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PM's pre by election message

PUBLISHED: 21:18 19 November 2001 | UPDATED: 15:21 03 March 2010

With the Ipswich by-election just days away, the Prime Minister agreed to answer questions from Paul Geater, Political Editor of the Ipswich Evening Star and our team of specialist writers.

With the Ipswich by-election just days away, the Prime Minister agreed to answer questions from Paul Geater, Political Editor of the Ipswich Evening Star and our team of specialist writers.

1, Along with other towns, Ipswich is currently bidding for City Status. Will the process this time be more efficient and fair than last year's debacle?

I can understand why there was disappointment that Ipswich failed to win city status last year. There was disappointment, too, in all those other towns who were unsuccessful in the competition. But it's not right to say the process was inefficient or unfair. The three winners were chosen entirely on their merits from many strong bids.

The good news is that there is now another chance to bid for city status to mark the Queen's Golden Jubilee. All 42 bidders know the main factors against which their bids will be impartially assessed. Along with national and regional significance and royal and historical links, there is an additional factor this time which will be the forward-looking attitude of the town.

City status is one of the ways that a town can improve its profile and reputation both domestically and internationally but, of course, it's not the only way. Ipswich is a thriving town with a great deal going for it and is increasingly seen as a good place to set up business. And, of course, in another sphere, Ipswich Town's exploits in the Premiership last season and their remarkable fighting spirit in Europe this season has also done a great deal to raise the town's profile.

2, Ipswich has been badly affected by the teacher shortage and morale is low. What is being done to keep existing teachers and attract more into the profession?

I know that education is a subject that the Evening Star believes is absolutely vital – and so do I.

Let me deal with the local position first on teacher numbers. I've asked for the latest figures for Suffolk and they show, thanks to hard work over the summer from many people, that all the county's schools now have a full complement of staff. That doesn't mean we can be complacent or that there might not be more problems in the future but it does mean that some of the biggest fears locally have not been realised. In fact, despite the grim predictions in the national media, no school in the country had to go on a four day week this term because of teacher shortages.

But I agree completely with those who say we need more, many more, teachers than we have now. Teachers are vital to our children's future and our country's continued success which is why increasing their number has been one of our priorities since we came into Government. There has been real progress, too, with teacher numbers up 11,500 on 1997.

I know it is confusing when you hear there are more teachers but at the same time know there are vacancies in schools. But what has actually happened is that this Government has created thousands more teacher posts – for example so infants are taught in smaller classes. The vast majority of these extra posts have been filled but some have not. So while there are, I know, vacancies and we must fill them, we also have more teachers in our schools than any time since 1984 which helps explain why, for instance, we have seen such dramatic progress in primary school standards in Ipswich.

We are, though, determined to do a great deal better and particularly to make sure that this progress for younger children is continued and spread to secondary schools. So we have increased funding in real terms by £420 per pupil in Suffolk since 1997 and put in place the plans to recruit an additional 10,000 teachers nationally.

Achieving this means we need to make teaching more attractive to new recruits and, of course, keep the many good, dedicated teachers we already have. On recruitment, we have brought in a whole range of measures to increase the number of people training to be teachers such as £6,000 training bursaries and golden hellos. The result is recruitment in initial teacher training courses are up in all shortage subject areas with a 20% rise, for instance, in those training as maths teachers. Overall recruitment to teacher training courses is now higher than for seven years.

But we also, of course, need to do more to retain existing teachers. On salaries, I'm pleased that they have received above-inflation pay increases for the last three years. We have also increased the number of teaching assistants by 44,000 to help them in the classroom. And the £250 million Starter Home Initiative will help thousands of teachers – and other vital public servants – to buy homes in areas of high housing costs.

So yes, we need more teachers and we need to do more to retain the many excellent teachers we have. There is, I promise, no complacency. One vacancy is one vacancy too many, particularly if it is your child in a classroom without a teacher. So I'm pleased with what we have achieved – and the dramatic progress we have seen in standards – but I'm determined that this progress will be continued.

3, Many schools in the Ipswich area are full to overflowing, and families moving into the town are being refused places for their children at their catchment schools. Is any action in prospect to solve this problem?

I'm afraid this is a problem caused by Ipswich's success. More and more people see Ipswich as an attractive place to live, work and bring up their families. But it can mean there is a shortage of places in local schools for those families moving in and that will get worse unless we act.

On the immediate problems, we are in discussions with the education authority to see if schools can be persuaded to increase the number of pupils they take. But you are right, the real answer is to increase permanently the number of places available. So that's what we are doing. Ravenswood Community Primary opened this term and another new school is already being built – the first new schools in Ipswich for 25 years.

4, In Ipswich there is increasing concern about anti-social behaviour -especially late at night and in the early hours around the town's increasing number of nightclubs. What is being done to solve this problem?

This is, I know, a matter of real concern for people in Ipswich as it is throughout the country. It may be petty crime but it does not seem petty if you are the individual too frightened to walk in the town centre at night or the family kept awake by rowdy behaviour.

One of the most effective ways of tackling these problems is through the installation of CCTV. This has already proved a success in Ipswich and we are putting in the investment – together with the council – to modernise it. Suffolk Police believe the new system will help them reduce crime in the town centre.

We also all know that it is often a handful of people who blight a whole community. So we have introduced Anti-Social Behaviour Orders to ensure the courts can restrict the movements of individuals known to be troublemakers. They are already being used in the town but we want to see more of them. Ipswich is also piloting Acceptable Behaviour Contracts which are aimed, with the help of police, parents and schools, at improving behaviour from youngsters without having to go to court. By halving, as promised, the time between arrest and sentencing of persistent young offenders in Suffolk, we are also cracking down on known troublemakers. And, of course, the increase in the number of police officers will also make a big difference.

5, A problem for many Ipswich residents is the cost of public transport -especially local bus services. These cannot be subsidised although park and ride services can. Is there any prospect of changing the law so services used by the poorest people can be subsidised as well as those used by people already able to afford a car?

Park and ride, which I know Chris Mole played a big part in introducing, has proved a real success in Ipswich both in bringing shoppers into the town centre and in keeping down the number of car journeys. So I can see why people want to build on its success.

It is possible for the Government to provide help to run buses in areas of economic and social deprivation – and we are. We set up the £46 million Urban Bus Challenge exactly so we could target help at outlying estates and inner-city communities over the next three years. We have just announced the winners of the last round of the bid but there will be another round next year and if Ipswich applies, I'm sure it will be seriously considered.

6, Ipswich residents are proud of their reputation for being hospitable to refugees and asylum seekers. We have heard from a doctor from Afghanistan who speaks English and would like to work in the overstretched NHS. Why is Britain making it so difficult for those seeking asylum to work in this country while waiting for a decision on their application? What is being done to support asylum seekers and the local communities into which they are trying to integrate?

I know that Ipswich has a proud tradition for welcoming those fleeing injustice and terror elsewhere in the world. And you are right, too, that we should make the most of the talents and skills of those people who see our country as a safe haven from persecution.

Asylum seekers cannot apply to work here until they have been here six months. This is essential to ensure we do not increase Britain's attractiveness to illegal immigrants and people traffickers. It's also to ensure that we can offer work to our own citizens before offering wider opportunities to people from overseas.

But, of course, we need to strike a balance so that those given a right to stay are able to work and contribute to society. It makes both moral and economic sense – for us as a country and for the refugees themselves – to make the best use of their skills.

The Department of Health is taking this very seriously and is working with the Refugees Council and British Medical Association to see how we can make sure the NHS benefits from refugees who are doctors and other trained health professionals. A Postgraduate Centre for Refugee Doctors has already been set up in Hendon – run by a doctor who himself escaped from Afghanistan – which successfully helps others to gain the skills and further qualifications needed to practice medicine in the UK. The Government is considering funding other similar initiatives. We are also working hard to cut through the red tape which might prevent us identifying and helping health professionals to work in the NHS.

7, Should Suffolk have another community hospital to ease the bedblocking crisis it is currently suffering?

The need for urgent action was raised with me by Labour's Chris Mole when we met in Downing Street. The Government has responded by allocating an extra £1.6 million to Suffolk Council to help tackle this problem and we've promised, as well, that at least this amount of extra funding will be given again next year.

With this additional money, the council is working with its NHS partners on an action plan to ease the situation for older people when they are discharged from hospital. It should mean that everyone involved in the care of older people – the NHS, social services, and private and voluntary providers of care – will work better together to ensure older people are not forced to stay in hospitals when there is no need for them to be kept there for treatment.

The Tories say this is not enough but don't say how much extra they would spend. They are also the party, of course, which only a few months ago threatened to cut £20 billion off spending on health, schools and our other vital public services.

8, Suffolk Police's pledge to recruit an extra 195 officers has only been possible as a result of local taxation (a big increase in the amount demanded from council tax payers by the Police Authority). Is this a good example for other forces? Why does Suffolk have to pay the extra rather than the amount coming out of central government funds?

Police numbers are now rising across the country after years of decline. The Government has already funded 3,000 extra police recruits and the funds are in place for another 6,000, which will take police numbers by 2004 to their highest ever level.

We are also ensuring that the burden for these increases in police manpower does not all fall just on local tax payers. So we have introduced the Crime Fighting Fund and Rural Policing Fund to help Suffolk recruit more officers. The county, for example, received £380,000 last year and £1.17 million this year from the Crime Fighting Fund to pay for an extra 52 officers which will make a real difference.

9, In the wake of the September 11 atrocities, how safe are we in Britain? How will the health service be able to cope if there is an anthrax outbreak?

I fully understand that these are worrying times for everyone. Not just because of the September 11 attacks or the deliberate use of anthrax, but because there have been a number of public threats made by Bin Laden and his supporters over the last two months. I'm not going to comment directly on intelligence matters but I can say that we do not believe the overall level of threat to the UK has increased beyond the heightened levels following the events of Sept 11th.

We can't, however, be complacent. We have reviewed – and keep reviewing – all our plans for protecting the public, including a deliberate anthrax release. We are not starting from scratch but building on the plans already in place. But the best security is if we all remain on our guard.

On the specific threat from anthrax, for instance, we are fortunate in this country in having an excellent public health system including the identification and tracking of diseases. We have improved this further over the last few weeks. New advice has been sent to health authorities and to GPs on how to identify the disease. There are strategic stocks of drugs and vaccines which could be rapidly deployed. We believe the health services are well placed to respond in a timely and effective way to such an incident.

10, Are you able to devote enough time to the job of running the country while jetting around the globe in your unofficial role as America's ambassador to the rest of the world?

I've heard this, of course, but it really is nonsense. And I think the people of Ipswich and elsewhere in the country know this too. They understand the vital importance of tackling international terrorism and of building the widest possible coalition so we can succeed in this goal as quickly and effectively as possible.

I suspect they also understand that you can't just separate off from what happens here at home with what happens around the world. The terrorist attacks in the United States killed around 80 British citizens while many more are at risk unless we stop bin Laden carrying out his threats. The September 11 atrocities were not just a murderous attack on innocent civilians but also a deliberate attack on our economy, on jobs here, on our prosperity and our way of life. So it's important for all these reasons that we succeed.

But I never forget for a minute why the country turned to us at the last two elections. I know why we were elected and what we will be judged on. People want a stronger economy, safer streets, better schools, better hospitals, and to see all families and communities share in increased opportunities and rising prosperity. It's why I'm proud, for instance, that youth unemployment has fallen in Ipswich by 80% since 1997, that exams results are improving here, that the casualty unit at Ipswich Hospital has been modernised and the town can now offer some of the best cancer care in Europe. But I also know we have a lot more to do and that Chris Mole as MP for Ipswich will help us ensure we keep making progress.

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