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The Prime Minister:
Once again, all these pre-rehearsed lines, all these lines rehearsed in front of the mirror [I nterruption.] They mean absolutely nothing. When it comes to the economy [Interruption.] Oh yes, we get all these pre-rehearsed lines. People are asking the question: when will the right hon. Gentleman face up to the big challenges? Nobody knows what he thinks about the big challenges: not the country, not the party, and probably not even himself. He flits through all these issues today. When it comes to the economy, let us remember that there were 3 million unemployed under the Conservatives, and we have created 3 million more jobs. Under the Conservatives, 250,000 people lost their
mortgages and were repossessed. There are 2 million more home owners under Labour. Interest rates went as high as 18 per cent. under the Conservatives; they have averaged 5 per cent. under Labour. We will return to his record as chief adviser to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, because he has no credibility when he talks about the economy.
Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): You are aware, Mr. Speaker, that the President of Somaliland and members of his Cabinet are visiting Parliament at present. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Somaliland on the way in which it has worked over the past 18 years, very quietly, through local government elections, parliamentary elections and presidential elections? When the people of the south have no real government and are still in a state of chaos, does not that record command respect from the international community?
The Prime Minister: I agree with my right hon. Friend, who is a friend of that country. I welcome the visitors to this country, and we will do everything that we can not only to help with international development for the countries with which we are associated, but to help to build the institutions of democracy.
Hon. Members: Hooray! This is going to be an expensive year for the countless British families who face fuel bills of £1,000 or more for the first time. With as many as 4 million British families unable to afford their fuel bills, does the Prime Minister seriously think that a single letter from the Chancellor to the energy regulator is an adequate response?
The Prime Minister: Let me welcome the hon. Gentleman to the leadership of the Liberal party. I look forward to working with him on many of the issues facing the country. I have said to him in our private conversations that there is an open door for him, and we are ready to discuss the major issues that affect the country where there is common ground.
As far as fuel prices are concerned, it is regrettable that utility prices have to rise, which is as a result of a 60 to 80 per cent. rise in the cost of coal, gas and electricity. That, in turn, is the result of factors that are hitting every economy in the world. What we have done in Britain over the last few years is devote £12 billion to fuel poverty issues. We have had the winter allowance, which I believe the hon. Gentlemans party did not support, and other allowances to help with energy bills. Only in the last few days, companies have announced that those amounts will rise from £40 million to £56 million in order to protect energy users. We will do everything in our power to avoid fuel poverty in this country.
With 25,000 people predicted to die from the cold in this winter alone, we need a more specific commitment from the Prime Minister. Will he agree today to take action to stop the energy companies from
hitting the poorest families with higher bills on prepayment meters so that we can end the scandal of the poorest families paying the most for their energy needs?
The Prime Minister: We have asked the fuel companies to look further into prepayment energy meters and it is very important to do so. I hope that the hon. Gentleman shares our common interest in avoiding loss of lives as well as suffering and illness as a result of fuel poverty and the cold winter weather. I thus hope that he will support us in asking the energy companies to provide extra money to subsidise the fuel bills of people who are lower paid, and that his party will continue to support us in all the measures, including the winter fuel allowance, that we have taken to deal with fuel poverty.
Q2.  Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Given that there is an ongoing debate in the country regarding the building of nuclear power stations and given that my right hon. Friend will have received advice from all sorts of people about it, can he say whether he has received any advice from Zac Goldsmith, who advised the Leader of the Opposition that building such power stations would be a tragedy?
The Prime Minister: We face a major decision about the future of energy in this country. Tomorrow, the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will make a statement on energy and on nuclear power. I hope that we can take a decision that will protect the long-term interests of the country. Without taking such a decision on this matter and on renewable fuels, we will become more dependent on foreign sources of supply. It is therefore a shock to me that other parties are looking in different directions on this issue. I know that the Leader of the Opposition wants to be consistent in what he says. However, he said to the CBI that he wanted to make it easier for people to build fuel stations, while also saying to the readers of Green Futures magazine that
if...we have to keep the lights on, then nuclear might come into the picture.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity to pay tribute once again to the gallant service of the security forces of Northern Ireland in the fight against terrorism and crime over many decades of violence? Will he also take the opportunity to rubbish any attempt by the commission on the past in Northern Ireland to validate or vindicate terrorists and criminals in their sordid terrorist war by describing it as a war? Will he utterly rule out any suggestion of an amnesty for terrorists and criminals?
The Prime Minister:
Yes, and it is important to say two things. First, our respect for the security services, the police and the armed forces for the difficult job they did over many years and for the loss of life suffered as a result of their difficult work is clear. Secondly, it is important to move forward with reconciliation. The efforts made by a number of bodies, including the one to which the hon. Gentleman referred, are an
important element of building for the future. What we want is a safe, secure, peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland.
Q3.  Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Given that the new deal, including the new deal for the disabled, has been in place for 10 years and that the Government have passed several Acts to deal with disabled peoples rights, I hope that there is a consensus in this Parliament that people with disabilities deserve the right to work. Does the Prime Minister share my concern that Leonard Cheshires report on poverty and disabled people, published this week, shows that 50 per cent. of people with disabilities are unemployed and that one in three children who live with a disabled adult in the household live in poverty? What are we going to do about that?
The Prime Minister: I think it is true that, as my hon. Friend suggests, disabled people are twice as likely to be in poverty as people who are not with disabilities, but it is also true that disabled people should be helped into work when that is possible. That is why about 900,000 disabled people have found jobs over the last 10 years, why our pathways to work programme is so important for the futureit has already put 32,000 people into workand why, in my view, it would be a mistake to abolish the new deal, which does so much to help people back into work.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Members in all parts of the House have expressed concern about the conditions in Guantanamo Bay, and most people are glad to see that it is at last winding down, but can the Prime Minister explain why he has just offered places in Britain to five people from Guantanamo Bay not one of whom is a British citizen, although two of them are wanted in connection with the most serious terrorist charges in Spain?
The Prime Minister: When people are wanted for arrest in Britain, they will be arrested. When people have to be returned to other countries, we will expedite the process if at all possible. I think the whole House agrees with the hon. Gentleman that Guantanamo Bay should be closed as soon as possible, but when people have moved to our country we will deal with them if there are offences for which they are to be prosecuted.
Q4.  Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): In his speech on Monday, the Prime Minister made an important commitment to patient powergiving patients choice in regard to which hospital they go to, which doctor treats them and when they are treated. Will he ask Lord Darzi to work with the medical royal colleges to develop a series of outcome indicatorsindicators of the quality of care, hospital by hospital and doctor by doctorand publish them, so that patients can make informed choices about who treats them when and where?
The Prime Minister:
The future of the national health service means that patients will have more power over the decisions that affect their lives: decisions about where they have their treatment, the times at which they have their treatment, and with whom they have their treatment. That is an important element of the next stage of the development of the health service.
However, it is also important for patients to have information about what is happening in their local hospitals and health areas. One of the next stages of reformand Professor Darzi is looking into exactly thisis how more information can be made available to patients, and how more patients can become foundation trust members, and how the flow of information can empower patients in a way that gives them more control over their health and their health care. That is the right direction for the 21st century health service.
Q5.  Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does the Prime Minister think it would be acceptable for the Secretary of State with responsibility for the poor to endorse a sub-prime lender and then accept a £5,000 donation from that lender? How does he think the public will see that?
Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): The education and business communities are working hard in Crawley to attract a university campus. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the best way to improve aspiration and get our young people into higher education in their own towns and cities, so that they may strive to make this a better country?
The Prime Minister: In the last 10 years, there have been more than 300,000 more people in higher and further education. We want to create more institutions of higher educationincluding universitiesin areas that do not have that facility, and my hon. Friend has put the case eloquently for new facilities in a range of areas in her constituency. I think it right to say that we want to increase the number of universities, further education colleges and colleges generally in cities and towns that do not already have them, and that will be a big feature of future education in this country.
Q6.  Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): When my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) asked about fuel prices, the Prime Minister mentioned the winter fuel payment. Is he aware that the typical pensioner household now faces bills at least £300 higher than those of four years ago, which more than wipes out the winter fuel payment? Against that backdrop, why are the Government cutting spending on the Warm Front insulation programme?
The Prime Minister: Over the last 10 years, we have increased spending on home insulation dramatically. We have encouraged people to insulate their homes and have encouraged draught-proofing, and will continue to do so. As for the winter allowance, I remind the hon. Gentleman that it started at £20, was raised to £50, and for the over-80s is now £300.
Q7.  Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab):
In the 60th year of the NHS, there remain major challenges such ashealth inequalities and the need to provide
preventive care. Will the Prime Minister ensure that in the light of the statement he made on Monday areas of disadvantage such as the Nottinghamshire coalfield receive sufficient focus and a fair share of resources?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend because he raises an important question about the disparity in life chances and the disparity in the ages to which people live in different parts of the country, partly as a result of poverty and partly as a result of information about health. It is important to recognise that, as we expand preventive medicine and as more and more people can have check-ups, whether for breast cancer, heart disease or stroke, the people who will benefit most are the people who are most susceptible to those diseases, who will get quicker treatment, will have their illnesses diagnosed earlier and will then be able to lead healthier lives. That will have a major effect on health inequalities in our country.
Q8.  Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Only yesterday, the Prime Minister said that he wanted to do more to help the Open university, yet last night the Government voted effectively to cut its budget. How exactly does his decision to stop people studying for second degrees square with his supposed commitment to lifelong learning?
The Prime Minister: Our commitment to lifelong learning is, first, that those people who have no qualifications whatever should get better chances than they have had in the past to enable them to get both qualifications and in many cases degrees. If the hon. Gentleman has read the report that was done by Lord Leitch, he will know that he says that by 2020 we will need 40 per cent. of the country with degree-level qualifications. Therefore, the first priority for moneythat is why there has been that transfer of moneyis first degrees and qualifications for those who do not have them at the moment. There is no cut in the overall budget. There is more money going to education than ever happened under the Conservative Government. The difference is between cuts under the Conservatives and expansion under Labour.
Q9.  Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Now that Liverpools year as European capital of culture is well under way, has the Prime Minister booked a seat at Anfield for the Paul McCartney concert? Does he recognise the outstanding work being done by Phil Redmond and the Northwest Regional Development Agency? How can the Prime Minister help Liverpool to ensure that the benefits last well beyond 2008?
The Prime Minister: The Paul McCartney concert is not the only major event in Liverpool during the year of culture. People not only in Liverpool but all over the country are looking forward to a great success for Liverpool in this year of culture. It is already one of the greatest cities in the world for music, sport and the arts. More people go to museums and art galleries in Liverpool than in any other city, so we wish it well as the city of culture.
Q10.  Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): When the right hon. Gentleman started as Chancellor, he was told by the Treasury, These are fantastically good figures. Now there is a record trade deficit, record private and public debt and record insolvencies. We know that he has never thanked his predecessor, but will he now say to his right hon. Friend, Sorry, Darling?
The Prime Minister: When I arrived at the Treasury, I was told that, because inflation was rising and as a result of the failure of the previous Conservative Government to increase interest rates, interest rates had to rise. That was the first statement made to me at the Treasury. That is why we made the Bank of England independent, a more opposed by the Conservative party, and that is why, as a result of our actions, interest rates are half what they were under the Conservative Government on average, inflation is half what it was, and employment is at a record level. We are proud of our record as a Labour Government.
Q11.  Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): What is my right hon. Friends analysis of the best way to get people from welfare into work? Is it the expansion of the new deal, pathways to work and good-quality child care to help people to overcome the barriers that they face, or is it to force them into work gangs or be stripped of all their benefits?
The Prime Minister: The right policy for getting people back to work is to work with employers who will help people to find the jobs. That is why the local employment partnerships now have 200 companies signed up to them, and it will be 300 very soon. The right way to get people back to work is not to abolish the new deal, as the Conservative party would do, but to place a duty on people to have skills for the future. That is why we will move forward with our plans to create jobs.
Q12.  Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that the forcible removal of people from their homes, such as happened during the highland clearances, has no place in the 21st century? If so, why are he and his Government doing exactly that to hundreds of people around Heathrow?
The Prime Minister: A consultation is taking place at the moment. I understand that it goes through to the end of February. The proposal is for a third passenger runway at Heathrow. I believe that many people think that that is in the national interest, but I also believe that local views must be taken into account and that is why the consultation is taking place.
Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in sending the deepest condolences to the family, friends and fellow students of my 16-year-old constituent, Bradley Whitfield, who was killed in the early hours of new years day, and will he reassure them that he and the Government will do everything possiblethat we will redouble our effortsto work with the police, schools and community groups to try to protect young people from such appalling acts of violence?
The Prime Minister: I agree. The whole country was shocked by what my right hon. Friend refers to, and my sympathies go to the familyI believe that the whole House will join her in wanting to pay tribute to the family. We are determined to do everything in our power to deal with these crimes of violence. That is why the Home Secretary will be announcing new measures very soon. That is why we will step up all the actions we are taking against gangs and knives, and against guns as well. We are determined that in those areas where there is the greatest violence, we have the greatest surveillance as well, and we will also take action against the hot spots. My sympathies go to the family of my right hon. Friends constituent.
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