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Before I turn to my engagements, may I begin by extending, probably on behalf of the whole House, our profound sympathies to the Catholic Church on the death of His Holiness Pope John Paul II? The world has lost a religious leader who was revered by people of all faiths and none, and we mourn his passing.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in congratulating the new members of the Iraqi presidency council who have been confirmed today by the Transitional National Assembly, the outcome of the first ever democratic elections in Iraq.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.
Does the Prime Minister recall that when Labour came to office in 1997 in constituencies such as mine the biggest single issue was unemployment? The preferred public spending of the outgoing Tory Government was wasteful, shameful spending to prop up unemployment. As the economy has stabilised and grown, that public spending has been turned into Sure Start schemes, doctors, nurses, teachers, pensions and benefits that people have come to expect from the Labour Government. What advice can the Prime Minister give to my constituents—[Interruption.]
My hon. Friend is of course absolutely right. There are 2 million more people in jobs since 1997. We now have the highest employment rate of any major industrial country. We have low mortgage rates that help home owners, low inflation and a stable economy. It is the Labour party today that is the party of economic competence. It is interesting that in elections the Conservatives used to run on the economy—now they run away from it.
May I begin by associating myself with the Prime Minister's words on the death of the Pope? The world has lost a towering spiritual leader, whose passing truly diminishes us all. I also associate myself with the Prime Minister's words on the Iraqi Government.
At the last election, the Prime Minister promised not to raise national insurance contributions. In their first Budget afterwards, the Government raised national insurance contributions. In the words of the Chancellor, why should people ever believe him again?
We made specific promises on the basic and top rate of income tax, and we have kept those promises. It is correct that we raised national insurance to pay for extra investment in the national health service. We want to keep that investment going into the national health service. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's plans are to take more than £1 billion out of the health service to pay half the cost of operations in the private sector, and there is no policy more elitist than that. We are proud of the investment in the national health service and proud of the work that it is doing. Under this Government at least, the national health service is safe.
Before the last election the Prime Minister was asked specifically whether people should suppose he was going to increase national insurance contributions. He said, "They shouldn't." Now he says that that was not a promise. Does not that tell people everything they need to know about the Prime Minister? In 1997 he said:
"Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education".
He then introduced tuition fees. In 2001 he said:
"We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them."
He then introduced top-up fees. In the words of the Chancellor, why should people ever believe a word he says again?
I am very happy to compare our record in government with the record of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. We are proud of the fact that our economy is strong, and that the investment goes into our schools and our hospitals. It is what we promised and what we have done. Let me just remind him of what he did when he was in government. When Minister of State for the Environment, he introduced the poll tax—correct? When he was Secretary of State for Employment, unemployment rose by 1 million. When Minister in charge of labour regulation, he ended up opposing the minimum wage, and when he was Home Secretary he cut the numbers of police. In the end, the judgment that people will make is between our record and future programme, and his. I know what judgment they will make.
The Prime Minister was asked specifically about his broken promises on top-up fees and tuition fees, and he could not bring himself to say a word in defence of those broken promises. In 1997 he promised "firm control" over immigration, but since then net immigration has tripled. In the words of the Chancellor, why should people ever believe him again?
I will tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman about the immigration and asylum system that we inherited. We inherited a situation where, when he was Home Secretary, it took 20 months to process an asylum claim and the number of removals was one in 10. Yes, it is true that we need to control immigration, but the way to do it is not his proposal of halving the immigration budget. Yes, immigration is an issue. Yes, it is important that we discuss it, but it is an issue that should be dealt with, not exploited.
Labour Members are cheering the Prime Minister now, but let us find out what they really think of him. How many of them are putting his photo on their election addresses? Hands up! One, two, three, four, five, six. Does not that tell us all we need to know about what they really think of him? [Hon. Members: "More!"] The Prime Minister promised to
"tackle the unacceptable level of anti-social behaviour".
Two and a half years ago he said he would remove housing benefit from antisocial tenants. Antisocial tenants still have their housing benefit and antisocial behaviour has got worse. In the words of the Chancellor, why should people ever believe him again?
Let me just remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman—[Interruption.] I think we know which photograph we certainly do have up. It will probably be the right hon. and learned Gentleman's, to remind people exactly of what they would be going back to. Since he has raised the issue of crime, let me remind him of what the chief constable of North Wales said about the Conservative party policy and its advertisement on crime. He said:
"This misleading advert quite improperly seeks to stir up fear of rising crime when it is a well-established fact that crime has been falling for years, both locally and nationally".
When the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in office, crime doubled under the Conservatives. It has fallen under Labour, so we have the strongest economy, falling unemployment, investment in our health and education services, falling crime and investment in the police. That is opposed to a policy that would put our economic stability at risk and make cuts in public services. Once people know that choice, and they will over the coming weeks, it is very clear how they will choose.
The figures that we use in those advertisements are the police's own figures: the figures that the right hon. Gentleman used just two minutes ago when he was describing the record of the last Government. Let us have no such claptrap.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about his record, but his chief election co-ordinator—where is he? He is not even here today. His chief election co-ordinator says that his biggest fear—there he is; I have spotted him; excellent—has always been that this election will turn into a referendum on the Labour party. Is that what the Prime Minister thinks too?
No, I think that it is a choice. I think that it is a choice between a Conservative party that when it was in office had unemployment at 3 million, had interest rates at 10 per cent. for four years, had boom and bust recession twice, and ended up cutting spending on our NHS and in our schools, and a Labour Government who, over the past eight years, have delivered economic stability, low mortgages, low unemployment, low inflation and record investment in our NHS and in our schools. I think that that is the choice, and I think that when the country comes to consider not just the record of the Conservative party, but the fact that its economic, health and education plans are exactly the ones that it rejected in 1997, yes, I will be very happy that people should compare the choice between the Conservative's record and ours; between our future programme and theirs.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about his record. Let us look at his record. I will tell him about his record: taxes—[Hon. Members: "Up."]; crime—[Hon. Members: "Up."]; immigration—[Hon. Members: "Up."]; waiting times—[Hon. Members: "Up."]; MRSA—[Hon. Members: "Up."]; truancy—[Hon. Members: "Up"]. Let us have a look at what has gone down: take-home pay—[Hon. Members: "Down."]; pensions—[Hon. Members: "Down."]; productivity growth—[Hon. Members: "Down."]; manufacturing employment—[Hon. Members: "Down."]; detection rates—[Hon. Members: "Down."]. After eight years of Labour government, we are locking up teachers not yobs, our voting system resembles a banana republic's, and pensioners who cannot find an NHS dentist are reduced to pulling out their own teeth. Is there not now a clear choice at this election: rewarding this Prime Minister for eight years of broken promises or choosing a Government who will take action on the things that matter to hard-working Britons.
I am going to begin by agreeing with the right hon. and learned Gentleman: I think that it does mean a choice, and the choice is very clear. People remember the years before 1997. They remember the people who lost their homes in the recession, who lost their jobs in the recession, who used to end up with mortgages that they could not afford. They remember the winter crises every year in the NHS. They remember the outside toilets and the creaking classrooms in the schools. They remember when the police officers were cut while the right hon. and learned Gentleman was Home Secretary. They remember all that. And between now and polling day we will remind them of what they have now, and what is therefore at risk. What they have now is economic stability, investment in public services and action on crime.
So the choice is indeed very clear. What I say to the British people is this: "Economic stability is at risk, your job is at risk, your mortgage is at risk, the economy is at risk, and therefore when you come to make that choice on
Prime Minister, could we get back to serious matters? Given that there has never been a war in the history of the world in which the vast majority of victims have not been innocent civilians, does the Prime Minister agree that the time has come to create a world where there is no longer war or conflict? Given his massive international respect, will he join together with other world leaders to create the means of ensuring that there is no longer any war or conflict in the world? Does he agree that the best way of doing that, given that the European Union is the best example in history of conflict resolution, is for a special department of the European Union for peace and reconciliation to be created and to visit all areas of conflict with the principles of the EU, which will create a resolution of conflict anywhere in the world? Will he and his international colleagues make that historic decision as soon as possible?
First, I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done for peace in this country, and in Northern Ireland in particular. I entirely agree with him that one of the most important things is what we can do to try to spread the type of peace and reconciliation that he pioneered in Northern Ireland throughout the rest of the world. I will certainly use our best offices and the European Union presidency to do so, and also within the G8.
On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I associate myself entirely, of course, with the opening comments of tribute by the Prime Minister.
After eight years of this Labour Government, the Prime Minister will recognise that most women in this country still do not receive a full state pension in their own right, because they have had to take time out of work to raise children or, in many cases, to care for elderly relatives. Surely women should receive a pension as of right, rather than on the basis of national insurance contributions. After eight years, why has the Prime Minister not put that fundamental unfairness right?
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows that two thirds of the beneficiaries of the pension credit are, in fact, women, and that helps enormously with relieving people in poverty and raising pensioners' living standards. Living standards for pensioners have risen considerably above not just inflation, but earnings over the past few years. Of course, we have always got to try to do more, but when we look back over the record of eight years—the winter fuel allowance, the free TV licences for the over-75s and, in particular, the pension credit, the help for the poorest pensioners in our country and the help that the Chancellor has just announced with the council tax for pensioners—I think that this Government have a record on pensioners of which we can be very proud. Of course, there is always more to do, but we will do it, if elected.
Staying on the issue of fairness, but looking at the other end of the age spectrum, why is it that we are now saddling so many of our young people with thousands of pounds' worth of debt wrapped around their necks because of the policy of imposing top-up fees? The Prime Minister's policy of top-up fees is in direct breach of the pledge that he made in his last general election manifesto, so why should any of us believe any of the promises that he is about to make in the next general election manifesto?
Of course, there are now going to be no fees paid at all when someone goes through university. What is more, the repayment that will be made by people once they graduate will be linked to their ability to pay. There will be no real rate of interest on that loan and there will be special help with the reintroduced maintenance grant for the poorest people. Of course, we believe that we have to get more money into our university system—I think that the right hon. Gentleman does as well—but I do not think that his proposal to take that money out of general taxation by a 50 per cent. top rate of tax is something that will recommend itself to people. It is a proposal that in my view would not raise the money that he thinks it would raise. In any event, it would not be a fair use of resources.
On education, I would just remind the right hon. Gentleman that this country is now investing more each year as a proportion of our national income on education—in Sure Start, nursery education, primary schools, secondary schools, and, yes, universities, and for those taking skills courses as well. I think that we can be very proud of our record in education, but it is true that we have to modernise our system continually to keep up with the new world in which we live.