Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our condolences to the family and friends of Royal Marine Jason Mackie, who was killed in Afghanistan last week. He and others who have lost their lives have served our country with distinction for the good of the Afghan people and for the good of democracy around the world. They deserve our profound gratitude for their service, which should not ever be forgotten.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Mr. Speaker, there will be a further opportunity to acknowledge your contribution and achievements in this House, but let me say briefly on behalf of all Members that your record of service to this House and this country has been outstanding over 30 years, and you have shown unfailing personal kindness to all Members on all sides of the House.
May I also personally express my thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, and associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks and expressions of condolence to the serviceman who lost his life?
There is widespread concern throughout the country and on all sides of the House about the Government’s plans for the privatisation of Royal Mail. In that light, will the Prime Minister now reconsider those proposals?
We have put before the House—and our proposals are now in the other place—the problems that Royal Mail has to face up to. It is losing 5 million letters a year—[Laughter.] I mean it is losing 5 million letters in comparison with the number that were delivered in previous years. There is an £8 billion pensions deficit. I want to reassert to the House the need for new investment in Royal Mail—[Interruption.]
May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s remarks about those brave servicemen and women who have died in the cause of Afghanistan? A few weeks ago, the House debated the issue of the Gurkhas. Is my right hon. Friend in a position to give us any indication of what progress has been made on it?
As my right hon. Friend knows, we have a great deal of sympathy and support for those Gurkhas who wish to come into this country. Many of them have served our country and our Army with huge distinction over the years. We were the first Government to say that those after 1997 should be able to have residence and settlement in this country, and 6,000 have done so. We have also equalised pay and pensions, while at the same time raising the Gurkhas’ pensions back in their own country. We said that we would listen to the voice of the House after the debate held a few weeks ago, and we are also listening to the views of the Home Affairs Committee, which has had hearings. The Home Secretary will make a statement tomorrow. I believe it is possible for us to honour our commitments to the Gurkhas, and to do so in a way that protects the public finances. That will be part of the announcement to be made tomorrow.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Marine Jason Mackie of Armoured Support Group The Royal Marines, who was killed in Afghanistan last Thursday? Some of his family live in Bampton in my constituency, and I know that the whole country will join in their sorrow.
I welcome what the Prime Minister said about the Gurkhas and the statement that will be made tomorrow.
May I too join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to you, Mr. Speaker? I will never forget the kindness that you showed me and the advice that you gave me when I was a new Back Bencher in 2001. I know that everyone wants to thank you for the public service that you have given to the House and the country.
This morning the Prime Minister said that a general election would cause “chaos”. What on earth did he mean?
So there we have it: the first admission that the Prime Minister thinks he is going to lose!
I know that the Prime Minister is frightened of elections, but how can he possibly believe that in the fourth year of a Parliament, in one of the oldest democracies in the world, a general election could somehow bring chaos? Have another go at a better answer.
I am not going to support a programme of Conservative public spending cuts. But look here: the House has got to have some humility about what has happened in the last few days. We have got to recognise—all of us, in all parts of the House—that mistakes have been made by Members of Parliament in all parties. Having had the humility to recognise that, we also have a duty to sort the problem out. The only way to sort out the system is to go ahead and sort out the system, and that is what we are proposing to do.
Yesterday we had good all-party talks involving the House of Commons Commission and all parties, and we made a great deal of progress. There is a lot of work still to be done, but I should have thought that what the public want us to do first of all, as this Parliament, is to sort out the problems and deal with them. And secondly, what they want is a Government who will deal with the economic recession.
Does the Prime Minister not understand that the best way to show some humility is to ask the people who put us here? The Prime Minister is so hopelessly out of touch. How can the answer to a crisis of democracy be an unelected Prime Minister? In past months, during this economic crisis, there have been elections in India, South Africa and New Zealand. They all have new Governments with a new mandate. The United States had an election in the middle of a banking crisis. Was that chaos? Is President Obama the agent of chaos?
I notice that at no point does the right hon. Gentleman enter into the policy issues that are at stake here. At no point does he want to talk about what would be the effect of a Conservative Government in this country cutting public spending in schools, hospitals and public services generally, or about what they would do in leaving people on their own in this recession. Our duty is not only to clean up the system in the House of Commons—and every Member has a responsibility to work on that now—but to take this country through the difficulties of the recession, and not say to people that unemployment is a price worth paying.
The Prime Minister says that he wants to talk about the issues. How better to address the issues than in a general election? The Prime Minister rightly says that the economy is the big issue. One of the biggest issues in our economy is the lack of confidence. Why is there so little confidence? Because there is no confidence in the Government.
The Prime Minister says that he wants to get on with the work. The fact is that the Government are not doing any work. They cannot even organise a car scrappage scheme. We will not end the paralysis just by electing a new Speaker, or even by setting new rules; we must give the public their voice, and the country the chance of a fresh start. Is it not the case that the only way that can happen is through a general election?
I repeat: what would cause paralysis is Conservative spending cuts that would make it impossible for our economy to move forward. Look at what we are doing to help the unemployed at the moment: 100,000 people who are unemployed are being helped back to work, and every month 200,000 and more are getting back into work. The Conservatives have refused to support the money that is necessary for the unemployed. Look at our housing scheme, helping people to avoid mortgage repossessions—and again, the Conservatives have refused to support that scheme. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the country would be longer in recession, with more debt and deficit, with more businesses going under and with more unemployment, if ever we had the misfortune of him ever being in power.
People will just hear the arrogance of a Prime Minister who will not let the people decide. The Prime Minister talks about paralysis—but this is what one of his own Members of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), has said about Government paralysis:
“Week after week MPs have been turning up but with…no serious work to do…there is no legislative programme to speak of. Even the debates are put on to fill in time…The whole exercise is vacuous.”
Can the Prime Minister not see how badly we need a fresh start? Two years ago he promised us a fresh start. Remember what he said outside Downing street, talking about a Government of “integrity and decency”? Well, that died with Damian McBride. He promised to renew trust in Parliament. Where is that promise today? He promised prudence; he promised economic stability; he promised a big house building programme. None of these things are happening. The Prime Minister calls elections “chaos”; I call them change. Why can’t we have one?
One hundred and twenty thousand businesses are now getting help as a result of decisions we have made that the Conservative party would not make. Hundreds of people are getting help to get into jobs as a result of what we are doing, whereas the Conservatives would abolish the new deal. We have opened the 3,000th Sure Start children’s centre—something that would be at risk under the Conservatives. We have a vast educational investment programme in our schools; the Conservatives propose to cut it. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that, yes, there would be chaos with public spending cuts under the Conservatives, and yes, it is an unacceptable way of going forward if a party is trying to have an election without even having a sensible manifesto, other than proposing public spending cuts.
A business woman who owns and runs a small manufacturing company in my constituency came to see me last week to complain about the attitude of banks in lending to businesses such as hers. Does the Prime Minister understand that public support for the banking bail-out will entirely evaporate unless banks are seen once more to be lending to the small and medium-sized companies on which this economy depends?
I would ask my hon. Friend’s constituent to go back to that bank and ask it to reconsider the situation, and to write to him and then to me. The banks have agreed in the last few weeks that they will sign up to quantitative agreements. That means that £70 billion of additional lending will go into the economy this year—£25 billion from the Royal Bank of Scotland, £14 billion from Lloyds bank, and money voluntary promoted by HSBC. There will be £70 billion of total additional lending. We are the only country in the world that has such a programme, where the banks have signed up legally to supporting additional lending. I believe that in the next few weeks, the flow of money will be increased as a result of that.
I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Marine Jason Mackie, who, tragically, died in Helmand province last week serving us, our country and the people of Afghanistan.
Mr. Speaker, despite our differences in recent days, I would like to thank you for the immensely dignified way in which you made your statement yesterday—[Interruption.] We can now move forward to reform this place from top to toe. I am also pleased to hear from the Prime Minister that there will be a statement tomorrow on the Gurkhas, and I hope that they will receive the unqualified and full justice that they deserve—[Interruption.]
We now have a once-in-a-generation chance to change politics for good, but we will betray people’s hopes and fail to offer a really different way of doing politics if all we do is remove a medieval expenses system, without fixing everything else. The expenses are just the tip of the iceberg. Does the Prime Minister see that, from party funding through to Whitehall secrecy, the whole way in which we do politics must now be transformed?
As for Whitehall secrecy, it was this Government who brought in the Freedom of Information Bill—and as for party funding, the Justice Secretary has brought forward measures to deal with that. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, however, that, as part of the wider debate about the relationship between Parliament and the people and the accountability of Parliament to the people, we must listen to the views of people throughout the country. We must consult and hear what they have to say, and, as I said yesterday, we will put forward proposals on that in the next few weeks.
Touché, Mr. Speaker.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his reply, but is it not now time to get to the heart of the matter, which is that his Government are in power even though less than a quarter of the people voted for them? [Hon. Members: “Have an election!”] Of course we should have an election, but people do not want an election where all they will get is a few new faces but the same old rotten rules. Is it not true that any system in which so few votes give a Government so much power will always breed arrogance and secrecy?
Mr. Speaker, I was right to say that your generosity was unfailing to all Members of the House.
The right hon. Gentleman’s point about the wider reforms and democracy is absolutely right: we must consider not only how Parliament can be more accountable to the people, but how the Executive themselves can be more accountable. We want to do that in the context of enhancing the individual and collective rights of citizens in their own communities to manage more of their own affairs. I am happy to enter that debate, and we will publish proposals in the next few weeks. We have also previously published proposals on the electoral system, which is also a matter for debate—but I must say to the Liberal Democrats that the debate about the reform of the constitution is about more than simply that one thing.
In view of the recent elections in India, the victory of the Congress party under the leadership of Dr. Manmohan Singh and his continuation as Prime Minister, and the recent developments in Sri Lanka, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to involve India in bringing peace to that region?
I have sent a message of congratulation—I believe it will be on behalf of the whole House—to Prime Minister Singh, who is very respected not only in the region but throughout the world. I believe that we can make progress in a number of areas now that the Government in India are re-established after the election. First of all, we will be talking to them about Pakistan and about security on the border between India and Pakistan. Secondly, we will be talking to them about the world trade deal, which is essential. Thirdly, we will be talking to them about the contribution that they can make to the whole of the peace and security of the region, and about helping us and working with us, particularly after the Mumbai bombings, to deal with the problems of terrorism that exist there.
The future of this country will be built on modern manufacturing strength. In advanced manufacturing we are one of the great leaders of the world; we have some of the greatest companies in the world—they operate from Britain but are global players with huge strengths in new technology and in innovation. Our manufacturing strategy is to support our large companies and to encourage innovation so that we have small and medium-sized companies coming forward. We gave additional investment allowances for manufacturing in the Budget, our corporation tax is the lowest that it has been for many, many years, and we continue to support small businesses with enterprise grants; 128,000 businesses have now received some help from the Government during this downturn to get through these difficult times. As 50 per cent. of our manufacturing is exported, it is so important that the European economy moves forward as well; it is very important to us that we work with Europe so that we achieve growth and jobs for the future.
We have had some experience of constitutional conventions. One was the European constitutional Convention, another was the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and talks are also taking place in Wales between all the parties. If my hon. Friend will wait, in the next few weeks we will publish our document about greater consultation between the public and Parliament, and about enhancing the rights of the people in relation to the accountability of Parliament itself.
Can the Prime Minister explain why, at a time when youth unemployment is rising, training providers in my constituency are being told by his Government’s Learning and Skills Council that their apprenticeship budgets for the next academic year will be cut?
We have invested more in apprenticeships for the coming year, and we have announced that we will fund 35,000 extra apprentices. I am happy to look at the situation in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but our determination is to support apprenticeships through this downturn—to invest in them and not to cut them.
To look at a proposal that, at this time in our history, would give just 3,000 millionaires £200,000 each would be completely scandalous—and to do that for 3,000 of the top estates in this country, whether they have a moat or not, is something that the public would be unable to accept.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Durham county council on its excellent and successful bid to be one of only two authorities to host the universal free school meals pilot for primary school children? Does he agree that such measures are necessary if we are to tackle childhood inequality effectively?
Proper nutrition for young children is absolutely crucial, and that is why the pilot project to give primary school children free school meals—something that worked when it was tried by individual councils throughout the country—is being supported by the Government. Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton will be the pilots, and they will test whether free healthy school meals improve children’s health and well-being. Some £20 million in funding will come from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and that money is being matched by the local authorities. We believe that it will show that good nutrition at an early age makes a difference not only to health but to educational performance.
Mr. Speaker, we have work to do. The first work we have to do is to clean up the system in the House of Commons. It is for this Parliament to face up to its responsibilities, to change and to clean up the system. I believe that we have made progress, and the way to clean up the system is to take the action to do so. Secondly, we have a recession that we are trying to manage and come through. It is in the interests of the people of this country that we help people who are unemployed, help mortgage holders and help people with small businesses. I have not heard policies from people on the other side of the House that would actually do that.
The blacklisting of workers or trade unionists has no place in the modern workplace. I said that only a few weeks ago, and I said that we would look at the matter. The Employment Minister has now announced that the Government will bring forward revised regulations to outlaw the practice of discrimination and blacklisting. We plan to move quickly on this. There will be a short consultation over the summer and legislation will then be brought to the House.
One of the reasons why convictions for rape have gone up in many places is the use of DNA. [Interruption.] I think that Members of the House have to accept that DNA is an important means by which we have found and detected persons involved in rape—but I will look at the figures that the hon. Gentleman has given me and I will write to him.
Regeneration projects should be going ahead, and we will do what we can to help make that possible. When Government money is involved, it is usually being advanced so that the public works programmes can move forward. When it is a matter of private sector support, we are happy to bring together all the agencies to see whether there is a way forward whereby private sector money can be brought more fruitfully into the scheme. I am very happy to talk to my hon. Friend about the project.
I was privileged earlier this week to chair a seminar held by the Family Matters Institute, the Grandparents Association and Families Need Fathers on the launch of the report, “Do Grandparents Matter?” When will the Prime Minister’s Government make good the pledge made to me by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), in January 2006 that grandparents should be treated with fairness and equity in the legal system in their heroic and unsung efforts to take care of their own flesh and blood?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the decision in the Budget whereby grandparents of working age who are helping children with childcare can get tax credits as a result. That is one way in which we can help grandparents to help their families hold together and to work with other relatives who want to get to work. That was a big change that was announced in the Budget, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can support it.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying. There is clearly concern in all sections of the House about how banks can better serve the public during this economic recession to help us through it. I shall look at what he says about the bank if he will give me the names of the companies and the bank. The important thing is that in the past few weeks there has been a change of policy, and I hope that that change of policy will have an impact in every region and every part of this country. The change of policy is that for the first time—because we have given the banks an insurance policy that they pay for—they are now willing to lend extra money and are committed to doing so. The increase of £70 billion for the economy is very substantial indeed, and companies should now be getting the benefit of offers from banks. I urge the hon. Gentleman to go back to those banks and remind them of the quantitative targets that have been agreed, and of the other means by which the Government have offered to help small business, including through the Inland Revenue. I shall certainly look at the case that he has raised, but the important thing is that the banks are now under an obligation to lend.