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6. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): What discussions he has held with (a) the Secretary of State for the Home Department and (b) the National Assembly for Wales Government on future policing funding. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with colleagues about matters affecting Wales, including future police funding.
Mr. Llwyd: I thank the Minister for that very illuminating answer. May I draw his attention to the fact that the district auditor said recently that all police authorities are being[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. The House is far too noisy. It is unfair to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Llwyd: The district auditor recently reported that central Government are underfunding all police authorities drastically at this time. North Wales police authority is a responsible authority with an excellent work force and record, but it recently received a settlement that was £1.7 million down on last year. That means that it is in considerable difficulty given that it faces a £2 million increase in pension costs and a £3 million increase in staff costs. Will the Minister lend his support to increasing the authority's funding and also put right the misleading line given by the Home Office saying that Airwave would be paid for centrally because a further £330,000 needs to be brought forward for that?
Mr. Touhig: Funding in the police service remains a top priority for the Governmentindeed, it has increased by 30 per cent. since 2000 and there will be a 3.25 per cent. increase in the general grant for police services in next year's settlement. It is important to
I am aware of the problems with Airwave. My colleagues in the Home Office appreciate that there has already been a good deal of expenditure on Airwave and are reviewing the position.
Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab): When my hon. Friend meets Home Office Ministers, will he draw their attention to the letter from the chief constable of Gwent about the need to maintain resources so that the high detection rate that Gwent has successfully achieved may be sustained and the fight against crime can continue? Will he also join me in paying tribute to the chief constable, Mr. Keith Turner, on his impending retirement?
Mr. Touhig: I echo the points that my hon. Friend makes about the retiring chief constable of Gwent. He has been a good and able officer who has had a considerable impact on policing in Gwent. Of course, the Government recognise that financial pressures exist and that they vary from one police authority to another. As I said in reply to the previous question, the Government are putting in resources and it is important for the police service to manage them effectively. I certainly urge all members of police authorities to scrutinise carefully the budget and spending proposals put forward by chief constables to ensure that we get value for money.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): In the Dyfed-Powys police area, the proportion of the cost of policing that falls on council tax payers has increased from 15 per cent. to 35 per cent. in the past five years due to inadequate police grants. Why do a Labour Government insist on funding local police services through the iniquitous and regressive council tax, which bears most heavily on the lowest paid in society while the rich pay only 1 per cent. of their income?
Mr. Touhig: In truth, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there have been all sorts of pressures on the police service over recent years. As I said, the Government have put considerable extra funding into the police service throughout the United Kingdom. It is important that those resources are properly husbanded and managed, and I urge police authorities to ensure that they get value for money. When I chaired a local authority finance committee in a previous incarnation, I often had discussions with the police about various aspects of their budget and I was told that I could not question this or that because they were operational matters. I do not accept that. Such matters should be transparent and the public should know exactly what is going on with funding for the police service. The Government are putting in a great deal of extra resources, which should be welcomed. It is important for the police service to husband them and use them to the best of its ability.
7. Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab): What discussions he has had with National Assembly for Wales Secretaries concerning progress in reducing waiting times. 
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): In the last fortnight, I have met both the First Minister and the Health Minister and discussed waiting times in Wales.
Mr. Jones : When my right hon. Friend next meets the Health Minister in Wales, will he bring to her attention the excellent chief executive's report on the health service in England, which speaks of increased new capacity, rapidly reducing waiting times and increased choice? Does he agree that one of the great benefits of devolution is that it allows the Governments in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast and London to compare the success of their policies, and that the most successful should be adopted?
Mr. Hain: I agree that we can learn from each other. My hon. Friend will understand that, under the Labour Government, the health budget in Wales will have doubled by next year compared with what we inherited from the Tories. We are seeing nearly 200,000 more patients than when we took over from the Tories, recruiting more staff, including nurses, consultants and doctors, and building more hospitals10 new hospitals are being built, compared with 70 closed under the Tories. In addition, waiting times in key areas are decreasing.
Q1.  Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 10th December.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House I will have further such meetings later today.
Norman Lamb : Does the Prime Minister agree with the conclusions of the Audit Commission that the council tax is "fundamentally flawed" and that this year's increases have a great impact on citizens,
many of whom are pensioners?
The Prime Minister: I do agree that, as the Audit Commission said in the main part of its report, there are fundamental flaws in the council tax systemwhich was introduced after the poll tax, I think. However, we have put huge additional sums into local government this year, and it is important that councils understand that they have a measure of responsibility.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): May I bring to my right hon. Friend's attention the excellent work done in schools in my constituency? Perhaps he can find time to pay a visit to one of those schools. However, may I also bring to his attention the dismay felt by heads and parents in my constituency on learning that we were left out of the transitional funding for schools this year? Our schools face a serious financial crisis. Perhaps he can look into the matterI know that in the past he has taken a personal interest in itand see what he can do to ensure that our schools have the money that they need to continue to provide high-quality education.
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to say that schools in his constituency have had substantial additional investment, and that results in those schools at every levelprimary, GCSE and A-levelhave improved. However, he has written to me about the difficulties regarding transitional funding, and I assure him that I am looking into the matter.
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Is the Prime Minister aware that his Government are spending taxpayers' money advertising his proposals for student funding, including top-up fees, even though, as we all know, there has not been a vote in the House of Commons?
The Prime Minister: It is important that we bring to people's attention exactly what is going to happen to our universities, but it is also important to recognise that, of course, that can only go through after there has been a debate in this House. I repeat that, every day, the alternatives become clearer: either an abolition of all up-front fees and a fair system of repayment under the Labour party; or, under the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposals, a huge cut in the number of young people who are able to go to university. He was talking about this subject last week, so I say to him that the more the public look at it, the more they realise that his proposal is elitist, backward and reactionary.
Mr. Howard: No, no, I am afraid that will not do at all. Let me try again. This was a specific question arising from a radio advertisementI have the text here, and it says:
which, as the Prime Minister will know, means, "You pay nothing until you're in the money." The advertisement is promoting the Government's policy on student funding, which has yet to pass the House of Commons. Does the Prime Minister approve of that?
The Prime Minister: Surely, the issue is what is the right policy for the country[Interruption.] Oh yes, it is.
Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Prime Minister answer.
The Prime Minister: The issue is not some radio advertisementit is what is the right policy for Britain. Let us look at the alternative, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not want to do. Either we abolish up-front fees, and all graduates then pay something back under a fair system of repayment, or we
Mr. Howard: There is a rather important question that the Prime Minister has to answer here. Does he not think that it is just a little presumptuous to start advertising the new student finance policy when 157 of his own Members of Parliament have signed a motion against it? As a result, the Bill has not even been published yet, and the Prime Minister, with his majority of 170, has had to put back the vote.
The Prime Minister: I will tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman what I think is presumptuous: it is presumptuous is for the Conservative party to say that it is going to cut taxes at the same time that it is going to cut the funding for universities. Let us be clear about this. The Conservatives' policy is not merely to starve the universities of money in future but to make an immediate cut of £500 million a yearhe can put me right if I am wrongwhich means 100,000 fewer people at university. Instead of debating radio advertisements, let us debate policy.
Mr. Howard: That is what the Prime Minister thinks about the proper use of taxpayers' money. Let me remind him of his Government's own rules:
Is not the advertisement a flagrant breach of the Government's own rules?
The Prime Minister: Let us indeed debate taxpayers' money. There is a very simple choice on student fees[Interruption.] Oh yes, there is. Conservative Members can try to duck the choice, but they cannot duck it either now or until the next general election. The issue about taxpayers' money is this: either taxpayers pay for all student finance, irrespective of whether they have been to university, or they have our system. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman come clean and accept that his provision means that there will be 100,000 fewer students, and in time a quarter of a million fewer? That is unfair, regressive and reactionary, and we will have nothing to do with it.
Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Leader of the Opposition starts, Mr. Fabricant is shouting louder than anyone else
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con) indicated assent.
Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is nodding in agreement, but he is out of order. I have told him not to shout[Interruption.] Order. I am telling the hon. Gentleman not to shout. He is far too near me.
Mr. Howard: Is the Prime Minister so indifferent to the abuse of taxpayers' money in contravention of his own Government's rules that he is not even prepared to
The Prime Minister: It is unbelievable. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has five questions on the issue of student finance, and not once is he prepared to debate the real choice. It is not about some advertisement but what is the right thing for the future of this country. In our view, it is right to allow young people to go to university if they have the ability, abolish up-front fees and say that there should be a balance between the taxpayer's contribution and a fair system of repayment after graduation. That is our choice. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has an additional question, so let him, just for once, confirm that under his policy the universities would lose £500 million immediately and hundreds of millions of pounds in future, which could be paid for only by cutting student numbers at university.
Mr. Howard: Does not the Prime Minister's refusal to answer the question show his arrogance, his indifference to the opinions of his own party and his utter contempt for the views of Parliament?
The Prime Minister: No, because Parliament will make its decision. The question is what is the right decision for the country. [Hon. Members: "No."] I should have thought that if we are debating university finance, the question is indeed what is the right policy for the country. The right hon. and learned Gentleman can sneer, jeer and make his jibes, but it becomes clearer day by day that when we get down to policy, he has nothing to say about the future of Britain.
Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend welcome the Joseph Rowntree report published this week, showing reduced poverty in the United Kingdom, but does he share my concern about even the reduced level of child poverty that still persists? How much more can we do to tackle that?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the progress that the Joseph Rowntree report indicates. With about a million children being helped, there are half a million fewer children in poverty. There have been additional sums in the tax credit system and child benefit, and in the new deal, which has helped many people off benefit and into work. However, he is right to say that we still have more to do. For the first time in a long time, the reduction of poverty and unemployment has become a key Government priority. It is a priority under this Government, but not under the previous Government. My hon. Friend should wait for the announcements of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor shortly.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD): Will the Prime Minister confirm his Government's parliamentary answers to the Liberal Democrats that if one were to levy a 50p top rate of tax for every pound above £100,000 of income, that would generate £4.7 billion? As he knows from my letter to him this week, we would use that money to stop tuition and top-up fees, introduce fair grants, deliver free personal
The Prime Minister: As I constantly try to say to the right hon. Gentleman, if I had to read out his spending commitments, we would need[Hon. Members: "Go on."] I can, but not in half an hour of Prime Minister's questions. He has spending commitments that total well over £15 billion. Yes, it is correct that he could raise the money to pay for student finance from a top rate of tax of 50 per cent., but he could not do that and meet all his other spending commitments.
Mr. Kennedy: The Prime Minister says that he wants a serious conversation across the country, but he clearly does not want a serious conversation across the Floor of the House. That is why he continues seriously to misrepresent our policies. May I ask him about his policies? In reply to me last week, the Prime Minister said that raising the top rate of tax to 50p on every pound over £100,00 income would be "unfair"his wordyet under his current proposals, a graduate who earns above £35,000 a year will pay a combined tax rate and loan repayment of 50 per cent. How can that be unfair for those with an income above £100,000, but fair for those earning above £35,000? Justify that, Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister: I will justify it. The plain fact is that the rate would not be 50 per cent. for those above £100,000, because the right hon. Gentleman's commitments total far more than any sum[Hon. Members: "No."] Let me read some of his commitments. He cannot be saying that the only spending commitment he has is on student finance. He also has a commitment on the national health service, on the basic state pension[Hon. Members: "No."] Well, he has. I have looked
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Answer the question.
Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Heath, I understand that the Prime Minister is answering the question in his own way.
The Prime Minister: At the moment, I am answering it in the Liberal Democrat way, because I am reading out spending commitments. There is a £2 billion extra commitment for railways. [Interruption.] They either have these spending commitments or they do not. [Interruption.] Apparently, they do notso the alternative Budget that they have just produced, which contains more than 40 spending commitments, has now gone as well, has it? I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that until he gets a serious economic policy, we will not take him seriously on this or anything else.
Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): The Gleadless Valley community in my constituency is very pleased to have a Sure Start scheme. However, there are difficulties in obtaining premises for the scheme, because of some of the regulations that must be met. Will my
The Prime Minister: I am very happy to look into the point that my hon. Friend makes. She will know that Sure Start is now helping 400,000 children in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country. It has been an immensely successful programme and all the evidence is that it is a good long-term investment for the future of the country. I entirely understand the point that she makes, however, and I will look into it and get back to her with a reply.
Q2.  Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): According to figures from the House of Commons Library, by next year, and since the Prime Minister's Government came to power, the total tax burden will have risen by a staggering £172 billion. That means that every man, woman and child in this country is paying an average of £3,000 a year more in taxes. [Interruption.] I can give him the figures, but what I wanted to ask him was whether they are correct.
The Prime Minister: That takes no account of the fact that 1.5 million more people are in work, so of course the tax take goes up. It is like the Tories and their 60 tax rises: if the same computation is used for the Conservatives, the figure was 130 when they were in power. Let us take the £170 billion figure that the hon. Gentleman has just given: when the Conservatives were in power, the figure was £370 billion. Actually, it is all meaningless, because it depends on earnings and the tax take. The real issue is the tax burden, which is less today than in most of the years when his party was in government.
Q3.  Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns about the activities of loan sharks who exploit the poor and elderly and appear at the doors of the vulnerable bearing gifts on the never-never? Is it not the case that we must exploit these loan sharks and ensure that they do not rip off our poor and vulnerable?
The Prime Minister: The point that my hon. Friend makes is addressed by the White Paper on consumer credit, which was published earlier this week and amounts to the biggest shake-up in consumer credit for about 30 years. The point to which he draws particular attention has led to the new proposal for powers for the Office of Fair Trading to fine and raid the premises of some of these cowboy lenders, if we can put it that way. Loan sharks do enormous damage to some of the poorest people in the poorest communities in the country. He is right to raise the issue, but we are satisfied that the powers that we announced on Monday will make a significant difference.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Despite the challenging but achievable target of the timetable to which we are working to put an Iraqi face on Iraqi security, does the Prime Minister understand that such operations inevitably fix large numbers of our troops? Will he ensure that the armed forces can recruit to make up the numbers that they require?
The Prime Minister: First, in case I have not done so before, let me thank the hon. Gentleman for the service
Q4.  Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The Prime Minister must know that the majority of the public, including the majority of Labour supporters, want a referendum on the outcome of any European constitution. As he is in listening mode at the moment, will he listen to those people?
The Prime Minister: I will of course listen to people carefully on that. It is, however, important to wait until we get the results of the intergovernmental conference, which, as everyone knows, we hope will be negotiated this weekend, if not in the coming months. I believe that the constitution will protect all the red lines that we have set out, and as I have said on many occasions, the best way to deal with this is through the House of Commons, just as the previous Government did.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): In the course of the Prime Minister's big con . . . versation with the electorate, will he speak to people in the Scottish fishing industry, who see the European Convention strengthening the hold of the disastrous common fisheries policy, or to those in the oil and gas industry, who want the energy chapter to be made a red line issue? The Prime Minister cancelled a visit to Scotland tomorrow in order to deal with a crisis in the Convention. When is he going to start representing Scotland's vital interests in Europe?
The Prime Minister: The way to represent Scotland's vital interests is to go to the European Council properly to negotiate our positions on issues such as energy, not to peddle the complete deception that withdrawal from the common fisheries policy will somehow help the fisheries industry in Scotland or the UK: it will not, and to say that it will is a cruel deceptionbut that is not untypical of the hon. Gentleman.
Q5.  Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): May I tell my right hon. Friend that compensation payments for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and vibration white finger are now reaching mining families and former miners? However, despite the fact that all the legal fees and disbursements in those cases are paid to solicitors by the Department of Trade and Industry, someI must emphasise that it is a small numberare charging a success fee. Will he
The Prime Minister: First, as my hon. Friend fairly and rightly says, £1.8 billion will soon have been paid out to former miners and their families under the coal health compensation schemes. I know that he would accept, and believe that many of the mining communities accept, that this would never have happened under any Government other than a Labour Government. It has made an enormous difference to those families. He is right, however, thatin a minority of cases, it is fair to saythere has been concern about difficulties with legal representation. I understand that the Law Society has said that it will investigate all cases of that type as a matter of urgencyand there is the power to refer complaints to the legal services ombudsmanbut in the light of my hon. Friend's question, I will look further into the matter myself.
Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Does the Prime Minister see any prospect of progress being made in Northern Ireland after the recent Stormont elections? Is he aware that in the meantime, taxpayersand, no doubt, the Chancellor of the Exchequerare concerned that those who were successful in those elections are being paid 70 per cent. of their parliamentary salary, although they have no parliamentary duties, and 100 per cent. of their office costs allowance, although they do not have offices? That is costing about £40 million, which seems to be a huge waste of money. How long will the Prime Minister let it go on?
The Prime Minister: I will let it go on for as long as we can try to get a deal together that saves the institutions and allows Northern Ireland to move forward. I am of course aware that it is an anomaly in the present situation. I hope, however, that the hon. Gentleman recognises the enormous boost that the peace process has given to Northern Ireland, and not least to its economy. When we came into office, Northern Ireland had easily the highest unemployment level of anywhere in the UKnow, it does not, and investment and jobs have poured in. Overall, the peace process has been immensely beneficial. Yes, it is true that the anomaly is there, and obviously it cannot go on for ever in these circumstances, but it is still worth maintaining the current situation to see whether we can find a way through, because in the end that is manifestly in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and of the UK.
Q7.  Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): Like many of my generation and background, I did not have the opportunity of going to university, and it therefore never ceases to amaze me that such excitement is generated in this House about university top-up fees. During my right hon. Friend's deliberations with the appropriate bodies, will he not forget the many youngsters in all our communities who may not have the necessary qualifications to get into university but are equally important to the long-term prosperity of this country, because they actually produce things that we need?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point. It is right that many people need the
Q8.  Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): If the Prime Minister gets his top-up fees through the House, will he consider the plight of A-level students who started their course this term? They will finish their exams in 2005, but because of the likely introduction of top-up fees in 2006, none of them will take a gap year. Many of them will therefore forgo doing valuable charity work. Worse, this will also create a logjam for university admissions in October 2005. Will the Prime Minister allow those particular students the chance to opt out of top-up fees?
The Prime Minister: Let me tell the hon. Gentleman two things. First, our proposal is to abolish up-front tuition fees altogether, so students will not be paying the money that they are paying now at all. Secondly, I suggest that he goes back to his constituency and tells his constituents how many of their children would not be able to go to university at all under his proposals.
Q9.  Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister share my confidence that the recent announcement of job losses by Hoverspeed and P&O Ferries in Dover is a reflection of a short-term downturn in passenger demand, and that there is every prospect of a return to growth? Does he also agree, however, that this only emphasises the urgent need to continue to regenerate the frail economies of east Kent, and that the best way to achieve that would be to extend the new high-speed channel tunnel rail link into Dover, thus connecting one of the busiest cities in Europe to the busiest ferry port in the world?
The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned hard on this issue, and he will know that we are still considering whether services to Dover could use the channel tunnel rail link. The Strategic Rail Authority is also consulting on improving services throughout Kent. His point about unemployment is right. As I have said to him before, I deeply regret the loss of jobs at P&O, but the most important thing is to help people to get new jobs when their jobs are at risk. I hope that the rapid response service is doing all that it can to help people to find alternative employment. He will know that one of the benefits of the sound economic management of the past few years has been that we now have 1.5 million extra jobs in the British economy.
Q10.  Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I shall not make a habit of this, but I must say to the Prime Minister that I am very grateful for the settlement for Somerset. It is not adequate, but it will do.
The Prime Minister: I was not aware of that, but I am now. It will surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that I totally agree with him. It is important that people recognise that, when the Liberal Democrats get into power on any of these councils, the tune that they sing in herewhich is "spend, spend, spend" without there ever being a priceis usually reversed into "cut, cut, cut" in the local authorities.
Q11.  Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Lab): I would like to thank my right hon. Friend for meeting me, my parliamentary colleagues and representatives of those who work with the poorest in our country, at a recent meeting in his office, and for his interest in and commitment to eradicating poverty, especially among children, by 2020. Does he agree that that is in contrast with the scandal of the Conservatives, who doubled child poverty? In Warwickshire, children's centres are now coming into being because of the hard work of the Labour-led Warwickshire county council in delivering the Government's agenda, which is to end this scandal once and for all.
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I would like to make one additional point, which
Q12.  Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Returning to higher education, but not tuition fees, is the Prime Minister aware of an anomaly preventing federated universities from encompassing campuses that use a local name? For example, Cardiff must call itself university of Wales, Cardiff, not Cardiff university. Given the organisational and branding implications, will he support a simple amendment to remedy that, which I hope to achieve using my private Member's Bill, without charging him a fee?
The Prime Minister: The answer that I have to give the hon. Gentleman is not exactly earth-shattering, but here it is. We all want Cardiff to maintain its position as a world-class university. The Secretary of State for Wales will consider any proposals for changes to the constitutions of universities in Wales in his capacity as Privy Councillor.