HC Deb 30 June 1999 vol 334 cc339-42
Q4. Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall)

While I accept the need for checks and balances in the Freedom of Information Bill, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give that the legislation will open up public authorities in such a way that it will be able to succeed in its objective, and can thereby be recognised as one of the Government's major achievements?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The draft Freedom of Information Bill creates for the first time powerful new rights of access to information in the public sector, to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention. For the first time, people will have the right to find out how schools have made decisions on pupil admissions, how hospitals set priorities for different treatments, how the police have conducted their inquiries—a very important development—and how the Child Support Agency has made decisions about maintenance payments. I believe that this is a big step forward.

We are making sure that the public can have information about decisions that affect important areas of their everyday life. That contrasts rather vividly with the press story that we read today on freedom of information. Apparently Tories at central office—the ones that are to be sacked—are to sign a gagging clause to keep them quiet. I presume that that shows they will be on message until they die.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Will the right hon. Gentleman turn his mind to the major crisis in the milk industry, which was brought about by the delay of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in publishing the report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on Milk Marque? The publication of the report is well over 10 weeks late, and it is of great importance that publication be effected. Many in the milk industry are hanging on by their fingernails—[Interruption.] The laughter from the Government Benches only goes to show how few Labour Members understand what the agriculture industry is about. People are hanging on by their fingernails and there is a demand that this report should be produced immediately. Will the right hon. Gentleman apply pressure to bring that about?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point and we recognise it to be such. It is being considered, and I shall pass on his advice to the Minister involved and see whether the report can be published as soon as possible. On his remarks on agriculture policy and Milk Marque, I am bound to say that the previous Government privatised the milk distribution industry and added to its difficulties.

Q5. Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the double triumph of Lincoln's 300th new deal success, shop manager Nicola Robbins, whose milestone placement was made by Steve Green—himself a new deal employee? Amidst all the criticism of the new deal from Conservative Members, does he agree that we will not go too far wrong if we continue to focus on releasing the potential of young people such as Nicola and Steve?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and it should be—[Interruption.] The fact that more people have become employed under the new deal system should be welcomed by Members on both sides of the House. The Government have kept their commitments to getting people back to work and to making the provision of work, especially for young people, a priority.

My hon. Friend makes the point that Steve Green is a symbol of a change that is taking place in today's employment market. We offer him our congratulations and best wishes for the future. We should recognise that the number of young long-term unemployed, in her constituency in particular, has come down in two years by a massive 79 per cent. That is a considerable cut, however one measures it. Britain must never allow hundreds of thousands of young people to be put on the scrap-heap, which was another characteristic of 18 years of Tory government.

The Opposition have criticised a great deal, but the statistics speak for themselves: 100,000 young people were found jobs through the new deal and 85 per cent. were not subsidised in any way. Among young people, long-term unemployment has fallen by 60 per cent. since May 1997, so we have another record for a Labour Government—the lowest youth unemployment since 1975.

There is a very good contrast. After 18 years of Tory government—[Interruption.] You don't like it, but you're going to get it. The 18 years of Tory government produced record unemployment of 3 million. After two years of this Government, a record number of people are in work. That is the difference.

Sir George Young

The right hon. Gentleman's colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, said last night of the passport crisis that the jobs of all Ministers—his, the Home Secretary's and those of every member of the Government—are on the line. Does he agree?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Nobody is on the line. Let us get the problem into proper context. More than 3 million passports have been issued this year and the Passport Agency is currently issuing 150,000 a week, which is more than 20 per cent. up on last year. There has been a 40 per cent. increase in applications in recent weeks. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made clear, he is treating these problems seriously and putting new measures in place to tackle them. He said that in his statement to the House yesterday.

Hundreds of new staff have been taken on to deal with the problems and, to be fair, let us recognise that they are due particularly to the number of passport applications being made for children. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes, exactly."] It was our policy to implement that measure to improve the situation so that children are not abducted. That was agreed by the all-party group of which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is a member. The group recommended that measure to the House.

Sir George Young

Not even the Home Secretary yesterday pinned the blame on my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald. Do the latest figures from the Home Office show that the queues are getting longer or shorter?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Today's figures show that the queues are getting shorter. I have no doubt that the advertising campaign and the information being provided by the Home Office will reassure people. Indeed, 99.9 per cent. of applicants have had their passports processed in time for their holidays. We are sorry for any inconvenience that may have been caused, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said yesterday. The fact that he did not blame the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald just shows how generous he is. I should point out to the House that it was he who came to the House and said that he was sorry for any inconvenience. That may seem unusual to a party that, in 18 years in government, never apologised for anything that it did.

Sir George Young

The figures published today in Hansard show an increase of 34,000 outstanding applications for the last week for which figures are available. Given that an additional £10 is currently payable by those who have to queue in person at the passport office to get their passports processed, will the right hon. Gentleman at least consider suspending that fine, which is due entirely to the Government's incompetence?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am assured that, by 11.30 this morning, the queues had been completely cleared. I should have thought that both sides of the House would welcome that, as it means that less inconvenience is caused. Suggestions about possible changes have been heard by the Home Secretary, and he can consider them. At least we have shown sensitivity in dealing with this problem, and people can be assured that they will get their passports in time for their holidays. The changes introduced by the Home Secretary reduce the possibility that children will be abducted.

Incidentally, I welcome the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) to the Dispatch Box on this occasion, but remind him that he is the third substitute for the Leader of the Opposition in two years. I do not want to worry him, but look at what happened to the other two. I hope that it will be some time before he has to get on his bike and leave the job.

Sir George Young

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman wants to be reminded of his last appearance at the Dispatch Box in this role.

The right hon. Gentleman said that all the queues had been cleared. Half a million people are waiting for their passports and 1 million have been unable to get through to the Government by telephone. Thousands of people are queueing at passport offices and having to pay £10 extra for the privilege. When will the Government start working round the clock to process passports instead of excuses?

The Deputy Prime Minister

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made clear, we are working round the clock and at weekends to clear the backlog. I should have thought that achieving 99.9 per cent. of passport applications in time for people to go on holiday was a record. It is at least a better performance than that of the privatised railways that the Conservative party gave us.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my concern about the announcement of 2,000 job losses at British Aerospace. Will he initiate a high-level meeting between the Government and executives of British Aerospace to discuss those job losses in the military division, especially in the north-west? Will he ensure that British Aerospace considers the introduction of civil as well as military work, so that we do not have ups and downs in that high-profile industry?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am well aware of the concerns expressed by British Aerospace workers, because I have a plant near my constituency. My hon. Friend will know as well as I do that the company has dealt with considerable change over the years. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has heard my hon. Friend's proposals. If not, I shall make sure that the comments are passed on to him so that the fears can be dealt with and we can ensure the change that is necessary to keep British Aerospace as a powerful company in the global economy.

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