Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con):
The Secretary of State should know that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer)
not only speaks from the Conservative Benches, he speaks from personal experience, so the Secretary of State ought to listen. Is he awareand if not, why not?that police in north Wales have been arresting illegal immigrants, only to be told by Home Office officials to let them go, giving them instructions, and, I believe, a helpful map, on how to get to the immigration offices in Liverpool? They have been quoting paragraph 23.1 of the immigration and nationality directorates operational enforcement manual. Is this not just another farce being played out by the Home Office, but one that this time threatens the safety and security of people in Wales?
Mr. Hain: The farce is the hon. Ladys partys policies. The Conservatives have consistently opposed tough enforcement action on our borders and elsewhere to prevent illegal migration, and they have even voted against, and continue to argue against, the identity cards that will help to deal with this problem. When she comes forward with policies that seriously address the problem, she too will be entitled to ask us difficult questions.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): In December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry set out the Governments strategy to preserve a national post office network, putting it on a strong footing to deliver a better service today, and increasing its sustainability to ensure that it can meet the challenges of the future.
Mark Williams: I also thank the Minister for giving a delegation of postmasters the opportunity to meet him. At that meeting, it emerged that individual postmasters and postmistresses have not been sent a copy of the Department of Trade and Industry consultation document that could so dramatically impact on their future. What discussions has the Minister had with the DTI to ensure that that situation is remedied, and that the views of those so drastically affected can be taken into consideration in the next two weeks?
Nick Ainger: The Government package, which is now £1.7 billion up to 2011, is there to sustain and rationalise the existing network and ensure that we have a network that serves its purpose. I have already raised the issue that he points out with the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), and I am awaiting a response concerning the distribution of that document.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend have views on the antics of Denbighshire county council, which criticises Government support for post offices, yet encourages council tax payers to desert post offices and switch to paying by direct debit?
Nick Ainger: Yes, I have seen those reports, and it is incumbent on the entire public sector to consider the issue of innovation and how they can use the post office network to ensure that a significant customer base is maintained. I am afraid that without that customer base, the network is no longer sustainable.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): What epithets would the Minister use for those of his hon. Friends who voted for money to shut post offices, and then whinge in the newspapers when post offices are shut? There is a name for that, but I will not use it, Mr. Speaker, out of respect for you. What does the Minister say?
Nick Ainger: The Government have put £150 million a year into the rural network and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. On top of that, there is money for rationalisation and to pay redundancies. The hon. Gentleman must accept that the current number of post offices is unsustainablea view shared by the National Federation of SubPostmasters. We have to have rationalisation and innovation from the Post Office, in order to provide the customer base that will protect the network.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): I regularly meet the Assembly Health Minister to discuss a range of issues including the provision of dentistry in Wales. The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in NHS dentistry in Wales and are delivering real improvements in expanding access to dental services to all Welsh patients.
James Duddridge: Given that less than half the adult population in Wales is registered with an NHS dentist, and the British Dental Association Wales has said that many dentists are unable to offer care to NHS dentistry patients because they do not have the funding, how does the Minister think it will be possible to fulfil the First Ministers pledge that everybody who wants NHS dentistry in Wales should be able to get it by 31 March this year?
The investment is going in. Already this year there is an extra £30 million going into NHS dentists and several brand-new practices have been opened. For example, in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire two new independent practices, funded directly by the local health board, are now providing 24,000 patient places. That is the investment being made, but it would be put at risk if we ended up with a
coalition led by the Tory party. The investment goes in under a Labour Government: it would be threatened under a Tory coalition.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of Private Luke Simpson from the 1st Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment, who died in Iraq during the parliamentary recess. He was a very professional soldier who was performing a vital role in working towards a safer and more secure world. We pay tribute to him today.
Does he recall the closure of Simclar Ayrshire recently, in which the work force was made redundant without notice? I thank my right hon. Friend for the speedy Government response and, in particular, for the extra funding and payment of redundancy to the work force. Will he meet Members of Parliament to discuss how we can stop employers behaving in that way and what further can be done to make full employment a reality in Ayrshire?
The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, I met her over the closure in her constituency, and I again extend my sympathy to those in the work force and their families who were affected by it. As she rightly said, prompt action was taken by the Scottish Executive, the Government and the local jobcentre to ensure that we had the right measures in place to help those people find new jobs. She is also right to say that our task now is to build on the huge economic success that Scotland has had over the past few years, with 200,000 extra jobs, and ensure that we provide full employment, which she wants to see and I believe is now possible.
There are 125,000 people in our country who have paid into company pension schemes, seen them collapse, and been left with little or nothing. Today, the Government were defeated in the courts and ordered to look again at how they have responded to the real crisis at the heart of our pension system. Does the Prime Minister agree that there is real strength of feeling on both sides of the House that those people have not
been treated fairly, and will he now look at working on a cross-party basis [ Interruption. ] Yes, let us sort this out on an affordable and sustainable basis. Will he do that?
The Prime Minister: Of course I am happy to work on any basis with other parties in order to try to provide for pensioners. Indeed, in the past few years and for the very first time, we now have a compensation programme in place worth hundreds of millions of pounds for those who have lost their pensions, in addition to the considerable extra support given to pensioners. Of course we are still studying the exact terms of the judgment. As I understand it, although it found problems with some of the leaflets issued by both this Government and the previous Government, it did not actually find a causal link between those and the losses that were suffered. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is a terrible situation for those people who have lost their pensions. However, we must ensure that any package that we put forward is affordable.
Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister talks specifically about the financial assistance scheme, but is it not becoming increasingly clear that it simply is not working properly? Of the 125,000 people who have been left with little or nothing, only 900 have received any money, a year after the ombudsman reported. Does not the Prime Minister agree that that is completely inadequate, and will he confirm those figures for us?
The Prime Minister: First, let me say that I think that the overall amount of money that will be in the scheme is somewhere in the region of £1.8 billion over the years to come. That is a huge commitment on the part of the Government. I would just point out to the right hon. Gentleman that absolutely nothing was in place before we did this. However, I agree that we have to see how we can help people in this situation. I assume that he is not saying that we can give a guarantee that the Government can stand behind the collapse of any pension scheme. That would be a huge commitmentbillions and billions of pounds over the years. So, there is inevitably going to be a situation where the commitment that we give to people who lose their pensions is going to be limited, but I would point out that £1.8 billion is quite a generous commitment.
The point is that the money is not getting through to the people who need it. Given that the financial assistance scheme is not working and that an increasing number of pension experts recognise that, will the Prime Minister at least look at ideas that would not cost taxpayers money, such as pooling the scheme funds and rolling the administration of the financial assistance scheme, which is not working properly, into the Pension Protection Fund? Will he also look at unclaimed pension assets? The fact is that those pensioners lost their money on his watch and he has time now to do something about it. [ Interruption. ] Yes. So will he agree [ Interruption. ] He shakes his head, but these people lost their pensions partly because of the £5 billion pension raid that the Chancellor has carried out every year. The Prime Minister can use his last few months in office to grandstand, or he can do something for those
people. So, will he meet the pensioners and their representatives and, on a cross-party basis, sort this out?
The Prime Minister: We have just had a pretty good example of grandstanding, if I may say so. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman began this question not simply to make a political point of it, but the fact of the matter is that the pension mis-selling under the Conservative Government was absolutely legendary and the only compensation is the compensation that we have given. It is also not true to say that the assistance scheme is not working. It is of course for people who are going to become pensioners in the future. We are perfectly prepared to sit down and look at what more we can do, but in the end, it will come down to money. The other day, the shadow Chancellor was asked in specific terms whether he would commit more money to pensions. He said that there are people in the Conservative party who are asking them to
put more money into the pensions.
In 2003, the Samjhauta or Friendship Express began to run again between Delhi and Lahore. On Sunday night, that train, symbolically painted in Hindu saffron and Muslim green, was passing Dewana, 50 miles north of Delhi, when crude kerosene-based bombs exploded and made a furnace of two carriages. Will the Prime Minister, on behalf I hope of the entire House, express his deep sympathy to the friends and families of the 68 people whose charred bodies now lie in a mortuary and to the injured, and will he associate himself with the calm and dignified response of Prime Minister Shri Manmohan Singh and President General Pervez Musharraf and agree with them that peace will prevail and that the ungodly ambitions of nihilist terrorism, in all its forms, will never, ever triumph?
The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, as I am sure that the whole House does. We expressed at the time our deep sympathy to the families of those who lost their lives. What is particularly interesting, as my hon. Friend showed, was that the train was a symbol of Hindus and Muslims working together, so it was a wicked act in itself, but it took on a particular proportion of tragedy and evil by the nature of the act and what it was directed towards. It shows, I am afraid, that, as he rightly said, this type of nihilistic terrorism is with us the world over, and the only response is to stand up to it and defeat it.
The Prime Minister: I cannot confirm those precise figures, but I can say that investment in social housing has been vast over the past few years. As a result, we have been able to refurbish much of the council housing and, in particular, to provide better housing for pensioners and families on lower incomes. I do not know the precise figures for the waiting lists, but I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there has been huge investment in social housing.
Sir Menzies Campbell: Does the Prime Minister understand that the reality for many of these families is to live in appalling temporary accommodation with their children? When can they have the decent housing to which they are entitled?
The Prime Minister: Over the next few years, we will increase the £2 billion that has been put into social housing over the past few years still further. Hundreds of millions of pounds will be spent on social housing. However, I have to say that it is also necessary to build more homes for both private ownership and social housing. Proposals both to increase the stock of housing and for social housing will be published shortly.
Q2.  Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware of a local campaign in Middlesbrough calling for a ban on the sale of bladed weapons? The campaign has been organised by Mothers Against Knives and has the support of 5,000 people, including the mayor of Middlesbrough, Ray Mallon, and the former leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Given that there is so much support, will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to try to ensure that we ban the sale of bladed weapons?
The Prime Minister: First, let me pay tribute to the work of Middlesbrough Mothers Against Knives. Its members are part of the interesting phenomenon throughout the country of people and families getting together to try to do what they can in their local communities. The Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 raises the age at which a knife can be bought and makes sure that we take tougher action against those who are using bladed weapons. The use of knife amnesties has also played a part. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says, and we keep very closely under review both the legislation in respect of this and measures taken locally.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): In recent weeks, members of the Prime Ministers Cabinet have called for curbs on City bonuses, a bigger role for trade unions and the abolition of some union ballots. Does he agree with any of those policies?
The Prime Minister:
It is all part of a very interesting debate that will no doubt continue over the months to come. Actually, the most important thing for us, as a Government and a political party, is to keep up with the strongest economy, the massive reduction in waiting lists, the improvement in school results and
falling crime, because I think that those things are, in the end, the things that will attract the country to vote for us in a fourth election.
The Prime Minister: I do not, as a matter of fact. I would just like to draw attention[Hon. Members: Answer!] Since we are discussing what members of our parties say their about their leaders, let me quote what the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said last week:
This is the year that Conservative spokesmen have adopted Aneurin Bevan as a role model...praised left-wing Polly Toynbees view of society; snubbed the CBI; pleaded understanding for marauding hoodies.
When the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) cannot even make up his mind about whether his role model is Polly Toynbee or Margaret Thatcher, he should not be lecturing mehe should take some lessons himself.