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18 Apr 2007 : Column 288

Mr. Hague: As a member of the Government who held a referendum in the north-east, with a result that will never be forgotten in the north-east or the rest of the country, will the Deputy Prime Minister, in his final weeks in office, leave a legacy to democracy and join us in declaring that any new treaty that transfers powers from Britain to the European Union should be subject to a referendum of the British people?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The Prime Minister has always made it clear in regard to constitutional change that we have promised that we would hold a referendum. That is a matter of the judgment to be exercised at the next summit meeting, and that is the important decision. It has been confirmed by the Prime Minister, and no doubt, the House will have a chance to debate those issues once the summit comes to its conclusion in June.

Departmental Expenditure

13. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What plans he has to reduce his departmental expenditure in line with Whitehall efficiency savings targets. [131486]

The Deputy Prime Minister: This Government are committed to improving the delivery of public services and ensuring maximum value for money for the taxpayer. The 2004 spending review set a target for achieving annual efficiency gains of £21 billion by 2007-08. Against that ambition, Departments and local authorities already reported annual efficiency gains worth over £15 billion by the end of 2006. That will, in fact, lead to £26 billion a year for front-line services by 2010-11. My Department is, of course, subject to the same efficiency targets as other Departments.

Mr. Amess: With inflation, interest rates, debt and unemployment all on the rise, that is exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is doing with the British taxpayer’s money. Will he explain to the House how his Department’s budget was increased by a third in March, already having been increased last November, in spite of the fact that he has lost most of ministerial responsibilities?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman uses propaganda by saying that unemployment is increasing in this country. There are now over 2 million more people in work, which is something that we are quite proud of. He talks about an increase in my Department’s expenditure, but that was an auditor’s requirement, not extra departmental expenditure, as I explained to the House last time I answered questions. The hon. Gentleman seems to be concerned about Government efficiency, but he was proud to advocate the poll tax, which was neither fair to ordinary people, nor efficient for the Government. If he was so proud of the poll tax and the Tory Government, he should have fought the 1997 election on that Government’s record in Basildon, instead of doing a chicken run down to Southend to save his skin.

Modern Slavery

14. Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to develop international initiatives to abolish modern forms of slavery. [131487]

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The Deputy Prime Minister: I would like to begin by recording my thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing the House to hold a very successful full-day Adjournment debate on Tuesday 20 March to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade Act. As was agreed by all participants in the Adjournment debate, slavery is still with us in its modern forms. On 23 March, the Government were proud to sign the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings to tackle this appalling modern-day form of slavery. The Home Secretary has published an action plan on what the UK will be doing. We will be working towards ratification and we are co-operating closely with our international partners to take forward this work. I recently visited Geneva, where I held discussions with a number of UN and other international organisations on how we may do more.

Laura Moffatt: Does my right hon. Friend agree that alongside the important debates on the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, the best way in which the House could mark that would be to eliminate modern-day slavery? Will he give the House details of his talks with the United Nations and, especially, countries to which modern-day slaves are exported, on ensuring that we eliminate this filthy trade?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree greatly with what my hon. Friend says. It was the unanimous opinion of hon. Members on both sides of the House that more should be done about modern-day slavery. Indeed, as I mentioned, I have held discussions with UN bodies about the matter. Hopefully, we will be able to do more. The ratification of the Council of Europe convention will be an important step forward. I welcome the fact that Kofi Annan will address the House on 8 May. From the discussions that I have had with him, I know that he has always felt that the UN could be more effective in deploying the policy. I hope that he will be able to say something about the matter when he addresses the House —[ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I ask the House to come to order? It is being unfair to hon. Members.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that one often-neglected modern form of slavery is the use of child soldiers? Given that the Government of Burma, a brutal military dictatorship, use such soldiers on a scale that is proportionately greater than in any other country of the world, will the Deputy Prime Minister consider launching an international initiative to bring that appalling practice to an end?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I very much agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman says about that. When I have addressed meetings of the Association of South East Asian Nations on behalf of the Prime Minister, we have discussed Burma’s membership and the terrible circumstances of child soldiers. We are doing everything that we can to do end that deplorable practice.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I was delighted to meet my right hon. Friend in Sierra Leone
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recently. He will be aware that British companies intend to develop there world-class library and literacy facilities to the environmental standards that he introduced in this country. Will he do all that he can to ensure that we support such initiatives?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has done in regard to Sierra Leone, especially on effectively getting community facilities and buildings established there. I was pleased to meet her and several officials recently to encourage her to take part in the development of Equiano centres. The project gives various cities and towns in Sierra Leone that enjoy the same name as some of the towns in this country the opportunity to develop Equiano community centres. Using the name Equiano—perhaps more so than Wilberforce—gives us the chance to recall the contribution made by black people to getting rid of the horror of the slave traffic.

Ministerial Meetings

15. Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): What meetings he has had with just the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer in his ministerial role in the last 12 months. [131488]

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have held regular meetings with the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and other Cabinet colleagues on a wide range of issues. Sadly, even the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and I do not have enough time to discuss all the achievements of this Labour Government, although we do discuss the programme of future Labour Governments.

Anne Main: I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that reply, but does he share my concern and that of the British taxpayer that this is turning out to be a rather expensive dating agency between himself, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Discussions between the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, myself and other Cabinet members are one of the responsibilities I have in my job, and I am delighted to play some part in producing a very successful record for the 10 years of this Government.


The Prime Minister was asked—


1. [131469] Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 18th April.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will again wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of those of our service personnel who were killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Easter recess. They were: Kingsman Danny Wilson of the 2nd Battalion, the
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Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment; Rifleman Aaron Lincoln of the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles; Second Lieutenant Joanna Yorke Dyer of the Intelligence Corps; Corporal Kris O’Neill and Private Eleanor Dlugosz, both of the Royal Army Medical Corps; Kingsman Adam Smith of the 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment; and Private Chris Gray of the 1st Battalion, Royal Anglican Regiment.

In addition, I know that the House will wish to send our condolences to the families and friends of Colour Sergeant Mark Powell of the Parachute Regiment and Sergeant Mark McLaren of the Royal Air Force, who were killed in the incident involving a collision between two Puma helicopters in Iraq at the weekend.

All those service personnel and, indeed, those still serving have shown heroism, dedication and the most professional commitment to their country. Britain owes them a deep debt of gratitude.

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.

Angela Watkinson: The Prime Minister’s 10-year drug strategy is coming up for renewal and the independent UK Drug Policy Commission has reported that it is not working. One third of crime, much of it acquisitive and drugs related, is committed by 13 to 19-year-olds, who believe that cannabis is not only legal, but harmless. Will the Prime Minister now reverse his disastrous decision to downgrade cannabis and restore it as a class B drug?

The Prime Minister: I have to correct the hon. Lady. In fact, the UK Drug Policy Commission has not found that there has been no progress in drug policy; on the contrary, the commission believes that there has been progress, but there remains much more to do. According to the most recent British crime survey, drug misuse is down some 16 per cent. since 1998, drug use among young adults is down 21 per cent., and class A drug use remains relatively stable for the first time in a long time, as the commission points out. In addition, we have doubled the amount of money for the treatment of people on drugs. I appreciate that we have a very great deal more to do, but it is simply not the case that we are not making the investment or the changes that are necessary. As for tougher sentences for those who peddle drugs, many of those were contained in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which the hon. Lady voted against.

2. [131470] Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): The Prime Minister will be well aware of the strength of feeling in Blackpool about the casino advisory panel’s recommendation. Will he take into account the opinions strongly expressed both in this House and in the other place that the new super-casino should be located in an area where the social impact will be minimised and the regeneration potential maximised?

The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned very hard indeed on this issue. I am entirely sympathetic to the concerns that Blackpool has expressed. It is a pity that we ended up with Manchester being the site for the super-casino—
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although I think that it is perfectly justified there—and Blackpool unable to make the regeneration plans that it wants to make. As we have said, we shall consult carefully and come back with proposals after 3 May, which we have to do because of purdah. As a House, we need to look carefully and sensibly at the issue and recognise that in a world of online betting and huge opportunities for people to bet, casinos—especially when they bring regeneration with them—are not something that is against the proper norms of society, but something that can, in places such as Blackpool and Manchester, bring in much needed private investment and regeneration that will help to provide jobs and high living standards for people.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the nine servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since we last had Prime Minister’s questions. They died serving their country, and that is a reminder of what we owe them and their families for the service that they gave.

There are 125,000 people who have paid into company pension schemes who have seen them collapse, and who have been left with little or nothing—

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): Get the money back off those who stole it—the gaffers.

Mr. Cameron: I hope that hon. Members who are going to retire on fat pensions will actually listen, because many of the people concerned are getting nothing. We are all dealing with such constituency cases, and some of them are heartbreaking. The Budget changes were welcome, but they did not help those who have already retired, and they did not speed up the payments. Today, we can help those people, and I ask the Prime Minister in a genuinely cross-party way— [Interruption.] Yes. We have tabled amendments to the Pensions Bill, and they are signed by MPs from across the House, including his own former Pensions Minister. Will the Prime Minister look urgently and positively at those constructive proposals?

The Prime Minister: Let me just correct the right hon. Gentleman on one point: we most certainly have been listening to people on this subject. After all, there was no financial assistance scheme—absolutely none—in place for all the years of the last Conservative Government, when, as a result of pension mis-selling, people were in real difficulties as regards their pensions; so with respect we most certainly are listening to the plight of people. In addition, of course, we have put some £12 billion a year extra into support for pensioners.

It is however precisely because we have listened that, in the Budget, the Chancellor upped the scheme to, I think, £8 billion; that is what it is going to cost over the years to come. It lifts it up to 80 per cent. support, and 125,000 people will benefit. The problem with going still further is that we do not know that we can afford to make that commitment to people. For precisely that reason, and because people have raised the issue of whether there are unclaimed assets that could be used, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work
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and Pensions has announced a review of that. We will look at it carefully and we will see whether it is possible to do more, but we do not believe that it is responsible to make a commitment now to pensioners to pay them even more when we have not got the ability at the moment to up that figure from £8 billion.

Mr. Cameron: I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s answer. The problem with the Budget changes is that they do not help people who have already reached retirement age. Many Members will have cases, as I do, of people who have reached retirement age, some of whom are dying, and who are not going to get their money; some of them are having to go on working. That is the problem that we have to address. Does the Prime Minister understand that so far only about 1,000 people have actually been helped? The financial assistance scheme is not working. Will he not look at a Treasury loan? That is how we dealt with the mess that was left by the Maxwell scheme. Surely he agrees that only 1,000 people helped so far is not good enough? As I say, some of the people are in great hardship. Surely we should act now, so that at least they can get some of the pension for which they worked and saved so hard.

The Prime Minister: It is, of course, precisely because we want to do what we can to help people responsibly that we have introduced these new proposals, the Pension Protection Fund and a host of other measures designed to support people, but I am afraid that the position, very simply, is this: we cannot make that additional commitment unless we are sure that the finances are there to fund it; otherwise we will be saying to people, “Yes, we can give you this additional payment,” when we cannot be sure until the review is published that we are able to make that commitment. As for taking out some unspecified loan from the Treasury, we do not believe that that is a proper way to deal with the issue, because it leaves us with a financial liability that we cannot be sure we can meet. The issue between us is not who wants to help people more, because, as I say, we have already introduced the first ever system of help for people in those circumstances. However, we need to be sure that we can actually fulfil a commitment that we make to people, since it would be the cruellest thing to tell them that we can make that commitment and can bail them out, if it may actually transpire that we cannot.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister says that the amount is unspecified, but it is not. We know that the first-year cost is £30 million, which would help the people who have hit retirement age with nothing, as only 1,000 of them are being helped. May I ask the Prime Minister something specific? We welcome the fact that there is review, but can it be a cross-party review, because we have a great contribution to make, and when does he expect it to report? The Prime Minister’s former pension adviser, Ros Altmann, said:

He listened to her advice in the past. Why will he not listen again now?

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