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It is obscene that priority is given to their second homes over housing the homeless,
when talking about ministerial residences in 1994? Given that it is now apparently Government policy to re-allocate the homes of the dead after they have been left empty for a time, is it not time to re-allocate the homes of the politically dead? That would involve the whole of Admiralty house. Is it not a bit rich for the taxpayer to have to pay to hold at bay the scramble in the Cabinet to take over the Deputy Prime Ministers job?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I own one housethat has always been the caseand one car, not two. But we just have to live with the image presented by the press and put forward in this House from time to time. The right hon. Gentleman made a point about taking over homes, and the Department has just made an announcement on that issue. It involves houses that have been empty for years. We are attempting to improve the streets, but in some cases we do not know who owns the house in question. In other cases, the owners have refused to improve the property. We have now decided to take over the management of such houses, improve them and bring them up to the standards that we want for those homes. They will then become available to the owners if they wish to take them back. The payment for the improvements will come from the rents that we will impose on them. This is about the management of those properties, not their takeover, and it will improve the areas that we are talking about.
As for the right hon. Gentlemans point about the politically dead, perhaps now that he has been confirmed as the senior member of the shadow Cabinet, he will remove from his website the statement that he is still the leader of the Conservative party. Perhaps he will also tell us how successful he will be in getting an agreement for his party to come out of the European Peoples party, a job that he has been given but has so far failed to achieve.
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): I have begun to implement a new way of working for the Cabinet Committees that I chair, with the express purpose of improving the cross-working between Government Departments, as the Prime Minister has asked me to do. As the House will be aware, the Prime Minister has written to the Secretaries of State asking them to identify the key challenges ahead and how they propose to deliver the necessary results. Tackling these challenges will clearly require cross-departmental agreement on how to drive forward change, and I will be closely involved in that.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but I am also aware that he is the lead negotiator on Kyoto, so what is he doing to ensure that Government Departments are complying with the Kyoto agreement and doing all they can to address issues of climate change?
The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is quite right to point out Britains contribution to the Kyoto agreement. I am pleased to see that former Vice-President Gore is in the UK and I am looking forward to meeting him tomorrow so that I can proudly tell him how the Government have not only met the Kyoto target established then, but at twice the level, which is quite an achievement. We need to talk more about the post-Kyoto agreements and I believe that every Government Department has more to do in order to achieve the target that we set for ourselvesa 60 per cent. reduction on 1990 levels by 2050. I shall be calling the Departments together and we have already had our first meeting with the Secretaries of State to see how Departments can do more to achieve those targets. Also on the agenda is reaching agreement on the EU emissions trading scheme, which has to be decided by next week.
Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Since the Deputy Prime Ministers role was reduced, the Government seem to have been in increasing trouble. Does he believe that his new policy role has helped or hindered the Government?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Governments go through difficulties from time to time and the hon. Gentleman must have had some experience of that with Tory Administrations. I would point out that we have won three general elections, and with policies that will deliver, we are on our way to winning the fourth.
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): The House will be aware that it was a Labour Government who introduced the landmark Equal Pay Act 1970 and the minimum wage, opposed by Conservative Members, which led to pay increases for over 1 million women. Since 1997, we have introduced further measures to combat discrimination: the Civil Partnership Act 2004, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and the Equality Act 2006, all of which set down new rights for many people.
Mrs. Hodgson: I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer. Does he agree that, although at least Labour Members are committed to equal pay and equality in general, a lot more needs to be done, as he said, to address the inequalities that unfortunately still exist?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree absolutely that more needs to be done, as was made clear in Margaret Prossers Women and Work Commission report. An awful lot needs to be done, which is why we are paying careful attention to her recommendations. My hon. Friend will be aware that the European Court is due to rule on an important casethe Cadman caserelating to the issue of whether the length of service in pay scales discriminates against women. The judgment will have significant consequences for Departments and we recently held discussions in the Cabinet Committee to find the best way forward. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, but much remains to be done and the Cabinet Committee is working to achieve it.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given the Governments laudable commitment to equal pay for work of equal value, why is the gender pay gap among part-time employees higher in the public sector than in the private?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Since the 1970 Act was passed, Government Departments have not done as much as they could to close the gap. It is necessary to act now because each Department has different pay negotiations and different ways of dealing with the problem. We need to make some changes to achieve a more common policy. More cross-government activity is needed and it is my job to try to achieve it.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Pat McFadden): The Governments goal, as set out in their national digital strategy published in April last year, is to be the first nation to close the digital divide. A specific commitment of the strategy is to improve accessibility for digitally excluded groups such as the elderly. We have also made Government funding available for various digital inclusion initiatives, including significant funding through the new deal for communities for the Shoreditch Digital Bridge initiative in my hon. Friends constituency, which I had the pleasure of visiting last week.
Meg Hillier: I am delighted that my hon. Friend had the opportunity to visit the Shoreditch Digital Bridge project last week. What lessons can be learned from that about rolling out the best parts of that practice to other constituencies where there is a big digital divide, as there is in Hackney, South and Shoreditch?
Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This agenda is about not just technology, but power. That is why initiatives such as the Digital Bridge are important; why the Government have 6,000 UK online centres around the country, giving access to new technology; and why we have an important digital challenge project, which has shortlisted 10 projects to increase the use of new technology in the community, and we will name an overall winner early next year.
Dr. Cable: Would the Prime Minister add to his engagements a prison visit to respond to the criticism of Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, who said that for the Prime Minister to demand more and longer custodial sentences is incoherent when prisons are chronically overcrowded and prisoners are being released prematurely, and to heed Lord Ramsbothams advice that the best contribution that the Prime Minister can make to the sentencing process is, in his words, to shut up?
The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind invitation, but it will not surprise him when I say that I do not agree with that. It is worth pointing out, however, that there are more people in prison, and there are more prison places. The amount of time that people are spending in prison is longer, but when there is justifiable concern about sentencing, it would be very odd if we as politicians did not raise it.
The Prime Minister: We are doing a number of things. First, obviously, we have introduced family-friendly policy that has allowed paternity leave for the first time, that has expanded maternity pay and that has expanded maternity leave. There are, of course, also extra places in nursery provision and in child care. And, of course, there are the Sure Start places. I want to make it clear that Labour Members are fully in favour of Sure Startwe believe that it does an excellent joband I hope very much that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) will withdraw his criticism of the Wythenshawe Sure Start, which I also believe is doing a superb job for its local community.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Two weeks ago, I asked the Prime Minister whether he would back Conservative proposals for tougher sentences for knife crime. He said that there were difficult issues. This week, the Home Secretary announced that he would work with us to strengthen the law. Will the Prime Minister confirm that that will be done before the Violent Crime Reduction Bill completes its passage through Parliament?
The Prime Minister: In fairness, I think that what I said was that I would consider that, but that there were difficulties with it. Those difficulties can be overcome, and we are perfectly happy to work with the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to get the legislation through the House as quickly as possible.
In January, I asked the Prime Ministerthis is another area where we can perhaps work togetherto think again on Government proposals to force police forces to merge. That huge distraction has already wasted police time and taxpayers money. On Monday, the Home Secretarywho is now keeping up a running commentary, I am pleased to seeaccepted our arguments for a review. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, at the very least, no forced amalgamations will take place until after that review is complete?
The Prime Minister: No. It is important, obviously, that we listen to the concerns that are expressed by people, and we said that we would. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has not got a complaint about that, but my understanding is that his shadow spokesman on law and order has said that we should not proceed with any such merger at all. I do not agree with that. As the Home Secretary says, we should take greater time to consider the representations that have been made to us; but for all the reasons that were given, not least by the inspector of constabulary, there is a good case for considering this proposal, and that is why it would be wrong for us as a Government to rule it out.
Incidentally, while we are talking about how we can work together on law and order, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will now withdraw what he said last week in the House, which was that the person in the Sweeney case would be released earlier as a result of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. That is completely wrong. As a result of that Act, he can be given an indeterminate sentence, which is why he will now not be automatically paroled.
I am glad that the Prime Minister is being flexible, and is prepared to back down. We read today of a review of the entire Home Office. Will the Prime Minister ensure that it includes consideration of suggestions for long-term improvements in security, including our proposal for a single border police force? Unlike forced mergers, which are opposed by police chiefs, that proposal is now backed by the Metropolitan police, by the former head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, and by the Labour-controlled Select Committee on Home Affairs. Will the Prime Minister join the growing consensus?
The Prime Minister: Of course it is important for all the long-term issues involving the Home Office to be considered very carefully. The reason why we have opposed a single border agency force is simple: having put in an immense amount of money and extra staff, we believe that the best way of dealing with such matters is through intelligence-led operations, which have proved extremely successful. It is true that we need to do much more, and we are looking at that, but if we want to protect our borders properly, the electronic border system that we are introducing will be important. I should also say that if we want to keep track of people in this country, in the end we will have to face up to the difficult decision on identity cards. If the right hon. Gentleman is still against that, he cannot be serious about ensuring that we know exactly who is and who should be in our country.
Mr. Cameron: If the Prime Minister wants to know who is still here, he should not have abolished embarkation controls. In a week when a senior chief constable has said that policy is being made on the hoof [Interruption.]
In a week when a senior chief constable has said that policy is being made on the hoof, real strategy has been abandoned and professionals are in despair, it is clear that real change is needed at the Home Office. The Prime Minister has had nine years and countless initiatives. Can he honestly blame people for concluding that he has taken his eye off the ball, that he is out of touch, and that he cannot be the right person to sort things out?
The Prime Minister: While we are on the subject of former Home Secretaries, let me tell the right hon. Gentlemanand I think this is why my right hon. Friends were shouting at himthat the Home Secretary who began the process of removing embarkation controls was his predecessor as leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I do not think that that was a very wise point to make.
As for the Home Office, as a result of the changes that have been made crime is down, there are record numbers of police, asylum claims are now processed far more quickly, and we have reduced the number of asylum claims dramatically over the past few years. I agree that it is important to establish whether we can go further. I merely say to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that I hope he will not do what he has done before, which is to attack us in public for not being tofftough enough [Laughter]or even toff enough! Whether toff or tough, the fact is [Interruption.] I do not think we should get involved in a competition in that regard.
Whatever the right hon. Gentleman says in public about our policy on law and orderwhen he tries to suggest that we have not been tough enoughwhat he actually does in the House and, in particular, with his colleagues in the other place is vote against each and every measure that is necessary.
Incidentally, while we are on that subject, the right hon. Gentleman should correct something else that he did last week. He tried to suggest that the Sentencing Guidelines Council was the reason why he voted against the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Actually, he was in favour of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, and his partys spokesman at the time said that it was admirable. The reason why Conservative Members voted against the 2003 Act was the issue of withdrawal of trial by juryon which, incidentally, they were also wrong. It was not because the measures were too soft; it was because they were too tough.
The Prime Minister: And it is as a result of those measures that crime is down, after doubling under the Tories. They cut police numbers, whereas we have raised them. It is as a result of the antisocial behaviour legislation that we have a chance to deal with antisocial behaviour, but the right hon. Gentleman voted against that legislation. The next time we bring forward measures in this House, the test will be whether he and his colleagues are prepared to vote on the basis of what they say. Given his past record, they will not do so.
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