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Affordable Housing

6. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on the provision of quality affordable housing. [207364]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): Investment in affordable housing will be about £2 billion in 2007–08—double what it was in 1997. This will provide for 75,000 new social homes for rent by 2008 and help a further 40,000 into home ownership. New build homes from that programme will fulfil regionally identified needs and reach the demanding standards for design quality and environmental performance.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that quality affordable housing often forms part of a larger development? Does he therefore accept from me that the housing moratorium that exists in my constituency is very damaging indeed to the provision of affordable housing? Will he therefore remove that moratorium to enable the economic progress of my constituency to continue and to enable affordable housing to be provided?

The Deputy Prime Minister rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Deputy Prime Minister replies, I say to the House that the noise is intolerable. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Perhaps those who are cheering me on will take heed.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have improved the quality and design of the houses built, which are reaching a far higher standard. There is no moratorium with regard to social housing. I have looked into the figures, and I can say that there is no moratorium for new homes in Macclesfield; indeed, there are 12,790 additional homes each year, and 1,600 of them will be in Cheshire. That is hardly a moratorium. He must recall that, when he was in the previous Administration, housing investment halved in its last four years, while it has doubled under this Government, providing more homes. I suggest that he talks to those on his Front Bench, as the recent James proposal would take £1 billion out of housing in his constituency and everyone else's.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): Given the increasing number of homeless people throughout the United Kingdom—it is starting to rise in every council area—does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that we should be building houses or encouraging local authorities to spend money to build houses for rent for these unfortunate people?
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The Deputy Prime Minister: We have more than doubled the amount of investment since we came to power, and we are encouraging local authorities to invest more in both the improvement of housing and other proposals, even building new housing. I will make a statement about this matter shortly. It is of absolute importance that we build more homes in both the public and private sectors, and we are doing that, but as my hon. Friend will be aware, we inherited such a backlog that we still have some way to go.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): How many of those new affordable homes will be council houses? The Deputy Prime Minister must accept that the private sector has not delivered, that housing associations do not have enough resources and that the number of new council houses built by new Labour is only 3,000 in seven years. The Thatcher Tory Government built 350,000 council houses in their first seven years in power.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman has asked a great deal of questions about housing, so he must surely be aware that he should take into account how many social houses are being provided. I understand the point about council housing, but many houses are built by the Housing Corporation, and transform building will improve many houses, so it is a different category of definition. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I am not against building council houses, but at the moment there is a desperate need for us to put the investment back into improving the £19 billion disinvestment in council housing that had taken place when we came to power in 1997. Bringing 2 million houses up to decent standards is our objective, and we are on our way to completing it.

Grassmoor Lagoons

7. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): If he will discuss with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry extending funding approved for remedial work and development at the former Avenue Cokeworks site in north-east Derbyshire to the clearing up of the connected tar beds deposited at Grassmoor lagoons. [207365]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope): The Government of course accept that they have inherited a liability in respect of the Grassmoor site. My hon. Friend is aware that the Department of Trade and Industry has agreed to fund a study, which is already under way and will, we hope, be completed around May this year, to update the remediation strategy on that site.

Mr. Barnes: Is my hon. Friend aware that Grassmoor lagoons are in the middle of a country park and contain residue from a cocktail of chemicals deposited in liquid from nearby Avenue cokeworks, which was closed 12 years ago, although it is brought back to life when it rains, creating many problems in the area? Now that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has supplied a very welcome £104 million to tackle the problems of Avenue cokeworks, does that not add to the case for the
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Grassmoor lagoons to be dealt with, which means that we should encourage the Department of Trade and Industry to act quickly?

Phil Hope: I have some good news for my hon. Friend and his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner): the Department of Trade and Industry has already put aside an additional £4 million to cover liabilities at the Grassmoor site, and it will make a further announcement once the strategy is complete. That is good news for the environment and the local community. In sharp contrast, the Conservative party would make cuts through its £1 billion attack on the ODPM and the housing budget.

Fire and Rescue Control

8. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): If he will make a statement on his planned regionalisation of fire and rescue control rooms. [207366]

The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): The plan to replace the existing 46 control rooms in England with a network of nine regional control centres is being implemented for reasons of resilience and public safety. The new centres will ensure more effective responses to local, regional or national incidents, while also allowing a more efficient redeployment of resources.

Mr. Robertson: Is the Minister aware of the enormous opposition to that scheme across the country from councils, local people and the fire service itself? Why does he feel that all those people are wrong and that he is right? Will he take into account the circumstances in Gloucestershire, where the fire and rescue service emergency room has recently moved into a new tristar centre? His proposal is not only expensive but wrong.

Mr. Raynsford: Everyone who examines the issue closely realises that the new investment will provide enormous gains through better technology, which will identify where calls come from and automatically mobilise those appliances best placed to respond to them. When people understand the implications, they welcome the investment, which will improve the quality of the service and save lives. As far as Gloucestershire is concerned, his county's current tri-service arrangement involves the expenditure of £112 on each incident, whereas the cost of the regional control centre will be £52 per incident. Halving the cost will allow money to be spent on fire prevention and saving lives.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [207344] Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 12 January.
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The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before I list my engagements, and in view of my statement to the House on Monday on the tsunami, I shall update the House on the current figures for British losses. The number of confirmed dead remains at 51. The number of category 1 missing—those most likely to be lost— is, including the 51 confirmed dead, now 410, which is down from 453 on Monday. The category 2 figure—those unaccounted for but not in the highly likely category—now stands at 624, which is down from 871 on Monday.

I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in sending our warmest congratulations to the newly elected Palestinian President, Abu Mazen. Let us hope that his victory with a strong majority and strong mandate will give us the chance to move the middle east peace process forward.

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.

Vera Baird: Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Redcar steelworks, which won a contract in December to export all the steel that it can produce for the next 10 years? The regional development agency supported that process, as it recently supported investment in the Teesside chemicals industry. Unemployment in my constituency is now being slashed. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that RDAs are not cut from future budgets?

The Prime Minister: I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend's constituents on winning the necessary contracts for steel production in Redcar and elsewhere. Under this Government, the RDAs will continue to have the budget that they need to make a difference to thousands of jobs up and down this country. We therefore completely reject the Conservative party's proposals, which are to cut the budgets of the RDAs, to put more people in the dole queue and to place our local economies at risk.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his statement on the victims of the tsunami. I wholeheartedly join him in the congratulations that he has expressed to Abu Mazen. I am sure that the whole House hopes that the election will mark a significant step forward in the middle east peace process.

When the Chancellor told the Prime Minister that

how did the Prime Minister reply?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that the question does not arise, since the Chancellor did not say that to me; the claim in the book happens to be wrong.

Let us turn to the issue of substance and policy. Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned the Chancellor, let us talk about the economy. Perhaps he will explain why under this Government, since 1997, there are 2 million more jobs, and perhaps he will confirm that when he was Employment Secretary there
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were 1 million more unemployed. I know that the Conservative party does not want to hear that, but that is what they will be hearing from now until polling day.

Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister denies that the Chancellor said those things, but the Chancellor yesterday had every opportunity to deny them and, as we all know, he pointedly refused to deny them. Perhaps the Prime Minister is the only person who did not notice. What the Chancellor said could not be more damning. He said that

Why did the Chancellor not deny that yesterday?

The Prime Minister: Both the Chancellor and I have dismissed what is in books as the tittle-tattle that it is. Let us turn to another policy issue. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said yesterday that it is time that we focused on the people's priorities, so let us focus on one: mortgages. Will he confirm—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister are allowed some leeway during Prime Minister's Question Time.

The Prime Minister: When the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a member of the last Conservative Government, interest rates were at 15 per cent. for a year and at 10 per cent. for four years. Under this Government they have been halved. Is not that what we should focus on?

Mr. Howard: The Chancellor says what we all think: the Prime Minister goes on and on about all these things but no one believes a word he says. The Prime Minister can clear all this up very simply. Did he ever say to the Chancellor that he was going to stand down before the election—yes or no?

The Prime Minister: I have dealt with that on a number of occasions. I have explained why no one does deals over jobs such as this. That has been said constantly.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that no one would believe a word we say. Well, there are 2 million more jobs. Mortgage rates have been half of what they were under the Conservative Government. Mortgages, inflation and unemployment are the lowest that they have been for over 30 years. Which one of those statements is false?

Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister says—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister says that he does not do deals over his job, but he did a deal over his job over dinner at Granita. He did a deal over dinner at Admiralty house. He is the deals on meals Prime Minister. No wonder the Chancellor is not a happy eater.

Now let me tell the Prime Minister why these things matter. The spokesman for senior civil servants has said that

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He said that

He also said:

This is something that goes directly to the heart of Government. That is why it is important. So let me ask the Prime Minister again: did he tell the Chancellor that he would stand down? Does he deny it—yes or no?

The Prime Minister: I have already dealt with that on a number of occasions and I have no intention of going back over it again.

I notice that the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not deny a single one of the economic facts that I gave him. Perhaps he will also confirm this: that as well as the economic record on low mortgages, low inflation, low levels of unemployment, and high levels of employment, waiting lists are now down by more than 300,000 on the number that we inherited from him, and primary school results are now up from just over half the kids getting them to almost 75 per cent. Perhaps he will also confirm this: that under this Government, there are 12,000 more police officers. When he was Home Secretary, he cut the numbers of police officers by 1,000—true or false?

Mr. Howard: Crime fell by 18 per cent. when I was Home Secretary—that is all anybody needs to know about my record. The Prime Minister wants to talk about his record, so I will tell him about it. We have more than 1 million children playing truant from schools, we have more people dying from hospital infections than dying on Britain's roads, and there are more than 1 million violent crimes. How can there be discipline in schools when there is no discipline in Government? How can they clean up our hospitals when they cannot clean up their act? How can they fight crime when they are fighting each other?

The Prime Minister: I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman very simply. At long last, we have got on to our record, so let us be quite clear what it is: under this Government, we have economic stability and success. When he was a member of the last Government, there were two recessions. People remember the negative equity, the high mortgages and the 3 million unemployed. They remember what happened under the last Conservative Government, and they remember something else that I have not mentioned before—that he was the Minister responsible for introducing the poll tax. [Interruption.] Well, come on—true or false? Did he introduce it? Yes, he did. Therefore, at the next election, whenever it comes, he can stick up whatever he likes on billboards about something in a book, but what the public will concentrate on are the low mortgages, low inflation and low unemployment that we delivered and he failed to.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): Is not one of the questions that will interest the people of this country for many years to come that of baby bonds, which come into full effect in April? Am I not right in saying that we need to give full publicity to this, because it not only starts people off with a pocket of money but enables others to put money into those
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accounts to encourage saving and, above all, to help to end poverty when those youngsters reach the age of 18 with a significant sum of money for the future?

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says about baby bonds—the child trust fund—which will be very popular in the country and will help to encourage saving as well as giving young people some stake in the future of the country. However, there are other areas, such as child care, where we are extending the boundaries and frontiers of the welfare state. That is why it is so important that we continue the investment in such things throughout the next few years, and why the Conservatives' proposals, which would cut public spending in some of these vital areas, would be so disastrous for Britain.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD): I am sure that the Prime Minister would wish to join me in paying tribute to the emergency personnel across the north of England and the length and breadth of Scotland who are coping with the severity of the atrocious weather of the past few hours. Indeed, Mr. Brian Downie, the principal emergency planning officer of the Highland region, described it to me earlier today as the worst that he has experienced professionally in almost 20 years. I am sure that we are all grateful to these people, who are working tirelessly and in dangerous conditions to restore power and other services to people throughout the communities affected.

Turning to a political issue, does the Prime Minister acknowledge that the Chancellor's proposal for a Marshall plan for Africa can be realised only if the United States, in particular, were to come on board? Does he agree that one of the best ways to convince President Bush of this approach and to support the international finance facility is to ensure that it is based on the principle of good governance within Africa and on the fact that people can be reassured, not least in the States, that the money that is being given is used properly for the purposes for which it was given?

The Prime Minister: On the first point, it is right to pay tribute to all who have been involved in the emergency response to the floods—the fire, ambulance and police services, the local authorities, the Environment Agency, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the coastguard, mountain rescue and those involved in the military aspect. We should also thank the voluntary organisations, because they are helping to care for those affected. I offer condolences, I am sure on behalf of the House, to the families of those killed and extend sympathy to those who are experiencing stress and structural damage to their homes. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment will respond to an urgent question in the House on that afterwards.

On the Africa plan that we intend to put to the G8 this year, the international finance facility is one way, although not the only way, to extend the amount of aid that will be available to Africa. I also entirely agree that good governance and, for example, conflict resolution must form part of the plan that we intend to present.
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Mr. Kennedy: I thank the Prime Minister for both replies. He will know about the interest in recent reports that he may be considering merging the Foreign Office with the Department for International Development, to create a new super-Ministry. Is that proposal under active consideration? If so, does the Prime Minister believe that the Chancellor of the Exchequer might consider that post to be the suitable job promotion that he is looking for?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry to say that that is not under consideration. The creation of a special Department for International Development has been a worthwhile innovation by the Government. There was some nervousness about it in many quarters—possibly even in some parts of the Foreign Office—when it happened. However, one of the most interesting aspects of events in the past seven and a half years has been the establishment of our Department for International Development as probably the most respected such Department in the world. I want to keep it that way.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) (Lab): In connection with the recent extreme weather conditions in many parts of the United Kingdom, will the Prime Minister join me in expressing special appreciation to the employees of the power companies who have worked so valiantly to keep the power supply going, often in treacherous conditions? Will he also acknowledge that the robustness of the power infrastructure in any part of the country in such circumstances is directly related to ongoing investment and maintenance? We therefore welcome the recent Ofgem price review, which made some progress on that, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that every corner of the country is served by power infrastructure companies that are obliged to make the necessary investment at all times to avoid power cuts when such conditions occur?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is right. I am happy to pay tribute to the work of the employees of the power companies. I should add that it is also important to maintain the investment in flood defences, which is now approximately £570 million a year, or due to be that amount in the next financial year. I am afraid that that shows the extent of the investment that we have to make to deal with what people increasingly regard as changed weather circumstances that have something of a permanent feature. That is one reason why it is important for the G8 to focus on climate change as well as Africa.

Q2. [207345] Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): In the past three years, I have spent much time interrogating civil servants. On all occasions, I have found them to be frustratingly loyal to Government in presenting Government policy as a seamless robe. How, therefore, does the Prime Minister respond to Mr. Jonathan Baume, the leader of the First Division Association—the mandarins' union—who recently said, not in a book but in a recorded statement, that civil servants were having difficulty in making sense of the competing agendas of No. 10 and the Treasury? If civil servants are loyal to Government, is not loyalty a two-way street?
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The Prime Minister: As I told the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) a moment ago, the Government's agenda is clear on the economy and investment in public services. The most important thing is to point out that, for example, last Friday, we had the waiting list figures for the national health service, compiled on exactly the same basis as they have been compiled for years, and as a result not only of investment but of reform in the NHS, they are at their lowest since records began. Now that is a demonstration of the Government's commitment.

I understand civil servants' anxiety, particularly when we are asking for big job reductions in the civil service, but we can see in the record of this Government the ability not just to run the economy well but to invest in public services. I should like to quote back to the hon. Gentleman something that he said on the "Politics Show" a short time ago:

I fully endorse those sentiments.

Q3. [207346] Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): In the run-up to Christmas last year, UK lenders sent out 140 million unsolicited, pre-approved credit card application forms, and a similar number of unsolicited, pre-approved personal loan applications. Does the Prime Minister condemn the tactics used by many credit card companies and banks to encourage families to take on levels of debt that they cannot possibly afford? Will he consider further measures to curb this irresponsible marketing?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right on the general point that he makes about the importance of legislation such as the Consumer Credit Bill, which I understand has its Commons Second Reading tomorrow. That is obviously important. There is also an action plan, which we published last July. In the priorities that it sets out for work by consumer credit companies, banks and others, the access to affordable credit and high-quality, free debt advice is central. I agree that it is important that the powers that these companies have should be exercised responsibly, and we will do our level best to ensure that they are.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): In case after case before the courts, local authorities have lost out to Travellers pleading the human rights agenda in defence of unauthorised encampments. Are the Government willing to legislate to stop human rights laws being used to drive a coach and horses through our planning system, as the Leader of the Opposition has pledged a Conservative Government would do?

The Prime Minister: We have the new enforcement notices coming into provision this week—

Mr. Hammond indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister: Before the hon. Gentleman shakes his head, perhaps he will listen to my answer. This is a new power that will allow local authorities to act very quickly indeed. However, let me make it clear
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that, if the experience of that new power—which local authorities and others say will be both necessary and important in enforcing the law properly—turns out to be inadequate, we will look at this again. I entirely agree that the interests of the ordinary public have to come first, but we want to ascertain, first of all, whether the legislation that we already have is deficient in some way before we look at fresh legislation. We believe that it will not be deficient, and that it will work.

Q4. [207347] Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): After years in development, the business case for the revised Paddington health campus has just been submitted to the Department of Health. This is the most prestigious and ambitious hospital development to have been attempted in this country, and the benefits will be huge. It will mean new facilities, and clinical and financial benefits, for international institutions such as the Brompton, Harefield and St. Mary's hospitals. It has been a difficult scheme to develop because it is ambitious and complex, but the cost of failure would be very great. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that it proceeds with all speed, as we are now within reach of one of the finest jewels in the NHS crown?

The Prime Minister: I know that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), is attending a meeting next week to discuss this, and I actually know a bit about it myself, having seen the site. It is an extraordinary, imaginative design. My hon. Friend will know that, as a result of the action already taken, in-patient and out-patient waiting lists and the amount of time people have to wait at the accident and emergency department at St. Mary's are already substantially down from 1997. These will be state-of-the-art facilities that will serve not only that part of London but, in some respects, the whole of the country for years to come. Again, it is an example of why it is so important that we keep the investment programme in our national health service going. Under this Government, it will be kept going.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Does the Prime Minister recall promising in 1999 that anybody wishing to access NHS dental provision would be able to do so by the end of 2001? Will he now have the grace to say that that is a broken promise? If, as he says, the Chancellor did not say

many of us believe that the Chancellor should have said it.

The Prime Minister: I accept that some people are still not getting access to NHS dentists. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman, however, what we are doing: we are bringing some 1,000 new dentists into the service; and we are working with the British Dental Association to try to make sure that we give people access to NHS care. Long-term issues associated with dentistry, however, must also be considered. I accept that these are difficult issues, but it is impossible for anyone to consider the national health service as a whole today, even with problems such as MRSA and others, and to say that it
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is not definitively better than it was in 1997. Yesterday, I was discussing with health service professionals things that have happened, such as the accident and emergency changes, and they said that whereas a few years ago we were held up at international symposiums as an example of a system that failed, at the most recent international symposium we were held up as an example of the fastest improving service.

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