Among my right hon. Friend's bedtime reading last night, did he happen to notice an article in the Kettering Evening Telegraph reporting a 9.5 per cent. cut in crime in Northamptonshire last year? Will he join me in congratulating Northamptonshire police and the wider community on that tremendous achievement?
Unaccountably, the Kettering Evening Telegraph was not among my bedtime reading. However, I know officers and civilian staff of the Northamptonshire police and would like to congratulate them on achieving a 9.5 per cent. cut in crime. Of course, we know that there are still real problems with both violent crime and police recruitment, which need to be addressed. However, I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that, as a result of the extra investment that the Government are putting in over the next three years, there will be an additional 90 recruits for the police service in Northamptonshire.
The Prime Minister has already commented on the deeply disturbing case that has come to attention this week involving baby twins being bought and sold over the internet. It cannot be right for children to be sold to the highest bidder. The Prime Minister will obviously want to co-operate as much as possible with other countries to prevent any more such cases and to ensure that laws against baby trading are as tight as possible.
Does the Prime Minister agree that one way of reducing the chances of further such cases arising is to press ahead with much-needed reform of adoption law in this country? Will he accept our assurance, first given in debate on the Queen's Speech, that he would have the full support of the Opposition if he were to introduce legislation in this Session? Will he now undertake to do that?
I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about that particular case. I think that everyone feels that it is deplorable that children are traded in that way. Adoption should always be about putting the interests of the child first.
We are committed to making adoption easier, and we published a White Paper on that shortly before Christmas. We shall press ahead, and intend to introduce legislation on it in this Session. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support, and I hope that perhaps I can come back to him later with details of how and when we can press ahead with that legislation.
In addition, it may be of interest to the House to know that the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 will be brought into force later this year. That legislation was passed by the House some time ago and will set in place proper rules and standards to be applied in any case involving intercountry adoption. This is obviously a serious and difficult situation, but it is right that we should legislate on adoption in this country as soon as possible, and then get regulations on the statute book that deal with intercountry adoption.
I acknowledge and welcome what the Prime Minister has said, especially about introducing legislation in this Session. The White Paper to which he referred received a warm welcome from the Opposition. If, for any reason, it proves impossible for the Government to introduce their own legislation in the coming weeks, will they consider the vehicle provided by the Adoption Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)? The Bill has its First Reading today, has had the support of hon. Members from all parties and could thereby contain the proposals of Government and Opposition.
I shall certainly consider the right hon. Gentleman's suggestions about that Bill. I am told, however, that some of the measures that it contains do not require legislation, so we can press ahead with them in any event if they are the right measures to introduce.
It is important to realise that adoption concerns many families in this country very deeply. There is now general acceptance that we must clear away some of the bureaucratic obstacles and that we can do that while ensuring that proper standards and procedures are in place so that deeply regrettable events such as the trading of children, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, are prohibited.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the miners? Is he aware of the huge backlog of claims in the East Kent coalfield, which is often forgotten? Has he heard the sad stories of my constituents Jon Phelan, Norman Woodcock and Arthur Bailes, who are very old and sick and feel let down by the current slow and complex process of claims assessment?
I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for many people—not only his constituents, but people in every part of the country that has had a large mining presence, my constituency included. As he knows, the difficulty is that this is the largest personal litigation in United Kingdom history. Some 130,000 claims for respiratory disease alone have to be processed, and each one of them must be processed individually. We are trying to speed up the rate of paying out. In December, for example, £22 million of compensation was paid out. The fast-track procedures that we announced last September have resulted in the paying out of a further £74 million. It is only because of the Government that the money is being paid out at all. However, we accept our obligation to ensure that the claims are processed more quickly and are looking urgently at doing that. It is important for people to realise that the delays are occurring because each claim must, by law, be processed individually.
I am sure that the whole House will acknowledge that although people in rural communities may, like all the political parties, have different views about hunting, one thing on which they all agree is that they can see post offices closing, public transport disappearing and farm incomes plummeting. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that his Administration has failed rural Britain?
No, I do not acknowledge that. Of course there is a real problem with rural post offices, which is why we are committed to putting in the investment and to working with them to ensure that they have a future. As for investment in public services, it is this Government who are putting in the investment: we are putting far more investment into rural areas than the right hon. Gentleman asked us to before the general election.
But only last year, the Government published an action plan for farming and followed it up with a rural White Paper, yet the post offices are disappearing, public transport is receding and farm incomes are falling. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that, having promised rural Britain, like everyone else in the country, that things can only get better, the truth for rural Britain is that things have only got worse?
Rural post offices have been closing for many years. There are reasons for that, which we are addressing. The matter can be addressed only in the way that we are doing it, by giving the rural post offices options for the future. That is precisely what we are doing. As for public service investment, if the right hon. Gentleman looks at primary school results, investment in primary schools in rural areas, the investment now going into the national health service and the money made available specifically for police officers in rural areas, he will see that all those elements are rising and all of that investment is going in.
Whatever the Liberal Democrats say, they set out at the general election their plans and what they thought they could do if they were ever elected as a Government, but we have exceeded those proposals many times over. Of course there is still a lot to do, but it is simply incorrect to say that no investment is going into rural areas.
Does the Prime Minister share my anger about the whopping 43p in every hard-earned taxpayer's pound that went on the cost of rising debt and unemployment in 1997? Will he remind the House of the Government's actions to cut that waste and the way in which the 26p freed by them is being put to much better use?
My hon. Friend is right: 43p in every pound went on social security payments or debt repayments, and that sum is now down to 17p as a result of Government measures. Today, we have the lowest inflation in Europe, our interest rates are half what they were in the Conservative years, and we have cut the national debt that the previous Government incurred. It will be interesting to note how many questions the Opposition ask on the economy in the rest of Question Time today.
Over the past few months, the firemen and women in this country have risked their lives helping victims of flooding, not least in Cornwall in the past 24 hours. I am sure that the Prime Minister will want to join me in congratulating them on that work. Is he aware that the current funding formula for the fire service does not allow for such rescue work and that, consequently, many fire officers have had to tackle flooding problems without appropriate equipment, uniforms and clothing for those wet conditions? Is not it time that the Government changed the way in which the fire service is funded so that those fire officers can have the equipment that they need as they risk their lives on behalf of people in the circumstances that I described?
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating firefighters and other emergency service workers on their excellent work in the past few weeks. We are reviewing the operation of the funding and the attached funding formula. However, let me make two other points.
First, we have made substantial additional sums available for flood relief in areas that have been affected by flooding. Secondly, I say to the hon. Gentleman, who is a Liberal Democrat, that there is a limit to the amount that any Government can spend on public services. I know that he and his colleagues do not accept that, but that is the reality.