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Early Years Provision

10. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on schools policy, with particular reference to early years provision. [112470]

The Deputy Prime Minister: Discussions have taken place on an individual basis with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State as well as within the Cabinet Committee system and, indeed, the Cabinet. With specific reference to early years and schools, I think that our record speaks for itself. We have abolished classes of more than 30 for primary-aged pupils; we are on track to deliver 3,500 Sure Start centres for the under-fives by 2010; we are extending flexible, free part-time nursery care for three and four-year olds up to 15 hours a week, also by 2010; and we have invested £40 million for extra classrooms and extensions to
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ensure that no child of five, six or seven will be in a class of 30. Thanks to £35 million investment, we have ended the scandal of primary schools having to rely on outside toilets, which characterised their state under the previous Conservative Administration.

Miss McIntosh: Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that the Government’s poverty programme depends heavily on rolling out the children’s centres in particularly poor areas where the take-up is the lowest? That programme is being hampered by the fact that primary care trusts such as the North Yorkshire and York PCT are running at a record deficit and will not be able to make a contribution. The trust’s nursery programme is also under severe threat because of the code of practice. Does not the right hon. Gentleman accept that early-years provision is in absolute tatters?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly do not accept that. Three thousand children’s centres are now being established and there were 500 Sure Starts set up under our previous Administration. They provided opportunities not only for young children, but for mothers to start national vocational qualifications and for old and young people to come together in community centres. I have to tell the hon. Lady that although we have not done as much as should be done, we are on target to achieve what we said we would by 2010. What she said would be a little more acceptable if the hon. Lady had not voted against every Budget to provide the money to pay for those programmes.

Public Relations

11. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Whether his Department has a contract with a public relations company. [112471]

The Deputy Prime Minister: No, it does not.

James Duddridge: Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the Government employed the Labour-supporting public relations consultant Sheree Dodd, and that she provided PR support to him? Given that the departmental annual report will be produced long after he has left, should he not tell the House today how much Sheree Dodd cost?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We did not.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May I remind my right hon. Friend that he has a public relations contract, which was signed, sealed and delivered at the general election? On that basis, may I invite him to come north at the earliest opportunity and remind the people of Scotland what the Labour party has done for them?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that is right and the test will come in the elections, which will show exactly what we have done not only in Scotland but in Wales and, indeed, in England. We look forward to the result—we shall certainly play a part in the elections. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), of the Scottish Nationalist party, who is nodding, looks forward to those elections, too. Judge us on our record for a United Kingdom, not one that is divided.

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Ministerial Visits

12. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): How many official visits he has made in the UK since May 2006. [112472]

The Deputy Prime Minister: I make regular visits to communities across the UK, which enable me to see the real progress that has been made in tackling poverty, increasing employment and bringing new life to our cities through urban regeneration and improved housing.

I usually incorporate several strands on each visit. For example, recent visits to Bristol, Liverpool, Hull and London have included discussions on this year’s bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. The events were launched at No. 10, and I am happy to say that I had the support of the Opposition at that launch to commemorate 1807.

In addition, when I was in Liverpool two weeks ago, I talked to residents of the housing market renewal pathfinder in the Welsh streets area and visited a community centre in the new deal area in Knowsley.

Mr. Burns: Which visit was the most constructive and why?

The Deputy Prime Minister: All those visits were, and I think that visiting to see exactly how Labour’s policies are successful in the new deal areas or the pathfinder housing schemes is important. All those policies will be put to the test in the election. I am proud of what the Government have done in the past 10 years, compared with the previous Tory Administration. We will see what the people think when the election comes. Tories should stand by for getting another bloody nose.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): When the Deputy Prime Minister visited Liverpool, did he meet residents who were satisfied with their new homes, which have been provided as a result of Government housing market renewal policies in the Welsh streets area? Does he intend to make a return visit as part of the commemoration of the abolition of slavery?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am well aware from my visit—and, indeed, from my hon. Friend’s support—of the Welsh streets area. Pathfinders have been criticised but nearly 80 per cent. of the people want the old Victorian houses knocked down and to live in decent conditions. That is what the pathfinder programme is about. The people are also proud of the historic landmarks that are coming, especially the commemorations of 1807 and the abolition of slavery. Liverpool has a comprehensive programme this year, which includes celebrating the city’s 800th anniversary.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): How many of the bloody noses does the Deputy Prime Minister propose to inflict?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I recall that we won that election.

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Departmental Capability Review

13. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): If he will ask the Cabinet Office to conduct a capability review of his Department. [112473]

The Deputy Prime Minister: [Interruption.] Part of the problem is that questions 1, 2 and 3 are followed by question 13. The numbering has changed.

Decisions on the timing of capability reviews of individual Departments are a matter for the Cabinet Secretary.

Mr. Mackay: Is the deputy leader concerned that the review will decide that there is no need for his Department? Does he believe that, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer becomes Prime Minister, he and the Department will be scrapped?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Well, whether we have a Department or a Deputy Prime Minister is a matter for the Prime Minister. That has always been the case. I leave whoever is the next Prime Minister to make that judgment. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I am at a rather happy demob stage, so I can say that.

As the right hon. Gentleman talks about the capability review, may I remind the House that he was the official Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland who, at the time of the Good Friday agreement—on which we may see historic success in the next few weeks—went on holiday? That may have been good for his perma-tan, but it was not good for the agreement, and certainly did not show any capability.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [112444] Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 31 January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Andrew Stunell: The Prime Minister will know that the number of police officers across England and Wales dropped by 173 in the first six months of this year. He will also know that Greater Manchester has seen a cut of 216 police officers. Bearing in mind the fact that his staff believe that his area has had far too much police attention, while my constituents believe that my area has had far too little attention to policing, will he arrange for a transfer of resources, so that both he and I can have a good night’s sleep?

The Prime Minister: Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that we have record numbers of police: more than 140,000. That is some 14,000 more than we inherited in 1997. In addition, we have thousands of community support officers. Furthermore, as a result
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of the antisocial behaviour legislation, we are now able to take action against those who make life hell for people in communities such as his. What do all three of those things have in common? The Liberal Democrats voted against every single one of them. I am therefore delighted when Liberal Democrats ask about law and order.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Today we have seen the takeover of Corus UK by Tata, which will affect every one of Corus UK’s 24,000 employees. Will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to adding their voice in support of continued investment in the UK steel industry? Such a commitment would be warmly welcomed by Corus workers in my constituency and elsewhere in the UK.

The Prime Minister: I pay tribute to the work done by Corus employees in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere in the country. I assure her that we will continue to support investment in our steel industry, which remains in a difficult competitive atmosphere internationally. I know, however, that the Corus work force are doing their best to ensure that they compete successfully and safeguard jobs.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): The Home Secretary has said that the problems at the Home Office will take two and a half years to sort out. Clearly, a long-term approach is needed. Can the Prime Minister therefore guarantee that the current Home Secretary will be in his job for longer than four and a half months?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly guarantee that he will continue to make investment in prison places, for example, and community support officers. I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that just last week the latest crime statistics showed a fall in recorded crime yet again. Over the past 10 years, whatever the challenges in the Home Office, crime has fallen. It doubled under the Government he supported.

Mr. Cameron: The fact is that violent crime has doubled and our prisons are in crisis—and the Government have had 10 years to sort it out. I asked about the Home Secretary’s future. Because the Prime Minister is going, he cannot give any sort of guarantee. Is that not the whole problem with this Government? In any organisation, if one has long-term problems, one cannot have a short-term chief executive. Does the Prime Minister not realise that in those circumstances a Minister such as the Home Secretary just cannot plan for the future?

The Prime Minister: Let me just point out that as well as crime being down overall, the most serious violent crime fell by 20 per cent. in the past year. We are increasing investment in prisons: we have increased it by 36 per cent. in real terms over the past 10 years, and we are about to build another 8,000 places. The right hon. Gentleman opposed the investment in our prison places. In addition, as a result of his shadow Chancellor’s fiscal rule of sharing the proceeds of growth between tax cuts and investment, he cannot even commit to the 8,000 places. There is no point lecturing me about it.

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Mr. Cameron: We do not have to take the Prime Minister’s word for it, because the Home Secretary has told us that his Department is not fit for purpose, and is going to get worse. Let us consider his case: the person responsible for giving him the money to sort out the problem is his bitter rival, who wants him to fail. I ask the Prime Minister again: when the Home Secretary does not know whether he will have a job in four and half months’ time, how can he plan for the future?

The Prime Minister: As a matter of fact, there was a specific agreement to increase prison funding last year. That is why we are able to commit ourselves to 8,000 extra places. I repeat, not only did the right hon. Gentleman oppose the investment that has given us the extra prison places—2,500 are coming on stream this year—but if we adopted the policy that he wants, we could afford only half that number of places. The fact of the matter is that as a result of the Chancellor’s strong economic record, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is able to provide the investment—and the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is opposed to it.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister talks of his policy, but he will not be here to implement it. When will he realise that it is all over? Just look at his Cabinet! Half its members are falling over themselves to attack his foreign policy so that one of them can become deputy leader, while the other half are appearing on picket lines to protest against his health policy—and there is nothing he can do about it. Can he not see that it is time for him to go?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman took a long time building up to that.

Let us compare the record of this Government on crime, police numbers, and asylum and immigration with the record of the last Government. We have cut crime. We have managed to ensure that for the first time ever, the Home Office is expelling more people with unfounded asylum claims than it is taking in. When we came to office the proportion was one in five, and we inherited a backlog of 60,000, which is now down to a few thousand. That is a record of change and investment of which we can be proud—and which the right hon. Gentleman opposed every inch of the way.

Mr. Cameron: Why can the Prime Minister not see the reality that is staring him in the face? The Government cannot plan, and Ministers are treading water. They are all waiting for the Chancellor, and not listening to the Prime Minister. His authority is draining away. Why does he not accept what everyone knows—that it is now in the national interest for him to go?

The Prime Minister: I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what I believe is in the national interest: that we continue with a strong economy, the highest levels of employment and the lowest levels of unemployment, that we continue with our policies for the health service, which have seen waiting lists fall by 400,000, that we continue with our policies on education, which have seen the best school results ever, and that we continue to reduce crime and do not, as the right hon. Gentleman’s party did, increase it.

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Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know of the massive investment in our museums and galleries that has led to millions of new visitors. In the light of that, will he comment on the decision by the London borough of Wandsworth, only nine months after council elections at which it remained silent on the subject, to close the very popular Wandsworth museum and threaten Battersea arts centre with closure? Is that not an example of a Tory council choosing cuts over cultural heritage?

The Prime Minister: Let me add to what my hon. Friend has said by pointing out that we have substantially increased the grant to local government. There is absolutely no cause for the closure of museums and arts centres that perform such a good local role. And of course it is this Government, as a result of our policy of free entry to museums, who have enabled literally millions more visitors, including children, to go to museums. My hon. Friend has given a telling example of the difference between the values of a Labour Government and those of a Tory Government.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Does the Prime Minister share public concern about the fact that at 5 per cent., the conviction rate for the crime of rape in this country is one of the lowest in Europe? Is it not time for a wholesale review of the law to ensure that we provide proper protection for women—and men—who are subjected to this traumatic and violent assault?

The Prime Minister: We are already considering how to improve the conviction rate for rape, but I think it fair to point out that more than 80 per cent. of rape cases involve non-stranger rape—in other words, the alleged assailant is known to the victim—and in more than 50 per cent. of those cases either a partner or an ex-partner is involved. For those reasons, it will obviously always be more difficult to secure a conviction. As the most recent report says, however, the way in which the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are working to help victims of rape has improved the position significantly over the past few years.

Sir Menzies Campbell: Everyone who has ever met a rape victim will know that they are devastated not only by the experience, but by the investigation that follows. Is the Prime Minister satisfied that standards of care and support are good enough?

The Prime Minister: I am satisfied that those have improved dramatically over the past few years. Victims are treated with far greater care and far greater attention to their trauma than was the case a decade or a couple of decades ago. I want to point out a detail that it is important to recognise. Although the number of convictions has gone up, not down, it is true that the proportion of claims that result in conviction has gone down—but it is only fair to point out that as a large proportion of cases involve people who either are in or have been in a relationship with the alleged assailant or are known to them, it is inevitable that it will be more difficult to secure a conviction. I entirely agree that it is important that we continue to see what more we can do to make sure that this horrendous crime is treated properly.

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