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Engagements

Volume 482: debated on Wednesday 12 November 2008

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.

The Prime Minister will be painfully aware that since the 1930s, no Labour Government have left office with unemployment lower than when they entered office, and usually after a recession. Will his Labour Government be any different?

We have created 3 million jobs in the last 10 years, and even with the rise in unemployment, it is lower than having 3 million unemployed under the Conservatives. We never said that unemployment was a price worth paying; it was the Conservatives.

Paul Krugman, who has recently won the Nobel prize for economics, has said that people

“ask what I think should be done about the financial crisis.”

He said:

“The answer is, what Gordon Brown is doing in Britain”.

If the rest of the world is following Britain, will my right hon. Friend tell the House where that will leave those at home who oppose the action that we are taking to give the economy the boost it needs?

Let me congratulate Mr. Krugman on his Nobel prize. I think that people are beginning to understand around the world that we are dealing with a new situation of lower inflation next year, a downturn and a credit crunch. That requires very special measures to deal with unprecedented circumstances. I believe that around the world there is now increasing support for the policy that we have put forward, in addition to the recapitalisation of the banks, and that is a fiscal stimulus to back up interest rate cuts. While the Conservatives say that that is unacceptable to them, it is now happening in Germany, France, Spain, Australia, China and America. It is about time the Conservatives entered the real world.

Only this Prime Minister could be quite so smug on the day that 140,000 people have lost their jobs. Before turning to the economy, however, I want to ask the Prime Minister about the tragic death of Baby P. That happened in the same children’s services department that was responsible for Victoria Climbié. Yet again, nobody is taking responsibility and nobody has resigned. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Haringey inquiry is completely unacceptable? It is being led by Mrs. Shoesmith, who is the council’s own director of children’s services. Does the Prime Minister agree that she cannot possibly investigate the failure of her own department?

Let me say first—I believe that I speak for the whole country—that people are not only shocked and saddened but horrified and angered by what they have seen reported about what happened to an innocent 17-month-old boy. Every child is precious and every child is unique. Every child should have the benefit of support and protection both from their parents and from the authorities.

The tragedy that has arisen from the violence and torture of a young child, where three have already been found guilty, raises serious questions that we have to address. The first set of questions is being addressed by Lord Laming, who is now looking at social service protection for children in every part of the country. He carried out the Victoria Climbié inquiry, and I believe that his recommendations were accepted by all parties in this House as being necessary. He will now look at what at what needs to be done.

The second issue is in Haringey itself. There has been a serious case review, and the executive report already says that there have been failings and weaknesses in the system. The full report has now arrived with the Children’s Secretary this morning. It is now for the Government to take action, and we will make a decision about what procedures and processes we will adopt in relation to Haringey. I believe that that is the right thing to do—both a national review, and local action.

Let me ask the Prime Minister again about the local review. Sharon Shoesmith, who is carrying it out, said—[Interruption.] Hon. Members should worry about this matter, as this is a local authority that has completely failed. She said that her service had “worked effectively”. Now, the Prime Minister’s own Children’s Minister said very recently:

“Many areas set up their safeguarding board with the local director of children’s services as chair. That’s something that frankly does concern me.”

So let me ask again: is it not unacceptable that the person who runs the children’s services department is responsible for looking into what her own department did?

The procedure that was created after the inquiry by Laming said that local authority directors of children’s services and local members had to accept their responsibility. We created local safeguarding children’s boards—[Interruption.] I am answering the questions. We did so to safeguard children in the area. When an incident like this happens, which is so tragic, a special report has to be done, which is then submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. The report arrived on his desk this morning. We already have the executive summary that was published yesterday and which identified weaknesses in the system. A decision will be made about what to do in relation to Haringey and what procedures need to be followed. I believe that there was all-party support for the Laming report when it was done, and that this is the right way forward.

I asked a straightforward question and have got absolutely no answer. Just on the most basic—[Interruption.]

Order. Please allow the right hon. Gentleman to be heard. It will not do for us to shout across the Chamber after this terrible news has come to us. It is best to let the right hon. Gentleman speak—[Interruption.] Order. I have made a decision and no one will defy the Chair.

I tell you what is shameful, and that is trying to shout down someone who is asking reasonable questions about something that has gone wrong. Let us be honest: this is a story about a 17-year-old girl who had no idea how to bring up a child. It is about a boyfriend who could not read but who could beat a child, and it is about a social services department that gets £100 million a year and cannot look after children. That is what this is about.

In the case of failing schools, we take them over. In this department in Haringey, one in four positions for social workers is completely vacant. It does nothing to help struggling local schools that are failing, and another child has been beaten to death. I do not expect an answer now, because we never get one, but will the Prime Minister at least consider whether the time has come to take over this failing department and put someone in charge who can run it properly for our children?

I think that we are both agreed that this is a tragic and serious loss of life that has got to be investigated properly so that all the lessons can be learned. I think that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that appointing Lord Laming to go around the country and look at what is happening in each area so that we are assured about what is happening is the right thing to do. I think that the right hon. Gentleman has to accept that the executive summary, which has already been published, from the inquiry done in Haringey shows that weaknesses exist. There is an admission of weaknesses that have to be addressed. We have received the full report this morning, and we will act on it quickly. We will do it in the right way so that we come to the judgments that are necessary to protect children in the future. I regret making a party political issue of this matter—[Interruption.] I do regret that, because I think—[Interruption.]

I think that the whole country shares the outrage, wants to see action and will support the action that is taken both nationally and in relation to Haringey.

I think that what the Prime Minister said just now was, frankly, cheap. I am not making—[Interruption.] I asked some perfectly reasonable questions about a process that is wrong, and I would ask the Prime Minister to withdraw the attack that that was about party politics.

I am absolutely clear about this. There is common ground on both sides of the House, and we should maximise our agreement on these issues about this very sad and tragic case. We have immediately taken action to set up an independent inquiry under Lord Laming, who has a great deal of expertise in this issue, and I believe all people will support it. Action will be taken in relation to Haringey, because we have just received the full report and the executive summary has already identified the weaknesses. We have acted immediately after the end of the court case, and we will continue to take action, because what really matters is the protection of young children in every part of the country.

You accused me of party politics about this—[Interruption.] My apologies, Mr. Speaker; he accused me of—[Interruption.]

Order. I appeal to the House again: it is not good, at a time when we have heard this news about a little child who has gone before us, that we should be shouting across the Chamber. Let the Leader of the Opposition speak, and also—[Interruption.] Well, if the Leader of the House lets me do my job, she can do her job. Let the Leader of the Opposition, and also the Prime Minister, speak.

The Prime Minister accused me of playing party politics. I did not mention who runs this council—I did not mention who ran it when Victoria Climbié was tragically killed—and all I am asking is that the Prime Minister withdraws his accusation that I was in any way playing party politics, and not asking a perfectly reasonable question about a tragic case. I was putting to him a point made by his own Children’s Secretary, so I ask the Prime Minister one more time: please just withdraw the accusation that I was playing party politics, because he knows I was not.

I think the whole House will now want to find unity around these three things: first, this tragic incident must be investigated in every possible way; secondly, the Lord Laming review is the right inquiry to have; and thirdly, now that the full case review has arrived with the Children’s Secretary, he will take the necessary action. I hope the whole House can agree that these are the right things to do, and we are doing the right things to get the right answer.

Obviously the Prime Minister does not feel able to withdraw what he said. Let me ask him one more time about the central point, which does not apply only in Haringey, but may well be a problem elsewhere, as his own Children’s Minister has said. We have a system that allows directors of children’s services to examine the conduct of their own department. That is wrong in every other walk of life. It must be wrong in social services, where we are dealing with the most difficult and sensitive decisions. Will he at least take away what his children’s spokesman has said, and say, “You should not investigate your own conduct”? It is simple: give a pledge.

The report that will be done will be independent. The local safeguarding children’s board has a responsibility to co-ordinate safeguarding action for children. The Lord Laming report will be independent. It will be conducted in such a way that it reviews the findings since the Victoria Climbié case. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman does not recognise that we have taken action immediately after the court case. We have set up an independent inquiry under Lord Laming. The report on the case review itself has arrived just this morning. That report will be acted on immediately. Surely it is in the interests of all of us to think of a young child and what we can do to make sure that this never happens again.

Consumer Focus has criticised the strategy of the Department for Work and Pensions on the replacement of the Post Office card account as being too narrowly focused on delivering an almost identical product at lower cost, rather than on the needs of Post Office card account users and the innovations that can meet those needs. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that priority is given to the needs of Post Office card account users, and that the opportunity of replacing the account is taken to improve on social inclusion, rather than the reverse?

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. I know that concern has been expressed by the whole House about the future of the Post Office card account. We are looking at these matters very carefully indeed. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will make a statement in due course.

Week after week, I have called on the Prime Minister to cut taxes to give help to people on low and middle incomes, and he is now raising expectations that he will do just that, but why should anyone believe him? This is the Prime Minister who will not take responsibility for people losing their jobs, but did take credit for a bank rescue plan that he copied. This is the man who doubled the tax rate for 5 million of the poorest people in the country, and called it a tax cut. When it comes to taxes, he may pretend that he is Robin Hood, but he is no more than a petty pickpocket. People do not need more cynical tinkering. What people need are tax cuts that are big, permanent and fair.

If we had listened to the Liberal party’s advice, we would be cutting public expenditure by £20 billion this year. That is not the policy that I believe it is right to follow. I hope that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will support not only the recapitalisation of the banks, but the fiscal and monetary stimulus that ought to be co-ordinated worldwide, and ought not to be happening just in one single country. It is the ability of countries to work together and to co-ordinate that work worldwide that I think will be important to recovery in every country.

The Prime Minister can misrepresent me all he likes, but he needs to get on and represent the millions of British families who are suffering under his unfair tax system. Right now, millionaires pay less than half the tax that they should on their capital gains. Top earners get an £8 billion tax bonus on their pensions. Up to £40 billion is lost in tax avoidance every year. When will he put an end to these tax breaks, and give ordinary people big tax cuts that are simple, immediate, permanent and fair?

First, we have raised capital gains tax from 10 to 18 per cent. Secondly, we have closed tax loopholes and continue to do so in every Budget. Where they are found, we take action when it is necessary. Thirdly, I come back to the point: what sort of stimulus to the economy would it be to cut £20 billion of public spending at the moment?

A few weeks ago in this House, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the Government’s major contractors would be paid within 10 days. Unfortunately, that fantastic undertaking has not been passed on to the smaller contractors who work for the larger suppliers. That has meant that my constituents have gone belly-up, even though they have done work for the Government. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor invited me to go to Lord Mandelson and ask him for an appointment to discuss the issue. That offer has now been withdrawn by Lord Mandelson, but my constituents still wish to meet him to discuss this important matter. Will the Prime Minister do all that he can to make Lord Mandelson change his mind?

I know that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issues.

Q2. For almost 200 years, the Gurkhas have served in the British Army with loyalty and distinction. Last Tuesday, a Gurkha was killed in Afghanistan. Also last Tuesday, the Home Affairs Committee resolved unanimously to call on the Government to allow those Gurkhas who retired before 1997 the right to live in this country, just as those who have left the Army since 1997 can. Will the Prime Minister take the necessary action, particularly in light of a High Court judgment on this matter in September, to allow Gurkhas who retired pre-1997 to live in the UK? (234809)

The High Court judgment is being examined by the Home Secretary. There are a number of cases in which people have applied to come into the United Kingdom. Those issues are being reviewed by the Home Secretary now. We have always been clear that where there is a compelling case, soldiers and their families should be considered for settlement. However, in the light of the Court’s ruling, we are now going to revise and publish new guidance in the near future. We pay tribute to the Gurkhas, who have fought for the United Kingdom for two centuries. They have served in conflicts throughout the world. They are operating in Iraq and continue to serve with great distinction in Afghanistan. Gurkhas who have served after 1997 have the ability to come into this country, and we are now reviewing the situation that has arisen because of the judgment.

Q3. Friday is world diabetes day, and next week schoolchildren with diabetes will come to Parliament to seek our support. Will the Prime Minister ensure that they get every bit of help that they need at school to manage their diabetes effectively so that they can take up every opportunity that education offers? (234810)

The Government are committed to improving the quality of diabetes care, and as my hon. Friend said, world diabetes day is on Friday 14 November. We understand particularly that some children have difficulty getting access to the diabetes care and support that they need at school, and a working group has been set up to look at the issue. The group includes parents of children with diabetes, and various organisations, including Diabetes UK and the Royal College of Surgeons. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is in close liaison with the Department of Health and has given guidance on managing medicine in schools and early years learning, and that is what we will continue to do to help diabetes sufferers.

President-elect Obama showed excellent political judgment by opposing the Iraq war, in contrast with the Prime Minister, who supported and funded it. Notwithstanding the excellent work of the troops on the ground in Iraq today, I ask: when will they come home and when will we have the inquiry into the war?

Iraq is now a democracy where it was not a democracy under Saddam Hussein. Children are now going to school, health services are being provided and economic development is moving forward in the Basra area, where our troops are best represented. We are now training thousands of Iraqi soldiers so that they can take on the task of defending Iraq itself, and we are also training thousands of policemen and women for the area. When the tasks of training are completed, we will have a fundamental change of mission, which will be similar to the relationship that we have with other countries, and I believe that we are making great progress in doing so.

Q4. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of today’s lobby by firefighters about the alarming number of deaths on duty. In the past five years, 22 firefighters have died, including 13 who were killed at fires. Does my right hon. Friend agree that lessons must be learned nationally to improve safety, training and emergency planning, so that firefighters, like everyone else, can expect to return home safe and sound at the end of their shift? Will he meet firefighters and bereaved families to discuss those concerns in more detail? (234811)

I am sure that the whole House will want to pay tribute to the work and the dedication of the fire services and the rescue services in our country, and to acknowledge our debt of gratitude both to those who risk their lives and to the many who have lost their lives in service. These people play a vital role in protecting our communities, and I am sure that our ministerial colleagues will be happy to meet the delegation.

Q5. The Prime Minister will be aware that people applying for a Warm Front grant to replace a central heating boiler that is broken are now being told that they will have to wait until March next year to have a new one installed, because of Government spending cuts. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is completely unacceptable, bordering on the inhumane, that some of the most vulnerable people in our society should have to exist without heating this winter because they cannot get help from a Government scheme that is intended to help them? (234812)

I think that we have just increased the amount of help that is available for the programme that the hon. Gentleman talks about. It is called Warm Front, and we are doing what we can to help. We have the biggest insulation and draft-proofing programme that the country has seen, and it has been funded by a levy of £900 million, which the utility companies have paid for. I hope that he agrees that we are doing more than ever to help people in conditions where they want either draft-proofing or insulation, and I shall look at what he says about the Warm Front operation in his area.

In this economic downturn, is it not a good thing that Members from all parts of the House are urging small firms to take advantage of the small business rate relief, especially given that the Leader of the Opposition voted against the measure in the first place? Is that not another example of the Tories following the Government’s lead?

Helping small businesses through this difficulty is one of the prime concerns that have led us to recapitalise the banks and to insist that lending be resumed to small businesses in our country. That is the central problem that we are addressing at the moment. There is a promise from the banks that have received money from us that they will maintain the advertising and availability of lending at the 2007 level. We met small businesses with the banks yesterday, and more work will be done on the matter. It is the essential element in making it possible for small businesses to have the cash flow that they need.

Q6. On 26 November, Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer’s disease, and representatives from the Alzheimer’s Research Trust will present a petition to No. 10 Downing street describing the Government’s funding of dementia research as “appalling”—it is just 3 per cent. of the medical research budget—and asking for an increase. Will the Prime Minister meet me, Terry Pratchett and experts from the Alzheimer’s Research Trust to discuss the issue? (234813)

Of course I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, but I have to say that we have set aside £15 billion over the next 10 years for the priorities of medical research, which include cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. I believe that the extra, additional money that we will spend on research in the next few years will help the sufferers of that terrible disease.

Q7. At times of financial pressure, it is the poor who pay the highest price. Will my right hon. Friend get the Government to get the regulators of the financial industries seriously to consider capping at 30 per cent. the interest rates of doorstep lenders and others who charge the poorest most? At the same time, that would give a real boost to credit unions, which give a practical, local alternative. (234814)

I agree with what my right hon. Friend says about credit unions. As we announced yesterday, the Government will work with the credit card industry to establish clearer rules and principles and bring forward a statement of best practice about how it will apply fair principles to existing debt. The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and his Department are in discussion with the industry about how we can help people who are facing difficulties with credit cards.

Q11. The Prime Minister has just said that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will make a statement in due course about the Post Office card account. Does the Prime Minister recognise that to local communities, local post offices are vital? These are small businesses that, particularly now, need exactly the sort of help that people have been talking about. Does the Prime Minister agree that the best way of helping these small businesses would be to award the Post Office card account contract to Post Office Ltd—not in due course, but today? (234818)

I know about the interests that people have in the future of the Post Office credit account, but the right hon. Gentleman must also remember that we are putting £2 billion into the post office network over the next three years. I thought that he would be appreciative of the fact that, given that we have given £2 billion in support in previous years, and are giving an extra £2 billion in the next three years, we are doing everything that we can to support the post office network.

Q8. Yesterday’s debate showed opposition to Heathrow expansion from both sides of the House. My constituents in west London face the prospect of intolerable damage to their quality of life as a result of an aviation strategy that is many years out of date. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the latest environmental and economic circumstances are considered before any decision is made on the third runway and mixed mode? (234815)

It was right to give the whole House the chance to debate the issue yesterday. We have said that we support in principle a third runway at Heathrow, but that is subject to being confident of meeting strict environmental conditions. Those are the conditions being reviewed by the Secretary of State for Transport at the moment.

I was leader of the opposition on Haringey council at the time of the Victoria Climbié tragedy, and I was told that lessons would be learned and that such a thing should never happen again. Yet it has happened again. Although I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday that Lord Laming would lead a national review of child protection services, in terms of Haringey that does not go far enough. I hear what the Prime Minister says about looking at the report, but that report will not guarantee the safety of children in my borough. I ask the Prime Minister to look at that report, but also to call for an independent public inquiry.

I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Lady has put the sets of issues that have to be addressed. The first set of issues that has to be addressed is about whether we can ensure the protection of children in all parts of the country following the Laming report after the Victoria Climbié case, and that we are determined to do. The second set of issues arises in Haringey itself, and the executive summary has already pointed to weaknesses in what is done there. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has received the report—now the full report—this morning, and he will take as quick action on that as is necessary and look at the procedures that need to be followed in Haringey itself.

Q9. With the pre-Budget report approaching, will my right hon. Friend be asking his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider the merits of a fuel duty stabiliser among his measures? (234816)

I think that the judgment of the shadow Chancellor on this matter does need to be questioned. The fuel duty stabiliser would mean that petrol, which is 97p a litre now, would have to rise today by 5p, and this is certainly not the right time to penalise motorists with a rise in petrol duty. [Interruption.] Oh, yes—5p extra a litre; that is the Conservative policy.

I explained a few minutes ago that we have been in a world where we have had high inflation combined with a credit crunch; now we are in a world where inflation is going down, and we have a credit crunch and a downturn. That is why we need new policies to deal with the matters ahead. The unfortunate thing is that the Opposition are still stuck in the old policy that failed in the past.

With the renewed emphasis on job creation, many local authorities have welcomed the financial support that the Government have provided in the form of the working neighbourhoods fund. Does my right hon. Friend think that this fund should be used to pay for town centre Christmas lights, however, as the Liberal Democrats have done in Chesterfield town centre?

The important thing at the moment is to do everything in our power to create jobs in every community, and that is what we will do.