In marking this month the 50th anniversary of R. A. Butler's Education Act, will my right hon. Friend reaffirm the Government's commitment to ensuring that every child in this country receives a rigorous, demanding and high-quality education? Will he reaffirm the Government's commitment to enlarging choice and opportunity for parents and pupils alike?
That Act was certainly a very revolutionary Act of Parliament, and one which has made a great difference to our education system over the years. At that time, eight out of 10 children left school at age 14. Thankfully, today almost one in three children go on to higher education. What we need to do—I hope that this is a view shared by the whole House—is build on that achievement by giving parents more choice, raising standards in schools and creating opportunities for every child to make the most of his or her abilities.
Can the Prime Minister tell us why changes in gas pricing are being planned which will put substantial increases on the gas bills of 12 million ordinary people—the very same people who will have to pay 8 per cent. VAT this year and 17.5 per cent. next year? Does not he think that they are paying enough already?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman would be wise to wait and find out what really happens. I have seen myself the newspaper reports on which he is no doubt basing his remarks. I understand that the gas regulator believes that there is no evidence to back up those claims and that the director of the Gas Consumers Council has said that British Gas was scaremongering.
If the hon. Gentleman will wait. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is yet again taking a story and attempting to erect a scare to frighten vulnerable people. He knows very well that the Department of Trade and Industry and the gas regulator will be issuing a consultative document shortly.
I suggest that, before he peddles more scares, the right hon. and learned Gentleman should have the grace to wait for that document. I also remind the House that British Gas tariff prices were reduced from July 1992, reduced further from October 1992 and have fallen by more than 4 per cent. in cash terms and 6.5 per cent. in real terms in the past year.
Does not the Prime Minister recognise that the Gas Consumers Council has not only complained; it has pointed out that the consultative document was agreed last month but is being delayed because of today's elections? Does not the Prime Minister understand that delaying bad news until after elections is the sort of behaviour that is bringing the Conservative party into the disrepute for which it will suffer at the polls today?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is earning himself a deserved reputation for smears that will do him and his party no good. What is proposed in due course is a consultative document that will be published shortly. The right hon. and learned Gentleman would be wise to wait until he reads that consultative document; he would be wise not to misrepresent it and he would be wise to remind everybody how real prices in gas have fallen as a result of measures taken in the past.
Does my right hon. Friend share my contempt for those who seek to make £1 million from the sale of secretly taken photographs, irrespective of whether the victim is a member of the royal family or an individual private citizen? What steps can the Government take to stop people in Britain profiting from such despicable behaviour?
Does the Prime Minister accept the view of senior defence chiefs that, as a result of cuts in the defence budget, Britain could no longer mount an operation even on the scale of our part in the Gulf war? Is not it a grotesque betrayal of this country that his party, which has so long and so wrongly accused the Labour party of stripping Britain of its defences, has now done just that?
For years, the hon. and learned Gentleman's party and Front-Bench spokesmen have sought to strip Britain of its nuclear weapons, dismantle a large part of its armed forces and cut down substantial expenditure on the armed forces. The one party in Parliament that consistently ensures this country's capacity to defend itself is this party—and this Government. That has been the case in the past, it is the case now and it will remain the case in future, however much the hon. and learned Gentleman tries to distort reality.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a solution to the sale of photographs of Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales for £1 million: we could swiftly introduce a privacy Bill and ensure that there is no public interest defence available in that Bill?
In view of the latest Home Office estimates suggesting that it will cost £475 million to issue identity cards in Britain, with ongoing costs of £50 million to £100 million each year, is the Prime Minister now prepared to abandon his scheme and put some of that money into my constituency, which is sixteenth in the whole of Great Britain in terms of unemployment? Would not the money be better spent on the regeneration of the city of Nottingham?
I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. It has fallen in his constituency, but in the constituency of the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who may not mention unemployment, it has dropped 27 per cent. On the question raised by the hon. Gentleman, I made it clear the other day that we are examining the question of identity cards, and I think that if the hon. Gentleman were to go to his constituency and ask his constituents, he would find a very high level of support for the principle of identity cards provided that we are able to overcome the practical difficulties in introducing them.
Has my right hon. Friend had the chance to look at this week's figures which show a dramatic reduction in the number of home repossessions and which come on top of figures showing that the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has fallen by two thirds in the past two years, and that the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of London is also down by two thirds? Does not that show that the Government's policies to tackle homelessness are clearly working?
Yes, the figures are certainly very encouraging. There is no doubt that the number of repossessions has been falling for some time, and fortunately shows signs of continuing to fall. Moreover, the housing market seems to be picking up, and new construction orders are on the increase.
This is all part of the much brighter economic picture that is becoming clearer as day succeeds day.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has the right answer this time.
Is the Prime Minister aware that, according to its chief executive, the Child Support Agency is now collecting less than the DSS did last year? Is he further aware that, on top of the fact that the CSA is chasing millions of the wrong people and causing misery to many more, and the fact that it has cost £146 million to set up, it is time for a review of the agency so that it can start to chase the right people who are paying nothing at all?
If I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, he might care to check his figures before asking any future questions. The agency, is bringing in a significant new system from scratch. That system has broad support right across the House and beyond it. It is in its first year—the first of a series of years in which the strategy will be examined. I do not think that it can be compared simplistically with past figures. We are seeking to bring in a new system that is right in principle. I have made it clear before, and I reiterate now, that, if there are any wrinkles, we will keep them under examination and correct them.
Is my right hon. Friend aware—further to his answer to a question about whether we could fight the Gulf war now on our present defence programme—that if we followed the policy of the Labour party, which proposes a £6 billion cut in our defences, it would be impossible to provide our forces with the equipment that they need? With the new order for Challenger tanks, with the Warrior, and with the European fighter aircraft, the answer to the question about the Gulf war is surely a definite yes: we would be well equipped for any such future campaign.
A great deal of expenditure has been put into providing the best equipment for the armed forces. If the hon. Gentleman does not think so, perhaps he will go and ask Vickers and some other companies what they think they are producing.
In 1988, the Government decided that they would allow pensioners claiming rebates to have £3,000 in savings. Since then, the figure has never been index-linked, and in relative values it would now be worth £3,960. When will the Government review it?
The figure is reviewed from time to time. I am not entirely sure that the hon. Gentleman is correct to say that it has not been changed since 1981. It is reviewed on each occasion on which we look at the uprating of pensions and other social security benefits.
I know that the Prime Minister is aware of the grim tragedy that overwhelmed my constituency in the early hours of this morning, when a 33–year-old mother and her baby were killed in a fire at a DSS hostel in Scarborough. In March, the Government announced that they would consider a licensing scheme for such hostels. In view of this distressing incident, will the Prime Minister ask the Secretary of State to proceed with that scheme as a matter of urgency?
I was very concerned to hear about the tragic loss of life and the appalling injuries in the fire. We are, as my hon. Friend intimates, investigating the feasibility of introducing a licensing system to control such establishments. There are of course wide-ranging powers for local authorities to enforce fire safety standards in such hostels, and a full inquiry by the fire brigade into the cause of the blaze has already begun. I will of course look carefully at my hon. Friend's request.
Can the Prime Minister tell us why his Government are failing to collect the £240 million a year in national insurance contributions due from employers, as outlined in today's Financial Times? Is not this another example of the waste and inefficiency of the Government that the right hon. Gentleman leads? Why does not he do something to ensure that that money is collected, instead of slapping massive tax increases on ordinary families?
The Inland Revenue certainly tries to collect all the tax that is available. That has always been the case. If tax is due, everything is done to ensure that it is paid. I hope that the hon. Lady will address her strictures also to the large number of Labour authorities that do not collect rents or council taxes and have run up quite shocking debts—not on one or two isolated occasions, but on a very large number of occasions.
If the hon. Gentleman who has shouted "Like Westminster" wants to know which local authorities have rent arrears, I shall tell him: Hackney, run by Labour; Southwark, run by Labour. One could extend the list. Seven out of the top 10 authorities on it are run by Labour. They do not collect rents or council taxes and are just plain inefficient.