HUDDERSFIELD voters have put Prime Minister Tony Blair on the spot. And they have challenged the Premier not on foreign policy or the war with Iraq, but on issues much closer to home. Pensions, health care, transport and schools are the issues that matter to people in the town.

Will the next Labour government be raising the state retirement age from 65 to 70?

Michael Gannon, Crosland Moor

We have no plans to do this. But I am glad you asked this question, because I think there is some confusion about this whole issue and the link between retirement age and when people get their state pension.

Under the age discrimination law we are bringing in next year, we want to make it easier for people, if they want, to work beyond the normal retirement age of 65. It has got to be wrong that those who want to carry on working, either because they would like the extra money or because they enjoy their job, should be forced to quit, even if they are fit and perfectly capable of doing it well.

And, as a country, we can't afford to automatically jettison the skills and experience of people just because they reach a certain age if they themselves want to keep working.

One of the great areas of social progress in the last century has been that people are not only living longer, but that these extra years are more active and healthier than ever before. And if people want to work on, they should be encouraged to do so, which includes changing the pension rules so they don't lose out.

But people shouldn't confuse these changes with the age that people can get their state pension. We reject crude increases in the state pension age, as these would hit hardest the poorer workers most reliant on the state pension, who often have the shortest retirement to look forward to. What we want to do is give people much more choice and help to continue working up to the state retirement age and beyond if they want.

Pensioners in the UK have one of the lowest state pensions for a rich nation. When is it going to be increased substantially, so they don't have to rely on means-tested pension credits?

Noreen Logan, Huddersfield and District Pensioners' Organisation

I accept we must do more to repay our debt to the older generation. But I don't think you should ignore what we have done since 1997. Altogether, we have spent something like £10bn more a year in real terms on pensioners, which, by the way, is £7bn more than if we had just lined the basic state pension in line with earnings, as some people wanted. But we have done it in a way which targets the most help at those who need it most.

To understand why we took this approach, you have to remember the plight of many pensioners when we came to office. We found that one in four pensioners were living in poverty, a direct result of the measures taken by the Tory Government which, by the way, increased the basic state pension above inflation just once in 18 years. And that was only to compensate for slapping VAT on fuel.

The result was that many single pensioners had to survive on just £69 a week - a combination of the basic pension and income support. Now, because of increases in the basic state pension and measures including the introduction of the Pension Credit, no one need get less than £109. That's a real increase of 30%.

On top of that, of course, for all pensioners, we have brought in the £200 winter fuel allowance, which benefits over 16,000 pensioners in Huddersfield alone, restored free eye tests and cut VAT on fuel.

In the Budget we brought in the special £200 council tax discount and are extending free off-peak local bus travel to all pensioners. For older pensioners, who tend to be the poorest, we have introduced free TV licences and, for those over 80, the winter fuel allowance rises to £300.

What all this means is that the average pensioner households are now £1,500 a year better off because of this Government while the poorest tenth of pensioner households have seen their income rise by £2,000. It is why there are now nearly 2m fewer pensioners living in poverty.

If we had just shared out all this money equally among all pensioners - some of whom are comfortably off thanks largely to occupational and private pensions - it would inevitably have meant less for the poorest. And with the desperate plight of many pensioners when we came into power, it was vital we targeted the most help at them above all.

When will the UK have a rail and road transport system we can be proud of? The Conservatives were in power 18 years, Labour for eight years plus and there's not been much improvement, if any. Do we still have a minister and Department of transport?

Michael Gannon

We'd be the first to accept that there is a lot more to do to give Britain the first-class transport system we need. But I think it's unfair to say there has been no progress over the last eight years.

After the shambles of Tory privatisation, which led to the break-up of the rail system and the waste of billions of pounds of public money, our rail network is slowly getting better.

We have taken difficult decisions to streamline its organisation and there is a huge amount of investment going in to modernise track and trains. We've already seen plenty of new trains and improvements to stations and there are more than 1,600 extra weekday services than in 1997. It helps explain why rail use is actually up 27%, to the highest level for 40 years.

The problem, of course, is that work on the track can often mean delays.

But I think it won't be long before it becomes increasingly clear just what effort is being put in to bring our rail system up to standard.

On the roads, we are also investing to tackle bottlenecks and improve safety. Since 2001, there have been 27 major strategic schemes completed, with 14 more under way and 35 planned to start over the next three years. New investment is only part of the story. New Highways Agency officers now patrol our main motorway routes, managing traffic incidents to minimise congestion. And our road safety strategy, published in 2000, has already delivered a 40% reduction in the number of children killed or seriously injured on our roads.

As with the rail system, we are investing for the long-term. Public spending on the transport system will increase from £10.4bn this year to nearly £13bn by 2007/08. Investment, of course, which will be squeezed if £35bn has to be cut from public spending, as the Tories plan to do.

The population of the UK is 60million. How big a population can these islands sustain? Do you think the future population growth will be controlled?

Ian Lindley, Almondbury

No I don't think there is any possibility of that. For a start, birth rates in Britain, as in many developed countries, have been falling for decades, partly because women are waiting longer before having children.

The birth rate in the UK is now something like 1.65 per women of child-bearing age compared to the 1960s, when it was 2.93. So the challenge we face as a society is how, with fewer young people, we are going to fill job vacancies and support a population which is getting older. These demographic changes will have a major impact on many aspects of society. But it is often forgotten that the fact that we are living longer is a result of social progress. We are not just living longer, but these years, for most people, are active and healthy. That's good news, but there are challenges we have to face up to as well as plenty of opportunities.

When someone is suspected of being a terrorist and threatening the safety of our country and our people, why not deport them straight away, irrespective of the consequences of the person being deported?

Michael Gannon

It's not quite as easy as that. For a start, the country from which they come can - and do - simply refuse to have their citizens back and other countries also refuse to take them. It's also part of our law - and rightly - that we can't send anyone back to a country if they run the risk of being tortured or executed on their return.

It was to ensure, under these circumstances, that we could protect the public that the Government took powers to detain a small number of foreign suspects who, of course, had the right to leave Britain at any time. But in December the Law Lords ruled these detentions unlawful. That is why we needed to find another way forward which met the concerns of the highest court in the land, but also made sure we did not ignore the advice of our security services that action was needed. This is why we brought forward the control orders, which allow us to restrict the movements of terror suspects and who they can see and contact.

Despite efforts to block or water them down by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats we got them through Parliament and they are now working. If we need to do more, we will.

My concern is all the pesticides, herbicides and preservatives and the cocktail of these which are in our food. Is the Labour Government concerned by this at all?

Sheila Rothwell

I know this worries many people. This type of issue is one of the main reasons why this Government set up the Food Standards Agency, to provide an authoritative and trusted voice on the safety of our food. It has rapidly established a high reputation, both at home and abroad.

No pesticides, herbicides and food additives can be approved for use without rigorous safety checks including any possible health impact on consumers.

For additives, it must also be demonstrated that they are, in some sense, needed in the food in which they are added. But even when approved, a close eye is kept on their use and impact. Surveys of pesticide residues and additives in food are routinely undertaken, for example, to ensure goods sold are well below the relevant safety levels.

You are right, as well, that there has been concern that while individually these additives and pesticides are safe, there could be a "cocktail effect". This was why the Food Standards Agency commissioned a high-level and independent study to review risks from mixtures of pesticides and similar substances. It found the effects of such mixtures was unlikely to be greater than the effect of individual substances. But the Food Standard Agency is continuing to keep a close eye on any possible risks and has taken a number of specific actions.

Why won't the Government back Jamie Oliver's campaign to provide healthy school meals, by banning cheap junk food ?

Marie Rankine

I think what Jamie Oliver is doing is great and I can assure you that we are listening. I know, from going round the country, that the quality of school meals is a real concern for many parents - and this Government. We are already cutting the salt, fat and sugar content in school meals. But we want to go further. So we are setting up a School Food Trust to draw on Jamie's remarkable work, on the latest nutritional advice and on those, like the Soil Association, who are encouraging the use of organic and local produce, to improve school meals. We are also going to ensure Ofsted checks the quality of school dinners as part of their normal inspections in schools.

We are also providing extra money to help, for example, to see school kitchens modernised. We are also going to recognise the valuable work of catering staff by bringing in new qualifications for them.

We are not going to change children's tastes overnight, but where efforts have been made - as I hear has happened at Linthwaite's Ardron Memorial C of E School - it does seem to have an impact. That's good for the children and for the future health of our country.

Does the Government have any powers to overrule decisions of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) about withholding treatment for Alzheimer's disease, cancer and other life-threatening diseases?

Mrs N M Clarke

The Health Secretary can direct all NHS organisations, including Nice, but I don't really see why it should be needed in the cases you mention.

Nice is a hugely respected body, not just here but across the world, with immense expertise on the clinical and cost effectiveness of drugs. We trust Nice, after looking at all the evidence, to offer informed guidance on the use of medicines by the NHS. That is why this Government set it up. We wanted to take the politics out of the provision of drugs in the NHS and also to tackle the unsatisfactory situation of the past, where some drugs and treatments were available for patients in one area of the country but not somewhere else. It's all part of our drive to raise standards in the NHS right across the country through extra investment and reform.

By the way, on the specific position of some drugs for treating Alzheimer's, Nice has not, despite what you may have read, made any decision on its guidance. It is still consulting all interested.

The Examiner is lining up question and answer sessions with the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties - and, again, we want YOU to provide us with the questions.

If you want to ask Michael Howard about taxes, immigration or public spending, then now is your chance.

And if you want to quiz Charles Kennedy on council tax, income tax or education, drop us a line.

Keep your questions concise and send your question to: Letters to the Editor, Huddersfield Daily Examiner, PO Box A26, Queen Street South, Huddersfield HD1 2TD or e-mail