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5. Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): What recent discussions he has had with the chief medical officer in relation to the introduction of a smoking ban in enclosed public spaces in Northern Ireland. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela Smith): There have been no recent discussions with the chief medical officer on this subject as, on 21 December 2004, I launched the Department of Health social services and public safety regional strategy, entitled "A Healthier Future: A Twenty Year Vision for Health and Well Being in Northern Ireland". This includes a consultation on the three options for strengthening existing controls, including a ban on tobacco use in enclosed public places and workplaces. I will discuss the outcome of this consultation with the chief medical officer.
Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the Minister for that reply, although I am disappointed with it. Can she explain precisely why the Northern Ireland Office has shilly-shallied for so long over the introduction of a smoking ban in enclosed public spaces in Northern Ireland?
Angela Smith: As a Minister who has been criticised for not consulting on another issue, I think it entirely appropriate that we should consult the people of Northern Ireland on this one. That is not to say that nothing has been done in the meantime. Some £5.5 million has been spent on public information and on the tobacco action plan. I would offer one word of caution, however. If a smoking ban goes ahead, that does not mean the end of the issue. The tobacco action plan must progress to ensure that smoking is reduced wherever people happen to be smoking.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)
(Lab): At the recent British-Irish inter-parliamentary body meeting in Bundoran, County Donegal, some of us conducted informal research into this issue in Brennan's bar. Its proprietors said that the ban was working very well in
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the Republicthey are close to the Northern Ireland borderand was welcomed by customers. Could we not introduce the same thing in Northern Ireland?
Angela Smith: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his diligence in undertaking such research in that bar. The consultation period ends on 25 March, and I will then be able further to consult my officials on the way forward.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): The overall security situation is relatively quiet. Last year saw the lowest number of murders since 1969. The number of paramilitary-style attacks has fallen, but paramilitary organisations on both sides continue to engage in attacks on, and intimidation of, their own communities.
Ann Winterton: But does the Minister agree that there can be no lasting peace and security in the Province until Sinn Fein-IRA decommission not just some but all their weapons, and such decommissioning is verified? Will he give a commitment to the House that Sinn Fein-IRA will not be admitted to the democratic process or to the Administration of Northern Ireland until all their weapons have been handed over?
Mr. Pearson: The hon. Lady will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had to say on Sinn Fein and the IRA. She is right to highlight the importance of decommissioning, but it is not just about that; it is about giving up paramilitary activity and giving up criminality. We need to see an end to all these if we are going to make progress.
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): Given last week's warning from the security services to British businesses about the possibility of terror attacks from Republican sources, and given the menacing threat from Martin McGuinness to the McCartney family, is it reasonable for law-abiding citizens to assume that the IRA's ceasefire has broken down and that its criminality continues? What are the Government going to do about it?
Mr. Pearson: The Chief Constable's assessment is still that the Provisional IRA is on ceasefire. There is, howeverand has been for some timea threat from dissident republicans both in Northern Ireland and, potentially, across the water. That is one reason why the decisions to which the hon. Gentleman refers were taken last week. The important thing to stress is that this Government will not take any risks with the safety of the public of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and we will implement whatever measures are necessary to ensure that we protect our citizens.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry)
(DUP): Will the Minister accept that there is an increasing security threat against former members of the security forces in Northern Ireland? Indeed, the police have
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visited a number of my constituents within the past 10 days to indicate that the Provisional IRA is carrying out threat assessments on them, as ex-members of the security forces. Will the Minister consult the Chief Constable to ensure that the police take action against the Provisional IRA?
Mr. Pearson: I meet the Chief Constable on a regular basis and we discuss a wide range of security matters. I am certainly aware of the potentially increased threat to some members of the security forces. There is a system of threat assessment and we talk to the police about these problems. I am convinced that robust procedures are in place, and they will continue.
I have been asked to reply. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is attending the European Counciland I am certainly grateful for the good wishes that he has sent me for today.
Mr. Gill: Given the anxiety and concern expressed in Leicester by Muslim leaders, including the distinguished Ibrahim Natalia, president of the Masjid Umar mosque in my constituency, does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety was right to express the view that Muslims should expect to be targeted by the police when they exercise powers under the new terrorism legislation? Will he take this opportunity to dissociate himself from that Minister's ill-judged comments?
The Deputy Prime Minister: That is an unfair representation of what the Minister said, and I do not believe that it is helpful for the hon. Gentleman to make such remarksand this may well be the last occasion on which he is able to make them.
Laura Moffatt (Crawley)
(Lab): Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the Crawley branch of the Burma Star Association, which, in the words of its chairman, Jim Ritchie, is going to "pack it in gracefully"? It has served the people of Crawley for many years, and its members offer help, advice and support for each other. It is based in a local authority that has the good sense to ensure that older people have free travel. Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the association for its work over many years?
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The Deputy Prime Minister: The whole House will want to send its best wishes to members of the Burma Star Association[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]whether they are based in my hon. Friend's constituency or elsewhere, and thank them for the contribution that they make. I was fortunate enough to meet a number of its members on the 11 November poppy day ceremonies. They were very impressive as they talked about the difficulties from which they had suffered. It is right to provide these elderly people with council house assistance, council tax concessions, the pensioners' free bus pass and other benefits. We have recognised their contribution, but sadly, it will be greatly affected by the Opposition's policy of £35 billion cuts[Interruption.]
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I do not know why the Deputy Prime Minister keeps parroting the failed Labour election campaignit is just about the only thing in the Labour party for which he is not responsible. Why did the Chancellor forget to mention in his Budget statement the fact that the £200 council tax rebate for pensioners applies for one year only?
The Deputy Prime Minister: For the simple reason that we are reviewing the council tax[Interruption.] The House should take into account the difficulties created for council tax by the poll tax, which was brought in by the previous Administration. That is why the present council tax is inadequate to deal with local government financing. The Government were right to set up the Lyons review to establish a fairer way of dealing with local tax problems than the income tax solution offered by the Liberal Democrats or the subsidies given by the Tory Administration.
Mr. Ancram: The Red Book makes it absolutely clear that there is no provision for a further rebate after the first year. The Chancellor did not mention the fact that the £200 is for only one year, because with this Government, the give-aways come before the election and the takeaways come after. The proposal contrasts with our pledge of a year-on-year discount of up to £500 for millions of pensioners. It is quite clear that under this Government, typical council tax is heading for £2,000 a year. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that on 5 May, all pensioners should vote Conservative?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Not if they read the small print, which makes it clear that under a future Tory Administrationif the Opposition were ever to get into power, which I doubtmany pensioners would not get the benefits on offer. In some cases, pensioners under 65 would not be entitled to them, and there are other qualifications. Under the Government's proposals, between 2 million and 3 million pensioners will benefit. Moreover, the Tory proposals mean that the wealthier you are, the more you get: if you are poorer, you get less.
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)
(Lab): Recently, I had a meeting with the mayor of Middlesbrough, Ray Mallon, who is a great friend of mine. He said that the support given by this Labour Government means that Middlesbrough is moving forward. That contrasts with what happened when the Opposition were in power. He also said that overall, crime in Middlesbrough had fallen by 20 per cent.
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under this Government. That is a great achievement, and is thanks to his leadership. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Ray Mallon on his great achievement for Middlesbrough? I invite him to come to Middlesbrough and see for himself.
The Deputy Prime Minister: Mr. Mallon, like every individual in every constituency, will have benefited from the increase in police numbers under this Government, and the introduction of community police. To be fair to him, he has congratulated the Government on giving him the support that he needed. So successful has he been that the leader of the Opposition went up to Middlesbrough to try to bathe in the glory of Labour's policies.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): In light of the fact that there has been no substantive progress on human rights, what is the Government's justification for supporting the lifting of the EU arms embargo on China?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that that embargo is being discussed by EU Ministers at the meeting currently under way. The proposal has caused concern in America, and to some extent in Europe too. I think that good sense will prevail, and that agreement will be reached on lifting the embargo. No decision has yet been made on what remains a matter for discussionand I remind the House that it was this Government who brought in the advances on human rights.
Sir Menzies Campbell: In the Government's human rights report of 2004, the Foreign Office expressed serious concern about basic human rights in China, quoting extensive use of the death penalty, torture and the detention of political dissidents. Given the nature of the regime, why should we lift the arms embargo, which was imposed after Tiananmen square?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes some very reasonable points, which are currently being discussed by European Foreign Ministers. We have to make a judgment, and strike an appropriate balance. There is no doubt that both Europe and America want better relations with China, and one of the conditions is that we talk about human rights as well as trade. China is emerging more and more into the world. Good progress is being made towards peaceful coexistence, and that contrasts with the tensions that exist when there is no dialogue with such countries.
Mr. John Hume (Foyle)
(SDLP): The enormous revolution in technology and telecommunications means that we are living in a smaller world today, and that we are in a better position to shape it. We are also in a better position to relieve the enormous poverty in those countries known as third-world countries. The Prime Minister will shortly take over the chair of the G8 nations, so will he take that opportunity to prioritise helping those countries? In particular, will he give substantial and regular support to international organisations such as Trocaire, whose staff are experts at dealing with terrible poverty? Every day,
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24,000 people die because of poverty in those countries. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that helping them should be a priority for countries like ours?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I very much agree with what my hon. Friend has said. We have been at the forefront of debt relief, helping to achieve the reduction of poverty in these countries, and the Commission for Africa is very much to the credit of this Government. I am proud to belong to a Government who have been making the running in these issues, and that compares and contrasts very much with the Tory Administration. We have doubled foreign aid; they halved it.
Q2.  Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Leading Labour councillors were among the 17,000 local people in my constituency who signed a petition to the Commons asking for radical changes to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's plans to double the number of houses in South Bedfordshire. Will the Deputy Prime Minister come to South Bedfordshire to hear local people's concerns, given that his Department's plans will change the nature of South Bedfordshire for ever?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I have no doubt that even in South Bedfordshire there is a desire for housing, and that we are not building sufficient of it . Our challenge is to ensure that more houses are built. The real concern that I hear expressed by people is that we will be using up more green space, but the reality is that our policies have increased house building on brownfield sites from the previous Administration's 57 per cent. to 67 per cent. We have also increased the density in these areas, so that we are now going to build 200,000 more houses in the growth areas on less land than was envisaged in 1979. We are saving a land space equivalent to Oxford, which I think is a good move. We have houses, we use land more efficiently, and we use brownfield sites; that sounds to me like a good commonsense policy.
John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the despicable conduct of the high street banks HSBC, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Alliance and Leicester, and the ATM companies Hanco and Cardpoint, in charging pensioners and people on benefit, as well as those in rural areas, for the use of ATMs? What will the Government do to ensure that those people, who have the least money, are looked after?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The problem mentioned by my hon. Friend is causing considerable concern, whether that is registered in the press, in discussion in the Government or by Members of the House. Many think that it is rather unfair that some of the charges are so high, and are creating difficulties. I believe that discussions are going on about that, and I hope that they can produce a better solution.
The Deputy Prime Minister:
It is true that violent crime has increased[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] As has been said time and again from this Dispatch Box, the
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new recording system has meant that there is more recording of violent crime, but the crime survey statistics show that overall crime has fallen. That is very important, and it has happened because we have been able to provide more police officers and give the support and resources that would not be there under the Opposition's present policies of a £35 billion cut.
Mr. Ancram: The figures that the Deputy Prime Minister is using exclude drug dealing, murder, business fraud, sexual offences, shoplifting and crimes against children. He reminds me of the mayor of Washington, who said that Washington would be one of the safest cities in the world if the statistics excluded murders. Let me tell the Deputy Prime Minister the reality: violent crime is up by 83 per cent. That is more rapes, more murders and more woundings. That is what real people are worried about.
The Deputy Prime Minister: It is hard to jump from crime to truancy, but presumably that is the kind of jump that a Tory Administration would want to make. The right hon. and learned Gentleman still has to face the fact that under this Government crime has been reduced by 30 per cent., whereas it doubled under the previous Administration. That is the fact, and the reason why we have been able to do that is that we have provided more resources and more police, which has had the effect of cutting the incidence of crime.
With regard to truancy in schools, we have improved investment in the education system. Our standards have increased, and we are dealing with truancy, although not as effectively as we hoped that we could.
Mr. Ancram: Again, the right hon. Gentleman did not answer the question. Let me tell him the reality. The figure is more than 1 million a year. The Government promised to cut truancy by one third; instead, it has increased by one third.
The Deputy Prime Minister: Again, the number of applications from asylum seekers has fallen considerably, unlike when the Leader of the Opposition was Home Secretary. We are dealing with a difficult problem that we inherited from the last Conservative Administration and we are making progress. I only wish that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would take into account the improvements under Labour: 2,200 more nurses and 381 more doctors and teachers. That is an improvement.
Mr. Ancram: We always know that the right hon. Gentleman is blustering when he answers a different question from the one that was asked. The reality is that a quarter of a million failed asylum seekers have managed to stay in this country under this Government. What the Deputy Prime Minister demonstrated perfectly today is that this Government are completely out of touch with reality. Does he not understand that when it comes to crime, when it comes to truancy and when it comes to asylum, people feel totally let down by this Government, and can hardly wait for 5 May to send them packing?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that we will be judged on crime. It has fallen by 30 per cent., but doubled under the Tories. Asylum applications have fallen, but were considerably higher under Labour[Laughter.] To put the record right for the penny scribblers in the Gallery, I mean that when the Leader of the Opposition was Home Secretary, asylum applications were far higher. We inherited a difficult problem, but the number of applications is much lower now.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give credit to our policies? If people are to judge on 5 Maythe election will be on 5 May, will it not? [Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to have forgotten that it is the county council elections that will be on 5 May, when Labour and the Tories will be judged. He should talk to the shadow Chancellor, who conducted a survey on the success of the Labour Government"Oliver's Survey Results". On the national health service he asked his constituents:
The response was as follows: 31 per cent. said excellent, 42 per cent. said good, and 73 per cent. said the health service was a good service under a Labour Government. On reducing crime, good old Oliver's survey asked his constituents what they thought of
Q3.  Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab): Runaway inflation, crumbling public services, record interest rates, negative equity, mass unemploymentis my right hon. Friend thinking what I'm thinking?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I am, and I am prepared to say that to the electorate. We said that we would get unemployment down, and we have created the highest level of employment in this country. We have put more resources into the public services. I am proud of that recordand that is what I am thinking. I only hope that that is what the shadow Chancellor is thinking when he praises our employment record.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)
(Con): It is just over three years since the tragic abduction and murder of Milly Dowler in my constituency. Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my admiration for Milly's mother, Sally Dowler, and the work that she is now doing to try to help young children protect themselves against such
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awful events? Will he also give credit to Surrey police, whose persistence in pursuing that as yet unsolved crime has been praised by Milly's parents and the rest of the community? Does he accept, however, that Surrey police is, per capita, the least well funded of all the police forces under this Government? Given the extra pressures on Surrey police, not only from the Milly Dowler affair but from other events, that funding is very unfair, and all the people of Surrey are extremely concerned about it.
The Deputy Prime Minister: The whole House will agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments about the death of Milly. Our thoughts go to the parents at this moment and to the police, who have a very difficult job in such circumstancesas do all police forcesand we wish them well in dealing with those difficult matters. In fairness, it is true to say that the resources that we have given to the police authorities have increased considerably. I note what the chief constable is saying in Surrey, and one or two others are saying similar things. We are looking at that, but without a doubt the resources that we have given are considerable, whether for the numbers of police officers or for the support units. [Interruption.] There is always an argument about the resources, but under this Government it is about increased resources, not reduced resources.
Q4.  Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): I have some fantastic Sure Start programmes in my constituency and some of the finest primary schools to be found anywhere. Every secondary school in my constituency has specialist school status, and we also have a brand-new further education college. However, we do not have a university. What progress is being made to realise the long-held dream of a university in west Cumbria?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I welcome the remarks made by my hon. Friend and I agree with them. As he knows, total Government expenditure on higher education will have increased from £5.8 billion to £9.5 billion by 200708I will not make the obvious point that he will not see that money if cuts of £35 billion are made. The important point that my hon. Friend makes is that university education should be available as much in rural areas as in urban areas. I recognised that when I was in Cornwall and the south-west, and helped to provide the resources for Cornwall university. The argument is similar to the one for my hon. Friend's constituency in west Cumbria, and to show our priorities, I am delighted to announce that my Office and the Department for Education and Skills will provided £21 million extra support for the excellent combined universities in the Cornwall project to enable it to expand. It is the same argument for the rural areas, and I hope that that shows the importance of it.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Given this Administration's expertise on weapons of mass destruction, can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that if they are re-elected it would be the Government's intention in the next Parliament to take a decision on the replacement of the Trident missile system, at an estimated cost of £20,000 million?
The Deputy Prime Minister:
There are clearly ongoing discussions about the replacement of weapons systems,
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as the hon. Gentleman knows. No decisions have been made, and no doubt there will be debates at the appropriate time on those very issues.
Q5.  Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the regeneration schemes in my constituency are having a beneficial impact on the quality of life of hardworking families? In Middleton in particular, the youth improvement programmethe YIP schemehas reduced levels of crime on the Langley estate. In Heywood, the new health connections building will be completed in 2007. That is a partnership between the new deal for communities and the local health set-up. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he will continue with those programmes for the lifetime of the next Parliament?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly can give my hon. Friend that assurance about Heywood health connections and the health centres, and something similar is occurring in all our constituencies at the moment. That is a reflection on the massive capital programme that we have in health, as well as education. I can also tell him that, as he well knows, our pathfinder programme has been successful in his constituency.
Today, I have announced that another £60 million-odd will go into the pathfinder programmes in the other areas that I have announced before. To that extent, we think that those capital programmes are important; they are making a difference in jobs and the quality of life. I am bound to say, though, that certainly if we get the £35 billion in cuts from the Tories[Interruption.] The Opposition may complain, but in their James report, they advocate a £1 billion cut in the housing programme. In fact, a Conservative spokesman has said that all the proposed housing in the Thames gateway would be cancelled. They have no concern for housing programmes. They constantly tell us that they do not want those housesbut they should tell that to the people who do, and who want that quality of life.
Q6.  Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con):With the underfunding of our health services in Buckinghamshire [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Our funding is 18 per cent. less than the average. With the values of our pensions eroded, Travellers camped illegally, violent crime up and the Deputy Prime Minister's own plans to concrete over the south-east, which of the 66 tax rises imposed by the Government represents good value for money for my constituents? Can he name one?
The Deputy Prime Minister:
The hon. Lady's judgment on this is as good as it was on the minimum wage. She said that it would cost an awful lot of jobs, we introduced it, and at the same time created an extra 1 million to 2 million jobs. Her judgment is wrong. I am looking at the figures for her area. If we are doing so badly and not putting in the money, why has she got 2,500 more nurses and 283 more doctors? Why is it that the number of people waiting more than nine months for operations has fallen from 146 to zero? Why are there 420 more teachers, 381 more teaching assistants, 4,160 police officers in the Thames valleya record numberand 48 community support officers? Why is
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unemployment down by 74 per cent. and youth unemployment down by 11 per cent? That sounds like a policy that is successful, not failing.
Q7.  Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Manufacturing jobs in South Derbyshire are booming. As the Deputy Prime Minister will know from having visited Toyota, it is recruiting additional staff this year. FIUK has just decided to locate there to manufacture body parts for cars. JCB has set up an engine plant in South Derbyshire. That is a credit to the stability of the national economy, the hard work of Labour councils and the ability of the local work force. However, one thing that we could do with, to add to that suite, is a further strengthening of the transport infrastructure. Will my right hon. Friend commit himself to supporting the new road to Rolls-Royce's Sinfin site, as that would help to develop that area?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I recognise a lot of what my hon. Friend says, because I have visited the plant on a number of occasions. It is a very successful plant, but what impressed me most about it was the fact that many miners who had been thrown out of work by the previous Administration's programmes were now working in the car industry, and were proud to do so. In fact, unemployment has fallen yet again in that area. That is yet another example of why the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) could go to Germany and say:
That is under this Labour Government: record employment, more people back to work and, curiously enough, more people paying tax, to the benefit of the community, instead of having to borrow to keep them on the dole. That is the difference in the policies.
Q8.  Nick Harvey (North Devon)
(LD): Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that South West Water's
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customers have the lowest incomes in the country, but pay by far the highest water bills, which are rising another 13 per cent. next month? Does he recall that a previous Labour Government legislated to equalise water changes nationally? Given that the Conservatives repealed that excellent Act, what will this Labour Government do now to address that mounting problem?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the difference between our approach and that of the Conservatives. The privatisation of water has made the situation more difficult, and there are real problems in the south-west. One cannot consider the south-west's problems, and its population and tourism, without understanding the real difficulties with investment in the water industry. His proposal makes some sense, but it would cost a lot of money. Is his proposal another part of the sums that do not add up in the Liberals' policy?
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Cleveland police in Stockton have established a project with licensees, known as the tranquillity project. Under the project, licensees pay a small amount to Cleveland police for extra policing and a direct telephone line. In the two months for which it has been operational, crimes of violence have been reduced by some 20 per cent. and the night-time economy has flourished. Would my right hon. Friend say that that is a model that other towns could easily follow?
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