The Secretary of State was asked—
Universal Primary Education
The global primary net enrolment ratio increased from 84 per cent. in 1999 to 89 per cent. in 2006. However, the latest estimates show that 75 million primary-aged children worldwide—41 million of them girls—are still not enrolled in school, and further progress is needed to achieve the target of universal primary education by 2015. We are working with the international community to accelerate action towards meeting that millennium development goal.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Can he confirm that Department for International Development staff are implementing the education beyond borders policy changes and ensuring that education is core to any humanitarian responses? With particular reference to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and notwithstanding the large sum allocated last year towards education, will there be extra funding for education as part of the UK’s humanitarian relief programme for that region?
I can confirm that the 2007 DFID initiative, education beyond borders, is being implemented. In relation to the DRC in particular, more than £10 million of £55 million to be provided over a five-year period goes towards access to primary education. We continue to assess the growing humanitarian difficulties afflicting the troubled area of the DRC. We made an immediate announcement of an additional £5 million at the weekend. I have had discussions with the Foreign Secretary since his arrival in the DRC. We continue, of course, to talk to our teams on the ground in the DRC to assess what further assistance is required.
My right hon. Friend will be confident that many African countries in particular are working hard to meet their millennium development goal commitments on education. Recently I have been working in Tanzania with people on education, and I should say that it is also important that we pay attention to the quality of the education experience in such countries as well as to the numbers receiving it. Tanzania is doing a great job in increasing the numbers of its children in primary education, but can the Secretary of State assure us that the Government are also working with that country to improve the quality of the education through better teacher training and teacher support?
I am happy to give that commitment to my right hon. Friend. Like her, I have visited schools in Tanzania and I have seen for myself the tangible difference being made by extending access to primary education for the young people of that country. Enrolment in Tanzania has doubled. Now, 98 per cent. of children there go to primary school; the figure used to be 60 per cent. My right hon. Friend is right, however, to recognise that there should be no contradiction between issues of quantity and quality. We are looking at the issue of retention; in Dar es Salaam I spoke with President Kikwete on exactly those challenges. I assure my right hon. Friend that it is one of the issues on which we are working in Tanzania.
The Secretary of State rightly identified the need for equality of opportunity for both sexes in education, and he will know of the tremendous improvements that there have been in Afghanistan. However, such opportunities are not available in other fundamentalist Muslim states. What is the Department doing to encourage those states to provide equal opportunity in respect of education for girls and young women?
The focus of our work at the Department for International Development is not dictated by the majority religious views of any one country but the requirements of the country for support in tackling poverty. We are working with Governments in a number of different countries; the hon. Gentleman mentioned Afghanistan, and we have contributed about £60 million to the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund specifically for education. Where we are working we are in regular dialogue with Governments about improving the lot and opportunity of young girls in particular. To take one example, today about one in six of young girls around the world not in education are in northern Nigeria. That is why we are engaged in dialogue with the Nigerian authorities to see how we can extend opportunities to young girls and the disabled. It is necessary to get them into education if we are to see the progress that we want on the millennium development goals.
In townships, there is sometimes no electricity and no water, but there are always mobile phones. BlackBerry, Nokia and Vodafone have substantial educational trusts. Will the Secretary of State consider convening a meeting of mobile phone operators? Using mobile phones for content could be a way of increasing primary education.
I assure my hon. Friend that we are fully aware of the potential of what is widely seen in Africa as a leapfrog technology. Many countries that did not have fixed land-line telephone systems now have a number of mobile operators. Recently I discussed the potential of mobile telephony with Mo Ibrahim, who deserves huge credit for having expanded opportunity and built a hugely successful business in Celtel in recent years.
Will the Minister comment on the opportunity cost to the goal of universal primary education of the Government’s generosity to small-scale projects in emerging super-economies? Does he agree that that money might be better focused on areas of the world that are not blessed with natural resources or emerging super-economies of the sort that we see in China or, indeed, even in India?
China continues to be afflicted by considerable challenges in poverty reduction, notwithstanding the welcome growth of its economy in recent years. That is why we continue to work in China, although we are due to close our bilateral programme shortly. We are continuing to work there partly because any serious assessment of the role of China in Africa recognises that now is exactly the time to try to exert influence over the Chinese authorities to ensure that their engagement with the continent of Africa in providing infrastructure and new opportunities is benign in the years ahead.
The Government are committed to ensuring that UK aid is used effectively to make a difference to the poorest in the world. DFID has strong processes and systems that ensure that aid is allocated to the countries where it will have the greatest impact and used efficiently and effectively to reduce poverty.
I thank the Minister for that answer. As chair of the all-party group on Nigeria, I have visited the country on several occasions and will do so again next month. The best work that I have seen DFID do is when it takes a hands-on approach to a project and ensures that it is involved throughout. Can he assure me, and does he agree, that the norm with DFID projects should be that it adopts such a hands-on role and ensures that taxpayers’ money is well spent?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his interest in the considerable progress that is being made in Nigeria. It is important that we adopt different approaches depending on the circumstances in the countries in which we are working. In some countries it is appropriate to work in partnership with Government through budget support, in others we should work with non-governmental organisations that are best placed to make a difference, and in some circumstances it is better to manage projects directly and then use the lessons from those projects to ensure that the populations of those countries can ultimately assume responsibility for building on that progress.
The Minister will know that a very high percentage of the population of Zimbabwe is starving as a result of the activities of ex-President Mugabe. What assurance can he give me that the aid that we are giving to that country, and rightly so, is getting through to the people who need it and is not being used by Mr. Mugabe and his henchmen for political purposes?
The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that unites Members on both sides of the House. The aid that we give to Zimbabwe goes directly through the United Nations and does not go through any governmental organisations within Zimbabwe. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met the head of our Zimbabwe office only last week, and those assurances were reaffirmed. Let us send a very strong message from this House today that we expect Mugabe to honour the commitments that were made in the agreement on a political settlement. Until that happens, the people of Zimbabwe are suffering as a consequence of Mugabe’s failure to honour those commitments.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one issue to consider is that most countries monitor their own aid programme in parallel with those of other countries? Will he and his colleagues work with our partners in the European Union, and with the welcome new US Administration, to try to co-operate in order to maximise the amount of aid that is given on the front line and not waste it in duplication?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is important to note the progress that has been made. DFID has met seven of the 10 international targets on aid effectiveness agreed in the Paris declaration—that is three years ahead of schedule. The strong UK leadership from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the Accra agenda for action has been welcomed in terms of ensuring that the maximum amount of resources is spent on the front line to help the poorest people of the world. It is absolutely crucial that we ensure that the Accra agenda for action is implemented.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Of course, there are clear international standards and transparency in terms of what we expect to be the consequences for those who are found to misuse our aid. It is not necessarily for us to dictate how the criminal justice systems in those countries operate and how they bring people to justice, but the principle of accountability and responsibility is non-negotiable, and wherever corruption is discovered we expect the toughest conceivable action to be taken.
One of the things that most disrupts the effective disbursal of aid is conflict. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the additional support being given in the DRC; could the Under-Secretary say a bit more about what we are doing to ensure effective humanitarian aid access in that part of the world?
My hon. Friend is probably aware that we recently announced an additional £5 million in aid for humanitarian support to the DRC. That takes our contribution to £42.8 million. We have specifically focused on the north Kivu area, and some of the funds will be used to fly in essential items at the request of UNICEF, whose stocks are low. We still await further details on the situation before we consider the next stage of our assistance.
I am very optimistic that President-elect Obama will find a slot in his diary for me in the next few days—[Laughter.] I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be delighted about that.
I am sure that all in the House would want to acknowledge what a momentous and historic event occurred in the United States of America yesterday. We send President-elect Obama our best wishes, and we believe that he will be a positive and progressive partner in tackling poverty in all parts of the world. It is one of the most encouraging things that has happened, politically, in my lifetime and it gives us all hope that the USA will make a tremendously positive contribution to tackling some of the world’s most serious problems.
It is welcome that aid in the past 20 years has focused on health and education, but that was at the expense of agriculture, and this year already an additional 100 million people in the developing world have been pushed into poverty. What adaptation is the Under-Secretary making to the overseas development programme, particularly on the issue of water security, which will undoubtedly be the prime security issue in the 21st century?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Agriculture is absolutely essential, as is water security. In that connection, we have recently announced £400 million of additional investment in research. There was a period when the world deprioritised the importance of agriculture, but we will make our contribution, and we recognise that agriculture is an important part of the opportunities available to the developing world to progress.
I welcome the Under-Secretary and his fellow Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), to their new responsibilities in the Department. We wish them all the best for the future.
Building on the Minister’s comment about President-elect Obama, we now have the prospect of a new form of leadership in the United States. With regard to the partnership that the hon. Gentleman talked about, does he agree that one of the early priorities must be to ensure that aid levels are maintained? In the course of the current economic uncertainty, nobody in the world should scale down what they are offering. In that regard, does he agree that persuading the US to adopt a timetable to reach the UN aid target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national income must be an early priority?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that the 0.7 per cent. target remains the UK’s aim. We also believe that the world’s current economic difficulties reinforce the interdependency of our world. Rather than being seen as a threat to development investment, we should use those difficulties as an opportunity to explain to our populations and to all the donor countries why supporting the developing world in an economically difficult period is even more important.
As my hon. Friend knows, the most effective way in which to tackle poverty is through good governance and capacity locally, especially when women are involved in local projects. Will he assure me that DFID programmes will always address those long-term issues, despite the short-term need to tackle immediate problems, such as those in the DRC? Maintaining such projects in the long run is the most effective way in which to effect genuine change and make a difference to people in the poorest countries in the world.
I agree with my hon. Friend entirely. It is important that change is sustainable and long term. We achieve that only by building up the authorities, the administration and the governance arrangements in those countries, and supporting all sections of society to fulfil their potential and ensure that their talent is deployed for the benefit of their country. There is no doubt that many women in those countries could play a much greater leadership role at village, community and political level. A major part of DFID policy is ensuring that we tackle gender inequality, which continues to hold back too much of the developing world.
On this great day for change, we, too, welcome the Under-Secretary to his new responsibilities. We also welcome the additional humanitarian aid for the Congo, which DFID announced at the weekend.
I hope that the Minister has read with concern the report by the respected National Audit Office, which found that a large percentage of development projects in conflict zones suffer from fraud or problems with financial accountability. What do he and the Department plan to do to tackle that?
First, let me say that I suspect that last night marked the death of the illusion of compassionate conservatism. It was always an illusion.
The serious response to the question is that we have always made it clear, and have been complimented on that by the National Audit Office, that maximum transparency and accountability are at the core of not only the way in which we go about our business in the Department, but the leadership that we provide in international institutions. My right hon. Friend’s contribution at Accra meant that, from a weak starting point, we have a robust commitment to ensuring maximum value for money and best governance practice.
Given that response, why does the Under-Secretary not announce today that he will implement in full the Conservative party’s proposal to set up an independent aid evaluation agency in London? Would not that give taxpayers confidence that their aid money was being spent efficiently and effectively?
The 2006 OECD Development Assistance Committee peer review of the United Kingdom states:
“UK offers a powerful model for development co-operation. The UK is currently seen by many aid practitioners and donors as one of the bilateral models for today’s evolving world of development co-operation.”
The Canadian International Development Agency stated:
“DFID is seen as the best development organisation internationally”.
The hon. Gentleman should congratulate one of the UK’s greatest success stories.
Climate change poses a serious and long-term threat to development in poor countries. To tackle this, the Department is pushing for an ambitious new global agreement to combat climate change. Our core business of lifting people out of poverty is still the most effective way of reducing the impact of climate change on the world’s poorest people. We are supporting countries to integrate climate change adaptation into their development plans, and doing the same for our bilateral aid programmes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply and it is good to see him in his new role.
In recent years, the intensity and frequency of flooding in Bangladesh seems to have increased substantially. What are the Government doing to help that nation, which is one of the poorest, to tackle climate change?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Bangladesh’s geography and poverty combine to make it especially vulnerable to climate change. DFID has helped to raise the floors of some 32,000 homes in Bangladesh—the equivalent of a small city in our country—above the one-in-100-year flood level. In addition, we have announced a £75 million programme to help the country to adapt further to rising sea levels, waterlogged land and increased saline intrusion.
The Minister will be aware—and it is worth reminding the House—that the Select Committee on International Development is about to embark on an inquiry into sustainable development in a changing climate. Does he agree that it is important for those of us in the west tackling climate change to understand that developing countries that have developed niche markets, selling, for instance, flowers and vegetables to the United Kingdom, can do so sustainably? Does he agree that we should continue to support those countries, rather than stop buying such goods, as some people have called for, which sustain thousands of jobs in Africa?
May I begin by congratulating the right hon. Gentleman on his work on the International Development Committee? I look forward to appearing before his Committee in that inquiry. He is absolutely right about enabling developing countries to grow in a sustainable fashion. I think that he and I would both agree that climate-smart development is the way for the future.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one immediate and visible sign of climate change is food shortages in developing countries? What is his Department doing to improve people’s nutritional status and stop the hunger, especially among children, in sub-Saharan Africa?
In addition to the humanitarian aid that we obviously give in such circumstances, we are embarking on a major piece of research, with some £400 million being invested over the next five years, so that in the long term we can help to cultivate drought-resistant maize and saline-resistant rice for waterlogged countries.
The Minister may be aware that drought and water problems are extremely difficult to overcome for parts of Africa and other parts of the world. As chairman of the all-party group on water and sanitation in the third world, which enjoys the support of 250 Members of Parliament, may I ask him to say what steps are being taken to satisfy organisations such as WaterAid and Tearfund, which recently made representations to the Department because of the shortfall in the amount of money being made available for sanitation and water?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Just last week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State launched DFID’s new water and sanitation strategy. Part of that strategy accepts the fact that there are 1 billion people living in developing countries who still have no access to toilets and 900 million people who have no access to clean water. Through that strategy and the good work of organisations such as WaterAid, we intend to build toilets for more than 50 million people and provide clean water for an additional 25 million people in the developing world.
Now that Britain is the biggest contributor to the World Bank’s International Development Association—or IDA—window, which funds grant aid to the least developed countries, we are in a particularly strong position to influence bank policy. What contribution do the Government want the World Bank to make to adaptation to climate change in the poorest countries of the world?
May I, too, welcome the Minister to his new post? Does he agree that consensus on a post-Kyoto agreement at Potsdam next month is essential to protect some of the poorest people on the planet? In that connection, what strategy have he and his colleagues in other Departments adopted to deal with the new President-elect Obama, who has already stated that he wishes to re-engage in the UN process and, in particular, to introduce a new and effective carbon cap-and-trade system?
May I say how much we welcome the pledges made during the election campaign by President-elect Obama? We are pushing for a post-2012 agreement on climate change and as part of that campaign we believe that it is important to engage with our European allies and European partners. If I could just tease the hon. Gentleman, I would say that isolation in the European Union is not good for the developing world or for climate change.
International Development Funding
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stated as recently as 17 October:
“By 2013, the UK Government will reach our target of spending 0.7 per cent. of national income on aid. We have clearly laid out our plans to the reach this goal and we are encouraging our partners to do likewise.”
Actis Capital, the opaque private equity company created in 2004 to invest the then Commonwealth Development Corporation’s funds, made $50 million profit in 2007 from sources such as a financial services company in South Africa and a hotel chain in China. How satisfied is my right hon. Friend with Actis’s use of public money at a time when aid budgets are under such pressure? Could it not be put to far better use in agriculture, health, education and infrastructure projects in the developing world?
CDC, which has worked with Actis in recent years, has accumulated capital while investing significant sums of money in the developing world. The need for continued flows of capital to the developing world has only increased in recent months and that is why it is important that, for example, the World Bank increases counter-cyclical lending. That is why we want to see other institutions, including CDC, continue to put capital into the developing world. Aid alone will never be sufficient to meet the challenge of poverty.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of the soldier from 2nd Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday. In the week leading to Remembrance Sunday, we should remember the debt of gratitude that we owe to all those who have laid down their lives in service of our country.
Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sincere congratulations to Senator Barack Obama on winning the presidency of the United States and writing a new chapter in history in doing so. The bonds that unite the United States and the UK are vital to our prosperity and security and I know from talking to Senator Obama that he will be a true friend of Britain. The Government look forward to working with the new Administration as we both help people fairly through the downturn. I also want to pay tribute to Senator McCain, who has shown the characteristic dignity that has marked a lifetime of service to his country.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I add my condolences to the family of the dead soldier?
Over the next few weeks, the residents of Greater Manchester will have the opportunity to vote in the referendum on introducing congestion charging in return for £1.5 billion of Government investment in public transport. Many people support road pricing but do not support the scheme. Will the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]
I know that the voting paper has options for a “Yes” vote and a “No” vote, but I am afraid that there is no option for a “Don’t know” vote. In the event of a “No” vote, it would be up to Greater Manchester authorities to decide whether they wanted to do further work on the proposals. The Government are in principle prepared to contribute, as the hon. Gentleman has said, up to £1.5 billion towards the Greater Manchester package, but that is dependent on the broad scope and nature of the package remaining the same. If Greater Manchester came back with a revised proposition, we would need to assess it on its merits.
The Prime Minister will be aware that this weekend South Africa will host the Southern African Development Community conference to discuss Zimbabwe and the atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Will he continue to do all he can to ensure that the African leaders and the rest of the world realise that Zimbabwe, under the leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai, has resisted violence and stuck to peaceful and democratic means, and to ensure that that country is not sidelined because of what is happening in the DRC?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s long-term interest in Zimbabwe issues. I gather that the Speaker of the Zimbabwe Parliament is with us in this building today. I am determined that the international community act in a strong, united and decisive way on this issue. We have offered humanitarian aid—food aid going into Zimbabwe—but we regret that, despite all the discussions led by former President Mbeki, no agreement has yet been reached on the future of Zimbabwe and the personnel in the Government.
While we are determined to avoid a catastrophe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—and we will take action as the Foreign Secretary said—by giving humanitarian aid and protecting civilians, and while Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will visit the DRC in the next few days, a regional summit will be held to look further into this matter and a UN envoy will, I believe, be appointed very soon, I can assure my hon. Friend that we will not take our eyes off the humanitarian aid that we need to give to Zimbabwe and that we will not stop applying pressure for a political settlement that recognises the democratic will of the Zimbabwean people.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the soldier from the Royal Gurkha Rifles who died in Musa Qala? We should honour his memory.
I join the Prime Minister in congratulating Barack Obama on his stunning victory in the American elections, and I also pay tribute to John McCain, not least for the gracious way in which he conceded. This really is an important moment—to have gone from the horror of segregation to the election of a black President in just four decades is an incredible transformation. It shows that the United States really is a beacon of hope, opportunity and change. I read this morning that the Prime Minister has sent a message to the President-elect; presumably it was not, “This is no time for a novice.”
Back to the business in hand. This week, the European Commission said that Britain faces a deeper recession next year than the United States, Japan or any major EU economy. The Prime Minister kept telling us that Britain was better prepared to face the recession. In fact, we are the worst prepared. Why was he wrong?
That was the only time I have ever heard the right hon. Gentleman quoting the European Commission. I have to tell him that the reason we are better prepared than other countries is that we have had low interest rates for years; we are now getting inflation down and it will come down further next year; we have high levels of employment—higher than in almost every other major industrial country; and we can come through this. At the same time, corporate balance sheets are strong outside the financial sector, and they are not in the position that they were in when the right hon. Gentleman was the adviser to the Chancellor in 1992. I also have to tell him that we are taking the long-term decisions for this country—on nuclear power, energy, infrastructure and planning—but we are not supported by the Conservative party.
The Prime Minister cannot hide from this: if we are better prepared, why is our recession forecast to be deeper? For years, he stood there reading out lists of countries that he told us we were beating. Yet according to the Commission, our recession next year will be worse than in Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Greece or the United States. In fact, there are just two countries that we will do better than—Estonia and Latvia. They escaped the grip of Stalin; we are still in it. Just this weekend, the Prime Minister told people once again that Britain was “better prepared”. Why did he get it wrong?
I said that Britain is better prepared because of the reasons I have just given the right hon. Gentleman. He does not understand that since we rejected his policies and made the Bank of England independent and took the right course, we have had 10 years of economic growth, 10 years of stability, and 10 years in which 3 million jobs have been created. The right hon. Gentleman wants to compare the recent figures for European Union member states: Germany was in negative growth in the second quarter, France was in negative growth in the second quarter, Italy was in negative growth in the second quarter, and Ireland is in negative growth. We were not in negative growth in the second quarter.
The Prime Minister talks about his great decisions on the Bank of England; the terrible decision was to take it out of regulating the level of debt in the economy. Is not one of the reasons why our recession is predicted to be deeper that we have such high levels of personal debt? Will he confirm that we in fact have the highest level of household debt of any major economy? Does he not understand that we cannot build new Jerusalem on a mountain of debt?
If I can take debt overall in our economy—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman usually likes to quote the International Monetary Fund, rather than the European Union. Let us look at debt levels in 2008: 37.6 per cent. public debt in the UK, compared with 55.5 per cent. in France, 56.1 per cent. in Germany, 101.3 per cent. in Italy and 94.3 per cent. in Japan. We have to look at personal and public debt together, and that is what we will do.
The IMF repeatedly warned this Government about the high levels of both personal and Government debt. I do not know why the Prime Minister did not just agree with my question, because this is what he said to the Labour conference in 1995. [Interruption.] It is another quote, and perhaps Labour Members would like to listen to it. These were the great words of the leader. [Interruption.] Why do Labour Members not listen for a change? [Interruption.]
I do not know why the right hon. Member for Normanton (Ed Balls), was shouting, but it was almost certainly “Balls”.
The Prime Minister said:
“I say to those who propose we simply tax, spend and borrow that it is because I care…about our responsibility to future generations that I tell you…we will not build the New Jerusalem on a mountain of debt”.
The facts are that we have the highest personal debt of any country in the world, one of the highest budget deficits in the world, and our regulation system has failed. In fact it failed so badly that the Prime Minister’s new Treasury Minister, Lord Myners, told the House of Lords this week that he wanted there to be a public inquiry into the regulatory failure. Can the Prime Minister tell us when we will have that public inquiry?
The Financial Services Secretary said no such thing, and I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is proving every time he speaks in the House that he is a novice in parliamentary procedure. When I referred to debt, I referred to low national public debt, and that is exactly what we have achieved since 1997 by reducing debt from 44 per cent. of national income to 38 per cent. this year. The Conservative party left us with higher levels of debt, and if the right hon. Gentleman wants to go back in history, he should remember his role as economic adviser to the Conservative Government when 3 million people were unemployed and, at the same time, we had interest rates at 18 per cent. As for borrowing, last week the shadow Chancellor said borrowing was the wrong approach. The Leader of the Opposition, however, said that borrowing
“is inevitable and you have to allow that to happen.”
The only change they represent is that they change their minds every week.
The Prime Minister says that I have in some way misrepresented what Lord Myners said. Let me explain exactly what he said. In the other place, Lord Lea asked him:
“If we are going to hold inquiries, do we not need a wider public inquiry?”
Lord Myners replied:
“My Lords, I agree with my noble friend.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 November 2008; Vol. 705, c. 16.]
That is what he said. [Interruption.] That is the whole thing. He said we should have a public inquiry, and we should have one. Is not the truth that in Britain people are losing their homes, small businesses are closing, unemployment is rising and manufacturing output is falling again and that, by refusing to hold a public inquiry, the Prime Minister is yet again demonstrating that he cannot provide the change people want? On the day the American people voted for change, are not people in this country entitled to ask how much longer they will have to put up with more of the same from a Government who have failed?
The reason why the American people have voted is that they want progressive policies. They voted for a fiscal stimulus, opposed by the conservative; they voted for a rise in minimum wage, opposed by the conservative; they voted for regulation of pensions and mortgages, opposed by the conservative; they voted for tax credits, opposed by the conservative. The truth is that the Conservative party’s policies are rejected in America and in Britain by people who do not want to pursue them.
If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, on this day of all days, I believe that we should end this exchange by recognising the truly historic significance for America of the decision that has been made by the American people. They have demonstrated again and again the enduring strengths of their democracy and their values, and we will work closely with the new Administration, because their progressive policies are similar to ours.
We have already raised the winter allowance for pensioners, and it will be paid in the next few weeks; that is £250 for the over-60s and £400 for the over-80s. We are already coming down hard on the gas and electricity companies so that social tariffs—that is, the same rate as last year—are available to many low-income families in this country. We are continuing to talk to the electricity and gas companies about how the £900 million levy that we charged upon them can be used to give greater help to people who are poor or low-income, and to families on modest incomes as well. We will continue to do what we can to help people through these difficult times.
I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of the soldier from the Royal Gurkha Rifles who tragically lost his life in Afghanistan this week. Of course, I would also like, on behalf of all Liberal Democrats, to join in congratulating Barack Obama on his extraordinary victory as the new President of the United States, and to wish him luck, because the hopes and expectations that people have of him to change America and change the world are immense.
The Prime Minister just said that he shares lots of policies with the new President-elect, so he will be aware that the central policy that Barack Obama fought on in his election was to cut taxes for people on low and middle incomes, paid for by the very wealthy. Why will the Prime Minister not do the same here?
The fact is that this Prime Minister has fixed things so that a millionaire pays less in tax on their capital gains than their cleaner does on their wages. He is not learning from Barack Obama; he is copying the Conservatives, who want to cut more taxes for millionaires and not give an extra penny to anyone else. So will he cancel his special tax breaks for the very wealthy to put more money into the pockets of hard-pressed families right now?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman is a bit behind the times. We raised capital gains tax from 10 per cent., and at the same time we took action on non-domiciles in the United Kingdom, but I have to remind him that a tax and spending policy must add up. If he is going to propose £20 billion of public spending cuts, he is out of touch with the British people.
Is it not 40 years ago that Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream”, and was that dream not fulfilled in the election yesterday? Given that the Prime Minister will be in the United States on 15 November for a financial conference with President Bush, will he also take time to see the President-elect to discuss the many issues of foreign policy that we have together?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who undoubtedly underlines the significance of what has happened in the United States: more people voting than ever before; the first black President elected by the American people; and more young people engaged in political debate than ever before. I will continue my discussions with Senator Obama, the President-elect, and I hope to talk to him very soon.
There are more people in education than ever before. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will go back to look at the statistics, which show that the number of young people and the number of adults who have been benefiting from our courses since 1997 is far greater than was ever the case in the years before—we wish to continue that. One example of this is the apprenticeship, which is available to adults as well as to young people. We have trebled the number of apprenticeships in recent years.
President-elect Obama has consistently opposed the war in Iraq since 2002, and he has made it his stated policy to withdraw all US combat troops by April 2010. That is a very significant policy change. Does my right hon. Friend consider it a change in which we should all believe?
I announced in July that, as we completed our mission in Iraq, there would be a fundamental change in what our troops do in the first half of next year. We have, of course, completed a lot of work in training the Iraqi forces, and we will continue to do that until completion. We wish to pass control of the airport across to Iraqi authorities. We wish to help to speed up economic development in Basra, and we wish to see the local elections take place. We have moved from a role in combat to one of overwatch, and we will have a further fundamental change of mission next year.
First, we do not own the Abbey National bank; it is owned by Santander. The second thing that I must point out to the hon. Gentleman is that interest rates have been cut from 5¾ per cent. to 4½ per cent, and the Bank has said that there is more scope for interest rate cuts. May I explain to the Conservatives what we have been trying to do in the past few weeks? We have been trying to get the liquidity into the system, recapitalise our banks and then get them to resume the lending that is necessary. The LIBOR has decreased from 6.25 per cent. to 5.25 per cent. We are starting to make progress, but I agree with what he says: that we want the banks and building societies to pass on the interest rate cuts to their mortgage holders.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the President-elect’s inspirational address identified a number of key objectives, one of which was to help “a planet in peril”? Does my right hon. Friend agree that this time of economic downturn is one in which to invest in infrastructure for a low-carbon future, both in the public and private sector, and to work with the new US Administration on a new green deal that would benefit us all?
That is exactly what we want to do. We are committed to an 80 per cent. cut in carbon emissions by 2050. I believe that the policy is similar to that of the incoming US Administration. We want to work together towards an agreed solution in Copenhagen next year. We recognise that there are benefits in jobs, as well as in reductions in carbon emissions. That is why a new deal for the environment in America and Britain can create thousands of jobs for people in both continents.
I know that my hon. Friend has taken a great interest in these matters. We are discussing them with the devolved Administrations to deliver a coherent approach across the United Kingdom. The Government continue to prepare the Bill for introduction early in the fourth Session and do not intend to reduce its scope or coverage.
That was a sad incident involving the deaths of young people serving our country. However, in recent years, we have done our best to provide the necessary equipment. We have spent more than £1 billion on new vehicles for operations. In 2006, we ordered 108 Mastiffs and, in 2007, took steps to increase vehicle numbers. We ordered 150 Ridgbacks and the first Jackals as part of a constant review of capability. In June, operational commanders were asked by the Defence Minister to look again at our vehicle options. More armoured vehicles were decided upon, and last week we were able to announce the purchase of nearly 700 vehicles and an upgrade of more than 200 vehicles. That is a total of 1,200 new vehicles, and that is why the Conservative Chairman of the Defence Committee said:
“The personal equipment that our Armed Forces now have is better than it’s ever been.”
Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who are pro-American hope that the very welcome result of the presidential election will result in the United States regaining the respect of the international community? When the new President-elect takes office next year, I hope that one of the first steps he will take will be to end the torture of political prisoners. That would be a very welcome step.
I, too, want to do my best to help charities. We created Gift Aid, which allowed them to get very considerable relief, and over recent years we have given substantial money to work in partnership with charities. Of course, we will consider anything that helps to protect the charitable sector, and we are already considering a number of measures through which to do so.
We are doing our best to work with other countries. One of the reasons I went to the Gulf was to talk to other countries about how we can better prepare for the future. The Conservative party opposed all our measures on Northern Rock, and on the banking crisis and HBOS. The shadow Chancellor opposed what we did on share speculation. Conservative Members also opposed what we did on regulation—they wanted deregulation. They have no answers to the problems facing the country.
Does the Prime Minister agree that it would be an absurd dumbing down of the principle of democracy if last week he felt himself able, quite rightly, to express his views about the antics of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross as employees of the independent BBC but felt himself unable this week to express his views about the increasingly obvious fact that the independent Bank of England has moved too slowly and by too small a margin to reduce interest rates?
We are committed to greater fairness in the NHS, and we know the worries of people who have long-term illnesses. We have agreed to abolish prescription charges for all cancer patients next year, and we are committed to abolishing charges for everyone with a long-term condition as we deliver savings in the drugs budget over the coming years. [Interruption.] The Conservatives are clearly not interested in the future of the NHS. We created it, and we are interested.
We have worked very closely with America over the past few months on the economic crisis. President Bush has called the leaders’ meeting in Washington, and there has been a co-ordinated cut in interest rates, led by the central banks of America. Britain and Europe. I believe that, over the next few months, we will have to work even more closely to deal with the international and national repercussions of what is happening in the economies of the world. Senator Obama has already indicated that he wishes more co-ordinated global action on these matters, and I believe that we will be able to work together very closely and lead the world in taking us through these difficult times.