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Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): The Bill will appeal to most Members, and it is certainly well intentioned, but I suggest to the hon. Member for Carshalton and
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Wallington (Tom Brake) that it would have many unintended consequences for a group of people that he has not mentioned: the thousands in this country who use cannabis for medicinal purposes. There have been Bills before the House that would have allowed cannabis to be prescribed. Frequently when I speak on the subject, some newspapers link the fact that I have arthritis to my enthusiasm for legalising medicinal cannabis. There is no connection. I have never in my life used an illegal drug, and I have no intention of using one.

One drug that was recommended to me, and which many people used, was Vioxx. It was a COX-2 inhibitor and pain reliever that was prescribed more than 1 million times in this country before it was discovered to have caused 150,000 heart attacks and strokes in another country. The merit of cannabis, which has been used as a medicine for more than 5,000 years on every continent, is that all its side effects and problems were discovered through experience many years ago.

Thousands of people in this country choose to grow their own cannabis. I am happy to reflect on the fact that only 12 ten-minute Bills, I think, have become law in the past 25 years, so it is unlikely that this one will, but the Government might be persuaded to go down a similar path. If it were to become law, those people would have to move to the criminal market. At the moment, they are doing something perfectly legal. They can buy their seeds on the internet, in other countries or in shops such as the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, which are fairly rare. If they do so and grow their own, they know the quality and strength of the cannabis that they take when they engage in a perfectly harmless activity that gives pain relief to people, particularly those suffering from multiple sclerosis, who find that the chemical drugs that are available to them cause terrible problems, including nausea and all kinds of serious side effects. People have come to demonstrate at Parliament in the past 12 months, showing that they want the law to be changed. If the law is changed, and a simple Bill is introduced to differentiate between the recreational and medicinal use of cannabis, the hon. Gentleman’s Bill might be appropriate. However, this Bill would plunge people into fear, in the knowledge
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that the only way in which they will be able to continue to use cannabis—their medicine of choice—will be to move into the illegal market.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that he was against the irrational proposal to move cannabis from class C to class B, but I am sure that that will happen. As a result, the maximum sentence for possessing cannabis—and, presumably, for possessing seeds—will go up from two to five years. We would be doing that in the knowledge that we do not have a single prison that is free of the open use of heroin and cocaine to which to send anyone who is convicted. They could go to prison as an MS sufferer using their medicine of choice—as a cannabis user—and come out in five years’ time as a heroin addict.

As a result of the hon. Gentleman’s well-intentioned Bill, major injustices will be done, and the anxiety that it and any proposal from the Government will cause is not worth its suggested benefits. He did not give any evidence of harm—certainly, people will be understandably anxious if such a shop is set up in the neighbourhood—but there is harm from other temptations for young people, particularly from tobacco. Virtually everyone’s first use of cannabis as a drug of abuse is when it is mixed with tobacco, which is an addictive or killer drug. It kills 120,000 people a year, whereas deaths from cannabis are probably non-existent and certainly extremely rare. There is concern about the side-effects, and no one would advocate its greater use, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to think deeply about the unintended consequences of his Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Tom Brake, Keith Vaz, Mr. Gary Streeter, Mr. Nigel Evans, Mrs. Janet Dean and Bob Russell.

Cannabis Seeds (prohibition)

Tom Brake accordingly presented a Bill to prohibit the sale of cannabis seeds; and for connected purposes.: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 136].

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Opposition Day

[Un-allotted Half Day]

Cost of Living

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

1.43 pm

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I beg to move,

Across the United Kingdom there is evidence of an economic downturn, which has many aspects to it. In fact, today’s national newspaper front page headlines give a stark indication of what we face in the coming months, which has all the hallmarks of the nation’s worse downturn in 30 years. While all parts of the nation and all sectors of society are suffering, the region whose suffering is among the worst is Northern Ireland. The price of oil in all parts of the UK is hovering near $150 a barrel, which means that the prices of diesel in Northern Ireland filling stations—I am sure that this is the case elsewhere in the UK—has increased by 35 per cent. since this time last year, and that of unleaded petrol by 22 per cent. Regions such as Northern Ireland, parts of Scotland and the south-west of England suffer most, because food and goods have to be transported to the consumer.

We have seen electricity price rises of the order of 20 per cent. in 12 months; natural gas prices have risen by 28 per cent., and home heating oil in Northern Ireland has risen by 100 per cent. in a 12-month period. All that provides a clear indication that consumers and vulnerable groups, to whom I will turn in a moment, are suffering horrendously. Today, I read that home repossessions are set to rise throughout the United Kingdom by 60 per cent. by the end of the year—not in 12 months’ time, but within the next six months. The credit crunch, coupled with the other issues that I have mentioned, means that people are suffering across the UK. Indeed, every constituency MP hears on a daily basis of the genuine hardships faced by people who find it difficult to meet mortgage costs. The increase in repossessions in the next six months indicate how difficult it is for people to meet those increasing mortgage costs.

Given that vulnerable groups are being hit the hardest, people are turning to the Government for solutions. Governments here and elsewhere may protest that the increases are, for the most part, outside their control—and of course many of them are—but helping the lower-paid and vulnerable senior citizens is certainly what the Government must do, and they must do so quickly.

I read with interest in the amendment tabled in the name of the Prime Minister the gestures that the Government intend to make. There will be increases in the winter fuel payment and in tax credits and allowances.
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The Government are moving in the correct direction, but those gestures are just that—gestures—and they are not sufficient, because elderly people have found that even a £50 or £100 increase in the winter fuel payment does not extend to their covering the purchase of one tankful of home heating oil to get them through half of the coldest part of the winter. Only four years ago, the winter fuel allowance allowed a senior citizen to acquire sufficient heating oil to get them through the entire winter, so the scale of the problem is increasing, and the measures that are intended to deal with the problem have fallen significantly short.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): My hon. Friend mentioned vulnerable groups, particularly the elderly. Does he agree that inflation for older people is running ahead of inflation rates for the community in general? The winter fuel allowance, which helps many elderly people, has been increased only once since 2000, and has not kept pace with inflation. The allowance would be a practical means of helping older people in particular, and the Government need to act on that, given the escalating price of fuel to which my hon. Friend referred.

Mr. Campbell: I thank my hon. Friend for that useful intervention. What he says is indeed the case. I have read with interest the information disseminated by the financial services group Clerical Medical, which has said that senior citizens have seen the cost of the whole range of goods and services that they use rise by 36 per cent. in the past decade. Retail price inflation, however, has risen by only 32 per cent. over the same period. That is precisely the point. The situation for those vulnerable groups, particularly elderly citizens, is worsening. It was worsening by the year, as the figures from Clerical Medical indicate, but in the climate that we face in 2008, it is worsening by the week. That is the problem with which we have to grapple.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): Before the hon. Gentleman comes to what he would like the Government to do to address those circumstances, does he have any comments on what the energy companies could be doing to help with the problem?

Mr. Campbell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. Many of the energy companies could be making a significant contribution, given the profitability of most of them in recent years. They should and could be looking at their tariffs, particularly at how they ensure that payments are made. There are a number of issues that they could and should consider; I hope that they will.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does my hon. Friend find it odd that the tariffs for some of the most needy and the poorest—those who use card meters, for example—are not the lowest? Addressing that issue would be one way in which energy companies could help reduce fuel poverty.

Mr. Campbell: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. What he says is indeed the case. In fact, the evidence that I have read indicates that some of the highest tariffs are levied against the most vulnerable,
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who cannot avail themselves of the direct debit system. The companies need to consider that issue.

I return to the issue of the winter fuel payments. We need a radical overhaul for the next two winters. All the indications are that the oil price is not going to drop significantly in the next 12 to 15 months. That means that between now and the end of 2009, senior citizens and the vulnerable groups to which I have alluded will face two consecutive winters during which the winter fuel payment will not be sufficient to heat their homes.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I thank my hon. Friend, who has been considerate in giving way. I draw his attention not only to senior citizens, who are certainly traumatised and fearful about what the future—certainly the winter period—holds for them, but to the many disabled people who face a similar trauma. More consideration needs to be given to such people, who are caged in their homes and are unable to do anything themselves. They rely on us to raise a voice for them.

Mr. Campbell: I thank my hon. Friend, who has alluded to yet another vulnerable group. One hopes that the Warm Front scheme, for example, will be extended to take particular account of the disabled and others who find that the winter fuel payment could go much further if more was on offer for their homes.

I turn to other measures that the Government could implement to assist in the current crisis. The Government will complain—they are complaining—that employees are making demands for wage increases to meet the spiralling costs and that, in doing so, they are adding to inflationary pressures. Employees are doing that because of the problem to which I have alluded. We need to try to ensure that people’s net disposable incomes are sufficient to allow them to cope with the pressures.

In that respect, my party and I have been lobbying the Treasury for some time to increase personal allowances significantly. I notice that a temporary measure is being implemented to allow for the 10 per cent. debacle. That measure needs to become much more significant. A significant increase in the amount of take-home pay, particularly of the lower-paid, that is not subject to national insurance contributions or income tax will greatly assist them over the next 18 months or thereabouts, when the pressure will be greatest.

The Government must respond on a combination of issues. The last thing that people want is the Prime Minister returning from the G8 summit to be asked at the airport what he thinks about the crisis. Inevitably, there will be those who would wait for a response that I have no doubt would not be given; the Prime Minister would be warned against saying, “Crisis? What crisis?” We all know the political consequences that followed the last time a Prime Minister uttered those words.

People want more than veiled references and the Prime Minister’s amendment, which alludes to the gestures that have been made. Those have been in the right direction, but are patently insufficient because the crisis, as is clear from the front pages of most newspapers today and as will continue to be clear, is deepening by the day. The Government must respond and do so in a way that people see as meaningful and that will assist people in dealing with the problems that they face—not only on a yearly basis, in their mortgage payments, but
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on a monthly and weekly basis. Only an emphatic Government response will allow people to see that the Government care for the low-paid, senior citizens and vulnerable groups and are taking action to alleviate the problems that those people face.

1.57 pm

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to debate an issue as important as the cost of living. I appreciate that the terms of the motion and Government’s amendment are set widely. It is a pleasure to respond to a debate tabled by the Democratic Unionist party and I congratulate it on having selected this subject.

As the House will know, this debate comes at a time when families across the country face rising world food and fuel prices as well as the effects of the ongoing global credit squeeze. I would not employ the language used by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), but I acknowledge the problems that families face. Those challenges face not only us here in Britain or in Northern Ireland, but economies across the world. Oil prices have hit record highs in recent weeks and are nearly twice as high as they were a year ago. That has pushed up the price of petrol, gas and electricity. I know that Northern Ireland Electricity increased its prices by 14 per cent. at the start of the month.

Mr. Oaten: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so quickly. On the point that she has just made, is it not the case that although many of the pressures are global, some of the energy prices are still much higher in this country than on mainland Europe, which is still exposed to the same global pressures?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman is not correct in general. If he will allow me, I shall come to such issues in an orderly way in the course of the comments that I want to make. I do want to address that point, however.

Staple food prices have risen across the world by more than 40 per cent. in a year. Those increases, as the Governor of the Bank of England made clear in his letter to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor last month,
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have accounted in large part for the increase in inflation since the end of last year, and they mean that the UK’s economy, like that of the rest of the world, is facing a challenging time and that life is more difficult for families across the country—including, of course, in Northern Ireland.

However, as I have said before—we have debated this on several previous occasions—our economy faces these challenges in a much stronger position to respond than in previous decades. Before I am accused of complacency, let me set this in an historical context. The UK’s inflation has been the second lowest in the G7 since 1997—that is a fact that we should all be able to agree on. It is still lower than in the USA or the euro zone, and it is far lower than in the early 1990s, when for nearly two whole years it was more than twice as high as it is now. That did not happen by accident. The reform of fiscal policy established by this Government in 1997 laid the foundations for this steadiness in the economy. Interest rates are much lower than they were in the past. The strong and steady growth that we have seen over the past 10 years, from which all families have benefited, has taken us from having the lowest income per head in the G7 to the second highest, and real household income available to spend has risen by more than 30 per cent. in that time.

Crucially, employment is high, with more than 3 million more jobs than in 1997, and unemployment is low. In Northern Ireland, unemployment has been halved in the past decade, with long-term unemployment down by 90 per cent. Its unemployment rates are among the lowest in the UK, and there are 100,000 more people in work than there were 11 years ago: a fact that brings me particular pleasure given my short time—one year—as Minister with responsibility for employment in Northern Ireland.

Dr. McCrea: I have happy memories of the Minister’s time in Northern Ireland and the pleasant manner in which she received elected representatives. However, I remind her we have specific problems that are exacerbated by this crisis—lower disposable incomes, extra energy costs and higher fuel poverty than any other region of the United Kingdom.

Jane Kennedy: I acknowledge that factors in Northern Ireland mean that families are affected in different ways by the challenges that we face. Broadly, on most issues, Northern Ireland faces the same challenges as the rest of the UK, but other factors overlay the situation, as the hon. Gentleman knows far better than I do as a representative of an English constituency.

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