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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with Assembly Ministers on matters affecting Wales. Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, transport providers must take reasonable steps to remove physical barriers to making their services accessible.
Gregory Barker: Interesting words, but if that Act is effective why do 60 per cent. of disabled people in Wales surveyed by Leonard Cheshire say that they have real difficulty accessing public transport? What action has the Minister taken on installing lifts at Bangor, Llandudno Junction, Colwyn Bay and other real stations? Is it not true that the Government are all talk and no action?
Accessible buses are increasingly available in Wales. My Assembly colleagues have pledged a further £250,000 to upgrade buses in the Caerphilly area to make them accessible to pensioners. What is important is that the Government will continue to support and invest in public transport in Wales. The Conservatives have no record of doing that: they are the authors of the discredited rail privatisation, for which some of us are still paying the price.
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Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab): Does not the introduction of the discretionary fares scheme, including free access to buses for the disabled in Wales, mean that there are more buses than ever and more access for disabled people than ever?
Mr. Touhig: Yes it does. A great many public transport services in Wales have been sustained and supported by the Assembly's policy of providing free transport for pensioners and people with disabilities. We shall continue to do that.
Mr. David: Does my hon. Friend agree that CSOs are doing an excellent job, especially in combating antisocial behaviour and that it would be an absolute disgrace if their number were cut because of Tory public expenditure cuts?
Mr. Touhig: I most certainly do agree. My hon. Friend and I share the borough of Caerphilly, where the first CSOs were pioneered. CSOs are doing a tremendous job, making a difference in the policing of our streets, and making our towns and communities safer. The investment that the Labour Government have committed compares well with the cuts that the Opposition would introduce.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What does the Minister say to the North Wales police officers who have told me that CSOs are just policing on the cheap? CSOs have no power of arrest, many of them work only 9 to 5 and they are used merely because their area is not being supplied with extra police officers. Will the hon. Gentleman match the Conservative commitment to provide 40,000 extra police officers in England and Wales?
Mr. Touhig: I seem to recall that police numbers fell when the Conservatives were in power. Under the Labour Government, Wales has had more than 850 extra officers. If the hon. Gentleman wants to get up in a pulpit and preach a sermon, may I suggest a text for the day? Matthew 7:16
Under the Conservatives, recorded violent crime increased by 166 per cent., the chance of being a victim of violent crime trebled, the chance of being burgled doubled and convictions fell by a third. Under Labour, crime has fallen by 30 per cent., burglary by 42 per cent. and vehicle crime by 30 per cent. I think that, come the general election, people will vote Labour, and we say amen to that.
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The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): Regular ones. As a result of the Budget, an additional £155 million will be invested in Wales on top of measures to improve skills, productivity and entrepreneurship, as well as council tax support. Indeed, it was a grand-slam Budget for Wales, with a triple crown for Labour on 5 May.
Julie Morgan: Is my right hon. Friend aware that because of the buoyant Welsh economy achieved by successive successful Budget measures and steady, sustained growth, unemployment in my Cardiff, North constituency and in Wales is at its lowest since January 1975, and is a third of the average during the Tories' 18 years? Does he not agree that the people of Wales need to vote Labour on 5 May?
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before I turn to my engagements, may I begin by extending, probably on behalf of the whole House, our profound sympathies to the Catholic Church on the death of His Holiness Pope John Paul II? The world has lost a religious leader who was revered by people of all faiths and none, and we mourn his passing.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in congratulating the new members of the Iraqi presidency council who have been confirmed today by the Transitional National Assembly, the outcome of the first ever democratic elections in Iraq.
Does the Prime Minister recall that when Labour came to office in 1997 in constituencies such as mine the biggest single issue was unemployment? The preferred public spending of the outgoing Tory Government was wasteful, shameful spending to prop up unemployment. As the economy has stabilised and grown, that public spending has been turned into Sure Start schemes, doctors, nurses, teachers, pensions and
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benefits that people have come to expect from the Labour Government. What advice can the Prime Minister give to my constituents[Interruption.]
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is of course absolutely right. There are 2 million more people in jobs since 1997. We now have the highest employment rate of any major industrial country. We have low mortgage rates that help home owners, low inflation and a stable economy. It is the Labour party today that is the party of economic competence. It is interesting that in elections the Conservatives used to run on the economynow they run away from it.
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): May I begin by associating myself with the Prime Minister's words on the death of the Pope? The world has lost a towering spiritual leader, whose passing truly diminishes us all. I also associate myself with the Prime Minister's words on the Iraqi Government.
At the last election, the Prime Minister promised not to raise national insurance contributions. In their first Budget afterwards, the Government raised national insurance contributions. In the words of the Chancellor, why should people ever believe him again?
The Prime Minister: We made specific promises on the basic and top rate of income tax, and we have kept those promises. It is correct that we raised national insurance to pay for extra investment in the national health service. We want to keep that investment going into the national health service. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's plans are to take more than £1 billion out of the health service to pay half the cost of operations in the private sector, and there is no policy more elitist than that. We are proud of the investment in the national health service and proud of the work that it is doing. Under this Government at least, the national health service is safe.
Mr. Howard: Before the last election the Prime Minister was asked specifically whether people should suppose he was going to increase national insurance contributions. He said, "They shouldn't." Now he says that that was not a promise. Does not that tell people everything they need to know about the Prime Minister? In 1997 he said:
The Prime Minister:
I am very happy to compare our record in government with the record of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. We are proud of the fact that our economy is strong, and that the investment goes into our schools and our hospitals. It is what we promised and what we have done. Let me just remind him of what
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he did when he was in government. When Minister of State for the Environment, he introduced the poll taxcorrect? When he was Secretary of State for Employment, unemployment rose by 1 million. When Minister in charge of labour regulation, he ended up opposing the minimum wage, and when he was Home Secretary he cut the numbers of police. In the end, the judgment that people will make is between our record and future programme, and his. I know what judgment they will make.
Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister was asked specifically about his broken promises on top-up fees and tuition fees, and he could not bring himself to say a word in defence of those broken promises. In 1997 he promised "firm control" over immigration, but since then net immigration has tripled. In the words of the Chancellor, why should people ever believe him again?
The Prime Minister: I will tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman about the immigration and asylum system that we inherited. We inherited a situation where, when he was Home Secretary, it took 20 months to process an asylum claim and the number of removals was one in 10. Yes, it is true that we need to control immigration, but the way to do it is not his proposal of halving the immigration budget. Yes, immigration is an issue. Yes, it is important that we discuss it, but it is an issue that should be dealt with, not exploited.
Mr. Howard: Labour Members are cheering the Prime Minister now, but let us find out what they really think of him. How many of them are putting his photo on their election addresses? Hands up! One, two, three, four, five, six. Does not that tell us all we need to know about what they really think of him? [Hon. Members: "More!"] The Prime Minister promised to
Two and a half years ago he said he would remove housing benefit from antisocial tenants. Antisocial tenants still have their housing benefit and antisocial behaviour has got worse. In the words of the Chancellor, why should people ever believe him again?
The Prime Minister: Let me just remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman[Interruption.] I think we know which photograph we certainly do have up. It will probably be the right hon. and learned Gentleman's, to remind people exactly of what they would be going back to. Since he has raised the issue of crime, let me remind him of what the chief constable of North Wales said about the Conservative party policy and its advertisement on crime. He said:
When the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in office, crime doubled under the Conservatives. It has fallen under Labour, so we have the strongest economy, falling unemployment, investment in our health and education services, falling crime and investment in the police. That is opposed to a policy that would put our economic stability at risk and make cuts in public
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services. Once people know that choice, and they will over the coming weeks, it is very clear how they will choose.
Mr. Howard: The figures that we use in those advertisements are the police's own figures: the figures that the right hon. Gentleman used just two minutes ago when he was describing the record of the last Government. Let us have no such claptrap.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about his record, but his chief election co-ordinatorwhere is he? He is not even here today. His chief election co-ordinator says that his biggest fearthere he is; I have spotted him; excellenthas always been that this election will turn into a referendum on the Labour party. Is that what the Prime Minister thinks too?
The Prime Minister: No, I think that it is a choice. I think that it is a choice between a Conservative party that when it was in office had unemployment at 3 million, had interest rates at 10 per cent. for four years, had boom and bust recession twice, and ended up cutting spending on our NHS and in our schools, and a Labour Government who, over the past eight years, have delivered economic stability, low mortgages, low unemployment, low inflation and record investment in our NHS and in our schools. I think that that is the choice, and I think that when the country comes to consider not just the record of the Conservative party, but the fact that its economic, health and education plans are exactly the ones that it rejected in 1997, yes, I will be very happy that people should compare the choice between the Conservative's record and ours; between our future programme and theirs.
Mr. Howard: The right hon. Gentleman talks about his record. Let us look at his record. I will tell him about his record: taxes[Hon. Members: "Up."]; crime[Hon. Members: "Up."]; immigration[Hon. Members: "Up."]; waiting times[Hon. Members: "Up."]; MRSA[Hon. Members: "Up."]; truancy[Hon. Members: "Up"]. Let us have a look at what has gone down: take-home pay[Hon. Members: "Down."]; pensions[Hon. Members: "Down."]; productivity growth[Hon. Members: "Down."]; manufacturing employment[Hon. Members: "Down."]; detection rates[Hon. Members: "Down."]. After eight years of Labour government, we are locking up teachers not yobs, our voting system resembles a banana republic's, and pensioners who cannot find an NHS dentist are reduced to pulling out their own teeth. Is there not now a clear choice at this election: rewarding this Prime Minister for eight years of broken promises or choosing a Government who will take action on the things that matter to hard-working Britons.
The Prime Minister:
I am going to begin by agreeing with the right hon. and learned Gentleman: I think that it does mean a choice, and the choice is very clear. People remember the years before 1997. They remember the people who lost their homes in the recession, who lost their jobs in the recession, who used to end up with mortgages that they could not afford. They remember
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the winter crises every year in the NHS. They remember the outside toilets and the creaking classrooms in the schools. They remember when the police officers were cut while the right hon. and learned Gentleman was Home Secretary. They remember all that. And between now and polling day we will remind them of what they have now, and what is therefore at risk. What they have now is economic stability, investment in public services and action on crime.
So the choice is indeed very clear. What I say to the British people is this: "Economic stability is at risk, your job is at risk, your mortgage is at risk, the economy is at risk, and therefore when you come to make that choice on 5 May, realise the fundamental nature of it, realise what you experienced under 18 years of Conservative government, realise the progress that we have made under eight years of Labour government, and then go out and realise too that unless you come out and support Labour, that stability, that investment, will no longer happen, the clock will be turned back, and the very self-same crew that you voted to get rid of in 1997 will come back." Yes, it is a big choice, and I cannot wait for the public to make it.
Mr. John Hume (Foyle) (SDLP): Prime Minister, could we get back to serious matters? Given that there has never been a war in the history of the world in which the vast majority of victims have not been innocent civilians, does the Prime Minister agree that the time has come to create a world where there is no longer war or conflict? Given his massive international respect, will he join together with other world leaders to create the means of ensuring that there is no longer any war or conflict in the world? Does he agree that the best way of doing that, given that the European Union is the best example in history of conflict resolution, is for a special department of the European Union for peace and reconciliation to be created and to visit all areas of conflict with the principles of the EU, which will create a resolution of conflict anywhere in the world? Will he and his international colleagues make that historic decision as soon as possible?
The Prime Minister: First, I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done for peace in this country, and in Northern Ireland in particular. I entirely agree with him that one of the most important things is what we can do to try to spread the type of peace and reconciliation that he pioneered in Northern Ireland throughout the rest of the world. I will certainly use our best offices and the European Union presidency to do so, and also within the G8.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD): On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I associate myself entirely, of course, with the opening comments of tribute by the Prime Minister.
After eight years of this Labour Government, the Prime Minister will recognise that most women in this country still do not receive a full state pension in their own right, because they have had to take time out of work to raise children or, in many cases, to care for elderly relatives. Surely women should receive a pension as of right, rather than on the basis of national insurance contributions. After eight years, why has the Prime Minister not put that fundamental unfairness right?
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The Prime Minister: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows that two thirds of the beneficiaries of the pension credit are, in fact, women, and that helps enormously with relieving people in poverty and raising pensioners' living standards. Living standards for pensioners have risen considerably above not just inflation, but earnings over the past few years. Of course, we have always got to try to do more, but when we look back over the record of eight yearsthe winter fuel allowance, the free TV licences for the over-75s and, in particular, the pension credit, the help for the poorest pensioners in our country and the help that the Chancellor has just announced with the council tax for pensionersI think that this Government have a record on pensioners of which we can be very proud. Of course, there is always more to do, but we will do it, if elected.
Mr. Kennedy: Staying on the issue of fairness, but looking at the other end of the age spectrum, why is it that we are now saddling so many of our young people with thousands of pounds' worth of debt wrapped around their necks because of the policy of imposing top-up fees? The Prime Minister's policy of top-up fees is in direct breach of the pledge that he made in his last general election manifesto, so why should any of us believe any of the promises that he is about to make in the next general election manifesto?
The Prime Minister: Of course, there are now going to be no fees paid at all when someone goes through university. What is more, the repayment that will be made by people once they graduate will be linked to their ability to pay. There will be no real rate of interest on that loan and there will be special help with the reintroduced maintenance grant for the poorest people. Of course, we believe that we have to get more money into our university systemI think that the right hon. Gentleman does as wellbut I do not think that his proposal to take that money out of general taxation by a 50 per cent. top rate of tax is something that will recommend itself to people. It is a proposal that in my view would not raise the money that he thinks it would raise. In any event, it would not be a fair use of resources.
On education, I would just remind the right hon. Gentleman that this country is now investing more each year as a proportion of our national income on educationin Sure Start, nursery education, primary schools, secondary schools, and, yes, universities, and for those taking skills courses as well. I think that we can be very proud of our record in education, but it is true that we have to modernise our system continually to keep up with the new world in which we live.
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