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The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham): When the Conservative party lost the last two general elections, some were unkind enough to suggest that it was out of touch. This afternoon, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) tried to put that right by speaking movingly about travelling to work on the tube during the rush hour. What a shame he thinks that rush hour is half-past 9 in the morning. No doubt the Conservatives are still working on the latest issue of "Intouch". My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) got the Government's position just right. Our argument tonight is not that there are no problems, no issues, no challenges in the south-east of England, but that since 1997 we have made real progress in the areas that matter.
As one would expect, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was one of the few Conservatives to display any sense of the broad sweep of issues. She made some excellent points about prison education which I acknowledge, but she will acknowledge that we are trebling the number of people who will get level 2 qualifications in the prison system to 36,000 in the coming year. Furthermore, 10 per cent. of all the qualifications gained in the first six months of the Government's campaign on basic skills were achieved by people within the prison system. There is progress to be made, but we are moving in the direction that the right hon. Lady wants.
The theme of housing, affordable housing and housing for key workers ran through the debate, but the confusion among Opposition Members was amazing. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) wanted more affordable housing, and the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) wanted tax changes that would fuel house price inflation but vigorously condemned anyone who would build a new house in which someone might live. Opposition to building new houses was voiced by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who criticised the Liberal Democrats, and by the hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink), for Fareham
To press on, my hon. Friends understand how the different issues link together. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) understands the need for development in the north Kent gateway area, where there are brownfield sites that can be developed, and the way in which that links to the Government's success in developing the channel tunnel rail linka project that completely failed under the Conservatives.
My hon. Friends the Members for Harlow and for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) talked about the importance of investing in social housing: they will welcome the extra £300 million that we are putting into that. They, too, emphasised the importance of development on brownfield sites. None the less, I acknowledge the comments made about the continuing need to encourage investment in older properties. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has been listening to those comments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) also spoke of housing, but she made the crucial link to the development of employment skills among young people. That underlines the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), who spoke of the Government's success in getting people back into work, tackling social exclusion and ending the dependency culture that formed so large a part of our inheritance in 1997.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) began promisingly by attacking the Conservatives' failure to say anything about poverty or housing, but, like most Liberal Democrats, he failed to live up to his early promise and said that his party would vote with the Conservatives tonight. He talked about the important issue of wastage in the Metropolitan police. The indications that I have for the current financial year show that the level of wastage appears to be the same for the Metropolitan police as it is for the rest of the police service in England and Wales; it is less than 5 per cent, as it has been for the past few years.
Mr. Denham: The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire did not give way to Members wishing to intervene. I should like to give Members who have been present throughout our debate and made speeches the courtesy of reply, rather than respond to Members who have not been here all evening.
I was moving on to the speech of the hon. Member for Faversham and MidKent (Hugh Robertson), who told the House that his parish council objected vigorously to lorry drivers dropping illegal immigrants off in a lay-by in his constituency. The Conservative party, however, has vigorously opposed us taking any action at all against lorry drivers who bring illegal immigrants into the country and let them out in lay-bys in Kent. Again, there is utter confusion among Opposition Members.
I do not know if my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) is a supporter of proportional representation, butI hope he does not mind my saying thisI congratulate him on delivering what could be described as a single transferable speech. Although he could not make it on Friday, none the less, he made some good points about the criminal justice system.
Mr. Johnson: I am grateful to the Minister for interrupting his hymn of praise to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies). Will he break off from his glutinous complacency about everything that Labour has done and explain to the House why, if things are so much better, violent crime has gone up in the Thames Valley area by 38 per cent? I have yet to hear him address that point and should be grateful if he would do so now.
Our debate has been about one of the world's greatest cities in one of Europe's most prosperous regions. It is a part of Britain in which millions of people enjoy more successful and more prosperous lives than they or their families have ever enjoyed before. Of course, the capital and the region face real challenges, some of which stem from the very success, prosperity and attractiveness that make many people want to visit, live and work here.
There is a saying, "Out of sight, out of mind." The Opposition are out of power and largely out of sight. Thankfully, however, they are not forgotten. People know that since 1997, the number of people in work in the region has gone up by 500,000 and that unemployment is down by more than 40 per cent. in London and the south-east. People knowmany remember only too wellthat a year of mortgage rates of more than 10 per cent. plunged them into negative equity, and that that cost nearly 30,000 families in London and the south-east their home in 1991.
Yes, it can be hard today for first-time buyers to enter the housing market, which is why over the next three years 4,600 key-worker households in London, and 2,500 in the south-east, will be helped through the starter homes initiative in London.
Mr. Denham: That is why nurses and police officers in London and the south-east have received regional pay allowances. We should not forget that for millions of home owners in London and the south-east, mortgage rates are at their lowest since the 1960s.
Mr. Denham: No, I am responding to the intervention from the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) about crime in London and the south-east. Crime in London and the south-east is down overall. Let us not forget that under the last Conservative Government, police numbers began falling in London in 1991, in Surrey in 1992 and in Thames Valley in 1994. It is our crime fighting fund that has put things right and brought 3,240 more police recruits into London and the south-east than would otherwise be recruited.