My right hon. Friend will be aware that unemployment in my constituency has gone down by 60 per cent. since 1997. That is, of course, good news, but it still means that 770 people are claiming jobseeker's allowance. Major manufacturing firms have suffered from problems such as the costs of doing business with the eurozone, the relative exchange rate during 2003 and increased costs in other areas, and we lost a major manufacturing plant—[Hon. Members: "Question!"] Can my right hon. Friend tell me what his plans are to ensure that small firms are allowed to trade unfettered and large manufacturing firms are allowed to prosper, so that Wirral, South can continue to be part of the strong economy during 2004?
The best thing that we can do for small and large firms alike is to run the economy in a stable way. As my hon. Friend acknowledges, the fact that we have the lowest interest rates, lowest inflation and lowest unemployment for decades is good news for business, big and small alike. However, we still have a particular problem with those who are claiming jobseeker's allowance, and we want to see them back in work. My hon. Friend is right to say that there have been huge falls in unemployment in his constituency—and in other constituencies throughout the country—but the way that we will get those remaining people off the dole and into work is by continuing programmes such as the new deal for the unemployed, which has given opportunity to hundreds of thousands of people. That is why we will continue it, not abolish it, as the Conservative party would.
Order. The House must come to order. I call the Leader of the Opposition.
I suggest first of all that the right hon. and learned Gentleman look at the totality of what I said, but I stand exactly by what I said then. However, the Hutton inquiry will look at all these issues and will make its report. I suggest to him and to Conservative Members that rather than trying to prejudge the report, they actually wait for it.
We are not going to take any lectures from the Prime Minister on prejudging the inquiry. The statement that he made, and that I just put to him, was made after he set up that inquiry. He was also asked at that time:
"Why did you authorise the naming of David Kelly?"
"that is completely untrue."
Does the Prime Minister also stand by that statement?
I have already said, and I repeat, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should consider the totality of my remarks. However, the inquiry will determine all those issues, and I suggest that he wait until the report is published to make his points. However, it is obvious from his questions today that the Conservative party has already made up its mind. Frankly, we know what Conservative Members will say, whatever the report says.
I have already made it clear in answer to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's first question that I stand by the totality of what I said, but in relation to the issues that he raises, and all the others, the Hutton inquiry will report shortly and I suggest that he wait for that. It is obvious from comments that he and his colleagues have made in the past few days that it does not matter what the inquiry concludes; he has already made up his mind. However, I suggest that the rest of the House wait for the report.
No, it is not—as I believe that we will show when the inquiry report is published. Rather than our having a debate about the evidence now, which strikes me as rather absurd, given that we are about to have the report published, and rather than the right hon. and learned Gentleman cross-examining me now, he can do that on the day the report is published—according to what it says, not according to what he says.
Of course it applies to me, as it applies to all Ministers. However, since we are about to have a report that will decide whether people have or have not lied to Parliament, is it not sensible to wait for it rather than having an absurd preliminary now? As for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's relish in examining me on the report, it is equalled by mine in rebutting some of the rubbish that he has been saying in the past few weeks.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Accommodation and Works Committee has asked the equivalent Committee in the other place to reconsider where to put the statue of Sylvia Pankhurst? Although I understand that that is a House matter, does he agree that Sylvia Pankhurst did wonderful things to help the struggles of working-class women? As we honour men who run about a field kicking balls, can we not commemorate someone who had some?
The hon. Gentleman might have noticed that they kick the ball on the rugby field as well. Anything that happens to a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst is a matter for the House. Obviously, I should like her to be honoured; she was a tremendous champion of women's rights and women's suffrage—but the details should not be for me but for the House authorities.
Is not the fact of the matter that yesterday's dodgy deal between the two of them means that, together, they have sold their souls? We all know that Ken Livingstone disagrees with the Prime Minister on everything from the London tube to top-up fees to Iraq. They are united in their mutual complete and utter chicanery, and the voters are going to see through that.
Talking of chicanery, I thought that at our first Prime Minister's questions after we came back after the recess, we were going to have a discussion about the right hon. Gentleman's spending plans. It is a pity that we are not going to do so, because I have quite a lot to say on the subject. I will say it the next time he asks me about it, because there have been a few interesting developments. As for the mayoral election, we shall all have our candidates, we shall fight the election, and let us see who wins.
This Government have made good progress on introducing effective employment legislation, particularly with the introduction of the national minimum wage, which was either opposed by or lacked the support of some of the Opposition parties. Will my right hon. Friend continue the good work by extending the provisions and the principle of the national minimum wage to many of the youngsters in our communities who are currently excluded from it, and are therefore subject to potential exploitation by unscrupulous employers?
We await a report from the Low Pay Commission on the possibility of extending the national minimum wage to 16 and 17-year-olds. I know that my hon. Friend would accept that the introduction of the minimum wage has benefited about 1.3 million workers to an enormous extent. It is worth pointing out that all those people who warned that its introduction would damage British jobs and competitiveness have been comprehensively proved wrong. However, the reason why we did not initially introduce it for 16 and 17-year-olds was that we feared that it might have an impact on youth unemployment. We need to examine that idea carefully again in the light of what the Low Pay Commission recommends. We will study those recommendations very carefully. As ever, we must strike a balance between what we want to do to improve people's living standards, and ensuring that we do not harm job prospects.
"A person who calls for"— the Chancellor—
"to be sacked and whose economic politics do not stand up has a total disregard for sensible, mature politics."
Let me give the hon. Gentleman an example of why I think it is important that we back the policies of the London Mayor in relation to London. Those policies include a commitment to increase the number of police officers. The number of police officers in London has risen to record levels—there are now 3,000 more of them—and some of us remember who was Home Secretary when police numbers in London were actually cut.
The industries on the Humber bank represent one of Britain's major manufacturing areas, but is my right hon. Friend aware that 475 jobs were lost in the Grimsby area in the last year? What are the Government going to do to assist areas such as Grimsby and Cleethorpes to help to regenerate them and to encourage manufacturing, particularly in view of our peripheral geography?
There are three things that we can do to help those seaside towns. As my hon. Friend acknowledges, unemployment has fallen in those areas, but we still have some distance to go. The first thing is to use the neighbourhood renewal fund; the second is to use European Union structural funds; the third is to ensure that we get the right resources from the new deal for the unemployed into seaside towns where there are pockets of endemic unemployment. It is in part as a result of doing those things that the long-term unemployment in my hon. Friend's constituency has fallen by more than 90 per cent. I believe that if we continue with the policies of sound economic management and the new deal for the unemployed, we will reduce the numbers of unemployed still further.
Surely it is not the responsibility of Lord Hutton to reconcile the Prime Minister's statements on the release of the name of Dr. Kelly. Surely it is the duty of the Prime Minister to reconcile his statements on this matter, which comes within his responsibility both to the House and to the country.
Of course it is, but what I am saying to the hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party is, let us wait and deal with these issues in the light of the Hutton report, which will make the specific findings on all these questions. Surely it is more important to debate those issues on the basis of what the report actually says, rather than on the basis of speculation as to what it might say.
I agree that it is important. Talks are continuing on the issue. Not much has happened over the Christmas period, for obvious reasons, but I hope that we will shortly be able to tell the House how the issue will be handled, particularly in relation to the British detainees at Guantanamo Bay. I return to the point that I have made on many occasions, however, which is particularly important to emphasise when there is still, rightly, a lot of concern about possible terrorist activity: some of the information that we have had from those detained at Guantanamo Bay has been of immense importance.
As the Prime Minister has rightly indicated that he wants to do everything possible to help the police in their battle against rural crime, will he give the House an undertaking today that he will do nothing this year to criminalise the activities of one of the most law-abiding sections of the rural community?
In the pre-Budget statement, the Chancellor announced additional funding for local authorities. Obviously, local authorities in my Kettering constituency, which were systematically underfunded by the previous Government, welcome that additional money. Police authorities, however, were not given any additional funds. Will my right hon. Friend look at funding for police authorities to ensure that they receive funding in line with the formula in future years?
I know that this is an issue for my hon. Friend, and he has made many representations on it. Northamptonshire, like other police authorities, was given a significant increase in funding. We are looking all the time at what more we can do, however. I simply point out that we now have record numbers of police officers in this country: I think that we have in the region of 9,000 more police officers than we had in 1997. It is important that we recognise that that is also now being boosted by thousands of community support officers. The Conservative party opposed both the investment in record numbers of police and the community support officers.
As I have said previously on this issue, a steady stream of post office closures has occurred for a number of years. We are putting several hundred million pounds into supporting rural post offices. As a result, significant support has been given to those post offices. It lies on the shoulders of anyone who says that they would prevent any post office closures to say how they could fund such a thing. If we were to give that commitment, it would run into hundreds of millions of pounds, and we cannot afford to make it.
When the aviation White Paper was published last month, the people of Coventry and Warwickshire in particular heaved a huge sigh of relief. The peace of the people in my constituency and in neighbouring constituencies, however, is about to be shattered by the irresponsible behaviour of Coventry airport, which has done a shabby deal with Thomsonfly without any consultation, and without any regard for safety or for the implications of night flying for its neighbours. Will my right hon. Friend do everything that he can to ensure that any changes in Coventry are well within the constraints of the White Paper?
Let me say first that I was not aware of the specific issue raised by my hon. Friend. He will know that we do not support the option of a new airport between Coventry and Rugby. We have published a comprehensive White Paper, and I can assure him that we will make sure that any developments that occur are within the proper principles and guidelines set out in that White Paper. Certainly, I shall examine the issue that he has raised.
As the Prime Minister confirmed on Monday that British troops will be in Iraq for at least two more years, can he confirm the estimate that by that time, the cost to the British taxpayer of occupation and reconstruction will be at least £7 billion? In view of the vast costs involved, what success has he had in persuading friendly countries to defer the costs that the UK incurred in the first Gulf war?
I would not confirm the figure that the hon. Gentleman has just given—and as for what commitment we make to Iraq in terms of troops in years to come, I simply cannot be sure of that. Again, contrary to some reports, I have not said that thousands of British troops will be there for years. I do not know at this time, but what I do know is that the reconstruction of Iraq is important not just for that country, but for the stability of the region and of the wider world. Some 30 countries are helping us in Iraq at the moment—it is not just the US and the UK—and I think it very important that we make sure that that reconstruction succeeds. What it will cost at this stage we cannot say, but I do believe that it is an investment in the future stability and security of that region and of the world, and I welcome it.
Does my right hon. Friend share my view that the joint strike fighter will provide tremendous improvement in the capability of the Royal Air Force, and does he accept that, for British manufacturing to be able to upgrade and improve the JSF, we need technological transfer from the United States? What steps does he plan to take in order to gain that technological transfer from the US Government?
My hon. Friend's point is very important, because participation in the joint strike fighter programme will mean that we guarantee, and expand on, thousands of jobs in the UK. At the moment we are working with the US in respect of the technology. That technology will have applications that go beyond the JSF programme, so it is important that we make sure that we get the right access to it. The discussions with the US are going well, and I very much hope that they will have a positive result.
People sometimes ask what are the benefits, apart from security, of this country's relationship with the United States. We should recognise that in terms of defence co-operation, for example, which has a spin-off into all sorts of areas, our alliance with the US is of enormous importance, not least to British industry.
Does the Prime Minister recall that five years ago, he promised to crack down on school truancy to help end social exclusion? Is he aware that despite a 700 per cent. increase in spending on anti-truancy schemes, truancy has gone up by a staggering 40 per cent.? Is this not yet one more example of his Government increasing public expenditure but totally failing to deliver any improvements?
No, it is not, because the figures that the hon. Gentleman gives are wrong. The number of children in school has increased significantly, so that has to be taken into account when assessing the percentage levels of truancy. Those levels are at their lowest, and school attendance is at its highest level. I can assure him about what would happen if we were not making this investment. For example, a lot of this money is being spent on pupil referral units. That is contrary to the position that we found when we took office, whereby pupils excluded from school were getting a couple of hours' schooling a week, and were otherwise simply roaming the streets. As a result of that extra money, such pupils are now in full-time lessons five days a week, actually being taught something. That is where the money is going, and it is money well spent.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that a very innovative exercise has been carried out called "GM nation", through which the public were asked for the first time ever on a widespread basis about their views on genetically modified food. What difference might that exercise make to Government policy on GM foods?
It gives us the opportunity to discriminate between various different types of GM technology, and it allows us to say that in certain circumstances there may be reasons—because of problems of biodiversity, for example—why we would not want to develop certain GM foods. On the other hand, in respect of certain crops it may be in our interests to do so. In terms of GM, it is also important—[Interruption.] Contrary to the Conservative party, I happen to believe it important that these measures be dealt with on the basis of science, because the biotech industry is of huge importance to this country. GM technology has a huge application not just in relation to food, but particularly in relation to medicine. Yes, it is vital that we proceed by public consultation, but also on the basis of the evidence about the science of GM, because its potential is enormous for the future of our country and of the world.
Is the Prime Minister still able to remember that he led this country into war with the specific and categoric statement that in the spring of last year, Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that threatened Britain? As it is now becoming increasingly clear that that statement was a conspiratorial pretext for the war, why does he believe that it is honourable for him to continue in office?
Because I believe that it is absolutely clear that Saddam Hussein both developed and used weapons of mass destruction. We put the information to the House on the basis of the intelligence that we received. Incidentally, I still believe that that intelligence was correct and I believe that, had I ignored that intelligence and decided not to take action in respect of the threat that was perceived, I would have been failing in my duty to this country. I would also point out to Opposition Members that it should be possible to have a debate about the rights and wrongs of the conflict in Iraq—I happen to believe passionately that it was the right thing to do—without attempting to attack each other's integrity.
Will my right hon. Friend consider making an appeal to all universities and research laboratories to ensure that where work relates to public health and welfare, it is properly reviewed by peers working in the same field? Does he agree that if that had been done in respect of the work of Dr. Wakefield, which purported to link the MMR vaccine to autism but was never corroborated, a great deal of parental anxiety and a dangerous reduction in child vaccinations could have been avoided?
My hon. Friend is right to suggest that the controversy over MMR is a good example of people's fears being raised quite unnecessarily, because the evidence is very clear. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has certain proposals about changing research funding, to which I refer my hon. Friend. I agree that it is important for funding to be awarded on the basis of good scientific research.
Who determines education policy in this country—the profession or Ministers? The Labour manifesto of 1997 promised more setting in schools, but in a parliamentary answer to me last year, the Prime Minister said that that was a matter for heads and teachers. If he believes that setting is right, and given that parents want it and that it appeared in the manifesto, why do 62 per cent. of lessons in comprehensive schools today take place in mixed-ability classes?
I am not sure about the figure that the hon. Gentleman gave, and I would like to check it before accepting it. However, there is a balance to be struck between the Government saying that setting is something that we want to encourage in the right circumstances, and specifically telling schools that they have to operate in a specific way. Surely it is the case that setting in schools should be done where it is appropriate, but we do not believe that it is right for the central Government to dictate to schools and say that setting has to be done in all circumstances. I would point out, however, that the majority of comprehensive schools that I know about do engage in setting where they think it appropriate.
Should the Government not act on an issue in respect of which the vast majority of Labour MPs and people in the country agree—that hunting with dogs should be banned, that the Parliament Act should be used and that on that matter, the Lords majority should be told where to get off? I suggest that the Prime Minister act on the issue, because it is right to end that barbaric sport once and for all.
It is not our policy to scrap council tax and introduce local income tax. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman and the Lib Dems that whatever system of taxation is introduced, the money still has to be raised. I personally think that it would be difficult to persuade people of the wisdom of allowing local authorities to tax people's income.
The Prime Minister will be aware that the European Parliament has rejected a proposal from the European Commission to put value added tax on postal services. However, the matter can be referred back to the Commission and then brought forward to the Council of Ministers. Can we have an assurance that the Government will oppose the imposition of VAT on postal services, as that, of course, would cause Royal Mail prices to rise?
Will the Prime Minister involve himself urgently and personally in resolving the very real concerns felt by Northern Ireland prison officers in response to the threats made to them and their homes? Will he ensure that all necessary security is provided, thus avoiding threatened strike action across the UK?
Obviously, we are looking at the concerns of prison officers in Northern Ireland, and at what we can do to ensure that they are given proper protection. It is obviously to their advantage, and to the advantage of other people, that a more peaceful situation be brought about in Northern Ireland. However, I know that the dispute is at present subject to discussions between the officers' union and the Northern Ireland Office. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I think that I will leave them to take those discussions further.