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20 Jun 2007 : Column 1365

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Has the Department had any money available to spend on opinion polls? If not, has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to look at the recent opinion poll in The Times, which showed that there was unanimous support on the Government Benches for equality measures and next to no agreement on the Conservative Benches? May I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on 10 years of absolutely resolute support for equality for lesbians and gay men?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. No, we have not invested in polls to find that out; quite frankly, I am not a great believer in them. The Department has not spent any money on that. I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks about our contribution to equality. It has not been easy to make some of those arguments in the past, as he well knows, but I am glad to have belonged to a Government who have made those radical changes.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): On behalf of Conservative Members, may I extend all our personal good wishes to the Deputy Prime Minister in respect of his rapid recovery and his return to rude good health, which seems clear from his answers to the previous questions? Before extending even further good wishes, may I ask him one last question of substance? Since his departmental budget is paid largely for him to be a kind of marriage guidance counsellor between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, can he assure the House that the two of them have reached complete agreement on the Government’s negotiating position for the European summit, which starts tomorrow?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My experience is that there has always been good agreement between my two colleagues and I am sure that it will continue. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. It seems that while I was away, the Leader of the Opposition had something to say about me, too. He described me as a cross between Ernie Bevin and Dameosthenes— [Laughter.] It seems that I have not yet figured it out. Well, the Leader of the Opposition reminds me of someone, too. When I read classics and Greek mythology at the Ellesmere Port secondary modern school, we learned about Narcissus. The House will know that he died because he could only love his own image. Yes, he was all image and no substance. Speaking as an historian, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me?

Mr. Hague: I am sure that Dame Osthenes will be very flattered that the Deputy Prime Minister has singled her out for praise today. This only goes to show that, for all the harsh words that the right hon. Gentleman and I have exchanged over the years, politics will be dramatically less entertaining without him. Not only do we not know how the Labour party will manage without him; we do not know how the Conservatives will manage without him. Nevertheless, we wish him a thumping good retirement, with many years of good humour and good health off the Front Bench.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. We live in truly remarkable times. As a previous Leader of the
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Opposition, he must have heard the present Leader of the Opposition say this week that the Tories were

That sounds like my

So now we know. The Leader of the Opposition is not the heir to Blair; he is a prophet of Prezza.

Poverty Reduction

13. Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had on the co-ordination of the Government’s policies on reducing poverty. [143845]

The Deputy Prime Minister: The Government have made considerable progress in reducing poverty and helping the most vulnerable families and older people. The House will recall that, under the Tories, child poverty doubled and one in four pensioners were living in poverty. Thanks to measures such as the national minimum wage and tax credits, relative child poverty has reduced faster than in any other country in Europe, 600,000 fewer children are living in relative poverty than in 1998-99, and absolute pensioner poverty has been cut by three quarters. That is the result of 10 years of a Labour Government, and it is something that I am proud to have played a part in.

Ms Butler: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. I also want to wish him a happy anniversary, as he entered the House on 18 June 1970. Labour policies have benefited the average family in my constituency by almost £3,000 a year, but in the past 12 months, my constituents have been made systematically poorer by Brent council, a Lib-Dem and Tory-run council. It has changed the payment terms for council tax from 12 to 10 months, it promised 0 per cent. council tax increases but delivered 5 per cent., and it has increased charges to the elderly by 300 per cent. What can I say? Will my right hon. Friend—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is fine. I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister will manage an answer.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. I am receiving so many today that I might even come back—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] My hon. Friend has raised the important issue of the difference between a Labour Administration and a Liberal Administration. It is important to so many people living in poverty and to so many people in jobs. Let us judge what the Liberals do in local government; that will give us an idea of what they might do in national Government if they ever got the chance.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): As a working-class lad, how does the Deputy Prime Minister explain the fact that, during his tenure in office, the gap between the rich and the poor has got ever wider?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman knows, because it has been said by the Prime Minister and others at this Dispatch Box, that poverty has gone down. Relative poverty is an important issue, and
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property prices have played an important part in that. It is equally true, however, that everyone has gained from the prosperity of this Government in the past 10 years.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): In congratulating my right hon. Friend on the 37th anniversary of his election to the House of Commons on 18 June, may I thank him on behalf of my constituents for the neighbourhood renewal policies that have lifted the Northmoor area in particular out of abject poverty? We now have a cohesive community with rising property prices and wonderful community facilities. That is what my right hon. Friend has done for my constituents.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks. The improvement is obvious in our cities: the new deal programme has helped to reduce unemployment and crime and improve housing in the poorest parts of our communities, making them areas where people now want to live. There are many examples of the success of our policies, particularly in the inner cites. The Government made that promise, and we have delivered on it. May I also congratulate my right hon. Friend, as he came into the House at the same time as me, and has also been here for 37 years?

Since we are on congratulations, may I express to you, Mr. Speaker, and the whole House, my appreciation of the kindness and generosity shown to me during my years in this job, through good times and bad, of which I have had my share? I cannot say that about the feral beasts or penny scribblers in the Gallery—with some notable exceptions, of course. While we are on Greek mythology, may I say that they remind me of Hermes the messenger god? The House will know that Hermes was the god of shepherds, and, boy, do they operate in a herd. As for invention, need I say more? Best of all, he was

Enough said. I look forward to reading all their rave reviews tomorrow. But whatever they say, I am proud to have been a member of this Government. In a decade of delivery, we have transformed our country for the better, following traditional values in a modern setting.

Hon. Members: More!

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1. [143826] Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 20 June.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Lance-Corporal James Cartwright of Badger Squadron, 2nd Royal
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Tank Regiment, who died in a vehicle accident while on active operation in Iraq on Saturday night. We send our sympathy and condolences to his family and friends.

The whole House will be sad to learn of the death of Piara Khabra, who passed away yesterday. As his many friends on both sides of the House know, he was a tireless campaigner, particularly on international development and racial equality. He was a tremendous servant to his constituents. We all remember him, as I do, often asking questions from the Bench just behind me. He will be greatly missed, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.

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.

Dr. Kumar: May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expression of condolences? May I also join him in paying tribute to my dear friend the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra)? He was a friend for a long time, and a dedicated servant of the people.

My right hon. Friend has created a great spirit of multiculturalism and of campaigning against racism. In all the years I have known him, no other Prime Minister has been able to deliver with such a spirit. I praise him for that.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of Indian independence, there are 1 million people of Indian origin in this country. Will he join me in praising their great contribution to this country and their achievement? Finally—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: It is particularly appropriate that my hon. Friend asks that question after the sad news about Piara Khabra. I endorse entirely what he says about the tremendous contribution made by the Indian community—1 million of them—in this country. The state of the relationship between the UK and India has never been stronger, and it is a wonderful example of how our relationships with countries can change over the years. Today, this country has about 20,000 Indian students, which represents a major increase in the numbers coming to study here. We are the third largest investor in India today, and I can see our relationship only getting stronger in the years to come.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance-Corporal James Cartwright, who was killed in southern Iraq. I also join him in paying tribute to Piara Khabra, who served his constituents energetically and enthusiastically for 15 years and will be sadly missed both in the House and in Ealing.

This week we have the scandal of the Prime Minister, in his last few days in office, opening the prison gates and releasing 25,000 prisoners on to our streets. Can he tell us when he was first warned that the prison population would exceed 80,000?

The Prime Minister: Let me explain what is actually happening. We have exceeded even the top-end projection for the number of people in prison—that projection having been made last year—so there is a requirement for us to release prisoners early, 18 days
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before the end of their sentences—in other words, 18 days before they would have been released anyway—as a temporary measure while new prison places are being built, to ensure that we do not breach the prison conditions regulations. I regret having to do it, but we have to do it.

Why is it having to be done? First, the number of people in prison has risen dramatically as a result of a 25 per cent. increase in sentencing. Secondly, this Government are now recalling people who breach their licence conditions, and as a consequence there are 5,000 extra people in prison. Thirdly, we now have almost 3,000 people in prison serving indeterminate sentences for violent and sexual offences.

When we build the new prison places, as we shall—8,000 places, and now a further 1,500—we shall be able to retrieve the situation. I regret having had to do this, but it was necessary.

Mr. Cameron: I asked the Prime Minister a very simple question: when did he first know that the prison population would exceed 80,000?

The truth is that the Prime Minister was told by the Home Office in 2002, five years ago, that the prison population this year was projected to be not 80,000 but 88,000. That was five years ago. Why did the Government so comprehensively fail to act in response to that warning?

The Prime Minister: As I have just explained to the right hon. Gentleman, the projection that we were given at about this time last year—we deal with this matter on a year-by-year basis—was a projection that we have exceeded, and have exceeded now. We must therefore take this temporary measure, but let us be absolutely clear: the reason there are more people in prison than ever before is that under this Government there are tougher sentences—particularly for violent and dangerous criminals—and there are 20,000 more prison places. We are now going to build an extra 9,500 places on top of that. Most important of all, crime has fallen under this Government as a result of the measures that we have taken. Incidentally, the most serious violent crime has fallen by more than 20 per cent. in the past year.

The truth is that those indeterminate sentences were introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. As I have said many times, the right hon. Gentleman and his party refused to support the Act, and voted against it. It is true that we will have to take this measure as a temporary measure—and I hope it is very temporary—but it is important to recognise that under this Government prison places are up and crime is down.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister tells us that he examines the position on a year-by-year basis. That tells us all we need to know: there was a complete failure of planning. The Government were told about this five years ago.

The Prime Minister mentioned the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I checked the record, and I think Members will find that the Prime Minister and I voted the same way. I did not support the Act because I do not believe in letting people out of prison half way through their sentences; the Prime Minister did not support it because he could not be bothered to turn up.


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Not only were the Government not thinking about this matter five years ago; they were not thinking about it a month ago. Last month, the Secretary of State for Justice said:

Why on earth did he say that?

The Prime Minister: First, let me make something clear about the Criminal Justice Act. The Tory party voted against the Criminal Justice Act, and the fact that the right hon. Gentleman did not turn up to vote on it does not alter that.

The reason we have more people in prison today is the tough measures that we introduced for violent and sexual offenders—which the right hon. Gentleman and his party opposed—to put more people in prison. I have already said that I regret having to take this action as a temporary measure, but we are going to build an extra 9,500 prison places.

Let me just point out that the Tory party voted not only against the tougher measures, but against the extra investment in prison places. The one group of people from whom we will not take lessons on this matter are the right hon. Gentleman and his party.

Mr. Cameron: I am glad the Prime Minister mentions the money, because I have checked that, too. Let us look back at the five years since 2002. In 2002, the Home Office budget was £14 billion; in 2003, it was £13 billion; and in 2004, it was £13 billion. There was not any extra money, and the person responsible is sitting next to the Prime Minister. I shall ask the Prime Minister again. The Justice Secretary said one month ago that any early release system was simply wrong. Why did he say that?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman said that investment in prisons has not gone up. It has gone up by 35 per cent. in real terms, so when he gets to his feet again, let him apologise for saying that investment in prisons has not gone up. It has gone up, and his party voted against the Budget measure that introduced that. On the reasons for introducing this measure, we have said again and again that it is important that we make sure that we deal with violent and sexual offenders most severely. That is why there are 3,000 people in prison today on indeterminate sentences. If the right hon. Gentleman’s party had had its way, those people would not be there.

Mr. Cameron: Things have come to a bit of a pass when the Prime Minister will not even defend his former flatmate. Let me put the question to him again. The Justice Secretary said one month ago that any early release system was simply wrong. Why did he make that statement?


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