the banks because they have an excess of unsold private houses? Will the Government therefore build up their sensible but pathetically small programme for acquiring property and give genuine freedom to councils and housing associations to acquire property in order to let it out to the 1.7 million people in housing need on waiting lists?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman: the situation in the housing market is a grave cause for concern. That is why the Government have taken action and will take more. That is why we have ensured that the Bank of England has £50 billion to help with the liquidity situation; why we are building more social homes; why we are giving £200 million to the Housing Corporation so that it can buy houses that have been built but have not been able to be sold; and why we are helping first-time buyers by reducing stamp duty. I think that he would agree that the most important thing for housing for the future is to ensure that people can stay in their jobs, that employment remains high, and that inflation and interest rates remain low, and that is what we will attempt to do.
I acknowledge that the Housing Corporation proposal is a good one, but it is a drop in the ocean. Can the Government not get their priorities right? Instead of the Prime Minister lecturing us on what we should eat for dinner, and competing with the leader of the Conservative party to be the country’s weight watcher-in-chief, should he not acknowledge that we have a deep crisis in the British housing market—probably the worst in our lifetime—which is leading into a serious recession? It is time that the Government accepted responsibility for dealing with it.
I agree that the situation is serious, but I do not agree that it is like it was in the 1990s. The hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that it is important that we keep employment rates high and that we keep interest rates low. Those who are working hard in the construction industry, and in small and big businesses across the country, do not want the official Opposition, or any Opposition Members, to be talking the economy down at this point. Confidence is important.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that violent crime involving young people in London is one of the most important issues that confronts the capital? London MPs are contacting the Home Secretary, asking her to take the initiative and bring communities across London together, including young people, to discuss ways of solving this problem. They are doing that because of the woefully inadequate response of the Mayor of London. He was elected on a campaign that highlighted 23 deaths last year—what looked like a slick campaign now looks like a very sick campaign. As a fellow London MP, will my right hon. and learned Friend contact the Home Secretary, to bring together communities across London to find a solution to this very important problem?
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will do exactly that. We all recognise that there is a serious problem with more young people, at ever younger ages, carrying knives in the street. It is a particular problem, as my hon. Friend said, in London and in my constituency. My constituents know that it is important that we have the right laws and that they are toughly enforced, and beyond that, that we work together to support parents, teachers, local communities and the local police. We have to tackle what we recognise is a growing and grave problem.
Strict rules apply to public procurement, and rightly so. As a Minister, I could not be expected to comment in the middle of a contract procurement, but I can remind the House that the Post Office says that it has put in a strong bid for the Post Office card account. I would also remind the hon. Gentleman that this Government have put in unprecedented sums of public money to support the post office network, and we will continue to do so.
None of that was ever wasted, I can assure the right hon. and learned Lady.
Is it not astonishing, given the Prime Minister’s comments, that expenditure at the Treasury—to take a Department at random—on hospitality, including food, in the period when the Prime Minister was Chancellor of the Exchequer more than trebled? Is not that a spectacular case of preaching one rule to the country and practising another behind the closed doors of government?
Maybe the Leader of the House can agree with this: is there not something supremely ironic about being lectured about food waste by a Prime Minister who is past his sell-by date? Is not that yet another example of treating people like fools, and of preaching prudence but practising profligacy and waste? Is not that why the whole country is sick of the Prime Minister, and may I speak for the whole House in wishing the right hon. and learned Lady well in her campaign to be rid of him?
The right hon. Gentleman should not underestimate the Prime Minister, a man of true grit and determination, who will see the country through the difficult circumstances. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind comments about me, but his suggestion is not possible because there are not enough airports for all the men who would want to flee the country.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, the Prime Minister is taking a leading part in the discussions in the G8 today. In Japan today, the G8 is talking to more countries, including China, Brazil, South Africa, India and Mexico as it looks to widen the outreach of its policies in the world. We can expect that approach, in which the Prime Minister will take a lead, to continue in future.
My constituency files include two particular cases of serious crimes for which the victims deserve our sympathy and support. Will the Leader of the House ask the Prime Minister to look into them, and in the process explain why, when our prisons are full to bursting, public finances are under pressure and others are being released early, the two prisoners in those cases are set to join more than 700 others on indeterminate sentences, who are serving more than their sentence tariff and have no prospect of getting into the institutions or on to the courses that will help them reform and enable them to be safely released?
I will bring the individual cases that the hon. Gentleman raised to the Prime Minister’s attention. However, we must recognise that we need to take a tough approach to crime, and we have done that. Crime has fallen since we came into government, and more criminals are being caught and sent to prison for longer terms. That is why we have increased the prison building programme. As well as sending those who have committed offences to prison, we need to try to ensure that, while they are there, they are rehabilitated so that when they leave, they do not commit further offences.
The leader of the Scots nats in Holyrood does not turn up much in this House, although he continues to be a Member and draw his salary. I had the opportunity to see him talking about this issue on television earlier this week. It is absolutely clear that he does not intend to keep his promises on student support, that he does not intend to keep his promises on police numbers and that he does not intend to keep his policies on reducing class sizes. So, scarcely a year after the election, why should anyone trust the SNP with any of its promises?
I shall get the Chancellor to write to the hon. Gentleman with those specific figures. One of the things that is very important for first-time buyers, in addition to the points that I made in reply to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), is that we need to have more house building in this country. That is why we have brought forward our plans for eco-towns. I hope that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) and other hon. Members who are concerned about the opportunities for first-time buyers will back those plans.
I would like to send my congratulations, through my hon. Friend, to Fran Fox, working in the health service in her constituency. The way that we can best ensure the future of the national health service is to ensure that we build on the commitment and dedication that the NHS staff have shown over many decades and that we help them carry on with their remarkable work.
What we are concerned about is this. We are in government in order—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman might be in Parliament to ask daft questions, but we are in government in order to understand the concerns that families in every constituency are facing, to recognise the problems and to address them. That is what we are focused on and that is what we will get on with doing.
My right hon. and learned Friend will know that this week we are celebrating 30 years of successful in vitro fertilisation. She will also know that the celebration is somewhat less than it should be, because National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines are not being put in place on fertility treatment. Only nine primary care trusts are putting them in place; shamefully, 143 are offering either less treatment or none at all. Will she do all that she can to ensure the full implementation of NICE guidelines, accepting, as every Member of this House does, that all that those people want is to have a happy family?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work as chair of the all-party group on infertility. She has always made it clear that infertility treatment should be available for everyone and not just for those who can afford it, and that its provision on the NHS is important. We recognise that there are inequalities in provision, however. We are monitoring the provision by primary care trusts, and that is something that we need to take forward. This is about people’s right to a family life, and there should not be a postcode lottery.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport reminds me that we have set out a range of issues, including carbon emissions and air quality, in a number of detailed technical documents for public scrutiny and consultation. We have received many thousands of responses to that consultation, and we will make a decision in due course. In relation to the policy of the official Opposition, half of them are in favour of such proposals because they want economic expansion, while the other half are totally against them. We are ensuring that we build the economy while also protecting the environment.
Members on both sides of the House will welcome the tough leadership that the Prime Minister has shown at the G8 on Zimbabwe. I believe that the House is united on that issue. However, there are a number Zimbabweans in Britain who are unable to return to Zimbabwe but who have no source of income. Will my right hon. and learned Friend discuss with the Home Secretary whether it would be possible to give Zimbabweans who are trapped in Britain the right to work in order to earn an income, before they return to Zimbabwe when that country is free?
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary says that she will be having meetings about precisely that issue this afternoon. I can reassure my hon. Friend that there will not be any forced removals to Zimbabwe during the current situation. Further to that, the Prime Minister has been leading on the question of seeking to ensure that the votes of people in Zimbabwe at the election, which has been denied by Robert Mugabe, will be respected. Following the discussions at the G8, which has sent forward a strong message about Zimbabwe, further action will be taken at the UN shortly.
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the previous Conservative Government did not put one penny of public money into the post office network, so we are absolutely not continuing their work. On the contrary, we have put £2 billion of public funds into the network already, and we will put in £1.7 billion more in order to sustain the important post office network.
I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will agree that Fathers 4 Justice does its case absolutely no good by engaging in the thuggery and ridiculous actions that are now taking place. Will she and the rest of the House condemn it and say that it is never going to get its way if it behaves in such a vile manner?
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Chancellor has already set out the package of £2.7 billion, which will help 22 million people. That will go not only to those who lost out through the abolition of the 10p rate, but also more widely. The thing that has most helped low-paid workers, particularly those who work part time, is the national minimum wage, which the hon. Gentleman voted against.
I will agree to convene a meeting such as my hon. Friend proposes. I agree that clubs are often at the very heart of their communities and we want to do all we can to support them. In fact, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to take that meeting forward.