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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 485: debated on Wednesday 17 December 2008

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

UN Conference (Poznan)

Among the outcomes from Poznan were further agreement to tackle deforestation and the provision of resources to support it; secondly, the launch of an adaptation fund to help developing countries begin to deal directly with the impact of climate change; and thirdly, agreement that serious negotiations to agree a post-Kyoto framework should now begin in earnest in the run-up to next year’s Copenhagen summit.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Given that the outcome of the Poznan conference represents a watering down of the commitment by European countries to prevent global warming or contributions to it from CO2 and yet the impact of any global warming—we can see this even if we are not climate alarmist, which I am certainly not—will fall most severely on the poorest countries, which have contributed least to the problem, does that not mean that our obligation to help them to adapt to change is increased? Does the Minister agree that the adaptation fund of some €60 million agreed at Poznan was inadequate to the scale of the problem and the obligation we have to the poorest countries?

I agree with much of the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis, but not all of it. I do not think that Poznan represents a watering down of Europe’s commitment. Indeed, the 2020 package agreed by Europe has helped to encourage a willingness among some of the larger developing nations, and indeed allies in other OECD countries, to negotiate seriously in the run-up to Copenhagen. The adaptation fund is just one part of the response that we need to help developing countries. I agree with him that more is needed, which is one of the reasons why, along with a number of other countries, we have commissioned a much broader piece of work in order to understand just how much additional finance, whether it be from the private or public sector, is necessary to help developing countries to adapt.

Although I do not completely share the analysis of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) on climate change, I agree that it is important that we play a leading role in ensuring that the developing countries that receive Department for International Development funding see it targeted at sustainable development. Does the Minister agree that programmes such as using hydrogen fuel cells for microgeneration are important for developing local projects in areas where there is no access to electricity in other forms? Will he ensure that every aspect of the work of the Government and the Department is sustainable in the long term to allow those countries to skip a generation in respect of such schemes?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the huge potential that hydrogen fuel cells offer not only the British economy, but the global economy—including the developing countries, too. I recognise the particular expertise in my hon. Friend’s constituency on the development of new renewable technologies. I say to him, however, that fuel cells are some way off providing a more immediate solution to developing countries, and there are a range of other renewable technologies that we can help developing countries to deploy. That is one reason why my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have made available some £800 million, housed in the World Bank, leveraging other donor sources of financing to build climate investment funds to help developing countries to move on to a low-carbon path.

Given that 2008 represents the halfway point towards meeting the millennium development goals, why was there no discussion of that issue? We should bear in mind that according to the World Bank, the first millennium development goal—eradicating extreme poverty and hunger in the world’s poorest countries—would cost an estimated £30 billion. That is a great deal of money, but it is about the same amount that Wall street and City bankers awarded themselves in bonuses last year. How does the Minister reflect on the abject failure of the United Nations to achieve the first of the millennium development goals?

With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, we are still some seven years away from the target date for achieving the millennium development goals and there are encouraging signs in many parts of the world that we will achieve both the top-line millennium development goal and a number of others. We are off track on a number of the goals. That is very true, but it is one reason why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister initiated a high-level event at the UN in September to focus on what else we need to do to get back on track to meet the millennium development goals. The impact of climate change was very much part of that discussion.

What effect will the UN climate change conference have on the provision of electricity to Afghanistan, bearing in mind that its one renewable resource, hydro power, cannot be fully utilised because the transmission lines cannot be protected?

The hon. Lady raises a very good question about the general need to support developing countries in getting better access to energy in the first place—it is a real challenge to help people get connected to electricity and other sources of energy—and in accessing low-carbon sources of energy. On her specific question about Afghanistan, we are in discussions with the Afghan Government about how we can help support them to develop more access to electricity and to other sources of energy.

Oxfam has said that the Poznan conference

“exposed a shameful lack of progress”

on climate change. It is not entirely clear how much irony was intended by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in yesterday’s written statement, in which he cited as the main achievement of the conference an agreement

“to accelerate the pace of negotiations”.—[Official Report, 16 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 107WS.]

Given the dismal experience of the Doha trade negotiations, does the Minister agree that a pattern has emerged of a lack of political will among the rich countries of the world, the cost of which is being borne by the poorest people in the world? Is he satisfied by the amount of progress made at Poznan, and if not, what will his Department do now to ensure that we get to Copenhagen and get a deal?

I do not share the doom-laden scenario that the hon. Gentleman has peddled. I think that significant progress was made at Poznan. When the talks were launched in Bali 12 months ago everyone was certain that it would be at least two years before a deal was reached on climate change, but we have seen some of the key building blocks for tackling its impact in developing countries begin to be put in place, such as the adaptation fund that I mentioned earlier and action to tackle deforestation. The Secretaries of State for International Development and for Energy and Climate Change have announced a £100 million contribution to help tackle deforestation and to help with taking a series of additional steps in that regard. What the Government as a whole will do now is work with a range of partners, including G20 colleagues, to establish what further action we can take to increase appetite for the deal at Copenhagen that we all want to see, and build progress towards it.

When I attended the Poznan conference last week, I was struck by the visible differences in negotiating capacity between the world’s richest and poorest countries. Will the Minister examine ways of strengthening the ability of the poorest developing countries to participate in these vital but complex negotiations?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about the need for the voice of developing countries to be heard in the negotiations. We are already helping them to ensure that their voice is heard, in the same way as we have during trade negotiations, and we will continue to provide that support. Through our country offices we are working closely with a range of developing countries, both on their domestic programmes to adapt to climate change and on their engagement in the actual negotiations.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but does he not agree that Britain could do more to help, for example through the Commonwealth? Will he consider again the advocacy fund suggested by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), which would help the poorest countries to fight their corner in these crucial negotiations?

As I have already told the hon. Gentleman, we are holding discussions with a range of developing countries about how we can help them to engage in the negotiations. We will have further talks with them through the Commonwealth and a range of other organisations. I would take his question a little more seriously if his party had not just announced its commitment to slashing public spending. That would potentially have very serious consequences for developing countries, not least in respect of their ability to adapt to climate change.

Zimbabwe

2. What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement. (244086)

6. What assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe; and if he will make a statement. (244090)

The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate. Thousands have been hit by cholera and hundreds have died. Basic services have collapsed, and the health services can respond only because of the help that we and others are giving. Five million people need food aid, and more disease outbreaks could be on the way.

Contrary to the delusional statements of Robert Mugabe, there is a real and ferocious cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe which is killing children and entire families at this moment. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that genuinely independent non-governmental organisations receive additional resources so that they can provide urgently needed humanitarian assistance? Will he also ensure that no British taxpayers’ money goes into Robert Mugabe’s corrupt central bank? Contrary to assurances given at the last International Development questions, United Kingdom taxpayers are supporting the Zimbabwean Government via the global fund.

There is unanimity throughout the House about the scale of the outbreak. There are about 20,000 suspected cases of cholera, and there have been about 1,000 deaths. I have announced a package of support worth up to £10 million specifically to deal with cholera. We predicted that, tragically, this was a likely consequence of Mugabe’s grotesque misrule of the country, and we had therefore already worked with other international agencies to stockpile the necessary resources on the borders of Zimbabwe. We continue to work with the United Nations and UN organisations including the World Food Programme, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that those efforts to address the great humanitarian need are unstinting.

The Secretary of State will know that extreme hunger and malnutrition are gripping that country. Save the Children estimates that it is feeding 700,000 people, and as the Secretary of State has said, 5 million people are starving. Cholera is spreading, democracy is dead and violence is now endemic in that country. Will the Secretary of State seek to persuade the Leader of the House to provide a debate in Government time on this crisis, so that Members on both sides of the House can express their views and say what action they believe the United Kingdom must take?

I am always happy to pass on Members’ concerns to the Leader of the House, and I will do so on this occasion. Of course, we recently had a foreign affairs debate in the Chamber, in which I understand that a number of Members raised the very real concerns felt in all parts of the House on Zimbabwe. The hon. Gentleman is right in recognising the scale of the hunger crisis now afflicting Zimbabwe. The estimate is that by the end of this month about 5.1 million people will be reliant on external food aid—this is in a country that has historically been seen as the bread basket of Africa. That figure alone should challenge not only the international community to continue its humanitarian efforts, but those within Zimbabwe who regard the current position as sustainable. We have been at the forefront of international efforts in calling for the will of the Zimbabwean people to be reflected in their Government, and we continue to make that case.

How much of the humanitarian assistance being offered by the UK Government is available through partnership working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

I can assure the House that we are working very closely with both our diplomatic representatives in Zimbabwe and with colleagues in government. In recent days, I have chaired a Cabinet Sub-Committee, which both the noble Lord Malloch-Brown and the Foreign Secretary attended. Lord Malloch-Brown was in South Africa on Friday, holding talks with the President of the Republic of South Africa; the Foreign Secretary was in New York on Monday, engaged in further discussions at the Security Council; and I can assure the House that there is constant daily contact between the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, as together we do what we can to address what is a dreadful situation in Zimbabwe.

What Christmas message can my right hon. Friend send to the people of Zimbabwe who are starving and dying of cholera?

The message is that the British Government will continue to provide food, drugs and any assistance we can to address the crisis afflicting their country, but that we also recognise that humanitarian support is not enough. Whether in the councils of the European Union, the Security Council or our discussions with regional partners, we will continue to make the case that the people of Zimbabwe need and deserve a Government who represent their will.

Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that so many of the leaders and so much of the media in southern Africa seem to regard the collapse of Zimbabwe and the outbreak of cholera as some kind of European plot, even though the situation is spilling over into their own economies? What can he do to ensure that they understand that resolving the crisis in Zimbabwe is essential not only for the people of Zimbabwe, but for the development of the entire region of southern Africa?

As is so often the case, the right hon. Gentleman brings great authority to his observation on the regional consequences of the crisis that is contemporary Zimbabwe. It is the case that Robert Mugabe has repeatedly sought to portray this as some kind of conspiracy of neo-colonialism, when nothing could be further from the truth. The responsibility for the grotesque misrule of Zimbabwe rests squarely at the door of Robert Mugabe and those in his Government. We in the international community are clear that the strongest voices that can be raised for change are those of the people of Zimbabwe in alliance with regional partners. The cholera outbreak alone gives credence to the claim that if this issue is not addressed the regional consequences will be dire, and that is why we have been working so closely to encourage South Africa to speak up, as well as other regional partners, such as Botswana and other neighbours of Zimbabwe. We will continue to make that case to regional partners.

Sadly, it seems clear that any end of the counterfeit President’s rule in Zimbabwe will not come about through a negotiated process, and that it will probably come about through a sudden and dramatic event leading to chaos. Is the Secretary of State reassured that if that happens, contingency aid is ready to go to Zimbabwe immediately, because the people of that country will need help and support within hours, not days or weeks?

First, it is, of course, a matter for the Movement for Democratic Change, which bravely stood up against the intimidation and thuggery that it faced in the elections on 29 March, to judge what is the best strategy to take forward. The possibility of a negotiated way forward was established in September, but tragically it appears once again as if ZANU-PF and Mugabe have rejected that way forward for their country. We continue to talk to regional partners and those within Zimbabwe who have the best interests of the people of Zimbabwe at heart, but we also have contingency plans in place so that if there is a credible prospect of recovery, we and other members of the international community will assist in that endeavour.

The recent cholera outbreak is only the latest humanitarian tragedy to strike Zimbabwe and its people. Does the Secretary of State agree that the greatest single positive action that would bring the greatest benefit to Zimbabwe would be for the curtain finally to be brought down on the years of the Mugabe regime and on its systematic rape of its own country and impoverishment of its own people?

The British Government have been forthright in their view of the unwillingness of Robert Mugabe to allow the will of the people of Zimbabwe to be expressed in government. If I appear circumspect, it is for the reason that I gave earlier: that nothing would suit Robert Mugabe more than to be able to ignore the voices of his own people and others within Africa and somehow suggest that this was a British plot. That is frankly not the case; the people of Zimbabwe have spoken, including in the elections earlier this year. It is now for Robert Mugabe to recognise the clear voice that was raised for change within Zimbabwe.

What hope does the Secretary of State have that help in dealing with cholera can get to those communities, both urban and rural, that are regarded by the Mugabe regime as most hostile to it? Would not the President’s insistence that there is no cholera rank in most countries as a basis on which he should be removed from office and probably certified?

First, on the scale of the cholera outbreak, it is affecting almost every part of Zimbabwe now. Tragically, there is no distinction between urban or rural communities; they are all increasingly affected. We are working closely with the World Health Organisation, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the international community is doing the best it can to ensure that the response is being dictated by the epidemiology and the needs of responding to the disease, rather than by any political partiality of the regime in power at the moment.

Overseas Projects (Joint Strategic Priorities)

3. If he will hold discussions with the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to agree joint strategic priorities for his Department’s overseas projects. (244087)

Whether in relation to international poverty reduction, conflict or climate change, the Department for International Development works closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Departments. We also co-operate closely in implementing our strategies and delivering our programmes, particularly in fragile states and insecure environments.

At a time when the Foreign Secretary is talking about peace and reconciliation in the middle east, why is the Department for International Development still funding some teachers in the Palestinian territories who do nothing more than teach discord, rather than harmony?

In the past week, we have welcomed Prime Minister Olmert and Prime Minister Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority to the United Kingdom. Our continued support for the Palestinian Authority reflects the fact that in our dialogue with the Israelis and others there is a clear recognition that if the Annapolis process is to be taken forward, there needs to be a credible negotiating partner with whom the Israeli Government can negotiate. At the same time, we are keen to see basic services provided to what is often an impoverished population within the Palestinian Authority areas.

In his discussions with other Departments, will the Secretary of State ensure that in the strategic priorities, the devaluing of sterling is taken into account, because it is in danger of undermining what has been an enhanced and immensely successful international programme? It is estimated that the value could be reduced by 25 per cent., and it is obviously crucial that the poorest in the world do not pay the highest price for the current economic crisis.

Changes in levels of different currencies are only one of the aspects of the global financial crisis that are affecting developing countries. Those countries have also been vulnerable to changes in oil prices, in the availability of credit and in basic food supply. That is why we are working so hard to ensure that we reflect the contemporary vulnerabilities of developing countries and why we are committed to meeting the pledges that we have made in relation to international development spending.

To what extent does the Minister believe that the International Development Act 2002 has led to a misalignment of our overseas development effort with our overarching foreign policy goals? For example, he may be aware that the FCO dispenses aid to tackle the radicalisation of young men in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but that DFID refuses to get involved on the grounds that that does not constitute development.

I believe that the 2002 Act enshrined in law changes that have been vital to the establishment of global leadership by this Government in the field of international development. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working closely with our colleagues in the Foreign Office and in Afghanistan and other areas of the world, but if he is proposing that his party will tie the aid that was untied by this Government, break our commitments or change DFID from being a separate Cabinet-level Department, he might wish to discuss that with his Front-Bench colleagues.

At a recent Downing street reception, the Prime Minister mentioned that in these difficult economic times we have to consider the people in the developing world. Will the Secretary of State reaffirm our commitment to the UN aid target of 0.7 per cent. of GDP and its maintenance through these difficult times?

As recently as September, the Prime Minister reaffirmed his commitment to the goals that we have set in relation to international development. The World Bank has estimated that in the course of the last year 100 million more people have been pushed into poverty by the global economic crisis. That is why it is important not only for the British Government but for other international partners to meet their aid commitments. Given the slashing of public expenditure that the Opposition now anticipate, I hope that they will at least join us in making this commitment.

The stabilisation aid fund was set up to help to deliver strategic projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the Secretary of State’s commitment to transparency, his Department appears either unwilling or unable to give details of projects completed to date. Can he reassure the House and set out the principles under which funds are allocated to projects from the SAF?

The stabilisation aid fund is obviously reflective of its joint ownership by DFID, the FCO and the Ministry of Defence. It reports directly to the National Security Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister. In assessing applications to the fund, we work in close harmony with other Departments, and it is on that basis that allocations have been made. [Interruption.]

South Africa (HIV/AIDS)

4. What assessment he has made of the effect of recent political developments in South Africa on policy to tackle HIV/AIDS in southern Africa. (244088)

There has been a marked change in language on policy to tackle HIV/AIDS in South Africa since the appointment of Barbara Hogan as the new Health Minister. We welcome in particular the launch of a major public awareness campaign on 1 December and the announcement of plans to scale up prevention of mother-to-child transmission services.

No doubt responsibility for the 10 wasted years of HIV denial, and its effect on some 1.5 million orphans, lies squarely on the shoulders of the South African Government, but what is the Minister’s judgment on the Department’s influence, given its significant presence in South Africa during those years and given that in other so-called middle income countries such as Brazil, Botswana and India the Foreign Office has taken the lead in the light of their epidemic HIV incidence? Are the prospects of influence better or worse?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman to the extent that Barbara Hogan represents a breath of fresh air in South Africa. We are seeing an end to the culture of denial about HIV and AIDS in South Africa that is extremely welcome. We have sought to get behind the public awareness campaign that Barbara Hogan has launched, and the scaling up of mother-to-child transmission prevention services, by committing some £15 million in a new programme announced by the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), in a recent visit to South Africa.

Thirty-three million people in the world have HIV, yet only one in three has access to the medicines they need to keep them alive. The Minister knows well that one of the biggest problems is the cost of medicines. What progress has he made regarding discussions on the concept of the patent pool, whereby pharmaceutical companies would create generic copies and be paid a fair royalty so that people could access the medicines that they desperately need?

The hon. Gentleman may know that under the TRIPS—trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights—agreement of 2003 there are arrangements for developing countries to access generic copies of drugs. We have sought to encourage that process. We need to see better access not only to first-line anti-retroviral drugs but to second-line and third-line anti-retroviral drugs to deal with the more complex strains that occur when people are developing a resistance to the drugs. We will continue to work with pharmaceutical companies and a range of other players to achieve that end.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I have been asked to reply. As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Iraq today. He will make a statement to this House on his return.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, who was killed in Afghanistan on Monday. To those who never shy away from danger and who never shirk from their duty, to the families who will be apart from our troops this Christmas and to those who have died in the service of their country, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend, and may I associate myself with those condolences?

At a time when the price of a barrel of oil has sunk like a stone, why are the energy companies charging the price that that they are for fuel? Surely it is time for more to be done by the Government and those associated with us to bring down the price. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that she can make it possible for me to go back to my constituency and give the assurance that the Government are doing all they can to bring about lower energy prices?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The energy companies must pass on the price cuts to consumers, both businesses and families. They must also treat all consumers fairly. If they do not, it will not just be Ofgem and the Competition Commission that they will have to worry about—we will change the law to force them to do it.

I join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to Lieutenant Aaron Lewis, who was killed in Afghanistan on Monday. As she said, our thoughts are with his family at this desperately sad time.

We look forward to the Prime Minister’s statement tomorrow about the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, although we were surprised that since that news relating to national security was leaked by the Government last week no one has been arrested. Across the House, we salute the work of the British forces in Iraq. They will have been there for more than six years, which is a deployment longer than the entire second world war. As we welcome the end of that deployment, is it not now finally time for the Government to establish what the whole nation expects to see—a full-scale independent inquiry into the origins and conduct of the war?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s supportive words for the work of our troops in Iraq. We have had a number of inquiries into Iraq and the Prime Minister has said that there will be no further inquiries until our troops are all returning home. The Prime Minister will make a further statement to the House tomorrow.

Well, the troops are now going to be returning home and it is time for the announcement to be made. The Government have delayed for years the establishment of an inquiry. The learning of lessons that may be relevant to Afghanistan and elsewhere can no longer be delayed.

New figures this morning show a further rise in unemployment of 137,000. It is now at its highest level for 10 years and is obviously set to rise further. We have been pointing out that the big problem is that even viable businesses cannot get the loans that they need. Last week, we asked the Government to look again at the bank rescue package. The Chancellor announced on Monday one of the measures that we have been calling for. Will the Government now accept the urgent need to get money into the hands of the businesses of this country?

I want to reinforce to the right hon. Gentleman that there is no delay in an inquiry. We have made it clear that, while our troops are still in Iraq, which they are, and doing their duty, we will not have a full inquiry into how they went in; we will not have that until after they return. We have to respect the fact that our fighting forces are still in Iraq. There is no delay.

As far as unemployment is concerned, it is always a terrible blow for a person to lose their job. That is why we are stepping up Government action with a £1.3 billion package to protect people who become unemployed. The package will help them to obtain the skills to get new jobs and it will also make sure that they do not lose their homes.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that small businesses are the lifeblood of enterprise and employment in this country. That is why we recapitalised the banks to stabilise the banking system, and that is why in January we will set up a new small business loan guarantee scheme. Although the figures are starting to show increasing lending to small businesses, some businesses are still having problems. That is why the national lending panel has been established.

But things are getting harder for households and businesses that want to borrow, not easier. This country has now been in recession for six months, and a leading Minister said this week that we are

“facing a recession deeper than any that we have known”.

Is it not clear that the Government’s policies have failed so far? People are losing their jobs by the hour, and the small business guarantee scheme to which the right hon. and learned Lady referred covers only one fifth of 1 per cent. of business loans. Do we not now need a national loan guarantee scheme of the kind that we have advocated, before more businesses go to the wall and many more tens of thousands of people are made unemployed?

We are taking action to protect people who become unemployed. Do the Opposition back the £1.3 billion extra that we are putting into jobcentres? No. They have said that they will cut public spending, and they opposed our action to recapitalise the banks.

As far as unemployment is concerned, we agree that losing one’s job is a terrible blow for every individual. That is why we are taking the action necessary—although unemployment is still about 600,000 lower than it was when we first came into office.

The Opposition’s so-called national loan guarantee scheme is not a guarantee of anything to anybody. If it is not backed up by public money, it is not worth the paper that it has been press-released on.

This side of the House did not oppose the recapitalisation of the banks, so let us put that straight.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that, of the £158 million announced today to help unemployed people, £58 million has been taken from another programme that is already supposed to help train people? The other £100 million is exactly what she announced two months ago, the last time that she and I did Prime Minister’s questions. That money has been announced before, which means that this is a reannouncement of a reannouncement—at Christmas time we are not meant to get only repeats, but that is all that we are getting from the Government today.

The Governor of the Bank of England himself said on Monday that there has been a

“further tightening in the supply of credit to households and businesses which is likely to continue…Additional measures…will probably be required to underpin lending to households.”

This House will not sit for nearly a month. How many more people will lose their jobs while the Government dither about introducing the scheme? Why does the right hon. and learned Lady not tell the Chancellor to pull his finger out and introduce it?

But the Conservatives would not back the £1.3 billion extra that we are putting into jobcentres to help people with retraining and job advice or, crucially, the money that we are putting in to back people up if they become unemployed so that they do not fear that they could lose their home. Not only are the Conservatives failing to back the action that we are taking to support people who become unemployed, but last week they announced a policy that would make matters worse. They said that at this crucial time they would cut public spending. If they cut vital public investment it will be devastating for the construction industry, jobs and the infrastructure of our country. First they said, “No action” and now they are suggesting action that would make matters even worse.

We are calling on the Government to take action; this is a say anything, spin anything, achieve nothing Government and we are calling on them to take action. The director general of the CBI said:

“Getting the credit markets working properly is much more important than the fiscal boost.”

The CBI survey of distributive trades, released in the last hour, which is the key indicator of activity in the retail sector, and includes the 10 days after the VAT cut, shows the worst downturn in retail activity since records began—a massive thumbs down from the consumer. Is it not time for the Government to concede that the temporary reduction in VAT, universally derided at home and abroad, has not been the answer, and that getting credit moving to businesses would be part of the answer to this recession?

I think that there are two responses that we should have to the very difficult economic circumstances. The first is not to talk down confidence and not to talk down the economy. The second is to ensure that as well as interest rate cuts we have a fiscal boost to the economy. Since we are talking about retail, that is why we are taking forward a cut in VAT and we urge the right hon. Gentleman to vote for it. That is why we are bringing forward extra cash help for pensioners from the beginning of next year. That is why we are bringing forward extra child benefit, to put more money in people’s pockets, and why we will have a tax rebate to help 22 million people. We take action while all the Conservatives do is carp and criticise. For the right hon. Gentleman to face these big economic circumstances and say, “It is only down to interest rate cuts and we would put no extra money in the economy” would make a difficult circumstance a disaster.

What we are calling on the Government to do is to get the money to the businesses of the country. We cannot have lectures about talking down confidence from the Cabinet, one of whose members said this week that we are

“facing a recession deeper than any that we have known”.

What is that if it is not talking down confidence? This country has been in recession for six months. The Government have achieved nothing except to let unemployment get worse and debt go up. We now have soaring unemployment, rocketing debt, good businesses going to the wall and heavy tax rises on the way. If this is the Prime Minister saving the world, God help us when he moves on to the rest of the solar system. How many people will have to lose their jobs before the Prime Minister justifiably loses his?

When it comes to party leadership, I happened to be having a look at the right hon. Gentleman’s website, and I suggest that other hon. Members look at it. On williamhague.org.uk, it just says:

“William Hague…Leader of the Conservative Party.”

The country faces unprecedented economic circumstances. There are uncharted waters ahead and there is economic uncertainty, but one thing I want everybody to be in no uncertainty about is that we will take the action necessary to stabilise the economy, to support small business, to support jobs and to protect people against repossession. Unlike the Conservatives, who simply say “No action” and then propose a bogus scheme, we will never say that unemployment is a price worth paying.

Q10. Last Sunday marked 90 years since women first voted in UK elections on 14 December 1918. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ask the Prime Minister to join us at the new permanent exhibition on the suffragette struggle, off Central Lobby, and so give a lead to other hon. Members to take their constituents and visitors, particularly school parties, and to stress to young women the importance of exercising their hard-won, democratic right to vote? (244078)

I will recommend my hon. Friend’s request to the Prime Minister, and I congratulate her on the work that she has done to bring the exhibition to the House. The important thing is not only to have more women in the House of Commons, but that we change the face and the agenda of the House of Commons, and we have done that with new Sure Start centres, with maternity pay and leave and with new laws to tackle domestic violence. She is part of making sure that we deliver for women in this country. We are not complacent; there is more to be done.

May I add my condolences to the family of the brave serviceman who died in Afghanistan?

When the Leader of the House last stood in at Prime Minister’s questions, I asked her about the vicious spiral that was developing in the economy, with rising unemployment and a collapsing housing sector. Since then, it has been confirmed that housing starts this year are at the lowest level since Ramsay MacDonald led a Labour Administration in 1924.

Labour Members ought to remember, because they are in danger of repeating that history. The Leader of the House may not be aware either that, a few days ago, the regulator of the housing associations warned that six of the leading associations are in grave financial difficulty and in danger of collapse. What are the Government proposing to do about it?

We are very concerned about the housing situation, and that is why we will bring forward capital investment, rather than cut it or postpone it. We will be backing up the Housing Corporation, and for those people who fear that a temporary fall in their incomes will cause them to risk losing their homes, we are making arrangements for them to be able to defer their mortgage interest payments, and those who lose their jobs will not have to wait 39 weeks to get their mortgage interest paid; they will be able to get it paid after 13 weeks. We are very concerned about housing, and we will do everything that we can to protect the housing market.

Basically, that was a complacent answer—does the Leader of the House not realise that the investment is not happening, because the housing associations are bust and the Treasury is imposing a crippling funding formula on them? The housing repossession policy is reaching fewer than one in 10 of people in housing arrears. Will she now give the same attention to the financial crisis in the housing associations as the Government are giving to the banks? Will she tell us which of them are in grave difficulty and what the Government are going to do to rescue them and to ensure that the public sector can play a role in kick-starting the moribund housing activity?

We agree that the public sector has an important role to play in capital investment in the construction industry in the housing market. We took the action that we did on the banks so that they can be in a position to start lending again into the mortgage market and to stabilise the housing market for the future.

Q2. Recently, a small group of people with learning disabilities and their support workers went to a karaoke night at the Bull and Butcher pub, Whetstone. The manager was hostile, made it clear that he did not want them there and harassed them until they left in distress. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that such an appalling case of discrimination and infringement of human rights demonstrates the need for both the UN disability rights convention and the Human Rights Act 1998, and the need to build on its protections, not to repeal it, as the Conservative party would do? (244070)

I agree with my hon. Friend that discrimination against anyone is unacceptable and discrimination against disabled people has no place in our modern society. He is right to bring that matter to the attention of the House. I know that as an avid champion of human rights, he will ensure that justice is done for his constituents, and I can confirm that we remain proud of the Human Rights Act and stand by it.

Q14. Many pensioners will bear the brunt of this recession, but with interest rates heading towards zero, will the Leader of the House do something to tackle the nonsense whereby pensioners are assumed to earn 10 per cent. on their savings when it comes to calculating their entitlement to benefit? (244083)

We are paying extra money to pensioners, with an extra Christmas bonus—[Interruption.] Well, I think that the extra winter fuel payment is important, the extra Christmas bonus is important, and bringing forward the increase in the state retirement pension to the beginning of the year is important. While we are in no way complacent about people’s income in retirement, the single group of people who have benefited most in terms of their increased standard of living since Labour came into government has been pensioners, particularly single older pensioners.

Q3. What does my right hon. and learned Friend think of the decision of Crawley borough—a Conservative-controlled authority—to reject the free swimming offer for young and older people? With the Olympics looming, and with a focus on health and well-being, does she believe that that decision is wrong? Santa will not be coming to Crawley this year. (244071)

That is just another example of how the Tories do not believe in public services, even important public services. They should be jumping at the chance of free swimming, which is important for people of all ages, not only for leisure but for public health. I hope that Crawley council will take my hon. Friend’s advice and think again.

Given that the troops have been in Afghanistan for more than seven years, and looking at the current situation, including the deeply entrenched forces around Kabul, would the Leader of the House care to speculate on whether the military battle is being won, and crucially, when does she anticipate that the all-important battle for hearts and minds will commence?

We have always said that there is a development strategy, a political strategy and a military strategy. In that military strategy, as well as paying tribute to our troops fighting in the most dangerous circumstances in Helmand province, we recognise that this is a multinational force operating in Afghanistan. Of course, we recognise the political and development strategies as well as the military one.

Q4. May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to pass on my thanks, and the thanks of many in this House and in our country, to everyone involved in last week’s announcement on the upgrading of the armed forces compensation scheme? She will realise that that will make a massive difference to the quality of life for service personnel and their families. However, can she assure me that everything is being done with regard to the fixtures and adaptations that service personnel need to make a smooth transition when they return home from rehabilitation? (244072)

I support my hon. Friend’s welcome for the increase in compensation for those who have suffered injuries in service to their country—an increase of up to £590,000. In addition, that will be backdated to those who have been injured since 2005, and instead of waiting for them to contact the compensation scheme they will be contacted for their compensation level to be reviewed. He mentions the important question of adaptation. Those who are returning home will have high priority for adaptations in their homes.

Q5. This week, the Government abandoned their planned inquiry into the use of Snatch Land Rovers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Given the increasing number of improvised explosive device attacks, why are the Government still unprepared to give our armed forces the level of protection that they need, want and deserve? (244073)

We are committed to doing exactly that. The Secretary of State for Defence has said that he will listen to and be advised by the military chiefs so that they have the full range of equipment that they need to support our troops in the field.

Q6. Many of my constituents in Cardiff, North, have benefited from the opportunity to work flexibly that was introduced by this Government, who have recognised the stresses and strains of bringing up a family while having to go to work—something that has not always been recognised by the Opposition. Will the Leader of the House tell us when that opportunity will be more widely extended, and what the timetable is for doing so? (244074)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has long championed the cause of families, and who has pressed for support for families who juggle going to work, bringing up children and caring for older relatives. People want to be able to earn a living and support their family, and that is why we introduced a right to flexible working—unfortunately, the Opposition opposed it—for families with children up to the age of six. I can confirm that from April, we will be increasing that right to request flexible working, extending it to all families with children up to the age of 16.

Statutory arrangements for the improvement of the governance of the National Audit Office were to have been included in the constitutional renewal Bill, but as the future of that legislation is currently unclear, does the right hon. and learned Lady agree with the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who has written to the Prime Minister on the issue, that it might be simpler and more sensible to have a separate, stand-alone Bill, that makes sure that the future of the National Audit Office is safeguarded? Will she talk to the Prime Minister—and to herself, in her capacity as Leader of the House—about that?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the important work of the National Audit Office. He will know that in the Queen’s Speech, we said that we would continue discussions and consideration of how we can improve and modernise the constitution.

Q7. Some years ago, I was able to persuade the then Minister to refuse support for a damaging open-cast mining project in Cossall in my constituency. Constituents there were extremely pleased with the move away from the Conservative policy of doing nothing and letting the project happen. I want to ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether it remains the Labour Government’s policy to refuse support for open-cast mining where it would have a disproportionate impact on the environment. (244075)

I can reassure my hon. Friend that there has been no policy change on open-cast mining, and I am sure that he will pass that message on to his constituents, who will continue to be happy with his work as their MP.

Q8. In his speech to the Labour party conference in 1996, the Prime Minister said: “we will not build the new Jerusalem on a mountain of debt”.Why have the Government changed their mind? (244076)

One of the biggest misapprehensions that the Opposition have been peddling is on the question of debt, and I want to address that. When we came into government, our debt as a percentage of gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund figures, was 43 per cent. We paid that off year by year, taking it down to 37 per cent. We acknowledge that now we need debt to rise; we do not resile from that. If debt is not allowed to rise, and we cannot take the action that is necessary to back up the economy, there will be even more debt in the longer term, as a result of the bills for failure and for unemployment benefit. How can the hon. Gentleman’s party put forward proposals for a so-called national loan guarantee scheme while saying that it would cut public spending and not allow debt to rise? It simply does not add up.

Q9. Will my right hon. and learned Friend make sure that pressure is exerted on private water companies, which are imposing new surface water charges on churches, and treating them as if they were businesses? If those companies are not prevented from applying those unfair charges, which amount to thousands of pounds per church, they will be responsible for the closure of places of worship across England and Wales. (244077)

My hon. Friend raises a point that has been made by a number of hon. Members; indeed, the matter has been raised with the Church Commissioners. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is reviewing the situation, and I will ask him to write to my hon. Friend, as well as to the Church Commissioners.

Q12. In west Didsbury, Lancastrian school is to lose its secondary provision, and Ewing school, which has won awards for inclusion, is earmarked for closure. Those schools provide top-quality teaching and learning for children with physical incapacities and speech and language disorders, who cannot be educated in the mainstream. Will the Leader of the House join parents, teachers, local residents and me in urging the council to reject those unpopular and unnecessary plans? (244080)

The question of local school organisation is a matter for the local education authority, but I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that in his area there has been a very big investment in teaching and in school buildings.

Q11. The Building Schools for the Future programme is vital for improving the educational prospects of young people in my constituency and for sustaining and maintaining the construction industry at an extremely difficult time. Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell me what steps are being taken to accelerate that programme? (244079)

My hon. Friend makes a fundamental point that the refurbishment and rebuilding of schools is not only important for education, but vital to keep jobs flowing in the construction industry. To cut back Building Schools for the Future now would deprive local communities of the improved schools, as well as being a devastating blow to the construction industry. That is why, far from doing that, we will bring it forward.