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The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill): Stockton has been allocated £63 million for 200206 for decent homes in the social rented sector; further funds will be made available in future years. Stockton has already received some funding for housing market renewal, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has announced that additional housing market renewal funds will be made available from 2006.
Ms Taylor: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response and for making time to visit my constituency. [Interruption.] I am sure that that visit will have convinced him that Labour is delivering decent homes and environments for all. What is his Department doing[Interruption.]
Ms Taylor: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. What is my right hon. Friend doing to encourage ordinary people to be part of shared ownership and to have a share in the equity of their homes, accepting that this is a serious link to achieving sustainable communities?
Keith Hill: As my hon. Friend knows, our recent statement on our five-year plan, entitled "Homes for All", included a new announcement on low-cost home ownership that was very well received. During my recent visit to Thornaby, I was delighted to turn the first sod at the Mandale redevelopment and to meet the excellent local residents who were involved in the project. My hon. Friend played a leading part in persuading Ministers to invest in the Mandale regeneration; indeed, I know for a fact that she made the case to them for the south Stockton link road, which is about to be officially opened. Stockton, South is lucky to have her as its Member of Parliament.
Does the Minister not acknowledge the uncertainty created by Government planning guidance that allows the public perception of health risks, but not the health risks themselves, to be an objection to the siting of telecom masts? Will she allow councils greater discretion over the siting of masts in sensitive locations such as near schools, in order to reduce this problem?
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Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the recent Harrogate court case, in which the court found against the Government. We have always maintained that health can be a material consideration in planning cases. The Stewart report concludes that health risks should be considered at national level, but we are certainly reviewing the position in the light of the court judgment.
Mr. Hendrick: Crime is down by a third in Lancashire and we have 303 more police than in 1997. May I thank my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for making available to Preston city council an extra £123,838, which, along with the existing £55,000, will pay for the street crime wardens who have doneand will doubtless continue to doan excellent job in Preston?
Yvette Cooper: I congratulate Preston on getting the extra money for the wardens. During the first wave, crime has come down in the warden areas by 28 per cent. It is shocking to think of the many warden schemes that would be at risk if the Tories were allowed to cut £1 billion from our budget.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Has the Minister tried road-testing this policy with a few local communities and parish councils? If she did, she might be told, as I was, "We used to provide a service to our community. With this Government, all we do is provide paperwork."
Yvette Cooper: I am certainly sorry if there are parish councils that do not want to join in the warden schemesfunded by this Governmentthat have been so successful in cutting crime. Such councils would also suffer from the huge cuts that the hon. Gentleman's party would impose. Perhaps he should discuss that issue with his Front Benchers.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope):
Part 8 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which deals with high hedges, will be implemented in the coming months. When regulations governing certain procedural details are laid before Parliament by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, I will be able to give a firm commencement date quite shortly.
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Mr. Grogan: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, which will be warmly welcomed by all those who have campaigned long and hard for improved legislation on high hedges, including Mr. Ted Batty, who is one of my constituents. Will my hon. Friend urge councils to apply that legislation assiduously, once it takes effect?
Phil Hope: Unlike Conservative Members, who talked out such a measure when it was in the form of a private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), my hon. Friend and many other Government Members are very keen to introduce the legislation early, so that we can deal with high hedges. It will give us all sheer delight to bring this measure out of the shade as soon as possible, so that we all keep in trim for any possible future election.
Mr. Hendrick: My right hon. Friend may be aware that unemployment is down in Preston by 52 per cent. Since 1997, it has gone down from 5,300 people claiming jobseeker's allowance to 1,900 people. Does he accept that much of that is down to the Government's proactive job market measures and the efforts of his right hon. Friend the Chancellor in excellent Budgets, another of which we expect to see today?
The Prime Minister: I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that what is the case in Preston is actually the case in virtually every part of the country. Figures out today show record employment levelsover 2 million more jobs in Britain since 1997. Long-term youth unemployment is virtually eradicated, and the reduction in unemployment over the past few years has saved us something like £21 billion. When we came to office, 75 per cent. of extra public spending went on debt interest repayments and unemployment. Today, 75 per cent. goes on investment in our future.
The Prime Minister:
There have been falls in crime in Nottingham, I am pleased to say. There are also record numbers of police officers in Nottingham. I think that
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there are about 300,000I am sorry, 300extra police officers in Nottingham, and overall in the country there are not 300,000, but 3 million fewer crimes since 1997.
Mr. Howard: I asked the Prime Minister whether he agreed with his police Minister, and as usual, he did not answer. I will tell him someone who does not agree with his police Ministerthe chief constable of Nottinghamshire. He said:
The Prime Minister: Why do not we use the police officers' statistics in Nottinghamshire, compiled by the police? In the past 12 months, all crime is down by 8 per cent., domestic burglary is down by 17 per cent. and robbery is down by 24 per cent. As a result of the Government's extra investment, there are record numbers of police officers in Nottingham. They are now backed up by community support officers. How will that be helped by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal to cut £35 billion-worth of public spending and freeze the Home Office budget?
Mr. Howard: Labour has given Nottinghamshire 200 extra police officers in the past eight years, but a Conservative Government would give Nottinghamshire 740 extra police officers in the next eight years. The Prime Minister gave the figures for Nottinghamshire for the past 12 months; let me give him the figures since 1999. Since 1999, overall recorded crime in Nottinghamshire has gone up by almost a fifth and violent crime has gone up by more than a half. The chief constable says:
and the response from the Government is that the overall situation in Nottinghamshire is pretty good. Is it any surprise that people think that the Prime Minister and his Home Office team are not living in the real world?
The Prime Minister: Let me just tell him[Interruption.] If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to quote police officers, let us quote the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who said:
"Continuous falls in the numbers of burglaries, robberies and vehicle crimes demonstrate the value of the many targeted police initiatives around the country . . . The fall in violent crime shown by the British Crime Survey is particularly encouraging."
Now let us go back to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's claim that he will put more police officers into Nottinghamshire. How is that consistent with freezing the Home Office budget and with £35 billion-worth of cuts? [Interruption.] The Conservatives deny the £35 billion-worth of cuts. Let me quote from the shadow Chancellor, who said a few days ago that, by the end of the sixth year, the Conservatives would be spending
than the Government. I should have thought that that was very clear, so how will the right hon. and learned Gentleman increase the number of police officers while freezing their budget? [Interruption.]
Linda Perham: What action can the Government take against the Tory-controlled London borough of Redbridge, which last year short-changed its primary school pupils by £4.1 million, or £186 per pupil, by underspending the school formula spending share? What action would he recommend to my constituents over the next few months?
The Prime Minister: I am pleased to say that, as a result of the extra investmentit was, of course, opposed by the Conservative party and would be cut by their £35 billion-worth of cutsthe actual amount of education spending per pupil has gone up by about £900 in real terms since we came to power. If that is not being sent out to the front line by a Conservative-controlled council, there is a very simple remedy: vote Labour.
The Prime Minister of Italy has just announced the withdrawal of the 3,000 Italian troops from Iraq. He has also said that he discussed this matter with the Prime Minister. When Mr. Berlusconi discussed this matter with him, did the Prime Minister seek to dissuade him from or persuade him into such a course of action? What implications does this have for a phased timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq?
The Prime Minister: It does not have implications. The right hon. Gentleman is a bit behind what the Italian Government have said in the last few hours, which is that their position is exactly the same as oursthat there should be a build-up of the Iraqi forces so that security is increasingly taken over by them. We have always said that we should leave as soon as possible, once the Iraqi forces are capable of dealing with their own security. Neither the Italian Government nor ourselves have set some deadline for withdrawal.
Many of us remain of the view that we should set a deadline for withdrawal, which should be in line with the expiry of the United Nations mandate. Still on Iraq, will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to confirm to the House that when the Cabinet gave final approval for the war in Iraq, the Cabinet at that time had before it a full written legal opinion from the Attorney-General concluding that the war was legalyes or no?
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The Prime Minister: The Cabinet had before it the Attorney-General, who was there precisely to answer questions and to say that the war was lawful. As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman on many occasions, we can debate whether the conflict was right or wrong but, frankly, it is absurd to keep on suggesting that some secret opinion of the Attorney-General said that the war was unlawful. The Attorney-General has made his position absolutely clearthe war was lawful because of the breach of UN resolutions and the evidence that Saddam was in breach of the UN resolutions.
To go back to the point about withdrawal, I have to say that I profoundly disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. The most important thing at the moment is that we have democracy taking root in Iraq, and that is a fantastic development. It is having consequences right across the middle-east. If he talked to people in Iraq, they would say to him that, of course, they want the multinational force to leave as soon as is possible, but we have got to make sure that the Iraqis are capable of looking after their own security before that happens. That is why we are building up the Iraqi security forces.
The date of September is simply a reference to the fact that, by September, we hope that the Iraqi security forces will be in a much better position. However, it does not mean that we should set an arbitrary timetable for withdrawal. We should withdraw when the job is done, not before.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): The Prime Minister may be aware that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence is proposing that certain drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease and dementia should no longer be available on the NHS. However, is he aware of the massive impact that this would have on the quality of life of sufferers and carers throughout the country? Will he intervene to ensure that these drugs remain available on the national health service?
The Prime Minister: The situation is now under review. Obviously, it is important that we keep closely to what the institute advises. Under this Government, we have set up for the first time in this country an independent body that advises us on these things, and I think that it is now taken virtually as a model around the rest of world as to how these things should be done. Occasionally, it will make proposals that are highly controversial. For that very reason, we have said that we would look at these issues again with the national institute, but I do not think that that should be taken as any reflection on the institute's general work, which is very good.
Mr. Howard : Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the extraordinary courage and tenacity of the family of Robert McCartney, who have exposed the evil of IRA thuggery? In paying tribute to their courage, will the Prime Minister make it clear that there can be no place in the Government of Northern Ireland for any party linked to terror and organised crime and that refuses to co-operate with the police?
The Prime Minister:
Of course, we all pay tribute to the courage of the McCartney family. No one has made their case better than them. Also, it has been the position since October 2002 that we cannot have an inclusive
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Executive or Government in Northern Ireland unless there is a complete end to all forms of paramilitary and criminal activity. That is the position of the Government, and that is why we are still in the impasse that we are in.
Mr. Howard: Given that, how does the Prime Minister respond to the remarks today of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), who says that the present situation in Northern Ireland has been brought about by the Prime Minister who, he says, has acted in bad faith and pandered to the demands of Sinn Fein-IRA?
The Prime Minister: Let me answer that in two parts. First, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and the work that he has done to bring about a settlement in Northern Ireland. I obviously disagree with the remarks that he has made for a very simple reason. I think that the SDLP conference passed a resolution a short time ago saying that the party would not go into government exclusive of Sinn Fein. That, therefore, is the issue. That is why it is important to try to make progress that includes everybody, but that has to be on the very clear basis that there is a commitment to peaceful and democratic means by everyone.
This process has been very difficult over the past eight years, but I think that we have made an immense amount of progress. What is happening today with the IRA and with the way that the McCartney family are behaving, what they are saying, the fact that the British, Irish and American Governments are all on the same side, and the fact that every major political party is on the same side, are an indication of how much has changed. For the rest to change, it is necessary for those people inside the republican community finally to stand up and say, "We will pursue our perfectly legitimate aspirations for a united Ireland peacefully, and we want nothing to do with criminal gangs, criminal activity or, indeed, paramilitarism."
Is it not now obvious to everyone that Sinn Fein-IRA are up to their necks in criminal activity, so will the Prime Minister now send out a clear message that Sinn Fein will no longer enjoy a veto over political progress in Northern Ireland?
The Prime Minister:
First, it is absolutely correct to say that we have worked very closely indeed with Sinn Fein over the past few years. I make no apologies for thatit has been a necessary part of securing the progress that we have secured. Secondly, the reason why
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we have not got an inclusive Executiveor, indeed, any Executiveor devolved institutions in Northern Ireland is precisely because we have made it clear that the price of going into government is giving up criminal activity and paramilitarism completely.
Thirdly, as I saidI ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to reflect on thisthe most important thing in Northern Ireland is that a big debate is going on inside the republican community. What I want to reflect on is the best way to allow that debate to happen constructively. It is not going to happen because of what he says, and it is not actually going to happen because of what I say, but it may just happen if people look at the progress made over the past few years and realise that the Unionist community is sincere in its wish to go forward on an inclusive basis, provided that violence is given up completely. If that becomes clear in the whole of the island of Ireland, we have a chance of making progress. The types of remarks that he makes may get him a cheer, but they are not much help.
Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): During the last 16 minutes of Prime Minister's Question Time, more than 300 children in Africa have met an untimely death as a result of either preventable disease or armed conflict. May I congratulate the Prime Minister on the lead that he has taken on African issues and ask for the assurance that during the next few months, when the political debate will focus on the home front, he will continue to stand up for Africa and to highlight the needs of African children?
The Prime Minister: The widespread support given to the Commission for Africa report last week is a good and optimistic sign. There is a real sense, both on the continent of Africa and, I hope, in the developed world, that we have a moment of opportunity in which to make progress and to deal with issues such as debt relief, aid, trade, conflict resolution and governance. I will obviously do everything that I can to make progress over the next few months because, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, thousands of people diepreventablyevery day in Africa. It is a scandal that the world must act on.
Q2.  Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Last week, the Prime Minister told me that the Government have created 10 times more doctors and nurses in my constituency than actually exist. I wonder whether he could do a little better this week with a question on mental health.
How is it possible that the South West London and St. George's mental health authority, catering for 1 million people, can announce deep cuts in clinical services and care in the community because of a lack of Government funding, while simultaneously advertising nine senior management non-clinical posts at salaries of £70,000? When will the Government stop that grotesque bureaucratic empire building at the expense of front-line services?
The Prime Minister:
In fairness, the hon. Gentleman might have pointed out that there are over 2,600 more nurses and 300 more doctors in the South West London strategic health authority since 1997, and waiting lists
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and waiting times are down. There is also a massive investment in the health service in his area. That point is important for balance.
"We have started a crisis and home treatment team, are building a new ward at Queen Mary's and have no plans to close the Maddison Clinic or Barnes Hospital. We will continue to provide specialist services to local people."
It is true that he also said that there are financial pressures, and I suppose that there always will be financial pressures in virtually every part of the health service. However, it is only as a result of the record investment going into the health servicethe vast bulk of which has gone not on bureaucrats or managers, but on new buildings, new nurses and new doctorsthat we have made the progress that we have. I would have hoped that he would recognise it.
Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): In evidence to the Select Committee, the head of the Prison Service told it that prison escapes had been virtually eliminated. He contrasted that with the mid-1990s, when up to five went over the wall every week at a time when we were being told that prison works. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will never implement such an early-release scheme or do as the Liberal Democrats suggest and give killers the vote?
The Prime Minister: I can assure my hon. Friend on both points. There is big investment going into extra numbers of police in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere, and that is one of the reasons why the British crime survey shows that crime is down. We will also make sure that, rather than freezing the Home Office budget, we continue the investment in our prison services.
Q3.  Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): Does the Prime Minister accept that whatever pre-election goodies the Chancellor may have in his Budget, they will be too late for people such as Ted Maxwell from Bermondsey, a disabled pensioner, whose local post office closed two weeks ago? Is not it right that as a direct result of the Government's policy, more than 2,000 post offices have closed, and that if Labour is returned to office thousands of people will never have a local post office again?
The Prime Minister:
I do not accept that. The reason for the closures, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is the reduced amount of business because increasing numbers of people have the money paid into their bank accounts. However, we do try to make provision for those who do not want that to happen. I am sorry about the particular circumstances of the hon. Gentleman's constituent; on the other hand, I am sure that he would realise, and so would other pensioners in the country, that there has been an enormous amount of money put into pensioner support over the past few years: the winter fuel allowance, the TV licences for the over-75s, the above-inflation increases in the basic state pension and the pension credit. Indeed, I may say to the hon. Gentleman
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that we are putting far more money into support for pensioners than was ever asked for by the Liberal Democrats in either 1997 or 2001.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has referred to the cuts in unemployment, which have been absolutely fantastic recently. Does he realise that the remaining small number of people who are unemployed in constituencies such as mine need special measures, such as building on the new deal and programmes like that? Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment to ensure that such programmes are sustained so that the remaining very difficult cases can be dealt with and we can get people into employment?
The Prime Minister: I can assure my hon. Friend that we will indeed keep the new deal going. It is an important programme that has helped many young people, many of those who are long-term unemployed, lone parents and disabled people into work. It has done a fantastic job. It is never, ever, as the previous Government's programmes used to be called, a skivvy schemewe all remember both that and the high levels of unemployment in the 1980s. That is genuinely a thing of the past, but to keep it a thing of the past we need a strong economy backed up by measures like the new deal that have a proven track record of working.
The Prime Minister: What we are doing is introducing[Interruption.] I am happy to have this debate. What we are doing is getting rid of up-front fees altogether, so no student or their family will have to pay money, top-up or otherwise, as they go through university. Afterwards, they will make a repayment based on their ability to pay. If, for example, a woman raises children or someone is off work for any reason, they will not have to pay. That is in contrast to the proposals, which we emphatically reject, to charge a real rate of interest on all student loans, and which would have a devastating effect on students' incomes.
Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the staff at the Conquest hospital in Hastings who, because of investment, have been doing such sterling work, but are under pressure at the moment due to 97 per cent. occupancy? That is down to a Tory county council refusing to unblock beds. Will my right hon. Friend give authority to the health authorities to place those patients in proper places so that they can fill the beds with people who need the services?
The Prime Minister:
That is why is it so important to keep the additional investment going into the national health service. The one policy that we will not countenance is a voucher system that will take
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£1.5 billion out of the health service, put it in the private sector, and so leave NHS patients with a worse service. That we will not do.
Q5.  Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I have given the Prime Minister notice of my question. At the weekend, the grandparent and parents of a 19-month-old boy who was killed by his registered child minder came to see me. They said that if they had had the knowledge that Ofsted had about the child minder, they would not have let her anywhere near their child. I spoke to Ofsted yesterday, and it is to conduct an internal inquiry. None the less, does the Prime Minister agree that the matter is so serious that an independent inquiry should be held and a report published so that the procedures to determine who can become a registered child minder can be tightened? The key point is that such a case must never be allowed to happen again. No child should ever be put into such a vulnerable position, and their families, parents and grandparents should not have to grieve for them.
We have a system of child care regulation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Ofsted is the registration authority for child minders and is responsible for determining whether a person is suitable to be registered as a child minder. New regulations that came into force last December clarified the circumstances in which Ofsted may share information with parents. I would like to study the case to see whether more needs to be done. As the hon. Gentleman said, Ofsted is conducting an internal inquiry, but I want to know whether the new regulations, had they been in force at the time, would have made a difference. We always have to keep a balance between ensuring that the system is not over-bureaucratic and ensuring that the proper checks are in place. I am very sorry that in the case the hon. Gentleman raises, those checks were not sufficient to prevent a tragedy.
Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): As one of the MPs for the Greater Nottingham area, I should like to return to the issue raised by the Leader of the Opposition. There is considerable local annoyance about the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is seeking to make political capital
Q6.  Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)
(DUP): As Sinn Fein-IRA sink ever deeperif that is possibleinto the mire of criminality, gangsterism, murder and threats, will the Prime Minister accept, as many thousands of their supporters in Northern Ireland do, that the provisional movement has failed the democratic test? Will he now focus on the only option that remains open for a political way forward in Northern Ireland: devolution without the corruption of Sinn Fein-IRA in government? That is the only way forward now.
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The Prime Minister: With respect, it is the only way forward provided there is sufficient support on both sides of the community for it. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that it cannot be done by Unionist politicians alone, or, indeed, by the British Government alone.
I might be criticised by the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition for it, but I continue to think that the way in which the debate is going on within republicanism offers the best hope of getting the right resolution. The McCartney family have taken forward the debate in an extraordinarily courageous way, but, to be frank, the last thing that they need is people trying to come in on the back of what they are saying, whether those people are from the Unionist community or the Government.
What is important is to make sure that everyone understands that there can be no way forward in Northern Ireland except by people being completely committed to exclusively peaceful means. How the individual partiesthe Social Democratic and Labour party, the Democratic Unionist party, the other Unionist parties and so onwork out the way forward
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between themselves is a matter for them, but if people want an inclusive way forward, it can only be done on the clear terms that we have set out.
Q7.  Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read today's Daily Record, which contains an exposé of loan sharks, who prey on the most vulnerable in our society by lending at extortionate rates of interest, in Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow and elsewhere? Will he do what he can to ensure that the Consumer Credit Bill, which is stuck in the House of Lords, becomes law as soon as possible?
The Prime Minister: The Consumer Credit Bill completed its Commons proceedings very swiftly, and I am pleased to say that it received support from both sides of the House. It has been introduced into the other place, where I hope that that consensus can be continued because it is an important measure to protect vulnerable people. I congratulate the Daily Record on exposing that story today.
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