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Housing (Eastern England)

5. Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): If he will make a statement on housing provision along the Cambridge-Stansted-London corridor. [198436]

The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): London, Stansted, Cambridge and Peterborough form one of the four growth areas that will play a key role in delivering the sustainable communities plan. The East of England regional assembly recently made its proposals to the Government for housing provision in the east of England, including this growth area. Those will now be subject to public consultation and examination.

Mr. Prisk: I thank the Minister for that statement, although I have to say that EERA's proposals are, as many of my constituents think, both undemocratic and, frankly, unsustainable. Given that Hertfordshire is the most densely populated county in England, will the Government invest in and improve our infrastructure before approving more houses?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point about the importance of combining infrastructure investment with new housing provision. It is precisely because of the Government's recognition of that that we have defined the growth area strategies and are ensuring a more integrated approach rather than the one that his party pursued when in government, which led to the sprawl of uncontrolled low-density development that produces the problem about which he complains. If Hertfordshire has a problem of development, it is because when his party was in government it allowed large-scale urban sprawl in that area.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Minister accept that there is considerable anger as a result of the decision by the East of England regional assembly to impose 14,000 extra houses on the Chelmsford local authority area? Why is it right that an illegitimate, unelected organisation has the right to take those decisions rather than elected borough councillors on planning departments in Chelmsford?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman clearly has either not been listening to the debate or chosen deliberately to ignore it. The chair of the East of England regional assembly is of the same party as the hon. Gentleman. He decisively dismissed his carping comments as ill-informed and rightly made the point that it is doing a good job. The hon. Gentleman has to remember that the proposals will be subject to consultation and examination in public. The important thing that his party fails to recognise is the issue of how we provide the housing that people need and do so in a sustainable way. Unlike his party, the Government are addressing those issues seriously.

Local Government Reform

6. Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his plans for reforms in local government. [198437]
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The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): In July I published a discussion document "The future of local government: Developing a 10 year vision". This vision puts local government at the heart of our communities in the years ahead. It also makes clear that both local and central government will need to change to meet the challenges of building sustainable communities in which people want to live.

Mr. Mudie: I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer. In his post-referendum review, will he assure the House that councils will be key deliverers of services and not just enablers, handing out contracts to the private sector? Will he also assure us that such ideas as taking all primary schools or high schools out of direct local government control will not be part of his future plans?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I can assure my hon. Friend that local authorities are key in developing local and national services. I can also tell him that the extra powers and resources that we have provided will enable them to do that.

Regarding whether the community assets of schools, whether secondary or primary, are directly controlled by the local authority, I assure him that in Leeds and other parts of the country, as he knows, there is an increasing amount of community involvement in the new deals, the new neighbourhood areas, Sure Start and the local strategic partnerships. More than 1 million people are now participating in decisions and sharing community assets. In that sense, the community is enriched by using those assets for the benefit of the community, working with local authorities in creating new services for the citizens in their area.

Matthew Green (Ludlow) (LD): When the Deputy Prime Minister publishes his White Paper on local government reform, will it include details of his planned revaluation of properties and their council tax bands? When will he come clean on that?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is aware that we have said that we will keep to the timetable for the revaluation of properties that is set out in legislation. The White Paper will deal with future changes to local government.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that he is doing to help local government to sustain services to its communities. Has he any plans to bring into being more town or parish councils with a view to bringing local government closer to the electorate?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point; he has tremendous experience of working in local government. As he will know, our new document on local vision makes it clear that we want more active citizen engagement and participation, which will be brought about by greater local leadership and will certainly be to the improvement of the community.
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The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [198447] Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD) : If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 17 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before I list my engagements, I know that the whole House will wish to express our grief at what has happened to Margaret Hassan and to join in paying tribute to her for 30 years dedicated to working for the good of the people of Iraq.

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.

Mr. Heath: The whole House will join in condemnation and dismay at the brutal murder of another innocent victim in Iraq.

The Home Secretary said that he does not want to create a climate of fear, and I am sure that he is right, but we also recognise the real and present threat of terrorism. Why, then, does he intend to spend billions of pounds on an identity card system which did not work in New York or Madrid, instead of spending that money on more police, better security services, the protection of our travelling public—as in America—and our emergency response? Why does he believe that we can fight terrorism with plastic?

The Prime Minister: A large part of the cost is to do with the introduction of biometric passports, which will be done in any event. I believe that identity cards do have a role to play, and I think that most people would recognise now that, if we want to secure our borders properly and ensure that people are not coming into or operating in this country illegally, it is not unreasonable to ask people to have some system of identity.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): The Prime Minister will be aware that in July 2003 the intelligence services withdrew reports on Iraq's weapons as wholly discredited. Will he undertake to let the House know the information that he has consistently refused to give in writing, namely the exact date—not the period, but the date—on which he was aware of that withdrawal?

The Prime Minister: I think I am right in saying that we made it clear that the doubts about the information to which my hon. and learned Friend is referring were drawn to our attention during the Butler review. I can certainly look into the precise date on which that happened. It has to be said, however, and I hope that he understands this, that the information and intelligence that we received, we received in good faith and acted on in good faith.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in the remarks that he made about the murder of Margaret Hassan. This murder of an innocent woman, a Muslim woman, who dedicated
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her entire life to the welfare of the people of Iraq, shows yet again that we are up against barbaric terrorists who want to destroy Iraq's future, and we must stand steadfast in the face of their terror.

The chief executive of the Child Support Agency has just resigned. The agency is in crisis. What is the Prime Minister going to do to get a grip on the problem and help some of the poorest families in our country who are not getting the money that they are entitled to?

The Prime Minister: The first thing to do, obviously, is to ensure that the information technology system that has caused so many problems is sorted out. The second, and perhaps most important, problem is that there are still a million cases being dealt with under the old system—the system that we inherited. Over time, there will be a migration to the new system that we introduced, which is far simpler. It is important that we manage to migrate as many cases as possible from the old system to the new.

Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister has been in office for seven and a half years. His Government are responsible for the new computer; his Government are responsible for the new assessment system; and it is his Government's chief executive who has just resigned. The Child Support Agency has failed to collect £750 million owed to some of the poorest families in Britain. Those people desperately needed that money to help bring up their children. They have been denied it by the failures of this Government. Do they not deserve better?

The Prime Minister: Of course what has happened is not acceptable. That is precisely why it is important to change. However, I have to point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that a million cases are being dealt with under the old scheme because those claims were made under the previous Administration and the scheme that we inherited. I am very happy to take lessons from people who have found that they have not got the service that they need under the new system, but I will not take lessons from a Conservative party that introduced a child support system that was a byword for chaos and unfairness.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North) (Lab): Following the Prime Minister's visit to President Bush last week, what hope can he offer my thousands of Jewish constituents on the prospects of peace in the middle east, security for Israel, freedom from terror and a viable two-state solution?

The Prime Minister: I hope that it will be possible to use the opportunity of an election for a new Palestinian leader, the disengagement from Gaza and parts of the west bank, which is the programme announced by the Israeli Government, and our determination to ensure that we work with the Palestinians and others in the international community to put together the political, economic and security institutions of a viable state. I hope that it will be possible by a combination of those means to reinvigorate the middle east peace process. As
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I have said on many occasions in the past few weeks, and I repeat again, I do not think that there is a more pressing political challenge facing the world today.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD): I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends completely with the expressions of outrage at the wicked murder of Margaret Hassan.

To return to the Child Support Agency resignation this morning, as well as the computerisation problems to which the Prime Minister rightly referred, there is of course the fact that the Government have been changing the specifications, which has added to the problems. As the CSA is as we speak leaderless, the staff are bound to be demoralised and the agency is failing in its functions, will the Prime Minister as a matter of urgency scrap the Child Support Agency and transfer its purpose directly to the Inland Revenue, so that it can get payments to those most in need?

The Prime Minister: I am not sure that transferring to the Inland Revenue is the answer to the problem. The reason for the difficulty is that people have to pay child support when they have an obligation to support children on divorce or the separation of partners. The CSA was established by the previous Government in order to try to ensure that the system worked in an effective and fair way without the need for long drawn-out court hearings. Unfortunately, that system did not work. I do not in any way minimise the difficulties under the new system that we are introducing. It is not acceptable, as I said a moment or two ago. However, there will be new leadership of the Child Support Agency, we will have to sort out the computer programme that has been the cause of the present problems, and we will then have to ensure that as many people as possible get on to the new scheme, which is a lot simpler and more effective.

Mr. Kennedy: I still hope that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Prime Minister might look at the idea that I have mentioned.

Talking of new leadership, there will have to be a new leader of the National Assessment Agency, too, as its chief executive has resigned this morning. He has resigned because of a three-month delay in publishing key stage 3 English results. Is not that also indicative of the central problem of this Government? They set unrealistic targets, the quangos and agencies cannot deliver, and the recipients on the front line, after seven years of Labour in power, are left languishing.

The Prime Minister: It is extraordinary of the right hon. Gentleman to say that we should not have testing and exams for pupils. An independent authority is needed to carry that out, and it has done so. I simply point out to him that it found that there was not any problem, either with the quality of marking or with the results. There has been a problem in the system, which is the reason for the resignation. We cannot have it both ways—either arm's-length agencies carry out these functions, or they are carried out direct from Government. I will certainly look at his suggestion that we transfer child support to the Inland Revenue, but it
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is highly unlikely that doing so would cause anything other than consternation among recipients and the Inland Revenue alike.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Yesterday, the directors of Wrexham football club, the home of football in Wales, announced that they were putting the club into administration. This Saturday, thousands of football supporters across Britain are setting aside their tribal loyalties to wear red for Wrexham. What can the Prime Minister offer community football clubs that are again under huge pressure from predatory company developers, and what can he do to improve the situation?

The Prime Minister: As ever, I am helpfully briefed that it is not for the Government to determine how a football club is owned and that there are many different models of ownership. I do not suppose that that is a great help to my hon. Friend or to Wrexham football club, but I obviously wish them well. Many supporters want to ensure that their club is owned and based in the local community, but he will accept that this is not a matter for me to intervene in personally.

Q2. [198448] Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): With an average household income in Ceredigion of less than £19,000 a year and an average house price of £160,000, my constituency is now the least affordable place to buy and live in Wales, and is the fifth least affordable in the United Kingdom. As interest rates are not delivering affordability for young people, what other steps can the Prime Minister take to help young people access decent and affordable homes?

The Prime Minister: Housing in Wales is the responsibility of the Assembly, but we have put a substantial amount of additional money into housing, and affordable rural housing in particular. Of course, the situation is difficult, because there is a strong economy and the fact that more people are in work—unemployment figures are again down today, and are at their lowest level for 30 years—puts pressure on housing. However, interest rates—again, under this Government, they are at their lowest for several decades—are important in enabling people to afford their homes. How the money that we put into affordable housing is distributed is a matter for the Assembly.

Q3. [198449] Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok) (Lab/Co-op): Is the Prime Minister aware that unemployment in my constituency fell by 13 per cent. last year; that the Clyde shipyards are well on the way to having the biggest order book in living memory; and that I am still not happy? Will he try to make me happier by ensuring that the naval orders come in a steady flow to avoid boom and bust in the yards? In particular, will he ensure that the MARS—Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability—ships order is placed in such a way that periods of decline are avoided, and will he place those ships in Britain?

The Prime Minister: I hope that my hon. Friend realises that Govan has good prospects for future work on aircraft carriers, and is involved in the building of the first T-54 destroyers, offering stability for the work force
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well into the next decade. I also hope that his constituency will benefit from other projects currently in the concept phase. He is right that unemployment is down in his constituency—it is down in every single constituency in the country and 2 million more people are in work. The new deal has helped more than 1 million people into work, which is why we should continue with the policies of stability and maintain the new deal, not scrap it as the Opposition want to do.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): From today, the Metropolitan police will have to fill in a form every time that they stop someone in the street—not stop and search, just stop. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how much of a police officer's time will be wasted on this latest piece of political correctness?

The Prime Minister: The provision, as I understand it, was introduced after the Lawrence inquiry to ensure that police powers, which we have increased, are exercised in a way that keeps the confidence of the local community.

Mr. Howard: The Police Federation estimates that it will take seven minutes on average to fill in the new form. The police will be assessed on it under the police performance assessment framework, affectionately known by the police as PFAF. From today, if a police officer in London wants to stop a gang of half a dozen yobs in the street, it will take the best part of an hour to fill in the forms. Does the Prime Minister think that that will encourage the police to stop gangs in the street?

The Prime Minister: First, as a result of the Government introducing dispersal orders and other measures to deal with antisocial behaviour, we are able to take action against gangs of yobs in the street for the first time. Secondly, I point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that crime in London is down and police numbers up. We remember that when he was Home Secretary he cut the numbers of police, and crime under the last Conservative Government doubled.

Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister knows perfectly well that when I was Home Secretary, crime fell by 18 per cent., and either of his Home Secretaries would give their eye teeth for that record. The Prime Minister told the country in his manifesto that he would

Is this what he meant? Should the police not be doing their job, not filling in forms? We have said that we will scrap this latest piece of politically correct nonsense. Why will he not?

The Prime Minister: For the reason that I have just given. The measure was introduced after the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence. It was considered necessary in order to ensure that there was proper support in local communities for policing. I do not think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's record on policing in London can be that good, since he was telling us a few weeks ago that he went out in Brixton for the night and could not see a single police officer. Let me say to him:
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Not my words—the words of the shadow Chancellor.

Mr. Howard: And how does the Prime Minister think that the police in Brixton will be able to continue to make the progress they have made, if they have to spend the best part of an hour filling in forms every time they stop a gang of half a dozen people in the street? I have now asked him four times the question about the forms that the police have to fill in. On each of those occasions he has failed to answer it. Why, for once, does he not face up to the nonsense of the requirements that his Government are imposing on the police?

The Prime Minister: I have not failed to answer the question. I have answered it. I have explained why we think it is necessary to do that, following the Lawrence inquiry. An important part of policing in London is to police with the support of the local community. In relation to policing in general, in London and elsewhere, there are record numbers of police, and they are now supported by community support officers who, incidentally, were opposed by the Opposition. We are reintroducing neighbourhood policing throughout London. Crime in London is down, not up, and as the commander in Brixton said:

I prefer his words to those of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, or indeed my own.

Hon. Members: More.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Q4. [198450] Anne Picking (East Lothian) (Lab): I thought that the Leader of the Opposition would be a hard act to follow, but plainly not.

My right hon. Friend was contacted this morning by a constituent of mine, Sandra Stalker, who wanted to thank me and the Government for her winter fuel allowance. Will he reassure her and millions of others that he has no plans to abolish or reduce that necessary measure to tackle fuel poverty?

The Prime Minister: I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue with the winter fuel payment and with the free television licence for the over-75s, which were dismissed at the time by the Conservatives as patronising gimmicks. For many of our constituents, the £200 winter fuel allowance is of help. It goes alongside the measures that have been taken to boost energy conservation, particularly in pensioners' homes, leading to a situation where far fewer pensioners fear the choice between heating and eating.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): The prisons ombudsman's report into the fire at Yarl's Wood removals centre in my constituency was published yesterday. It blames ill-thought-out policies and the setting of unachievable targets for leading to the
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design and construction of a building that was unfit for purpose and in which the many hundreds of detainees whom it housed might have lost their lives. Who does the Prime Minister think is accountable and responsible for the policy failures that led to the incident, which the ombudsman himself described as a hair's breadth from tragedy?

The Prime Minister: Of course we take responsibility for Yarl's Wood. It is necessary to ensure that we have more detention space. We are increasing detention space for the obvious reason that there is concern about asylum claims in particular—we have processed 80 per cent. of asylum claims in two months. Despite yesterday's rise, the number of asylum applications is now down to near the level that we inherited in 1997. We have taken on board the criticisms about Yarl's Wood and are ensuring that both the refurbished Yarl's Wood and other detention space complies with the recommendations in the report.

Q5. [198451] Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I welcome the Prime Minister on his return from the United States. He brought back some encouraging signals from his meeting with Mr. Bush on the middle east peace process. However, may I draw his attention to the dangers of global warming? In light of both a recent study showing a record rate of warming in the Arctic and Russia's decision to sign the Kyoto protocol, will he confirm that he was able to prompt Mr. Bush to take greater action on global warming to save the world from environmental disaster?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of climate change and global warming. That is why we have made climate change one of the two priorities for our G8 chairmanship next year, along with Africa. I spoke at length to President Bush about that matter and hope that we can work with America and other G8 partners to draw up proposals for the G8 summit next year to allow us to make progress on that issue again. The Kyoto protocol will come into effect as a result of Russia's ratification, but my hon. Friend and others rightly point out that even if Kyoto were implemented fully, it would effectively stabilise emissions, whereas we need to reduce them considerably.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): What action will the Prime Minister take on the unsurprising but shocking news that, for the tenth year running, the European Court of Auditors has failed to sign off the accounts of the European Union? Are the Government happy to acquiesce in that sorry state of affairs? Is it not about time that the United Kingdom stopped throwing good taxpayers' money after bad and did something about the issue, rather than seeing whistleblowers being fired?

The Prime Minister: We will, of course, continue to insist that the European Commission and the European Union come into compliance with the auditors' requirements. It is worth pointing out that although shortcomings were identified, they do not affect all the
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funds that are paid into the European Union or that come back to us. On the other hand, we have been pressing the new Commission to take far tougher action.

Q6. [198452] Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): I know that the Prime Minister is very pleased with the unemployment figures announced this morning, and so he should be, because they are at a record low—nothing shows more clearly that Labour is working for Britain. Does he realise that if we are to achieve long-term economic success in this country, we must build an enterprise culture, especially among our young people? Will he indicate his plans to build on the success of this week's enterprise week?

The Prime Minister: It is important to recognise the extra investment in education that is going into our schools. We have boosted investment in each pupil by a significant amount beyond what we inherited. We are also setting up business and enterprise specialist schools, which will help too. The child trust fund, which is just starting, will make a big difference by giving children a nest egg for the future. In addition, the proposals on child care will enable parents to balance work and family life to a far better extent.

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