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Mr. John Taylor: Will the right hon. Gentleman be broad-minded enough to concede that the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered a savage and severe repeated annual blow to occupational pensions of a £5 billion impost, which damaged those pensions and added to the demoralisation of the stock market?
Mr. Clarke: I would do a great disservice to the facts, and not reflect the views of pensioners in my constituency, were I to do as the hon. Gentleman asks. I do not know the figures for his constituency, but I am sure that he is broad-minded enough to acknowledge that the 3,775 pensioner householders in my constituency who now benefit from pension credit, which is worth an average of £41 a week, did not receive that under a Conservative Government. That is a welcome change.
Had I said before 1997 that the Government would be able to manage such a turnaround of fortune for my constituents, and for millions of other people the length and breadth of Britain, my claim would have been greeted with sheer derision by Conservative Membersor at least, by those who attended such a debate; there are few present today. One of the reasons for the deep gloom that I observe among Opposition Members is that the Government's record has wiped the smile off their faces and encouraged a real glow among millions of vulnerable people, including pensioners.
Let me give an example: only last week I received a phone call from a woman who had just collected £400 to help with heating and council tax. She said, "Mr. Clarke, I would like to thank you very much. I am 82 years of age and I have never held that amount of money in my hand in my life." That is little wonder when we consider how few years the Labour Government have been in office compared with the Governments of the past century.
The Queen's Speech is not only about young people and the elderly, important though they are; it is about children, too. The Conservatives left us a shameful legacy in the form of one of the highest rates of child poverty in Europe: one in three children were living in real poverty. Our mission to end child poverty is grounded in our determination to secure social justice. I shall not be satisfied until child poverty is abolished completely, at home and abroad. I heard what the Chancellor had to say today about his policies on international development, but, domestically, child tax credit and working tax credit awards are helping 6,400 hard-working families in my constituency alone. I welcome that.
Having taken the courageous decision to give freedom to the Bank of England, we must not, and will not, repeat the mistakes of the past. We shall never return Britain to the boom and bust of the 1980s and early 1990s, when mortgage rates hit 15 per cent. for a whole yearmy constituents will certainly never forget thatthe homes of 250,000 families were repossessed, and 1.5 million suffered negative equity. People are proud of their homes; home provides a sense of security and much happiness for many. That is why mortgage
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rates are of the utmost importance to the electorate. Sustained low rates are saving mortgage payers an average of £2,600 a yearalmost £220 a monthcompared with life under the Conservatives.
Last week the Leader of the Opposition was campaigning in Cornwalla county bereft of Tory MPs. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) took over from the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) a year ago, but the polls suggest that he is just as unpopular with the voters. No wonder the mild-mannered, erudite Jeremy Paxman, who covered the visit, headlined the report "Same Old Tories". That reminds me of the past.
"Fifty years ago was the decade in which Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told us we'd never had it so good. Life in the 1950s was considered to be simpler, better and free from the ills of modern society . . . That's the theory. In practice, a survey suggests that life is much better now than it was 50 years ago. In 2004 we are generally more prosperous, do not work as hard and enjoy a far more comfortable lifestyle than in 1954."
I have quoted from last Monday's edition of the Daily Mail, so it is official. As Macmillan said, we have never had it so good. In view of the Chancellor's impressive handling of the economy, unmatched for a very long time, perhaps we should brace ourselves for the Daily Mail's next headline, "Britain under Brown is even better".
Returning to my main themejobs in my constituencyI shall set out two excellent examples and refer to two separate issues on which I believe the Government must do more.Within the village of Gartcosh in my constituency there is a large derelict site. Under the previous Government it was a thriving steel strip mill employing 600 workers. Since the closure, which I campaigned against, I have continued my campaign to have the site redeveloped and prepared for meaningful jobs.
I am delighted to say that last month I learned that Scotland is to get a new-style crime-fighting agency, which will gather together several key law enforcement agencies on one site, and it will be based in a purpose-built headquarters at Gartcosh. Discussions about the new centre of excellence are still at an early stage, but significant resources have been made available to enable planning to get under way. A new organisation will tackle the growing and evolving threat from serious and organised crimesomething that is addressed in the Queen's Speech.
Mr. Flight: Does the right hon. Gentleman not have any concern that what he has lost was a business that was producing wealth, whereas what he has gained is something in the public sector that will be living on his constituents' taxes?
Mr. Clarke: I had great concern, which I expressed in the House, about what the previous Government did to the steel industry, and what is still being done. If that has led in some way to an increase in crime, I certainly welcome the jobs and the opportunities that will offer themselves.
The Serious Organised Crime Agency for Scotland will house the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency as well as the forensic science department of Strathclyde police. It is understood that the Scottish arm of the
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National Criminal Intelligence Service, prosecutors from the Crown Office, Customs and Excise north of the border and immigration service workers could also be relocated to the site. I am pretty sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome all of that in the fight, in which we all join, against crime.
It is anticipated that the development work on the new crime campus could start as early as next year, with completion expected in 200607. So the hon. Gentleman has helped me to make the point that under this Government the old Gartcosh steelworks is like a phoenix. It is about to rise from the ashes of 18 years of waste under the Conservative Administration and to go places. I am delighted that my constituency will accommodate this new modern facility.
As I turn to another important issue for my constituency, I welcome the presence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the Chamber. The Government are committed to improving the efficient delivery of public services and bringing government closer to the people, in particular by rationalising back office functions, working across administrative boundaries, improving the interface between the Government and citizens through new technology, and slimming down estates.
However, I must tell my right hon. Friend that in Lanarkshire, the Department for Work and Pensions is planning to deliver operations from 10 sites, with varying levels of service. The Jobcentre Plus facility that serves Coatbridge would become a benefit processing site, which would end the current standard of service delivery to my constituents. Coatbridge is at the centre, or heart, of surrounding communities, and has a population of approximately 50,000. Irrespective of where my constituents live, they visit the local town centre, and can make use of a full range of public services, including health, housing and the Department for Work and Pensions, as well as carrying out their weekly shopping.
Frankly, it is unacceptable that Coatbridge should be treated unfavourably in comparison with other towns in Lanarkshire. DWP officials, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work, know my views and my opposition to the current proposals. I remind my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the matter simply will not go away, because it is an injustice for my constituency.
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab): I was born in Coatbridge, so I know that it is a large community, but does my right hon. Friend accept that in small communities such as Bo'ness in my constituency, the number of footfalls in the town centre is just as vital to the shops as it is in a large town? To remove a service such as a jobcentre contradicts the Government's declared intention of bringing the service closer to the people.
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